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Newsline - April 5, 2007

Viktor Chernomyrdin, who is Russia's ambassador to Ukraine and a former Russian prime minister, said in Kyiv on April 4 that "if questions arrive from Ukraine, we shall offer assistance," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3 and 4, 2007). He added that "we have not been hired as aides, but if requests for assistance arrive, assistance will be provided." He did not specify what kind of help Russia might offer or at whose request. He made the remarks to journalists after Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's meeting with foreign ambassadors. Chernomyrdin also stressed that the Ukrainians must settle their differences through negotiations. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has also offered "assistance." On April 5, the Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote that "current events in Ukraine are painfully reminiscent of the October 1993 tragedy in Russia. There's the same kind of confrontation between the parliament and the president. The opponents are just as unwilling to listen to each other's arguments." The daily also noted that some supporters of Yanukovych, who have been bussed into Kyiv from Donetsk, blame the United States for the current troubles. One young man told the Moscow daily: "Do you really think this was [President Viktor] Yushchenko's own idea? The Americans were involved. [Yuliya] Tymoshenko [of the Tymoshenko Bloc] had her reasons for visiting Washington. Besides, why would the president keep meeting with [U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine] William Taylor?" PM

Eric Edelman, who is U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, said on April 4 that the United States will go ahead with plans for its missile-defense shield in Central Europe even if Russia continues to reject U.S. explanations of the project, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2007). He added, however, that the United States wants to cooperate with Russia and that he is still "very hopeful" the two will reach an understanding on the project, which Washington maintains is directed against potential missile threats from Iran and other "rogue states." But he said if talks fail, the United States will not allow Russia to "dictate what we do bilaterally with other countries." Moscow claims that the project is offensive and directed against it. On April 4, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for a missile-defense conference including representatives of Russia, the CIS, and the EU but apparently not the United States or NATO (see Armenia below). Some German media have suggested in recent weeks that Russia is ignoring the facts regarding the proposed U.S. defense shield, which Washington has presented repeatedly, and seeks to foster an emotional, anti-American discussion in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe with the aim of splitting the EU and NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and March 22, 28, 29, and 30, 2007). Britain's "Financial Times" wrote on April 4 that "the 10 interceptors planned for Poland would have no effect on Russia's thousands of nuclear warheads. What Moscow really seems to find offensive is seeing the U.S. increase its presence in former members of the Warsaw Pact." PM

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told journalists on April 4 in Moscow that "we are very supportive of Russia joining" the World Trade Organization (WTO), news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 16, and 20, 2006). He added that "we are also very aware of President [Vladimir] Putin's and Russian Economic Development and Trade Minister [German] Gref's desire to join the WTO by year's end.... We want to help in any way we can." PM

The Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on April 4 that some members of the U.S. Congress are suspicious of possible Russian plans to set up a OPEC-style gas cartel, which President Putin has described as an "interesting" project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007). The paper added that some U.S. legislators fear that such a bloc could become "a global extortion racket." Members of the Gas Exporting Countries' Forum will meet in Doha, Qatar, on April 9. On April 4, the daily "Gazeta" quoted several Russian experts as saying that there are arguments both for and against forming such a cartel. Advocates say the body would promote global energy stability and security. Opponents argue that it would be impractical because gas projects and trading do not have the day-to-day flexibility that oil dealings do, and that the national interests of potential members of such a cartel would be difficult to reconcile. PM

Referring to Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov's recent appeal to his countrymen to boycott Estonia and its products, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said in a statement on April 4 that Ivanov is simply trying to score domestic political points at Estonia's expense, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2007). The minister linked Ivanov's remarks to Russian State Duma elections later in 2007 and a presidential election in 2008. Paet said that "it is regrettable the election campaign causes inconveniences to citizens and influences their consumption habits. I assume that every Russian citizen knows what is good for him and his family and will not discard better options because of political appeals." Estonia's trade with Russia amounts to 7.3 percent of Estonia's total. PM

Up to 100,000 Chinese merchants may soon leave the Russian Far East for home as a result of the coming into effect on April 1 of a ban on citizens of countries other than the Russian Federation taking part in the market and retail trade, reported from Vladivostok on April 5, citing interviews with local Chinese (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2007). PM

Ramzan Kadyrov was inaugurated as president of the Chechen Republic in his hometown of Gudermes on April 5, Interfax reported. He took the oath on a constitution printed in Russian and Chechen. He received his insignia of office from Dmitry Kozak, who is presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District. Kadyrov earlier told the news agency that he plans to appoint a new government but will not "make a reshuffle just for reshuffling's sake." Since his father, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, was killed by a bomb, Ramzan Kadyrov has risen rapidly up the career ladder. He has been a first deputy prime minister, an adviser to Kozak, and then prime minister. After his 30th birthday in October 2006, he was allowed under the constitution to run for president. His appointment followed the resignation of his predecessor, Alu Alkhanov, in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2007). PM

