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Newsline - May 2, 2006


RUSSIAN, U.S. PRESIDENTS DISCUSS IRAN
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush discussed the Iranian nuclear crisis by telephone on May 1, Russian and international news agencies reported the same day. According to a Kremlin statement cited by AP and mosnews.com, the two presidents "discussed interaction on urgent international problems, including the Iranian nuclear issue, on which numerous consultations at various levels are to be held in the coming days." Reuters quoted White House spokesman Scott McClellan as saying on May 1 that Bush and Putin "stressed the importance of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons," and that they agreed to remain "in close contact on this important priority." He would not provide more details. The United States has been trying to convince Moscow to take a harder line with Tehran. BW

NEW RUSSIAN UN ENVOY URGES DIPLOMATIC SOLUTION...
Russia's new envoy to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said on May 1 that Moscow will seek a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, ITAR-TASS reported on May 2. "We will see how things go and look for a political and diplomatic solution," Churkin said, adding that Moscow is studying a report presented to the UN Security Council on April 28 by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Mohammad el-Baradei. Churkin warned against "anticipating things" that will transpire in the ongoing crisis. In an April 29 telephone conversation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki to suspend enriching uranium and resume full-scale cooperation with the IAEA, Reuters reported the same day. BW

...AS FORMER RUSSIAN PREMIER WARNS AGAINST USING FORCE
Yevgeny Primakov has said Moscow does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, but he warned at the same time that using military force against Iran would be catastrophic, mosnews.com and RIA-Novosti reported on May 1. Primakov, a former Russian prime minister and foreign minister who is now the chairman of Russia's Commerce and Industry Chamber, is one of the country's most respected Middle East experts. "The question is how we can prevent" Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Primakov said in Tel Aviv at a meeting with Israeli businessmen. "If someone is proposing the use of force, it is counterproductive. It may lead to catastrophic consequences," he added. "Therefore, it is necessary to find political solutions. Is it difficult to find them? No doubt. But one must aim at doing so." BW

RUSSIA'S GAZPROM DISMISSES EU CRITICISM
The natural-gas monopoly Gazprom dismissed on April 30 complaints from Western governments that Russian energy policy is unpredictable, calling them an attempt to interfere in its business dealings, Interfax reported. "For several decades we have been steadily supplying Europe with natural gas, we look forward to the continuation of this cooperation and see every reason for it to be successful," Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "The main thing is that politicians not stand in [our] way," he added. Speaking about the conflict over natural gas supplies to Ukraine earlier this year, Kupriyanov accused European Union politicians of "trying to interfere in business relations between companies, to limit our operations and attempt to impose their conditions." BW

1.3 MILLION MARK MAY DAY IN RUSSIA AS PRO-KREMLIN PARTY DOMINATES RALLIES
Russia's Interior Ministry estimated on May 1 that 1.32 million people participated in 1,142 May Day rallies in 833 cities, Interfax reported. Rallies sponsored by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, however, overshadowed the traditional antigovernment rallies held by the Communist Party and its supporters, AP reported. In Moscow, for example, an estimated 25,000 people attended a rally staged by Unified Russia near the downtown office of Mayor Yury Luzhkov. An estimated 10,000 Communist demonstrators, meanwhile, gathered at a statue of Karl Marx in front of the Bolshoi Theater. Police said the rallies proceeded peacefully. "There were no mass-scale breaches of the peace on the territory of the Russian Federation on May 1," Interfax quoted an Interior Ministry statement as saying. BW

REPORT: MOSCOW POLICE PLAN OPERATION AGAINST 'ETHNIC GANGS'
Moscow police are planning to launch a major operation against so-called ethnically based gangs in the Russian capital, Interfax reported on May 2, citing unidentified law-enforcement sources. The operation is a response to the slaying of two Moscow police officers on April 28, which police have blamed on an alleged Georgian crime group. "The toughest measures will be taken, including large-scale checks of venues popular among representatives of such ethnic-based groups," the unidentified police official told Interfax. "Detentions will be made. The operation will continue until the murderers are tracked down," he added. BW

CONSTITUTIONAL COURT CHIEF SAYS MOVE TO ST. PETERSBURG IN HANDS OF LEGISLATORS
Russian Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin said on May 2 that it is up to the legislative branch to decide whether or not to move the court from Moscow to St. Petersburg, ITAR-TASS reported. According to a press release cited by ITAR-TASS, Zorkin "has spoken neither directly nor indirectly, neither for nor against for the move of the Constitutional Court to St. Petersburg, believing that this matter is in the competence of legislators." The press release said, however, that Zorkin believes moving the court "would cause certain difficulties" for its judges and employees. Zorkin's statement came in response to an article in the newspaper "Vedomosti" on May 2 saying that he opposes the proposed move. Zorkin has spoken out against such a move in the past (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2005). BW

