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    WHAT THE RUSSIAN PAPERS SAY

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    February 3

    IZVESTIA

    The Central Election Commission (CEC) has registered Vladimir Putin as a presidential candidate. He became the third registered candidate after Oleg Malyshkin (LDPR) and Nikolai Kharitonov (KPRF), who were nominated by their parties and hence did not have to collect signatures in their support. The complete list of presidential candidates will be made public at the end of this week.

    Would Putin come personally to fetch his candidate's certificate or not? It was the most intriguing part of the CEC session. The situation at the CEC building clearly showed that Putin would not turn up, as visits by a head of state presuppose specific security measures. In all, 2,499,937 signatures were collected in support of Putin's nomination. The CEC inspected 600,000 and concluded that only 1.16% (6,971) were invalid.

    This Friday the CEC will discuss the registration of Sergei Mironov and take a decision on the other candidates - Irina Khakamada, Sergei Glazyev and Ivan Rybkin - at the weekend.

    KOMMERSANT

    Vladimir Putin held a conference with cabinet members to discuss bread prices. Grain prices have been growing at an alarming speed - up to 17% a month - since late last year. Vice-Premier Alexei Gordeyev, who is responsible for bread issues, promised the President to fight speculators by selling grain at dumping prices and introducing state regulation of bread prices.

    Putin was not at all cordial: "Do you know how much bread prices rose in some regions? They doubled!" he chided cabinet members. "You should react promptly to what is happening on the grain market."

    According to the Agriculture Ministry, prices of third-grade wheat have grown from 4,000 roubles per tonne in November 2003 (28 roubles are approximately 1 dollar) to 6,000 in January 2004. Anton Malinkin, head of the grain department in the Rusagro state company, says grain prices grow by an average of 100-200 roubles a week. Such growth in grain prices, far ahead of inflation, looks like a challenge to Vladimir Putin, who has been registered as a presidential candidate, Kommersant says.

    VEDOMOSTI

    The first deputy chairman of the Central Bank of Russia, Oleg Vyugin, has surprised economists by forecasting an end to the growth of gold and currency reserves in February and March. Many experts believe that oil prices make the growth of the reserves inevitable, though not as rapid as it was in December and January.

    Last year Russia's gold and currency reserves grew from $29.1 billion (60.9%) to $76.9 billion, rising by $8.7 billion (12.8%) in December. From January 1 to 23, 2004, they grew by $5.8 billion (7.5%) to $82.7 billion, says the Central Bank.

    According to Vyugin, the main "providers" of hard currency in the past few months were foreign investors but this period will end very soon. He expects that the inflow of hard currency will slow down and the growth of reserves will stop soon.

    But the market no longer heeds the forecasts of the Central Bank, which amended them throughout the past year. Its "optimistic" scenario of the monetary and credit policy predicted an increase of the reserves to $55 billion, but Vyugin raised the ceiling to $60 billion in March and to $67 billion in August. As a result, the reserves exceeded the ceiling by $10.

    GAZETA

    The programme of improving catering in state schools cannot fulfil the main task of ensuring wholesome meals for all Russian children, said Gennady Onishchenko, chief sanitary doctor of Russia. Most children are undernourished and schools cannot ensure even the minimum food norms stipulated by the Health Ministry.

    "This is catastrophe for children," said Onishchenko. As a result of this, only 10% of school graduates are 100% healthy. As for the rest, health problems prevent them from absorbing even moderate amounts of knowledge.

    According to Onishchenko, annual per capita meat consumption in Russia has dropped from 75 kg to 46 kg in the past ten years and way down to 17.5 kg in the poorest families. "This may be healthy for adults, many of whom are overweight, but it is catastrophe for children," said Onishchenko. This is why a growing number of children in Russia are underweight and underdeveloped both physically and mentally.

    "We used to have accelerated growth in the past, but today children do not eat enough," said the physician. The only way out in this situation is to ensure wholesome meals at school.

    NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA

    "The Ukrainian President fears being deposed in a scheme devised by pro-Western forces," writes the newspaper in the article titled "Kuchma Expresses Fear for His Political Life." Leonid Kuchma has launched his first open confrontation with the West, which he accused of provoking a number of major political scandals concerning the president, as well as of an attempt to install their man in Ukraine.

    Leonid Kuchma said during the Epicentre show on the central Ukrainian television: "Somebody - in this country or in the West - probably decided that I have held the post of president for too long and that they have a replacement for me... Or maybe they think I do not uphold their interests energetically enough."

    It is interesting that the Ukrainian leader's statement was made immediately after the World Congress of Ukrainians, a highly influential organisation of the Ukrainian diaspora, called on Kuchma last weekend to fire his chief of the presidential staff Viktor Medvedchuk, who is seen as the power behind the presidential throne.

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