ATHENS, Greece — Greece's new government disagrees with sanctions against Russia, and wants to boost trade ties with the country, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said before a visit to Moscow next week.
Speaking in an interview with Russia's Tass news agency published Tuesday, Tsipras said he considers sanctions to be a "road to nowhere" and that the reciprocal embargo Russia has imposed on food from the European Union has "seriously damaged" his country's economy.
The U.S. and the EU imposed crippling economic sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for an insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Moscow retaliated by banning most Western food imports — an action that has hurt Greek agricultural exports at a time when the bailed-out country has been struggling through a deep financial crisis.
Since being elected in January, Tsipras' coalition government between his radical left Syriza party and a small right-wing nationalist party has advocated warmer ties with Russia, and has criticized past Greek governments for following the EU line regarding Moscow too closely.
"Over the past years a blow was dealt to (Greek-Russian) relations as the previous governments in my country had not done what they could have done to avoid this senseless sanctions policy, in my opinion, amid tensions in Ukraine," Tass quoted Tsipras as saying in the interview.
"The result of this is the embargo also on the Greek agricultural goods has seriously damaged the Greek economy," he said.
"We do not agree with sanctions. I believe that this is a road to nowhere. I support the point of view that there is a need for a dialogue and diplomacy," Tsipras added.
Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis visited Moscow this week, saying Tuesday on his return to Athens that he had met with his Russian counterpart and the head of natural gas company Gazprom.
"We decided that we must and can further develop our energy relations, to lead them to a new level and expand them into the broadest possible sectors," Lafazanis said.
Athens' flirting with Moscow had caused consternation among some of Greece's European allies, particularly after the government, on its first day in office, issued a public rebuke to the EU over a joint statement regarding sanctions on Russia.
France and Germany on Tuesday downplayed Tsipras' upcoming visit to Moscow, where he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 8.
"European countries can go to Moscow without it posing a problem to Europe," French President Francois Hollande said during a visit to Berlin.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed his sentiment.
"I will just say that we were already in Moscow and are members of the EU nonetheless," she said.
Asked about possible Russian financial assistance to Greece, the EU envoy to Moscow, Vygaudas Usackas, said that "we will welcome it, if this financial aid is transparent and open, if it helps the economic and financial stabilization of Greece, something that the EU has been doing."
Greece has been engaged in tortuous negotiations with Greece's creditors from the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund over unlocking vital remaining bailout funds that will prevent a default. The country has been dependent on rescue loans from other eurozone countries and the IMF since 2010.
"There shouldn't be a hope that Russia could somehow drive a wedge between the EU nations," Usackas said in an interview with Govorit Moskva radio.
Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.
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