RUSSIA PROTESTS GEORGIAN DEFENSE MINISTER'S COMMENTS
The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Georgian Ambassador Irakli Chubinashvili on April 26, apparently to protest a comment made earlier that day by Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, Caucasus Press reported. Okruashvili, whom President Mikheil Saakashvili has tasked with promoting the export of Georgian wines (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2006), was quoted as saying that Russian consumers are so undiscriminating that they would be happy "with crap." Okruashvili subsequently explained that he did not intend that as a description of Georgian wines, which he said are of high quality. But in a seeming contradiction, Okruashvili told Georgian winemakers on May 1 that if they want the Russian ban on the import of Georgian wine lifted, they must stop using Azerbaijani grapes, Caucasus Press reported. On April 28, Russia's chief public health official, Gennady Onishchenko, criticized Okruashvili's April 26 comment as "rude," while Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze said she would "have expressed the same idea in different terms," Caucasus Press reported. According to a poll of Russian wine drinkers conducted in late April and summarized by Caucasus Press on April 28, 45 percent of respondents said they consider the Russian ban on imports of Georgian and Moldovan wine justified. In a reflection of the tense state of bilateral relations, Russian State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov failed to show up on April 28 for a planned meeting with Burdjanadze on the sidelines of the celebrations in St. Petersburg to mark the Duma's centenary, Caucasus Press reported. LF

CHECHEN PREMIER RESTRUCTURES PRESIDENTIAL GUARD...
Ramzan Kadyrov announced on April 29 the abolition of the so-called presidential guard and of the republic's antiterror center, newsru.com reported. The presidential guard, better known as the kadyrovtsy, are believed to number between 5,000-8,000 men and have been repeatedly implicated by Russian human rights activists in the abduction, torture, and summary killing of hundreds of innocent civilians. Kadyrov explained that former staff members of the antiterrorism center will form the nucleus of two Interior Ministry battalions (North and South) that will be subordinate to the federal ministry. Colonel General Nikolai Rogozhkin, commander of the Interior Ministry security troops, was quoted by "Novaya gazeta" on March 3 as saying the North Battalion would be based in Grozny and number 700 men and the South Battalion in Vedeno and number 500 men. LF

...AND DENIES CLASH BETWEEN OFFICIAL BODYGUARDS
Kadyrov's press service released a statement on April 27 rejecting as exaggerated Russian media reports that two men were killed the previous day during an exchange of fire between members of Kadyrov's security guard and bodyguards of pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov, Interfax and RIA Novosti reported. The statement said the incident was no more than a "heated verbal exchange." It admitted that one bodyguard sustained "a minor injury," according to Interfax, but did not specify whether that injury was a gunshot wound. "The Guardian" on April 28 quoted the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" as reporting that the incident was triggered by Alkhanov's failure to invite Kadyrov to attend a meeting with Russian Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin. LF

KREMLIN ENVOY, DAGHESTAN PRESIDENT ASSESS LOCAL PROTEST
Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak met in Makhachkala on April 27 with Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev, Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov, Prosecutor-General Imam Yaraliyev, and district officials to discuss the implications of the standoff two days earlier between supporters of Kerimkhan Abasov, who heads the Usukhchay village administration in Dokuzpar Raion, and several hundred villagers who blocked a local highway to demand Abasov's dismissal on the grounds that he bribed local officials to win election in August 2005, regnum.ru reported. Police sought unsuccessfully to persuade the protesters to disperse, after which the latter began throwing stones at police, who opened fire, killing one villager and injuring several others. Kozak informed journalists after the meeting that on April 24, one day before the violence, the Prosecutor-General's Office opened a criminal case against Abasov. Police subsequently detained 63 participants in the protest, including 16 who were identified as the organizers, Interfax reported on April 26. LF

MILITANTS KILLED IN SPECIAL OPERATIONS IN KARACHAYEVO-CHERKESSIA...
Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) detachments and Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic Interior Ministry forces launched a special operation during the night of April 25-26 in Zelenchuk Raion, killing four members of a group of militants and apprehending a fifth, regnum.ru reported. The dead militants were identified as having participated in an attack on police in the summer of 2005, and were said to be preparing to perpetrate a terrorist attack on May 9 using car bombs. LF

...AND KABARDINO-BALKARIA
Local FSB and Interior Ministry forces surrounded a house in Nalchik late on April 28 where a group of suspected militants were hiding, and launched a gun battle early on April 29, kavkazweb.net reported. According to the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic Interior Ministry, two militants were killed, both of whom were wanted by police for having committed serious crimes in Chechnya. One was identified as a Chechen, the second had a passport giving his nationality as Ingush and his place of residence as Grozny, according to ingushetiya.ru on April 29. The Chechen resistance website kavkazweb.net reported that three resistance fighters were killed in the shoot-out. LF

