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    January 12


    The heads of all Russian ministries, committees, commissions and other federal bodies of executive power have summed up the results of their work in 2003 and announced their plans for 2004, Izvestia writes. They did not do this at a joint press conference, as most of them are only returning from their New Year vacations, but - for the first time - on the Government's official web site. In their web-addresses to the country, the ministers, depending on their creative capabilities, imagination and command of the Russian language, reported on the drafted bills, quoted the President and philosophised, the newspaper reports.

    Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin showed the most informal approach to preparing the 2004 plan, Izvestia believes. Unlike the majority of his colleagues, he gave a real live interview where he, as head of the economic body, spoke about the strategy for Russia's development in the context of world economic processes and conditions of tough international competition, instead of simply citing the adopted laws and prepared bills.

    The most important thing for Russia is to find its place in the world system of labour division and to learn to do something better than others, the Finance Minister says. "We should understand the position we want to take in the world and to ensure our competitiveness in this respect," he explains.

    "The actions that have already been taken will definitely bring results in the near future, in the next one or two years," Kudrin believes. "The crucial task now is to determine our goals for the year and to emphasize the most important things we should concentrate on to achieve the main objective set by the President (doubling our GDP)".


    Both the Russian authorities and the market have determined what 2004 will be like, the newspaper writes. The government already has an action plan for the next year and intends to ensure economic growth of over 5%, while analytical departments of private companies have presented their own forecasts. Some of them believe that the growth can even exceed the Government's expectations. Unless oil prices fall.

    So far in 2004, the Government expects production growth to be 5.2%, Kommersant recalls. It is less than last year, when the figure was almost 7%. However, officials point out, growth will be relatively independent of high oil prices, which in 2004 are to equal a modest $22 per barrel.

    Analysts have some disagreements with regard to the dollar exchange rate, a concern of ordinary citizens, the newspaper points out. For example, the American-Russian business council forecasts that by the end of the year the rate will reach 29.5 rubles per $1, instead of falling. According to this prognosis, the government will not fulfil its inflation plan, as prices will grow by 11%. However, even this forecast expects fine economic growth of more than 5% if oil prices remain higher than $25 per barrel of Brent crude, Kommersant states.


    Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has reconsidered his stand on the gas industry reform. In an interview with Vedomosti, he questioned the need for market reform in the industry. However, both officials and analysts still hope that Gazprom will be reformed and consider Kasyanov's remarks part of the election campaign, the newspaper points out.

    Kasyanov is not sure that it is necessary to reform the gas industry and to create a gas market where prices would be formed by supply and demand, he said. "We have to understand what is better for the country. If we believe that the total gas production volumes should remain the same, all necessary resources have been determined and explored and the task is only to produce gas, and Gazprom will perfectly cope with it," the Prime Minister explained.

    Gazprom was glad to hear Kasyanov's opinion, Vedomosti writes. "We have repeatedly said that there is no need to reform Gazprom drastically," says Sergei Kupriyanov, press secretary of the company's board. He believes it is necessary to reform the system of tariff formation, which would increase investment in the gas industry. He did not specify, though, what the reform should be like. And a source in Gazprom said that "gas prices should grow faster than by the current 20% annually."


    Ten names are now on the list of candidates for the Russian presidency. Last week they were 11, but the Russian Federation's Supreme Court ruled against the legitimacy of German Sterligov's initiative group last Friday. Two weeks from now, NG notes, the list could become even shorter: January 28 is the deadline for collecting signatures for self-nominated candidates. And, in any case, most, if not all of the entrants in the presidential race will run under the Olympic slogan "It is not the victory that matters, but the participation." Some of them even hurried to tip off their voters and rivals that they had no plans to form any opposition.

    "When the leader goes into action, he must not be left without any support; someone must stand by him. We have repeatedly mentioned that we support the President' political course, so we support the President," said Sergei Mironov, Speaker of the Federation Council (the Russian parliament's upper chamber) and one of the presidential hopefuls, nominated by the Russian Party of Life.

    However, given today's Russian realities, the newspaper goes on to say, it is worth a lot even to simply "stand by" the President. Not everyone, of course, can join the "elite club" of candidates.

    According to the Central Election Committee's (CEC) forecast, the mass registration of candidates will not start until the end of January. Let us remember, NG reads, that the majority of candidates on the list still need the required two million signatures. While for the majority of self-nominated candidates it sounds like a serious test to collect them in the remaining time, the CEC is in for an exhausting test as well: a 60-80 strong expert team will have to verify the authenticity of almost 10 million signatures in a few days.

    Meanwhile, NG notes, CEC Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov has already pronounced a warning to those who might resort to the services of commercial agencies whose business involves drawing up fake signature lists. This practice is against the law, he said.


    Russia will be able to continue using the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan until 2050. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev reached this agreement late last week, during the Russian leader's visit to Astana, that republic's new capital.

    The lease of Baikonur, which costs Russia 115 million dollars a year, was to expire in 2014. Its extension was presented as the most important event of the Russian leader's visit, Gazeta underlines. Since no such summit can pass without some "most important" event, the prolongation of the leasing agreement was presented as the outcome of a heated dispute between Moscow and Astana about how much longer Russia can be allowed to launch its boosters from Kazakhstan's territory.

    Moscow, as the newspaper reveals, insisted on extending the term for 50 more years from 2014, that is, till 2064. Kazakhstan disagreed, suggesting that 50 years should be counted starting from 1994 - the year the memorandum was signed on the lease of the space centre. A source in Rosaviakosmos admitted to Gazeta that the argument was largely staged because both dates - 2044 and 2064 - are very remote, and no one can tell today whether or not Baikonur will retain its importance until then. An opinion is frequently voiced that it would be cheaper for Russia to reconstruct its own space centre, Plesetsk in the Archangelsk Region (northern Russia), than to pay over 100 million dollars a year for the use of Baikonur.

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