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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Focuses on Energy, Arms in Greece

APPresident Vladimir Putin walking past Evzones, the Greek presidential honor guard, during his official arrival in Athens on Thursday.
ATHENS, Greece -- President Vladimir Putin began a two-day visit Thursday that will focus on expanded energy cooperation and Russia's effort to sell more weapons to NATO member Greece.

Russia and Greece signed six agreements on cultural exchanges, cooperation in the judicial and police sectors, air transport, shipping and energy.

"Today, with ideological obstacles not dividing us, geopolitical factors now play the role they should," said Putin, who met President Costis Stephanopoulos and was to meet Prime Minister Costas Simitis on Friday.

In addition to the six signed agreements, the completion of an overland pipeline to carry Russian oil from the Bulgarian port of Bourgas to Alexandroupolis in Greece, a plan so far delayed by Bulgarian objections and other difficulties, was also raised between the two delegations, Stephanopoulos said.

Later in the day, Putin was to underscore the two countries' common Orthodox Christian heritage by meeting Greek Archbishop Christodoulos.

Putin will also spend one day in northern Greece on Saturday, including a private visit to the 1,000-year-old monastic community of Mount Athos. During his trip to the autonomous state, Putin will visit the 835-year-old Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon.

Security was tight for the first visit to Greece by a Russian president since Boris Yeltsin in 1993. More than 3,000 police officers were expected to cordon off much of central Athens.

Although talks on energy are expected to be the main topic of discussion, Putin and Simitis are also to hold discussions on the situation in the Balkans and Russia's relations with the European Union and NATO.

Another important agenda item is arms sales.

Greece is one of the largest purchasers of Russian weapons systems in NATO -- Athens has purchased numerous anti-aircraft systems -- and Putin is expected to talk about a number of possible contracts. Although its chances are slim, Russia is interested in supplying Greece with more than 30 transport helicopters and 246 main battle tanks.

"We have things to discuss with the Greek side," Sergei Prikhodko, deputy chief of Putin's administration, told Itar-Tass on Thursday. "International problems will loom large."

Greece will hold the EU's rotating presidency in 2003, shortly before the 15-member bloc expands eastward, and Athens may also seek Russian support for a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2005.

Energy, however, will make up the nuts and bolts of the talks between Greek officials and the Russian delegation.

"Greece and Russia are in favor of expanding energy cooperation," Putin told Greek media shortly before his arrival.

Both countries are interested in the 285-kilometer Bourgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline that would link the Aegean and Black seas through Bulgaria, allowing Russia to export oil through the Black Sea while bypassing the crowded and dangerous Bosporus in Turkey.

The six-year-old project has been stalled by a wide range of technical and economic disputes and doubts about its efficiency.

Greece and Russia are also to discuss increasing natural gas supplies through a pipeline that went on-stream in 1999. The gas is supplied by Gazprom, and the gas giant's chief, Alexei Miller, is part of the delegation.

Greek and Russian companies are also cooperating and another member of Putin's delegation is the chief executive officer of LUKoil, Vagit Alekperov. Russia's largest oil producer and Greece's Latsis Group earlier this year expressed joint interest for a 30 percent stake in Hellenic Petroleum, the country's largest refiner.

(AP, Reuters)