European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has called on Russia to offer more "reliability" in international relations, after talks in Moscow with the prime minister and president on Friday, Feb. 6.
Cordial on the surface, but tensions underneath
The top-level talks were the first between the European Union and Russia since the crisis in January which saw Moscow cut gas supplies to Ukraine. Russia must do everything to restore Europe's confidence, Barroso said.
But the talks on energy security were also overshadowed by a row over Moscow's record on human rights. Barroso pressed Russia to respect human rights and the constitution, after the murders on a Moscow street of a journalist and human rights lawyer last month.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin bristled visibly after criticism of Russia's human rights record, accusing Brussels of having its own shortcomings in this field, citing problems with migration, the state of some European prisons and the plight of Russian minorities in the Balkans.
"We don't act as if we're perfect," Barroso said.
Friday's talks, with a delegation of nine EU commissioners, had been originally scheduled for last August but postponed after the conflict between Russia and Georgia.
The EU and Russia are attempting to agree a long-delayed Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.
Energy disputes discussed
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev urged Barroso to develop new ways of preventing energy conflicts such as that with Ukraine in January.
"The existing mechanisms have failed -- by which I mean the Energy Charter," the Russian president said.
The recent gas dispute is still not fully laid to rest
Barroso agreed it was necessary to create conditions under which such crises are not repeated. Partly in a response to rows such as Moscow's blockade of gas exports through Ukraine, some European states are planning the Nabucco gas pipeline, which bypasses Russia.
Putin hailed the visit as a good opportunity to discuss important issues.
"We are ready to compromise and engage with our partners," he said. "We understand and respect their interests, but also require that the interests of Russia are respected."
Putin criticized the fact that Russian gas experts no longer have access to Ukrainian gas storage and control stations. Both Barroso and Putin agreed on the use of international observers, which would go towards "reliability and credibility," according to Barroso.
Warning against protectionism
The European Commission president welcomed Russia's initiative to put forward concrete proposals to curb the current global financial crisis at the forthcoming G20 summit in London in April.
But he warned Moscow not to fall into protectionism in its own domestic markets, however great the temptation.
EU Enterprise and Industry Commissioner Gunter Verheugen criticized Russia for introducing a toll on shipments from Europe. A new road tax on EU trucks was "discriminatory and infringes the principle of fair market conditions," Verheugen told German news agency DPA in Moscow.
The timing of the Russian trip, and the unusual size of the EU delegation, have been controversial within the EU commission, but Barroso justified this on Friday saying it showed the "great breadth and diversity of issues in relations between Russia and the EU."
However, critics have charged that it could give the impression Brussels was backing down on its recent criticisms of Russia, such as when during the Russia-Ukraine gas stand-off, Barroso accused the two countries of holding Western consumers "hostage."
The EU has said it would continue to back Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, which it views as a rung on the ladder towards normalizing trade relations with its largest neighbor.
The EU is by far Russia's largest trading partner, whilst the bloc is dependent on Russia for over a quarter of its gas and oil supplies.
Moscow and Brussels have been back and forth on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to govern their relations for over two years now -- allowing the old pact to expire last year.