Russia-EU talks: overcoming the distance

European and Russian leaders are meeting this week to discuss energy and trade. The venue is quite symbolic, as the city of Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East is about ten hours away by air from EU headquarters.

Both sides, however, express hope that the differences between Russia and the EU are narrower than the distance between Brussels and Khabarovsk.

Khabarovsk looks like a European city, but it’s just a stone’s throw from the Chinese border. However, it is as far from Europe as it gets. Top European officials are to brave the distance for a “dialogue of interests." President Dmitry Medvedev said he proposed Khabarovsk as the summit venue to offer his European partners a better feel of Russia.

As for the priorities of the summit itself, one of them is global security. Medvedev is set to push for his plan of a new European security deal. Russia says it’s much-needed after the August conflict in the Caucasus, and now as well – as NATO holds war games in Georgia.

“What’s better – creating a new security structure or holding military exercises close to the area that less than a year ago saw a military conflict? We simply want a new level of security for our country and our people,” Medvedev said last week.

Ensuring the steady flow of Russian gas to Europe is another of the summit’s concerns. This winter, Russian gas supplies to the EU through Ukraine were halted as Kiev failed to pay its bill.

Medvedev has suggested new international energy regulations, but Brussels has yet to respond to the idea.

“If it’s accepted by the EU, we may say that the dialogue has become substantial,” says analyst Irina Kobrinskaya.

“And at some point, a compromise between the producers, the consumers, and the transit countries will be achieved”.

Also, Brussels has just launched a new ambitious project to foster closer ties with six ex-Soviet republics. Russia sees it as a way to compete for influence in the post-Soviet era – this is a game it views with concern.

“For Russia, the key thing is for this initiative not to create new dividing lines in Europe,” said Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s EU ambassador.

“We don’t want any of these six countries to have to face a choice – either they’re with the EU or they’re with Russia”.