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Chavez, Putin Meet in Russia


Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is in Moscow for discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin about a possible arms deal and expanded economic ties between the two countries. VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports from the Russian capital.

President Hugo Chavez met his counterpart, Vladimir Putin, Thursday evening at an informal dinner at the Russian leader's country home near Moscow. But Russian news reports throughout the day focused on the opening of a Latin American cultural center in Moscow, where Mr. Chavez spoke for about an hour. Mr. Putin indicated that he followed the Venezuelan's appearance like most Russians, on television.

President Putin says he was able to watch televised news reports and noted that the new center will be a place where Russians can familiarize themselves with Latin American culture.

By scheduling Mr. Chavez so late in the day, Mr. Putin prompted speculation in Moscow that he downplayed the meeting because he does not want to be seen aggravating his already chilly ties with the United States. Washington considers Mr. Chavez to be a destabilizing element in Latin America. President Bush has invited the Russian leader for a visit this weekend at his family home in Kennebunkport, Maine to discuss ways of improving bilateral relations.

The United States is also concerned about Venezuelan arms purchases. Mr. Chavez's Moscow agenda includes the possible purchase of Russian diesel-electric submarines, armed with missiles. He is also interested in buying the Russian TOR-1 missile defense system. Last year, Mr. Chavez signed a deal with the Kremlin to purchase $3 billion worth of weapons, including helicopters, fighter planes and small arms.

The Venezuelan leader said on Thursday that he does not rule out the development of nuclear energy in his country. Mr. Chavez also said American troops should leave Iraq, and that Iran has a right to nuclear technology.

Mr. Chavez says that Iran has the right to a peaceful atomic energy industry because it is a sovereign state.

Russian and Venezuela, both major exporters of energy, are also discussing expanded commerce. Their bilateral trade, last year, amounted to only $90 million.

On Saturday, the Venezuelan leader will be President Putin's guest at a horse race in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. However, despite signs of closer relations, Russian lawmakers voted against allowing Mr. Chavez to address them in a full session of the country's lower house of Parliament.

Mr. Chavez has plans for more weapons deals with neighboring Belarus, where he flies after his visit to Russia. He then continues to Iran.

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