Russia seeks EU’s help with visa-free travel, foreign investment at a summit Monday

By Nataliya Vasilyeva, AP
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Russia seeks EU’s help with visas, technology

MOSCOW — Russia will press the European Union to scrap visas for its citizens and seek the EU’s help in modernizing its economy at a two-day summit beginning Monday.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is hosting top EU officials for talks in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. The European Union is Russia’s No. 1 trading partner, and EU nations account for some 80 percent of all investment in Russia.

Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko urged European leaders to show political will and scrap entry visas for Russians.

“We would like to see our European partners formulate their vision of this issue at the Russia-EU summit,” he told Friday’s briefing. “It’s time to make political decisions.”

Russia has been unsuccessfully seeking visa-free travel to Europe for many years, but EU nations point to the violence in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region and the nation’s porous borders with its ex-Soviet neighbors as reasons for the border controls.

Grushko argues that Russia has met European demands, particularly by signing agreements with EU nations on repatriation of illegal migrants.

Unlike a few years ago, Russia is now anxious to attract foreign investments and seeks closer cooperation and more transparent borders with the EU. As the global downturn weighed down on oil and gas prices, Russia, a leading energy exporter, has shown a stronger interest in modernizing its economy.

Russia and the EU are working on a partnership deal that would help Russia to gain easier access to Western technology, something that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has recently described as a “turning point” in the bilateral relations.

In return, Europe expects Russia to crack down on corruption, strengthen the rule of law and conduct other reforms.

It is not clear, however, whether Russian leaders are poised for such profound changes.

“What Russia needs and wants most clearly is the economic support that would allow the current system of political and economic management to keep going and eventually make it through this crisis,” said Sam Greene, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Europe can provide that, but it still has to understand what it stands to gain from this deal, he added.

“Neither side has a good understanding of what the other side wants from their relationship,” Greene said.

The summit opens as Europe is struggling with a government debt crisis that is quickly spreading across the continent, prompting governments from Greece to Ireland, Portugal and Spain to cut spending and introduce unprecedented austerity measures.

EU nations’ troubles at home are likely to make foreign policy coordination even more challenging than before, and key issues as Russia’s attempts to take control over Ukraine’s gas pipeline network may not get as much attention at the summit as they deserve.

Europe once floated the idea of setting up an international consortium to run Ukraine’s pipeline system, which delivers most of Russian gas to the continent. The EU generally supports the idea, but the member states have not taken strong positions on it yet.

The energy landscape in Europe, however, might dramatically change soon as Russia is seeking to merge its gas monopoly Gazprom with Ukraine’s national gas firm Naftogaz, which owns the Ukrainian pipelines. Such a merger would greatly strengthen Russian control over energy supplies to Europe.

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