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Newsline - April 26, 2006

Aleksandr Medvedev, Gazprom's deputy CEO responsible for exports, said at London's Russian Economic Forum on April 25 that the European Energy Charter, which the EU wants Russia to sign, is a "stillborn document...that does not reflect the true conditions of the current market," Reuters reported. He added that unspecified "administrative actions by the European Union to manage the gas market cannot but arouse concern." This is an apparent reference to recent British opposition to the possible Russian acquisition of Centrica, the largest U.K. gas distributor (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 20, and 25, 2006). "Instead of supporting our entry [into the U.K. market], the British press created a hysteria -- I cannot find a better word," Medvedev argued. He stressed that "Gazprom is good for the world.... It's hard to find a company we are not interested in," "The Moscow Times" reported. The charter is an international agreement that would end Gazprom's monopoly over Russia's pipeline system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3 and 6, 2006). PM

U.K. Trade and Industry Minister Alan Johnson replied to Gazprom's Medvedev in London on April 25 that he "cannot think of a better signal that Russia could send [its foreign partners] than by ratifying" the European Energy Charter and the accompanying Transit Protocol during Russia's current presidency of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries, Reuters reported. PM

Mikhail Margelov, who chairs the Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee, told Interfax in Moscow on April 25 that Transneft's planned pipelines to the Pacific coast and to China pose "no threat of energy damage to the West." Those "pipelines will apparently be offset" by the planned North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) running from Vyborg to Greifswald, he added. Margelov argued that "one shouldn't speak about Russia distancing itself from Europe, [because] the expansion of the pipeline network will diversify energy markets.... Our country knows from its own experience that it is a fruitless exercise to exploit any kind of shortage, including the shortage of energy." Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller and Semyon Vainshtok, who heads Transneft, have recently argued that Russia might soon be able to cut energy deliveries to Europe and send them to Pacific Rim countries instead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20 and 25, 2006). On April 26, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia faces "unfair competition" in unspecified energy markets and called for greater emphasis on supplying customers "in the Asian-Pacific region," Russian news agencies reported. PM

Ferran Tarradellas Espuny, a spokesman for EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, said in Brussels on April 25 that Russia is welcome to sell energy supplies to whomever it wishes, news agencies reported. "In an open market, it's perfectly logical that suppliers look for different customers, [just as] we are looking for different suppliers. So, if they want to do so, they are free [to do so]," he said. Meanwhile, the Moscow-based daily "Kommersant" wrote on April 25 that Gazprom's attempts to bully the EU have not yielded the desired results, either by threatening to cut energy deliveries or by demanding concessions for the "privilege" of being allowed to invest in the Shtokman Field gas project. The daily noted that the European Commission's Mark Franco was in Moscow on April 24 and "paraphrased [Gazprom CEO] Miller's words on discrimination against Gazprom in Europe." According to the daily, Franco argued that any "attempts to restrict...European companies in the Russian market and make the sale of gas a political issue are not going to bring about any positive results." Franco added that "Gazprom should weigh the consequences of its actions more carefully." He argued that "setting a new price [for gas sales to Ukraine recently] was Russia's right, but the way it was done caused a lot of raised brows throughout Europe." PM

Speaking in Athens on April 25, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "warned Greece and Turkey against allowing Russia to obtain a monopoly over Europe's supply of natural gas, implicitly bolstering a planned pipeline from Azerbaijan that would weaken Russia's tight grip on European energy supply," "The Washington Post" reported. "It's quite clear that one of the concerns is that there could be a monopoly of supply from one source only, from Russia," she said. Rice argued that "it is going to be critical to have energy security" in a world in which demand for energy is constantly growing, led by the expanding economies of China and India. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is expected in Washington on April 28. PM

Defense ministers of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, which belong to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), signed a joint communique in Beijing on April 26 in which they agreed to stage their first-ever joint antiterror military exercises in Russia in 2007, dpa reported. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that the SCO and its activities are "not targeted against a third country," RIA Novosti reported. The defense ministers will meet next in Kyrgyzstan in 2007, and an SCO summit is scheduled for mid-June of 2006. Critics have called the SCO a "club of dictators" (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2005). PM

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a large delegation were slated to arrive in Tomsk on April 26 for a two-day top-level political and economic meeting with President Putin and a similarly large Russian team that includes 19 ministers, news agencies reported. This is the eighth such gathering and is being held in Siberia, where many of Russia's natural resources are located (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 2, 2005, and April 3 and 7, 2006, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2006). Merkel's group is expected to include Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Economy Minister Michael Glos, Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck, and other ministers. The key Russian firm taking part is Gazprom, which is expected to announce deals with BASF, E.ON, and some other German companies. Merkel seeks to develop business contacts with Russia while diversifying Germany's energy sources in the wake of the recent Ukrainian gas crisis. The Moscow daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on April 24 that she will be businesslike in her dealings with Putin and not given to the bonhomie that characterized his relations with Gerhard Schroeder, Merkel's predecessor. "Vedomosti" noted on April 25, however, that Merkel is unlikely at this meeting to stress human-rights issues, as she did with Putin in January. PM

