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Newsline - April 21, 2008

President Vladimir Putin on April 18 denied rumors first reported in the newspaper "Moskovsky korrespondent" that he has divorced his wife and intends to marry Alina Kabayeva, a former the Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast who is now a State Duma deputy. Asked about the report during a news conference in Sardinia with incoming Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on April 18, Putin said there was not "a single world of truth" in it, AP reported. "In other publications of the same type, the names of other successful, beautiful young women from Russia are mentioned," he said. "I think it won't be unexpected if I say that I like them all -- just as I like all Russian women." Russian women are "the most talented and beautiful" in the world, Putin said, adding: "If anyone can compete, it may be only Italian women." He also said: "I have always had a negative opinion of those who, with their snotty noses and their erotic fantasies, meddle in other people's lives." According to AP, the "Moskovsky korrespondent" article, which the tabloid published on April 11, reported that Putin divorced his wife two months earlier and planned to marry Kabayeva in St. Petersburg. The article cited the close friend of the head of a company bidding to hold the wedding. "Moskovsky korrespondent" Editor in Chief Grigory Nekhoroshev defended publishing the story: "I am 100 percent convinced that people should know this information about [their] leaders," RFE/RL's Russian Service on April 18 quoted him as saying. "They should be aware even of rumors so that a public discussion can take place." JB

Interfax on April 18 quoted Artyom Artyomov, general director of the National Media Company, which publishes "Moskovsky korrespondent," as saying he has decided to stop financing and publishing the newspaper both because of its "large costs" and "differences with the editorial staff over its concept." Artyomov said there will soon be "a new concept for the newspaper and a business plan for its development." He also reported that "Moskovsky korrespondent" Editor in Chief Nekhoroshev has resigned but denied "any hidden political motive for the suspension of the publication of the newspaper," saying it was "purely" a business decision. However, RIA Novosti on April 18 quoted a "reliable source" as calling claims that "Moskovsky korrespondent" was experiencing financial problems "grossly exaggerated." The Other Russia opposition group's website,, reported on April 20 that Federal Security Service (FSB) agents have visited the offices of "Moskovsky korrespondent" several times since the Putin-Kabayeva story was published and that the paper's "billionaire owner" -- former State Duma Deputy Aleksandr Lebedev -- "was warned to beef up his personal security." However, "Kommersant" on April 21 quoted Lebedev as calling the claim that he was ordered to close the newspaper "complete nonsense," saying it happened for "exclusively economic" reasons. "Kommersant" also quoted deputy presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov as saying that the Kremlin had nothing to do with closing "Moskovsky korrespondent." He described the Putin-Kabayeva article a "gutter [press] canard" and said "a self-respecting publication" would have telephoned the presidential press service for comment before publishing such a piece. Nevertheless, analyst Aleksei Makarkin said he believes Lebedev in fact suspended publication of "Moskovsky korrespondent" because of the Putin-Kabayeva article. "The owner has commercial interests in Russia, and in this situation any identification with this article would be too big a political risk for him," "Gazeta" on April 21 quoted Makarkin as saying. "For him, the newspaper was not a strategic project and following that publication it became too big an irritant to the authorities." JB

Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, who heads the A Just Russia party, said he is against the idea of choosing a cabinet on the basis of political party membership, Interfax reported on April 20. "I am against a party government in principle: I believe that we have a presidential republic, [that] all decisions are taken by the president, and the government should consist of professionals," Mironov told the news agency. He also said that his party does not plan to enter into a coalition with Unified Russia for forming a new cabinet. "We are prepared to cooperate with Unified Russia members and there are examples of that -- we together supported the candidacy of Dmitry Medvedev for president of the country," Mironov said. "But ideologically, we are a socialist party, and in this connection we are in opposition." Outgoing President Putin was elected leader of Unified Russia on April 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2008). On April 20, Mironov took part in a conference of airborne forces' veterans belonging to the Union of Russian Paratroopers. Mironov is the chairman of that union's supervisory board, Interfax reported. JB

In a poll conduced by the Levada Center on April 11-14, 47 percent of the respondents said they believed the current cabinet of ministers should remain largely unchanged after President-elect Medvedev is inaugurated and Putin becomes prime minister, while 23 percent said it should be changed significantly, Interfax reported on April 20. The most popular minister in the poll was Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, with 44 percent of the respondents saying they would like to see him remain in the next cabinet. Shoigu was followed by First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov (35 percent), Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov (31 percent), Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (18 percent), Health and Social Development Minister Tatyana Golikova (12 percent), Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev (9 percent), Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov (9 percent), Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak (9 percent), Economic Development and Trade Minister Elvira Nabiullina (8 percent), and Finance Minister Alksei Kudrin (7 percent). The remaining current cabinet members received the support of 3-5 percent of the respondents, Interfax reported. Asked who among the current ministers should definitely be fired, 63 percent of the respondents said it was difficult for them to answer. JB

