5th Dec 2023

EU and Russia to sign trade memo amid US mockery

  • Medvedev (l) with EU commission head Barroso in Brussels on Tuesday (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The EU will partly lift its objection to Russia joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) at a summit on Tuesday (7 December), eight days before Russian courts give their verdict in the Khodorkhovsky trial in a process described by the US as "lipstick on a political pig."

The bilateral memorandum on the WTO to be signed at the summit in Brussels comes after Russia in November agreed to phase out tariffs on lumber and other raw materials. EU leaders are saying Russia could join the trade body in 2011. But other EU objections remain in the multilateral track of WTO talks, where Brussels wants Moscow to stop using phyto-sanitary rules to restrict imports and to improve intellectual property rights.

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Brussels will on Tuesday also tell Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he has a long way to go on improving technical standards, such as passport and border security, before any deal on visa-free travel.

Meanwhile, EU commission official Hugues Mingarelli and Russia's deputy minister for economic development Andrei Slepnev will put forward a "working programme" for the Partnership for Modernisation, an initiative to improve the rule of law in Russia and to encourage high-tech foreign firms to invest.

The prospect of WTO entry comes amid a broader reconciliation between Russia and its historic enemies. Nato in November invited Russia to take part in its missile defence scheme. And President Medvedev on a rare visit to Poland on Monday promised to open archives on the Soviet Union's 1940 massacre of Polish officers and intellectuals in Katyn.

Speaking at a conference in Warsaw the same day, the EU's neighbourhood policy commissioner Stefan Fuele said: "The EU's overarching goal is to bind Russia into a rules-based international and multilateral order, including the WTO, because transparency and predictability are the key to good economic and political relations."

The Czech politician added: "We need to recognise that the psychological process of reconciliation following the Cold War has to run its course ... Recent Polish-Russian efforts in this respect are of crucial relevance here and I hope further progress will also be possible between Russia and its other neighbours."

The Brussels summit, a regular twice-yearly affair, falls just a few days before Russian judges on 15 December give their verdict in the trial of anti-Kremlin Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkhovsky.

With a guilty verdict widely expected, a recently leaked cable by the US embassy in Moscow in 2009 described what most EU officials and diplomats dealing with Russia really think about the case. Entitled "Rule of law lipstick on a political pig," the cable said: "It shows the effort that the GOR [government of Russia] is willing to expend in order to save face, in this case by applying a superficial rule-of-law gloss to a cynical system where political enemies are eliminated with impunity."

EU officials regularly ask questions about Mr Khodorkhovsky in the so-called EU-Russia human rights consultations which take place in Brussels two weeks before each summit. The Russian side gives boiler-plate answers and refuses to bring along relevant interior ministry officials or to give access to the talks to NGOs.

An EU diplomat told EUobserver the November edition of the consultations was no different. He added that: "In his annual address [on Russian TV last week] Medvedev stressed the modernisation partnership, in which they see visas and technology, but no rights. Russia is aiming at a modernisation parnership which has no clear legal framework."

The "lipstick on a pig" cable is one of several leaked US notes which depict Russia as a "mafia state" where businessmen bring suitcases of cash to the Kremlin and where the secret service, the FSB, even murders non-compliant businessmen.

The US note which annoyed Russia the most so far spoke of EU summiteer Medvedev as a sidekick to Mr Putin, calling him "Robin" after the Batman cartoons, and a "Lilliputian" after the little people in the book Gulliver's Travels. Another note said that Mr Putin during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war kept EU commission President Jose Manuel Barroso out of key meetings and saw him as "a glorified international civil servant not worthy to be in the Czar's [presence]."

Fresh cables released on the morning of the EU summit also show the limits of the Nato-Russia and Poland-Russia detente. The notes indicate that Nato in November adopted a German-backed Contingency Plan on how to repel a Russian invasion from the Baltic States and Poland, involving nine Nato divisions to be deployed via Polish Baltic Sea ports.

The Kremlin's main PR agency in Brussels, GPlus, is playing down the importance of the leaks.

"These allegations are nothing new and they contain no evidence. It's like putting old rumours in a dryer and pressing the button to spin them round again," a GPlus contact said.

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