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Sarkozy meetings may raise Russian eyebrows

PARIS - A day before embarking on his first trip to Russia on Tuesday, President Nicolas Sarkozy is to hold talks with the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic, two countries that are as openly suspicious of their large Eastern neighbor as they are pro-American, diplomats and officials said.

The meetings will almost certainly raise eyebrows in Moscow at a time when French foreign policy appears to be shifting from the views of Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, shared with successive Russian leaders, toward a warming of relations with East European countries.

French officials said the separate meetings in Paris with the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, and the Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolanek, were not deliberately scheduled ahead of the Moscow visit. But they said that Russia and a number of topics that have strained relations between Moscow and the European Union - from energy security to US plans to deploy an antiballistic system in Poland and the Czech Republic - are likely to feature in the talks.

"You cannot talk to these countries without talking about Russia," said a diplomat, who declined to be identified because the president's office had not announced the visits.

With Sarkozy seeking to establish himself as the new leader of Europe, challenging the position of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, Poland in particular wants to use the visit Monday to establish much closer contact with Paris.

Kaczysnki, who has had strained relations with Russia and Germany since taking office in January 2006, intends to seek French support in three main areas, according to Polish officials. They are French backing in the US missile defense plan, Georgia's ambitions to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and an 18-month dispute in which Moscow banned meat imports from Poland.

Signs that France is changing its tone toward Russia from the days when a Paris-Moscow-Berlin axis emerged in opposition to the Iraq war have emerged in the first three months of Sarkozy's term.

When the president outlined his foreign policy priorities a month ago, he spoke of a "certain brutality" with which Russia used its energy resources. Two weeks ago, his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, went to Moscow where he met not only his Russian counterpart but also with political dissidents and paid homage to the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed.

Moscow opposes tougher EU sanctions on Iran and a push to grant independence to the Serbian province of Kosovo.

Sarkozy has sought to mend ties with East European countries, which, after supporting the US-led invasion in Iraq in 2003, had been told by Chirac that they "had missed a good opportunity to keep their mouths shut."

On Wednesday, Sarkozy is headed to Bulgaria, and last month he went to Hungary.

Diplomats insisted Tuesday that Sarkozy's intentions of deepening France's relationship with East European countries were separate from France's relationship with Russia.

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