INGUSHETIAN PRESIDENT'S FATHER-IN-LAW RELEASED
Ingushetian parliament deputy Magomed Chakhkiyev, who was abducted in Nazran two months ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1 and 2, 2006), was released during the night of April 30-May 1, ingushetiya.ru reported on May 1. The circumstances of his release remain unclear, although the website cited unidentified law-enforcement officials as admitting that a ransom was paid. In late March, the so-called Ingush jamaat claimed to have snatched Chakhkiyev in retaliation for his alleged "complicity in the genocide of Muslims" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2006). Chakhkiyev is the father-in-law of Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov and Prosecutor-General Makhmud-Ali Kalimbetov. Meanwhile, Zyazikov on April 29 posthumously awarded Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for his "outstanding" contribution to "restoring historical justice and the rights of the peoples deported" during World War II by Josef Stalin, ingushetiya.ru reported, citing Interfax. Zyazikov himself was born in exile, in the then-Kirghiz SSR, in 1957, shortly before the Chechens and Ingush began returning to the North Caucasus. LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITIONIST IMPLICATES LEADERSHIP IN ARREST OF HIS BODYGUARDS
Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party Chairman Aram Karapetian told journalists in Yerevan on April 27 that he is certain that it was President Robert Kocharian who issued the order for the arrest of six of his bodyguards on April 21, Noyan Tapan reported on April 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2006). Karapetian said the detention of his bodyguards, who were released after several hours, was intended as intimidation. Karapetian argued that Armenia should establish closer ties with Russia, possibly even entering a confederation, in order to safeguard national security, guarantee energy supplies, and resolve the Karabakh conflict. LF

WORLD BANK OFFICIAL TERMS SALE OF ARMENIAN POWER UTILITY ADVANTAGEOUS
Roger Robinson, who heads the World Bank's office in Yerevan, told journalists on April 28 that he considers the controversial sale to Russia's state-controlled Gazprom monopoly of the fifth unit of the Hrazdan thermal power plant "a very beneficial transaction," Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Robinson said government officials have briefed him on the details of that agreement, which, he suggested, should be made public. Under an agreement sealed last month, Gazprom will acquire and complete construction of the fifth Hrazdan unit and gain a controlling stake in the country's gas-distribution network. It will pay $250 million for those facilities, of which $188 million will be paid in supplies of natural gas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 6, 7, 11, and 12, 2006). LF

AZERBAIJANI, U.S. PRESIDENTS MEET
Ilham Aliyev met at the White House on April 28, the final day of his state visit to the United States, with President George W. Bush, international media reported. The talks focused on the international dispute over Iran's nuclear program, the domestic political situation in Azerbaijan, Caspian energy resources, and the prospects for resolving the Karabakh conflict. Bush responded to Aliyev's expressions of concern at the possible impact of the Iran crisis on Azerbaijan with assurances of Washington's desire to resolve the issue peacefully, through diplomacy; Aliyev told journalists they did not discuss the possibility of a U.S. strike against Iran or "joint plans." Bush said that he stressed the need for the world to perceive Azerbaijan as "a modern Muslim country that is able to provide for its citizens" -- a possible hint that revenues from Azerbaijan's Caspian hydrocarbons should be used transparently to alleviate widespread poverty. The website of the Turkish daily "Zaman" (http://www.zaman.com) on April 29 quoted Aliyev as saying most of the discussion focused on the Karabakh conflict, but neither president divulged details: Aliyev told journalists only that he informed Bush about the status of the ongoing negotiations on approaches to resolving the conflict and expressed the hope that it will prove possible to do so peacefully. LF

SOUTH OSSETIA REJECTS GEORGIAN DRAFT LAW ON RESTITUTION...
Boris Chochiev, deputy prime minister of the unrecognized breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, said on April 19 that the Georgian-drafted law on restitution for victims of the fighting in South Ossetia is no more than a public-relations exercise, Caucasus Press reported on April 20. Chochiev said the draft will not expedite the return to South Ossetia of refugees and displaced persons, and cannot be effective in the absence of unspecified confidence-building measures and an "expression of good will" on the part of Tbilisi. Speaking in Vienna on March 2, U.S. Charge d'Affaires Kyle Scott urged the South Ossetian leadership to accept Tbilisi's repeated invitations to discuss that draft law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2006). On April 26, the South Ossetian parliament appealed to the international community to recognize the Georgian reprisals against South Ossetia in the early 1990s as genocide, Caucasus Press reported. LF

...AND CALLS FOR MEETING OF JOINT CONTROL COMMISSION
Chochiev proposed on April 26 convening on May 10-11 in Tskhinvali a session of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported. Chochiev is the South Ossetian co-chairman of that body, which comprises representatives from South Ossetia, North Ossetia, Russia, and Georgia. He suggested that the session should focus on creating a Georgian-South Ossetian working group that would draft a mutually acceptable plan for resolving the conflict. Chochiev's Georgian co-chairman, Giorgi Khaindrava, agreed in principle on April 26 to the proposed meeting but suggested that it should focus on the economic rehabilitation of the conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported. Chochiev met on April 28 in Tskhinvali with Vesselin Nikolaev, deputy head of the OSCE Mission in Georgia, to discuss the agenda of the planned JCC meeting, Caucasus Press reported. Also on April 28, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told journalists in Tbilisi that the Georgian government is prepared to make further, unspecified steps toward resolving the conflict with South Ossetia. LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION DEMANDS INVESTIGATION INTO PRISON DEATHS
The opposition New Conservatives (aka New Rightists) released a statement on May 1 criticizing the Georgian authorities for ignoring international calls for a public and impartial investigation into the March 27 violence at a Tbilisi prison in which at least seven inmates died, Caucasus Press reported (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2006). OSCE Chairman in Office and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht issued a statement on March 31 noting discrepancies in reports of the violence and advocating such an investigation. The Georgian Justice Ministry reported on May 1 that 24 prisoners have died so far this year in Georgian jails, Caucasus Press reported. LF

