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EU Leaders Meet With Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with three top European Union leaders at his summer retreat near the town of Sochi in southern Russia Thursday to discuss issues including illegal immigration and energy policy.

There were smiles all around, as President Putin welcomed European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, and current EU president Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel.

The four men ate dinner within view of the Black Sea coast, and Mr. Putin commented about the beautiful weather in southern Russia.

But there was some tension in the air, especially concerning the issue of energy security.

President Putin sought to reassure his guests that Russia remains a reliable supplier of gas and oil, despite concerns about policies pursued by the giant Russian gas monopoly, Gazprom.

In addition to causing a shortfall of natural gas supplies to Europe earlier this year due to a price dispute with neighboring Ukraine, Gazprom refuses to open up its distribution network to other companies.

It is also seeking to expand its grip on gas distribution networks in Western Europe.

But President Vladimir Putin pledged that Russia would ensure stable energy supplies to the European Union, pointing to a new pipeline project with Germany that will carry gas under the Baltic Sea.

Mr. Putin says the North European gas pipeline will help secure full supply deliveries and help improve the quality of life of Europeans.

But the new pipeline is not due to be completed before 2010, and has in itself sparked harsh criticism from new EU members, such as Poland, because it bypasses them.

Gazprom currently provides more than a quarter of Europe's gas supply, and seeks to expand its reach even as, analysts say, lack of new investment in the aging pipeline network may cause new shortfalls in the future.

Mr. Putin also told his guests that Russia expects reciprocal steps from the European Union, if he allows Western investors greater access to Russia's vast energy resources, what he calls, "the holy of holies" of the Russian economy.

While some Western companies are involved in various gas and oil projects in Russia, in recent years, the Kremlin has reasserted control over what it considers the country's strategic assets.

Apart from energy, the leaders agreed to ease rules regarding visas, as well as increase cooperation in curbing the problem of illegal immigrants entering the European Union from Russia.