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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Leaders Spice Up Summit in Italy

Two sore topics for President Vladimir Putin -- the Yukos case and Chechnya -- hung in the air during his visit to Europe last week for talks with the European Union hosted in Rome by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose colorful defense of Putin launched a diplomatic storm of its own.

At a press conference Thursday to conclude the 12th annual EU-Russia summit, Putin implied that a reporter had been paid to ask an uncomfortable question regarding the case against Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is at the center of an acrimonious public battle with Putin's government.

"In terms of Mr. Khodorkovsky, this has nothing to do with EU-Russia relations," Putin said in biting response to a question from the correspondent for France's Le Monde newspaper. "But if this question interests you -- I understand, you've been given a task and you must earn your money -- I will answer it.

"These are people who in the space of five to six years made billions of dollars," Putin said in reference to Khodorkovsky and his peers who made lightning fast fortunes after acquiring state assets in dubious deals in the 1990s.

"There is no Western European country where this would have been possible," he noted, according to an official transcript posted on the Kremlin web site.

Having made these billions, they now spend "tens or hundreds of millions" to save those fortunes, he continued. "We know how this money is spent -- on what lawyers, on what companies and PR firms, on what politicians, in part so these types of questions get asked."

Standing alongside Berlusconi and other top EU officials, Putin said the aim was not to go after specific individuals but to establish order in Russia.

"Attempts to blackmail state authorities will fail," he added.

It was the second time this Le Monde reporter, Laurent Zecchini, had provoked Putin's wrath.

At last year's EU-Russia summit in Brussels, he asked pointedly whether the use of deadly bombs in Chechnya were not meant to "eradicate the population, not terrorism." Putin's angry response involved his widely reported invitation to Zecchini to come to Moscow for a circumcision:

"If you want to go all the way and become a Muslim radical and are ready to get circumcised, I invite you to Moscow. We are a multi-confessional country, we have experts in this field, too. I will recommend that they carry out the operation in such a way that nothing grows back."

Observers have drawn a number of parallels between Khodorkovsky and Berlusconi, who was elected after assembling a media empire that makes him Italy's richest man. Yet Berlusconi, who currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency, enjoys a warm friendship with Putin, with whom he has met six times this year.

The two are so friendly, in fact, that before Putin had a chance to answer the question, Berlusconi interjected with a five-minute defense of Putin's policy.

"I know President Putin well enough that I can personally vouch for his precise understanding of the distinction, the separation between the executive and judicial powers," the Italian leader said.

Describing himself as Putin's unsolicited lawyer, Berlusconi also accused European media of "telling tales" in their reporting of the Chechen conflict. Stepping away from the traditional EU line, he supported Moscow's argument that it is locked in a fight against terrorism there.

His remarks sparked a flurry of criticism from other corners of the EU, in particular from Brussels, where the head of the European Commission is Romano Prodi, a long-time political -rival of Berlusconi who may challenge him for the Italian premiership in 2005.

In a rare rebuke to the country holding the European Union's rotating presidency, commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinen described Berlusconi's comments as "personal remarks."

"We do not share the view of Prime Minister Berlusconi when it comes to the situation of Yukos, nor when it comes to the present ... or past situation in Chechnya," he was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Italian newspapers were outspoken, too, in their reproach.

A front-page headline in La Repubblica on Friday accused Berlusconi of causing a diplomatic rift with the other leaders of the 15-nation bloc. "In defending, sword in hand, the Russian actions in Chechnya and declaring himself Putin's guarantor on the Yukos affair, Berlusconi went beyond a mere diplomatic gaffe."

The left-leaning newspaper said his defense of positions that are "diametrically opposed" to stated EU policy on Chechnya was "unprecedented."

One diplomat at the meeting in Rome told Agence France Presse that Berlusconi "apparently forgot he was representing the European Union."

Putin was in Rome to strengthen ties with the EU before the bloc expands eastward next year. The main result of his talks was clinching a declaration of support from the EU for Russia's goal of joining the World Trade Organization by the end of 2004.

By the time Putin arrived in Paris on Friday for a brief working lunch, though, the political turbulence from the previous day seemed to have been smoothed.

While often blunt with its concern for human rights in Chechnya, Paris has kept quite quiet on the topic of Khodorkovsky's arrest, and the two presidents made no statements to the press after emerging from two hours of one-on-one talks at the Elysee presidential palace.

In a gesture the French foreign ministry described as "rare," Chirac climbed into Putin's limousine and accompanied him to the airport.

It is not known whether Chirac raised the thorny issues with Putin. His spokeswoman Catherine Colonna said only that he was "interested in hearing the Russian president give his analysis of the situation," according to AFP.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and his French counterpart Dominique de Villepin met separately to adopt a declaration simplifying the delivery of visas between citizens of the two countries. Deputy Prime Minister Boris Alyoshin signed an agreement with French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin on Friday authorizing the launch of Russian Soyuz rockets from the European space center in Kourou, French Guiana, from 2006.