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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Oct. 15, 2007

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin review the honour guards at the Kurhaus resort garden in Wiesbaden, Germany, Monday, Oct. 15, 2007. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

At least four regional figures from the A Just Russia party have defected to United Russia in recent months in what analysts describe as “a further consolidation of power by the country’s dominant pro-Kremlin party.” A survey released by the VTsIOM polling center found that only 3% of respondents were planning to vote for A Just Russia, while 54% favored United Russia. Voters could lose much of their say in the country’s affairs under a bill backed by pro-Kremlin party United Russia that would “drastically reduce the range of issues eligible for a national referendum.” President Vladimir Putin has criticized the Agriculture Ministry for “clearly not doing its job” in the crisis situation of rising food prices, and the government will consider cutting import taxes on dairy products to 5% for a period of six months to battle inflation. Putin is due to be the first Russian leader to visit Iran since Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin went there in 1943, but it has emerged that several groups of terrorists are planning assassination attempts against him during his planned visit this week. The media reports about these attempts have been denounced as “totally groundless” by Iran’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, and “could be viewed as a part of the psychological war fought by Iranian enemies to cloud relations between Iran and Russia.” Despite reports to the contrary, it is not certain yet whether the trip will go ahead. “We don’t have information on whether he is going or not,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said by telephone from Tehran. “The visit is not yet confirmed.” A weekend visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates failed to resolve tensions between Washington and Moscow. At a joint news conference for the participants afterward, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that if the United States does not freeze its missile defense plans while the issue is still under discussion, Russia would “take measures to neutralize that threat.” Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said US plans contained “a strong anti-Russian component.” Rice also commented that government under President Putin may undermine Moscow’s commitment to democracy. “In any country, if you don’t have countervailing institutions, the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development.” She has also shown her support for Russian human rights activists in Moscow. Gates said Russian and American officials “agreed to disagree” over their respective arms sales to other countries, but Rice was less neutral. “I think the rapid growth in Russian military spending definitely bears watching,” she said. Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov Rice on Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, calling for the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Soviet-era piece of legislation that has been a key obstacle to the country’s WTO accession, but Poland has just warned that it would block Russia’s entrance to the WTO if Moscow did not cancel an embargo on exports of Polish meat and produce. Chancellor Angela Merkel has stressed that Germany and Russia are “bound together by a strategic partnership,” ahead of talks with Putin, who believes that the countries are “united by their desire to solve these issues jointly.” Big business discourages criticism of Russian politics because “criticism is bad for business.” And indeed, despite relatively unproductive meetings between France and Russia last week, the future GDF Suez group, which plans to merge in early 2008, has not ruled out investing in Russia. Norilsk Nickel’s board of directors remained intact Friday after Mikhail Prokhorov, dropped his earlier demands for its re-election amid reports that he is ready to sell his 25% stake. State utility Unified Energy System has said that the planned sell-off of OGK-6 had been delayed. Only weeks before, OGK-2’s share sale raised almost $0.5 billion less than expected, after state-controlled Gazprom bought in at the lower end of the price range to keep control. Some argue that the problem is not due to toughening market conditions but the role of Gazprom. “The secondary placement [of OGK-6] will not attract any other strategic buyer except Gazprom,” said one analyst. “[Gazprom] is a major problem for attracting any other bidders.” OAO Gazprom Neft, the company’s oil arm, has raised its stake in a Russian joint venture with Chevron Corp. to 75%. The company will start a three-day roadshow for a benchmark euro-denominated bond. Russia’s automobile giant AvtoVAZ and FIAT Consortium will seal a strategic partnership memorandum. Russian Air Force spokesman: “Russian strategic bombers Tu-160, Tu-95 and Tu-22M3, and Il-78 aerial tankers will conduct flights over the Arctic region, the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, and the Black Sea, with simulated bombing raids and firing of cruise missiles at testing grounds in northern and southern Russia.”