The Tomsk Duma appealed to President Putin on April 25 to reject a bill that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party recently launched in the State Duma to enable governors to take powers away from mayors, who are directly elected, under certain conditions, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17 and April 6 and 10, 2006). The Tomsk Duma argued that the legislation amounts to a violation of the Constitution of the Russian Federation because it takes away a considerable number of powers from municipal officials. The deputies noted that citizens voted for their present mayors on the basis of promises those mayors made within the scope of their current powers and prerogatives. PM

Praskovya Britskaya of the Moscow Union of Invalids of Chornobyl appealed to President Putin at a Kremlin ceremony on April 25 to create a treatment center for the survivors of the cleanup effort exactly 20 years ago, Reuters reported. She said in remarks addressed to the president that "we sent a draft proposal to the government and to you but never received an answer." Putin gave out medals to the survivors at the ceremony. He stressed their courage in responding to what he called "one of the largest manmade disasters of the 20th century," Interfax reported. He added that "even lacking experience in dealing with such disasters, you and your colleagues worked out a strategy and made decisions swiftly, sometimes relying only on your own knowledge and experience." On April 26, former Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov told Interfax that the Soviet government of the time did all that it could to respond to the disaster. He argued that "we did everything possible, based on the knowledge we possessed and using the scientific, organizational, and technical means available to us then." Ryzhkov now represents Belgorod Oblast in the Federation Council. PM

An unnamed "law-enforcement source" told RIA Novosti on April 25 that police in the capital have uncovered a ring involving unnamed "high-ranking figures in national and local administrations smuggling goods from China." The investigation reportedly began with the confiscation in February 2005 of more than 150 railway cars that arrived in Moscow Oblast from the port of Nakhodka in the Far East. The source said that "high-ranking officers of the Federal Customs Service, as well as some representatives of federal and regional authorities, were involved in the operation of this large-scale channel. They set up commercial structures with offices [in places that] include China, where, with the help of Chinese transport companies, they collected cargos ready to send to Russia." The scam involved underestimating the value of the shipments on customs forms or replacing cheap goods with more expensive ones. Goods were then declared to be "delivered" to Russian recipients, who often existed only on paper. The goods eventually found their way to their real owners, who were Chinese. It is not clear who, if anyone, has been detained in the crackdown. PM

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the outspoken leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, marked his 60th birthday on April 25 with a reception in the Kremlin, news agencies reported. Former President Boris Yeltsin was accorded a similar honor for the recent celebration of his 75th birthday, but former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was not (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2006). PM

President Putin said in Tomsk on April 26 that he wants the route of the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline, which critics charge threatens the ecology of Lake Baikal, to run 40 kilometers to the north of the world's deepest freshwater lake, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 3 and 7, and March 7, 2006). He asked Russian Academy of Sciences Vice President Nikolai Laverov at a session on Siberia's socioeconomic development: "Does [such a change] mean that Baikal will not be polluted if something happens [to the pipeline]?" Laverov answered positively. "The pipeline will be built to the north of the zone pointed out by Academician Laverov. The matter is thus settled." Transneft, which is building the pipeline, proposed that the route run only 800 meters to the north of the lake, arguing that the more distant course would add $1 billion to the cost of the project. Putin's announcement in Tomsk amounts to an overruling of the decisions made by several lower government bodies. PM

The Armenian State Taxation Service released a report on April 25 ranking the country's top corporate taxpayers, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The report revealed that thee foreign-owned firms head the list of the country's 300 leading corporate taxpayers -- the German-owned Zangezur Copper and Molybdenum Combine, the Greek-owned ArmenTel telecommunications company, and the ArmRosGazprom natural-gas concern, controlled by Russia's Gazprom gas monopoly -- with a combined total payment of 12 billion drams ($27 million) in taxes and import duties in the first quarter of 2006 alone. Two Armenian-owned companies specializing in fuel imports are in fourth and fifth place, paying slightly less than 2 billion drams each. The Lebanese-owned wireless operator VivaCell, the Russian-owned Armenian electricity-distribution network, and the Medzamor nuclear power plant were also included among the top 10 corporate taxpayers. The State Taxation Service report began disclosing the quarterly corporate-tax filings in 2005 as part of a broader effort to increase greater efficiency and transparency in the tax-collection process. RG