INVESTIGATION OF KAZAKH OPPOSITION LEADER'S DEATH NEAR END, SAYS MINISTER
Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov told journalists on April 28 that the investigation of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev's assassination (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006) is almost completed, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. "The investigation of this case is winding down, this week the defense will get the case materials, and after that the case will go to court," Mukhamedzhanov said. Mukhamedzhanov promised that "the trial will be open and the press will have a chance to familiarize itself with all the details of the case." DK

KAZAKH MINISTER BLASTS TV STATION
In an interview with the weekly "Epokha," Culture and Information Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev charged that the privately owned television station KTK is violating Kazakhstan's constitution with its broadcasts, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on April 29. "Everything KTK has been broadcasting is a gross violation of the country's constitution, which says that the citizens have the right to get accurate information," Ertysbaev said. He also accused KTK of exploiting the murder of opposition leader Sarsenbaev in February for political purposes. "After the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbaev, KTK put enormous pressure on the country's leadership over several days," Ertysbaev said. "What is that? Why is [a] private TV channel trying to govern the country and to carry out [government] reshuffles?" In closing, Ertysbaev warned: "We will set clear deadlines for bringing broadcasting into line with the law. At the ministry, we will consider the issues of limiting frequencies or revoking a broadcasting license entirely." DK

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION HOLDS PEACEFUL RALLY
A peaceful demonstration estimated at 10,000-20,000 people took place in rainy weather in Bishkek on April 29 with opposition political parties and NGOs airing demands for faster reforms and measures to fight crime and corruption, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and news agencies reported. Kubatbek Baibolov, a leader of the Union of Democratic Forces, which organized the rally, told demonstrators, "Down with those who take bribes, down with those who are corrupt!" He continued, "We perfectly understand that this government is just one-year old and that it is impossible to change the people's lives in just one year. Yet, in one year it is still possible to give hope. But this government is destroying the people's hope." Almaz Atambaev, leader of the Social Democratic Party, who recently resigned as minister of industry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2006), said: "We are today demanding 'Down with [former President Askar] Akaev,' because it seems to us that Akaev is still sitting in the White House. But if we come again for another meeting, it won't be 'Down with Akaev' this time, but another kind of meeting all together. That's why the government should think of the people." DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT ADDRESSES DEMONSTRATORS...
President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov came out and briefly addressed the demonstrators in Bishkek on April 29, urging unity and promising progress, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. "We -- I, as President, and Prime Minister Felix Kulov, together with the government -- are working for the nation, for you!" Bakiev said. "We are working to improve people's lives, to provide jobs to the jobless. That is why our aim is a common one -- for you, for success, for peace! Let's wish a peaceful end to today's peaceful rally. I am always together with you! Thank you!" For his part, Kulov told protesters: "Dear people! You are well aware that the tandem [of Bakiev and Kulov] is with the nation. It is working for the nation. We will consider your demands. Some of them have been met by the president who has issued decrees on them. There will be progress now, but you know well that it is impossible to resolve crisis overnight. Thank you, my dear kinsmen!" Reuters reported that the crowd booed Bakiev yet accorded Kulov a "warm reception." Demonstrators dispersed peacefully after the president and prime minister addressed them. DK

...WHO SET ONE-MONTH DEADLINE FOR REFORMS
Opposition leaders set a date of May 27 for a follow-up rally if the government fails to carry out its reform pledges, akipress.org and ferghana.ru reported on April 29. "The people remained dissatisfied," parliamentary deputy Bolotbek Sherniyazov told RIA-Novosti. "You saw yourselves how people reacted to the president -- they booed him." DK

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT UNHAPPY WITH CABINET PERFORMANCE
Kyrgyzstan's parliament voted by a slim majority on April 28 to approve Prime Minister Kulov's report on the cabinet's performance in 2005 but pronounced the work of most ministers unsatisfactory, akipress.org reported. The prime minister's report gathered only the minimum 38 votes needed for approval. The legislature also voted on individual ministers. Only three received 38 or more votes: Nurlan Sulaimanov, minister of transportation and communication; Sultan Raev, minister of culture; and Aigul Ryskulova, chair of the State Committee on Migration and Employment. DK

TAJIK POLICE ARREST FOUR SUSPECTED FEMALE MEMBERS OF HIZB UT-TAHRIR
Tajik police have arrested four women suspected of holding leadership positions in the banned extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, the BBC's Persian Service reported on April 28. The four women, aged 31 to 41, were arrested in Tajikistan's northern Sughd Province, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. "They have all been members of Hizb ut-Tahrir over the past several years, and nearly all held senior positions in its regional cell," a law-enforcement source told the news agency. "The prosecutor's office has launched a criminal case and an investigation is in progress." DK

