EU WANTS GAZPROM TO HONOR ITS CONTRACTS
The European Commission on April 20 called on Gazprom to honor its gas supply commitments to EU members following comments by top Gazprom officials that were widely seen as a threat to cut off supplies if EU countries create political difficulties for Gazprom, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18 and 20, 2006). Ferran Tarradellas Espuny, who is a spokesman for EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, said Gazprom is free to seek new partners but not at the expense of its existing contracts with EU countries. He added that the recent comments by Gazprom officials give "grounds to our concerns" regarding the EU's increasing dependency on "foreign" energy sources and reinforce the need "to diversify both the origin of our supplies and our supply routes." In response, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov told "The Moscow Times" that it is up to the EU to clarify its goals and determine how much gas it wants to buy from Russia. "The rest we can sell to North America and China," he added. The Moscow-based daily "Kommersant" wrote on April 20 that Gazprom's strategy is to form "asset-swapping" partnerships with unnamed Western energy companies, which will then find it to their advantage to "lobby for Russian interests" with their respective governments. PM
GAZPROM SEEKS TO EXPAND ITS MEDIA EMPIRE
Irena Zenkova, who is a spokeswoman for Gazprom-Media, told reporters in Moscow on April 20 that her company is "holding negotiations with almost all major publishing houses and other media outlets in this country. We are developing vibrantly and can afford it," RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5 and 20, 2006). Referring to recent media reports that Gazprom is seeking to buy the mass-circulation tabloid "Komsomolskaya pravda," she added that talks with the publisher are continuing but "the deal has not come through." Critics have asked rhetorically why a gas company needs media outlets. Gazprom already owns an extensive media empire including the NTV news channel, a controlling stake in the Ekho Moskvy radio station, and the long-established Moscow daily "Izvestia." Mosnews.com noted recently that "Russia's opposition media have been reduced to a handful of small-circulation Moscow dailies and Internet sites, such as gazeta.ru." Some critics have spoken of an increasing "Putinization" of the Russian media, meaning a tendency to put the authorities in a favorable light and focus attention away from controversial domestic political issues and onto foreign affairs, sport, entertainment, or business. PM
RUSSIA DEFENDS IRANIAN NUCLEAR PLANT PROJECT...
Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), said on April 20 in Bishkek that "every country in the world, including Iran, has the right to develop nuclear energy peacefully," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18 and 19, 2006). He added that "the international community has the right to demand unconditional guarantees of compliance with the nonproliferation regime so that nuclear weapons are not built again. The goal is to combine these two principles." Kiriyenko defended Russia's role in construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant, saying that "all [spent nuclear] fuel will be returned to Russia, so this cooperation presents no problems for or threats to the [nuclear] nonproliferation regime. This cooperation is exclusively for peaceful purposes. Since it meets fully all international norms, we are continuing our work in accordance with rules, norms, and signed agreements." In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin wrote on the ministry's website (http://www.mid.ru) that "every country has the right to decide for itself with whom and in what way it cooperates with other states." He added that the Bushehr project complies fully with international rules and norms. PM
...AND SAYS ONLY UN CAN TELL COUNTRIES TO STOP COOPERATION WITH TEHRAN
In response to a recent U.S. appeal to Russia to cease nuclear cooperation with Iran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Kamynin said on April 20 that "only the UN Security Council is authorized to make binding decisions on suspending cooperation with a state in any sphere," RIA Novosti reported. He added that "the Security Council has made no decisions on suspending nuclear cooperation with Iran." Kamynin said on April 21 that Moscow will consider approving sanctions against Tehran only if there is firm proof that its nuclear program is not entirely peaceful, ITAR-TASS reported. PM
RUSSIA SAYS 'GIVE HAMAS A CHANCE'
Anatoly Safonov, who is a special envoy for President Vladimir Putin, told a Moscow news conference on April 20 that the radical Hamas, which won the Palestinian elections in January but is shunned by the West, should have a "chance to become a political force [lest] the Palestinian leaders later blame others" for having denied them an opportunity to do so, mosnews.com reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12 and 19, 2006). He added that "it is also necessary to help [Hamas} with criticism and advice.... By refusing to recognize Hamas, we will only make matters worse." PM
EARTHQUAKES HIT RUSSIAN FAR EAST
