Path Is Cleared For Talks With EU

APMedvedev greeting Kouchner on Wednesday at talks discussing EU-Russia ties before France's EU presidency.
In a double dose of good news, the European Union agreed Wednesday to start long-delayed partnership talks with Russia, and the next EU president, France, said it was keen to improve relations.

President Dmitry Medvedev and visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner discussed ways to improve EU-Russia ties during France's six-month EU presidency, which begins July 1.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will fly to Paris on May 29 and 30 for a working trip that might include a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a Russian government official said.

In Brussels, EU member states approved a mandate for starting new partnership talks with Russia after including Lithuania's concerns over its relations with Moscow.

"A common agreement has been reached today in Brussels, and we are pleased that all the issues have been included into the mandate," Lithuanian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Violeta Gaizauskaite said by telephone from Vilnius.

"Lithuania has never been against the start of the EU-Russia talks," she said.

Lithuania had blocked agreement on the mandate, saying it wanted it to include resumption of oil supplies from Russia, Moscow's cooperation on judicial issues, and the solution of "frozen conflicts" in Moldova and Georgia, among other conditions.

The mandate for the talks is expected to be rubber-stamped at a EU foreign ministers' meeting Monday. EU spokeswoman Christine Hohmann said the meeting's agenda stipulated that the mandate would be adopted without further discussion. She added, however, that she could not guarantee anything. "We certainly hope for the adoption on Monday," she said.

The mandate would mean that talks on a new framework agreement that covers trade, energy and foreign policy could start at the EU-Russia summit in the Siberian oil town of Khanty-Mansiisk in late June. Russian and EU officials failed to reach any agreements at a similar summit near Samara last May, when Germany held the bloc's rotating presidency. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and then-President Putin spoke of a need to cooperate but disagreed on almost every issue.

Adopted in 1997, the 10-year agreement was automatically extended after Poland blocked talks on a new agreement over a Russian ban on Polish food imports. Warsaw lifted its veto earlier this year.

The start of negotiations does not signal the end of wrangling within the EU's old and new members but rather the start of long and difficult partnership talks over energy and other issues, said Alexander Rahr, an analyst with the Korber Center for Russia and the CIS in Hamburg.

The talks on the new framework document could be more difficult than agreeing on the mandate, he said. "There are too many problems on the agenda, especially energy," he said.

EU officials acknowledged the complicated nature of the looming talks.

"The important thing is that we have the agreement of all members to adopt the mandate, while problematic questions will still be a matter of the talks," Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, told reporters in Ljubljana.

Kouchner, the French foreign minister, predicted that the new partnership agreement would go into force by early next year. He acknowledged in televised remarks that the EU remained divided in its approach to Russia, adding, "Therefore, we need to work together to reach a unified position."

Kouchner, speaking to reporters, said he believed that the EU would propose to Russia a timetable on the cooperation pact in May or June.

An EU official said the talks would almost certainly drag out. "Given the importance of the EU-Russia energy partnership and given a list of issues on the agenda to be discussed, the discussion is going to a be long one," said the official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the opportunity to start the talks.

"Russia has been ready for these negotiations for a long time. We have been waiting patiently for the European Union to reach the same level of readiness," he told reporters.

Speaking to Medvedev in the Kremlin, Kouchner said his visit was part of France's preparations to assume the EU presidency.

"We'd like to improve our ties further," he said of the EU-Russia ties, "and the ties between our France and the great Russia."

Medvedev will meet Sarkozy at the Group of Eight summit in Hokkaido in early July and later at an EU-Russia summit in France in November. Putin is likely to lay the groundwork for these meetings during his trip to Paris next week, said the Russian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with the media.

Kouchner passed a letter from Sarkozy to Medvedev at the start of their meeting, saying he hoped that the Russian president would visit France as well some day soon. "We would receive you with great pleasure," Kouchner said.