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Newsline - April 16, 2008

Visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura discussed with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on April 14 what he termed the "territorial problem," meaning four islands in the southern Kuriles occupied by the Red Army in the closing days of World War II, which are still claimed by Japan as its Northern Territories and whose status is the main obstacle to concluding a peace treaty between the two countries, news agencies reported. Japan maintains that signing a peace agreement will open the way for massive Japanese investment in Russia's underdeveloped Far East. Komura said on April 14 that "each of the two countries holds its own position, but we agreed to continue discussions," news agencies reported. He noted, however, that "during today's meeting there were no concrete ideas [put forward] as how to resolve this issue." Lavrov said that "we agreed to continue a serious dialogue, serious negotiations, with the goal of finding a final, mutually acceptable solution to the problem. This goal has been set by the leaders of Russia and Japan. [It requires] intensive, patient work that will take into full account both the complexity of the problem and the [views of] public opinion in Japan and in Russia. This will take time, but there is a determination on both sides to achieve a final settlement." Komura also noted that "when Japan makes any decision, we always take into consideration the concerns and interests of neighboring countries. As for our cooperation with the United States on the creation of a missile-defense system, I must say that it is a measure that Japan has been forced to take, considering Japan's position particularly after the North Korean nuclear test [in 2006]. And I must stress that this action is by no means aimed against Russia." The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on April 15 that, prior to meeting with Lavrov, Komura visited St. Petersburg , where Toyota has a car factory and Nissan and Suzuki are building plants of their own. The paper noted that 40 Japanese firms "operate in St. Petersburg, the city Komura praised as 'the engine of our cooperation' and 'a gateway into Russia' for Japan." The daily reported that "Komura's press secretary, Kajuo Kodama, said the bilateral trade turnover between Japan and Russia exceeded $20 billion last year. Three hundred and two Japanese companies operate in Russia." PM

Japan's public broadcaster NHK reported on April 16 that Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has dropped plans to visit Britain, France, and Germany in early May because of duties in the parliament but will arrive in Russia on April 25 for a three-day visit. Fukuda will meet with President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev as part of what NHK called preparations for the meeting of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries that Japan will host in Hokkaido on July 7-9. PM

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko said in Moscow on April 15 that "Ukraine has made its choice" to join NATO, news agencies reported. He added that "this choice is well thought out. This is not only the political will of our leadership, but it is also Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic future, which is set down in [our] legislation." Ohryzko argued that "NATO is our choice of how we safeguard our security.... A Ukraine that is a member of NATO is not and will not be a Ukraine that is against Russia. This is an axiom [of our policy and] the basis for our [bilateral] relations. And I'm sure this should not and will not adversely effect Ukrainian-Russian relations." He also noted that the Ukrainian Constitution bars the establishment of foreign military bases in Ukraine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and 14, 2008, and "Analysis: Russia Prepares For Lengthy Battle Over Ukraine,", April 15, 2008). Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, however, repeated his country's opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine. He argued that "there are all kinds of security guarantees today [for a country] without joining a bloc in a situation where countries that remain outside the bloc and are not planning to join it consider it a threat to their security." He warned against what he called "the logic of NATO's mechanical enlargement eastwards, performed in the spirit of old approaches based on bloc thinking." PM

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a meeting of the 47-member Council of Europe in Strasbourg on April 15 that she hopes the Russian State Duma will agree to reforms of the European Court of Human Rights that will enable it to speed up processing alleged cases of human rights violations and simplify procedures for minor lawsuits, German and international media reported. This is meant to help clear a backlog of around 80,000 cases. Merkel stressed that "the court needs to be properly reformed, because it is what the whole human rights protection system in Europe hinges on." In what the broadcaster Deutschlandfunk said on April 16 was a clear allusion to Russia, Merkel added that "I want to state in no uncertain terms that we must not hold up the reforms to the court, because any country that does so is calling into question our common values." The German weekly "Der Spiegel" once described the Strasbourg court as a "beacon of hope" for Russians, many of whom have little confidence in their own judicial system. More Russian citizens file cases in Strasbourg than do citizens of any other country belonging to the Council of Europe. President Putin has called many of the resulting court rulings politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24 and February 20, 2008). On April 14, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported that Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) urged U.S. officials on his recent two-day visit to the United States to involve Russia in solving "important conflicts" around the world (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2 and 11, 2008, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). PM

