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RUSSIA-EU

EU Takes 'Leap of Faith' in Medvedev

Russia and the European Union on Friday kicked off long-delayed talks on a new partnership pact after the EU appeared to concede to a key demand by President Dmitry Medvedev.

The EU seems to be taking a "leap of faith" in Medvedev, who was hosting his first EU-Russia summit, a political analyst said. The visiting EU leaders refused to compare Medvedev with his often blunt-speaking predecessor, Vladimir Putin, but they clearly were impressed with Medvedev and spoke warmly of him.

"The first summit with Medvedev was indeed a very good and constructive one," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters after three hours of talks Friday.

"I really enjoyed this first contact I had with you," he told Medvedev later at the news conference.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who was notably absent from last year's summit near Samara, said: "Today has been a good day."

But tensions rose between Russia and Estonia at a post-summit conference, threatening to cast a shadow on the summit's gains and possibly complicating the talks over the partnership agreement.

The current partnership agreement, signed in 1997, has been described as outdated, and negotiations on developing a new agreement were delayed for 18 months due to opposition by Poland and Lithuania. The current agreement will be in force until a new one is adopted, and both Russian and EU officials say that could take months, if not years.

After Friday's negotiations, Medvedev exuded confidence as he praised the start of the talks but cautioned that many hurdles lie ahead.

Medvedev began the news conference by stressing that the new partnership treaty will be a "rather short" framework agreement, followed by a series of "sector agreements."

Going into the summit, Russia had said it wanted a framework agreement to be followed by a series of additional, more detailed agreements, while the EU had said it would prefer a detailed pact spelling out terms of cooperation in the energy sector, among other things.

Medvedev's announcement indicated that the EU had agreed to concede. A joint statement released to reporters said the sides agreed to "conclude a strategic agreement that will provide a comprehensive framework" for EU-Russia ties.

EU officials sought to put a positive spin on acquiescence, saying Moscow and Brussels were on the same page. Speaking on the sidelines of the summit, EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said he did not see a difference between the comprehensive agreement the EU had wanted and the "serious" framework agreement that Medvedev had proposed. Marc Franco, head of the European Commission's delegation to Russia, said talks on the additional, more detailed agreements could begin simultaneously with those on the main pact. The first round of talks will start July 4.

The summit and the fact that the EU agreed to a framework pact, albeit with a series of additional agreements, is largely a victory for Moscow and also "a leap of faith in Medvedev," said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"Suddenly it turns out we can reach agreements," he said.

The cordial mood at Friday's talks stood in striking contrast with last year's summit, which was hosted by then-President Putin and was suffused with acrimony and mutual accusations.

Medvedev's more cooperative tone has helped the country's efforts to reach out significantly, Malashenko said, brushing aside concern by some analysts that the substance of Russia's policies will not change under Medvedev.

Still, taking a cue from Putin's rhetoric, Medvedev on Friday criticized U.S. plans to place elements of a missile-defense shield in Central Europe and what he described as Western attempts to rewrite history and glorify fascism. But he lacked the prickly tone and sharp delivery typical of Putin, his mentor who now serves as prime minister.

Putin stayed away from Khanty-Mansiisk, leaving less fodder for speculation that he — and not his protege — is calling the shots in the country. Then-Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov attended last year's summit in Volzhsky Utyos, near Samara.

Medvedev said he and EU officials had discussed the possibility of a future summit that could produce a new European security pact — a proposal he first made in Berlin this month.

Existing security blocs — such as NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Collective Security Treaty Organization — are imperfect because they do not account for the interests of all European countries, Medvedev said.

Calling Europe "our common home," Medvedev said it was unacceptable that a single country was responsible for that home's security — an apparent reference to the United States.

Medvedev said countries like the United States and Canada would be welcome to participate in the proposed summit. "I have more optimism after today's conversation than before it," Medvedev said.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later explained that the proposed security summit should not be seen as a tool to weaken NATO but as an opportunity to mend security ties with the West.

"We want NATO to be part of the solution, not part of the problem," Lavrov said in a conference call with foreign reporters.

Solana said both sides had agreed to abstain from the use of force in the "frozen conflicts" of Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Moldova's Transdnestr.

"We talked about Georgia, and we are going to cooperate on Georgia; we talked about Moldova and we're going to cooperate on Moldova," he said.

Medvedev also said Russia would press on with its energy projects in Europe, describing plans to build the North Stream natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany as "a unifying, apolitical, commercially feasible project."

Barroso said the EU and Russia would be even more interdependent in the future but added that Russia needed to complete its WTO accession to unlock greater potential for economic cooperation.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the EU had also expressed its concern over the fate of BP's 50 percent stake in TNK-BP, Reuters reported.

Asked by a reporter to compare the atmosphere at this summit with last year's, EU officials declined direct comparisons between Putin and Medvedev.

Medvedev said drawing any "divisive lines" was unnecessary. "I would depersonify this," he said. "The most important thing is what we do."

But EU officials spoke warmly of Medvedev at a separate news conference. "He seems to me to be a very open person who really wants to engage, he has a very open personality," Barroso said, Reuters reported.

Ferrero-Waldner said her first impressions were also positive. "We are now in a phase of retuning our relationship because there are new personalities," she said. "We do see this — I think sincere — wish to work together in a much closer way. We will have to see if this wish is translated into action."

As a gift to the foreign guests, Medvedev left autographed books of his amateur photographs in their rooms, The New York Times reported.

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, chalked up the success of the gathering to the fact that both the EU and Russian presidents spoke Slavic languages.

But a new dispute broke out between Estonia and Russia during a three-day Finno-Ugric conference in Khanty-Mansiisk. Estonian President Toomas Ilves said Saturday that some Finno-Ugric people have yet to embrace democracy and freedom — remarks that prompted a sharp protest from a senior State Duma deputy, Konstantin Kosachyov. Ilves, speaking through a spokesman, expressed surprise at the reaction and said he had been misunderstood. Tensions escalated Sunday when an Estonian delegation led by Ilves walked out of the conference to protest criticism by Kosachyov of Estonia's ethnic policies.

Barroso said at the summit Friday that all EU member states shared the same dignity toward all people. He also said that when the EU rejected Soviet totalitarianism, the criticism was not aimed against Russia.

Medvedev said at the summit that victory over fascism was Europe's "common asset."

(The Moscow Times 30.vi.08)

 
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