MAY DAY RALLY IN MINSK DEMANDS RELEASE OF POLITICAL LEADERS
Some 1,000 people took part in a rally organized by the opposition in Minsk on May 1, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Demonstrators demanded the release of political leaders -- Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Syarhey Kalyakin, Vintsuk Vyachorka, and Alyaksandr Bukhvostau -- who were jailed last week in the wake of an opposition rally to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 28, 2006). The May 1 rally also adopted a resolution demanding the abolishment of short-term labor contracts that the opposition considers to be a state tool to intimidate workers. The May Day rally was allowed by the authorities, but several hundred demonstrators gathered in an unauthorized place and subsequently marched to the sanctioned venue. Prominent opposition activist Stanislau Shushkevich, who applied for the permission to hold the May Day rally, has been summoned to appear before police on May 3 for explanations. JM

COURT OPENS CLOSURE SUIT AGAINST UNION OF BELARUSIAN WRITERS
The Supreme Court on April 28 began hearings in the Justice Ministry's suit for the closure of the Union of Belarusian Writers (SBP), Belapan reported. The ministry accuses the SBP, which is seen by state-run media as politicized and nationalistic, of using the banned emblem Pahonya (an image of a knight in pursuit) on the plaque marking the entrance to the House of Writers in Minsk and of utilizing a stamp that features the union's name without inverted commas. The ministry also claims the SBP lacks an original copy of its charter and accuses the organization of making available the House of Writers' cafeteria for a conference of the opposition Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) in 2005. SBP Chairman Ales Pashkevich said during the April 28 session that the accusations are not sufficient grounds to suspend the association, let alone to close it. He denied the SPB's involvement in the preparation and holding of the party conference. In November, more than 100 writers loyal to the government set up the Union of Writers of Belarus as an alternative to the SBP (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2005). JM

BELARUS WANTS ACCESS TO RUSSIA'S OIL, GAS FIELDS IN RETURN FOR BELTRANSHAZ STAKE
Belarus wants access to Russian oil and gas fields in return for a stake in its Beltranshaz gas-pipeline system, Belapan reported on April 29, quoting a television interview by Vasil Dauhalyou, the Belarusian president's special representative in Russia. Dauhalyou said Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka discussed a possible Beltranshaz deal with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in St. Petersburg on April 28. Belarus and Russia signaled their plans to set up a Beltranshaz-based joint gas-transport venture shortly after the 2001 presidential election in Belarus, but have reportedly so far failed to agree on the market value of Beltranshaz. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT QUESTIONS LEGALITY OF 'REGIONAL LANGUAGE' STATUS FOR RUSSIAN
President Viktor Yushchenko told journalists in Riga on April 28 that he has asked the Justice Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office to look into the legality of recent local-government decisions granting Russian the status of a regional language, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Last month, such decisions were made by councilors of Luhansk Oblast and the city of Sevastopol. Both regions have a predominantly Russian-speaking population. "I think that I will receive opinions from these [central-government] bodies very soon and we will act in strict accordance with national and international laws," Yushchenko said. JM

KYIV SAYS NATO BID IS 'IRREVERSIBLE'
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk told a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Sofia on April 28 that Ukraine's course toward NATO membership is "irreversible," Reuters reported. "Those political parties that made anti-NATO slogans the core of their electoral programs have failed to get to the Ukrainian parliament," Tarasyuk said. "We also hope that this year the strengthening of NATO-Ukrainian relations will follow its logical continuation in the framework of the main preparations program -- membership action plan -- and further results in the invitation to accession talks," he added. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Sofia the previous day that Ukraine and Georgia can expect encouragement during the alliance's November summit in Riga regarding their hopes to join NATO, but no "actual invitations." JM

SERBIA FAILS TO MEET DEADLINE FOR MLADIC CAPTURE...
Serbian officials vowed to continue hunting for war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic after a European Union (EU) deadline for his capture expired on April 30, Serbian and international news agencies reported the same day. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn is scheduled to meet with Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTYT), on May 3 to discuss Serbia's position. The two are expected to decide whether the next round of talks between Belgrade and the EU on a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), scheduled for May 11, should be cancelled. "It is very possible the talks will be suspended," Rasim Ljajic, the president of Serbia and Montenegro's National Hague Tribunal Cooperation Council, said. "Regardless of what happens, we must keep up this tempo of major operations to catch Mladic," Ljajic said. BW

...AS OFFICIAL SAYS NETWORK OF 130 AIDING FUGITIVE
In an interview published in the Serbian daily newspaper "Blic" on April 30, Ljajic said that Serbia has discovered a network of 130 people who have helped to hide Ratko Mladic, AFP reported the same day. "But most of those people are in Republika Srpska," Ljajic said, referring to the Bosnian Serb entity in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ljajic, who is also Serbia and Montenegro's human rights minister, said the new information could help to track Mladic down. "We have more information than before ...We have made progress, but the European Union will only appreciate the result, not our efforts," he said. BW

