Greek PM Tsipras meets Putin in talks that irk EU

MOSCOW (AFP) - Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met Kremlin strongman Vladimir Putin in Moscow Wednesday with the EU nervous that cash-strapped Athens is trying to cosy up to Russia.

"The aim of my visit is to try together to give a new start to our relations for the good of our people and also in search of stability and security in the wider region," Tsipras said at the start of the meeting.

Putin highlighted the "spiritual" relations between the two Christian Orthodox nations and said both sides should look at mending trade ties battered by the fallout of the Ukraine crisis.

"It seems that your visit is very timely as we have to analyse ways we can return to the previous levels," Putin said.

The talks come as Tsipras is battling to unblock a rescue package from the EU and IMF, with some in Brussels warning against any move to barter financial support from Moscow for political backing over the Ukraine crisis.

But analysts say that while the visit might see Moscow lift an embargo on Greek agricultural produce, overall it is more about political grandstanding aimed at pressuring Europe rather than a serious shift in policy.

Russia's economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev said Moscow would discuss the possible dropping of the import ban at a meeting with Greek officials Thursday, Russian news agencies reported.

Tsipras, a former Communist who came to power in January, has made no secret of seeking closer ties to Russia at a time when Moscow is at loggerheads with the European Union over the conflict in Ukraine.

The Greek premier - who travelled to Moscow last year prior to his election win - took part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin ahead of his sit-down with Putin.

A number of Greek officials have openly broached the prospect of Athens turning to Russia or China for financial assistance if loan talks with the EU end in failure.

Germany on Tuesday angrily labelled a call by Athens for more than 278 billion euros (S$408 billion) in WWII reparations as "dumb".

Ahead of the trip, Tsipras once again rattled the EU's already shaky stance over Ukraine by lashing out at Western sanctions against Moscow as "a road to nowhere".

"I support the point of view that there is a need for a dialogue and diplomacy, we should sit down at the negotiating table and find the solutions to major problems," Tsipras said.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted Wednesday that Moscow wanted to see all EU countries make choices according to their own "national interests" and not "false principles of solidarity".

GREEKS WANTING GIFTS?

Both sides have talked up the possibility of closer economic ties between the two Christian Orthodox nations ahead of the visit - set to be followed by another trip to Moscow for Tsipras for WWII victory anniversary commemorations in May.

Prominent among the issues on the agenda is gas, after Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis discussed energy exploration and the new Turkish Stream pipeline during a two-day visit last month.

But while both sides make positive noises there appears no chance of Russia - battling an economic crisis of its own - stepping in with major financial aid.

"There is no question of Greece receiving any money to plug its holes," Russian foreign affairs expert Fyodor Lukyanov told AFP.

Moscow, however, could revoke a painful embargo on fruit - imposed as part of a wider ban on Western products in response to sanctions over Ukraine - that has bruised Greece's agricultural sector.

For Putin, courting Athens is most likely seen as a way of sowing discord in Europe and Greece might be seen as a Trojan horse for helping to rock his Western foes.

"It's not realistic to expect that Greece will veto the sanctions against Russia," Lyukanov said. "But it could foment a wave of opinion against the sanctions and that is useful."

For Tsipras, experts said, the visit to Moscow is far more a warning shot to Europe as the wrangling over the bailout drags on rather than a genuine gambit to throw Athens' lot in with Russia.

"The Tsipras government seeks to leave ambiguity hanging over its intentions as if to tell the Europeans 'Don't take us for granted,'" said Greek analyst Constantinos Filis.

"Greece needs the EU and Russia needs Greece to remain part of the EU and Nato in terms of the support it can offer against criticism and economic sanctions."

Greece's media was split on the visit with left-leaning newspapers that support Tsipras saying all issues were on the table in Moscow.

Leading centrist daily Te Nea warned that the Greek leader faced "a complicated game of chess in Moscow" as he has to balance bolstering economic ties with Russia with the need not to upset Greece's EU partners.