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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin and Prodi Reaffirm Close Ties

APProdi and Putin speaking to reporters while meeting Tuesday in the Kremlin.
Emerging from their Kremlin meeting all smiles, President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi signaled Tuesday that while Putin's friend Silvio Berlusconi was no longer in power, ties between the two nations remained strong.

Referring to the changing of the guard in Rome, Putin said, "Relations with Italy are a priority for us, and they don't depend on the country's internal policy."

Putin enjoyed a close relationship with Berlusconi, who lost to Prodi in an April election and repeatedly defended Putin against charges of human rights violations in Chechnya and improperly jailing former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

On Tuesday, Prodi said Russian-Italian relations would further develop under his watch. "My role has changed, but not our relationship," he told Putin.

Prodi and Putin last met in Moscow in May 2004, when Prodi was president of the EU Commission. Putin was one of the first world leaders to call Prodi after his electoral victory this year.

At Tuesday's meeting, energy and bilateral trade topped the agenda.

Prodi's trip to Russia capped his first European tour as Italy's prime minister. He met Putin at the Kremlin shortly after 5 p.m., having arrived in Moscow a few hours earlier.

"I am convinced that your visit not only confirms the high level of interest we have in each other's countries but also will yield more mutually beneficial joint projects," a smiling Putin told Prodi at the start of their talks.

The prime minister's visit coincided with an announcement Tuesday by Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni that Europe's fourth-largest oil company would help state-controlled Gazprom expand in Italy in exchange for access to exploration resources in Russia.

Also, UniCredit, Italy's biggest bank, said Tuesday that its HVB Group had agreed to buy a 26 percent stake in International Moscow Bank from Nordea Bank as the Italian bank expands eastward.

Trade between the two countries reached $23.5 billion last year, making Italy Russia's third-largest trade partner, according to Itar-Tass.

The Italian prime minister on Tuesday recalled that his first exposure to Russia came 20 years ago when he visited the Kremlin as the president of the Institute of Industrial Reconstruction.

Earlier in the day, Prodi said, he met with Italian business leaders in Russia. He reported that there were more than 150 ventures being pursued by Italians in the country.

The two leaders also discussed creation of a Russian-Italian bank, Prodi said, with each side contributing half of the capital.

Unlike Berlusconi -- who was known for clowning around with world leaders and showering the Russian president, in particular, with affection -- Prodi, a former economics professor from Bologna, was more reserved.

As prime minister, analysts said, Prodi is likely to spend more time on problem-solving than vacationing with Putin, as Berlusconi did in 2003, when the president, his wife and their two daughters spent three days at Berlusconi's Sardinia retreat.

Giulietto Chiesa, a prominent journalist and independent Russia specialist, said the Italian prime minister's stolid demeanor would improve Italian-Russian relations by lending a new seriousness to them.

Issues of chief concern to the Italian are expected to be Russia's human rights record, the Chechen conflict and Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky's imprisonment.

Franco Apicella, an expert in Italian-Russian relations with the defense review "Pagine di Difesa," noted: "Unlike his predecessor, Prodi is not an extrovert. He will focus on concrete questions. He wants to ensure Italy gets its gas from Russia."

Western Europeans have worried about relying on Russia as an energy supplier since January, when Moscow briefly turned off gas heading to Ukraine, disrupting the gas flow to much of Europe.

Adriano Roccucci, a Russia specialist at Roma Tre University, said Prodi was likely to be tempered in his criticism. "Prodi is an European politician," Roccucci said. "He will be cautious and careful in his criticism, as is the European tradition."

On Tuesday, Putin and Prodi also signed an agreement expediting cooperation between Russian fighter-jet maker Sukhoi with the Italian firm Finmeccanica. The agreement aims to bolster Russia's struggling aviation industry.

Prodi's visit is his last stop on a tour that included Brussels, Vienna, Paris and Berlin. The trip comes less than a month before Putin hosts Prodi and other leaders from the Group of Eight countries in St. Petersburg.