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Rows over Syria, energy cloud Russia-EU talks

03 june 2013, 14:27
The European Union and Russia kick off a two-day summit on Monday overshadowed by rows over Brussels' decision to lift its arms embargo on the Syrian rebels and resolve to loosen Moscow's grip on EU natural gas supplies, AFP reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will hope to build on his rapport with the visiting duo of EU leaders -- Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso -- in the industrial Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg.

But both analysts and officials said little progress was expected at talks preceded by months of jousting over the Syria crisis and Russia's attempts to keep a stranglehold on European energy needs.

Meanwhile talk of an all-encompassing treaty between the two sides has been all but abandoned -- as has the hope of Russians getting their long-sought-for visa-free travel to Europe this year.

"Right now, our relations with Europe are the worst they have been in the entire post-Soviet history," said Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

"When relations deteriorate so much, this sets the mood for the whole summit and it gets tough to make progress," Lipman noted.

Moscow and Brussels have had lukewarm relations ever since Putin rose to power in 2000 with a mission to raise Russia's influence and a determination to turn a blind eye to any criticism of his policies from the West.

Yet no other issue has been as divisive as the European Union's strong backing of the Syrian opposition and Putin's continued support for President Bashar al-Assad.

"The subject of Syria will be one of the priority areas at the talks," Moscow's EU envoy Vladimir Chizhov admitted ahead of the meeting.

He called the EU decision to lift its arms embargo on the opposition "a direct signal that all (the rebels) need to do is wait a bit, and the arms will start flowing in".

Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu even went so far as to suggest that the move untied Moscow's hands to supply arms to Assad, heretofore banned by international treaties.

"Every decision has two sides. If one side lifts its restrictions, then the other side may no longer feel compelled to keep its previously adopted obligations," Shoigu said ahead of the talks.

Analysts believe Moscow and Brussels may try to smooth out their differences by issuing a statement of support for a proposed peace conference on the crisis that is meant to get Assad's camp and the main opposition group involved in direct talks for the first time.

But it is less clear how Moscow and Brussels intend to resolve their growing differences over the powerful role enjoyed by Russian natural gas giant Gazprom in the European market.

Russia accounts for about a third of the 27-nation bloc's gas supplies -- a dominance that has allowed Gazprom to dictate prices for many years.

The dispute culminated in an EU decision in September to launch a probe into Gazprom's pricing strategy.

The surprise action infuriated Putin because it came on top of an earlier EU decision to strip Gazprom of its right to also own European pipelines and energy distribution facilities.

Analysts said this row on its own was enough to scuttle the chances of Moscow and Brussels making any significant advances in Yekaterinburg.

"We can forget about seeing the signature of a framework Russia-EU agreement until they settle the issue of working around Europe's new natural gas rules," said Olga Potyomkina of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Europe.

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