Putin, Chirac discuss bilateral, Russia-EU ties after French vote

President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Jacques Chirac on Monday reaffirmed the need for close relations between Russia and the European Union in the wake of the French vote rejecting an EU constitution, the Kremlin said.

Putin and Chirac discussed bilateral and Russia-EU ties in a telephone conversation, the Russian president's press service said.

Both leaders "expressed certainty" that relations will continue to develop, calling a closer partnership "an imperative for both Russia and France" as well as Europe as a whole, it said.

The conversation came a day after French voters rejected the EU's first constitution, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the charter and humiliating Chirac.

Moscow has been wary about the eastward expansion of the EU, which took in the former Soviet Baltic republics last year, but Russia and the EU adopted a broad partnership accord earlier this month meant to boost cooperation and heal divisions.

Putin has not commented on the French vote, but a leading pro-Kremlin lawmaker suggested rejection of the constitution could slow further expansion of the EU. That would soothe Russian concern about the possibility its neighbor Ukraine will eventually join.

The vote "means the current enlargement of the EU has come to a limit that arouses doubts in its own citizens, and now questions are arising and doubts appearing about the admission of Turkey, Ukraine and the Balkan states to the EU," the Interfax news agency quoted Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the international affairs committee in Russia's upper parliament house, as saying.

A Kremlin-connected political analyst, meanwhile, said the French vote could affect EU policy toward the former Soviet Union and upset the behind-the-scenes balance of forces in Russia's leadership, weakening champions of closer integration with the West and strengthening their opponents.

"The might of European allies in the economic section of our government will wane," Interfax quoted analyst Sergei Markov as saying, referring to relatively liberal officials who are at odds with nationalists wary of further opening Russia to the West.

"In addition, the EU will become less active in the former Soviet Union and the development of a common European policy will slow," Markov said, according to Interfax.

Russia has bristled at EU attention to the ex-Soviet republics on its fringes, where its own influence has waned with the ascent of Western-leaning leaders in Ukraine and Georgia over the past two years, and to matters Moscow considers internal affairs, such as the war in Chechnya.

STEVE GUTTERMAN, Associated Press Writer

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