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Newsline - March 16, 2006

Energy ministers from the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries began a two-day meeting in Moscow on March 16, which is slated to include a discussion with President Vladimir Putin about the stability and security of world energy supplies, Russian news agencies reported. In his opening remarks, Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko said that "considering the risk of terrorist acts at key energy facilities, including nuclear power plants, pipelines, ports, etc., their vulnerability to disasters, and the practice of unauthorized tapping of energy resources, international cooperation becomes extremely important to ensure the physical security of these facilities." He also called for massive investments to ensure the reliability of global energy supplies. The G-8 summit will take place on July 15-17 in St. Petersburg. Russia is using its presidency of the group to present itself as a reliable energy supplier in the wake of the recent Ukrainian gas crisis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2, and 14, 2006). PM

Visiting Moscow for the G-8 ministerial talks, U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman formally invited Russia on March 15 to join the 11-member Generation IV International Forum (GIF), which seeks to develop the next generation of nuclear power systems, RIA Novosti reported. He made the invitation to Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom). Kiriyenko, for his part, stressed the importance of cooperation within the GIF framework. PM

U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Joseph Burns told Interfax in Moscow on March 16 that the two countries are close to reaching a deal on WTO membership for Russia, which is a top priority of President Putin's administration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006). "We believe we are very close to an agreement, and on the American side we are going to do everything we can to try to complete the deal that is in the interests of both our countries," Burns said. He added that "we are working very hard under the direction of President [George W.] Bush to try and complete the negotiations on a bilateral WTO agreement" as soon as possible. PM

The state oil company Rosneft has bought nearly $500 million owed by the once-mighty oil company Yukos to a group of Western banks, which recently demanded that Yukos be declared bankrupt, unnamed officials of Yukos said on March 15, "The Moscow Times" reported. Moscow's Arbitration Court has set a hearing for March 28. It was not immediately clear how the sale of Yukos's debt may affect the bankruptcy proceedings. The Moscow daily commented that "news of the deal appears to leave Yukos, already rocked by a management power struggle, in an even greater legal tangle just as it said it was on the verge of selling its 53.7 percent stake in the Mazeikiu Nafta refinery in Lithuania." Yukos's former chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is serving an eight-year prison sentence in the remote Chita Oblast for fraud and tax evasion after a trial that was widely viewed as politically motivated and engineered by the Kremlin. Russian courts have also placed some of his closest associates behind bars (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15, 2005, and March 8 and 13, 2006). PM

The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Swedish Ambassador to Russia Johan Molander on March 15 to demand the release from custody of a Russian agricultural research scientist, whom Swedish police detained nearly one month ago on suspicion of spying, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2006). The researcher was working at Uppsala University. His term of preliminary detention expires on March 16. The ministry said in a statement that "the Swedish authorities' actions in this incident [will] affect Russian-Swedish relations in general." Swedish authorities have not said for which country the scientist is suspected of spying. PM

Konstantin Romodanovsky, who heads Russia's Federal Migration Service, said in Moscow on March 15 that more than 20 million migrants enter Russia each year as part of a post-Soviet "migration boom," and that half of them are in the country illegally, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 27, 2006). He criticized the illegal workers for not paying taxes, adding that their cost to Russia is about $7 billion. He noted that the migrants send large sums of money to their home countries, and that remittances from Georgian citizens to their homeland amount to 20 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Romodanovsky said that Tajik immigrants each year send home around $1 billion, about half of which is transferred illegally. PM

Unnamed sources close to Dmitry Rogozin, who heads the nationalist Motherland (Rodina) party, told on March 15 that he will soon leave that post and be replaced by State Duma Deputy Aleksandr Babakov at the party's March 25 congress. The sources suggested that the Kremlin is behind these developments because it allegedly wants someone more pliant than the often independent-minded Rogozin to head the party, which many originally regarded as a Kremlin-backed organization to attract nationalist voters. Rogozin will soon launch his own civic movement, the website added. "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" reported on March 16 that the fragmentation of Motherland is already well under way. PM

Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov announced in Moscow on March 15 that he and several other veteran politicians, including Irina Khakamada of Our Choice, have started a new movement called the People's Democratic Union (NDS), the Moscow daily "Kommersant" reported. He stressed that the name "reflects the movement's chief objectives" of bringing left-wing and pro-democracy forces together under one banner. When asked if he had any problems with the fact that NDS is also the Russian acronym for value-added tax (VAT), Kasyanov replied that Russians "like a puzzle. If an acronym catches their attention, they'll want to know what it stands for and what's behind it." In December, he lost a bid to win the leadership of the small Democratic Party, which is Russia's oldest liberal party and was widely seen as his potential springboard for the 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19 and 20, 2005, and February 28, 2006). PM