Armenian President Robert Kocharian met in Yerevan on April 25 with visiting Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Noyan Tapan. President Kocharian expressed his appreciation for the Lithuanian parliament's December 2005 recognition of the Armenian genocide before discussing plans to expand bilateral trade and economic cooperation. Speaking at a joint press conference, the Lithuanian president presented his vision of political and economic integration in the South Caucasus and argued that "it is about time our regions -- the South Caucasus and the Baltic states -- joined forces to build a better future" in what he termed "a three-plus-three formula." He also agreed to host a Lithuanian-Armenian business forum later in the year. Lithuania holds particular significance for Armenia, as the Baltic model of transition to a market economy and its ascension to the European Union is recognized as a strategic precedent. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan, Armenian Consumers Association President Armen Pogosian called on April 25 for a boycott of Turkish products and goods, Yerkir reported. Pogosian explained that his call for a boycott is both a "problem of national dignity" as well as an "economic issue." RG

Azerbaijani Ambassador to Russia Polad Bulbuloglu and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin met in Moscow on April 25 to sign a new agreement on Russian arms transfers, Turan and ITAR-TASS reported. The agreement clarifies the procedures for the transfer of Russian arms, weapons, and materiel through Azerbaijan and will be applied to the planned transit of Russian armored stock, artillery, and other heavy weapons from its two remaining bases in Georgia via Azerbaijani territory to Russia. Another portion of this equipment is to be redeployed to the Russian base in Armenia. Bulbuloglu, a prominent singer and former culture minister, was appointed as Azerbaijan's ambassador to Moscow in January. RG

A special investigator of the Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office announced on April 25 that a Turkish citizen has been charged with illegally establishing an armed group in Azerbaijan, Trend reported. The Azerbaijani investigator, Hasan Mirzayev, explained that formal charges against Dalka Faruk, a Turkish citizen allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda, have been submitted to the Azerbaijani Court for Serious Crimes. Mirzayev added that Faruk is cooperating with investigators and has been released from custody pending trial. A trial of 15 of his co-conspirators ended with their convictions on charges under Article 279 of the Azerbaijani Criminal Code pertaining to the establishment of illegal military formations. They received varying prison sentences in a session of the Court for Serious Crimes on April 19. RG

Azerbaijani police announced on April 25 the arrests of two directors of the Turkish-owned Barmek-Azerbaijan power-distribution company, Turan reported. The arrests of Valeh Zeynalov, the director of electricity sales, and Cingiz Ibadov, the company's former general manager, are only the latest in a series of arrests resulting in a criminal probe of corruption within the electricity-distribution company. Another 11 employees, including technical director Vafa Agayev, Vice President Omar Guner, and President Huseyn Arabul, already face embezzlement charges. Arabul is also suspected of conspiring with former Economic Development Minister Farkhad Aliyev to circumvent the company's contractual obligations to invest in and modernize the Azerbaijani energy-distribution network. The Prosecutor-General's Office first launched a criminal case against the company last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006). RG

After arriving in Baku, a delegation of officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) met on April 25 with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and several ministers, according to Trend and ANS-TV. The head of the delegation, WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook, praised the Azerbaijani government for its efforts to combat bird flu and reviewed the state of tuberculosis- and child-vaccination programs in Azerbaijan. The WHO officials also discussed the Azerbaijani government's reform in the country's health-care sector. The head of the Azerbaijani State Statistical Department, Arif Veliyev, reported that more than 630,000 birds have been killed as part of the national effort to contain the outbreak of bird flu among poultry, according to the Caucasus Press. RG

The president of the independent Space TV and Radio Company tendered her resignation on April 25 without giving an official explanation, Lider TV reported. The TV executive, former ITAR-TASS employee Sevinc Abdullayeva, was appointed to the position only two weeks earlier. She is being replaced by former Deputy Minister of Culture Vaqif Mustafayev. The private Space TV channel has operated since 1997 and is reportedly owned by Sevil Aliyeva, the sister of President Aliyev, according to Turan. RG

President Mikheil Saakashvili criticized Russia on April 25 for "creating problems" by sparking a sharp rise in electricity prices due to the increased cost for Russian natural-gas supplies, Civil Georgia reported. Speaking at a meeting of the government's Energy Commission, President Saakashvili ordered the introduction of new subsidies to offset the increased price of electricity for the "most vulnerable" citizens. Although the expected increase in electricity tariffs is not yet known, Finance Minister Aleksi Aleksishvili estimated that about 10 million lari ($5.5 million) would be needed to finance the subsidies. RG

At a ceremony in Tbilisi, Georgian Economic Development Minister Irakli Chogovadze and Armenian Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian signed on April 25 an agreement on road transport, Prime-News and the Caucasus Press reported. Once ratified, the new agreement would introduce an exemption on taxes and special fees for passenger and freight traffic between the two countries. Prior to the agreement, Armenian law imposed fees of $200-$280 for heavy vehicles carrying passengers and freight and $18-$20 for personal vehicles, paid into the Armenian state road fund. The agreement is a response to the Georgian decision last year that abolished a similar fee for vehicles entering Georgia from Armenia, but does not cover the more lucrative railway traffic. RG

