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Putin takes his case to Bulgaria

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed on Sunday his call for a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis and showed no sign of abandoning his suggestion that Moscow could veto any measure endorsing war.

Putin was addressing reporters during a three-day visit aimed at rejuvenating Russia's stagnant post-Soviet relations with Bulgaria, a loyal Warsaw pact ally in communist times.

He acknowledged that Russia and Bulgaria -- which backs the hawkish U.S. line on Iraq -- had different views on how to set about disarming Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"Russia believes the crisis can and must be resolved by peaceful means," Putin said. "It must be said here that the Russian and Bulgarian positions on Iraq do not fully coincide."

It was for Bulgaria to form its foreign policy, he said.

As the UN Security Council moves toward a debate on a U.S.-backed resolution that would authorize military force, Russia has backed an alternative giving inspectors four more months to search Iraqi sites for banned weapons.

Russia says inspections have yielded results and Putin last week praised a tough U.S. line for making Baghdad more "pliant." Putin has said Russia could invoke its right as a permanent Council member to veto a resolution endorsing war.

But observers have said Russia is unlikely to risk endangering the alliance it formed with Washington after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Bulgaria, also currently a member of the Security Council, has backed Washington's stand after securing U.S. support last year for its bid to join NATO.

It has granted Washington the use of a Black Sea air base and its airspace and approved the deployment of 150 troops to tackle nonconventional warfare threats in the Iraq region.

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov said his country's position "differs very little" from the European Union's statement last month that inspections could not continue indefinitely if Iraq failed to cooperate.

"We are for the unconditional and rapid disarmament of Saddam Hussein's regime," he said.

"It is very important to achieve a peaceful settlement using all diplomatic means within the framework of the UN Security Council. It is very important that any decision concerning the crisis bear the seal of legitimacy of the Security Council."

Officials in Sofia have been divided over Iraq, with Parvanov more reluctant to back U.S. preparations for war than Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg, Bulgaria's former king.

Putin and Parvanov praised plans to breathe new life into relations, eclipsed in the post-Soviet period by Bulgaria's drive to improve links with the West. Ten agreements were signed, including a deal to extend past 2010 transit of Russian gas through Bulgaria to southern Europe.

Putin is to take part on Monday in festivities marking the 125th anniversary of Bulgaria throwing off rule by the Ottoman Turks, with help from tsarist Russia.

 Interfax reported that Putin was accompanied on the trip by Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and several other high-ranking officials: Tax Minister Gennady Bukayev, Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi, presidential envoy to the Central Federal District Georgy Poltavchenko, deputy head of the presidential administration Sergei Prikhodko, Samara region Governor Konstantin Titov and Leningrad region Governor Valery Serdyukov.

Gazprom general director Alexei Miller and LUKoil head Vagit Alekperov also were traveling with Putin.

 Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov spoke Sunday to his French and German counterparts, reaffirming Moscow's alliance with the opponents of a war in Iraq, The Associated Press reported.

Ivanov spoke by telephone with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"The common position of Russia, France and Germany on the Iraq problem and the need to continue the work of the international inspection missions ... was confirmed," the ministry said.

As a permanent UN Security Council member, Russia could veto the U.S.-backed resolution.

Ivanov said Friday that Russia is prepared to do so if needed to preserve "international stability."

On Saturday, Ivanov spoke by telephone with the foreign ministers of seven temporary members of the Security Council. In a statement released late Saturday, the Foreign Ministry said Ivanov spoke earlier in the day with the foreign ministers of Angola, Guinea, Cameroon, Mexico, Pakistan, Syria and Chile.

Ivanov "confirmed Russia's immutable position in favor of achieving an Iraqi settlement through exclusively peaceful, political and diplomatic means" and "drew attention" to the rival Russian, French and German proposal to let inspectors continue their work at least into July.

The U.S.-backed resolution needs nine of the council's 15 votes to pass. Diplomats have said they can depend only on Spain and Bulgaria and need five swing votes.

On Saturday, Deputy Foreign Minister Yury Fedotov said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's statement that Washington would not immediately seek a vote on the resolution provided a fresh opportunity to forge a consensus on Iraq. Fedotov said Russia would do its best to "heal the rift in the Security Council."

 State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, on a working visit to Tunisia, said Saturday that Russia would use its UN Security Council veto "if necessary," the AP reported.

Last week, Mikhail Margelov, the head of the Federation Council's foreign affairs committee, said while visiting Washington that he thought Russia was unlikely to use its veto.

 The New York Times reported Saturday that U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice may visit Moscow soon to make Washington's arguments again to Putin and Ivanov. The report cited Bush administration officials speaking on condition of anonymity.

(The Moscow Times 03.iii.03)

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