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Newsline - April 12, 2001




UNITY GAINS TWO DEPUTIES, PULLS EVEN WITH COMMUNISTS

Two deputies have joined the Unity faction -- Aleksandr Ryazanov, who had been an independent; and Aleksei Guzanov, a former member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). Consequently, Unity can now claim the same number of deputies -- 85 -- as the Communist Party, Russian agencies reported on 11 April. That development sparked discussions about a possible redivision of committee assignments, but Speaker Gennadii Seleznev suggested that individuals elected under one party banner cannot change, and People's Deputy leader Gennadii Raikov said that the Communists remain the largest party because of their alliance with the Agrarians. The Duma on 11 April voted down a request for shifting a deputy from his committee assignment, indicating that there may not be much support for any massive change in committee leaderships yet. Meanwhile, the new Unity leader in the Duma, Vladimir Pekhtin, said that he is positively inclined toward proposals to create a right-centrist council in the Duma, and Unity has begun consultations with Fatherland-All-Russia deputies, Russian agencies said. PG

NTV JOURNALISTS APPEAL TO PUTIN

Some 129 NTV journalists published an open letter to President Vladimir Putin on 11 April appealing him to "intervene and ensure a legal solution to the conflict" between them and Gazprom, the ntv.ru site reported. "We are appealing to you," they said, "as the head of government and as the guarantor of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the rights and freedoms of people and citizens." The Kremlin did not comment on the letter. Meanwhile, more journalists left the paper, and some officials and media outlets suggested that those who remained are committing, in the words of Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi, "collective suicide." The Duma refused to take up the matter, with only 63 deputies voting to do so, Interfax reported. "Kommersant-Daily" suggested the same day that the journalists are scaring off potential investors, and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" carried an article suggesting that the journalists "should give in and end their losing battle." PG

PRESS FREEDOM IN RUSSIA SAID UNDER THREAT

The international media watchdog group Reporters sans Frontieres released a report on 11 April that said "the Russian state's seizure of control of NTV television comes after months of continuous degradation of freedom of press across the entire territory of the Russian Federation," and that "with doubts cast over the freedom and pluralism of the media, one of the most fundamental guarantees of the future of Russian democracy is now very directly threatened." The group said that the situation with respect to coverage of the war in Chechnya is especially troubling because "accreditations for Chechnya are effectively impossible to obtain." PG

PUTIN WARNS AGAINST WEAPONS IN OUTER SPACE

In a letter read by Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov to an international conference in Moscow on the peaceful use of outer space, President Putin said that "we have a duty to safeguard peace in outer space," because "the experience of international space activity shows the need for care in this field," Russian and Western agencies reported on 11 April. The meeting attracted 250 delegates from 104 countries, but neither the U.S. nor Britain was represented because the governments of those countries concluded that the Moscow session was intended to oppose U.S. plans to build a national missile defense (NMD) system, dpa reported. PG

PUTIN HANDS OUT AWARDS

Saying that he wants Russia to become "a genuinely worthy state of worthy and successful people," President Putin on 11 April presented awards to a large group of public figures, scholars, and cultural stars, Russian agencies reported. Among those receiving awards were former Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeev, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov, new Unity leader in the Duma Pekhtin, and LDPR head Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Zhirinovsky was the last to receive his award, but Putin noted that the noted Russian nationalist is "last on the list but not in importance." PG

UKRAINE AGREES TO RESTRICT PIPE EXPORTS TO RUSSIA

After a 10-hour meeting with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on 10-11 April, Ukrainian Premier Viktor Yushchenko agreed to restrict the export of Ukrainian metal pipes to Russia without the imposition of antidumping quotas, ITAR-TASS reported. Kasyanov said that Russian producers will recover their losses from such imports during 2001. Yushchenko also said that Ukraine agrees to a "zero option" approach to the division of Soviet-era assets and liabilities, the Russian news agency said. PG

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER LOOKS FORWARD TO TALKS WITH POWELL

Igor Ivanov told Interfax on 11 April that he is looking forward to meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Paris on 12 April to discuss all aspects of bilateral relations. Ivanov said that "it is important that we actually start a dialogue on all these problems with the new U.S. administration." But one of Ivanov's deputies, Georgii Mammedov, told the news agency that the talks might not be easy because Moscow and Washington have just gone through "a difficult period in our relations," a reference to the spy scandal and to Russian unhappiness with several statements by members of the Bush cabinet. PG

RUSSIANS BELIEVE U.S. NMD PLANS THREATEN RUSSIAN SECURITY

A poll conducted by the ROMIR agency and reported by ITAR-TASS on 11 April found that 46.5 percent of Russians believe that NMD deployment by the United States would pose "a considerable threat" to Russian national security. Meanwhile, Major General Vladimir Belous, speaking on behalf of the government-sponsored organization "Generals and Admirals for Peace and Security," said that Moscow would have to respond to an NMD deployment with a space system of its own, the Russian agency said. Colonel General Valerii Manilov, the first deputy head of the general staff, told RIA-Novosti on the same day that Russia's alternative program would include several regional missile shields rather than a single national one. PG

HANSEN SPY CASE MAY HAVE CLAIMED FIRST DEATH

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 11 April said that the reported suicide of senior CIA officer Eric Yanutsi may have been related to the unmasking of former FBI agent Robert Hansen as a Russian spy. The paper labels this as a theory, but the article appears on a day when the Russian press was full of charges about past and present American misdeeds, including a report in "Izvestiya" about Washington's employment of Nazis after World War II. PG

NEW DEFENSE MINISTER SEEN AS HAVING HISTORIC CHANCE

In an article in "Itogi," No. 13, military observer Aleksandr Golts said that new Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has a historic opportunity to reverse the militarization of Russian society. One change he reportedly has already decided on is the dismissal of the head of the General Staff, General Anatolii Kvashnin, "Izvestiya" reported on 11 April. Meanwhile, "Obshchaya gazeta," No. 14, noted that Russian officers have not yet benefited very much from economic reforms. The weekly said that a major general in the army now makes as much as a janitor in an average Moscow office. PG

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SEEKS WESTERN FUNDS FOR CHEMICAL WEAPONS DESTRUCTION

Foreign Minister Ivanov visited the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague on 11 April and said that Russia will have "serious difficulties" in destroying 20 percent of its stockpile by April 2002, as it has agreed to do, Reuters reported. In order to do so, Moscow plans to "considerably increase" the budget for such procedures, but still will need assistance from abroad. PG

