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Newsline - April 22, 2005


RUSSIAN PRESIDENT CONFIRMS MISSILES WILL BE SENT TO SYRIA; 'JOKE' UPSETS ISRAEL
Vladimir Putin announced in an interview on 21 April with the Israeli television station Ayal Hasson ahead of a visit to Israel and Egypt on 28 April that Russia has decided to complete a deal with Syria for advanced Igla (SA-18) antiaircraft missiles despite the objections of Jerusalem and Washington, Russian and international media reported. Asked whether the deal will spark security fears in Israel, Putin said jokingly: "It will, of course, make it difficult to fly over the residence of the Syrian president," the "Jerusalem Post" reported on 21 April. Reacting to Putin's statement, the daily "Ha'aretz" wrote on 21 April that "Russia fights terrorism with one hand but with the other it helps a state that supports terrorists." Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on 20 April that Israel does not accept the Russian assessment that antiaircraft missiles pose no threat to Israel, "Ha'aretz" reported. "What concerns us is that they can find their way into the hands of terrorist organizations," Sharon said. VY

PUTIN MEETS WITH EU PRESIDENT IN MOSCOW
President Putin received European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on 21 April in the Kremlin and discussed cooperation with Brussels on political and economic issues ahead of the 10 May EU-Russia summit in Moscow, regnum.ru and other media reported. According to Putin aide Sergei Yastrezhembskii, Putin and Barroso also discussed the Russian chairmanship in 2006 of the group of leading industrialized countries, the G-8, and the situation regarding the Kaliningrad exclave and the Russian-speaking populations in the Baltic States. Putin told Barroso that Russia is ready to sign a border treaty with Latvia at the EU-Russia summit, saying that it will also be part of the border between Russia and the EU. Putin also said that the EU has an obligation to improve the situation for Russian-speakers in the Baltic states. However, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who is planning to attend the Moscow commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe on 9 May, said on 22 April that she will not sign the border treaty during her trip to Moscow, Ekho Moskvy reported. Vike-Freiberga said signing the treaty is the duty of the prime minister. VY

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT TRAVELS TO MOSCOW
Alyaksandr Lukashenka arrived in Moscow on 22 April for a summit with President Putin and to participate in a session of the Supreme State Council of the Russia-Belarus Union, Russian and international media reported. According to an unnamed Kremlin source, the main topic of discussion is plans to introduce the Russian ruble as the joint currency of the two countries, newsru.com reported. The visit comes in the wake of a verbal spat between the United States, on one hand, and Russia and Belarus, on the other. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on 21 April that Belarus is "the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe," adding that it was time for change in that country, CNN reported. In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the same day: "We are interested in developing relations with Belarus in the economic, social, and other areas. That is what our people want. We are opposed to anyone dictating their will to sovereign states. We believe democratic processes cannot be imposed from outside," ORT reported. An unnamed Kremlin source told ITAR-TASS on 21 April that Russia and Belarus "are developing union relations and demonstrating the highest level of cooperation in the CIS." RC

RUSSIA AND NATO PLAN JOINT EXERCISES IN KALININGRAD
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer announced at the conclusion of a Russia-NATO Council session in Vilnius on 21 April that both sides have agreed to hold joint military exercises in Kaliningrad Oblast, RIA-Novosti reported. He did not give a date for the maneuvers but said it will be a "good example of cooperation." Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry praised the landmark Russian-NATO agreement on troop transits and Russia's de facto joining of NATO's Partnership for Peace program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 April 2005), strana.ru reported on 21 April. The agreement creates new possibilities for joint work on antiterrorist and emergency situations and peacekeeping operations, the ministry said in a statement. VY

UKRAINIAN OFFICIAL SAYS NOTHING HINDERS A TYMOSHENKO VISIT TO MOSCOW
Petro Poroshenko, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, said in Moscow on 21 April that he believes Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko will visit Moscow "very soon," Interfax reported. He said that Russian officials had assured him that "Tymoshenko is expected and will be received at the very highest level at any convenient time." Tymoshenko's scheduled visit to Russia earlier this week was postponed indefinitely without explanation, although most analysts believe the move was connected with fears that Tymoshenko could be questioned or even detained by Russian law enforcement authorities investigating a case of allegedly bribery of Defense Ministry officials. Poroshenko also told journalists that the issue of the Chornobyl nuclear-power plant is a priority issue in Ukraine's relations with Russia, the United States, and the European Union. He said Chornobyl is not just a Ukrainian problem and that outstanding issues include improving safety at the plant and developing a waste-disposal plan. RC

CHUBAIS SIDES WITH PUTIN...
In a lengthy interview with "Izvestiya" on 21 April, the head of the Unified Electrical System (EES) and architect of 1990s-era privatization Anatolii Chubais said that he is outraged and strongly protests Russian politicians who call for an "orange revolution." Fortunately, such a revolution in Russia is unrealistic, he said. "Indeed, the states where those revolutions happened have for a long time been run by post-Soviet leaders. But Putin is not a post-Soviet, but a post-Yeltsin leader," Chubais noted. He added that "whether we like it or not, the whole political system in the country is based on one element, the approval rating of Vladimir Putin." He also said that he considers the "unification of democrats on an anti-Putin basis to be unworkable," and a slogan like "down with Putin's police regime" is not serious. VY

