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Russia: Old Friends Putin, Berlusconi Meet In Sardinia

Italian Prime Minister-elect Silvio Berlusconi (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (AFP) Outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin has held talks with an old friend -- Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire set to serve as Italy's prime minister for a third time.

Meeting on the Italian island of Sardinia, the two men discussed energy and business ties -- and gave the European Union reason to worry that Moscow's influence in Europe will only continue to grow.

Putin "is very friendly. He has shown himself to be a great friend by coming here," Berlusconi said. "This shows a close relationship that has never been interrupted. The Russian Federation is very important for us. We get 30 percent of our oil and gas from them."

Berlusconi and Putin have been close allies since Berlusconi's second term as prime minister in 2001-06. It's a friendship that doesn't make everyone happy. Many European leaders worry the relationship that will hurt the EU's chances of forging a common policy on Russia and its energy.

The April 18 meeting on Sardinia comes as both men are facing a political transition. Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, is about to serve as prime minister for the third time. Putin, having served out two highly successful presidential terms, has just been named head of the dominant Unified Russia party and will become prime minister in early May.

Sealing Deal?

Putin is the first foreign leader to visit Berlusconi since the results of the Italian elections were announced on March 14.

At a press conference, the Russian president quickly dismissed a question from an Italian journalist about stories of his alleged divorce from his wife and plans to marry a 24-year-old gymnast.

From then on, he was all business, saying the two sides had discussed the terms of a swap in which the Russian giant Gazprom would receive from Italy's ENI energy assets in the North African country of Libya in exchange for access to energy assets on Russian territory:

ENI "has received access to assets on Russian territory, and Gazprom hopes it can receive adequate assets in other countries, particularly in Libya," Putin said. "We have a wide range of joint projects, from the joint extraction of energy resources to the development of infrastructure and pipeline systems."

The Russian leader traveled to Sardinia from Libya, a major oil and gas supplier. Russia, which supplies more than one-quarter of the natural gas consumed in the EU, has been looking to consolidate its position by striking new deals with North African suppliers.

Putin also addressed the issue of Italy's ailing flagship carrier Alitalia, which had been looking to Air France-KLM for possible investment. The Russian leader suggested that Aeroflot might also become involved in the talks.

"I spoke with the chairman of the Aeroflot board of directors today," Putin said. "They are ready to resume contacts with their Italian partners [at Alitalia]. Of course, we don't know what the result will be. These are commercial negotiations."

Aeroflot late last year withdrew its interest in acquiring a 49.9 percent stake in Alitalia that the Italian government had sought to sell.

The two leaders had also expected to address the sometimes thorny relations between Brussels and Moscow. Berlusconi has offered himself as a would-be peace ambassador, saying Europe's relations with Russia should be "much warmer," and suggesting he could use his friendship with Putin to improve ties.