RUSSIA URGES END TO MIDDLE EAST VIOLENCE

The Russian Foreign Ministry on 11 April called on Israel and the Palestinians to end escalating violence and return to negotiations, Russian and Western agencies reported. "Each side must take its own part on the road toward detente, show a willingness for reconciliation, and fulfill goals already agreed upon," the ministry statement said. PG

MOSCOW DENIES ITS PLANES VIOLATED JAPANESE AIRSPACE

Following a Japanese protest on 11 April that two Russian military planes briefly violated Japanese airspace, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman denied that there had been a violation, ITAR-TASS reported. Meanwhile, a Russian Foreign Ministry official said the same day that Russian and Japanese experts will have to conduct more discussions about the precise meaning of the 1956 Soviet-Japanese declaration that appears to commit Moscow to returning at least two of the four disputed Kurile Islands to Japan upon the signing of a peace treaty, the Russian agency said. PG

RUSSIAN BORDER SERVICE TO BE RESTRUCTURED

During a visit to Washington on 11 April, Colonel General Konstantin Totskii, the director of the Russian Federal Border Service, said that the Russian Security Council is reviewing the details of a plan to reform his agency, ITAR-TASS reported. Totskii said that his service is not large compared to its task -- guarding a border more than 1.5 times as long as the earth's equator -- but he acknowledged that in the area of technical equipment, "we have fallen far behind modern standards in recent years." PG

PUTIN'S MAN IN PETERSBURG PROFILED

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" carried a profile of presidential envoy to the North-West federal district Viktor Cherkesov on 11 April. Cherkesov told the paper that he and President Putin share both a KGB career and personal friendship. The paper noted that Cherkesov's wife has given him entry into the journalistic circles of the northern capital, and it said that last month, Cherkesov "made his first foreign trip" to Finland. PG

DUMA DEPUTY LIKES CANADIAN MODEL OF FEDERALISM

Duma deputy (Communist) Leonid Ivanchenko, the chairman of the Federation and Regional Affairs Committee, said in an interview published in "Izvestiya" on 11 April that he thinks that Canadian federalism is a useful model for Russia and that he believes that the number of federation subjects must be reduced. PG

KASYANOV FOCUSES ATTENTION ON BANKING SECTOR

Speaking to a congress of the Russian Banking Association on 11 April, Prime Minister Kasyanov said that his government is working to strengthen the country's banking system as part of a general effort to promote economic growth, ITAR-TASS reported. Aleksei Simanovskii, the head of the banking supervision department of the Central Bank, told the group that 90 percent of Russian banks are stable at the present time, the news agency said. He added that insurance for depositors should be introduced gradually, while other officials said that new banks should be required to have larger capital stocks. One way that the government may help banks, "Kommersant-Daily" reported the same day, is to deposit pension funds in private banks for long periods of time. PG

KUDRIN SAYS RESTRUCTURING OF UTILITY MONOPOLIES MAY BE DELAYED

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said in Moscow on 11 April that the Russian government may delay the restructuring the country's two largest utility monopolies, Unified Energy Systems and Gazprom, in order to develop a national consensus on what should be done and to make every step in the process the right one. Meanwhile, an Energy Ministry official told Interfax that Russia is likely to suffer an energy shortfall over the next few years. PG.

OIL EXPORTS RISE, GAS EXPORTS FALL

Russia exported 10 percent more oil in the first two months of 2001 than it did during the same period one year earlier, Interfax-ANI reported. But its exports of natural gas fell by 16 percent during the first two months of 2001 in comparison with 2000. PG

BRAVERMAN DETAILS PRIVATIZATION PLANS

First Deputy Property Relations Minister Aleksandr Braverman said on 11 April that of the existing 11,000 state enterprises, only 1,000 to 2,000 should remain state property in the future and that the government should sell off its shares in more than 2,500 of the 3,500 companies in which it holds a stake, Interfax reported. Meanwhile, Property Fund chief Vladimir Malin announced that his agency has developed a list of 500 enterprises to be privatized in 2001. But Braverman indicated that this list does not include Rosneft, Slavneft, Aeroflot, or Gazprom, Interfax-AFI reported. PG

CULTURE MINISTER CALLS FOR REVIVAL OF RUSSIAN FILM INDUSTRY

Culture Minister Shvydkoi on 11 April called for modernizing the country's 1,560 movie theaters, only 80 of which now meet modern standards, and for reversing the precipitous decline in the number of movies produced domestically, AFP reported, citing "Vedomosti." PG

RUSSIA MARKS GAGARIN FLIGHT ANNIVERSARY

Russian space scientists and government officials on 12 April marked the 40th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's 1961 flight into space, Russian and Western agencies reported. A poll reported by Interfax on 11 April showed that 41 percent of Russians believe Russia's space program must be preserved at the same level as it is today, with 38 percent saying that it should be expanded. Meanwhile, the Duma failed to pass legislation offered by LDPR deputy Aleksei Mitrofanov to make Cosmonautics Day (12 April) an official day off, Interfax reported. Only 53 deputies voted for the measure. Russian space officials announced on 11 April that they have scheduled the world's first space tourist, U.S. citizen Dennis Tito, to be a member of the Russian team that will be launched on 28 April to work on the International Space Station, AP reported. Tito has paid Moscow $20 million to make the trip over the objections of U.S. space scientists. PG

NGO LEADERS COMMENT ON RUSSIAN HUMAN RIGHTS CONCEPT

Vladimir Kartashkin, the chairman of the presidential Human Rights Commission, hosted a group of NGO leaders on 11 April to discuss the government's human rights concept, Interfax reported. Ludmila Alekseeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said that human rights groups should not take financial support from the state lest they become dependent on it. She also called for maintaining the institution of public defenders in courts. PG

CRIME, AIDS IN MOSCOW

Police officials in Moscow reported on 11 April that there were 304 murders in the Russian capital during the first quarter of 2001, Interfax-Moscow said. During the same period, the city registered a total of more than 26,800 crimes, many of which were extremely serious, the police said. Meanwhile, doctors said that the number of new HIV infections in the Russian capital fell by 38.1 percent during the first two months of 2001 in comparison to the same period in 2000. But doctors said that they expect the numbers to rise more rapidly in 2002 and 2003. PG

CUTTING THE DEATH RATE A PRIORITY

"Vremya MN" reported on 11 April that many Russian experts believe that cutting the high mortality rate is the best way out of the country's demographic crisis. Labor and Social Development Minister Aleksandr Pochinok noted that every year the number of people who become invalids equals the number of children born, and he said that a place must be found in the workplace for invalids. Meanwhile, Health Minister Yurii Shevchenko said that Russia categorically rejects legalized euthanasia of the kind just approved in the Netherlands, Interfax reported. Shevchenko said that "in our country, there must not be any euthanasia. This is a major sin and we must not allow it." PG

