ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Italy wants to strengthen its economic presence in Russia and hopes ties between Moscow and the European Union will improve, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Friday.
Speaking at Russia's premier economic forum, Renzi said that the fulfillment of the Minsk peace deal for eastern Ukraine is essential for lifting EU sanctions against Russia. In what sounded like a nod to Russia's arguments that Ukraine was dragging its feet on the deal, Renzi emphasized that all parties involved should honor the deal's terms.
"Agreements should be respected, and they should be respected by everyone," he said.
The St. Petersburg forum was attended by chief executives of many multinationals for the first time after a two-year break amid a strain between Russia and the West over the Ukraine crisis. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the EU's executive Commission, also attended the opening Thursday, raising hope for a thaw in Russia-EU ties.
Italy was badly hurt when Moscow banned most food imports from the EU in retaliation to the EU sanctions against Russia. Still, Moscow has sought to maintain good ties with Rome, and President Vladimir Putin repeatedly visited Italy even though he was shunned in most other European capitals.
Renzi said that Italy, proud of its "Made in Italy" products, would also welcome a "Made with Italy" approach to share some of its agricultural technologies to produce food products in Russia in order to strengthen economic ties as Russia's ban on most EU food remains.
Renzi and Putin, who sat next to each other at the forum session, exchanged smiles and mutual compliments. Renzi praised Russia's "wise approach" to the Syrian crisis and described Moscow as an indispensable partner for Europe.
The Italian premier particularly referred to a concert performed in May by renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev's Mariinsky orchestra from St. Petersburg at the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, after it was recaptured from the Islamic State group by the Syrian army thanks to Russian air cover.
"The concert helped show that culture and civilization again shine even on this tortured land," Renzi said to applause.
Putin, in his turn, praised Renzi's vision for Europe's future and voiced admiration for his oratorical skills.
The two leaders later sat down for talks at the sidelines of the forum, with Putin hailing Renzi's presence at the summit as a sign of Italy's desire to overcome obstacles hampering the development of closer ties.
Renzi praised the splendors of St. Petersburg, Putin's home city, saying he started the day by jogging through its streets and later visited the Hermitage Museum.
"Europe and Russia share the same values, and I saw those values today," he said. "I felt overwhelmed by the beauty that is part of Russian as well as European identity."
He pointed at Fyodor Dostoyevsky writing "The Idiot" in Renzi's native Florence as a reflection of close cultural ties between Russia and Italy.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.