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Newsline - April 10, 2006

President Vladimir Putin on April 7 addressed the Council for the Implementation of National Projects, which is charged with overseeing his plans to develop housing, education, health care, and agriculture, "The Moscow Times" and Russia's official presidential website ( reported. The four "projects" are under the overall supervision of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Singling out education and health care, Putin criticized the performance of unnamed regional governors and of Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko, whom he accused of "dragging their feet" and offloading responsibility for the $4 billion national-projects program on to subordinates. Putin also called on legislators to draft a law enabling the authorities to confiscate land from local officials deemed "corrupt" and to be "sitting on the land." "They have found a loophole in the legislation allowing them to make money out of the land they are sitting on," Putin added. In general, however, he spoke favorably about the overall implementation of the projects and the role of Medvedev and the cabinet in that process. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party recently launched a bill in the State Duma that will enable governors under certain conditions to take powers away from mayors, who are directly elected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17 and April 6, 2006). PM

Presidential aide Aleksandr Burutin was quoted by "Krasnaya zvezda" on April 10 as saying that the Russian armed forces and law enforcement agencies lack the necessary new weapons, Interfax reported. "The share of modern armaments and military hardware is only 10-20 percent [of the total]. Meanwhile, the forces have over 40,000 weapons that [can] hardly ever be used and whose storage costs a lot," he said. The percentage of arms and equipment needing repair is on the rise, and "the number of useless weapons still exceeds the number of new weapons commissioned by the government," he added. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov recently portrayed the state of weapons procurement and modernization in glowing terms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18 and April 6, 2006) PM.

The Communist Party (KPRF) defied a ban and led protests across Russia on April 8 against hikes in the costs of rents, utilities, and housing maintenance fees in the face of government cuts in subsidies, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and "The Moscow Times" reported on April 10. The organizers said that demonstrations took place in 250 cities and other population centers, and the Interior Ministry put the total number of participants at 74,000. PM

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov announced on April 8 the official launching of a liberal movement called the People's Democratic Union (NDS), of which he was unanimously elected leader the same day, "Vremya novostei" reported. The move is widely seen as part of a long-shot attempt by Kasyanov to win the 2008 presidential election. In December 2005, Kasyanov lost a bid for the leadership of the small Democratic Party, which is Russia's oldest liberal party and was widely seen as his potential springboard for the 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19 and 20, 2005, and February 28 and March 16, 2006). PM

Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), said at the construction site of India's Kundankulam nuclear power plant on April 8 that Russia intends to complete building both reactors at that "worthy project" as quickly as quality and safety regulations allow, Interfax reported. Construction of the facility in southern Tamil Nadu state began in 2001, and the first 1,000-megawatt reactor is due to start generating power in 2007. Kiriyenko also stressed that Russian deliveries of low-enriched uranium to India "are made in line with the main principles of the nuclear suppliers' group," RIA Novosti reported. He added that Russia and India comply with the norms of the international nonproliferation regime and "understand that further cooperation in this field will be possible after [unspecified] amendments are made to the rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group," ITAR-TASS reported. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said in New Delhi on March 16 that his government's recent decision to sell nuclear fuel to India does not violate any international agreement to which Russia adheres, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15 and 17, 2006). PM

President Putin's office announced on April 10 that Vitaly Churkin is Russia's new permanent representative to the United Nations and the Security Council, Interfax reported. His predecessor, Andrei Denisov, becomes a deputy foreign minister. Churkin was a prominent Russian diplomatic figure during the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict. PM

Two police officers and one suspected militant were killed in a shoot-out in Makhachkala early on April 10, Interfax and reported. A second militant was wounded, and a third, identified as the leader of the Daghestani-based Shariat djamaat, managed to escape. LF

The independent website presented on April 9 the findings of an opinion poll it conducted among Ossetians concerning the disputed Prigorodny Raion. Originally part of the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, that district was transferred in 1944 to the neighboring Republic of North Ossetia of which it is still a part. Ingush families who returned there were forced to flee during fierce fighting in late 1992 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 27, 2006.) Of a total of 523 respondents, 415, or 79 percent, favored returning the district to Ingushetian jurisdiction. Only 17.8 percent, most of them Ossetians living outside North Ossetia, argued against doing so. LF

Vartan Oskanian met in Moscow on April 7 with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to discuss bilateral cooperation in the energy sector, Iran's nuclear program, and the prospects for resuming negotiations under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group on resolving the Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Lavrov told journalists after that meeting that the Minsk Group co-chairs have come up with "some new proposals" for resolving the conflict, but did not elaborate. Oskanian for his part later told RFE/RL that the mediators offered only "new ideas." "I can't say yet that they are proposals...but they are being discussed," he added. He predicted that it will become clear within weeks "whether those new ideas can develop into proposals" that would give a fresh impetus to the peace process." LF

