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Financial Times: EU invitation to Putin a blunder, diplomats say

EXTRACT: The EU has many issues to raise, including the recent clash between Moscow and Royal Dutch Shell over the oil company’s alleged environmental breaches in the Sakhalin field and the decision of Gazprom, Russia’s gas monopoly, to reject foreign partners in the Shtokman project.

THE ARTICLE

By George Parker in Brussels: Published: October 15 2006 17:47 | Last updated: October 15 2006 17:47

Inviting Vladimir Putin to a European Union summit this week was a diplomatic blunder that could hand the Russian president a high-profile stage on which to exploit EU divisions, diplomats in Brussels are warning.

Mr Putin’s visit is expected to dominate the Lahti summit in Finland and has left some European leaders fearing the event could become a toe-curling exhibition of EU disunity in its relations with Moscow.

The Finnish EU presidency hopes Mr Putin’s visit will help to prepare the ground for next month’s EU-Russia summit, which will herald the start of talks on a new “strategic partnership” between the two neighbours, particularly in the energy field.

But some diplomats fear the Friday night dinner will see Europe’s 25 leaders promoting their own national interests, giving Mr Putin first-hand proof that the EU cannot act as a single powerful negotiating partner.

“You can easily imagine him saying with a smile at the end of the dinner that he has heard lots of different voices around the table,” said one EU diplomat. “That would be a disaster for the EU.”

Russia has proved adept at exploiting European divisions in the past, striking bilateral gas deals with several countries including Germany, and building warm relations with Paris. New member states such as Poland favour a much tougher relationship with Moscow.

The EU has many issues to raise, including the recent clash between Moscow and Royal Dutch Shell over the oil company’s alleged environmental breaches in the Sakhalin field and the decision of Gazprom, Russia’s gas monopoly, to reject foreign partners in the Shtokman project.

Matti Vanhanen, Finland’s prime minister, is also likely to raise concerns about tensions between Russia and Georgia and over the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

“The timing of this is awful,” admitted another diplomat. “We are making Putin the guest of honour and giving him a platform to give us a lecture on Gazprom and environmental policy.”

Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, said he hoped the meeting would be positive and pave the way for talks on a new partnership across the board.

But he told the Financial Times Mr Putin would not take criticisms of Russia lying down, and claimed the EU should stop trying to turn countries such as Ukraine away from Moscow by presenting them with an “artificial dilemma”.

“It’s either forwards with the EU or backwards with Russia,” he said. “It’s an artificial choice: it is false and it is dangerous.” He said European interference in Ukraine could provoke “centrifugal elements in the country”.

He suggested that Javier Solana, EU foreign policy chief, should have intervened to stop political unrest on the streets of Budapest, the Hungarian capital, last month, in the way he travelled to the Ukraine in the midst of the “Orange revolution”.

Mr Chizhov added that Mr Putin would not take lectures on human rights while ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia, two new EU members, were treated as “non-citizens”.

He also claimed that Estonia was being turned into “an SS hall of fame”, with memorials being erected to local soldiers who fought with the Germans against Soviet forces in the second world war. An Estonian government spokeswoman denied the allegation.

“The EU is doing nothing,” Mr Chizhov said. “We supported the accession of these countries to the EU and we hoped the ‘big brothers’ inside the EU would provide them with a certain calming – even educational – influence,” he said.

“So far this hasn’t produced the changes we were hoping for.”

Mr Chizhov admitted the murder of Ms Politkovskaya had harmed Russia’s image, and said the criminals involved should be tracked down. But he said: “The Russian authorities may have some deficiencies but they are not crazy people who get involved in murdering journalists.”

European leaders will also discuss EU innovation policy and measures to tackle illegal migration during the informal one-day meeting in Lahti.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

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