An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 hit the remote Kamchatka Peninsula on April 21, damaging some buildings and injuring several people, lenta.ru reported. A second quake shortly afterward measured 6.2. The epicenter was just off the eastern coast of the peninsula. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Geological Survey told Reuters' Moscow bureau that it was the largest seismic event in the area since 1900. PM
OLIGARCH'S NGO STOPS WORK
The Open Russia foundation, which was founded by the embattled head of the once-mighty Yukos oil company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, announced on April 20 that it has ceased its activities because the authorities have frozen its bank accounts and thereby hamstrung its operations, the website mosnews.com reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006). PM
NEW LAW ON CONFISCATIONS RAISES FEARS
The State Duma recently passed 12 amendments to federal legislation that critics fear will permit law-enforcement officials to confiscate convicts' property and enable the Federal Security Service (FSB) to listen in on citizens' telephone calls or search apartments without a warrant, "The Moscow Times" reported on April 21. Independent Deputy Sergei Popov, who opposed the legislation, said that "the line between what's legal and what's not would be so hazy that it could give rise to illegal activities" by officials. For example, the measures could open the way for corruption by tempting some officials to ask for bribes in return for not confiscating property for offenses ranging from terrorism to prostitution. Another critic said that the legislation could lead to a murky trade in confiscated property. PM
VISITING U.S. DIPLOMAT MEETS WITH ARMENIAN OFFICIALS
After arriving in Yerevan, the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, Ambassador Steve Mann, met on April 20 with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo reported. Mann discussed "prospects for continuing negotiations" within the framework of the international mediation effort seeking to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. Mann is due to arrive in Baku on April 21 to meet with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in preparation for his upcoming visit to Washington. Mann's tour of the region follows a similar round of meetings with Armenian and Azerbaijani officials by the Minsk Group's French co-chairman, Bernard Fassier, during a visit last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2006). The diplomatic efforts are aimed at a possible summit meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in July. RG
FORMER ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER DEFENDS OUSTED PRESIDENT
Former Armenian Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzoumanian defended on April 20 the diplomatic strategy of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Speaking in Yerevan, Arzoumanian argued that the current Armenian government is now following the same strategy that was once criticized as "defeatist" and used to force the resignation of Ter-Petrosian. Arzumanian, who served as foreign minister in Ter-Petrosian's government from 1996-98, added that the current Armenian leadership has accepted "the phased variant which was rejected in 1998 as defeatist" as the "basis of the negotiating process." The existing peace plan advocated by the OSCE's Minsk Group mediators reportedly envisages the return of all but one of the Armenian-held districts of Azerbaijani in exchange for a subsequent referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh to determine its final status. RG
ARMENIAN PRO-GOVERNMENT PARTY WARNS OF 'TENSE' ELECTIONS
Parliament Deputy Chairman Vahan Hovannisian warned on April 20 that Armenia's May 2007 parliamentary elections will be "unusually tense," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Hovannisian, who is also a leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, one of three parties constituting the ruling pro-government coalition, contended that some elements of the country's ruling elite will "pay any price" to win the parliament elections in order to position themselves for the 2008 presidential election. The Armenian government is under mounting pressure by the international community to prevent a repeat of previous elections' record of ballot rigging and voting irregularities. RG
AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT MEETS WITH VISITING IRANIAN DEFENSE MINISTER
Ilham Aliyev welcomed a visiting Iranian delegation led by Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar on April 20, the Azertac news agency reported. In a meeting with the Iranian defense minister at the presidential palace, Aliyev discussed the recent expansion of bilateral economic, energy, and political agreements and reviewed plans for defense cooperation between Azerbaijan and Iran, ITAR-TASS reported. In turn, the Iranian defense minister announced that Iran stands "ready to provide" any assistance necessary to "develop Azerbaijan's military," ANS-TV reported. Aliyev is also due to meet with his Iranian counterpart during an upcoming Economic Cooperation Organization summit next month. A new, significant level of military relations between Azerbaijan and Iran was initiated in 2004 with the visit to Baku of then Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamhani, and a reciprocal visit to Tehran by Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiev last year that resulted in the signing of an intergovernmental agreement on defense cooperation. RG
