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10th Dec 2022

Energy quarrel, topless protest mark EU-Russia summit

  • Femen activists outside the summit venue (Photo: femen.org)

A lively disagreement on energy and a protest by four topless women marked the end of the EU-Russia summit in Brussels on Friday (21 December).

In a rerun of a similar dispute between Russian leader Vladimir Putin and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso in Brussels last year, the two men traded verbal blows on the EU's third energy package.

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The law came into force in March 2011.

In what is known as its "Gazprom clause" or "unbundling," it says that Russia's energy champion must sell off its gas distribution assets in Europe to prevent it from using its dominant market position to keep out competition and dictate prices.

Putin told media the law is "uncivilised."

He added: "I believe that the third energy package which applies retroactively is a clear violation of article 34 of the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement [an old EU-Russia treaty] ... It amounts to a confiscation of Russian investment in some EU countries."

Barroso said: "Your companies are most welcome in the EU market. But they have to respect fully our rules and this is important to understand. We have the rule of law and today part of this is the third energy package."

Putin retorted: "My good old friend Mr Barroso outlined his position in such great detail, so emotionally, because he knows he is wrong ... Please look at our agreement, article 34. Read it."

The two men then left the press briefing smiling, with Barroso patting Putin on the back.

Visas and human rights had also caused friction earlier on.

Putin claimed he has fulfilled all the technical standards on border control and document security for a visa-free pact, but said the EU lacks the "political will" to go ahead.

He noted that Russian tourists are good for the Union because they spent €18 billion in shops and restaurants there last year.

"I have a long list of states here with me which have a visa-free regime with the EU. There is Venezuela, Honduras, Mauritius, Mexico - seems everyone else is there," he added.

But Barroso stuck to plans to do a more modest visa facilitation deal first, reducing paperwork and costs of entry for Russian officials, students and NGOs.

He noted that EU countries gave 5.3 million visas to Russians last year and that visitor numbers are up 62 percent. "This ... means the system works relatively smoothly," he said.

Barroso and EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy voiced polite concern about Putin's recent crackdown on NGOs.

Van Rompuy noted: "I mentioned other cases, including the case of Sergei Magnitsky."

The Magnitsky affair - concerning a Russian anti-corruption activist who was killed in jail in 2009 - has prompted calls by MEPs and MPs to put officials linked to his death on an EU travel ban list. The US' recent decision to ban them from America outraged the Kremlin.

Putin made no reference to Magnitsky.

Instead, he accused the EU of mistreatment of Russophones in the Baltic states and of doing nothing to stop right-wing politicians in the region from "glorifying" Nazis.

Meanwhile, events outside the summit venue also drew attention to Putin's darker side.

Four topless women from the Ukraine-based Femen group, better known for protests against the sex industry in their home country, painted anti-Putin slogans, such as "Apocalypse of democracy ... Deal with devil" on their chest, and yelled "Putin go to hell!" before Belgian police bundled them off.

The word "apocalypse" referred to the purported Mayan doomsday on 21 December 2012.

The summit touched on two other topical issues: Cyprus and Syria.

Putin said Russia might contribute to an EU bailout of Cyprus (which recently opened a probe into alleged laundering of Russian mafia money): "We don't rule out the possibility of joining any solution aimed at stabilizing the situation in Cyprus."

Amid daily rebel gains in Syria, he spoke of his old ally, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, in the past tense.

He said Russia's main concern is: "What is there going to be in Syria [after al-Assad falls]? How are the concerns of all Syrians going to be taken into account, all the different ethnic and religious groups? How will Syria be governed?"

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