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Plane crash in Ukraine unlikely to halt deepening divisions in old Soviet bloc on Russia

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WARSAW, Poland - Poland's foreign minister had sharp words on the downing of the Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet in Ukraine — blaming the crash on Russia-backed "bandits." But throughout most of central and eastern Europe, leaders withheld judgment, expressing shock but refusing to say more until more facts are in.

The caution is not surprising: Several former Soviet satellite states have developed closer economic ties to Russia in recent years, making them unwilling to take a strong stand against Moscow in the Ukraine conflict. Though all have condemned Russia's annexation of Crimea, they are divided over what to do beyond that, differences dictated largely by the depth of those economic ties — and whether they feel at risk themselves from Moscow's might.

With uncertainty surrounding Thursday's plane crash, most have little to gain from pointing fingers, especially since the tragedy, which killed 298 people, is unlikely to blunt Russia's growing clout in the region, experts say.

"No one should expect change in the relations between Russia and any of the central European countries unless clear evidence of Moscow's involvement is presented," said Dariusz Kalan, an analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs. "Even then, a radical turn would be unlikely since the political, economic and energy contacts are so developed."

"A temporary and mostly rhetorical chill of relations with Russia is the heaviest reply that the region can afford," Kalan added.

Other experts argued, however, that confirmation of Russian involvement in the crash would force the region to take a harder stance against Moscow.

In some ways, divisions in the former Soviet bloc mirror tensions further West: France and Germany have continued to cultivate business ties with Russia, while the United States has taken a stronger line. On the plane crash, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there's still "no clarity," showing more caution than the United States, with President Barack Obama linking the crash to "sophisticated equipment ... coming from Russia."

"We have to be careful not to impose Cold War cliches on the region," said Jakub Groszkowski, an analyst with the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw. "The governments in Prague or Bratislava are acting in a similar way to cabinets in Paris or Vienna."

But Russia's old Soviet bloc neighbours do face uniquely wrenching choices. The region has a history of dependence on Russian oil and natural gas. Economic ties deepened further after the global financial crisis of 2008-09 pushed several countries to forge new economic deals with Russia. When Western markets shrank, export-oriented countries like the Czech Republic turned to Russia, China and elsewhere for new opportunities.

Those who back the toughest stance toward Russia are Poland, the three Baltic states and Romania — all countries that fear for their own safety due to proximity to Russia and which, unlike their neighbours, are trying to limit Russian influence at home. The large numbers of ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia — 25 and 30 per cent of the populations respectively — add to Baltic anxieties.

After the plane crash, Baltic leaders called for an international investigation and many politicians there quickly blamed Moscow for its role as an alleged weapons supplier to the Ukrainian separatists. The disaster underscores "the need to put an end to the domineering of separatist armed groups backed by Russia," Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said Friday.

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said he was concerned about reports that the Ukrainians have captured recordings of phone conversations that indicate the pro-Russian separatists might be responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

"This is how things end when you supply bandits with advanced weapons," Sikorski said.

His comments are consistent with Poland's longstanding anxieties of Russia's resurgence. Since the crisis broke out in Ukraine this year, Poland has been seeking more security protections from NATO and the United States, leaving Poles hugely relieved when Obama pledged to do more to protect the region during his visit to Warsaw last month.

But the relief was not universal across the former Soviet bloc. Czech and Slovak leaders made clear they don't see a need for increased security and would not welcome NATO troops. Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia, like Poland a NATO member, even likened "foreign troops" to the Soviet soldiers who invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Hungary and Bulgaria have been pursuing new deals that increase their energy dependence on Russia. The most controversial is South Stream, a planned pipeline opposed by the EU that would bring Russian gas under the Black Sea to Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia and Austria. Bulgaria tapped a consortium headed by Gennady Timchenko, an oligarch close to the Kremlin who is on the U.S. sanctions list, to build its part of the pipeline.

Bulgaria is probably the most pro-Russian country in the region, with sympathies born of a Slavic brotherhood rooted in past alliances. The current government and its supporters include former communists, adding to Western worries that some in the ruling circle could be working secretly for Russia's interests from within NATO and the 28-nation European Union.

The shift toward Russia is more surprising in the Czech Republic. Only a few years ago it agreed to host a U.S. missile defence site, a plan that sparked Moscow's anger. Obama has since dropped plans for the Czech site.

The left-wing Social Democrats, who opposed the missile defence plan all along, are now in power. In a change from the Vaclav Havel-era focus on human rights, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka says it makes no sense to halt business with Russia because other countries would just take it over. He warns against creating "a new Iron Curtain between the European Union and Russia."

"The Czechs feel safer than, say, the Baltic states since they are surrounded by NATO members and Austria," Groszkowski said. "But they worry their economy could worsen due to tensions between the EU and Russia."

In Slovakia, Fico, the prime minister, has repeatedly said he wants to remain "a reliable partner" for Russia, though he also vows the nation will meet its obligations as a NATO member.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has radically changed his tone toward Moscow since he entered the political scene as a young revolutionary in 1989 with a fiery speech calling on Soviet troops to leave. Since taking power in 2010, the 51-year-old has deepened his country's energy ties with Russia, Hungary's biggest trading partner outside the EU.

Orban tapped a Russian company, Rosatom, to expand the country's only nuclear facility, a 12 billion-euro ($16.2 billion) deal granted without an open tender — but with the promise of a loan from Russia.


Associated Press writers Jari Tanner in Tallinn, Estonia; Karel Janicek in Prague; Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria; Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary; and Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania contributed to this report.


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