As expected, the deteriorating situation in Syria dominated discussion at the 29th EU-Russia summit in St Petersburg, given added urgency by the massacre of over 100 civilians in Houla just days before the formal talks began. The EU delegation increased their pressure on Russia to condemn the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and call for the withdrawal of heavy armour from Syrian cities. Moscow, however, which has already twice vetoed UN resolutions on Syria as too critical and “unbalanced”, refuses to entertain the possibility of Assad’s removal from power, instead voicing support for the peace plan devised by UN envoy Kofi Annan. Among other measures, this calls for an end to violence by all sides and for peace talks coordinated by an international envoy – an approach which Moscow, which has maintained its belief in the equal culpability of rebel forces for the violence, can condone. Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, said in a statement after meeting Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov: “We want to work closely with Russia to find a way to end the violence and support Kofi Annan’s six-point plan … Russia’s role is crucial”.
President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, focused on the relationship between his country and the EU. He acknowledged the depth and importance of links between the two sides, which include a sizeable chunk of trade revenue, but gave no ground on the questions of visa regimes, energy exports, or the long-awaited new partnership agreement. He criticised current travel arrangements, arguing that “A true partnership is impossible when there is a visa barrier”, and mentioned the Russian journalists who had covered his visits to France and Germany last week with only 24-hour visas: “Because we started the news conference fairly late in the evening, their visas were under threat of running out. Were they supposed to stand up and leave?”
The EU, however, remains wary of increased economic migration and a rise in drug and people trafficking, which it sees as a dangerous possibility under a visa-free regime.
Monday’s summit was the first since Putin’s return to the presidency and the largest protests Russia has seen in 20 years, and political and human rights were thus high on the agenda for the EU delegation. Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, stressed the wider value of civil society development: “Greater engagement of civil society opens opportunities for the further development of political institutions and pluralism in Russia which should not be missed … Civil society was a force of progress in our own history and it can be one in yours, in Russia’s”. At the final press conference of the summit, Putin maintained that he wants political protests in Russia to take place within the “norms of European law that are applied in many European countries to regulate such events”. How this statement will be reconciled with the new law on protest fines recently passed by the Duma has not been clarified; under the new regulations, penalties for participation in unauthorised demonstrations will be increased to as much as 300,000 rubles (£5956) for individuals and 600,000 rubles (£11,913) for organisations.
The Russian President also took the opportunity to defend the jailing of former Yukos boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky, citing a 2011 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which found no definite evidence of political motivation for Khodorkovsky’s arrest and conviction.
The new EU-Russia partnership agreement, which has been under discussion for the last four years, appears to be no closer to completion after the summit, despite statements from both sides of the importance of concrete progress. The EU is asking Moscow to lower trade barriers for European companies and put more stringent measures in place to tackle corruption in the business world. Russia, however, believes this would be tantamount to granting special treatment to European companies, contrary to commitments undertaken when Russia joined the World Trade Organisation last year. That eventual ratification of the agreement may depend on more than the resolution of bilateral trade and investment issues was suggested by President Putin’s comment that the EU should take a “pragmatic, businesslike approach without any ideological or other stereotypes”, perhaps hinting that criticism on political matters will not be accepted.
There have been early indications that the newly re-elected president’s foreign policy focus will be on promoting closer links among the states of Russia’s “near abroad”, with a visit to Belarus just before the summit and one to Uzbekistan immediately afterwards. Moscow appears keen to pursue this goal, which includes the strengthening of the nascent Eurasian Union, alongside the development of its relationship with the EU.
source: LINKS Analysis with agency reports