PUTIN AGAIN CRITICIZES THE U.S.-LED COALITION OVER IRAQ...
President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Tony Blair held a two-hour meeting on 29 April at the presidential residence outside of Moscow, Russian and international media reported. While the meeting was widely seen as an attempt to mend fences, Putin continued to be critical of U.S.-U.K. policy toward Iraq and the world at large. During a joint press conference, Putin iterated that sanctions against Iraq should not be lifted "until clarity is achieved over whether weapons of mass destruction exist" there, "The Guardian" reported on 30 April. "Where is Saddam," he added. "Where are those arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, if indeed they ever existed?" Putin also said he will oppose a status quo in which global-security decisions are made "by just one member of the international community." Like their Western counterparts, Russian media stressed the tension at the Putin-Blair meeting. The two leaders "did not manage to agree on a single key issue -- neither on Iraq's postwar settlement nor Iraq's debts to Russia nor the issue of...[lifting UN] sanctions," gazeta.ru wrote on 29 April. JB
...WHILE CALLING FOR A RETURN OF UN WEAPONS INSPECTORS
During his joint press conference with Prime Minister Blair, President Putin said the UN Security Council has the exclusive right to determine whether Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction and that UN weapons inspectors should return to Iraq, Russian and Western media reported. The UN's role in postwar Iraq, Putin argued, should not simply be reestablished, but strengthened. Rather than lifting international economic sanctions against Iraq, Putin said, the UN's oil-for-food program should be resumed. He also said the issue of Iraq's $8 billion debt to Russia can only be resolved after "careful study," ITAR-TASS reported on 29 November. "We are on the whole not against discussion, but in any case [the debt] must be discussed within the framework of the Paris Club" of creditor nations, Putin said. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said Iraq should honor its debt to Russia, given that deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime was "recognized by the international community," Interfax reported on 29 April. The nearly 300 prominent Iraqis who attended a U.S.-sponsored postwar-planning meeting in Baghdad on 28 April insisted that the Hussein regime's foreign debts be forgiven, "Izvestiya" reported on 29 April. JB
DUMA REVISITS WITNESS PROTECTION...
Russia continues work on modernizing its witness-protection program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 August and 26 September 2002), RosBalt reported on 26 April. At the end of March, President Putin sent the Duma a draft law on state protection of victims, witnesses, and other participants in criminal legal proceedings that would move Russia closer to Western practice in protecting crime victims, witnesses, and their families. According to the Interior Ministry, around one-quarter of the 10 million Russians who come forward as crime witnesses each year subsequently change their testimony, often as a result of threats against them or members of their family. The incidence of threats against victims and witnesses has "sharply increased" over the last decade, Mikhail Mikhailovskii, deputy chairman of the Federation Council's Legal and Judicial Affairs Committee, told RosBalt. "As a result, insurmountable difficulties are created in collecting evidence, criminal cases lose their prospects, and criminals more and more often manage to avoid being brought to justice," he said. The proposed legislation would increase funding for providing crime victims, witnesses, and their families with guards, new residences, new identity documents, and even plastic surgery. JB
...WHILE 'NOVAYA GAZETA' EXPLORES THE MARKET FOR HIRED KILLERS
"Depending on the professionalism of the contract killer and on the status of the victim and how well-protected he or she is, a person contracting a murder in Russia will pay roughly $10,000 to $30,000," according to an investigative report called "A Survey of the Russian Killers Market" published in "Novaya gazeta," No. 30. The report's author, Roman Shleinov, writes that hired guns fall into three categories. The first are the "distinguished professionals" who once worked for the Soviet KGB's special units. The second category consists of simple "professionals" who are generally former police officers or veterans of military special forces who served in various "hot spots." The third category is made up of ordinary criminals who are often disposed of after a hit is carried out. The reasons for the persistence of contract killings in Russia, Shleinov writes, include the huge size of a shadow economy that operates outside the law and the courts, the fact that "no one trusts the Russian police, prosecutors, or the courts," and the fact that the wars in Chechnya have created a large pool of "professionals ready to kill." JB
YABLOKO CALLS ON ENERGY CHIEF TO RESIGN, AS GOVERNMENT EXTENDS HIS CONTRACT
Some 100 demonstrators from the Yabloko party marked the fifth anniversary of Anatolii Chubais's appointment as Unified Energy Systems (EES) CEO by calling for him to resign, Ekho Moskvy reported on 29 April. However, the Russian government the same day extended Chubais's contract until 2008, although it is not yet clear whether the chairman of the EES board, presidential chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin, has signed the extension yet, "The Moscow Times" reported on 30 April. At the Yabloko protest, party Deputy Chairman Sergei Mitrokhin alleged that Chubais's tenure has been marked by steep rises in electricity tariffs, while company resources are spent on luxurious offices and political parties such as the Union of Rightist Forces, of which Chubais is a leading figure. EES issued a statement on 29 April saying that Chubais is aware of Yabloko's position, but feels that he must stay on at EES until energy-sector reform is completed, "The Moscow Times" reported. LB/RC
TYCOON SEEKING EXTRAORDINARY CONGRESS OF LIBERAL RUSSIA
Self-exiled businessman Boris Berezovskii has appealed to members of Liberal Russia to hold an extraordinary party congress in June, Ekho Moskvy and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 29 April. Berezovskii was the leading financial backer of Liberal Russia until party leaders expelled him in October. He told Ekho Moskvy that the party must call a congress in light of the 17 April slaying of party co-Chairman Sergei Yushenkov. According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Berezovskii was reacting to Liberal Russia co-Chairman Viktor Pokhmelkin's recent proposal to create an electoral bloc of liberal-democratic forces to contest the December State Duma elections. Pokhmelkin told Ekho Moskvy that Berezovskii lacks the legal or moral right to appeal to party members since he has been expelled. However, the leaders of many regional branches of Liberal Russia disagreed with the decision to expel Berezovskii and might heed his call to convene a party congress. LB
RADICAL PARTY HOLDS FOUNDING CONGRESS
The National Bolshevik Party, which is headed by writer Eduard Limonov, held its founding congress in Moscow on 28 April, with activists determined to try once more to obtain official registration, NTV reported. The Justice Ministry has denied registration to Limonov's party five times, citing the party's alleged extremism. Under the law on political parties, "Justice Ministry bureaucrats should check the [submitted] documents," party Chairman Anatolii Tishin said. "They should not decide who is an extremist and who is not." Limonov could not attend the congress since he is serving a four-year prison term after being convicted of an illegal weapons purchase (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 April 2003). However, "Gazeta" on 29 April quoted Limonov's lawyer, Sergei Belyak, as saying his client is likely to be released this summer or autumn, because he will have served more than half his sentence since his time spent in pretrial detention is counted and because he has displayed good behavior while in custody. LB
COURTS REJECT MORE LAWSUITS STEMMING FROM HOSTAGE CRISIS
The Moscow Municipal Court on 28 April rejected three lawsuits filed against city authorities by victims of the 23-26 October theater hostage taking, Russian media reported. A lower court had already rejected the plaintiffs' suits, which sought compensation for damages suffered during the incident. City authorities have maintained that the terrorists who were directly responsible for hostages' suffering should pay any damages. The city court's ruling in effect doomed similar court cases filed by 58 other victims, and on 29 April, a Moscow district court rejected 20 of those lawsuits, NTV and TVS reported. LB
