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    WHAT THE RUSSIAN PAPERS SAY

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    February 12

    IZVESTIA

    "I have come here to be friends with you," Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili announced on Wednesday, explaining the purpose of his Moscow visit to President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. The two leaders met for about 4 hours, Izvestia reports. First they talked alone, then invited their aides, and continued over lunch. "We have finally found a partner in Georgia, with whom we can talk frankly and in detail," the Kremlin diplomats stated. "It's like a thaw which comes after frost in our mutual relations," Saakashvili pronounced with a broad smile after his Moscow meetings.

    "We are always willing to meet Georgia halfway on practically any issue," Putin said at the beginning of their meeting. This means that the key problems now plaguing the Russian-Georgian relations (military bases, Abkhazia, and the "big" framework agreement on friendship) could be settled if certain conditions are observed, Izvestia explains.

    Saakashvili said that Putin was far more impressive than on TV and expressed his hope that the problems could be settled quickly. "Most Georgians are pinning great hopes on my Moscow visit and on you," he said.

    A little later, the newspaper goes on to say, he noted with enthusiasm: "Now all Russian ministers smile." "I always did," Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov responded. "You did. But today, even your defence minister looked content," Saakashvili said. "For the first time, our defence ministries can become friends."

    KOMMERSANT

    Ivan Rybkin, a candidate for the Russian presidency, spoke live on Ekho Moskvy radio, Kommersant reports. Rybkin, who unexpectedly disappeared late last week and returned to Moscow from Kiev on Tuesday, told the story behind his mysterious disappearance. He said he "met politicians and businessmen" in Kiev, but having discovered that security services were searching for him, he felt "anxious" and decided to "lie low." Mr Rybkin, the newspaper maintains, has not yet decided if he will continue his presidential bid and has partly refused to take part in TV debates. His supporters say they have no clear idea of what really happened to their candidate.

    Rybkin suggested that someone had planned to abduct him and keep him hostage till March 14, so that the elections would be declared invalid in his absence: "I took part in the development of the first elections law, and I know that the elections would not have been legitimate without me." Rybkin must be unaware of the fact that the current law "On Presidential Elections" does not say that the elections are null and void if one candidate cannot be located.

    The presidential candidate emphasised, "if the Federal Security Service had really wanted to find me, they would have done so fast," Kommersant reports.

    NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA

    Kremlin Chief-of-Staff Dmitry Medvedev completed his unexpected two-day visit to Washington on Wednesday, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reads. There were no reports about any preparations for it.

    President George Bush received Medvedev in the White House, and the latter gave the American leader a letter from President Putin.

    Medvedev also met US Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and White House Chief-of-Staff Andrew Card.

    Moscow-Washington relations are going through a "cool" period, as experts put it, which is indirectly proved by Putin's letter to Bush. The Russian leader appealed to his US counterpart to "handle the accumulated positive experiences with care." Neither Putin's letter, nor Medvedev himself mentioned the term "strategic partnership" once. Russia's current co-operation with the US is referred to as simply "partnership." This could not pass unnoticed, despite the President's assurances that "any speculation about 'coolness' in current Russia-US relations is far from reality." The US, Nezavisimaya Gazeta goes on to say, is more and more concerned about Russia sliding into totalitarianism. Bush is being repeatedly reproached in Washington for having "lost" Russia "again." Moscow, in turn, is concerned about America's obvious efforts to encircle Russia with its military bases deployed along the CIS border. The two nations' co-operation now only covers the areas where common or close enough interests still remain. It has nothing to do with sharing common values or trust in each other, NG notes.

    VREMYA NOVOSTEI

    The International Monetary Fund believes that Russia should raise its energy products prices to world levels, as subsidising them distorts the real situation in the economy, Vremya Novostei writes. This view was expressed by William Allen, head of the IMF's fiscal affairs department. If the prices of energy products are below world levels, the economy is encouraged to use energy levels that do not correspond to industrial facilities' real needs, he said. The IMF recommends that these prices be brought up to world rates, he stressed.

    The IMF spokesman also pointed out that subsidising energy products prices would ultimately be a burden on the whole population. These subsidies, which nobody understands and which are paid from a state's budget, in the end become a burden for everyone, he said.

    GAZETA

    Russian members of parliament are going to make sentences for terrorist offences tougher, Gazeta writes. Today, the State Duma (lower house) is to debate the relevant amendments to the Criminal Code. It has been suggested that the current maximum prison term of 20 years for those found guilty of terrorist activities is to be replaced with a life term. Some State Duma deputies have even proposed restoring capital punishment; for instance, if a jury finds a defendant guilty. However, these proposals will most likely not be accepted. In general, experts believe that the ideas of introducing harsher forms of punishment are populist and will hardly have any effect on terrorists.

    "Increasing repression cannot make combating terrorism more effective," the well-known lawyer Genri Reznik told Gazeta. "There is a case and a semblance of a case, and sometimes semblance is more important."

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