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EU prepares for showdown with Putin after civil liberties restricted

Stephen Castle / London Independent | October 19 2006

Europe is seeking to bury its divisions ahead of a tense meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who yesterday raised the temperature on civil liberties by forcing dozens of NGOs to suspend operations in Russia.

New Russian legislation, which requires any foreign NGO in the country to submit paperwork to a federal agency, has heightened concerns over basic freedoms in the wake of the murder of the campaigning journalist, Anna Politkovskaya.

When the law was implemented yesterday a list published by the Federal Registration Service showed 80 NGOs whose registration had been approved out of up to 500 working in Russia.

The Kremlin says its crackdown will prevent terrorists, money launderers and foreign intelligence services using NGOs as cover but critics fear it will give the government carte blanche to harass critical human rights groups.

The timing of the row could hardly be worse for the EU with Mr Putin attending a dinner tomorrow night at an informal summit in Lahti, Finland.

Energy is top of the agenda but Finland, which holds the EU presidency, yesterday conceded there was no chance of a quick deal with Moscow to open up its energy pipeline network to European firms.

The EU knows that, with 25 member states and a wide range of views, it faces an uphill task in presenting a united front. Yesterday the European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, appealed to EU leaders to speak with "a common voice not a discordant chorus" when they meet Mr Putin.

Moscow is adept at exploiting divisions inside the 25-nation bloc and its position is strengthened by rising energy prices and demand for oil and gas.

Earlier this week EU member states agreed to a statement urging Russia to ease pressure on Georgia in a row over four Russians who were briefly arrested and accused of spying. Matti Vanhanen, the prime minister of Finland, also promised to raise the issue of the murder of Ms Politkovskaya.

Tomorrow's meeting of EU leaders will begin with a lunch to hammer out what kind of commitments they will try to extract from Mr Putin, over dinner. These are likely to include better investment conditions in Russia and a tightened judicial system.
One diplomat said: "There are lots of potential minefields, both internally and with Putin". Another added: "It is true that the EU has not always sent a coherent and united message to Russia." Tony Blair is expected to raise the case of Royal Dutch Shell whose Sakhalin-2 project has been accused to breaching environmental standards. This is being seen by western firms as economic blackmail.

There will also be calls for an assurance that the Russian state monopoly Gazprom will not close the giant new Shtokman gas field to foreign partners.

However Mr Vanhanen indicated that the EU's demand for Russia to open up its pipeline network for use by foreign companies was on the backburner.

Instead Mr Vanhanen said it would be better to enshrine the principles of liberalisation in a successor to an EU-Russia Partnership and Co-operation Agreement which is due to be renegotiated.

EU diplomats believe that Moscow's desire for a new EU-Russia Partnership and Co-operation Agreement is one of the few bargaining chips in their possession.

The talking points

Energy

The EU wants better treatment for its oil and gas firms and an opening of Russia's pipeline network. With energy prices and demand high, Russia sees little need to make concessions.

Georgia

Urged on by countries such as Poland, the EU has demanded an end to the harassment of Georgians. Mr Putin is expected to argue that all measures were legal.

Anna Politkovskaya

Europeans see the murder of the campaigning journalist as an example of the fragility of freedom of expression in Russia. Mr Putin is likely to say that all is being done to catch her killers.

NGOs

The new law on foreign NGOs could provoke criticism from Europeans over a lack of human rights. Again, Mr Putin is unlikely to give ground.

 

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