JOURNALIST CHALLENGES MEDIA RESTRICTIONS IN ELECTION LAW
"Vremya-MN" journalist Konstantin Kotanyan on 25 April appealed to the Constitutional Court to strike down portions of the law on basic guarantees of electoral rights, "Vremya-MN" reported on 26 April. One section of the law restricts the right to engage in "campaign agitation" for or against candidates to the candidates themselves. Kotanyan's lawsuit charges that the law in effect bars citizens, including journalists, from distributing any information about candidates, thereby limiting political discussions in media coverage of the campaign. It cites a 1998 decision by the European Court of Human Rights stating that free speech and free elections are interconnected and that all information and views should be allowed to circulate during election campaigns. Russian election law has long restricted the rights of journalists to comment on candidates and parties and has been condemned by journalists and media watchdogs. But that prohibition has not been widely enforced during previous election cycles. LB
'ZAVTRA' SUES MEDIA MINISTRY
A Moscow district court is hearing a lawsuit by the weekly "Zavtra" against the Media Ministry, which in February issued an official warning accusing the newspaper of extremism, TVS reported on 29 April. The warning charged that the weekly violated the media law's prohibition against inciting ethnic hatred by publishing a discussion between "Zavtra" Editor in Chief Aleksandr Prokhanov and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's envoy Akhmed Zakaev, who is fighting extradition to Russia from Great Britain. Prokhanov on 29 April said he had been serving as a peacemaker and said the warning was an attempt to suppress free thought. LB
NORILSK MAYORAL CAMPAIGN DISINTEGRATES
The Norilsk Election Commission has set 19 October as the date for a new election for city mayor after all the candidates who participated in the first round of voting on 20 April were either disqualified or withdrew from the 4 May second round, newsru.com and other media reported on 30 April. On 28 April, the Norilsk Municipal Court disqualified trade-union leader Valerii Melnikov, who came in first in the first round with just over 47 percent of the vote. The court ruled that Melnikov's campaign had committed "numerous violations," including financial irregularities and violations of rules concerning campaigning on television. The following day, second-place contender Norilsk City Council Chairman Sergei Shmakov, who garnered 31 percent in the first round, withdrew from the race, Interfax reported. Shmakov said that he did not want to participate in a "no-choice" election, and told TVS on 29 April that voters should be able to decide among the candidates in an "honest, open contest." Also on 29 April, third-place candidate Leonid Fraiman, deputy head of Norilsk Nickel's Zapolyarnyi branch, was certified to participate in the runoff, but he withdrew from the race as well. Fraiman received just 2.8 percent of the 20 April vote. The fourth-place candidate, lawyer Aleksandr Gliskov, who polled just over 1 percent in the first round, was then certified to participate as the only candidate in the runoff, newsru.com reported. However, he also withdrew from the race the same day. LB/RC
CHECHEN FIGHTERS: BACK TO BASICS?
Fighters operating in Chechnya's mountains have been stretching ropes and cables across mountain gorges that are in the likely flight paths of Russian military helicopters, Interfax reported on 28 April, citing anonymous Russian military sources in the republic. The Chechens are also increasingly firing at choppers with automatic weapons from the ground and have fired at helicopters five times from 20-27 April. Given that Chechen fighters shot down six helicopters using shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles during a two-month period last autumn (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 7 November 2002), the reversion to lower-tech methods suggests the rebels might have fallen on harder times. Chechen President Maskhadov denied this week that his forces are having problems acquiring weapons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2003). Meanwhile, two members of a combined police unit from Kirov Oblast were seriously injured in Grozny when a mine blew up the minibus they were traveling in. The other eight police officers in the vehicle apparently escaped serious injury because it was armored. JB
MSF CLAIMS DISPLACED CHECHENS AFRAID TO GO HOME...
A survey by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has found that the vast majority of displaced persons who have fled Chechnya are too scared to return, Reuters reported on 28 April. The survey, which the international aid group conducted in February and March among 3,209 Chechen families living in displaced-persons camps in neighboring Ingushetia -- a total of 16,499 people -- found that more than 98 percent of the families have no plans to return to Chechnya and that 93 percent believe they would be in danger if they did. The survey concluded that those who have returned to Chechnya were placed "under tremendous pressure" to do so. President Putin's envoy for human rights in Chechnya, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, called the MSF survey a "provocation" and said the assertion that more than 90 percent of displaced Chechens in Ingushetia do not want return home is "a pure lie," Interfax reported on 29 April. The news agency also quoted Joseph Gyorke, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' representative in Russia, as saying more and more displaced persons are voluntarily returning to Chechnya and as denying that they were being forced to do so. JB
...AS AUDIT CHAMBER HEAD SAYS GROZNY RESEMBLES STALINGRAD'S RUINS
Sergei Stepashin, in a 26 April interview with RTR, painted a depressing picture of the efforts -- or the lack thereof -- to rebuild war-torn Chechnya. Stepashin, who recently visited Chechnya to investigate how federal funds are being used in the republic, said he found that 366 million rubles ($11.8 million) in federal funds have been lost due to accounting errors and ineffective or wasteful spending. In one case, he said, 46 million rubles were used to finance a soccer team. Another 20 million rubles, Stepashin said, were stolen outright. While 95 percent of the federal funds earmarked for Chechnya have been used, he said, only 30 percent of the republic's facilities have been repaired, with hardly any industrial enterprises among them. Only a few of Grozny's buildings are undamaged, while the rest of the city resembles the "ruins of Stalingrad" and creates an "oppressive impression," Stepashin said. JB
ARMENIAN COMMISSION REPORT REVEALS MONOPOLY FIRMS LINKED TO DEFENSE MINISTER
The Armenian state Commission to Protect Economic Competition released its annual report on 29 April revealing the extent of several firms' monopoly holds over several sectors of the economy and that many have strong ties to government officials, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The report detailed several cases of corporate monopolies, most notably that the offshore company Mika Limited accounted for 78 percent of all gasoline imported into Armenia in 2002. The firm's owner, Russian-Armenian businessman Mikhail Baghdasarov, is widely believed to be a close associate of Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. The report also expressed concern over possible unfair business practices, noting that the number of firms engaged in importing gasoline has fallen sharply from 25 firms to just 12 over the past three years. Another firm identified in the report, Samvel Aleksanian's Astghatsuyts group, was reported to control 96 percent of all imports of sugar and 78 percent of all alcohol and spirits imports for 2002. Aleksanian is currently running unopposed for a seat in the Armenian parliament. RG
NATO OFFICIAL REVIEWS PREPARATIONS FOR MILITARY EXERCISES IN ARMENIA
Arriving in Yerevan on 29 April, NATO's Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral Rainer Feist of Germany, met with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Defense Minister Sarkisian to review final preparations for NATO military exercises scheduled for next month in Armenia, according to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau. The NATO exercises, named "Cooperative Best Effort 2003," will involve units from 17 countries in a 10-day military exercise held under the NATO Partnership for Peace program. Armenian Army Chief of Staff General Mikael Harutiunian confirmed that a detachment of Turkish troops will also be participating in the NATO exercises, although they will be limited to observer status. RG
OPPOSITION JOURNALIST ASSAULTED IN YEREVAN
