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Russia: Putin Shows Stamina In Marathon News Conference

Prague, 20 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a marathon news conference today in Moscow, answered journalists' questions on a wide variety of domestic and foreign affairs issues.

Putin spoke to the 700 assembled journalists for nearly three hours, answering 48 questions at length and in detail, quoting statistics liberally on everything from the number of potatoes grown in Russia to tax revenue breakdowns per region.

On foreign policy, Putin touched on the topic of Iran, saying he had received fresh assurances from Tehran that Iran was not developing nuclear weapons.

"Two days ago I spoke to [Iranian] President [Mohammad] Khatami, on his own initiative, and he once again confirmed that Iran had no plans to develop nuclear weapons," Putin said. "Furthermore, according to our information, Iran's leadership is ready to join fully all protocols and requirements of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] regarding its nuclear programs."

Putin said Moscow's policy on the Middle East remains aligned with Washington's. Both Russia and the United States, he said, want to see the Israelis and Palestinians fulfill the provisions of the "road map."

"On the fundamental questions of the [Middle East] peace process, our position coincides with that of the United States. Together we drafted the well-known, so-called 'road map.' And we want to see it fulfilled, by both the Israeli and Palestinian sides."

But Putin did acknowledge a difference of opinion on some issues, including the role of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who has been sidelined by Washington.

"One cannot avoid taking into account the role and importance of Chairman Arafat in the peace process. He is an influential man and many people in the region look to him. It seems to me that not to take this factor into account would be a mistake."

The Russian president also addressed the issue of strained ties with Turkmenistan, which recently abolished a dual-citizenship agreement with Russia. Putin said the country's leader, President Saparmurat Niyazov, had telephoned him yesterday to offer his assurances that Ashgabat would take no steps to harm the interests of Russian citizens living in the country.

Asked what steps Georgia -- which has also seen its relations with Moscow suffer -- could take to improve bilateral ties, Putin had this to say: "The answer is very simple and absolutely acceptable to our Georgian partners: make attacks from Georgian territory on neighboring Russian territory stop. That's it. We don't need anything more. Stop the activities of destructive elements, of terrorist groups which are still present, unfortunately, in Georgia's regions bordering Russian territory, in the Pankisi Gorge and near it."

Putin said Russia stood ready to provide any type of assistance Georgia might need to meet this goal.

"We are ready to help. Tell us how. We are not imposing instruments for resolving this question. We are ready [to help] in any way. If you want financial help, we will help. If you want administrative help, we will help. If you want our military-information help, if you want, we will work together on the border. If you want, our special forces, the GRU [military intelligence agency] of the Ministry of Defense and the FSB [federal security service] will take direct part in joint operations -- we are ready for this."

Moving to economic issues, Putin said he believed his goal of having Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) double over the next 10 years was achievable, although this would necessitate annual growth rates of over 7 percent. He also said the performance of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's government -- which survived a vote of no-confidence in parliament earlier this week -- had been "satisfactory."

Putin said Russians were reversing a trend of earlier years and repatriating funds they had sent abroad in the early 1990s so they could invest them at home -- a key indicator of an improving domestic economy: "After the Federal Republic of Germany -- I may be mistaken, but not too much -- the second country, in terms of investments in Russia, is Cyprus, strange as it may seem. I assure you, this is the return of Russian capital that was taken out of the country at an earlier date."

Nevertheless, the Russian president acknowledged that much remains to be done to eradicate poverty in Russia and improving living conditions. Putin said one-third of the housing stock across the country is in serious disrepair.

"Housing and communal services are in a lamentable state. There has been a very large funding gap -- that's the first reason. The second reason for the situation is the absence of market mechanisms to regulate this sector. The solutions must be in these areas. The sector has to be properly financed and the structure of this sector must be changed accordingly."

Putin was repeatedly asked whether he intended to run for a second term as president next year, but he refused to be drawn out, saying he had not decided and faced other, more immediate priorities.