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Newsline - April 28, 2008

President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Jasuo Fukuda met on April 26 at Putin's official residence at Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow, where they reportedly discussed concluding a peace treaty formally ending World War II, while apparently only touching on "the territorial problem" involving of the four islands in the southern Kuriles occupied by the Red Army in the closing days of the war, which are still claimed by Japan as its Northern Territories and whose status is the main obstacle to a peace treaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2008). "At the meeting, both sides mentioned the need to continue work on a peace treaty between the two countries," on April 26 quoted Putin's spokesman, Aleksei Gromov, as saying. "As for the territorial issue, it was not discussed in detail." Gromov added that there are no "new aspects" to the issue. Japan's Foreign Ministry, for its part, said Fukuda and Putin agreed to expedite talks to resolve the territorial dispute by issuing "fresh directives" to their respective governments, "The Moscow Times" reported on April 28. According to the English-language daily, Putin told Fukuda at the start of the talks that they were continuing their "dialogue" on a peace treaty and "creating the necessary conditions to advance in this direction," but added that "a lot of unresolved problems" remain between the two countries despite an improvement in ties in recent years. Still, "The Moscow Times" reported that the Japanese government appeared to interpret the choice of the Novo-Ogaryovo residence for the meeting as a positive sign. "It's indeed the first time that the Japanese prime minister was invited to the official residence of a Russian president," it quoted Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kazuo Kodama as saying. "The prime minister appreciated such a gesture." The two governments have agreed to jointly explore oil and gas in Siberia in a five-year, $96 million project, the paper reported. JB

Interfax on April 26 quoted a source in the State Duma's apparatus as saying that every Russian military conscript, even if he is basically health, is examined by medical personnel up to 400 times a year. "During that time, every healthy drafted servicemen is seen by a unit sanitary officer up to 200 times; by a medical attendant 50-100 times; by a unit doctor up to 20 times," the source told the news agency. Moreover, during a given year, a serviceman receives three mandatory medical checkups, two mandatory dental exams, 52 body inspections (during banya visits), around 100 medical examinations upon being relieved of duty, and 50 other medical examinations of various kinds. Interfax reported that these figures were provided to the Duma by Vladimir Shappo, head of the Defense Ministry's Chief Military Medical Board (GVMU). In addition, according to the GVMU, 306,500 Russian draftees received in-patient hospital care in 2007, while four times more, 1,254,000, visited first-aid stations or out-patient polyclinic facilities. Earlier, the deputy head of the General Staff of Russia's armed forces, Colonel General Vasily Smirnov reported that one out of every three Russian draftees is relieved of military service because of poor health and that more than 50 percent of those already inducted are found to have limitations due to health problems and thus are not sent to units in Russia's airborne forces or navy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 1, 2008). JB

President Putin on April 25 signed a degree creating three new positions that will play key roles in shaping the public image of the prime minister, Russian media reported on April 26. The decree creates the position of personal press secretary for the prime minister, a head of the prime minister's protocol office, and a head of an office in charge of preparing the prime minister's public statements, reported. All three of the new officials will be deputy heads of the government administration, of which there are expected to be a total of six. Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov immediately filled the posts, naming deputy presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov as his press secretary, former government-apparatus head Anton Vaino as protocol chief, and presidential aide Dmitry Kalimulin as head of public pronouncements. Vaino moved to the government last year after serving since 2003 as head of protocol for Putin. The three are expected to retain the posts when Putin -- as widely expected -- becomes prime minister next month. Peskov has been one of the Kremlin's most visible spokespeople in recent months and, as noted, was virtually the only person to comment officially on the November 2006 killing in London of former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Aleksandr Litvinenko. RC

Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov has pledged that deputies will have a chance to question President Putin before a vote is taken to confirm him as prime minister next month, reported on April 25. President-elect Dmitry Medvedev has said he will nominate Putin to head the government and Putin has said he will accept the post. A vote to confirm him is expected in the Duma on May 8, the day after Medvedev's inauguration as president. Gryzlov earlier stated that there is no need for extended discussion of Putin's candidacy since he and his plan for Russia's development through 2020 are well known. Putin is not required to appear before deputies, but all candidates to head the government in the past have done so. RC

The left-leaning pro-Kremlin A Just Russia part held its third national congress in Moscow on April 25, Russian media reported. The party confirmed Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov for another term as party leader and approved a new charter and party structure that is nearly an exact copy of those adopted by the right-leaning pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, reported on April 25. The former leaders of the Rodina (Motherland) party and the Party of Pensioners -- Aleksandr Babakov and Nikolai Levichev -- who previously had the status of co-leaders with Mironov, were given lesser posts. President Putin and President-elect Medvedev were invited to the congress, which was held in the Kremlin just a few steps from the presidential-administration complex, but neither appeared. Both men -- who participated personally in the Unified Russia congress earlier this month -- sent congratulatory telegrams. There were not any cabinet members at the event either. Mironov urged party members not to be dismayed by Putin's recent decision to become the head of Unified Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 2008). "If the president thinks that in order to further the realization of his course it is necessary for him to head the party, that means it is correct," Mironov said. RC