...AND SAYS THAT DESPITE YUKOS AFFAIR INVESTMENT WILL COME TO RUSSIA
In the same interview, Chubais said that he is against the criminal prosecution of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, though he understands that the government could make political claims against the management of Yukos. Despite the enormous economic damage caused by the Yukos affair, the Russian economy is in very good shape and can attract investors, he said. "All investors can be divided into those who have short memories and those who have none at all. And if the government and the president want to, they surely will be able to attract investors [to] Russia," Chubais said. VY

COURT AUTHORIZES ARREST OF SUSPECT IN CHUBAIS ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
The Moscow Basmannnyi Raion Court authorized on 21 April the arrest of Robert Yashin for suspected involvement in the 17 March assassination attempt on Chubais, Russian mass media reported. Retired Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov is already in detention on similar charges. Another man detained in this case, Aleksandr Naidenov, (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 April 2005) said he has an alibi. Meanwhile the daily "Moskovskii komsomolets" reported on 21 April that according to the Prosecutor-General's Office, Yashin, Naidenov, and Kvachkov are members of an armed nationalist organization, a Russian analog of the Italian Red Brigades, and that they planned and carried out the attack on Chubais for ideological reasons. Chubais's lawyer, Anatolii Kucherena, said on 22 April that he believes in the existence of an extremist network that attacked Chubais, Ekho Moskvy reported. VY

IS SALE OF REN-TV LINKED TO COVERAGE OF CHUBAIS ATTACK?
Some observers believe that the impending sale of independent television channel REN-TV, which was reported on 20 April, might have been accelerated because of the station's thorough coverage of the assassination attempt on Chubais. That is in part due to Marianna Maksimovskaya of REN-TV's analytical program "Nedelya," who covered the case closely on 19 March and stressed that Colonel Kvachkov, the main suspect in the crime, was well-known to journalists and often consulted with them. Maksimovskaya also screened footage of previous television appearances by Kvachkov. On 26 March, "Nedelya" broadcast an interview with Kvachkov's wife, Nadezhda, who said she heard about the assassination attempt on television and then told her husband about it, as he was home at the time. Soon after that, the transcript of the 26 March broadcast was removed from the REN-TV website. As one viewer complained on the website's chatroom, the station said the removal was "temporary," though it has not been reposted. Meanwhile, Andrei Trapesnikov, the EES press spokesman and majority owner of REN-TV, said the decision to sell the station was made in 2003 because media is not considered to be a business interest for EES, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on 20 April. Trapesnikov did not say why the sale of the company was only announced recently. VY

RUSSIAN 'FORBES' ISSUES LIST OF 100 RICHEST RUSSIANS
The Russian edition of "Forbes" magazine published its list of the 100 richest Russians on 22 April, Russian and international media reported. According to the magazine, the estimated total wealth of the 100 increased by $4 billion over last year to $141 billion, while the average age of people on the list fell from 48 years to 44. Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor Roman Abramovich, the main owner of Sibneft, was first on the list with an estimated fortune of $14.7 billion. Last month, the U.S. edition of "Forbes" ranked Abramovich as the 21st richest person in the world with a fortune of $13.3 billion. Last's year's No. 1 on the Russian list, former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, saw his estimated fortune fall from $15.2 billion to $2 billion, while the Yukos-related fortunes of Leonid Nevzlin, Mikhail Brudno, Vladimir Dubov, Platon Lebedev, and Vasilii Shakhonskii are no longer sufficient to merit places in the top 100. The "Forbes" list includes 18 government officials, including seven Federation Council members, six State Duma deputies, two local legislators, two presidents of Russian republics, and Abramovich. Yelena Baturina, wife of Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, remains the only woman on the list, with a fortune estimated at $1.4 billion. RC

SOROS INVESTMENT FUND QUITS RUSSIA
The Soros Development Fund, which is controlled by billionaire financier George Soros, has sold its last remaining asset in Russia, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 22 April. A fund representative said on 21 April that the fund had sold its 42 percent stake in KMB Bank to the Italian banking group Intesa and had quit Russia for the foreseeable future. RC

MOSCOW OBLAST MAYOR ARRESTED FOR MURDER
The Moscow Oblast prosecutor's office has arrested Podolsk Mayor Aleksandr Fokin on suspicion of ordering the June 2002 murder of Podolsk First Deputy Mayor Petr Zabrodin, RIA-Novosti reported on 21 April. NTV reported that police have arrested the suspected triggerman in the case and that he has testified against Fokin. RC

ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER COMMENTS ON TALKS WITH AZERBAIJANIS
Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian stated on 21 April that the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents will meet to "try to find a solution and determine the future direction of negotiations" between the two countries, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Arminfo reported. Oskanian stressed that any expectation of a final peace deal is premature and explained that the two leaders will focus on overcoming "sticking points" that have been hindering the mediation effort of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Minsk Group. Seeking to continue the momentum from a recent meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers with OSCE mediators in London, Presidents Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev are expected to meet in Warsaw or Moscow sometime next month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 April 2005). RG

OPPOSITION FIGURE THREATENS 'NATIONAL REVOLUTION' IN ARMENIA...
Opposition Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party leader Aram Karapetian vowed on 21 April to stage a "national revolution" in Armenia, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Noyan Tapan reported. Despite relative obscurity after spending nearly a decade in Moscow, Karapetian emerged as an ardent critic of the Armenian government with his endorsement of opposition presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian's challenge to President Kocharian in the March 2003 runoff election. Karapetian later broke from Demirchian and his Artarutiun (Justice) bloc and, at a recent party congress that was boycotted by other opposition parties, promised to lead a new national campaign against the Armenian government. RG

