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Russia: Moscow Conference Focuses On EU Ties

Russians sometimes view the European Union's plans to accept as members several former Warsaw Pact states and three former Soviet republics as neglecting Russia's point of view. The EU's proposed eastward expansion -- and its effect on Russia' northwest region -- was the subject of an international conference this week in Moscow. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini attended the event and files this report.

Moscow, 24 Nov 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Meeting under the informal motto of "common borders link the fates of countries," dignitaries from the European Union, EU candidate states and Russia gathered this week in Moscow to discuss the implications of the EU's proposed expansion.

Delegates to the event, sponsored by the European Commission and the international East-West Institute, were quick to point out that most of Russia's earlier concerns about expansion have been settled.

Participants noted that Russia's doubts about the possible inclusion of three former Soviet republics, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, have abated in favor of a more pragmatic stance, especially after the EU-Russia summit in Paris in October.

Former Lithuanian president Algirdas Brazauskas, speaking informally on behalf of the candidate states, told participants he believes Russia mostly supports his country's desire to join the Brussels-based union:

"How does our desire to join the EU reflect in relations with Russia? I would say we don't feel any lack of understanding for our aspirations coming from Russia. Not in any way. As we have prepared for, like other neighboring countries, Poland for instance, Russia has not expressed any displeasure."

Russian president Vladimir Putin was quoted at the Paris summit as saying Russia sees EU enlargement not as at threat but as an opportunity.

The comments seemed to break with an earlier Russian position that the EU's eventual enlargement into Eastern Europe would cost Russian companies their export markets. The Kremlin has also expressed doubts over the EU's plans for a common defence policy.

Larisa Vdovichenko is an adviser to Russia's Security Council on European issues. She tells our correspondent Russia is not concerned at the moment by the EU's expansion plans or by plans to cooperate more closely on defense issues. She says, on the contrary, a common European defense policy might lessen the continent's dependence on NATO and the U.S.:

"At present, it is actually in our interest that the EU identifies itself in this sphere as an independent European force that will take an increasing share in resolving crises on the European continent, without resorting to help from the United States."

She says Russia has adopted a "wait and see attitude" until the European Union makes up its mind on what form this defense cooperation will take: "It's interesting that even among Westerners themselves there is no definite conviction about how this role in the defence sector should be expressed. I know that discussions are continuing and that the Europeans have not yet settled on a single point of view identifying their defense role."

Participants agreed that one of the most important issues binding the EU and Russia is the status of Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which is squeezed between EU hopefuls Poland and Lithuania.

Several months ago, Russian officials suggested Kaliningrad become a "pilot project" in EU-Russian cooperation and benefit from extra EU aid.

European Commission ambassador to Russia Richard Wright told the conference the EU's expansion plans included integrating the Kaliningrad enclave through the "Northern Dimension" project for northwest Russia, but he stopped short of promising specific aid to Kaliningrad.

He pointed out that about $250 million worth of EU technical assistance was already earmarked for Russia's northwest. He also said neighbors such as Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Finland had already become the enclave's biggest investors.

But that may not be enough for some Russian experts.

A Russian economist specializing in the Kaliningrad region, Natalya Smorodinskaya, called on the EU to act more quickly. She pointed out that economic disparities between Kaliningrad and neighboring Poland and Lithuania could lead to instability in the region.

As a concrete contribution to the concept of Kaliningrad, she suggests the enclave become an experimental ground for adopting more transparency and investor-friendly measures.