EU and Russia launch new talks on former Soviet states
The EU and Russia have launched new talks to reassure the Kremlin that free trade pacts with former Soviet countries will not harm Russia’s economic interests.
EU officials made the announcement at a summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Brussels on Tuesday (28 January).
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They launched the “technical-level bilateral consultations” in the context of the uprising in Ukraine, which erupted after the country abandoned an EU trade treaty following Russian threats.
EU Council chairman Herman Van Rompuy said they did not discuss Ukraine in detail because they talked about broader EU-Russia relations instead.
But a slip of the tongue indicated what he thinks about the gravity of the situation.
“We didn’t enter into details of the very recent revolutions, even evolutions, in Ukraine,” he said.
For his part, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso indicated the new consultations will have a political mission despite their “technical” nature.
“We need to change the perception that one region’s gain is another region’s pain. We are against the mentality of bloc against bloc,” he said.
But Putin noted he continues to mistrust the EU initiative.
“There is a need for us to check our watches, so to speak, to bring our experts together to review existing misunderstandings,” he said.
“Our reading of the [EU-Ukraine] agreement … was that it looks like a back door to infiltrate our automotive industry,” he added, referring to treaty provisions that EU car exports to Ukraine could be re-exported to Russia tariff-free if it went ahead.
The press briefing is likely to have disappointed Ukrainian activists looking for EU support.
The new bilateral talks sound similar to a previous proposal to hold trilateral talks between the EU, Russia and Ukraine, giving Russia a role in deciding the future of its former Soviet dominions.
Neither Van Rompuy or Barroso challenged Putin when he said the EU should not interfere in Ukraine by speaking to protesters in Kiev, or when he linked activists to racism and anti-Semitism.
They also stayed silent when he made fresh, albeit veiled, threats about Ukraine’s economy.
Asked if Russia will uphold its recent deal on lower gas prices if the opposition comes to power, he said he cannot guarantee it because he agreed the terms with Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who resigned on Tuesday.
He also noted that Ukraine owes him $2.7 billion in gas debts.
On the situation inside Russia, Van Rompuy said they did not discuss human rights abuses because the issue is handled by regular meetings of low-level officials.
Amid some EU leaders’ plans to boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next month, he added: “I expressed my best wishes for a successful Winter Olympics in Sochi.”
The two sides signed a joint declaration on combating terrorism.
They also voiced hope the EU and Russia could conclude a new bilateral accord, replacing the 1990s treaty which currently governs relations, by June.
Barroso admitted that Tuesday's talks did not amount to much.
Noting that the EU and Russia have not even agreed how to handle fees for European airlines flying over Siberia to Asia since the problem arose in 2004, he said: “It’s not spectacular. I’m sorry.”
But he defended the practice of holding twice-yearly meetings: “This should not be considered as a show. It’s a process where two mature partners discuss issues on which they are close, and on which they are not so close.”
Speaking to EUobserver earlier this month, Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski also underlined that EU countries, such as Poland, and Russia have a “booming commercial relationship.”
But he spoke more frankly on divisive issues than Van Rompuy or Barroso.
“We think it is unacceptable for Russia to put the kind of pressure that she did on Ukraine,” he said.
He added that fine words in summits or in EU strategy papers on Russia rarely amount to much: “The real problem with [our] Russia policy is that we agree and declare one thing, and then some member states and institutions do something else."