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EU-Russia Relationship No Longer Worsening

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the summit in Stockholm
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the summit in Stockholm
STOCKHOLM -- The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, has emerged from the 24th EU-Russia summit in the Swedish capital describing it as "one of the best meetings we have had."

This verdict may look odd, given that nothing of substance was achieved during the more than five hours of talks today, preceded by a Swedish-Russian dinner last night.

But there was genuine relief among EU leaders -- reciprocated, to an extent, by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev -- that the downward spiral in the relationship of the last few years appears now to have brought to a halt.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, representing the current EU Presidency, began his postsummit analysis by spontaneously noting that the EU and Russia are locked into a "key strategic partnership" that has "trust and transparency as its guiding principles."

A little later, Reinfeldt found himself resorting to negatives in trying to explain why the EU and Russia must continue to cooperate despite their disputes, aggravated by Russia's invasion of Georgia in August 2008.

"Yes, we sometimes disagree. [In] most of our talks I have found that we have very similar views, [but] sometimes we disagree," Reinfeldt said.

"But that is not a reason not to meet. On the contrary, that's a reason to meet, that's why we need these discussions, that's the modern way of meeting each other."

No Progress

In terms of substance, the EU emerged from the meeting with little to show for it. There was no ironclad Russian guarantee that last January's stoppage of Russian gas deliveries will not be repeated. There was no clear Russian promise to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) on EU and Western terms.

There was no Russian movement at all on issues such as human rights, democratic reforms, or the future status of the occupied Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, recognized by Russia as independent states.

All the EU managed to extract were vague promises, the precise details and significance of which appeared to remain unclear to even EU officials themselves.

Medvedev did appear to offer a slight concession on WTO accession, saying Russia was prepared to join the organization separately from Kazakhstan and Belarus if that proves more expedient.

Russia's insistence so far on joining the WTO in a customs union with those two countries had raised fears in the EU of new tariff barriers and disputes. The full significance of Medvedev's promise remains difficult to gauge, however, given that he also said Russia's WTO entry will be "closely coordinated" with Astana and Minsk.

On climate change, another EU concern, Russia appeared to make a move, promising to "strive for" a cut in emissions of 25 percent by 2020. But no point of reference was given -- the EU wants 1991 to be the yardstick. The EU is also lobbying other major industrial powers to commit to cuts of at least 30 percent. "You cannot negotiate with nature," Barroso ruefully noted today.

As in previous years, Russia's summit wish list was topped by visa-free travel. EU member states are not enthusiastic about such a prospect, however, and EU representatives offered no public comments on what is psychologically an extremely important issue for Moscow.

'Partners Of Necessity'

The two sides come closest to sharing common ground on energy cooperation, where they are "partners of necessity," to quote Medvedev. Russia is the EU's biggest supplier, while the EU is Russia's biggest customer.

But Russia keeps fending off EU attempts to put the relationship on a purely commercially regulated basis -- preferably within the new EU-Russia partnership accord, which is in the process of being negotiated.

Instead, Medvedev today repeated a call he first made last year for an international energy security arrangement.

"I once again drew our partners' attention to the energy initiative proposed by Russia in addition to existing energy documents, including the Energy Charter," Medvedev said.

"I'd like to say once again that I think we need to continue our exchange of views on this subject so we can work out an international legal basis for future energy cooperation."

EU officials have said they have little notion what Medvedev's proposal amounts to. They also continue reiterating the EU's adherence to the Energy Charter -- which Russia has rejected.

In the end, both sides today appeared content that despite difficulties, the relationship remains intact.

At one point, Medvedev was asked what he thought of Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt’s statement that Moscow’s actions in Georgia were similar to those of Nazi Germany in the run-up to World War II.

Medvedev's response was reminiscent of Reinfeldt's earlier remark that, in the end, it is dialogue that remains more important than anything else.

"The winners [in international disputes] are those who, despite difficulties, want to develop relations, and lend them extra dynamism. And it seems to me that we succeeded in doing this during our visit to Stockholm and the talks [which took place]," Medvedev said.

Perhaps inspired by this spirit of reconciliation, Medvedev chose not to respond to Reinfeldt's comment that human rights, and especially repressions against human rights defenders, in Russia are "an increasing cause for concern" for the EU

He also let pass Barroso's observation that the EU believes that "vibrant, pluralistic civil societies are both the basis and the yardstick of any modern system."

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