At a summit in Italy, Romano Prodi and Vladimir Putin have said they want talks between Moscow and the European Union on a strategic partnership to start as soon as possible. The meeting is taking place in the southern city of Bari because of its special link to Russia as the home to the relics of St. Nicholas, a fourth century bishop revered by both the Western and Orthodox churches.
The Italian and Russian leaders are meeting to sign a number of deals on issues ranging from energy and banking to the adoption of Russian children. Italy, which relies on Russia for one third of its gas, is Moscow’s second largest trade partner in Europe.
While Rome is hoping to strengthen ties with the Kremlin, Russia wants to reassure Europe, concerned about recent energy rows and its reliance on Russian oil and gas. But activists have been urging Romano Prodi to press President Putin hard on human rights issues. There is particular concern over freedom of speech following the recent killings of two journalists and allegations of torture, and kidnappings of civilians in the volatile breakaway region of Chechnya.