EU, Russia trade barbs ahead of key summit
Sharp exchanges in the last week show the EU and Russia locked in an increasingly bitter stand-off in the run-up to the bloc's 'Eastern Partnership' summit in Lithuania next month.
The key prize in Vilnius is Ukraine, one of the largest and most powerful former Soviet states.
The plan is for Ukraine to sign a landmark association and free trade agreement with Brussels but Moscow fears this will put Kiev in the EU camp and trump its own ambitions for a regional Customs Union.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned Ukraine repeatedly and bluntly that it will have to bear the consequences of such a choice.
Analysts say the rising tensions make any progress difficult ahead of the summit in Lithuania, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
Ties "have suffered for quite some time from a lack of trust and eroded goodwill, especially on the Russian side," said Jan Techau, Director of the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels.
"Moscow sees the EU's neighbourhood policy as an attack on its own geopolitical interests and has systematically bullied countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia to take a more anti-EU posture," he added.
The EU, speaking for 28 member states, has found it difficult to counter "Russia's hard-headed zero-sum approach to the region," making the Eastern Partnership summit a key test.
The Vilnius summit "will show whether the EU is willing to compete with Russia in a more straight-forward way, whether it is willing to play hardball on political reform in the transition countries and whether it is willing to put the required money and political capital where its mouth is," Techau said.
On Monday, Russia cited health concerns to ban all dairy imports from Lithuania which has led the way for better ties between the ex-Soviet states and the EU.
The EU said in response it had "confidence in the safety of Lithuanian dairy products" and reminded Moscow again that it had to stick to World Trade Organization rules.
On Thursday, Brussels asked the WTO to rule on a dispute over a "recycling fee" on vehicles imported from the EU but not on those from Kazakhstan and Belarus which are members of Russia's customs union.
"We've used all the possible avenues to find ... a mutually acceptable solution," EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said.
"We are left with no choice but to ask for a WTO ruling to ensure Russia complies with its international obligations," De Gucht added.
The EU's WTO complaint, lodged in July, must be galling -- it is the first against Russia since it joined the global free trade body in 2012 after years of difficult negotiations which Putin said were sometimes humiliating.
The response from Moscow was forthright.
The EU move "is as unexpected as (it is) inexplicable," said Maxim Medvedkov, Trade Director at the Ministry of Economic Development.
"The European Commission is refusing to seek a solution acceptable to both sides."
In contrast to the official Russian response, the Vedomosti business daily was sceptical.
"When trade bans become the standard reaction to any irritant, this shows a lack of imagination," it said in an editorial Thursday.
"Neither inside nor outside the country does anyone believe that the complaints of the Russian authorities about foreign goods can be genuine," it said.
EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton has also told Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russian conduct has fallen short of what Brussels expected.
Ashton "expressed the EU's concern about recent trade and customs measures taken by the Russian Federation towards certain Eastern Partners," a statement said after the two met late last month.
"She stressed that those measures were not in line with the principles that Russia had subscribed to, such as each country's right freely to define and conduct its relations with other states in accordance with international law," it added.
Lavrov is due in Brussels in the coming week.
© 2013 AFP