Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Oct. 30 at the start of a two-day visit to talk about the country’s lagging privatization program and Russian interests in state enterprises, a few months after Gazprom pulled out at the last-minute from bidding on Greece’s state gas company.
Lavrov also was to meet with President Karolos Papoulias and Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos as a courtesy to Greece, in preparation to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union in January; this is amid criticism that it shouldn’t have the honor because of its faltering economy, social unrest and influence of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party that the government is trying to put out of business.
Greece has backed an energy project, known as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, which will transport natural gas from Azerbaijan over its territory and neighboring Albania to Italy, in competition with current Russian-dominated networks. It’s one of the few bright spots for the country which is in the sixth year of a deep recession and far behind meeting fiscal targets set by international lenders despite $325 billion in two bailouts.
Samaras has been trying to lure interest from international investors to buy former state-run companies and utilities. Russian companies have reportedly expressed interest in Greek plans to privatize its railways. The Russian minister was accompanied by the head of state-run monopoly Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin.
“We sympathize with the efforts of your government to overcome some difficulties in the economy,” Lavrov told Samaras, according to a transcript of the conversation released by Samaras’ office. “We take note of the progress and would be supporting your efforts in whatever way we can,” including promoting trade and economic cooperation.
Lavrov also said Russian tourists were traveling to Greece in ever-increasing numbers, with the figure expected to reach 1 million visitors this year. Tourism is a major industry in Greece, and the country has welcomed a boom in the number of foreign visitors over this year’s summer season.
Lavrov also was to attend a conference on Greece’s first governor, Ioannis Kapodistrias and modern Greek-Russian ties. The conference is being held to mark 185 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
“The purpose of the visit is to continue our political dialogue with the Greek authorities on a broad range of bilateral and international issues,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement last week.
According to Moscow, Greece’s upcoming EU presidency in the first half of 2014; the situation in Syria and Egypt; Iran’s nuclear program, and the state of affairs in the Balkan region will be on the agenda for talks in Athens.