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Russia: EU, Following U.S., NATO Lead, Seeks Closer Ties

The European Union and Russia held their biannual summit today in Moscow. The Russian delegation is headed by President Vladimir Putin. The EU side is jointly led by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, whose country currently holds the bloc's rotating presidency, and Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission. Topping the summit agenda are bilateral security efforts, energy cooperation, and Russia's aim to join the World Trade Organization, as well as a range of international issues.

Brussels, 29 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union-Russia summit, coming on the heels of last week's U.S.-Russia summit and yesterday's signing of the NATO-Russia agreement, is being billed by the EU as yet another step that will "contribute to firmly anchoring Russia with the West."

Reflecting the EU's growing interest in developing closer ties with Russia, a European Commission document released ahead of today's summit casts Russia in a much kinder light than has been customary in the past.

Russia is now described as "being perceived internationally as a reliable energy supplier" and a country that honors its debts. The document also notes that the EU's political and security dialogue with Russia is "more frequent than with any other third party."

A number of European commentators in recent weeks have criticized the EU for appearing to fall behind the United States and NATO in engaging Russia. This view, however, is not shared by Michael Emerson, a leading Russia expert at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies. Emerson said Russia's improving ties with the United States and NATO have distinct advantages for the EU.

"Indeed, some of the EU's own particular objectives in foreign policy -- where they differ slightly, or much, from the U.S. -- could actually be positively helped. If you take the Middle East or environmental policy or trade policy, there you have a closer position today between the EU and Russia. And if Russia itself is getting on good terms with the U.S., that helps both [the EU and Russia] together possibly to influence the U.S. more effectively," Emerson said.

Yet, at least some priorities in the area of EU-Russia security -- highlighted by EU officials earlier this week -- suggest the EU is mimicking, rather than presenting an alternative to, U.S. and NATO policy. Like NATO, the EU is seeking its own avenues of access to Russia for cooperation in areas like crisis management and conflict prevention. In addition, the EU is looking for Russian assistance in meeting some of the shortfalls of its defense projects, looking in particular at the possibility of using Russian long-haul transport aircraft.

The EU is also clearly interested in cementing economic ties with Russia. The commission report on Russia released this week underlines the EU's dominant role in Russia's external trade. The EU's share comes close to 40 percent, while -- as commission officials stress -- the United States accounts for less than 8 percent.

Russia is also an important energy supplier for the EU, representing 16 percent of total EU consumption of gas and oil in 1999.

The EU supports Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and is urging the rapid formation of settlement mechanisms for trade disputes.

The EU has also embraced Russia's wish to work toward the creation of a so-called "Common European Economic Space," although talks remain at a very early stage.

Emerson noted the talks are undermined by important differences in emphasis and perspective. "Russia would like the [talks] to deliver immediate trade-policy advantages like alleviating antidumping duties or changing how they're handled. And the EU would like Russia to get more in line with European standards, in a general way which will take decades. And the EU is also saying to Russia, 'Do you really want to join the WTO, for starters, and are you interested in free trade as a second step?' Common European Economic Space implies that you've said 'Yes' to both of these questions," Emerson said.

Emerson said Russia's answer is "far from clear."

Today's summit is likely to be partly overshadowed by the dispute over the future of Russia's Kaliningrad exclave after EU enlargement. Russia demands free access to Kaliningrad and simplified visa requirements for its citizens. The EU, on the other hand, says it will not compromise the sovereignty of future members Poland and Lithuania, nor will it relax the tough Schengen visa regime to be applied on Kaliningrad's borders. EU officials say offers to make visas cheaper and easier to obtain for Kaliningrad residents have met with refusals by Russia to extend similar treatment to EU citizens.

Russia has also delayed agreeing to a readmission treaty on illegal immigrants entering the EU from its territory, which is something that EU officials say is "an essential first step" for cooperation on border issues.

The EU side will also raise the issue of human-rights violations in Chechnya, which has been compounded by the restrictions placed on the access of humanitarian aid personnel to the area. Similar pressure applied over the past two years has not produced tangible results.

Finally, the EU delegation is expected to criticize Russia for not doing enough to help resolve the conflict over Moldova's secessionist region of Transdniestr. The European Commission's pre-summit report says the conflict "ranks first among the root causes" making Moldova the poorest country in Europe.