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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Queen Will Visit Russia This Year, Major Says

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Central Russia -- British Prime Minister John Major announced on Wednesday that Queen Elizabeth II is to pay a state visit this year, making her the first British monarch ever to set foot on Russian soil.

"It's highly desirable that she visit Russia," Major told reporters of the Queen's intended visit as he toured Nizhny Novgorod, dubbed the "privatization capital" of Russia.

British officials said that President Boris Yeltsin had proposed the visit during talks with Major on Tuesday, and that the prime minister would recommend the Queen to accept when he returns to London.

"She's one of the best ambassadors Britain has ever had," Major said. "I think this will set the seal on the much closer relationship we now have."

Yeltsin had invited the Queen to visit Russia in November 1992, but the invitation was not then taken up.

"The Russians have held democratic elections. It now seems appropriate to proceed with it," Major said of the royal visit, which will probably take place this autumn.

The only previous royal visit to Russia took place in 1908, when King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra sailed into Russian territorial waters near Tallinn, Estonia. They dined with Tsar Nicholas II and his family on the Russian imperial yacht but never touched land, a spokesman at the Buckingham Palace press service said by telephone Wednesday.

According to Russian historians, there have been numerous visits by lesser British royals, as the two families were closely related.

After the February revolution of 1917, George V refused to allow the imperial family to move to exile in London, fearing the consequences of harboring the Russian tsar. In 1918 Nicholas II was executed by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg with his family. Since then, any royal visit had been out of the question.

Major's schedule in Nizhny Novgorod on Wednesday was in sharp contrast to his grand meetings in Moscow.

He began the day with a visit to a ramshackle trucking company, Progress, which has been hailed as one of the city's privatization successes.

Between ?500,000 and ?700,000 ($750,000 to about $1 million) from Britain's Know-How Fund helped privatize Progress, part of a ?120 million fund to provide technical assistance to Russia.

Nizhny Novgorod is a model reform city under the guidance of the World Bank's International Finance Corporation. Its shops and service sector were among the first to be privatized.

The city, then called Gorky, was closed to foreigners until just a few years ago because it was a center for Russia's military industry, producing MiG aircraft, submarines and other armaments.

Major presented three new commercial initiatives but all sides acknowledged his visit was a mainly symbolic one, signaling Britain's support for reform.

"Since the establishment of Nizhny Novgorod in 1221 we have never had a visit by a West European leader," said Major's host, the young, energetic regional governor, Boris Nemtsov.

"I now hope that the image of Russia which is current in the world will be shattered on the prime minister's return," he said later.

Economics Minister Alexander Shokhin, who accompanied Major from Moscow, warned against unrealistic expectations from Major's visit.

"He hasn't come to invest millions of pounds sterling. He has come to experience the atmosphere of reform," he said.

None of the three programs Major presented -- a technical assistance center in the city to help businesses adapt to the market; the granting of a special status to Nizhny Novgorod as a zone for secondary markets and a British-aided retraining program in the service sector -- promised large injections of cash.

In Riga, Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd told reporters Wednesday that Britain did not accept Russia's attempts to link the pullout of troops from the Baltics with more voting rights for Russians living in the ex-Soviet republics.

"Other matters are separate. But the withdrawal of troops is a right on which they are entitled to insist," he said, after talks with the foreign ministers of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

The reaction to Major in Nizhny Novgorod could be characterized as friendly but vague. One driver at the Progress plant said, "He's some kind of manager, I hear."

The shadow of his famous predecessor, Lady Thatcher, went before Major. Thatcher visited Nizhny Novgorod last year and made a rather stronger impression on bookseller Marina Tyabina.

"She was a president after all," said Tyabina.

-- Additional reporting by Anya Vakhrusheva