Putin says closer ties with Europe 'unavoidable'

26th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Friday that closer ties with Europe were unavoidable, a day after his proposal for a free trade zone "from Lisbon to Vladivostok" met with a cool German response.

"I do not know what form our cooperation should take -- will it be a common free market or will it be our associated membership in the EU," the Russian prime minister said in the German capital Berlin.

"But a rapprochement between Russia and Europe is unavoidable, if we want to be preserved as a civilisation, if we want to be successful and competitive.

"Can we assume that Russia together with Europe will one day be in a single currency zone? I can assume that."

Putin, who is scheduled to have talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel later on Friday, floated a bold idea of a vast free-trade zone from Russia's eastern tip to Europe's western extremities in a German newspaper.

But Merkel, chancellor of Europe's biggest economy, immediately poured cold water on Putin's idea, not least because of his plan to create a joint customs bloc with ex-Soviet republics Belarus and Kazakhstan.

"The steps that Russia has taken recently do not point in that direction," she said. "I hear again and again news from Russia that import tariffs are, let's say, surprisingly increased."

Putin, famous for his often abrasive style and a tendency to shoot from the hip, offered however a good-humoured response to Merkel's scepticism, while also insisting he was well aware of Russia's problems.

"It means that Mrs Merkel read my article -- that's already good," Putin quipped. "She is interested in what is happening in Russia."

He also defended the customs union.

"I think you should be grateful to us for that enormous, difficult hard work on agreeing positions with our Belarussian and Kazakh partners," he said.

"You have to urgently go to a store and buy us a bottle of schnapps because it was indeed a complicated, exhausting procedure of agreeing positions that would practically be identical to WTO rules."

Putin also said that good relations were a two-way street, complaining Europe was putting up barriers to Russian firms.

"Sometimes it is difficult to (expand) ... due to reasons that are completely unclear to us," he told the gathering, attended by representatives of German corporate giants such as Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank and Siemens.

"One cannot work like this," he said.

As an example Putin cited a deal, which collapsed, under which General Motors would have sold a 55-percent stake in its European unit Opel to Canadian auto parts maker Magna and Russia's largest lender Sberbank.

"Has this firm become better off?" Putin asked, referring to the carmaker.

"Nothing has changed for the better there."

Another problem, Putin said, was that the European Union often did not take into account Russia in reforms to its gas market.

"I believe it is justified that new and fair rules in such a sensitive sphere are developed by our colleagues in the European Union, in the European Commission at least in consultation with Russia as the largest energy supplier," he said.

© 2010 AFP

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