Putin’s visit comes against the background of stern warnings by the European Parliament that Russia can become a strategic partner to the EU only if it shares and upholds EU democratic principles and values.
A resolution adopted by MEPs last week calls on Russia to put an end to what they described as a culture of impunity, endemic corruption, politically-motivated persecution, arrests and detentions. The Russian authorities should also refrain from using repressive measures against the political opposition, they added.
But EU diplomats and Russian Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov sought on Wednesday (19 December) to convey a message that relations were on a good track and that differences were handled in an appropriate way.
EU diplomats underscored that Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Commission President José Manuel Barroso would not shy away from the thorny issue of human rights, but would rather seek to engage positively with Putin.
‘Every summit a milestone’
“Summits are fundamental, that’s why we invented the summits – to project our relationship toward the future,” an EU diplomat said.
EU-Russia summits are held twice a year and tomorrow's meeting will be the 30th. Chizhov said the summit was a “jubilee of sorts” and joked at a news conference that he was hoping to get an entry in the Guinness World Records, as he had participated in 27 EU-Russia summits. This week’s summit begins with a dinner on Thursday and concludes Friday.
Although the meetings have not produced groundbreaking results, each has been a milestone, the Russian diplomat said. He insisted that his country hoped this meeting to be a “summit of cooperation, not of confrontation.”
EU, Russia, US – the pillars of the Eurasian civilisation
Chizhov referred repeatedly to ‘Eurasia’ to describe the geopolitics of the world, in which Russia seeks a sphere of influence similar to the one the European Union has built over several decades.
He said the EU and Russia were the two major pillars of the Eurasian civilisation, connected not only by geography and pipelines, but by common history and cultural heritage. He added a third pillar - the USA - the essence of the relationship being, in his words, the ability to jointly address common issues.
Unlike on previous occasions when he had pressed for the speedy conclusion of a new basic treaty between Russia and the EU, Chizhov said the negotiations had reached “a technical pause”. The reason is that Russia cannot advance negotiations unless the EU formalised relations with the so-called Common Economic Space involving Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The three countries have also forged a customs union.
EU-Russia relations face two major problems in the framework of the World Trade Organization (WTO): a “recycling fee” it has introduced on imported vehicles and on a ban on the import of live animals from the European Union. Chizhov made no excuses, but said that his country was “still digesting” its recent membership, and pointed out that other recent members, such as Ukraine, had requested changes to its WTO deal on several dozens of accounts.
The Russian diplomat said Kyiv was welcome to join Russia’s Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, but that his country was putting no pressure on Kyiv. He added however that Ukraine had to make a choice, because no country was able to become member to two customs unions.
Ukraine has negotiated a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU, along with an Association Agreement, but these remain frozen until Brussels sees “determined action” in a number of areas, including “progress in addressing the issue of selective justice”.
One of the important agenda items for the summit talks appears to be the visa issue. Chizhov made it clear that from the perspective of Moscow, the EU was dragging its feet, to the detriment both of Russian and EU citizens. One small step that could be taken was lifting the visa requirement for the holders of official passports, he said, as the EU had already done in his words with Ukraine and “exotic countries such as Cabo Verde”.
Opposition to the EU energy liberalisation
Chizhov said that Russia didn’t like the EU’s Third Energy Package, which Putin has denounced because it requires Gazprom to give third-party access to its pipelines and especially to South Stream, a new natural gas corridor that will link Russia to Bulgaria via the Black Sea.
But Chizhov added that consultations were ongoing to find exemptions from EU energy liberalisation rules for the Gazprom-backed pipelines.