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Russian PM Heads To Brussels For Talks With EU Leaders

  • Rikard Jozwiak

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (right) welcomes Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Brussels.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (right) welcomes Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Brussels.

BRUSSELS -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and top government officials have arrived in Brussels for a summit with European Union leaders.

Putin is scheduled to hold talks with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy. High on the agenda are energy policy, visa requirements, human rights, and Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Accompanying Putin are 12 members of his cabinet, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko. The ministers are due to hold talks with their counterparts on the European Commission.

Russia's EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov, said he expected the discussions to be tough and frank.

"It will be a very detailed discussion but certainly not an event of a mutual-admiration society," Chizhov said. "So I wouldn't exclude that on some issues discussion will be -- I wouldn't say dramatic, hopefully not, but they will probably not be very smooth because Russia and the EU do have problems."

Energy Competition

A key irritant for Moscow is EU legislation passed last year requiring energy companies to separate the ownership of their power-generation and distribution networks.

EU officials say this "unbundling" will help open the energy markets among EU member states and encourage the development of small energy companies.

Moscow claims, however, that the law would lead to European companies re-nationalizing energy infrastructure. The Kremlin also claims it makes it more difficult for Russian companies, like the state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom, to compete in the European market.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gives a thumbs-up at the start of a meeting with the European Commission in Brussels.
Fraser Cameron, the director of the Brussels-based EU-Russia Center think tank, says Russia's complaints about the law are groundless.

"Russia has to play by exactly the same competition rules as any other major third company, whether in the European Union or not. For example, the European Commission has taken Microsoft to court and fines it for breach of competition policy rules," Cameron says.

"I don't think that any Russian can argue that Gazprom for example, is anything but a monopoly producer. So for the European Commission it is simply a case of saying that we are not going to allow Gazprom to dominate the market in the way it dominates the market in Russia."

Contentious Visa Issue

No major agreements are expected to be signed at the summit, but Moscow and Brussels are due to sign some technical protocols, including one on establishing an early-warning mechanism when there is a risk that energy supplies may be disrupted.

In recent years, gas disputes between Russia and Ukraine have disrupted the flow of energy to Europe.

Russia is also expected to raise the issue of visa-free travel to the EU.

Barroso's predecessor as European Commission president, Romano Prodi, had promised that Russians would enjoy visa-free travel to the EU in 2008 -- a pledge that was not fulfilled.

Michael Karnitschnig, a spokesman for the European Commission, said it was highly unlikely that the EU would set another date. "The important thing is that we have agreed on the common steps on the substance of what needs to be done by the Russian side," he added.

These steps include the introduction of biometric passports and the inclusion of Russian citizens' personal data in the EU's databases.

Other thorny issues remain, including the status of residents of Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions who hold Russian passports.

Chizhov is nevertheless pushing for the quick introduction of a visa-free regime. "We have been stating our position that we are ready to abolish visas with the European Union on a reciprocal basis as soon as the EU is ready for that," he said.

Modernizing Russia

Smoother discussions are expected regarding Russia's bid to join the WTO, with both sides hoping that Moscow will finalize the negotiations in 2011 after almost 18 years of talks.

The EU has already concluded its part of negotiations but some member states still have outstanding issue, including sanitation checks on Russian agricultural products and Russian export tariffs on felled timber.

And as Karnitschnig points out, Putin can expect to be pressed on human rights in Russia, particularly the case of imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

"It is obvious that any success through modernization, and modernization is what Russia has signed up for, if you will, can only work through the rule of law, through respect for civil society," Karnitschnig says.

"I expect President Barroso and his commission colleagues to bring up these human rights matters."
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