Russia, EU set for showdown talks amid ban row

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European Union and Russian leaders will meet on Thursday for prickly summit talks amid Moscow's ban on EU vegetable imports and a lack of progress over visas and a new cooperation agreement.

Dinner talks and a boat ride on the Volga River will kick off a two-day summit in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod before Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will sit down for official talks with EU leaders on Friday.

While previous meetings have been marred by disputes on issues ranging from energy to human rights, this week's bi-annual negotiations with EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and EU President Herman Van Rompuy are expected to be especially uncomfortable.

Russia, the largest market for EU vegetables, last week imposed a blanket ban on imports to prevent the spread of the E. coli bacteria that has left at least 25 people dead and more than 2,600 sick.

The European Union reacted furiously to the measure -- the most stringent in any European country -- calling for Russia to immediately lift the ban.

Critics have repeatedly accused Moscow of using import bans on produce as tools to pursue political goals.

The ban comes after Russia's repeated calls to scrap the visa regime with the European Union have met with silence, and amid a lack of progress over a new cooperation treaty.

In a sharply worded statement released on the eve of the talks, the Kremlin lamented the lack of trust between Moscow and Brussels.

"The strategic nature of Russia-EU relations calls for a greater trust between us, including in the visa field," it said.

Medvedev's top foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko told reporters that the EU "was not ready for a political decision to cancel visas with Russia," acknowledging however that the bloc had taken steps to ease visa restrictions.

Speaking of the new treaty, which would spell out principles of cooperation in trade and energy, the Kremlin chalked up the lack of progress to Brussels' insistance to include in the document over-detailed "texts on trade and investment cooperation."

Russia, the largest economy to remain outside the World Trade Organisation, is also frustrated by its 18-year accession process, saying it has been unnecessarily politicised by the West.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, seen as the country's top decision maker, ordered officials to ignore the trade body's rules until the country is admitted and dismissed suggestions that its most recent ban on EU vegetables was against the spirit of WTO membership.

An official in the Russian delegation for the EU summit reiterated that sentiment Wednesday, dismissing any suggestions that Russia might have overreacted to the E. coli outbreak as "nonsense".

"They in Brussels can start a public procedure of eating all cumbers without exception without testing. We'll applaud them," he said.

"We will bring a box of Spanish cucumbers, a box of German cucumbers and also our own good cucumbers (to the summit) and let them choose. What will they eat?" the official asked.

Dutch Agriculture State Secretary Hans Bleker was in Moscow on Wednesday for talks over the ban but said Russia would unlikely lift the ban before the start of the talks.

The European Union will also discuss offering Russia several billion euros in loans for economic development in exchange for reforms, including in the area of human rights, has said an EU official, asking not to be named.

The turmoil in the Middle East, where Russia is keen to make its mark as a mediator, will also be on the agenda, diplomats said.

© 2011 AFP

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