Putin makes landmark visit to Egypt

Russian President Vladimir Putin has started a Middle East tour in Egypt, the first Russian or Soviet leader to visit the former Soviet ally for 40 years.

    Putin is on the first leg of a Middle East tour

    Egypt had close relations with the Soviet Union in the 1960s under late President Gamal Abd al-Nasir, who welcomed Russian economic and military aid to develop the country and strengthen his armed forces in a long conflict with neighbouring Israel.

    Abd al-Nasir's successor, President Anwar al-Sadat, threw out Soviet military advisers in 1972 and moved the country towards close cooperation with the United States, arguing that only Washington could end the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    Egypt is Putin's first stop on a tour which also includes Israel and the Palestinian territories. He will have dinner with President Husni Mubarak and start formal talks on Wednesday.

    The Egyptian ambassador to Moscow, Rauf Saad, said Mubarak and Putin would talk about Iraq, Middle East peace and the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan.


    After years of stagnation, commercial relations between Egypt and Russia have started to revive. About 700,000 Russian tourists came to Egypt last year, spending $400 million, and Egypt buys considerable amounts of Russian wheat.

    Russia is also a member, along with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union, of the quartet which oversees attempts to make peace in the Middle East. But Russia has played a minor role in the process.

    Russian visitors contribute to
    Egypt's vital tourism trade

    The highlights of Putin's tour will be in Israel and the Palestinian territories. He will be the first Russian leader ever to visit the Jewish state.

    Israel, a quarter of whose population has roots in Russia, is expected to press Putin to cut growing nuclear and military links with Iran and Syria, countries it believes have ties to terrorism, political commentators said.

    In turn, Putin is likely to ask Israel to extradite Russian business tycoons, including media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky and former oil company Yukos executive Leonid Nevzlin, who live in exile in Israel and face a variety of charges in Russia.

    Past relations

    The last Soviet leader to visit Egypt was Nikita Khrushchev, who came in 1964 to inaugurate the first stage of the Aswan High Dam, a massive construction project that the Soviet Union helped to finance. Russian engineers worked on the project.

    Jews with Russian origins form a
    quarter of Israel's population

    While in Cairo, Putin will also visit the headquarters of the Arab League, meet its Secretary-General Amr Musa and address the permanent representatives of Arab countries.

    Analysts see Putin's visit as part of Russia's wider bid to restore its Soviet-era influence in the Middle East.

    "But in terms of bilateral ties we should not expect too much of this visit," said Russian newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti.

    "Israel is the only country where Moscow has powerful levers of influence. Almost a quarter of Israelis talk and think in Russian. But this potential remains largely unused by Russia."

    Military deals

    In an interview with Israeli media last week, Putin confirmed plans to sell short-ranged vehicle-mounted missiles to Syria, saying it would not threaten Israel's security.

    But he added the missiles "will of course make it difficult to fly over the residence of the Syrian president", an apparent reference to a 2003 flight over the palace by Israeli jets.

    Russia's construction of a nuclear reactor in Iran has also angered Israel, which, like Washington, says Tehran could use it to develop atomic weapons.

    In an interview with the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Putin said Russia's involvement in the project depended on Iran using the reactor only for peaceful purposes.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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