Putin aims for EU deal ‘soon’ at Portugal summit

MAFRA, Portugal (AFP) – Russia’s President Vladimir Putin voiced hope at a summit on Friday that a new EU-Russia treaty could be agreed “soon,” even as Moscow outlined sharp policy differences with Brussels.

Putin alleged discrimination against Russian companies in Europe and, ahead of the summit, he warned Europe to exercise restraint on the issues of Iran’s nuclear programme and the future status of Kosovo.

“We hope to be able to not only start negotiations on a new partnership agreement but already have an agreed draft document soon,” Putin was quoted as saying at the start of talks with EU leaders in a statement.

Political negotiations for a new EU-Russia partnership agreement, seen as crucial in Europe because of key energy clauses that are to be included in the document, have been stalled by Poland because of a trade dispute with Moscow.

Hopes of a breakthrough in the dispute were raised by the victory on Sunday in Poland’s parliamentary elections of a pro-European party that has also vowed to improve relations with Russia.

“I hope that at the next summit we can start negotiations on this agreement,” the EU’s External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told AFP ahead of the summit in Mafra, 40 kilometres (25 miles) outside Lisbon.

Ferrero-Waldner was taking part in the talks in a former residence of the Portuguese royalty alongside European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and the EU’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

The summit in Mafra could be Putin’s last as Russian president as he is due to step down in May 2008 following presidential elections amid continued uncertainty over his possible future political role.

Ahead of the talks, the Kremlin chief had emphasised policy differences with the West, likening supporters of tough policies on Iran to “mad people wielding razor blades” and calling for “patience” on Kosovo’s future.

Russia, which is helping to build a nuclear reactor in Iran, has gone against most Western powers by opposing tighter UN sanctions against Tehran and blocking moves towards independence for Kosovo, a southern Serbian province.

Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, who hosted the summit as his country currently holds the EU presidency, emphasised the importance of good EU-Russia relations for the sake of “world peace.”

The last summit near the Russian city of Samara earlier this year was marred by bitter disputes between Putin and EU leaders over the state of democracy in Russia and EU officials have been hoping to improve relations.

Economic ties between Brussels and Moscow have boomed despite frequent rows, with trade turnover going up five times since Putin became president in 2000, officials said.

But Russia has complained about alleged curbs on Russian firms in Europe.

“The idea that the Russians are coming with their frightening money, with their terrible investments, that they’re going to buy everything, is funny at best,” Putin said on Friday.

Russia has in particular accused Europe of planning to restrict investment access for state-controlled gas giant Gazprom to the European Union, while Brussels has called on Russia to free up its own energy market.

“We’re going to tell them that it’s very, very important to liberalise the markets in that sector. We want more reciprocity, more transparency, more openness,” Ferrero-Waldner said before the talks.

EU and Russian business chiefs, who met with Putin and the EU leaders in Mafra ahead of the summit, warned that disputes at the political level could harm booming economic ties.

“We all see a very positive trend in economic relations between Russia and the European Union… but if you look at the politics it’s a lot worse,” Anatoly Chubais, CEO of Russia’s electricity monopoly UES, told reporters.

“Today, we urged EU and Russian leaders to resolve the questions of a new partnership agreement and Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for the sake of business,” Chubais said.

Officials on Friday also signed an agreement increasing the import quota for certain Russian steel products and confirmed an earlier deal on a new system to warn Europe ahead of time about possible cuts in Russian energy supply.

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