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    WHAT THE RUSSIAN PAPERS SAY

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    January 21

    IZVESTIA

    The World Economic Forum is opening in Davos today. Yesterday, The Financial Times published an article by Dmitry Medvedev, chief of Kremlin staff, entitled Russia Will Not Turn Back From Reform. Izvestia writes that this was actually Mr Medvedev's debut as a public figure. The main thesis of the article is that the United Russia party, which makes the conservative-centrist majority in Parliament, is the most capable of carrying out liberal reforms (the term "liberalism" is used several times in the article).

    The article was very well timed, writes the paper. Indeed, on Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin met World Bank President James Wolfensohn. Among other things, they discussed the intensification of contacts between Russia and the WB "in light of Russia's G8 chairmanship in 2006." Moreover, Russia has written off the poorest nations' debts and is bidding for participation in Iraq's reconstruction, i.e. it is trying hard to be an equal G8 member.

    Until yesterday, Mr Medvedev had avoided making forecasts and general assessments about Russia's political course, notes Izvestia. However, in yesterday's article he described it as a "conservative-centrist programme." The main provisions of the programme are the modernisation of industries, the promotion of competition and new jobs. It also comprises anti-poverty measures.

    Moreover, Mr Medvedev addressed the West's chief concerns regarding Russia. Russia will not turn back from reforms and authoritarian rule will not be reinstated, he assured FT readers. The main outcome of Russia's recent parliamentary elections is "the legitimisation" of political stability, according to Mr Medvedev.

    KOMMERSANT

    Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Alyoshin has held a meeting with the commission for administrative reform, which he chairs. The first phase of the reform, which is designed to identify and eliminate unnecessary functions of government bodies, will be completed on schedule, on April 1, Mr Alyoshin said after the meeting.

    Kommersant writes that the commission will also be subject to reform.

    Indeed, the Kremlin thinks the commission is in a deadlock, as it has failed to avoid the usual red tape. It is still unable to cut back on any function without agreeing the measure with the ministry in question, which drags the process out. Moreover, the vice-premier was accused of wrongfully dividing the reform into phases.

    In the first phase, reformers should have drafted a package of the relevant bills, and possibly had them approved by the State Duma (the lower chamber of parliament), and not merely divided functions and bodies into necessary and unnecessary, according to the Kremlin. This job will, by no means, be completed by April 1, which means that the reform could be thwarted.

    The second phase of the reform should provide President Putin with a new structure for the cabinet.

    The commission itself may undergo reform as a result, the paper concludes.

    NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA

    No more than two to three presidential candidates, apart from the incumbent president, are able to collect 2 million signatures in their support, the paper quotes Alexander Veshnyakov, Central Election Commission (CEC) chief, as saying. This means that precisely half of the candidates on the CEC's provisional list, including two party candidates, will join the race for the presidency, according to Mr Veshnyakov, the best informed man in this respect.

    The CEC chief had on many previous occasions predicted that no more than 5 people would be included on the list of registered candidates for the presidency, explaining it by the time-consuming procedure of collecting 2 million signatures.

    Reports from the headquarters of the presidential hopefuls, who wish to pass the barrier, resemble wartime situation reports. The candidates have engaged all their active supporters and proponents in the effort.

    Clear outsiders will emerge no earlier than January 28, the deadline for filing the lists in the candidates' support. So why is Mr Veshnyakov so pessimistic about the number of final entries? The forecasts of such an authority as Mr Veshnyakov is a striking example of pressure on voters and candidates struggling to secure the required amount of signatures, suggests the newspaper. Indeed, such gloomy forecasts could make many give up, the paper concludes.

    GAZETA

    Two senior law enforcement officials have recently made statements about a real threat posed to Russia by terrorism, Gazeta says. "A number of recent terrorist attacks have seriously undermined public security and law and order in this country; the terrorist threat is therefore critical," reported Colonel Yury Demidov, deputy head of the Main Department for Organised Crime and head of the police anti-terrorist centre "T".

    Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov noted, in turn, that, considering the current percentage of such crimes solved (30 to 35% at best), both Moscow, and North Caucasus will remain "unfavourable" regions in this respect for some time.

    The number of terrorist attacks perpetrated in Russia grows with every year. In 2001, 339 such offences were registered, in 2002, 407, and in 2003, as many as 561.

    "If the social and economic situation in this country does not improve soon, terrorism will continue to grow," Kolesnikov says. "In these conditions, a certain part of society could well choose it as an acceptable permanent occupation. The leaders of such groups will come to regard terrorism as a type of business, while for their 'employees,' it will often be the only source of income."

    TRUD

    It has been a while since we last heard of prices going down. On New Year's Eve, having announced the cancellation of the 5% sales tax, the Government cautiously hinted that the measure would entail a reduction in retail prices. Moreover, certain economists hastened to calculate that it would replenish Russians' family budgets by 1,000 roubles a year (1?=35Rbs.) So what really did happen in the first twenty days of 2004?

    Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Trud goes on to say, referred to the sales tax cancellation as an error, and urged the Government to inspect trading businesses that advocated that measure too fervently. Prices have not come down, in fact; if anything, they have gone up. "I am officially reporting that the presumably respectable companies which advocated the sales tax cancellation, lied to the President, while the Finance Ministry believed their lies in order to implement some dubious models of economic reform," Luzhkov said at a Moscow government session. The city budget thus lost around 22 billion rubles, which was to be spent on social programmes.

    "The cancellation of the 5% sales tax has led to price hikes in Moscow," the mayor emphasised.

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