TOTAL COST OF STRATEGIC AZERBAIJANI OIL PIPELINE REVISED UPWARD
Speaking at a Baku press conference on April 19, the head of British Petroleum in Azerbaijan, David Woodward, announced that the overall cost of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline has risen significantly, according to Trend. Woodward explained that new projections on annual operational costs for the pipeline reveal an increase from $641 million spent in 2005 to an estimated $832 million in costs for 2006. Much of the spending increase is attributed to problems associated with the need to fill the new pipeline and unforeseen delays from contractual disputes with several contractors. According to the new projections, the overall cost of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline has increased by some 30 percent over the initial $2.95 billion total cost estimate. RG
OUTGOING U.S. AMBASSADOR REPORTS ON AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT'S UPCOMING VISIT TO WASHINGTON
Reno Harnish said on April 20 that his work in Baku was successful because of the "rapid development" of relations between Azerbaijan and the United States, ANS-TV reported. The U.S. ambassador added that the upcoming visit to Washington by Azerbaijani President Aliyev affirms U.S. recognition of the importance of Azerbaijan but noted that such meetings "are important for Azerbaijan to make progress on democracy and join the World Trade Organization." Harnish also revealed that the U.S. and Azerbaijani presidents will focus on energy projects, security, political reform, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. RG
GEORGIAN DEFENSE MINISTER COMMENTS ON RUSSIAN BAN OF GEORGIAN PRODUCTS
Irakli Okruashvili said on April 20 that recent imposition of a Russian ban on Georgian exports is "the price we pay for freeing ourselves from historical servitude to Russia," Rustavi-2 reported. The defense minister, appointed by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to lead talks with Russia over the issue, added that the Georgian government anticipated such a "Russian campaign against Georgia" but vowed that the country would "not give in to the pressure." He also stressed that the government is actively engaged in a search for new markets for its wine exports but admitted the "reality" of the need to "take further measures to remove counterfeit produce from the domestic market." RG
KAZAKH PRESIDENT OBSERVES MILITARY EXERCISE
Nursultan Nazarbaev observed the final stage of the Ili-2006 military exercises at a firing range in Kazakhstan's Almaty Province on April 20, Interfax-Kazakhstan and "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The three-stage exercise involved over 6,000 troops from a variety of branches of the military. Nazarbaev, who as president is commander in chief of Kazakhstan's armed forces, called the war games the "essence of military service," saying that they demonstrated that the military is making good use of the resources it receives. Nazarbaev also noted, "This century has brought us new challenges in the form of extremism, terrorism, and drug trafficking, which threaten the independence and peace of any state." DK
U.S. EMBASSY ISSUES STATEMENT ON KYRGYZ BASE TALKS
The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan issued a statement on April 20 in response to Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev's demand that the two countries complete talks on a new agreement for the U.S. base in the country by June 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2006), ferghana.ru and akipress.org reported. The embassy stated, "We are ready to complete as soon as possible the talks with the Kyrgyz authorities on the continued use of the coalition air base Manas in Kyrgyzstan." Noting that the base has functioned for more than four years, the embassy concluded, "Continuing cooperation to eliminate terrorism in the region is in the interests of the United States and Kyrgyzstan." U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack also commented on the issue on April 20, telling a briefing in Washington, D.C., "We're prepared to send our negotiators back out there [to Kyrgyzstan] to come to a resolution on it. I think there are some important questions left to resolve, so we certainly are ready to act in good faith on the issue." DK
KYRGYZ LEADERS MEET WITH RUSSIAN ATOM AGENCY HEAD
Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency, met with Kyrgyz President Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov in Bishkek on April 20, akipress.org and Kyrgyz television reported. Kirienko said that hydroelectric power is "the most promising sphere in which Russia and Kyrgyzstan can develop economic cooperation," Kyrgyz television reported. Kirienko also said that Kyrgyzstan's Kara-Balta plant for mining and processing uranium could serve as the basis for a joint Kyrgyz-Russian venture, ITAR-TASS reported. He said, "Kyrgyzstan has an interesting uranium-processing plant. Experts from the two countries are analyzing the possibility of bilateral cooperation." DK
TAJIK PRESIDENT PROMISES FREE PRESIDENTIAL BALLOT...
