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Europe's troubles cloud EU-Russia summit

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Europe's troubles cloud EU-Russia summit

Russia - EU

(MOSCOW) - EU and Russian leaders open talks in southern Russia on Monday in a climate clouded by euro-skepticism amid the bloc's economic woes and Moscow's preference for bilateral dealings.

The two-day summit in the city of Rostov-on-Don is intended to smooth bumps in relations over trade and visas and will also address EU concerns over its reliance on Russian energy supplies.

It will be the first such meeting between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and EU President Herman Van Rompuy, whose position was created when the Lisbon Treaty took effect last year.

Brussels hopes he and the EU's new foreign policy head Catherine Ashton will help the 27-nation bloc present a more unified foreign policy face.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, will also represent the bloc in Rostov-on-Don along with European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.

Russia's EU envoy Vladimir Chizhov has named two priorities for the summit: agreeing a plan to abolish visas and launching a "modernizing partnership" to bring Western investment and know-how to Russia.

"What's stalling us today?" Chizhov asked in an interview with Russian state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta ahead of the summit.

He complained that seven years had passed since Russia and the EU had first announced visa-free travel as a long-term goal, accusing the bloc of reticence based on the "outdated phobias" of its "new member states."

The comment was a clear reference to ex-Communist countries in the EU, many of which have chilly relations with Moscow.

"Even after the Lisbon Treaty came into force... the EU's position is often lacking in quality because the interests of the 27 nations are far from always agreeing," Chizhov said.

Russia has long sought to have visa-free travel for its citizens to Europe, and the Kremlin is also eager for EU help in modernising Russia's economy as it seeks to reduce its dependence on oil and gas exports.

But the summit comes as the EU faces deep internal divisions over the Greek debt crisis and a sagging euro -- developments that have not gone unnoticed in Moscow.

"The EU is living a critical moment in its history," Russian deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko told reporters on Friday.

"We are closely watching how it strives to deal with the financial crises that have assailed several member states."

The EU's economic troubles have increased Russia's longstanding aversion to doing business with the bloc as a whole and are likely to prevent any breakthroughs in relations at the summit, analysts said.

Europe's woes "will vindicate (Moscow's) view that Europe is not going to become a major foreign policy player as a unity," said Alex Nice, Russia programme coordinator for London-based Chatham House think tank.

Faced with the "renationalization" of policy agendas in Europe, Russia has advanced only long-term initiatives for the summit and will deal bilaterally in everything else, said Moscow-based analyst Fyodor Lukyanov.

"I don't think we can expect anything concrete from this meeting," said Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. "Russia's approach seems to be even more than before to prioritize bilateral relations."

Nevertheless, experts said the atmosphere of this EU-Russia summit would be less contentious than in recent years, following Medvedev's statement in an April interview that Russia must show a "smiling" face to the world.

Past summits were marred by spats over issues such as human rights abuses in Russia, gas deliveries, the August 2008 war in Georgia and Moscow's ire at perceived EU encroachment into its former Soviet fiefdom.

At the summit the EU will be looking to make headway on trade disputes with its biggest energy partner, including anti-EU tariffs on timber exports and fees for trans-Siberian overflights.

Brussels is also expected to push Moscow on its efforts to join the World Trade Organisation.

25th EU - Russia Summit

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