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Russia: Putin Discusses NATO, Chechnya, And The EU At Kremlin Press Conference

Prague, 24 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin, hosting Russian and foreign journalists at a Kremlin press conference today, discussed topics ranging from NATO and European Union expansion to the international war on terrorism and Russia's continued campaign in the breakaway region of Chechnya. Putin, who held the first such Kremlin press conference a year ago, fielded a wide range of questions from journalists. Asked about the expansion of NATO, which is expected to bring the three Baltic states into its ranks during its Prague summit this autumn, Putin defended the right of individual countries to join but cast doubt on the strategic significance of the enlargement. "We don't think that the expansion of NATO improves anybody's security, either the security of those countries that want to join it or the security of the organization [NATO] itself," Putin said.

Putin, whose conference preceded his departure for this week's G-7 meeting of the seven largest industrialized countries plus Russia, also called for Russia to foster closer ties with the West. He also called for his country to gain swift acceptance to the World Trade Organization, saying it would be "dangerous and stupid" for Russia to remain outside.

The Russian president also addressed the country's ongoing campaign in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Despite past attempts by Russian officials to portray the war as an antiterrorism campaign, Putin said today that the vilification of Chechen civilians was an unfortunate outgrowth of the war and a problem that should be countered. "As far as the negative image of Chechens is concerned, the Chechen people are not to blame for anything. I think this is the fault of the federal center that the Chechen people were left to the mercy of fate at some point in time. Yes, unfortunately, this image exists. Our task is to destroy this image [of a Chechen] as an enemy, [as] a terrorist," Putin said.

Putin also discussed the planned expansion of the European Union in 2004. Together with NATO enlargement, the EU move will bring the West literally to Russia's border, by including Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.

Putin said he welcomes developing relations between Russia and the EU. But he stood firm in his criticism of the union for refusing to permit visa-free travel in Russia's Kaliningrad exclave, which will be completely surrounded by the EU once Poland and Lithuania become EU members. "We will certainly never agree to decisions that, by their very nature, would split Russia's sovereign territory. And introducing special conditions of some kind for Kaliningrad would undoubtedly have that effect," Putin said.

Putin said the EU position amounted to a violation of human rights and said he remained hopeful a more accommodating solution could be found.