Netherlands hosting Putin with two-day state visit

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday began a two-day visit to the Netherlands, during which Dutch leaders and industrialists are expected to explore ways of increasing business with the booming Russian energy industry. The visit is the first by a Russian head of state for 130 years and will include talks with Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and a visit to the Peace Palace, seat of the U.N.'s International Court of Justice.

Putin was welcomed at the airport by Queen Beatrix and her son, Crown Prince Willem Alexander. Well before he arrived, police closed off Amsterdam's central Dam Square where he was scheduled to lay a wreath at the Dutch national monument opposite the royal family's palace in the capital city.

He was also to visit Zaandam, a town where Czar Peter the Great spent several months in 1697 studying Dutch shipbuilding. Putin was repaying a 2001 state visit by Queen Beatrix. He had been due to visit in 2002 but the trip was postponed when terrorists seized 800 hostages at a Moscow theater that ended with 170 people dead. Although Putin has made business trips to the Netherlands before, it is the first state visit by a Russian leader since Czar Alexander II in 1874.

When Putin met Balkenende in The Hague a year ago, while the Netherlands held the presidency of the European Union, the two men had a sharp exchange when Balkenende raised human rights issues in Russia's war in Chechnya. An irritated Putin reportedly responded by questioning the Dutch leader about the then-current turmoil with the Muslim community in the Netherlands.

Talks between the two leaders this time were likely to skirt contentious issues and focus on developing economic ties. But the wars in the Caucasus Mountains will figure at least in talks between Foreign Ministers Ben Bot and Sergey Lavrov, with the Dutch voicing concern that the conflicts are getting closer as the borders of the European Union expand.

The Dutch gas company Gasunie is reported to be seeking a greater role in transporting Russian gas to Europe. Royal Dutch Shell has invested heavily in developing oil and gas fields around Sakhalin Island, a project that has been plagued by cost overruns.

In an interview with the Dutch media before his departure, Putin noted that trade ties with the Netherlands began with Czar Peter the Great more than 300 years ago and have developed despite the countries' difference in size. A.M.

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