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    MOSCOW, March 17, 2004 (RIA Novosti) - Moscow has noted progress in Russian-Chinese relations. "China is our neighbour and friend," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a press conference on Wednesday.

    "Russia's and China's positions on the overwhelming majority of international problems are identical," Mr. Lavrov said and added that China's position was becoming clearer and more outward-looking.

    Mr. Lavrov also said that China was emerging as a major international player.

    Russia believes it important that China should tackle international issues in cooperation with other countries. "This is a guarantee of sustainable international relations," said the minister.

    Speaking about Russia's relations with Japan, Mr. Lavrov said the bilateral peace treaty must be drafted with due heed to the two countries' constitutions.

    The minister said Moscow and Tokyo had a plan, according to which they were working over the treaty.

    When pressed for comment on Russia's position on the territorial dispute with Japan, Mr. Lavrov said that both countries had relevant guidelines and the desire to move on.

    Japanese Premier Junichiro Koizumi and Russian leaders adopted the Action Plan in January 2003 when Mr. Koizumi was visiting Russia. This comprehensive political document outlined the guidelines of bilateral cooperation, including the guidelines of peace treaty talks.

    The negotiating process involves the two countries' senior officials and a bilateral commission, which was set up in 1998 and is headed by the two foreign ministers.

    Japan's claims to South Kuriles continue to be the most sensitive issue of bilateral relations, which hampers the signing of the peace treaty. The insufficient volume and dynamism of mutual trade, which do not correspond to the two countries' cooperation potential, poor investment in the Russian economy and Tokyo's refusal to re-register the former Soviet Union's property in Japan with modern Russia make a series of other problems facing the two countries.

    Mr. Lavrov also emphasised at the press conference that Moscow sought to continue the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme.

    The Russian minister emphasised that the next round of talks had been scheduled for as early as the summer of 2004.

    Mr. Lavrov said he would meet his South Korean counterpart, Pan Ki-mun, in late April or early May.

    "This is when we will discuss arrangements for the third round of six-party talks on North Korea, which will positively take place," Mr. Lavrov said, when asked whether the impeachment of South Korean President No Mu-hyon would influence the negotiating process.

    The process involves the United States, North Korea and other parties concerned, including Russia, China, South Korea and Japan, which are looking for ways to end the North's nuclear programme. The first two rounds of talks in Beijing did not bring progress, however the countries did not abandon their efforts.

    At the end of the second round of talks, the parties announced that they would gather for the third round in summer 2004. They also resolved to set up a joint working group to round off rough corners in the positions of, above all, the USA and North Korea.

    Observers suggested that the impeachment of the South Korean leader, who supports rapprochement with the North, may affect the course of talks. However, South Korea's constitutional court may overrule, within 6 months, the parliament's impeachment decision if it finds it insufficiently substantiated.

    When speaking about the situation in the Balkans, Mr. Lavrov said Russia was continuing to promote its interests in the region by developing friendly relations with regional countries.

    "We look forward to a time when the withdrawal of troops of one country from another country will not be treated as the latter's inability to ensure its interests," said Mr. Lavrov.

    Mr. Lavrov said Moscow advocated a united Cyprus' accession to the European Union. However, this must happen on mutual accord and under the UN aegis, said the Foreign Minister.

    In the beginning, Russia had some doubts about the UN-proposed scheme of resolving the Cyprus problem, according to which the UN Secretary General was to advance his solution if the Cypriot negotiators, Greece and Turkey fail to come to an agreement.

    "We thought such an approach would endanger the principle of voluntariness," said Mr. Lavrov. He added that the involved parties' current actions dispelled Moscow's doubts.

    In comments on media reports that Greece has approached NATO, requesting it to help ensure Greek athletes' security during the summer Olympics in Athens, Mr. Lavrov said it was Greece's legitimate right to do so. "As to our athletes, we will resolve this problem on our own," he said.

    When dwelling on certain aspects of Russia's relations with former Soviet republics, the Foreign Minister emphasised that Moscow was continuing efforts to settle the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorny Karabakh.

    "Russia co-chairs what is known as the Minsk Group, which also involves the USA and France. The group is looking for appropriate ways to settle the conflict," said Mr. Lavrov.

    The group had advanced a series of settlement scenarios, which did not work for technical, and later on, for political reasons, according to Mr. Lavrov.

    Yerevan and Baku will conduct direct political dialogue, which will bring stability to the entire region, said Mr. Lavrov.

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