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Putin Talks Energy With EU's Barroso

President Vladimir Putin met with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on Friday to discuss a new energy partnership amid European calls to diversify away from Russian supplies.

Putin warmly greeted Barroso at the start of a 3 1/2-hour meeting in the suburban residence where the president usually holds informal talks. "This evening, we will be able to discuss the entire complex of EU and Russia-related issues in an informal atmosphere," Putin said in introductory comments.

But the focus of the talks was firmly on bilateral energy relations, just over a week after Barroso outlined his vision for securing European energy supplies.

Presenting the commission's proposals in early March, Barroso spoke of the need for a "true partnership" with Russia, which provides one-quarter of Europe's natural gas. The EU is Russia's largest single energy consumer. The presentation came with European nerves still raw over a price dispute between Russia and Ukraine that interrupted gas supplies to Europe in January.

"The most sustained attention was devoted to securing global energy security, strengthening and diversifying relations in the energy field between Russia and the EU," presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky said Saturday, Interfax reported. "The Russian side emphasized that in many spheres -- but above all in terms of energy -- the EU is a key, longtime, high-priority partner. Russia intends in the future to fulfill its obligations in supplying energy resources to EU countries."

Putin stressed Russia's reliability as a long-term energy supplier while meeting with Group of Eight energy ministers on Thursday. Ministers from Germany, France and Italy said Thursday they had been forced to dip into national gas reserves during the Ukrainian gas crisis, but insisted they had faith in state giant Gazprom as a reliable gas supplier.

The EU strategy paper presented by Barroso in Brussels said a true partnership with Russia would involve reciprocal access to energy markets, as well as European access to gas pipelines, which Gazprom currently refuses to allow.

"The danger for Russia is that Europe, not liking Russia's tactics, essentially makes moves to limit" its Russian gas supplies, Al Breach, head of research at UBS, said by telephone Sunday.

"The European counter-strategy to a belligerent Russia is to go much more to liquefied natural gas and alternative energy sources -- nuclear, wind. That's not in Russia's national interests. ... Access to pipelines is a bargaining chip that's not in any way off the table, but it's going to be played in a very careful way."

An EU-Russia summit is scheduled to take place in Sochi in May, followed by the G8 Summit in July in St. Petersburg. Russia has declared global energy security to be the top priority of its G8 presidency this year. The current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement -- a 10-year legal framework setting out political, economic and trade relations between the EU and Russia -- is set to expire in 2007.

(The Moscow Times 20.iii.06)

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