...AFTER VIOLENCE DISRUPTS PARTY RALLY
An opposition rally held on 20 April in the Armenian town of Sevan was marred by a violent clash that left an opposition activist wounded, according to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Noyan Tapan. The rally, organized by the opposition Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party, was disrupted by an unidentified group of hecklers targeting party leader Aram Karapetian. The incident quickly escalated into a violent confrontation between the group and some of the rally's 1,000 opposition supporters, with an unidentified gunman wounding 22-year-old Garegin Petrosian. Although organizers had legal approval for the rally, Armenian police later accused Karapetian of "breaking the law" by violating legal restrictions on public demonstrations. Karapetian accused an unspecified "government wing" on 21 April for the "provocation" and claimed that the authorities actively pressured local residents from attending the rally, Arminfo reported. That accusation was echoed by the opposition Hanrapetutiun (Republic) party and, most significantly, by the pro-government Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which condemned the incident as a "provocation against democracy" carried out by "shadow forces," Yerkir reported. RG

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT IN PARIS ON STATE VISIT
President Kocharian met on 21 April with French National Assembly Chairman Jean Louis Debre and Senate Chairman Christian Poncelet during the start of a three-day visit to Paris, Arminfo and Yerkir reported. Kocharian also met on 22 April with French President Jacques Chirac to discuss bilateral relations and to review plans for a cultural "year of Armenia" exhibit to be held in France in 2006. RG

RUSSIAN PARLIAMENT LEADER IN AZERBAIJAN
Russian Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov met on 21 April with Azerbaijani Parliament Speaker Murtuz Alesqserov in Baku, Turan reported. The Russian parliamentary official discussed bilateral parliamentary cooperation and the ongoing mediation effort seeking to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Mironov also plans to visit Tbilisi in an attempt to schedule a Russian-hosted meeting of parliamentary leaders from Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. In response to an official Azerbaijani query, Mironov stated that he had no information on the alleged transfer of Russian artillery pieces from a Russian base in Georgia to Armenia. Alesqserov is planning a reciprocal visit to Moscow late next month and will also head an Azerbaijani delegation at an economic forum in St. Petersburg. RG

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT WELCOMES PARLIAMENTARY MOVE TO ABOLISH TAX ARBITRATION COUNCILS...
Mikheil Saakashvili welcomed on 21 April the parliament's decision to abolish the country's system of tax arbitration, Civil Georgia and Rustavi-2 TV reported. President Saakashvili explained that the decision was necessary to counter the abuse of the independent Tax Arbitration Councils by businessmen to negotiate unfair settlements with the authorities for outstanding tax obligations. The arbitration process has been plagued by charges of abuse in the wake of several recent cases of questionable settlements. RG

...SPARKING PROTESTS BY BUSINESS LEADERS
Reacting to the Georgian parliament's move to abolish the use of Tax Arbitration Councils to settle tax disputes, a group of leading Georgian businessmen held a press conference on 21 April calling on the government to reconsider the decision, according to Civil Georgia. Georgian Federation of Businessmen President Badri Patarkatsishvili and other leading businessmen argued the end of the process of tax arbitration would only "encourage corruption among both taxpayers and tax inspectors" and hinder economic growth, Imedi-TV reported. RG

KAZAKH PRESIDENT ADDRESSES MEDIA FORUM
Nursultan Nazarbaev told participants in the Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty on 21 April that freedom of speech and the media are an "integral part" of Kazakhstan's progress toward democracy and an open society, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The president called free media a "supreme value," but warned that the media should not serve as a weapon in "information wars," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Turning to recent events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, Nazarbaev commented: "As clear-headed people, we understand the deeper reasons for these events. These reasons lie not in some mythical plots by outside forces, but are the result of the logic of internal development. Poverty and unemployment...are fertile ground for people's dissatisfaction with the authorities." DK

KAZAKH POLICE MAKE RECORD HEROIN BUST
Kazakh police have seized 64 kilograms of heroin, the largest single drug bust in the country's history, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The Interior Ministry said in a press release that the shipment was intercepted in southern Kazakhstan on the night of 20 April as smugglers were attempting to transport it from a neighboring country to Europe through Kazakhstan. Three residents of Kazakhstan were detained in the operation. DK

KYRGYZ COMMISSION ON EX-PRESIDENT'S PROPERTY ASKS FOR COOPERATION...
Acting Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov, who chairs the recently formed commission to investigate the alleged business holdings of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, told a press conference in Bishkek on 21 April that the commission invites anyone with knowledge of the ousted president's business dealings to come forward, Kabar reported. Usenov noted that the commission is currently working with a "tentative" list of 42 enterprises (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 April 2005). He added: "The commission will also investigate money transfer schemes through offshore zones, schemes for skimming from the budget, and from such enterprises as Kumtor [gold mine]," Interfax reported. He also said that the commission has information that "shortly before 24 March, between $20 million and $30 million in assets from [cellular operator] BiTel...were transferred to offshore zones." Usenov also confirmed that the National Security Service has opened a criminal case against Adil Toigonbaev, the son-in-law of former President Askar Akaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 April 2005), Kabar reported. DK

