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Berlusconi wants EU-Russia visa regime to be scrapped

 Italy will propose discussions with the rest of the European Union on introducing visa-free travel between Russia and the 27-nation bloc, prime minister-elect Silvio Berlusconi said on Friday.

Speaking after talks with outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sardinia, Berlusconi said: "I am convinced that we need to give up the practice of issuing visas, and I am taking on an obligation to discuss the issue in the European Union."

From next month, both Putin and Berlusconi will be serving as prime ministers of their countries. Putin will cede the presidency to his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev on May 7.

The Italian billionaire, who was seen as Putin's key ally in Europe during his second term as premier from 2001 to 2006, said: "President Putin and I have agreed to hold regular meetings. We have always enjoyed meeting, and hope this will continue to be so in the future."

The Russian president said his country relied on Italy's support in the launch of negotiations with the European Union on a new partnership and cooperation agreement.

"Italy's role is powerful and significant, and we certainly expect our friends in Italy to support us," Putin said.

The negotiations on a new treaty to replace a deal that had been scheduled to expire in 2007, had been blocked by EU member Poland over Russia's embargo on Polish meat. Last year, Russia and the European Union extended the treaty by a year.

Berlusconi highlighted his country's economic ties with Russia, saying Italy is now Russia's fourth-largest economic partner.

"We hold second place in terms of imports from Russia, and seventh for our exports to Russia," he said.

Both leaders spoke for further developing bilateral relations, and Putin said he supported Italian companies' plans to establish a stronger presence in Russia.

"In early April I met with Italian business leaders in Moscow, who said they were seeking to expand their presence on the Russian market. Russia supports such business plans and expects support from Mr. Berlusconi," Putin said.

Bilateral trade between the countries hit $36 billion last year.

The Russian president highlighted oil and gas cooperation with Italy, and said Russian natural gas giant Gazprom expects to obtain foreign assets from Eni equivalent to those bought by the Italian oil and gas giant in Russia.

"We have discussed in detail potential work on the energy markets of third countries. Work has already been launched: Eni has already received access to assets in Russia, and Gazprom expects to obtain similar assets in other countries, in Libya in particular," the Russian leader said. Eni is the largest foreign player in Libya's oil and gas market.

Italy's Eni and Enel acquired natural gas fields in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area (northwest Siberia) in 2007 through liquidation auctions of Russia's once most powerful oil firm Yukos. Eni also has a 20% stake in Gazprom Neft, Gazprom's oil arm.

The two leaders also agreed for Russia's largest air carrier Aeroflot to resume talks on buying the Italian government's 49.9% stake in airline Alitalia.

RIA Novosti

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