MOSCOW, Sept 13
(Reuters) - Russia's Parliamentary leaders and President
Vladimir Putin agreed on Wednesday to embark on a three-year crash course to
thwart what they said was an anticipated chain of disasters due to hit the
country in 2003.
"(These are) issues
of extraordinary importance, strategic issues which may
degenerate into a serious threat for the existence, I want to stress this,
for the existence of Russia," former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov told
Some experts have
singled out 2003 as the year when three problems -- a big
debt bill, eroding infrastructure and an ageing population -- could combine
to throw Russia into turmoil.
of the centre-left OVR parliamentary faction, was one of
several top members of the State Duma lower house of parliament to meet Putin
in the Kremlin.
In addition to the
"2003 problem," the agenda included next year's budget and
media freedom and ownership. Both sides agreed urgent measures had to be
taken to avert the looming disaster.
Problems of Russia's
crumbling industrial base were highlighted last month
when a nuclear-powered submarine sank with the loss of all 118 crew on board
and a day-long fire gutted Moscow's Ostankino television tower, a national
Putin said at the
time the fire was proof of the dangerous condition of the
A power shortage
last weekend also forced officials to shut down nuclear
reactors, including those at a giant, top-secret fuel reprocessing plant
whose boss said that only staff discipline prevented a major crisis.
PRO-KREMLIN PARTY BROUGHT UP THE 2003 PROBLEM
Boris Gryzlov, leader
of the pro-Kremlin Unity faction which was the first to
raise the issue, said Russia would also have to deal in 2003 with a colossal
$17 billion foreign debt payout and a massive population shrinkage.
Gryzlov said the
problems had already been discussed with cabinet ministers
and the parliamentarians had agreed with Putin to set up a commission to
tackle the issue head-on.
"The question was
discussed at length and the president approved our
initiative and said he would dispatch representatives of his administration
to the working group," Gryzlov said after the Kremlin meeting.
He said the commission
could start work as early as Monday and suggested the
government could alleviate the crisis by using budget windfalls, such as
extra revenue from higher oil prices, on paying off straight away debts
maturing in 2003.
Some observers said
the 2003 deadline was rather artificial and might serve
Kremlin-watcher for the liberal weekly Itogi, said Kremlin
spin doctors planned to make a fuss over the initiatives, in part to answer
critics who charged them with inaction during the Kursk submarine disaster
say Russia's financial and infrastructure problems are
real, but picking a date is somewhat arbitrary.
"A lot here is artificial,"
Oleg Vyugin, a former first deputy finance
minister and now executive vice president at Troika Dialog investment bank,
Russia is due to
pay slightly more than $16 billion in debt payments that
year, compared with $11.3 billion due in 2001, he said. But there was still
plenty of room for restructuring.
that the infrastructure is deteriorating, but that does not
mean that this will all happen in 2003. The television tower burned up this
year," he said.
Al Breach, an analyst
with Goldman Sachs, said investors would applaud reform
talk, however artificial the deadline.
"For these guys to be thinking three years ahead is pretty good," he said.