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EU, Russia point fingers over rights abuses

MOSCOW, February 7 – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday bluntly told the European Union to investigate rights abuses in Europe after its chief expressed alarm over the killing of journalists and activists in Russia.

At a news conference following talks with Putin aimed at restoring already frayed ties between the two sides, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Europeans were concerned by recent murders.

"In the public opinion there is some concern regarding some recent events that happened in Russia," Barroso said. "Namely the murder of some journalists and some rights activists."

In typically defiant style, Putin said that while Russian rights issues had to be discussed, Europe needed to be looking at violations on its own territory such as the problems of Russian minorities in the Baltic states.

"Russia is prepared to discuss any issue and any problem, including the entire set of problems related to the rule of law and freedom," he said at a joint news conference with Barroso.

But Putin added: "We are not satisfied with the way the situation of Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states is being handled.

"We know about the rights of migrants in the countries of Europe and how they are violated. We know about the situation in some prison systems of separate European governments. And we also have these problems.

"We need to discuss the full range of problems – both in Russia and in Europe – in order to be able to solve them."

Last month prominent Russian rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, 34, and 25-year-old reporter Anastasiya Baburova were gunned down in central Moscow in broad daylight after leaving a news conference.

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Another Russian journalist, Mikhail Beketov, was left in a coma after being savagely beaten outside his home in a Moscow suburb in November.

In the latest incident targeting reporters, unknown assailants lodged an axe in the doorway of Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of independent radio station Echo of Moscow, local media reported Friday.

Showing his trademark confidence, Putin brought up the issue of rights himself, noting he had heard Barroso had raised it earlier in the day in talks with President Dmitry Medvedev.

The visit was aimed at mending ties with Russia battered by the January cut in Russian gas supplies, which sparked Europe’s worst energy crisis of modern times.

The visit "is a good demonstration of the wide scope of our relations and the many issues we need to discuss so we can deepen our relations," Barroso said after talks with Medvedev.

In the midst of a freezing January several EU states were deprived of Russian gas supplies for two weeks as the bloc was caught up in a venomous row between Russia and Ukraine over gas prices.

Russia blamed Ukraine for triggering the crisis but EU officials repeatedly expressed exasperation it had taken Moscow so long to restore supplies.

Medvedev told Barroso in the talks that it was vital to resolve questions of energy security although he again placed all the blame for the crisis on Ukraine.

"The question of energy security is very important. The last gas crisis showed that all is not well in this area. The situation is very vulnerable," he said.

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Putin said he had asked the European Union to keep its observers on the ground monitoring its gas conflict with Ukraine until the end of the first quarter.

But he complained that Ukraine had not allowed Russian observers to the "central control rooms or the underground gas storage tanks".

Russia’s relationship with the European Union had already been severely soured by the war with Georgia in August and Moscow’s subsequent recognition of two Georgian breakaway regions as independent.

The EU brokered a ceasefire between the two sides but waited impatiently for Moscow to withdraw its troops from deep inside Georgia.

Barroso has brought with him to Moscow four EU Commission vice presidents and five commissioners, including Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs.

The last full-scale meeting between the EU’s executive arm and Russian leaders dates back to 2005.


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