* Slovak deputy PM met Russian official subject to sanctions
* Slovakia wanted Russian left off sanction list: sources
* PM Fico says defending economy, complains of EU hypocrisy
* EU diplomats say Slovakia's stance not always helpful
* But diplomats don't expect Slovakia to defy EU line
By Jan Lopatka and Martin Santa
PRAGUE/BRUSSELS, May 22 At the start of this
week, while the European Union's major powers were keeping up
the pressure on the Kremlin over its intervention in Ukraine,
Miroslav Lajcak, the foreign minister of EU member Slovakia,
headed to Moscow.
There, without fanfare, he met Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's
deputy prime minister who days earlier had threatened to fly
over a NATO state in a bomber jet and who under EU sanctions is
banned from entering any country in the bloc.
The meeting with Rogozin came several weeks after Slovak
diplomats in Brussels had tried and failed to have Rogozin's
name kept off the EU's sanctions list, three EU diplomats told
Reuters, though the Slovak government has disputed that account.
This special relationship with Rogozin is part of an awkward
balancing act by Slovakia: preserving the economic benefits of
being close to Russia while also belonging to a European Union
set on punishing the Kremlin for annexing Ukrainian territory.
Slovakia is not the only country with torn loyalties: EU
diplomats say Cyprus, Bulgaria and Hungary are particularly
ambivalent about the bloc's tough line on Russia over Ukraine.
France, for example, went ahead with a 1.2 billion-euro
($1.7 billion) contract to sell helicopter carriers to Russia
because cancelling the deal would do more damage to Paris than
to Moscow, sources told Reuters.
But Slovakia, a euro zone member and ex-Communist state of
5.4 million people, stands out for two reasons.
First, because about 40 percent of the gas Europe imports
from Russia flows via Ukraine and into Slovakia - giving
Slovakia a potentially decisive role if Russia goes through with
its threat to turn off supplies to Ukraine.
And secondly, because Slovakia's prime minister, Robert
Fico, has been outspoken in his view that trade ties and imports
of Russian gas should come before punishing the Kremlin.
"It would be good if Fico would prefer Europe's fundamental
security rather than prices of gas for Slovakia," one European
diplomat told Reuters in Brussels.
GAS AND WEAPONS
Several European officials who spoke to Reuters said that
while some of the pronouncements from Slovak officials on Russia
had not been helpful, the country was unlikely to go strongly
against the EU consensus or cause major problems.
However, a body called the Inter-governmental Commision on
Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation illustrates the
close economic tries between Russia and Slovakia.
That organisation is chaired, on the Russian side, by
Rogozin, a nationalist and one of the Russian government's most
hawkish ministers. When earlier this month his flight was
blocked from Romanian airspace, he wrote on Twitter: "Next time
I will fly in a Tu-160," a strategic bomber.
From the Slovak side, the co-chair is Lajcak, who as well as
being foreign minister is also deputy prime minister.
Lajcak is a fluent Russian-speaker who studied at the Moscow
State Institute of International Relations, alma mater of
Russia's brightest diplomats and, before the collapse of the
Berlin Wall, the elite of the Communist bloc.
The commission deals with the two main pillars of the
Russia-Slovakia economic relationship: gas and weapons. Slovakia
depends on Russian gas supplies, while its MiG-29 fighter jets
and anti-aircraft systems need Russian spare parts.
When, at an EU summit in March, Rogozin's name appeared
among others on a draft list of Kremlin-allied people who were
to be subject to visa bans and asset freezes, Slovakia tried to
have his name removed, according to the three EU diplomats.
Slovakia later dropped its objections and the sanctions list
was adopted, with Rogozin's name included. Asked by Reuters
about this account, Slovakia's foreign ministry said in an
emailed response the information was "not precise".
The relationship was renewed when Rogozin and Lajcak met in
Moscow while the Slovak official was on a visit on May 18-19.
The Slovak foreign ministry said they met "unofficially,"
and had decided to postpone the next session of the joint
commission scheduled for Slovakia in June, due to the sanctions.
In Moscow, Lajcak met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Since
Russia absorbed Ukraine's Crimea region on March 18, the only
other EU foreign minister to meet Lavrov in Moscow was from
Cyprus, another country with close economic ties to Russia.
Lajcak defended his visit, saying he was helping to keep
lines of communication open between Russia and the West.
"Slovakia is and wants to be a trustworthy member of the EU
and NATO. At the same time, it is interested in proper relations
with non-members of these ... organisations," he was quoted as
saying by Slovak news agency TASR.
On financial issues, Slovakia is a trusted part of the
European mainstream. It has supported deeper integration of the
euro zone, and the creation of the banking union.
The trip to Moscow followed a series of steps and
pronouncements by Fico's government which have raised questions
in some quarters about how reliable it will be in holding the
EU's line on Russia.
Fico is a lawyer and former member of the Czechoslovak
Communist party. He has attended receptions at the Cuban embassy
in Bratislava, and he has in the past spoken of special
relations between Slovakia and Russia as Slavic nations.
Since the crisis in Ukraine erupted, Slovakia has agreed to
help Ukraine by opening a small gas link that will allow
shipments of gas from Europe if Russia halts supplies.
But Fico said in March he would not be willing to provide
cash for Ukraine to "sort out problems Ukraine has caused to
itself." He said the EU could provide funds, if it has some.
Fico has also said he will not increase defence spending,
despite exhortations from NATO, and said this week that tougher
EU sanctions would be "suicidal" and "nonsensical."
At a closed-door meeting in Bratislava last week with heads
of government from the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, Fico
said if it came to a new round of EU sanctions, he would defend
Slovakia's economic interests "to the last breath," according to
two sources with knowledge of the talks.
Fico also criticises what he calls hypocrisy in some EU
nations: France selling military ships to Russia, and western
firms signing a deal on a pipeline from Russia to Austria.
"He comes from the idea, and it seems to be finding some
resonance in Slovak society, that simply the question of one's
own benefit is more important than strategic considerations,"
said Grigorij Meseznikov, co-founder of the Institute for Public
Affairs, an independent Slovak think tank.
(Editing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Giles Elgood)