Britain's "Financial Times" on April 15 quoted Leonid Fedun, who is vice president of LUKoil, as saying that "Russian oil production has peaked and may never return to current levels," a prediction the paper said may aggravate "concerns that the world's biggest oil producers cannot keep up with rampant Asian demand." Fedun said he believes that Russia's 2007 figure of about 10 million barrels per day is the highest production he will see "in his lifetime." He compared Russia, which is the world's second-largest oil producer, with the North Sea and Mexico, where oil production is falling, "saying that in the oil-rich region of Western Siberia, the mainstay of Russian output, 'the period of intense oil production [growth] is over.'" The daily also quoted Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko as saying recently that "the output level we have today is a plateau, or stagnation." On April 15, "The Wall Street Journal" reported that "the International Energy Agency, which represents industrialized oil-consuming countries...said Russian production [in the first three months of 2008] averaged about 10 million barrels a day, a 1 percent drop from the first quarter of 2007." Many Western experts have long argued that Russia's ability to export oil is hindered by rising domestic demand and a failure to develop new technology and exploit new fields. Such expansion is further hindered by the reluctance of many foreign firms to bring new investments and technology to Russia as a result of what are widely seen as Russian strong-arm tactics in recent years against foreign energy investors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 22, 2006). The BBC reported on April 15 that the Russian government heavily taxes the oil and gas industry and thus prevents it from using recent windfall profits to fund new investments. The broadcaster noted that some Russian energy firms like Gazprom have proven more skilled at taking over soccer teams or media outlets than in finding and developing new sources of oil and gas, especially in remote and inhospitable areas. PM

Commenting on outgoing President Putin's decision to accept Unified Russia's invitation to head the party and word that he was able to do so without actually joining the party thanks to changes in its charter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 2008), Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, said the fact that neither Putin nor President-elect Medvedev will be members of Unified Russia means that it has not become a "party of power" and will remain simply an "instrument of the authorities for resolving tactical tasks," "RBK Daily" reported on April 16. The paper quoted Belkovsky as saying that decisions will continue to be made in the Kremlin, and not the Russian White House, where Putin and his cabinet will have their offices once he takes up his prime-ministerial duties. "Putin has received the comfortable post of party chairman, which is not encumbered with duties," Belkovsky said. Analyst Aleksei Makarkin suggested that Putin's decision to become Unified Russia's leader was essentially a defensive move, telling "RBK Daily" that Putin was seeking to protect himself against possible future problems given that informal agreements in Russia provide only weak guarantees. AFP on April 15 quoted Andrei Ryabov of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations as saying that Putin's position has been bolstered for now, but that Medvedev might not always tolerate the competition. "As a result of fights between interest groups, pressures and conflicts, the system could again become based on one person," Ryabov said. "Who will that be? The chances are equal. You'd have to be an astrologer to say." JB

In a comment posted by on April 15, Russian political analyst Mark Urnov wrote that Putin's accession as Unified Russia's formal leader is a sign that he remains in charge of the country. "The fact that Unified Russia is Putin's party, that it was created and acts as such, has long been known to everyone," Urnov wrote. "It was absolutely not obligatory for Putin to become the formal leader -- the party would still have been guided by him. But when Putin says that he will become the formal leader, he is, first of all, publicly strengthening the fact that he, not the newly elected president, personally controls Unified Russia. Secondly, it is a message to the whole Russian elite (including the regional [elite]), about who is the main person in this country. The person who controls both the executive and legislative really the No. 1 figure. And the position of the president is essentially weakened -- and not only in terms of the mechanisms for making and carrying out decisions, but also in the eyes of the regional and other elites, which is no less important." "RBK Daily" on April 16 quoted analyst Dmitry Oreshkin as saying that Putin won the positions of Unified Russia's leader and prime minister as a result of lobbying efforts by those members of his entourage who wanted him to remain president for a third term. "Putin was allowed to leave the post of president on the condition that he not let go of the levers of power," Oreshkin said. JB

Vyacheslav Volodin, secretary of the presidium of Unified Russia's General Council, said that the ministers Putin's cabinet will be members of the party, "Vedomosti" reported on April 16. According to the paper, Volodin cited international experience as proof that such a step is justified. Out of 22 members of the current cabinet, only three are Unified Russia members -- Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov, Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev, and Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeyev. Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu is a co-chairman of the Unified Russia's Supreme Council but not a party member. Energy Minister Khristenko rejected the idea of joining Unified Russia. "During my whole life, I have never been in any party, and after 50 years I don't plan to change my way of thinking...and therefore do not plan to be in any party; I was and will remain nonparty," he told "Vedomosti." However, RIA Novosti quoted Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin as calling the idea of a party-led government "the correct course," suggesting that this would compel the party in power to take more responsibility for fulfilling its platform. Kudrin said he is not currently planning to join Unified Russia, but did not rule out that he will do so "soon." JB

Investigators circulated on April 15 a photograph of the main suspect in the October 2006 killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, reported. The man is believed to be Rustam Makhmudov, 34, a former resident of Chechnya's Achkhoi-Martan Raion currently hiding abroad, possibly in London (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2008). It is not clear whether there is any connection between Makhmudov and former Achkhoi-Martan Raion administration head Shamil Burayev, who was arrested last fall as a suspect in the killing and whose pretrial detention was extended on April 3 for a further five months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 18, and 24, 2007). LF