In a statement issued by the presidential press service in Yerevan, it was announced that Armenian President Robert Kocharian issued a decree on April 4 appointing Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian as the new prime minister, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. According to the presidential decree, by assuming the premiership, Sarkisian is thereby removed from his positions as both acting defense minister and head of the National Security Council, leaving the post of defense minister at least temporarily vacant. Sarkisian was nominated on April 2 as prime minister by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), which he now heads (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2007). The 53-year old Sarkisian was Armenia's fourth defense minister, having served from 1993-95 before being reappointed in 2000, and has headed the National Security Council since 1999. The appointment was widely expected and Sarkisian will assume his new duties upon his return from a NATO meeting in Brussels. Sarkisian replaces the late Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, who died unexpectedly of heart failure on March 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). RG

Following a meeting in Yerevan with Armenian President Kocharian, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated on April 4 Moscow's concerns over U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile-defense shield, warning that it would threaten both Europe and Russia, Interfax and reported. Instead of the U.S. plan, which he defined as a "one-sided decision," Lavrov proposed a "process of joint assessment of the missile and nuclear threats" facing Europe and Russia, adding that Russia hopes to resume a dialogue on missile defense with NATO. He also explained that such an "understanding achieved by the Russian and U.S. presidents" will contribute to strategic stability and security. The remarks were made in a speech to students at Yerevan State University on the second day of a state visit to Armenia. RG

In comments during the presentation of his office's annual report, Armenian human rights ombudsman Armen Harutiunian complained on April 4 of the inadequate independence of the judiciary, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The 223-page ombudsman's report noted that a significant proportion of citizens' complaints submitted to the office in 2006 centered on allegations of mistreatment and incompetence by local courts. Harutiunian added that "the number of complaints filed against courts shows that there is a lot of distrust in the judicial system, which is supposed to be the main institution of human rights protection," and he recommended that the local courts "become as independent as possible." He also criticized the courts for their rejection of nearly all lawsuits filed concerning the controversial municipal government's appropriation and confiscations of land and private homes to allow construction projects in areas of the capital, Yerevan. RG

The parliament of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh announced on April 4 that the region will hold a presidential election on July 19, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. With incumbent President Arkady Gukasian legally prevented from seeking a third consecutive term, Nagorno-Karabakh security official Bako Sahakian is seen as the leading presidential candidate. RG

Following a meeting in Baku, a new tripartite agreement on regional transport was formally signed on April 4 by the Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Kazakh prime ministers, Turan and Interfax reported. The agreement calls for the establishment of a special trilateral working group aimed at forging new links between the three states involving the transport of energy from Kazakhstan via pipelines transiting Azerbaijan and Georgia. Noting that Kazakhstan values Azerbaijan and Georgia as "priority partners," Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov added that the agreement enhances regional cooperation and provides an impetus for greater coordination of measures to combat "global threats, including terrorism, separatism, and extremism," Interfax reported. But Kazakh Energy and Natural Resources Minister Baktykozha Izmukhambetov also noted that with Russia as his country's "main strategic partner," there is a need to "respect its opinion in making decisions related to the trans-Caspian gas-pipeline issue, ITAR-TASS reported. RG

Speaking to a group of new military officers, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili articulated on April 4 a new "multivector security" strategy, Caucasus Press reported. He explained that the new strategy goes beyond Georgia's "top priority" of joining NATO, and pursues a broader set of security relations with Turkey and its neighbors in the region. Saakashvili added that according to the "multivector" approach, eventual security ties with Russia will also be pursued, adding that "I am sure a time will come when we will manage to establish good military cooperation with the Russian Federation." The announcement was made during the ceremonial opening of a new housing complex for army officers in the Tbilisi suburbs, part of a plan to provide free housing and other benefits for military officers aimed at attracting greater numbers of qualified professionals to the armed forces. RG

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev issued a decree on April 4 appointing Azamat Oynarov as a new deputy defense minister for economy and finance, Interfax reported. The 37-year-old Oynarov previously served as deputy finance minister and deputy chairman of the State Agency on Regulating Natural Monopolies and Protecting Competition. He replaces Kozy-Korpesh Dzhanburchin, who was appointed in February to the position of deputy secretary of the National Security Council. RG

