Putin offers Biden scrapping of US-Russia visas

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Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday proposed to visiting US Vice President Joe Biden that Russia and the United States abolish visas in a "historic" step to seal a revival in ties.

Biden's visit is aimed at building on the "reset" in relations spearheaded by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev but Putin has until now enjoyed less cordial relations with Washington than his successor as Kremlin chief.

"If the United States and Russia agree to implement a visa-free regime before Russia and the European Union, then this would be a historic step in our relations," Putin told Biden.

"This would break all the old stereotypes between Russia and the United States. We would turn a very important page and everything would start over. This would create a new moral atmosphere."

The unexpected proposal had not been flagged in advance and appeared another example of Putin's fondness for taking observers by surprise with unexpected announcements.

Efforts by Russia and the EU to agree visa-free travel have continued for years without substantial progress. But this appears to be the first time Putin has suggested cancelling visas with Moscow's main Cold War foe.

According to a transcript of the meeting released by the White House press office, Biden welcomed Putin's offer with the words "good idea".

Biden praised the improvement in ties overseen by Medvedev and President Barack Obama, saying that the two sides had been failing to exploit the opportunities in relations.

"It is not a matter of altruism but in our self-interest and in the self- interest of Russia," he said.

Biden started the day by meeting 19 representatives from Russian rights groups and religious movements that included award-winning campaigner Luydmila Alexeyeva and head of the Memorial human rights centre Oleg Orlov.

"He said that the issue of human rights and democracy are extremely important to the United States, and that they keep going back to it," Alexeyeva told the Interfax news agency after the meeting.

Although such meetings have become a tradition among visiting US officials, its timing immediately preceding the Putin talks underscored Biden's desire to demonstrate that Russian civil liberties remained a concern.

Biden later also held a meeting with some of Russia's leading anti-Kremlin figures, including former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov and ex-world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Rights groups accuse former intelligence agent Putin of orchestrating a clampdown on freedoms during his two terms as president and express fear for Russia's future should he become Kremlin chief again in 2012 polls.

Medvedev's point-man on human rights issues Vladimir Lukin, a political figure who tends to defend the Kremlin line, said he told Biden that disagreements should be addressed directly but cordially.

"We should engage in a more active exchange of ideas on human rights and perhaps lead a pointed dialogue. But it should remain cordial and correct," Lukin told Interfax.

While known for speaking his mind in public, Biden has thus far avoided making any direct mention of politics and focused instead on trade issues, including backing of Russia's membership in the World Trade Organisation.

Yet Biden has also 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.

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.

Biden was due to conclude his two-day visit by delivering a key-note address at Moscow State University that is likely to set the tone of Russia-US relations ahead of 2012 presidential elections in both countries.

© 2011 AFP

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