Latvian president to pay landmark visit to Moscow: aide

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Latvia's President Valdis Zatlers will head to Russia later this month, an aide said Friday, hoping to improve rocky ties with the first visit in 16 years by a head of state to the former master Moscow.

"President Zatlers will visit Russia on December 19 to 21," his chief of staff Edgars Rinkevics told journalists.

Zatlers and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are to sign a series of bilateral deals which are still being finalised, Rinkevics said.

"The president sees the relationship with Russia as developing via an open political dialogue, closer economic cooperation, and a strong legal base," he added.

Rinkevics said Zatlers would travel with several government ministers and the head of the Latvian Orthodox Church. The delegation would also include Nils Usakovs, who in 2009 became the first ethnic Russian elected mayor of Riga.

Ties between Moscow and Riga have been rocky since Latvia broke from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991 after five decades of communist rule.

The last official visit by a Latvian president was in 1994 to mark the withdrawal of the final Russian troops from the Baltic state.

Among a raft of disputes between the two nations is Moscow's claim that Latvia discriminates against its Russian-speaking minority, for example by making Latvian the only official language.

Russian-speakers, mostly with roots in a Soviet-era settler community, make up 28 percent of Latvia's 2.2 million people.

Latvia in turn wants Moscow to recognise that it occupied Latvia in 1940. Moscow seized the country under a pact with Nazi Germany, held a trumped-up referendum to make it a Soviet republic, and deported thousands of Latvians to Siberia.

The Nazis drove out Soviet forces after ripping up the pact in 1941. Latvia was a World War II battleground and its nationals ended up fighting on both sides.

The Soviets drove out the Nazis in 1944 as they rolled towards Germany, and launched a new wave of deportations from Latvia.

Riga has hailed recent moves by Russia to label as criminal the policies of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

© 2010 AFP

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