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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Russia seeks special ties with EU

By Oana Lungescu
BBC European correspondent

The 25 leaders of the enlarged European Union are preparing to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg on 31 May for a summit of unprecedented pomp and ceremony.

Russia believes it may lose out as a result of the EU's expansion into the former communist bloc and is pushing for visa-free travel, as well as a special relationship of the sort it has with Nato.

But there will be little progress on these demands in St Petersburg.

Sappers check summit area
St Petersburg summit will be ceremonial and short on substance
The last EU-Russia summit, which took place in Brussels last November, was overshadowed by a serious row over Chechnya.

Unusually, it failed to issue the traditional joint statement because EU leaders insisted it should mention the human rights situation in Chechnya, while President Putin insisted on removing any reference to the conflict-torn republic.

This time round, it appears that Chechnya will feature in the joint statement, with emphasis on both the political prospects for peace and the need for Russia to allow the provision of humanitarian aid.

The main obstacle now is a Russian demand for easier travel arrangements, a sort of roadmap leading to its citizens travelling to the EU without a visa as early as 2007.

'Clear prospects'

Some EU countries would be willing to make a vague commitment, but the majority want Russia to make more progress first.

Our position on enlargement has always been that it's very positive not only for us, but also for our neighbours, including Russia
Diego de Ojeda
European Commission spokesman
"We believe that what counts is the substance. It's very clear that moving towards a visa-free regime would be a good thing," says European Commission spokesman Diego de Ojeda.

"But it serves no-one to set dates before you have clear prospects for resolving the current problems," he added.

Russia is stalling on a re-admission agreement that it promised last year, when the EU agreed to ease travel restrictions on Kaliningrad residents after enlargement.

The agreement, which would ensure that anyone who enters the EU illegally through Russia could be sent back, is seen by the EU as key for any progress on eventual visa-free travel.

The EU is pushing Russia on several environmental issues:

  • A renewed commitment to ratify the Kyoto environmental protocol by the autumn - it's a test case, an EU official said, of Russia's credibility when it says it shares the same values as the EU

  • A ban on ageing single-hull tankers crossing the Baltic Sea, to avoid maritime disasters like the Prestige

  • More progress on tackling nuclear safety

The EU will also renew its call to Moscow to pull out its military equipment from Moldova's breakaway Transdniester province and do more to promote a political settlement there.

Regular consultations

Russia was not keen to invite to St Petersburg the leaders of the 10 countries, mostly from the former communist bloc, which are set to join the EU in May 2004.

Vladimir Putin
Putin is seeking easier travel for Russians to the EU
It would have liked to achieve a privileged relationship with the EU before enlargement.

At a meeting in Luxembourg in April, EU officials were stunned when Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov set aside the agreed agenda and told them what Moscow really wanted - regular consultations on an equal footing, on the model of the Nato/Russia Council.

This council was set up last year before the Atlantic alliance finalised its latest enlargement plans.

EU diplomats say this would be a big departure for the European Union - one said it would go to the heart of EU identity.

Future members like Poland would certainly resist such a move.

'Streamlining'

Officials at the European Commission say the relationship with Russia can certainly be improved.

But they talk only about "streamlining political dialogue" and making "structures for co-operation" more productive.

No-one seems to share the view of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose country takes over the EU presidency on 1 July, that Europe could only deal on equal terms with the United States if Russia joins the EU.

In fact Russia itself has expressed no intention to seek membership and shows little appetite to model its laws on EU legislation.

Instead, Moscow is complaining about the impact of EU expansion on its trade with the former communist bloc - fears which EU officials say are unjustified.

"Our position on enlargement has always been that it's very positive not only for us, but also for our neighbours, including Russia," says Mr Ojeda.

Protocol threatened

Russia is objecting to a protocol that would extend its existing Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with the EU to the 10 new member states.

When Finland, Sweden and Austria joined the EU, this was done with one sentence, as a formality.

But Russia is now trying to pack all its complaints about enlargement into the protocol, ranging from higher export tariffs in Poland to the rights of ethnic Russians in Latvia.

No-one knows whether an agreement can be reached by May next year, in time for the accession of the new members.

If Moscow blocks it, enlargement will still go ahead, but EU officials say the PCA may get killed off in the process.


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