Venezuelan president meets Putin amid speculation of major weapons deal

President Vladimir Putin welcomed firebrand Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez for talks at the Russian presidential retreat outside Moscow, saying economic affairs and military-technical cooperation were on the agenda.

Amid media speculation that Chavez would sign a major weapons deal while in Russia, Putin said bilateral relations were developing and praised the opening Thursday of a Venezuelan cultural center named for the South American revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar.

"We still have ahead of us talks on economic affairs and military-technical ties. So I'm glad to see you," Putin told Chavez at the beginning of their meeting at Novo-Ogaryovo, on Moscow's outskirts, before an informal dinner Thursday night.

Chavez thanked Putin for his hospitality, calling him "brother" at one point.

"Since we met in 2001," Chavez told Putin, "so much in the world has changed - and changed in favor of our ideas and in the interest of our peoples."

He said he spoke with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, during the cultural center's opening, about "the leading trends in history, about the need to return geopolitical ideas" - echoing earlier remarks in which he railed against imperialism and told Russians they should revere and revive the ideas of the Soviet Union's founder, Vladimir Lenin.

"We should remember ... Lenin and come back to his ideas, especially when it comes to anti-imperialism," he said.

The rhetoric was vintage Chavez - mainly aimed at portraying Venezuela as a bastion of defiance of the United States. Chavez's comments emphasized Venezuela's solidarity with the Kremlin leadership, which frequently complains of Washington's alleged dominance of global affairs.

"We must defeat imperial hegemony that is imposed on us or we head toward barbarism; we either defeat imperialism or imperialism destroys the world," Chavez said. "The empire must understand that it cannot dominate the world."

He said the cultural center's opening was part of Venezuela's efforts to fight U.S. cultural domination throughout the world.

U.S. popular culture, he said, is centered on "the American way of life, Superman, Batman and Robin."

Despite the stance in common with the Kremlin, Chavez's visit to Russia is low-key in comparison to previous visits.

Both Russia and Venezuela "stand for the formation of democratic, multipolar world-building," a Kremlin official said on customary condition of anonymity before Chavez's meeting with Putin. But Putin kept his comments to the point and did not echo Chavez's rhetoric in remarks before reporters were shooed out.

Meanwhile, the Duma, the lower house of parliament, unexpectedly denied Chavez permission to address a plenary session - limiting him to a chat with parliament leaders in a smaller room. The Duma is dominated by United Russia, the party that serves as the chief vehicle for Putin's programs.

The move to deny Chavez the chance to present a formal speech to lawmakers was widely seen as a Kremlin move to keep a tight leash on the exuberant and unpredictable Venezuelan populist in the days leading up to a summit between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush.

"It appears the Kremlin doesn't want to irritate the White House on the eve of the Kennebunkport meeting," the newspaper Kommersant observed Thursday.

Putin and Bush meet Sunday and Monday at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, in a summit seen as a last chance for the two leaders to mend frayed U.S.-Russian relations before Putin's term expires next spring.

After Russia, Chavez travels to Tehran for talks aimed at deepening ties with Iran, one of Venezuela's closest allies outside Latin America.

Venezuela's relations with Iran irritate the United States, and the aggravation could be increased by Chavez's assertion that Venezuela would consider developing a nuclear energy program: "Maybe one day we will go in that direction."

The United States contends that Iran's nuclear program, centered on a Russian-built nuclear power station, is aimed at providing cover for development of atomic weapons.

There was much speculation that a major weapons deal was imminent.

Chavez has expressed interest in purchasing Russian submarines, despite likely criticism from the U.S., which has voiced concern about Venezuela's military spending. Caracas already has purchased some US$3 billion (euro2.25 billion) worth of arms from Russia, including 53 military helicopters, 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, 24 SU-30 Sukhoi fighter jets and other weapons.

Kommersant reported earlier this month that Chavez was expected to sign an initial contract that would include five Project 636 Kilo-class diesel submarines, and possibly four other submarines later.

The Venezuelan defense minister denied the report.

The Interfax news agency, citing an unnamed Russian defense industry official, said Chavez could end up signing contracts to buy sophisticated Russian air defense systems or three Amur-class submarines.

Chavez is to travel Friday to Belarus for meetings and possible talks about an air defense system equipped with radar and anti-aircraft missiles. The former paratrooper commander said this week that Venezuela's current short-range system was insufficient.