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EU-RUSSIA: Arms Overshadow Talks

Analysis by David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Nov 15 2008 (IPS) - Brinkmanship over weapons overshadowed a summit between the European Union and Russia held in the French city Nice Nov. 14.

Although the EU had agreed earlier in the week to resume talks on deepening its relationship with Moscow that had been suspended in protest at Russia’s military incursions into Georgia during August, the summit took place in an atmosphere of tension.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy who hosted the event voiced his unease with a recent threat by his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev to station Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian territory that borders the EU countries Poland and Lithuania.

“We really must move forward to remove sources of friction,” Sarkozy said, adding that no deployment of the missiles should take place before discussions on the challenges for European security take place. Such talks – facilitated by the continent-wide Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe – are planned for next year.

Medvedev had announced his intention to deploy the short-range weapons nine days earlier, at a time when the world’s press was focused on the election of Barack Obama as the new U.S. president. Russia claims that the move is being taken in response to recent accords that the U.S. reached with Poland and the Czech Republic on establishing a missile defence shield in central and eastern Europe.

“Russia has never taken unilateral steps,” Medvedev maintained. “All these measures taken by us, including the measures which I announced recently, have been a response to the actions of individual countries in Europe which, without consulting anyone, have agreed on hosting new military systems on their soil.”

Despite the EU’s announcement that it wishes to resume talks aimed at signing a new partnership and cooperation agreement with Russia, no firm date for negotiations was set. Sarkozy also used the occasion to reiterate demands that Russia withdraw its remaining troops from Georgia to positions held before the war in August.

Human Rights Watch has argued that the resumption of dialogue should be conditional to the Russian government reversing the pattern of repression it set under Medvedev’s predecessor and mentor Vladimir Putin.

Among the benchmarks recommended are that Russia lifts the onerous restrictions it has placed on the activities of non-governmental organisations and that it honours judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg-based court has delivered over 50 judgments in recent years against the conduct of Russian troops in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

These verdicts found Russia responsible for torture, the ‘disappearance’ of civilians, and extrajudicial executions. While compensation has been paid to many of the victims, the authorities have rejected court orders that the abuses be thoroughly investigated.

Lotte Leicht, Brussels director with Human Rights Watch, said that Russia has declined to address the surrounding issues in top-level discussions with the Union. She suggested that the Union’s reluctance to be more assertive with Russia is at variance with official assurances that the Brussels institutions are wedded to such values as the protection of human rights and democracy.

“For a decade now the EU has said that its relationship with Russia is based on European values, but the EU hasn’t always followed through,” said Leicht. “Setting benchmarks would show the EU is serious about its human rights policy.”

Amnesty International urged the EU to raise the cases of journalists critical of the Kremlin who have died in suspicious circumstances. These include Magomed Evolev, owner of the website, who died in August in police custody.

“Eagerness to resume the negotiations suspended in September following the Russia-Georgia conflict should not lead to a softening of the EU’s commitment to speak out on the human rights problems that remain unaddressed by Russian authorities,” said Amnesty spokesman Nicolas Beger.

Energy issues are almost certain to figure strongly in the resumed talks.

One-third of gas and one-quarter of oil used in the EU comes from Russia. But a new paper from the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, noted that Russia’s share of gas consumed in the Union has almost halved since 1980.

Pierre Noël, the paper’s author, said that “the gas relationship with Russia has become an extremely divisive issue among EU member states and is a major reason for the failure to develop an ambitious common foreign policy towards Moscow, at a time when Europe badly needs one.” While a business elite in Germany and Italy has developed a cosy relationship with the Russian energy giant Gazprom, Poland and Lithuania resent how dependent their economies are on Russian supplies.

The only way to reduce this dependence, according to Noël, is for the EU to build a properly integrated gas market of its own. But, he said, there is a marked resistance to ending the fragmentation of the current market from companies in France, Italy and Germany that have done well out of the existing arrangements.

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