The Georgian Defense Ministry and the State Border Guards will receive almost $680,000 in donated equipment from Turkey, the Caucasus Press reported on April 25. State Border Department Chairman Badri Bitsadze reported that the Turkish materiel is to include eight new patrol vehicles and two computer systems to aid in the monitoring and policing of the Georgian border with Turkey. RG

A retired colonel of the Kazakh National Security Service, Arat Narmanbetov, filed libel charges against First Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev on April 25, Interfax reported. The allegation stems from an interview with "Kazakhstan Today" in which Aliev accused Narmanbetov of involvement in the killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see below). Aliev is married to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's daughter, Darigha. RG

President Nazarbaev issued a presidential decree on April 25 appointing Beybit Isabaev to be the new Kazakh ambassador to Turkey, according to Interfax. Isabaev, who has served as Kazakh ambassador to Pakistan since August 2003, replaces Amanzhol Zhankuliev, who served as ambassador in Ankara from late 2003. RG

A statement released by the opposition Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) Party in Astana on April 24 condemns Kazakh authorities for exerting "overt pressure" on the opposition, Interfax reported. The statement further denounces the lodging of criminal charges against party Deputy Chairman Bulat Abilov on April 23 as an attempt to pressure him to "give up political involvement." Abilov and a second prominent opposition leader, Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, also accused the government of preventing them from traveling to Europe and of obstructing their political activities, RFE/RL reported. Both men had planned to meet with EU officials this week, but Zhaqiyanov was barred from boarding a flight on April 24. Naghyz Ak Zhol, formed in April 2005 after a split in the Ak Zhol opposition party, was formally registered by the Kazakh Justice Ministry in March based on a decision by the Supreme Court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2006). Party co-Chairman Altynbek Sarsenbaev was killed recently (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006). RG

Kazakh authorities announced on April 24 their extradition of an Uzbek citizen suspected of membership of the outlawed Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, according to the Kazinform news agency. The 43-year-old suspect was detained in early April by Kazakh security forces in the Zhambyl region. RG

In a statement released from his exile in Russia on April 25, former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev denounced Kyrgyz authorities for briefly detaining and questioning his daughter, according to the AKIpress website. Akaev defined the incident as "police arbitrariness" and argued that it was "a deliberate and insolent political provocation by the Kyrgyz authorities." The statement concluded with a call for authorities to stop "spreading fear" and exerting "reprisals against people for political reasons." Bermet Akaeva was detained and questioned on April 24 on the basis of a warrant issued by the Prosecutor-General's Office seeking to compel her to testify in the pending criminal case of her husband, Adil Toigonbaev, and her brother, Aidar Akaev, who face charges of corruption and abuse of power (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2006). RG

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov met on April 25 in Dushanbe with visiting Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov, Asia-Plus and Tajik TV reported. Ivanov discussed the importance of joint efforts to counter both terrorism and drug trafficking and reviewed Tajikistan's role within the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). He also affirmed Moscow's desire for an expansion of bilateral military and security ties. The visit is timed to coincide with Ivanov's participation in a CSTO meeting of Central Asian security officials in Dushanbe on April 26, according to Avesta. RG

The U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe on April 25 announced the end of the latest stage of counternarcotics training for the Tajik Drug Control Agency, Interior Ministry, and the State Committee on Border Control, Asia-Plus and Avesta reported. The training program concluded with a grant of state-of-the-art detection kits to officers of the Drug Control Agency and Interior Ministry. Each contraband-detection kit contains a specialized laser- and fiber-optic-based detection device capable of conducting external scans to uncover hidden compartments inside vehicles, homes, or luggage containing narcotics, chemicals, radioactive material, or concealed weapons. RG

Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev welcomed his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, on the latter's arrival at Tashkent airport on April 25, and the Uzbek National News Agency reported. Arriving in Uzbekistan from Germany, Singh is heading an Indian delegation that is expected to meet with Uzbek officials on April 26 to negotiate expanded economic and commercial relations. In Tashkent, Singh will inaugurate an Indian-Uzbek information-technology center named after Jawaharlal Nehru and is prepared to formally sign a set of bilateral agreements on cooperation in the energy, agriculture, and technology sectors. He is also scheduled to meet with Uzbek President Islam Karimov to discuss regional security issues and proposals to develop Central Asian trade and transport links. The two-day visit, the first by an Indian prime minister in more than a decade, is seen as an affirmation of India's strategic interest in a greater role in Central Asia. RG