...AS OUSTED PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER EXPRESSES DOUBTS
In an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on 21 April, Bermet Akaeva, the daughter of former President Akaev, said she doubts the objectivity of the commission charged with investigating her family's alleged business assets. She said, "If I were so rich, I would have built myself a house instead of living in an ordinary, albeit expensive, apartment." Akaeva asserted that her husband, who is reputed to have extensive business interests in Kyrgyzstan, always conducted his affairs legally and attracted significant investments to the country. She also said that she plans to assume her place in parliament as soon as the Central Election Commission rules on disputes involving her election. Finally, she said that her mother and father, who are currently in Moscow, will "definitely return to their homeland." DK

ACTING KYRGYZ PRESIDENT MEETS WITH LEGISLATORS
Kurmanbek Bakiev met with the heads of parliamentary fractions in Bishkek on 21 April, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Their discussion focused on the government's plans to stabilize the situation in the country, an economic program, the appointment of officials, spring planting, fuel supplies, and the problem of land seizures in and around Bishkek. Bakiev stressed that he will make it a regular practice to meet with parliamentary deputies. DK

ANOTHER CANDIDATE ENTERS KYRGYZ PRESIDENTIAL RACE
Jeneshbek Nazaraliev, a doctor who runs a well-known clinic for drug addicts in Bishkek, announced on 21 April that he plans to seek the presidency in the 10 July election, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Nazaraliev told Bishkek TV that he was prompted to declare his candidacy by a desire to stabilize the situation in the country, akipress.org reported. Nazaraliev's announcement brings the number of declared candidates to 10, a number that is expected to rise as the election nears. DK

RUSSIAN PROSECUTOR DEFENDS RELEASE OF MISSING TAJIK OPPOSITION LEADER
Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov announced in Dushanbe on 21 April that his agency's recent decision to release Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, the head of Tajikistan's Democratic Party, was taken in full accordance with Russian and international law, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The remarks came at a meeting of CIS prosecutors-general in the Tajik capital. Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobojon had termed the Russian release of Iskandarov a "mistake" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 12 April 2005). Ustinov did not provide any information on Iskandarov's current whereabouts. The Tajik opposition leader was last seen in Moscow on 15 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 April 2005). DK

NEW UZBEK OPPOSITION COALITION EMERGES
Nigora Hidoyatova, the leader of the unregistered opposition party Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Farmers), announced at a news conference on 20 April the formation of a new opposition coalition called My Sunny Uzbekistan, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported the next day. Hidoyatova said, "Our demands are the democratization of the political system, the limitation of the president's powers, freedom of speech, openness, and agrarian reform." The coalition, which includes a number of prominent rights activists, identified the privatization of land as a priority reform. But exiled opposition leader Muhammad Solih, a leader of the banned Erk party, told RFE/RL that the new coalition is based on individual aspirations and lacks a solid platform. DK

RUSSIA, UNITED STATES, SPAR OVER BELARUS'S 'DICTATORSHIP'
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 21 April appeared to rebuff a U.S. call for change in Belarus, one day after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka as "the last true dictatorship" in Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 April 2005), international media reported. "We would not of course be advocating what some people call regime changes anywhere. We think the democratic process, the process of reform cannot be imposed from outside," Lavrov said at a news conference after a NATO-Russia meeting in Vilnius. Rice, in her turn, insisted that both the United State and the EU have a role to play in Belarus. "We can provide support, as both we and the European Union are doing, to the development of civil society groups and the training of independent media and independent political and civil society forces [in Belarus]. That is the role of outside forces," she told a news conference following Lavrov's remarks. JM

WASHINGTON TO WATCH OVER 2006 ELECTION IN BELARUS
U.S. State Secretary Condoleezza Rice discussed Belarus with EU Foreign Policy and Security Chief Javier Solana, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis, and members of Belarusian civil society in Vilnius on 21 April, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. "The point was made very clearly that the 2006 [presidential] elections really do present an excellent opportunity for the international community to focus on the need for free and fair elections in Belarus," Rice told a news conference following her talks. "The Belarusian government should know that their behavior is being watched by the international community, that this is not a dark corner in which things can go on unobserved, uncommented upon, and as if Belarus were somehow not a part of the European continent." JM

MINSK SPURNS U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE'S REMARKS ON BELARUS
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 22 April seemed to disparage the remarks U.S. State Secretary Condoleezza Rice made earlier this week on the situation in Belarus, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. "It is good that she knows that there is such a country as Belarus and maybe even has an idea of where it is situated," Lukashenka said on his arrival in Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Maybe she even noticed she was flying over that country yesterday or some time before. I don't think there are any terrorists or anything like that [in Belarus], everything seems to be fine." The previous day, Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktar Haysyonak commented on Rice's call for a regime change in Belarus. "It is the people of Belarus who choose their authorities and who decide their future and their destiny -- not Rice," Haysyonak said. JM

UKRAINE EDGES TOWARD NATO MEMBERSHIP TALKS
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk told a news conference after a foreign-minister level NATO-Ukraine meeting in Vilnius on 21 April that Kyiv could complete the necessary military and political reforms for joining NATO within the three years, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer backed Kyiv's NATO membership goal but refused to give a timetable. "NATO has invited Ukraine to begin...an intensified dialogue on Ukraine's aspirations to membership...without prejudice to any eventual alliance decision," Reuters quoted Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as saying. "It would be the choice of Ukraine to choose its partners and it is the sovereign matter of Ukraine," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Vilnius the same day. JM

