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Leaders meet in Siberia to repair frosty ties

Video by Marian HENBEST

Latest update : 2009-05-22

Russian and EU leaders have met for a summit deep in Russia's Far East on an apparently good-natured mission to get their rocky relationship back on track after a series of crises. Security, energy and the financial downturn are on the agenda.

AFP - Russian and EU leaders met Thursday for a summit in a Trans-Siberian Railway city deep in Russia's Far East, seeking to set their rocky relationship back on track after a series of crises.

Security, energy and the financial crisis topped the agenda in Khabarovsk, the most easterly venue ever chosen for an EU-Russia summit, after Russia's war with Georgia and the gas crisis with Ukraine severely dented ties.

The choice of Khabarovsk as summit venue -- seven time zones from Moscow and close to the Chinese border -- is seen as a signal from Russia that the EU is not its only partner and its Asia-Pacific ties are growing

The two-day summit however opened with affable smiles and open-necked shirts as President Dmitry Medvedev welcomed Czech President Vaclav Klaus, whose country holds the EU presidency, and EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.

Alongside EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and other top officials, they took an informal working dinner outside Khabarovsk and were later to cruise along the mighty Amur River which flows from China into Russia.

"Regular and frank political dialogue is the right way to manage our relationship and it must prevail in all times, no matter how difficult the issues at stake are," Barroso said ahead of the summit.

Medvedev's top foreign policy aide, Sergei Prikhodko, said at the top of the summit agenda was "cooperation in overcoming the financial crisis" that has engulfed Russia and Europe in recent months.

The two sides were to have more formal talks Friday morning followed by a news conference later in the day.

Ties with the European Union, Russia's largest trading partner, were unsettled by its August war with Georgia and subsequent recognition of two Georgian breakaway regions as independent, which the EU vehemently opposed.

Then in January came the gas crisis with Ukraine which saw Russia cut off supplies to several EU states for two weeks and prompted Barroso to cast doubt on its reliability as an energy partner.

Brussels is also waiting for Russia to shift on the issues which are blocking its bid to join the World Trade Organisation, including taxes on European airlines overflying Siberia and taxes on wood imports.

The slogan for the summit plastered all around the Far Eastern city is the relatively modest "Russia-EU: A Dialogue of Interests."

According to Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Politics, "Russia can't expect anything from the Khabarovsk summit as relations are in a disastrous state.

"Unresolved problems are snowballing. The more there are, the harder it is for the two sides to understand each other."

However the presence of the eurosceptic Klaus, who is much closer to Moscow than several eastern European leaders, could prove a positive factor in dealing with the Russians.

Medvedev is expected to renew a call he made last month for a new global energy charter to replace the Energy Charter Treaty adopted in 1991 to integrate the energy sectors of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

But the European Commission has said that the existing charter -- which is being revised -- already enshrines the main principles needed to improve energy supplies and security, so long as Moscow respects it.

The two sides are also in the process of negotiating a new basic and legally-binding agreement on bilateral ties to replace the existing Partnership and Cooperation Agreement which has run out.

Talks on the new pact, which has concerned some ex-Soviet bloc EU members, were held up by dispute over the Georgia war.

"An optimistic forecast would be that we could agree by the end of the year," the RIA Novosti news agency quoted a Kremlin source as saying.

For the Russian Far East, meanwhile, the EU-Russia summit is a major event and seen as a dry-run for the 2012 summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders in the Pacific city of Vladivostok.


Date created : 2009-05-21