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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 November, 2003, 22:31 GMT
Berlusconi breaks EU ranks on Russia

By William Horsley
BBC European affairs correspondent

The European Union's declared policy of making good human rights standards a condition of its developing relations with Russia appears to have been put in doubt by the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Vladimir Putin (foreground) with Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi joked he was acting as Putin's lawyer
Mr Berlusconi said after an EU-Russia summit meeting in Rome that allegations of authoritarianism in Mr Putin's Russia were mere fabrications by parts of the international press.

The European Commission has distanced itself from those remarks.

The formal aspects of this summit went well.

New co-operation accords were signed on controlling cross-border crime and joint science projects.

Mr Berlusconi, who currently represents the European Union through its rotating presidency, set targets for the EU to help Russia into the World Trade Organisation, and eventually to remove visas for Russians entering the EU.

But at the news conference which followed, the Italian leader broke with long-standing EU policy by dismissing international criticisms of the Russian Government over Chechnya and the arrest of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky as "myths" and distortions.

Silvio Berlusconi even compared Mr Putin's situation with his own, saying that the media had also misrepresented the truth about his own clash with Italy's judicial authorities over allegations of corruption.

A delighted Mr Putin denied he was steering Russia onto a more authoritarian path.

But he denounced unnamed Russian business tycoons for illicitly earning enormous sums of money and using it for political ends.

Chirac test

Mr Putin's words are unlikely to reassure international investors.

And Mr Berlusconi's remarks were challenged by the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, who commented that he hoped Mr Berlusconi was better informed on the situation in Russia than he was on the one in Italy.

European human rights groups will be dismayed by the lack of firmness in the EU's stance to Russia.

On Friday the issue 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.

But this year he forged a close diplomatic alliance with Mr Putin against America's decision to use force to topple the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

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