UKRAINIAN, ROMANIAN PRESIDENTS SET TO END BORDER SPAT
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko met with his Romanian counterpart, Traian Basescu, in Bucharest on 21 April, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "We both believe that we need to boost mutual trust," Reuters quoted Yushchenko as saying after his meeting with Basescu. Both presidents reportedly pledged to tackle bilateral disputes such as the delimitation of an oil-rich continental shelf in the Black Sea around Serpents Island and a Ukrainian project to use a shipping canal in the Danube delta (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 9 September 2004). They also said they will set up a commission to cooperate in solving the conflict in Moldova's separatist Transdniester region and in monitoring ethnic minority issues in both states. "We will create a Basescu-Yushchenko commission which will tackle the most painful bilateral problems," Yushchenko said. JM

UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENT PUTS CAPS ON GASOLINE PRICES
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko said at a meeting with regional governors and business executives in Kyiv on 22 April that prices for gasoline in Ukraine will be stabilized at a level below 3 hryvnyas ($0.6) per liter, as established by the Economy Ministry earlier this week, the "Ukrayinskaya pravda" website (http://www2.pravda.com.ua) reported. "The artificially created [fuel] crisis will end within two-three days," Tymoshenko pledged. She said the Russian oil companies LUKoil and TNK-BP "have planned to bring all consumers in Ukraine to their knees" but added that this problem "will be solved with them today or tomorrow." The Economy Ministry said in a statement on 21 April that it will guarantee the property rights of Russian oil companies for Ukraine's biggest refineries only if they agree to cut retail fuel prices. Earlier this week TNK-BP, LUKoil, and Alliance group wrote a letter to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, asking him to intervene in the dispute and saying they are concerned by threats from Ukrainian officials to revise privatization deals. The companies are unwilling to cut prices at their gasoline station networks in Ukraine, saying higher world crude prices are behind the increases. JM

MONTENEGRIN FOREIGN MINISTER OFFERS TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR PLAN TO MANIPULATE THE MEDIA
Montenegrin Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic told a press conference in Podgorica on 21 April that he has offered to resign in connection with a scandal over a document sent recently by his ministry to Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and speaker of the parliament Ranko Krivokapic that called on the government to manipulate the media in support of Montenegrin independence, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 April 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 11 February 2005). Vlahovic added that Djukanovic and Krivokapic both turned down his offer. Vlahovic denied that either the government or his ministry were responsible for the document but declined to identify its author. PM

SECURITY TIGHTENED FOR KOSOVA'S PRESIDENT
UN and local police strengthened security around the Prishtina home of Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova on 21 April in response to unspecified threats made against him, Reuters and dpa reported. Police vehicles are parked at all the main intersections leading to his densely populated residential neighborhood, where the police check cars and allow only residents to proceed. A bomb damaged Rugova's car in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 March 2005). There have been additional acts of violence in recent weeks, including an explosion at the headquarters of the opposition Ora party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 April 2005). It is not clear who is behind these incidents or whether they are connected. Some have speculated that the perpetrators are a shadowy Kosovar group with supposed political and criminal connections, or possibly Serbian intelligence agents seeking to discredit the Kosovars' image abroad (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 January 2005). PM

RULING PARTY EXPELS CONTROVERSIAL CROATIAN POLITICIAN...
The National Council of the governing Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) voted unanimously on 21 April to expel Branimir Glavas, a member of the parliament who headed the HDZ's branch in Osijek-Baranja county, Hina reported. Also expelled from the party were Vladimir Sisljagic, who is a parliamentary deputy and head of the HDZ municipal organization in Osijek, and Ivan Drmic, who is a member of the parliament. Party head and Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said that the three were ousted for acting against the HDZ program, apparently by calling for more power for the regions. He named Tomislav Ivic to head the party organization in Osijek-Baranja county, and Ivic announced the dissolution of the Osijek municipal HDZ branch. Sanader said that the party will be stronger because of the expulsions. When asked if he fears that Glavas will air the HDZ's dirty linen, Sanader replied: "Have we ever been afraid of anything?" PM

...WHO SAYS HE IS 'FREE AS A BIRD'
After being expelled from the HDZ on 21 April, Glavas said in Osijek that he feels "free as a bird," Hina reported. He argued that it was an "honor" to belong to the HDZ when the late President Franjo Tudjman led it, adding, however, that the party has become a "nightmare" under Sanader, whom he called vain and egocentric. Glavas also announced his own list of candidates to run as independents in the 15 May municipal elections. Many Croats regard him as a no-nonsense defender of Croatian interests in eastern Slavonia during the 1991-95 conflict, but British writer Misha Glenny echoed the view of many Serbs when he described Glavas as "a serial killer in fatigues." Many Croats have more recently come to regard Glavas as a machine politician who has sought to rule his region as a personal fief. PM

SERBIAN HARD-LINERS TOP NEW POLL
The Belgrade-based Faktor Plus polling agency released a survey on 22 April confirming earlier trends that Vojislav Seselj's opposition Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which already has the largest bloc of seats in the parliament, is the most popular party, with 32 percent of respondents endorsing it, dpa reported. Serbian President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party has the trust of 23 percent, followed by controversial businessman Bogoljub Karic's new Snaga Srbije (called after Italy's Forza Italia) with 16 percent, and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) with 9.5 percent (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2 July and 17 September 2004). Of the four parties in the governing coalition, only Kostunica's meets the 5 percent hurdle. About 37 percent of the respondents described living conditions as "hardly bearable." PM