The Belarusian government is proposing three investment projects to Russia's Gazprom, Belapan reported on April 25, quoting the governmental press service. Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka denied that the proposals have been prompted by Gazprom's announcement that it will increase its gas price for Belarus in 2007. "It is not a concession. We would have offered them to the Russian side in any case," Syamashka said. Belarus is inviting Gazprom to participate in a project worth $800 million to increase fertilizer production at the Azot chemical plant in Hrodna, the construction of new gas-storage facilities worth up to $300 million, and the construction of a new power plant worth $300 million. However, the Belarusian government has made no mention of Beltranshaz, the country's gas-pipeline operator, in which Gazprom has unsuccessfully sought to buy a 50 percent stake since 2003. Last month, Gazprom announced that it wants to raise the gas price for Belarus in 2007 to a "European" level above the current price of $47 per 1,000 cubic meters. JM

Hundreds of people filed shortly after midnight on April 26 through the streets of Slavutych, the Ukrainian town built to house Chornobyl plant workers after the world's worst civilian nuclear accident on April 26, 1986, Ukrainian and world agencies reported. Later the same day in Kyiv, the Verkhovna Rada elected in 2002 held its last session devoted to a hearing on the Chornobyl aftermath. In Homel on April 25, the Belarusian opposition held a conference of scientists, lawyers, and political activists on the Chornobyl aftermath. In the afternoon of April 26, the opposition is to stage a Chornobyl Way demonstration in Minsk, at which opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich is expected to publicize the Homel conference's conclusions and announce the creation of a broad pro-democracy movement in Belarus. JM

The Supreme Administrative Court on April 25 rejected a complaint by four Ukrainian political blocs and parties claiming that the Central Election Commission (TsVK) violated a legal procedure in announcing results of the March 26 parliamentary elections earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2006), Ukrainian media reported. The decision effectively opens the way for the TsVK to have the election results validated by publishing them in two state-sponsored periodicals, "Holos Ukrayiny" and "Uryadovyy kurer." In the March 26 polls, the Party of Regions won 32.14 percent of the vote, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc 22.29 percent, Our Ukraine 13.95 percent, the Socialist Party 5.69 percent, and the Communist Party 3.66 percent. In the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada, the Party of Regions will have 186 seats, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc 129, Our Ukraine 81, the Socialists 33, and the Communists 21. JM

Serbian prosecutors on April 25 indicted eight former and active police officers for killing 48 ethnic Albanians in Kosova, dpa reported the same day. The indictments are the first by Serbian prosecutors against senior police officers for alleged atrocities committed in Kosova. Prosecutors say the defendants killed the victims, all members of the same family, in Sueva Reka in March 1999. Children and a pregnant woman were among the victims. Their remains were among the approximately 800 bodies of ethnic Albanians exhumed from a mass grave at Batajnica, a suburb of Belgrade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 1, 2001). BW

Six ethnic Croatian politicians and military officers accused of war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina have been transferred to a detention center at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague to stand trial, AP reported on April 26. The six surrendered two years ago but were allowed ton await trial at their homes in Zagreb (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3, 5, and 12 and September 10, 2004). The group includes Jadranko Prlic, the self-styled president of the wartime Bosnian Croat republic; Bruno Stojic, his defense minister; and Valentin Coric, head of the military police. Also on trial are Milivoj Petkovic, who headed the military wing of the government; retired General Slobodan Praljak, Petkovic's deputy and successor; and Bersilav Pusic, who was in charge of exchanging prisoners of war. The six are accused of cruel imprisonment of Bosnian Muslims in military detention centers in 1991-94. Former Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, who died in 1999, was also named in the indictment. Their trial is scheduled to begin on April 26. BW

A court in Podgorica has released three opponents of Montenegrin independence who were detained on suspicion of forging electoral lists, AFP reported on April 25. Dragan Garic, a lawyer for an electoral bloc opposing independence; Marica Babovic, an official with the opposition Socialist People's Party (SNP); and Nikola Medojevic, a member of the republic's referendum commission, were arrested on April 24 for allegedly submitting false documents to pad voter lists with extra names, including those of dead people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2006). The court initially ruled that they be held for 30 days pending an investigation, but the three were released on April 25 after opposition forces threatened to suspend participation in a commission planning the May 21 independence referendum, AP reported. Prosecutors are still deciding whether to launch a full investigation into the allegations. BW

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Mission in Moldova has expressed concern over Transdniester's seizure of a wharf in the town of Varnitsa on the Dniester River, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported on April 25. Transdniestrian officials say the wharf is part of the Bender Port and was being leased out to a Moldovan company. When the leaseholder failed to pay sufficient rent, police seized the wharf on April 21. The OSCE statement, released on April 25, criticized the move, saying it could have led to direct conflict between Moldovan and Transdniestrian police. BW

Since 1986, learning the truth about the world's worst nuclear disaster has been more than a humanitarian and a health issue; it has also been a political challenge. The Chornobyl explosion is often linked to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It also had dramatic political consequences in the republics of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.

