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EU and Russia

June 5, 2012

Monday's meeting of EU leaders and Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg stressed harmony between the two sides. They studiously avoided controversial topics like Syria, focusing on Brussels-Moscow ties instead.

Vladimir Putin, Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy
Image: dapd

The first EU-Russia summit since Vladimir Putin's return to the Russian presidency was supposed to show harmony between the two sides. The choice of venue itself held symbolic significance. Russia hosted the summit not in Moscow, but in St. Petersburg. The city's grand facades and palaces did not fail to impress the guests from Brussels. European Council President Herman van Rompuy spoke of a "symbol" of the Russian-European relationship. Indeed, St. Petersburg is often described as Russia's window to Europe.

The official message from the summit was that ties between Moscow and Brussels are very good and could get even better in the future. There was a lot of stress on the fact that the EU is Russia's most important trade partner, and the fact that the bloc generates around half of Russia's foreign trade. In particular, van Rompuy and EU Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso applauded Russia for joining the World Trade Organisation. The two EU leaders also praised a 2010 initiative called "Partnership for Modernization" and ongoing dialogue about easing visa restrictions.

The visa question seems to be of particular importance to Putin. Moscow wants an end to the need for a visa for Russians travelling to the EU. He dismissed European fears about a wave of cheap labor, adding that current visa requirements hit business travelers and journalists as well as ordinary people. Barroso agreed that dropping visa restrictions was one of Brussels' long-term goals – but added that doing so would require a green light from every EU member state.

World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva
Russia's WTO membership needs just a few final touchesImage: AP

No sensitive issues on the agenda

Putin and his guests were eager to show harmony and avoid controversial issues. The situation in Syria only got brief mention, with both sides saying they reject the use of force. There was no talk of a controversial anti-missile shield planned to go up in Europe or of Russia's ban on meat from the EU.

Russia's recent presidential and parliamentary elections were also off the agenda. EU and OSCE observers had criticized the vote as being manipulated by the Kremlin.

Ahead of the summit, though, Russian human rights activists called on the guests from Brussels to include human rights issues in the talks. In a statement, the protesters criticized Moscow's plans to make it easier to arrest people at public demonstrations, the arrest of members of punk band Pussy Riot, and laws discriminating against homosexuals. However, none of those issues was touched on at the summit.

Putin: Khodorkovsky no political prisoner

The only criticism raised by Brussels took place when van Rompuy pointed out the importance of human rights and civil society. He said the "Partnership for Modernization" should not be limited to economic cooperation alone. The statement did not seem to sit well with Putin, who raised his eyebrows in a flash of irritation. He refrained from picking up the issue.

Portrait of Mikhail Khodorkovsky
The Kremlin's human rights record was not on the agendaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

However, he did bring up the controversial imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. When a western journalist asked Putin about a leaflet distributed among western media representatives by Russian opposition activists, Putin replied with a smile. He said even the European Court of Human Rights had rejected the contention Khodorkovsky's trial was politically motivated.

Eurasian Union as future partner

On the subject of future Russian-EU relations, Putin said the so-called Eurasian Union would play an increasingly important role. He added that future cooperation between former Soviet republics in the proposed Eurasian Union was a priority for Moscow. From that point of view, the EU would have to deal with the Eurasian Union's commission along with Moscow.

"We're listening to each other and we understand each other," was how Putin summed up the St. Petersburg talks. The EU wants to continue cooperation with him and hope to deepen its dialogue with Moscow. At the close of the summit, Barroso quoted Russian literary great Alexander Pushkin, saying, "We can try and fail, but we should not fail to try."

Author: Roman Goncharenko / ai
Editor: Shant Shahrigian