Putin Proposes Mideast Summit

APPresident Putin waving as he visits the Pyramids near Cairo on Wednesday.
CAIRO, Egypt -- President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday called for a Mideast peace conference in Moscow in the autumn, but the idea received a cool response from Israel.

Putin also warned against exporting democracy, which lent support to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is facing internal calls for political reform and plans multi-candidate presidential elections for the first time this year.

Putin made the peace conference proposal after talks with Mubarak that were part of the first official state visit by a Russian or Soviet leader in 40 years.

Putin, leader of one of the four powers backing the "road map" plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, said he would discuss the peace conference proposal with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during his visit to Israel, which began later Wednesday.

"I am suggesting that we should convene a conference for all these countries concerned [with the Mideast peace process] and the Quartet, next autumn," Putin said during a joint press conference with Mubarak.

The so-called Quartet includes Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

In Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel would not object to an international conference held under the terms of the road map, but indicated much needs to be done first.

"Israel has accepted the road map, and in the second stage of the road map it specifically mentions a conference," Regev said. "So we don't have a problem with a conference ... but obviously we have not reached the second stage of the road map yet."

The Palestinians, like the Egyptians, have been pushing for international conferences sooner rather than later, and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed Putin's offer. Erekat noted the conference would come after completion of Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and said it could help the push for a final peace deal. Palestinians worry Israeli efforts toward peace will end with the Gaza pullout.

Putin said foreign ministers of the Quartet would meet in Moscow on May 8 to discuss the Middle East peace process. He said high-level experts would attend the autumn conference but the exact level of representation still had to be agreed, adding that he still needed to speak with Sharon.

Putin said Russia believed that it was necessary "to activate the role of international mediators" in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Putin glowered when asked by a reporter from the state news agency RIA-Novosti what he thought of democratization in the Middle East.

"The democratic system of government is the most effective. No one disputes that. But institutions and the principles of democracy cannot function in a country without respecting national traditions," Putin said.

"Democracy cannot be exported from one country to another," he said, adding that when that happens, "it becomes an instrument" to interfere in the internal affairs of another state.

Putin himself has been shaken by a succession of popular uprisings in former Soviet republics, ushering in pro-Western leaders in Georgia and Ukraine who have moved to shake off Russian influence.

Mubarak, who came to power in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, cautioned that democratization was a long process. "We in Egypt began reform in the days of President Sadat. But it can't come from the outside. We are changing gradually, as much of the reform process as the average citizen can absorb," he said.

Putin and Mubarak also discussed Iraq, where violence has been on the rise again in recent weeks. Putin indicated that Russia wanted to see a timetable soon for the departure of U.S.-led forces.

"There must be an agreement on the basis of a new constitution, and there must be an agreement on the timing and conditions for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq," he said.

Putin arrived in Egypt late Tuesday on a visit aimed at reviving Moscow's influence in the region. Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow's once-formidable influence in the Middle East has waned. Although a member of the international Quartet, the dominant U.S peacemaking role has left Russia in the shadows.

Putin stressed that his visit to Egypt -- his first to an Arab country since becoming president in 2000 -- aimed to revive political and business links with a key Middle East power.

Commercial ties between Russia and Egypt are growing. Last year trade turnover doubled to reach $834 million. Moscow is negotiating to sell KamAZ trucks and air defense systems.

The last Kremlin chief to make an official state visit to Egypt was Nikita Khrushchev in 1964.

Today, Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S aid after Israel, and is seen as a staunch ally of Washington.

Russia, in turn, has forged stronger ties with Israel, which is home to a large Russian-speaking population and cooperates closely with Moscow on anti-terrorism efforts.