Fur hats and arms - Chavez plans Russia trip

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (R) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov after a meeting at the presidential palace in Caracas on August 24, 2011 during the latter's official visit to the country (AFP Photo / Juan BARRETO)
Hugo Chavez has met with the Russian Foreign Minister and promised to personally visit Russia in the nearest future to seal more contracts, purchase weapons, and maybe a fur hat to counter the winter frost.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, which was the last – and most emotional – leg of his Latin American tour that also included Peru and Salvador. Caracas met him as an honorary guest. The capital's Mayor Jorge Rodriguez presented him the keys to the city, after which Lavrov laid a wreath at the Monument to Venezuelan national hero Simon Bolivar.

The most anticipated part of the visit was Lavrov's Wednesday meeting with Hugo Chavez, who has been battling against cancer in recent months. When the Venezuelan leader did not come to greet Russia's top diplomat at the entrance to Miraflores presidential palace, many worried that it could have been a bad sign and the president was not in a good shape, wrote Rossiyskaya Gazeta (RG). However, after the talks, which lasted for about two hours, Chavez did make an appearance before journalists and, together with Lavrov, answered questions about the outcome of the meeting.

The Venezuelan president said that he would like to visit Moscow in late 2011-early 2012.

"Please give an embrace to President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on my behalf and convey my greetings to the entire people of Russia," Chavez said while addressing Lavrov after their meeting, as cited Itar-Tass news agency.

Lavrov noted that Russian political leaders are always glad to see Chavez in the capital.

“I will certainly come to Moscow,” the president stated. He stroked his head – bald as a result of two rounds of chemotherapy – and added that he would now need more warm clothes, “probably a Russian fur cap”.

As for business matters, the visit appeared to be quite fruitful. Venezuela may soon get a four-billion dollar loan to spend on a variety of projects, including a new purchase of weapons from Russia – which is the republic's major arms supplier.

Chavez stressed that the “strengthening of relations” between Caracas and Moscow included socio-economic development projects, and would “of course” also “serve to strengthen technical and military cooperation, which is moving along at a good pace,” reported Venezuelanalysis.com. He added that, among other things, an additional step has been taken towards the installation of a highly modernized air-defense system based on Russian technology. According to Chavez, his state needs new weapons in order to avoid repeating the fate of the Muammar Gaddafi regime.

Lavrov observed that Russia is interested in a more poly-centric world “with a more solid architecture, supporting the economic centers, including the Latin American center”.

In a few weeks, the Venezuelan Finance Minister, Jorge Giordani, will travel to Moscow to negotiate the details of the loan. Apparently, the Russian side has already made a positive decision on the matter and is ready to lend four billion dollars to its main strategic partner in Latin America, reports Kommersant daily citing a source at Russia's Foreign Ministry.

“We don't see any problems about that since Venezuela has no outstanding debts with Russia,” the source said. “We understand that Chavez has to get weapons on credit because [the money received from the oil trade] is spent on social programs. Considering the pre-election situation in Venezuela, this loan would be a real opportunity for us to support our key ally in the region.”

During the Caracas meeting, Lavrov and Chavez also discussed the joint development of a Russian-Venezuelan bank, which Moscow and Caracas want to turn into an analogue of a mini-IMF (Inernational Monetary Fund). According to Kommersant, the bank’s first task might actually be the issuance of the $4 billion loan to Venezuela.

“We are considering the project of a joint bank with Russia. Its branch has already been opened in Moscow, another branch will soon be opened in Caracas and one more in Beijing,” Chavez said after the talks with Lavrov. The reference to a Beijing branch might indicate that China could also join the project.

Citing sources in the Russian delegation, the newspaper writes that within the past six months, Caracas has come up with several ideas on how to turn the bank – which was established last year – into a more powerful instrument. “Today, we are considering the possibilities of turning the bank into an international financial organization similar to the World Bank – on a much more modest scale, of course,” a source explained to the paper.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, who also took part in the Wednesday's talks, observed that the joint Venezuela-Russian Development Bank “is an instrument designed to march above and beyond the (global economic) crises, allowing us to finance bi-lateral, socio-economic development projects with our allies,” wrote Venezuelanalysis.com.

Yet another idea that Caracas is mulling over is transferring its billions of dollars in cash reserves and gold from the US and Europe to banks in Russia, China and Brazil. Moscow says that it is ready to think about the proposal.

“If our Venezuelan friends decide to use schemes involving Russia, we will consider them,” Lavrov told journalists. He emphasized though that these reserve funds are the property of the republic and it is up to Caracas to decide how to use them.

Overall, both sides expressed satisfaction with the “active nature of the political dialogue between Russia and Venezuela, which occurs on a bilateral basis and within mechanisms of multilateral cooperation”, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Moscow and Caracas are ready to further develop cooperation. Lavrov and Maduro also signed an agreement on the opening of centers of science and culture in Moscow and Caracas.

Under Chavez’s presidency, the two countries have been enjoying rather warm relations. One of the most vivid examples of the friendship was Venezuela’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states after the August 2008 war.Hugo Chavez has visited Moscow nine times, and Medvedev became the first Russian leader to travel to Venezuela since diplomatic relations between the two countries were established.