EU energy needs don’t deter European leaders from pressing Putin on human rights

Putin and friends

Publish date: October 21, 2006

Written by: Charles Digges

Russian President Vladimir Putin dodged European Union (EU) leaders’ demands that he commit to a legally binding energy charter that would assure better access by foreign companies to Russia’s gas and oil fields and defended his government’s harshening stance against the former Soviet republic of Georgia during a one day summit in Finland.

The talks in Lahti, Finland, which began with a Friday night dinner, were “informal and to the point,” said summit host, Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, who currently holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency.

EU leaders urged Putin to implement a legally binding charter that would ensure imports of oil and gas for Europe. EU leaders are anxious about securing these supplies, and they are suspicious of Russia’s reliability as a source during the seeming downturn in Russia’s human rights climate, according to the AFX Financial newswire.

"From the economic point of view, we demand that Russia is a stable and reliable supplier," said Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, the Associated Press reported.

Putin also received a thorough grilling from EU leaders about the contract-style killing of Russian investigative journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, which the western leaders cited as an example of back-sliding values of freedom of speech and human rights in Russia, AP reported.

Putin was quoted as saying at the EU dinner that the assassination of Politkovskaya – a journalist whose searing exposés on Russian abuses in Chechya were a constant headache for the Kremlin – was a “brutal murder” and he pledged to hunt down the killers.

Putin was also urged by European leaders to ease mounting tensions with the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which even Putin said were escalating to potential “bloodshed.”

The human rights discussions were risky rhetorical forays for the European leaders, who depend on Russia for 25 percent of their energy, and who know that Russia – as witness Moscow’s temporary shut-down last winter of gas supplies to western-leaning Ukraine– is not shy about wielding its power resources against political foes. Yet, Russia is dependent on European energy income, and Putin had to take the diplomatic lumps.

An EU-Russia summit to resolve the proposed energy charter will take place on November 24th, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said, according to AP.

Europe craves a slice of the Shtokman pie and resolution in Sakhalin-2

Of special significance to European leaders was Russia’s state-run oil and gas giant Gazprom’s recent announcement that it will develop the Russian Arctic Shtokman oil and gas field without the help of foreign partners. The area is believed to hold some of the world’s largest oil and gas deposits, and Gazprom holds the leasing rights to the field.

The EU is also concerned by Russia’s threats to shut down on environmental grounds the Sakhalin-2 oil project being run by the Anglo-Dutch energy group Royal Dutch Shell, AFX reported.

The project to build an 800-kilometer pipeline running the length of Sakhalin Island, off Russia’s far eastern Pacific coast – which is a project sharing agreement (PSA) between Shell and Sakhalin Energy – has been targeted by the Natural Resources Ministry’s Federal Service for the Inspection of Natural Resources Use for gross ecological negligence. The federal service’s deputy director, Oleg Mitvol, has led a one-man ecological crusade against the Sakhalin-2 project.

But last week, police raided Mitvol’s offices and seized documents pertaining to environmental inspections of the project. Authorities told The Moscow Times that Mitvol is not the subject of any investigations. But his data could scuttle plans of those higher in the Russia power vertical who have an interest in seeing the project go through.

Analysts see government pressure on the Sakhalin-2 project as a means of ensuring that negotiations over Gazprom’s entry into the project turn out favourably for the state-owned company.

Gazprom is seeking a 25 percent stake in the project, but talks hit a snag when Shell announced last year that the project would cost $20 billion — double the initial estimate, according to The Moscow Times.

A decision on whether or not to revoke the project’s license could be made by the end of the month, after Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev returns from a trip to Sakhalin on October 26th, the paper reported.

EU concerns over Russia human rights very much on the dinner table

It was Putin’ host Vanhanen who initially confronted Putin on human rights and slipping democratic principles in Russia, as well as EU concerns about Moscow’s military campaign in Chechnya, officials and diplomats said.

"It was a tough message," Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus told AP. But Putin "was very forceful" in defending his country’s policy on Chechnya.

Last week alone, Russian officials temporarily closed down Russian branch offices of high profile foreign rights watchdogs and humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Medicins sans Frontiers – all of which work closely with the long-deteriorated Chechen human rights situation. The organisations were halted for alleged mistakes in their re-registration applications under Russia’s tough new law on non-governmental organisations (NGOs). So far, 77 foreign NGOs have seen their activities suspended until they re-file their applications.

Putin sidestepped European appeals for moderation on Georgia, and said he was acting to prevent conflict between Georgia and its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have close ties to Russia, AP reported.

"To our great sorrow and concern, the situation is developing in the direction of possible bloodshed," Putin told reporters during a televised press briefing on Friday night. He accused Georgia of trying to take back the two regions "by military means. This is what you and I should be afraid of … bloodshed in that region."

Georgia on his mind
The friction between Putin’s government and Georgia began with the election of the pro-western, US-friendly Mikheil Saakashvili, who, like Ukraine’s Viktor Yushechnko before him, directly defied Moscow’s ambitions in his region. The latest dust-up started in September with Tbilisi’s arrest of four Russian military officers on espionage charges.

Russia responded with a seemingly coincidental immigration crack down, the result of which has been wide-scale deportations of Georgians and the closure of dozens of Georgian-run businesses. Human rights abuses have been compounded by Russia-wide compilations of black lists by education officials of students with Georgian names.