March 21, 2018 / 4:50 PM / a month ago

Tusk lays bare EU split on Russia with Putin 'reappointment' dig

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Council President Donald Tusk said on Wednesday he offered no congratulations for what he called Vladimir Putin’s “reappointment” as president, because of a spy poisoning case for which Britain blames Russia.

European Council President Donald Tusk takes part in a joint news conference with Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel in Senningen, Luxembourg March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

Tusk’s comment points to divisions over Russia at the heart of the European Union, whose other top official, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, congratulated Putin in a letter that did not mention the poisoning in southern England.

“After the Salisbury attack, I’m not in the mood to celebrate President Putin’s reappointment,” Tusk told reporters when asked the reason for his silence. Putin secured a fourth term in elections on Sunday.

Following the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, London on Wednesday accused Moscow of running an assassination programme to eliminate its enemies.

Russia denies responsibility and has said Britain may have orchestrated the poisoning itself. The two countries have expelled diplomats in the standoff.

In his short letter on Tuesday, Juncker said he hoped Putin would help “re-establish a cooperative pan-European security order” after ties with the West soured over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Kiev and support for rebels in east Ukraine.

Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, has long advocated working with Moscow for a security cooperation “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”, an idea that is anathema to Russia hawks within the EU.

Sweden, Finland and Britain, as well as the ex-communist states on the EU’s eastern flank - the three Baltic countries and Poland, which Tusk led as prime minister from 2007-2014 - advocate a tough line on Moscow.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe - a rights watchdog - said Sunday’s election there had offered no real political choice and been marked by unfair pressure on critical voices.

Reuters reporters in polling stations across Russia have also documented irregularities.

MIXED RESPONSE

Juncker faced criticism over his letter in Brussels on Wednesday, with a liberal group in the European Parliament saying: “We do not think that Putin’s illiberal policies and election strategies deserve congratulations.”

A second, conservative faction called the letter “nauseating”. There was no immediate comment from Juncker.

Further highlighting divisions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also offered congratulations and urged Putin to “pursue dialogue”, while French President Emmanuel Macron, in a call, “offered... his wishes for success with the modernisation of the country on the political, democratic, economic and social fronts.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May will ask her fellow EU leaders on Thursday to condemn Russia over the Salisbury attack.

A draft joint summit statement seen by Reuters says the bloc “takes extremely seriously the United Kingdom... assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible” for the poisoning.

Diplomats said leaders were likely to settle on stronger language in attributing guilt to Russia, though some - including Hungary and Greece - favour greater caution.

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by John Stonestreet

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