SERBS KEEP KOSOVA DECENTRALIZATION PLANS SECRET ON EVE OF TALKS
Belgrade officials are denying reports that they plan to form 25 Serbian municipalities in Kosova as part of a decentralization plan, B92 reported on May 1. The Serbian delegation at talks on Kosova's final status say they do not want to reveal the contents of their decentralization plan until negotiations resume in Vienna on May 4. "We want to tell the international community about our plans, have them tell the Albanian side, and then prepare a united strategy," said Marko Jaksic, a member of the Serbian negotiating team at the UN-backed talks. "In order for that to happen, our proposal must remain secret, so that we can present it properly," he added. BW

EIGHT BALKAN LEADERS MEET IN ALBANIA
The presidents of eight Balkan countries held a summit on April 28 in the Albanian coastal city of Durres, dpa reported the same day. The main items on the agenda were economic cooperation, tourism, and Euro-Atlantic integration. "Today's informal meeting ...serves in the best way to bring us closer together and to integrate our countries into NATO and the EU," Albanian President Alfred Moisiu said. Also in attendance were: Bulgaria's Georgi Parvanov; Croatia's Stjepan Mesic; Bosnia-Herzegovina's Sulejman Tihic; Montenegro's Filip Vujanovic, Serbia's Boris Tadic; Macedonian leader Branko Crvenkovski; and Romania's Traian Basescu. BW

TRANSDNIESTER PROTESTS UKRAINIAN BORDER DEMARCATION
Ukrainian border officials have dismissed allegations from Moldova's separatist Transdniester region that Ukraine is illegally demarcating their common border, ITAR-TASS reported on April 28. "Ukrainian authorities are installing border poles, demarcating the border and installing engineering facilities without the consent of the [Transdniester] region," Alexander Vyrvich, Transdniester's deputy security minister, said. Ukrainian officials denied doing anything wrong or illegal. "We are surprised by the [Transdniester] region's criticism of the border development," Pavel Shisholin, first deputy head of Ukraine's Border Service, said at a press conference in Kyiv on April 28. "Everything Ukraine is doing on the [Transdniester] regional border complies with the law and with bilateral delimitation documents," he added. Ukrainian officials say the process of demarcating the border will take approximately 50 days. BW

ALL EYES ON ROSNEFT AHEAD OF CONTROVERSIAL IPO
The initial public offering of Russia's state-owned oil company Rosneft, expected this summer, is creating a storm in the investment community. One of the largest-ever IPOs, it stands to make $20 billion. But the offering has also sparked controversy. Some think of fast-growing Rosneft as a lucrative investment opportunity. Others see it as a company eager to profit from stolen property.

Either way, there is no denying that Rosneft is an overnight sensation. Two years ago, the state-owned oil company was producing fewer than 500,000 barrels per day. Now that number has spiked to 1.5 million. And if Rosneft's President Sergei Bogdanchikov is good for his word, that output is set to double over the next decade to 3 million barrels per day as the company moves to develop oil fields in Sakhalin.

Speaking on April 24 at the Russian Economic Forum in London, Bogdanchikov claimed that the company could be the world's largest oil producer by 2015. It's an enticing prospect that comes as world oil prices skyrocket to historic levels. But not everyone will be lining up to buy shares. In an opinion piece published in the "Financial Times" on April 26, the billionaire financier George Soros warned the IPO "raises serious ethical and energy security issues" at a time when Europe is seriously questioning its energy dependence on Russia.

The critique from Soros was followed by an even stronger gesture from a powerful London financial firm. F&C Asset Management has reportedly advised investors to avoid the Rosneft IPO as an unacceptably risky venture.

Many Rosneft detractors point to the fate of Russia's former oil superstar, Yukos. Rosneft's star has risen as Yukos has been systematically stripped of its assets following what many consider the politically motivated arrest and prosecution of its chief, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

In particular, critics are uneasy about Rosneft's takeover of Yuganskneftegaz, Yukos's largest production unit, after Khodorkovsky was jailed for fraud and Yukos was hit with $28 million in tax claims.

Yuganskneftegaz is now Rosneft's biggest asset, and its purchase helps explain how the company has managed to triple its output since 2004. But the circumstances of the acquisition were opaque. Some investors are questioning whether it is ethically and legally palatable to vie for shares of what critics say is essentially stolen property.

Not everyone is troubled by such doubts, however. Powerful financial firms like Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase are acting as advisers on the Rosneft IPO, and Rosneft recently hired its first full-time Western executive, an American investment adviser, to lead strategic investment projects and external financing.

During Bogdanchikov's appearance at the Russian Economic Forum, the talk was of a potential oil-production bonanza -- and not, as one paper described it, "the specter of Yukos." Bogdanchikov has refused to state precisely the size of the IPO. But earlier announcements stated that 49 percent of the company shares would be up for offer. Bogdanchikov has said foreign strategic buyers are welcome to a major stake as long as the state maintains control over Rosneft. India's state-owned oil and gas company ONGC and China's national energy firm CNPC have been named as potential buyers.

But as investors prepare for the planned flotation on the London Stock Exchange, there are fears a successful IPO will only serve to legitimize the Kremlin's apparent willingness to seize Russia's energy assets by any means possible.

A $20 billion payoff may be seen as a reward for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advisers -- notably Igor Sechin, now the head of Rosneft's board of directors -- for their crackdown on Yukos and Kremlin critic Khodorkovsky.

