By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden told Vladimir Putin on Thursday the United States was determined to strengthen economic ties with Russia, but gently rebuffed the prime minister's call for visa-free travel between the nations.
Biden, on a visit to Moscow to keep up the momentum in President Barack Obama's "reset" with Russia after two years of improving ties, also met separately with Kremlin opponents and rights activists.
Putin said bilateral trade was up 29 percent last year and big U.S. companies are successful in Russia. "Relations between our countries are developing quite well," he told Biden as they sat down along with a handful of other officials for talks.
But he added it would be a "historic step" if the Cold War foes scrapped visa requirements for travelers between the two countries -- similar to an effort Moscow has been pushing, so far unsuccessfully, with the European Union.
An agreement with the United States on visa-free travel "would break all the old stereotypes between Russia and the United States" and "turn an important page," said Putin, who suggested Biden could use his power as vice president and clout with Congress to advance the idea.
Putin's ambitious call for visa-free travel appeared aimed to underscore what Russians say is lingering American mistrust of Russia that hinders a complete reconciliation between the Cold War adversaries.
Biden parried by saying: "In case you haven't noticed, there's a real difference between president and vice president."
"But the very good news is that the president and I agree 100 percent on the need to establish closer and closer relations with Russia."
"Now is the time to focus on the economy," he said.
Biden, who met with U.S. and Russian business leaders on Wednesday, stressed that while Russia's market was far smaller than others such as China, it remained attractive for U.S. investors.
"So let me tell you why we are here: Russia has the best engineers in the world. Russia has intellectual capital. Russia is a great nation," he told journalists.
Recent U.S.-Russian deals have been done in the energy, food, aerospace, agricultural machinery, and hi-tech sectors.
The centerpiece of improved relations, the New START nuclear arms control treaty signed by Obama and Medvedev in April 2010, entered into force last month.
Obama's White House and the Kremlin are eager to prevent the relationship drifting as elections approach in both countries.
Putin, president from 2000-2008 and still seen as Russia's paramount leader after steering Medvedev into the Kremlin when he faced term limits, has hinted he may use a March 2012 election to return to the presidency.
Analysts say the benefits to the United States from the "reset" -- such as the arms treaty and increased Russian pressure on Iran over its nuclear program -- would not have been achieved without Putin's approval.
But Medvedev has presented a more cooperative face to the United States than Putin, a longtime KGB officer in Soviet era, whose relationship with Obama has seemed visibly cooler than Medvedev's.
Biden praised Medvedev's "personal leadership" in a meeting on Wednesday.
The talks with Putin on Thursday were sandwiched between separate meetings with civil society leaders and leaders of Russia's beleaguered liberal political opposition, sending a message that the United States is not ignoring critics who accuse Russia's leaders of curtailing human rights.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; editing by Philippa Fletcher)