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DateLine Sunday, 6 July 2008

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Medvedev makes nice with the EU

KHANTY-MANSIYSK, Russia: The food was nouvelle cuisine, the wine was French and coffee was served on a terrace with spectacular countryside views. At his first summit meeting with the European Union, the new Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, dispensed with the aggressive rhetoric of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, and tried a new tactic on the Europeans: being nice to them.

Six hours' flying time from Brussels, in the heart of the Russian oil-producing region, the EU and Russia on Friday opened long-awaited negotiations on a partnership agreement, saying that a "new page" had been turned in their fractious dealings.

From the moment the top EU officials met with their Russian counterparts for a dinner Thursday night preceding the formal negotiations, the Europeans noted the contrast between the 42-year-old former lawyer, Medvedev, and his more hard-nosed predecessor.


President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia speaking with the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, before the summit meeting on Friday. - Reuters

According to one EU official present at the restaurant, which overlooks the confluence of two Siberian rivers, Medvedev seemed almost shy at the start of the meal of borscht en gelée followed by pheasant, allowing others to open subjects for debate rather than laying down the law.

When discussing the allocation of visas to Europeans working in Russia, the president said that Moscow had been in the wrong. Returning to their lavish official guest houses in a Siberian forest, the most important guests found they had been left a signed book of Medvedev's amateur photographs.

Then, on Friday, over a working lunch, Medvedev tried a joke, an EU official reported. Yes, Medvedev said, the leaders may have had to discuss some boring things, but at least they got something to eat.

The contrast with summit performances of Medvedev's judo-loving, KGB-trained predecessor could barely be more stark. In 2006, when he was challenged over the rule of law in Russia at a dinner, Putin turned on Italy's then-prime minister, Romano Prodi, reminding him bluntly that "mafia" was not a Russian word.

At a news conference four years earlier, Putin suggested that a journalist who asked about Chechnya was a Muslim radical who ought to get himself circumcised.

And the EU-Russia summit meeting last year in Samara ended in acrimony when Moscow detained Russian activists intent on protesting against the government. This prompted angry comments from the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Putin.

Putin, who is now prime minister, has hardly disappeared from the scene, though during the dinner Thursday in Khanty-Mansiysk, his name was not mentioned, according to another EU official present.

But EU participants said their side had left Siberia feeling no clearer about the balance of power within a complex Russian administration or even the division of responsibilities, between the prime minister, who heads the government, and the president.

Nevertheless, for Medvedev there was lavish praise.

"I saw someone with whom I believe we can work in a good spirit, someone who is open and relaxed," said the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso.

He added that Medvedev was someone who "is open and who really wants to engage in discussion." Others saw a politician less concerned than Putin about asserting Russia's place in the world and about making up for the humiliations of the 1990s.

"I think he is from a new generation and I think he sees Russia already back as a global player," said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European external relations commissioner. "I think he wants to use this potential and sees the chance of a close relationship with the EU."

But tensions between the two sides remain, most notably over energy and trade issues, including duties on Russian timber that prevent Finnish furniture-makers from importing wood.

Also, the Russians and Europeans disagree over the form of the new partnership agreement they seek.

Medvedev said that the document will be "short, without too many details," and that it could be supplemented later with agreements on specific issues. That contrasted with the EU position that it should be detailed and cover all areas of the relationship.

At the dinner Thursday, Medvedev referred at length to his proposals to revamp Europe's security architecture, a EU official said. That was interpreted as a sign that he intended to press ab idea that has received a cool response in Europe. And he called for a new global partnership among energy producers, transit companies and consumers.

EU officials see that as an effort to sidestep the Energy Charter, which Russia has signed but not ratified, and which obliges it to liberalize its oil and gas sector.

Medvedev reiterated Putin's criticism of the EU over the rights of Estonian and Latvian Russian speakers, as well as opposition to U.S. missile defense plans.

There was, however, little disguising the relief with which EU officials greeted the first summit meeting of the Medvedev presidency and the arrival of a man who seems to want to talk to them, rather than at them.

"My first impression," said Ferrero-Waldner "was a very positive one. I was impressed by the president and I think he means what he says."

But Barroso said plans were under way to hold regular meetings between the European Commission and the Russian government, including Putin, possibly starting in October.

That means the EU's top officials may not have seen the back of those ill-tempered dinners with Putin.

-Russia Times

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