– Vladimir Putin presses EU on visas but holds firm on Syria (Guardian, June 4, 2012):
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has said the European Union must ditch its “stereotypes” about Russia and called for swift progress on visa-free travel between his country and the EU at a summit overshadowed by the crisis in Syria.
Putin’s stance on Syria and his appetite for closer ties with Russia’s largest trading partner were in the spotlight at his first meeting with the EU since he returned to the Kremlin last month for a six-year term.
Moscow has resisted western efforts to condemn the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and remove him from power during 15 months of bloodshed. Western nations blame Assad’s forces for the deaths of at least 9,000 people.
Both Russia and Europe say they still support Kofi Annan’s UN-backed peace plan, but EU countries would like Russia to press Assad harder to abide by a ceasefire demanded by the plan, and want him to step aside as part of a political transition.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said on Sunday the crisis had reached a “critical point” and that Russia’s role was crucial to any solution.
Russia says it is not protecting Assad, who has given Moscow its firmest Middle East foothold, but insists that the Syrian leader’s exit cannot be a precondition for political dialogue.
Putin focused on the Russia-EU relationship on Monday, saying they should push for progress towards a new framework pact after four years of talks.
“We have a good opportunity to set out our strategic goals in this document and lay out a long-term plan for co-operation,” he said at the talks in the imperial-era Constantine Palace on the outskirts of his home town of St Petersburg.
But he also called for a “pragmatic, businesslike approach without any ideological or other stereotypes”, a veiled warning to the EU to treat Russia as an equal and steer clear of preaching on political issues.
Russia and the EU are deeply intertwined, with Europe relying heavily on Russian energy exports and Russia buying EU products from German cars to Italian olive oil and Scandinavian furniture for its growing middle class.
But they wrangle over energy supplies, trade and market access to human rights, hampering efforts to agree a new framework pact.
Russia has criticised EU regulations designed to liberalise its gas market by barring suppliers including Russian giant Gazprom from controlling transit pipelines.
Putin, who is keen to shed the image of Russia as an unwelcome neighbour, has long pursued the goal of visa-free travel for Russians to the EU.
“A true partnership is impossible when there is a visa barrier,” he said at the start of the talks with the European council president, Herman Van Rompuy, and the European commission president, José Manuel Barroso.
The criticism over market access cuts both ways. Russia is to join the World Trade Organisation this year, binding it to global rules, but the EU wants the Kremlin to lower barriers for western companies and investment by curbing corruption and improving the rule of law.
Some EU officials are concerned Putin’s return to the presidency will signal greater state interference in the economy and slower reforms.
Putin, who has faced the biggest opposition protests of his rule, has warned against western meddling and has emphasised integration among former Soviet republics is a chief priority.
He made Belarus the first foreign destination of his new term, backing an authoritarian leader under EU sanctions. He leaves for Uzbekistan following the summit.
Putin ceded no ground on Syria in remarks during visits to Berlin and Paris on Friday, pointing instead to rebel violence, criticising sanctions and saying political decisions could not be forced upon the country from outside.
Ashton, who met the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on Sunday, said the EU wanted to work closely with Russia “to find a way to end the violence” and that Russia’s role was “crucial for the success of Annan’s plan”.
The statement said she spoke to Annan by phone on Sunday and that they agreed the crisis had reached a “critical point”.
Lavrov set a constructive tone in his own phone call with Annan, saying that to support the plan Moscow “will be ready to consider various scenarios of further work” that would help to co-ordinate international efforts on Syria, his ministry said.
However, when asked whether he expected the summit to narrow the gap on Syria, Lavrov told reporters: “I don’t think so.”