Russia is not a full, European-style, democracy and it is unclear whether it will become one, Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, has warned, ahead of the G8 summit in St Petersburg.
Mr Barroso said: "For me it's not yet clear, honestly, if Russia will be a full democracy in the way we see it in the EU. This is not yet clear."
He said he was "sure about the vitality of Russian society", adding: "It is amazing what is going on in Russia. But now a lot depends on the leadership and the political calculations: the good and the bad."
President Vladimir Putin hosts this weekend's meeting with the issue of global energy supplies at the top of an agenda which includes trade and efforts to combat poverty in the Third World.
The growing signs of authoritarianism in Russia have prompted questions about the wisdom of allowing Mr Putin to host the gathering of the world's richest economies. With doubts about Russia's reliability as an energy partner, the European Commission president criticised threats by Russian oil executives to sell Russian energy to other nations if the EU impeded their commercial plans.
Such blackmail is "not really intelligent", Mr Barroso said.
Mr Barroso, who will attend this weekend's gathering, has already held eight meetings with the Russian President, and praised his personal qualities.
"I very much enjoy and like the conversations I have with President Putin," said Mr Barroso. "He is someone that doesn't just read the briefs that are in front of him - he knows the brief but he likes to have a debate, a discussion. Personally he is a very gentle person, very polite, a very affectionate person. That's the way I see it. Of course that does not mean we have to agree on all the issues."
Mr Barroso argued that Russia suffered from its history, and was too concerned about the importance of its strength on the international stage. Mr Barroso said: "I think that President Putin is a strong leader and he is very committed to a strong Russia. I have no doubt that he considers democracy as the best possible political model. At least that is what he tells me. At the same time he is very keen on demonstrating the specificity of Russia. Russia was never a full democracy: Russia was under tsarism then a socialist system. I think Putin would like Russia to be a modern state with an established functioning democracy."
For Europe, Mr Barroso added, the ideal is not "a weak Russia: we want a strong, predictable, stable Russia". Nevertheless, the European Commission president did not conceal the difficulties of achieving an accommodation with the Russians over oil and gas supplies. Moscow has refused to open its pipeline network to foreign operators, and Mr Barroso conceded that "the reaction of the Russian authorities was not initially co-operative on that matter." Although Russia has signed an energy charter which provides for such liberalisation, it has not ratified it.
Earlier this year, the boss of the state-owned gas monopoly, Gazprom, made thinly veiled threats to switch commercial activities to China if Europe refused to allow Russian firms to buy into the business of supplying Western consumers.
Mr Barroso said: "I don't feel that it is in the interests of any rational partner, to make this apparently smart but not really intelligent move of saying, 'If you don't want this, I will go for the next one'. This is not very rational and in the long-term interest."
Asked if Russian energy firms should be welcomed to invest in European economies, Mr Barroso replied: "All enterprises are welcome in the EU [but] we apply the rules of competition. If a company has a dominant position as a supplier this has to be a consideration."
Mr Putin underlined his sensitivity to foreign criticism with a gibe yesterday at the expense of Dick Cheney, the US Vice-President, who accused Russia in May of cracking down on religious and political rights and of using its energy reserves as "tools of intimidation or blackmail". Mr Putin told NBC TV in a reference to a hunting accident in which Mr Cheney wounded a friend: "I think the statements of your Vice-President of this sort are the same as an unsuccessful hunting shot. It's pretty much the same."Reuse content