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Russia: Hopes Dim For EU Partnership With Moscow

EC President Barroso (left) with Putin in Moscow this month The EU's relations with Russia were on the agenda ahead of an EU foreign ministers' meeting today in Luxembourg. The ministers are reviewing the bloc's preparations for a 10 May summit with Russia in Moscow. EU officials say significant obstacles remain to forming a strategic partnership on key issues such as easing the EU visa requirement, the treatment of common neighbors, and the money Russia levies from European aviation companies for Siberian over-flights.

Brussels, 25 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Barely two weeks ahead of what had been envisaged as a historic summit, a deadlock between the EU and Russia threatens to turn much of the strategic-partnership agreement into empty words.

Despite months of talks, no breakthroughs on key issues are in sight. In the past, some EU officials have suggested Russia might be holding out to try and create the appearance of having driven a tough bargain. There is a growing feeling in Brussels, however, that some key issues may remain unresolved, detracting significantly from the substance of the agreement.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, visited Moscow in mid-April and had a three-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Barroso's spokeswoman, Francoise Le Bail, said the four "spaces" into which the EU-Russia strategic partnership has been divided were discussed, but not in detail.
There is a growing feeling in Brussels that some key issues may remain unresolved, detracting significantly from the substance of the agreement.

"[The visit] was not about negotiating, as negotiations take place at a technical level. It was a general discussion about the four spaces and the future of the relations between the European Union and Russia," Le Bail said.

Le Bail said progress has been made in the economic and internal security spaces, but offered no details. She said Barroso is confident that further progress is possible, as she said that both sides want to strengthen the framework for relations.

Le Bail summed up the EU's hopes for an accord using conspicuously negative wording.

"What emerged from the discussion between the two presidents [Barroso and Putin] is that an accord in the month of May is not impossible," Le Bail said.

Intractable Differences?

However, one EU diplomat who spoke with RFE/RL recently said a number of differences might prove intractable. He said Russia appears unwilling to offer a written assurance that it will stop charging EU aviation companies for the right to fly across Siberia. The EU considers the levy to be contrary to international law and any accord with Russia that does not resolve the issue is bound to be seen as deficient.

According to the diplomat, another difficult issue involves visas. The EU has offered to ease parts of its visa regime in exchange for a Russian commitment to signing a readmission treaty for illegal immigrants. The visa regime is a key Russian target, but Moscow is insisting that the readmission treaty will only apply Russian citizens, not others who may travel to the EU through Russia.

Without a deal on readmission, any EU moves to ease the visa regime are unlikely.

'Voluntary' Integration

Under the external security heading, Russia has rejected the term "common neighborhood" suggested by the EU to focus cooperation between the two sides. This reflects Russia's deep-seated unwillingness to agree to an EU role on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Instead, Moscow insists that both sides support the other's efforts at "voluntary" regional integration. One EU diplomat told RFE/RL there are fears among the bloc's member states that should such formulations appear in the strategic partnership treaty, they could be seen as a reference to what would amount to spheres of influence.

The diplomat said the accord expected to be signed at the summit is increasingly seen as something that does not resolve any fundamental problems but merely affirms the wish of the two sides to work toward reconciliation.

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