EU Fails to Reach Deal on Better Russia Ties

The Associated Press

LUXEMBOURG -- The EU's foreign ministers failed to agree among themselves Tuesday to improve their relations with Russia because of lingering objections from Lithuania, which wants Moscow first to improve ties with its immediate neighbors.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas said his government was "ready for compromise" but demanded that Russia fix an oil pipeline to a Lithuanian refinery and peacefully resolve "frozen conflicts" in Georgia and other former Soviet republics.

The European Union seeks to enroll Russia -- which badly needs foreign investors and expertise to develop its oil and gas reserves -- into a "strategic partnership" covering a broad range of economic and political issues.

Negotiations in the last two years have stalled because Moscow balks at what it sees as EU human rights lecturing, and Poland had tangled with Moscow in a trade dispute that is now resolved.

Additionally, there is lingering ill will in Lithuania, which regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia and Lithuania have engaged in tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions in recent years.

Luxembourgian Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told reporters that the EU foreign ministers could not reach agreement "on a mandate for negotiations" for more comprehensive relations with Moscow. The decision to start such talks requires the unanimous backing of all 27 EU nations.

"Frozen conflicts create a dangerous situation in the sense of security and stability," Vaitiekunas told reporters on arrival at the EU foreign ministers meeting.

"It's an important issue, not only for Lithuania," he added. "Our position is related to basic values of European civilization [and] the rule of law. And we want solidarity within the EU."

The European Commission is still looking forward to a June summit with Russia to formally launch negotiations for a strategic partnership. Later Tuesday, the EU foreign ministers were to discuss that prospect with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The proposed partnership would be much broader than a decade-old cooperation deal. It would include everything from closer energy ties to better cooperation in the fields of crime fighting, immigration, food safety and consumer protection.

Britain stressed the importance of drawing Russia closer. Jim Murphy, its European affairs minister, told reporters: "We do believe the European Union should begin this process. ... Collectively, we are much more effective" in dealing with Moscow.