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held telephone consultations on April 6 with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev, prior to meeting in Washington on April 7 with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov to discuss the Karabakh peace process, bilateral relations, and Iran's nuclear program, zerkalo,az reported on April 8. Mammadyarov subsequently told Trend news agency that the United States has unveiled unspecified "new proposals" for resolving the Karabakah conflict, and that Baku will officially respond to those proposals during an upcoming visit by U.S. Minsk Group Co-chairman Ambassador Steven Mann. It is not clear whether the U.S. proposals referred to by Mammadyarov are the same as the proposals Lavrov identified as originating with the Minsk Group as a whole. LF

Following talks in Yerevan with President Kocharian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian on April 6, EU special envoy for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby discussed the Karabakh conflict with the president and foreign minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), Arkady Ghukasian and Georgy Petrosian, ITAR-TASS reported on April 8. Semneby stressed during an earlier interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the EU would like to play a more decisive role in the search for a solution to the conflict but does not aspire to replicate or supercede the OSCE Minsk Group. In a subsequent statement, Ghukasian's office said the importance of NKR participation in official talks on approaches to resolving the conflict. He also stressed the importance of observing the cease-fire along the Line of Contact separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces east of Karabakh. In a separate statement, the NKR Foreign Ministry similarly expressed concern at the increase in cease-fire violations in recent weeks and reaffirmed Stepanakert's commitment to observing the cease-fire and to resolving the conflict by exclusively peaceful means, according to Arminfo on April 8 as cited by Groong. On April 4, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry claimed that Armenian forces have violated the cease-fire 75 times since the beginning of this year, and on April 8 it reported that Armenian forces opened fire at two locations the previous day, reported. LF

Defense Ministry spokesman Major Ilgar Verdiyev rejected on April 8 as untrue media reports that a general mobilization is imminent and that Azerbaijani troops are being deployed to the frontline, reported. He explained that passage by the parliament of new legislation on mobilization does not mean that such a mobilization, which can be ordered only by President Aliyev in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is imminent. Verdiyev also said that conscripts are not sent to the front line during the first six months of their military service. LF

Following several days of consultations, three opposition parliament factions -- the Democratic Front comprising the Conservative and Republican parties, the New Conservatives (aka New Right Wing), and the Industrialists -- made public on April 7 a list of conditions for ending the boycott of parliamentary proceedings they declared on March 31 to protest the majority's decision to strip Valery Gelashvili (Republican) of his parliament mandate, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2006). Those conditions are: changes to the election law that would give the opposition representation on election commissions and guarantee the secrecy of the ballot; the introduction of direct elections for the post of mayor of Tbilisi and other major cities; the resignation of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili; the dismantling of the Interior Ministry's so-called "death squads"; and the creation of a special parliamentary commission to investigate crimes those death squads are suspected of having committed. Merabishvili repeated on April 10 that he has no intention of resigning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006). LF

In a television address on April 9 to mark the anniversary of the reprisals by Soviet troops against peaceful protesters in Tbilisi in 1989, Mikheil Saakashvili called on all Georgian political parties to close ranks in the name of a "common goal," Caucasus Press reported the following day. Saakashvili argued that "even minor political parties" should "put aside their short-term ambitions to achieve our common goal" of building a prosperous and democratic state. LF

The findings of an opinion poll conducted by the weekly "Kviris palitra" and summarized in its April 10 issue suggest that President Saaksashvili's popularity has sunk to an all-time low, and that if presidential election were held today, no candidate would garner the required 50 percent plus one vote required for a first round victory, Caucasus Press reported. Of the 420 people polled, only 33.2 percent said they would vote for Saakashvili; in late January, a similar poll of 400 people by the same paper gave Saakashvili 49.6 percent of the vote, Caucasus Press reported on January 23. In both polls, former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili and Conservative Party Chairman Koba Davitashvili ranked second and third respectively. Zourabichvili had 11.5 percent support in January and 23.1 percent in April; Davitashvili polled 5.7 percent in January and 8.6 percent in April. LF

