EU Optimistic on Partnership Talks

APEU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel and Ferrero-Waldner speaking Friday.
BRDO, Slovenia -- The European Union should be ready to start negotiations on a new strategic partnership with a resurgent Russia at a June summit in Siberia, EU officials said Friday.

They said the election of Dmitry Medvedev as the country's next president was a chance for a new start in ties with Moscow -- as long as the bloc finds a common line in dealing with Russia, which it struggled to do with President Vladimir Putin.

"There's a summit in June, which I think provides an opportunity," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told a news briefing after talks with his European Union counterparts in Slovenia. "I felt that there was an EU ... developing its own sense of purpose over how to take forward this relationship with Russia," Miliband said.

EU president Slovenia said it was confident that the EU's 27 states could agree on a mandate next month for talks with Moscow on a broad pact covering trade, energy and human rights after Lithuania signaled that it could drop its objections.

"I am satisfied with talks today. We are moving in the right direction," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas said.

After Poland earlier this year resolved a dispute with Moscow over meat imports, Lithuania alone has stood in the way of a start of negotiations, saying its concerns over Russian energy dominance and treatment of its neighbors must be addressed.

Lithuania was aggrieved by Moscow's cutoff of oil supplies to its Mazeikiu refinery, which was sold to a Polish company rather than a Russian rival. It since added the case of a missing businessman and "frozen conflicts" in Georgia and Moldova to the oil issue, diplomats say.

Medvedev, elected earlier this month, will take over on May 7 from Putin. The summit, in Khanty-Mansiisk, will be Medvedev's first with the EU.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier noted that Medvedev had spoken of wanting to develop the rule of law, civil rights and the market economy, key EU values around which the 27-member bloc wants to forge a new understanding with Moscow.

"Russia has voted. There will be a new president, Medvedev, and I believe that is an opportunity that we should use," Steinmeier said.

Sweden's Carl Bildt voiced optimism of better ties under Medvedev but added: "Certain of the things he's said recently are things we should listen to and see if deeds follow words."

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, whose country has long suffered strained relations with Russia, said he expected an early start to negotiations now but added:

"We must be directed by our values, although Russia is an important partner to us. The partnership must not be based on double standards."

Before the meeting, France's Bernard Kouchner and Miliband sent a letter to the Slovenian presidency arguing that now was the time to put EU-Russia relations on a new footing.

"But we should be clear that the actual negotiations could be tough and drawn out," they said in the letter.

"Experience shows that Russia respects the EU when we are able to adopt united positions, and act accordingly. Conversely, Russia is adept at exploiting disunity among EU member states."