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Putin on first Russian state visit to Britain for 130 years
June 22, 2003

Russian flags will line the Mall in London next week as President Vladimir Putin embarks on the first state visit to Britain by a Russian leader since Tsar Alexander II in 1874 amid much fanfare and pomp.

The Russian president and his wife Lyudmila will be staying as guests of Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace during the June 24-27 visit, as Russia and Britain try to mend fences after deep divisions over the war in Iraq.

But expectations are low that Putin and British Prime Minister Tony Blair can strike up again their "special relationship" forged after the former KGB colonel was plucked from obscurity to the helm of the Kremlin in late 1999.

"The visit to Britain's main purpose is to re-establish friendly ties. But unlike his first years in power, Putin is no longer placing as much importance on Blair," said Andrei Zagorsky, deputy director of Moscow's Institute of Applied International Studies.

The four-day stay marks Putin's third time in Britain as president, which he first visited in April 2000, making London his debut foreign destination after he was confirmed in office the month before.

Then, it was a marriage of convenience for the two men.

The inexperienced Russian leader needed foreign friends -- Britain could act as a bridge to the United States and Europe -- and Blair wanted to increase his international prestige by forming an unrivalled personal bond with Putin.

But the relationship had soured so much after the US-led campaign in Iraq that Blair met with a public rebuff when he flew to Moscow in late April to try and get Putin to support a lifting of UN sanctions in post-war Iraq.

"Putin has some gratitude towards Blair who offered him a friendly hand in a difficult time during the first year of his tenure," commented Yevgeny Volk, Moscow director of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation policy institute.

"There is also some personal chemistry between the two leaders. But after Britain supported the US action in Iraq and joined the coalition, relations between Moscow and London became rather cool," he added.

In the end Russia joined with France, another leading member of the anti-war trio along with Germany, in voting in favour of an end to UN sanctions on Iraq which effectively handed control of Iraqi oil wealth to the occupying powers.

Putin also symbolically buried the hatchet with his US counterpart George W. Bush when they met earlier this month in Saint Petersburg, Bush inviting his "good friend" Putin to his Camp David retreat in September.

But the Russian president no longer needs Blair as an intermediary, having established his own channels to Washington and both Paris and Berlin after joining their anti-war alliance, analysts said.

"Putin prefers to speak directly to Bush and he has good personal contact with (the French and German leaders) Chirac and Schroeder," said Zagorsky.

Key issues including the UN role in Iraq and the future for billions of dollars held in Russian oil contracts and debts in Iraq would be negotiated directly with Washington, he added.

"At this stage, there is no scope for a serious advance in relations with Blair," the analyst concluded.

A Western diplomat in Moscow suggested that Putin had arranged the highly ceremonial visit "to make him look good with the voters" ahead of his re-election next March, with the invitation by President Bush another feather in his cap.

From London's perspective, even a reduced relationshp with Moscow is still worth preserving and Blair is expected as before to gloss over Russia's brutal nearly four-year crackdown in separatist Chechnya.

Blair told the British parliament Wednesday that he would raise the issue of human rights abuses in Chechnya with Putin but said he also supported Moscow's right to combat terrorism.

In an interview with Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency, he said: "Even if we have political disagreements we can overcome these and cooperate extremely closely in areas like the joint fight against terrorism."

A Chechen rebel envoy is currently facing hearings in London for extradition to Russia, but this awkward issue is likely to be skirted as the two sides focus on economic ties.

Oil major BP may finalise a 6.75 billion dollar (5.8 billion euro) deal to buy a 50 percent stake in TNK to create Russia's third-biggest oil and gas company in the course of Putin's visit.

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