Putin talks Balkans on Greek trip

Russian President Vladimir Putin put the Balkans at the top of the agenda yesterday as he began a three-day visit to Greece that was expected to strengthen cooperation, in particular in the energy sector. Putin also called on US and European leaders to push for tough measures in the Middle East, including the arrest of all extremists, in a bid to end the spiral of violence. The Russian leader was given a reception fit for royalty, with traffic in the congested Athens city center being shut down as the Russian president’s motorcade rushed by waving crowds to the presidential palace for a meeting with his Greek counterpart Costis Stephanopoulos. The Greek president, whose role is largely ceremonial, called Russia a great power, both in political and military affairs. Russia’s role in the Balkans is very important. Here our positions correspond, we both think that the borders must not change, Stephanopoulos said. Putin, who is fighting insurgency by Chechen militants at home and has refused to meet separatist demands, agreed that ethnic Albanians in the Balkans region, whether in Kosovo or the western part of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), could not be given their own state, and called on the international community to take charge. Any peace is better than war, and the fact that there is no shooting there today is already good. But things could be better, the Russian leader said. They would be better if the international community was firmer and more forceful in standing up against those groups who are trying to solve political problems by taking up arms. No one should be allowed to redraw the maps of Europe, no matter how hard people try to do this, Putin added. Greece and Russia, which are both predominantly Orthodox, have seen eye-to-eye on the Balkans, in particular the need to support Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity. The Kremlin chief also called on the European Union and the United States to take stronger measures to help end the spiraling violence in the Middle East, saying that a new round of talks was imperative. All extremists and terrorists must be arrested. At the same time, we think it would be wrong to set very high demands or conditions before asking them to sit down at the negotiating table, said Putin. Despite efforts, we have not been able to have the two sides sit down at the negotiating table. We are convinced that those responsible, from both sides, must do everything they can to neutralize extremist groups and individuals, he said. The situation in Cyprus, the divided Mediterranean island, also featured on yesterday’s agenda, with Putin saying he was glad that Turkish and Greek Cypriots had resumed talks. Cyprus is the third-largest foreign investor in Russia after the United States and Germany. These investments derive mainly from large sums deposited in Cyprus by Russian firms. The president of Greece, which is a NATO member, said he would use his country’s six-month chairmanship of the European Union next year to help alleviate any sense of diplomatic isolation that Russia might have. He added that he and Putin discussed the future purchase of Russian arms and the construction of a new oil pipeline that runs through Bulgaria, as well as the supply of Russian natural gas to the Balkans region. Putin for his part said that trade between Greece and Russia had risen 40 percent since Stephanopoulos paid a visit to Moscow in summer 2000. Russian firms are ready to take part in the process of liberalizing the Greek economy, particularly in the energy sphere, Putin said. The Russian leader was accompanied by a host of Russian oil and natural gas industry chiefs, as well as Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. The sides also signed agreements on cooperation between their Justice ministries, police, airlines and merchant marine, and accords on energy and the creation of cultural centers. Today, Putin will meet Prime Minister Costas Simitis and other leading political and religious figures. His visit is due to conclude tomorrow with a visit to a Russian monastery on Mount Athos, one of Orthodox Christianity’s holiest places.

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