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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BP Planning to Help Polish Russia's Image

bloombergBP chief executive John Browne
BRUSSELS -- BP plans to set up a "platform" to improve relations between the European Union and Russia and dispel the country's image as a "dark and hostile place" to do business, BP chief executive John Browne said Thursday.

BP is the largest single international investor in Russia through its company TNK-BP, with investment worth 4 billion euros ($5.22 billion) out of total European direct investment of 16 billion euros, Browne told an energy conference.

But he said many potential investors saw Russia as "a source of risk rather than opportunity," and companies like BP should press its case for joining the WTO, urge the West to cooperate with it on terrorism, and recognize it as part of Europe.

"Our aim is to establish a platform, based jointly in Russia and here in the European Union, for serious debate on all aspects of the relationship," Browne said.

"Its purpose will be to encourage exchange and cooperation across many fields in ways which can help us as Europeans to see Russia as a neighbor and a friend, one of our most important trading partners and an ally -- not as a threat."

He gave no details beyond saying BP would make specific announcements over the next few months.

But a senior BP official in Brussels said he expected it to be a partnership where politicians, businesses, think tanks and NGOs from the EU and Russia could meet to discuss relations and build a partnership.

Browne said 30 percent of the EU's oil imports and 50 percent of its natural gas imports came from Russia, and this was likely to grow, making a strong relationship vital to the bloc's energy security.

But despite the growing trade relationship -- following the EU's eastward enlargement last year, the bloc now accounts for over half of Russia's exports -- political relations have been strained.

The EU has complained of Moscow "backsliding" on democracy. Russia views with deep suspicion EU involvement in what it calls its "near abroad" and which the EU calls its common neighborhood -- countries like Ukraine and Georgia, former Soviet states which want to join the 25-member bloc.

Earlier this month Russia said it would bar foreign-owned firms from bidding for some of its most attractive natural resources in 2005, dealing a fresh blow to an already shaky business climate.

The Natural Resources Ministry said companies would have to be at least 51-percent Russian-owned to take part in tenders for strategic oil and metals deposits.

Browne, who said his experience of investing in Russia had been generally very positive, was vague about the significance of the move, describing it as "a proposal not a certainty", and adding that it had been discussed in the past.

"Where it goes I don't know," he said, adding that he understood it would apply to future contracts and would not affect deals already done.