Russian and Chechen media on April 15-16 provided diverging accounts of the shoot-out on April 14 in Gudermes between members of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's bodyguard and the Vostok battalion subordinate to the Russian Defense Ministry's 42nd Motorized Rifle Division and its aftermath (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 2008). "Kommersant" on April 16 reported that security forces subordinate to Kadyrov surrounded the Vostok base in Gudermes and that some Vostok members "went over to the government side." The paper also claimed that the catalyst for the shoot-out was a traffic accident on April 13 (not 14) that killed two Vostok members who were returning to Chechnya after the special operation in Daghestan's neighboring Khasavyurt Raion in which militant Ismail Yangizbiyev was killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 14, 2008). "Vremya novostei" on April 16 dismissed the reports of a blockade of Gudermes by government forces as untrue. Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov was quoted by on April 15 as saying that his men are searching for Badrudi Yamadayev, the younger brother of Vostok commander Sulim Yamadayev and reportedly one of the key figures in the April 14 shoot-out. Russian media on April 15 confirmed that two Vostok members were killed, but claimed they died in the traffic accident that preceded the exchange of fire. The Chechen government website reported that Kadyrov personally visited Gudermes on April 15 to inspect various construction projects, but did not mention the previous day's fighting. LF

A local court in Armenia's Aragatsotn province sentenced four men, one a minor, to prison terms ranging from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years on April 15 on charges of hooliganism for allegedly assaulting a Karabakh war veteran who heckled ex-President Levon Ter-Petrossian during a presidential election campaign rally in the town of Talin in late January, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008). The four defendants, all supporters of Ter-Petrossian, pled not guilty. Also on April 15, the Monitoring Commission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution calling on the Armenian authorities to take measures to defuse postelection tensions, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Those measures include instigating an independent inquiry into the violent clashes in Yerevan on March 1-2 between police and security forces and Ter-Petrossian supporters; releasing all persons taken into custody after those clashes who did not commit any criminal offense; amending the law on public rallies; and embarking on a dialogue with the opposition forces that support Ter-Petrossian. Armenia's Prosecutor-General's Office announced on April 15 that 78 people remain in detention for their suspected participation in the Yerevan clashes. Spokeswoman Sona Truzian explicitly denied Ter-Petrossian's claim in a recent interview with the Russian publication "Novye izvestia" that there are some 150 "political prisoners" in Armenia, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian announced on April 15 at his first press conference since his appointment last week that subsidies on supplies of natural gas to both households and enterprises will be abolished beginning May 1, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The subsidies were introduced two years ago to obviate passing on to consumers the full rise in tariffs for natural gas supplied by Russia from $56 to $110 per thousand cubic meters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17 and April 4, 2006). At the same time, Sarkisian said the government will draft an alternative program to help some 130,000 low-income families pay increased gas and electricity bills during the winter of 2008-09. LF

The Georgian government's Interagency Task Force For Free And Fair Elections released a statement on April 15 rejecting written allegations by human rights ombudsman Sozar Subar that Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili refuses to release closed-circuit television footage showing procedural violations during the preterm January 5 presidential ballot in which incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili by a narrow margin won reelection for a second term, Caucasus Press and reported. Subar's office was given video footage from only 12 of the 1,159 polling stations where closed-circuit cameras were installed; footage from eight of them revealed that the officially stated voter turnout was inflated by 5,475. After screening that footage to journalists on April 4, Subar argued that Tarkhnishvili should be replaced. The government task force, however, argued that the violations "concerned only a few ballots," and therefore could not have affected the overall outcome of the election, in which Saakashvili was said to have polled 53.47 percent of the vote. LF

Acting on an April 2 report by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the UN Security Council voted on April 15 to extend by a further six months the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Abkhazia, Georgian media reported. The Security Council resolution explicitly noted the "important stabilizing role" of the Russian peacekeeping forces in the Abkhaz conflict zone whose immediate withdrawal and replacement by an international contingent Georgia is demanding. Addressing the council, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad urged Russia not to proceed with its imputed plans, reported by the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on April 14, to establish semiofficial representative missions in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia without the prior consent of the Georgian government. He also expressed support for President Saakashvili's recent Abkhaz proposal, which would grant Abkhazia no higher status than autonomy within Georgia, and which Abkhazia has rejected out of hand (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," April 3, 2008). Also on April 15, the de facto presidents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity, attended the formal opening of a South Ossetian embassy in Sukhum(i), reported. Government officials from the two unrecognized republics also signed agreements on cooperation between their respective customs services and chambers of trade and commerce; Kokoity stressed that those agreements are not "aggressive" or directed against any third party, meaning Tbilisi, reported. Bagapsh for his part argued that the two republics should move to coordinate their legislation and bring it into accordance with the law of the Russian Federation, reported. Bagapsh also expressed concern at the huge increase in Georgia's defense budget for 2008, which he interpreted as indicating that Georgia is planning a new offensive against Abkhazia or South Ossetia, Interfax reported. Georgian officials have repeatedly ruled out signing a formal pact abjuring the threat or use of force against the two breakaway republics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2008). LF

At a meeting of senior cabinet-level officials in Astana, the Kazakh government decided on April 15 to impose a ban on wheat exports through September 1, in a move that the prime minister's office said is necessary to "ensure food security in the country," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The measure is also seen as a preventive move to protect the domestic market in the face of expectations that international prices for wheat, flour, and other agriculture products will continue to increase. As a result of rising global demand and continuing wheat shortages, increasing prices in global markets have sparked similar record-high price rises for bread and other food products in Central Asia since 2007 (see "Central Asia: Soaring Bread Prices Give Rise to Domestic Solutions,", September 17, 2007). But the ban is a significant regional development, because Kazakhstan has long been the leading wheat exporter in Central Asia, with annual sales of 300,000 tons of wheat to Azerbaijan and more than 200,000 tons each to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. On April 14, Agriculture Minister Akylbek Kurishbaev announced that Kazakhstan has sufficient reserves to expand its wheat exports to 12 million tons annually, ITAR-TASS reported. RG