Central Election Commission member Leonid Ivlev has been named a deputy to commission Chairman Vladimir Churov, reported on April 24. Ivlev will oversee the conduct of local, regional, and municipal elections. Ivlev was named to the election commission in December 2007 by President Putin. Previously, he served in the presidential administration, overseeing the Kremlin's relations with both legislative chambers and serving as a deputy to deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov. Surkov oversees domestic politics, political parties, and public organizations. After the election commission meeting, Churov presented Ivlev to the press, saying, "the process of his election proceeded without any complications." To which Ivlev added, "as we planned," reported. RC

President Putin has signed a decree awarding state orders to a number of Kremlin-friendly analysts, political commentators, and media figures, "Kommersant" reported on April 26. According to the decree, which was reportedly signed earlier this month, the order For Service to the Fatherland, first degree, was given to IMA public-relations group head Andrei Gnatyuk. The same award, second degree, was given to All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion Director Valery Fyodorov, former Nashi leader and current State Youth Affairs Committee Chairman Vasily Yakemenko, and Effective Politics Foundation head Gleb Pavlovsky. The same decree bestows honorary certificates on Channel One head Konstantin Ernst, All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK) head Oleg Dobrodeyev, NTV head Vladimir Kulistikov, Center for Political Forecasting Deputy Director Vitaly Ivanov, and a number of activists in the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi. According to "Kommersant", the awards are directly tied to the contributions the recipients made to the victory of Unified Russia in the December 2007 Duma elections and Medvedev's victory in the March presidential election. reported on April 25 that Gnatyuk's IMA group oversaw the implementation of both election campaigns. RC

The Elista municipal assembly convened an emergency session on April 25 and almost unanimously endorsed, with only one vote against, a resolution expressing no confidence in Kalmykia Republic President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, reported. The resolution states that the 15 years of Ilyumzhinov's presidency have culminated in economic collapse and have been marred by egregious human rights violations. First Deputy Mayor Aleksandr Yermoshenko, acting for Mayor Rady Burulov, who is under investigation for alleged corruption, characterized the political situation in Elista as tense, and said that Burulov's family and supporters, together with members of the municipal council, are being pressured by the republican authorities. Yermoshenko cited statistics made public at a seminar in Moscow on April 18 titled "Fifteen Years of Mirages: Is the Ilyumzhinov Era Coming to an End?" by political scientist Mikhail Tulsky, who highlighted negative social and economic trends, including a steep decline in oil extraction, from 445,000 tons per year in 1990 to 71,000 tons in 2007, and steady out-migration. On April 24, the Kalmyk parliament voted down a proposal by the opposition Communist faction to include in its agenda the question of demanding Ilyumzhinov's resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2008). LF

Chechen Republic human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev on April 27 dismissed as exaggerated reports of a mass fight on April 22 among prisoners at the infamous Chernokozovo prison camp, reported. He said it was a minor dispute in which no more than eight prisoners were involved, and none of them was seriously injured. Earlier reports claimed that up to 100 prisoners were involved and 11 were seriously hurt. Camp guards then reportedly searched all cells for weapons and confiscated personal belongings, prompting many inmates to declare a hunger strike in protest. On April 25, General Ali Iriskhanov, who heads the Chechen division of the Justice Ministry's prisons department, explained that the fight arose over the choice of television programs, reported. He denied that prisoners at Chernokozovo were on hunger strike. LF

Serzh Sarkisian has set up a working group tasked with implementing the demands contained in an April 17 resolution adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on the situation in Armenia in the wake of the disputed February 19 presidential ballot and subsequent clashes between police and opposition protesters, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on April 25, quoting the presidential press service. Those demands include an "independent, transparent, and credible inquiry" into the March 1-2 violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2008). The working group is to suggest within two weeks specific measures to be taken. Also on April 25, Armenian human rights ombudsman Armen Harutiunian released an 80-page report on the events that culminated in the violence and expressed support for international calls for an independent investigation, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Harutiunian queried official claims that protesters opened fire at police and security personnel, and noted that no official explanation has been given for the fact that several of the nine civilians killed suffered skull fractures. Harutiunian referred to what he called the emergence of "extremist" sentiments, and traced that development to the division of Armenian society into two camps: a closed system of privileged "insiders," and the vast majority of the population, Noyan Tapan reported on April 25. He said it is imperative that the authorities function within a framework of public accountability, and therefore advocated reforming legislation on elections and ensuring the pluralism and impartiality of the electronic media. Harutiunian's earlier criticism of the March 1 crackdown elicited an angry response from outgoing President Robert Kocharian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2008). LF

