26th Apr 2019

EU ends 18-month-long deadlock over Russia

  • Vilnius' stubbornness in discussions over EU-Russia talks has paid off (Photo: European Commission)

The European Union and Russia are set to open long-delayed talks on a new "Partnership and Co-operation" pact in June, as 27 EU ambassadors agreed Wednesday (21 May) on a common position for the negotiations.

The negotiation process became hostage over the past few weeks to several demands tabled by Lithuania, described as "vital" for the entire union.

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Vilnius now says that all its concerns were taken into account, but the country's foreign minister, Petras Vaitekunas, has at the same time warned that Wednesday's deal is not the end of the story.

"Afterwards, there will be difficult talks with Russia, and after the agreement with Russia on the treaty is in place, there will be a long process of implementation of the treaty. This is the first step in the long road," Mr Vaitekunas said.

The Baltic country had demanded that the EU negotiating mandate - outlining what the European Commission's manoeuvring space would be during the talks with Moscow - reflect Vilnius' worries in the field of energy security, judicial co-operation and frozen conflicts in Georgia and Moldova.

"The issues Lithuania wanted in the mandate are vital to all of us, particularly that of energy," Mr Vaitekunas said, insisting that none of their demands were bilateral issues. "They have a wider bearing on building EU's partnership with Russia and our stance in particular negotiations".

Frozen conflicts

One of the sticking points was linked to Russia's involvement in its former territories, in particular in Georgia and Moldova.

Most recently, tensions are running high in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - both beyond Georgian government control for over a decade.

Tbilisi accuses Moscow of efforts to invade Abkhazia, with Abkhaz forces claiming to have shot down a number of Georgian unmanned spy planes. Russia in May announced plans to send an extra 1,000 peacekeepers to Abkhazia.

Lithuania managed to secure that the mandate will include an annex referring to the frozen conflicts and stating the EU's committment to monitor the situation on regular basis and stand ready to assist if needed.

However, one EU diplomat told EUobserver that majority of member states want to underline that this does not mean there is a link between the frozen conflicts and the progress of EU-Russia talks as such.

They are even considering the adoption of specific unilateral declarations ruling out any "conditionality".

Lithuania's demands were "over the top", the diplomat said.

Efforts to launch negotiations on a strategic partnership treaty between the EU and Russia, covering areas such as the economy, external security and justice and home affairs, date back to 2006.

Previously, the launch of negotiations had also been blocked by Poland as a result of a trade dispute. But Warsaw dropped its opposition after Moscow agreed to end its embargo on Polish exports of meat and other meat products.

All 27 EU foreign ministers still need to formally rubber stamp Wednesday's compromise deal on the negotiating mandate - a move expected next week (26-27 May).

EU-Russia partnership talks expected to last a year

EU foreign ministers have given the formal go-ahead to open EU-Russia talks on a new "Partnership and Co-operation" pact in June, putting a full-stop behind the 18-month-long impasse caused by Polish and Lithuanian complaints. But it is likely to take a year until the pact is actually up and running.

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