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Russia: Kaliningrad Issue Mars Renewed Push For Cooperation With EU

The European Union-Russia summit in Moscow yesterday saw signs of growing security and economic rapprochement between the two sides. However, discord over the future of Russia's Kaliningrad exclave continues to put a strain on EU-Russia relations.

Brussels, 30 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The ninth EU-Russia summit yesterday signaled the growing maturity of relations between the two sides.

Although both EU and Russian leaders acknowledged a number of serious disagreements still exist, the results of yesterday's meeting indicated that for the first time, mutual engagement is now viewed by both sides as a realistic objective.

Both Jose Maria Aznar -- the prime minister of Spain, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency -- and the EU's security chief, Javier Solana, put particular emphasis on the convergence of views on foreign and security policy issues.

Praising NATO's decision to set up a joint council with Russia, Aznar staked the EU's own claim for a closer partnership with Moscow as the "unique security political powers" of the EU grow -- a reference to the EU defense project, which includes the creation of a rapid-reaction force.

President Putin was similarly accommodating, noting that the main reason why Russia's ties with the EU lag behind those with NATO lies in the relative youth of the EU's defense project. The joint declaration adopted after the summit says Russia has already presented an "action plan in the field of European Security and Defense Policy." The two sides say they will develop cooperation in regional crisis management, mine-clearance operations, and look into whether the EU defense project could use Russian long-haul aircraft.

Solana also said the two sides "share the same vision" and cooperate on a "very profound level" in mediation efforts in the Middle East, the reconstruction work in Afghanistan, and in trying to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan: "I'd like to tell President Putin how pleased we are about the cooperation we have found on these questions pertaining to the security of the world in which the European Union and Russia are committed to continue working together."

The EU also made an important gesture of goodwill toward Russia, announcing its decision to recognize it formally as a market economy. The EU thus stepped ahead of the United States, which -- as President George W. Bush announced after his visit to Russia last week -- is still considering the move.

Besides being, in Putin's words, a major "political and moral" victory for Russia, the decision to grant it market-economy status also removes an important obstacle from Russia's path toward joining the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, described the decision as a symbolic milestone:

"[In] today's summit, I think the most important decision on the [European] Commission side [was] the historic step of announcing that the European Union will grant Russia the formal status of [a] fully fledged market economy. This is both a recognition of and a reward for the major reform Russia [has been] undertaking in recent years."

In practical terms, formal market economy status means distinct advantages for Russian businesses in fighting more than 100 worldwide antidumping cases which Putin said cost them $1.5 billion a year.

Leaders on both sides also attached great importance to decisions to proceed with the creation of a "Common Economic Space" and develop "energy dialogue" between the EU and Russia.

Here, the EU side put slightly greater emphasis on the need to bring Russia's legislation in line with EU standards. Russia appeared more interested in securing longer-term contracts for gas and oil deliveries and extending cooperation to electricity. The EU also did not appear to win any outright concessions from Russia on outstanding trade liberalization issues. At the postsummit news conference, Putin clearly sidestepped questions on when Russia is going to abolish its present practice of "double-pricing" domestic and exported energy.

The only serious note of disharmony, as expected, was on the issue of Kaliningrad. The EU's position -- that Russia's demands for visa-free "corridors" for the movement of people and goods between the exclave and mainland are unacceptable -- remained unchanged at the summit.

As a result, Putin described yesterday's talks on the future of Kaliningrad as "very sharp." He said: "Among [the problems associated with enlargement], the first and foremost is the task of finding a full solution to the problem of ensuring the proper functioning of the Kaliningrad region. [Today's] discussions were of a fairly sharp nature and I think it is not by chance that we consider this to be among the most important and urgent problems in need of being resolved before the actual enlargement of the European Union."

Putin added that Russia regards a satisfactory solution to the talks as an essential test for the evolving strategic partnership with the EU.

Finally, in another sign of improving relations, the issue of Chechnya was conspicuous in its absence from the joint communique. According to Prodi, the omission was due to the fact that the EU had "no new message" on Russia's ongoing war in the breakaway republic. Putin said the situation in Chechnya is improving, adding that international aid agencies have full access to the region -- a claim that EU officials in Brussels flatly contradicted only a few days prior to the summit.