Several thousand people took part in a march in Bishkek on April 8 to protest the influence of criminal groups on politics in Kyrgyzstan, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Edil Baisalov, head of the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society and one of the march's organizers, told participants, "We are for a Kyrgyzstan that is free of gangsters and gangsterism," "Bely parakhod" reported. Other marchers included former parliamentary speaker Omurbek Tekebaev and former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva. Demonstrators had hoped to meet with President Kurmanbek Bakiev, but Bakiev did not come out to address them. "Bely parakhod" quoted a protester as saying, "Why did the president come out on March 31 to [meet with] Ryspek Akmatbaev, but now he ignores the demands of peaceful citizens?" Bakiev recently addressed supporters of Akmatbaev, who is widely reported to have ties to organized crime, when they held a protest in Bishkek (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2006). The march on April 8 ended peacefully. Baisalov said that civil-society groups will continue to hold protests until authorities ensure the rule of law in the country, Kabar reported. DK

Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary by-elections on April 9 in the Kadamjai, Kurshab, and Balykchi districts, reported. The Central Election Commission announced in the late afternoon that turnout was above 30 percent in all three districts. The commission noted that 25 international observers are monitoring the by-elections, in which 22 candidates are vying for three seats. Murders led to two of the by-elections. Bayaman Erkinbaev, who represented Kadamjai district, was killed in September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 22, 2005); Tynychbek Akmatbaev, who represented Balykchi district, was killed in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 21, 2005). Ryspek Akmatbaev, the brother of Tynychbek Akmatbaev, is seeking to fill his slain brother's seat. Erkinbaev's widow, Cholpon Sultanbekova, is running to take her husband's place. DK

Rahmatullo Zoirov, head of Tajikistan's opposition Social Democratic Party, told a news conference in Dushanbe that there are 1,000 political prisoners in Tajikistan, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on April 7. Zoirov divided the political prisoners into three categories. He claimed that 30 were jailed for their political activities, including former Interior Minister Yoqub Salimov and Democratic Party head Muhammadruzi Iskandarov. More than 200 prisoners, Zoirov said, are members of one or another political organization. Zoirov said that 80 percent of the political prisoners are being held for ties to the banned extremist groups Hizb ut-Tahrir or Bayat. Zoirov also said that his party will make its report available to the government if the government claims that there are no political prisoners in Tajikistan. As of January 30, the Justice Ministry put the total number of prison inmates in Tajikistan at 9,000. DK

In a report on April 8, Turkmen television provided details of a recent Turkmen-Chinese agreement to construct a natural-gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China (see End Note below). "In the first phase [of the project], we plan, starting from 2008, to deliver some 30 billion cubic meters [bcm] of Turkmen gas [annually] via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, to Urumci [western China] and beyond it, to Shanghai [eastern China], and to increase these volumes to up to 50 bcm by 2010," the report stated. The station did not provide any information on how the project will be financed. It noted, however, that China National Petroleum Corporation will work on a production-sharing basis to explore and develop oil deposits in Caspian offshore areas. DK

In a statement at the OSCE Permanent Council meeting in Vienna on April 6, the EU stated that it "regrets that Turkmenistan is still lagging behind in the implementation of numerous OSCE commitments," the Austrian presidency of the EU reported on its website ( The statement noted that "the continuing difficult situation concerning the freedom of the media, the lack of plurality, the absence of access to international print media, and to the Internet, as well as state censorship of all media and the difficulty for local journalists to engage with foreigners." It continued, "The European Union would like to reiterate its position that for Turkmenistan to ensure peace, stability and sustainable prosperity, serious reform efforts remain necessary, notably in the field of human rights, fundamental freedoms including the freedom of expression and assembly, the rule of law and democratization." In closing, the EU stated that it "stands ready to further assist Turkmenistan in its reform efforts, including within the OSCE framework." DK

At a news conference in Moscow on April 7, representatives of the rights group Memorial presented a new book detailing arrests and prosecutions for political and religious reasons in Uzbekistan in 2004-05, reported. The book is titled "A List of Persons Arrested and Sentenced for Political and Religious Reasons in Uzbekistan (January 2005-December 2005)." The new publication contains information about 875 people. It complements an earlier list of 4,304 prisoners covering the period from December 1, 1997, to December 31, 2004. Memorial's data indicate that 95 percent of those on the list have been charged by the authorities with Islamist activities. The most recent list includes 166 persons charged with ties with Hizb ut-Tahrir, 142 charged in connection with the unrest in Andijon in May 2005, 45 charged with membership of Akramiya, 45 charged with membership of Jamoati Tabligh, and a large number charged with "wahhabism" (a catch-all term for Islamic extremism used by post-Soviet law-enforcement authorities and not necessarily related to actual Wahhabi doctrine as espoused in Saudi Arabia). DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka took the oath of office in the Palace of the Republic in Minsk on April 8, thus formally beginning his third presidential term, Belarusian and international media reported. In a speech after the swearing-in ceremony, Lukashenka said the March 19 presidential election, in which he officially won 83 percent of the vote, demonstrated "the unity of the authorities and the people" in Belarus. The president blasted his opponents both at home and abroad for what he said was their desire "to humiliate Belarus -- this islet of stability -- and turn it into another testing ground for color revolutions." He stressed that "certain countries" are seeking to export "foreign techniques of destruction, total chaos, poverty, and spiritual degradation" to Belarus. "Unfortunately, this crusade against Belarus is being spearheaded by our neighbors -- newcomers to the European Union," Lukashenka added. After the speech, Lukashenka donned a military uniform to hear an oath of allegiance that Defense Minister Leonid Maltseu read in front of several thousand troops on October Square, where the opposition staged a series of antipresidential protests last month. JM