A journalist working for a minor opposition newspaper was assaulted in his office on 29 April by a group of unknown assailants who fled the scene, according to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau. The victim, Mher Ghalechian, is a correspondent for the small opposition "Chorrord Iskhanutyun" newspaper, which is widely held to be one of the strongest critics of the Armenian government and which strongly supports former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian. Ghalechian accused National Security Minister Karlos Petrosian of organizing the assault, allegedly in response to an article criticizing the minister. RG
OSCE LAUNCHES PRELIMINARY MONITORING EFFORT FOR UPCOMING ARMENIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Officials of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced on 28 April that they have begun preparations for comprehensive monitoring of the Armenian parliamentary election scheduled for 25 May, according to Azg and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau. The American head of the OSCE monitoring team, Ambassador Robert Barry, urged the Armenian government to ensure "greater transparency" in the election's vote count and "more balanced" media coverage of the campaign, especially after the voting irregularities reported by the OSCE in the February-March presidential election. The OSCE has deployed a preliminary team of 28 experts to monitor the campaign and media coverage, with another 250 observers to be dispatched to Armenia as the 25 May poll approaches. RG
ARMENIA UNVEILS ANTICORRUPTION CAMPAIGN
The head of the Armenia office of the anticorruption group Transparency International, Arevik Saribekian, announced on 29 April that a new anticorruption campaign will be launched in Armenia, according to Armenpress. The anticorruption campaign is to include a national public-education effort that will be launched after a central information office is opened in Yerevan in June. The campaign will focus on providing information to the public on measures to combat petty corruption, as well as on assisting in the formulation legislative measures designed to combat corruption. RG
AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION LEADER VOWS TO REGAIN NAGORNO-KARABAKH
Azerbaijani opposition Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar promised on 29 April that "within the first term of my presidency I will return Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan," according to "Zerkalo" and Arminfo. The Musavat Party leader is actively campaigning to oppose incumbent President Heidar Aliev in this fall's presidential election. Gambar also vowed to create a new "state with a powerful army, clear diplomacy, and a strong economy that could decide the issue of seized land without difficulty." RG
AZERBAIJAN, IRAN REPORTEDLY CLOSE TO DEAL ON CASPIAN
Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov announced on 28 April that Azerbaijan and Iran are close to a final agreement on the division of the Caspian Sea, adding that "if our working groups manage to meet the deadline, an agreement will be signed during Iranian President [Mohammad] Khatami's visit to Baku," according to Interfax. The statement follows several high-level meetings between Azerbaijani officials and visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2003). A firm date has not yet been set for the Iranian president's visit to Baku. RG
IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS WITH GEORGIAN OFFICIALS IN TBILISI
An Iranian delegation led by Foreign Minister Kharrazi met with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in Tbilisi on 29 April after arriving from Baku, according to the Iranian State News Agency and the "Tehran Times." Kharrazi, on the second leg of a regional tour, reviewed plans for the expansion of bilateral political and economic cooperation and regional energy and security issues. Several bilateral agreements on military and economic cooperation are to be signed when Shevardnadze visits Tehran. No date has yet been set for that visit. The Iranian delegation is to go on to Armenia after the conclusion of its visit to Georgia. RG
GEORGIAN OFFICIALS REPORT ON RECENT NATO MISSION TO PANKISI GORGE
Georgian Interior Ministry officials reported on 28 April on the recent fact-finding mission to the Pankisi Gorge by a delegation from NATO's Parliamentary Assembly, according to the "Civil Georgia" online magazine and the "Georgian Times." The 27 April visit to the Pankisi Gorge reportedly included an inspection of several camps housing Chechen refugees and a tour of several checkpoints established in the area as part of the government's attempt to restore control over the gorge. The NATO delegation was accompanied by Interior Ministry security forces. Georgian officials claimed that although there are still small groups of "criminals" operating in the Pankisi Gorge, their counterterrorism operations have succeeded in removing all armed Chechen formations from the area. RG
U.S. AMBASSADOR TO GEORGIA MEETS WITH OPPOSITION FIGURE
U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles met with former parliamentary speaker and prominent opposition figure Zurab Zhvania on 28 April, according to the "Georgian Times." The U.S. ambassador discussed the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for this fall and reviewed the current disagreement between the opposition and the government over the composition of national and regional electoral commissions. RG
KAZAKH CHIEF OF STAFF SUPPORTS RUSSIAN BASE IN KYRGYZSTAN
Kazakhstan's Chief of the General Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister Malik Saparov said on 29 April that the Russian air base under construction at Kant in northern Kyrgyzstan will boost collective security in Central Asia, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The air force personnel deployed at the base will be part of the rapid-reaction force that is being set up under the newly created Organization of the Treaty on Collective Security (ODKB) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2003). Saparov said that the presence of the Russian force accords with Kazakhstan's military doctrine. In addition to the air group and a battalion of tactical troops from Russia, the ODKB rapid-reaction force is to include an airborne-assault battalion provided by Kazakhstan, a mountain-infantry battalion from Kyrgyzstan, and an airborne-assault or infantry battalion from Tajikistan. Kyrgyz Defense Minister Colonel General Esen Topoev was quoted by ITAR-TASS as saying on 30 April that both Kyrgyz and Russian military aircraft will be stationed at Kant. Kyrgyzstan will provide training aircraft, helicopters, and cargo planes, while Russia will station fighter jets there. A draft agreement between Kyrgyzstan and Russia on the Kant base envisages that Russian planes will be based on Kyrgyz territory for 25 years. The formal opening of the base, which was supposed to have taken place in late April, has been postponed until the first half of June. BB
KAZAKHSTAN TO TAKE MEASURES AGAINST SARS
Kazakh Prime Minister Imanghaliy Tasmaghambetov during a government session on 29 April ordered that a special program of urgent measures be drawn up to prevent the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Implementation of the program, which is supposed to specify each step to be taken and indicate the financial resources needed, should begin next week, the report said. Health Minister Zhaksylyk Doskaliev told the cabinet that no SARS cases have been recorded in Kazakhstan, but he was quoted as saying "the probability of the infection being brought from China to Kazakhstan remains high." Meanwhile, 47 Kazakh students who have returned to Aqtobe from universities in China that have been quarantined have been sent to a summer camp outside the town for medical examinations. Khabar.kz and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 29 April that the exams were requested by the parents of the students, some of whom were found to have other illnesses, although none showed symptoms of SARS. Nonetheless, they must remain in quarantine for one week. BB
U.S. EMBASSY IN BISHKEK COMMENTS ON PARTY FINANCE CHARGE
The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan issued an official response on 29 April to an assertion made by Abdygul Chotbaev, head of Kyrgyzstan's National Guard, that the United States is financing the activities of the opposition Ar-Namys Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2003). Chotbaev's assertion was made in an article in a recent issue of the newspaper "Argumenty i fakty v Kyrgyzstane," and the party is suing Chotbaev for defamation. The embassy's statement, according to akipress.org, says that the United States supports democratic processes but does not provide support to particular parties or movements. BB
