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Putin Defends His Stance on Georgia

LAHTI, Finland -- President Vladimir Putin on Friday defended his government's tough stance on Georgia and dodged EU leaders' demands that he commit to a legally binding energy charter that would guarantee better access to Russia's oil and gas fields.

The 25 European Union leaders, meeting with Putin over dinner following a one-day summit on energy, also grilled the president over the recent killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, an apparent execution-style slaying that EU leaders raised as an example of slipping human rights in Russia.

Putin called her death "a brutal murder" and pledged to hunt down her killers, diplomats said.

Putin sidestepped European appeals for moderation on Georgia, however, and said he was acting to prevent conflict between Georgia and the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have close ties to Russia.

"To our great sorrow and concern, the situation is developing in the direction of possible bloodshed," Putin told reporters.

He accused Georgia of trying to take back the two regions "by military means. This is what you and I should be afraid of ... bloodshed in that region."

Georgia's foreign minister accused Putin of deliberately misrepresenting the tensions between Georgia and Russia, and insulting the intelligence of his European colleagues.

"The government of Georgia and the people of Georgia have no intention to use force against its citizens as repeatedly stated," Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told reporters in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

"This is pure fiction and the Russian president knows this, but chooses to presume that the international community is ignorant," he said.

The summit's host, Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, confronted Putin on human rights and democracy in Russia, as well as on EU concerns about Moscow's protracted military campaign in Chechnya, officials and diplomats said.

"It was a tough message," Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus said. But Putin "was very forceful" in defending his administration's Chechen policy.

EU leaders spent Friday in the lakeside town of Lahti, north of Helsinki, forging a united front on energy before meeting with Putin.

The leaders of the European Union, which already depends on Russia for one-quarter of its energy, urged Putin to implement a legally binding energy charter that would ensure supplies of Russian oil and gas for Europe.

The EU is anxious to secure future supplies of oil and gas from Russia, but concerned about Moscow's reliability as a source at a time of questions about backsliding on democracy in increasingly authoritarian Russia.

Last winter, a dispute with Ukraine led Moscow to turn off the taps temporarily, disrupting natural gas supplies for several EU nations.

"From the economic point of view, we demand that Russia be a stable and reliable supplier," Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said.

The 25 EU leaders succeeded in coming up with a common stance on how to approach Russia on energy, but Putin disagreed with their views, Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said.

"The European Union was speaking in one voice -- one single voice -- and of course, Russia wasn't speaking in the same voice," he said with a laugh.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso urged Moscow to implement the international energy charter that would give independent producers access to Russia's closely guarded export pipelines and set more transparent rules as well as provide safeguards for investors.

Putin, however, refused to commit to the charter.

"The leaders of Russia and the EU have once again confirmed that energy cooperation should be based on ... the mutual responsibility of producers and consumers of energy resources, and on the security of vital energy infrastructure," Putin said at a news conference following the talks.

But "we believe that certain provisions of the charter should be defined better," Putin said.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said Friday's talks with Putin were just the start of a wider discussion on EU's partnership with Moscow. The two sides meet again Nov. 24 for an EU-Russia summit.

"We are not through discussing energy yet," he said. "You scratch your head if you see how business is conducted there."

(The Moscow Times 23.x.06)

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