AFRO-RUSSIAN CHILDREN FACE RACISM, DISCRIMINATION

The nearly 20,000 children of mixed Russian and African parentage living in the Russian Federation are subject to racist attitudes -- they are called, among other things, "AIDS-Spreaders" -- and police harassment, dpa reported on 11 April. A single NGO in Moscow, Metis, attempts to help them with food, medicine, and legal advice. It also serves as a place for these children to meet one another and provide mutual support. PG

ANOTHER REGION TO CONSIDER MERGER WITH NEIGHBOR

A top legislator in Altai Krai is suggesting that the krai be joined with the Altai Republic, Interfax-Eurasia reported. Aleksandr Nazarchuk, chairman of the Altai Krai, told reporters on 11 April that he intends to raise with his fellow legislators the possibility of joining the two regions. According to Nazarchuk, the merger is necessary in light of the fact that over the past decade economic indicators for the Altai Republic have worsened. For example, during the past two months the republic has been last in industrial production in the Siberian federal district. Altai Krai head Semen Zubakin expressed his dissatisfaction with Nazarchuk's plans and declared that the joining of the two regions does not make "any kind of sense." According to Zubakin, indicators of economic development in the republic actually surpass those of the krai. Last February, the head of Perm Oblast suggested holding a referendum on merging his oblast with Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2001). JAC

COURT KEEPS ALUMINUM EXECUTIVE IN JAIL

A Moscow court refused on 11 April to release from custody former Krasnoyarsk Aluminum head Anatolii Bykov, who is suspected of conspiracy to commit murder, Interfax reported. The previous day, deputies in Krasnoyarsk Krai's legislative assembly rejected a request from a Moscow prosecutor to transfer Bykov's case to a court. By law, because Bykov is a legislator in the krai, only his fellow legislators have the right to judge his actions. When speaking to the legislators, Moscow prosecutor Vladimir Simuchenko had argued that the case against Bykov has no political aspect and that it should therefore be transferred to a court of law, Russian Television reported on 10 April. JAC

SHOWDOWN LOOMS OVER ROSTOV MOSQUE?

A court in Rostov Oblast ruled on 5 March that Muslims in the city of Taganrog must demolish their partially built mosque, Keston News Service reported on 10 April (see also "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 15 November 2000). The city of Taganrog claims that the oblast's Muslim Spiritual Administration acted illegally by starting to build the mosque before it had received permission to do so. However, Mufti Jafar Bikmaev says he has in his possession a decree with 15 signatures -- including that of the city's mayor -- allowing for the construction. Bikmaev told the agency on 2 April that he will not demolish the mosque, but Taganrog Deputy Mayor Nikolai Savchenko said that court bailiffs will force the Spiritual Administration to carry out the court order. Vladimir Takhtamyshev, an expert on religious organization with the oblast administration, told Keston News Service that city authorities are afraid of the penetration of Islam in extremist forms. Another source of anxiety, according to Takhtamyshev, is that there are Russian families who regularly attend Muslim services. JAC

PLANNED CHECHEN CONGRESS POSTPONED

Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov has postponed indefinitely the congress of the Chechen people scheduled for 3 May, Interfax reported on 10 April. Kadyrov said that conditions in Chechnya are not yet favorable for holding such a forum, to which thousands of delegates were to have been invited, and that "opponents of stabilization" could launch terrorist attacks against congress participants. Plans for the congress were first announced in February by Chechen State Duma deputy Aslanbek Aslakhanov, who apparently did not intend to invite Kadyrov to participate (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No.14, 10 April 2001). LF




ARMENIAN PRESIDENT OPTIMISTIC AFTER KEY WEST TALKS

Returning to Yerevan late on 11 April, Armenian President Robert Kocharian said that last week's talks in Key West with his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev and the three OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmen were "hard but constructive," Reuters and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. He added that by meeting separately with the two presidents, the co-chairs chose "the right work style at the right moment." Kocharian said he believes that the new peace proposal that the co-chairmen are now working on will be based on the "package" principle, meaning that it will simultaneously resolve all contentious issues. He also predicted that it will respect the three key points on which Yerevan insists: that the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic should not be vertically subordinated to Baku, together with concrete security guarantees for the disputed enclave and an overland link between the NKR and Armenia. Kocharian dodged questions on when NKR representatives might join the peace talks and whether the possibility of a territorial exchange between Armenia and Azerbaijan was discussed in Key West, according to Noyan Tapan. LF

ARMENIA, RUSSIA REACH AGREEMENT ON GAS DEBTS

The Armenian government has reached agreement with the Gazprom subsidiary ITERA on rescheduling Yerevan's $11 million debt for natural-gas supplies, Armenian Energy Minister Karen Galustian told journalists in Yerevan on 11 April. He said that senior ITERA officials will come to Yerevan on 25 April to finalize that agreement, which will allow for gas supplies to be restored to their normal level, RFE/RL's bureau in the Armenian capital reported. Russia recently cut gas supplies to Armenia in retaliation for the Armenian government's failure to meet deadlines for earlier debt repayments. Galustian also said Moscow is no longer pushing to acquire a 50 percent stake in Armenia's Medzamor nuclear power station in return for writing off most of the country's $120 million debt (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 April 2001). LF

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION CALLS FOR 'TRANSPARENCY' OF KARABAKH TALKS

Meeting in Baku on 11 April, the reformist Democratic Congress urged the Azerbaijani leadership to guarantee the "transparency" of ongoing talks on resolving the Karabakh conflict, Turan reported. The Democratic Congress also proposed convening a mass rally under the slogan "Azerbaijan Cannot Do Without Karabakh" prior to the next round of talks between Kocharian and Aliev, which are scheduled to take place in Geneva in June. LF

ABKHAZIA CLAIMS PROOF THAT GEORGIAN GOVERNMENT ABETS GUERRILLAS

Raul Khajimba, who heads the Security Service of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, told journalists in Sukhum on 11 April that two Georgian Interior Ministry personnel were killed and three more, including a police major, taken prisoner during a clash on 8 April near the village of Achigvara in Gali Raion between Abkhaz security forces and Georgian guerrillas, Caucasus Press reported. He showed journalists the official identity papers and weapons confiscated from the Georgian police officers in question. LF

MORE RUSSIAN MILITARY EQUIPMENT WITHDRAWN FROM GEORGIA

The first of two final consignments of field and medical equipment and military vehicles from the Russian military base at Vaziani near Tbilisi was loaded on to a train on 11 April for transportation to the port of Batumi, Russian agencies reported. The final shipment will depart on 24 April. Moscow agreed in November 1999 to vacate the Vaziani base by 1 July 2001. LF

