Russian and EU leaders are meeting in Helsinki for talks overshadowed by Poland's veto of a partnership pact until Russia lifts a ban on meat, and the suspicious death of a former Russian spy and outspoken Putin critic.
Poland is getting in the EU's way when it comes to Russia
Litvinenko, who was a former colonel in Russia's Federal Security Service, died on Thursday evening in a London hospital three weeks after mysteriously falling ill. His friends accuse the Kremlin of poisoning Litvinenko to stop his investigation into the unsolved murder of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was shot in Moscow in October.
British police have launched an inquiry into what they called the "unexplained death" and have previously said they suspected deliberate poisoning.
Doctors at London's University College Hospital said they hadn't been able to establish what caused the rapid deterioration in Litvinenko's health.
Litvinenko, who was an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladmir Putin, fled Russia six years ago and was granted political asylum in Britain.
The Kremlin has denied involvement in Litvinenko's death. A Russian spokesperson said on the sidelines of the EU-Russia summit in Helsinki that Britain must probe the death.
"Death is always a tragedy," said the spokesman, adding that it was not up to British officials to investigate the death.
Putin is expected to face awkward questions over Litvinenko's death at the summit in Finland, which holds the current EU presidency.
Putin is also expected to come under pressure to drop a year-old ban on Polish meat and other foodstuffs, which has led Poland to veto an EU mandate for negotiations on an EU-Russia partnership.
EU-Russia pact expires next year
The EU had hoped to use the Helsinki summit to launch talks with Russia for a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to replace a 1997 deal which expires at the end of next year.
Russia has massive oil and gas and gas reserves
"Of course it would be better not to have (the Polish veto) but we are going to keep on working," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said as he arrived at the summit venue. "The situation will be overcome."
The planned new partnership deal includes EU demands for better and secure access to Russia's vast oil and gas resources and Russian commitments to secure energy supplies into the 25-member bloc -- the biggest consumers of Russian oil.
Poland isolating itself
Germany's deputy foreign minister, Gernot Erler, said Poland was sidelining itself by refusing to lift its veto on opening the talks.
"The Warsaw government is not doing itself any favors with this veto," Erler told Berlin's Inforadio on Friday. "It is isolating Poland within the European Union."
Russian President Vladimir Putin (middle) met with Finnish President Tarja Halonen (left) on the eve of the summit
However, some diplomats have said the EU should have come to the aid of one of its members earlier than one year after a trade embargo was slapped on it.
"Poland is right to raise the issue," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said earlier this week. "Poland needs support in the trade dispute, and we share their concerns. Russia's tendency to link trade with politics is not acceptable."
Yet the stakes are getting higher in the meat dispute, for Russia has announced it could ban animal product imports from the EU in January, when Bulgaria and Romania join the bloc.
"Unfortunately, EU members, while adopting the decisions on accession of these countries, did not think it necessary to consult with us on questions that are of interest to all parties," Putin said on Thursday in Helsinki.