KYRGYZSTAN SEEKS INTERNATIONAL AID FOR LANDSLIDE CLEANUP
Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry on 29 April appealed for international help coping with the aftermath of the 20 April landslide in the village of Kara-Taryk that killed 38 villagers and also in preventing similar disasters, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Interfax reported the same day. The ministry appeal said the country lacks the medicines, food supplies, construction materials, finances, and human resources to cope with the increasingly frequent natural disasters Kyrgyzstan is experiencing. "The fact that Kyrgyzstan is home to numerous dangerous uranium tailings dumps only adds to the complexity of the present situation. Frequent landslides and mudslides in districts housing tailing dumps and the lack of funds for repair and maintenance work are threatening to cause an environmental disaster that will affect not only Kyrgyzstan, but all of Central Asia as well," the ministry added. Japan and Russia have already offered assistance. BB
KYRGYZ OPPOSITION NEWSPAPER LOSES ANOTHER ROUND AGAINST PRIME MINISTER
The Kyrgyz opposition newspaper "Moya stolitsa-novosti" has lost another round in its court battle with Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, human rights sources in Bishkek reported on 30 April. Tanaev filed suit against the newspaper for a 26 November 2002 article that he claimed insulted his honor and dignity. He demanded 1 million soms ($169,000) in damages. The district court that tried the case fined "Moya stolitsa-novosti" 500,000 soms and the author of the article 3,000 soms. The newspaper appealed the decision to the Bishkek City Court, which has now confirmed the lower-court verdict. Editor in Chief Aleksandr Kim was quoted as saying he intends to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. BB
RUSSIAN PARTY ATTACKS GOVERNMENT OVER DEAL WITH TURKMENISTAN
Russia's liberal Union of Rightist Forces party (SPS) has attacked the Kremlin over its agreement to revoke a 10-year-old agreement with Turkmenistan on dual citizenship (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 April 2003), Interfax reported on 29 April. The party described a protocol on the revocation as a violation of the rights of Russian citizens in Turkmenistan, who will now be forced to give up their property and leave the country. The report notes that there are more than 100,000 holders of dual Turkmen and Russian citizenship in Turkmenistan. SPS leader and State Duma Deputy Boris Nemtsov, who signed the party's statement, asserted that with what he described as a "gas-for-people" deal -- alluding to the 25-year contract for Turkmen natural-gas supplies that was signed at the same time as the citizenship protocol -- Russia is forfeiting strategic positions in Central Asia and abandoning its fellow citizens to the mercy of the Turkmen authorities. The statement also criticized the weak response of the Russian Foreign Ministry to what is happening in Turkmenistan and called on President Vladimir Putin to protect the rights of Russian citizens in Turkmenistan. Centrasia.ru on 30 April published the complete text of the SPS statement. During Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's visit to Moscow when the gas deal and the protocol were signed, the SPS picketed the Turkmen Embassy in protest of his policies. BB
RUSSIA PLANS REMOVAL OF NUCLEAR MATERIALS FROM UZBEKISTAN
The Russian government has instructed the Atomic Energy Ministry to prepare a project to import spent nuclear fuel from the research reactor at Uzbekistan's Institute for Nuclear Physics, Interfax reported on 29 April, citing the Russian government's press service. The project will be part of a joint Russian-U.S.-International Atomic Energy Agency program to combat nuclear proliferation. The nuclear fuel for the Uzbek reactor was originally provided by Russia. According to the ministry, funding for the program is being provided by the United States. BB
BELARUSIAN NGOS DENOUNCE OFFICIAL CRACKDOWN
The Assembly of Democratic Nongovernmental Organizations, which unites some 600 Belarusian NGOs, has condemned the Justice Ministry's recent attempts to close down several NGOs as a "political cleansing," Belapan reported on 29 April. Earlier this month, the ministry filed lawsuits aimed at banning three organizations: Ratusha, in Hrodna, for allegedly conducting illegal publishing activities; Varuta, in Baranavichy, for using the organization's abbreviated name in internal documents instead of its full, registered name; and the Youth Christian Social Union for alleged document forgery. "The attempt to ban the organizations is no coincidence but rather a coordinated, large-scale campaign against NGOs," said Yury Chavusau, a lawyer with the assembly. Chavusau added that the lawsuits "were filed not against ordinary associations but against large NGO resource centers such as Ratusha and Varuta, which contribute to the development of other organizations in their areas." The United Civic Party said the legal actions against the three NGOs are a "political purge" ahead of parliamentary elections and a possible referendum to extend President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's term in office. JM
TWO BELARUSIAN PARTIES BANNED FROM STAGING LABOR DAY EVENTS
The Minsk City Executive Committee has denied the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists (PKB) and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (BSDP) permission to stage street demonstrations in Minsk on 1 May, Belapan reported on 29 April, quoting PKB leader Syarhey Kalyakin and BSDP leader Mikalay Statkevich. JM
SPEAKER SEEKS U.K. SUPPORT FOR UKRAINIAN ROLE IN IRAQ RECONSTRUCTION...
Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn on 29 April said he hopes that Great Britain will support Ukraine in its attempts to participate in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, Interfax reported. Lytvyn was speaking at the Royal Institute of International Relations in London within the framework of his three-day visit to the United Kingdom. Lytvyn stressed that his country possesses vast experience in the oil sector, a highly developed engineering structure, and experts who have worked on oil deposits in Russia. He said a Ukrainian delegation is to visit Washington on 4-5 May to raise the same issue. JM
...AND CLAIMS UKRAINE WILL ACCOMPLISH POLITICAL REFORM WITHOUT REFERENDUM
Lytvyn told the same forum in London on 29 April that there will be no referendum on political reform in Ukraine, thus contradicting such a suggestion by President Leonid Kuchma at a news conference last week, UNIAN reported. Lytvyn said an appropriate decision to reform Ukraine's constitutional system will be adopted by the parliament with a two-thirds majority before October 2004, when the next presidential elections are scheduled to take place. Lytvyn said he hopes the president and lawmakers will arrive at a compromise on a political-reform bill. In particular, the Ukrainian opposition is against Kuchma's proposals to introduce a bicameral parliament and give the president the right to appoint some ministers (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 15 April 2003). JM
FUTURE OF BALTIC STATES DISCUSSED AT PARIS CONFERENCE
Baltic Foreign Ministers Kristiina Ojuland (Estonia), Sandra Kalniete (Latvia), and Antanas Valionis (Lithuania) spoke at the international conference "Europe and the Baltic States after Prague and Copenhagen" in Paris on 29 April, BNS reported. French Senate President Christian Poncelet underscored that the Baltic states belong to Europe and that France supports their accession to the EU. Ojuland said the role of national parliaments in the EU must be expanded and the principle of equality must be maintained. "Equal opportunities must be ensured for both large and small, both new and old, member states," she said. Valionis said EU enlargement should eradicate social and economic disparities between the old and the new members of the organization. "We believe Europe should not be divided into business-class and economy-class memberships," he said. SG
IMF PRAISES LATVIA'S ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
The board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on 29 April that in Latvia's 10 years as a member its introduction of transparent fiscal and monetary policies and its implementation of consistent structural reforms has resulted in impressive development, BNS reported. The board noted that Latvia was among the best of the EU candidates in terms of economic development last year (its GDP rose by 6.1 percent), but that it needs to pay more attention to unemployment and its large current-account deficit. The IMF criticized the country's high budget deficit of 2.5 percent of GDP in 2002, which is forecast to rise to 3 percent of GDP this year. The fund also expressed its disapproval with the country's decision to reduce social-insurance and corporate-tax rates last year and called for no further tax cuts before the budget situation improves. It noted that Latvia already has one of the lowest corporate-tax rates among EU member and candidate states. SG
