Russia and EU Aim to Clinch Deal on Visas

Russia and the European Union will try to hammer out a deal on easing visa regulations at a summit in London on Tuesday that will likely be dominated by a series of issues that have strained relations between the two.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose country holds the rotating six-month EU presidency until the end of the year, will host President Vladimir Putin for the one-day summit, which is aimed at building on a landmark agreement achieved in May to reinforce political and economic ties.

EU officials said the London talks would cover economics, trade, the environment, energy and human rights, while Russia was expected to renew calls for Britain to extradite Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev and for the EU to back Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization.

Human rights and economic and political cooperation were also on the agenda in talks Monday between Putin and Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt during a stopover by Putin in Brussels on his way to the London summit. Putin also had lunch with the Belgian king, Albert II.

Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will lead the Russian delegation, while Blair, European Commission President Manuel Barroso and External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner will represent the 25-nation bloc.

EU officials are expected to express concern on human rights in Russia, and in Chechnya in particular, while Russia will likely complain about what it sees as discrimination against Russian-speaking minorities in new EU members Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

London-based rights group Amnesty International on Friday accused federal forces of carrying out abductions and "systematic" abuse as a way to subdue separatists in Chechnya, allegations the Kremlin has denied.

Putin promised last week in a nationwide call-in show that he would combat the problem of abductions in Chechnya, but added that the authorities had been unable to determine whether "bandits in disguise or abuses by law enforcement bodies" were to blame.

"We will continue the search for missing people and those guilty of these crimes," Putin said.

As well as renewing calls for Zakayev's extradition, Russia is likely to ask EU leaders to soften their criticism of Russia's human rights record in Chechnya.

Moscow will also push for a deal on easing visa regulations for Russian citizens traveling to EU countries, said a spokesman for Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Putin aide responsible for Russia's relations with the EU.

The spokesman said Monday that Russia was optimistic a visa agreement "could be reached by the end of the year," but did not elaborate.

Brussels has said it wants Moscow to take back illegal immigrants who entered the EU from Russia, regardless of whether they are Russian citizens.

Russia has been opposed to readmitting illegal migrants, saying such a policy would be very expensive to implement and could violate migrants' rights.

Russia's permanent representative to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, said Sunday that he was hopeful a deal could be reached during the London summit.

"It's just a matter of finalizing the text," Chizhov said, Reuters reported. "The whole situation has been aggravated, because we used to have a visa-free regime with many of the new EU members."

In Moscow in May, Russia and the EU signed a wide-ranging cooperation agreement but failed to agree on visas.

Ahead of Tuesday's summit, an EU-Russia energy forum met in London on Monday to discuss expanding cooperation. The EU is Russia's biggest oil and gas customer.

Moscow is expected to call for EU support in its bid to join the WTO by next year, when Russia will hold the presidency of the Group of Eight nations. The EU has pledged to back Russia's bid, but Russian officials have expressed disappointment after 11 years of negotiations.

Russian and EU officials are also expected to discuss disagreements over Iran's nuclear program, which Russia and Iran say is only intended to produce nuclear power. Russia and China have opposed EU and U.S. efforts to refer Tehran to the UN Security Council over fears that the program is aimed at building nuclear weapons.

Putin will hold talks with Blair on Wednesday, when he is to present awards to the British team that helped to rescue the crew of the Russian mini-sub trapped off Kamchatka in August.

In a commentary in Monday's Vedomosti, British Ambassador to Russia Anthony Brenton said the London summit would also focus on cooperation with Russia on fighting organized crime, terrorism and drug smuggling.

Meanwhile, an issue that appeared likely to ruffle feathers at the summit looked to be resolved late Monday.

Prosecutors began a tax investigation last Friday into the British Council, the cultural department of the British Embassy, in St. Petersburg, over what they said were unpaid taxes on English-language courses.

Late Monday, however, the Foreign Ministry said the British Council had made arrangements to pay the taxes.

Kommersant had speculated in its Monday edition that the Kremlin could try to use the investigation as a bargaining chip at the London summit, saying the case against the British Council was "a scandal sparked by the Kremlin."

The ministry strongly denied the newspaper's claim, which had run in a front-page story.

An unnamed tax service official told Kommersant that the British Council had not paid taxes on English-language courses. "According to our figures, in 2001 alone the British Council failed to pay millions of rubles of taxes," the paper quoted the official as saying.

Melissa Cook, an assistant director of communications for the British Council, said by telephone Monday that the organization had "fairly cooperated with all requests from the tax authorities."

Cook also told The Associated Press, however, that the British Council was "currently settling its tax affairs."

Authorities first targeted the British Council last year, saying it was involved in commercial activities and must pay taxes, The Moscow Times reported.

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