* Putin calls on EU to shed "stereotypes"
* Avoids public comment on Syria crisis
* Putin mixes calls for closer ties with warnings
* Russia-EU cooperation clouded by trade disputes
By Denis Dyomkin
ST PETERSBURG, Russia, June 4 Russian President
Vladimir Putin pressed the European Union on Monday for faster
progress toward visa-free travel and said the EU will have to
deal with an economic alliance among ex-Soviet states, while
skirting the issue of Syria in public comments.
At his first summit with EU leaders since his return to the
Kremlin last month following the biggest opposition protests of
his 12-year rule, Putin also made clear he would not welcome
Western criticism on human rights or democracy.
He signalled support for legislation meant to discourage
street protests by increasing fines for violations and defended
the jailing of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for many
a symbol of Putin's treatment of his foes.
Putin sought to assure sceptical EU leaders he is determined
to seek closer ties with Russia's biggest trade partner, calling
for robust movement toward an elusive new pact governing ties
between wary neighbours that share a continent.
"We have a good opportunity to set out our strategic goals
in this document and lay out a long-term plan for cooperation,"
he said at the talks in the ornate imperial-era Constantine
Palace on the outskirts of his home town, St. Petersburg.
But he called for a "pragmatic, businesslike approach
without any ideological or other stereotypes", a veiled demand
that the EU treat Russia as an equal and steer clear of
preaching to it on issues such as human rights.
The summit was clouded by the crisis in Syria, where
Moscow has blunted Western efforts to condemn President Bashar
al-Assad and push him from power during 15 months of bloodshed
in which his forces have killed more than 9,000 people.
Putin said he had discussed Syria with the EU leaders but
made no further comment.
Russia and the EU are deeply intertwined, with Europe
relying heavily on Russian energy exports and Russians hungry
for EU products. But they wrangle over issues ranging from
energy supplies, trade and market access to human rights, all of
which complicate efforts to agree a new framework pact.
Putin tried to blunt years of criticism over Khodorkovsky,
once Russia's richest man, who was jailed in 2003 and is due for
release in 2016 after two convictions for financial crimes in
trials Kremlin foes said were punishment for perceived
challenges to Putin.
"Wherever I go, there is always one primary question being
raised - about Mr. Khodorkovsky's fate," Putin told a joint news
conference with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
"The European Court of Human Rights said the criminal case
against Khodorkovsky and conviction was not politically
motivated," Putin said, referring to a May 2011 ruling in which
the court said it found no firm proof the first case against the
former Yukos oil company chief was politically motivated.
Putin has faced Western criticism over police violence
against protesters on the eve of his inauguration and the mostly
brief detention of hundreds of people trying to demonstrate in
the following weeks. He suggested Russia was more lenient toward
demonstrators than EU nations.
Russia must "bring into our legislation such norms as are
applied in many European countries to regulate such activities"
Putin said of legislation to increase fines for protest
organisers and demonstrators deemed to have violated city rules.
Van Rompuy prodded Putin diplomatically on democracy and
human rights, suggesting a looser grip would help the
59-year-old leader develop his own country and forge closer EU
Recent Russian parliament hearings on human rights were "a
recognition that human rights ... are a matter of direct
concern, and that is why these issues, together with the rule of
law and preservation of political rights, do need to be
addressed," he said.
"Greater engagement of civil society opens opportunities for
the further development of political institutions and pluralism
in Russia which should not be missed," Van Rompuy said. "Civil
society was a force of progress in our own history and it can be
one in yours, in Russia's."
Putin, keen to shed an image of Russia as an unwelcome
neighbour, seemed more interested in swifter progress toward
visa-free travel, saying that "a true partnership is impossible
when there is a visa barrier."
"Fears of a wave of labour migrants from Russia seem
strongly exaggerated to me. The same goes for criminal
elements," he said. "I hope we will move along this path
Putin also reiterated Russian criticism of EU regulations
designed to liberalise its gas market by barring suppliers
including Russian giant Gazprom from controlling
The criticism over market access cuts both ways.
Russia is set to join the World Trade Organization this
year, binding it to global rules, but the EU wants the Kremlin
to lower barriers for Western companies and investment by
curbing corruption and improving the rule of law.
Putin returned to the presidency pledging to make closer
integration among former Soviet republics a chief priority, and
he emphasised that effort by travelling to Uzbekistan, an
authoritarian Central Asian state, after the summit.
After talks with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Putin
brought up Moscow's need for strong ties with Tashkent in light
of the 2014 pullout of ISAF forces from Afghanistan, which
"Our cooperation with Uzbekistan, especially in the light of
the future troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, has a very serious
significance. It has a direct link to the security of the
Any instability in Afghanistan after the troop pullout would
affect the countries of predominantly Muslim central Asia, which
have porous borders and largely secular leaders.