LITHUANIAN ECONOMY SHOWED 9.1 PERCENT ANNUAL GROWTH IN FIRST QUARTER
The Statistics Department on 29 April announced 9.1 percent economic growth in the first quarter of 2003, year on year, with GDP for the quarter at 12.2 billion litas ($3.8 billion), ELTA reported. GDP per capita increased by 306 litas to 3,524 litas. The largest growth was in the industrial and utilities sectors. Growth in activities related to consumer goods and services was slower, and there was a decline in the quarrying and mining sectors. Raimondas Kuodis of the Bank of Lithuania said the favorable results were to some extent aided by the anticipated benefits of EU membership, which encouraged more borrowing and investing rather than saving. The Finance Ministry forecasts that Lithuania's GDP will rise by 6.1 percent in 2003, while the IMF predicts 5.3 percent growth. SG
POLISH, ISRAELI PRESIDENTS LEAD 'MARCH OF THE LIVING' AT AUSCHWITZ
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and his Israeli counterpart Moshe Katsav led roughly 3,000 people in a March of the Living at the Auschwitz death camp on 29 April to mourn Jews killed at the camp and to mark the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis 60 years ago, Reuters reported. Earlier the same day in Warsaw, Kwasniewski and Katsav discussed relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and bilateral economic issues, including the purchase of military equipment for the Polish Army. JM
POLISH RIGHT-WING PARTIES RAISE ISSUE OF GERMAN LAND CLAIMS
The Catholic-National Movement (RKN), the Movement for the Reconstruction of Poland (ROP), the Alliance for Poland, and Individual Farmers' Solidarity have appealed to the president and the prime minister to go on record before the EU referendum on 7-8 June concerning German property claims in western and northern Poland, PAP and Polish Radio reported on 29 April. According to ROP leader Jan Olszewski, some 600,000 former German property owners have filed property-restitution claims against Poland. Olszewski warned against entering the EU without guarantees that German restitution cases will be decided in Polish courts. "Mr. Guenter Verheugen, an EU commissioner, in the presence of the president of the [Polish] republic, confirmed that such individual claims exist and that they will be implemented immediately after Poland's entry into the EU, and that the Polish law, unchanged in this regard, will facilitate these [claims]," RKN leader Antoni Macierewicz said in a reference to Verheugen's visit to Poland last week. JM
CZECH PARTIES FAIL TO FILL BROADCAST COUNCIL
The Czech lower house succeeded in selecting just six of a required 13 nominees to the Radio and Television Broadcasting Council on 29 April, CTK reported, highlighting the governing coalition's weakness and leaving the broadcast watchdog in limbo until seven more members get legislative backing. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla must act on parliamentary recommendations in making the appointments. The three-party coalition had hoped to push through nine nominees, which would give them considerable control in the media sector, but succeeded in securing just five nominees. Deputies also approved a sixth nominee, of the opposition Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, while they rejected all nominees of the opposition Civic Democratic Party. The board appointments have assumed a high political profile since Spidla sacked the previous board in early April amid accusations of incompetence and corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 April 2003). No date was set for another attempt at filling the council seats, CTK reported. AH
SLOVAK PROSECUTOR FILES COMPLAINT AGAINST COUNTERINTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR
Military prosecutors on 29 April launched a criminal complaint against the head of the Slovak Intelligence Service's counterintelligence chief, Petr Toth, for allegedly filing his own, anonymous criminal complaint against the country's interior minister, TASR reported. The complaint against Interior Minister Vladimir Palko was reportedly faxed to the Slovak Prosecutor-General's Office in January from a Bratislava hotel. Toth has repeatedly distanced himself from the deed. Toth has been a controversial appointment since criminal charges were filed against him soon after he was named to head counterintelligence by SIS head Vladimir Mitro, who subsequently stepped down (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March and 3 April 2003). The charges against Toth carry a possible fine or up to one year in prison. AH
SLOVAK, HUNGARIAN PRESIDENTS WELCOME 'BORDER-FREE' FUTURE
Slovak President Rudolf Schuster and his Hungarian counterpart Ferenc Madl met in the Hungarian border town of Repasska Huta on 29 April to stress their countries' commitments to cross-border cooperation within an increasingly integrated Europe, TASR reported the same day. The two men pledged to encourage improved regional cooperation all along the Slovak-Hungarian border. Schuster said that with accession just around the corner, the day is rapidly approaching when the border between their countries' regions loses its meaning. He called a meeting on the issue the same day between Slovak and Hungarian experts a first step in preparing for "cooperation without a border," according to TASR. "This [cross-border] cooperation is very important," Schuster added, according to CTK. "It is high time to be acquainted with partners on the other side of the border, because if the border disappears and we are ready in time, it will be too late after both of our countries enter the EU." AH
HUNGARY PLEDGES TO PUT IRAQ MISSION ON LEGISLATIVE AGENDA
Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs told visiting British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon on 29 April that the cabinet will attempt to put the issue of a Hungarian peacekeeping deployment to Iraq on the parliament's agenda again next week, Hungarian television reported. Hoon said he will respect whatever decision the Hungarian parliament makes, but added that Britain "looks forward to Hungary's more active participation." For his part, Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy told Hoon that, in the absence of opposition support, Hungary could send a water-purifying team to Iraq. Hoon later tried unsuccessfully to encourage support for the peacekeeping mission from former Prime Minister and opposition leader Viktor Orban. Orban said the cabinet's draft resolution is no good, though he added, "We would be happy to take part in any peacekeeping operations, provided such international organizations as the UN, NATO, or the EU support or establish them." MSZ
HUNGARY BACKS CROATIA'S EU ACCESSION
Prime Minister Medgyessy assured his visiting Croatian counterpart Ivica Racan in Budapest on 29 April that Hungary will continue to support Croatia's integration into NATO and the EU, "Nepszava" reported. The main topics of the meeting included facilitating border crossings, upgrading the port at Rijeka, and the construction of a motorway linking Budapest, Zagreb, and Fiume. They also discussed provision of parliamentary representation for ethnic minorities. MSZ
FREEDOM HOUSE CHARACTERIZES HUNGARIAN MEDIA AS 'FREE'
Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization whose declared aim is to support democracy around the world, rated the Hungarian media "free" in its most recent assessment, "Nepszabadsag" reported on 30 April. Director Patrick Egan said only slight changes could be observed in the last year, as state authorities and political parties continued to influence the media. However, the situation is still better than in 1997, when Hungary was graded "partially free," he said. Without mentioning FIDESZ, the report said the former governing party accused the new government of influencing state television and radio after it lost power in 2002. The report says pro-government media sometimes has greater access to official information. The main opposition daily "Magyar Nemzet" has repeatedly charged that the new cabinet has exerted pressure on advertisers, endangering the newspaper's financial viability. Government spokesman Zoltan Gal called the "Magyar Nemzet" accusation unfounded and said the government does not influence advertisers in an effort to provide preferential treatment to particular newspapers or television channels, "Nepszabadsag" reported. MSZ
SERBIAN POLICE CHARGE 45 PEOPLE IN ONE ASSASSINATION CASE...
Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic said in Belgrade on 29 April that police have charged 45 people in connection with the 12 March assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 25 April 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 March 2003). Mihajlovic added that bosses of the "Zemun clan" planned and carried out the killing under the code name of "Stop The Hague," an apparent reference to the international war crimes tribunal. Among those charged are Serbian Radical Party (SRS) leader Vojislav Seselj, who recently surrendered to the war crimes tribunal, and Aco Tomic and Rade Bulatovic, who are aides to former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and currently in police custody. Ten of the 45 are still at large, including alleged "Zemun clan" leader Milorad Lukovic-Ulemek "Legija." Mihajlovic said the plotters also planned to kill Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic and an unspecified number of other politicians. PM
...AND EIGHT IN ANOTHER
Mihajlovic said in Belgrade on 29 April that the Interior Ministry has also filed charges against eight people in connection with the attempted assassination of Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) leader Vuk Draskovic in Budva, Montenegro, on 15 June 2000, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 June and 3 July 2000 and 16 April 2003). The eight suspects are: former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, former Chief of the General Staff General Nebojsa Pavkovic, former security chief Rade Markovic, and five members of the security service. Mihajlovic said Milosevic and Markovic ordered the killing, while Pavkovic provided army support for the assassins. PM
SERBIAN BANK GOVERNOR SEEKS EU MEMBERSHIP SEPARATE FROM MONTENEGRO
Mladjan Dinkic, who is governor of the Serbian National Bank, said in Belgrade on 28 April that it is unrealistic to expect Serbia and Montenegro to join the EU as a single state because the two republics' respective economic interests are very different, "Vesti" reported. He stressed that Serbia should try to join the Brussels-based bloc in 2007 along with Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia. Dinkic added that it would be a "national catastrophe" if Serbia were to wait and enter the EU together with Albania, Bosnia, and Macedonia "in 2020." But a representative of the European Commission told RFE/RL in Podgorica on 29 April that the two republics of Serbia and Montenegro must reach an agreement on joint economic regulations if they wish to join the EU. He stressed that separate membership for each republic is out of the question. PM
ALBANIAN AND KOSOVAR LEADERS SLAM MACEDONIAN PARTITION PROPOSALS
Albanian President Alfred Moisiu and parliament speaker Servet Pellumbi said in Tirana on 28 April that recent proposals by ethnic Macedonian and Albanian opposition leaders in Macedonia to partition that country along ethnic lines are unacceptable, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 25 April 2003). Pellumbi stressed that partitioning is a "concept that belongs to the past." He added, "We are against all ideas involving exchanging people and territories on the ethnic principle." Pellumbi called on all citizens of Macedonia to respect and implement the August 2001 Ohrid peace agreement. Moisiu stressed that any discussion of ethnically based partitions serves to destabilize the region. The Albanian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that implementation of the Ohrid agreement is the only way forward for Macedonia. Meanwhile, in Prishtina, Kosovar Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi also condemned the partition plans, adding that such ideas "provide a bad example for Kosova and the region as a whole." PM
CROATIAN LEADERS OFFER CONDOLENCES TO LATE GENERAL'S FAMILY
President Stipe Mesic, Prime Minister Ivica Racan, and parliament speaker Zlatko Tomcic sent their condolences on 29 April to the family of General Janko Bobetko, who died earlier that day, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2003). All three men reportedly stressed Bobetko's service to his country as an antifascist fighter during World War II and in the 1991-95 war of independence, avoiding any reference to his indictment for war crimes by the Hague-based tribunal. Tomcic said "the political scene in Croatia has lost a person who left a mark in several chapters of the country's political life." PM
BOSNIA PREPARES FOR TALKS WITH U.S. ON INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT
Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic said in Sarajevo on 30 April that Bosnia will begin talks with U.S. diplomats "within the next two weeks" on a possible bilateral agreement regarding any U.S. personnel charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 July 2002). Ivanic stressed that any agreement would involve only U.S. personnel on peacekeeping missions. Foreign Ministry officials recently said they will consult the EU regarding their planned talks with the Americans, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM
POPULISTS CALL FOR MERGER OF CENTER-RIGHT FORCES IN ROMANIA
Former President Emil Constantinescu, who heads Popular Action's Interim National Council, and Popular Christian Party Chairman Vasile Lupu on 29 April called on all popular Christian-Democratic political forces, especially the National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD), to merge, Mediafax reported. The two leaders said only a merger of all center-right forces can "stop the long-term consolidation of the power of the [ruling Social-Democratic Party] party-state" structure and enhance Romania's accession to the European Union. ZsM
CANADIAN OFFICIAL CRITICIZES ROMANIAN LOCAL AUTHORITIES' LACK OF STRATEGY
Visiting Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) Chairman Benoit Bourque complained about the lack of long- and medium-term strategic planning in local public administrations, Romanian media reported. As a result, he said, the authorities only allocate funding for survival and not for development. The Canadian agency finances and coordinates a public-administration project in Romania that has thus far been implemented in Timisoara, Satu-Mare, and Arad. CIDA experts offer counseling and technical assistance for the development and implementation of specific management plans. Bourque said the agency wants to extend the project to other cities. ZsM
COUNCIL OF EUROPE TO MONITOR MOLDOVAN LOCAL ELECTIONS
The Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities (CLRAE) will send a delegation to monitor Moldovan local elections scheduled for 25 May, Flux reported. CLRAE Vice President Yavuz Mildon will head the delegation, which has been asked by CLRAE President Herwig van Staa "to pay particularly close attention to the future development of the electoral campaign." ZsM
U.S. OFFICIAL VISITS MOLDOVA
Visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer met with Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin on 29 April and conveyed a message of support from U.S. President George W. Bush for Moldova's democratic-reform and European-integration efforts, Flux reported. Pifer said the United States is ready to offer support for ensuring stability in the Transdniester region. Pifer also met with Premier Vasile Tarlev and Foreign Minister Nicolae Dudau. At a press conference following these meetings, Pifer said the United States supports the federalization of Moldova as a solution to the Transdniester conflict. He also said a referendum on the issue can only be organized after Russian troops leave the region, and added that the United States will cooperate with the Russian authorities to ensure that objective is met by the end of this year. ZsM
BULGARIAN PRIME MINISTER REJECTS TOP COP'S RESIGNATION
Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski on 30 April rejected General Boyko Borisov's resignation, AP reported. Borisov, the Interior Ministry's chief secretary in charge of Bulgaria's police forces, offered his resignation on 25 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 28 April 2003). Although he did not reveal his reasons for stepping down, it was widely believed that his decision was prompted by reactions to allegations he made that some politicians and magistrates have ties to organized crime. Borisov is highly popular in Bulgaria and is esteemed for his efforts to combat corruption. Saxecoburggotski said in a letter that he appreciates the general's "sense of responsibility and loyalty" and sees no reason to accept his resignation. MES
FORMER BULGARIAN PRIVATIZATION HEAD UNDER INVESTIGATION
Apostol Apostolov, who headed the Privatization Agency until mid-March, is being investigated for abuse of office in connection with the state tender for the Bulgarian Telecommunications Company (BTK), bnn news agency reported on 29 April. Opposition parties have accused Apostolov of illegally selecting Viva Ventures Holding, an Austria-based holding company, as the winning bidder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 14 March and 1 April 2003). The current investigation is not related to the charges the opposition parties filed, according to Bulgarian Internet Society President Veni Mokovski, who was summoned as a witness in the investigation. MES
A NEW LEVIATHAN IN RUSSIA'S SEA OF OIL
Dark, viscous days have come to the Russian economy.
That country's top business story in 2002 was arguably the privatization auction of state-owned oil company Slavneft. Analysts wracked their brains and battered their keyboards for months trying to figure out who would take part in the auction, and how much they could, would, and should wager on the 74.95 percent stake in Slavneft. A firm representing Sibneft and Tyumen Oil Company (TNK) won on 18 December with a $1.86 billion bid -- only a few measly million more than the $1.7 billion starting price -- in a five-minute auction that featured few bidders and fewer bids. As pessimists launched into a sullen chorus of "La plus ca change..." and regaled each other with memories of rigged auctions past, optimists pointed to the fact that the state at least received billions for selling off its asset and claimed progress.
In February, British Petroleum (BP) made the Slavneft deal look like chump change when it announced it would fork over $6.75 billion for half of TNK. With "foreign investment" suddenly the new watchword, ecstatic optimists looked ahead to a bright future of strategic partnerships and oil flowing in tandem with international capital (if not always in the same direction). The few Russian pessimists were left grumbling into their vodka about the ongoing sell-off of the motherland; equally scarce foreign pessimists saw a multinational buying local muscle to do "biznes" without undue risk.
On 22 April, the plot thickened further with the announcement that Yukos will acquire Sibneft to create Russia's largest oil company. The resultant monster will be worth $35 billion, command the largest reserves in the world (19.4 billion barrels), and produce the fourth-largest amount of oil (2.3 million barrels a day). With its formation, YukosSibneft sent out one message loud and clear: Russia has jumped into the global energy sandbox to play with the big boys.
The mechanics of the deal are relatively straightforward. Sibneft's main shareholders will sell a 20 percent stake in their company to Yukos for $3 billion. They will then exchange the remainder of their shares by year's end for shares in the new company -- for now called YukosSibneft. Sibneft's main shareholders will hold a blocking stake in YukosSibneft; Yukos's main shareholders will hold a controlling stake. Sibneft President Yevgenii Shvidler will become chairman of the board at YukosSibneft; Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii will retain his position at the helm of the new company.