ROMANY LEADER ARRESTED IN MACEDONIA
Police arrested Amdi Bajram near Kumanovo in northern Macedonia and brought him to the Skopje's Idrizovo prison on 20 April, "Dnevnik" and other Macedonian media reported. Bajram is the mayor-elect of Suto Orizari, which is Macedonia's largest Romany township. He was arrested to serve a four-year term for theft in a textile plant in Stip in 2003. In recent days, his followers protested against the expected arrest, demanding that the Supreme Court review the verdict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March and 19 April 2003 and 14 and 19 April 2005). Even if the repeat vote in two polling stations in Suto Orizari confirms Bajram's election, he will nonetheless lose his mandate. In that case, new elections must be called. Bajram won the mayor's race by fewer than 100 votes. Bajram's son Elvis Bajram announced that he will organize more protests in support of his father, calling the arrest a "conspiracy" by the government. UB

MOLDOVA AND AZERBAIJAN AGREE TO ASSIST EACH OTHER IN SOLVING INTERNAL CONFLICTS
The presidents of Moldova and Azerbaijan have agreed to assist each other in resolving internal conflicts in Transdniester and Nagorno Karabakh, Infotag reported on 21 April. "We support Azerbaijan in its efforts to preserve the country's territorial integrity. We are ready to assist Baku in solving the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, the more so that we face an analogous problem, and have gained a certain practical experience in that," Moldova's President Vladimir Voronin said at a joint press conference with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev. The two presidents, meeting on the eve of the GUUAM summit in Chisinau, also pledged to assist each other's European integration efforts. Aliev said both countries see their future "in one line with European and Euro-Atlantic structures." BW

UKRAINE AND ROMANIA PREPARE TRANSDNIESTER PLAN
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Romanian President Traian Basescu said they have a common vision for resolving Moldova's Transdniester conflict, international news agencies reported on 21 April. The two presidents made their remarks after meeting in Bucharest, where they were working on a joint peace plan for the breakaway region. The details of the plan, which they plan to present at the GUUAM summit in Chisinau, were not revealed. Yushchenko said, however, that the conflict would be a major focus of the summit, which begins on 22 April. "Myself and Mr. Basescu have a common point of view on the Transdniester settlement issue, and we will present our position in Chisinau," Yushchenko said. "I have a feeling that Ukraine and Romania will play an essential role in the Transdniester conflict settlement. I am sure the summit participants will listen to our position tomorrow." BW

WHO WILL STRIKE FIRST FOLLOWING MASKHADOV'S DEATH?
The reprisals that some anticipated would follow the killing on 8 March of Chechen leader and resistance forces commander Aslan Maskhadov have not taken place -- yet. A 20 April commentary posted by the website ari.ru attributed the comparative lull in hostilities in recent weeks to the statutory 40-day mourning period prescribed by Islam, which ended on 17 April.

However, a Stratfor analysis dated 5 April claims that in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally gave the green light for the systematic elimination of all major Chechen field commanders still at large, and that in the wake of Maskhadov's death the Federal Security Service (FSB) is continuing to tighten the net around them. That analysis poses the crucial question: will the Chechen resistance succeed in launching major reprisals before the FSB manages to locate and kill them?

It is possible that the six militants encircled and killed in a Grozny apartment on 14 April, who were reportedly in possession of Strela portable shoulder-launched missiles, were preparing a major operation to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period.

On 15 April, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Chechen Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kravchenko as warning the previous day that the Chechen militants are preparing a major assault, and on 19 April the same paper quoted Major General Sergei Suvorikhin, commander of the 42nd Motorized Division, as saying that radical field commander Shamil Basaev -- probably the most experienced and ruthless of the surviving field commanders -- is regrouping.

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov, however, downplayed Kravchenko's warning. "Izvestiya" on 15 April quoted Alkhanov as telling journalists that "naturally illegal armed formations are not abandoning their attempts to complicate the situation in Chechnya, but they are not capable of doing anything substantial."

The 14 April operation in Grozny, however, suggests that Alkhanov may be underestimating the strength and capacity of the resistance. Initial reports of that operation identified the militants in question as subordinate to veteran field commander Doku Umarov, and some unnamed police officials even thought -- erroneously -- that Umarov himself was among those killed, according to Interfax on 16 April.

Stratfor's list of key field commanders whom it claims Russian forces are currently hunting includes Umarov, a Saudi-born commander it identifies as Abu Hafs, who allegedly has links with Al-Qaeda, and Daghestani militant leader Rappani Khalilov. But Basaev appears to be the top priority, presumably because of his strategic skills in coordinating terrorist acts outside Chechnya, such as the multiple attacks last June on Interior Ministry targets in Ingushetia.

Lieutenant General Yevgenii Vnukov, commander of the Interior Ministry forces in the North Caucasus, was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 4 April as predicting that "Basaev is next!" while Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov assured "Komsomolskaya pravda" in an interview published on 6 April that Basaev will be killed by 9 May -- the first anniversary of the terrorist bombing, for which Basaev claimed responsibility, that killed Kadyrov's father, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov.

In recent weeks, Russian media have reported the killing or capture of numerous separate small groups of fighters subordinate to Basaev, but "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on 18 April that the police and security units that Kadyrov commands have not participated in those operations, which were conducted by FSB troops.

