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    WHAT THE RUSSIAN PAPERS SAY

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    January 23

    NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA

    President Vladimir Putin embarks on a routine visit to Kiev today to close a series of cultural and other events entitled Russia's Year in Ukraine. Moreover, he will hold a face-to-face meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kuchma, to discuss many issues on the Russian-Ukrainian agenda. Co-operation in the energy sector is one of these issues. The presidents will discuss the establishment of a joint gas-transport consortium. The effort to open the consortium has somewhat slowed down lately.

    The joint use of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait is yet another important problem on the bilateral agenda. The two countries are yet to demarcate the marine border in the Azov Sea, which is part of the problem. Besides these issues, the two leaders may touch on the political reform that is about to be launched in Ukraine.

    Relations between Ukraine and the West have deteriorated recently, writes Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The Council of Europe is expected to hear a report on the political crisis in Ukraine to be delivered by a PACE delegation next week. The report may prompt the Council to impose sanctions against President Kuchma's regime.

    If the Ukrainian leader comes to terms with the opposition forces and the Western community, therefore, abandons its demands, Ukraine may again reorient towards the West, which has been the case on many occasions. However, this may thwart the implementation by Ukraine of the agreements the presidents are expected to reach at their meeting in Kiev, concludes the paper.

    IZVESTIA

    Boris Gryzlov, Speaker of the State Duma (the lower house of Parliament), has said that United Russia, the majority party in the Duma, is ready to take part in forming the cabinet. The idea to form the cabinet from majority party members is being discussed by the political elite again. Moreover, the ruling party members openly say in informal conversations that they have chosen candidates to replace the current ministers, emphasising that the cabinet will be made up of United Russia members.

    The party leaders do not worry about the law prohibiting senior officials joining political parties. United Russia members will suspend their party membership or amend the law if need be.

    Many Kremlin officials describe even the present cabinet as the "cabinet of the parliamentary majority" and Mikhail Kasyanov as a disciplined premier who pays heed to the President's wishes, but understands that the current Duma differs a great deal from the previous one.

    The ruling party leaders are not elaborating on what exactly they do not like about the present cabinet, writes Izvestia. "This falls perfectly into line with the logic of the parliamentary election campaign and with the President's rhetoric. We took part in the elections meaning to make a basis for a new Cabinet that will appear after the presidential elections," Duma Vice Speaker Oleg Morozov said in an interview with the newspaper.

    GAZETA

    The Union of Right Forces (SPS) will gather on Saturday for its first congress after the December 7 parliamentary elections. The delegates, writes Gazeta, will decide on whom to back in the presidential elections - Irina Khakamada, Vladimir Putin or no one. According to Gazeta's information, the Kremlin is sure that Irina Khakamada is financed by Boris Berezovsky. This is why supporting her candidacy will mean a direct conflict between SPS and the authorities. If the congress backs Putin, then Khakamada and Nemtsov may just withdraw from the party together with their supporters.

    In order to avoid a split, the congress will most probably adopt a decision on a free vote for party members in the elections. This will mean that the party does not have a clear position in the presidential elections, as was the case in the parliamentary elections, writes Gazeta.

    VEDOMOSTI

    Combating cartels, price collusion and other forms of suppressing competition will be conducted according to new rules in Russia soon, writes Vedomosti. A special supervisory body will be created instead of the anti-trust ministry. It will focus on combating major lawbreakers, for whom punishment will become more severe.

    The anti-monopoly body will not have the status of a ministry, a member of the commission chaired by vice-premier Boris Aleshin, who is in charge of eliminating departments' redundant and duplicating functions, explained to Vedomosti. The anti-monopoly department will most probably receive the status of a federal supervisory body. It will deal with anti-monopoly regulation, protection of consumers' rights, policy on the advertising market and exchange trade, and end unfair competition.

    KOMMERSANT

    All legal supplies of Russian natural gas to Belarus will be stopped tonight, writes Kommersant. Starting from midnight, consumers and first of all, the energy systems of this country will have to illegally pump the fuel out of the transit pipelines going from Russia to Europe in order to avoid a global disaster. The last time such measures were taken with regard to Lithuania and Estonia in 1991 in reply to their decision to withdraw from the USSR.

    At present, the gas blockade may be lifted only at the political level, writes Kommersant. It is an open secret that it is being imposed because Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko did not keep his promise to Vladimir Putin concerning making a transition in Russian-Belarussian economic relations to market principles. The stumbling block is prices for Russian natural gas supplied to Belarus.

    Obviously, "the gas war" which is to break out tonight will end only at talks between the two heads of state at which apart from gas, many other issues will be discussed, notes Kommersant.

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