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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin to Talk Gas on Europe Tour

bloombergPutin will focus on convincing partners that Russia is a reliable gas supplier.
President Vladimir Putin makes a sensitive visit to Eastern Europe this week to try to convince countries that suffered most from gas disruptions this year that Russia can be trusted as a supplier.

Putin will also use his trip to Hungary and the Czech Republic to build bridges with two new European Union members, both former Soviet satellites, to try to counter the high regional profile of Poland, which Moscow views with suspicion, experts said.

Most of Eastern Europe is dependent on Russian energy supplies and Hungary, where Putin travels on Tuesday, was among the worst-hit countries in January when Moscow's pricing dispute with Ukraine drastically reduced Russian gas flows to Europe.

"Of course this theme will be discussed," a Kremlin official said, adding that Putin would explain Moscow's view that problems arose because gas was siphoned off by the Ukrainians.

Presenting itself as a reliable energy supplier is the centerpiece of Russia's 2006 agenda as president of the Group of Eight industrialized countries.

"Energy security will be Putin's key foreign diplomacy message this year, and he will definitely focus on it during his visit to Hungary and the Czech Republic," said Sergei Glazer of Vostok Nafta, a shareholder in gas monopoly Gazprom.

Putin is expected to champion the interests of Gazprom and might be able to press successfully Moscow's call for gas storage and distribution rights, particularly in Hungary.

But strong German competition in the energy sector made this prospect less likely in the Czech Republic, which Putin will visit starting Thursday.

Putin's visit to Hungary comes at a historically poignant moment for Hungarians -- 50 years after the Budapest uprising that was put down by Soviet troops with huge loss of life.

Putin, a former KGB spy, appalled many in Eastern Europe by saying last year that he saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.

It was not clear what gesture or comment, if any, Putin would make on the Budapest events during his trip. But Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany on Monday played down the need for any apology from the Kremlin leader.

Gyurcsany said Putin had told him in Moscow a year ago that 1956 should never be repeated and that former President Boris Yeltsin had apologized in 1992 for what happened.

"A series of wreath-laying ceremonies are planned at those places which are regarded as necessary from a protocol point of view," the Kremlin official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. But he said it was too early to say if Putin would make any specific comment on the 1956 events.

Moscow has taken steps to improve the atmosphere ahead of the trip by returning an antique book collection seized by Soviet troops during World War II, ending a decade of negotiations between the two sides.

"Putin's visit will send a signal to those countries ... that have grown distant from Russia that Russia is open to building better relations. The return of the books is a gesture in this respect," said Hungarian foreign policy analyst Tamas Krausz of Eotvos University.

Other experts said Putin's trip threw into relief the fact that he was conspicuously staying away from Poland.

Russia's relations with Poland have sunk to new post-communist lows since Warsaw backed the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, which led to the ousting of the pro-Moscow establishment.