Munich, Germany: (Agencies: 7/2/2009): The EU’s top executive angered Prime Minister Vladimir Putin while standing next to him at a news conference on Friday by raising concerns about the murders of Russian human rights activists and journalists in Moscow.
Their acrimonious exchange came after meetings, on the sidelines of the 45th session of the security conference underway in Munich. The meeting between the two men was intended to improve European Union-Russian relations, badly scarred by the Georgia war and last month’s cutoff of Russian natural gas supplies to Europe.
Both Putin and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said their talks were constructive and set a positive tone for negotiations on a long-awaited EU-Russia partnership agreement.
But the atmosphere soured after Barroso mentioned that he had raised the issue of Russia’s problems with the rule of law in his meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev earlier Friday.
"I have just now learned that Mr. Barroso discussed the construction of a law-based state with President Medvedev," a visibly irritated Putin told reporters. "Mr. Barroso discussed this in the Kremlin but is talking about it here, at a news conference, where Mr. Medvedev is absent and cannot say anything about this issue."
Putin tried to turn the tables, saying the rights of ethnic Russians, migrants and prisoners are violated in some EU countries.
"We believe we must discuss the whole spectrum of problems, both in Russia and in the countries of the European Union," he said.
Barroso then tackled the matter in more detail, saying he had expressed EU concerns about the fatal shootings on a Moscow street last month of a human rights lawyer and a reporter — the latest killings of Russians who challenge the authorities.
"Human rights and the rule of law are things that are much more important than diplomacy between states," Barroso said in lengthy remarks. "They have to do directly with people, with the rights of citizens, and I think it’s a very important element of our common European civilization."
That was too much for Putin.
"Are we going to continue this discussion?" he fumed.
The tension subsided somewhat, but Putin got the last word when he said, with more than a hint of sarcasm, that Russia would welcome frequent visits from "this Magnificent 10" — Barroso and the nine European commissioners he brought with him.
Russia and the EU are linked closely by commerce, but ties have been strained for years by disputes on issues ranging from timber tariffs to the Kremlin’s record on human rights. Tensions were driven to a post-Cold War peak by Russia’s war with Georgia in August, and the EU suspended talks with Russia on the new partnership deal.
Leaders and top officials from around the world are gathered at the security meeting, which deals with a number of hot-button topics, including the conflict in Afghanistan and last year’s Russia-Georgia war.