Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for Russia's quick acceptance into the World Trade Organization. His appeal came during a rare presidential news conference, which lasted over two hours and covered a wide range of issues.
President Putin said Russia is the only major world economy that is not a member of the World Trade Organization, which promotes international trade and economic development by reducing tariffs.
Mr. Putin said it would be "dangerous and foolish" for Russia to remain outside the organization, adding that most Russian businesses support WTO membership.
Gaining Russia's entry into the WTO has been a top priority for Mr. Putin, and it's an issue he is expected to push again when he meets with the leaders of the world's most powerful industrial countries at the G-8 Summit in Canada this week.
Mr. Putin said his government's main aim is to improve the standard of living in Russia. He said a market economy and strong trade ties are vital to achieve that goal.
We need foreign markets, we need improved trust and confidence, the president said. He said that while Russia used to be the enemy of most of the world's industrialized nations, it now must become an equal and full-fledged partner.
Mr. Putin also stressed the need for close ties with European nations and he welcomed a growing European Union as a major trading partner. But he also chided the EU for saying it will require visas for Russians traveling overland to and from Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea that is surrounded by Poland and Lithuania. Poland and Lithuania hope to join the EU by 2004, and the visa requirements could go into effect then.
Mr. Putin said the EU position amounts to a violation of human rights. It's hard to imagine, he said, that a person from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Smolenks or Yakutsk cannot attend the funeral of a family member in Kaliningrad or come to a wedding without going to a foreign consulate to obtain a visa. It's absolutely unacceptable.
EU authorities insist that free access to Poland and Lithuania by Russians traveling to and from the Kaliningrad would provide a backdoor for illegal immigration into EU territory.
This was only the second time since he became president that Mr. Putin has held such a long and wide-ranging news conference. It lasted more than two hours, covered numerous topics and was attended by some 700 Russian and foreign journalists.
Many of the questions Mr. Putin was asked concerned domestic issues, such as education policy, land and pension reform and concerns facing Russia's far-flung regions.
The situation in Chechnya was also raised. Mr. Putin spoke of an ongoing normalization process in the republic where separatist guerrillas are fighting Russian troops and Moscow-supported Chechen authorities. Mr. Putin was also asked about the so-called "mopping up" operations when troops look for and detain Chechen civilians at will for suspected ties to the rebels.
Mr. Putin said the "mopping up" operations must be stopped. But he said that can only happen when the local authorities and Chechen special forces have better control of the situation on the ground. Mr. Putin said he hoped that would happen by next year. He also said preparations are underway for a referendum in Chechnya next year on a new constitution for the republic.
Mr. Putin also repeated his government's concern about the situation in the Middle East.
He said a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be based on United Nations resolutions. Mr. Putin called on the Palestinians to do everything to halt terrorist attacks. He also warned that it would be "dangerous and a mistake" to remove Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from the political scene, saying this would only lead to a radicalization of the conflict.