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Putin Leaves Tuesday on Historic Visit to London - 2003-06-23


Russian President Vladimir Putin travels to London Tuesday on the first state visit of a Russian leader to Britain in 129 years. Amid the royal splendor of the visit, Mr. Putin will meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair. Key topics are expected to include Russia's economic interests in the rebuilding of Iraq and Mr. Putin's stance on continued nuclear cooperation with Iran.

President Putin is the first Russian leader to receive a royal invitation to Britain since Queen Victoria welcomed Czar Alexander II in 1874. Britain's Royal Family severed relations with Russia in 1918, after Communist leaders murdered Russia's last Czar Nicholas II, a distant relative.

But when Mr. Putin and his wife arrive in a golden carriage at Buckingham Palace after a majestic procession through the streets of London, more than a century of stony relations will be gilded away, at least symbolically. Mr. Putin and his wife will stay at the Palace as guests of Queen Elizabeth II during the four-day visit. A state banquet is on the itinerary, as well as visits to Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London.

Royal pomp will make way on Thursday for wide-ranging, but brief, political meetings between President Putin and Prime Minister Blair. The pair will open an Energy Conference in London, spotlighting recent deals by giant British oil companies BP and Shell that will soon make Britain the largest foreign investor in Russia.

Russia's interests in Iraq's energy will be a likely focus of private Putin-Blair talks later that day.

Mr. Putin has expressed concern that a $3.7 billion contract between Saddam Hussein's government and one of Russia's biggest oil companies be honored in post-war Iraq.

Professor Margot Light, a Russia expert at the London School of Economics says Mr. Putin will seek the Prime Minister's acknowledgment that oil contracts, in addition to decades worth of Soviet and Russian loans to Iraq, have left the two countries with some unfinished business.

"President Putin has always been concerned about, first of all, the money that Iraq owes to Russia from the Soviet era, and he will want some kind of undertaking that Blair will support him in his quest to make sure that when Iraq reaches economic development again, that that money will be repaid," said Prof. Light.

"He is also concerned about the fact that there were contracts in place with Saddam Hussein that Russia would have a part in the exploitation of the oil fields. And he will want some kind of undertaking, again, that Blair would support his demand that Russia should participate in the restructuring and that those contracts should be upheld."

Moscow's sales of nuclear technology to Iran are also a likely topic of conversation between Mr. Blair and Mr. Putin. On British television Sunday, the Russian leader said his country's economic interests in Iran would not fall victim to the controversy over that country's nuclear program. Mr. Putin said that Iran's president has assured him that Iran is not using its nuclear program for military purposes.

But Russia expert Margot Light says keeping to that position will hurt Mr. Putin's relations with the west.

"I think that Prime Minister Blair will make considerable efforts to persuade Putin that this is a misguided policy, not only because of the general fear of proliferation, but because the policy raises such very vocal objections in the United States," said Ms. Light. "And if President Putin is keen, as a first priority, to improve his relationship to the United States, then he would be well advised to adjust his policy."

Professor Light says the meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Blair may help to mend fences after the disagreement between the leaders over the war in Iraq. But she says it is important to remember that Mr. Putin's state visit was arranged well before the war.

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