Russia and the EU met in the eastern region of Siberia to talk about a proposed and long-overdue cooperation pact including trade and security ahead of an initial meeting to be held in Brussels on July 4. (Report: R.Tompsett)
Russia and the European Union said on Friday they had turned a new page in their sometimes testy relations after launching long-delayed talks on a new cooperation pact.
A relaxed, smiling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, making his debut with EU chiefs, hailed the "sincere, neighbourly" mood at a three-hour meeting in a Siberian oil town.
It contrasted with the last, bad-tempered EU summit hosted by Russia last year, when Medvedev's predecessor Vladimir Putin coldly rejected suggestions he was rolling back democracy.
Friday's centrepiece was the formal launch of negotiations on a new strategic agreement governing relations between the EU and Russia, its third biggest trading partner. A first round of negotiations will be held in Brussels on July 4.
"I believe this new agreement should open a new chapter in our relations," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told a news conference.
"I particularly welcome President Medvedev's recent comments about strengthening the rule of law and working together as responsible members of the international community."
Medvedev said Russia was concerned at a tendency by some EU nations to use the bloc to settle bilateral disputes -- a reference to former Soviet allies who delayed the launch of the partnership talks by 18 months because of rows with Moscow.
The talks offered EU chiefs their first opportunity to assess Medvedev, who took office last month after previously serving as deputy prime minister and chairman of Russia's state- controlled gas giant Gazprom.
Barroso described the new Kremlin chief, a former corporate lawyer and close Putin ally, as "a very open person who really wants to engage". Putin, now prime minister, did not attend.
Some analysts believe Putin deliberately chose Medvedev to set a more conciliatory tone at the Kremlin as Russia seeks billions of dollars in foreign investment to rebuild its crumbling infrastructure and develop its industry.
Medvedev repeated a call to Western powers to hold a summit with Russia to discuss a new, post-Cold War security umbrella which could supercede NATO. None of the current international bodies adequately represented all of Europe, he said.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana praised Russia's choice of Khanty-Mansiysk for the summit, which highlighted a more modern side of the country.
The town has been largely rebuilt with oil money over the past five years, its new roads and neat rows of brightly painted European-style housing offering a refreshing change from the drab, crumbling Soviet-built settlements which dominate Russia.
But contentious issues remain between Moscow and Brussels.
The EU has clashed with Moscow over human rights, Kosovo, democracy and Russian support for the separatist Georgian region of Abkhazia -- all issues raised at Friday's formal session.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the bloc had also expressed to Russia its concern over the fate of one of the country's biggest foreign investments, BP's half-share of local oil firm TNK-BP.
The EU is the biggest source of foreign direct investment in Russia, with European firms putting in 17 billion euros ($26.76 billion) in 2007.
As Russian partners and BP argue about control and future ownership, the firm has been hit by nine separate actions ranging from court cases to tax inspections and visa problems for foreign staff.
A fresh eve-of-summit trade row broke out between Russia and EU member Finland over timber duties, though in the event both sides played it down at the meeting. The EU and Russia did 233 billion euros of trade last year in goods.
Helsinki said it was considering taxing Russian goods transiting the country after Moscow raised duties on the export of Russian timber, but Brussels officials played down the issue.
"This idea was only floated yesterday," said EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson. "It is far too early for any of us to take any view on it."
Mandelson said he could understand why Finland was considering helping its timber processing industry but added that such a move would be considered as state aid and need approval from Brussels.
Helsinki says that higher Russian tariffs on raw timber exports hurt paper producers in Scandinavia. Russia says the move is needed to help its domestic timber processing industry.
Date created : 2008-06-27