Putin announces new economic drive for Caucasus

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Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced Tuesday an ambitious drive to bring peace and prosperity to Russia's violence-ridden Northern Caucasus by creating thousands of new jobs and investment opportunities.

In the spa town of Kislovodsk, he told top government officials to come up with plans to turn the former war zone of Chechnya and neighbouring violence-ridden Dagestan and Ingushetia into an investor haven.

Putin called for the creation of 400,000 additional jobs in the region within the next 10 years, saying its economy should in the next few years post a growth rate of 10 percent.

"We understand that it's a very difficult task but it needs to be done," Putin told a meeting of his ruling United Russia party and top government officials in Kislovodsk, which lies in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains.

"We all need a peaceful, prosperous Caucasus."

Russia is battling a violent Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, and deadly attacks in the republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan are a near-daily occurrence.

At the meeting attended by scores of top officials, including Chechnya's strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Ingushetia's Yunus-Bek Yevkurov who was nearly killed in an attack last year, Putin said widespread unemployment was the region's most acute problem and helped militants recruit new fighters.

One out of five people has a hard time finding a job in the region, with unemployment standing at over 50 percent in Ingushetia and 30 percent in Chechnya, Putin said.

The Kremlin attempted to strengthen its hold on the region in January, when it appointed a new envoy responsible for the North Caucasus, businessman Alexander Khloponin.

Khloponin has been tasked with coming up with a blueprint to end violence in the region and excerpts published in Russia's Newsweek showed he pins his hopes mainly on economic development, including the creation of new jobs and the setting up of development banks.

Putin said a branch of Russia's state-owned Vnesheconombank would be set up in the Caucasus to help with investment projects, while the finance ministry would provide loan guarantees for business projects undertaken there.

Foreign and Russian entrepreneurs prefer now to do business elsewhere but regional officials should do their best to bring investors in the region, Putin said.

"The regional leaders should accept any investor as a member of their family," he added.

© 2010 AFP

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