The Chornobyl blast proved to be a crucial test for the Soviet government's new policy of glasnost, or openness -- one that it failed in horrific fashion. Citizens were denied accurate information on the danger and scale of what happened not only in the crucial first days and weeks after the accident, but also in subsequent years.

For example, it emerged only in 1989 that nearly one-quarter of Belarus, which absorbed some 60 percent of the Chornobyl fallout, was significantly contaminated.

Former Ukrainian diplomat Yuriy Shcherbak wrote a documentary book on the Chornobyl accident as early as 1987, in an attempt to provide readers with more insight than they could get from the government. Shcherbak told RFE/RL in a recent interview that the suppression of accurate information about Chornobyl by the Gorbachev-era Soviet government helped increase the divide between the state and Soviet society.

"The mendacious propaganda, the lack of reliable information [about Chornobyl] had affected millions of people, particularly in Ukraine, to such an extent that those people lost the rest of their faith in what Gorbachev was saying about perestroika, glasnost, and so on," Shcherbak said.

On the Ukrainian political scene, the catastrophe also launched a new type of realpolitik. Shcherbak asserts that the Chornobyl catastrophe was largely responsible for the readiness with which the Ukrainian parliament signed on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty after gaining independence. The decision effectively obliged the fledgling state to destroy or return to Russia all nuclear weapons on its territory.

Shcherbak believes that since the closure of the plant's last reactor in 2000, Chornobyl has ceased to be a major political issue in Ukraine, but he does believe it will continue to impact government decisions in the nuclear-energy sphere. He said Ukraine should never forget the potential hazards of operating its 15 nuclear reactors at four power plants. "We should proceed from the premise that we will have to live side by side with risk. We are taking a risk. And we should be taking a reasonable risk, not the one that might lead, God forbid, to a new Chornobyl-type catastrophe. We should enhance the safety of reactors," Shcherbak said.

Belarus does not have any nuclear power plants and is not planning to build any in the near future. The Chornobyl aftermath seems to persist in the country not only as a grave environmental issue but also a political one.

Viktor Ivashkevich, deputy head of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, has argued that the authoritarian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka treats Chornobyl-related issues in pretty much the same way the Soviet-era government did 20 years ago, that the "authorities show no consideration whatsoever for people, hide all problems, and broadcast mendacious propaganda, while the population is shrinking."

Belarus adopted a long-term program for dealing with the Chornobyl consequences in 1990. Ivashkevich said the Lukashenka government has backed down on some important measures envisioned by that program. In particular, Ivashkevich said the government abolished checks for the radioactivity of food products at most shops and markets, except for some major food retailers. But he doesn't believe the checks stopped because there was nothing to find.

"Food products are grown in areas where radioactivity exceeds 15 curies per square kilometer. Then these contaminated products are mixed with pure ones to obtain products of medium purity, and subsequently they are shipped to all of Belarus," he noted.

Since 1989, the Belarusian opposition has managed to organize a "Chornobyl Way" march almost every year. Participants march to commemorate the Chornobyl anniversary and raise public awareness about unresolved problems related to the disaster. Although many of these marches have been dispersed or otherwise thwarted by police, another Chornobyl Way march is expected in Minsk this year on 26 April.

Vladimir Chuprov, a chief nuclear-energy expert at Greenpeace Russia, believes the lasting consequences of Chornobyl in Russia are evident mainly in the environmental and social spheres. Chuprov said recent demonstrations in Russia organized by people concerned with the environmental situation of Lake Baikal are a result of the higher environmental awareness in the country following the Chornobyl disaster. He noted that the protests over the state of the lake could also have political consequences.

"People come to demonstrate not with economic demands, but ecological ones," he said. "It is an indicator that the population is beginning to amass discontent that may result in political passions."

Popular discontent and ecological demands already led to political demonstrations in Kazakhstan in 1986, in Armenia in 1988, and in Georgia in 1989. A new wave of demonstrations organized around the same lines could have resonance in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Brussels on April 25 that the alliance is likely to suffer more casualties as it expands into southern Afghanistan this summer, AFP reported (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," December 20, 2005). Describing NATO's upcoming mission in the restive areas of Afghanistan as "dangerous," de Hoop Scheffer added that NATO "cannot afford to fail" in its mandate. "Realism demands" that there will be further casualties in Afghanistan, he said, adding that the alliance "will stand firm" and that the public in contributing member states are "sufficiently prepared" for more incidents involving casualties. AT

