Congeniality dinner opens EU-Russia summit
Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his EU hosts avoided the prickly subjects - human rights, energy - at dinner in a stately home in Brussels on Thursday (20 December).
The event, hosted by EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, took place in the Val Duchesse estate on the outskirts of the EU capital, prior to official talks in the Council building on Friday morning.
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An EU source said the VIPs talked about the Arab Spring, Iran, the Middle East Peace Process, Syria and the economic crisis, but in general terms only.
Amid speculation if Russia thinks the Syrian regime is about to fall, Putin reportedly said that "Syria is about to face a transformation" and asked questions on "What will happen the day after? What is the real nature of the people in the opposition?"
For their part, Van Rompuy and Barroso told him about the EU's latest anti-crisis actions.
"Putin showed, I think, true appreciation of the EU measures and he talked a bit about the need to re-industrialise the Russian economy," the EU source noted.
"It provided a good atmosphere for the summit today ... They did not speak about any of the conflictual issues, such as human rights, energy, WTO [World Trade Organisation]. These will be discussed today," the contact said, referring to Russian trade barriers in some areas despite its joining the world trade body earlier this year.
"For the European councils, we tend to do it the other way around, we tackle the more sensitive issues at the informal dinners," the EU source added.
Russia's shortcomings on human rights are a regular issue in the twice-yearly meetings.
The current summit comes after a series of new Russian laws to crack down on civil society and just a few days after the US ratified the Magnitsky Act - a bill to impose visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials linked to the killing in 2009 of an anti-corruption activist.
On energy, the meeting comes after Barroso launched a price-fixing probe into Putin's energy champion, Gazprom, which could lead to a multi-billion-euro fine.
The heads of the four largest pan-European political parties - the centre-right EPP, the centre-left PES, the Liberals and the Greens - in an open letter to Van Rompuy and Barroso on Thursday said "we hope you will not be mincing words" with Putin on rights.
But the short summit has plenty of other subjects on the agenda.
Maja Kocijancic, the EU foreign affairs spokeswoman, told EUobserver it will look at progress on a new EU-Russia "partnership and co-operation" agreement, as well as visa facilitation and a string of other issues.
"We hope for good progress across a range of areas including ... satellite navigation co-operation; science co-operation; civil protection; counter-terrorism co-operation; the Northern Dimension Partnership on the transport and logistics fund; and on geographical indications for alcoholic beverages," she said.
Meanwhile, Putin and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov took a defensive line on rights in remarks to press earlier on Thursday.
Putin at a media conference in Moscow called one Russian reporter a "sadomasochist" for questioning plans to ban US citizens from adopting Russian children in retaliation for the Magnitsky law.
Amid activists' hopes the US legislation will prompt similar EU action, Lavrov said in an interview with the Euronews broadcaster that the US bill is "unnecessary and counterproductive."
He added the EU has human rights problems of its own.
"It is shameful and intolerable that ethnic Russians are denied citizenship in Europe, the cradle of Christian civilisation ... We are concerned about the lax attitude to attempts to present Nazis as heroes, rewrite history, discriminate against WWII veterans [in some eastern European countries]," he said.
Putin in his press conference also said: "I would not describe Russia's political system as authoritarian - this is the wrong term."
But one of his local chief's reactions to questions on instability in North Caucasus went in the opposite direction.
The reporter, from the Kadyrov's Path newspaper, asked Putin why Islamist violence has flared up again in the region.
The questions did not go down well with Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin's top man in Chechnya, who dubbed them "provocative" and shut down the publication a few hours after the Putin briefing ended.