E.coli spat set to overshadow Russia-EU summit

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian and European Union leaders hold a summit on Thursday that is likely to be dominated by a dispute over Moscow’s ban on EU vegetable imports, denting hopes of progress on other divisive issues.

The two-day meeting in Nizhny Novgorod, 400 km (250 miles) east of Moscow, is intended to keep up the momentum in Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization this year, help boost trade and increase cooperation on oil and gas.

But angry exchanges over Moscow’s ban, announced last week to prevent the spread of the E.coli outbreak that has killed 24 people in Europe, have soured the atmosphere before President Dmitry Medvedev meets European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU President Herman Van Rompuy.

“The reaction of the EU seems at first glance rather strange and at second glance inexplicable,” Russia’s EU envoy, Vladimir Chizhov, told reporters in Moscow via a video link-up this week.

The EU has protested to Moscow and says the ban is not justified by science. EU officials have also expressed concern that the ban contradicts WTO rules at a time when Moscow is trying to join the world trade body.,

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said Russia will lift the ban only if the EU provides details of the source of the E.coli outbreak. Chizhov hoped the situation would be “clarified” before the summit but his hopes have proved unfounded.

Political analysts said they expected the spat to overshadow other issues at the summit but the agenda had been thin anyway.

“The E.coli infection topic is a gift for both sides in a way, because otherwise there would be nothing to talk about at the summit,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine.


He said Russia had long ago given up hopes of securing any major agreements at the bi-annual summits, although the 27-country bloc is its largest trade partner. Russian officials say Moscow has become tired of being “lectured to” on human rights and democracy, and on how to develop its economy.

Diplomats say the EU is frustrated with the state of democracy in Russia two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Relations have also been scarred by Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 and its willingness to disrupt energy supplies to Europe in disputes with Ukraine.

Bilateral trade reached $306.2 billion in 2010, almost a third more than in 2009, and the EU is the biggest foreign investor in Russia. Russia is the bloc’s biggest gas supplier.

Issues to be discussed in Nizhny Novgorod, a city of 1.25 million, include a new agreement intended to lay the basis for cooperation in trade and energy and investment, and prospects for visa-free travel.

Russia’s bid to join the WTO is also on the agenda although no one expects talks to be ended yet. The main outstanding issues between the two sides are limits on imports of EU farm goods and restrictions on investment in the automobile sector.

On human rights, Brussels will raise the “climate of impunity” in the North Caucasus where Russian forces regularly kill separatists in clashes, a European diplomat said.

The two sides will also discuss the Syria crisis. Russia has made clear it does want the United Nations to resort to the use of force, as it did in Libya.

Writing by Alexei Anishchuk, additional reporting by Timothy Heritage, and Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck in Brussels; Editing by Jon Boyle