In a report to a Kazakh cabinet meeting in Astana, Economy and Budget Planning Minister Bakhyt Sultanov reported on April 15 that Kazakh gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 5.3 percent for the first three months of the year, according to Kazinform. Sultanov said that the economic growth fell well within the targeted goal of between 5-7 percent and noted that inflation was slightly less than the same period last year. He also revealed that the first-quarter economic data also showed a 2.8 percent increase in real income, a 19.4 percent rise in the nominal monthly wage, to over 54,500 tenges ($450), and a decrease in unemployment from last year to 6.9 percent, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. RG

In an official statement issued in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission rejected on April 15 a challenge from the opposition Ar-Namys (Dignity) party accusing the authorities of several violations of electoral laws, AKIpress reported. The commission ruled that "the requirements" of publishing the results of the December 2007 parliamentary elections "have been fulfilled," adding that although the final election results were not published in full, it published a general "resolution on the election results" on December 20. The parliamentary elections, which were marred by opposition allegations of serious voting fraud and irregularities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007), resulted in a sweeping win by the ruling Ak-Jol Eldik (Best Path Popular) Party, which gave the party all but 11 of 90 parliamentary seats. RG

In a report to the Kyrgyz parliament's Fuel and Energy Committee, Energy Minister Saparbek Balkibekov said on April 15 that budget constraints preclude the financing of alternative energy projects, AKIpress reported. Balkibekov noted that Kyrgyzstan has one of the highest levels of per capita electricity consumption and stressed the need for energy conversation, leading the chairman of the parliamentary committee, Yury Danilov, to call for the construction of alternative energy facilities, including wind and solar power. Balkibekov responded that although the government "recognizes the importance" of "nontraditional energy," the budget "does not allow" for the financing of such projects. Instead he highlighted that "water is the cheapest renewable energy source." Balkibekov's report precedes a special roundtable organized by the United Nations Development Program and the Kyrgyz parliament planned for April 16 that will examine the use of renewable energy sources in Kyrgyzstan. RG

Tajik police on April 15 arrested some 20 demonstrators in Dushanbe, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and AKIpress reported. The demonstration, in which roughly 40 mainly women and children participated, was organized to protest the imminent demolition of their homes in the Somoni district of Dushanbe, as part of a municipal plan to destroy dozens of old houses in the city in preparation for the construction of modern buildings. The plan affects hundreds of residents, many of whom are being evicted without compensation. A similar demonstration was held on April 14 by another group of residents from the same district whose roughly 30 homes near a large state-owned cement factory are scheduled for demolition. The authorities have said the buildings will be destroyed because they were constructed without official permission. RG

President Emomali Rahmon met on April 14 in Dushanbe with Gernot Erler, the visiting minister of state at Germany's Federal Foreign Office, and discussed plans to expand bilateral cooperation, Asia-Plus reported. In a press conference following the meeting, Erler stressed that German-Tajik relations were bolstered by the broader EU strategy of engagement with Central Asia, and noted the priorities of strengthening the rule of law, educational reform, and cooperation in the water and energy sectors in Tajikistan. He added that Germany "would like to develop the exchange of students and researchers," and has identified border security and counternarcotics as key areas of cooperation. Erler arrived in Dushanbe on April 13 and was accompanied by Heidi Wegener, the chairwoman of the German-Central Asian parliamentary group in the German parliament. RG

Saodat Soibnazarova, a senior expert from a local Tajik think tank, called on April 15 for the introduction of measures aimed at strengthening food security in Tajikistan, according to Asia-Plus. Soibnazarova, the chairwoman of the sectoral development department of the Center for Strategic Studies, identified food security as one of the main problems facing Tajik society, and commended the government for addressing the issue. But she warned that "external factors such as global food product shortages, the rise in international cereal prices, and the fall in world grain stocks" have threatened the "current food-security situation in the country." She also noted that although the government's new food-security program is expected to reduce food shortages by 2010, food imports account for more than 50 percent of all food products in the domestic consumer market. RG

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on April 14 appointed former Finance Minister Hojamyrat Geldimyradov as the eighth deputy prime minister, ITAR-TASS and reported. In the new job, Geldimyradov will be responsible for banking and national currency issues. At the same cabinet meeting, Berdymukhammedov also fired Central Bank Chairman Geldimyrat Abilov for "serious shortcomings" and named Guvanchmyrat Goklenov, who previously served as the chairman of the board of directors of the State Bank for Foreign Economic Activity, to succeed him, Turkmen Television reported. Deputy Prime Minister Gurbannazar Asyrov, in charge of the communications and transport sectors, was also dismissed for unexplained reasons, and replaced temporarily by Deputy Prime Minister Nazarguly Saguliev. Following the personnel changes, Berdymukhammedov ordered his cabinet to develop a "new pricing policy for energy resources," aimed at exploiting the high global prices for energy and rising demand for Turkmen energy. He told the ministers that the creation of "a multioptional system of transporting Turkmen energy resources to world markets" and the fulfillment of "interstate agreements and contracts" in the energy sector are "priority tasks." RG

