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Putin Heads for Turkey in Landmark Visit Between Former Foes  - 2004-12-06

Russian President Vladimir Putin is making a two-day official visit to Turkey, the first by any Russian leader in 32 years. Mr. Putin is expected to sign several economic cooperation agreements to boost already booming trade between the two countries and to discuss regional issues, including developments in Iraq.

Mr. Putin's first stop will be the Cankaya Palace in Ankara, where he will dine with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Necdet Sezer. On Monday, the Russian President is set to meet with other Turkish political and business leaders.

Turkey and Russia have been rivals for centuries. During the Cold War Turkey served as a buffer between the former Soviet Union and Western Europe.

The collapse of the Soviet Union triggered a change in relations as thousands of Russians poured into Turkey to carry back cheap consumer goods to sell back home. Russia is also Turkey's top supplier of natural gas, which is carried through a network of pipelines running from Siberia and under the Black Sea.

Mr. Putin is slated to sign six cooperation agreements with Turkey in the areas of defense, energy, and finance.

Political relations between the two regional powers have been marred by rivalry in the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia, with which Turkey enjoys loose linguistic and cultural ties.

Russia accuses Turkey of allowing Chechen separatists to use Turkey as a transit route for arms and as a recruiting center as well. Turkey accuses Russia of harboring Kurdish separatists known as PKK Kongra-Gel, a group which is on EU and U.S. lists of terrorist organizations. Russia has rejected Turkish demands to label the Kurdish group terrorist as well.

But analysts say Turkey and Russia have found common political ground in Iraq. Both countries were opposed to the U.S.-led invasion. Tensions between Turkey and the U.S. have been mounting in recent weeks amid stepped up criticism by Turkish leaders of U.S. policy in Iraq.

Some Turkish military and political leaders are arguing for improved relations with Russia as a counterweight to U.S. influence in the region.