Tuesday

12th Nov 2019

Visas and trade to dominate 'yet another' EU-Russia summit

  • Medvedev (l): the lame duck president will step aside to let Putin back into power in March (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Visas and trade look set to dominate a meeting between EU officials and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Brussels on Thursday (15 December) despite appeals to hold him to account on rigged elections.

The meeting will take place a few days after tens of thousands of Russians on the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg called for Russian Prime Minister Valdimir Putin to step down in the biggest protest of its kind in 20 years.

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Another rally is being planned for Christmas Eve unless the election is held again.

A pre-summit EU press release notes that EU presidents Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso will "discuss human rights and democracy issues, including elections for the state Duma" after international monitors flagged problems with the vote.

EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton also told MEPs in Strasbourg on Tuesday that she "welcomes" Medvedev's pledge to launch an inquiry and urged Russia to hold "smooth and fair" presidential elections in March.

For his part, Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov in Brussels on Monday gave press a foretaste of the kind of replies that Medvedev might make.

"There were [also] parallel protests in support of the president and the prime minister ... all these are expressions of democracy," he said. "There is one concern for the authorities - abiding by the law. And I can assure you that the laws regulating protests and rallies are no different to those in EU countries."

For Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian prime minister who now leads the Parnas opposition party, the EU risks losing an opportunity to play a part in what could be a turning point for his country.

"The EU should clearly say that the elections were not free and fair and that they expect something to be done about it. People in Russia need to hear this. Then it will be up to us to take the next step," he told EUobserver from Strasbourg on Tuesday.

He described Ashton's language as "weak" and "not political enough" even though her statement is the strongest to come out of the EU so far.

Few ordinary Russians believe the Medvedev inquiry will be genuine - within hours of making the announcement his Facebook page got over 12,000 comments, most of them negative and some calling him "liar."

The EU presidents' pledge to discuss human rights is also open to question.

UK firm Hermitage Capital - the former employer of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in jail in 2009 after exposing high-level tax fraud - last week published evidence that Russia's investigation into the case is a whitewash.

When asked by EUobserver if the new information will come up at the summit, an EU foreign relations spokeswoman said "the official [Russian] investigation has to be brought to a full conclusion" before Brussels can take a stand.

The good news is that Russia will in Geneva on Friday sign up to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) after 18 years of talks.

The EU hopes this will end some commercial disputes, such as Siberian overflight fees for EU airlines, provide "impetus" for stalled talks on a new EU-Russia treaty and help cultivate respect for rules in general.

Apart from congratulating Medvedev on the move, the EU will on Thursday also agree a set of "common steps" for visa-free travel.

WTO ratification is expected to take until mid-2012 and the visa talks are likely to take years. But EU countries are this week also planning to let Poland and Russia drop visas right away for people living near the border of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, adding to the feel-good factor.

On foreign policy, Chizhov said Russia will repeat warnings for EU countries to avoid military action in Iran and Syria.

On the financial crisis, he said Russia is "considering" giving more money to the International Monetary Fund to help pay for EU bail-outs in a sign of the EU's weakened position on the international stage.

The veteran diplomat - this will be his 26th EU summit - alluded to the open secret that neither the EU nor Russia want to hold two summits a year but are bound to under the terms of their old bilateral treaty.

Chizhov referred to the event as "yet another EU-Russia summit", adding: "It is somewhat difficult to expect every summit to act as a major reassessment of bilateral relations."

This article was updated on 14 December to add new quotes from Kasyanov and Ashton

Putin's return poses questions for EU strategy

Germany and Poland have said the EU should co-operate more closely with Russia despite calls by liberal MEPs and the Russian opposition for a confrontational approach.

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