KAZAKHSTAN UNVEILS NEW GAS PROJECT

Kazakhstan's first deputy prime minister, Daniyal Akhmetov, told journalists in Astana on 11 April that the Amangeldy and neighboring Airykty gas deposits in the Djambyl Oblast of southern Kazakhstan contain estimated reserves of 22-25 billion cubic meters, sufficient for 12 to 13-years production, Interfax and RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Akhmetov said the Kazakh government plans to invest over $142 million in developing the deposit and is ready to create a joint venture with a foreign investor to do so. He said once developments gets underway in early 2003, the Amangeldy field could supply the southern oblasts of Kazakhstan, which currently import gas from neighboring Uzbekistan, with 600 million cubic meters of gas per year. A senior executive of U.S. Citibank told Interfax in Astana the same day that the bank is conducting talks with KazTransGas, the Kazakh company that will develop Amangeldy, with a view to investing in the project. LF

KAZAKHSTAN BEGINS REINFORCING BORDER WITH TURKMENISTAN

Husain Beriqaliev, who heads Kazakhstan's state border service, told journalists in Almaty on 10 April that 32 border guards have been detailed to man the first of five border posts to be set up this year along Kazakhstan's 400-kilometer frontier with Turkmenistan, Interfax and RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The first post is located on the Mangyshlak peninsula at a location that BeriqAliyev described as one of the most "difficult" sectors on Kazakhstan's entire border. The number of border guards manning it will later be increased to 70. In addition, BeriqAliyev said, part of an air squadron will be sent to Aqtau on 12 April "to defend Kazakhstan's economic interests in the Caspian." LF

EU TO ALLOCATE FUNDS TO COMBAT DRUG SMUGGLING IN CENTRAL ASIA

The EU plans to allocate 3 million euros ($2.66 million) to fund a two-year program to prevent the transport of drugs to Western Europe via Central Asia, a European Commission member told journalists in Almaty on 11 April, according to Interfax. The program calls for closer cooperation between the interior ministries of the five Central Asian states and intensified controls in the cities of Almaty, Ashgabat, Bishkek, and Tashkent, along with the seaports of Turkmenbashi, Aktau and Atyrau. LF

TAJIK FOREIGN MINISTER DENIES UZBEK MILITANT PRESENCE...

Tajikistan's foreign minister, Talbak Nazarov, told journalists in Bishkek on 11 April following a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart Muratbek ImanAliyev that there are no members of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan on Tajik territory, ITAR-TASS and RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. "They are all on the other side of the Pyanj" river that marks the frontier between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, Nazarov added. Kyrgyz officials have repeatedly claimed in recent weeks that IMU fighters have entered Tajikistan and are gathered on the border ready to launch a new incursion into southern Kyrgyzstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 29 March 2001). LF

...AS KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT DEPUTY CLAIMS ISLAMIC THREAT 'EXAGGERATED'

General Ismail Isakov, who heads the Kyrgyz parliament's Committee on Defense and Security Issues, told RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau on 11 April that he thinks the danger of a new incursion by Islamic militants into Kyrgyzstan is exaggerated. Specifically, he rejected recent estimates by Defense Minister Esen Topoev that some 2,000-2,500 Islamic militants are gathered in Tajikistan. He said it is more likely that there are several such groups of militants numbering no more than 20-30 each. Isakov also said that the debate in the Legislative Assembly (the lower chamber of the bicameral parliament) on last year's fighting ended on 11 April by assessing the Kyrgyz government's actions in response to that invasion as adequate. But the assembly proposed raising the wages of Interior Ministry personnel to bring them in line with those of Defense and Security Ministry officials. Isakov said that some Interior Ministry officials are currently paid only 700 soms ($14) per month while their counterparts in the Defense and Security ministries receive three times that amount. LF

SUSPECTED KILLERS OF TAJIK OFFICIAL ARRESTED

Police in Dushanbe have apprehended an undisclosed number of people suspected of the 11 April killing of First Deputy Interior Minister Habib Sanginov, Russian agencies reported on 12 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 April 2001). Interfax on 11 April quoted an unidentified Tajik Security Ministry official as saying that police have mock-up portraits of the suspected assassins, whose number is variously rumored at between three and eight. President Imomali Rakhmonov has taken personal charge of the investigation into the killing, according to "Vremya novostei" on 12 April. LF

DISSIDENT COMMITTED TO PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL IN UZBEKISTAN

In a move described as "a throwback to the ugliest Soviet repression against the dissident movement of the 1970s," the Uzbek authorities incarcerated Elena Urlaeva, a member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, in a locked ward at Tashkent's main psychiatric hospital on 7 April, according to a 12 April Human Rights Watch press release. A physician who examined Urlaeva on 8 April pronounced her mentally sound. Urlaev was detained while leaving her home in Tashkent the previous day. She had criticized the Uzbek government at a seminar in Warsaw last fall organized by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and has twice been detained by police since the beginning of this year. LF




OSCE GROUP IN BELARUS TO CONTINUE COOPERATION WITH ELECTION MONITORS

Hans Georg Wieck, head of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk, reaffirmed on 11 April that his group is going to cooperate with domestic observers in this year's Belarusian presidential elections, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. Wieck told the Consultative Council of Opposition Political Parties that neither Belarusian legislation nor Belarus's international accords prohibit the OSCE group from such cooperation. Wieck's statement appears to be in response to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's threats the previous day to prevent the West from installing an independent election monitoring system in Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 11 April 2001). According to many commentators, Lukashenka's recent decree on control over foreign gratuitous assistance to Belarus also intends to thwart the OSCE's efforts to form an efficient election monitoring system in the country. JM

UKRAINIAN PREMIER SAYS CABINET PERFORMED WELL IN 2000

Viktor Yushchenko on 12 April said the year 2000 was "unique" for the Ukrainian economy, Interfax reported. Yushchenko noted that in 2000 the country's GDP increased by 6 percent, industrial production by 12.9 percent, and agricultural production by 9.2 percent, in comparison with the previous year. Yushchenko was speaking in Kyiv at "public hearings" of his report on the government's implementation of the program "Reforms for Prosperity," which was adopted last year. The "public hearings" are a rehearsal for Yushchenko's 17 April report to the parliament, after which he is very likely to face a no-confidence vote. Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko has registered with the parliamentary secretariat a motion signed by 222 lawmakers to place a no-confidence vote on the session agenda. The parliament needs 226 votes both to introduce this issue on the agenda and to oust the cabinet. JM

