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Merkel tackles Putin on democracy at frosty summit

VOLZHSKY UTYOS, Russia (Reuters) - The European Union snubbed Russian requests that the bloc rein in its eastern European members on Friday at a frosty summit that cooled ambitions for deeper EU-Russian ties.

On the day chess champion and Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov was stopped from attending a protest near the meeting, a combative Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected concerns -- including from EU leaders -- that he was rolling back democracy.

“What is pure democracy?” Putin asked a news conference at the summit venue, a holiday resort on the banks of the Volga river 1,000 km south-east of Moscow. “It is a question of ... whether you want to see the glass half full or half empty.”

As expected, the summit failed to unblock the launch of talks on an EU-Russia partnership agreement. They are stalled because of a Polish veto, part of a trade row with Russia.

Moscow had hoped the EU leadership would persuade Poland -- as well as Estonia and Lithuania which are locked in their own rows with Russia -- to moderate their stances.

Poland blocked the talks after Russia imposed a ban on imports of Polish meat. Moscow has accused Estonia of desecrating the memory of World War II victims after it moved a Soviet-era war memorial. Lithuania is unhappy that Russia has switched off an oil pipeline.

But European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was representing the EU at the summit, made clear the bloc was squarely behind its members.

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“We had occasion to say to our Russian partners that a difficulty for a member state is a difficulty for the whole European community,” Barroso said.

“It is very important if you want to have close cooperation to understand that the EU is based on principles of solidarity.”

Putin hit back and accused some EU states -- a clear reference to Poland -- of “economic selfishness that does not always correspond to the EU’s interests.”

“We are aware of the EU position on the need for solidarity. I asked my colleagues, and they did not take offence: are there any limits to this solidarity?”

ASSERTIVE RUSSIA

The EU is not the only Western power struggling to manage relations with an increasingly assertive Russia. Moscow has clashed with Washington over U.S. plans to place elements of a missile defense shield in eastern Europe.

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The summit highlighted that EU leaders’ vision for an ever-closer partnership with Russia based on shared values has been drowned out by differences.

The partnership treaty is stalled and Putin refuses to ratify an energy charter the EU argues is key to ensuring reliable long-term oil and gas supplies from Russia.

Officials at the summit were keen to stress the disagreements over Poland, Estonia and Lithuania were temporary, and did not affect the core of EU-Russian relations: massive trade links which are growing rapidly.

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“The existence of problems does not mean a deep, deep crisis,” Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

An EU diplomat told Reuters “the atmosphere in the talks was a lot better than the atmosphere in the press conference, certainly.”

Kasparov had planned to fly to Samara, the nearest big city to the summit, to lead a “March of Dissenters” against Putin’s rule. But airline staff told him in Moscow they could not issue him with a ticket because of a computer glitch.

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