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Business, As Usual, To Be Focus Of EU-Russia Summit

  • Ahto Lobjakas

France's Sarkozy (left) and Russia's Medvedev -- seeing eye to eye?

France's Sarkozy (left) and Russia's Medvedev -- seeing eye to eye?

BRUSSELS -- It appears to be back to business as usual for Brussels and Moscow, even if the two sides continue to disagree about the fine print.

A senior EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity this week in Brussels, was adamant that the EU-Russia summit did not equal a return to the sides' former relationship. Russia crossed EU "red lines" with its actions in Georgia, he said, and the EU intends to assert this stance strongly in Nice.

But during a news briefing in the EU capital this week, Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov quipped, "How else can business be...better than usual?"

Reading between the diplomatic lines, the Russian interpretation seems to have carried the day. At the Nice summit, the contentious topic of Georgia will be addressed well into the meeting under "international and regional issues."

Business in the traditional sense of the term is what both sides have chosen to headline during the summit.

Speaking in Brussels on November 13, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso stressed the importance of energy cooperation.

"My message tomorrow to President [Dmitry] Medvedev is absolutely not a negative one," Barroso said. "We are becoming increasingly interdependent. At present, 61 percent of EU gas consumption comes from imports and 42 percent of these imports come from Russia."

The EU will guarantee the market, as long as Russia guarantees the supplies, Barroso said.

Finding Common Ground

But not all is clear sailing even within the confines of the EU-Russia business relationship. Russia's nonchalance with regard to joining the World Trade Organization continues to bother the EU. Trade spats have shown a distinct tendency to escalate into full-blown disputes in recent months. Russian charges for overflights over Siberian airspace remain a point of contention, export tariffs on timber annoy Nordic importers, and agricultural protectionism continues to cause headaches in EU capitals.

Overall, officials in Brussels say, Russia appears to be resorting to spoiling tactics. "Russia seems to prefer not to work on solutions, but to accumulate irritants," one official said.

However, the same official said, Moscow does now project a "more constructive" posture on energy security and climate change.

Brussels says the EU's decision on November 7 to resume talks with Russia on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement means working-group-level meetings can reconvene this month. EU and Russia chief negotiators will meet in early December.

Having reconciled itself to the EU's decision to put the recent Georgia-Russia war behind it, Tbilisi is now working to limit the damage.

Taking advantage of a high-profile visit to Paris on the eve of the EU-Russia summit, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said on November 13 he and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed Georgia will be raised prominently during the meeting in Nice.

"We spoke also about this summit with Russia and we spoke about the need to include the question of Georgia in the agenda of these high-level negotiations.," Saakashvili said. "And I received the assurance of [Sarkozy] that this would be the case."

Downplaying Divisions

The considered EU position -- which is what is likely to be put to the Russian side behind closed doors -- is somewhat noncommittal and distinctly weaker than Brussels' previous position.

The senior EU official quoted above said earlier this week that although the bloc does not accept the notion of spheres of influence, "Russia has legitimate interests in other countries -- as does the EU.... Ultimately each individual country alone can choose its direction."

The official did say that the events in Georgia in August seriously undermined the EU's trust in Russia. The official said the conflict was particularly jarring for the bloc, as it came after what had been seen as a very successful EU-Russia summit in June.

Reiterating the official EU position on Georgia, the official said the EU is "very clear" it does not accept the status quo in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which declared their independence from Georgia following the brief war. Georgia's territorial integrity must be reestablished, the official said. Equally, EU and international monitors, humanitarian aid workers, and ultimately reconstruction teams must be given full access by Russia to the disputed regions.

Officials in Brussels and Paris this week also downplayed the significance of Lithuania's failed bid to block the resumption of EU-Russia talks on a new partnership agreement. Their explanations are essentially variations on the same few themes -- reestablishing communication with Russia is in the EU's best interests; there is no alternative to constructive engagement; and putting relations with Moscow on a legally binding footing will benefit all EU member states.

Officials also doubted that vital Lithuanian interests are at stake, noting that in June Vilnius approved the EU negotiating mandate that makes reference to the frozen conflicts in the Caucasus.

The resumption of partnership talks alone cannot damage anyone's vital interests, one EU official argued. "It is in two years' time, at the close of the talks, that we can really tell about the substance."