The EU foreign ministers decided in Luxembourg on April 10 to ban Belarusian President Lukashenka and 30 Belarusian ministers, prosecutors, and regional election officials from entering the EU, Reuters reported. The ministers made this decision to punish those they believe were involved in rigging Belarus's March 19 presidential polls and in the subsequent crackdown on opposition protests. Brussels decided against freezing the assets of the banned officials, but warned that it may do so at a later stage. JM

Mariusz Maszkiewicz, Polish ambassador to Belarus from 1998-2002, who was jailed for 15 days by a court in Minsk for participation in an opposition protest on March 24, was freed on April 7, Belapan reported. On March 29, Maszkewicz was transferred to a hospital in Minsk with a heart problem, and a judge ruled that the time spent by Maszkewicz in hospital would not count as time served by him as part of his sentence. However, when Maszkewicz was discharged from the hospital on April 7, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry notified the Polish Embassy that he had been exempted from serving the rest of his jail term. Maszkewicz returned to Poland the following day. Last week, Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz demanded the immediate release of Maszkewicz from jail (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2006). JM

President Viktor Yushchenko called in his weekly radio address on April 8 on the participants in a possible parliamentary coalition to work out a single program for developing the country, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "The country cannot have two or three development programs," Yushchenko said. "It is necessary for a governing coalition to work out a joint, single program based on the "Ten Steps Toward the People" [Yushchenko's election manifesto] and [this year's] presidential message to the Verkhovna Rada," Yushchenko added. JM

A group of representatives of the Natalya Vitrenko Bloc spent the night of April 9-10 in the offices of the Central Election Commission (TsVK), protesting the way the TsVK is counting the votes in the March 26 parliamentary elections, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported on April 10. Natalya Vitrenko, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, believes that the TsVK miscalculated the percentage of ballots cast for her bloc. The TsVK preliminarily announced on March 30 that the Natalya Vitrenko Bloc failed to overcome the 3 percent threshold needed for parliamentary representation. Vitrenko believes that in determining the relevant percentage the votes cast for her bloc should be divided by the votes cast for all other parties taken together, without taking into account invalid ballots or ballots in which voters chose "against all." Vitrenko claims that if the votes are counted in this way, her bloc will gain representation in the Verkhovna Rada with 3.09 percent of the vote. The TsVK is expected to release final results of the March 26 election in the afternoon of April 10. JM

Goran Petrovic, the retired head of Serbia's state security service, said on April 9 that Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica protected war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic in the past but can no longer do so, AP reported. "Someone who had suggested to the fugitives not to give up, now is in the position to persuade them to surrender," Petrovic told private BK Television, referring to Kostunica's past opposition to the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY). "Mladic had the protection of the army and Kostunica in 2000, and that is why we could not arrest him. It would have led to armed clashes and political turmoil," he said, adding that the international pressure to arrest Mladic is now too strong for Kostunica to resist. "Vojislav Kostunica most certainly has some kind of communication with Ratko Mladic," Petrovic said. "It will be interesting to see what kind of farce the government will organize in the end: whether Mladic will allegedly surrender or will be killed during arrest. Whatever happens, it will be a farce." BW

The Association of Serbian Journalists on April 9 assailed the Belgrade authorities for failing to apprehend those responsible for the 1999 killing of prominent publisher Slavko Curuvija, AP reported the same day. Curuvija, a Milosevic critic and the editor of the daily newspaper "Dnevni Telegraf," was shot by unknown assailants in April 1999 during the NATO bombing campaign. Curuvija was killed only days after a state-run newspaper accused him in an editorial of supporting the NATO air strikes. An investigation later established that as many as 27 state security agents were monitoring Curuvija on the day he was killed. "The unpunished murder of Curuvija at the doorstep of his home in downtown Belgrade, after he was followed by 27 agents, remains a clear message that the apparatus that used to liquidate Milosevic's opponents has not been fully exposed," the association said in a statement. BW

The UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) on April 7 accused Kosova's international administrators of turning a blind eye to widespread corruption at the Prishtina airport, Reuters reported the same day. The two-year OIOS probe, conducted together with EU investigators, discovered that "fraud and mismanagement were rife and there was systematic corruption" at the airport. Soren Jessen-Petersen, head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) since June 2004, rejected the OIOS report's conclusions as "entirely unwarranted" and unsubstantiated. He argued that as UNMIK head he had no mandate to investigate publicly owned enterprises such as the airport. BW

Republika Srpska police chief Dragomir Andan resigned on April 7 under pressure from chief ICTY prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, Reuters reported the same day. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik announced the resignation at a news conference in Banja Luka and confirmed media speculation that Andan quit under pressure. "The main reason [for Andan's resignation] is that Republika Srpska has the obligation to cooperate with the Hague tribunal," Dodik said. Sarajevo's "Dnevni avaz" cited unidentified sources as saying Del Ponte was unhappy with Andan's level of cooperation with the ICTY and requested his dismissal in a letter to Bosnia-Herzegovina's High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling. Dodik said he also received Del Ponte's letter, Reuters reported. When Andan became Republika Srpska's police chief in March 2005, newspapers in Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation accused him of participating in atrocities during the 1992-95 war and of having a close relationship with Mladic. BW

The War Crimes Chamber of Bosnia-Herzegovina's State Court sentenced a Bosnian Serb to 13 years in prison on April 7 for crimes committed during the 1992-95 war, Reuters reported the same day. It was the first verdict handed down by the chamber after a year of operation. "Nedjo Samardzic is found guilty of crimes against humanity committed in 1992 and 1993 during the large-scale and systematic attacks by the Bosnian Serb army and police...he aided and abetted persecution, rape and torture," the judge said. Samardzic, 38, was in prison for murder when he escaped and joined the Bosnian Serb army in 1992. His unit attacked Muslim villages near the eastern town of Foca, where the court ruled that he imprisoned and tortured civilians and repeatedly raped women, including three underage girls. BW

International Monetary Fund (IMF) Executive Director Jeroen Kremers said on April 7 that Russia's ban on Moldovan wines could help Chisinau in the long run, ITAR-TASS reported the next day. Speaking at a press conference in Chisinau, Kremers said that if Moscow does not lift the ban it will mean short-term losses. But in the long run, it could lead to Moldova increasing its revenues from wine since it will be forced to seek newer, potentially more lucrative markets. Russia announced a ban on Moldovan and Georgian wines on March 27, citing safety considerations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). Since then, wine production has nearly stopped, according to Gheorghe Kozub, chairman of the Moldovan Wine Exporters Association. "Eighty-five percent of Moldovan wines are exported to Russia. Our daily losses amount to millions of dollars, and about 500,000 people employed with the leading Moldovan industry and related branches are out of work," he said. BW

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has grown increasingly unhappy with his country's role as a natural-gas reservoir feeding Russia's ambition to reinvent itself as a 21st-century energy superpower. After a number of high-profile moves in recent months to raise the price of Turkmen natural gas for Russia, Ukraine, and Iran, Niyazov has now signed a deal with China to build an export pipeline to the east that would break Russia's virtual monopoly on export routes for Turkmen gas. But some experts have cast doubt on the feasibility of that project.

Niyazov arrived in China on April 2, and the framework agreement on the pipeline was inked the next day. The text of the pipeline agreement as published by the official Turkmen news agency TDH states that China will buy 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas annually for 30 years, starting in 2009. Who will actually build the pipeline and over what time period is to be worked out by December 31, 2006. Nor did official reports divulge any financial details, but the Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on April 3 that Niyazov would try to convince the Chinese side to finance the project.

A Turkmen television report on April 8 suggested the pipeline might be completed earlier than 2009 and provided additional information about the pipeline route. "In the first phase [of the project], we plan, starting from 2008, to deliver some 30 bcm of Turkmen gas [annually] via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, to Urumci [western China] and beyond it, to Shanghai [eastern China], and to increase these volumes to up to 50 bcm by 2010," the station reported.

