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UPDATE: Russia, EU say visa facilitation, readmission package ready

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MOSCOW, October 4 (RIA Novosti) - Russia and the European Union reached agreements on visa facilitation and readmission at the summit in London Tuesday.

Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky said the agreements would be signed by the end of the year.

"We believe it to be an essential, real, and practical step toward the implementation of the plans we agreed upon earlier. We consider these agreements to be a step toward a visa-free regime," Russian President Vladimir Putin told a news conference in London.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, said the agreements were "the first important step."

Visa facilitation includes easing visa restrictions for certain categories of Russian and EU citizens, namely, students, researchers, politicians, diplomats, and businessmen. Russia has already agreed on less stringent visa regulations with Germany, Italy, and France.

Putin continued that Russia had not surrendered its position on a readmission agreement with the European Union, but only modified its stance.

"I do not think that we backtracked on any points. We merely met our European partners halfway," Putin said, adding the Russian Foreign Ministry's position "was seriously modified during the talks."

Readmission means Russia is to accept deported immigrants that had illegally entered the EU from Russian territory. Earlier, Russia refused to readmit third country citizens who had arrived in the EU from Russian territory for fear that they would stay in the country.

Putin also said Russia covered 90% of the natural gas needs of some EU countries.

"Russia is a reliable partner and has never let its partners in Europe down," the Russian leader said.

"Rumors that Europe could lose its energy independence are greatly exaggerated," he said, echoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair who said it was not a question of "dependence either on the Russian side or the European side" and that energy cooperation was a "complete common interest."

Putin said Russia and the EU had attained a new level of strategic interaction. "We made the decision to allow [our] European partners to produce natural gas in Russia," he said.

He added that the partners had met Russia halfway by granting it access to electricity distribution networks, including in Europe. "And together we intend to pursue major infrastructure projects, namely, the construction of the North European gas pipeline," the president added.

The Russian president said Monday that Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom was in talks with Belgium over building a depot in the country for natural gas delivered via the North European gas pipeline. The pipeline will run through Russia, under the Baltic Sea, and emerge in Germany, bypassing third-party countries.

Putin also said oil prices would have been higher if Russia had not supplied energy products.

"Russia is constantly increasing oil production and its supplies to world markets, helping the world and European economies develop normally and predictably and maintaining [oil] prices for businessmen and domestic consumers at the present level," he said. "If it had not been for Russia's contribution to energy resources in general, prices would have been higher. "

"I think Russia and the EU want to pursue energy cooperation," Putin added.

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