Putin visiting Berlusconi in Sardinia, mixing business with pleasure

OLBIA - Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived on the island of Sardinia on Friday for a three-day visit as a guest of Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, the current European Union president and an advocate of a strong Russian role in Europe.

The two leaders were expected to mix business with pleasure during their fifth meeting this year, holding talks at the billionaire Berlusconi's villa on Sardinia's posh Costa Smeralda and visiting a Russian navy missile cruiser anchored offshore during Putin's stay.

Putin and Berlusconi will discuss international affairs and bilateral relations, setting goals for closer cooperation and discussing how to work together to tighten ties between Russia and the EU, according to the Kremlin.

Berlusconi was on hand when Putin's plane touched down Friday afternoon, and briefly saluted the Russian leader as he emerged. The two shook hands and hugged on the tarmac before boarding a helicopter bound for Berlusconi's villa.

Putin is to visit Italy again in November for more bilateral talks and a Russia-EU summit that Moscow has said it wants to focus on its push for visa-free travel between Russia and the EU and Russia's effort to join the World Trade Organization. The EU is to expand to Russia's borders next year when 10 countries, mostly from Eastern Europe, join the group.

Berlusconi strongly supported Russia's WTO aspirations in a visit to Moscow last month, and he has sparked controversy in the EU by suggesting that Russia could become part of a "Big Europe" along with Israel and Turkey. Putin has said Russia is not pressing to join the EU, but Berlusconi's backing for close Russia-EU ties is a morale boost for the Kremlin.

In a visit to Russia in February, Berlusconi said he would promote the creation of a Russia-EU consultative organ or possibly a permanent council, and last month he said Italy would help arrange regular meetings of such a council.

In Sardinia, the Kremlin said Putin and Berlusconi would discuss cultural, youth and humanitarian ties and efforts launched during a spring Russia-EU summit in St. Petersburg to foster scientific and educational exchanges.

They also plan to discuss military and industrial cooperation, including prospects for cooperation in building aircraft engines, avionics systems and warships.

Berlusconi has called Putin a personal friend, and Putin praised the Italian leader for his ability to take the cold during their February meeting at a lodge north of Moscow.

Putin's two teenage daughters spent some time at Berlusconi's Sardinian villa last summer, but the Kremlin would not comment on media reports that he would bring his wife and daughters on this visit to the island, a popular jet set destination.