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EU Hopes to Launch Talks on Strategic Russia Partnership

The European Union hopes to launch talks on a wide-ranging political deal with Russia this week despite mounting tensions over trade, energy and foreign policy.

Photomontage of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow and yellow stars from the EU flag

For the European Union, strategic partnership with Russia is of paramount importance

At a meeting on Tuesday, April 29, in Luxembourg, the foreign ministers of the bloc's 27 member states are "expected to adopt ... negotiating directives for a new agreement to provide a comprehensive framework for EU-Russia relations," officials from the EU presidency, which chairs such meetings, said on Friday.

Such a decision would allow the EU's executive, the European Commission, to begin talks with the Russian government on a political deal covering cooperation and consultation on a range of issues, from energy and security policy to education and scientific research.

Relations between Russia and the EU are currently governed by a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) signed with the government of Boris Yeltsin in 1997 and designed to run for 10 years.

Since the PCA was signed, Russia has become much more assertive of its perceived rights in Europe, while the EU has expanded to take in 10 new members from the former Communist bloc in an arc sweeping from the Baltic States to Bulgaria.

Both sides say it is time for a new deal which would better reflect their current positions and priorities.

Difficulties along the way

Waving the flags of Russia and the two Georgian breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, local residents ride a car as they celebrate the independence referendum

The "frozen conflicts" in Abkhazia and South Ossetia will also be on the table

The EU has found it difficult to reach an agreement on launching talks.

First, Poland blocked any such move in protest at a Russian import ban on Polish meat and vegetable products.

While the Polish meat ban has since been lifted, Lithuania is now threatening to veto the opening of talks in protest at Russia's shut-off -- allegedly for technical reasons -- of the pipeline feeding Russian oil to Lithuania's only oil refinery.

Vilnius claims that the shut-off of July 2006, only two months after the Lithuanian government allowed the sale of the refinery to Poland's PKN Orlen company, was politically motivated.

Lithuanian diplomats also insist that the EU include the issue of the so-called "frozen conflicts" in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in its negotiating mandate.

The negotiating mandate

Medvedev and Putin waving to their supporters

Putin's successor Dmitry Medvedev (right) will meet with EU officials in June

To address those concerns, EU diplomats have agreed to include the term "frozen conflicts" in the negotiating mandate and to append two declarations to it -- one on energy security and one on the pipeline issue.

Presidency officials now hope that experts from the EU and Russia will be able to begin talks on the new agreement before a summit scheduled for late June in Siberia -- the first top-level meeting with Russia's newly-elected President Dmitry Medvedev.

At the end of Tuesday's meeting, representatives of the commission and the presidency - currently held by Slovenia - are set to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Diplomats say that the signing of a PCA would give both sides an opportunity to discuss their differences in a less confrontational way.

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