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Putin Arrives In Greece On First Visit To EU This Year

May 27, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Greece on his first visit to the European Union this year as the bloc weighs whether to extend sanctions against Russia amid continuing tensions over Moscow's intervention in Ukraine.

Putin arrived in Athens on May 27 to begin a two-day visit. He is due to meet Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for energy and investment talks later in the day.

Putin's visit -- his first to the EU since December -- comes as the bloc's leaders are to discuss next month whether to renew sanctions on Russia's banking, defense, and energy sectors that expire in July.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said on May 27 that the leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) economic powers have agreed that sanctions imposed against Russia over its actions in Ukraine must be extended next month.

"The G7 has agreed on the vital importance of sanctions rollover in June," Cameron said following a two-day G7 summit in Japan. "Ukraine is the victim of Russian-backed aggression. We must never forget that fact."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on May 27 floated the possibility of a "step-by-step" reduction of EU sanctions against Russia if there is progress on implementing peace accords on Ukraine.

"I hope that by the end of June there will be progress and then we can see if we can reduce the sanctions step by step, or if we stay with the measures we have right now," Steinmeier told reporters in Tallinn.

Western financial sanctions were imposed on Moscow in 2014 over its role in the Ukraine conflict, including its seizure of Crimea.

Russia has imposed countersanctions against the West, including a ban on agricultural produce.

Russia said on May 27 it plans to extend its embargo on Western food products by a year and a half. The extension of the embargo, which was due to expire in three months, appears intended to ratchet up pressure on Brussels.

Putin is leading a delegation that includes Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and top executives from state oil and gas companies.

Upon arriving in Athens, the Russian leader suggested he is looking for investment opportunities to help Greece's flagging economy.

"These are difficult times for everyone -- in terms of the economy and international security," Putin said. "We must examine these problems and look for a solution. It is not a coincidence that an opportunity for this has arisen in Greece -- a country with which we have deep and historic ties."

Tsipras said, "This is a special moment for Greece, where uncertainty stops."

Later on May 27, Putin and Tsipras are to unveil a famous icon by Andrei Rublev, The Ascension, which is on loan from Russia's Tretyakov Gallery to Greece's Byzantine and Christian Museum.

On May 28, Putin is to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the Russian presence at the ancient monastic community of Mount Athos in northern Greece, one of Orthodox Christianity's holiest sites.

He will be accompanied by the head of Russia's Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who arrived in northern Greece on May 27.

Before arriving in Athens, the Russian president called for the improvement of relations between Moscow and the EU.

In an article in the Greek daily Kathimerini on May 26, Putin proposed an energy alliance with the EU and the relaxation of visa rules for Russians traveling to EU member states.

"We believe our relations with the EU do not face any problems that we cannot solve," Putin said in the article. "A rightful position of the Old Continent in the new international realities can only be secured by combining capacities of all European countries, including Russia."

Putin in the Kathimerini article said Russia remains interested in developing the South Stream gas pipeline from Russia to southern Europe via the Black Sea.

Greece along with Cyprus are among EU member states with close relations to Moscow. They are lukewarm toward sanctions on Russia but comply.

Moscow is one of Athens' main trading partners, but the Russian economy has been hit by the EU sanctions and a drop in commodity prices.

Greece is keen to reverse a slump in tourist arrivals from Russia last year.

Some 2,500 police are providing security for Putin's visit in Athens, and much of the city center is blocked to motorists and public transport.

With reporting by Interfax, Reuters, AFP, and AP

Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/russia- putin-visit-greece/27761430.html

Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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