EU seeks to soothe Russian agitation
The EU heads into a summit with Russia on Wednesday seeking to calm irritation over European demands to respect the rights of protesters, while also narrowing sharp differences over Syria and Iran.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is due in Brussels for dinner with his European Union counterparts ahead of day-long talks Thursday also covering trade, visa liberalisation and energy issues after frequent rows in the past over gas supplies.
EU president Herman Van Rompuy and executive chief Jose Manuel Barroso want Russia, China and others to pledge new funds for the IMF alongside EU loans of 200 billion euros ($265 billion) to boost eurozone debt crisis defences.
Russian ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov said his country's leaders "are considering this option," stressing that "my country has not lost faith in the euro," although he put no number on possible funding input.
The question of Russian parliamentary elections this month and next March's presidential vote is "not on the official agenda," said Chizhov, although he added: "I'm sure my president will not be surprised if this is mentioned."
A spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton also said she "expected this subject to be raised" after her boss spoke of reported flaws in Russia's December 4 elections giving cause for "serious concern."
The vote, which saw Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling party returned with a sharply reduced majority, were marred by "frequent procedural violations" and "apparent manipulation," according to OSCE observers.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe hit out at "multiplying arrests and detentions" amid allegations of vote-rigging after more than 50,000 people protested in Moscow on Saturday, but the White House praised Russian tolerance of the largely peaceful demonstration.
"Those Russians that went out into the streets of Moscow and other cities, they expressed their views and beliefs," said Chizhov, stressing that supporters of Putin also demonstrated in "expressions of democracy."
He maintained, however: "Russian laws on protests, demonstrations and rallies are no different from those in the EU."
Medvedev has said he was "very disturbed" by the eurozone debt crisis, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also urging the EU to concentrate on its own problems, highlighting rising "financial, socio-economic, inter-ethnic and intercultural" contradictions across the continent.
Despite these problems, EU-Russia trade grew by nearly a third in the first nine months of 2011, according to the EU's data agency. Russia is now the bloc's third-biggest trading partner after the United States and China.
No real progress is expected on the questions of sanctions against Syria or Iran, a Western strategy that in the case of Tehran Chizhov described as all but "exhausted".
The summit should, though, result in "notable progress" on Russia's longstanding demands for "visa-free travel," according to one EU diplomat.
A deal for the gradual removal of visa requirements for short-stay travel, linked to border-control commitments and the introduction of biometric passports, could be done.
Chizhov said 2.5 million Russians enter the EU each year, with 1.5 million going the other way.
The big event of the week in Europe for Russia will nonetheless be Friday's accession, after 18 years of negotiations, to the World Trade Organization in Geneva.
The formal signatures, despite implementation periods in the case of some tariff and other adjustments lasting years, will be celebrated with a US-thrown party in the WTO's Swiss home, a Russian official said.
© 2011 AFP