The deputy commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Stuart Douglas, said on April 24 that his forces have authority to carry out offensive operations in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where 6,000 British troops are scheduled to be deployed by this summer, the British daily "The Independent" reported on April 25. Military operations "could be carried out anywhere" in the area of responsibility of the British forces, Douglas said, adding that the "enemy will be those who resist the rule of law, whether they are the Taliban or ordinary criminals." The British posture within the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) differs from that of most other states contributing troops to the force, which has largely sought to steer clear of offensive operations or from dealing with criminality. AT

An unidentified local neo-Taliban commander in Helmand Province has warned that his forces are planning to target British troops once they are deployed in southern Afghanistan, the BBC reported on April 25. The commander reportedly told the BBC that Afghans have defeated the British in the past -- referring to wars between Afghanistan and British India in the 19th century -- and they will defeat them once more. "The British are an old enemy of Afghanistan," he said. "Our resources are getting better day-by-day and we have good skills of fighting guerrilla war." The report suggests that insurgents have been distributing DVDs along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier in order to attract volunteers to fight in Afghanistan. AT

In a battle between suspected neo-Taliban and Afghan police force in Kandahar Province on April 25, five enemy forces and one policeman were killed, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The clash began with a militant attack on a police station. In a separate incident, U.S.-led coalition forces claimed that three combatants were killed in an aerial attack on a suspected "enemy" hideout in Helmand Province, west of Kandahar. AT

Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said in Tehran on April 25 that Iran will suspend its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) if international sanctions are imposed on his country, Mehr News Agency reported. If the United States attacks Iran's nuclear facilities, he added, the country will continue its nuclear activities clandestinely. Also in Tehran, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani criticized the IAEA for failing to focus on the technical side of the nuclear question, IRNA reported. He defended the country's record, saying, "Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Iran has adopted transparency on [its] nuclear program and met all requirements of the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty]." The former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rohani, acknowledged in a speech that was published in the September 30, 2005, issue of "Rahbord" that Iran had been far from forthcoming on aspects of the nuclear program (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 8 March 2006). BS

An Iranian delegation will be in Vienna on April 26 to meet with representatives from the IAEA, anonymous diplomats told AFP on April 25. The meeting comes two days before a UN-imposed deadline to halt uranium enrichment. Iran's vice president for atomic energy, Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi, and his deputy for planning, Mohammad Saidi, left Tehran for Vienna on April 24, ISNA reported on April 25. Supreme National Security Council official Javad Vaidi said on April 25 that Iran is ready to have talks with the Europeans, IRNA reported, adding that the Europeans previously did not "pay attention to the facts." Hussein Musavian, deputy chief of the Expediency Council's Strategic Research Center, said on April 25 in Tehran that a negotiated solution to the nuclear crisis remains within the realm of possibility, IRNA reported, although the situation has become more complicated lately. BS

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei told reporters at a news briefing in Paris on April 25 that representatives of the EU-3 (France, Germany, and Great Britain), China, Russia, and the United States are scheduled provisionally to meet on May 2 to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue, Reuters reported. The six countries at the meeting are the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany. BS

On the second day of his visit to Iran, Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Iranian media reported. The theme of unity reportedly arose in every meeting. "Maintaining unity and avoiding discord will be the main factors in foiling conspiracies of the arrogant powers," state television quoted Khamenei as saying. He added, "Over the past several years, global arrogance -- headed by America -- has weakened day by day." Discussing Muslim solidarity, Hashemi-Rafsanjani said, "considering the complex and sensitive conditions dominating the region and the world, the world of Islam bears a heavy responsibility for preventing attacks on some Muslim states," Fars News Agency. "The Iranian and Sudanese nations and governments have a joint enemy that is constantly after creating obstacles in the way of their advancement, and hatch plots against them," Ahmadinejad said, according to IRNA. BS

Hamid Reza Navabpur, who heads the Iran Statistics Center, said on April 24 that the country's unemployment rate surpassed 12.1 percent during the winter, IRNA reported, and he attributed the spike to the seasonal inactivity of agricultural workers. Unemployment stood at 10.8 percent during the summer and 10.9 percent in the fall, he added. Navabpur went on to say that Iran's 20-Year Outlook foresees a 7 percent unemployment rate, and this would necessitate a 4 percent annual rise in employment and an 8.6 percent annual economic growth rate. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad referred to job-creation efforts in his April 24 news conference, according to Islamic Republic of Iran News Network Television. He said a major portion of government activities had an economic focus, and added, "Development of employment as a need for today was put on the government's agenda." Ahmadinejad continued, "Directing banking funds toward quickly-profiting industries and economic institutions, creating support funds and reducing interest rates were aimed at developing employment." The director of the Gilan Province Management and Planning Organization, Hussein Arami, said earlier in the month that the provincial unemployment rate is 13.5 percent, "Moin" reported on 8 April. Arami blamed heavy snowfall and factory closures. Unemployment for people aged 16-24 in Gilan is 36.4 percent, he said. The inclusion of seasonal unemployment would bring the provincial average up to 20 percent, he said. BS