Khodorkovskii made no secret of his ambitious plans for YukosSibneft, announcing on 22 April that the company's strategic goal is to become "a leader on the global energy market," gazeta.ru reported the same day. Russia's top oil man also noted that the new company's heft will make it easier to pursue the "large and complex" projects in Eastern Siberia and the Far East that will be crucial to maintaining dynamic development when existing wells run dry.
(One should note that Yukos and Sibneft have already been to the altar once: A merger was announced to considerable fanfare in late 1997; "Yuksi" lasted only half a year before collapsing back into its component parts for reasons that have never been entirely clarified.)
A firestorm of punditry broke as soon as the initial press conferences were over. Gazeta.ru opined on 22 April that the state's eye might alight on YukosSibneft as a "readymade ministry of oil." "By placing such a company under its control," the newspaper continued, "the authorities could instantly solve a number of problems, from supplying the country's boiler rooms with heating oil to equipping individual officials with everything they need for pre-election PR."
"Izvestiya" reported on 22 April that Sibneft's Shvidler and Roman Abramovich, officially governor of Chukotka and unofficially Sibneft's largest shareholder, had discussed the upcoming deal personally with President Vladimir Putin in order to "save" the company from being acquired by foreigners.
Journalist Yuliya Latynina, a canny observer of Russian business, gave her interpretation of the deal in a 22 April commentary on TVS. She saw a foreign investor waiting in the wings: "Yukos and Sibneft will sell half of the new company's shares to foreigners. This is the best defense in a country where the main threat to business is not a competitor, but the state. It's also a chance to bring together big Western money and Russian administrative resources." (The phrase "administrative resources" in modern Russian political and business parlance generally means "the ability to get the bureaucracy -- any bureaucracy -- to do what you want.")
"The Moscow Times" reported on 24 April that the deal could further Khodorkovskii's political ambitions. The newspaper quoted a source "close to Yukos" as saying that the merger would strengthen ties between the Yukos CEO and "the Family, the clan of businessmen and politicians that rose to power under Boris Yeltsin with the help of [Boris Berezovskii], and is said to include Abramovich, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and metals tycoon Oleg Deripaska."
"The Economist" wrote on 25 April that YukosSibneft still has work to do before it can translate its vast reserves into corporate muscle: "[I]t will be no match for firms such as BP and ExxonMobil that are much more diversified, both in business and geographical terms. YukosSibneft will still make most of its money from pumping crude.... Both firms could arguably have done better by joining forces with a globally integrated foreign firm than with a Russian one."
France's "Le Monde" contributed perhaps the most extravagant reaction on 23 April, describing the deal as "the most important since the birth of the market economy in Russia" and dubbing YukosSibneft a "mastodon" (presumably with the emphasis on the beast's size rather than its impending extinction).
Whatever its equivalent in the animal kingdom, YukosSibneft represents a remarkable mix of money, image, and influence. The company's reserves should ensure a steady stream of currency into the coffers, especially if greater diversification adds safeguards against dips in the oil price cycle. Khodorkovskii has made heroic efforts in recent years to turn Yukos into Russia's standard-bearer of corporate governance and position himself as the poster boy for post-robber-baron capitalism. And if Abramovich -- charmingly described by "Izvestiya" on 22 April as "discretely hidden among the journalists" at the press conference to announce the merger, precisely the role he is likely to maintain in the company -- is even a fraction as influential as his reputation, and some of Sibneft's successes, suggests, blessings will surely accrue.
The merger raises a host of questions that only time will answer: Will a foreign investor join the party? Will YukosSibneft try to gobble up Surgutneftegaz? Will Khodorkovskii use the new company as a springboard for a post-Putin presidential bid? For now, we limit ourselves to the modest prediction that YukosSibneft will throw its lobbying clout and financial muscle behind a concerted effort to expand Russia's export capacity through the construction of new pipelines. Khodorkovskii has repeatedly stressed the need to boost export capacity, and recent official hints indicate that the state might be willing to reconsider its policy of maintaining total control over pipelines, opening the door to private-sector funding.
Above all else, what YukosSibneft drives home is Russia's transformation into its own OPEC -- the oil producing and exporting country par excellence. Just as the transition to its own brand of market economy dominated Russia's last decade, the decidedly mixed blessing of an oil economy seems poised to play a crucial role in the decade to come.
Daniel Kimmage is editor of "RFE/RL Business Watch."
LETTER ISSUED IN NAME OF DEPOSED IRAQI PRESIDENT...
The London-based daily "Al-Quds al-Arabi" on 30 April published the text of a letter to the Iraqi people dated 28 April and purportedly written by deposed President Saddam Hussein. The daily announced on 29 April that the Iraqi Resistance and Liberation Command had informed the paper that Hussein would issue a statement within 72 hours. In the letter, whose date coincides with Hussein's 66th birthday, the deposed president calls on the Iraqi people to "rise against the occupier," adding, "They have not triumphed over you...who have Arabism and Islam in your hearts, except with treachery." The letter assails coalition forces, stating, "Remember that they are seeking to bring in those fighting each other [for power] so that your Iraq will remain weak and they can loot it as they wish." KR
...WHO VOWS COMEBACK TO REBUILD IRAQ
The same 28 April letter denies that Hussein plundered the wealth of the state: "Saddam did not have any possessions in his name. I challenge anyone to prove that the palaces were in the name of anyone other than the Iraqi state. I left [the palaces] a long time ago to live in a small house," the letter reads. "Iraq, the sons of the nation, and the honorable ones will triumph, and we will retrieve the antiquities and rebuild Iraq, which they want to split into parts." Hussein's letter calls on Iraqis to resist the presence of U.S. forces and implies that he will return to lead Iraq, claiming: "The day of liberation and victory will come to us, the nation, and Islam before anything else. Right will triumph this time, like it does every time, and the coming days are going to be more beautiful." "Al-Quds al-Arabi" reported that "sources close to Saddam" confirmed that the letter is in his handwriting and the signature is genuine. KR
U.S. FORCES AGAIN FIRE ON CIVILIANS IN AL-FALLUJAH...
