#18 - JRL 7240
Putin tells UK business elite invest in Russia
By Richard Balmforth
LONDON, June 25 (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin told Britain's financial elite on Wednesday night that they should step up their already strong investment in Russia, describing his country as a land of opportunity.
Speaking at a pomp-laden ceremony in the heart of London's financial district, Putin said he was pushing through reforms to take his country's economy further along the "European vector."
"Today we are a more attractive partner for Europe and for the whole world," he said in a speech after a sumptuous banquet in the City of London.
"We are creating better conditions for business for the benefit of investors," he added.
Putin, accompanied by key ministers, was speaking on the second day of an historic state visit to Britain which he has used to bury differences over Iraq and seek more support from Russia's biggest foreign investor.
He earlier visited Edinburgh, a trip only slightly marred by a protester apparently throwing himself in front of the president's car, before being wrestled away by police.
Edinburgh police said a man had been questioned and released without charge following a protest, which newspapers said was made to highlight alleged human rights abuses by Russian troops in the troubled enclave of Chechnya.
Putin told London business leaders that Russia had been following far-reaching reforms to make the country more democratic and the economy more market-oriented.
The president, whose initials VVP mean GDP in Russian, pointed to recent data that showed he was sitting astride a growth economy that would be the envy of many Western governments.
Putin, who has called for a doubling in the size of Russia's economy in the next 10 years, said growth touched 7.1 percent in the first five months of this year.
But Putin, who has recently taken a populist line in public statements and faces re-election next March, said his government was not neglecting ordinary people, who he admitted had meagre living standards. Earlier in Edinburgh, he dropped a clear hint he would stand for a further four year term in 2004.
"We are trying to increase living standards, particularly pensions, where we are carrying out pension reform," he said.
Referring specifically to energy cooperation, he said: "We have great plans for the future."
Energy cooperation accounts for the lion's share of British investments in Russia after landmark deals signed by energy giants BP and Royal Dutch/Shell Group.
BP and Russia's TNK will probably sign a milestone agreement on Thursday, sealing a $6.75 billion joint venture after Putin opens an energy conference in London.
Putin said in Edinburgh that in talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday he would raise Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom's plans to build a new pipeline to northern Germany, with a possible extension to Britain.
"We have plentiful gas reserves at acceptable prices for the European economy," he said.
(additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan and Pete Harrison)