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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin in Finland to Talk Trade, Politics

HELSINKI, Finland ? President Vladimir Putin began his first state visit to Finland on Sunday, arriving with his wife, Lyudmila, at the west-coast town of Turku for a meeting with Finnish President Tarja Halonen.

Putin was to fly to Helsinki later Sunday, where talks ? ranging from a major gas pipeline to enlargement of the European Union and NATO and the crises in the Balkans and the Middle East ? were scheduled to continue Monday.

His stay will also give Finland a chance to evaluate reforms in its giant neighbor at a time when Russia is enjoying a second year of firm economic growth that could provide opportunities for trade.

Within the EU, Helsinki has spearheaded a so-called Northern Dimension, aiming to draw northern Russian regions into energy, infrastructure and other projects to bridge the gap in living standards between Russia and the West.

Trade between Finland and Russia has developed well in recent years, and Finnish exports are recovering from the collapse caused by Russia's 1998 economic crisis.

Among the main economic issues in Putin's visit will be plans for a $3 billion pipeline to pump up to 20 billion cubic meters per year of Russian natural gas under the Baltic Sea to western Europe.

Sources said that Norilsk Nickel would also sign a deal with Finnish metals firm Outokumpu on building a $130 million to $140 million ore concentrator plant for Norilsk.

Two agreements will be signed, one on health cooperation and one on competition and anti-monopoly policy.

In the health area, Finland is concerned about control of contagious diseases, including AIDS. But talks on an investment protection agreement, under way for two years, will not be completed in time for the visit, Finnish officials said. Finland says the agreement is overdue, but was not satisfied with a draft Russia drew up last spring.

Earlier this week, Putin ? a frequent visitor to Finland before becoming president ? told Finnish YLE television in Moscow he had fond memories of the country. "It's difficult to say how many times I have visited ... For me, it is like home," he said.

But in spite of the unexpected openness, Putin's visit is similar to those of his Russian and Soviet predecessors; much of it is hidden from public view. Reporters have little access to the presidents and a joint press conference will be kept to a meager 25 minutes.

Lyudmila Putina's program includes a school visit in Turku and a tour of the Slavic library at the University of Helsinki. The Putins return Monday night to Moscow.