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Associated Press

STRELNA, Russia (AP) - The leaders of Russia and the European Union sought Saturday to allay Russian fears about the Western bloc's eastward expansion and engage each other more in solving common problems ranging from illegal migration to terrorism.

The gathering of world leaders in Russia also brought President Bush's first face-to-face encounters with the heads of the nations that led opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

After arriving Saturday evening in St. Petersburg for celebrations of that city's 300-year anniversary, Bush exchanged his first words in more than six months with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

"How are you?" Bush said after going up to Schroeder and offering his hand, according to German officials.

All sides say they want to heal the trans-Atlantic rifts caused over the Iraq war. Earlier this year, Russia, Germany and France blocked a U.S. attempt to win U.N. approval for the war. Bush meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg before heading to a G-8 summit in Evian, France, where he will hold talks with French President Jacques Chirac.

Putin and EU leaders gathered earlier Saturday at the newly restored Konstantin Palace outside St. Petersburg, where the Russian leader made his pitch for his country's central role in Europe.

Sitting next to Putin at the closing news conference, Romano Prodi, president of the EU's executive Commission, declared the EU-Russian relationship as complementary as "vodka and caviar - I just don't know which of us is which."

"We are destined to work together for peace and stability in Europe," Prodi said.

The 15 EU countries were joined by 10 joining next year, including eight of Moscow's former satellites. Some made their remarks in Russian as a courtesy to the host, despite lingering post-Soviet tensions.

With visas to enter the West extremely difficult for ordinary Russians to get, Putin said many saw the EU expansion as a "new Berlin Wall," further constricting their freedom of movement.

"We understand the problems and difficulties, but the citizens of 'Greater Europe' should know when, how and at what price freedom of movement, one of the most significant rights of every person, will be achieved," he said.

EU leaders agreed to examine visa-free travel, but only "as a long-term perspective." The EU wants Russia to tighten controls on its long, porous borders first and make Russian passports harder to forge.

"In Europe, there is a sense of insecurity," especially about illegal immigration, said the Greek prime minister and current EU president, Costas Simitis.

Turning to European concerns about the flow of drugs from Russia into Europe, Putin called for help in combating trafficking and said the effort must begin far south of Russia's borders.

"My friend (British Prime Minister Tony Blair) knows that 90 percent of the drugs that end up in Great Britain come from Afghanistan," Putin said, as Blair nodded in agreement.

Blair warned that drug traffickers are linking up with terrorists, and called for "political progress in Afghanistan and elsewhere to give people an opportunity for a different life."

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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