Former Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov has returned to his post of scientific adviser at the Dollezhal Institute, one of Russia's largest nuclear research centers, where he worked for around 20 years, RIA Novosti reported on April 18. "I came to the institute yesterday and spent the whole day there today," Adamov told the news agency. "Science is my life, and this cannot be changed. I intend to continue my scientific activities." Adamov, who was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison in February on charges of leading a criminal group that embezzled some $110 million from Russia's state budget and other state enterprises and organizations, was released from custody on April 17 when the Moscow City Court changed his jail term to a suspended sentence. "The Moscow Times," citing Interfax, on April 18 quoted a spokesman for the Prosecutor-General's Office as saying prosecutors would "definitely" not appeal the suspension of Adamov's sentence. Adamov, who served as atomic energy minister from 1998 to 2001, was originally arrested in Switzerland in May 2005 at the request of the United States, where he was accused of misappropriating $9 million allocated to Russia for nuclear-safety projects. The charges against Adamov in the United States are still pending. JB

President Putin held two days of talks on April 17-18 in Porto Rotondo on Sardinia with Italian Prime Minister-designate Silvio Berlusconi, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2008). Putin said on April 18 that he "spoke with the chairman of the Aeroflot board of directors today. They are ready to resume contacts with their Italian partners [at Alitalia]. Of course, we don't know what the result will be. These are commercial negotiations." After Putin spoke, there was speculation in international media that Berlusconi asked him to persuade the Russian airline to help rescue Alitalia. Some observers suggested that Berlusconi might also want to bring Aeroflot back into talks, from which it withdrew in 2007, as a means of exerting pressure on Air France-KLM, which is also negotiating regarding Alitalia. Aeroflot and some Western airlines pulled out of talks on Alitalia in 2007 because of what they regarded as unacceptable conditions attached by the Italian authorities to any privatization deal. One of Berlusconi's campaign promises prior to his recent election victory was that he would put together an all-Italian consortium to bail out Alitalia. Britain's "Financial Times" noted on April 19 that "no Italian consortium...has materialized" and that "people close to the situation said they believed Aeroflot was not considered a serious option" for Alitalia. Putin also said on April 18 that the Italian energy company "ENI has received access to assets on Russian territory, and Gazprom hopes it can receive adequate assets in other countries, particularly in Libya. We have a wide range of joint projects, from the joint extraction of energy resources to the development of infrastructure and pipeline systems." He did not elaborate. "The Moscow Times" reported on April 21 that "a gas deal between Gazprom and Italy's ENI involving Libya could be in the cards." PM

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas said in Novo-Ogaryovo on April 18 that he supports Russia's proposal to hold a Middle East conference in Moscow, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 1, 2008). President Putin said recently that Russian officials are consulting with the United States and several Middle Eastern countries about hosting the gathering at an unspecified date. Israel is noticeably cool toward the proposal, which it regards as an attempt to divert attention from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute by bringing in issues involving Syria and Lebanon as well. The daily "Kommersant" observed on April 18 that the Russian leadership feels that Washington has monopolized diplomatic activity in the Middle East and called Abbas to Moscow to warn him not to leave Russia out of the process. The paper argued that "Moscow is under the impression that it is being actively elbowed out of the Middle East settlement. Preparations are made for international meetings without Russia, while its own idea of a major international conference is all but ignored. The Kremlin is convinced that Abbas could show more zeal in promoting Russian involvement in the processes under way." The daily also commented that a recent Egyptian proposal for a conference involving only the "leaders of the United States, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel" was a U.S.-inspired attempt to exclude Russia and "ruin the Middle East forum in Moscow." PM

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin took leave of journalists and media representatives on April 21 in his final appearance in that position, which he has held since leaving the post of ambassador to Spain in 2005, ITAR-TASS reported. The job of spokesman carries with it ambassadorial rank. Kamynin is a career diplomat who speaks Spanish and Portuguese as well as English. He previously held posts in the Soviet Embassy in Mexico and the Russian embassies in Spain and Cuba, as well as media positions within the ministry. PM

Sulim Yamadayev, the commander of the Vostok battalion that Chechen officials want disbanded, told Ekho Moskvy in an interview on April 18 that he reports to the commander in chief of the Russian armed forces, President Putin, not to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, reported on April 19. At least two members of Vostok, which is affiliated with the Russian Defense Ministry's 42nd Motorized Rifle Division and directly subordinate to Russian military intelligence, were reported killed in two separate standoffs on April 13 and 14 with members of Kadyrov's bodyguard (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 16, 17, and 18, 2008). In the same interview, Yamadayev accused Kadyrov of deliberately misrepresenting the situation in Chechnya. He further claimed that 75 percent of the Chechen police are amnestied former resistance fighters. "Kommersant" reported on April 21 that some 300 members of Vostok (of a total strength of 1,000) have gone over to Kadyrov's side; Kadyrov was quoted by on April 19 as promising alternative employment to any who do so. LF

