EU leaders to woo Putin on energy, chide on rights


  • World
  • Friday, 20 Oct 2006

By Ingrid Melander and Mark John

LAHTI, Finland (Reuters) - European leaders vowed to press Russian President Vladimir Putin on mounting concerns over human rights and Georgia at tense talks on Friday while seeking to court him for closer energy ties. 

EU president Finland invited Putin for dinner with the 25 EU leaders hoping to win backing for a tie-up offering Russia open access to the European market in return for better opportunities for European firms to exploit Russia's oil and gas resources. 

President of the European Parliament Josep Borrell gestures during a news conference at the European Union Heads of State and Government informal summit in Lahti, Finland October 20, 2006. (REUTERS/David W Cerny)

But the assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the Kremlin's heavy-handed treatment of former Soviet Georgia and Georgians living in Russia have heightened European concerns about whether Putin shares their values and soured the mood. 

"We consider Russia a very important strategic partner ... but at the same time we have to send a clear message that we have strong concerns about political developments in Russia," Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Reuters. 

"We have to find a balance between values and interests," Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said on arrival. "It is totally wrong to pay attention only to interests." 

Before the encounter in the southern Finnish town of Lahti, the Europeans tried to mute their own differences on whether to treat Moscow more as a strategic partner and supplier of a quarter of its gas or as a bully in its ex-Soviet backyard. 

"Only if we act in a more coordinated manner can we exert real influence on world energy markets and respond more effectively to energy disturbances," Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen said in a letter of invitation. 

Former Soviet satellites in the Baltic states and central Europe have been vociferous in seeking a tougher EU line, while France and Germany, Russia's biggest European energy customer, have stressed common ground with Putin. 

"YOU CAN'T EAT GAS" 

European Parliament President Josep Borrell said the EU would lose face if it did not raise its concerns with Putin during their talks and insisted the huge European market for Russian energy was a bargaining chip in its favour. 

"Russia needs the European market," the Spanish Socialist told reporters. "There is gas flow and there is cashflow. Russia needs cashflow, you can't eat gas." 

EU countries are irked by Russia's refusal to ratify an energy charter treaty and its increasing hostility towards foreign investment in its strategic hydrocarbons sector. But Moscow has signalled it is not ready to play ball. 

"The spirit of the charter protects consumer countries, meaning Europe," Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko told French daily Les Echos in an interview, urging European states to do more their end to secure transit of energy supplies. 

The EU this week issued unusually stern criticism of Moscow over its blockade of Georgia and harassment of Georgians inside Russia, that Tbilisi has compared to a form of ethnic cleansing. 

The Kremlin says Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili provoked the backlash with a military build-up around Russian-backed breakaway regions of Georgia. 

Before meeting Putin, EU leaders will discuss their own future energy policy, including ambitious plans to save 20 percent of power consumption by 2020 through greater efficiency and a joint Dutch-British call to tackle climate change. 

They will also debate a Commission plan for a European Institute of Technology to rival the United States in connecting research and business. 

Germany and Britain lead sceptics of the plan, fearing extra costs and rivalry with existing centres of excellence. Borrell said the plan was currently little more than a "pious wish" because of divisions in the bloc. 

(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe, and Jeff Mason, Kerstin Gehmlich in Paris) 

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