Speaking at his first press conference, recently appointed Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev warned on April 4 that early presidential elections may "provoke a split in the country," according to AKIpress and the website. Atambaev sought to avert a confrontation between the president and the opposition with a promise to appoint an opposition figure to the post of first deputy prime minister, and by urging the opposition to recognize that "a peaceful handover of power will never happen," because "the president is not going to quit under pressure from the opposition." He also declared that he is "ready to quit as prime minister as soon as tomorrow" if it helps to resolve mounting tension marked by demands for an early presidential election and constitutional reform from the For Reforms and the United Front For A Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan opposition movements (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2007). Atambaev, a longtime opposition politician, was confirmed as prime minister on March 30 after being appointed the previous day by Bakiev in a bid to ease a standoff with opposition lawmakers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2007). RG

President Emomali Rahmon announced on April 4 that Britain should return a collection of ancient gold and silver, known as the Oxus treasure, to Tajikistan, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Rahmon (formerly referred to as Imomali Rakhmonov, see End Note) issued instructions to his diplomatic representatives to actively seek the return of the objects, which are currently held at the British Museum. First discovered near Tajikistan's Amudarya River in 1877, the Oxus treasure includes a collection of roughly 170 pieces dating from the 4th and 5th centuries BC -- comprising vessels, armlets, seals, finger rings, and coins. The most impressive pieces in the collection include the image of Alexander the Great as Hercules, a sheath bearing the image of a lion holding a fallow deer, and chest facings of ivory and decorated with carved drawings, and the biggest collection of arrow tips in Central Asia (more than 5,000), Asia-Plus reported. RG

Opposition activist Vyachaslau Siuchyk was found guilty of "petty hooliganism" by a district court in Minsk on April 4, but the judge imposed no penalties on him, saying his offense was insignificant, Belapan reported. The police officers who detained Siuchyk on March 13 initially said they did so because he resembled a suspect in a criminal case, but later changed their minds and accused him of urinating in a public place (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). "These police officers are to be pitied. They were told to lie and policemen accustomed to lying during the present regime will become a big problem for society when the regime falls," Siuchyk said after the verdict. Earlier the same day, the same court found Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka guilty of using obscene language in a public place but also released him, saying the offense was insignificant. The two verdicts may signal a change of tack for Belarusian judges, who last month punished dozens of opposition activists with short jail terms on charges of obscene public behavior. JM

The Constitutional Court will need 15 days to make a decision on whether to open a case concerning President Viktor Yushchenko's April 2 decree on the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2007), Ukrainian media reported, citing the Constitutional Court press service. More than 50 ruling-coalition lawmakers on April 3 sent a formal request to the Constitutional Court, asking it for a verdict within five days on whether the presidential decree is in line with the constitution. On April 4, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and Verkhovna Rada speaker Oleksandr Moroz announced that Constitutional Court head Ivan Dombrovskyy tendered his resignation, allegedly because of pressure exerted on him by the presidential administration. The Presidential Secretariat promptly denied this allegation. Later the same day, First Deputy Cabinet Minister Olena Lukash said the Constitutional Court's judges refused to accept Dombrovskyy's resignation, while Our Ukraine lawmaker Mykola Onishchuk said Dombrovskyy was on sick leave. There have so far been no public comments from Dombrovskyy himself on his status or whereabouts. JM

President Yushchenko said at a session of the National Security and Defense Council in Kyiv on April 5 that the Cabinet of Ministers will face criminal responsibility if it fails to obey his decree on the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada, UNIAN reported. Yushchenko requested of Prime Minister Yanukovych, who attended the session along with Verkhovna Rada speaker Moroz, that the government allocate funds for a campaign for the early parliamentary elections on May 27, as stipulated by his decree. Yushchenko also appealed to all political forces in Ukraine to restrain from sending supporters to the streets during the current crisis. Meanwhile, police reported that some 6,000 supporters of Yanukovych and the ruling coalition arrived in Kyiv from the provinces in the morning of April 5. Anti-Yushchenko demonstrators have reportedly pitched more than 500 tents in downtown Kyiv, where are staying overnight. According to police reports, an April 4 rally on Kyiv's Independence Square in support of the ruling coalition attracted some 10,000 people. Also on April 4, the Verkhovna Rada, which has been continuing its session despite Yushchenko's decree to disband it, adopted a resolution slamming Yushchenko for the creation of "legal chaos" in the country. JM

The 15 ambassadors of the UN Security Council are likely to visit Kosova and Serbia this month, international media reported on April 4. "I would expect that in the month of April there would be a Security Council mission to Belgrade and Pristina," Britain's UN ambassador, Emyr Jones Parry, who chairs the council this month, told reporters. He said that he is consulting with other representatives on the council before suggesting who should lead the mission and when it should take place. On April 3, the council began deliberations on a blueprint for supervised independence for Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2007) drafted by special envoy Martti Ahtisaari. Russia, which rejects any solution imposed on Serbia, has advocated delaying a decision on a final status for Kosova and suggested a trip to the region. Last week, Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin, proposed a mission to Kosova and Serbia for the Security Council to get "all the information it can possibly get on the situation there," a clear sign that he does not consider the Ahtisaari plan to be helpful in reaching a decision in the council, which is divided on the matter. A Western diplomat told the "Financial Times" that the visit could help persuade unconvinced council members that Kosova is a unique case rather than a precedent. In other news, a massive explosion damaged the town hall of the southern Serbian municipality of Presevo, local media reported on April 4. The blast caused heavy damage, according to initial reports, but no casualties were reported. Presevo is one of three majority-Albanian municipalities in Serbia proper, on the border with Kosova. The final status talks on Kosova have raised tensions in the area, which has seen several incidents in recent weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2007). TV

