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Russian bear hug

Poland [GOVERNMENT]

Poland elects a new president on 20 June and whoever gets the job will be leading a country whose international relations could suddenly shift as a result of the aeroplane crash in Russia that killed President Lech Kaczynski. The tragic death of Kaczynski in April, along with his wife and a whole cohort of senior Polish politicians, brought Poland suddenly closer to its mighty and menacing neighbour.

The image that resonated at Kaczynski’s funeral was that of the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, offering a tentative but clearly heartfelt hug to his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, as the pair laid wreaths. But does this mean the new president will enjoy a warmer relationship with Russia once the grief subsides? “The rapprochement with Russia is real and has enormous implications,” says Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. In the former Soviet east, nerves will be jangling: the spectacle of Russia making friends can be nearly as discomfiting as the sight of Russia goading enemies.

Best of neighbours:

  1. Candidates:
    The victor in this June’s vote is widely expected to be the acting president, Bronislaw Komorowski – once an anti-communist activist, now a pro-business pragmatist.

  2. Power:
    Russia is keen to keep Poland in its energy web – Poland imports more than 70 per cent of its gas from Russia. But Warsaw could exploit its shale gas reserves to depend less on Moscow.

  3. Influence:
    Poland could command greater respect internationally if perceived as a conduit to Moscow, especially as Poland’s first presidency of the EU Council looms in 2011.

Added pressure

Belgium [EU]

Spain hands over the EU presidency to Belgium this July. But Belgium may have its hands full just running itself after the government collapsed (again!) in April. Let’s hope summer is quiet.

Filthy rich

Luxembourg [POLLUTION]

Luxembourg is under pressure from the OECD to clean up its act. Despite having the highest GDP per capita of all 30 member countries, the Luxembourgeois are producing the most CO2.

Winning sinners

Georgia [PRISONS]

The Vatican has recently been seeking to explain why certain of its flock shouldn’t be in jail. But the Orthodox Church in Georgia is inviting prisoners to make the opposite journey: better-behaved convicts are being farmed out of Georgia’s overcrowded prisons to swap their stripes for cassocks and serve the remainder of their sentences in monasteries (like the one pictured), tending to gardens, feeding livestock and praying. The scheme was suggested by the Church but has the backing of Georgia’s government. Only orthodox Christian convicts are allowed to join the scheme. We may soon witness a sudden rash of conversions.

Offside rule

Malta [FOOTBALL]

The tiny island of Gozo, off Malta, is staging a football championship for teams from countries that do not exist. Teams are competing from Gozo itself, Occitania (southern France) and Padania (northern Italy). Some, such as Kurdistan, have serious separatist ambitions. For now, this is the closest they can get to flying their flags on the international stage.

Hand-me-down deals

Europe

Germany’s arms exports more than doubled in the past five years – but more than 1,100 of the 1,700 armoured vehicles that were sentto 21 destinations were second-hand.

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