• EU leaders faced an uncompromising Vladimir Putin (Photo: eu2006.fi)

Murder and meat give awkward edge to EU-Russia summit

25.11.06 @ 11:53

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - The murders of Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya hung over the EU-Russia summit in Helsinki on Friday (24 November) in a meeting that did not resolve the Polish-Russian meat row but did see progress on Siberian overflights and environmental cooperation in the Barents and Baltic seas.

"I would hope the British authorities would not contribute to the instigating of political scandals, which have nothing to do with reality," Russian president Vladimir Putin said on the London poisoning of Mr Litvinenko, a Russian spy turned Kremlin critic.

Mr Putin called Mr Litvinenko's death-bed letter, which accuses the Russian president of ordering the murder, "political provocation" and suggested it may have been written by anti-Kremlin forces after his death in a question hard to resolve since "Mr Litvinenko is not Lazarus."

The Russian president said "hundreds" of people have been questioned over the recent murder of anti-Kremlin reporter Ms Politkovskaya but hit back with remarks the EU has its own problems with "mafia" killings of judges and government officials that have been unsolved for "decades."

"In Europe there are well-known cases of political assassination that haven't been fully investigated or solved yet," he stated, adding that contract killing has become a "more acute" problem in both Russia and Europe, but that "it wouldn't be right to politicise this issue."

Mr Putin also gave little sign of backing down on the Polish meat export ban or allowing the European Commission to set-up trilateral Brussels-Warsaw-Moscow talks, despite a personal pledge from commission president Jose Manuel Barroso that the Polish food system is safe.

"Polish agencies should pay more attention to administration in this area [labelling of meat exports]," he said, citing Polish "national egoism" in blocking the start of EU-Russia treaty talks due to the trade row and saying the EU has "no mandate" to talk about export issues on behalf of member states.

Polish steak for lunch

Mr Barroso tried to inject humour by saying "maybe...at the next summit we can have a good Polish steak during lunch" before turning serious to add "we should not [let the trade dispute] undermine our good relations with Russia or the possibility of a future EU-Russia agreement."

The summit host, Finnish prime minister Matti Vanhanen, backed up Mr Putin's assertion that the Polish food ban is a "technical not a political question" despite the fact Poland sees it as political punishment for its Russia-critical voice and as a strategic ploy to divide and weaken the EU.

On energy, the Russian leader ruled out importing EU ideas on "unbundling" big companies' energy-supply and energy-distribution services, saying Gazprom will "preserve its integrity" and that "this is a purely national competence of the Russian federation, nobody can take this decision for us."

The statement comes ahead of EU plans to call for energy unbundling in the EU single market in a January white paper, with the European Parliament urging the EU to push for Russian unbundling as well in an industry committee report voted through last Thursday.

It also comes in the context of a senior Lithuanian MP, Audronius Azubalis, suggesting that Brussels could in future use EU competition law to go after Gazprom in the same way it has attacked non-EU firm Microsoft - a theory that is sparking interest in Brussels.

Northern Dimension launched

Given that the main event of the summit - the planned opening of new EU-Russia treaty talks - fell prey to the Polish meat row, the leaders tried to make much of the new Northern Dimension policy and Russia's decision to phase out fees for European airlines flying over Siberia by 2013.

The Northern Dimension deal - which will see the EU, Russia, Norway and Finland cooperate on issues such as decomissioning old Russian nuclear submarines and combatting rampant HIV in Murmansk - was hailed as a "new era" in EU-Russia cooperation by both Mr Vanhanen and Mr Barroso.

The EU's top diplomat Javier Solana more modestly called the northern pact a "new page", while adding he had a "frank and friendly" discussion with Mr Putin on Iran, Georgia, Moldova and Kosovo - four areas of international politics where Russian policy runs counter to the EU line.

"We have looked at the problems of the world with, probably, I would not make a mistake if I said, the same eyes," Mr Solana said.