, Russia, May 21 – Russian and EU leaders were to meet Thursday in a Trans-Siberian Railway city deep in Russia’s Far East in a bid to set their rocky relationship back on track after a series of crises.
Security and energy were set to top the agenda in Khabarovsk — the most easterly venue ever chosen for an EU-Russia summit — after Russia’s war with Georgia and the gas crisis with Ukraine severely dented Moscow-EU ties.
President Dmitry Medvedev arrived earlier Thursday in Khabarovsk — seven time zones from Moscow — to meet local students, regional chiefs and governors from neighbouring Chinese and Mongolian regions, officials said.
The summit was to open formally in the evening at a working dinner with the EU delegation led by EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and Czech President Vaclav Klaus, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
"Regular and frank political dialogue is the right way to manage our relationship and it must prevail in all times, no matter how difficult the issues at stake are," Barroso said ahead of the summit.
Ties with the European Union, Russia’s largest trading partner, were unsettled by its August war with Georgia and subsequent recognition of Georgian breakaway regions as independent, which the EU vehemently opposed.
Then in January came the gas crisis with Ukraine which saw Russia cut off supplies to several EU states for two weeks and prompted Barroso to cast doubt on its reliability as an energy partner.
The European Union is also waiting for Russia to shift on the issues which are blocking its bid to join the World Trade Organisation, including taxes on European airlines overflying Siberia and taxes on wood imports.
Meanwhile, a top Kremlin official said that Russia would at the meeting raise the issue of last month’s rioting in Moldova which some Russian officials blamed on new EU member Romania.
"We want to ask our colleagues from the European Union whether they intend to take responsibility for what European Union members do," Sergei Prikhodko was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
The slogan for the summit plastered all around the Far Eastern city is the relatively modest "Russia-EU: A Dialogue of Interests".
According to Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Politics "Russia can’t expect anything from the Khabarovsk summit as relations are in a disastrous state."
"Unresolved problems are snowballing. The more there are, the harder it is for the two sides to understand each other."
However the presence of the eurosceptic Klaus, who is much closer to Moscow than several eastern European leaders, could be a "positive" factor in negotiating with Medvedev, according to one European diplomat.
"I don’t see Russia as a threat but as a big, strong and ambitious country to which we must certainly pay more attention than to the likes of (EU members) Estonia and Lithuania," Klaus declared in the Czech daily Lidove Noviny.
Medvedev is expected to renew a call he made last month for a new global energy charter to replace the Energy Charter Treaty adopted in 1991 to integrate the energy sectors of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe.
But the European Commission has said that the existing charter, which is being revised, already enshrines the main principles needed to improve energy supplies and security, if Moscow respects it.
Medvedev has also called for a new security pact with Europe to replace Cold War-era treaties, a proposal which has met with a muted response from ex-Communist bloc EU members.
For the Russian Far East, meanwhile, the EU-Russia summit is a major event and seen as a dry-run for the 2012 summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders in the Pacific city of Vladivostok.