Putin presses EU on visas but avoids Syria
ST PETERSBURG – Russian president Vladimir Putin pressed the European Union yesterday for faster progress toward visa-free travel and said the EU will have to deal with an economic alliance among former Soviet states, while skirting the issue of Syria in public comments.
At his first summit with EU leaders since his return to the Kremlin last month following the biggest opposition protests of his 12-year rule, Mr Putin also made it clear he would not welcome western criticism on human rights or democracy.
He signalled support for legislation meant to discourage street protests by increasing fines for violations and defended the jailing of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for many a symbol of his harsh treatment of his enemies.
Mr Putin sought to assure sceptical EU leaders he was determined to seek closer ties with Russia’s biggest trade partner, calling for robust movement toward an elusive new pact. “We have a good opportunity to set out our strategic goals in this document and lay out a long-term plan for co-operation,” he said at the talks in the ornate imperial-era Constantine Palace on the outskirts of his hometown of St Petersburg.
He called for a “pragmatic, businesslike approach without any ideological or other stereotypes”, a veiled warning to the EU to treat Russia as an equal and steer clear of preaching on political issues.
The summit was clouded by the crisis in Syria, where Moscow has blocked western efforts to condemn President Bashar al-Assad and push him from power during 15 months of bloodshed in which his forces have killed more than 9,000 people. Mr Putin said he had discussed Syria with the EU leaders but made no further comment. – (Reuters)