Russian president formally returns prized books to Hungary

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday formally returned to Hungary a priceless collection of centuries-old books long demanded by Budapest . The presentation of the Sarospatak library was the central event to the highly symbolic two-day visit by the Russian leader to the former Soviet bloc country.

The more than 130 books, including a 1498 Bible and a 16th-century book signed by Martin Luther, who inspired the Reformation, were seized by the Soviet Army during World War II and taken to Russia . Budapest had long demanded their return. "This wish... was more than a national desire about a library. It was about re-establishing the often interrupted continuity of ( Hungary 's) modern history," Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said in a speech before several dozen Hungarian cultural and political figures.

Recalling the destruction wrought by World War II on both the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe , Putin said Russia had suffered great cultural losses as well. "I'm very happy that finally these valuables, these spiritual valuables, are in the place they should be with their true, natural owners, the Hungarian church, the Hungarian people," Putin said.

Earlier, Putin laid flowers at a monument in central Budapest to Soviet soldiers killed during the war. Putin's visit to Budapest showcased Russia 's efforts to boost economic ties and clout in a region that once chafed under its control. Gyurcsany said Tuesday that the time had come to heal wounds from the Soviet period, and he said Hungarian policies toward Russia would be driven by "less ideology."

The two oversaw the signing of a host of agreements on telecommunications, migration, cultural ties and debt repayment. and they emphasized oil and natural gas cooperation. Hungary relies on Russia for gas by as much as 90 percent and the country was rattled in January when a Siberian cold snap resulted in a significant drop in gas deliveries.

Putin touted Hungary 's potential role as a hub for gas supplies to southern Europe , and he sought to quell criticism about Russia 's reliability as Europe 's largest single gas supplier. A New Year's dispute with Ukraine through which most of Russia 's European-bound gas travels resulted in shortfalls in several European countries and a round of criticism for the Kremlin. "No one in Europe should ever have any doubts about the reliability of Russia gas to Europe . Never," Putin said. Putin was to fly to Prague later Wednesday on the final leg of his Central European tour, reports the AP.

N.U.

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