Russian President Vladimir Putin travels to Greece on Friday for a visit crisis-hit Athens hopes will bring energy and trade deals, including progress on a new Russian pipeline. Religious symbolism is also high on the agenda of the two-day trip, the Russian leader's first Greek visit in nearly a decade. Except for tourism, Russian is little involved in Greece's economy despite a flurry of agreements over the years, many of which never came to fruition. But this time could be different, said Ioannis Mazis, a professor of geopolitics at Athens' National University. "Russia needs to compete with China, which is in the process of piecing together a ‘pearl necklace' of ports" from Europe to the south China sea, Mazis told Skai television. In an article in Kathimerini daily on Thursday, Putin said Russia was interested in tenders involving Greek rail assets and the port of Thessaloniki, a major gateway into the Balkans. Leading Chinese shippers Cosco, who have a major presence at the main Greek port of Piraeus, are also eyeing Thessaloniki.
As a major gas exporter, Mazis said, Moscow is also keen to take advantage of the EU's switch away from petrol, and is adamant to find a southern pipeline route to bypass the Ukraine - a major thorn in EU relations after Moscow's annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and Russia's support of separatist rebels. The Kremlin on Thursday said trade and economy will top the agenda and a "number of bilateral agreements" would be signed. The pro-government Avgi daily on Friday said this would include a deal between Russian oil giant Rosneft and Greek refiner Hellenic Petroleum. The creation of Greek-Russian agricultural companies is also expected next month, Avgi said. Greek agricultural exports to Russia have been badly hurt by an ongoing EU embargo. Avgi said the Russian leader is accompanied by six ministers on what it his first visit to any EU country this year, outside last year's Paris climate talks.The prime minister's advisor on Russian issues, Dimitris Velanis, told the daily that Russia factors heavily in the government's efforts to pull the country out of recession. "The Greek government is doing everything to launch growth and we believe growth will include Russia," Velanis said.
Greece has repeatedly sought the help of Russia, a fellow Orthodox country, as it descended into economic crisis over the past six years. Tsipras is believed to have requested Russian financial assistance last year as the country teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, although Russian officials have publicly denied any approach. In the Kathimerini article, Putin said the EU would not be a global player without his country's help. EU-Russia relations are at a low ebb over the conflict in Ukraine that broke out in 2014, with European sanctions still in force against Moscow. The sanctions on Russia's banking, defence and energy sectors expire in July. Extending them will require a unanimous vote, and EU leaders are expected to discuss the issue next month.
Putin will join celebrations Saturday for the 1,000th anniversary of the Russian presence at the ancient monastic community of Mount Athos in northern Greece, one of Orthodox Christianity's holiest sites. Whilst in Athens, Putin and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will also unveil the famous icon by Andrei Rublev, the Ascension, which is on loan from the Tretyakov Gallery to the Byzantine and Christian Museum.
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