Russian government officials are preparing to host a two-day meeting in Moscow with European Commission officials, including commission President Romano Prodi. The talks are aimed at ensuring smooth relations with Russia as the European Union prepares to welcome 10 new members, including former Soviet satellite states.
The meetings beginning late Thursday afternoon bring together Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and European Commission President Romano Prodi, among others.
The agenda of the talks, namely, Russian concern about European Union expansion, comes at a sensitive time as 10 nations, most of them former communist states, prepare to enter the EU on May 1.
On the eve of the talks, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said officials would be trying to find ways to ensure that the transition period following European expansion will not adversely affect Russia's cooperative partnership with the bloc.
Russia has long been wary about European expansion, claiming that a new wall must not be allowed to appear in Europe that would leave Russia on the outside.
Russia is especially worried that it will lose preferential trade tariffs when the new EU entrants adopt strict quotas and tariffs on Russian exports. Some experts in Moscow have reportedly estimated that Russia's potential annual losses from that measure could reach $150 million.
Another troublesome issue expected to be on the agenda is the European Union's appeal for Russia to hold peace talks with Chechen separatist rebels.
President Putin has long rejected that notion and late Wednesday again expressed frustration that the appeal continues to be made. He says the separatist rebels are terrorists who must be, "eliminated."
The European Union also is exerting increasing pressure on Russia to ratify the Kyoto Protocol aimed at curbing so-called greenhouse gases, which many scientists blame for global warming.
An EU statement released ahead of the talks said President Prodi is again expected to reiterate calls for Russia's speedy ratification of the protocol when he meets with President Putin.
The statement says EU delegation members will reiterate to Russia the importance of continued cooperation on energy issues to move toward concluding an agreement for Russia to join the World Trade Organization.