Local and international officials in Kosova told the Prishtina daily "Koha ditore" that Romania is not cooperating in a probe into the killing of two demonstrators by Romanian police, the daily reported on April 2. During demonstrations on February 10, local and international riot police killed two and injured dozens of demonstrators with rubber bullets (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 13, 14, and 15, 2007). Eleven of the Romanian policemen involved were subsequently repatriated by the Romanian government before they could be questioned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). "We have not received anything from the Romanian authorities," Myriam Dessables, a spokeswoman for the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) told the daily. The Kosovar Interior Ministry has requested cooperation from the Romanian liaison office in Prishtina but not received any answer, according to an Interior Ministry adviser who spoke to "Koha ditore." Sources in the Interior Ministry say that the use of rubber bullets was unauthorized. TV

The city council of Novi Sad, the capital of Serbia's northern Vojvodina province, decided to name two streets after commanders of the Serbian offensive in neighboring Croatia, local media reported on April 4. Novi Sad is governed by the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which succeeded with its proposal to name a street after Veljko Milanovic, a paramilitary commander, for his "contribution to the liberation of western Slavonia [in Croatia], Modrica and Derventa [in Bosnia-Herzegovina]," Croatia's Hina news agency reported. The late commander of the Yugoslav Army's Novi Sad corps, General Mladen Bratic, will be honored in a similar manner. Bratic commanded a tank unit in the successful attack on the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar, which was leveled in the fall of 1991. An opposition leader in Novi Sad told B92, "Munich doesn't have a boulevard named after Adolf Hitler, therefore Novi Sad has no reason to have streets remind people of times and events that represent the town's, Vojvodina's, Serbia's, and the region's darkest hour." The decision needs to be approved by Serbia's ministry of local government before taking effect. TV

Islamic radicals known generically as "Wahhabis" are in control of two mosques in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, officials of the established Islamic Community (IVZ) told the daily "Dnevnik" of March 30. "We do not have the slightest idea about what is going on" in the two mosques, a member of the IVZ's top body told the daily. He also said that the IVZ, whose members are mostly ethnic Albanians, has repeatedly asked the police to restore the mosques to IVZ control and remove the radicals from the mosque, without success. The head of the IVZ, Grand Mufti Sulejman Rexhepi, said that "the Wahhabis' efforts to impose themselves in this region are obvious, but our believers will not accept them." He was speaking after returning from Novi Pazar, the capital of the mainly Muslim Sandzak region of Serbia and Montenegro, where he attended the establishment of the Serbian Islamic Community last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2007). TV

Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajcak is the only candidate to succeed Christian Schwarz-Schilling of Germany as high representative of the international community in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Banja Luka daily "Nezavisne novine" reported on April 4. Lajcak is a career diplomat who was based in Belgrade between 2001 and 2005 as Slovakia's envoy to Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia. He subsequently served as personal representative of EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana in the process that led to Montenegro's separation from Serbia in 2006. Unidentified diplomatic sources told "Nezavisne novine" that his candidacy could still be derailed if Slovakia, which currently holds one of the rotating seats on the UN Security Council, comes out more openly against the Ahtisaari plan for Kosova. Slovakia is one of a handful of EU member states that have expressed reservations regarding the UN's plan. Sweden, Spain, Austria, the United Kingdom, and Germany have all had high representatives; it was widely assumed that Schwarz-Schilling's successor, who will have a mandate of just one year before his office is phased out in June 2008, would be Italian or French. TV

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Daniel Fried began a two-day visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina on April 4, local and international media reported the same day. On the first day of his official visit, Fried addressed both houses of Bosnia's parliament, stressing the United States' commitment to regional stability and Bosnia's integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, Bosnian public radio reported. Fried told the lawmakers that Bosnia has taken a step back in the past year and that politicians have replaced talk of a common future with nationalist rhetoric. Fried called on them to agree on police reform, a precondition for closer ties with the European Union, and said that the Bosnian Constitution "should be improved." "It is up to you to find a compromise," he told parliamentarians, "and it is probably our responsibility to help you with expertise and whichever other means we can." TV

Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik told a press conference on April 4 that stalled talks on police reform are "dead," Bosnian public radio reported the same day. "Insisting on [former international High Representative Paddy] Ashdown's model, which we have been using so far, is just a waste of time," he told reporters. Dodik said that the Republika Srpska is ready to continue talks on police reform, the last remaining obstacle to a preaccession agreement with the European Union, but on a different model. The proposed police reform, which has been holding up talks with the EU for the past year, aims to remove police from the political control of Bosnia's two autonomous regions. Dodik also announced that he will present new proposals for constitutional amendments; a first package failed to garner the required majority in Bosnia's parliament in April 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27 and 28, 2006). He said his proposals will foresee a federal Bosnia-Herzegovina consisting of several units, one of which would be the Republika Srpska, which he described as a precondition for Bosnian Serb participation in any kind of constitutional talks. A judgment in February that genocide was committed in Srebrenica has prompted calls by Bosnian Muslim politicians for the abolition of the Republika Srpska. TV

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague sentenced former Bosnian Serb policeman Dragan Zelenovic to 15 years in prison, international media reported on April 4. Zelenovic, 46, has pleaded guilty to the rape and torture during the 1992-95 war of Bosnian Muslims in his hometown of Foca in eastern Bosnia, which was a notorious location of "rape camps." He was sentenced for nine rapes he personally committed; four of these were gang rapes, including one involving a 15-year-old girl. "The victims at the detention centers in Foca suffered the unspeakable pain, indignity, and humiliation of being repeatedly violated, without knowing whether they would survive the ordeal," Judge Alphons Orie said at the sentencing. Zelenovic initially pleaded not guilty to 14 counts of rape but in January made a plea bargain in exchange for several of the charges being dropped (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2007). He was arrested in Russia in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2005). His indictment was the first to charge rape and sexual enslavement as a crime against humanity. Three other Bosnian Serbs indicted at the same time as Zelenovic have been sentenced to between 12 and 28 years. TV

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently announced a decision to abandon the Slavic-style "-ov" suffix that has been part of his name for all his life. The announcement, along with Rahmon's call for all Tajiks to follow suit, prompted accusations in the Russian media of aggressive "nationalism."

Russian newspapers responded with irreverent humor to Rahmon's choice to de-Russify his surname. One paper characterized it as a presidential "circumcision." Another played on the Russian surname Kozlov -- strictly translated as "son of a goat" -- asking whether the name should be simplified to "goat."

Aleksei Malashenko, an expert on philosophy and Islam from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, predicts that Tajikistan will do more to break with its Soviet past and pursue stronger ties with neighboring Iran and Afghanistan, which essentially share a common language with Tajikistan. "If this 'traditionalization' continues in Tajikistan, I don't think it will be the best alternative for the country," he says. "Tajikistan should think about modernization of society rather than returning it to ancient values, as some have been trying to do. Instead, they have to try to make [Tajik] society more open, more adapted to progressive societies. As we all know, Tajikistan -- no offense [intended] -- is not the most advanced country in the world."

Malashenko says that Tajikistan's next move might well be to change its official alphabet, introducing Arabic script instead of Cyrillic. The alphabet issue has long been the subject of heated debate among Tajik scholars and politicians. Malashenko regards this as part of a trend of "traditionalization" among former Soviet republics.

But the retreat from Slavic-sounding surnames does not appear to be gaining significant momentum in the rest of Central Asia. The name change was popular after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when many writers, journalists, and others among the so-called intelligentsia opted for the move. All the Central Asian countries permit the name change. But in reality, many people find the procedure time-consuming and thus discouraging.

In Uzbekistan, sociologist Bakhtiyar Isabekov tells RFE/RL that he tried to remove the Russian suffix from his surname. But he abandoned the effort in the face of exhausting legal obstacles. "If you want to drop the '-ov' suffix from your surname and in its place add other [Uzbek] suffixes -- like '-zoda' -- you would have to provide a lot of documents," Isabekov says. "It's a very complicated procedure."

In Kazakhstan, not many people bother to revert to pre-Soviet surnames. But many register their newborn babies with traditional surnames because it requires no additional paperwork or fees.

Twenty-year-old Kazakh student Isatay Korganbaev says he could not care less about his surname. "It doesn't matter if you have '-ov' or '-ev,'" he says. "You can have your surname in any form, it makes no difference. I don't care too much about it. What's the big deal here? Well, I would probably change it in future if I have to, but now.... Who cares? The president is himself Nursultan Nazarbaev."

At the same time, some ethnic Kazakhs resettling from China or Turkey have added Russian suffixes to their names -- apparently trying to blend with the locals.

In Turkmenistan, some writers and journalists use more traditional surnames as pen names, while keeping their Russian-style names unchanged in their passports.