U.S. FORCES KILL 12 NEO-TALIBAN IN SOUTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN...
In a retaliatory mission, U.S. forces killed at least 12 neo-Taliban insurgents on 19 April in Khost Province, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on 21 April. According to a U.S. military statement, U.S. forces using aircraft and artillery attacked an area from where suspected neo-Taliban militants had launched rockets on a U.S. military facility in Khost. "We were able to see the launching point of the rockets and we brought everything we had to bear on it," U.S. Major J.R. Mendoza said, AFP reported on 21 April. Khost Governor Me'rajuddin Pattan told AFP that the neo-Taliban were killed inside Pakistani territory along the ill-defined border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. However an unidentified Pakistani military spokesman rejected Pattan's claim, adding that there was "no intrusion into Pakistani territory." AT

...WHILE SENIOR FORMER TALIBAN OFFICIAL JOINS KABUL'S RECONCILIATION PROGRAM
A former provincial governor during the Taliban regime has accepted the Afghan government's reconciliation offer, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on 21 April. Governor Sher Mohammad of the southern Helmand Province told AIP on 21 April that "former Taliban governor, Mohammad Nasim, joined the government after talks" held on 20 April. Neo-Taliban spokesman Mufti Latifollah Hakimi confirmed the fact that Mullah Mohammad Nasim did serve "for some time" as the governor of Zabul Province," adding that since the demise of the Taliban regime he had not been in contact with the resurgent Taliban elements -- or the neo-Taliban. According to AIP, the acceptance of the truce offer from Kabul by Mohammad Nasim and earlier by "key" commander Ra'is Abdul Wahed can be "considered a major success for the local administration in Helmand." Helmand and its neighboring Kandahar, Oruzgan and Zabul provinces are considered the hotbed of the neo-Taliban insurgency. AT

NEO-TALIBAN SAY U.S. FORCES WILL NOT FIND THEIR RADIO STATION
Neo-Taliban spokesman Hakimi told AIP on 21 April that U.S. forces based in Afghanistan will not be able to locate the Shari'ah Zhagh (Voice of Shari'ah) broadcast station. "For one thing, Shari'ah Zhagh is a mobile station. For another, it broadcasts programs at dawn and sunset. No one can detect the station's frequencies during these times," Hakimi added. According to Hakimi more such radio stations will begin operating in other areas of Afghanistan and broadcast in local languages such as Uzbek and Turkmen. Using the former name given to Radio Afghanistan during the Taliban regime, the neo-Taliban began limited broadcasts in the Kandahar area on 18 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 21 April 2005). AT

TURKISH PREMIER ENDS VISIT TO KABUL AND MEETS WITH DOSTUM
Recep Tayyip Erdogan left Kabul on 21 April after a one-day official visit to Afghanistan, Jowzjan Aina Television reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 April 2005). Erdogan met with General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the newly appointed chief of staff of the high command of the armed forces of Afghanistan, in the presidential palace. In addition, Dostum held separate meetings with Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul and Health Minister Recep Akdag. AT

IRAN HONORS PALESTINIAN 'OLIVE GIRLS'
Female Palestinian suicide bombers, known as "Olive Girls" (Dokhtaran-i Zeytun), were honored at a 20 April conference in Tehran, Radio Farda reported. The event was organized by the Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement and two other state-affiliated entities. Participants included students and state officials, local Hamas representative Abu Osama, and the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the Martyr's Foundation, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Hassan Rahimian, Radio Farda reported. Female parliamentarians Marzieh Dabagh, Fatimeh Elias, Effat Shariati, Laleh Eftekhari, and Eshrat Shayeq, as well presidential women's affairs adviser Zahra Shojai, also attended. Political scientist Davud Hermidas Bavand told Radio Farda that the event is more symbolic than practical and Iranian women who volunteer for suicide missions out of solidarity with the Palestinians will not be asked to take part in operations. Alireza Nurizadeh told Radio Farda that in Islam having a woman commit such an act is very bad. The Headquarters' spokesman, Mohammad Samadi, told Mehr News Agency on 21 April that 35,000 people have volunteered to kill themselves. Samadi also said some volunteers have conducted suicide attacks against Israeli military targets, according to AP. BS

IRANIAN WATERMELON EXPORTS IMPRESSIVE
In the period from March 2004-March 2005, Iran exported 99,000 tons of watermelons at a value of $16.1 million, IranMania.com reported on 21 April, citing ISNA. Some 70 percent of the watermelons went to Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, and the rest went to Bahrain, Kuwait, and Turkey. Statistics comparing these figures to those of the previous year were not available. Bandar Abbas and Qeshm parliamentary representative Ali Dirbaz said in the 4 April legislative session that fruit prices have gone through the roof, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 5 April. Lanjan representative Mohsen Kuhkan added, "Can we easily overlook the unreasonable increase in prices of fruits and other goods during the New Year holidays?" He continued: "Has not the time come that senior officials of the Islamic system should humbly confess to their errors instead of taking the pose of innocent persons?" Speaker of parliament Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel said fruit prices increased 100 percent, adding "The recent increase in prices has extended to imported fruits including bananas." BS

IMPRISONED IRANIAN JOURNALIST IS VERY ILL
According to a 21 April press release from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), journalist Akbar Ganji, who has been imprisoned for five years, is very ill. Prison doctors have said for the last three years that Ganji must be hospitalized but the judiciary has ignored their advice, RSF reported. Ganji is held in solitary confinement, not allowed to telephone his wife, and has received infrequent passes. BS