A Chechen opposition website posted on March 15 footage showing a man who bears a resemblance to Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov cavorting in a sauna with scantily-clad women, reported. The website on March 15 quoted Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya as saying the footage is in keeping with accounts she has been given of Kadyrov's behavior when visiting Moscow night clubs in the company of prominent businessmen from the Chechen diaspora in Moscow. LF

An unnamed Interior Ministry official from the Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) confirmed on March 15 that unknown persons opened fire from automatic rifles the previous night on the home in the village of Pervomayskoye of Ismail-hadji Verdiyev, who is the mufti of the KChR and Stavropol Kai, reported. Both the Interior Ministry official and Verdiyev himself have construed the shots as a warning to Verdiyev on the eve of a March 16 congress of Muslim clergy from the KChR and Stavropol. Verdiyev said the republican authorities asked him not to make the attack public; it was not reported by the official media. Verdiyev has repeatedly criticized "extremist" Islamic tendencies. LF

Mothers of some of the children killed during the September 2004 hostage-taking and siege at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, confirmed on March 15 that they have lodged a formal appeal with the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office to bring criminal charges against Aleksandr Dzasokhov, who at that time was North Ossetian president, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 16 March. The women allege that Dzasokhov and other members of the team formed to cope with the hostage-taking are guilty of incompetence and negligence that resulted in numerous unnecessary fatalities among the hostages when the school building was stormed on September 3. The Prosecutor-General's Office has not yet reacted to the appeal. LF

Deputy Prosecutor-General Eldar Nuriyev has told journalists that there are "objective reasons" for not releasing former Health Minister Ali Insanov and former Economic Development Minister Farkhad Aliyev from pre-trial detention, but did not specify what those reasons are, reported on March 16. Both men were dismissed and arrested in October 2005 on suspicion of plotting and financing a planned coup d'etat, and both have suffered serious health problems that impelled Insanov's lawyer and Aliyev's mother to lodge formal requests for their transfer to house arrest. In interviews with on March 15 and on March 16, Irada Djavadova, one of Aliyev's lawyers, said he was arrested on the basis of "suspicions that arose from groundless rumors." She added that Aliyev remains "devoted" to President Ilham Aliyev (to whom he is not related) and convinced that the head of state would agree to his release if he were aware of the true facts. Farkhad Aliyev has declined to testify to investigators because testimony he gave prior to his arrest was rejected, Djavadova added. LF

During a state visit to Tbilisi on March 14-15, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer met with his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili, Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, and parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, Georgian media reported. Agreement was reached on reconstruction of Georgia's Batumi airport and its use by Turkey. Further talks focused on the possibility of a free-trade agreement: bilateral trade turnover last year reached $500 million. Saakashvili thanked Sezer for providing electricty during the January energy crisis, and he expressed support for Turkey's aspirations to join the European Union. Sezer, for his part, affirmed Ankara's support for Georgia's territorial integrity and its hopes to join NATO, Caucasus Press reported. LF

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried held talks in Tbilisi on March 15 with Georgian Prime Minister Noghaideli, Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili, Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, and Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava, Caucasus Press reported. The talks focused on energy security, the imminent launching of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, and defense and security issues including Georgia's hopes of NATO membership. Fried told journalists in Tbilisi on March 15 that there is no viable alternative to continued efforts to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict with the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. LF

Only a few thousand people congregated outside the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi on March 15 to resume protests against the recent legislation making the use of cash registers mandatory for small traders, Civil Georgia reported. Opposition Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili, who coordinated the protest, had hoped to mobilize at least 15,000 protesters, according to Caucasus Press on March 14. Also on March 15, police in the western town of Samtredia forcibly prevented a group of traders from departing for Tbilisi to participate in the protest there, Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile, traders' representatives attended a March 15 session of the parliament's Finance and Budget Committee that addressed a proposal by the opposition Democratic Front faction to suspend for two months the penalties for trading without a cash register, Caucasus Press reported. Also on March 15, police in the western town of Samtredia forcibly prevented a group of traders from departing for Tbilisi to participate in the protest there, Caucasus Press reported. LF

President Saakashvili signed a decree on March 15 lifting the state of emergency imposed on the Khelvachauri district of Adjara in late February following the discovery of cases of bird flu, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, 2006). But Agriculture Minister Mikheil Svimonishvili told journalists in Tbilisi on March 15 that the quarantine imposed on the region remains in force. An Adjar Health Ministry official denied on March 14 that bird flu has been diagnosed among residents of the republic's eastern Khulo district, Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile, anxious parents of some 100 children in Tbilisi have requested the hospitalization of children suffering a high fever for fear they may have contracted the H5N1 strain of avian influenza that can prove deadly to humans, Caucasus Press reported on March 15. Doctors say most of the children affected are suffering from a less threatening respiratory disease and do not require hospital treatment. LF

