Medvedev Means Business in Latin America

APPutin kicking a ball in a Rio de Janeiro stadium during a 2004 visit to Brazil.
Official visits by Russian and Latin American leaders have generated some colorful moments in the past, ranging from Vladimir Putin's impromptu display of his football skills in Brazil in 2004 to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez being made an honorary Cossack in Rostov-on-Don last year.

For his first tour of Latin America, kicking off Saturday and running through Nov. 27, Medvedev's plans appear to be more businesslike, looking to solidify existing political agreements and lay the groundwork for future economic and trade relations.

Medvedev does seem to have taken a few cues from Putin. The 2004 trip by Putin, then president, was also tied to an APEC summit and followed in the footsteps of Chinese leader Hu Jintao. Hu is currently in the middle of a swing through Costa Rica, Cuba and Peru.

The APEC summit runs through Sunday in Lima, Peru.

One stated goal of the trip will be "searching for the best solutions to problems like rising food and fuel prices and climate change," Medvedev wrote to Peru's president, Alan Garcia, in response to his invitation to the event.

He also noted the importance of "business structures" in economic development and the potential for regional economic integration. Right after the summit, Medvedev will remain in the country on the first official visit there by a Russian president.

The Kremlin provided no information as to who will accompany Medvedev, but the trip, which will also include stops in Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba, coincides with one by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which begins in Columbia on Wednesday. Lavrov will also be going to Ecuador on the same day Medvedev is to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana.

Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev is expected to attend a biofuels conference in Brazil at the same time Medvedev will be there, while the CEOs of a number of Russian companies, including Gazprom, will be on hand for the APEC summit.

Lavrov, a more frequent guest in Latin America, stressed existing relations with Latin America and their place in Russian hopes for a new balance in international relations, saying that "Russia and Latin American states are natural partners in forming a new, safer and fairer world order" in an interview published last week on the Foreign Ministry web site.

The comment came, however, at a time when trade and economic relations are still relatively meager.

Although the volume of trade between Russia and Latin America has been growing at a clip of 25 percent to 30 percent annually, it is still likely to total only $15 billion for this year, Lavrov said, paling in comparison to the figure of almost $200 billion with Europe for the first six months of this year alone.

Economic relations leave "a lot of room for improvement," said Vadim Teperman, deputy director of the Latin American Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The greatest potential for trade growth lies in relations with Brazil, to which Russia exports mostly products with low added value and with which it actually is running a trade deficit, Teperman said.

A framework agreement reached on the mutual development of a launch vehicle for Brazilian satellites could be finalized during the visit, he said.

Russia's interests in Brazil also include nuclear energy, and Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko already talked about opening a "nuclear dialogue" during his visit to Brazil in October. Brazil holds the world's sixth-largest uranium reserves and is interested in developing a civilian nuclear program.

"We would love to get a piece of that pie," Teperman said.

Brazilian Embassy Minister Counselor Osvaldo Biato agreed that trade should be diversified but expressed doubts that any specific deals on space or nuclear cooperation will be ready by the time Medvedev arrives in Sao Paolo.

The heads of state are likely to address the impact of the financial crisis on trade relations, which depend on struggling international banks for financing, Biato said.

"The visit will re-energize our political relationship and lay the groundwork for future technological cooperation," he said. "We have common political viewpoints, but we need to work on a bilateral agenda."

A Nov. 27 stop in Cuba, after leaving Brazil, was added to the tour schedule after the Cuban foreign minister passed on a personal invitation from Cuban President Raul Castro to Medvedev during their meeting in Moscow last week, at which Medvedev emphasized the importance of developing trade and economic relations with Cuba.

Russia has stepped up work on redeveloping relations with Cuba in recent months, and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin has paid three visits to the Caribbean island over the past three months, moving forward several deals in the metals, oil and auto industries.

The visit to Cuba might also clarify past discussions on aircraft deliveries to the country, Teperman said. In August, a memorandum of understanding to deliver Russian regional jets and mid-range planes to Cuba was signed between the country's Civil Aviation Institute and Russia's Aviaexport.

Medvedev's visit with Venezuelan President Chavez comes just a few days after a recent bilateral intergovernmental commission meeting attended by Sechin and a delegation of 60 businessmen.

The visit is likely to finalize a series of preliminary agreements in the fields of nuclear energy and air transportation and the establishment of a $4 billion joint development bank, Teperman said.

All of those deals were negotiated during Sechin's visit earlier this month. Chavez also said last week that Russia and Venezuela would jointly build a nuclear reactor in the Venezuelan state of Zulia, and he is to sign the contract with Medvedev in Caracas on Nov. 26.

The Venezuelan Embassy declined Tuesday to comment on Medvedev's visit.

He is likely to get a warm welcome, as the Russian Northern Fleet will be carrying out joint exercises with the Venezuelan navy near Caracas while he is in town.