By Genevieve Zalatorius and Tony Wesolovsky
Bratislava, 18 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin will visit Slovakia at the end of the month. The two-day official visit was announced yesterday by the Slovak government.
Chernomyrdin, who last visited Slovakia in 1995, is due to sign several bilateral Slovak agreements. He will also hold talks with Slovak Premier Vladimir Meciar, who is fluent in Russian.
Both sides are expected to discuss how to solve Russia's indebtedness to Slovakia, which now totals about $1.8 billion dollars. The two governments will consider, among other proposals, a plan for spreading out debt repayment over six or seven years.
In addition, officials of the Russian gas giant Gazprom are expected to accompany the Russian Prime Minister to Slovakia. Their presence suggests that the two governmets are seeking to finalize an agreement to form a joint Russian-Slovak natural gas company.
An official from the Slovak Gas Industry company SPP said that nothing is definite yet, but that there are plans to establish a new company.
Slovakia and Russia have long been trading partners. But while many former Central European countries have sought to distance themselves from Moscow, Slovakia has not. In recent years, Slovakia has come increasingly under attack from the West over its close ties to Russia, which are perceived as endangering its entry into NATO and other Western structures.
High-ranking visits by Russian officials to Bratislava are nothing new. Last year Yevgeny Primakov, after he was appointed Russia's Foreign Minister, paid one of his first state visits to Slovakia to meet with Prime Minister Meciar. Also last year, Russian Interior Minister Anatoli Kulikov paid a three-day visit to Slovakia.
The Russians have reciprocated and not forgotten their neighbors. In December 1995, Slovak Prime Minister Meciar was awarded an honorary degree by Moscow's Lomonosov University for his help in enhancing relations between the two countries.
The trip to Bratislava will follow an important visit next week by Chernomyrdin to Slovakia's neighbor, the Czech Republic (April 20-22). Relations between Moscow and Prague have deteriorated recently, after the Czechs angered Gazprom and Russian officials by announcing a deal to purchase gas from Norway and reduce their reliance on Russian gas exports. The Russians also have warned they will re-evaluate relations with Prague if the former Warsaw Pact nation accepts an invitation to join NATO, which now seems likely to occur in July.