Some 7,000 people participated in an opposition rally in Yerevan on April 19, the first such protest for which the authorities granted permission since the expiry of the state of emergency imposed in the wake of the March 1 violence, Noyan Tapan and reported. Participants defied a demand by police to curtail the rally after two hours and instead staged a spontaneous march through the city. Opposition Republican party Chairman Aram Sargsian, who supported the candidacy of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian in the February 19 presidential ballot, told participants that meeting was the first in a new wave of protests that will end only when new presidential elections are scheduled, given that the population has no trust in President Serzh Sarkisian. LF

Speaking at a meeting with senior State Customs Committee officials late on April 17, President Sarkisian deplored what he termed "thriving" corruption within that agency and threatened to fire members of its staff who turn a blind eye to smuggling or demand kickbacks from importers, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on April 18. Sarkisian said that "we must live in a country where one can engage in business without complications," stressing that apart from tax and customs revenues, Armenia has no alternative sources of financing to resolve chronic social problems. LF

Eduard Nalbandian, who was named Armenian foreign minister last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 2008), met in Stepanakert on April 18 with Bako Sahakian, president of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, to discuss ongoing efforts to find a political solution to the Karabakh conflict, reported the following day. They stressed that there is no alternative to resolving the conflict peacefully, and ruled out unilateral concessions. It was Nalbandian's first official visit as foreign minister. Sahakian and Nagorno-Karabakh Prime Minister Ara Harutiunian also met separately with an Armenian parliament delegation headed by speaker Tigran Torosian that arrived in Stepanakert on April 17 for a session of the Commission for Parliamentary Cooperation between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, reported on April 19. Torosian stressed during that session the need for European countries to cooperate more actively with Nagorno-Karabakh, even though it is not recognized as an independent state. LF

After a trial lasting three months, Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes handed down on April 18 a four-year prison term to Rovsan Novruzoglu, director of the Center to Combat International Terrorism and Corruption, reported on April 19. Novruzoglu was arrested in July 2007 and charged with forging official documentation and obtaining $115,000 through blackmail. His lawyer denied at the time of his arrest that he was suspected of passing sensitive intelligence information to Iranian intelligence. LF

Garri Kupalba, a former fighter pilot who is now deputy defense minister of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, announced on April 20 that Abkhaz air defense shot down an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance aircraft over Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion earlier that day, reported. Abkhaz officials claimed one month ago to have downed a Georgian spy plane of Israeli manufacture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2008). The Georgian Defense Ministry on April 20 rejected Kupalba's statement as disinformation, while Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili claimed that Abkhazia does not have the technical capacity to shoot down such aircraft. On April 21, Kupalba said the wreckage of the drone has been located, and it too is of Israeli origin. Also on April 20, de facto Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba denied Georgian claims that Abkhazia has violated the cease-fire agreement by deploying over 1,000 troops to Gali Raion and the lower reaches of the Kodori Gorge, reported. Each side may maintain no more than 600 Interior Ministry personnel in the conflict zone. Shamba also said that the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) announced the previous day that Georgia has withdrawn from the upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge a contingent numerically equivalent to that deployed there several days earlier in what appears to have been a routine rotation, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2008). Meanwhile, the Forum of National Unity, which frequently criticizes government policy, and the public organization Aruaa that was established last month released a joint statement on April 18 calling on citizens to be prepared to repulse an anticipated Georgian military offensive, reported. The independent Abkhaz "Nuzhnaya gazeta" on April 8 identified Shamba as a member of Aruaa, which unites veterans of the 1992-93 war with Georgia. LF

Kazakhstan's Bostandyk district court in Almaty on April 18 overturned the conviction of opposition journalist Kazis Toguzbaev and revoked his suspended sentence, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. In her ruling, Judge Shinar Yergalieva said that Toguzbaev "did not violate public order or commit any other offenses" and demonstrated "an improvement in his behavior" since he was handed a two-year suspended sentence last year after his conviction for the "infringement on the honor and dignity of the president" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2007). That sentence stemmed from Toguzbaev's publication of several critical articles posted on the website in April 2006 that criticized President Nursultan Nazarbaev in connection with the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev and two aides earlier that year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006). RG

Kazakh police in the West Kazakhstan Oblast arrested on April 18 a group of nine men suspected of belonging to the outlawed Islamist group Jamaat Takfir, which has been banned as a terrorist organization, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. An unidentified police official in the regional center of Uralsk said that the men were also "suspected of committing one murder and three robberies," as part of a pattern of criminal activity intended to finance their extremist activities. During a subsequent search of the suspects' homes, police also seized an undisclosed amount of extremist religious material, including videotapes and literature "aimed at inciting national discord." RG

The Kazakh Justice Ministry on April 18 formally registered the opposition Azat (Free) party and officially recognized the new name of the party, formerly known as Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The party formally changed its name during a party congress last month in Almaty, adopting a new party symbol and revising the party program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2008). Deputy Chairmen Tolegn Zhukeev and Bulat Abilov were elected at that party congress as secretary-general and chairman of the party, respectively. Abilov, a former leader of the opposition National Social Democratic Party, joined Naghyz Ak Zhol following the brief merger of the two parties in an opposition coalition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2007). RG

