With Putin back at the helm, and fresh from visits to France and Germany, the stage is set for an important EU-Russia summit in St Petersburg.

On the 3rd and 4th of June, the Konstantinovsky Palace in the St Petersburg suburb of Strel'na will host the 29th EU-Russia Summit, the first high-level contact between EU leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin since the latter's inauguration for a third term in early May, and one which it is hoped will set the tone for cooperation over the next six years. Heading the EU delegation will be Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, and Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission. As a precursor to the summit, President Putin is visiting Germany and France for bilateral discussions with two of Russia's most important European partners, covering many of the same issues likely to arise in St Petersburg, including energy supplies and the political situation in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in Brussels, Russian and EU officials have held a "brainstorming" session on a new partnership agreement - something which has been under negotiation for some years, but which has been suffering from "stagnation", according to Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the EU. The previous partnership agreement, which was established in 1994 and came into force in 1997, expired in December 2007; talks began in July 2008 on a new agreement, intended to set out "a comprehensive framework for EU-Russia relations, [including] substantive, legally binding commitments in all areas of the partnership, including political dialogue, JLS issues [justice, freedom, and security], economic cooperation, research, education and culture, as well as solid provisions on trade, investment and energy". The EU side hopes that the St Petersburg meeting will give impetus to the negotiations, which have been held up by lack of consensus over trade and investment, an area potentially further complicated by Putin's plans for a "Eurasian Union" between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

With EU energy commissioner Guenther Oerringer and new Russian energy minster Alexander Novak both attending the summit, the question of oil and gas supply will be a key item on the agenda. Unlike Nord Stream (the direct Russia-Germany pipeline), the South Stream pipeline, conceived to transport Russian gas to Europe via the Black Sea, has not so far been promised EU assistance under the Trans-European Energy Networks scheme. At a pre-summit briefing, Ambassador Chizhov said, "We are looking forward to seeing the South Stream project progressing and we certainly believe that it deserves the same treatment within the EU as Nord Stream and some other pipelines...whose future appears not to be worth much".

Delegates are also expected to focus on visa policy, the EU debt crisis, and foreign policy issues. The prospect of visa-free travel between the EU and Russia has been under discussion since 2010, but concerns remain over drug- and people trafficking, and the matter is unlikely to be resolved at this summit. The EU will require Russia to put in place strict passport checks and high levels of data protection if a no-visa agreement is to be made. Economic problems in the Eurozone are a cause for some trepidation in Russia, as the EU remains Russia's most important trading partner, and, as Dmitri Medvedev pointed out at his last summit in December, 41% of Moscow's foreign currency reserves are held in Euros. In terms of foreign policy, developments in the Middle East, and particularly the recent deterioration of the situation in Syria, will be an important topic - likewise the EU states' planned troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, for which Russia's support will be necessary.

These are all traditional subjects for the twice-yearly summit. Much has happened in Russia, however, since the last meeting of this kind in December 2011. Allegations of falsifications in the parliamentary and presidential elections and the massive street protests which greeted the results have generated international concern, as has the Russian authorities' reaction. Last week, a new bill on fines for unauthorised rallies was passed at its first reading in the Duma; if passed into law, it would raise the penalty for participation to about the average annual salary, with fines for protest organisers would be even higher.

Human right issues are an essential element in EU-Russia cooperation. Since 2005 the EU and Russia have held regular, six-monthly human rights consultations, which have provided for a substantial dialogue on human rights issues. The EU has raised with Russia issues including the human rights situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus; freedom of expression and assembly, including freedom of the media; the situation of civil society in Russia, notably in light of the laws on NGOs and extremist activities; the functioning of the judiciary and its independence; the observation of human rights standards by law enforcement officials; racism and xenophobia; legislation relating to elections. For its part the Russian side raises matters of concern to it in developments inside the EU.

It is likely that the meeting will also discuss the situation in the South Caucasus where the EU is playing an increasingly important role despite Russian  attempts to narrow the scope of this involvement.

The EU delegation is likely to want to bring up these issues, but how this will play out while pursuing the hoped-for "reset" of relations with Russia remains to be seen.

source: commonspace.eu with EEAS and Ria-Novosti.

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