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EU, Russia summit fails to heal rifts

Khabarovsk – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday condemned EU moves to strengthen ties with former Soviet states after a summit that failed to smooth out the bloc’s tetchy relationship with Moscow.

The controversy over the Eastern Partnership plan was just one dispute laid bare at the summit in Russia’s Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, alongside conflict on an energy charter and a new warning over gas supplies.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, holder of the rotating EU presidency, said the European Union had sought to reassure Russia over the plan but Medvedev said some of the states involved "see this as a partnership against Russia."

"I’ll put it succinctly. We tried to convince ourselves but in the end we couldn’t," Medvedev said at a joint news conference.

The partnership aims to strengthen political and economic ties between the 27 EU nations and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and has already alarmed Russia.

EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso argued in vain that the initiative was "against nobody. It’s to support prosperity and stability."

The summit held in Khabarovsk – the most easterly venue chosen for such a meeting – aimed to raise spirits after ties were frayed by the 2008 war with Georgia and the New Year gas crisis with Ukraine.

"The European Union considers Russia to be its strategic partner. We must do something to make this real and not just a formal proclamation," said Klaus.

Russia had been hoping for a positive EU response to Medvedev’s proposal for a new document to replace an Energy Charter Treaty adopted in 1991 to integrate the energy sectors of the former Soviet bloc

The EU leaders said they were ready to listen to the proposal from Russia but there was no reason for ripping up the existing pact.

"We should not throw away agreements that already existed for years," said Barroso, adding the European Union was "fully committed" to the current charter.

Medvedev reaffirmed Russia’s objections to the charter – which it has never ratified – and said Moscow "will not take part in it in its current form". He called for a "more effective energy instrument".

Russia’s January gas crisis with Ukraine saw consumers in several EU states deprived of Russian gas for almost two weeks, prompting warnings by the European Union about Russian reliability as an energy supplier.

"We hope Russia and Ukraine will do everything so European consumers – who are not the ones responsible – are not again put in a position of suffering the consequences," said Barroso.

Medvedev said Russia doubted Ukraine’s ability to meet its gas payment obligations, the key factor in triggering the January crisis, and put the onus on the European Union to bail out the regime in Kiev.

He offered to help Ukraine meet the USD 4 billion (EUR 2.9 billion) cost of replenishing its gas storage reservoirs, suggesting a syndicated loan agreement with European and Russian participation – with the EU coming up with most of the money.

"We are ready to help the Ukrainian state but would like the European Union, those countries that are interested in reliable security of energy cooperation, to take upon themselves the bulk of this work," Medvedev said.

The choice of Khabarovsk as summit venue – 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) from Moscow but a mere 30 kilometres from the Chinese border – is seen as a reminder by Russia of its status as the world’s largest country.

Medvedev said earlier the city had been chosen so that the EU leaders – who are coping with a nine-hour time difference and 10-hour flight – "have the opportunity to appreciate Russia’s greatness."

The two sides are also in the process of negotiating a new legally-binding agreement on bilateral ties to replace the now-expired Partnership and Cooperation Agreement which covered issues ranging from energy to security.

Talks on the new pact, which has concerned some ex-Soviet bloc EU members, were held up by the dispute over the Georgia war, but there have been expectations they could strike a deal by the end of the year.

Russia’s envoy to the EU Vladimir Chizhov indicated however the two sides were in no hurry, saying what counts is "the quality of the future document, it needs to go further and be better".

AFP / Expatica