In Kyrgyzstan, some men who swapped Russian for Kyrgyz suffixes -- like "-uuly," "-qyzy," or "-tegin" -- in the 1990s are restoring the Soviet-era endings.

Since seasonal work in Russia is a key source of income for hundreds of thousands of Central Asians, many have found it easier to register their documents in Russia with Russian surnames. Even in Tajikistan, not everyone is looking forward to "sounding more Tajik," as President Rahmon describes it.

Shokirjon Hakimov, a Tajik lawyer and politician, says such a move presents many hurdles. He says it could also overwhelm Tajikistan's creaky bureaucracy. "Many of those officials who work within the passport and registration system have yet to learn how to deal with the issue," Hakimov says. "Apart from that, the government will use it as a reason to make some money for its budget."

Rahmon has also urged parents not to include the Russian suffix when they register their newborn babies. But the legal and financial hurdles may well discourage many Tajiks from returning to pre-Soviet surnames.

Moreover, in a country where more than half the population lives below the poverty line, "exploring cultural roots" might come well down most ordinary Tajiks' list of priorities.

(Farangis Najibullah is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague. RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)

Afghanistan was admitted as the eighth member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) at a summit in New Delhi on April 3, making it the most populous regional grouping in the world, the "Hindustan Times" reported on April 4. A declaration was adopted by the other seven members -- India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives -- that welcomed the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan into the "SAARC fraternity." Afghan President Hamid Karzai was then greeted individually by the other leaders, with Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz embracing him; Karzai leveled a scathing attack on Pakistan's alleged failure to combat international terrorism just before departing for New Delhi. SAARC, home to more than 1.7 billion people, was founded in 1985 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to boost regional ties with the goal of economic integration, although India and Pakistan's rivalry often overshadows events at the annual summits. RR

President Karzai warned at the SAARC meeting in New Delhi on April 3 that Afghanistan's isolation must never be repeated, "Pak Tribune" reported. In his brief speech, Karzai recounted the past five years of his government and pointed to progress. "Our country has moved a long way," Karzai said, referring to development of infrastructure, sending millions of students back to school, and the involvement of women in many walks of life. He also cited the reconstruction of the national highway system that links Central Asia to South Asia. Saying that challenges must be overcome to realize the advantages of greater economic cooperation, Karzai mentioned access to other SAARC members' airlines and airports, trade, and transit facilities. "Cooperation of member countries in meeting energy needs to be strengthened," he said. RR

Kabul might seek to replicate microcredit programs pioneered by Bangladesh's Grameen Bank to help alleviate poverty in war-shattered Afghanistan, Afghan officials said on April 4, according to AFP. President Karzai reportedly sought details of that lending project during a meeting with Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief of Bangladesh's caretaker government, during the SAARC summit in New Delhi on April 3. Karzai "was very impressed with our Grameen Bank and he showed interest in its possible replication," according to Bangladeshi government spokesman Syed Fahim Munaim. A Karzai aide said Grameen Bank's model "could be an answer" in helping relieve conditions of desperate poverty in Afghanistan, home to an estimated 30 million people. Launched in 1976, Grameen Bank lends to the poor to help them buy their own tools and other equipment required to launch small businesses. RR

A purported spokesman for the Taliban announced on April 4 that its fighters captured two French humanitarian workers who were reported missing along with three Afghans nearly two days ago, AFP reported. The Terre d'Enfance (A World for Our Children) organization lost contact with the group on April 3 while they were traveling in southern Afghanistan, the French Foreign Ministry said. "We have seized two foreigners and three Afghans -- two of them interpreters, one of them a driver -- on the road between Nimroz and Farah," Taliban spokesman Yusof Ahmadi said. "They are in our custody now and our leadership will decide their fate." He said the foreigners include a French man and a French woman. The Afghan Interior Ministry told AFP earlier that the missing French nationals and Afghans were traveling from the southwestern province of Nimroz north to Farah. RR

Iranian media reported that the 15 British servicemen held by Iranian authorities for 13 days boarded a plan bound for London on April 5 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). Their departure came one day after a televised press conference at which President Mahmud Ahmadinejad commended the Iranian military personnel responsible for their detention -- which Tehran has insisted took place in Iranian waters -- and announced a pardon. Ahmadinejad accused Britain of an "act of aggression" against his country. "Here, as a representative of the great Iranian nation, I want to thank -- with a medal of third-degree bravery -- the courageous commander of those brave border guards who defended our borders and arrested the intruders," Ahmadinejad said as he honored the Iranian servicemen, according to RFE/RL. He left the surprise pardon for the end of his prepared remarks: "I announce that the Iranian nation and the government of the Islamic republic -- while insisting on our power and right to try these military personnel -- have pardoned these 15 people, and we offer their freedom to the British people." British Prime Minister Tony Blair reportedly expressed relief over their release. IRNA news agency reported that the 15 detainees departed with "presents from the Iranian president and the Islamic Revolution's Guards Corps" that AP said included handicrafts, books, pistachios, Persian sweets, and a vase; Iranian state television reportedly broadcast images of the 15 smiling and carrying the gifts during their release. AH