In an address to parliament on April 20, Imomali Rakhmonov promised a free and democratic presidential election in November, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Rakhmonov did not say whether he will run, although he is widely expected to participate after a 2003 referendum made it possible for him to stay in power until 2020 if he continues to be reelected. DK
...AND CALLS ON OFFICIALS TO DECLARE ASSETS
Rakhmonov lambasted officials for corruption and called on them to declare their assets, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Rakhmonov said, "For example, today we appoint a minister, the next month you cannot be sure whether that person is in the cabinet as a minister or an entrepreneur. They have no shame, no conscience. We must take tough measures to clamp down on corruption." Rakhmonov said that parliament should draft a law providing amnesty to individuals who legally declare property assets, Interfax reported. He said, "This money is now hidden. Taxes are not paid, so we need to declare [an amnesty] one time. No one should be afraid of conviction for owning property. Eventually, that would be a way to stop corruption in the government. Our ministries have turned into family holdings, and no one is ashamed or shows remorse." DK
UN RAPPORTEUR AFFIRMS TORTURE WORRIES ON UZBEKISTAN
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak said in Vienna on April 20 that "systematic torture" remains a problem in Uzbekistan, the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks reported. He said, "There is systematic torture and the general conditions in pretrial facilities are worse than prison. There are even reports of electric shocks [administered in detention]." Nowak's remarks came one day after a spokesman for Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry denied earlier comments by Nowak on the continuing practice of torture in Uzbekistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2006). DK
U.S., UZBEKISTAN COOPERATE ON REMOVAL OF URANIUM TO RUSSIA
Kazakhstan, Russia, the United States, Uzbekistan, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) completed a secret mission on 19 April to transport 63 kilograms of highly-enriched spent uranium from Uzbekistan to Russia, the IAEA announced in a press release the next day. The press release noted that the operation "is the first time that fuel used in a nuclear-research reactor -- referred to as 'spent' -- has been repatriated to Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union." The IAEA said that the material would be sufficient to produce 2.5 nuclear bombs. The classified operation, which consisted of four shipments, took 16 days and followed six years of planning. It also represented an example of U.S.-Uzbek cooperation at a time of strained relations. Jon Purnell, the U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, commented to "The New York Times," "This kind of cooperation is important, and is especially important when times are tough politically." DK
INDEPENDENT POLLSTER QUESTIONS SIZE OF BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT'S ELECTION TRIUMPH
The Vilnius-based Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) found in a poll held from March 27 to April 6 among some 1,500 Belarusians that in the March 19 presidential election incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was backed by 63.6 percent of voters, while opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich by 20.6 percent, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on April 20. The findings contrast with the official results released by Belarus's Central Election Commission, according to which Lukashenka won 83 percent backing, while Milinkevich got just 6.1 percent of the vote. "A social basis for changes [in Belarus] does exist," NISEPI Director Aleh Manayeu told reporters at the British Embassy in Minsk on April 20. "However, the readiness of Belarusian society for changes must not be underestimated, which is done by the authorities, or overestimated, which is a sin of the opposition." NISEPI was forced to move to Lithuania after Belarusian authorities closed down the polling agency in April 2005. NISEPI participated in conducting an independent exit poll during the October 2004 constitutional referendum, which suggested that Lukashenka actually lost the plebiscite and should not run for a third term in 2006. JM
CANADA DENIES REFUELING STOP FOR BELARUSIAN PREMIER
Canada refused to allow Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski's plane to land for refueling en route to Cuba on April 20, Reuters and Belapan reported. Ottawa said the move was caused by its strong concerns about Belarus's commitment to democratization and human rights. "In light of these concerns, we were not prepared to facilitate the entry of senior-level representatives of the Belarusian regime onto Canadian soil," Canadian Foreign Office spokeswoman Pamela Greenwell said. The plane carrying Sidorski and other officials reportedly was to include two persons placed under a EU travel ban for involvement in allegedly rigging last month's presidential election: Belarusian State Television and Radio Company chief Alyaksandr Zimouski and presidential-administration chief ideologist Aleh Pralyaskouski. The plane refueled in Boston instead, after Minsk pledged that Zimouski and Pralyaskouski would not be on board. JM
BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION LEADER IN NORWAY
Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the Belarusian opposition candidate in the March 19 presidential vote, met with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and other Norwegian officials in Oslo on April 20, international news agencies reported. Stoltenberg reportedly expressed strong support for the Belarusian opposition and announced that nonmember Norway is following the EU's recent decision to bar visas for 31 senior officials who are suspected of involvement in allegedly rigging the March 19 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10 and 11, 2006). "I am an optimist. I don't think the dictatorship will hold on for five more years. I think we will win much earlier," AP quoted Milinkevich as saying in Oslo. JM
GAZPROM TO REVIEW GAS PRICE FOR UKRAINE UPWARD IN JULY
Gazprom deputy chief Aleksandr Medvedev said in an interview with the April 17 issue of the Ukrainian weekly "Kontrakty" that Gazprom will increase gas price for Ukraine as of July. Under a deal from January, the price for Russian gas supplies to Ukraine increased from $50 to $95 per 1,000 cubic meters, but the deal guarantees this new price only for the first six months of 2006. "The question of reviewing the price will be raised on July 1, 2006," Medvedev told "Kontrakty," adding that the market price for Ukraine is $230 per 1,000 cubic meters. At the same time he stressed that, in accordance with the January deal, the transit tariff for Russian gas pipelined across Ukraine to Europe will remain unchanged until 2011 at the level of $1.6 per 1,000 cubic meters per 100 kilometers. Medvedev added that gas price concessions could be considered only if Ukraine was willing to create a consortium with Russia for joint control over the Ukrainian gas-pipeline network. JM
KYIV GETS NEW MAYOR
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on April 20 appointed Leonid Chernovetskyy, the winner of the March 26 mayoral election in Kyiv, as chairman of the Kyiv city administration, Ukrainian media reported, quoting the presidential press service. At the same time Yushchenko dismissed former Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko. The presidential decisions put a formal end to a dispute between Omelchenko and Chernovetskyy, in which the former accused the latter of bribing voters during the election campaign and tried to challenge Chernovetskyy's election victory in court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2006). JM
MACEDONIA SETS DATE FOR KEY PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Macedonian parliament speaker Ljupco Jordanovski has announced that parliamentary elections will be held on July 5, dpa and Reuters reported on April 20, citing local media. Skopje has faced pressure from the European Union to avoid the irregularities that have plagued past elections, and the vote is widely considered to be a key test of Macedonia's readiness to join the EU and NATO. Macedonia's parliament approved a series of changes to its electoral law on March 29, including having a member of the opposition head the Central Election Commission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2006). The reforms, designed to improve oversight, have won praise from the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2006). Macedonia is seeking to join NATO in 2008 and the EU in 2012, at the earliest. BW
SERBIA ALLOCATES TELEVISION AND RADIO LICENSES
The Serbian Radio Transmission Agency announced the names of six broadcasters who won the rights to national television frequencies on April 20, FoNet, B92, and AP reported. Fox Televizija, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's Fox Television Network, was the only foreign broadcaster selected. B92 television, Pink TV, Avala, Kosava, and Happy TV were also awarded operating licenses for national frequencies. Kosava and Happy TV, an entertainment and children's channel. respectively, will share one frequency. National radio frequencies were handed out to Radio B92, Radio Index, Radio S, Roadstar, and Radio Focus. BW
ORTHODOX CHURCH DENIES KOSOVAR PREMIER'S REQUEST TO ATTEND EASTER SERVICES
Bishop Artemije, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosova, has refused a request from Prime Minister Agim Ceku to attend an Easter service in the 14th-century Gracanica Monastery, B92 and Reuters reported on April 20. Ceku said he wanted to attend the service as an act of reconciliation and as an effort to reach out to the province's Serbian minority. Artemije said Ceku is not welcome at the April 23 Easter service -- or any other Orthodox service -- until his official residence is rebuilt. Artemije's residence in the western Kosovar town of Prizren was torched by ethnic Albanian mobs in 2004. "We are not in a position to receive Mr. Ceku before we return to our reconstructed residence, and our congregation to their homes," Artemije said in a letter to Ceku. BW
BOSNIA, CROATIA TO ABOLISH INTERSTATE COUNCIL...
