MOSCOW (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande said new partners were needed to broker talks on ending the Syria crisis and Vladimir Putin promised to consider the proposal.
Hollande, speaking at a Kremlin summit, said a more open dialogue was the only way to break the deadlock over Syria, where 70,000 people have been killed in a nearly two-year-old conflict that began with a crackdown on protests against Assad.
“We think that this dialogue must find a new form so that it speaks to all parties,” said Hollande, giving few details of his proposal.
“We need to imagine a political dialogue that allows the opposition to negotiate with a party it finds acceptable. We will see in the coming days how to make that happen,” he said.
Hollande was rebuffed by the Russian president after raising concerns about Russia’s human rights record during a 24-hour visit intended to put trade ties with Moscow on a new footing, and relations between the two leaders appeared frosty.
But Putin gave a cautious welcome to Hollande’s proposal that dialogue on Syria be broadened to bring in parties that could act as negotiators between President Bashar al-Assad and opposition rebels.
“During the discussion, the French president made some new proposals which I think we could consider with all our partners and try to carry out,” Putin told a news conference at which the two sat stiffly side by side, hardly looking at each other.
Hollande acknowledged the two veto wielding members of the U.N. Security Council were still divided on Syria, but said: “We have the same aim even if we differ on how to get there. We still differ, but we can find a common way.”
On his debut trip to Moscow as president, Socialist Hollande hoped to strike a balance between a firm defense of human rights and the desire to increase trade with Russia, as well as win its support for Western efforts to end the fighting in Syria.
Unlike the cozy meetings between Putin and Hollande’s conservative predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, the atmosphere appeared little better than at a difficult first meeting in Paris last June that bristled with tension.
“We had active discussions and I think we argued over some things,” Putin told the news conference in a glittering Kremlin reception room, with the Russian, French and European Union flags behind the two presidents.
Making clear disagreements on Syria remained, he said: “It seemed to me that we would not only not sort this out without a bottle of good wine, but would need a bottle of vodka. We will have to sit down and think a bit more.”
But the two leaders had more than four hours of talks, at least two hours more than expected.
Russia has been one of Assad’s staunchest allies in the almost two-year-old crisis and, with China, has blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at mounting pressure on him to end the violence.
France, along with Washington, has sided with the Syrian opposition in seeking Assad’s removal from power. Russia says his departure must not be a precondition for talks and a political solution.
Russia called on the United States this week to press the Syrian opposition to hold direct talks with Damascus and drop calls for Assad to step down first, saying the rebels should appoint negotiators.
Although Hollande had been under pressure to push Putin on human rights, both sides sought to avoid the full-frontal clash on rights that marked German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s trip to Moscow last year, when she accused Moscow of stifling dissent.
Her criticism followed months of protests against Putin that failed to prevent the former KGB spy returning to the presidency last May. Since then Russia has enacted a series of laws which the opposition says limit freedom of speech.
Hollande said he had raised human rights with Putin but the Russian leader told the news conference: “I don’t think we had any particular problems with human rights in 2012.”
Human rights groups had hoped Hollande would raise concerns over the fate of Putin critics such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 49, once Russia’s richest man and now serving a long jail sentence on fraud and tax evasion charges.
There was no mention at the news conference of French actor Gerard Depardieu, who has taken Russian nationality after a bitter tax spat with Hollande’s government. It was not clear whether the leaders discussed him.
Both Putin and Hollande called for better business ties between their countries and chief among a series of deals that were signed was a cooperation pact between their state investment funds.
The volume of French investments in the Russian economy stands at more than $9 billion, while Russia has invested around $190 million in France.
Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, Gabriela Baczynska and Catherine Bremer, writing by Timothy Heritage, editing by Jon Boyle