BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) Russian President Vladimir Putin held an official visit to Slovakia on Friday, seeking to boost ties with the former Soviet-bloc country a day after a meeting here with U.S. President George W. Bush, who celebrated its transition to democracy. Putin, who met briefly with Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic after Bush's departure late Thursday, started the day with a visit to a memorial to Soviet soldiers who died liberating Slovakia in World War II. About 7,000 are buried at the site. The visit came as Putin prepares to host celebrations in May marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. Putin spoke with elderly Slovak veterans who fought in a resistance movement against the Nazis or in the Soviet army. "Thank you ... for what you did for the victory over fascism," Putin told them. "We remember the sacrifices." Putin was to meet later with Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, as well as with leading lawmakers in Slovakia's parliament. A Kremlin aide said Russia does not want to lose trade ties that existed before Slovakia joined the European Union last year. "We enjoyed a preferential regime in many spheres. Now the task is to adapt the general intention to develop bilateral cooperation to the new realities of Slovak membership in the EU," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Putin's foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko as saying Thursday. Prikhodko expressed hope that the first visit to Slovakia by a Russian president since Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin came here in 1993 the year it gained independence with the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia would boost relations, according to ITAR-Tass. He said officials would sign an agreement envisaging the renewal of intergovernmental efforts to develop cooperation on economic, scientific and technical and humanitarian issues, which were disrupted after Slovakia joined the EU. according to Prikhodko. The visit is also meant to expand bilateral trade, whose volume reached what Prikhodko said was a record US$3 billion (Ђ2.26 billion) last year. Prikhodko said officials may also discuss weapons trade and military cooperation, which were sharply curtailed after Slovakia joined NATO, also last year. Putin's meetings came a day after Bush a few hours before he met with the Russian president in a hilltop castle in Bratislava told a crowd in a central square that Slovaks "are showing that a small nation built on a big idea can spread liberty throughout the world." Czechoslovakia shook off 41 years of communist rule and Soviet domination in 1989. Associated Press
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