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The meeting between the leaders of the European Union and Europe's largest country is a chance to continue to thaw relations. But Russia expert Susan Stewart says major hurdles remain.
The summit is the second in six months
The two-day summit, which began late on Thursday in the eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk, sees EU President Vaclav Klaus, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the bloc's foreign policy chief Javier Solana sit down with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and several cabinet ministers.
High on the agenda is the ongoing global economic decline, which has hit both the EU and Russia extremely hard.
The euro-zone economies contracted by 2.5 percent in the first three months of 2009, and the World Bank forecasts that the Russian economy will shrink by 4.5 percent this year -- which means in theory the two sides should have plenty of common interests on this issue.
The Kremlin is preoccupied with domestic issues
But theory isn't necessarily translating into practice.
"The economic crisis has been seen by some here in the EU as a chance for intensifying relations with Russia but so far that chance hasn't materialized," explained Susan Stewart, a research fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "That's because Russia has been very concerned with domestic affairs during the crisis."
And mistrust remains.
"Russian Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov has recently criticized the EU for taking measures seen as protectionist, including anti-dumping policies, quotas on steel and nuclear materials and agricultural subsidies," Stewart said.
A spat with Ukraine stopped the flow of gas last winter
Russia and EU leaders are also focusing on the politics of energy -- in particular how to avoid future disruptions to natural gas deliveries due to quarrels between Russia and its neighbors.
Last winter, a disagreement between Russia and Ukraine over prices left some eastern EU member states without gas. Moscow accused Kyiv of blocking pipelines leading from Russia to the EU via Ukraine, while Kyiv maintained that the Kremlin was responsible for the disruptions.
EU leaders hope that future disputes can be resolved without leaving people out in the cold, but the omens aren't all positive.
"There's a certain tension in the air because the EU and Ukraine recently reached an agreement on modernization of gas-transit structures in Ukraine, and Russia would have preferred strongly to have been involved in that," Stewart said.
Indeed, Russia is expected to raise complaints of its own regarding the international transfer of energy within Europe.
"This is an attempt to restart dialogue about the four or five points in the current signed but never ratified Energy Charter Treaty with the EU that Russia feels don't take the interests of producer countries into sufficient account," Stewart added.
True peace in the Caucasus is a long way off
One issue on which the EU and Russia definitely do not see eye-to-eye is the Caucasus. The EU condemned Moscow's military intervention in the region against Georgia last summer, while the Kremlin has viewed the bloc's eastern expansion with continual unease.
And the prospects for the summit aren't exactly boosted by the fact that earlier in the week Russia briefly walked out of talks in Geneva aimed at resolving the conflict between Georgia over the two breakaway provinces Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"The Caucasus is the most difficult issue," Stewart confirmed. "In the best-case scenario, we would have a Russian willingness to go forward with the Geneva talks with some thinking about how to achieve more genuine stability in the region," Stewart told Deutsche Welle.
But Russia is also concerned with wider security issues -- in particular a somewhat vague proposal made by Medvedev in Berlin last year that Russia and EU work toward a new overarching security framework.
"There have been a lot of requests from the EU to the Russian side to make their ideas more concrete and their goals more explicit," Stewart said. "At first the Russians were frustrated by a lack of response from Europe, but now that the EU appears willing to talk, the Russians have decided to make it one of the summit topics."
Ideally, Stewart thinks, the meeting in Khabarovsk could be an opportunity for the two sides to rebuild trust after the significant disagreements of recent years. But major solutions shouldn't be expected.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Michael Knigge