- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

LONDON — Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged yesterday to be a reliable supplier of oil to Europe and hailed an agreement on visas as a step toward free travel between his country and the European Union.

At a press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, Mr. Putin said Russian oil met one-third of European demand.

“Russia has constantly been augmenting her supply of oil, helping the world economy, including Europe, by constraining prices,” he said after an EU-Russia summit in central London. “Without the contribution of Russia to the energy effort, prices would have been much higher.”

“Russia is a reliable partner and never … failed her counter-partners in Europe,” he said.

Reporting a breakthrough on a long-standing issue, the leaders said Russia had agreed to readmit people who migrated illegally to the European Union. In return, the bloc promised to make visa applications to 11 of its 25 nations easier for Russian diplomats, students and business agents, the Foreign Office said.

“We believe that these arrangements are a stage that would help us approach a visa-free regime,” Mr. Putin said.

Russia’s demand that the EU ease visa restrictions had been a point of contention, and the leaders said the deal marked an important step forward.

The European Union had insisted it would ease its slow, expensive visa-application process for Russians only if Moscow took back illegal aliens from the bloc — plus those from its neighbors who reach Western Europe by crossing Russia’s porous borders.

Mr. Putin agreed to do so, calling the decision a “compromise.”

Mr. Blair’s office said the Russian concession was key to Britain and other European nations that have been struggling to stem illegal immigration.

The leaders said they also had discussed trade between Russia and the European Union and increased cooperation against terrorism and organized crime, including drug and people trafficking.

“It was a very good, pragmatic, results-oriented summit,” said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Energy was an important focus of the summit. Oil accounts for much of energy-hungry Europe’s imports from Russia, a major producer that is eager for Western investment.

The leaders said they also had discussed human rights, Iran, the Middle East peace process and Russia’s neighbors.

Moscow, nervous about EU economic and political outreach, is wary that Europe is gaining sway in areas Russia sees as within its sphere of influence, including Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Uzbekistan.

Mr. Blair and Mr. Putin planned to meet again today.

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