BRUSSELS -- "Rhetoric versus reality" is how some diplomats describe the choice facing the European Union as it weighs the future of its relationship with Russia.
Designated a "strategic partner" by the EU, critics say Russia has not lived up to the billing; there is dark skepticism in the Brussels corridors of power since last year. There was the war in Georgia, then the choking off of Ukraine's -- and Europe's -- gas deliveries. Moreover, there exists a multitude of relatively smaller, but hardly minor, problems on which Russia steadfastly refuses to budge, such as its prohibitive levies on transiting EU aircraft, customs duties on timber exports, and the snaking queues of trucks at border crossing points with EU countries.
EU foreign ministers were expected to make preparations for an upcoming EU-Russia summit in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border, the top item of their agenda as they gather in Brussels.
The May 21-22 summit is not expected by the EU to produce any practical relief. There will be no joint declaration -- generally a sign of profound divisions. The most the bloc can hope for is a reaffirmation by Moscow that it still wants cooperation.
Officials in Brussels fear Russia is angling to ridicule the EU by exploiting the fact that the bloc's delegation will be headed by Vaclav Klaus, the notoriously euroskeptical and Russia-friendly Czech president. The Czech Republic, now with a caretaker government, is running a lame-duck EU presidency, to be relieved on July 1 by Sweden.
EU officials say the "personal factor" -- Klaus's personality and performance -- is uppermost in most EU governments' minds as they look ahead to Khabarovsk.
The EU is certainly trying to keep the summit's agenda simple. The new Czech foreign minister, Jan Kohout, offered a broad and studiously vague summary of EU priorities in Brussels.
"The meeting in Khabarovsk later this week should give us the opportunity to address EU-Russian relations and our many common issues, including the global economic and financial crisis, energy, trade, climate change, and international issues," Kohout said.Pressure From Moscow
Russia certainly appears intent on exploiting the EU's distress, trying to force the bloc back to its own areas of interest. "Hard security" and energy top Moscow's agenda in Khabarovsk, Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told journalists in Brussels on May 13.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Rossiya TV in an interview on May 15 that Russia wants its "partners" to agree on a "new approach" to security -- one that it is distinct from the expansion of NATO, and, by implication, the influence of the EU.
Behind the scenes, Russian diplomats have tried to put flesh on the bare bones of the proposed European security treaty repeatedly trotted out by Medvedev since June 2008. At a meeting with EU foreign ministers on April 28, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow wants a new binding treaty on security. He dismissed the OSCE, which nominally remains the top pan-European security body, by saying it has failed because it has no powers to make international law.
Moscow knows, of course, that an EU delegation made up of Klaus, the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, and the bloc's foreign policy chief Javier Solana has no power to negotiate on hard security issues. They can only voice whatever consensus the EU's 27 member states can agree to.
The EU, traditionally split on Russia, now contains three camps. First, there is the "Friends of Russia" club -- with France, Germany, and Italy at its helm, and comprising also Greece, Cyprus and a few others -- which sees Russia as a strategic partner for the EU, no matter what.
Then there are the skeptics -- led by Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, and, now less prominently, Britain. These countries increasingly have the support of the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, which, by all indications, has become very frustrated by Russia's nonchalant disregard of its obligations.
There is now emerging a third, loose, grouping, featuring Russian neighbors Finland, Latvia, Estonia, and some countries in southeastern Europe, which argue pragmatic cooperation with Russia remains an essential EU interest at all costs.Energy Interests
The EU's agenda in Khabarovsk will be headlined by the economic crisis and energy. Energy security -- also another Medvedev priority -- is likely to provide the highlight of the summit discussions.
Medvedev has said he wants to ditch the Energy Charter, an agreement aiming to liberalize international energy trade which Moscow signed but has not ratified. Russia has said it has no intention of opening up its domestic energy market to international cooperation or letting foreign companies operate its pipeline system.
Diplomats in Brussels say Medvedev's new proposals combine a selective harvesting of principles enshrined in the Energy Charter with key additions designed to maximize Russia's leverage. Russia wants greater say in how the transit of its natural gas and oil is run, as well as rights to invest in EU distribution networks. This runs counter to ongoing EU efforts to break up domestic energy production and distribution monopolies. It is also not clear how Russia would see the transit arrangements it is advancing applying to itself as a transit country for Central Asian gas and oil.
A European Commission spokesperson said on May 15 the EU has no intention of abandoning the Energy Charter.Other 'International Issues'
At the summit, the EU and Russia will also discuss the situation in Moldova and Georgia under the "international issues" heading. Russian officials, most recently its EU ambassador Chizhov on May 13, have accused the bloc of trying to meddle in the sovereignty of its eastern neighbors.
The debate on Moldova is being held largely at Romania's sole insistence. Bucharest was deeply angered by Chisinau's charges that it instigated the April unrest in Moldova. The expulsion of the Romanian ambassador by Moldova and the country's refusal to accept his designated replacement -- coupled with Romania's announcement that it will issue passports to up to 1 million "Romanian" Moldovans -- have seen relations between the two countries plummet to an all-time low.
Although a number of EU member states are sympathetic with Romania, which wants greater pressure to be put on the Communist rules of Chisinau, a majority believe the bloc must not jeopardize its ties with Moldova and argue for what diplomats in Brussels call "quiet diplomacy." The EU's best bets to influence developments in Chisinau are seen as integration with the bloc and visa liberalization -- talks on which could start soon, although Italy strongly resists the move.
Whatever optimism there is left in Brussels with regard to Moldova has been further undermined, however, by Chisinau's apparent caving-in to Moscow's pressure on Transdniester. Russian-Moldovan talks in March saw Chisinau endorsing proposals to replace OSCE peacekeepers in the breakaway region with Russian troops after an eventual settlement, without securing a reference to the principle of territorial integrity.
Transdniester, for its part, has revoked the visas of the EU Special Representative to Moldova Kalman Miszei, as well as of the Czech and U.S. ambassadors, thus effectively removing the EU and the United States from the "5+2" negotiating format (grouping the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, the U.S., and the EU, plus Chisinau and Tiraspol). There is hope, however, that the decision by outgoing President Vladimir Voronin to call off a scheduled March 25 meeting with the Transdnistrian leader Vladimir Smirnov was meant as a sign of protest.
Moldovan Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan, who is seen as Moscow's choice for the next Moldovan president, has emerged as a leading critic of attempts by the EU to bring Chisinau closer to the European fold, most notably with the recently launched European Partnership.
Georgia and Iran were discussed among EU ministers over lunch, and the situation in Sri Lanka also featured prominently on the May 18 agenda.
An EU summit on June 19-20 is expected to issue a declaration on Georgia.
"We also discussed the situation in Georgia, a country which remains a top priority for us," Czech Foreign Minister Kohout said. "We are strongly committed to diplomatic efforts towards a lasting resolution of the conflict in Georgia, and we hope that today's and tomorrow's fifth round of Geneva talks [between Georgia, Russia, Abkhaz and South Ossetian representatives] will bring results."
A parallel EU defense ministers' meeting will review ongoing EU military operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the EUNAVFOR antipiracy operation off the coast of Somalia, and the EU's military cooperation with NATO.