Russian president Vladimir Putin yesterday hinted that Moscow could lift its embargo on food imports from Greece, which has been hurt by the ban and is embroiled in crucial talks with its European creditors.
Mr Putin made his televised remarks at a meeting with visiting Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras in the Kremlin.
Greece, dependent on international bailouts worth €240 billion since 2010, will run out of funds within weeks unless it reaches a deal with its creditors for a new instalment.
Mr Tsipras received a warm welcome in Moscow, which has seen its ties with the EU strained over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Before his arrival, Mr Tsipras described the sanctions imposed by the EU and US on Russia in the wake of its annexation of the Crimea as “a road to nowhere”.
European Parliament president Martin Schulz said Mr Tsipras should not break with the EU line on sanctions.
“Greece demands and gets a lot of solidarity from the EU. We can therefore also ask for solidarity from Greece and for this solidarity not to be ended unilaterally by pulling out of joint measures,” he said.
Mr Tsipras said he aimed to “restart relations for the good of both our people”.
Russia is not in a position to solve Greece’s economic issues however, said Constantinos Filis from the Institute of International Relations.
Mr Tsipras’ visit has been regarded as either an attempt to use his relationship with Russia as a potential bargaining chip or simply an effort to enhance ties with a traditional ally.
In retaliation against Western sanctions, Russia last year banned selected food imports including vegetables and cheese from the European Union, which has hit Greek imports particularly hard.
Mr Putin told a beaming Mr Tsipras at the start of their talks yesterday that his visit is “very timely” and it gives them a chance “to analyse what we could both do” to restore bilateral trade between Russia and Greece, which dropped 40 percent on the ban.
Greek officials have previously pointed to Russia as a possible alternative source of financial assistance to alleviate the country’s ongoing debt crisis.
But analysts say Russia’s economic woes mean any help for Greece would be limited.
Greek exports to Russia were €357 million last year, down 12 per cent from a year earlier.
Mr Putin also dwelled on the significance of Mr Tsipras’ visit ahead of the Orthodox Easter, saying that, above all, Russia and Greece have “common spiritual roots” as predominantly Orthodox Christian nations.
His words did not catch Kremlin officials off guard.
Economic development minister Alexei Ulyukayev said the government had drafted proposals “related to the embargo” that will be discussed at his meeting with Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev today.
A deal could restore millions in profits Greek farmers used to make on the Russian markets.
The new Greek government, a coalition of the radical left and nationalist right, was elected in January on promises to repeal the austerity measures imposed as a condition of the bailout.
Mr Tsipras, who will be meeting senior Russian officials today, has been cultivating the impression Athens might see Moscow as a potential means of pressure in its current negotiations.
Greece has not received bailout funds since August last year, with the EU and IMF unhappy with the pace of Greek reforms.