Putin Will Head to Beijing For Games

In another visit that could be dubbed "presidential," Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics next month, where he will rub shoulders with heads of state such as U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in Beijing on Monday that Putin would lead Russia's 900-person delegation -- including 500 athletes -- to the games, which are set to open Aug. 8 with a lavish ceremony, news agencies reported.

Government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin planned to use the occasion to meet on the sidelines with Bush. "There is an agreement to use this opportunity to have a meeting for bilateral talks," Peskov said.

Peskov would not confirm whether Putin intends to hold talks with Sarkozy, saying only that meetings with other leaders at the ceremony were still in the "planning stage."

Lavrov said Putin would also discuss trade issues with Chinese officials, Interfax reported.

Peskov said it appeared unlikely that President Dmitry Medvedev would attend the opening. A Kremlin spokesman said Monday that he had no information about Medvedev's plans for the Olympics.

On his visit to Paris last month, Putin, who formally reports to Medvedev, was treated by Sarkozy to dinner in the Elysee presidential palace -- a rare honor for a foreign government official who is not the head of state.

In the West, participation in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics has become something of a political hot potato following China's violent crackdown on protesters in Tibet earlier this year.

Sarkozy drew heavy criticism from human rights groups earlier this month when he confirmed at the Group of Eight summit in Japan that he would attend.

Bush, likewise, said he would attend, ignoring earlier calls from Democratic presidential contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who had urged him to stay away.

Officials in several EU countries have called for a boycott over China's human rights record.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have said they will not attend the games. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper have also said they plan to stay away.

Last week, former German Chancellor Gerhard SchrЪder, a close friend of Putin, harshly criticized foreign leaders who have announced plans to forego the games, saying he planned to attend the opening ceremony.

"We should use the Olympic Games as an opportunity to overcome old stereotypes of friend and foe," SchrЪder wrote in an op-ed for the German weekly Die Zeit.