- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

ROME — Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday sought to calm the global outrage over a crackdown on Yukos, saying that he opposes removing oil licenses from the beleaguered oil giant.

Kicking off a lightning European tour, Mr. Putin received gushing support from his “old friend” Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyant Italian prime minister and media magnate who, like the Russian president, is accused of dictatorial tendencies by his opponents.

Then the Kremlin chief had a symbolic meeting with the 83-year-old Pope John Paul II at the Vatican as he braced for a difficult summit today with officials of the European Union deeply concerned by the recent arrest of former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Mr. Putin’s visit to Rome, together with today’s summit and talks with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris tomorrow will set the tone of Russia’s relations with an enlarged Europe for the remainder of his presidency, Russia watchers say.

Mr. Putin told reporters he opposes removing oil-exploration licenses held by Yukos, despite a threat by Russia’s natural-resources minister, Vitaly Artyukhov, that set markets tumbling. Such a measure “would give the impression that he was trying to shut down the company.”

“The economic consequences would be negative and would have no basis in law,” Mr. Putin said at a joint news conference with Mr. Berlusconi, whose unlikely friendship with the Russian president has led to speculation the Italian mogul might seek refuge in Russia if he loses his battle against Italian magistrates trying to convict him on corruption charges.

“The state will abstain from actions of this kind,” Mr. Putin pledged, though Mr. Artyukhov had said that revoking Yukos’ exploration licenses was “practically inevitable.”

The European Commission has said it will seek “clarifications” at today’s summit, which is being held in Rome because Italy holds the European Union’s rotating presidency. But Mr. Putin went on the offensive against his European detractors, hitting back at those in Brussels who see Moscow’s policies in the Caucasus and Central Asia as highly antidemocratic.

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