Mini-incident marks EU-Russia meeting
06.02.09 @ 18:40
BRUSSELS - An EU-Russia meeting designed to improve post-gas crisis ties went wrong on Friday (6 January), when European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso clashed with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over human rights.
A visibly angry Mr Putin during a press conference in Moscow censured the commission chief for having discussed "legal matters" with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in a bilateral meeting in his absence earlier the same day.
"We need to discuss the full range of problems - both in Russia and in Europe - in order to be able to solve them," Mr Putin said, accusing EU states of themselves mistreating Russian ethnic minorities, prisoners and migrants.
"In [EU] public opinion there is some concern regarding some recent events that happened in Russia. Namely, the murder of some journalists and some rights activists," Mr Barroso replied in bullish tones. "Human rights and rule of law are much more important than diplomacy between two states."
The unusual exchange comes after the recent slaying, in broad daylight in the Russian capital, of lawyer Stanislav Markelov and reporter Anastasiya Baburova, who investigated state killings and torture in North Caucasus.
Mr Barroso had flown over with nine commissioners to meet with the Russian government in the first such high-profile event since 2005.
The diplomatic mission came in the wake of the January gas crisis, which also saw the commission chief use strong language, at one point saying Russian and Ukrainian leaders were less trustworthy than some African states.
Russia's invasion and partition of EU ally Georgia last August had already complicated relations. But the then French EU presidency tried to restore business as usual amid fears that a rupture could hurt EU trade and geopolitical interests.
Mr Putin on Friday also said that EU monitors overlooking Russian gas flows via Ukraine should stay in place "until the end of the first quarter 2009."
The team, made up mostly of delegates from EU energy firms, arrived in Russia on 10 January and was originally asked to leave by both Moscow and Kiev after gas flows restarted on 19 January.
A lower-level EU delegation including external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner also visited Kiev earlier this week, urging political stability and faster reforms.
The timing of the visit proved unfortunate. The same day, a punch-up broke out in the country's parliament during a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, forcing the iron lady to scurry for shelter among her party's deputies.