At a press conference in Almaty, Kazakh Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Bozhko reported on April 18 on the state of the country's strategic food reserves, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. He said that the government has enough funds on hand to "minimize the negative effects" from external price hikes. But he refused to reveal any details on the amount of food in the strategic reserves, saying that such information is "a state secret." Bozhko said that "in the conditions of a sharp increase in food prices, which is currently observed all over the world, the significance of the Emergency Situations Ministry is increasing." Agriculture Minister Akylbek Kurishbaev also recently confirmed that Kazakhstan has sufficient reserves, adding that it could expand its wheat exports to 12 million tons annually (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2008). Separately, Minister of Industry and Trade Vladimir Shkolnik told a cabinet meeting on April 18 of the need to "significantly" amend the country's approach on joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), in light of the volatile trend in global food markets, arguing that the government needs to "encourage domestic agricultural-sector development to the maximum extent" and focus on "protecting our domestic market," Kazakhstan Today reported. Shkolnik pointed out that such an adjustment would not damage the course of Kazakhstan's WTO accession process but would allow for new agreements to be reached on agricultural products with Australia and completing talks with the European Union and the United States on "issues of access, unifying tariffs, agriculture, and the financial market." RG

President Kurmanbek Bakiev announced on April 18 that Kyrgyzstan will be exempt from a recent Kazakh decision to ban wheat exports, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. Speaking to reporters en route to Bishkek following a state visit to Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2008), Bakiev said that Kazakh officials agreed to honor the terms of a prior contract to sell Kyrgyzstan 50,000 tons of wheat and added that Kyrgyzstan will receive a total of 300,000 tons of wheat from Kazakhstan by the end of the year. Although Kazakhstan is the world's fifth-largest exporter of grain, it recently imposed a ban on wheat exports in order to "ensure food security in the country" and to protect the domestic Kazakh market from expectations that international prices for wheat, flour, and other agricultural products will continue to increase (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2008). Bakiev also revealed on April 18 that the two countries agreed during his visit to a new deal whereby Kazakhstan will supply crude oil to a refinery in the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad, according to AKIpress. He added that Kazakh President Nazarbaev agreed to harmonize visa regulations by extending a new 90-day period for Kyrgyz visitors to legally stay in Kazakhstan without formal registration, Kabar reported. RG

The Kyrgyz parliament adopted on April 18 a new plan to expand national television coverage with a focus on improving access to more remote rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, according to AKIpress. Backed by deputies Begaly Nargozuev and Almazbek Karimov, the plan includes measures to expand broadcasting coverage by installing more powerful transmitters and sets a goal of achieving nationwide coverage by early December 2008. One of the measures calls for a 23 million-som (about $64,000) program to install transmitters in 82 villages. Although technicians from the state-run National Television and Radio Broadcasting Corporation have long struggled to expand television coverage, several areas of the country are limited to receiving television programs from neighboring Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. RG

In a later unrelated vote, the Kyrgyz parliament on April 18 adopted a new controversial law weakening much of the parliament's oversight authority of the privatization of state assets, AKIpress reported. The new law also transferred the power to initiate privatizations projects from the parliament to the government, in the first significant modification to the March 2002 legal framework on privatization. Welcoming the vote, the director of the State Committee for the Management of State Property, Tursun Turdumambetov, told the session that the move will bolster efforts to carry out the further sell-off of inefficient state-run facilities and enterprises, and noted that more than 70 percent of state-owned firms have already been successfully sold to private investors. Deputies from the opposition Communist and Social Democratic parties voted against the law, which they criticized as unconstitutional, and argued that the parliament must retain its oversight power to more objectively and fairly oversee the privatization program. RG

Arriving on April 17 in Bishkek after completing an inspection of neighboring Tajikistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2008), a delegation of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) met on April 18 in Bishkek with Kyrgyz Emergency Situations Minister Turatbek Junushaliev to discuss the situation in several radioactive waste sites or "tailing ponds," AKIpress reported. The IAEA experts are in Kyrgyzstan to assess conditions at the 36 tailing ponds and 25 mining sites that contain radioactive and other harmful waste. For his part, Junushaliev told the IAEA team that while Kyrgyzstan appreciates their technical assistance, the country is in need of financial support to more adequately and effectively manage the toxic and radioactive waste, some of which is in danger of penetrating nearby riverbeds and underground water tables. RG

The Kyrgyz Interior Ministry announced that police launched an investigation on April 20 into the early-morning attack on a group of Russian servicemen that resulted in the shooting death of a soldier stationed at the Russian airbase at Kant, outside of Bishkek, ITAR-TASS reported. According to the ministry, a car carrying the servicemen failed to stop at a highway checkpoint manned by traffic policemen, prompting the police to fire a warning shot before then shooting at the vehicle. A preliminary investigation determined that the Russian was fatally wounded by the second shot. That account was disputed by the Russian Embassy in Bishkek, however, which contended that the car carrying the Russian servicemen was stopped in the town of Kant by people dressed in police uniform, but who were traveling in a car with no number plate and produced no official identification. The embassy added that while detaining the Russian servicemen, the uniformed men forced the servicemen to the ground and then opened fire without cause. RG

