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Europe

EU Hails Strategic Partnership With Russia

European Union leaders Tuesday hailed their "strategic" partnership with President Vladimir Putin's energy-rich Russia. But they stayed silent about the many East-West divisions.

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Common ground was stressed, differences kept in the background

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, currently presiding over the rotating EU presidency, underlined after talks with Putin "how important today, for our own economic future and our own security, that relationship is."

"We want to take, therefore, that relationship ... to a new and more intensive, strengthened level."

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who also attended the meeting with Putin, told journalists the "two strategic partners" had discussed Russian energy supplies to Europe, terrorism, drugs trafficking, as well as Iran and the Middle East.

They also agreed on starting to ease visa rules for certain categories of Russians traveling to Europe.

Resurgent Russia

Ölförderung in Sibirien

An oil well in northern Russia near the Barents Sea export terminal of Varandey

Russia is rapidly growing in wealth and diplomatic clout thanks to the enormous potential of its gas, coal and oil resources. The country already supplies about half of EU gas needs and is the source or route for about a third of the 25-country bloc's oil supplies.

Putin assured that "Russia is a reliable partner" and that its resurgent power will be a force for good.

"Russia keeps raising its output of oil and increases its deliveries to the world market," he said. "It helps all the world economy, including the European economy, to grow normally and predictably."

He denied Moscow might use EU dependency on Russian fuel as a political lever, stressing that major new developments in the gas and oil industry involved both European and Russian players.

Putins Rede zur Lage der Nation

Russian President Vladimir Putin

"Rumors of Europe losing its energy independence are highly exaggerated," he said.

Putin said that Russia's rapidly growing economy "allows us favorable conditions for an independent foreign policy. Of course it's like that." But, he added: "We do not intend to stick our noses in the air."

Democracy concerns

Blair denied that the European Union would soften its positions on Russian democracy and human rights, particularly in Chechnya, saying that such delicate questions were still on the agenda.

Straßenszene in Grosny Tschetschenien

Russian troops sit atop an APC while patrolling in Grozny, Chechnya

"For example we discussed the issue of Chechnya earlier today," he said. "I don't think the relationship is one of dependence, either on the Russian side or the European side. But what it is is a recognition of a very strong set of mutual interests."

Silent treatment

However, in the brief remarks to journalists no time was given to the many sour points in EU-Russian relations, ranging from Russian backing of Iran's nuclear program to the pro-West revolution in Ukraine that saw the defeat of a Moscow-backed candidate in last winter's presidential election.

On Tuesday the EU imposed an arms embargo on the Central Asian, former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. This was in response to the government's refusal to accept an international enquiry into the suppression this May of an uprising in the eastern town of Andijan.

However, Moscow remains a steady ally of the Uzbek government and has never backed an international probe. Neither was there mention of the corruption and political interference that many experts believe prevent Russia from attracting greater foreign investment -- and thereby transforming the still relatively small economy.

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