An Uzbek court on April 15 sentenced Yusuf Juma, a prominent poet and well-known critic of the Uzbek government, to a five-year prison term, AFP reported. According to Uzbek human rights activist Surat Ikramov, Juma's 25-year-old son Bobur was sentenced by the same court to a three-year suspended sentence, after both men were convicted for the "use of violence and insulting language" against police and "resisting arrest." The two were arrested in December after staging a protest against the government of President Islam Karimov in their native city of Bukhara (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2007), and their trial began on April 8. RG

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on April 15 adopted a resolution on abuses of the criminal justice system in Belarus, in which it urged the Belarusian authorities to abolish the Criminal Code article that criminalizes activities on behalf of an unregistered organization, Belapan reported. PACE also called on Minsk to urgently introduce a moratorium on executions and abolish the death penalty. "The Parliamentary Assembly deeply regrets the numerous politically motivated abuses of the criminal justice system that have taken place in recent years and are still taking place in the Republic of Belarus," the resolution said. PACE recommended that the member states of the Council of Europe, "through their diplomatic representations in Minsk, and in collaboration with local and international human rights defenders, continue intervening with the authorities on behalf of political prisoners and their families, and offer them temporary protection." PACE also called on the European Union and the United States to continue imposing targeted sanctions, such as visa bans or the freezing of assets, on Belarusian officials responsible for serious human rights abuses. JM

First Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchynov said on April 15 that the cabinet is not planning to dismiss its members dealing with economic issues, as suggested by Presidential Secretarial head Viktor Baloha, Ukrainian news agencies reported. "We dismiss this new portion of mud being poured from behind the Presidential Secretariat's walls," Turchynov said. "The ministers who have failed to cope with negative trends and who have not come up with prompt market tools to respond to them should leave their offices. The cabinet should open its doors to those who act professionally rather than think about bolstering up their personal ratings or a mayoral office," the presidential press service quoted Baloha as saying earlier the same day. Earlier this month, Turchynov asked for leave to run in the mayoral elections in Kyiv scheduled for May 25. On April 16, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) caucus in the Verkhovna Rada walked out of the session hall in protest against what it claimed was a smear campaign orchestrated by presidential aides and President Viktor Yushchenko against the cabinet of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. "Seeing how the president disgraced the government abroad within the past month, we deem it a sign of disregard not for the BYuT or Yulia Tymoshenko, but for Ukraine," BYuT lawmaker Mykola Tomenko said in parliament on April 16, urging Yushchenko to either dismiss the cabinet or make a public declaration of support for it. JM

Zeljko Komsic, who holds the rotating chair of the three-member Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, said at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague on April 15 that there is broad support for Euro-Atlantic integration in his country but that progress is slow because too many people feel that they will lose political or economic influence in the process. Komsic argued that Bosnia is "limping" on the road to EU integration, but has made substantial progress toward NATO membership thanks to its recent military reforms. He noted that the reformed army has been free of ethnically motivated incidents and generally performs its tasks well. He argued that Bosnia's complicated constitutional structure is the main obstacle to overall progress and said he hopes that voters will, in the future, elect deputies to the parliament who will agree to sweeping constitutional reforms. Komsic said that political changes are possible if the will is there and noted that the current presidency has reached "hundreds" of decisions because its members sought a consensus. He regrets that most members of each of Bosnia's three main ethnic groups still identify themselves as Croats, Serbs, or Muslims rather than as Bosnian citizens, and are not yet ready to face up to the truth about the darker pages of their own group's recent history. Komsic said that the success of the military reform nonetheless is grounds for believing that "miracles are possible in Bosnia." He noted that Bosnia has some special advantages in that there are no great cultural differences between the three ethnic groups and that Bosnia, unlike many of its neighbors, does not have huge social or economic disparities based on regional or ethnic differences. Komsic is an ethnic Croat, native of Sarajevo, and member of the multiethnic Social Democratic Party. During the 1992-95 war, he served in the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina loyal to President Alija Izetbegovic's government and received its highest award for bravery, the Golden Lily. PM

Vladimir Chizhov, who is Russia's ambassador to the EU, said in Brussels on April 15 that the EU should not attempt to deploy its police and justice mission in Kosova (EULEX) to Serbian-populated areas without Belgrade's permission, Reuters reported. Chizhov noted that "we are warning the EU not to proceed with that mistaken course of action. I would like to use this opportunity to send a public warning against any attempt to force EULEX into deployment across Kosovo or to reestablish those elements of the international presence that have had difficulty in northern Kosovo by [their use of] force," which is an apparent reference to recent Serbian riots that the UN and NATO said were organized, presumably by Belgrade. Chizhov added that Russia will act through the UN if the EU seeks to deploy EULEX in Serbian-populated areas. Former French General Yves de Kermabon, who heads EULEX, told journalists recently that EULEX will be present in all parts of Kosova, regardless of the ethnic composition of the population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21 and 29, March 28, and April 1, 2008). PM