A fire that broke out on March 15 in the office of Minister for Conflict Resolution Khaindrava destroyed some sensitive documentation, including confidential correspondence between the Georgian and Abkhaz governments over the past six months on approaches to resolving the Abkhaz conflict, Caucasus Press reported. The cause of the blaze remains unclear. Also on March 15, Russian Ambassador at Large Mikhail Bocharnikov met in Sukhum (Sukhumi) with Sergei Bagapsh and Sergei Shamba, president and foreign minister respectively of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, Caucasus Press and reported. Bocharnikov told journalists his talks with Bagapsh focused primarily on the planned reopening of rail communication from Russia via Abkhazia to Tbilisi and on the repatriation to Abkhazia of Georgian displaced persons. Bocharnikov also said Moscow has repeatedly warned Georgia to restrain from intemperate public pronouncements about the conflict, reported. Bocharnikov praised the role of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone, reported. He added that while it is possible for one of the conflict sides to demand the withdrawal of that force, the consent of both sides is required to deploy a replacement force, reported. LF

Deputies in Kazakhstan's Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament) on March 15 voted against a motion to hold a closed-door session on the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Deputy Amalbek Tshan proposed the motion; 35 of 63 deputies present voted against it. Deputies opposed to Tshan's proposal argued that legislators should wait until the investigation is complete before taking action. DK

Former Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov, head of the Asaba Party, told a news conference in Bishkek on March 15 that he was unable to complete the investigation of 2002 unrest in Aksy before he was dismissed as prosecutor-general in September 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2005), Deutsche Welle reported. Police killed six demonstrators during the 2002 demonstrations. Beknazarov said that the investigation was "70 percent complete," noting that the contradictory testimony of several officials remains a problem. Beknazarov said that President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was prime minister at the time, "must appear as a witness in the case on the Aksy events," Interfax reported. Six people died after police opened fire on demonstrators in southern Aksy District on March 17, 2002. Demonstrators were protesting against what they felt was the politically motivated arrest of Beknazarov, a leader in the opposition to then President Akaev. DK

Addressing the March 24, 2005 ouster of President Askar Akaev, Beknazarov said the ouster of President Askar Akaev on March 24 was a popular revolution," reported. But he added, "What came after March 24 is a different issue." Beknazarov said that a conference is planned for March 22 at which participants in the tumultuous events of last year will try to determine whether a revolution or a coup took place on that day. Beknazarov said that the conference participants will some "make decisions" after their meeting. DK

Five employees of Kyrgyz state radio have begun a hunger strike and appealed to President Bakiev to remove radio director Baima Sutenova, reported on March 15. The five want Jyldyz Muslimova, whom Bakiev removed and replaced with Sutenova, returned to her post. They have accused Sutenova of a lack of professionalism and ethical lapses. DK

Jan Kubis, European Union special representative for Central Asia, met with President Imomali Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on March 15 to discuss Tajik-EU cooperation, RFE/RL's Tajik service reported. Kubis stated, "The situation in Tajikistan is stable, and positive growth is being observed," Avesta reported. Kubis noted, however, that there are various "issues" he plans to raise in meetings with representatives of Tajik political parties, the BBC's Persian Service reported. Rahmatullo Valiev, deputy head of the Democratic Party, commented, "Only after Kubis's meetings with political parties will it be clear how stable the political situation is." Democratic Party leader Muhammadruzi Iskandarov was recently sentenced to a 23-year prison term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6, 2005), and Valiev said that the party would like to see the case reviewed by a European court. DK

Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE's representative on freedom of the media, told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service on March 15 that RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondents Meret Khommadov and Jumadurdy Ovezov have been sentenced to 15 days of community service for "hooliganism." Haraszti said that Turkmen authorities told him that the two shouted abuse at elderly people during a town hall meeting in Mary Province on March 7. Haraszti has asked the Turkmen authorities to "inform us after the 10 days that seemed to remain of their punishment and to make sure that they are accessible for public comment to the international community and whoever is interested." He added, "We regretted the fact that [the correspondents] didn't seem to have been accessible to family members or to outside people at the very beginning of this whole process." DK

