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EU Woos Putin

Bernd Riegert (ncy)October 20, 2006

The 25 EU heads of state or government assemble in the Finnish town of Lahti on Friday for a meeting focused on energy policy and relations with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin will join them for dinner.

Picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin
Putin is the guest of honor in LahtiImage: AP

To secure energy supplies from Russia, EU leaders want Russian President Vladimir Putin to sign an energy charter treaty that would give European companies wider access to Russian gas and oil fields and to the Russian energy market.

But Russia is not willing to yield to European demands and remains wary of foreign companies tapping into the country's energy sources -- as the Russian ambassador in Brussels, Vladimir Chizhov, said ahead of the Friday meeting in Lahti. It is very likely that Putin will not sign the proposed treaty that would also open up the European market for Russian state-owned companies like Gazprom a bit more.

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, however, is convinced that greater cooperation in the energy sector would be in everybody's interest.

EU Jose Manuel Barroso zu Bulgarien und Rumänien
Barroso will have to do some smooth talkingImage: AP

"It's true that we have an interest in having Russia as a credible, reliable supplier," he said. "It is also true that Russia has all the interest in keeping Europe, European Union member states as the most important consumer they have."

Consumers as leverage

Europe, with its 500 million energy consumers, is the Russia's biggest market. The EU gets about one-fifth of its oil and gas from Russian sources. EU members, especially those which were part of the Soviet empire 15 years ago, distrust Russian assurances that they would not suffer from shortages like Ukraine did at the beginning of the year, when Russia stopped the delivery of gas for several days to put pressure on the pro-western government in Kiev.

Barroso, though, says he is confident that this will not happen to the EU.

"Our leverage is precisely our market," he said before the meeting. "And this is the message we are going to convey in a constructive but firm way to President Putin during that dinner."

EU countries are struggling to speak with one voice. The Nordic and the eastern states are much more critical of Russia's policies than France or Spain. EU leaders will try to convince Putin that an inward, autocratic-sounding Russia is not in its economic or strategic interest. They will also express their growing concerns about the blockade on Georgia, the murder of independent journalists and increasing economic nationalism.

Cold War hangover

On the other side of the table, the Russian president fears that newer members from eastern Europe are trying to turn the EU against Russia.

"That is a hangover from the Cold War," said Russian Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov in Brussels in an interview. "For us, the EU has become a multi-headed monster that many Russians do not comprehend -- and the number of heads keeps increasing," he added.

Gas Symbolbild
The EU is a huge market for natural gasImage: dpa
On January 1, Rumania und Bulgaria, also former members of the Soviet bloc, will join the European Union as members 26 and 27.