Sulejman Tihic, chairman of Bosnia-Herzegovina's tripartite presidency, said after attending the 10th session of the Bosnia-Croatia Interstate Council in Sarajevo on April 20 with Croatian President Stipe Mesic that the council will be disbanded, AP reported the same day. The council was set up after the war as an advisory body to help solve border and property disputes and to negotiate the return of refugees. "Relations have improved to the point of us not requiring such an institution in its present form," Tihic said, adding that bilateral issues between Sarajevo and Zagreb will be solved through normal diplomatic channels. BW
...AS CROATIAN PRESIDENT BACKS BOSNIA ON EU
Speaking during his visit to Sarajevo on April 20, Mesic said that Croatia supports Bosnia's efforts to join the European Union, dpa reported the same day. "We...support Bosnia's progress towards the EU, because all of Southeastern Europe must be integrated into the EU," Mesic told reporters. He also announced that he will host the presidents of Bosnia and Serbia and Montenegro in the southern Croatian town of Dubrovnik in the coming months. The three presidents will discuss regional cooperation and the Euro-Atlantic integration process, Mesic said. Among Balkan EU aspirants, Croatia is widely believed to be the most advanced toward membership. BW
MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT TELLS WINE PRODUCERS TO SEEK MARKETS IN WEST AND CHINA
Joining the chorus of officials suggesting that Russia's ban on Moldovan wines provides an opportunity in disguise, President Vladimir Voronin urged wine makers on April 20 to seek markets in the West and in China, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "The present situation will give an additional impetus to improve the quality of Moldovan wines and to expand their markets," Voronin said. He urged wine producers to market their product "actively to Western countries and China." In a move widely viewed as political in Chisinau, Russia banned the import of Moldovan and Georgian wines on March 27 citing health and safety concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). Voronin's call for Moldovan wine makers to seek new markets follows similar suggestions from Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev and International Monetary Fund Executive Director Jeroen Kremers. BW
PRIMAKOV WARNS OF TROUBLES AHEAD FOR RUSSIA
Yevgeny Primakov, a man with many years of experience at or near the top of the Soviet and Russian governments, warns that demographic trends, the upcoming electoral cycle, and declining Western interest in Moscow point to serious problems ahead for his country.
In an article featured in the current issue of "Biznes zhurnal," Primakov argues that "among the multitude of other negative factors, the most serious danger for Russia arises, if you will, from the emerging demographic situation" of the country, one that is leading to a deficit in labor resources and threatening Moscow's control of the Russian Far East.
If the growing labor shortages because of Russia's demographic collapse are "obvious" to everyone, the current head of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says, the lack of population in Eastern Siberia and the Far East is perhaps more threatening because it has created a "vacuum" that must be filled now.
If Moscow does not adopt a variety of measures, including tax cuts for those who settle there and "tax holidays" for businesses that agree to relocate in those regions and if the Russian government does not see this as an essential part of any future "national idea," Primakov says, then "we can lose Russia" as a result.
In addition, Primakov argues, the Russian government needs to take advantage of its current favorable economic situation to create more favorable conditions for the development of small business. In most countries, he notes, small business accounts for 50 to 70 percent of gross domestic product, but in Russia today, such firms contribute only 15 percent.
"Without the development of small business in Russia," he continues, "there will not be a stable economy, effective mechanisms for the struggle with unemployment, or a middle class that will guarantee social stability."
Toward that end, Russia needs law and order, Primakov says, because without it democracy will be impossible. Indeed, he warns, the upcoming elections may lead to the activization of xenophobic and nationalist groups in ways that will threaten Russia's well-being in ways "that it is not difficult to predict."
Yet another problem facing Russia today, Primakov continues, is the "clear decline" in Western interest in Russia as a player on the international stage. "Of course," he says, "Russia is not the Soviet Union" and cannot play the same role. But now ever more people in the West are looking to Beijing rather than to Moscow.
Russia nonetheless remains "one of the great powers influencing international life," Primakov says, "and it can and is doing what it is able to to prevent the development of a tendency that threatens all of humanity, the attempts to divide the world on a religious-civilizational principle. More precisely into two parts -- non-Muslim and Muslim."
As he has in the past, Primakov notes that "millions of Muslims live in Russia. And these are not immigrants as in many Western countries but an organic part of the indigenous population. Indeed, no other state, the native population of which consists of a Christian majority and a Muslim minority, can serve as a model for their peaceful coexistence, the mutual interpenetration of cultures, and the creation of a unique community."