A convoy of U.S. forces on 30 April opened fire on a crowd in the Iraqi town of Al-Fallujah, 50 kilometers west of Baghdad, for the second day in a row, Reuters reported. Soldiers told reporters they were returning fire. At least two Iraqis were killed in the incident. "The number killed was two. They were hit in the head," a local hospital spokesman told Reuters. Eight others were reportedly injured. The crowd had gathered at the Al-Fallujah U.S. command post to protest the killing of 13 Iraqis in the town on 28 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2003). U.S. Major Michael Marti told Reuters that some in the crowd threw stones at the convoy, adding: "Then fire came from the crowd, directed at the convoy. It was at that point that they returned fire.... It was well-aimed fire." Marti said that soldiers estimated "potentially" two injured Iraqis. KR
...AS CENTCOM ISSUES STATEMENT ON 28 APRIL INCIDENT
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) issued a statement on 29 April in response to an incident the previous day in which U.S. forces reportedly killed 13 Iraqis. The statement, posted on CENTCOM's website (http://www.centcom.mil/), says paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were fired on by around 25 armed civilians from within a crowd of roughly 200 protestors outside the U.S. compound in Al-Fallujah. "The paratroopers, who received fire from elements mixed within the crowd and positioned atop neighboring buildings, returned fire, wounding at least seven of the armed individuals," the statement reads. The statement denies press reports that soldiers "fired on the crowd without cause," and notes "incorrect" reports of numerous civilian casualties, including women and children. "This allegation cannot be confirmed by coalition forces, as the crowd retrieved the wounded and dispersed after the exchange. Given this fact, it is extremely unlikely that the coalition will ever be able to confirm casualties, or determine the extent to which any unarmed civilians were injured or killed," the statement notes. KR
AL-BASRAH GOVERNOR SURRENDERS
Al-Basrah Governor Walid Hamid Tawfiq al-Tikriti has surrendered to Iraqi National Congress (INC) officials and U.S. forces, according to a statement by an INC spokesman quoted by Al-Jazeera on 29 April. The surrender took place at INC headquarters in Baghdad. According to Al-Jazeera, al-Tikriti's father also surrendered. Al-Tikriti is 44th on CENTCOM's list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis from the Hussein regime. KR
CENTCOM ADDS UP CASH FOUND IN IRAQ
Some $100 million, along with nearly 90 million euros ($100 million), has been recovered in Baghdad, according to a 29 April announcement on the CENTCOM website. The money was discovered from 23-26 April in an area under the control of the 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 April 2003). According to the statement, 31 containers of cash were found and flown to an undisclosed location, where soldiers from the unit counted and secured the funds. The statement added that more than $650 million had already been found in the same area, noting, "Funds will remain secure until a stable government is established in Iraq and will ultimately be returned to the Iraqis to assist in the rebuilding of their nation." KR
CONSERVATIVES CRITICIZE IRAN'S FOREIGN POLICY
Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said in an interview that appeared in the 27 April issue of "Entekhab" that Iranian diplomacy during President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's second term (which started in 2001) has been marked by submissive diplomacy, missed opportunities, and the giving away of unilateral concessions in exchange for minimal financial returns. Rezai said that in Khatami's first term (1997-2001) the climate of trust between Iran and other countries improved, but cooperation did not advance much. He expressed concern that Iran will adopt a submissive position in the face of outside pressure. Foreign-policy expert Hassan Abbasi said in the 27 April issue of "Resalat" that Iran's foreign policy of "detente...brought us short-term and tactical gains," but "caused our foreign policy to become inactive." "We did not start the tension, so why should we have detente? Had we attacked anyone?" Abbasi said. He added that the inactivity of Iranian foreign policy is noticeable in the Caucasus, Chechnya, the Balkans, Iraq, "and more important than all, with regard to the issue of Palestine." BS
NEW TEHRAN COUNCIL HEAD NAMED
The new, conservative-dominated Tehran municipal council, which met for the first time on 29 April after being elected on 28 February, elected Mehdi Chamran as its head, IRNA reported. Chamran, although relatively unknown, finished first in the sparsely attended elections. The municipal council has been without a head since January, when Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari fired the previous one for corruption and dissolved the municipal council for incessant feuding. Fourteen out of 15 seats were won by hard-liners in the 28 February elections, in which only some 10 percent of voters participated. The low electoral turnout and the switch from the previous reformist-dominated council was attributed to the failure of reformist politicians to effect needed changes. SF
TEHRAN GETS NEW MAYOR
The Tehran municipal council appointed Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad as the capital's new mayor on 29 April, IRNA reported. Ahmadi-Nejad previously served as Ardabil Province's governor and also is a university lecturer in Tehran. The mayoralty is a political lightening rod, especially in light of the intense factional disputes that are played out in Tehran. Mayor Gholamhussein Karbaschi underwent a corruption trial in 1998 that related more to his role in getting President Khatami elected. His successor, Morteza Alviri, resigned in February 2002 after almost continuous disputes with the council. The next mayor, Mohammad Hassan Malek-Madani, was sentenced to jail and barred from public office on corruption charges in January 2003. BS
NEW IRANIAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL APPOINTED
The Iranian judiciary has appointed Said Mortazavi prosecutor-general of public and revolutionary courts, IRNA reported on 29 April. As the judge at Bench 1410 of Tehran's Administrative Court, Mortazavi gained much notoriety among reformists for closing down newspapers and for his harsh sentencing of journalists on charges of publishing lies and influencing public opinion. The post of prosecutor-general in Iranian courts had been vacant since 1993, compelling Iranian judges to also act as prosecutors. SF
LAND-MINE BLAST IN AFGHANISTAN REPORTEDLY KILLS TWO, INJURES MANY
Two people were killed and 29 injured in the Chahi District of Balkh Province on 29 April when a tractor pulling a wagon on which they were traveling detonated a land mine, Balkh Radio reported. General Abdul Sabur, an official from the Mazar-e Sharif military corps, said an investigation has been ordered to determine whether the mine was laid during the Afghan civil war or was freshly laid, the BBC reported on 30 April. Meanwhile, Hindukosh news agency cited General Ata Mohammad, commander of Military Corps No. 7, as saying that two people were injured and one was killed as a result of the blast. Afghanistan remains one of the world's most heavily mined countries, largely due to the mining efforts of invading Soviet forces in 1979-89. Rival factions in Afghanistan continue to lay new mines, and Balkh Province is one of the areas where the Jamiyat-e Islami party, which is represented by Ata Mohammad, is confronting Junbish-e Melli forces loyal to Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rashid Dostum. AT
COALITION FORCES SEIZE TONS OF AMMUNITION IN AFGHANISTAN'S FARYAB PROVINCE
U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition forces in Afghanistan have discovered and seized around 200 tons of ammunition in Maymana, the capital of Faryab Province, Radio Afghanistan reported on 29 April. The ammunition was found in more than 10 locations in the provincial capital. It is not known if the ammunition was left in Maymana when the Taliban controlled the area, or if it belonged to rival factions currently in the city, the report added. Forces loyal to Jamiyat-e Islami under the command of Ata Mohammad most recently clashed with Dostum's Junbish-e Islami forces in Faryab Province on 8 April. The fighting stopped after the UN brokered a cease-fire on 11 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 11, 15, and 22 April 2003). AT
DEATH TOLL RISES IN THE ATTACK ON AFGHAN SECURITY POST
The death toll resulting from the 28 April attack on a security command post at Spin Boldak, situated on the border between Pakistan and Kandahar Province, has risen to three Afghan soldiers killed and two wounded, Reuters reported on 29 April. Initial reports indicated that unidentified individuals attacked the post, killing one Afghan soldier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2003). However, the new report cited Sayyed Falzuddin Agha, the district commissioner of Spin Boldak, as saying the attack was carried out by Taliban fighters wearing Afghan Army uniforms. Agha said Afghan forces are surrounding a village where the assailants are believed to be hiding. Earlier reports, citing another Afghan official, claimed the attackers escaped to Pakistan. AT
KABUL PAPER HOPES NEW CONSTITUTION LEADS TO BETTER LIFE
The Kabul daily "Hewad" in a 29 April commentary on commencement of the work of the new Constitutional Commission this week, wrote that it has been 1 1/2 years since the Afghan nation abandoned armed conflict and paved the way for the constitutional drafting process to begin. It said the commission tried to move beyond interpersonal problems and draft a document through negotiations. The new Constitutional Commission should ensure that the future constitution becomes a tool that will allow Afghanistan establish a society based on the rule of law and in which no violence or brutality can take place, the daily wrote. It recommended that members of the Constitutional Commission "determine and recognize the wishes" of the Afghan people and the final document should reflect their wishes. The future constitution "should be quite clear as far as the rights of all tribes are concerned" and should leave no place for "tribal, linguistic, religious, and regional complaints" that could arise. However, the commission should not be swayed by "backward regional and tribal inclinations," and a strong central government should be established (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 10, 24, and 28 April and 1 May 2003). AT