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Iraq Crisis Must be Solved Peacefully, says Putin - 2003-03-02

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has told Bulgarian leaders the Iraq crisis must be resolved by peaceful means. Mr. Putin met with Bulgarian President Georgi Purvanov in Sofia.

Mr. Putin told reporters that Bulgaria and Russia disagree on how to deal with the Iraq crisis.

But the Russian leader stressed that every country determines what he called "its foreign political course, guided by its interests." He made it clear he did not want to interfere in Bulgaria's internal affairs.

Bulgaria, one of the non-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, has spoken out strongly in favor of the United States' hard-line Iraq policy.

Washington said it considers the small Balkan nation of just more than eight million people to be part of what it has called the "New Europe." That group is comprised of Britain, Spain, Italy and many former communist countries that have said they would support a U.S.-led coalition against Iraq.

As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Russia has a veto.

At a news conference called on the second day of Mr. Putin's three-day visit, Mr. Purvanov also tried to play down any disagreements with his guest. He said Bulgaria also favors peace, and hopes for unity at the United Nations.

He described Mr. Putin's visit as "a new beginning of relations between Bulgaria and Russia," which he hoped would also boost trade between the two countries.

Bulgaria needs Russian raw materials and chemicals, particularly natural gas and fertilizers, while Russia is seen as a natural market for Bulgarian products.

Mr. Putin's visit coincides with celebrations marking the 125th anniversary of Bulgaria's liberation by Russian troops from five centuries of Ottoman rule.