UKRAINIAN SPEAKER TO REMAIN HOSPITALIZED OVER EASTER

Parliamentary Speaker Ivan Plyushch's health is "progressively improving" but Plyushch will continue to be hospitalized over the Easter holidays, Interfax reported on 11 April, quoting a hospital official. Plyushch was hospitalized on 2 March and diagnosed as suffering from radiculitis, the inflammation of the root of a spinal nerve. JM

RUSSIA TO LIFT DOUBLE TARIFFS ON IMPORTS FROM ESTONIA

Estonian Foreign Ministry trade negotiator Mait Martinson and Russian Economics Ministry European department head Ivan Galaktionov initialed the text of a commercial and economic cooperation agreement on 11 April, BNS and ETA reported. The agreement, upon its signing by both parties and its ratification in the Russian parliament, would lead to the abolition of double customs duties that Russia has imposed on imports from Estonia. Ratification in the Estonian parliament is not necessary because similar agreements with other countries have usually been endorsed only by the government. Talks on lifting Russia's double tariffs have been held for seven years, but Russia has a newfound interest in abolishing the double tariffs because they are a hindrance to its aims to join the World Trade Organization by 2004. SG

ESTONIAN PRIME MINISTER WEATHERS NO-CONFIDENCE VOTE

The parliament rejected, by a vote of 43 to 51, a no-confidence motion against Mart Laar on 11 April, BNS reported. The opposition had accused the Laar-led government of nontransparent privatization, neglect of rural and regional policies, and growing unemployment. SG

KALININGRAD-ST. PETERSBURG TRAIN TO BYPASS LATVIA AS OF JUNE

Reacting to the Latvian government's decision on 27 March to cancel a 1993 intergovernmental agreement with Russia under which Russian citizens were not required to obtain visas to cross Latvia in transit by railway, Russia will change the Kaliningrad-St. Petersburg route in order to bypass Latvia, BNS reported on 11 April. Beginning June 10, the route will be: Kaliningrad -- Kybartai (Lithuania) -- Molodechna (Belarus) -- Polotsk -- Dno (Russia) -- St. Petersburg. The fare will be reduced to 750 rubles ($26) from the previous 825 rubles. The Latvian Foreign Ministry has only informally, and not yet officially, notified Russia about the cancellation of the visa-free agreement. SG

UNDP, LATVIA SIGN AGREEMENT ON FINANCING PUBLIC INTEGRATION PROGRAM

Latvian Justice Minister Ingrida Labucka, Minister for International Financial Affairs Roberts Zile, and UN Development Program (UNDP) Representative in Latvia Jan Soerensen, on 11 April signed a joint agreement on attracting nongovernmental organization and foreign donor funding for the implementation of the national program "Social Integration in Latvia," LETA reported. The UNDP will provide $100,000 for the program and raise another $320,000 to assist the government in coordinating social integration policies, developing and implementing projects, putting a monitoring mechanism in place, and informing the public about integration issues. The Latvian government approved the program on 6 February and established a Public Integration Department under the Justice Ministry to coordinate the integration process. According to the Naturalization Board, there are more than 551,000 noncitizens in Latvia, most of whom are Russians. SG

LITHUANIAN POLITICIANS REACH PARTIAL COMPROMISE OVER LISCO SALE

Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas parliamentary party representatives reached a partial compromise on 11 April over the privatization of the Lithuanian Shipping Company (LISCO), BNS reported. Leftist opposition deputies had proposed a three-month moratorium on the company's sale and expressed support for its sale to the national road carriers' association, LINAVA. It was agreed that government officials, representatives from the State Property Fund (SPF), and representatives from LINAVA, shall meet to go over the LISCO privatization agreement with the Danish company DFDS Tor Line once again to ensure that local carriers' interests will be protected. DFDS Tor Line agreed to allow LINAVA a representative on the LISCO board, and suggested that LISCO's most profitable component, its tramp fleet, remain at the disposal of the government with an eye on its eventual privatization. SG

POLAND EASES EU NEGOTIATING POSITION ON VAT

Deputy Finance Minister Krzysztof Ners on 11 April said Poland has eased its EU membership negotiating position in the area of introducing VAT on books, specialist periodicals, tobacco, and unleaded fuel, PAP reported. Poland's main EU negotiator, Jan Kulakowski, announced the same day that more concessions in the EU talks are in the offing. "We are also working on modifying negotiating positions in the areas of energy, transport, and the law on companies," Reuters quoted him as saying. Kulakowski added that Poland will not meet its goal of completing negotiations in 11 out of the total of 29 areas during Sweden's presidency, which ends in June. "We have closed two chapters during Stockholm's presidency and maybe we will close several more," he said. Poland has not yet begun the potentially most contentious negotiation issues: farming, free movement of workers, and land purchases. JM

POLAND'S FORMER SPORTS MINISTER SHOT DEAD

Jacek Debski, Poland's former sports minister, died on 12 April after he was shot in the head with a pistol by an unknown assailant in Warsaw the previous day, AP reported. Debski, a member of Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS), served as sports minister from 1997 until February 2000. Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek fired Debski after he gave an interview in which he accused "an AWS high-ranking official" of illegally searching for evidence that could compromise President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who was sports minister under the communist regime from 1985-87. JM

POLISH FARMERS PLEDGE TO CAMPAIGN WITH NURSES FOR PARLIAMENT...

The opposition Peasant Party on 11 April signed a declaration with the National Trade Union of Nurses and Midwives to run jointly in this fall's parliamentary elections. The declaration was joined by the Polish State Imperative (Polska Racja Stanu), a minor party. JM

...THREATEN TO PROTEST EU REPORT ON BSE IN BRUSSELS

Wladyslaw Serafin, head of the National Union of Farmers, Farming Circles and Organizations, warned on 11 April that if the EU fails to withdraw its report presenting Poland as a country threatened by mad cow disease (BSE) by the end of April, the farmers will protest in front of EU headquarters in Warsaw or will go to Brussels if need be, PAP reported. According to Serafin, the EU report has reduced the demand for beef in Poland by 70 percent, while inflicting losses on some 50,000 Polish farms. Meanwhile, the government has allocated some $4 million to help minimize the possibilities of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease occurring in Poland. JM

CZECH INTERIOR MINISTER: EXTREMISM WILL BE 'MAIN PRIORITY'

