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Putin to visit Austria in wake of tense Russia-EU summit

President Vladimir Putin is due in Vienna on Wednesday for his first foreign visit since a summit with European Union leaders in Russia last week, fraught with disagreements.

Kremlin aide Sergei Prikhodko told reporters ahead of Putin's two-day visit to the Austrian capital that his discussions with the country's leadership would focus on bilateral business ties, but could also address a key defense dispute between Moscow and Central Europe. "The main focus will be economic and investment cooperation, the implementation of a number of promising joint projects in energy, mechanical engineering, metals and transport," he said. The talks may address Washington's controversial plans to deploy a missile shield in Central Europe, and relations between Russia and the EU as a whole, the Kremlin aide said. Putin's visit to Austria is seen by many as an attempt to improve relations with individual European Union nations after the tense May 17-18 talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso near the Volga city of Samara. The sides had hoped to discuss a new cooperation deal to replace the existing Russia-EU partnership agreement, but negotiations remained blocked by Warsaw's veto over a Russian ban on Polish meat and plant exports. The talks, held against a backdrop of political opposition rallies, also brought up questions over an alleged deterioration of democracy in Russia.

On his Austrian trip, Putin will be accompanied by a delegation of top businessmen, including the head of natural gas giant Gazprom, who is to discuss with Austrian officials long-term contracts for gas supplies from Russia. According to the Kremlin aide, there are some 1,200 Austrian companies and 500 joint ventures currently operating in Russia, and bilateral trade between the two countries grew 45% in 2006, to $5 billion. Prikhodko said the Russian side would be willing to discuss US plans for a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, whose deployment is seen by Russia as a potential threat to its national security. "As far as we understand, Austria is not particularly enthusiastic about it (the US missile shield)," he said. "We are not going to put much emphasis on the topic, but will be ready to discuss it if they show interest." Austrian President Heinz Fischer said Tuesday ahead of Putin's visit that the Pentagon's plans for a missile shield in Europe should be subjected to open discussions between countries directly involved, and those affected. Washington claims that a missile defense radar in the Czech Republic would help counter possible threats from "rogue states" such as Iran and North Korea. (