A chilly visit to Moscow


BRUSSELS — It’s hard to know just what kind of mood the Kremlin was trying to set for the arrival of its most important investor.

In January, a spat between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas left Europeans shivering and Brussels’ nerves frayed.

Then last week, there were reports that Russia plans to establish a naval base in the break-away Georgia region Abkhazia, which the two countries went to war over last August.

This week, the current president of the European Union, the Czech Republic, said the EU is “seriously concerned” by Russia’s plans in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The current negotiations with Russia on a new partnership accord are based on pledged adherence to the ceasefire agreement signed between Moscow and Tbilisi.

On Friday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and nine commissioners had their first meeting with Russian counterparts since the gas crisis. After these months of tension, the high-level meeting was to be an important photo-op for both parties, signaling that the fragile relationship is moving to firmer ground.

As the delegations convened in the Kremlin, Barroso and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev smiled, heartily shaking hands. Barroso told Medvedev how nice it was to see him again, while Medvedev responded that Barroso looked “fresh.”

But a few hours later, at a post-meeting press conference, Barroso and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin did not seem to have come to a meeting of the minds — except on the need to clarify energy policies and avoid a recurrence of the recent crisis. Putin welcomed Barroso’s statement that the EU does not rule out support for energy pipelines linked to Russia, despite calls during the crisis for diversified energy sources.

But after Barroso mentioned that he and Medvedev, when Putin was not present, had discussed “rule of law” — a euphemism in this case for the sensitive topic of human rights — the prime minister became visibly annoyed. Medvedev was not there to give his version of the conversation, Putin pointed out.

Taking advantage of the question-and-answer session, and acknowledging his monologue had nothing to do with the journalist’s question, Putin raged about the status of human rights in EU countries, saying Moscow still is “not satisfied” with the situation of Russian-speakers in the Baltic countries that were part of the Soviet Union, about how migrants’ rights are “breached” in the EU and, cryptically, the “problems in the prison systems of some states.”

Barroso looked taken aback by the outburst and said he had simply told Medvedev that Europeans had been disturbed by the recent murder of a human rights lawyer and journalist on a Moscow street. He added that the EU was willing to receive criticism but he defended the Baltic States’ human rights records regarding their Russian-speaking populations.

Barroso said that respect for human rights and rule of law is more important than diplomacy, a view he asserted the Russians would share as a “very important element of our common European civilization.”

That last phrase from Barroso allowed Putin to bring up the situation in Georgia. He said that Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s desires for sovereignty — rejected by every country except Russia and Nicaragua — should be viewed the same as Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia one year ago, which is recognized by most EU countries.

“Let’s work out a level playing field,” Putin said, regarding both Georgia and energy politics. “We are ready to accommodate our partners … but we are expecting the same from our partners. And I’m very pleased to note that such a thesis will find full understanding on behalf of Mr. Barroso.”

Ahead of Friday’s meeting, Russia expert Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations suggested the economic downturn would help the two sets of officials put aside their differences.

“(T)he financial crisis is the backdrop of everything,” Rahr said. “Certain things that were so strong on the agenda a couple of weeks ago finally disappeared because the financial crisis is threatening everyone. We have a common challenge.”

Rahr said Moscow has had a reality check that should help it come to an accord with its largest trading partner. (Russia is the EU’s third largest trading partner.) The huge drop in energy prices is a major concern for Moscow and the value of the ruble has fallen about 35 percent in the last six months.

“Russia has understood that it’s in deep financial crisis,” Rahr said, “and it needs the assistance of the West to work on the crisis.”

Friday’s meeting between Barroso and Putin ended with tight smiles and a tense handshake. If shared financial woes are the hope for overcoming longstanding disputes, one can only conclude that Putin’s pocketbook is not feeling particularly pinched.

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that "most EU countries," rather than "most countries," have recognized Kosovo.

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