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on April 19 issued an appeal to donor nations seeking some $1.4 million in aid to Tajikistan to prevent flooding and to combat locust infestation, according to the Avesta website. After several heavy snowstorms throughout the winter, the UN is concerned that flooding has already begun as warming temperatures have started to melt the massive amount of accumulated snow. The appeal seeks aid to fund the purchase of emergency water, sanitation, and cooking items for up to 1,500 households that are most vulnerable to floods and landslides, Asia-Plus reported. The OCHA also expressed concern over a continuing locust infestation that has hit more than 150,000 hectares of land in Tajikistan. In response, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization called on April 19 for $500,000 in aid to cover the cost of essential pesticides and equipment, warning that unless those funds are received by next week, it may not be able to avert a major outbreak. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently convened an emergency cabinet meeting to review measures to combat the locust infestation and issued instructions to use airplanes to spray toxic chemicals and insecticides (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2008). The locust infestation has been attributed to a disruption of the insects' usual seasonal migration pattern by the unusually early onset of hot weather after a record cold winter. RG

At a Dushanbe press conference, Tajik customs chief Gurez Zaripov announced on April 17 that Tajikistan plans to import some 700,000 tons of wheat and flour in the coming months to prepare for an expected crisis over rising food prices, Asia-Plus reported. Zaripov added that although about 200,000 tons of wheat and flour were imported in the first quarter of the year, more is still needed, and that even that amount is still about 26,000 tons less than the same period last year. He also cited a new dangerous shortfall resulting from a decision by Kazakhstan, which accounts for 98 percent of Tajik grain imports, to impose a four-month ban on wheat exports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2008). The issue of food security has become a priority throughout the region as rising global demand, continuing wheat shortages, and increasing prices in global markets have sparked 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). Tajik officials are now seeking to purchase wheat from new suppliers, and even from China and Australia via Pakistan and Afghanistan. RG

At a cabinet meeting in Ashgabat, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov signed a decree on April 18 to form a new special commission empowered to draft a "new edition" of Turkmenistan's constitution, and Turkmen Television reported. Berdymukhammedov explained that changes to the constitution are necessary due to the "great transformations" now under way in Turkmenistan. Berdymukhammedov recently announced a number of personnel changes, including the appointment of former Finance Minister Hojamyrat Geldimyradov as the eighth deputy prime minister, the firing of both Central Bank Chairman Geldimyrat Abilov and Deputy Prime Minister Gurbannazar Asyrov, who was in charge of the communications and transport sectors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2008). Although the changes, along with a sweeping audit of all state assets, suggest a degree of internal instability within the Turkmen leadership, the moves seem to be linked to the president's desire to consolidate and speed up economic reforms in preparation for plans to re-denominate the national currency in 2009 (see "Turkmenistan: Finance Officials Sacked Amid Talk Of Economic Reforms,", April 18, 2008). RG

At a convention held in Minsk on April 20, the United Civic Party (AHP) reelected Anatol Lyabedzka as its chairman, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The gathering also elected Yaraslau Ramanchuk and Leu Marholin as the party's two deputy chairmen. Addressing the convention prior to his reelection, Lyabedzka said that the "lack of sufficient organizational and material resources" is the party's main shortcoming. He also pointed to a lack of AHP ties with the private business sector. "Private businesses have been either almost ruined or are close to the government," he said. On the other hand, Lyabedzka praised the performance of the AHP's youth wing. "I like the trends observed in the organization. They have created effective chapters in the provinces recently," he said. Mikalay Haurylenka, who was Lyabedzka's opponent, called on the AHP's leadership to launch a party newspaper and for the party's leader to run for president in the 2011 election. AM

Alyaksandr Lukashenka on April 18 dismissed Agriculture Minister Leanid Rusak and appointed Syamyon Shapira to replace him, Belapan reported, citing the presidential press office. Lukashenka gave no reason for Rusak's dismissal, but Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski, while introducing Shapira, criticized the performance of the Agriculture Ministry. Sidorski said that "unfortunately, the previous minister and his deputies paid little attention to the fulfillment of rural development programs." "There were discussions basically, but no real work was done to execute it," Sidorski added. Shapira previously served as director-general of a state-controlled poultry company in Minsk Oblast. Between 1999 and 2004, Shapira headed the economy department in the Agriculture Ministry. AM

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko told ICTV on April 20 that after the Orthodox Easter holiday, the Verkhovna Rada will adopt in the first reading constitutional changes with regard to transforming Ukraine into a parliamentary republic. She said that there are two forms of government in the world, presidential and parliamentary, and they cannot be mixed. "I come out against the chaos and against two centers of power," she said. "I think that the parliamentary form of government will introduce at last an order similar to that in Germany. There will be a chancellor and there will be an order," Tymoshenko said. She said that the presidency will be preserved, as well as nationwide presidential elections. AM

