Every six months, under each new European Union presidency, the EU and Russia hold a summit to discuss current issues of mutual interest. As the latest such meeting gets underway today in Moscow, EU officials say that, while pressing forward with positive new plans like investing in Russia's energy sector, they will not overlook the question of Chechnya. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.
Moscow, 17 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Today's European Union-Russia summit in Moscow picks up where the last one -- held last October in Paris -- left off. It returns to older, unresolved topics like Chechnya while addressing new ones like a planned energy accord.
The Paris summit was widely seen as a diplomatic victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who won assurances of greater EU economic cooperation without backing down from his stance on Chechnya. Today's meeting, however, is not expected to hold any major surprises.
The seventh EU-Russia summit opened with a meeting between Putin and Prime Minister Goran Persson of Sweden, which currently chairs the EU.
The talks were later to be joined by European Commission President Romano Prodi, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and, on the Russian side, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
Sylvia Kofler, the EU's Moscow spokeswoman, summed up the summit agenda for RFE/RL:
"It is difficult to say what really will be the most important aspect. As you know, the meeting takes place every six months, so basically both sides review their relations in all areas and they will start by explaining to each other the developments in the Russian Federation and the developments in the European Union. They will discuss specific issues of EU-Russian cooperation, such as security policy dialogue, trade and investment cooperation. Of course, [they will also discuss] energy, Kaliningrad, cooperation in justice and home affairs and environment."
Solana, speaking last night on Ekho Moskvy radio, said that Russia and the EU had established a "constant dialogue." He said that he personally had met 30 times with Russian officials over the past year and that he expects a "good summit."
The EU represents Russia's largest trade partner, accounting for more than a third of Russia's imports and of its export trade. In 1999, Russia was the EU's sixth largest trading partner, after the United States, Switzerland, Japan, China, and Norway. Its rank, however, is expected to rise as bilateral trade continues to grow.
Environmental issues due to be discussed at today's meeting included the Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gases and nuclear safety. A regional nuclear clean-up pact for the Kola Peninsula -- where discarded nuclear submarines pose a contamination hazard for the whole Arctic region -- was signed in 1999 but has yet to be formally adopted because of several unresolved issues between the EU and Russia.
Spokeswoman Kofler said officials from the EU -- which was criticized last October for not being tough enough on Russia's human rights violations in Chechnya -- are also likely to bring up the topic of Russian policy in the devastated region:
"The European Union wants very much to also draw the attention of the Russian side to Chechnya, to the issue, and call again for a political solution and for access for NGOs and humanitarian organizations to Chechnya. And they will also draw the attention to media freedom, stressing very much that media freedom is an essential element of a democratic system."
Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Ivanov said last night that Russia has "no allergy to the Chechen theme." He said Russia's battle with "terrorists" in the North Caucasus republic is no different than Macedonia's current struggle with Albanian separatists. Responding to EU criticism, Ivanov said: "These amateurs on the Chechen issue should occupy themselves with Macedonia, where the European Union is about to get its own Chechnya."
Yesterday the monitoring group Human Rights Watch called on the international community to use the occasion of the EU summit to urge Moscow to investigate a mass gravesite in Chechnya suspected of containing the bodies of civilians killed by Russian law-enforcement officers.
Plans for future cooperation in the energy sector -- an idea launched less than a year ago -- were also on the agenda for today's meeting. Although still in its initial phase, the proposed agreement may eventually have Russia increasing its natural gas and oil exports to Europe in exchange for substantial investment in its energy sector. Spokeswoman Kofler:
"You know, this energy dialogue was launched last October when Mr. Prodi met Mr. Putin and [French President Jacques] Chirac in Paris at the last EU-Russia summit. It was launched and in the meantime experts have had several meetings to try to identify the issues at stake, and at this point I would say it is kind of prospective, and too early to have anything concrete."
Russia currently provides over 15 percent of the EU's energy needs in imported fuel.
Kofler also said that any dialogue on security issues today would not include any exchange of opinion about the controversial U.S. plan to deploy a missile defense system -- an initiative that has been criticized by both Moscow and some EU members.
Deputy Foreign Minister Ivanov, however, said the topic would be on today's agenda, calling it "a question of our common security."
Commenting on Russian and EU security issues, the EU's ambassador to Moscow, Gilbert Dubois, told RFE/RL's Russian Service this week that the Russians are "eager" to learn more about Europe's Security and Defense Policy. Dubois also said he is looking forward to greater EU partnership with Russia, pointing to cooperative efforts in Kosovo in spite of what he called "differences of opinion" in certain aspects of policy there. He said: "We can imagine that in the future there will be many areas in the world where we could work together."