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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Upbeat About Sarkozy Visit

Ahead of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's first official visit to Moscow, which begins Tuesday, the omens weren't particularly good for his hosts.

After promising to improve his country's relations with Washington, Sarkozy vacationed at the summer home of former U.S. President George Bush. Then, on the eve of his visit to Russia, Sarkozy hosted Ukrainian, Polish and Czech leaders in Paris — all from countries that have had their share of diplomatic run-ins with Russia in recent years.

The Kremlin, however, doesn't seem particularly worried, as spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday dismissed concerns about the timing of Sarkozy's earlier meetings as "pure emotionalism."

"We are putting an emphasis on pragmatism," Peskov said.

On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin will meet Sarkozy for dinner and informal talks, most likely at the Novo-Ogaryovo presidential residence outside Moscow, Peskov said. Putin and Sarkozy are scheduled to meet again for talks in the Kremlin on Wednesday and speak to reporters afterward.

A Russian Foreign Ministry official who helped prepare Sarkozy's visit echoed Peskov's positive comments, saying relations with France would not depend on the ties between Paris and Washington.

"We don't see a big contradiction between [Sarkozy's] intention to invigorate France's relations with the United States and his relations with Russia," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to talk to reporters. "They are not interdependent."

There might seem to be greater grounds for concern over Sarkozy's decision to meet with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who has aimed his country toward membership in the European Union and NATO, and with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and Polish Prime Minister Lech Kaczynski, whose countries have drawn Russia's ire over plans to host elements of a proposed U.S. missile defense shield in Europe.

But there is just as much reason to believe that Sarkozy, in taking a leadership role in Europe, will be pragmatic in trying to pull the EU and Russia closer together, analysts said.

"France is ready to lead Europe out of its cul-de-sac, including in its relations with Russia," said Yury Rubinsky, head of the French Studies Center at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Europe.

France will assume the EU's rotating presidency in July, and "tomorrow's meeting will be held through the prism of its presidency," Rubinsky said.

Sarkozy appears to have toned down his criticism of Russia after the G8 meeting with Putin in June, said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib.

"Of the four major countries in the EU, the best chance for a Russian 'ally' is currently with France," he wrote in a research note.

Putin and Sarkozy will discuss a raft of bilateral issues, including trade and investment, as well as international problems like Iran's nuclear program and the future status of Kosovo, Peskov said.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who came to Moscow last month to lay the groundwork for Sarkozy's visit, found little grounds for compromise with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on either Iran or Kosovo. Unlike France, Russia has steadfastly opposed sanctions or the use of military force against Iran, as well as a unilateral decision on Kosovo.

Both issues are bound to be on the agenda at a meeting of EU leaders in Lisbon later this month.

France, which is less dependent on Russian oil and gas than many of its European neighbors, will seek to mend relations strained by concerns about Russia's energy reliability, Rubinsky said.

"I am sure he will try to find a common denominator approach to the energy issue," said Rubinsky, who worked for 18 years as a diplomat at the Russian Embassy in Paris.

Less promisingly, Sarkozy accused Russia of a "certain brutality" in its energy policy in a meeting with French diplomats in August.

In July, state-controlled Gazprom offered a 25 percent stake in the company operating the giant northern Shtokman gas field to Total after lengthy negotiations.

But Weafer characterized Total's status as "currently little more than a dangling carrot."

Russia wants a new investment deal to allow its largest companies to invest in the EU, as well as a new trade deal, Weafer said.

"The Kremlin will also be pushing for a softening of the so called "Gazprom clause" in the proposed EU legislation that will limit foreign company participation in the EU energy sector," he said.

During his visit last month, Kouchner also met with human rights activists and colleagues of slain investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, and Sarkozy is likely to bring up human rights issues with Putin.

The Foreign Ministry official downplayed the issue. "Do you think our leaders are not ready to discuss human rights issues?" he asked.

No major document signings are planned for the visit, he added.

Analysts said the two leaders might be able to find a common language despite policy disagreements because they have a shared penchant for straight talk and high energy.

"In some of his personal traits, the French president resembles our president," said Kira Zuyeva, senior research fellow at the European Studies Center of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

Thomas Gomart, head of the Russian/CIS program at Paris-based Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, said Sarkozy, who was just beginning his presidential career, could learn from Putin, whose second term in office ends next year.

Early Wednesday, Sarkozy is to deliver a speech at the Bauman Moscow State Technical University and then talk with students, said Isabelle Tourancheau, a spokeswoman for the French Embassy.

After Wednesday's news conference, Putin and Sarkozy are scheduled to unveil a monument to a French air force squadron that fought on the Eastern front during World War II, a Kremlin spokeswoman said.