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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 November, 2003, 22:02 GMT
EU dismay at Berlusconi comments
Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi compared Putin's situation to his own
European Union leaders have distanced themselves from remarks by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi defending Russia's actions in Chechnya.

Speaking after an EU-Russian summit in Rome, Mr Berlusconi blamed European media for distorting the truth.

His comments broke with the EU's policy of making human rights a condition of developing its relations with Russia.

EU Commission President Romano Prodi said he hoped Mr Berlusconi was better informed about Italy than Russia.

'Media distortions'

Mr Berlusconi leapt to Vladimir Putin's defence when a French reporter asked Mr Putin about the rule of law in Russia.

"I'm acting as President Putin's defence lawyer here, even though he hasn't asked me to," Mr Berlusconi said at a joint news conference.

"In Chechnya, there has been terrorist activity that has produced many attacks against Russian citizens and there has never been an equivalent response from the Russian Federation," he said.

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It is only right that the oligarchs should now pay the price
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"The truth is that there are often distortions in the press, in Italy as abroad. It's the same thing as far as Chechnya and the Yukos story is concerned," he said, referring to the arrest of the head of Russia's Yukos oil giant, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on fraud charges.

Mr Berlusconi, a media mogul who himself is on trial for corruption, has blamed unfair press coverage and politically motivated prosecutors for the charges against him.

Disappointment

Mr Putin reacted delightedly to Mr Berlusconi's impromptu defence, saying Mr Berlusconi was just doing his job.

But EU leaders expressed disappointment over the remarks.

"It's clear that our information makes us, as always, concerned [over Chechnya]," said EU Commission President Romano Prodi, a main political rival of Mr Berlusconi's.

EU external affairs commissioner, Chris Patten, said neither he, nor others in Europe, would agree with Mr Berlusconi.

The BBC's European affairs correspondent William Horsley, said European human rights groups will be dismayed by the lack of firmness in the EU's stance on Russia.

Mr Prodi said after the discussions with Mr Putin that he had been reassured the rule of law was being applied fairly.

Mr Putin said Russia would stage a "consistent and tough" crackdown on all illegal activities in Russia regardless of who the perpetrators might be.

"Our aim is not to go after specific individuals but to establish order in our country," he said.

He said oligarchs who grew rich through privatisations spent "hundreds of millions of dollars" to defend their position, to pay the best lawyers and incite the media to attack the government over the affair.

"Attempts to blackmail the state authorities will fail," he said.

Authoritarian concerns

The detention of Mr Khodorkovsky on fraud charges two weeks ago has raised international concern about Mr Putin's authoritarian tendencies.

Critics have suggested Mr Khodorkovsky's interest in politics made him an unwelcome rival to Mr Putin as parliamentary and presidential elections approach.

The White House has said the affair raised "some serious concerns about the state of rule of law and the business and investment climate in Russia".

On Friday, the issues of Chechnya and Yukos will be raised again as President Putin visits Paris for talks with President Jacques Chirac.

When Mr Putin became president in the year 2000, Mr Chirac refused to meet him, speaking of his outrage over Russia's crushing of dissent in Chechnya.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Michael Voss
"Prodi said Putin reassured them the Yukos affair was not an attack on political opponents"



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