Middle East

Putin: Russia no defender of Syrian president

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet on December 21, 2012 with the EU president, foreign policy chief and their delegation before the start of the 30th EU-Russia summit at EU headquarters in Brussels. AFP PHOTO/JOHN THYS

BRUSSELS: President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Russia isn't a defender of Syrian President Bashar Assad and wants to see a democratically elected government, but held his ground on his stance that peace in Syria can only be achieved through talks.

Putin's statement at the end of talks with EU leaders in Brussels appears to be part of Russia's efforts to distance itself from its old ally, who has been weakened by opposition victories on the battleground and increasing international isolation.

But Putin made no indication that Moscow could change its stance and stop blocking international sanctions against the Syrian regime.

"We aren't a defender of the current Syrian leadership," Putin said.

He said that a lasting peace in Syria can only be reached through a peace agreement that would ensure the protection of various religious and ethnic groups in Syria.

Russia would like to see a "democratic regime in Syria based on the expression of people's will," he said.

Russia has backed its last Middle East ally since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, using its veto power along with China at the U.N. Security Council to block three resolutions containing sanctions against Damascus.

But, Putin's primary concern while meeting wit European leaders in Brussels was energy market regulations, which Moscow has described as discriminatory against Russia's state-controlled Gazprom gas company.

European officials have warned Gazprom that it would have to allow third-party gas producers to use the prospective South Stream pipeline to comply with its new regulations. Russia considers the pipeline key to its strategy of strengthening its supply to Europe, its most important export market.

But, the EU bans suppliers from owning transit facilities such as pipelines. Europe gets about a quarter of its gas from Russia.

Putin strongly criticized the EU energy regulations as he sat down for talks with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

"It creates confusion and undermines confidence in our mutual work," he said.

Gazprom is also facing an EU probe to determine whether it violated competition rules by linking gas prices with prices for oil.

Russia has argued that South Stream, which will run under the Black Sea and circumvent the U.S.- and EU-backed Nabucco pipeline project, should be exempt from the market regulations. The pipeline's construction began earlier this month.

Alexander Konovalov, the head of the Institute for Strategic Assessment and analysis, an independent Moscow-based think tank, Russia's chances of winning any concessions for Gazprom look slim, as the EU's effort to diversify supply routes has reduced Moscow's room to maneuver.

"The EU already has done a lot to diversify sources of energy supply, and it will continue doing so," he said.

"Moscow will find it increasingly difficult to use gas as an instrument of political and economic pressure."

Another hotly contested subject at the negotiations was Russia's increasingly impatient push for visa-free travel with EU countries. While the EU has argued that Russia's porous frontiers with its ex-Soviet neighbors make visa-free travel impossible at this point, the Kremlin has criticized EU officials for dragging their feet for years.

Putin pointed at the EU's visa-free travel agreements with 40 other nations across the world, saying that Brussels refusal to strike such a deal with Russia has negatively affected relations.

EU leaders said after the meeting that they had also discussed human rights in Russia.

Konovalov said Russia's rights record has adversely affected its ties with Europe. "The lack of trust doesn't help encourage business activities and develop contacts," he said.

Outside the European Council building in Brussels on Friday morning, journalists saw four topless female demonstrators, apparently members of the feminist protest group Femen, wrestled to the ground by police and taken away.

Brussels police did not immediately confirm the arrests.

In a move that appears to reflect Moscow's desire to avoid further criticism at the summit, the Kremlin-controlled lower house postponed a debate on a controversial bill that would introduce sanctions for providing minors with information on homosexuality, which it termed "homosexual propaganda." Similar laws passed by regional legislatures in several Russian provinces caused dismay in the EU.





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