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made separate surprise visits to Baghdad on April 26, international media reported. Speaking to reporters, Rumsfeld said that Iraqi security forces are "increasing their capabilities every day," and "those naysayers and critics who constantly tried to undermine and denigrate the quality of those forces were just plain flat wrong," Reuters reported. Asked about future U.S. troop levels, he said that force levels "will depend on conditions on the ground and discussions with the Iraqi government which will evolve over time." Meanwhile, Rice arrived on a military plane from Turkey, where she held talks with Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul on April 25. Rice told reporters traveling with her that the visit with Rumsfeld was intended to build on the political momentum achieved last week with the nomination of Jawad al-Maliki to the post of prime minister. "The turning point is that Iraq now has its first permanent government of national unity and it gives Iraq a very real chance to deal with the obviously very vexing problems it has faced," Reuters quoted Rice as saying. KR

A video of Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi surfaced on the Internet on April 25, entitled "A Declaration to the People." Addressing the Muslim nation, al-Zarqawi contends that the goal of the U.S. military invasion in Iraq was to "enable the Zionist enemy to prevail from the Nile to the Euphrates." The mujahedin "sacrificed their souls and their possessions...and shouldered the fiercest attacks militarily, economically, and on the media front for nothing except to defend this nation, its religion, its men and women, and their honor," he says. "Without their standing, Iraq would have fallen prey" to the "Crusaders" and Shi'a, he adds. "The women of the Sunni people would have become prisoners, serving as mistresses" to them. Al-Zarqawi says that the mujahedin, though fighting in Iraq, keep their eyes on Jerusalem, "which will not be regained without a guiding Koran and a supporting sword." KR

On the Internet video, al-Zarqawi calls on U.S. President George W. Bush to tell the truth to the American people about the status of the war in Iraq and the low morale of U.S. forces there. Saying Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden offered Bush a truce that he rejected out of arrogance, al-Zarqawi says: "Not a single time were you truthful to yourself or your people.... Why do you not tell the truth about your soldiers and that their fighting will is rather weak.... Why do you not tell [America] that your soldiers are continuously committing suicide.... Why do you not tell them about the mass desertion and revolt growing among the ranks of your soldiers?" He further claims that the United States is now using Sunni "agents" (political leaders) in Iraq to strangle the Sunnis in an effort to save the U.S. agenda. "We believe that any government that is formed in Iraq a government that is an agent, collaborating, and allied with the Crusaders. Such a government would become a poisoned dagger in the heart of the Islamic nation." KR

Al-Zarqawi also calls on the mujahedin fighters in Iraq to press forward with their jihad in the Internet video, which he announces was recorded on April 21. "Renew your vows and intentions, and purify your hearts and attack your enemy as one man. Your enemy is now exposed...and has lost his will and become weak and broken. So don't give him a chance to recuperate. Continue the stabs, one after another," he says. He calls on Iraqis in Ninawah, Diyala, Salah Al-Din, Al-Muthanna, and Kurdistan to fight alongside him. He adds that the Mujahedin Shura Council will be the foundation of an Islamic state, and an umbrella for every true fighter. The video also carries audio from an earlier al-Zarqawi audio recording in which he said Iraq "is the most crucial ground of jihad in this age. The nation should support the heroic mujahedin of Iraq, who are fighting on the front lines to defend Islam's glory and dignity." KR

Jawad al-Maliki called on Sunni Arabs in Iraq to support the political process there in an interview broadcast on Al-Iraqiyah television on April 25. "Our Sunni brothers, by their participation in a broad alliance, have begun to shoulder responsibilities in the political process," he said. Al-Maliki added that terrorism can be defeated through the participation of Sunnis in the political process, increased economic investment, and programs to reduce unemployment. Referring to militias in Iraq, al-Maliki said that all weapons must be in the hands of the state, adding that the continued presence of militias could spark a civil war. KR

Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister-elect of the Kurdistan region, announced on April 25 that a government has been formed, Kurdistan Satellite Television reported the same day. Barzani further called on parliament speaker Adnan Mufti to convene the parliament this week to hold a vote of confidence. Barzani said that the cabinet includes 27 ministers, including technocrats, independents, and women. Barzani said that the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) has been invited to take part in the government. The KIU pulled out of the Kurdistan Coalition ahead of the December elections and was subsequently the target of numerous attacks on its offices and leaders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 16, 2005). "They have sent us their conditions in writing and we have some disagreements. We expect to hold meetings on that," Barzani said. He also commented on the Turkish and Iranian military buildup on the Kurdistan border, saying that if those armies enter Iraqi territory, there will be a strong reaction in the Kurdistan region. He called on Baghdad to address the issue. Both countries are reportedly planning attacks on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) bases inside Iraq. KR