In the face of mounting criticism over police inaction at a 7 April concert near Prague attended by about 400 neo-Nazi skinheads (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 April 2001), Interior Minister Stanislav Gross told CTK on 11 April that "the fight with extremists is becoming for me one of the main priorities." Calls for a more "vehement" approach by police toward extremists came in the Chamber of Deputies from former interior ministers Vaclav Grulich, of Gross's own Social Democrats, and Christian Democrat Cyril Svoboda, while the Association of Liberated Political Prisoners and Survivors called on Gross not to allow "further meetings of neo-Nazis and skinheads...in the Czech Republic." President Vaclav Havel said he was shocked by the indifferent approach of the police regarding such demonstrations of racism. "I hope that the role of the police will be investigated properly in this case," he said. DW

AUSTRIAN OFFICIALS: TEMELIN REPORT INCOMPLETE

Upper Austrian Governor Josef Puehringer called the environmental impact study on the Temelin nuclear power plant released on 10 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 April 2001) incomplete, CTK reported. He said his government would only accept "full documentation," and called on the federal Environment Ministry to study the report thoroughly. Upper Austrian Environment Minister Ursula Haubner expressed a similar opinion, saying "our concerns have been confirmed, and the report about Temelin is incomplete." Also, the Czech environmental group South Bohemian Mothers criticized the report's preparation, calling it "entirely nontransparent," and arguing that "it is evident that the final stand was outlined beforehand." DW

CZECH MEDIA LAW COULD 'LIQUIDATE' SMALLER PRIVATE TV

A requirement in the media bill approved by the Chamber of Deputies on 10 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 April 2001) that broadcasters pay an administrative fee of 200 million crowns ($5.3 million) to extend their licenses "would almost liquidate us," Prima TV spokeswoman Jana Malikova told CTK on 11 April. A spokesman for Vladimir Zelezny, owner of Nova TV, the most popular private station, said that Nova expects long-term profitability, but the bill "would certainly affect development plans." Jan Vavra of CNTS, Nova's former service provider that has been in legal conflict with Zelezny since 1999 for control of the station, said the bill would ensure Zelezny tens of billions of crowns in profit, so the initial payment of 200 million crowns is acceptable. DW

SLOVAK CABINET MOVES TO TIGHTEN UP PUNISHMENT OF LAWBREAKERS

The government on 11 April approved a draft bill that calls for more stringent punishment of criminals and reacts to new forms of crime, CTK and TASR reported. The document lowers the financial damage classified as a criminal offence from the present 8,800 crowns ($180) to 4,400 crowns; allows for the prosecution of offences committed with a fake weapon; and lengthens prison terms for corruption. The document defines a new criminal offence called "sexual violence," providing for the prosecution of violent sexual practices other than coitus. It also enlarges the definition of racially motivated attacks to include those committed against Roma. In line with a recent treaty signed with the Vatican, the draft bill allows priests to refuse to give testimony based on evidence heard during confession. JM

SLOVAK PREMIER SEEKS TO AVERT STRIKE OF TEACHERS, DOCTORS

Mikulas Dzurinda promised teachers and doctors on 11 April to find money to increase their salaries by 10 May in order to prevent impending strikes, CTK reported. The Trade Association of Education and Science Workers threatened the government with a strike by elementary and secondary teachers as of 15 May unless the government finds 1 billion crowns ($20.4 million) to improve the situation. The agency added that Slovak doctors are also preparing similar protests "within the limits or on the verge of the law." Teachers are the worst paid category of budget employees in Slovakia. Their average wage was 8,990 crowns last year, 2,500 crowns fewer than the national average in Slovakia. JM

HUNGARY WILL NOT CLOSE PAPA AIR BASE

The government's National Security Committee on 11 April decided not to close down the military air base in Papa, despite a Defense Ministry decision last year that the continued maintenance of the military airport would be too costly. In September 2000 the ministry asked NATO to redirect funds designated for upgrading the Papa air base to the Taszar air base, as it considered that, with the withdrawal of Hungary's aged MiG-21 fighters, the air base in Papa would need to be closed. The Taszar air base will be used exclusively by U.S. forces. Defense Minister Janos Szabo told reporters that NATO-compatible fighters will be deployed at Papa, Hungarian media reported. MSZ

HUNGARY, CROATIA DIFFER OVER HYDROPOWER PLANT PROJECT

Hungarian Environmental Minister Bela Turi-Kovacs and his visiting Croatian counterpart Bozidar Kovacevic, meeting on 11 April in Pecs, failed to agree on a hydropower plant that Croatia plans to build on the Drava River, close to the Hungarian border. Croatia's parliament has already approved the project, which Hungary has been opposed to throughout. Turi-Kovacs said he hopes that neither country wants to cause irreversible environmental damage to the region. The two ministers agreed to meet again in May to discuss the issue. MSZ




POWELL PLEDGES U.S. COMMITMENT TO BALKANS

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters at a meeting of the six-nation Contact Group in Paris on 11 April that the U.S. remains politically and militarily committed to an active role in the Balkans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 April 2001). He said: "We do intend to remain engaged politically in the Balkans." Referring to Washington's military role in stabilizing the troubled region, Powell added that "there is no end point [to the U.S. commitment]... We are looking for opportunities to draw down [the size of the American force in the region] but not for opportunities to bail out," AP reported. PM

CONTACT GROUP CALLS FOR SERBIAN-MONTENEGRIN DIALOGUE, ELECTIONS IN KOSOVA

The foreign ministers of the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, and Russia agreed in Paris on 11 April to support a continued dialogue between Serbia and Montenegro as well as a "democratic Montenegro in the framework of a democratic Yugoslavia," the private Beta news agency reported. The ministers pledged political, economic, and financial assistance to Podgorica to achieve that end. They noted that elections in Kosova this year will be "the key factor" for promoting democracy in Kosova and stability in the region. The ministers urged KFOR and the UN civilian administration in Kosova to take "decisive action against extremists" and called on the Macedonian authorities to "continue to show restraint in response to terrorist attacks." The six diplomats hailed progress toward democracy in Croatia and Yugoslavia and expressed support for SFOR and the representatives of the international community in their dealings with Herzegovinian Croat hard-liners. PM

MAJOR BALKAN DIPLOMATIC GATHERING IN SKOPJE

A group of Balkan and other officials are slated to meet on 12 April in Skopje to discuss the situation in Macedonia and the entire region. Macedonian Foreign Minister Srdjan Kerim says foreign ministers from Yugoslavia, Croatia, Albania, Bosnia, Slovenia, Greece, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria are due to attend. Also taking part will be U.S. Secretary of State Powell and European Union foreign and security policy chief Javier Solana, RFE/RL reported. NCA/PM

