Putin Faces Spain Press On Iran, Ukraine, Cartoon Row, Extremism

MOSCOW, Russia -- Vladimir Putin commented on pressing international issues Tuesday, urging extremists to lay down arms, calling on Muslim governments to peacefully solve the cartoon row, and welcoming the UN watchdog's decision on the Iranian nuclear issue as balanced.

Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles as he meets Spanish journalists in the library of the Moscow's Kremlin, February 7, 2006.

Speaking with Spanish media ahead of his visit to the country, Putin also outlined his views on Spain's possible membership in the elite Group of Eight club of industrialized nations and commented on his clout with the Russian parliament, which has been repeatedly mentioned in the media.

When asked about possible negotiations with extremists, Putin said Russia was open to a dialogue if they first rejected violence and surrendered their weapons.

"If one or another [terrorist] structure laid down [its] arms and firmly stated that it rejected any form of armed resistance to the authorities and the state, then, of course, they would deserve a dialogue," he said. "But we have to consider what kind of a dialogue, and with whom it is to be conducted, in each separate case."

However, in comments echoing his more familiar tough line on terrorism, Putin said: "Not a single civilized country can allow itself the luxury of conducting negotiations with terrorists because any talks with terrorists weaken the state and strengthen the terrorists."

The president firmly stated that Russian authorities would never negotiate with terrorists whose hands were covered with the blood of Russian people. Several cities in the country, including Moscow, have been the targets of terrorists in recent years in attacks that have killed hundreds.

"Nevertheless, we are ready to allow any opposition forces, including Chechen militants who have not been involved in murder or blatantly criminal activities, to participate in politics," he said.

The president said that about 50% of law enforcement personnel in the Chechen Republic were former militants, though he cautiously added that the figure had to be checked.

"We must involve them [former extremists] in normal life, otherwise they will be excluded from this process," Putin said. "Whenever people abandon extreme forms of resistance and become involved...in political activity, this is an enormous plus."

In other peace-seeking comments, the Russian president urged Muslim leaders to resolve the scandal over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in European media, which have sparked a wave of violent protests across the Arab world.

"We very much hope that Muslim religious figures and leaders of the Muslim world will be able to take the situation under control," he said, adding that any provocations in this sensitive area were unacceptable.

"We condemn any such actions, whichever side they may come from. We also condemn such [provocative] cartoons, which add to the division between religions, insult the feelings of believers and provoke them," Putin said.

The Russian leader said the publication of offensive images could not be justified by invoking slogans of free press and that the states where the Mohammed cartoons had been printed or reprinted should at least apologize for failing to prevent the actions.

When asked to elaborate on another sensitive issue in current global politics, Iran's nuclear program, Putin said the UN nuclear watchdog's decision on the issue was balanced.

"We are cooperating with the European trio and our American counterparts. We consider the decision made by the IAEA Board of Governors to be balanced," he said.

The 35-nation Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) adopted a resolution Saturday in Vienna that IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei would inform the UN Security Council on the Iranian nuclear program. The resolution sent a serious message to Iran, urging the country to resume the nuclear moratorium it unilaterally lifted on January 11.

In a separate comment on another controversial international subject, the Russia-Ukraine gas agreement, Putin said he was unaware of who owned the Ukrainian stake of a joint venture with Russia that came to the forefront in the deal to end the dispute over natural gas prices at the start of the year.

Russian energy giant Gazprom is known to own 50% of the shares in Russian-Ukrainian joint venture Rosukrenergo and Austria's Raiffeisenbank holds the other 50%, but Putin added to the mystery of ownership: "Rosukrenergo is a Russian-Ukrainian joint venture. The Russian partner holds 50%. This partner is Gazprom. Neither you nor I know who owns the other 50%."

In the end, the Russian president redirected the question to Ukraine.

He also said the two countries had been discussing the transition to market prices of natural gas for 15 years.

"Last March [President Viktor] Yushchenko himself virtually offered me a transition to market relations in the energy sphere," Putin said, adding that he had agreed to this proposal.

He said that after that incident the Ukrainian side had been avoiding any talks on this issue with Russia.

"After this, they did not enter into any negotiations with us on the corporate level, they simply avoided meetings, hid," Putin said. "Even when Gazprom representatives arrived in Kiev for talks, they simply ran away. They went off to Brussels, and others went somewhere else. There was no one to talk to. They dragged out [the process] on purpose, I'm certain, until November and then raised a fuss."

The two countries were involved in a bitter spat at the end of 2005, when Gazprom sought to raise the prices Ukraine paid for natural gas from about $50 per 1,000 cubic meters under a barter agreement to $230 per 1,000 cu m. The dispute was formally ended on January 4 when an agreement was signed, but tensions have continued to mar bilateral relations as Ukraine, according to Gazprom's figures, siphoned 550 million cu m of Europe-bound gas in January.

On the subject of Spain, the president said the European country could potentially join the elite club of the world's most industrialized nations, the Group of Eight.

"Spain is a country that could bid for a full membership in any international organization, including the G8," Putin said.

However, he immediately qualified his statement, adding that as Russia had only recently joined the G8 - in 1998 - it would be incorrect for him to make any proposals in terms of expanding the organization.

Russia is presiding over the G8 for the first time this year. Moscow is due to host a meeting of the organization's finance ministers on February 10-11, and St. Petersburg will be the venue for the G8 summit of leaders in July.

Putin also said that Spain "directly influences the G8 decisions as a member of the European Union."

As for his clout in Russia's lower house of parliament, where pro-Kremlin party United Russia holds the majority of seats, Putin said it had been grossly exaggerated. "My influence on the [State] Duma is naturally substantial, but it is overly exaggerated because parliamentarians have their own opinion on some issues."

He said the deputies had to run in the next elections in 2007, and therefore also had to heed the public's views and the opinion of their voters.

When asked why he was not pushing for the ratification in parliament of a protocol banning capital punishment, Putin said Russia had a moratorium on the death penalty.

As for his personal opinion of capital punishment, the president said: "Any punishment pursues several goals: correction and punishment. The death penalty does not lead to any correction, but is merely punishment, and it is even unclear of whom. The person who the state kills does not feel anything, unlike society, which assumes the right to claim a human life." Besides, the judicial system often makes mistakes, he said.

Putin said he would seek a ban on capital punishment but "carefully, in harmony with public sentiments," and with respect for parliament's opinion.

Unlike other countries that are considered civilized and democratic, Russia does not apply the death penalty, Putin said.

Source: RIA Novosti