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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia, EU Scramble to Save Summit

Itar-TassSteinmeier, foreground, meeting Yastrzhembsky, left, Lavrov and Putin during the first half of two hours of talks at Putin's residence near Moscow on Tuesday.
NOVO-OGARYOVO, Moscow Region -- The most pressing issue ahead of Friday's Russia-EU summit is not Russian gas, Polish meat or an Estonian statue but that the summit will take place as scheduled, Russian officials said.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier did not offer much hope after holding two hours of talks at Putin's Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on Tuesday.

"Preparing for the summit has been difficult," Steinmeier told reporters through an interpreter. "There have been a number of specific problems that we have not been able to solve over the past few weeks. Keeping silent about them doesn't help."

He added, "Today, we are seeing the situation much clearer."

The minister did not provide further details in his brief remarks and left promptly afterward.

Putin conceded problems at the start of the meeting but sought to minimize them, saying: "Thank God, there is not conflict of interest between Russia and the EU. We have different views on how to solve problems, but there is a desire on both sides to solve these problems. That's not a bad start."

The Kremlin said maintaining a regular dialog with the EU was important, and it is throwing out all the stops to make sure that the biannual summit takes place, with or without any agreements.

"There's no point in digging around for a scoop," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. "Indeed, the summit is unlikely to bring about any breakthroughs. But it is valuable as it is."

Sergei Ryabkov, a senior Foreign Ministry official helping organize the summit, said the meeting did not need to bring concrete results and the mere fact that it was held would be an achievement of sorts.

"Such high-level contacts are moving relations forward," he said.

He said the Kremlin's recent sharp rhetoric was nothing new for EU diplomats, who had heard the same complaints in private talks earlier. After the quiet diplomacy failed, "We are raising the decibels to get heard," Ryabkov said.

He downplayed talk of a crisis in relations. "Difficult doesn't mean crisis," he said.

Tuesday's last-minute talks, initiated by Germany, which holds the EU presidency, began with a one-hour meeting among Steinmeier, Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kremlin foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko, Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev and Putin's adviser on EU affairs, Sergei Yastrzhembsky. Steinmeier then spoke for an hour alone with Putin, a German Embassy official said.

Lavrov and Prikhodko stepped outside during that hour, with Lavrov taking the opportunity to have a smoke. Meanwhile, two black Mercedes sedans kept their engines running in case Steinmeier would emerge. But he kept deferring his exit in an apparent attempt to reach a compromise.

The embassy official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to comment, said he doubted that any breakthrough had been reached and predicted that "there will be less and less substance" at the summit and beyond in Russian-EU relations.

"It looks like the Cold War in the sense that you don't know what to expect" from the Russia side, the official said.

In a sign of the summit's importance for Russia, authorities on Friday unexpectedly gave permission for an opposition Dissenters' March to be held in Samara on the day of the summit, which will take place in a nearby Volga River resort. The decision reversed an earlier ban and came amid EU prodding.

Ties with the EU worsened earlier this month during Russia's dispute with Estonia over the relocation of a Soviet war memorial. Relations were already strained over EU worries about the reliability of Russian gas supplies, a dispute about flyover rights for EU airlines, and Russia's refusal to support effective independence for Kosovo.

Moscow and Brussels need to start talks on a new framework agreement that covers trade, energy and foreign policy. But Poland blocked the start of the negotiations at the last Russia-EU summit in Helsinki in November and has said it will do so again Friday if Russia does not lift a ban on Polish meat imports.

The tensions look bad, but the summit's cancellation would amount to an outright scandal, said Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "As contacts are becoming more and more shallow, the main purpose will be to maintain decorum," she said.

Friday's talks will be easier for Russia than for the deeply divided EU, and Germany will be hard-pressed to find a solution that would suit all 27 EU members, said Andrei Klimov, who is in charge of EU relations on the State Duma's International Affairs Committee.

Citing private talks with Western diplomats and lawmakers, Klimov said West European officials often fume that former communist countries like Poland, Estonia and Lithuania were throwing a wrench into the works of formulating the EU's common policy.

"They are just seeking to elevate their status within the EU," Klimov said.

Even so, Russia should have realized earlier that the EU would rather side with an errant member state than agree with Russia, said Nikolai Kaveshnikov, a research fellow with the Institute of Europe in the Russian Academy of Sciences. "They may be sons of bitches, but they are our sons of bitches," Kaveshnikov said of the EU's philosophy.

Informal talks will start when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Putin arrive at the resort of Volzhsky Utyos on Thursday evening, said Ryabkov, the Foreign Ministry official. The actual summit is on Friday.

Although officials said there was no written agenda, two major sets of questions will be discussed. Russia and the EU will first delve into bilateral relations and then move on to international issues including Kosovo, Iran and Iraq, Ryabkov said.

A total of 100 delegates, 50 from each side, will gather at the Soviet-era resort, owned by the Presidential Property Department. About 500 reporters are expected to cover the talks.

The resort has been fixed up and is ready to host the guests, Kremlin officials said. "Everything is gleaming here," a Kremlin spokeswoman for the summit said by telephone from Samara.

Some 700 million to 800 million rubles ($27 million to $31 million) have been spent since last fall to give the resort a facelift, said Viktor Khrekov, a property department spokesman.

The Kremlin would not say how much money the summit would end up costing Russia, which is picking up the tab. The next summit is scheduled for Lisbon in October.