Uzbek Imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov, who vanished from Uzbekistan in 1998, has received political asylum in Europe, RFE/RL reported on March 15. Narasimha Rao, a protection officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), confirmed that the UN has granted Nazarov and his family members refugee status. Rao cited security reasons in refusing to disclose the location where they have received asylum. Nazarov fell into official disfavor in Uzbekistan in the 1990s and went into hiding in March 1998. The Uzbek government has accused him of ties to extremists. But Rao told RFE/RL, "If we had found him associated with terrorism or extremism we would have excluded him. We believe that he is a refugee needing international protection." Nazarov lived incognito for a time in Kazakhstan but approached the UNHCR in November 2005 after Kazakh police arrested a number of Uzbek nationals in Shymkent, Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2005). Human Rights Watch later said the men were forcibly extradited to Uzbekistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2005). DK

An Uzbek court has sentenced eight men to jail terms of up to six years for religious extremism, Reuters reported on March 15. Rights activist Surat Ikramov told Reuters, "Psychological pressure was applied to them. This case is clearly fabricated." Defendants in another trial, where another eight men face similar charges, recently alleged that they gave false confessions after beatings and threats of rape (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2005). DK

Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry has stripped a Deutsche Welle correspondent of his accreditation for what it called an inaccurate story, Jahon reported on March 15. The ministry voided Obid Shabanov's accreditation on March 15 for a February 1 story that appeared on Deutsche Welle's website about the death of passengers on a bus in Bukhara Province. The ministry also warned Soleh Yahyaev, described as an unaccredited Deutsche Welle stringer, about new rules forbidding Uzbek citizens from working as unaccredited representatives of foreign media (see: "New Media Resolution Tightens The Screws," DK

Members of the European Parliament criticized Minsk on March 15 for not allowing them to monitor Belarus's upcoming presidential election, Reuters reported the same day. "We were not granted visas, and the refusal was accompanied by a letter from the Belarus deputy minister for foreign affairs saying that any visit of a European Parliament delegation would be interpreted as provocation," said Joseph Muscat, vice-president of a delegation of EU lawmakers seeking to monitor the poll. Bogdan Klich, the president of the delegation, said the refusal showed that the election did not meet international standards. BW

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on March 15 that unauthorized election observers were planning to "provoke conflicts and...destabilize the situation in the country," Reuters reported the same day. Approximately 1,000 observers are expected to monitor the March 19 election, including more than 400 from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Oleg Vonsyak, a spokesman for Belarusian officials in Brussels, said the delegation from the European Parliament was denied visas because they refused to cooperate with the Belarusian parliament. "We have invited observers from the OSCE but not from the European Parliament. The reason is that the European Parliament doesn't want to work with our parliament," Vonsyak said. BW belarusian based belarus diplomat

Stepan Sukhorenko, the head of Belarus's KGB, said on March 16 that opposition forces are planning a coup against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and he warned that protests would be treated as "terrorism," Reuters reported. "We are obliged to announce that under cover of elections, a violent attempt to seize power is being planned in the country," Sukhorenko said. "The actions of those who take the risk of going into the streets to attempt to destabilize the situation will be viewed as terrorism," he added. Sukhorenko said that foreigners were part of the coup plot. "Brigades of volunteers are being formed in neighboring states," he said. "The key moment will be detonation of several explosions." BW

Opposition politician Anatolii Lebedko was arrested on March 15 for carrying unauthorized campaign leaflets, dpa reported the same day. Lebedko's United Civic Party is part of an opposition movement that has united to back a single presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, in the March 19 election. Lebedko was taken into custody on March 15 after police discovered leaflets in the trunk of his car that were not officially registered with authorities, Interfax reported. U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called the arrest "clearly inconsistent" with Belarusian pledges to hold free and fair elections. "This is just the latest in a continuing series of detentions and sentences that are keeping opposition activists in custody at least through the March 19 election," Ereli told reporters in Washington. BW

Viktor Yanukovych said on March 15 that his Party of Regions could form a coalition with individuals or factions from the pro-presidential Our Ukraine bloc, Interfax-Ukraine reported the next day. Speaking at a press conference in Kherson, Yanukovych said an alliance is possible with groups who are thinking about how to bring the country out of crisis and develop the economy. Yanukovych said he could cooperate with President Viktor Yushchenko if he becomes prime minister. He added, however, that the government system "should not depend on the emotions of officials, even if these are high-ranking officials," according to a statement released by the Party of Regions press service. BW

Slobodan Milosevic's body arrived in Serbia on March 15 on a commercial flight from Amsterdam, international news agencies reported the same day. The flight was met by a small delegation from Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). No government officials were present. A few hundred mourners waited outside the airport and placed wreaths on the hearse as it drove past, Reuters reported. Some sobbing women threw roses and crowds lined highway overpasses. SPS officials say they plan to first display Milosevic's body in a museum in the leafy suburb of Dedinje. They then intend to display the casket on March 18 in a tent outside the old federal parliament in central Belgrade, before burying him in his hometown of Pozarevac, 80 kilometers east of Belgrade. BW

