Disputes loom before Russia-EU summit

An increasingly assertive Vladimir Putin heads to Portugal this week for talks with a European Union emboldened by a proposed new treaty and growing suspicions of Russian policies, setting the stage for a potentially contentious EU-Russia summit.

Festering disagreements over energy, food exports, airline flights over Siberia, Balkan conflicts and other issues stand in the way of Moscow and Brussels signing a new cooperation agreement, a goal that has been elusive for a year now.

Comments made by both sides ahead of Friday’s meetings in Mafra, just outside of Lisbon, give small hope for any significant breakthrough.

“We regret it has not been possible to negotiate a new agreement between the EU and Russia,” said Manuel Lobo Antunes, European affairs minister for Portugal, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

Russia’s ambassador to the EU said Moscow was getting mixed signals from the 27-nation bloc, as well as recurring allegations that Russia has a “divide-and-conquer” policy.

“In spite of the periodically repeated accusations that Russia is trying to divide the EU, driving a wedge between its members … it would indeed be easier to speak with an EU that speaks with a single voice,” Vladimir Chizhov said in a commentary posted on the Foreign Ministry Web site.

The two sides are expected to announce two minor deals on Friday, one boosting cooperation in the fight against drug use and trafficking, the other letting Russia raise steel exports to Western Europe. Negotiators, however, are not expected to resolve the disagreements in energy, aviation, trade and human rights.

Russian energy policy, the reliability of supplies and the intentions of state-run oil and gas companies, have long topped the worries in many European nations. Russia already provides 30 percent of EU energy imports, including 44 percent of natural gas imports.

Supply disruptions to Western-aligned former Soviet republics and moves by state-controlled gas giant OAO Gazprom to acquire assets in Europe and strike bilateral deals with some EU countries has only stoked those concerns.

That has led the EU to consider new restrictions on non-EU companies owning majority stakes in gas pipelines or electricity power grids without additional agreements, much to the Russians’ consternation.

“Will EU efforts to limit ‘objectionable’ investment have an effect on Russia-EU industrial and energy cooperation? It is difficult to predict,” Russian energy minister Viktor Khristenko warned in a letter published Friday in the Financial Times.

Ahead of the summit, EU officials have said they were still awaiting word from Moscow on another contentious issue, a deal on phasing out Siberia overflight charges for EU airlines.

Russia is the only country that imposes “royalty payments” on Siberia overflights in addition to normal air navigation charges. The extra fees are written into commercial accords between Russian flagship carrier OAO Aeroflot and individual EU airlines and can amount to €1 million (US$1.4 million) a year per route.

Russia’s special envoy for EU relations, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said also topping the agenda was the status of Kosovo, which he said was “the issue of all issues for Europe.” On Monday, rival Serbian and ethnic Albanian negotiators clashed bitterly over Kosovo’s insistence on independence.

“This subject is the hottest in Europe now. Europe is really worried by the possible consequences of the development of the situation in Kosovo. We also treat this issue very carefully and are following the situation closely,” Yastrzhembsky said in comments televised on Russian TV on Tuesday.

The summit comes in the wake of two events that have the potential to shake up EU policies. Last week, EU leaders endorsed a reform treaty that aims to give the 27-nation union a more influential say in world affairs. Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates said the EU was stronger as a result of the deal.

The other issue is the election defeat in Poland of the populist, nationalist government of Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whose often-combative policies toward Moscow blocked efforts by the EU to reach a new agreement. A two-year ban by Moscow on Polish meat imports led Warsaw to veto a new agreement with Russia.

The likely new government of Donald Tusk could soften that approach and pave the way for a new agreement.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said it was inevitable that Russia and the EU would move closer together with time, but noted that “the relationship carries “the heavy emotional charges of history.”

“We do not understand each other as well as we need to,” he said in a speech last week.
Source: AP

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