- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2008

BRUSSELS (AP) - European Union foreign ministers yesterday approved much-delayed plans to begin talks with Russia aimed at forging a new “strategic partnership.”

Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the EU presidency, said all 27 EU nations gave the green light to start negotiations at summit talks with Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev, in June.

Mr. Rupel hopes Russian and European negotiators can agree on a far-reaching pact to widen economic and political ties in a year’s time. A new agreement, outlining closer cooperation, would replace a 1997 deal with Moscow.

“We are not in front of some quick fix, but indeed the process has started,” said Mr. Rupel. “We want to work together in many areas.”

Lithuania had blocked a negotiating mandate to take to the summit, demanding Russia first improve its ties with its immediate neighbors, notably with Georgia and Moldova. It dropped its veto last week after its concerns were included in the mandate for the negotiations.

Efforts to begin talks last year also faltered over a now-resolved trade dispute between Poland and Russia regarding meat exports.

The delays have irked Moscow. Mr. Medvedev’s trip to China last week, his first trip abroad as Russia’s new president, was seen by some as a slap to Russia’s western neighbors.

But Mr. Rupel played down Mr. Medvedev’s symbolic choice of China instead of European countries.

“China is a very important country, and I think that the president has all the reasons to travel there,” Mr. Rupel said, adding that EU and Russian officials meet regularly.

Most EU nations are eager to resume establishing closer ties with Moscow, notably to secure more stable oil and gas supplies amid rising energy prices and supply concerns.

The EU wants to persuade Moscow to open its vast energy sector to investors from Western Europe and seeks further cooperation in the fields of criminal investigation, fighting corruption, human trafficking and drugs. The bloc also wants to bolster human rights and democratic reform as part of the deal.

Lithuania wants Russia to cooperate in criminal investigations involving former Soviet troops in Lithuania and to give compensation to Lithuanians who were deported to labor camps and prisons during the Soviet occupation.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said he expects talks to be long and difficult owing to the complexity and sensitive nature of the issues involved.

“We are trying to normalize our relations with Russia,” he said, adding that a closer partnership with Russia could be helpful in persuading it to adopt more Western values.

Mr. Sikorski said Poland wants to ensure that energy is treated as a normal commodity and “not used as a tool of geopolitics.”

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the EU would insist that Russia provide EU companies and investors free access to its energy resources, just as the EU allows Russian energy giants in its market.

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