Source AP ©

Russian President Putin to arrive in Austria Wednesday for official visit

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in Vienna for a brief official visit Wednesday amid tight security and expectations that Austrian leaders may gently take up human rights issues with him while focusing on business deals.

Putin has a tight schedule that includes meetings with the country's political and economic leaders. He and his wife also will attend a state banquet at Vienna's Hofburg Palace and pay homage to fallen Russian soldiers before leaving for Luxembourg on Thursday morning.

Austrian leaders - including President Heinz Fischer and Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer - are expected to discuss a range of issues with the Russian leader, including ways to increase bilateral economic and cultural relations, the future of Kosovo, and the situations in Iraq, Iran and the Middle East.

Questions could also arise about the possible U.S. missile defense system planned in Eastern Europe - which Moscow objects to - as well as the dispute over Polish meat exports that has prevented the European Union from beginning talks with Russia on a long-delayed new partnership agreement.

Austrian leaders are under pressure from groups such as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders to talk to Putin about human rights. But an emphasis on business matters is likely to keep any tough talk to a minimum.

"President Heinz Fischer will take this opportunity for an exchange in partnership about human rights and democracy," Fischer's spokesman Bruno Aigner said.

Russia expert Gerhard Mangott, political science professor at the University of Innsbruck, predicted that such discussions would take place behind closed doors as "harsh criticism only hardens the Russian position."

Putin's pending visit, following an awkward EU summit, caused a stir late last week when Austrian broadcaster ORF said the Kremlin had canceled a Putin interview because of "unfriendly coverage" in the run-up to the visit.

Interviews with other news outlets were also canceled, according to the Austria Press Agency.

Some 1,100 security personnel, both Austrian and Russian, are being mobilized during the visit and parts of downtown Vienna will periodically be closed off to traffic. Several demonstrations, expected to be peaceful in nature, have been scheduled.

Police on Tuesday prevented a Danish artist from putting up satirical posters of Putin in downtown Vienna.

"This is crazy," Jan Egesborg of the Danish art group Surrend told The Associated Press by telephone after spending several hours at a police station. "I wouldn't expect this to happen in Austria," he added.

Russians, who have traditionally had good relations with Austria, are increasingly making their economic presence known here, so Putin's visit also has a distinct business flavor.

Late last month, for example, the Russian aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska took a 30 percent stake in the Austrian-controlled construction group Strabag SE.

Deripaska is among a slew of other Russian tycoons accompanying Putin to a round table discussion with Austrian business leaders at the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber Wednesday afternoon.

In a recent statement, the chamber announced that contracts for several large projects would be signed during the event. Austrian exports to Russia increased by 31.2 percent to euro2.2 billion (US$3 billion) in 2006, the chamber said.

Austrian radio reported early Wednesday that the sum of contracts would total some euro2 billion (US$2.7 billion) and that Deripaska was expected to complete deals with Strabag and Canadian auto parts maker Magna International Inc., headed by Austrian-born Frank Stronach. Gazprom and Austrian energy giant OMV AG would sign a "memorandum of understanding" for gas distribution in central and Eastern Europe, the chamber said.

Shortly before Putin's arrival in Vienna, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will address the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe behind closed doors.

In a brief interview with Austrian television broadcast late Tuesday, Lavrov expressed concern about Russian minorities in Latvia and Estonia.

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