Vladimir Putin visits Greece keen on energy and investment deals
Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited Greece, his first trip to a European Union country this year, where he is eyeing energy and privatisation deals.
Mr Putin has made only a handful of visits to EU countries since sanctions were imposed on Moscow two years ago in response to the Ukraine crisis.
Athens is keen to maintain its traditionally close ties with post-Soviet Russia, despite its participation in European Union sanctions against Moscow, and a gas pipeline project designed to limit Russia's regional energy dominance.
Russia is one of Greece's main trading partners, but business has been hit by the sanctions and a drop in commodity prices.
"These are difficult times for everyone - in terms of the economy and international security," Mr Putin said in Athens at the start of his two-day visit.
"We must examine these problems and look for a solution. It is not a coincidence that an opportunity for this has arisen in Greece - a country with which we have deep and historic ties."
Greece is also keen to reverse a slump in tourist arrivals from Russia last year, and attract interest from Russian companies in the planned privatisation of rail and other transport services.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras noted that Mr Putin's visit comes just days after Athens reached a deal with eurozone bailout creditors to continue rescue loan payouts, under a deal that expands power of a state privatization committee.
"This is a special moment for Greece, where uncertainty stops," Mr Tsipras said.
Mr Putin travelled to Greece with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and top executives from state oil and gas companies. Amid heavy security at Athens Airport, air force F-16s buzzed overhead as part of a welcoming ceremony.
"This will be the first time Mr Putin has visited an EU country in the past six months and Russia-EU relations will be definitely on the agenda," said Alexander Kokcharov of the US-based IHS Country Risk group.
"Putin is likely to offer investment projects in Greece, most likely in energy and transport sectors. However, we do not expect that Greece would go against the EU consensus."
On Saturday, Mr Putin will visit the Monastery of St Panteleimon, which is inhabited by Russian monks. It is set in the 1,000-year-old Mount Athos autonomous monastic community, from which women are banned.
He will be accompanied by the head of Russia's Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who arrived in northern Greece on Friday.
Some 2,500 police were providing security for Mr Putin's visit in Athens, and much of the city centre was blocked to motorists and public transport.
Outside parliament, a small group of demonstrators from a Greek gay and lesbian rights association gathered in protest against Mr Putin's visit, chanting "Greece, Russia, Homophobia".
"We're here to support the Russian gay community. We haven't forgotten them," protester Savvas Kleanthous said.