Putin visits Russian Orthodox monastic community in Greece
Russian President Vladimir Putin lights a candle as he arrives at the church of the Protaton, dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin, in Karyes, the administrative center of the all-male Orthodox monastic community of Mount Athos, northern Greece, Saturday, May 28, 2016. (Alexandros Avramidis / Pool Photo via AP)
Costas Kantouris And Demetris Nellas, The Associated Press
Published Saturday, May 28, 2016 10:05AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 28, 2016 3:09PM EDT
KARYES, Greece -- Russian President Vladimir Putin visited a Russian Orthodox monastery Saturday on the northern Greek peninsula of Mount Athos as part of a two-day visit touted by the Greek government as a chance to improve ties between the two countries.
He praised the spiritual uplift and moral guidance provided by the austere monastic community in a sacred place. Putin said the Orthodox tradition is particularly important at this moment in history.
"Today, as we resurrect the values of patriotism, historical memory and traditional culture, we hope for ... a strengthening of relations" with Mount Athos, he said.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had said the Russian president's visit was a chance to "upgrade" relations, which Greece hopes will mean more Russian investment and more Russian tourism as the EU member copes with a prolonged financial crisis and a tsunami of migrants.
Putin, who has sought to capitalize on the strained relations between Greece and many other European Union countries, said Russia seeks to co-operate with Greece in the energy sector. Several Russian ministers also expressed interest in the privatization of Greek railways and in the northern port of Thessaloniki, but no major deals were announced. Only lower lever "co-operation agreements" were reached during the visit.
Putin expressed gratitude for the Greek friendship -- and used his visit to blast U.S. policy toward Moscow. He described a newly expanded U.S. missile defence system in Europe as a threat to Russia's national security and said his country would retaliate.
At the height of Greece's financial crisis last year, it had sought aid from Russia as a counterbalance to its difficult negotiations with its EU and IMF creditors. The limited concrete results of Putin's long-anticipated visit left some disappointed.
Panagiotis Lafazanis, a former energy minister who has left the ruling Syriza party, said the Greek government had de-emphasized the Putin visit in order to curry favour with U.S. and NATO officials.
Greek opposition figures were pleased with Putin's decision to meet opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Greek tourist officials said Putin's visit would help encourage more Russians to visit Greece. Strained ties with Turkey and lax airport security in Egypt have reduced the number of Russian tourists going to those sun-drenched countries.
During his visit to Mount Athos, where women are not allowed to visit any of the 20 monasteries there, Putin repeatedly praised the spirit of the monastic community.
"Here in Mount Athos, there is great and important work done on moral values," Putin said after a Mass in his honour, where he was seated in the bishop's throne.
Putin flew from Athens to Thessaloniki on Saturday morning, travelled by road to a port near Mount Athos and then took a boat -- the only way to reach the isolated community. Instead of the usual small ferry, the Russian president used a 33-meter (110-foot) yacht provided by the Greek navy.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow travelled to the monastery with Putin to help celebrate 1,000 years of Russian presence at Mount Athos.
At Karyes, the administrative centre of Mount Athos, Putin was greeted by the 20 abbots of the monasteries and 20 representatives of the monks on the peninsula, as well as a representative of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, under whose jurisdiction Mount Athos falls.
Security in Mount Athos was extremely tight. Besides Putin's large entourage, there was heavy Greek police and coast guard presence, with divers guarding and inspecting the landing site and snipers deployed throughout Putin's route.
Trips by other male pilgrims to the Russian St. Panteleimon monastery were cancelled two weeks ago.
Putin headed to Thessaloniki on Saturday night for a flight back to Moscow.
Nellas reported from Athens, Greece.