- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

MOSCOW — Russia failed to secure an easing of European Union visa restrictions for its citizens yesterday, even as President Vladimir Putin and top EU leaders announced a broad partnership accord in a bid to heal divisions after a difficult year marked by the EU’s eastward expansion.

The cooperation agreement focused on the economic sphere, where Europe’s thirst for energy and Russia’s need for investment dovetail. It was the centerpiece of a Kremlin summit, held the day after a huge Victory in Europe Day celebration in Moscow.

“Our goal is to create a common European space for the benefit of our citizens. Common values as well as shared interests are at the heart of our relations,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said. “We all want to see a democratic and prosperous Russia appealing for foreign investment, as a natural and strong partner for the EU.”

In the area of external security, the accord obliges the two sides to strengthen organizations such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe. It also places emphasis on the treatment of minorities, Mr. Putin said.

Russia has repeatedly accused new EU members Latvia and Estonia of discriminating against their large Russian-speaking minorities.

Mr. Putin said Russia could not yet agree to the EU’s demands on readmitting illegal migrants as a quid pro quo for easing stringent visa rules, saying it would be costly to implement and claiming such a policy could violate migrants’ rights.

Mr. Barroso indicated the EU would not budge, and that Moscow must agree to take back all migrants who enter the European Union from Russian territory illegally if the EU is to ease visa barriers for Russians.

“We are ready to work for visa facilitation with Russia, but we also have a common interest in fighting illegal migration,” Mr. Barroso said.

Overall, Mr. Putin said, Moscow would continue to press for full abolition of visa requirements, although he acknowledged Russia must first strengthen its borders with other former Soviet republics.

“Our ultimate aim is visa-free travel. Only then can you say that there are no dividing lines” in Europe, Mr. Putin said in a sign of Russian concerns about the relentless expansion into the former Soviet sphere of influence by the Western-led NATO and EU blocs in the wake of the collapse of communism in Europe.

Luxembourgian Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, addressed the issue obliquely, saying the two sides “agreed on the principle that we in Russia and the EU do not intend to divide Europe and neighboring regions into spheres and zones of influence.”

The Kremlin session was the first since a stormy summit last year in the Netherlands, when Russia accused the EU of fomenting street protests in Ukraine that brought the pro-Western opposition to power and partnership negotiations fell apart. Tensions have risen since last year’s admission of 10 new EU members, eight of them from the former Soviet bloc.

Poland and the three Baltic states, which experienced Russian domination, have been vocal in pushing the EU to take a tougher line on democratic backsliding in Russia under Mr. Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

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