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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EU Optimistic on Russia Talks

LUXEMBOURG -- The European Union remained upbeat Monday that it can begin negotiations for a comprehensive but delayed strategic partnership accord with Russia next month, although the biggest hurdle -- a Russian ban on Polish meat and plant products -- remained unresolved after weekend talks.

EU officials said that while EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou failed to convince Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev in Cyprus to end a 2005 ban on Polish meat and plant imports, they remained optimistic that the partnership talks could be launched at a May 18 EU-Russia summit.

"We are not yet quite ready to [give] the starting shot for negotiations," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on arrival at an EU foreign ministers meeting. He and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner were optimistic that would happen at the May 18 summit in Samara.

The EU leaders wanted to open the talks last year. They proposed detailed negotiations for a strategic partnership with Russia, aiming to secure fair trade and investment conditions in Russia for EU energy companies. It would replace a lower-profile 1997 deal.

But at a Nov. 24 summit in Helsinki, President Vladimir Putin opposed giving foreigners easy access to the country's vast energy sources or breaking up state monopolies that pumped oil and gas and ferry it to domestic and foreign clients.

Fair trade in and access to energy is an issue of growing concern in Western Europe, which is increasingly dependent on Russian oil and gas.

Further complicating the matter, Poland responded to the Russian import ban by vetoing the start of any negotiations on the partnership accord, aggravating the EU's already soured relations with Russia.

EU officials are dismayed by what they perceive as Russia's disregard for the rule of law in energy and other fields. On Monday, Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, highlighted concern over police tactics in dispersing anti-government demonstrators in Moscow and St. Petersburg recently, saying it had amounted to "police brutality."

The EU foreign ministers were to meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over dinner Monday.

Their meeting comes three days after EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said EU-Russia relations have nose-dived to "a level of misunderstanding or even mistrust" not seen since the end of the Cold War.

He said each side "suspects the other of double standards. Both believe the other is using the energy weapon as an instrument of politics."

Poland has shown no signs of dropping its veto of the partnership talks with Russia and counts on its EU partners to show solidarity.

Poland joined the EU in 2004, together with seven other former-Soviet satellites or republics, as well as Cyprus and Malta.