EU, Russia Summit Centers on Energy Issues

Other News Materials 25 May 2006 16:00 (UTC +04:00)

(AP) - EU concerns about Russia's reliability as a key energy supplier were expected to dominate a brief summit Thursday between President Vladimir Putin and European Union leaders.

The leaders were also set to sign long-awaited agreements to ease visa procedures and discuss Moscow's bid for European retail gas assets, reports Trend.

"A strong energy partnership is in our interest," said EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. "This requires security and predictability for both sides."

"The same principles of transparency and reciprocity should apply in our energy relations and also in our economic relations," she told reporters.

Putin, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana gathered at Putin's Black Sea retreat in the resort of Sochi for the talks. They had an informal seaside dinner on Wednesday night and were scheduled to open the summit Thursday afternoon.

Ferrero-Waldner said Russian and EU leaders would sign agreements making it easier for some Russians to travel to EU countries and requiring both sides to accept the return of each other's illegal migrants.

Negotiators also reached a deal in principle on the EU's $64 million Tacis

program in Russia, which provides technical assistance to former Soviet republics. The agreement includes the establishment of a European Studies Institute in Moscow to which each side was to contribute $3.8 million, Ferrero-Waldner said.

They also reached a tentative agreement on a long-delayed $26 million EU program to help combat unemployment and support small and medium enterprises in the restive North Caucasus regions of Chechnya, Ingushetia and North Ossetia, she said.

But the progress could not mask the energy disputes that have hung over the two sides since the winter. A brief disruption in Russian gas supplies to Western Europe early this year during a price dispute with Ukraine tarnished Russia's reputation as a reliable supplier and encouraged the EU to intensify a search for alternative supply routes.

The shutdown, which was followed by gas shortages during a harsh winter, came even as Russia declared energy security a top priority of its leadership this year of the Group of Eight industrialized nations.

Russia is Europe's second-biggest oil supplier and provides a quarter of the continent's gas.

European fears of excessive energy reliance on Russia grew amid talk that Russia's state-controlled Gazprom natural gas giant was considering acquiring Britain's largest gas distributor.

When British officials warned of possible legal changes to block such a deal, Gazprom and Putin angrily warned that the gas monopoly could refocus its future export strategy on energy-hungry China.