REGIONAL TRANSPORT AGREEMENT SIGNED IN SKOPJE

Representatives of leading transportation companies from Macedonia, Croatia, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Slovenia signed a protocol in Skopje on 11 April in which they called for a unified transportation policy in the region, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. They called for simplified customs procedures and other measures aimed at reducing the costs and time involved with transportation in the region. PM

ROW OVER ALBANIAN CENSUS

A Macedonian government spokesman said in Skopje on 11 April that the Albanian authorities are wrong to reject demands by the Greek and Macedonian minorities for including questions on religion and national origin on forms for the census that got under way on 1 April, dpa reported. The Greek minority is planning to boycott the census, AP reported from Tirana on 12 April. Greek minority spokesmen note that Albania will not extend the same rights to its minorities as those it demands that Macedonia show toward its ethnic Albanians. Prime Minister Ilir Meta said "the government is ready to make improvements at a later stage, in accordance with international criteria." Census officials said that the purpose of the survey is to compile economic and social data but did not give a clear reason as to why questions about ethnicity and religion are not included. PM

ALBANIAN GOVERNMENT IN SLOW BATTLE AGAINST ILLEGAL WEAPONS

A Public Order Ministry spokesman said in Tirana on 12 April that the authorities have been able to collect only 160,000 out of an estimated 500,000 illegal weapons across the country. He added that some 120,000 weapons have probably been smuggled abroad since mobs looted government arsenals in the wake of the spring 1997 collapse of a pyramid investment system. The government has extended the deadline for completing the collection program from August 2000 to August 2002, dpa said. A special 250-strong police task force is in charge of the effort. PM

KFOR COMMANDER PLEDGES 'ROBUST RESPONSE' AFTER RUSSIAN IS KILLED

Norwegian General Thorstein Skiaker, who is KFOR's new commander, said in Prishtina on 12 April that the Russian soldier killed by an unidentified gunman the previous day was the first KFOR soldier to die from hostile gunfire, Reuters reported. Skiaker promised that "KFOR will not be distracted from its mission" and that there will be an unspecified "appropriate, robust, and proportionate response." The incident took place on the border with the Medvedja area of southern Serbia. Local ethnic Albanian guerrilla spokesman Sejdullah Kadriu said that he knows nothing of the incident. He added, however, that the area is "very tense because the deployment of Yugoslav forces in villages in the Medvedja and Vranje municipalities is supposed to start [soon]." Ethnic Albanian leaders in Presevo and Kosova have previously warned that an increased Yugoslav military presence in the area will have a destabilizing effect. PM

SERBIA'S MILOSEVIC HOSPITALIZED

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was taken from jail to a hospital in Belgrade on 11 April after complaining of chest pains. Toma Fila, who is his lawyer, said "there were heart problems that necessitated his transfer to the military hospital in Belgrade. It was nothing too dramatic." But Milosevic aide and Socialist Party leader Branislav Ivkovic stressed that "like any other innocent man who is unjustly accused, the injustice strikes directly at the heart" of Milosevic, AP reported. It is not clear whether Milosevic's backers would consent to his being transferred to a world-class medical facility in, for example, the Netherlands. In The Hague, a spokesman for the war crimes tribunal said on 11 April that Milosevic must be sent to The Hague for trial at the first opportunity, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. PM

SERBIAN REFUGEE TALLY

Preliminary results of a new survey show that there are some 420,000 refugees from Bosnia or Croatia in Serbia, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported on 11 April. Some 360,000 of them have formal refugee status. The rest have either become Yugoslav citizens, are Yugoslav army personnel from former Yugoslav republics, or have not requested any special status. PM

BOSNIAN CROAT TENSIONS CONTINUE

Defense Minister Mijo Anic told the federal parliament on 11 April that the hard-liners responsible for the recent riots in Herzegovina are now concentrating their activities in Orasje in the northern Bosnian Posavina region, AP reported. There is a SFOR barracks in the town. The local Croatian commander, Tomo Knezevic, unexpectedly switched sides from the government to the hard-liners. Some media reports suggested that hard-liners put him and other Croatian officers in the Bosnian army under personal pressure by threatening their families. Anic said, however, that he still counts on the support of most Croats in the military, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. He added that he is considering starting legal proceedings against those he regards as responsible for causing trouble within the military. PM

SLOVENIAN AND CROATIAN LEADERS FAIL TO SOLVE DISPUTES

Meeting in Otocec na Krki on 11 April, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek and his Croatian counterpart Ivica Racan failed to agree on solutions for several problems that have bedeviled bilateral relations since gaining independence in 1991. The issues include Slovenia's maritime border in the Gulf of Piran; the fate of Croatian deposits in Slovenia's Ljubljanska Banka; and a division of the costs, responsibilities, and benefits involving the nuclear facility at Krsko, Slovenia. The two men pledged to "intensify" the work of expert commissions dealing with the individual issues. They said that they might then seek international arbitration if their experts cannot agree. Racan returned to Drnovsek an intelligence-gathering van that Croatian authorities captured on Croatian territory in 1998. But Slovenian customs officials seized the vehicle, saying that it cannot legally enter the country because it has no license plates, "Jutarnji list" reported. PM

CROATIAN LOCAL ELECTION DATE SET

Racan and the government agreed on 12 April that local elections will take place on 20 May, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 April 2001). The vote is expected to lead to a shake-up in both the cabinet and the governing coalition. PM

ROMANIAN LAW ON STATE SECRETS DECLARED UNCONSTITUTIONAL

The Romanian Constitutional Court decided on 11 April that the recently adopted Law on State Secrets is unconstitutional, Mediafax reported. The court ruled that the law was adopted after voting and mediation procedures between the two chambers of parliament were breached. The law was contested on 14 March by 62 deputies from opposition parties. President Ion Iliescu said on 5 April that he wants to send the controversial law back to the legislature, as he believes it must be "correlated" with pending legislation on free access to information. Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department expressed concerns about the possible "abusive limitation of the right to free access to information" and about infringements of "the right to privacy" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 April 2001). The court also decided to postpone a decision on the Law on Local Public Administration, which has been contested by 74 deputies, until 19 April. ZsM

BANCA AGRICOLA SALE APPROVED

The Romanian government approved the selling of Banca Agricola on 11 April, Mediafax reported. The government approved the privatization contract by which control of the bank would be handed over to a partnership between the Romanian-American Investment Fund and Raiffeisen Zentralbank Austria. The contract is to be ratified on 20 April. ZsM

OSCE, COUNCIL OF EUROPE LEADERS CALL ON RUSSIA TO WITHDRAW TRANSDNIESTER TROOPS

The leaders of the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and their parliamentary assemblies called on Russia during an 11 April meeting in Bucharest to meet the deadline to evacuate its heavy weapons from the Transdniester region by the end of 2001, Mediafax reported. Mircea Geoana, who currently holds the OSCE chair, and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Chairman Adrian Severin said Russia should meet its commitments set by the 1999 OSCE Istanbul summit. Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer added that the withdrawal of the Russian army's 14th division is an international obligation assumed by Russia toward the Council of Europe as well. ZsM

FORMER BULGARIAN KING BEGINS ELECTION CAMPAIGN...