The Party of Regions, Ukraine's largest opposition party, on April 19 unanimously reelected Viktor Yanukovych as its chairman, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. According to the party charter approved at the congress, Yanukovych will also head the political council and its presidium. The congress approved a program that preserves the party's goals: transition to a parliamentary-presidential form of government, a decentralization process ceding as much power as possible to the regions, granting the Russian language official status, and military neutrality. In the area of foreign policy, the Party of Regions wants to preserve Ukraine's course toward full-fledged membership in the European Union and to develop strategic partnerships with Russia, the United States, neighboring countries, and CIS member states. AM

Speaking in Bucharest on April 17, Trajan Basescu said he does not consider "a priority" the signing of a formal treaty delineating the frontier between Romania and Moldova, reported the following day. In that context, Basescu observed that "quite a number of people" in Ukraine are discussing, albeit not at the official level, the possible return to Ukraine of the unrecognized breakaway republic of Transdniester. He added that the proponents of such a redrawing of borders fail to take into account possible Moldovan counterclaims on territory in southern Ukraine. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko was quoted on April 19 by the weekly "Zerkalo nedeli" as saying Kyiv has asked Bucharest for an explanation of Basescu's remarks and will not make any public comment until it receives one. Ohryzko added that Ukraine regards Moldova as a sovereign and independent state, and he noted that Ukraine and Moldova have already reached agreement on the delineation of two-thirds of their common border and hope to finalize the remaining, Ukraine-Transdniester sector by the end of this year, reported on April 21. The Moldovan Foreign Ministry responded on April 18 to Basescu's comments with a statement reaffirming that the signing of a border treaty would serve as "a constructive precondition for regulating border relations between the two countries on the basis of European principles of good-neighborliness." LF

Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said in Belgrade on April 18 that Serbia should complete as soon as possible ratification of a controversial energy deal with Russia that President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica signed in Moscow earlier this year, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27 and April 4, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). Tadic has said repeatedly that ratification is not possible before a new parliament is elected on May 11. He argued on April 19 that "we don't need questionable agreements with Russia.... We need concrete agreements which cannot be called into question in the future." Kostunica's position is that the deal should be finalized quickly, but he is blocked by a pro-Tadic majority in the cabinet from moving forward on ratification. Shoigu signed a trade protocol in Belgrade on April 18 with Serbian Trade and Services Minister Predrag Bubalo, who belongs to Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia. The document calls for ratifying the energy deal before the May 11 vote. Critics say that the energy agreement sells off Serbia's state oil monopoly NIS for a fraction of its market value to pay back a political debt to Russia for its political support over Kosova. On April 18, Shoigu pledged to increase Russian "humanitarian aid" to the Serbian minority in Kosova, a pledge that has been widely construed as a propaganda measure aimed at drawing attention to Russia's political presence in the Balkans. PM


The Afghan Defense Ministry announced on April 19 that 68 Pakistani men were detained for possible ties to the Taliban after they crossed the border into the southern province of Kandahar, AFP reported the same day. The ministry said it received information that a group of Pakistanis with possible links to "terrorists" was entering the region. "We had intelligence reports that a group of Pakistanis possibly linked to terrorists were entering the country. When our units encountered these Pakistanis they detained them to find out if they're linked to terrorists," ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said. The men had no travel documents, he added. Afghan authorities have often said that the Taliban insurgency is based in Pakistan, and that militants, some of them Pakistani, are sent across the border to initiate attacks on Afghan targets. Islamabad denies the allegations. AT

Afghan officials said on April 20 that one civilian was killed and two Iranian servicemen were wounded in a shoot-out between Afghan police and Iranian forces, AP reported the same day. According to provincial police chief General Ayub Badkhshi, Afghan police arrived in the village of Pul-e Abreshum in Nimroz Province to intercept an Iranian patrol that had crossed the border. In the ensuing gun battle, a teacher from the village was killed. Clashes are common in the area because not only smugglers cross the border to traffic drugs into Iran, but also many local Afghans cross illegally. AT

Tariq Azizuddin, flanked by his driver and bodyguard, appeared in a video aired on April 19 by an Arab satellite channel, in which he said that he was kidnapped by Taliban militants more than two months ago, AP reported. In a two-minute clip aired on Al-Arabiyah television, Azizuddin was shown sitting on the ground in front of three masked men wearing traditional robes and holding automatic weapons, and said he has been treated well. "We don't have any problems, but I suffer from health issues such as hypertension and heart pain," he said, and he urged Pakistan's ambassadors in Iran and China, as well as the country's Foreign Ministry, to comply with Taliban demands, without elaborating. A spokesman for a group of Pakistani Taliban militants denied involvement in Azizuddin's kidnapping. Maulana Mohammad Umer said the ambassador may have been abducted by Afghan militants based in Pakistan. "We will try our level best for the safe recovery of the ambassador, but for sure we had nothing to do with his abduction," Umer said. AT