Meeting in Chisinau on April 15, Moldovan Prime Minister Zinaida Greciani and visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Merkel discussed the prospects for resolving the Transdniester conflict in the wake of the breakthrough meeting last week between Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 14, 2008). The United States, together with the European Union, will continue to be an observer in talks under the so-called 5+2 format on resolving the conflict. Merkel was quoted as affirming U.S. support for efforts to resolve the conflict; Greciani said the working groups the two leaders agreed to establish to draft confidence-building measures will start work in the immediate future. On April 14, published the complete text of a draft treaty "On Friendship And Cooperation Between Moldova And Transdniester," together with a political-legal definition of future relations between the two entities drafted by Transdniester that would give them equal rights within a common state, but does not contain the terms "federation" or "autonomy." The latter draft stresses that the international community has a greater interest in the emergence of "stable states with clearly defined borders," as opposed to "amorphous state formations in which centrifugal tendencies predominate, such as Serbia and Montenegro." The first article of the draft treaty obliges the two sides to structure bilateral relations on the basis of mutual respect for each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity and noninterference in each other's internal affairs. LF

The European Union says Turkmenistan has made its first-ever serious gas-export offer to Europe. "[The EU was told that] as of 2009, 10 billion cubic meters of gas will be available for transport towards Europe," European Commission spokeswoman Christiane Hohmann told RFE/RL in Brussels on April 15. Hohmann accompanied a high-level EU delegation to Ashgabat last week.

Hohmann said the precise nature of the offer is seen as a "breakthrough" by Brussels. So far, she said, Ashgabat had only offered the EU vague "assurances" of its export capacity, which, EU officials feared, were based on unrealistic estimates. Turkmenistan is already under contract to supply significant volumes of gas to Russia, China, and Iran.

To be sure, the "assurances" are still there, but as a prospective icing on the cake. Hohmann said Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov promised to augment exports to Europe further as currently undeveloped gas fields come on-stream. But perhaps more significantly, Berdymukhammedov stated in clear terms for the first time that he wants to supply gas to Europe directly without transiting it via Russia. Although Hohmann said alternative transit routes were not specifically raised at the talks in Ashgabat, she said the Turkmen side left no doubt it is looking to bypass Russia.

"There are three options on the table," she said, "which [are]: the trans-Caspian pipeline linking Turkmenistan with Azerbaijan; there is another option of going through Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan; or to transport it on ships [in the form of] liquefied gas."

The Turkmen bid is a boost for EU-backed but currently stalled efforts to build the Nabucco gas pipeline, which would link the EU's main southern gas hub in Austria to Azerbaijan. Russia has been trying to undercut the economic viability of Nabucco by announcing separate plans to build a competing pipeline -- known as South Stream -- through the Black Sea to Bulgaria.

The point for Russia is to deny the EU independent access to Central Asian gas. Russia wants to preserve its lucrative transit monopoly, retain its political grip over the Central Asian countries, and it also needs Central Asian gas to be able to honor its own export commitments to the EU, currently running at some 150 billion cubic meters a year. Some observers say a lack of investment by Moscow and rising domestic consumption could lead to export shortfalls as early as 2010.

Meanwhile, Russian imports account for more than one-quarter of the EU's total gas consumption, giving Moscow considerable leverage in its dealings with the bloc.

Nabucco is projected to have a capacity of upwards of 30 billion cubic meters by 2020. Currently, the project can only reckon with Azerbaijan's gas, as Iran remains beyond the political pale for the EU. In November 2007, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev told EU officials his country could double its current export annual volume of 9 billion cubic meters. This would still leave a shortfall of some 10 billion cubic meters, which is more or less exactly what Turkmenistan has now offered.

The problem that remains for the EU is to find investors for both the Nabucco and trans-Caspian pipelines. Brussels says it will not underwrite the investments, insisting the projects must be commercially viable.

Many observers have warned that the EU's aversion to "political" investments leaves its strategic interests vulnerable to meddling by Russia, which continues to control the gas monopoly Gazprom.

(Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.)

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said on April 14 that he would like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes China and Russia, to work together with NATO to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, AFP reported. Following a speech at Beijing's Tsinghua University, Musharraf told students, "In a joint cooperative effort, if the SCO can do something, yes indeed it should come forward and cooperate toward the security of Afghanistan...I'm for it." But "if the SCO can come along, then we would need to ensure that there is no confrontation with NATO." The other members of the SCO -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- would need to be committed to Afghanistan's stability for such a joint effort to work, Musharraf said. Pakistan is an observer in the SCO, along with Mongolia, Iran, and India. AT

