Putin defends Russia's place in G-8

President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday defended Russia's place in the Group of Eight leading industrial nations and lashed out at critics who allege Moscow is unfit to chair the organization this year. "I know the mood of the G-8 leaders. No one is against it; all of them support Russia's active role," Putin told a wide-ranging Kremlin news conference.

"No one wants the G-8 to turn into an assembly of fat cats," he said. Putin said there was a growing "imbalance" in the world, with an increasing gap in nations' living standards. "As a nation whose economy and social sphere are still in their development, Russia understands the problems of developing nations better than other G-8 members. Russia's participation in the G-8 is absolutely organic," Putin said.

"Can anyone imagine solving nuclear security problems without the involvement of Russia, a key nuclear power?" Putin asked. "Let them say what they want. ... A dog barks, but the caravan goes on."

Some NGOs and U.S. politicians, including Congressman Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, have called for the Russia to be expelled from the G-8. Others have urged other members of the elite club to keep up pressure on human rights issues during Russia's chairmanship this year.

Under Putin, Russia has seen media freedoms squeezed, voters' rights to elect regional leaders eliminated and opposition parties shrunken in the face of the overwhelmingly dominant pro-Kremlin party. On one of the most sensitive rights issues facing Russia, Putin hailed the restoration of regional government structures in Chechnya as one of the most important achievements of his presidency. He said Chechen law-enforcement structures were taking an increasingly important role and "often work more efficiently than federal structures."

If local law enforcement in Chechnya continues to gain strength, "it would be possible to talk about wrapping up the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya," he said.

Nonetheless, rights monitors say that abuses, including abductions by government forces as well as rebels, are rampant in Chechnya, and militants and federal forces continue to engage in occasional skirmishes.

On the economy, Putin called the nation's GDP growth of 6.4 percent "not bad," and saluted the 88 percent growth in the Russian stock market in 2005 as "an absolute record for the world and the country." He said that the state had no plans to monopolize the oil and gas sector, but supported the creation of strong state-controlled firms, with foreign strategic investors and shareholders.

"Weather in the world energy sector is made by big international companies ... large, powerful, as a rule multinational companies, we, too, must develop in this direction," he said.

Turning to foreign affairs, Putin called on the militant Palestinian group Hamas to engage in peaceful dialogue, and said Russia's position on the Middle East differed from that of the United States and Europe, reports the AP. I.L.

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