Outside observers reacted skeptically to the deal, raising doubts about both Turkmenistan's ability to meet additional export commitments and the project's overall feasibility. In an interview with the Turkmen opposition website, Dr. Roland Goetz, an energy expert at Germany's Institute for International and Security Affairs, noted that no one really knows how much gas Turkmenistan possesses. Official statistics put Turkmenistan's total production in 2005 at 63 bcm, with exports amounting to 45 bcm. Estimating Turkmenistan's maximum export potential at 100-120 bcm/year and noting that the pipeline to China would have to traverse 4,000 kilometers, Goetz concluded, "I doubt the economic feasibility of this entire idea." He added, however, that for China, political and military factors might outweigh economic considerations. Goetz also noted that since the new pipeline would give Turkmenistan a measure of independence from Russia, "Ashgabat will do everything possible to bring the project to completion."

Others views of Turkmenistan's production potential are even more pessimistic. In an article in "The Washington Post" on April 6, Nadejda M. Victor, a research fellow at the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University, wrote that "Turkmen gas production is poised to decline and Turkmenistan's gas industry is barely functional because the country's political environment is scary for long-term investors."

True, China is serious about its desire to ensure energy shipments from the West. It recently spent more than $4 billion to acquire an oil company with production assets in Kazakhstan and has reached an agreement with Russia to build a natural-gas pipeline from Siberia. But doubts about the Turkmen project are well-founded, and an alternative Turkmen export pipeline -- across Afghanistan -- remains at the drawing-board stage. But the framework agreement signed in Beijing is still a serious indicator of Turkmenistan's intentions, the outlines of future geopolitical jostling for primacy in the Eurasian energy sphere, and problems on the horizon for Russia.

One obvious message the Turkmen-Chinese framework agreement sends is that Turkmenistan will continue its push for higher prices in its negotiations with current customers (Russia, Ukraine, and Iran). The agreement does not specify a price for the Chinese gas purchases that are to begin in 2009, but it states that the price "will be set on a reasonable and just basis, based on a comparable price on the international market," and paid "exclusively in U.S. dollars." President Niyazov said in February that Turkmenistan intends to raise the export price of its natural gas from $65 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters in the fall. The framework agreement suggests that Russia and Ukraine should take note.

The agreement further suggests that the first serious clash between Russian and Chinese interests in Central Asia will occur in the energy sphere. Russia's Gazprom is set to become increasingly dependent on Central Asian imports to maintain the company's sagging gas balance and can be expected to exert political leverage to defend its interests in that region. If China makes a serious push to gain access to Central Asian gas -- replete with investments in a pipeline that links Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan -- it could set the stage for Central Asian competition between Beijing and the Kremlin.

Finally, the emerging competition for access to energy resources in Central Asia poses a further problem for Gazprom, whose short-term strategy envisages a major increase in purchases of Central Asian gas. Vladimir Milov, from the Institute for Energy Policy, explained in a briefing at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C., on March 16 that Gazprom will have no means of offsetting declining domestic gas production beginning in 2008, and by 2010 will be purchasing 100 bcm of gas annually from Central Asia. Gazprom is counting on Turkmenistan to provide the bulk of that gas, with purchases slated to go to 70-80 bcm a year as early as 2007-08.

Gazprom's future plans assume that Turkmenistan will sell virtually all of its export production to Russia. But the draft agreement between China and Turkmenistan implies that if the new pipeline becomes a reality, Ashgabat could give priority to meeting its commitments to China. The text states that the gas for export to China will come from fields on the right bank of the Amu-Darya River, but it adds, "If additional volumes of gas are required to build the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline, the Turkmen side can guarantee gas shipments from other gas fields."

Both Milov and Victor warn that Russia, a key supplier of gas to Europe, could face a supply crunch in the not-so-distant future. Goetz stresses that Turkmenistan's negotiations with China point in precisely this direction: "For now, Ashgabat is, so to speak, loyal to Moscow, but if President Niyazov suddenly changes his mind, this could have implications for the entire energy situation, including the situation in Europe."

President Hamid Karzai arrived in New Delhi on April 9 for a four-day official visit to India, international news agencies reported. The 110-strong Afghan delegation includes cabinet ministers, members of the Afghan National Assembly, and businessmen, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 9 April. This is Karzai's fourth visit to India since he became Afghan leader in late 2001. Counterterrorism is expected to take center stage in bilateral talks, All India Radio reported on 9 April. The trip was originally slated to last six days, but Karzai's private stop in Shimla was canceled due to what Afghan sources have described as official engagements at home, "Deccan Herald" reported on April 10. In view of recent tensions in Afghan-Pakistani relations and Islamabad's accusations that India is using Afghan territory for anti-Pakistani activities, Karzai's high-profile trip to India is likely to create further distrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 28, 2006). AT

Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi said on April 9 that foreign interference is the major factor in the recent escalation of violence in southern Afghanistan, official Radio Afghanistan reported. Azimi also conceded that internal factors like drug trafficking, corruption, poverty, and unemployment have also played a role in the unrest. Without being specific, Azimi suggested that the sources of support and training for terrorists are clearly known. Afghanistan's doors are open to those who desire peace, but the country will confront those who are fighting against the Afghan people, Azimi cautioned. Afghan officials have in the past accused Pakistani authorities of doing too little to stop subversive activities or of actually supporting such efforts targeting Afghanistan. AT

Lower-house speaker Mohammad Yunos Qanuni has rejected charges that he embezzled $25 million during his tenure as education minister prior to the October 2004 presidential election, Herat-based Radio Sahar reported on April 9. Replying to a question from Malalay Joya, a lawmaker from Farah Province in western Afghanistan, Qanuni said when he resigned from the Education Ministry to run for president, he announced that he or his children would "pay compensation if there was any evidence of embezzlement." Joya has consistently been a voice of dissent in the National Assembly, particularly against former mujahedin leaders such as Qanuni. AT

President Karzai and Bernadette Chirac, wife of French President Jacques Chirac, inaugurated the French Medical Institute for Children in Kabul on April 8, the official Afghanistan National Television reported. Prince Karim Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Islam'ilis, was also present at the ceremony. The $10 million facility was built with assistance from France, and the Aga Khan has pledged to cover the facility's operating costs. Calling the hospital "another very important step forward" for Afghanistan, Karzai said Afghan children previously had to travel to Pakistan or Iran for treatment that they can now receive at the new facility in Afghanistan. AT

Reports in "The Forward" (April 7), "New Yorker" (issue of April 17), and "The Washington Post" (April 9) assert that the United States is making preparations for a possible military attack on Iran in order to eliminate the potential nuclear threat. The White House, however, insists that it is pursuing a diplomatic solution to the problem. "The Washington Post" put the military plans in the context of "a broader strategy of coercive diplomacy," adding that options range from limited air strikes on nuclear facilities to bombs and cruise missiles that also target Intelligence and Security Ministry, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, and other government facilities. The ultimate objective is "regime change," "The New Yorker" adds, and U.S. special-operations forces are in contact with Iranian ethnic minorities that oppose the regime. "The Forward" quotes former intelligence officers such as Graham Fuller of the CIA, who note that this could be disinformation and psychological warfare. BS

Qazvin Province parliamentary representative Rajab Rahmani said on April 8 that Israeli activities against Palestinians violate international law, IRNA reported. Rahmani said the Islamic community is concerned about this issue. Rahmani's comments precede the third "Support for the Palestinian Intifada" conference, which is scheduled to take place in Tehran on April 14-16. Representatives from Hamas, Hizballah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, and other organizations that the U.S. State Department considers terrorist groups participated in the first two such conferences, in 2001 and 2002. Rahmani described Israeli activities against the Palestinians as "genocide," and added that countries that purport to promote democracy and human rights support Israel unconditionally. BS

A leading Hamas figure, Khalil Abu-Layla, said on April 7 that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad should announce his readiness to fund the Palestinians, Al-Alam television reported. "We call on President Ahmadinejad to announce clearly and unambiguously that he is totally ready to cover all the financial needs of the Palestinian Authority and that he will do his utmost to get this aid [to the Palestinians], and if he does so, the situation will change a great deal," Abu-Layla said. Heshmatollah Falahat-Pisheh, a member of the Iranian legislature's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said on April 8 that the Hamas-led Palestinian government does not need Western funding, IRNA reported. Falahat-Pisheh said the Hamas victory in Palestinian legislative elections has resulted in the imposition of sanctions by the United States and EU. He urged the governments of Islamic states to act so Hamas and the Palestinian Authority do not have to depend on foreign aid. Falahat-Pisheh said the upcoming Intifada conference in Tehran (see item above) will provide an opportunity for the Islamic community to put an end to its inaction and support the Palestinians. Falahat-Pisheh also denounced perceived inaction on the part of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. BS

