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EU-Russia summit

Roman Goncharenko / sad
June 5, 2013

More togetherness, less fighting - this seemed to be the motto at the summit between the European Union and Russia in Yekaterinburg. Continuing points of contention like human rights went unmentioned - almost.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, Russian President Vladimir Putin and and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at the EU-Russia summit in Yekaterinburg REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, Russian President Vladimir Putin and and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at the EU-Russia summit in YekaterinburgImage: Reuters

A year after his re-election, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted EU heads in Yekaterinburg on Monday and Tuesday, an industrial metropolis in the Urals near Kazakhstan. Although the Urals demarcate the split between Europe and Asia, summit participants seemed to downplay the political and economic separation.

Both through choice of words and appearance, the Kremlin chief and his guests from Brussels demonstrated harmony. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso praised the "strategic partnership" and "excellent trade relationships," which he said could deepen.

Putin pointed out that in 2012, trade turnover between Russia and the EU grew by 4.1 percent, or more than $410 billion (314 billion euros). He expressed hopes that the $500 billion mark could soon be reached.

Participants attend the EU-Russia Summit in Yekaterinburg REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
Unity was the theme at the Yekaterinburg summitImage: Reuters

'Nothing special'

Putin described controversial topics as "nothing special." The Russian president didn't mention elimination of the entrance visa for Russians in the EU this time around, although he's made that a perennial point in past summits. Barroso said merely that a treaty loosening visa requirements could soon be in the works, but that some "technical aspects" remained open.

On the topic of Syria - which represents among the most contentious of divergent viewpoints between Russia and the EU - commonalities were emphasized. In the context of the upcoming Syria conference in Geneva, both sides spoke out in favor of a political solution to the conflict.

Putin did indicate his disappointment at the EU's decision not to renew the weapons embargo against Syria. He said that Western countries shouldn't be supplying weapons to Syrian rebels.

Barely mentioned was Russia's previous demand for data on air travel passengers to and from the EU. Russia has sought a similar treaty as that between the EU and the United States, including sharing personal data. But Brussels has looked at this critically, and wants to put the issue off until some questions can be clarified.

New avenues for collaboration?

Energy issues were not fought over at all - at the summit, there was only praise for the newly agreed upon road map sketching out energy relationships between Russia and the EU until 2050.

But on a website for journalists, Russia stated that it feels unfairly handled by the EU with regard to the so-called Third Energy Package, as that includes Russia opening its pipelines to competitors.

The pipes of the Dzhubga-Lazarevskoye-Sochi gas pipeline picture-alliance/RIA Novosti
The EU wants to open pipelines to competitorsImage: picture-alliance/RIA Novosti

The summit in Yekaterinburg seemed to make clear that pragmatism rather than fighting should govern interactions. Both sides want to ratify a new, more encompassing treaty - replacing the one passed in 1994 - to solidify their relationship.

Yet negotiations on this have faltered for years. In Yekaterinburg, both sides emphasized that such a treaty should be prepared "as soon as possible," as Putin put it.

Putin's rage on NGO question

Surprisingly little was said about human rights problems in Russia, which include state searches of Russian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and legal action against opposition leaders.

Herman van Rompuy, president of the European Council, said only: "Work on values that strengthen democracy and respect for fundamental freedoms and rights is an important, although difficult, element of our relations."

A single Spanish journalist stirred up the otherwise sedate press conference by asking Putin why he promoted dialogue with the protest movement in Turkey while Russia was persecuting NGOs.

Putin all but snarled back that the journalist was mixing apples with oranges, then derided her apparent lack of knowledge on a Russian law that requires NGOs to register as "foreign agents" if they receive money from abroad, and fines them if they don't.

The environment in which the summit was held indeed made it easier to filter out questions about human rights. Yekaterinburg, which lies in a region that largely supports Putin, is home to Russia's weapons industry - which remains thankful to the state. No public protest took place there during the summit.

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