Officials from six Serbian labor unions said on March 15 that they would oppose changes to existing labor laws, Beta and B92 reported the same day. The Serbian Alliance of Independent Unions made a decision to form a united protest council that will take action if changes are made to Serbia's labor laws. Milenko Smiljani, president of the alliance, said the unions' position will be forwarded to the Serbian government. Serbian Labor Minister Slobodan Lalovic has said that existing labor legislation will need to be altered. The changes would reduce worker benefits and lower overtime and severance pay. BW

Milosevic's death will likely weaken Bosnia-Herzegovina's genocide lawsuit against Serbia and Montenegro, a member of Belgrade's legal team said on March 13, B92 and Beta reported the same day. The International Court of Justice at The Hague (ICJ) is currently hearing the case. "Of all the charges against Milosevic, only the allegations of genocide would be relevant in the case with Bosnia-Herzegovina. If Milosevic were convicted of genocide, it would definitely have had a negative effect on our case." Tibor Varadi, a member of the Serbia-Montenegro's legal team, said. Following Milosevic's death, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) formally closed his trial without reaching a verdict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2006). Varadi added that it would have helped Belgrade's case in the civil lawsuit if Milosevic had been acquitted. BW

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on March 15 sentenced two Bosnian Muslim military leaders for failing to prevent foreign volunteers from murdering and torturing Serbs and Croats during the 1992-95 war, international news agencies reported the same day. Enver Hadzihasanovic, a former Bosnian Army chief of staff, received a five year sentence. His deputy Amir Kubura, was sentenced to 30 months in prison. The chief prosecutor of the ICTY, Carla Del Ponte, said she will protest the sentences, which she said were too light, AFP reported. She had been seeking a 20-year sentence for Hadzihasanovic and a 10-year sentence for Kubura. The case was the first time the ICTY dealt with a case related to the so-called mujahedin, Muslim fighters who came into Bosnia from North Africa and the Middle East during the war, AP reported. BW

Forensic experts in Bosnia-Herzegovina resumed exhumation work on mass graves on March 16 after a winter break, dpa reported. According to Murat Hurtic of Bosnia's Committee on Missing Persons, the remains of 36 Muslim men, women and children were scheduled to be exhumed from a shallow grave in the village of Snagovo, 50 kilometers north of Srebrenica. Hurtic said Bosnian Serb troops took the victims from their homes in Snagovo in April 1992 and forced them into a small garage. "They killed most of the prisoners first, then put them all together in the garage together with a couple of sheep, and then set the garage in fire," Hurtic said, adding that the fire almost completely destroyed the remains. BW

The Moldovan government on March 15 accused authorities in the breakaway region of Transdniester of harassing entrepreneurs who tried to attend a seminar on new customs regulations, AP reported the same day. According to Moldova's Reintegration Ministry, Transdniester officials in the cities of Rabnita and Tighina stopped the cars of dozens of businessmen who were trying to cross into Moldova and confiscated their license plates. "We consider this incident as an action by the Transdniester authorities to punish companies in the region for political interests," a ministry statement said. Ukraine and Moldova instituted new customs rules on March 3 that require goods leaving the country via Transdniester to clear Moldovan customs. Chisinau, Kyiv and the European Union say the move is an effort to combat smuggling. Transdniester officials call it an economic blockade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). BW

The "Belarusian economic model" seems to defy economic theory. An economy entirely consisting of the old, unreformed Soviet industrial base, manages to churn out high single digit growth in gross domestic product (GDP), provides guaranteed monthly income and full, if not always full-time, employment, even as it remains in a state of complete isolation from the modern world. It is this model that causes Belarusians to feel fearful of changes that may unleash a chaos, criminality, and suffering associated with reforms in Russia and Ukraine -- the reference countries for the average Belarusian.

The model is based on three foundations: a favorable valuation of Russian energy, efficient internal controls, and supply-side problems that beset the rest of the former USSR, where most Belarusian output is exported.

Russia charges Belarus $47 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas and $27 per barrel of oil compared to world prices of $230 and $60, respectively. For a country consuming about 20 billion cubic meters of gas per year and 250,000 barrels of oil per day this amounts to direct fiscal support of $6.6 billion annually. Besides consuming oil for its own needs, Belarus is also reselling it in the form of refined products processed at the two refineries whose capacity far exceeds the country's internal needs. Statistics confirm that the country imports about 100,000 barrels a day more than it consumes.

