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Russia: Good-Natured Atmosphere Of EU Summit Belies Deeper Problems

Leaders of Russia and the European Union held a one-day summit in Saint Petersburg on Saturday, with both sides stressing their desire for a closer partnership, despite a series of issues that continue to create obstacles in the relationship. For the first time since Russia and the EU began holding regular summits, the 10 future EU member states also took part in the meeting, as full participants.

St. Petersburg, 2 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The atmosphere at the 31 May Russia-European Union summit in St. Petersburg was relaxed and good-humored, belying the many real problems in the relationship.

Perhaps it was the festive context of this weekend's 300th anniversary celebrations in St. Petersburg or the newly restored splendor of the Konstantinovksii Palace where the meeting took place, that drove European Commission President Romano Prodi to muse that "Russia and the EU are like vodka and caviar -- inseparable," although he added, "I don't know which stands for which."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his remarks to summit participants, emphasized the symbolism of the gathering in St. Petersburg, which was founded 300 years ago by Tsar Peter the Great as Russia's "Window on Europe" and incorporates such a distinct European influence in its architecture and history.

His guests echoed the thought in their own speeches, but polite formulas soon gave way to the airing of real concern by both sides about the current state of the EU-Russian relationship and its future prospects.

Putin outlined some of the issues Russia would like to see tackled, warning that failure to address many of these questions would stymie any plans for greater cross-border unity.

"It is not the first time that we are talking about issues such as trade in nuclear materials; antidumping and quota limits; mutual access to markets for certain goods and services; unjustified export subsidies, for example in agriculture; obstruction on the energy chapter in Russia's accession negotiations to the [World Trade Organization] WTO; the problem of cargo transport through Kaliningrad; and a whole host of other issues. I think we have reached a point when it has become hard to move forward while leaving behind us unresolved issues and ignoring the justified worries which affect the quality of life of millions of people," Putin said.

Above all, said Putin, the removal of onerous visa restrictions for Russian citizens seeking to travel or do business in the EU remains Moscow's top priority, especially as the bloc prepares to expand to include 10 new members.

"I am deeply convinced that our common aim and our political and moral duty is the rapid elimination of all barriers that stand in the way of the free movement of people -- barriers which today divide many millions of Russian citizens from their friends and relatives in EU countries. I'll be frank: in the eyes of ordinary Russians, the current situation cannot be perceived as anything other than a new, in this case, 'Schengen' Wall," Putin said.

European Commission President Prodi said visa-free travel for Russians in Europe and vice-versa was a long-term goal but he noted that a number of issues would have to be tackled first, including poor border controls and illegal trafficking.

"A visa is a comprehensive issue and involves several aspects, including the fight against organized crime, border control, [and] the quality of travel documents. And this is why we want to begin by having a meeting at the technical level, in the context of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. You know, this is an issue that we want to solve and we must give guarantees to all our population and you have to give guarantees to your population," Prodi said.

Prodi made special mention of the drug-trafficking problem faced by Europe, noting that the EU and Russia faced a common interest in stopping the renewed flow of heroin and other drugs coming from Afghanistan.

"The production of drugs in Afghanistan is increasing in an unexpected way and Russia and the Europeans have the same, same, same interests because our young people are the victims of this pressure of drug supply into our markets," Prodi said.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, in his capacity as current head of the rotating EU Presidency, appealed for understanding on the visa question. He said the issue of migration, changing demographics and rising crime was of great concern to many European countries, who depended on visas to try and control the flow of undesirable aliens.

"I must remind you that in Greece we have 1 million immigrants in a population of 10 million. That's 10 percent. That changes radically the demographic situation and the relations in a society. And this is not [only] happening in Greece. I was in Ireland a few weeks ago and I heard that in Ireland, there are yearly about 14,000 Romanians that are coming, in Portugal about 40,000 Ukrainians. So it is a necessity to have security and this means that we have to take measures in order to control organized crime, trafficking, the traffic of women, and so on," Simitis said.

While Putin emphasized Russia's concerns about visas, several EU leaders took Russia to task for its failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on emission reductions. Prodi said environmental issues are an EU priority and he said Russia must align its policies with the EU, if it wants to break down barriers.

"For us, you know, this is a political priority and we must give to the world an example that we are taking care of the world for future generations. Russia is of course a key player and if we delay our agenda, we undermine our credibility," Prodi said.

Other leaders also urged Russia to speed the decommissioning of single-hulled oil tankers currently plying the Baltic Sea.

Despite the lively exchange of views, Russia and the EU signed a final declaration at the close of today's summit called "A Single Europe for All Europeans" stressing their commitment to build closer ties. Prodi affirmed that no problem was insurmountable and he pledged the EU's help in helping Russia to gain access to the WTO.

In deference to Russian sensitivities, none of the European leaders offered direct criticism of the Russian military's actions in Chechnya.