The EU and Russia are sharply divided over Ukraine. Vygaudas Usackas, head of the EU delegation in Russia, told DW he hopes for frank talks at today's EU-Russia summit in Brussels.
Deutsche Welle: Today's EU-Russia summit was cut short from two days to one. Is that a sign that relations between Russia and the European Union are deteriorating?
Vygaudas Usackas: Changing the summit's format shows how mature our relations are and signals the desire for an open dialogue. The EU and Russia agreed to hold this summit differently, with fewer participants in order to openly discuss the problems that have accrued, including various differences in opinion, trade relations and energy issues. Russia and the EU are strategic partners, but there are a number of contradictions that need to be addressed in a smaller group. We hope talks will indicate in what direction future cooperation is headed - including a new basic treaty.
What are the biggest differences in opinion, and what interests do the EU and Russia share?
We have many common interests. The EU is Russia's largest trading partner, and Russia is the EU's third-largest trading partner. The turnover of goods between Russia and the EU amounts to more than 340 billion euros ($465 billion) per year. We cooperate closely in foreign policy issues, and we are strategic partners in the energy sector.
On the other hand, we differ concerning the relationship between the Russian government and civilian society. There are a few problems concerning trade that persist even after Russia joined the WTO. We have differing views on the EU's Eastern Partnership, in particular about Ukraine - all of the above are fundamentally important questions to be discussed at the summit. We hope the talks will help restore trust and understanding between Russia and the EU.
How can the EU and Russia jointly contribute to a solution to the political crisis in Ukraine?
The news of a protester's death came as a shock. We appeal to the Ukrainian authorities to do everything possible to end this conflict. We believe the Ukrainian authorities are responsible for the citizens; they must listen to them to restore stability and order to the country.
At the same time, we advocate not putting pressure on Ukraine concerning the decision, with whom the country wants to build a relationship - like during Ukraine's recent negotiations with the EU. Unfortunately, our partners in Russia got a negative impression of the Eastern Partnership program initiated by the EU. We feel the pressure put on Kyiv to change its position on the signing of an association treaty with the EU has had a negative impact on EU-Ukraine ties and triggered the domestic problems we are witnessing today.
It is important for Moscow and Brussels to agree on how to cooperate with their neighbors - including Ukraine. It is important that our joint neighbors have the right to decide where they want to integrate, without unnecessary meddling and pressure. Right now, what's most important is that the Ukrainian authorities listen to the people and that the situation stabilizes.
Recently, Russia's permanent representative to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov said Moscow is waiting for the political signal that the EU is ready to revive negotiations on anew basic treaty.
We expect the participants in the summit will discuss the issue. We are interested in advancing the relationship with Russia because it is an important economic and political partner for the EU.
We are interested in anchoring issues of more trade liberalization and improved investment conditions for both sides in the in the new treaty. Just a few days ago, we launched first talks on Russia's new negotiating mandate. We determined concrete deadlines for when we are to receive details on the mandate from the Russian side. We would like to begin negotiations on a new treaty this year - possibly at the next EU-Russia summit in June.
Mutually facilitating the issuance of visas is another central issue of cooperation. What stage have those negotiations reached?
At the end of December 2013, I handed the Russian side the European Commission's first report on the implementation of the timetable to introduce a free visa regime. It addresses 39 concrete problems that our Russian partners must solve before the talks can begin. At the same time, we continue to work on liberalizing visa regulations. We hope that Russia will take into account our concern on a number of problems that have already been addressed, for instance Moscow's demands for flight passengers' personal data.
Vygaudas Usackas, a Lithuanian diplomat and politician, heads the EU mission in Russia.