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EU-Russian relations

December 16, 2011

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has pledged up to 20 billion euros to bolster the eurozone currency, but he is still not willing to hear EU criticism of alleged Russian rights violations in the country's last election.

President Dmitriy Medvedev
Medvedev said Russia's elections didn't concern the EUImage: dapd

In light of Europe's financial difficulties, Moscow has offered to pony up billions for euro bailouts – but Europe's eastern neighbor still does not welcome meddling in questions of rights abuses.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was greeted by a sea of reporters Thursday as he stepped out of his heavily-armoured limousine for an EU-Russia summit in rainy Brussels.

Medvedev, as well as European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy appeared almost shy as they exchanged handshakes and greetings. A few jokes were made, but then it was down to business.

In many ways Russia appears to be moving ever closer to the West. Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization is set to be sealed Friday in Geneva; meanwhile, the European Union has welcomed financial support Russia will make available through the International Monetary Fund's euro bailout fund. According to Medvedev, it's in Russia's national interest that the EU remain "a strong political and economic power“ and that it "maintain one of the most important currencies, the euro."

Murkier waters

In contrast to economic matters, there is only slow progress in bilateral travel agreements. Both the EU and Russia have an interest in making life easier for exchange students and business people, but the EU, fearing widespread abuses, is demanding Russia adopt biometric passports and counterfeitproof documents.

Barroso attempted to play down expectations, telling the press, "The goal is visa-free travel, but this will probably not happen next year."

When it comes to foreign policy questions, European-Russian relations are openly marked by strain. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia for months has blocked tough UN sanctions against Syria. When it comes to Iranian atomic policy, Moscow has done everything in its power to mitigate Western responses.

Relations with Russia have hit a new bump in the controversy surrounding the country's recent elections. The EU has expressed strong concern over alleged vote fraud - concern Moscow sees as meddling into Russia's internal affairs.

Standing beside Medvedev Thursday, Van Rompuy said Thursday that the EU was "worried by irregularities and lack of fairness as reported by observers as well as part of the Russian public."

"We are concerned by the detention of demonstrators," he added.

The EU welcomed Medvedev's promise for a fair, nonpartisan probe into reports of election fraud.

Pressure from Brussels

But Medvedev's pledge is worthless, according to German member of the European Parliament Werner Schulz.

Speaking Wednesday in a debate over the EU-Russia summit, the green party Euro-MP said it was "absurd to expect independent investigations from the people who are responsible for the vote fraud."

Bernd Posselt of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Bavarian sister party CSU also had little faith in Moscow.

"We're always hearing that stability takes precedence in Russia. That's what they said in North Africa, too, only to later shed crocodile tears over Mr. Mubarak or Mr. Gadhafi," Posselt said, adding that stability could only exist in Russia alongside freedom and the rule of law.

A crossed portrait of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a protest rally
Accusations of vote rigging in Russia have put new strains on a time of increasing harmony with EuropeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

With broad support, the European Parliament passed on Wednesday a resolution to demand new Russian elections.

But a day later, Medvedev appeared unimpressed.

"I have nothing to say on this resolution, because these are our elections. The European Parliament has no relation to them. They can comment on anything they want. I will not comment on their decisions as they mean nothing to me."

Medvedev took the offensive on Russia's human rights situation, saying human rights were an issue within the EU as well: "for instance, concerning the rights of Russian-speaking minorities in many EU countries."

Referring to cases where former Soviet countries favored their national language at the expense of Russian-speaking minorities, Medvedev said: "We cannot close our eyes to such incidents, and action must be taken against them."

More than just trade

Despite his criticisms, Medvedev said that European-Russian relations were at "a historically high level" and that he hoped they would stay that way.

But the EU is aiming for more; for years the bloc has wanted to form closer pacts with Moscow, partly to secure the westward flow of Russia's natural gas.

The EU views itself as Russia's "partner for modernization," according to top European diplomat Catherine Ashton, who said Wednesday the bloc was not just interested in technological modernization.

"Rule of law, protection of citizens' rights, civil society engagement, and a level playing field for companies are all crucial elements of successful modernization," she said.

While these points appear indisputable, it is the EU's insistence on tying economic cooperation to rights improvements that most often gets Europe on Moscow's bad side.

Author: Christoph Hasselbach, Brussels / dl

Editor: Nigel Tandy