Biden backs Russia's modernisation drive

9th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

US Vice President Joe Biden delivered emphatic support Wednesday for President Dmitry Medvedev's modernisation effort in a visit that aimed to build on the "reset" that has revived ties with Russia.

Biden held his first one-on-one meeting with the Russian president at his suburban Moscow residency during a visit that will also see him hold talks Thursday with the country's strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

US and Russian officials have rubbished Russian reports suggesting that Biden would be using the visit to urge Medvedev to stand for re-election next year -- a vote that could also be contested by Putin.

But Biden still lavished praise on Medvedev's leadership, his role in the improvement in US-Russia ties over the last two years and his drive to turn Russia into an innovation hub less dependent on energy exports.

"Your personal leadership and progress has proved the sceptics wrong," Biden told the Russian head of state.

Medvedev took over from Putin as Kremlin chief in 2008 and many observers predicted that he would merely be a puppet of the man who has now dominated Russia for over a decade.

But Biden said: "In my career when I sat down with a Russian leader I sat with one of the most powerful men in the world. I still feel that way."

He quipped: "I have respect for Russia's great tradition and its power. The first Russian leader I met was (Soviet leader Leonid) Brezhnev, that's how old I am... That's why (President Barack) Obama keeps me around."

Earlier Wednesday, Biden paid a visit to Skolkovo -- a suburban Moscow equivalent of Silicon Valley and the centre of Medvedev's modernisation drive.

Biden again said that "we fully support Medvedev's vision of a nation powered by innovation and modernisation" and oversaw the signature of a deal between Boeing and Aeroflot that sources valued at around $1.6 billion.

He also promised to push for a repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment that slapped trade penalties on socialist countries and now prevents Russia from getting the United States' most favoured nation status.

But both Biden and Medvedev also noted that the two sides' trade potential is not being realised in full, with Biden expressing particular concern about Russia's investment climate.

Biden said the "reset" was going well with bilateral work on arms control and Afghanistan "but one area we can do more in is bilateral trade and investment."

"We are told that investors are looking for assurances that the legal system treats them fairly and acts on their concerns swiftly," he added.

Medvedev agreed that "our economic relations are lagging considerably behind our political ones," and noted that "several additional problems arose last year."

Although Moscow and Washington are now cooperating on nuclear arms cutbacks and have much closer approaches to global hotspots such as Iran, they periodically encounter flashback of Soviet-era problems.

One concerned Viktor Bout, the so-called "Merchant of Death" who the United States believes is the world's single-biggest arms trafficker.

Extradited to the United States last year, analysts believe that Russia fears he may expose links to current or former government officials and would dearly love to exchange him for a US agent.

One such possibility was floated on Wednesday, with Russian unnamed official suggesting that Bout may be exchanged for Andrei Khlychev, who last week received an 18-year sentence for spying for the United States.

Bout's lawyer, however, said he knew nothing of such a potential swap.

Biden's visit also comes amid conflicting visions over the Libya uprising, with Russia this week rejecting any foreign military involvement.

Top White House Russia advisor Mike McFaul confirmed that Biden would be discussing the Arab uprisings, predicting "interesting and robust conversations" in an indication both sides may not see fully eye-to-eye.

© 2011 AFP

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