Putin Tests Sanctions on Slovenia Visit

VRSIC, Slovenia (AP) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived Saturday in Slovenia, a member of both the European Union and NATO, testing Western unity in maintaining crippling sanctions against the Kremlin for its role in Ukraine.

Slovenia, a small Alpine nation where U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's wife Melania was born and grew up, has kept friendly relations with Russia even as it joined EU sanctions against Moscow for its 2014 military takeover of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

On only his third visit to an EU nation this year, Putin attended a centenary commemoration of a chapel in the Julian Alps. It was erected in the memory of over 100 Russian World War I prisoners of war who died in an avalanche while building a mountain road for the Austrian army in 1915.

At the small, Orthodox-style wooden church, Putin was met by Slovenian President Borut Pahor. They reached the chapel, which lies 1,200 meters (3,940 feet) high on a winding road built by Russian and other prisoners for their Austrian captors, who needed it as a supply route during battles against the Italians.

Thousands of people packed in front of the St. Vladimir chapel in the blazing heat as a chorus sang old Russian church songs.

The tight security for Putin's visit included closing the country's main highway to Austria, which caused huge traffic backups.

Slovenian officials portrayed Putin's visit as strictly informal and ceremonial, but said the talks would also focus on economic and bilateral issues.

Some Slovenian opposition parties believe that Putin's visit is an attempt to create cracks in EU unity over maintaining sanctions against Moscow.

"We knew from the start that the controversial guest would use the visit primarily to demonstrate his influence in an EU and NATO member state," said Jozef Horvat, deputy president of the New Slovenia party.

Slovenia, a country of 2 million people, split from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. It joined NATO and the EU in 2004.

Slovenia's economic ties with Moscow date back to the communist Yugoslav era, and Russia is Slovenia's top non-EU trading partner. But trade between the two has dropped nearly 30 percent since the Western sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions.

Putin's visit has angered Ukrainians living in Slovenia, who protested Saturday in front of the Russian embassy in the capital, Ljubljana. Dozens of protesters held banners reading "Putin is a Terrorist" and chanted "Long live Ukraine!"

(KA)