Ashton said that the Russia elections (see background) had been discussed with the country's President Dmitry Medvedev during the EU-Russia summit held in Brussels on 15 December.
"President Medvedev explained that a necessary political evolution was taking place in Russia. This, he said, was due to increased living standards, a more active civil society, and the development of social media. He emphasised that the government was drawing lessons," Ashton said.
"Some – limited – political reforms have been launched. Yet the protests that started in December are set to continue. The movement has grown and we can expect a large mobilisation this Saturday [4 February]," she added.
Ashton's words appear to indicate that Medvedev continues to project a modern image of himself with EU institutions. Some analysts find him different and more pro-European than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the presumed winner in the 4 March presidential election.
Others say that the two simply play the "good cop – bad cop" game with external partners.
Ashton told MEPs that the 'tandem' announcement in September that Putin and Medvedev would swap jobs in 2012 made many Russian citizens feel that things were being decided between only two men, over the heads of voters.
Registration of opposition candidate key
Ashton appealed to Russia's authorities "to review as a matter of urgency" the decision not to register Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party and two-time presidential candidate.
Yavlinski was disqualified last week after officials judged that 25.6% of the 2 million signatures submitted as part of his application were invalid or fake, the Russian press reported.
The Russian leadership should act swiftly on the problems identified by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the previous elections and do its utmost in the short time left to hold free and fair presidential elections next month, Ashton said.
Strong language on Syria
The EU high representative spoke in strong terms about the need for Russia to lift its opposition to a resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Arab and Western states urged the UN Security Council on 31 January to act swiftly on a resolution backing an Arab League plan calling for Assad to hand powers to his deputy and defuse the 11-month-old uprising against his family's dynastic rule. Russia, which sees Syria as an ally country in a key region, has called the motion "unacceptable".
"As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia needs to take its responsibility for international peace and security seriously. Old alliances may matter, but the fate of the people of Syria matters so much more," Ashton said.
The high representative also spoke of the need to work closely with Russia to "re-engage" Iran, where senior UN inspectors plan another trip in efforts to resolve the questions about Tehran's nuclear work. Russia has good relations with Tehran and opposes the discussion of sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council.
Ashton also mentioned the "important – and sometimes difficult" cooperation with Russia over Georgia and Moldova, where she said both sides engaged in efforts to resolve the "protracted conflicts" of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria.
According to analysts, the Russian strategy is to prevent such frozen conflicts from being solved, because they discourage the EU from developing closer relations with the former Soviet Republics.