Published December 21, 2012
BRUSSELS – Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Brussels for a summit with European Union leaders that is expected to focus on energy disputes and the Syrian crisis and could be marred by EU concerns about the Kremlin's clampdown on dissent.
For Putin, the main issue in Friday's talks is EU energy market regulations intended to boost competition, which Moscow has described as discriminatory against Russia's state-controlled Gazprom gas company.
European officials have warned Gazprom that it would have to allow third-party gas producers to use the prospective South Stream pipeline to comply with its new regulations. The EU's Third Energy Package bans suppliers from owning transit facilities such as pipelines.
Gazprom is also facing an EU probe to determine whether it violated competition rules by linking gas prices with prices for oil.
Yuri Ushakov, Putin's foreign affairs advisor, said that the energy discussions will dominate the summit. He said Putin raised the issues related to the Third Energy Package during his talks last month with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, voicing hope that she and other European leaders would grow more receptive to Russian arguments.
"We hope that the discussion with top EU officials will be constructive and help find a way out of the deadlock," Ushakov said at a briefing.
Russia has argued that South Stream, which will run under the Black Sea and circumvent the US- and the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline project, should be exempt from the market regulations. The pipeline's construction began earlier this month.
Europe gets about two-fifths of its gas from Russia. South Stream, along with the already-operating Nord Stream pipeline under the Baltic Sea, would allow Russian gas to bypass Ukraine and avoid the repetition of supply cutoffs to Europe that came amid Russia-Ukraine pricing disputes.
Alexander Konovalov, the head of the Institute for Strategic Assessment and Analysis, an independent Moscow-based think tank, said Putin is unlikely to win any concessions for Gazprom as the EU's effort to diversify routes of supply has reduced Moscow's room to maneuver.
"The EU already has done a lot to diversify sources of energy supply, and it will continue doing so," he said. "Moscow will find it increasingly difficult to use gas as an instrument of political and economic pressure."
Another hotly contested subject at the negotiations would be Russia's increasingly impatient push for visa-free travel with EU countries. While the EU has argued that Russia's porous frontiers with its ex-Soviet neighbors make visa-free travel impossible just yet, the Kremlin has criticized EU officials for dragging their feet on the issue for years.
Syria is expected to dominate the discussion of international issues.
Russia has backed its last Middle East ally since an uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began in March 2011, using its veto power along with China at the U.N. Security Council to block three resolutions containing sanctions against Damascus.
But shortly before leaving for Brussels, Putin told a news conference that Russia recognizes the need for change in Syria. That did not appear to herald a change in policy, but added to the perception that Russia regards Assad's days as numbered.
Ushakov insisted that Russia won't change its "honest and principled" position on Syria and wouldn't allow the "repetition of the Libyan scenario," but he added that Putin's talk about Syria with the EU leaders could be "quite interesting."
The EU officials will likely raise issues related to a tough course on dissent Putin has taken since his inauguration in May for a third presidential term, which included arrests and searches of opposition activists and repressive laws aimed against protesters and non-government organizations.
Konovalov said Russia's rights record has adversely affected its ties with Europe.
"The lack of trust doesn't help encourage business activities and develop contacts," he said.
In a move that appears to reflect Moscow's desire to avoid further criticism at the summit, the Kremlin-controlled lower house postponed a debate on a controversial bill that would introduce sanctions for providing minors with information on homosexuality, which it termed "homosexual propaganda." Similar laws passed by regional legislatures in several Russian provinces caused dismay in the EU.