Blair salutes new Russian president

Tony Blair today telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on his election victory.

The two men discussed the importance of developing economic and business links during their 15-minute conversation.

Mr Putin, who has been acting president since Boris Yeltsin stood down on New Year's Eve, said he hoped their meeting earlier this month in St Petersburg had laid the basis for a "strong bilateral relationship".

Prime Minister Mr Blair in turn emphasised the need for Russia to find a resolution to the conflict in Chechnya.

Later Mr Blair was urged by Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell to adopt a critical stance towards Mr Putin.

Mr Campbell accused the Government of being too keen to become close to Mr Putin, and of allowing its desire to engage with his incoming administration to outweigh concerns over human rights, economic reform and nuclear arms.

He said: "Co-operation with Mr Putin must depend on a recognition by him of human rights, a determination to stamp out corruption and promote economic reform and a willingness to advance the cause of nuclear disarmament.

"So far, the British Government has been overly keen to 'engage' with Mr Putin. The relationship can only be properly constructive if it is sufficiently critical," added Mr Campbell.

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