Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov

Putin signs multi-billion-euro agreements with Austria and cautions Europe not to patronize Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his strong indignation  in connection with a USA's missile defense system plans and downplayed an apparent chill in relations with the European Union.

Putin acknowledged that Russia should listen to criticism from abroad but cautioned others not to patronize Moscow on human rights issues.

Putin made his comments during a joint news conference with Austrian President Heinz Fischer during a brief official visit that began Wednesday afternoon and wraps up early Thursday.

Putin's trip also had a distinct business flavor, manifested by an announcement late Tuesday that Russian and Austrian companies had signed a slew of contracts totaling more than five billion euros (USD 4 billion).

The U.S. made a formal request in January to place a radar base in a military area southwest of Prague and 10 interceptor missiles in neighboring Poland as part of plans for a missile defense shield that Washington says would protect against a potential threat from Iran or North Korea.

"What is happening in Europe that is so negative that one has to arm Eastern Europe with these new weapons?" Putin told reporters through an interpreter.

"It won't lead to anything but a new spiral in the arms race," he said. "We consider this totally counterproductive and are trying to demonstrate this to our partners."

Putin added he hoped it would come to a "factual discussion" about the matter.

Putin also noted that the reach of Iranian missiles was not enough to hit Europe, adding that "there are no sensible arguments, no sensible reasons" for the plan.

During the mid-afternoon news conference, Putin also said he and Fischer had talked about last week's chilly summit with European leaders in Samara, Russia.

"I don't think we have particular problems with the EU," Putin said, adding that Russia has always had difficulties with its immediate neighbors and that the past - the Soviet Union - was to blame.

With EU expansion, problems between Russia and some of its neighbors have now become issues on a European level, Putin said, adding this didn't contribute to "the rapid development of relations."

In response to a reporter's question on human rights, Putin said Russia should listen to international criticism but noted that unjustified arrests and beating incidents also happened elsewhere.

"I think we in Russia must listen to criticism brought against us," Putin said, but added that patronizing by others was "not acceptable."

Putin, who heads to Luxembourg Thursday, was accompanied to Vienna by a high-powered delegation of Russian oligarchs, including aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska, who have increasingly made their presence known in Austria.

Late last month, for example, Deripaska took a 30 percent stake in the Austrian-controlled construction group Strabag SE. On Wednesday, Strabag announced it had tripled the value of its Russia projects from EUR 1 billion (US$1.3 billion) to EUR 3 billion (US$4 billion).

Alexei Miller, head of Gazprom, was also among those accompanying Putin. In a statement late Tuesday, OMV announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Gazprom, in the aim of making the Central European Gas Hub in Baumgarten, Austria, the most important in Europe. The agreement also includes joint storage projects, the statement said.

Austria gets about 60 percent of its gas from Russia. During the news conference, Putin also guaranteed Austrian gas supplies until 2027.

Putin, addressing business and political leaders late Tuesday, also said it was in Europe's interest for Russia to become a member of the World Trade Organization.

"Russia's accession to the WTO ... is of no less interest to our European partners ... than it is to Russia," ITAR-Tass quoted him as saying.

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