Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will upstage his hand-picked president today by meeting with France`s Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on long-delayed European Union trade negotiations.
Putin`s visit to Elysee Palace -- a month before France assumes the EU`s rotating presidency -- signals his continued dominance of foreign affairs a week before Dmitry Medvedev meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on his first Western European trip as Russia`s head of state.
President Sarkozy`s decision to meet Putin breaks with the past practice of Group of Eight leaders of dealing with Russia at the presidential level.
It`s a recognition that Putin ``remains the pre-eminent power`` in Russia, said Michael Emerson, a former EU ambassador to Moscow and an analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. ``The EU has to deal with the people who are there, both of them.``
Russia`s relationship with the EU in recent years has been rocky. It has clashed with Europe, as well as the U.S., over concerns that Russia abuses its role as the source of 25 percent of Europe`s energy to advance political interests. Russia temporarily cut off oil to Belarus in 2007 in a pricing dispute and gas to Ukraine in 2006 as it pressured the country to distance itself from the West.
The two sides are also at odds over plans by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to expand further into former Soviet territory by taking in Georgia and Ukraine, as well as a proposed U.S. missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.
Putin`s visit to Paris is his first trip outside the former Soviet Union since he and Medvedev assumed their new roles this month. Putin will meet with French counterpart Francois Fillon before a working dinner with Sarkozy, 53.
The Russian prime minister will discuss bilateral ties and EU cooperation, including a trade and partnership agreement, his office said. The 27-member European Union and Russia on May 26 agreed to restart talks on the accord after a two-year hiatus.
The talks have been held up twice, first by Poland to protest a now-lifted Russian ban on Polish meat and then by Lithuania after Russia briefly shut down a pipeline in 2006 that supplied it with oil.
The talks on the EU-Russia accord -- covering trade, energy road access, border crossings and health and consumer safety -- get under way at a June 26-27 summit in Siberia.
Putin, 55, was president for eight years before becoming prime minister. His protege, Medvedev, 42, was elected president on March 2. Under Russia`s constitution, the prime minister has less authority than the president, who is responsible for setting foreign and domestic policy and can fire the prime minister, who is charged with implementing presidential policies.
Putin, a former colonel in the Soviet Union`s KGB spy agency, has managed to all but turn that balance of power on its head.
He took key aides with him to the Cabinet. Other Putin associates dominate Medvedev`s presidential staff. Only two close Medvedev allies have senior positions; both studied with Medvedev at Leningrad State University, now known as St. Petersburg State University. One, Konstantin Chuichenko, is an aide; the other, Alexander Konovalov, is justice minister. Medvedev`s chief of staff and the three deputy heads of the presidential administration are Putin appointees.
Putin, leader of the ruling United Russia party, also has strengthened his policy-making authority by ending weekly Cabinet sessions in favor of consulting with an inner circle of ministers. This week, he convened the first meeting of that so- called presidium, including the ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs, which under the constitution report to the president.
The prime minister has taken the lead in setting Russia`s policy agenda. On May 14, he announced that a bill for cutting oil taxes was ready for parliament, sending shares of OAO Rosneft and OAO Gazprom Neft -- Russia`s state oil companies -- surging to record highs. Five days later, Putin said he would spend part of a $2 billion budget for agricultural subsidies on grain purchases to support prices, causing grain futures in Chicago to rise.
In foreign policy, Putin has the advantage of personal ties with world leaders, including Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Merkel and Sarkozy, said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the USA and Canada Institute in Moscow.
``Putin was president for eight years, and he still has considerable influence,`` Kremenyuk said by phone.
Medvedev`s role since becoming president has been mostly limited to reiterating existing policy. Last week, he was in China, where he and counterpart Hu Jintao criticized the planned deployment of U.S. missile-defense bases in Eastern Europe. Medvedev also defended Russia`s cooperation with China, saying the two neighbors will work together to shape global security whether other countries approve or not.
``So far Medvedev hasn`t made any changes in foreign policy,`` said Leonid Sedov, an analyst at the Moscow-based Levada Center, in a telephone interview. Putin`s visit to France ``shows that he continues to play the leading political role.``