Reuters International

Czech Republic's President Milos Zeman prepares for the opening session of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, July 15, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj


PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech, Hungarian and Slovak leaders will attend a forum run by a Russian-led think tank in Greece next month, a Prague official said, as cracks appear in the European Union's united stance on sanctions against Moscow.

President Milos Zeman will be at the Rhodes Forum, held on the Greek island by the DOC Research Institute on Sept. 30-Oct 1, along with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, a presidential spokesman said.

The Rhodes Forum has been held annually since 2002 under the leadership of Vladimir Yakunin, former head of Russian railways and long-time ally of President Vladimir Putin.

"The president decided a few days ago, an additional impulse came with the information that Slovak and Hungarian prime ministers are going," spokesman Jiri Ovcacek said.

Last month, the EU extended economic sanctions on Russia until early 2017, but several countries expressed misgivings.

Moscow has been lobbying southern and eastern EU members to end the sanctions, which block access to Western technology and credit for people and businesses linked to Putin. Yakunin ranks as one of the most influential power brokers in Putin's Russia.

Zeman will speak on the need to join forces in the struggle against terrorism, his spokesman said, and also talk to Orban and Fico about "growing pressure from Brussels" on central European states that resist taking in Middle Eastern migrants.

Zeman is the Czech head of state but the conduct of foreign policy is up to the government, which has stuck to the mainstream European line on Russia.

He has spoken against the sanctions on several occasions, including at the 2014 Rhodes Forum. He also visited Putin last year at a time when most of his European peers were keeping their distance from the Kremlin due to the war in Ukraine.

Hungary's Orban said earlier this year the EU must have a "serious debate" about sanctions.

Fico, whose country holds the European Union's rotating presidency until December, has also spoken against sanctions.

An Orban spokesman said he had no knowledge whether the Hungarian leader was going to Rhodes. In Slovakia, a spokeswoman for Fico's government had no immediate comment.

Putin stepped up his campaign to end the sanctions with a visit to Slovenia at the end of July, encouraged by signs his tactic of lobbying what he views as more pliant southern and eastern European states is starting to pay off.

(Reporting by Robert Muller in Prague, Sandor Peto in Budapest and Tatiana Jancarikova in Bratislava; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Tom Heneghan)


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