The overall usage of oil began to increase from 2002, the time of the first jump in oil prices, and has continued upward since. According to a study by Belarusian economic expert Leanid Zaika, in 2005 the share of Belarusian exports to Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States was only 45 percent, compared to the stable 80 percent in the preceding decade. The main user of Belarusian exports (36 percent) is now Europe, by way of buying refined petroleum. Purchased at $27 and sold at $60, this petroleum yields 100 percent profits, or $1.3 billion a year of not even a subsidy, but pure disposable income to the state.

The total effect of the energy price discount amounts to over $7 billion a year, or 30 percent of the nation's GDP. This is a staggering proportion -- even in the United Arab Emirates this share is under 10 percent -- but is it really a subsidy? President Vladimir Putin of Russia thinks so. Marshall Goldman, a Harvard economist, quotes him as affirming the use of energy subsidies for political influence in the near abroad. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus disagrees. "The notion that I am supported by the Kremlin is absolutely absurd," he stated earlier this year. According to him, the discount on the Russian fuel is really a barter payment for transit through Belarus, for which Russia nominally pays very little.

Simple arithmetic can check this hypothesis: the $183 per 1,000 cubic meters that Russia loses by selling gas to Belarus equals a transit charge of $18 per 1,000 cubic meters per 100 kilometers. The European average is $2.5. So, by bartering $183 away from the price they could charge, the Russians effectively pay Lukashenka seven times the European average cost of gas transportation. Figures for oil are not readily available, but it is reasonable to expect a comparable valuation.

Whether this is a fair deal is in the eyes of the beholder, but it is the valuation on which the entire Belarusian economy is based. It supports the second main feature of the Belarusian model -- its relatively effective management. Lukashenka, who portrays himself as an anticapitalist crusader, is in fact the country's chief businessman. He presides over a company that has reached the scale of a nation. Almost all Belarusians work for the state enterprise, run by the "vertical," a hierarchy of administrators appointed by the president. This state-owned corporation, Belarus Inc., is a multiline conglomerate with revenues of about $25 billion that would place it in the top segment of the Fortune 500 list. It employs over 4 million workers and controls the services, health-care, and education sectors.

While controls disintegrated in Russia and Ukraine, in Belarus they were preserved and even improved by introduction of the vertical and appointment of the personally loyal corps. As Zaika points out, for some time this created a competitive advantage -- while the dilapidated Russian competitors went through catastrophic reforms, their output fell, creating a gap in supply of low-quality, cheap goods, which Belarusian enterprises were able to fill. Exports to Russia were stable throughout most of the Lukashenka reign, helped in part by an arrangement that some payment for Russian energy comes in the form of Belarusian products.

Two significant risks threaten this model. First, is the risk of a repricing of the energy valuation if Russia gains a controlling stake in Beltranshaz, Belarus's gas-transport company. Deprived of its transit monopoly, Belarus would lose a key bargaining advantage and could be forced to pay higher rates. In practice, however, the current valuation is likely to continue, as political considerations will likely prevail as long as Belarusian policies remain in the Russian wake. Even so, Lukashenka has made statements implying that he fully understands his dependency on Russian energy and is seeking to reduce that dependency and to promote more frugal energy use.

A greater risk comes from within the system. In the 12 years of Lukashenka rule there has been no investment to modernize the 1950s asset base that is now 80 percent worn out. The oil windfall of recent years has been spent, not invested in the future. In the meantime, Russian competitors are beginning to reap the fruits of the painful restructuring, and foreign competitors produce in low-cost locales. This is beginning to show in statistical data -- Zaika's study cites 2005 decreases of between 10 percent and 70 percent in key Belarusian exports to Russia, and inventories of unsold products are growing. As the industrial output declines, the Belarusian GDP relies increasingly on refining Russian oil for speculation.

This opens the future for several scenarios. One could be called "Singaporization." Lee Kwan Yu ruled Singapore for 30 years as a dictator but he also opened the country up for trade, welcomed foreign investors, guaranteed their rights, and achieved the level of living that surpassed that of Britain by using a mix of market economy and state planning. The Belarusian regime is well positioned to do the same, more likely seeking partners in the East than in the West, but its insecurity about foreign investors and bad reputation may impede this scenario.

Another scenario is a complete change of power. Besides being unlikely, it also poses the danger of energy repricing, as in Ukraine. The disintegration of internal controls that scenario would provoke could mean a delayed period of chaos and potential return to populism.

Finally, conserving the current arrangement is also possible, as long as Russia does not challenge the status quo in exchange for political subservience. This would not remove the problem of the worn-out assets and obsolete technologies, but it seems to be the bet the Belarusian president is making at the moment.

Siarhej Karol, a chartered financial analyst, is a financial manager at American International Group, a global financial services company.