Newly appointed Spanish Defense Minister Carmen Chacon, who is seven months' pregnant, briefly visited Afghanistan on April 19 to meet Spanish troops, AFP reported the same day. Chacon, Spain's first woman defense minister, was scheduled to spend a few hours with the soldiers based in the western city of Herat. She was given a rundown of Spain's work as the head of the Badghis Province reconstruction team, one of several military-civilian units set up around the war-torn country. She also visited a Spanish-run hospital at the Herat base where she met Spanish patients. Spanish national radio reported that the 37-year-old Chacon was accompanied by her gynecologist and a medical team. AT

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said on April 20 in Tehran that the deputy head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Olli Heinonen, is not coming to Iran to discuss any suspected Iranian nuclear weapons work, but for a routine visit in line with Iran's cooperation with the IAEA, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Agencies have reported that Heinonen may on April 21 discuss evidence handed to the IAEA about suspected weaponization activities by Iran; Iran insists its contested nuclear program is strictly peaceful. Members of the IAEA governing board were shown some of this evidence in a February 25 presentation at an IAEA meeting in Vienna. Hosseini said Tehran clarified during 2007 the IAEA's questions on "alleged studies" into weaponization activities. Heinonen was expected to meet in Tehran on April 21 with Javad Vaidi, a deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Abkar Soltanieh, AFP reported on April 19. VS

Gordon Brown said in Washington on April 17 that EU states should tighten sanctions on Iran to help coerce it to curb its contested nuclear program, and especially target investments in liquefied natural gas, AFP reported. He said he has discussed expanding sanctions and enforcing current sanctions with other EU leaders. Iran is subject to three rounds of UN Security Council sanctions blocking trade and investment in areas contributing to the development of its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. Brown suggested that sanctions will be expanded to include investments in liquefied natural gas in coming weeks. Brown met on April 17 with U.S. President George W. Bush, who said anyone who believes assertions that Iran's nuclear program is strictly civilian is "in my judgment naive." Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said in Tehran on April 21 that these are baseless claims that have nothing to do with IAEA reports on Iran, Iran's Fars news agency reported. He said Iran will pursue its peaceful and lawful activities in line with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. VS

Iranian police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam has said that the detained former Tehran Province police chief, Reza Zarei, faces "private" and much less serious charges than those reported in the media recently (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2008), Radio Farda reported on April 21. Ahmadi-Moqaddam told state television that Zarei has not "betrayed" the police corps and "the charge against him is much smaller and lighter than stated." The conservative Tehran-based website "Tabnak" has separately quoted Ahmadi-Moqaddam as saying that Zarei might have committed some "indecency," without elaborating, Radio Farda reported. Unconfirmed reports from Iran are that Zarei was arrested in a house in Tehran on March 11 in the company of six women, Radio Farda reported on April 20. VS

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said in Tehran on April 20 that Iraq's "main problem is the occupation, terrorism, and terrorist groups active in Iraq," and "the Americans know better than anyone" who is giving them "political and financial" backing, Fars news agency reported. He said the United States is trying to "blame others" for "everything there is in Iraq, which is the result of their own mistaken and unreasonable policies," apparently responding to recent remarks on Iran by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She said in Shannon, Ireland, on April 19 that Iranian activities and "arming militias" do not square with Iran's stated commitment to support the Iraqi government, Reuters reported. She is to attend a meeting of Iraq's neighbors in Kuwait on April 22. Hosseini said Iran believes trips to the region by U.S. officials yield few results and indicate the failure of U.S. policies in the region. VS

Muqtada al-Sadr issued a statement on April 19 warning the Iraqi government to call off its military operations targeting his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, and that failure to do so will result in an "open war." Al-Sadr claimed that despite his efforts to encourage peace through a cease-fire declared in September, the government has been ungrateful and is now acting as "the third side" to target Sadrists, following the Sunnis and the Americans. Reminding the government of its attempts to defeat the militia in May and August 2004, he said, "Do you want a third uprising?" "Had it not been out of religious principle, which for me is one of the constants, not to kill a Muslim...we would have known how to deal with you, particularly after we have temporarily suspended the Al-Mahdi Army and made initiatives to defuse crises and end armed manifestations," al-Sadr told the government. He claimed that the government's targeting of the militia is based on a desire to eradicate it as a "popular base" ahead of governorate elections slated for October. Al-Sadr said that his militia has defended all Iraqis, including minorities such as Christians, Turkomans, and the Shabaks, a small religious minority. "Our reward, however, was an attack on our prophet and the pope's visit to the biggest power that occupies our beloved Iraq." He concluded: "I issue the last warning and statement to the Iraqi government to desist from error, to walk the path of peace, and renounce violence against its people. Otherwise, it will be like the government of the 'destructive' [a reference to the United States] even if all sides ally themselves with it, for they were our allies before and they might be [again] in the future.... If [the government] does not desist and curb its defiance and that of the militias that have infiltrated it [a reference to Shi'ite militiamen from the rival Badr Corps that now fill the ranks of army and police] then we will declare it an open war until liberation." KR