It may not be enough to deter investors, but for policy analysts, it's a serious concern. As the Economist Intelligence Unit recently asked: "Having got away with it once, what is to stop Russia's authorities from doing something similar in the future?"

NEO-TALIBAN KILL CAPTURED INDIAN ENGINEER IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
The body of an Indian telecommunications engineer who was kidnapped along with his Afghan driver by neo-Taliban on April 28 was found in Zabul Province on April 30, international news agencies reported. Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said his government is "appalled by this dastardly and inhuman act of terror on the part of the Taliban and its sponsors," the New Delhi-based "Hindustan Times" reported on May 1. Calling the killing of K. Suryanarayan a "premeditated" act of terrorism, Saran vowed to track down the killers and said New Delhi will not give in to terrorist pressure. The neo-Taliban had demanded that all Indian nationals leave Afghanistan, but killed hostage Suryanarayan before the deadline for doing so expired. An April 30 press release by the Indian External Affairs Ministry quoted Saran as saying that Suryanarayan was killed "even before" the ministry's team landed in Kabul. AT

NEW DELHI CONDEMNS TALIBAN AS TERRORISTS
In his briefing in New Delhi on April 30, Foreign Secretary Saran said that his government "regards Taliban [as] a terrorist organization." India calls on the international community "to recognize" the Taliban's "true colors and join together to defeat this scourge to humanity," Saran added. The Taliban is not defined as a terrorist organization by either Afghanistan or the United States. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called for former Taliban to join his government, and his administration refers to the insurgents as "enemies of peace and security" even when the insurgents identify themselves as the Taliban. In a speech in April, Karzai urged the media not to use the term "talib" (Taliban) for every fighter or terrorist in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2006). AT

TALIBAN COUNCIL EXPRESSES 'SADNESS' OVER HOSTAGE'S KILLING
Yusof Ahmadi, purporting to speak for the Taliban, said on April 30 that the movement's leadership was "saddened" by the incident that it claimed led to the death of Indian hostage K. Suryanarayan, AFP reported. Speaking to AFP, Ahmadi claimed that the Taliban leadership council had decided to extend its deadline for Suryanarayan's release "since the Indian side had showed gestures that they were ready to negotiate." Ahmadi claimed that the hostage, who was being guarded by one man, "attacked the guard" and escaped, prompting other Taliban to shoot him. Ahamdi did not explain why Suryanarayan had been decapitated. AT

COALITION FORCES REPORT KILLING 15-20 NEO-TALIBAN FIGHTERS
A statement released by U.S.-led coalition forces on May 1 indicated that a coalition patrol killed 15-20 "Taliban fighters" in a clash that took place on April 29 in the Sangin district of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, international news agencies reported. According to the statement, the coalition forces did not suffer any casualties. AT

AFGHAN FORCES KILL THREE INSURGENTS IN NORTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN
Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi said that Afghan security forces have killed three militants in the Pech district of Konar Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on May 1. Azimi did not indicate when the incident occurred, but he added that a number of weapons were captured by the government forces in the operation. AT

SUICIDE ATTACKS MISS TARGETS IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN...
Two "simultaneous" suicide attacks in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces on May 1 did not injure any of their intended victims, the commander of Kandahar Military Corps No. 205, Rahmatullah Ra'ufi, told Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press. The attack in Kandahar targeted coalition forces, while in Helmand the suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into a convoy of Afghan forces. AT

WOULD-BE SUICIDE BOMBER KILLED IN SOUTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN
A man with explosives strapped to his body died in Khost Province on May 1 after the device detonated prematurely, AFP reported, quoting Khost Governor Me'rajuddin Patan. The man was walking with two accomplices in the city of Khost, where he was apparently targeting a ceremony marking the victory of mujahedin forces over the communist government in Kabul in 1992, Patan told AFP. The suspected accomplices were wounded but fled the scene. AT

AL-QAEDA SAYS TWO MEMBERS LOST IN AFGHANISTAN
Ahmad Sulayman, purporting to speak on behalf of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, told Pajhwak Afghan News on May 1 that two members of the organization have been killed in separate incidents. He claimed that Abu Mohammad Sana'ani, a Yemeni, died in a suicide mission, while Mawlawi Nur Mohammad, an Afghan, died in a clash with coalition forces on April 27. Both incidents took place in Paktika Province in southeastern Afghanistan, Sulayman indicated. He did not say when Sana'ani died or describe the target of his attack. Mullah Mohammad Tayyeb, a neo-Taliban commander in neighboring Khost Province, told Pajhwak that Nur Mohammad had been in charge of recruiting fighters and finding equipment for Al-Qaeda. AT

TEHRAN ALLOCATES FUNDS TO COMPLETE NUCLEAR PLANT
Government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said on May 1 that the government has allocated an additional 1.94 trillion rials ($223 million) for completion of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, IRNA reported. The figure exceeds what the government has allocated for job creation in the coming fiscal year ($206 million) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April 2006). BS

