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    WHAT THE RUSSIAN PAPERS SAY

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    (February 4)

    KOMMERSANT

    President Vladimir Putin met with Labor and Social Security Minister Alexander Pochinok. The closer the elections are, the more concerned the president is about social issues, notes Kommersant. Since the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Putin has concerned himself with social problems and has issued orders to raise pensions, paid debts on wages and shown interest in the problems of unemployment and children's recreation. On Tuesday, the president and the minister tried to touch on as many social problems as possible. Mr. Pochinok reported that the results of the president's social policy were positive.

    The minister began his presentation with the population's incomes. According to him, the real growth of the Russian population's incomes was 14.5%. "This is unprecedented in Russian history," the minister assured the president. In the labor ministry's estimates, the past four years, which coincided with Mr. Putin's term in office, was a turning point in the campaign to combat poverty. The campaign was announced in 2003. In 1999, 41.2 million people lived below the poverty line and by December 2003, the number had decreased to 27.8 million. "The poor still make up 20% of the country's population, however, in absolute figures, the decrease in their number is impressive enough," Mr. Pochinok optimistically assured the president.

    Vladimir Putin was not content with what has been achieved and demanded that strict measures be applied to the heads of enterprises who have delayed paying workers.

    GAZETA

    The Kremlin's Deputy Chief of Staff Dmitry Kozak has been on an unpaid leave for two days, Gazeta writes. He is heading Vladimir Putin's reelection staff. The president's deputy chief of staff in charge of governors, Alexander Abramov and several other Kremlin officials have also gone on leave. The president's Chief of Staff Dmitry Medvedev, who headed Putin's past election staffs has remained at work along with the president. The Kremlin said the president "continues fulfilling his duties." Four years ago, though, the real "brain" of the staff was former Chief of Staff Alexander Voloshin, writes Gazeta. Mr. Voloshin does not work in the Kremlin any more and Dmitry Kozak is the best candidate for his replacement because in the Kremlin, he deals with "special" projects that require quick decision-making. Four years ago, the Putin team said, "our election platform is the acting president." Little has changed since then. "There will not be many election campaign events because the president is too busy doing routine work," the president's staff told Gazeta. So, Putin may only go on leave on the eve of the elections if at all.

    IZVESTIA

    On the eve of the first official visit of President Ilkham Aliyev of Azerbaijan to Moscow, Izvestia carried an exclusive interview with him.

    Q: Recently, regional problems have become the top priorities of the Russian foreign policy. What is the dominant issue in Azerbaijani-Russian relations, politics or business? What is your attitude to the promotion of Russian firms on Azerbaijani's energy market?

    A.: For the successful development of economic relations, there is a perfect base -- political mutual understanding between Russian and Azerbaijani leaders. The level of relations is very high. President Vladimir Putin and President Geidar Aliyev laid the foundations. For my part, I will do everything possible to develop them. I have met with President Vladimir Putin on many occasions and we have a mutual understanding on bilateral relations and regional problems.

    You touched on the subject of Russian companies. They take part in many energy projects in Azerbaijan. At present, Azerbaijani oil is transported via Russia. Russia supplies natural gas to Azerbaijan. Trade is growing at a fast rate and I am sure that it will grow even more in the future. At present, Russia and Azerbaijan have no problems. For us, Russia is a strategic partner. This was the position of Geidar Aliyev and I adhere to it.

    NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA

    On January 28, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexei II received Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, Bishop of Terni-Narni-Amelia and head of the Catholic Community of St. Egidio (Italy), at his residence, Nezavisimaya reports. This is not the first meeting of the Italian bishop and the Russian patriarch, Nezavisimaya notes. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Community of St. Egidio have a model relationship and demonstrate a productive Orthodox-Catholic dialog.

    Speaking with Alexei II, Monseignor Paglia emphasized that the Russian Church must participate in building the future of Europe and the whole world.

    In his response, Alexei II pointed to the Russian Church's willingness to maintain further dialog with all those who make efforts to stabilize and improve the relations between the two Churches, Nezavisimaya writes.

    TRUD

    Russia has suspended imports of all poultry products from Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, China and other Asian countries.

    This measure was adopted on a recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO also advises against travelling to places in Asia where contact with infected poultry is possible. Earlier, the WHO denied the possibility of the bird virus's transmission between humans; today's data, however, proves the opposite, Trud reports. The letter of Russia's Senior Sanitary Doctor Gennady Onishchenko distributed on February 3 proves that the avian flu threat is serious. It says that Russian scientists are planning to develop a vaccine to prevent that disease. In addition, raids will be conducted on grocery stores and open markets in order to spot poultry imported from the countries hit by the epidemic.

    There is another aspect to the problem. Experts say that Asian bird flu will hit Russia. Russia will face price hikes on meat and poultry, they maintain. Beef and pork prices are already starting up today. Russia's whole meat market is expected to rewrite price tags in April. The reason behind this is the deficit and high cost of fodder grain. Another reason is the Asian bird flu, which will lead to the slaughter of enormous stocks of poultry in China country, creating greater demand for meat, and consequently, worldwide price hikes, Trud writes.

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