EU Seeks Warmer Ties With Russia, Faces Objections From Lithuania

The EU's foreign ministers debated ways to upgrade their cool relations with Russia on Tuesday but faced lingering objections from Lithuania, which wants Moscow first to improve relations with its immediate neighbors.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas said his government was "ready for compromise" but demanded that Russia fix an oil pipeline to a Lithuanian refinery and peacefully resolve "frozen conflicts" in Georgia and other ex-Soviet republics.

The European Union seeks to enroll Russia — which badly needs foreign investors and expertise to develop its oil and gas reserves — into a strategic partnership covering a broad sweep of economic and political issues.

Negotiations in the last two years have stalled because Moscow balks at what it sees as EU human rights lecturing, and Poland had tangled with Moscow in a trade dispute that is now resolved.

Additionally, there is lingering ill will in Lithuania, which regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia and Lithuania have engaged in tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions in recent years.

"Frozen conflicts create a dangerous situation in the sense of security and stability," Vaitiekunas told reporters on arrival at the EU foreign ministers meeting.

"It's an important issue, not only for Lithuania," he added. "Our position is related to basic values of European civilization (and) the rule of law. And we want solidarity within the EU."

The European Commission is looking forward to a June summit with Russia to formally launch negotiations for a strategic partnership. On Tuesday, the EU foreign ministers sought to end their internal deadlock over the issue and were preparing to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

The proposed partnership would be much broader than a decade-old cooperation deal. It would include everything from closer energy ties to better cooperation in the fields of crime fighting, immigration, food safety and consumer protection. It also would include touchy issues such as human rights and democratic reforms.

Britain stressed the importance of drawing Russia closer. Jim Murphy, its European affairs minister, told reporters: "We do believe the European Union should begin this process. ... Collectively, we are much more effective" in dealing with Moscow.

Ever since the EU absorbed several ex-Soviet republics and satellites in 2004, some of the latter — notably Poland and Lithuania — have become more assertive in airing their grievances against Moscow.

Lithuania has indicated it will only agree to starting negotiations for an EU-Russia strategic partnership if Moscow fixes a pipeline to supply a Lithuanian refinery with crude oil. The aging Russian pipeline has suffered a rupture near the Belarus-Ukraine border.

Energy is an increasingly important factor in EU-Russia relations. Today, the EU imports 50 percent of its energy needs — a level that is expected to rise to 70 percent over the next 20-30 years. Gas imports alone may rise by 80 percent in that period, according to EU forecasts.

The EU wants Russia to open its energy sector to foreign investors and to give them a level playing field against Russian rivals.

Russia tightened its grip Saturday on natural gas supplies from Central Asia by striking a deal with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to build a pipeline that would pump their gas into Russia's network of pipelines to Europe.