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Putin praises Prodi, sees huge Italian investment

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi on Tuesday for having a respectful attitude toward Moscow and said he expected billions of dollars in investment from Italy’s firms.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) invites Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi into the hall for negotiations at the Black Sea presidential residence in the town of Sochi January 23, 2007. REUTERS/ITAR-TASS/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE

In contrast to what Russian media said was a tense meeting between Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday, Prodi steered clear at his talks of publicly raising EU concerns about Russia’s reliability as an energy supplier.

“Some Italian companies plan billions (of dollars) of investment in Russia’s energy sector,” Putin told a joint news conference with Prodi in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.

“Italians are mature partners who toughly defend their national interests, do not count on preferences and respect their partners,” said Putin, who referred to Prodi by his first name. “They are very comfortable and reliable partners for us.”

The praise of Italy contrasted with a thinly veiled attack by Putin on the United States, which has criticized his energy export policy and the way the Kremlin handles democracy.

Putin attributed the U.S. stance to the fear of political and economic competition from a resurgent Russia.

“There is a lack of taking into account Russia’s legitimate interests and a desire to subdue it to a position where some think it should be,” said Putin.

“Russia will decide itself its position in the world and will strive to make the world balanced, multi-polar,” he said.


Prodi said: “I have taken the new Russia into account. I am doing my best for her to express herself in the new world.”

European Union members such as Italy are keen to secure a foothold for their firms in Russia’s huge oil and gas fields despite strained relations with the Kremlin over disruptions in energy supplies to the bloc.

Russia briefly cut off crude supplies to parts of central and eastern Europe earlier this month when it shut the Druzhba oil pipeline during a dispute with transit country Belarus.

It revived concerns in the EU about Russia’s reliability as an energy supplier after a similar episode last year when Moscow had a dispute with Ukraine.

The EU’s remedy is for Russia to liberalize its energy sector but Moscow says in exchange it wants its companies to be allowed to buy energy distribution assets in Europe -- a politically sensitive issue in European capitals.

Putin and Prodi said international affairs, particularly Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, were key topics in their talks.

Prodi urged a new approach to Afghanistan, where last year was the bloodiest since U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban from power in 2001. Italy has troops serving with a NATO-led force supporting the Kabul government.

“Maybe it is time to use political instruments or it may become a kind of cancer in international relations,” he said.