MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte pledged Wednesday to boost economic ties between their countries despite European Union sanctions against Russia. They also agreed to pool efforts to help settle the political crisis in Libya.
Making his first trip to Russia since taking office in June, Conte hailed the country as an essential global player and invited Putin to visit Italy in the near future. He said he hoped Moscow would participate in a conference on Libya taking place next month.
The Italian premier said the split between the European Union and Russia over the Ukrainian crisis had lasted too long, adding that Italy hopes to convince its EU partners about the need for dialogue.
"For Italy, the sanctions aren't the goal, they are an instrument that would be better left behind," said Conte, who was a law professor before he became the consensus prime minister pick of the populist coalition now governing Italy.
Following hours of talks between Putin and Conte in the Kremlin, public officials and business leaders from the two countries signed a slew of trade and investment agreements intended to bolster bilateral ties badly damaged by EU sanctions against Russia and by Moscow's retaliatory moves.
Bilateral trade has slowly increased in recent years as the Russian economy has climbed out of recession, but remains a fraction of what it was before EU penalties over Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for an insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
"The Ukrainian crisis has caused a split and blocked the dialogue," Conte said. "We can't allow that. We should leave that period behind. It already has lasted for too long."
Putin said Russian-Italian trade reached $24 billion last year and compared the figure to the nearly $54 billion in 2013, the year before the EU sanctions crippled bilateral ties.
"Regrettably, Italy's niche in the Russian market has decreased but the volume of our economic ties have remained strong," Putin said as he greeted Conte in an ornate Kremlin room.
Several rounds of EU and U.S. sanctions have crippled investment projects. Earlier this year, the Italian energy giant Eni bailed out of a joint project with Russia's top state oil company, Rosneft, to tap Black Sea oil reserves.
Eni was also considering suspending another such venture in the Barents Sea, Russian news agencies reported.
Putin said the two countries nonetheless have maintained "business-like but also very warm relations" that are "supported by all political forces both in Italy and in Russia."
"Despite the difficult times, our political contacts have remained on a high level," Putin said.
He hailed Italy's plan to host the Libya conference, saying Russia fully supported the new Italian government's approach to resolving the North African nation's political crisis.
He said he wasn't sure whether he would be able to attend the event, but pledged that Russia would be represented and do its best to help advance the Libyan settlement.
Conte's populist coalition includes the right-wing League party, which argues that EU penalties on Russia over Ukraine have hurt Italian exports. League leader Matteo Salvini has praised Putin and said Italy would lobby to have anti-Russian sanctions lifted.
The Russian president said investment cooperation has continued despite the restrictions and over 500 Italian companies have invested about $5 billion in Russia, developing projects in energy, transport, high technology, food industries and other sectors.
"The 'Made in Italy' brand has become increasingly popular in Russia," Putin said.
Following their talks, Conte and Putin took part in a video call to oversee the launch of a new factory to produce high-voltage electric motors designed by Italy's Nidec company for Russia's energy and other industries. The factory was built by Nidec and its Russian partners in the Ural Mountains' city of Chelyabinsk.
As Putin and Conte watched, Russian and Italian business executives also signed a package of cooperation agreements for shipbuilding, automobile industries, energy and other sectors.
"We are ready to support the Italian companies that intend to develop cooperation with Russian partners," Conte said. "It's our duty to strengthen industrial cooperation with Russia."
The Italian agricultural lobby, Coldiretti, emphasized the need to seek an end to the EU trade restrictions, saying the sanctions have cost Italian food producers 1 billion euros ($1.15 billion) since they were imposed.