MORE ETHNIC RIOTERS RELEASED
Iraj Amirkhani, prosecutor in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, said that on 21 April 155 more people who were arrested for their parts in earlier ethnic unrest were released, IRNA reported on the same day. Amirkhani said most of the detainees are under the age of 20 years old. BS

A SHOW OF FORCE FOR IRAN'S ETHNIC ARABS
The Iranian government is acting to discourage further displays of ethnic unity and defiance by scheduling a massive march in Ahvaz on 22 April. The march is to commemorate Solidarity Week, ISNA reported. This is the first time Iran has had a Solidarity Week and the timing is probably not coincidental, although this is Iran's "Year of National Solidarity and Public Participation." Ahvaz also hosted a big military parade on 18 April, which was Army Day. Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani, who is an ethnic Arab, is visiting the Ahvaz area to look into the reasons behind the unrest that shook the city and the country's leadership. Shamkhani said on 21 April that locals have decided to organize a "grand solidarity gathering," IRNA reported. He stressed that ethnic Arabs are an integral part of the country but acknowledged that Khuzestan Province suffers from "underdevelopment and war destruction problems." BS

REFORMIST IRANIAN CANDIDATE OPEN TO RELATIONS WITH UNITED STATES...
Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, who heads Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi's election headquarters, hinted in a recent interview that his candidate does not rule out the resumption of relations with the United States. "One can establish relations with any country, except with the usurping Israeli regime," he said according to "Etemad" on 21 April. "A wolf and sheep relationship will not be at all acceptable to anyone. One should remove the wall of mistrust between America and Iran." BS

...AND WILL REPLACE SUBSIDIES WITH CHARITY
Mohtashami-Pur said that Karrubi's plan to pay everybody 500,000 rials ($62.50) per month can be realized with the implementation of a more efficient social security system and elimination of state subsidies. He added that billions of rials in subsides benefit the rich and he cited gasoline subsidies as an example. Karrubi intends to eliminate gasoline subsidies, Mohtashami-Pur said. BS

CIVILIAN HELICOPTER SHOT DOWN NEAR BAGHDAD...
Iraqi insurgents shot down a Bulgarian commercial helicopter near Baghdad on 21 April, killing 11 people, international news agencies reported the same day. Among the dead were six U.S. security contractors, three Bulgarian crewmembers, and two Fijian security guards. A rocket-propelled grenade hit the Russian-built MI-8 helicopter as it flew over a deserted area north of Baghdad, Reuters reported citing Bulgarian officials and the U.S. military. The six Americans killed were employed by Blackwater Security Consulting. They were assisting the Bureau of Diplomatic Security in protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq. The chartered flight appears to be the first civilian aircraft shot down since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq two years ago. BW

...AS MILITANT GROUP CLAIMS RESPONSIBILITY
A militant group called the Islamic Army in Iraq claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter, and posted a video on the Internet showing insurgents shooting the crash's sole survivor, international news agencies reported on 21 April. "One of the crew members was captured alive and killed," the Islamic Army in Iraq said in a statement posted on its website. The video showed what appeared to be the burning remains of the helicopter and a man in blue overalls lying in a grassy area and reaching out for help, Reuters reported. "Give me a hand," he was heard saying. Insurgents helped the man get up, ordered him to walk away, and shot him repeatedly while shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great). BW

REPORT CASTS DOUBT ON IDENTITY OF BODIES DISCOVERED IN TIGRIS RIVER
Accounts by senior police officials have cast doubt on claims that bodies discovered in the Tigris River south of Baghdad were those of hostages allegedly executed by Sunni militants, the BBC reported on 21 April. Transitional President Jalal Talabani said the bodies were those of hostages held in Al-Mada'in and killed by insurgents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 April 2005). But according to a report posted on the BBC website the same day, the corpses began to surface on 27 February, nearly two months before the alleged hostage crisis. On the first three days after the corpses were discovered, 27 bodies were retrieved. But during and after the supposed hostage crisis, which began on 15 April, only six corpses were pulled from the river. In the 26 days between 26 March and 20 April, there was a steady flow of corpses surfacing in the river. BW

BODIES OF 19 EXECUTED SOLDIERS DISCOVERED
The bodies of 19 executed Iraqi soldiers were found dumped near the oil refinery town of Baiji on 22 April, AFP reported the same day. The soldiers had been taken prisoner at a checkpoint where insurgents killed two soldiers and took 19 of them hostage. "Police found 19 dead Iraqi soldiers in Baiji. They were taken hostage three or four days ago. They were found in a deserted place between Asainiya and Baiji, with bullet holes to the head and stomach," said Captain Saad Nafos, police commander in Baiji. On 20 April, insurgents executed 19 Iraqi soldiers in a stadium in Haditha, northwest of Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 21 April 2005). In other violence, four Iraqi border guards were wounded Friday morning in a roadside bombing near Basra and one US soldier was killed and one wounded when a bomb exploded close to their patrol vehicle near Tall Afar, in northern Iraq. BW

NEW CABINET DELAYED AS TALKS CONTINUE
Despite expectations that a new government would be named this week, there was still no agreement among the negotiating factions about the cabinet's composition, AFP reported on 22 April citing Adnan Ali, an aide to incoming transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari. The talks are deadlocked over demands from outgoing Prime Minister Iyad Allawi that his faction receive at least one key cabinet post. "We still have not been able to reach agreement to announce the government," Ali said. "We've already talked three months, we have already lost three months and this government is supposed to make the right environment for [drafting a new] constitution," he added. BW

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