Barroso, Putin Trade Barbs on Human Rights

APPutin attending a joint news conference with Barroso in Moscow on Friday.��
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso traded barbs over human rights on Friday following a day of high-level talks in Moscow.

Addressing a joint news conference with a prepared speech, Barroso mentioned that he had raised the issue of rule of law in Russia during a meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev.

A visibly irritated Putin replied that Barroso had no right to mention his conversation with Medvedev because Medvedev was not present to respond.

Putin then said Europe should not talk down to Russia and accused the EU of violating the rights of ethnic Russian minorities, immigrants and prisoners.

"We are not satisfied with how the issue of Russian-speaking populations in the Baltics is being resolved," Putin said. "We know about the rights of immigrants in European countries and how they are violated. We know about the situation in the penal systems in some European countries, and we have the same kinds of problems.

"We believe in the need to discuss the entire spectrum of problems both in Russia and in EU countries," Putin said.

Barroso refused to let the matter drop, and he expanded on his conversation with Medvedev. He said he had informed Medvedev about the "concern" that the recent murders of "some journalists and some human rights activists" have raised in Europe.

He appeared to be referring to the brazen slaying of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta journalist Anastasia Baburova, who were shot dead Jan. 19 by an unidentified gunman in central Moscow. Demonstrations have been held in several European cities in memory of Markelov and Baburova.

Barroso went on to give an impassioned speech, saying people were more important that diplomatic protocols and insisting that Europe is open to criticism.

"We don't pretend to be perfect," Barroso said. "We accept criticism."When Barroso finished, Putin suggested — first in Russian and then in English — to end the discussion, after which the two proceeded to address the importance of bilateral ties.

Barroso's visit along with a team of key EU commissioners was originally planned for last summer but postponed because of Russia's brief war with Georgia in August. The visit came just weeks after a gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine dealt another blow to relations. The dispute suspended the transit of Russian gas to southern Europe, leaving people without heat and closing factories.

No specific agreements were announced regarding a number of trade disputes between the EU and Russia, and Putin said the talks started with the officials comparing viewpoints on past problems and seeking to work out a plan to move ahead in developing relations.

Both Putin and Barroso stressed that the two sides were important trade partners. "It is the most important of European Union's neighbors — Russia," Barroso said.

Trade between the EU and Russia grew by 25 percent to 280 billion euros ($362 billion) last year, Barroso said.

The EU will keep a team of monitors in place to ensure the stability of Russian gas supplies through Ukraine, Barroso said. Russia asked that the monitors stay until at least the end of March, Putin said.

In the talks with Medvedev, Barroso warned against a repeat of the gas crisis.

"It is important now to create conditions for this kind of crisis not to happen again," he said, according to a transcript posted on the Kremlin web site. "We believe energy security is an extremely important sphere of interest for Russia and the European Union."

The Russian government also used Friday's talks as chance to provide a glimpse into Barroso's personality — through a memo handed out to reporters before the news conference. "A good organizer. Noted for his restraint, modesty and even certain reticence," the memo read. "A courteous and regardful partner in conversation. Not a bad speaker."