WORKERS DEMONSTRATE IN IRAN
Workers marking International Labor Day in Tehran demonstrated against temporary contracts and also called for greater job security, state television reported. A demonstrator interviewed by the state-television correspondent complained about his "very low" salary, which he explained is approximately $150 per month. A female demonstrator demanded permanent contracts, according to state television. IRNA also reported that the workers demonstrated, but it focused on their support for Iran's nuclear pursuits. BS

ALLEGED BOMBERS ARRESTED IN SOUTHWEST IRAN
Iraj Amirkhani, prosecutor-general in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, announced on state radio on May 1 that 25 people have been arrested in connection with recent bombings. State radio noted that the most recent bombings took place in late January (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 31 January 2006). Amnesty International on 28 April expressed concern for several ethnic Arabs in Iran -- Ali Matourzadeh, his wife, Fahima Ismail Badawi, and their one-month-old daughter, Salma. Reportedly arrested on 28 February, Matourzadeh is a founder of the illegal Hizb-i Vifaq party. His whereabouts are unknown, while his wife and daughter are being held at Sepidar Prison in Khuzestan Province. Amnesty International has suggested Fahima and Salma are being held in order to force Ali Matourzadeh to cooperate, and the group demanded their unconditional release. BS

TOP OFFICIAL SELECTED FOR IRANIAN MILITARY FORCE
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has appointed Brigadier-General Morteza Rezai as first deputy commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), ISNA reported on April 30. Rezai succeeds Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, who now serves as deputy interior minister. BS

IRANIAN ARTILLERY FIRED INTO IRAQ
Uthman Mahmud, the interior minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, said on May 1 that Iranian artillery shelled 10 villages in the border region, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. This is the second attack in 10 days, he claimed, adding that there have been an unspecified number of casualties. The incidents reportedly are connected with the effort to suppress the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). BS

JAPAN TO PLAN PULLOUT ALONG BRITISH, AUSTRALIAN TIMELINE
The head of Japan's Defense Agency, Fukushiro Nukaga, said on May 1 that Japan will withdraw its Ground Self-Defense Forces from Iraq when Britain and Australia pull their troops from the area, international media reported on May 2. An unidentified Japanese official told "Asahi Shimbun" that Nukaga conveyed Japan's intentions to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Washington. Britain and Australia currently provide security in the Al-Muthanna Governorate, where Japanese forces provide humanitarian aid. Britain has said it expects to have completed its pullout plans by June. KR

IRAQIS SEEN ABUSING BODY OF FORMER PRIME MINISTER
A videotape obtained by Al-Arabiyah shows unidentified Iraqis kicking the body of former Prime Minister Muhammad Hamza al-Zubaydi, the satellite news channel reported on May 2. Al-Zubaydi, who was 67, died in U.S. custody in December, apparently of natural causes. The abuse reportedly occurred at the Health Ministry, where his body was transferred for an autopsy. Saddam Hussein's lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaymi, told Al-Arabiyah that "we can see that the party responsible is an Iraqi, but in the end the United States bears the responsibility since it is an occupying country...Hence, the United States is ethically fully responsible." KR

NEGOTIATIONS OVER IRAQI CABINET CONTINUE
The Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) has reportedly reached an agreement with the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front on the distribution of five key cabinet portfolios, the London-based daily "Al-Hayat" reported on May 1. The two lists agreed that the defense, interior, oil, finance, and foreign affairs posts should be distributed equally between all political blocs. The two sides also reportedly agreed on the need to appoint independent figures to the Defense and Interior ministries in order to avoid the allegations of sectarianism that plagued the ministries during the transitional government. "Al-Hayat" also cited an unnamed representative of Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List as saying Allawi may head the national security committee. Meanwhile, Baha al-Araji, a UIA representative aligned with the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said his bloc has demanded five ministerial portfolios in the new government, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on April 30. KR

SUNNIS DOUBT IRAQI PRESIDENT CAN INDUCE GROUPS TO LAY DOWN ARMS...
Sunni Arab leaders told "Al-Hayat" that they doubt President Jalal Talabani can convince insurgent groups to lay down their arms, the London-based daily reported on May 2. Salih al-Mutlaq, head of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, said one of the groups reportedly identified as being in talks with Talabani is Jaysh Muhammad (Muhammad's Army). "Neither the government nor U.S. forces have so far succeeded in opening a channel of dialogue with the armed resistance because [those groups] are laying down conditions before entering into any dialogue and will not give up their armed operations until the foreigner [sic] leaves," said al-Mutlaq. Isam al-Rawi, a member of the Muslim Scholars Association's Shura Council, claimed that four main resistance groups are not taking part in dialogue with Talabani or the United States. He identified those groups as the Islamic Army in Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Mujahedin Army, and the Islamic National Resistance Movement. "I do not believe their leaderships have the intention to adopt dialogue and give up" their weapons, said al-Rawi. KR

...AFTER PRESIDENT ACKNOWLEDGES TALKS TAKING PLACE
President Talabani said in an April 30 statement that he has entered into talks with several insurgent groups in the presence of U.S. officials, international media reported on the same day. The talks were reportedly held in Dukan. While the groups taking part in the talks were not identified, the statement said that Talabani anticipates reaching an agreement with seven groups in the near future. KR

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