This gives Russia a unique opportunity to serve as "a 'bridge' between Europe and Asia," especially since given the instability in the Middle East, its role "as one of the basic energy centers of the world" will allow it to recover many of the positions it has lost and perhaps allow it to gain new ones as well.
(Paul Goble is the former publisher of "RFE/RL Newsline" and a longtime Soviet nationalities expert with the U.S. government. He is currently a research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia.)
AFGHAN NATIONAL ASSEMBLY APPROVES 20, REJECTS FIVE MINISTERIAL NOMINEES
The People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) voted on President Hamid Karzai's proposed 25-member cabinet on April 20, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. The lower house of Afghanistan's National Assembly, with 244 of 249 members present, approved 20 of the 25 cabinet nominees. The five ministers-designate not receiving a vote of confidence were: Gol Husayn Ahmadi (Transport and Aviation); Mohammad Amin Farhang (Economy and Labor); Soraya Rahim-Sobhrang (Women's Affairs); Sayyed Makhdum Rahin (Information, Culture, and Tourism -- renamed as Culture and Youth Ministry) and Mohammad Haidar Reza (Commerce and Industry). The reasons for the rejection of five nominees were not given during the voting session. A parliament member from Kandahar, Khaled Pashtun, speculated that Karzai would be "happy" with the results of the vote, Reuters reported on April 20. "I don't think he [Karzai] was expecting the whole cabinet to be approved. He was expecting about 70 percent" to be approved, Pashtun added. AT
FIVE APPOINTEES ASKED TO CLARIFY EDUCATIONAL RECORDS
The People's Council asked five cabinet ministers who received votes of confidence to produce documents regarding their educations, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported on April 20. Anwar al-Haq Ahadi (Finance), Rangin Dadfar Spanta (Foreign Affairs), Mohammad Anif Atmar (Education), Zarar Ahmad Moqbel (Interior), and Ahsan Zia (Rural Development) were asked to provide the requested information within 14 days otherwise they would not be able to assume their positions in the cabinet. AT
AFGHAN ARMY TO CONDUCT JOINT EXERCISE WITH U.S., PAKISTANI MILITARIES
A unit of the Afghan National Army (ANA) is expected to participate in a military exercise with military units of Pakistan and the United States, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on April 20. The exercise, dubbed Inspired Gambit-06, is scheduled to take place in May and would involve counterinsurgency maneuvers. This is the first time that the nascent ANA has been invited to join in military exercise involving Pakistani forces. AT
AFGHAN INTELLIGENCE OFFICER IMPLICATED IN JAPANESE TEACHERS' DEATHS
The Kyodo World Service reported on April 20 that stolen U.S. military information suggests a high-ranking but unidentified Afghan intelligence officer is the likely culprit in the killings of two Japanese teachers in Afghanistan in 2005. The victims disappeared in August after leaving their hotel in the Pakistani town of Quetta; their bodies were found in September in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province, not far from the Pakistani frontier. At the time, Afghan officials maintained that the two were killed in Pakistan and their bodies brought to Afghan territory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29 and September 6, 2005). Information obtained from a flash memory drive apparently stolen from the U.S. military base in Bagram suggests that the U.S. Department of Defense in a reported implicated an Afghan intelligence officer who knew the victims from a trip to Japan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2006), according to Kyodo World Service. The victims reportedly met with the intelligence officer in Spin Boldak, in Kandahar Province, then were taken to his village. The U.S. report speculates that robbery was the motive, as the two were "carrying a large amount of money." AT
IRANIAN SUBS TO BE EQUIPPED WITH RUSSIAN CRUISE MISSILES
A delegation of Russian shipyard officials is visiting Bandar Abbas, on the Persian Gulf, to discuss the overhaul of diesel submarines, Interfax reported on August 20. Iran purchased three Kilo-class submarines from Russia in the 1990s. The Russians are from the Severodvinsk-based Zvezdochka shipyard, and the repair and modernization mentioned by their representative entails equipping the subs with Club-S missiles that have a 200-kilometer range. The Club-S is a naval cruise missile that comes in antiship and land attack versions, and it reportedly is resistant to electronic countermeasures. BS
MORE MILITARY EXERCISES IN IRAN
Basij units staged military exercises in the Isfahan Province localities of Khomeinishahr and Nain on April 19, provincial television reported. The report said the aim of the exercises -- named Sepahian-i Muhammad (Muhammad's Guards) -- is to defend the "values and sovereignty of the auspicious system of the Islamic Republic of Iran." Early April exercises in the Persian Gulf elicited international concern. BS
