BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union countries failed on Thursday to agree on a mandate for partnership talks with Russia but diplomats voiced optimism that objections by ex-Soviet Lithuania could soon be set aside.
At talks in Brussels, Lithuania stuck to demands that any mandate include assurances on energy supplies, cooperation over a missing businessman and movement by Russia on frozen conflicts in former Soviet republics.
EU President Slovenia made fresh proposals to address Vilnius's demands and EU foreign ministers could try again for agreement at talks in Luxembourg next Tuesday, diplomats said.
"I think we are very close to an agreement," said one senior envoy after the talks among EU ambassadors in Brussels.
Negotiations with Russia, covering trade, energy, human rights and political cooperation, were due to have been launched in November 2006 but Poland vetoed the mandate after Moscow barred imports of fresh food products from Warsaw.
Some diplomats said a final EU decision could come next week while others said it might have to wait until a meeting of foreign ministers in May, a month before an EU-Russia summit in Siberia with President-elect Dmitry Medvedev on June 26-27.
A senior Lithuanian diplomat acknowledged there had been progress in addressing some concerns but played down suggestions by some participants that the outlines of a deal were in place.
"There is no deal, negotiations have just started... There may be pressure on us at the foreign ministers meeting but we will stand firm," the diplomat said, adding Vilnius wanted firmer assurances than those suggested by the EU presidency.
Diplomats said the new EU presidency proposals sought to meet Lithuanian demands for assurances on the Druzhba pipeline which carries Russian oil through Ukraine and Belarus to Europe, and on judicial cooperation.
Poland recently dropped its reservation on the launch of the partnership talks after Russia lifted the embargo.
But Lithuania has widened its concerns from a cut-off of Russian oil supplies to its refinery, to the disappearance of a businessman in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and Russia's relations with Georgia and Moldova.
However Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker told Reuters in Moscow he expected the 27-nation EU to agree within days that it could start talks on the new partnership.
"I do know that in Poland, in Lithuania, maybe elsewhere, there are great or small reluctancies, but I think that these will be sorted out in the next coming days," Juncker said in an interview before talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Juncker is the longest-serving prime minister within the EU and is considered a crucial player amongst the exclusive club of 27 leaders. He is also the chairman of the euro-zone group of finance ministers.
"I do think that the European Union and Russia do need the strategic partnership and I would like the negotiations to take a real start under the Slovenian presidency," Juncker said of Slovenia's presidency of EU business up to the end of June.
(Additional reporting by Marcin Grajewski and Paul Taylor in Brussels; Conor Sweeney in Moscow; Nerijus Adomaitis in Vilnius)
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