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EU's Russia Envoy: Relations Past Worst Phase

FILE - Pro-Russian separatist soldier guards checkpoint in Enakieve, 25 kilometers from the eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltseve, Jan. 29, 2015.
FILE - Pro-Russian separatist soldier guards checkpoint in Enakieve, 25 kilometers from the eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltseve, Jan. 29, 2015.

Relations between Russia and the European Union have entered a "more hopeful phase" with a firmer ceasefire in eastern Ukraine suggesting the worst is over, Vygaudas Usackas, the European Union's envoy to Russia, said on Monday.

"I'm more hopeful than I was before, [than] last month," Usackas, the head of the EU delegation to Russia, told the Reuters Russia Investment Summit.

East-West relations deteriorated to their lowest level since the end of the Cold War last year when the EU and the United States hit Russia with sanctions after it seized control of Ukraine's Crimea region and the West blamed Moscow for a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.

In February, an international peace accord was reached to end the Ukraine conflict, but the ceasefire that followed was regularly violated by heavy fighting.

However, since the start of this month, a new ceasefire seems to be holding. Usackas said this may reflect a more cooperative attitude from Russia, which he said had influence over the separatists.

"There has been an awakening emerging within society about the damage that has been caused to the traditionally close, brotherly relations with Ukraine," he said at the summit, held at the Reuters office in Moscow.

"In parallel, there is also a recognition about the damage that is being caused in terms of relations with the EU, which remains the most important trade and investment partner. Basically, 75 percent of [foreign direct investments] in Russia comes from Europe."

Russia's economy, which is expected to shrink by around 4 percent this year, has been hit hard by Western sanctions and plummeting prices for oil, its chief export.

Usackas said sanctions were not the EU's preferred way of doing business, but that they had played a role in ending the bloodshed in Ukraine.

As an example of East-West cooperation, Usackas cited Russian participation in successful talks over Iran's nuclear program, expressing hope Moscow would play a similarly constructive role to help end the civil war in Syria.

Usackas cautioned, however, that many obstacles remained when it came to implementing the Ukraine peace deal and before sanctions could be eased. And some of the issues dogging relations are unlikely to be resolved soon, he said.

"It's not just about Ukraine. We're witnessing a clash of worldviews," he said.

"In the foreseeable future I do not see Russia returning back to liberal democratic values and embracing fully the benefits of political freedom, democracy and the rule of law."

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