YOUNG IRANIANS READY FOR MARTYRDOM
Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said during an April 20 visit to Fars Province: "Iranian youth welcome the culture of martyrdom to defend the achievements of the Islamic Revolution," IRNA reported. Mohammad Ali Samadi, spokesman for the Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement, said in an interview that appeared in the April 20 issue of "Il Giornale" that 55,000 Iranians have volunteered to be suicide bombers in Palestine or Iraq. He added that 1,000 of the volunteers have completed their training. Samadi said the Iranian martyrdom volunteers are active in this way, "but unlike Hamas or Islamic Jihad, we are not committed to a declared conflict." BS
SYRIAN FOREIGN MINISTER DESCRIBES RELATIONSHIP WITH IRAN
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim said his country has a "special relationship" with Iran, rather than an "alliance," in an April 19 interview on Al-Jazeera television. Asked how extensively Damascus would back Iran if the latter is attacked, he said, "We stand in solidarity with Iran as Iran stood in solidarity with Syria during its hard times." He stressed the need to avoid war and to "prevent confrontation." BS
IRAQI SHI'ITE BLOC GOES BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD...
Iraq's Shi'ite leaders will reportedly meet on April 21 to discuss a new nominee for the post of prime minister, international media reported. Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim al-Ja'fari discussed his decision to give up his nomination in a television address to the Iraqi people broadcast on Al-Iraqiyah state television on April 20. Saying he did not want to be an obstacle to the formation of the next government, he added: "I cannot accept to have my name associated with hindering the movement of a great goal, which represents the essence of the suffering of a people, aspirations of a nation, and the guidance of an authority." KR
...AS POLITICAL LEADERS PROMISE GOVERNMENT IN TWO DAYS
President Jalal Talabani told reporters at an April 20 press briefing in Baghdad that he expects political blocs to announce key cabinet posts at the April 22 parliament session, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Referring to the ongoing talks, Talabani said: "We are agreed on the basic issues....On [April 22] we will present to you a package. We will elect the speaker of the Council [of Representatives], the president of the republic, and the prime minister." Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance member Husayn al-Shahristani told reporters at the same briefing, "We should agree on all these posts and then go to the parliament and announce the names without hesitation." He added that deliberations are still going on inside more than one political bloc over some posts. Meanwhile, Sunni leader Adnan al-Dulaymi told reporters at the briefing that he is not a candidate for the post of parliament speaker. KR
JORDAN POSTPONES IRAQI ISLAMIC SUMMIT
Jordan will comply with a request by Iraqi President Talabani and postpone the convening of the Iraqi Islamic Reconciliation Summit, slated to begin on April 22, until after the government is formed, Jordan news agency Petra reported on April 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2006). Summit spokesman Abd al-Salam Abbadi made the announcement, and confirmed that Talabani's request was made to King Abdullah II by phone. More than 200 religious and tribal leaders were invited to take part in the summit, which was co-sponsored by the Ahl Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought and the Arab League. Abbadi did not say when the summit will now convene; Talabani told reporters on April 20 that it may be in one month's time. KR
TERRORIST IN TURKISH CUSTODY SAYS HE PARTICIPATED IN KIDNAPPING OF BRITISH HOSTAGE IN IRAQ
A senior Al-Qaeda terrorist in Turkish custody has claimed that he belonged to a group that kidnapped and killed British hostage Kenneth Bigley in Iraq in 2004, international media reported on April 20. Louay Sakka was identified by the British daily "The Guardian" as a Syrian associate of Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. He was arrested after a explosion in a bomb factory he had set up inside an apartment in Antalya, where he said he was reportedly planning an attack against an Israeli cruise ship. Sakka's lawyer, Osman Karahan, told "The Guardian" that Sakka was one of Bigley's interrogators. "He [Sakka] says they put Bigley on trial, found him guilty, and executed him," Karahan said, adding that his client knows where Bigley's remains are. He added that Sakka claims Bigley was killed for an offense, without specifying what that offense was. The daily reported that British authorities are hoping to interview Sakka in prison. KR