Berlusconi, Putin discuss ties, trade

MOSCOW - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian President Vladimir Putin praised their countries' growing political and economic ties during an informal meeting Tuesday at a southern resort.

Italy is "a privileged partner" of Russia, Putin said as he welcomed Berlusconi to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where the Italian began a three-day visit to Russia.

"Trade, space, technology, military-technical cooperation, security in Europe and the world, relations with Europe and NATO - these are the issues I'd like to discuss with you," Putin said in televised remarks.

The meeting Tuesday was informal, with only the two leaders' closest aides attending.

The session will be followed by broader talks in the Moscow Kremlin on Wednesday involving top Cabinet members from both nations. Russian officials said they hoped the talks would secure strong Italian support for Moscow's bid to join the World Trade Organization.

Russia has failed to gain admission to the 144-nation organization despite nearly nine years of campaigning, in part because of import barriers used to prop up inefficient state enterprises and other trade restrictions.

Berlusconi, whose last month proposed Italy host a NATO-Russia summit to discuss cooperation between the alliance and its former Cold War foe, said he firmly supported Russia's integration into European organizations.

"Among European leaders, I am one of the most convinced that Europe should open its doors to Russia," RTR television quoted him as saying.

Last year, trade turnover between Russia and Italy totaled dlrs 9.3 billion, according to ITAR-Tass. RTR said it was Russia's second-biggest trade partner after Germany.

One major joint economic project is a pipeline to carry natural gas from Russia to Turkey under the Black Sea. Italian gas and oil group ENI is in charge of building the underwater part of the pipeline, known as Blue Stream.

Berlusconi's office said he would raise the Mideast crisis with Putin. In a statement, Berlusconi urged "moderation," saying that the "Holy Places and Bethlehem in particular" should be "respected and not reoccupied."

Russia is an official co-sponsor of the Mideast peace process launched in 1991, but it has played a far smaller role than the United States.

Meanwhile, Russia will formally notify Italy of its intention to turn over this year the remains of almost 500 Italian servicemen who died on Soviet territory during World War II, said Vasily Toluchko, spokesman for the War Memorial Association, according to ITAR-Tass.