Siberian Summit Looks for New Start

Staff Writers

KHANTY-MANSIISK — Russia and the European Union hope to turn a page in their stalled relations when their leaders meet in this Siberian oil town this week. But the most tangible result to come out of the meeting is expected to be an announcement of the start of talks.

What will come next remains anybody's guess.

"For Russia and the EU, the agreement is needed and essential," Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Grushko told reporters in Moscow on Tuesday. But, he added, "We understand the negotiations will be tough."

The talks are scheduled to officially start on July 4 in Brussels through a series of plenary sessions and working groups. President Dmitry Medvedev's meeting in Khanty-Mansiisk with three top EU officials at this week's summit will be largely symbolic in nature, Russian officials said.

Medvedev, accompanied by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina, is due to arrive Thursday evening, before holding an informal dinner with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

Finnish President Tarja Halonen, Estonian President Toomas Ilves and Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom are due to join Medvedev on Saturday for a Finnish-Ugric forum.

The choice of Khanty-Mansiisk, whose streets are littered with billboards reading "Russia-EU: The Pulse of Cooperation," could have been meant to highlight Russia's newfound wealth and its increased bargaining power.

The start of talks on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, a wide-ranging pact that governs a host of political, economic and social arrangements between Brussels and Moscow, has long been delayed over objections raised by new EU members whose relations with Russia remain particularly strained. The current agreement, a nearly 200-page document adopted 10 years ago when Russia remained mired in post-Soviet chaos, expired at the end of last year. Its terms were automatically extended until a new agreement is concluded. Poland vetoed the start of negotiations over a meat dispute with Moscow in 2006, and Lithuania, demanding that Russia improve ties with Georgia and Moldova and cooperate on judicial issues, blocked the start of the talks earlier this year.

Medvedev and the EU officials plan to adopt two political declarations at the summit, said Sergei Ryabkov, a senior Foreign Ministry official who is helping with summit preparations. Ryabkov declined to identify the documents, which are believed to be a declaration on the start of the strategic partnership talks and an agreement on cross-border cooperation.

Despite the fact that no major breakthroughs are expected, the summit will be important in many respects, Russian officials said. Earlier this month, Ireland dealt a stinging blow to European unity, rejecting the Lisbon treaty in a referendum. "It is very important for us to understand how serious this crisis is," Konstantin Kosachyov, a senior State Duma deputy, said in televised comments Monday night.

Such moves chip at the EU's ability to use a single voice when speaking with Russia, making any bilateral negotiations even more difficult, observers said.

Ireland's rejection of the treaty will also be discussed at the summit, said Ryabkov, head of the Foreign Ministry's European cooperation department.

"We sympathize with the difficulties the EU is facing on its path to finding its own identity," he said by telephone.

Russian officials said a new mechanism — similar to one existing within the framework of the NATO-Russia Council that makes joint decisions — may help improve ties. Moscow has made a proposal on the new mechanism to Brussels but so far has not heard back, Ryabkov and Grushko said.

It will be the first time that Medvedev represents the country at the Russia-EU summit, and many Europeans have put hopes into the mild-mannered politician, widely considered to be more liberal than his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. At last June's summit in Volzhsky Utyos, near Samara, and presided by Putin, the leaders appeared to have failed to agree on anything of substance, and a joint news conference after the talks was suffused in acrimony and mutual accusations.

Ryabkov said the tone might be milder this week, but the foreign and economic policies will remain completely the same. "We have a 100 percent continuity. There should be no doubt about it," he said.

Grushko said Putin would not attend the summit.

Officials on both sides expect the talks on the new partnership agreement to last for months, and some said they expect the agreement to be ready in 2009. "Nobody can predict how long the talks will last," said Lyudmila Babynina, a senior researcher at the Academy of Science's Institute of Europe. Energy security tops the EU priority list. Europe wants Moscow to open up its energy sector to investors and spell out the terms and conditions in the new agreement. Moscow, by contrast, wants only a new framework document, which can be gradually expanded, Babynina said.

She said she could not predict which side would eventually win, but "Russia will likely be able to defend its position."

Grushko chalked the difficulties in the ties with the EU to Russia's increasing economic confidence.

"As the Russian economy has become part of the global economic order, which we are also helping to stabilize, we are becoming competitors," he said, referring to Russia and the EU.

"We need a new agreement, not only to open up the potential of our cooperation, but to put rules onto that competition," he said.

Yet he sought to dismiss the common notion that Europe was too reliant on Russia's hydrocarbon riches, saying there was interdependence among the nations. "In the energy sphere Russia doesn't depend on the EU any less than the EU depends on Russia," he said. Europe gets 25 percent of its gas from Gazprom, while the gas giant depends on Europe for the bulk of its revenue.

Russia's priorities include moves toward a visa-free regime, Grushko said. "That would be one of the true forms of strategic cooperation," he said.

In other areas of common plans, Moscow and Brussels are planning to have a joint peacekeeping operation in Chad and Central African Republic, Ryabkov and Grushko said.

Staff Writer Miriam Elder reported for this story from Moscow.