The Supreme Court of Afghanistan has confirmed 100 death sentences issued by provincial courts, AKI reported on April 15. Abdel Rashid Rahed, a member of the Supreme Court, told reporters: "These people, who have been accused of crimes such as murder and rape, have been sentenced in the first petition and the second appeal and the punishment has also been confirmed by the Supreme Court." Fifteen death sentences have already been carried out in the last few months. "The court proceedings are carried out behind closed doors, without the presence of defense attorneys, and often without the presentation of any proof on the part of the public prosecutor," said Wadir Safi, a jurist and law professor at the University of Kabul. Rashed rejected such criticism, saying that "all death sentences have been issued on the basis of Islamic law and confirmed by all three petitions provided for under current legislation." AT

According to a report by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), attacks on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and aid workers, primarily by Taliban insurgents and antigovernment forces, have escalated in the first quarter of 2008, IRIN reported on April 15. Sixteen of the 29 direct attacks on NGOs across Afghanistan during the first three months of 2008 were by Taliban insurgents, the report said. The remaining 13 were credited to criminals. Nic Lee, the ANSO director in Kabul, told IRIN that "our data demonstrates a serious escalation in fatalities with nearly as many killed in the first three months of 2008 as were killed in all of 2007." AT

Several television stations in Afghanistan have ignored the government's ban on the broadcasting of Indian soap operas, the BBC reported on April 15. The ban was imposed on April 14, but some private television stations have ignored the ban and continued to show the popular programs. The government says that those who defy the ban will be punished. According to conservative Muslim clerics, the programs are immoral. "These television programs, which contradict the daily life of Afghans and which our people do not accept, must be stopped," President Hamid Karzai has said. But Tolo TV, the most popular station, said the ban is illegal. "It is an unlawful declaration, we broadcast our programs based on media law, and we will never stop airing these Indian serials," Tolo's Massod Qiam said. AT

A deputy commander of Iran's land forces, Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, said in Tehran on April 15 that Iran would wipe Israel "off the face of the Earth" if Israel were to attack Iran, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. The comments appear to echo similar remarks about Iran made recently by an Israeli minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 8, 2008). Ashtiani said Iran is not concerned by Israeli military maneuvers, but would destroy Israel in response to "any move by Israel." He said Iran is fully informed of regional conditions and ready to respond to an attack, and that given the readiness of Iran's armed forces, "no army in the world would think of confronting Iran's army." Separately, Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki met with the Palestinian Authority's envoy in Tehran, Salah Zawawi, on April 15 and reiterated Iran's official support for the Palestinian cause, IRNA reported. Mottaki told Zawawi that Iran is willing to take part in "any initiative" that proves positive for Palestinians, and that Iran has made efforts to unite Palestinian factions. VS

Hasan Kamran, a conservative member of parliament for Isfahan, deplored the recent visit to Qatar by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and said this shows that most regional rulers are Muslims only in name and collaborate with "Zionists," ISNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 2008). Kamran said Livni's visit to address a democracy conference strengthened the "secular and Zionist current in the region." He said that "most Arab monarchs are secular and these people are Muslims on their identity papers, but cooperate with the Zionists." If conditions were "suitable," Kamran added, Arab states would even go to war with the Palestinians. He told ISNA that regional peoples including the Qataris condemn Qatar's invitation to Livni. VS

Iranian judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi told the press in Tehran on April 15 that a former Tehran provincial police chief, Reza Zarei, has been arrested and may be prosecuted for suspected financial malpractice, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. An interrogator at a Tehran court dealing with offenses by state-sector employees, Mohsen Qazi, said on March 18 or 19 that an unnamed police commander has been arrested for misuse of public funds, abusing his position, and unspecified "financial offenses," and Jamshidi's announcement appears to confirm that revelation, Radio Farda reported on April 15. It added that unspecified reports indicate Zarei may also be charged with "moral corruption." Jamshidi said he could not give extensive information on the case while the investigation is going on. VS

Parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel told preachers in Tehran on April 15 that rising consumer prices are "weighing down" on Iranians and there have been "unexpected" increases in rent and real estate prices, IRNA reported. He said the parliament and government are trying to find a solution, and parliament is working to find "scientific and economic mechanisms" to curb inflation. Parliament members and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad have intermittently blamed each other for Iran's persistent inflation. Kazem Delkhosh, a member of the parliamentary economic-affairs committee, separately said on April 15 that changing ministers will not resolve Iran's economic problems, ISNA reported. Ahmadinejad recently announced the firing of his finance and interior ministers, provoking speculation on the reasons for the reshuffle. Delkhosh said Ahmadinejad should clarify the reasons for the dismissals and that departing Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari was experienced. A member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Reza Talai-Nik, said in Tehran the same day that most legislators disapprove of the recent changes, which he said have not been properly explained. He said a sense of precariousness among senior officials is harmful to policy implementation, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. VS

President Ahmadinejad ordered police to provide Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi extra protection, after she recently told police she has received an increasing number of death threats, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 2008). Ahmadinejad also instructed the police to find out who sent her threatening letters. As a lawyer, Ebadi has defended a number of Iranians in rights abuse cases and believes she has provoked the anger of people opposed to her liberal views. She recently told Reuters that she is not afraid of working for a "righteous" cause. She has appointed two lawyers, Abdolfattah Soltani and Laila Alikarami, as her attorneys in this case, Radio Farda reported on April 15. VS

The Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq) announced on April 15 that it has agreed to rejoin the government. Ministers from the front withdrew from the cabinet in August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2007). Several Iraqi media outlets reported that the front has already submitted its nominations to fill vacant ministerial posts. The front held five ministerial posts before the August boycott. According to Al-Sharqiyah television, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a leading figure in the front, presented a list to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki nominating Rafi al-Isawi to the post of deputy prime minister. Al-Isawi was the minister of state for foreign affairs before the boycott. Other posts to be filled by Al-Tawafuq reportedly include the ministers of education, planning, women's' affairs, and minister of state for foreign affairs. However, Al-Tawafuq member Salim al-Juburi later told the news channel that no internal decisions have been made on the nominations, nor has the government finalized its decision on which ministries will be allotted to Al-Tawafuq. KR

The National Dialogue Council, headed by Khalaf al-Ulayyan, announced its decision to withdraw from the Accordance Front on April 15. Al-Ulayyan claimed in several interviews that the reason behind the party's withdrawal is that it does not want to be aligned with a front that is considered sectarian. Al-Ulayyan said that as long as the Iraqi Islamic Party -- which he claimed is accused of being sectarian -- remains in the front, the National Dialogue Council cannot be a part of the front, the "Aswat al-Iraq" website reported. Sources within Al-Tawafuq told Al-Sharqiyah that the rift stems from the Islamic Party's refusal to nominate al-Ulayyan to the post of deputy prime minister. Al-Tawafuq spokesman Salim al-Juburi told "Aswat al-Iraq" on April 15 that al-Ulayyan's party could not adhere to the front's platform. The National Dialogue Council is now expected to join the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, headed by Salih al-Mutlaq, Al-Sharqiyah reported. KR

Three aides to Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani escaped assassination in Al-Basrah and Al-Kut on April 15, international media reported. Two of the clerics were attacked separate incidents in Al-Basrah. In the first incident, gunmen opened fire on a vehicle carrying cleric Ali al-Fudhayli, seriously wounding him and killing his driver. In a second incident in Al-Basrah, cleric Ali al-Khafaji was attacked by four gunmen as he left his mosque following evening prayers. Al-Khafaji, who was seriously wounded in the attack, was kidnapped in February but later rescued by Iraqi police. Finally, gunmen in Al-Kut opened fire on the car of cleric Habib al-Khatib, who was not injured in the attack, but one of his guards was wounded. Several aides to al-Sistani have been targeted in assassinations and kidnappings over the past year (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," August 17, 2007). KR

Judge Abd al-Sattar al-Bayraqdar told the "Aswat al-Iraq" website on April 15 that 33,121 Iraqi detainees have been released from government-run prisons since the government began implementing a general amnesty in late February. Based on figures al-Bayraqdar gave to the same website last week, it appears that 4,879 detainees were released between April 10 and April 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2008). The government had been releasing about 2,500 detainees a week. Al-Bayraqdar said that nearly 37,000 cases have been reviewed thus far by legal committees set up to implement the amnesty. KR

Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, head of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, said in an audio statement posted to the Internet on April 15 that the group has reached an agreement with Sunni Arab tribal leaders and awakening councils to join forces to fight U.S. and Iraqi forces. Al-Baghdadi claimed that "most of the Sunni [Arab] clans are either with the mujahedin or support them, and are completely dissatisfied with protecting the patrols of the Crusader occupiers, their bases, and their presence." He presented an eight-point agreement, which calls for the formation of a committee of independent, loyal clerics to resolve any disputes that arise among tribes, the mujahedin, or others living in Sunni Arab areas. Tribal leaders and clerics will urge Sunni tribes to stop working with U.S. and Iraqi forces and direct their weapons against those forces. In return, the Islamic State of Iraq will declare an amnesty for those members of the police, army, and awakening councils who stop fighting the mujahedin. Tribal leaders will be given the power to control their people and punish those who violate Islamic law. Transgressors will be handed over to the Islamic State of Iraq, which sees itself as the legitimate ruling power in Iraq, for punishment. Based on the statement, al-Baghdadi alternatively maintains that an actual agreement has been forged with Sunni Arab tribal leaders, while proposing several times that "should the tribes accept the proposal," thereby implying he has received little support for his so-called agreement. KR

Sheikh Ahmad Abu Rishah, head of the Al-Anbar Awakening Council, told Al-Jazeera television in an April 15 interview that no such agreement has been made with Islamic State of Iraq. "I wonder who this person is that sat with and reached an agreement [with the group]. We, the tribal chiefs of Al-Anbar and leaders of the awakening councils, have not sat with [al-Baghdadi] or asked for any negotiations with him," Abu Rishah said. He added that the awakening councils' fighters are "determined to fight [the Islamic State of Iraq] until victory." Abu Rishah referred to the so-called Islamic state as a criminal state. Speaking to Al-Arabiyah television, Abu Rishah said, "It does us no honor to sit with the leader of the criminal suicide bombers, who took credit for and prided themselves on more than 1,000 suicide attacks that killed thousands of innocent Muslims, and whose crimes did not spare children, the elderly, students, teachers, or religious scholars." KR