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26th Oct 2020

EU-Russia summit ends with prickly exchange over energy

Originally billed as an uneventful meeting on technical issues such as trade tariffs, the EU-Russia summit in the Far East on Friday (22 May) ended in open disagreement over foreign policy and energy security.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that the EU's new Eastern Partnership project to improve relations with six former-Soviet states risks enflaming political tensions.

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  • (From left to right) Mr Barroso, Mr Medvedev, Mr Klaus and EU top diplomat Javier Solana in Khabarovsk on Thursday (Photo: kremlin.ru)

"I'll put it succinctly. We tried to convince ourselves [that the EU project is harmless] but in the end we couldn't," he said, newswires report. "What worries us is that in some countries attempts are being made to exploit this structure as a partnership against Russia."

The Russian president said he had no intention of ratifying the Energy Charter Treaty, an EU-backed multilateral agreement on energy investment and transit rules which Moscow signed in 1994.

He indicated that Ukraine's inability to pay for Russian gas could end up in a repetition of the transit problems that saw millions of EU consumers cut off in January. But he refused to give reassurances that Russia is taking steps to prevent another outage.

"What for? There are no problems on our side. Everything is in order here," said Mr Medvedev, considered to be the more open and liberal face of the Kremlin.

For his part, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso ruled out abandoning the energy charter.

"We are open to discussing new proposals, but we should rely on existing agreements. We should not question the present energy security system in Europe," he said.

The summit had begun cordially on Thursday evening, with leaders in open-necked shirts attending a fireworks display and taking a boat ride on the Amur river.

Some commentators said that the venue, Khabarovsk, located 8,000 km away from Brussels and 30 km from the Chinese border, was intended to underline the vast stretch of Russia's domain. The Financial Times reported that Czech President Vaclav Klaus, the official head of the EU delegation, had asked to go to Khabarovsk because he had never been there before.

The trade side of the meeting also saw friction.

EU trade commissioner Catherine Ashton told Reuters that Brussels will not sign a new strategic pact with Russia unless it enters the World Trade Organisation (WTO) first, a condition that would require Russia to lift tariffs on Siberian overflights, timber exports and imports of cars, steel and milk.

"Russia needs to demonstrate it really is keen to move to WTO accession, and part of that is not imposing any new duties," she said.

The public criticisms are just the tip of the iceberg of EU concerns about Russia. EU officials also want Moscow to abide by peace accords signed in Georgia, take steps to secure the safety of ageing nuclear reactors and submarines, make good on promises to fight judicial corruption and tackle human rights abuses in its North Caucasus provinces.

Klaus gaffe

The Russophile President Vaclav Klaus stayed on message at the summit, repeating the EU lines that Russia is a "strategic partner" and that the Eastern Partnership "is not aimed against anybody."

But comments he made in Czech daily Lidove Noviny before the Khabarovsk meeting have caused anger inside the EU.

"I don't see Russia as a threat but as a big, strong and ambitious country to which we must certainly pay more attention than to the likes of Estonia and Lithuania," the paper quoted him as saying.

The Estonian foreign ministry on Friday summoned the Czech ambassador in Tallinn to explain the remarks, AFP reports.

"I believe I know President Klaus' words do not reflect the positions of the Czech people or the Czech government but I am surprised that such a regrettable phrase, which divides European countries into important and unimportant ones, were expressed by a Czech," Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said.

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