Thirty Dutch troops arrived in southern Afghanistan on March 14 ahead of a larger deployment that the Netherlands initially rejected, dpa reported on March 15. But roughly 850 Dutch troops are supposed to move into the area and set up two camps in the area, where neo-Taliban continue a guerrilla campaign. The Dutch troops represent an advance contingent of an expanded NATO force that is to step up operations in southern Afghanistan. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces has roughly 9,000 troops in the relatively secure western and northern parts of Afghanistan but plans to deploy some 6,000 more troops in the restive southern end of the country. British and Canadian troops will make up most of the expanded international force in southern Afghanistan. MR

Afghan President Hamid Karzai replaced on March 15 the governors of Paktika and Laghman Provinces, the Afghan Pajhwok news agency reported the same day. In a presidential decree, Karzai named former representative of the constitutional Loya Jirga, Mohammad Akram Khpalwak, as governor of the Paktika Province and transferred incumbent Paktika Governor Golab Mangal to eastern Laghman Province to replace Shah Mahmud Safi. Karzai's move follows antigovernor protests and the killing of Esmatollah Mohabbat, who had been elected in Laghman as a parliament deputy in November. Mohabbat's murder sparked demonstrations by supporters who called for the removal of the governor. MR

The World Bank on March 15 offered Afghanistan $30 million in grants to improve basic health-care services, dpa reported. A World Bank statement released in Kabul said the supplemental funds are meant to support the Health Sector Emergency Reconstruction and Development Project designed to reduce infant and child mortality and malnutrition. "This grant will help ensure the expansion of health services to rural areas where hundreds of thousands of people, mainly women and children, die every year because no such service exists," said Benjamin Loevinsohn, lead public health specialist for the World Bank. The World Bank said the funds will also train Afghan health workers to provide and manage health services. Afghanistan, a country of roughly 25 million people, remains one of the most desperate countries in the world in terms of health conditions. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is about 43 years, and the mortality rate for children under age five is the fourth highest in the world, 257 deaths per 1,000 live births. MR

A local commander in western Afghanistan handed over 50 tons of weapons on March 14 to officials with the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG), Afghanistan's Sada-ye Jawan Radio in Herat reported. General Jalaloddin Saidi, the chief DIAG official in western Afghanistan, said: "A person called Commander Mohammad Alam, an irresponsible armed man in Farah Province, surrendered a variety of weapons and some 50 tons of various kinds of ammunition to us." Saidi said the weapons included one canon, two 82mm mortar shells, two cannon launchers, two rocket launchers, and other types of heavy weapons. Saidi said the arms will be turned over to the Afghan National Army. MR

The UN Security Council is scheduled to resume discussion of a joint statement on the Iranian nuclear program on March 16, Radio Farda reported, after the council's 15 members met informally in New York on March 14 to discuss the subject. Washington, London, and Paris are hoping for a presidential statement from the Security Council that calls on Iran to halt its uranium-enrichment activities and to cooperate with international nuclear inspectors, but Moscow and Peking are resisting this. Peking believes the draft presidential statement leaves "insufficient room for diplomacy" and would like to see the International Atomic Energy Agency handle the issue, "The Financial Times" reported on March 15. If the Security Council does not take what Washington sees as a sufficiently decisive approach on this matter, then unnamed "U.S. officials" are suggesting the creation of a "coalition of the willing" that will impose sanctions on Iran, "The Wall Street Journal" reported on 15 March. BS

Of the 15,679 Iranians surveyed by the Tebyan Institute, Fars News Agency reported on 15 March, 76.8 percent back the regime's current nuclear stance. Only 3.2 percent of those surveyed recommended complying with International Atomic Energy Agency requests for greater cooperation and the suspension of uranium enrichment activities. Some 53.1 percent foresaw a diplomatic solution to the crisis, while 21.9 percent saw this as only remotely possible. About 74 percent expected the imposition of sanctions against Iran. Broken down further, 71 percent expected only political and diplomatic sanctions, 22 percent expected economic sanctions, and 7 percent said military action is possible. The Tebyan Institute is connected with the official Islamic Publicity Organization, which may explain why the findings of its survey back the government position. BS

Hojjatullah Ghanimifard, executive director of international affairs at the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), said in a March 15 interview with Reuters that the current controversy over the Iranian nuclear program will not have an impact on the country's oil exports. Iranian officials previously threatened to use the oil weapon -- Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi had said, "If [Security Council members] politicize our nuclear case, we will use any means. We are rich in energy resources. We have control over the biggest and the most sensitive energy route of the world," the London "Times" reported on March 13; and Supreme National Security Council official Javad Vaidi had said, "We will not do so now, but if the situation changes we will have to review our oil policies," "The Los Angeles Times" reported on March 9. Ghanimifard, however, said, "We will not harm end-users of our crude oil by cutting exports." BS

