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Russia

EU-Russia talks focus on energy, trade

Talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and leaders of the European Union have been dominated by disputes over energy, trade, and human rights issues. No decisions are expected from this annual meeting.

Putin's trip is his first visit to Brussels since his re-election as president in May.

Ahead of Friday's meeting with EU President Herman van Rompuy and the head of the EU Commission Jose Manuel Barroso, EU officials have been keen to downplay expectations.

Russia is the third largest trading partner of the 27 nation bloc and its main external supplier of energy deliveries.

"The last few EU-Russia summits have achieved very little and for Putin, I think, it is really a box-ticking exercise and I am almost surprised he is going at all,"  James Nixey, an expert on Russia at London's Chatham House thinktank told Reuters news agency.

EU seeking diverse gas supplies

Energy issues may top the agenda: Russia covers around a quarter of the EU's natural gas needs, but Russian disputes with transit countries for gas deliveries - Ukraine and Belarus - have disrupted exports several times in the past. Ukraine pulled out of gas supply talks with Putin this Tuesday.

That raised new concerns about the reliability of supplies to Europe, prompting an EU search for diversified supplies.

There are attempts to bypass eastern European transit states. The Nord Stream pipeline, for example, carries gas directly from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea.

Russia's state-dominated energy company Gazprom owns 51 percent of Nord Stream, which puts it at odds with EU law which prevents suppliers of energy from dominating distribution networks.

Russia maintains that the EU cannot force it to sell off part of its stake, as this would constitute a restriction on trade that is contrary to World Trade Organisation rules.

The EU's executive Commission meanwhile in September opened an investigation into suspected anti-competitive market practices by Russia's Gazprom.

Russia wants travel curbs eased

Russia meanwhile would like to see the EU lift travel restrictions for its citizens, while the EU would like to see the lifting of trade restrictions. Russia joined the WTO this year still levies fees on EU imports, such as cars.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Energy Minister Alexander Novak and Economy Minister Andrei Belousov will take part in Friday's discussions.

Another point of contention is the issue of Syria: The EU is concerned by Russia's continued support of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad.

France and other Western states have criticised Russia for vetoing three UN Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring the regime in Damascus to end the conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people since it began in March 2011.

Pussy Riot on EU agenda

And, on the human rights front, European leaders have taken issue with the jailing of members of punk band Pussy Riot, prosecutions of opposition figures and laws restricting protests and foreign-funded organisations since Putin was re-elected.

The talks in Brussels come one day after a Russian court reduced the prison term of one of Putin's main rivals, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He is serving a 13-year jail sentence for embezzlement, which has been cut by two years so that he could befree in October 2014.

Russian civil rights activist have cautiously welcomed the move.

rg/ipj (dpa, Reuters)