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Russia offers a sunset over Volga, the EU - a boat

Published on , , Sofia

"The Prime Minister of Canada said that to have a common border with the US was like sharing bed with an elephant. We share our bed with a bear. [...] I would like to invite the Commission to go to Nizhnyi Novgorod not just with a large pot of honey, but also with a big net". These words belong to Graham Watson, an MEP from the group of the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) in the European Parliament, uttered before the EU-Russia summit, during parliamentary debate.

Has the EU brought honey and what has it caught in the net in Nizhnyi Novgorod?

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy were in full harmony this time too, by showing romantic feelings and demonstrating warm relations with Dmitry Medvedev, President of Russia. "Inspiration is needed in politics, just as much as in poetry" - with these words of Alexander Pushkin, the president of the European Commission started his introductory remarks at the joint news conference with the host - Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev - and with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.

As an author of haiku Herman Van Rompuy got impressed by the sunset: "Thank you for bringing us to this historical city of Nizhnyi Novgorod in “deep” Russia. I am glad that we had the possibility to both experience the magic of the sunset over Volga last evening, and to have a substantial and successful summit today".

Two days earlier, Estonian MEP Kelam Tunne (EPP, Estonia) said during the debate in the European Parliament on the occasion of the EU-Russia summit, that the previous name of Nizhnyi Novgorod was Gorky and that this was the city where Sakharov was sent. She called on Sakharov's spirit to be followed "and not to forget what Kovalyov, the Sakharov prize laureate, said here two years ago - the EU should help Russia tackle its totalitarian legacy. Even Medvedev had to admit that there was not way Russia's terrible legacy to be avoided. I call on you not to forget the worst sides of Russian history, the atrocities of the regime of Stalin".

It is hard to say that this summit produced any news, but it could be said though, that Russia is still anticipating honey from the European Union and is not looking for it somewhere else. If this could be called a news, then it is definitely a good one. For Russia the EU is a strategic partner, "and the situation in the eurozone has an impact too on a number of the issues that we are working on within our country. As I said to our European Union partners, we are monitoring developments closely and hope that the current difficulties will be resolved", President Dmitry Medvedev said after Herman Van Rompuy answered a journalist's question on the topic.

Russia's expectations from the Union are two and the way Russia tabled them remind very much of the old Russian tale about Masha and the bear. Moscow is starting to lose patience regarding its candidacy for a World Trade Organisation membership - a process that has been going on for 17 years now. Currently there are intensive negotiations taking place, as Russia hopes to become a member by the end of the year - something which is being promised not only by the EU but also by the other influential G8 members. And although no one is recognising it officially, the developed world is using Russia's striving for WTO membership as a tool to get something in return, as practically the West does not have a lot of leverage to use in its relations with pragmatically-oriented Putin-Medvedev Russia.

Moreover, Russia also has in its sleeve a very strong trump-card, which is the country's second wish - energy. For Russia the third energy package, adopted by the European Union with the aim of liberalising the internal market of energy, is a thorn on Moscow's eyes. Again responding to a media question, Dmitry Medvedev said: "The main thing for Russia is that the European Union and European Commission’s implementation of this resolution does not have a negative effect for Russian investors, as my colleague just mentioned, or for European companies and the citizens of European countries. We therefore need to weigh up exactly how all of this will unfold on the European markets, and not just blindly implement prior decisions", the Russian president noted.

He added that Russia still had concerns on the matter but hoped that because of the willingness Russia's concerns to be heard by the EU, a common solution could be found. According to Jose Manuel Barroso, however, the third energy package is not discriminative in any way and its only objective is to improve the functioning of the European internal market. The idea is for the creation of reliable, transparent, based on law rules for all investors and all operators. The new rules guarantee a full access to the network.

The European Union, on its part, is willing to fill the pot with honey if Russia accepts its requirements for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in the end of this and the beginning of next year. The member states insist Russia to ensure the possibility new parties to be registered, on the admittance of international observers for the elections and to ensure freedom of media and pluralism of opinion. The issue was not commented, at least not at the news conference, by President Medvedev. As Dutch MEP Ria Oomen-Ruijten said during the debates on Thursday, "it is high time the registration of new parties to become possible. For Russia must be a matter of honour foreign observers to be sent for the election process".

When there is no honey ... eat cucumbers

The European Union also asked and, by the way, got a commitment for a lift of the vegetables ban on Europe, imposed because of the outbreak of E-coli infections in several European Union member states. To the question of a journalist whether during the informal dinner on Thursday evening and for breakfast on the next day the leaders ate vegetables and fruits and whether they were European, Dmitry Medvedev said: "Yes, we did eat vegetables, yesterday, and today too. We had tomatoes of different kinds on the menu just before. I don’t know where they were from. Let’s wait and see". Then he continued seriously by adding that very soon experts from Russia and the European Union will start work on a certificate which is to confirm the safety of the imported from Europe produce.

Mr Barroso added, on his part, that the European Commission with no delay at all will do the utmost this certificate to be finalised as soon as possible.

Modernisation of Russian society

Another topic at the summit was the implementation of the Partnership for Modernisation, agreed precisely one year ago at the EU-Russia summit in Khabarovsk. And although the two sides praised the good results it had delivered so far, it is obvious that Russia and the EU view it from different angles. For Russia it has purely economic dimension, while for the EU this partnership goes beyond technical modernisation. "Transformation is not just about technology. The creative forces of society as a whole must be engaged", Mr Barroso said.

However, for Medvedev the numbers are of importance: "The strategic character of the partnership between our countries, between Russia, the European Union and the member states is especially significant in the context of economic ties. I would like to say that the turnover last year proved to be one of the highest in the history of our relations and surpassed $300bn".

Regretfully, as is the practice, the questions at the news conference in Nizhnyi Novgorod were restricted in number. What became clear is what were Russia's and EU's wishes. There is no clarity on the issue who and how responded to the expectations of the other - moreover, given that the stakes are high. Because, aside from everything else, Russia wants another thing, which it deems very important - visa liberalisation. An issue, on which the EU again responded evasively - that currently there was work on the conditions Russia needed to meet in order its citizens to be able to travel visa-free.

Many of these conditions were raised by MEPs during the special debate in the European Parliament on the eve of the summit. What was impressive then was that most of the deputies that spoke were from countries from the post-Soviet area - the former Baltic states from the USSR and the satellites Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania. Most of them raised the issues of freedom and human rights, about rule of law, independent judiciary and energy.

But to what extent were these issues discussed and how in Nizhnyi Novgorod is hard to say. What the three leaders demonstrated - Barroso, Rompuy and Medvedev - was satisfaction and good mood. In the end the European president said he was looking forward for the next summit in Brussels in the end of the year. "No Volga there, but probably a small boat", Mr Rompuy added, leaving a broad field for interpretations.

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