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Russia: Putin's Brussels Visit Underscores EU Ties, Chechnya Focus

Relations between Russia and the European Union are set to take a step forward with the visit of President Vladimir Putin to Brussels. Putin, who arrives today, holds a summit with top EU officials on 3 October. He will also be meeting leaders from Belgium, seat of the current EU presidency, and NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson. The theme of the joint struggle against terrorism will be a key point of discussions.

Prague, 1 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin appears certain to use his visit to Brussels to reinforce the message he issued in Berlin a week ago. That is, that Russia's conflict in Chechnya is a terrorist problem, rather than a matter of Moscow suppressing the human rights of Chechens.

In Berlin, Putin told the German parliament that terrorism and religious extremism have the same roots -- and bear the same fruits -- everywhere. His remarks can be seen as an attempt to link Russia's war in Chechnya to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington -- attacks which have been condemned around the world.

The theme of how to combat international terror is sure to feature in his summit meeting on 3 October with EU officials, including EU Commission head Romano Prodi, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. The Russian leader will also take the opportunity of his visit to Brussels to hold talks with NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson.

London-based political analyst Charles Grant of the Center for European Reform says Putin will be looking for a trade-off for cooperating with the international community:

"There has to be some quid pro quo, and if Russia is going to be helping the Western allies in the fight against terrorism by providing intelligence, by providing support in the United Nations, by providing help in Central Asia, then I think the Russians are going to say that, 'In return we want you to be more sympathetic about the Chechen problem.' "

Grant says Putin may not stop with the issue of Chechnya but may also try to apply pressure on such issues as further NATO enlargement -- which Moscow opposes.

To be sure, terrorism is not the only subject of the visit. Issues likely to arise at the summit meeting include EU energy purchases from Russia, cooperation on crime control -- including financial crime -- and general trade matters. The 15-member EU is a key trading partner for Moscow, accounting for 40 percent of Russia's foreign trade and almost two-thirds of its foreign investment.

The two sides will also discuss EU help for the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which is surrounded by EU-aspirant countries Lithuania and Poland. As Marius Vahl, senior analyst with the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, puts it:

"They are trying to come to some sort of agreement about how to deal with Kaliningrad in terms of the [EU's] enlargement; there's the question of the movement of people, economic assistance, energy connections, electricity grids, and different types of topics."

As to energy issues, EU Commission chief Prodi has previously suggested that Russia and the EU work out a long-term plan for energy supplies to the EU. Experts are now at work on this concept, and the summit will likely review progress so far. As Vahl says:

"The energy aspect is very important. The fact that the EU will become more and more dependent on supplies from outside the EU in the next, say, 10 to 20 years -- and Russia is certainly going to supply a lot of that -- if not all of it, at least a big part of that."

Another of Prodi's initiatives relates to the creation of a "common European economic space," stretching across the EU and Russia. This concept was sketched out in previous talks but has remained vague. Vahl says the summit may decide to appoint experts to define how such a space can be created.

Vahl sees Putin's visit as part of a consolidation of Moscow's ties with the EU, which he calls one of the Russian leader's top priorities, along with improving ties with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). He says:

"I see this [summit] as a continuation of a trend. In a sense it is business as usual, because this is what Putin has been doing since he came into office almost two years ago. He is emphasizing Europe, cooperation with Western Europe and the EU in particular, and [this visit] fits right into this pattern."

Before going into the 3 October summit, Putin meets tomorrow with Belgian King Albert II and Belgian businessmen. He will also have talks with Belgian government officials, centering on bilateral relations between Belgium and Russia.