At his weekly press conference on March 15, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi criticized a recent speech by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Iranian state television reported. Straw had spoken about the need to increase the flow of information to Iran in a March 13 speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, "The Daily Telegraph" reported the next day. He also said, according to AP, "If the Iranian regime chooses not to heed the concerns of the international community, it's going to damage the interests of the Iranian people." Assefi said the speech is "a load of gobbledygook," and he added that he is certain Straw's "brains have seized up and they have ended up blabbering nonsense." Assefi predicted more nonsense and said the world is full of "gibberish and claptrap." Asked if the Foreign Ministry would summon the British ambassador, Assefi retorted, "When they are talking nonsense, there's no point in summoning anyone." BS

Iraq's Council of Representatives opened its first session on March 16, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. During the roughly half-hour session, parliamentarian Adnan Pachachi, by virtue of being the oldest member of parliament, oversaw the swearing-in of the parliamentarians. The parliamentarians pledged to "preserve the independence and the sovereignty of Iraq and to take care of the interests of its people." Outgoing parliament speaker Hajim al-Hasani opened the session with a moment of silence for the victims of the 1988 chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabjah. The first order of business for the parliament will be to elect a speaker and presidency council. Once the council is established, the parliament will address the prime minister's nomination. Outgoing president Jalal Talabani told reporters on March 15 that he expects a government of national unity to be formed by the end of March, RFI reported on the same day. KR

At least one person was killed when Iraqi Kurds violently interrupted a ceremony on March 16 marking the 18th anniversary of the Hussein regime's chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabjah, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. Some 500 Kurds had planned a sit-in during the ceremony to protest the lack of services and compensation on the part of the Kurdistan government, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported on March 15. Some claim the government is keeping the town in a dilapidated state for publicity purposes, IWPR reported. It is not immediately clear how many Kurds took part in the demonstration, which erupted in violence after demonstrators heckled Kurdish officials speaking during the ceremony. Gunfire then broke out and the protestors attacked the town's memorial. Demonstrators also stormed a government building. Meanwhile, PUK television KurdSat claimed that the attackers were "outsiders" who may be linked to the terrorist group Ansar Al-Islam. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari pledged to provide compensation to the victims of Halabjah during a March 15 press conference, RFI reported on the same day. KR

Saddam Hussein called on Iraqis during the March 15 session of the Al-Dujayl trial to take up arms against multinational forces, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. Hussein appeared in court to present his deposition. Addressing the Iraqi people through his speech, Hussein insisted that he is still the president of Iraq and "supreme commander of the armed and mujahid forces." Hussein added that he believes that the events that befell his regime are nothing more than a test from God. He also claimed that the defeat of multinational forces and the new Iraqi government is inevitable, saying: "All indications show that this defeat will take place for the two parts of the people, those in the south and north," referring to the Shi'ite and Kurdish-populated areas. Referring to Iran, Hussein claimed the Iraqi government is "supported by the people of evil in the country that falls to the east of our borders." Chief Judge Ra'uf Abd al-Rahman reprimanded Hussein several times during his speech, telling him that he was before the court to address the charges against him, not to make a political speech. When Hussein ignored the judge's orders, Abd al-Rahman closed the session to the public. KR

Earlier on March 15, Saddam Hussein's half-brother and codefendant Barzan Ibrahim Hassan al-Tikriti told the court that his signature on a document showing the intelligence service's involvement in the Al-Dujayl case was forged. Ibrahim headed the intelligence service at the time of the 1982 assassination attempt against Hussein in Al-Dujayl. Ibrahim also defended the regime's response to the assassination attempt, saying: "Where is the mistake in measures taken by the state, including the uprooting of trees [orchards] that served as hideouts for groups that jeopardized security?" He then claimed that the attack on Hussein was an attempt by the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party to seize power in Iraq by force, using "foreign support." Regarding the destruction of Al-Dujayl's orchards, he said that the residents of Al-Dujayl were generously compensated for their loss, adding, "State documents prove this." KR

Ibrahim told the court that he did not arrest anyone in Al-Dujayl, nor did he see any dead bodies on the day of the reprisals. Under questioning from the prosecution, Ibrahim claimed that he released 80 male suspects from the Ba'ath Party headquarters in the city that day. Asked about testimony by codefendant Awad Hamad al-Bandar, who said the intelligence service referred the 148 defendants implicated in the Al-Dujayl attack to court, Ibrahim said he could not dispute any claim made by al-Bandar, saying, "I have known him to be an honorable man." KR