EU and Russian leaders appeared sharply divided over civil liberties in Russia and ways to resolve the Syrian crisis during a two-day summit that ended on Tuesday (4 June).
Despite declarations of strategic partnership and cooperation at the summit in Yekaterinburg, there were frosty moments. President Vladimir Putin emphasised the important economic ties while European Council President Herman Van Rompuy focused on shared values and human rights, the Moscow Times reported.
The two sides failed to agree a visa deal that would make it easier for some 15,000 Russian government employees to travel to EU states. The meeting also exposed tensions over a new Russian law on airline passenger data law, and how to handle Syria.
The visa arrangement appeared to have been derailed by opposition in the European Parliament, where 48 MEPs signed a letter objecting to such a move, saying it would allow human rights violators to travel freely to the EU.
MEPs insist that the EU should first draw up a list of officials implicated in human rights violations, similar to the United States’ ‘Magnitsky list’, which is aimed at sanctioning Russian officials linked to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian attorney who died in police custody in 2009.
The issue of Sergei Guriev, a leading Russian economist who fled to France last month, also came up at the summit. Guriev left Russia after being questioned by Russia’s Investigative Committee in connection with the longstanding case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon who was imprisoned for fraud in 2005.
Asked about Guriev, Putin said the story was overblown and that Guriev was welcome to return to Russia.
"Are there any reasons to put him in jail? I don't know anything about that. I learned his name only recently and don't know if he has any transgressions before the law," Putin said.
Guriev reacted to the statement in an email exchange with the Reuters news agency.
"I think it is safer for me to be a free person and not to return," Guriev wrote, adding: "[Putin] said I am a free person to return if I like. I have heard that he said that before – but [the Investigative Committee's] work and threats continued and even intensified after that."
Passenger data controversy
The EU and Russia remained divided over a Russian law that empowers authorities to collect passenger information on flights taking off or landing in Russia, or crossing its airspace.
European airlines are not supposed to share passenger data without an international agreement setting out which authorities can access the data, for how long and why. The EU has concluded passenger data-sharing information agreements with the US and Australia. In the absence of an agreement, the EU side asked for a moratorium on the Russian law, which takes effect on 1 July.
Differences over Syria
The summit also highlighted the different approaches of the EU and Russia over the Syria conflict. Putin said he was “disappointed” by the EU decision to lift its weapons embargo in a bid to help arm Syrian rebels.
But Putin defended his country’s right to sell arms to the Syrian government, though he said Moscow had not yet delivered advanced S-300 air defence systems to Damascus.
Although Western governments have criticised Russia for planning to send the missiles to President Bashar al-Assad's forces, Putin told a news conference the contracts were legal and were not intended to upset the military balance.
Warning over rebels’ representation
Putin expressed concern about Syrian opposition members who might appear at EU-backed peace talks due to take place later this month in Geneva, recalling a recent online video that showed a rebel leader cutting out the heart of a dead government soldier and taking a bite from it.
“I hope that such participants in the ‘Geneva-2’ talks won’t show up, or else I would find it difficult to guarantee the security of the Russian participants. Matter of fact, it would be difficult to take part in the work with such people,” Putin said.