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EU, Russian officials gather in key Siberian oil city

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stephen Castle
International Herald Tribune / June 27, 2008

KHANTY-MANSIYSK, Russia - Along Lenin Street yesterday, they were spraying the road clean. Outside the center of this west Siberian city, with a population of 60,000, an apparently new, large green fence had gone up, concealing rundown wooden dwellings.

Two time zones east of Moscow and a six-hour flight from Brussels, Khanty-Mansiysk was putting its best foot forward for a much-touted summit meeting between Russia and the European Union, a gathering both sides say should define a new relationship between the global energy giant and the 27 European countries that are among its best clients.

Rarely can the choice of venue have said more about a nation's state of mind. At the behest of Russia the meeting is taking place outside Europe, east of the Urals. Its streets are named after Soviet heroes, but the city boasts an array of shiny new buildings, the fruits of booming oil prices in this capital of the Yugra region, which produces 7.5 percent of global output.

Ten years ago, this was a backwater. With oil prices soaring (predictions of $175 a barrel were rife in markets yesterday), the Russian hosts were calling the shots.

European officials look with hope at their host, the new president of Russia, Dmitri Medvedev, 42, seeking a thaw in the icy relations that characterized the tenure of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin.

Putin is now prime minister, but is not expected to attend the meetings.

Medvedev kept European leaders lingering over dinner last night, and other guests in a new concert hall chafed, waiting for the dignitaries to show.

According to the provincial governor, Aleksander Filipenko, the Yugra region accounts for 57 percent of Russian oil output. Asked how he felt about Yugra being compared to Dubai, Filipenko joked Wednesday that this was an insult, because Yugra produces much more oil.

Filipenko has ambitious plans for Khanty-Mansiysk, including construction of a 920-foot diamond-shaped tower, described by its British architect, Norman Foster, as "an elegant and crystalline landmark" in Siberia's landscape.

The governor wants Europeans to be as crystal clear about their energy supply. "This is the source of the river of energy that flows to Europe and brings light and heat to flats there," he said, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.

The leaders are due to start talks today on what official parlance terms a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, an overarching treaty to replace an old accord that expired last year.

Although the old agreement renews automatically, both sides agree that a new pact is needed to replace one forged in the very different conditions of the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union The summit meeting is the first test of whether the EU can fashion a healthier relationship with Medvedev than it had with Putin.

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