Iraqi and coalition forces continued to battle militants loyal to al-Sadr on April 19 and 20. Loudspeakers across Baghdad's Al-Sadr City called on followers to rise up against the "occupation." The U.S. military reported at least 18 suspected militants were killed in April 20 clashes in Al-Sadr City. Al-Sadr's spokesman told Al-Jazeera television on April 20 that if al-Sadr "announces the zero-hour to confront the occupation, whoever defends the occupation will be targeted by the weapons of the Al-Mahdi Army." Meanwhile, Iraqi and multinational forces reportedly gained control over the Al-Hayyaniyah district in Al-Basrah on April 19, the last remaining stronghold of the Al-Mahdi Army in the southern city, Iraqi media reported on April 20. The government imposed a curfew in nearby Dhi Qar Governorate on April 19 after Al-Mahdi militiamen took to the streets. Hasan al-Zarkani, the head of the foreign-relations department at the Martyr Al-Sadr office in Al-Nasiriyah, told Al-Sharqiyah television on April 20 that U.S. planes bombed one of al-Sadr's offices in Al-Nasiriyah, after which an Iraqi military special missions detachment led by a former leader of the Badr Corps -- the armed wing of a rival Shi'ite political party -- set fire to the office, burning 11 people to death. He said the detachment also set fire to the homes of militia members. Al-Sharqiyah reported that 22 people were killed and 19 wounded in Al-Nasiriyah. Dhi Qar police chief Abd al-Husayn al-Safi said on April 20 that the area has been purged of militia fighters, but remains under curfew. The U.S. military said on April 20 that 40 militiamen were killed and another 40 arrested in Al-Nasiriyah. KR

The U.S. military said in an April 21 statement that "special group" forces -- a term it uses to describe breakaway elements of the Al-Mahdi Army it says are supported by Iran -- have been active in the fighting in Al-Sadr City in Baghdad. The statement said a coalition observation post in Al-Sadr City was fired upon by three "special group criminals" on April 20. U.S. soldiers returned fire, killing one and wounding the other two. A unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) identified five "special group criminals" as responsible for carrying out a rocket attack targeting U.S. forces later that day. The UAV fired a missile at two of them and killed them, while the other three escaped. A second UAV identified two "special group" fighters loading a car with rockets and rocket rails; the UAV fired upon the vehicle, killing the two and destroying six rockets and rails, the statement said. "It is the Iranian-supported special group criminals who are the primary reason the people of Baghdad are suffering," said Colonel Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for the U.S. military in Baghdad. "They are responsible for the rocket and mortar attacks that led to Iraqi security and coalition-force soldiers going into the southern neighborhoods of Sadr City." KR

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad on April 20 ahead of a meeting of regional foreign ministers on Iraq, which is slated to begin on April 22 in Kuwait. Rice told reporters en route to Baghdad that there has been a "coalescing of a center in Iraqi politics in which the Sunni leadership, the Kurdish leadership, and the elements of the Shi'a leadership that are not associated with these [Iranian-backed] special groups have been working together better than at any time before." Asked how she views operations targeting Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, she said it is "an internal Iraqi matter to resolve at this point." Rice added, "But clearly, the prime minister has laid down some ground rules which any functioning democratic state would insist upon, having to do with, you know, arms belonging to the state...not [arms] in private hands." Rice applauded a recent initiative by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that will provide reconstruction funds and employment in Al-Basrah. KR

British commanders in Al-Basrah have reportedly said that the Iraqi Army's operation targeting rogue militiamen in late March in Al-Basrah was an "unmitigated disaster," London's "Sunday Telegraph" reported on April 20. Senior sources told the newspaper that the mission was undermined by incompetent officers and untrained troops who were sent into battle with inadequate supplies of food, water, and ammunition. More than 15,000 Iraqi troops took part in the operation, which ultimately ended in a stalemate. Coalition-backed Iraqi forces relaunched the operation last week, and claim to have now cleared the area of militiamen. One British officer told the newspaper that the Iraqi Army's 14th Division had only 26 percent of the equipment necessary to take part in combat operations. "There were literally thousands of troops arriving in Basrah from all over Iraq. But they had no idea why they were there or what they were supposed to do. It was madness and to cap it all they had insufficient supplies of food, water, and ammunition," the officer said. "The Iraqi police were next to useless," he added. One senior British staff officer called Iraqi General Muhan al-Furayji, who was until last week commander of military operations in Al-Basrah (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2008), a "dangerous lunatic" who "ignored" advice. He said a British liaison team was sent to Iraqi Army headquarters during the battle and "were greeted by a group of Iraqi generals sitting around a large desk, shouting into their mobiles [phones] without a map in sight. Chaos ruled." KR