US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has come to Moscow at the invitation of Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, is expected in the Kremlin today. Moscow officials say the agenda of his meeting with President Vladimir Putin is traditional: bilateral relations, Iraq and Iran. US officials say something different, which is why many people think that what the politicians say after their meeting will show how the Russia-US relationship will develop in 2004. This year will be critical for both countries, with presidential elections and the first steps made by their winners. Moreover, mutual harsh warnings have already been issued.
Yesterday, Mr Powell said at his press conference in Tibilisi (Georgia was the first point of Powell's tour), where he attended the inauguration of President Mikhail Saakashvili, that the USA still had questions concerning Russian military equipment delivered to Iraq before the US operation. The Secretary of State said his counterpart Igor Ivanov (who also attended the inauguration ceremony) provided answers to some of them but the discussion would be continued today.
Sources say that Mr Powell plans to discuss everything in Moscow, from North Korea to the recent State Duma elections, from Mikhail Khodorkovsky to Russia's military presence in Moldova and Georgia, from Iran to the freedom of speech. The visit will be clearly difficult, writes Izvestia.
The drawn-out conflict between Russia's Defence Ministry and General Staff is approaching its final stage, writes the newspaper. Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov actually stormed the "the brains of the army" at the annual conference of the Academy of Military Sciences. He said the General Staff views military conflicts of the future only through the prism of the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya (which is supervised by chief of the General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin). According to Ivanov, the thinking of the General Staff officers has become deadlocked at the tactical level. They have forgotten about the operational and strategic levels and the staffs are not ready for army and frontline operations.
Since the radical stage of the army reform is over and routine military development is underway, the minister said, each agency in the system of military command should take its place. The defence department is the supreme agency of military command and the general staff, as part of it, is responsible for strategic planning and troop control - in wartime. When he heard this, Anatoly Kvashin, who was sitting in the presidium, slowly turned and looked at the minister with open surprise.
Sergei Ivanov would not have made the conflict public without the sanction of the head of state, writes the newspaper. On the whole, taking into account the closeness of Mr Ivanov to the President, one can confidently presume the defeat and resignation of Kvashnin, most probably after the presidential elections.
The two-day congress of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) ended in the resignation of its five co-chairs, a split into the pro- and anti-presidential wings, and refusal to support Irina Khakamada in her fight for presidency. The SPS plans to forget about federal politics until the end of March and focus its efforts on regional elections. However, the split into right and centrist wings could bury not just the idea of renewal and strengthening of the party "form below," but also plans to form a broad democratic coalition.
Despite the SPS's attempts to create a democratic opposition in the regions, the congress showed that half of its regional branches are not eager to do this. Before the December 7 elections to the Duma, quite a few regional branches were against a union of SPS with Yabloko, while now many oppose the idea of creating a strong opposition to Vladimir Putin.
Since SPS co-chairman Anatoly Chubais does not plan to join the opposition and intends to keep his state post in RAO UES, the right will hardly create a new constructive opposition, concludes Kommersant.
"Am I a cow to walk around with a bell?" say anonymous members of the United Russia faction about the intention of the Duma procedural committee to put a microchip into the deputies' IDs in order to monitor their whereabouts. By autumn, movement around the Duma will be strictly regulated, with special card keys for moving from one floor to another. Visitors to the Duma will march around in groups along specified routes.
At first, the innovation will concern only the deputies. Oleg Kovalyov, chairman of the procedural committee, said information about a deputy's arrival to the Duma would be fed to the information system at the entrance. The computers will be placed at the security posts and in the admission office. On the one hand, information of their presence/absence will force deputies to act more responsibly, as some of them appeared in the previous Duma only once a year. On the other hand, this will slash the number of daily visitors, which sometimes is as many as 3,000. "Why issue a pass to somebody who wants to talk to his deputy, who is absent?" says Oleg Kovalyov
The issue of Russia-Belarus gas co-operation may be settled today or tomorrow, writes the newspaper. Experts believe that Minsk will soon stop bargaining with Gazprom because Belarus has advanced to the very edge of an energy crisis.
NG reminds its readers that independent gas suppliers Itera and TransNafta announced the termination of their deliveries to Belarus on the night of January 23/24. This means that the republic will have no fuel at all, since the two firms stepped in for Gazprom, which had cancelled its deliveries to Belarus in early January. The independent gas suppliers say Belarus has exhausted the limit of gas imports this month and is pumping gas without permission now. According to them, Belarus has received 1.366 billion cubic metres of gas, since the beginning of January, instead of the contractual 1.05 billion.
Minsk has made concessions to Gazprom by agreeing to cede 50% of the stake in the joint venture that is being created instead of Beltransgaz. But the cost of the stake has not been agreed upon yet. Gazprom is ready to buy it at balance cost (approximately $600 million), while Minsk wants $5 billion for it. Unless Belarus reviews its stand, Gazprom will only sell gas to it at market prices of $50 per 1,000 cubic metres.