France-Russia business booming despite Georgia crisis

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French Prime Minister François Fillon and his Russian colleague Vladimir Putin met in the Black Sea Resort of Sotchi on Saturday (20 September). Unveiling an impressive bilateral economic package, they seem to have put disagreements over the recent Georgia crisis on the back burner.

Putin described the energy sector as “the locomotive” of bilateral economic relations, announcing French confirmation that Total would participate “at all stages” in the development of the Shtokman gas field in the Barents Sea, one of the biggest offshore gas fields in the world. 

Total has a 25 percent stake in the Shtokman Development Company, the company which is to develop the 3.7 trillion cubic metre field. The rest of the company is controlled by Gazprom (51%) and StatoilHydro (24%). Faced with the need to address huge technological challenges, such as developing floating platforms, for when global warming unleashes huge icebergs, Gazprom badly needs Western expertise to develop the Shtokman field. 

Nuclear energy also featured at the top of the bilateral agenda, with Russian company Atomenergomash and French firm Alstom to jointly develop steam turbines for nuclear power plants, Putin said, quoted by the Russian government’s website. The Russian prime minister also announced plans to further develop cooperation between the two countries’ electricity giants – Electricité de France and Inter RAO UES, as well as a series of projects in the transport sector. French companies Vinci and Bouygues will be building roads in Russia, while there are “big plans” for carmakers Renault and Peugeot in the country, Putin said. 

He also highlighted cooperation in the space sector, with French company Arianespace, the world’s first commercial space transportation company, to buy ten Russian booster rockets. 

“A launch of a rocket booster is planned for September 2009,” Putin announced. He added that Russia and France were looking for long-term cooperation in space with “a lot of French specialists already working in Russia and hundreds of Russian specialists working on French territory”. 

The Russian prime minister also announced that a cultural ‘Year of Russia’ would be held in France, with a similar ‘Year of France’ to take place in Russia in 2010. 

Unlike his host, the French prime minister did not seek to avoid divisive issues in his statement after the meeting. Fillon in fact started his speech by mentioning “issues on which our opinions differ,” recalling France’s objections to Russia’s recent recognition of the independence of Georgian provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He also highlighted the EU decision to send 200 observers to an area bordering South Ossetia and Abkhazia from 1 October. 

What’s more, Fillon said he expected talks between the EU and Russia to agree on a new basic treaty between Moscow and Brussels to proceed as early as October, on the basis of the implementation by Russia of the peace plan brokered by the Union. 

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