By Renee Maltezou and Denis Pinchuk
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras won pledges of closer cooperation from Russia at talks in the Kremlin on Wednesday but President Vladimir Putin said Athens had not asked for money to ease its debt crisis.
The visit, as Athens seeks funds to make debt repayments, caused concern in some European Union states that Greece could break ranks over economic sanctions on Russia to secure aid or use the trip to pressure its EU allies to release financing.
But both leaders said Greece had not made any request for financial aid and Putin appeared to rule out easing a ban on Greek agricultural imports, imposed as part of Russia’s response to the EU’s economic sanctions.
“The Greek side has not addressed us with any requests for aid,” Putin told a news conference, seated beside the tieless Tsipras at a white desk with the Greek, EU and Russian flags behind them in a Kremlin reception hall.
“We discussed cooperation in various sectors of the economy, including the possibility of developing major energy projects,” the Russian leader added, giving few details and at times looking distracted and tired.
Russia is not in a good position to offer aid as it faces its own economic crisis, aggravated by the sanctions, a drop in global oil prices and the rouble’s decline against the US dollar.
Although Russian ministers had said Moscow might consider lifting the food import ban on Athens in the tit-for-tat battle over sanctions, Putin said: “The counter-measures have of course hurt Greece, but this isn’t our fault … We simply couldn’t have acted otherwise: we can’t make an exception for this or that country of the euro zone as a whole.”
The two leaders said, however, that they had discussed future areas of economic cooperation. In particular, these included the idea of extending Turkish Stream, a gas pipeline that will be built under the Black Sea to Turkey, to Greece.
“Greece is interested in exploring investment initiatives for the construction of a Greek pipeline to transfer natural gas from the Greek-Turkish borders to the mainland,” Tsipras said.
Putin also said that the energy projects under discussion might involve the provision of Russian loans, and that Russian firms would be interested in participating in any Greek privatisation tenders.
In a symbol of their political solidarity, the two leaders also issued a joint statement about next month’s 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe, criticising “attempts to falsify history”.
The issue is politically sensitive in both countries in the context of the Ukraine conflict and the Greek debt stand-off.
Many Western leaders will skip Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on May 9 because of Moscow’s role in the Ukraine conflict.
Greece, meanwhile, has complicated talks over its debts by demanding hundreds of billions of euros in war reparations from Germany, its largest creditor.
Some EU states fear that deals between Russia and Greece might encourage Athens to break the party line on sanctions, and believe Greece could be using its efforts to warm up ties with Moscow as leverage in attempts to get its EU and International Monetary Fund partners to release funds.
In Berlin, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said Germany had no reason to think Athens has softened its stance towards sanctions, adding that “so far Greece has supported all the decisions linked to sanctions and we hope that will continue to be the case”.