As President Ahmadinejad informed the international press on April 4 that 15 British service personnel detained for their alleged illegal entry into Iranian waters were being released, France's Foreign Ministry called on Iran to allow a French researcher to leave the country by returning him his confiscated passport, Radio Farda and AFP reported on April 4. Ministry spokesman Denis Simonneau asked Iran to "quickly find a solution" to allow Stephane Dudoignon to regain his passport and leave Iran. He was briefly detained on January 30 after taking photographs of a religious ceremony in the town of Chah-Bahar on Iran's southeastern coast, AFP reported, but his personal effects and passports were kept when he was released. Dudoignon is a sociologist of religions working at the National Science Research Center (CNRS) in Paris, AP reported. He is currently in an "effective" state of house arrest and staying in the Tehran home of the family of his Iranian wife, AFP reported, citing "Le Monde." VS

Canada's parliament will debate a bill on investigating the possible role of Tehran's chief prosecutor, Said Mortazavi, in the 2003 death in detention of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist, Radio Farda reported, citing Canada's "National Post." Kazemi was arrested on June 23, 2003, while photographing a protest outside Evin prison in Tehran and died in detention -- apparently as a result of violence -- although inquiries and a trial failed to yield any convictions. Mortazavi might have been involved in her interrogation (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," June 26 and October 30, 2006, and "Newsline," April 3, 2004). Radio Farda reported that if the motion in the Canadian Parliament is approved next week and sufficient evidence gathered on Mortazavi's role, Canada's Justice Department can issue a bill of indictment and ask for his extradition. If he refuses to leave Iran, it may ask for help from Interpol, it added. VS

While the U.S. government has reportedly asked Iran to provide information on a U.S. citizen who may be missing in Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3 and 4, 2007), Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei said in Tehran on April 4 that he knows nothing about the subject and "saw the report on websites," ISNA reported. Mohseni-Ejei said the Foreign Ministry might be pursuing the matter, but his ministry is uninvolved. He also told a news conference that reports of the presence of Al-Qaeda terrorists in Iran are incorrect, adding that his ministry is cooperating to gain the release of five Iranians arrested in the Iraqi city of Irbil by U.S.-led coalition forces in January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 2007) but that the U.S. government "has effectively done nothing in this regard." He said the Irbil situation "has nothing to do" with the release of 15 British servicemen, and Iran released the Britons "on the basis of Islamic mercy. It was a present to the British people, and there was no swap." Separately, Kuwait's parliament voted on April 3 to approve a security agreement with Iran, the daily "L'Orient-Le Jour" reported the next day. The two countries are to cooperate on fighting drug trafficking and terrorism and extraditing criminals in line with an initial agreement signed in 2000 between their interior ministers, reported. VS

Iran has released on bail nine teachers arrested during protests in March over better pay for teachers, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 5, quoting the secretary-general of the Iran Teachers Organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7 and 9, 2007), identified as "Hashemi." Hashemi said on April 4 that most teachers arrested during the March protests were released before the Persian new year's holiday period that began around March 20, and nine were released at an unspecified time in the holidays. He said six of them were members of the Iran Teachers Guild Society, and three of the Iran Teachers Organization, two teachers' unions. Members of the former union, he said, were released on bail set at 30 million tumans (a little over $30,000) each, while members of the Iran Teachers Organization had to post bail of 50 million tumans each. Hashemi said this was because they went public with parts of a controversial questionnaire that Education Ministry officials set for teachers as part of in-work training (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2007). Hashemi said they published the questionnaire to show Iranians the mentality of certain ministry officials, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. Politicians have denounced the questionnaire as sacrilegious. VS

Two women's rights activists, arrested in Tehran on April 2 while gathering signatures against laws purportedly discriminating against women in Iran, have been taken to Tehran's Evin prison, ILNA reported, citing their lawyer, Nasrin Sotudeh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2007). Sotudeh said Nahid Keshavarz and Mahbubeh Hosseinzadeh are being kept in an ordinary part of the prison; the prison has a notorious wing where political detainees or dissidents are sometimes kept. Three others arrested with the two have been released, ILNA reported. They were Sara Imanian (or Aminian), Homayun Nami, and Saideh Amin, according to, although Radio Farda named Soussan Tahmasebi among the detainees; it was not immediately clear if there was confusion over names or the number of detainees. reported on April 3 that the activists were arrested in a Tehran park while gathering signatures for the One Million Signatures Campaign and later taken to Tehran's Revolutionary Court. Keshavarz and Hosseinzadeh were sent to Evin after they refused to sign a written pledge to end their activities, reported, citing websites associated with the campaign, including VS

