Russian President Vladimir Putin is hosting EU leaders in St. Petersburg. The first summit after his return to the Kremlin follows a series of noisy protests.
They don't need to be introduced. As European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman von Rompuy arrived in St. Petersburg, the host's name was a familiar one: Vladimir Putin. Following his return to the Russian presidency a month ago, he is welcoming the top representatives of the European Union.
And yet this Russia-EU summit, which began with a gala dinner on Sunday night, is about getting to know each other. There are no particular topics on the agenda, as the EU ambassador in Moscow, Fernando Valenzuela, told DW. Rather, Brussels is approaching this meeting as a chance to have first time face-to-face talks with Putin after his election - and "generally assess" their relationship.
The shine's gone
At the same time, though, it's not destined to be one of the bi-annual routine summits. The meeting, held at the lavish 18th-century Constantine Palace overlooking the Gulf of Finland, is taking place against the backdrop of a wave of protests that are practically unmatched in the past two decades. Since the apparently fraudulent parliamentary elections in December 2011, tens of thousands keep taking to the streets, particularly in Moscow. Putin's victory in the presidential elections in March 2012, too, is still not accepted by parts of the Russian public, particularly the middle class. The EU, for its part, has criticized both elections as not having been democratic.
As in previous years, police in Moscow have treated the demonstrators harshly. As recently as mid-May, the EU's high representative for security policy, Catherine Ashton, who is also joining the St. Petersburg summit, has criticized the detention and conviction of several opposition leaders.
These are indicators that domestic matters could become an issue for discussion at the St. Petersburg summit, says Fernando Valenzuela. The EU representative says he is expecting "rather direct talks". But exactly how directly are Barroso and his colleagues going to criticize Putin?
"I suspect in the eyes of some of the visitors who are going to be sitting there, some of [Putin's] shine will be gone", said Sascha Tamm, head of the Moscow office of the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation, affiliated with the pro-business Free Democratic Party. Within the EU, Putin has a bit of a reputation of a weakened president whose authority over his own country is dwindling, Tamm says, although " he still has a firm grip on things." While a "slight cooling off" is possible between Moscow and Brussels, Tamm says he doesn't see any confrontation coming: "I believe it'll be business as usual."
At any rate, the EU appears to be moving a bit more cautiously with Russia than with other former Soviet republics. For example, unlike at the EU summit held in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in December 2011, there's bound to be no meeting between top EU officials and members of the opposition or civil society representatives. According to EU sources, the framework of the meeting would make that simply impossible.
Syrian conflict on top of the agenda
For Vladimir Putin, too, it can't be in his interest to kick off his third presidential term through a conflict with Brussels. Quite the opposite: his first contacts as far as foreign policy is concerned are with Europe: After his cancelled participation in the G8 and NATO summits in the US at the end of May, and flash visits to Berlin and Paris on June 1, the new head of the Kremlin is now also meeting with the heads of the European Union. According to a Russian diplomat ahead of the summit, the aim is to discuss global, international and bilateral matters.
Due to their pressing importance, the implications of the conflict in Syria are likely to be headlining the agenda. Since the escalation of the violence, EU representatives are hoping that Russia is going to give up its reluctant stance within the UN Security Council and agree to adopt a stricter resolution. Twice within the past two months Russia has vetoed such a step, objecting to international invention within the Syrian conflict. "After the recent developments in Syria I believe it's likely that Russia will make concessions to the West," Tamm said, adding that a complete turnaround in Russian foreign policy remains unlikely.
Another talking point at the summit, according to western analysts, may be Iran, as another important ally of Russia in the Middle East, next to Syria. The timing would be more than fitting: The next round of talks about the Iranian nuclear program is scheduled to take place in mid-June.
New basis for discussion since joining WTO
The ongoing economic crisis and that of the common euro currency are yet another topic that may well dominate discussions in St. Petersburg, Fraser Cameron, former adviser to the EU Commission and expert on Russia in Brussels, said: "Obviously Russia will be interested in knowing what's happening within the Euro zone." Russia has allocated a large part of its monetary reserves in euros, and, according to Cameron, wants to know first hand what's "happening on the other side."
Relations between Russia and the EU have been "continuously improving," Valenzuela said - with room for improvement. Economic issues are usually at the forefront; under Putin's presidential predecessor Dmitry Medvedev, Brussels and Moscow had agreed on a "Partnership for Modernization," which, according to Cameron, is now being continued.
Streamlining visa applications?
What might help the talks is Russia's recent acceptance into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December 2011 - a process that is to be finalized with the approval by the Russian parliament within the upcoming months. According to Cameron, "the WTO deal is big enough to facilitate a new beginning, or a reset." This, he added, would also speed up talks over a new EU-Russia agreement.
Part of this agreement is aimed at doing away with current visa requirements - that's if Moscow has its way. And while experts are expecting Putin to bring up this issue within the talks, they don't believe the St. Petersburg summit is going to bring a breakthrough. "It's not a political, but a technical question", says Cameron. A roadmap for the process already exists - outlining requirements that Russia has to fulfill, such as the introduction of passports that contain biometric data. Once this is accomplished, re within the visa process would be possible.