A man watches President Putin during today's live press conference (epa)
Russian President Vladimir Putin today held a wide-ranging press conference at the Kremlin before more than 1,000 reporters. He fielded questions on Central Asia, Chechnya, Belarus, Ukraine and a number of international issues, including Iran's nuclear dispute with the West and Hamas's recent victory in the Palestinian legislative elections.
Prague, 31 January 2006 -- Originally scheduled to end after 90 minutes, Putin's annual press conference lasted more than three hours.
The Russian president touched upon a wide range of issues, including such controversial ones as his support the Uzbek government after last year's military crackdown in the eastern city of Andijon.
Putin justified Uzbek President Islam Karimov's heavy-handed policy, saying it helped avert further trouble in Central Asia. However, his comments contained a thinly veiled warning to the Uzbek leadership.
Putin cautioned against the risk of revolution in Uzbekistan, noting that the Central Asian country is experiencing "a great number of problems."
Asked by an American reporter whether he believed his ties with Karimov were compatible with the democratic values he says Russia adheres to, Putin answered: "We don't need a second Afghanistan in Central Asia and we will act very carefully there. We don't need a revolution [in Central Asia], what we need is evolution that would help consolidate the values you just mentioned, while averting outbursts such as the one we witnessed in Andijon."
Karimov's government says 187 people, including many security officers, died in the Andijon unrest, which it blames on Islamic militants. Rights campaigners both in Uzbekistan and abroad, in turn, claim government troops killed up to 1,000 civilians.
Among other controversial issues foreign reporters confronted the Russian president with is his close relationship with his Belarusian counterpart. Putin said that his ties with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka were subordinated to a 1996 decision to create a union state between Russia and Belarus.
"To say that we support such or such political leader at any costs is absolutely wrong," Putin said. "We're conducting a balanced policy that is oriented toward developing relations with a state, in the present case with the Belarusian state. For centuries there has existed a particular relationship between Russia and Belarus and you couldn't possibly compare this relationship with the relations that exist between Belarus and France, or any other Western country."
Among the greatest political achievements of 2005, Putin listed the 27 November legislative polls in Chechnya that led to the restoration of a bicameral parliament dominated by pro-Kremlin lawmakers.
"[As a political achievement] I would of course mention the final formation of the governing bodies of the Chechen Republic," Putin said. "With the election of [Chechnya's] parliament this process has been completed. The Chechen Republic has now been completely returned to the constitutional field of the Russian Federation."
While saying he believed the war in Chechnya was nearly over, Putin expressed concern over recent developments in other North Caucasus republics.
"Today, the situation in some other regions of the North Caucasus worries us even more than that in Chechnya," Putin said.
Putin made no specific reference to any republic of the North Caucasus. He did not mention last October's militant raids on Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. However, Putin said priority would be given to the economic development of the region in the coming months.
Iranian Nuclear Crisis
On international issues, Putin reiterated a proposal to host internationally monitored nuclear fuel-cycle centers that would be open to all countries wishing to develop peaceful atomic energy.
As during a 25 January regional forum in St. Petersburg, the Russian president said such centers would be a major contribution to joint international efforts against nuclear proliferation.
"We're proposing to set up a network of nuclear fuel-cycle centers to enrich uranium and ensure that all countries that will be interested in taking part to these joint efforts to develop nuclear energy will have equal access [to these centers], that there will be no discrimination," Putin said. "That goes also for our Iranian partners."
Russia has offered to enrich Iranian uranium on its soil in a bid to defuse a growing dispute between Tehran and the international community. Iran has said it is interested in the Russian offer, which it also discussed with China.
Putin also touched upon the situation in the Middle East following the victory of Hamas in last week's parliamentary elections.
While noting that Russia never declared Hamas a terrorist organization, the Russian president said that does not mean that Moscow unconditionally supports the group.
"[Hamas] must refrain from radical statements, recognize Israel's right to exist, and establish contacts with the international community," Putin said. "We're calling upon Hamas to consistently work in that direction."
While describing Hamas' victory as a "great blow" to the United States' Middle East policy, Putin urged the world community to not cut off aid to the Palestinians now. He said a refusal to help the Palestinian people would be "mistaken."
World Trade Organization Accession
Putin also criticized unspecified American politicians for holding up Russia's membership bid into the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Saying that all Moscow's partners were supporting its WTO ambitions, Putin criticized those who, in the United States, are "holding Russia back" and urging its expulsion from the Group of Eight leading industrial nations.
"In essence, the U.S. financial community agrees with us. On a professional level, everything is clear to everyone," Putin said. "It is on the political level that we need make specific steps toward each other. I hope these steps will be made. In any case, I know the position of U.S. President [George W. Bush], he supports Russia's entry into the WTO."
However, Putin said Russia would enter the international organization only if it were required to fulfill admission criteria similar to that of other applicants.
With regard to the controversy surrounding his country's assumption of the G-8 chairmanship, Putin said he believed Russia has its place in the industrial grouping. As for critics, the Russian president disdainfully dismissed their arguments, saying: "Dogs bark, but the caravan rolls on."