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Greek Leader's Visit To Russia Spurs Talk Of Alternative Loan Deal

A top Russian official has declined to say whether his country is going to lend money to Greece, ahead of a meeting between the Greek and Russian leaders June 19.

Greece is at an impasse in talks with the European Union and International Monetary Fund to get more loans. Without the aid, it is expected to default on a $1.8 billion debt repayment June 30.

European leaders have called for a last-ditch summit with Greece on June 22, with rhetoric on both sides escalating to the point that they appear to be bracing for a Greek default and exit from the euro-zone.

Meanwhile, Greece's left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is on a previously planned trip to Russia, his second visit since April, to meet President Vladimir Putin and attend a St. Petersburg economic forum starting June 18.

Tsipras' visit has given rise to speculation that the Greeks could be seeking Russian loans.

Any move by Russia to aid Greece would accomplish Putin's goal of splitting the European Union's so-far united front against doing new business with Russia.

Asked by The Associated Press whether Russia is going to offer Greece money, Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said he "cannot comment on specific decisions."

Most analysts say Tsipras is unlikely to get any immediate help from Russia. They say Russia likely would prefer to avoid taking on Europe's biggest economic basket case and keep Greece as a friendly voice within the EU, rather than help it exit the economic union in a move that would set off considerable global financial and economic turmoil.

Putin has been trumpeting Tsipras' attendence at the St. Petersburg forum as a sign that many in Europe want to keep doing business with Russia and would like to ease off sanctions imposed after Russia's annexation of Crimea last year.

Dvorkovich, speaking on the sidelines of the forum, said he hopes that Greece, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and other friendly nations will help Russia in the EU, adding he expects they "will be pushing politicians on both sides to gradually lift the sanctions."

While the EU preliminarily decided to keep those sanctions in place June 17, a final decision is due next week.

Dvorkovich portrayed Tsipras' visit along with an entourage of four cabinet ministers as a sign of a crack in European unity.

He saw it as a message to Europe -- "a signal from the Greek government that they are open to cooperation with any party."

Besides loans, Greece also could be seeking relief from Russia's ban on EU food imports, which has deprived the ailing Mediterranean country of millions of dollars in revenues from agricultural exports.

Although the Kremlin has indicated it could relax the restrictions on Greece, there has been no decision to do so.

Dvorkovich said it is not surprising that the new Greek leader should visit Russia so often, because Moscow and Athens "have both good political dialogue and specific investment projects and trade opportunities."

When Tsipras visited Moscow in April for talks with Putin, Russia wouldn't offer any direct financial aid and the talks focused on joint economic projects, including a Greek extension of the prospective gas pipeline that would come from Russia to Turkey.

Putin said then that the pipeline would allow Greece to become a major gas transit hub, helping it increase its clout and earn it hundreds of millions of dollars in transit payments.

Tsipras met with top executives of Russian gas giant Gazprom after arriving in St. Petersburg, and Russia's Energy Minister Alexander Novak said that he and his Greek counterpart would sign a memorandum June 18 on building the pipeline.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP