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Prime ministers Putin (left) and Francois Fillon (epa)
As prime minister, Vladimir Putin is officially in charge of Russia's $1.3 trillion economy. But that hasn't stopped the former president, currently on a working visit to France, from addressing key political and foreign-policy issues as well.
Putin is the first top Russian official to travel to Western Europe since the much-anticipated political transition earlier this month that saw Dmitry Medvedev become Russian president and Putin shift into the premiership.
Medvedev, whose first foreign trip took him east to Kazakhstan and China, will travel to Western Europe only in June, with a visit to Germany.
Both in its timing and in its fiery rhetoric, Putin's two-day Paris visit seems designed to confirm that the former president is still very much in charge.
At a press conference on May 29, Putin lashed out at international critics of Russia's human rights record.
"Fears about the absence of human rights in Russia are strongly exaggerated," he said. "In general, in my opinion, this subject is a kind of instrument to put pressure on Russia aimed at achieving some objectives that are not directly related to human rights."
Under Putin's presidency, the Kremlin was frequently condemned for its stranglehold on civic society and the media. But Russia, Putin argued, is no different than countries in the West, saying that "any country has problems with human rights."
One way in which Russia is different from other countries, of course, is in its massive energy wealth. The EU currently imports a quarter of its natural gas from Russia.
With world supplies dwindling and oil prices predicted to rise as high as $200 a barrel, the 27-country bloc is looking for guarantees of a stable supply of oil and gas -- putting Russia in the proverbial catbird's seat.
The energy boom has contributed hundreds of billions of dollars to Russia's coffers each year. Adopting an innocent tone on May 29, Putin attempted to distance his country from the rocketing rise in energy prices.
"With regard to the prices of energy resources, of oil, what can I say? It's not Russia that determines these prices," he said. "They are determined by the market. The market is influenced by many factors: international politics, the economy, the situation of the U.S. dollar influence oil prices. If Russia were to set oil prices, then we could agree. But unfortunately this is not the case."
Energy was a central issue as Putin and his French counterpart, Francois Fillon, discussed plans for a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Brussels and Moscow.
Negotiations on the agreement are due to begin at an EU-Russia summit in late June. France, which assumes the EU Presidency on July 1, is expected to play a key role in the talks, as Fillon noted at the press conference.
"During the French European Union presidency, we want to move forward, and why not strike a deal on a strategic partnership between Russia and the EU, which would mark the success of the process of the EU and Russia coming together," he said.
compiled from agency reports