Putin promises Russia will not act like an 'energy superpower'

President Vladimir Putin says Russia will be a reliable and stable supplier of energy to foreign customers and has dismissed talk of Russia as an "energy superpower" which would throw its weight around and hold other countries to ransom.

"The world," he said, "has an interest in stability of supplies and in the development of a stable Russia. That's our goal, too, and reflects our own interests as well."

Mr Putin was answering questions from an international group of Russia-watchers, mostly academics, over an elaborate lunch at his official residence near Moscow. This was the third year the Russian-organised Valdai Club has been received by the President and was the most relaxed of the events. Security was unobtrusive, and, between the questions and answers on microphone, Mr Putin conversed cheerfully with those seated around him, sometimes in English.

These meetings, the first of which took place two years ago in the sombre aftermath of the Beslan killings, have been increasingly seen by the Kremlin as a chance for Russia to present its case to the outside world and "correct" what it sees as misapprehensions about its policies.

Foreign concerns about Russia's reliability as an energy supplier, following the stand-off with Ukraine last winter, were uppermost in Mr Putin's mind. While reassuring the West of Russia's good faith, however, he dismissed the idea of Russia as an "energy superpower" as a "cold war" term.

"We're not behaving like an energy superpower," he said. "We just want negotiations that are fair. We don't need superpower status." Yes, he said, "we have huge energy potential that is still underestimated ... but we have always behaved responsibly and intend to continue doing so."

Russia wants long-term contracts, he said. Just as suppliers had to pledge continuity for the long term, "so customers should not be able to turn around and say 'We don't need it now'. Security works both ways. We need assurances, too."

Mr Putin also criticised European plans to deregulate the transit pipelines, saying that only the middle-men would profit, not consumers, and attacked the US for failing, as he saw it, to honour a promise to share high technology in the energy sector. "We still don't get access. There is still a long list of banned exports."

Warming to his theme, he lambasted foreign media for using the "energy superpower" term to revive the spectre of the "evil empire."

On energy, as on a wide range of other subjects, Mr Putin addressed head-on criticisms often voiced in the West about Russia's policies. Russia was not, he said, intent on living off its oil and gas for as long as it lasted. It was already working on diversifying power sources, to the point where 30 per cent of electricity would be supplied by nuclear power within 20 years.

Mr Putin paid an unexpected compliment to President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine, whose election Russia had so opposed. Mr Yushchenko, he said, had shown himself to be "wise, reliable and stable" in agreeing to conclude separate contracts for transit arrangements to third countries and for its own gas imports. This was, he said, "a huge step" towards energy security for all concerned.

On security more generally, Mr Putin took pains to stress that the new Asian security group, called the Shanghai Co-operation Council, consisting of Russia, China and central Asian countries, had grown up in response to a need to regular post-Soviet borders and other issues. He said he knew it was being seen in some quarters as a threat.

"Some people, including Western secret services, "suspect that Russia and China may be cooking up something between themselves", but there was no intention of turning it into "a military-political bloc". As a concept, it had taken off pretty much by itself: "Frankly, we didn't anticipate that".

Of his achievements, Mr Putin - who has been in power for six years - said the stability of the state was one, and the halving of the number of people below the poverty line - from 40 million to 20 million - was another. But, he said, that was still nothing like good enough.

He cited the demographic position as a major concern, restating plans for enhanced maternity and child benefits, housing grants and other measures to raise the birth rate.

He held out the prospect of more legal immigration into Russia of people from the former Soviet republics, especially central Asia, to help make up the labour shortage. But he stressed that the numbers had to be limited to how many could be assimilated well.

Even so, the arrival of workers from the regions and countries to the south of Russia is already causing problems. A full-scale riot a week ago, in the north-western city of Konoplog, was followed by attacks on Chechen and other southern workers and the full-scale flight of the town's non-Russian population. After days of criticism in the liberal press, Mr Putin made an unannounced visit to the city yesterday.

As for his own longer-term plans, Mr Putin declined to look further ahead than the completion of his second term in 2008 - beyond reiterating that he had no intention of trying to change the law so he could stand again. He accepted that all the polls showed a large majority of Russians wanting him to stay.

Yes, he said, people would like stability and don't want things to change. But, he insisted: "Stability is not guaranteed by one person. It is guaranteed by the state of society and the population."

And, he went on, no one can be above the law. "If I say that everyone must abide by the law, I have no right to break it. To do so would be a destabilising move in itself."

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