Mohsen Yahyavi, a legislator from Luristan Province, which was hit by several earthquakes in late March, said on April 8 that most of the survivors must spend their time outdoors despite rain and cold because they fear their homes will disintegrate, Mehr News Agency reported. Yahyavi added that relief operations were slow in the first few days and survivors had to buy their own tents at inflated prices. Uncoordinated efforts by government agencies are further delaying relief efforts, he claimed. Hussein Papi, another legislator from the same province, said the tents were not distributed properly and Luristan is not adequately equipped to deal with such emergencies. BS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi told reporters in Tehran on April 9 that no date has been established for purported Iranian-U.S. talks concerning Iraq, adding that there is no hurry to do so, Radio Farda reported. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani announced on March 16 that Tehran will discuss Iraqi affairs with Washington. Assefi emphasized that Tehran has agreed to the talks in order to encourage a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The "Financial Times" on April 7 quoted an anonymous "top Iranian adviser outside the U.S." who said that Supreme National Security Council official Mohammad Nahavandian is in Washington to plead that the talks also cover regional security and the nuclear issue. The Iranian-interests section in Washington, however, said Nahavandian is in the country on private business, and anonymous "White House and State Department officials" claimed ignorance about the alleged visit. It is unlikely that an Iranian official could enter the United States without the State Department's knowledge. BS

A demonstration by the Justice-Seeking Student Movement (Junbish-i Idalatkhah-i Daneshjui) took place outside the Supreme National Security Council building in Tehran on April 8, ISNA reported. The demonstrators called for the cancellation of purported Iranian-U.S. talks (see item above), but the reason for their stand is unclear. Legislator Imad Afruq said on April 8 that holding such talks would legitimize the U.S. occupation of Iraq and confirm accusations of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, Mehr News Agency reported. Hussein Shariatmadari, managing editor of the "Kayhan" newspaper, said his precondition for the talks is a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Iran's participation in the talks, Shariatmadari continued, would fulfill Washington's desire to show that Iran has yielded after 27 years of resistance. BS

Leaders from the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) said the UIA will issue a final decision on its nominee for the premiership on April 10, international media reported on April 9. "Sources" from the UIA told Reuters and other news agencies that the UIA will discuss the positions of the Kurdistan Coalition and the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front on al-Ja'fari's nomination. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, informed the UIA on April 9 that the Kurdistan Coalition will not drop its opposition to al-Ja'fari. The Iraqi Accordance Front announced on April 10 that it too has "reservations" about al-Ja'fari's nomination. "We will ask the Shi'ite alliance to present names for other candidates so that discussions and decisions can be made on the names," the front said in a statement, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. KR

London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on April 8 that through a representative, Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has called on al-Ja'fari to step aside. "We impress upon all political blocs the necessity of finding a solution to the impasse in the political process, even if this requires relinquishing some posts," al-Sistani's representative Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i said during an April 8 Friday prayer sermon in Karbala. A "prominent Shi'ite source" told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that al-Sistani used al-Karbala'i to send a "clear message to al-Ja'fari to pull out and sacrifice his office for the sake of the [Shi'ite] alliance's unity and Iraq's salvation." Meanwhile, Hamid al-Khaffaf, a Beirut-based representative of al-Sistani, told the daily, "The supreme ayatollah does not interfere in matters of detail and has left [the decision of nominee] up to the alliance...on the condition that [the decision] emphasizes unity." KR

Iraqi leaders on April 9 criticized comments made by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak questioning the loyalty of Iraq's Shi'a, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Mubarak told Al-Arabiyah television in an April 8 interview that Iraqi Shi'a -- and all Shi'a for that matter -- are more loyal to Iran than to the Arab states in which they live. He also contended that Iraq is already in a state of civil war. Speaking to an April 9 press briefing in Baghdad, President Talabani called Mubarak's statements regrettable. "Historical facts and reality have always proved that members of the Shi'ite community have always been patriots, Arabists, and genuine Iraqis," he said. Prime Minister al-Ja'fari read a joint statement by the Presidency Council, the prime minister's office, and the speaker of the Council of Representatives to reporters at the same briefing that said Mubarak's statement offended Iraqis of various religious, denominational, ethnic, and political backgrounds. "We expect the Egyptian president to make amends," it added. KR

Salih al-Mutlaq, head of the Sunni-led Iraqi National Dialogue Front criticized Mubarak's characterization of the Shi'a at an April 9 press briefing in Baghdad, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. "I say that the allegiance of Shi'ite Arabs in Iraq is to Iraq and Arabism, and not to any other side," he said. "Those who say that Shi'ite Arabs in Iraq are loyal to Iran are imagining this, because the nationalist movements in Iraq began with the Shi'ite Arabs." Meanwhile, the UIA posted a statement on its website on April 9, saying Mubarak's comments "harmed millions of Shi'a in the world." Referring to the "Arab nation," the statement said the blood of Shi'a "was spilled in more than one Arab and non-Arab territory in defense of the nation's honor, dignity, culture, and Islam. The Shi'a in Iraq are genuinely Arab and belong to well-known Arab tribes; no one can question their national loyalty to their country." The statement called on Mubarak to issue an apology, saying the Egyptian president was trying to "instigate an atmosphere of division." KR