Andrew Rettman, EUObserver
BRUSSELS - EU officials will in Moscow on Thursday (21 March) try to pin down details on a visa-free travel deal, despite "regret" on Russia's handling of a prominent human rights case.
The European Commission visit, including a tete-a-tete between commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, is part of a good will programme dating back to 1997.
A big point on the agenda is whether to let Russian officials enter the EU without a visa, while relaxing visa rules for Russian businessmen, journalists and students.
"There is now a majority of member states who are in favour of including service passport holders [officials] … If everything goes well, it [a deal] might take place this summer," a commission official told EUobserver ahead of the trip.
The progress on visas comes despite EU criticism of Putin's behaviour in the past 18 months - on rigged elections, on his crackdown on NGOs and dissidents and on lack of respect for the rule of law.
In the latest episode, Russian authorities this week closed an investigation into the death in 2009 of anti-corruption activist Sergei Magnitsky, saying there was no crime.
They did it despite evidence he was put in prison, starved of medication and finally beaten to death because he exposed tax fraud by Russian officials.
For its part, the EU foreign service on Wednesday noted that he suffered "neglect and torture."
But it overlooked its previous threats to take punitive measures, saying only that Russia's decision to end the probe is "regrettable."
The EU visa-free plan stands in stark contrast with the US, which has imposed a visa ban on Magnitsky-linked Russian officials.
It also flies in the face of European Parliament appeals.
"Relaxing visa policy risks undermining the EU's approach to human rights in Russia unless it goes together with a concerted effort to … ban EU entry to those officials involved in Magnitsky’s death," Kristiina Ojuland, a Liberal MEP from Estonia, said on Wednesday.
Hannes Swoboda, an Austrian MEP who chairs the Socialist group, called the Magnitsky probe decision a "provocation."
Foreign ministers from large EU countries see things differently, however.
Poland's Radek Sikorski told the Polish parliament on Wednesday that all Russians should get EU visa-free travel, so long as Moldovans, Georgians and Ukrainians get it too.
Germany's Guido Westerwelle told press in Berlin the same day: "Some of their [Russia's] decisions I cannot comprehend. But we have to keep up discussions with Russia in a spirit of mutual respect. They are our strategic partners."
He added: "If the visa liberalisation for service passports happens, it would be a nice, welcomed progress. It is a very important topic to them. Putin brings it up all the time, so it is important for us too."
EU and Russia in visa-free talks, despite Magnitsky 'regret'