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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Europe Disappointed With Brussels

RIGA, Latvia -- When they joined the European Union in 2004, East European nations wanted more than just prosperity -- they sought protection from an ascendant Russia eager to maintain influence in its old Soviet neighborhood.

Three years on, new member states say the EU has been letting them down -- preferring good terms with energy-rich Russia over the interests of its vulnerable, less economically weighty partners.

Over the past 18 months, Poland has seen its meat and farm exports to Russia halted, Lithuania has watched helplessly as its refinery was cut off from oil supplies, Latvia's canned sprats have been barred entry to the enormous market to their east.

The EU has done little to block Russia from carrying out what has been widely described as punishment for breaking free of Kremlin influence and a signal to other East European countries not to move closer to the West.

"The West European members of the old EU-15 have shown scant concern over Russian pressure tactics against the new EU members in Central and Eastern Europe, throwing into question EU solidarity regarding energy supplies," the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, wrote in a recent report.

As the EU's largest energy supplier, Russia supplies one-fourth of the bloc's oil and about 40 percent of its gas. That clout has set it on the lucrative course of sealing bilateral energy deals with individual member states -- at the expense of EU harmony on energy issues. Most notably, Russian oil colossus Gazprom agreed with Germany's BASF and E.On to build a $5 billion underwater gas pipeline stretching from the Gulf of Finland to northeastern Germany.

That has upset Baltic leaders, who say an overland route through their countries would be safer and cheaper. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have turned to Brussels to get Germany to pull the plug on the project -- but Berlin refuses to budge and the EU has done little to intervene.

Meanwhile, Russian energy companies continued their ambitious western drive, signing separate deals last year with Denmark, Italy, France, Hungary and Slovakia and thereby thwarting the EU's efforts to forge a common energy policy.

Polish frustrations exploded in November after Brussels refused to confront Moscow over a ban on EU meat and dairy products that could cost Polish exporters 100 million euros per year. Warsaw used its EU veto power to block a new EU-Russia trade agreement -- and shook off Brussels' angry reaction.

Now Lithuania, which is also feeling abandoned by Brussels, may take up its neighbor's defiance.

Last July, Russia stopped supplying crude to the Baltic country, blaming a pipeline rupture in Belarus. But the supply cut came shortly after Lithuania sold its Mazeikiu Nafta refinery to Poland's PKN Orlen -- convincing Lithuanians that there was no pipeline accident and Moscow simply wanted to punish the Baltic state.

"It is indeed a test case -- if there's no reaction from the European Union on the supply issue, then it will be a signal to Russia that it will be possible to act this way," said Davidus Matulonis, head of economic policy at Lithuania's Foreign Ministry.

Lithuania finally received some good news last week, when European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso told Polish and Lithuanian leaders that he would take up the issue of Russia's oil supplies during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in May.

The Baltic states have faced energy difficulties with Moscow in the past.

In 2002, Moscow declared it wanted control of Latvia's nonfreezing oil export terminal in Ventspils on the Baltic Sea. Latvian officials balked, and in January 2003 Transneft, Russia's oil pipeline monopoly, shut down the pipe delivering oil to the Ventspils port. It has been dry since -- and the EU has done nothing to help Latvia get the oil pumping again.

Washington has been eager to ease the misunderstandings that Moscow has created between Europe's east and west.

Traditionally, the former Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe have looked to the U.S. for defense and to Brussels for economic development.

When U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking at a conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, in May 2006, attacked Russia for using energy "as a tool of intimidation and blackmail," he was cheered throughout the region. And when the United States started searching for volunteers to house a partial missile defense system, it found clients in Eastern Europe, where seven countries joined NATO in 2004.