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EU: Ahead of Summit, Russia Finds It Has Little To Agree Upon With Brussels

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Tomorrow, leaders of Russia, the 15 EU member states, and its 10 acceding countries will meet for a historic summit in St. Petersburg amid the city's anniversary celebrations. But hours before the summit, it remains unclear if the two sides can agree on anything. EU officials say there is little overlap of interest -- while the EU prioritizes the environment and cooperation on immigration, judicial, and police matters, Russia demands commitments on visa-free travel and compensation for enlargement.

Brussels, 30 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Saturday's (31 May) EU-Russia summit in St. Petersburg could be the first ever to not produce a single joint document. The customary joint communique was already done away with last year in Brussels, but agreements on Kaliningrad and energy dialogue filled the void. This time, however, the two sides apparently don't see eye-to-eye on any key issue.

While the EU attaches great importance to environmental cooperation and joint action against illegal immigration, Russia wants a timetable for visa-free travel, compensation for enlargement, and a new EU-Russia council to match the existing NATO-Russia Council.

None of the Russian demands is acceptable to the EU as it stands. Officials in Brussels say the issue of visa-free travel in particular could "make or break" the summit. Russia insists on what they are calling a "work program," aimed at dropping visas -- perhaps as soon as 2007.

Diego de Ojeda, an EU Commission spokesman on Russia, said on 28 May that the EU thinks things will take much longer. "We believe that what counts is the substance. It's very clear that moving towards [a] visa-free [regime] would be a good thing. Now, visas are there for a reason. Therefore you had better take care of the causes and then you can lift the visas. The situation at present would involve Russia exercising much better control [over] its south and eastern borders, enhancing cooperation with our police and judicial authorities, signing a readmission agreement with us and a number of other elements -- some of which can be tackled fast, but some, because of the scope of the issue, will certainly require time and effort," de Ojeda said.

The EU would like to sign a readmission treaty with Russia, providing for compulsory return of all illegal immigrants who entered the territory via the territory of the other. But, officials in Brussels say that Russia is delaying progress on this issue to gain leverage in other matters.

Speaking privately, EU officials say opening borders to Russia is "a very sensitive matter." Although countries such as Italy, France, and Greece support concessions, others, like Finland with its long land border with Russia, feel they "cannot accept" any commitments at this stage.

Instead, the EU would very much like to showcase movement on environmental cooperation. It wants to ban single-hull oil tankers in the Baltic Sea as well as see progress on nuclear-safety issues. Most of all, the EU wants Russia to ratify the Kyoto climate-change agreement.

But, one official said, Russia approaches the issue of climate change in terms of economic benefits. In other words, he said the Russians want to know what the advantage is for them. For the EU, on the other hand, stopping globing warming is more a matter of principle. If Russia does not ratify Kyoto, said the official, then "how can they credibly say we share common values?"

Another area where Russia's apparent profit motives trouble the EU is enlargement. Although Russia welcomes enlargement in principle, it wants compensation for enlargement's possible "negative effects."

The EU rejects the claim outright. Diego de Ojeda pointed to the accession of Finland eight years ago, which was preceded by similar wrangling. "The record shows that the accession of Finland did create a number of problems for Russia in certain sectors, he said. "But overall, it was a big opportunity. It has enhanced trade and cooperation. Now we believe this will be the case for the current wave of enlargement as well. Therefore there will be no case for any compensation."

Meanwhile, Russia sees problems extending its "Partnership and Cooperation" agreement with the EU to the new members. In the case of Finland, a one-line protocol was enough. But this time, one official said, Russia wants to include "transitional measures for coping with their alleged losses of trade opportunities or even nontrade impact."

That would cause a problem, the official said, in that it would reopen the accession treaties through the back door. And, the official stresses, the EU does not negotiate enlargement with third parties.

Among the "nontrade" issues Russia wants to address is the situation of Russian minorities in Latvia and Estonia. Russia has suggested it wants to discuss the issue individually with the two candidates, but officials in Brussels again note that "these are now clearly EU-level issues and Russia will need to talk to the EU as such."

The final major issue is the possibility of a new joint EU-Russia council -- which Russia wants but the EU may not. Commission spokesman de Ojeda said the EU wants to start with streamlining what already exists. "What we are definitely interested in is streamlining political dialogue with Russia. We have very intense structures for cooperation, we have lots of meetings on all levels. We think they can be made more productive in the interests of both sides," he said. "Therefore, we are looking for ways of improving the current structures. We're not NATO and whatever structures Russia and NATO have concluded may not be in the best interests of efficient cooperation between Russia and the EU."

A Brussels officials said on 28 May Russia would like to make wider use of the "25+1" format that brings together representatives of all current and new member states. However, the EU thinks this would be unmanageable, and would allow Russia to come too close to EU decision making.

Among other topics, drug trafficking from Afghanistan will be raised, together with the conflict in Transdniestr, and the situation in Chechnya.

An EU official said that if a joint declaration does emerge, it will "contain language on Chechnya." He said the Russian side has agreed to a passage that "emphasizes improving the human rights situation and conditions for the access of humanitarian aid" in the war-torn region.

He said the EU does not "want to judge" the validity of the recent constitutional referendum in Chechnya, which "will be tested by history." He noted certain "misgivings," but said the effects of the referendum so far "seem to go in the right direction."

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