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EU, Russia Seek To Thrash Out Partnership Pact

MOSCOW -- EU leaders are gathering in an oil-rich pocket of Siberia, where they will meet new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for the first time during talks aimed at securing a 'strategic partnership' pact.

Medvedev, who was sworn in last month, will host European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana at the two-day summit in Khanty-Mansiisk.

The partnership pact has been in the pipeline for a year and a half. But now stalled talks between Russia and the EU are to be relaunched at this summit, which will set the framework for future cooperation.

Chief among the issues are energy and security. The EU wants reassurances that Russia will not use its vast oil and gas reserves to put pressure on its neighbors, as it has done in the past. A recent dispute between Russia and Ukraine over gas prices had a knock-on effect in EU countries, which receive one-quarter of their gas supplies from Russia.

"The EU would like to have better guarantees from Russia about the reliability of energy deliveries," says Yevgeny Volk, the director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. "This is a concern to the EU, because it threatens its own understanding of energy security. Energy issues, in general, have caused a rift between the EU and Russia."

Russia, Volk says, would like to profit from its powerful position in the energy market to expand westward. "Russia wants to use the current favorable conditions to broaden its economic influence in Europe and to get more profitable and attractive energy assets, including infrastructure projects in the energy sphere, oil and gas pipelines, and refineries," he says.

But in an interview earlier this week, Medvedev warned he didn't want this week's talks to get bogged down with specifics.

"It has to be a serious document, and yet not obscured with concrete details, but it should be a framework construction that will enable us to see the main developments over the years ahead," Medvedev said. "This is our priority, both legally and organizationally, at the summit."

Many are hoping the talks will see an improvement in ties between Russia and the EU, which suffered a setback under the former Russian president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin. He made it clear that Russia was not in favor of attempts by the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia to join European institutions.

But Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the EU, sought to smooth over previous differences on the eve of the summit. He said that, in the past, there were feelings that "EU-Russia relations stumbled on a set of obstacles," adding that "there have been misconceptions on both sides."

Nevertheless, Volk at the Heritage Foundation warns that although Medvedev's approach might be different, his message would fundamentally be the same as his predecessor's.

"I don't see much changing in Russia's policy toward the EU," he says. "Yes, perhaps Medvedev's rhetoric is a little different from Putin's. He's more, let's say, civilized; he comes at issues with a softer tone. But in terms of policy, nothing is going to change from before."

Meanwhile, the international rights watchdog Human Rights Watch urged EU leaders to use the summit to press Moscow to end impunity for abuses in Chechnya and to put a stop to the harassment of civil society.

In the past, many in the West, notably the European Union and the United States, have criticized Russia's human rights record. During Putin's eight years in power, critics of the government have been imprisoned, forced to flee the country, or found dead in their homes.

Media freedom has also been squeezed: The three main television networks are all controlled by the Kremlin, or by organizations friendly to the government. Observers note that currently only a handful of regional radio stations and newspapers continue to work independently.

"As Russia enters a new political cycle under Medvedev, the EU should welcome Medvedev's stated commitment to the rule of law and discuss progress that should be made on urgently needed reforms," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

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