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    WHAT THE RUSSIAN PAPERS SAY

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    MOSCOW, April 9. (RIA Novosti)

    IZVESTIA

    The possibility of NATO's further expansion was not mentioned at NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's Moscow talks, Izvestia points out. It is, however, evident, that despite what the organisation's officials say publicly, a new wave of expansion is at least being discussed. NATO and EU leaders recently discussed with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in Brussels his country's individual partnership with NATO and the outlook for its integration into the EU. The other day Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan said that, as a NATO member, his country would assist Ukraine in its efforts to become a full-fledged member of the alliance.

    Internal work is already underway, the newspaper goes on. Although no timeframe has been mentioned, the preliminary list of those queuing up to join NATO is already being formed. Apart from the "obvious" Croatia, Albania and Macedonia, it is easy to guess that some CIS countries are also on the list, first of all, Ukraine and Georgia. Some experts name Azerbaijan, Moldova and Armenia as well.

    During his meeting with Scheffer on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed Russia's position hat the country was interested in a strategic partnership with NATO. Putin recalled that the bloc's expansion was not viewed in any single way in Russia: although every country has the right to choose a way to ensure its security, "life has shown that the mechanical expansion of the alliance does not allow the threats we face to be effectively countered," Izvestia writes. The President said he hoped, "the alliance's expansion will contribute to strengthening trust in Europe and in the world".

    KOMMERSANT

    Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov has visited the headquarters of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which unites big business. The premier came to meet and at the same time to call on the Union's members to think first of the state and then of their business, Kommersant points out.

    Fradkov's speech, as he emphasised, was divided into two equally long and important parts, the "general" and "specific". The first part was devoted to how business should behave in the new conditions. According to Fradkov, the Union's current tasks were as follows, "If business is integrated in the general system, it should be responsible for its actions".

    The general system includes the triangle: the authorities - society - business, the newspaper explains. To be integrated and responsible means making economic and social commitments. This implies that oligarchs should finally stop asking the authorities for privileges for themselves and their industries, Kommersant writes. They can only agree with each other about how to support the state in its bid to double the country's GDP and diminish its oil dependence, and then ask about an improvement in the general business climate. "Everyone must do his best to accelerate economic growth!" is the latest slogan the Russian authorities have given Russian business, the newspaper concludes.

    VREMYA NOVOSTEI

    For the first time in Russia's modern history, a reform does not only have the launch date but also the completion date, VN reports. The latter will be 2005 for the tax reform.

    To complete the reform on a bright note, i.e. achieve the long-awaited transparency of wages, the government is ready to accelerate its work. In an effort to avoid placing the burden of the single social tax cut on the population, a new mechanism will be introduced in the country in summer 2004 for collecting some oil sector revenues. This was announced at the latest session of the government, which was devoted to the tax package.

    VN reports that the oil sector will be attacked on two fronts: the tax on mineral resources extraction will be raised along with export duties. The finance ministry will co-ordinate the latter with the industry ministry in the next two months. However, it is clear that given oil prices stand at $25 per barrel, exporters will have to pay 65% in customs duties to the government. According to the finance ministry, $1.5 billion can thus be painlessly taken from the oil sector, given oil prices stand at $24 per barrel, and $2.5 billion, with oil prices at $27 per barrel. This money should cover the budget risks when the single social tax is reduced, VN reports.

    NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA

    When commenting on the Iraq situation, many observers believe that if the conflict develops into armed clashes between the Sunnites and Shiites, Iran, the largest country of the region, will definitely get involved in. According to the newspaper, the Russian foreign ministry recommends Russian citizens to refrain from making trips to Iraq. "Like many other countries, Russia cannot help worrying about Iraq turning into a bridgehead of terrorism. This is taking place not too far from our borders and represents a serious threat for us," said Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedorov. He also noted that Moscow was ready to contribute to multi-lateral stabilisation efforts. According to Mr Fedorov, after June 30 the Iraqis should hold power in their hands in practice, and not in words. Moreover, "the essence of the Iraqi settlement strategy" should be reviewed, NG reports.

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