An Iraqi militant group has called on Germany to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan within 10 days or a German woman and her son will be killed, international media reported on April 4. A video allegedly made by the Arrows of Righteousness and posted on the Internet shows Hannelore Marianne Krause and her son Sinan pleading for their lives. In the video, she calls on Germans to press their government to heed the group's demands to help free her and her son. "I urge the German people to help me in my difficult situation," Krause said. "Germany was safe before it got involved in this satanic coalition with America against what they call terrorism." Later in the video, a voice, allegedly one of her captor's, is heard explaining that Krause and her son were abducted partly because she worked for the Austrian Embassy in Baghdad. "Austria is a government hostile to Islam and Muslims and it also has troops that kill our children in Afghanistan," the voice said. The German government condemned the video and said it is working to secure the hostages' release, but stressed that it will not be blackmailed. SS

The Iraqi Oil Ministry announced on April 3 that it has issued an invitation for 15 foreign firms to drill 100 oil wells in southern Iraq, the "Gulf Times" reported on April 4. Ministry spokesman Asim Jihad announced that the state-run South Oil Company issued the invitations and so far has included Syrian, Iranian, and Chinese firms. "We want to drill 50 wells in Maysan [Governorate] and 50 in Al-Basrah. It will take from one year to three years," Jihad said. "These new wells will give us between 50,000 to 60,000 bpd [barrels per day]." On February 26, the Iraqi cabinet endorsed a draft oil and gas law for the management of oil resources and the equitable distribution of oil revenues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2007). The draft law, which is awaiting parliamentary ratification, would allow regional oil companies or governments to draw up contracts with foreign companies to develop new oil fields. SS

Radi al-Radhi, the head of Iraq's Public Integrity Commission, said on April 4 that the government has lost approximately $8 billion in the last three years through mismanagement or corruption, AP reported the same day. Al-Radhi blamed some of the problems on the Iraqi Constitution, saying that Article 136b stipulates that cabinet ministers have the power to block his investigations. So far, he said, ministers have blocked probes into the theft or misspending of an estimated additional $55 million in public funds. He also said that he and another investigator received death threats after they opened an investigation into 180 Oil Ministry employees suspected of corruption. "I and [investigator] Haydar Ashur, our representative in southern Iraq, have received threats by telephone accusing us of being former regime," al-Radhi said. "If you don't stop the investigation, you will be killed," he quoted the caller as saying. SS

Muslim Scholars Association Secretary-General Sheikh Harith al-Dari on April 3, criticized the Baghdad security plan, saying it unfairly targets Iraqi civilians, KUNA reported on April 4. Speaking at the Egyptian Journalists' Association in Cairo, al-Dari said the security operation is displacing Iraqis and creating a state of siege, all under the pretext of fighting terrorism. He claimed that the aim of the security plan is to kill and torture Iraqis who are opposed to the presence of foreign forces in Iraq. He went on to praise the resistance, stressing that it is "carrying out its role courageously in confronting the occupation forces." Al-Dari also described the current security crisis in Iraq as "discord between all sects," and said it will not develop into a full-scale civil war. SS

Armed gunmen wearing police uniforms abducted 22 shepherds near the southern city of Karbala on April 4, international media reported the same day. Karbala police spokesman Rahman Mushawi said authorities suspects that the kidnappers were Sunni insurgents who seized the shepherds and drove them toward the neighboring Al-Anbar Governorate, a center of Sunni insurgent activity. "This was an organized terrorist act that has no link to the police of Karbala. We have warned them [the shepherds] not to cooperate with police who do not have badges," Mushawi said. Meanwhile, in the northern city of Kirkuk on April 4, armed gunmen ambushed a minibus carrying a group of workers traveling to a nearby power plant, killing six of them, international media reported the same day. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said armed groups are now focusing their operations outside of Baghdad, because of the ongoing security operation in the Iraqi capital. SS

A group of more than 20 Muslim clerics from around the world meeting in Bogor, Indonesia, on April 4 called for the United States to fully withdraw from Iraq, international media reported the same day. "The conference urged the withdrawal of foreign coalition forces led by the U.S. in a timely, orderly, and peaceful manner," the meeting's closing statement said. Hasim Muzadi, the leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Islamic organization, admitted that stabilizing Iraq will be a difficult endeavor. "This international conference is only at a mapping stage in which there was a collective will," Muzadi said. "The second step is how we consult significant parties that have roles in reducing tension." Muzadi also called for soldiers from Islamic countries to be sent to Iraq to help avoid a power vacuum after the withdrawal of coalition forces. SS