What Mr Putin did not say


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Yelena Shesternina)

Of the 68 questions answered by President Vladimir Putin at his three-hour question and answer session Thursday, less than a dozen dealt with the Russian government's foreign policies.

This does not necessarily mean that international events are of little interest to the general public in Russia or any other post-Soviet country such as Kazakhstan (representatives of that Central Asian nation took part in this year's Q&A).

Those few questions that were posed suggest, in fact, that the interest is high and profound. A resident of Novosibirsk, for instance, recalled former U.S. State Secretary Madeleine Albright described the fact that Russia was the only country to benefit from Siberia's natural wealth as unfair. Putin could not remember whether Albright had said something to that effect, but one thing he was certain of is that there are quite a few politicians in the United States besides her who engage in what he described as "political erotica," something that "may or may not give pleasure to people, but is unlikely to generate any results."

Moving away from Siberia's resources, craved for by the former secretary of state, Putin cited the example of Iraq, whose own oil wealth was, according to him, the main motive behind the U.S. invasion of that country in 2003. "They've learned to shoot, but are still struggling to restore order," he said, adding that "a war against the people is impossible to win."

That said, however, the U.S. administration's policies in Iraq are not completely derived of political wisdom, in Putin's view. For example, George W. Bush's point that it would be too early to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq now does stand to reason. But unlike Bush, the Russian leader believes that a timeframe should be established on the prospective pullout, if only to stimulate the Iraqi government's efforts toward self-sufficiency. "Feeling protected under the American umbrella, it [the Iraqi leadership] is in no hurry to develop its own armed forces and law-enforcement agencies," Putin said.

Bush's plans for a national missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic seem to be the main complaint in current U.S.-Russian relations. Residents of the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad find the plans particularly unsettling, which is hardly surprising, given that this westernmost region of Russia is also the closest to the Kaczynski government. Yet, Putin dismissed suggestions that a Russian missile shield would be installed in the Kaliningrad Region to protect the Poles against any potential missile attacks from Iraq.

"I don't think we should make any efforts to ensure security in other European countries if their leaders don't care about ours." He said there was no reason to panic and promised to give an appropriate response if the U.S. decides to go ahead with its plans for a missile defense system in Central Europe without taking into account Russia's security concerns. What the response should be is up to the Russian Armed Forces' General Staff to decide.

It is highly unlikely that Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his twin brother Jaroslaw, the country's prime minister, watched a broadcast of Putin's Q&A session Thursday. A related statement made almost simultaneously in Warsaw must have been, therefore, a sheer coincidence. But Jaroslaw Kaczynski's remarks that Poland needs American interceptors to protect itself from Russian missiles, not Iranian ones, caused quite a stir.

"We should bear in mind that we are under a permanent threat," the Polish PM said. "The Russians have refused to accept the transformations that have taken place since 1989. They must be thinking we are still within their sphere of influence."

Of course, Kaczynski's remarks could be seen as part of his campaign to score political points ahead of this weekend's election. Anyway, he was more outspoken on this controversial issue than the U.S. administration has been so far.

Aware of potential controversies, however, the Polish Foreign Ministry tried to soften the premier's pronouncements somewhat by saying he did not mean to say Poland was seeking a conflict with Russia and that potential missile strikes from Iran were actually the Polish leadership's primary concern.

Speaking of Iran, Putin said he would continue working to develop good-neighborly relations with the Islamic republic. He used the occasion to criticize those advocating a tough line against Tehran. In dealing with "countries that tend to generate problems, direct dialogue would be more productive; this would be a shorter way toward success than a policy of threats, sanctions and pressure."

When asked why he went to Tehran despite rumors of an assassination attempt being plotted against him, Putin said these rumors had been intended to disturb his visit. He stopped short of making any guesses as to its masterminds.

The mystery surrounding Putin's Tehran visit made it a popular subject at his Q&A session. Western media reported that apart from the trip's official schedule, which involved a summit of the Caspian states and bilateral meetings with the host country's leadership, the Russian president also had some secret mission to accomplish in Iran. The New York Times suggested that Washington had allegedly struck a deal with Moscow, promising to back down on its missile defense plans in Central Europe if the Russians succeeded in getting Iran to freeze its nuclear program.

One indirect piece of evidence supporting the paper's theory was an official statement by Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, who said that at his meeting with Ayatollah Khamenei, Putin had delivered a "special proposal" and that the Iranian side was now closely studying it. He did not elaborate, though.

All those backstage intrigues were left out of Putin's Q&A. The Russian president disclosed only as much as he saw fit. He said, for instance, that Russia is willing to develop normal relations with any Ukrainian government, but will make no concessions on fuel prices - a more than timely signal to Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine's would-be prime minister.

He also set out his vision for the Commonwealth of Independent States, saying this loose union of post-Soviet nations would never become an analogue of the European Union, but the post-Soviet economic alliance EurAsEC may develop into an EU-like structure someday, he said. The six-nation bloc has already made the first step toward that goal by agreeing to create a customs union.

And speaking about Russia's foreign policies, Putin surprised many by saying the key priority would be to develop relations with former Soviet republics rather than deal with Iran's nuclear program, U.S. missile defense plans and other headline-making issues.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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