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    PUTIN, CHIRAC TO DISCUSS NATO AND EU EXPANSION AND MORE LENIENT VISA REGIME

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    PARIS/MOSCOW, APRIL 3, 2004. (RIA NOVOSTI) - President Jacques Chirac of France is to arrive in Moscow today, subsequently negotiating with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Mr. Chirac, who was to have spent two days in Moscow, will pay a one-day visit instead.

    President Chirac changed his schedule, after rightist parties were defeated in the course of 26 regional-council elections, which took place March 27-28.

    As a result, rightist parties retained control over Alsace alone. Consequently, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who leads France's rightist parties, handed in his resignation. However, Mr. Chirac refused to accept Mr. Raffarin's resignation, suggesting that Mr. Raffarin form another cabinet instead. Meanwhile the Elysees Palace press service reported a decision to put off and shorten Mr. Chirac's Moscow visit.

    Meanwhile Vladimir Putin and Jacques Chirac are unlikely to discuss French domestic problems. According to RIA Novosti's sources, both leaders will focus on the expansion of NATO and the European Union, as well as bilateral interaction for the sake of introducing more lenient visa regulations.

    Diplomatic sources in Paris note that French position on the expansion of NATO and the EU implies that specific Western decisions should heed the interests of different countries, also responding to those well-justified Russian concerns, with due account taken of the consequences of EU and NATO expansion.

    As far as a more lenient Russian-French visa regime is concerned, the sides are now finalizing the relevant agreement, RIA Novosti's sources noted.

    Talking to RIA Novosti, a Kremlin source said that the signing of this agreement would facilitate expanded Russian-French business contacts, also making it possible to move toward a visa-free regime in Russia-EU relations.

    In December 2003 the then Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov visited Germany, signing the first similar agreement between Moscow and Berlin. Plans are also in place to ink such documents with France and Italy.

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