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Russia, EU Spar Over Energy Policy At Brussels Meeting

The talks between Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso were less congenial.
BRUSSELS -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has warned that continued instability in North Africa and skyrocketing world energy prices pose a "serious threat to the world," making the security of gas supplies pumped by pipeline from Russia to Europe more important than ever.

Putin made his comments in Brussels after an hour-long meeting with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, in which the two sparred over EU legislation requiring energy companies to separate the ownership of their power-generation and distribution networks.

Russia's state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom has staunchly opposed the measure, known as "decoupling," which is part of a new European energy policy called the "Third Energy Package."

"The Third Energy Package obviously harms the activities of our energy companies," Putin said. "It's a fact. It is, in fact, confiscation of property."

For his part, Barroso said the policy "is now approved legislation," is in line with World Trade Organization (WTO) standards, and would apply to foreign and domestic companies alike.

Barroso also acknowledged the importance of Russian energy supplies to Europe, which he called "key to keep Europe going. Our industries, our households are very much linked to Russian energy."

EU officials say the new rules will help open energy markets, break up national monopolies among member states, and encourage the development of small energy companies.

Contentious Visa Issue

The argument over energy policy took place during a one-day EU-Russia summit meeting attended by Putin and 13 members of his cabinet. Other issues on the agenda included Russia's long-standing bid to join the WTO, easing visa restrictions for Russian citizens, Moscow's human rights record, and ongoing unrest in Libya.

Visa-free travel between Russia and the EU has been a priority for Moscow for years.

EU officials say, however, that Moscow still needs to take several steps, including the introduction of biometric passports and the inclusion of Russian citizens' personal data in the EU's databases, before it can become a reality.

Other thorny issues include the status of residents of Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions who hold Russian passports.

Putin stressed that reciprocal visa-free travel would benefit not only Russian citizens but Europeans as well.

"In my many meetings with European business leaders, it is our European partners who raise this issue [of visa-free travel] more and more often and point out that visa requirements for travel between Russia and EU countries are becoming a real obstacle to economic cooperation and development," Putin said.

Rule Of Law Key To 'Modernization'

Barroso and Putin also discussed Russia's human rights record, which has come under renewed criticism since former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev recently had their prison terms extended to 2017 in a trial widely viewed as politically motivated.

Barroso stressed that protecting human rights and the rule of law are essential elements in modernizing Russia's economy.

"Strengthening the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, we believe, is a shared commitment and we expect Russia to respect its international commitments in the field of human rights," Barroso said.

"It is important that we keep an open, firm, constructive dialogue on these matters to make progress on these issues, not least because the rule of law is crucial for any modernization efforts."

The two sides also signed four technical protocols designed to establish an early-warning mechanism when there is a risk that energy supplies may be disrupted. In recent years, gas disputes between Russia and Ukraine have disrupted the flow of energy to Europe.

Condemning Libyan Violence

Regarding the unrest in North Africa, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a joint statement "condemning the violence and the use of any military force" against peaceful protesters in Libya.

For his part, Putin voiced concern that the unrest in the region could further destabilize Russia's restive North Caucasus.

"Are we concerned about what's happening in North Africa or that it may have negative consequences for the North Caucasus? Yes, we are," Putin said.

"But it may have negative consequences not only for the North Caucasus, but for other regions of the world, including Europe."
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.