BUDAPEST, Feb 23 (Reuters) Russia returned to Hungary an antique book collection taken by Soviet troops during World War Two in a step experts said shows a new Russian drive to improve ties with former Eastern bloc states.
The return of the treasures comes ahead of President Vladimir Putin's visit to Hungary next week.
The 136 medieval volumes, which belong to the Sarospatak Protestant College's library, arrived in sealed boxes late yesterday after a decade of talks between Hungary and Russia.
''After ten years of negotiations the legislation process (which allowed the return of the books) got a new impetus when (Socialist) Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany met with President Putin in Russia last year,'' a government spokesman said.
Hungary paid 400,000 dollars to Russia for the costs of handling and guarding the books, which will be exhibited in the National Museum in Budapest.
The collection, which contains the most valuable books of the Sarospatak library, was placed in the vaults of two Budapest banks for safe-keeping in 1938 and remained there throughout the war until the books and manuscripts disappeared in 1945.
They were discovered only in the early 1990s in the regional library of the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod.
The Sarospatak college in eastern Hungary near the Ukranian border was founded in 1531.
It was one of Europe's most prominent schools with teachers including the famous Czech scientist and writer Jan Comenius in the 1650s. The college today bears his Latin name.
At the beginning of the war the library held over 70,000 books and the rest survived practically unharmed as a Russian commander and his troops guarded the library gates.
Agnes Gereben, Russia expert at Budapest's Eotvos University, said the return of the books was a sign of a new Russian foreign policy which is increasingly turning away from the West towards former Soviet allies.
''This move also shows that in the focus of the emerging new Russian foreign policy it's no longer Western powers which enjoy absolute priority but (countries that belong to) the former Soviet sphere of interest,'' Gereben told Reuters.
She said the Sarospatak books could never be regarded as spoils of war as they belonged to a church that never collaborated with Nazi Germany.
Hungary sided with Nazi Germany and officially declared war against the Soviet Union in 1941. In 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary and were driven out by Soviet troops in 1945.
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