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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Oct. 18, 2007

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More than a million Russians have applied to quiz Putin in a live question-and-answer session on Thursday that he holds annually to show he is in touch with the nation, the organizers said. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)

President Vladimir Putin today begins his live-air question and answer session with the Russian public, but must ensure that his answers do not contribute to the United Russia campaign. Questions about food prices are expected to dominate the annual session. The official website monitoring the session reports that the most popular query submitted ahead of the event is whether the price hikes signal the start of another financial crisis like the one that crippled Russia in 1998. 1,345,900 questions have been received by phone and by e-mail in the last four days. Russian inflation could exceed 10% by the end of the year as increasing food prices have made the government’s original target impossible to meet. A day after arriving in Russia for the first time in 15 years, Soviet dissident and presidential candidate Vladimir Bukovsky said that if elected, he would order the investigation of possible crimes committed by Soviet and Russian security agencies. “At 65, and in poor health, Mr. Bukovsky is the first to concede that he doesn’t stand a chance.” Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov said Wednesday that he would soon appoint a candidate to head a federal agency established last week to oversee the development of border-crossing infrastructure. He said the agency would “build and reconstruct facilities related to border protection” and called for all the agencies, including the FSB’s Border Service and the Federal Customs Service, to adopt measures to reduce bureaucracy at borders. The government has decided to introduce a seasonal raw cane sugar import tariff of $220 to $270 per ton for six months from Dec. 1. The order is designed to protect the country’s burgeoning domestic sugar beet industry from excessive raw sugar imports. EU trade chief Peter Mandelson says Russia must show a “real political willingness” in order to secure World Trade Organization membership. He also said the country must overhaul its economy to attract foreign investment and bolster trade to strengthen ties with the European Union. “Russia is not really capitalizing on the fact that it is so close to the huge European market. In part because it lacks the stimulus of greater trade, the Russian economy is underdiversified.” Putin has proposed a new way to help resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program during a meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Neither side will disclose any details, but Iran is reported to be studying it. Meanwhile US President George Bush has warned that an Iranian nuclear program could lead to “World War III”. Of the Russian President, Bush said, “The thing I’m interested in is whether or not [Putin] continues to harbor the same concerns that I do.” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is due to meet with Putin in Moscow this week to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme and the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Russia and India have signed an agreement to cooperate on the manufacture of an advanced fifth-generation fighter jet. Russia’s gas company Gazprom and Serbia have agreed, “in principle,” to build a joint gas pipeline project worth more than $800 million. “Serbia is dependant on the import of gas and oil, and certainly a partnership with of such a strength and magnitude of possibilities will mean that Serbia can become an energy centre and an important transit route in this part of Europe,” said Serbia’s energy and mining minister. American Airlines, the world’s largest airline, hopes to tap into Russia’s booming economy by initiating flights between Moscow and Chicago in June. “The Russian economy is booming, and many of our nation’s top 100 corporations are doing business there,” said a company spokesman. “So the time is right to begin serving Moscow.” German media giant Axel Springer has experienced a tumultuous three years since the rollout of its flagship publications, the Russian editions of Forbes and Newsweek, in 2004 – Forbes’ editor was murdered in a contract-style killing, and the company lost a lawsuit against a Russian businesswoman. Springer is now facing further troubles in planning an exit strategy. Eurasia Drilling Co. Ltd., the former oil-services unit of OAO Lukoil, is seeking to raise about $450 million by selling global depositary receipts to trade in London. Billionaires Petr Kellner and Oleg Deripaska are feuding over a capital increase at Russian insurer Ingosstrakh planned by Deripaska which would dilute the stake held by PPF Investments, Kellner’s private equity group. According to a new report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, company employees in Russia are now stealing more from their companies than they did two years ago, contributing to a quadrupled cost of $12.8 million per company — more than five times the global average. Russia has launched an inter-continental ballistic missile from its Plesetsk cosmodrome in northern Russia as part of a “reliability evaluation”. Russian prosecutors have charged nine people, including a senior officer in the country’s security service, in connection with the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. Lieutenant-Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov, of the Federal Security Service (FSB), had been charged with abuse of office, and was alleged to have passed details of Politkovskaya’s address to another suspect, who supposedly gave them to the killer.