King Simeon II opened his election campaign on 11 April with a visit to the Danube town of Russe, Reuters reported. King Simeon, who heads the new political party the National Movement for Simeon II, was met by a few thousand people chanting his name and showering him with flowers as he and his wife Margarita went to the town hall for a meeting with city officials. The king said he is "not a magician" but that with the support of the people he could achieve many things, the daily "Monitor" reported. He added that "to me, the formula of political consensus is a cherished ideal." King Simeon II previously promised that his party would fight corruption and significantly raise living standards within 800 days if it came to power. Opinion polls show the king's party receiving as much as 50 percent support from prospective voters. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 17 June. PB

...AS PRESIDENT COMMENTS ON MONARCH'S ENTRY INTO POLITICS

Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov said on 11 April that he welcomes the addition of King Simeon II's party into the country's political scene, "Monitor" reported. Stoyanov said that as president he is "glad to see the emergence of any new party or movement that pledges to work for the welfare of Bulgaria. Evidently Bulgarian political life needed fresh ideas and new faces." Asked his thoughts on Bulgaria holding a referendum on reestablishing the monarchy, Stoyanov said he is not convinced that society is interested in the issue. PB




KEY WEST: SEEKING RESOLUTION OR SIDELINING RUSSIA?


By Richard Giragosian

In a symbolic gesture marking the conclusion of the latest round of mediation seeking a negotiated resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, U.S. President George Bush welcomed the Armenian and Azerbaijan presidents in separate White House meetings on 9 April. Those meetings followed an intensive round of talks in Key West, Florida, brokered by the representatives of the three co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) special working group on the Karabakh conflict, the "Minsk Group."

Led by Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov, and French Ambassador Jean-Jacques Gaillarde, the four-day round of talks was officially characterized as "a bold and significant step forward." The negotiations are slated to reconvene in Geneva to study a new comprehensive OSCE peace plan in June with the possible inclusion of representatives from the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. The OSCE talks, although following a series of fifteen direct meetings between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents, were the first time that the Minsk Group officials met with the Armenians and Azerbaijanis at the same time.

The thrust of the Key West talks centered on the concept of "conflict economics," focusing on the economics of the region as both promise and peril. The economic incentives are based on a planned World Bank assessment to provide the framework for an international donors' conference to finance regional reconstruction and promote economic reintegration once a settlement has been reached. This emphasis on the economics of the conflict also reflects subtle developments in the region. These subtle changes follow a shift in domestic pressures from political to economic challenges in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic itself.

The most visible change in the region is the recent Turkish economic crisis. The severe economic downturn in Turkey has abruptly deflated Washington's long-standing advocacy of the proposed Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, seriously questioning the Turkish ability to abide by its pledge to meet additional costs if the initial $2.5 billion estimate proves too low. This development has also strengthened the appeal of the promises of Western regional reconstruction and assistance as incentives for settlement. These developments also demonstrate the futility of relying on the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline a major factor for regional stability and integration, a futility ignored by the Clinton Administration for some time.

For Armenia, the most serious challenges facing President Robert Kocharian are not political, but economic. These economic challenges are both internal, as seen by the serious exodus of Armenian citizens seeking employment abroad in recent years, and external, as demonstrated by the crippling blockade of the landlocked country by Azerbaijan and Turkey. Having weathered several domestic political crises, Kocharian must now overcome Armenia's economic vulnerability. Realizing this, Kocharian has already demonstrated both a willingness for dialogue, evidenced by his meetings with his Azerbaijani counterpart, and a willingness to negotiate, as seen by his recent selective leaking of peace plan details to prepare Armenian public opinion for a possible resolution.

In Azerbaijan, the key to stability increasingly lies with the economics of conflict resolution. And stability is essential to allow President Heidar Aliyev to install his son Ilham as his successor. Overcoming the population's general frustration with its failure to benefit from the hoped-for wealth generated by Caspian oil will be vital to ensuring a degree of transitional stability and legitimacy. The concentration of the oil profits in the hands of a small political elite centered around the president has only exacerbated the divide between the Azerbaijani elite and society, further undermining the Aliyev regime.

Aliyev has negated domestic political challenges by deftly challenging the opposition to propose their own alternatives for resolving the Karabakh conflict. And when the opposition could offer no more than the tired rhetoric of war, Aliyev effectively dislodged them from the politically comfortable position of opposition without proposition. But marginalizing the political opposition does not meet the challenges posed by the mounting economic disparities, corruption and increasing social protest in the country.

Both the recent French initiative, as seen by the Paris talks in early March, and now Washington's Key West talks, represent an attempt to counter the last three months of Russian activity in the Transcaucasus. The state visits to Azerbaijan and Iran by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the planned summit meeting on the division of the Caspian Sea, and Moscow's coercive pressure on Georgia are all aspects of the new assertive Russian approach to the region.

The revamping of Moscow's strategic policy regarding the Transcaucasus has spurred the U.S. to hurriedly counter the Russian diplomatic offensive. Following an unprecedented meeting in late March with Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov's foreign minister, Ilyas Akhmadov, the Bush team has demonstrated a subtle, but significant, policy shift placing the Transcaucasus within the overall rubric of U.S.-Russian relations. Seen in this light, the Key West model represents a U.S. attempt to garner much more than a resolution to the protracted, yet contained, Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The Key West talks actually signal an ambitious U.S. effort to secure regional dominance to overcome the Caspian puzzle of ports and pipelines. Closing the Key West talks with the announcement that it will convey the results of the talks to non-OSCE member Iran, "an important player in the region," the U.S. is seeking to outflank Russia by extending an opening to Iran.

Given Iran's role in the region, and its strategic importance as the only regional power bordering Armenia, Azerbaijan, and territories controlled by the Karabakh armed forces, this may well signal a more comprehensive initiative to engage Iran. Such a move would also show support for Iran's reformist president prior to upcoming elections and could allow Washington to utilize Iran, which borders both the Caspian and the Persian Gulf, as an export route for Caspian oil, thereby bypassing Russian territory. Richard Giragosian is the editor of the monthly newsletter "TransCaucasus: A Chronology."


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