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EU, Putin Spar Over Human Rights, Trade, Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso (R) and Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, attend a news conference as part of the Russia-EU summit in St. Petersburg, June 4, 2012.
MOSCOW - European officials met Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss a variety of issues including the Kremlin’s human rights record, trade and the Syria crisis, among other things.

Newly elected President Vladimir Putin defended his country’s human rights record, saying that he had no knowledge of anyone who could be described as a political prisoner in his country. Mr. Putin made the comments after reporters asked about the opposition's demands to free some 40 people who they say are being held as political prisoners.

Mr. Putin’s critics often say that former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is the country’s number one political prisoner. The European Court of Human Rights stopped short of finding political motives for Khodorkovsky’s 2005 conviction for tax evasion and fraud, but it has yet to rule on his second conviction, which also includes fraud.

President Putin also defended a bill that raises fines for unsanctioned street protests, saying that Russia’s controversial law on rallies is democratic.

Mr. Putin said the violation of rules regulating mass protests is being applied to those who break the rules. He said as far as he knows, everybody is walking freely now, probably preparing for new protests. He says this is normal.

Mr. Putin reclaimed the presidency last month after facing some of Russia's largest protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union. His critics say he rules the country through a tightly controlled political system and corruption - a charge he vehemently denies.

Meanwhile, Russia is expected to join the World Trade Organization at the end of the year after 18 years of negotiations. As a member of the WTO, the Kremlin will be required to abide by global rules.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said European leaders are looking forward to working with Russia.

"We are the biggest source of foreign direct investment in Russia, the biggest client of your biggest export and it is energy," said Barroso. "And we share a common interest in living in a peaceful and stable neighborhood, and in [a] multilateral rules-based international system. In recent years, we achieved much progress in our bilateral relations, working for Russia's WTO accession, with our partnership for modernization, with the common steps for a visa-free dialogue.”

Leaders also touched on the Syria crisis and Russia's defense of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in the face of a violent opposition backlash. The talks failed to resolve differences in how to deal with Syria's 15-month-long conflict.

Speaking at the end of the summit, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said the Russian leader and the 27-nation bloc have "some divergent assessments."

In a joint news conference with Mr. Putin, Mr. Van Rompuy said both sides need to work together to achieve an immediate stop to Syria's violence and launch a process of political transition.

The Kremlin has long maintained that dialogue is necessary with both Mr. Assad's government and rebels.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday she told her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that the focus of international diplomacy on Syria is shifting to a political transition rather than negotiations with Mr. Assad's government.

Syria and Russia remain close allies, and Russia has been a major arms seller to the country as part of a deal that allows Moscow to maintain a naval base there. Western leaders confirmed last week that a Russian ship loaded with weapons for Syrian government forces arrived in the country.

Mr. Putin denies the shipment exists.