Russia-EU summit to focus on energy, Syria
BRUSSELS (AP) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin focused on energy relations with the European Union at a summit of leaders Friday that is also expected to address the Syrian crisis and human rights.
For Putin, the main issue in Friday's talks is EU energy market regulations, which Moscow has described as discriminatory against Russia's state-controlled Gazprom gas company.
European officials have warned Gazprom that it would have to allow third-party gas producers to use the prospective South Stream pipeline to comply with its new regulations. The EU's Third Energy Package bans suppliers from owning transit facilities such as pipelines. Europe gets about a quarter of its gas from Russia.
Putin strongly criticized the EU energy regulations as he sat down for talks with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, saying its application to earlier agreements is "uncivilized." "It creates confusion and undermines confidence in our mutual work," he said.
Gazprom is also facing an EU probe to determine whether it violated competition rules by linking gas prices with prices for oil.
Russia has argued that South Stream, which will run under the Black Sea and circumvent the US- and the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline project, should be exempt from the market regulations. The pipeline's construction began earlier this month.
Alexander Konovalov, the head of the Institute for Strategic Assessment and Analysis, an independent Moscow-based think tank, Russia's chances of winning any concessions for Gazprom look slim as the EU's effort to diversify routes of supply has reduced Moscow's room to maneuver.
"The EU already has done a lot to diversify sources of energy supply, and it will continue doing so," he said. "Moscow will find it increasingly difficult to use gas as an instrument of political and economic pressure."
Another hotly contested subject at the negotiations would be Russia's increasingly impatient push for visa-free travel with EU countries. While the EU has argued that Russia's porous frontiers with its ex-Soviet neighbors make visa-free travel impossible just yet, the Kremlin has criticized EU officials for dragging their feet on the issue for years.
Putin pointed at the EU's visa-free travel agreements with 40 other nations across the world, saying that Brussels refusal to strike such a deal with Russia has negatively affected relations. "The lack of free communications between people is a factor that hampers the development of our ties," he said.
Syria is expected to dominate the discussion of international issues.
Russia has backed its last Middle East ally since an uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began in March 2011, using its veto power along with China at the U.N. Security Council to block three resolutions containing sanctions against Damascus.
But shortly before leaving for Brussels, Putin told a news conference that Russia recognizes the need for change in Syria. That did not appear to herald a change in policy, but added to the perception that Russia regards Assad's days as numbered.
The EU officials will likely raise issues related to a tough course on dissent Putin has taken since his inauguration in May for a third presidential term, which included arrests and searches of opposition activists and repressive laws aimed against protesters and non-government organizations.
Konovalov said Russia's rights record has adversely affected its ties with Europe. "The lack of trust doesn't help encourage business activities and develop contacts," he said.
Outside the European Council building in Brussels on Friday morning, journalists saw four topless female demonstrators, apparently members of the feminist protest group FEMEN, wrestled to the ground by police and taken away.
Brussels police did not immediately confirm the arrests.
In a move that appears to reflect Moscow's desire to avoid further criticism at the summit, the Kremlin-controlled lower house postponed a debate on a controversial bill that would introduce sanctions for providing minors with information on homosexuality, which it termed "homosexual propaganda." Similar laws passed by regional legislatures in several Russian provinces caused dismay in the EU.
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