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    WHAT THE RUSSIAN PAPERS SAY

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    February 20

    KOMMERSANT

    Russia's gas blockade of Belarus lasted less than a day but has greatly worsened interstate relations. Protesting against the termination of gas transit and deliveries to Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko recalled his ambassador and accused the Kremlin of "top-level terrorism" on Thursday. Moscow immediately denounced the statement as provocative and actually blamed Lukashenko for the aggravation of relations with Russia, thus hinting that he no longer suits Moscow as the leader of the Union State.

    Never before has Lukashenko allowed himself to hurl such harsh accusations at Moscow and Vladimir Putin. It looks as if the Belarussian president is deliberately aggravating the conflict with the Kremlin, hoping to use it to strengthen his standing at home. He has openly said that it is not his allegedly authoritarian regime but Moscow's treacherous plans that are to blame for the people's problems.

    Moscow understands Lukashenko's intention very well. Its open criticism of the Belarussian regime shows that Russia's attitude to the Belarussian president, which had never been perfect, has deteriorated so much that even the solution of the gas conflict will not improve it. Moscow seems to have decided to drop Alexander Lukashenko, with evident consequences.

    VREMYA NOVOSTEI

    Viktor Yushchenko, head of the opposition national-democratic block Our Ukraine and a serious rival of the party of power's candidate at the 2004 presidential elections, granted an interview to this newspaper.

    Q: To all appearances, Russia will support the candidate of the party of power. How seriously could this affect the outcome of the elections?

    A: I would not overestimate the role of Russia or any other country in the Ukrainian elections. Russia has its own election distance to run. The head of state will be elected by the people and it will be a Russian and not Ukrainian or American choice. As a citizen and politician, I feel humiliated by speculation about who will decide the outcome of the Ukrainian relations - Moscow, Brussels, Warsaw, Washington or Berlin. Rumours of Russian support for any of the candidates are not substantiated. I think the Russian leadership is wise enough [not to do this] and Russia as a good neighbour will take a reasonable stand. The best partners for Russia in Ukraine are the forces that have the experience of democratic elections.

    IZVESTIA

    "The laws approved by the State Duma (lower parliamentary house) should work to the benefit of society rather than lobby the interests of narrow groups," Boris Gryzlov said in his first interview as Duma speaker and United Russia faction leader to Izvestia. When asked which laws will become the priority now, Gryzlov answered, "Those that will help us to seriously improve the living standards of Russian people. They will cover all areas of life, but economic growth is our priority now. A stable and strong economy will pull along all other social spheres. We should reform the tax, financial and land legislation. In our opinion, we should reduce the interference of the state in the economy. Excessive interference not only hinders economic development but also provokes corruption among state officials."

    VEDOMOSTI

    Foreign investors are more willingly bringing money to Russia. According to the State Statistics Committee, last year foreign investments reached $14 bln and direct investments went up 69.4%. Analysts explain this growth by high oil prices and low interest rates on foreign markets.

    GAZETA

    Russia's law enforcers confiscate only 7-10 kg of drugs per 100 kg, writes the newspaper citing experts. Officially, 365,000 drug addicts were registered in Russia in 2003 but experts think the real figure is seven times more - around 2,555,000.

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