A Yerevan district court on April 25 sentenced Armen Avagyan, a member of the election campaign staff of defeated opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian, to 18 months' imprisonment on charges of assaulting a police officer on March 1, which he rejected as politically motivated, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. A spokesman for Ter-Petrossian said on April 25 that he will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to invalidate the results of the February 19 ballot that gave President Sarkisian over 52 percent of the vote and Ter-Petrossian 21.51 percent. Ter-Petrossian's supporters staged a protest march in Yerevan on April 24 demanding Sarkisian's resignation, despite police efforts to prevent the gathering, Noyan Tapan reported on April 25. Also on April 25, Sarkisian dismissed Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Gurgen Melkonian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Ter-Petrossian on February 21 claimed to have the support of both Melkonian and a second deputy defense minister, Manvel Grigorian, but neither man ever made any public statement confirming or denying support for Ter-Petrossian. Grigorian was dismissed without explanation earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2008). LF

The Iranian Foreign Ministry has formally asked the Azerbaijani authorities to release a consignment of Russian equipment destined for the nuclear power plant the Russians are constructing at Bushehr, reported on April 27, quoting Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini. The Azerbaijani authorities intercepted the shipment late last month at the Astara border crossing into Iran, reportedly because of the absence of the requisite export permit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 22 and 24, 2008). On April 26, Azerbaijani First Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov said that Azerbaijan is not asking anything unreasonable in insisting that Russia produce the required documentation or copies of it, reported. He said Russia has no right to ask Azerbaijan to violate international law, and he rejected Russian allegations of a political dimension to Azerbaijan's refusal to allow the consignment to enter Iran. Speaking in Tehran on April 27, Hosseini insisted that the consignment "is within the framework of Iranian-Russian cooperation with respect to the completion of the Bushehr power plant under the framework of international regulation. There is no ban regarding the consignment," Reuters reported. LF

The Georgian Foreign Ministry on April 26 released a formal statement responding to comments made the previous day by Russian Ambassador for Special Assignments Valery Kenyaikin at a Moscow press conference, reported. Kenyaikin was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying that if Georgia attacks Abkhazia or South Ossetia, Russia would be obligated to take military counteraction to protect its citizens in those regions. Abkhaz officials claim that up to 80 percent of the unrecognized republic's population have Russian passports; the figure for the Ossetian population of South Ossetia is believed to be equally high. At the same time, Kenyaikin reportedly stressed that Russia wants to transform Georgia's territorial integrity from a "theoretical possibility" into reality. The Georgian Foreign Ministry construed Kenyaikin's comments as evidence that Russian policies are acquiring "an extremely dangerous military dimension," and affirmed that Russia "has lost the legal, political, and moral right" to act as a mediator in the Abkhaz conflict. Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia said in Tbilisi on April 26 that Georgia will take appropriate action in response to any Russian aggression, Caucasus Press reported, while Georgian presidential administration head Giorgi Gabashvili told the television channel Rustavi-2 the same day that Georgia will not allow itself to be drawn into a military provocation by aggressive Russian statements. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told an April 25 joint press conference in Moscow with his Finnish counterpart Alexander Stubb that he does not see any crisis in Georgia's relations with Russia, in contrast to the Georgian leadership's relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, according to a transcript of the press conference posted on LF

Russian Ambassador for Special Assignments Kenyaikin has called on PACE to investigate the circumstances of the death in 2005 of then Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, Caucasus Press reported on April 26. Zhvania and a friend were found dead in a rented apartment; the Georgian authorities immediately gave the cause of death as natural gas poisoning, but Zhvania's family subsequently questioned that verdict, suggesting he may have been murdered (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 3 and 10, April 4 and 5, and May 25 and 31, 2005). The Russian delegation to PACE three months ago proposed establishing a commission to investigate Zhvania's death, but PACE Secretary-General Terry Davis rejected that call at the time as "pointless," according to Caucasus Press on January 26. LF

The chief prosecutor of the central Karaganda Oblast, Amirkhan Amanbaev, announced on April 24 that an inspection of mines in the region found widespread safety violations in a significant number of them, according to Kazakh Television. The inspection revealed that as much as 70 percent of the equipment used in local mines is "in a bad state of disrepair," without adequate maintenance or spare parts, and determined that miners are generally forced "to work in dangerous conditions." Amanbaev added that eight mines operated by the Arcelor-Mittal-Temirtau mining company were found to be using "outdated electric engines, boring and loading machines," and were equipped with defective ventilation systems. As a result of the inspection, regional officials ordered the suspension of operations at some 68 work sites, citing various violations of safety rules and regulations, and gave the Arcelor-Mittal-Temirtau company one month to address the violations. Arcelor-Mittal, which is controlled by Indian-born, billionaire steel tycoon Lakshimi Mittal, first started operating in Kazakhstan in 1995. Its local subsidiary, Arcelor-Mittal-Temirtau, is the largest steelworks in Kazakhstan and owns some 15 coal and iron-ore mines in the country. In January, a methane explosion at its Abai coal mine in the same region resulted in the death of at least 30 miners (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14 and 15, 2008) and prompted the temporary suspension of mining operations. A similar explosion at another Mittal-owned coal mine in Kazakhstan killed some 41 people in 2006. RG

Speaking at the second day of the seventh annual Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin reiterated on April 25 the Kazakh proposal to form a union of Central Asian states, saying that it would encourage trade and economic cooperation, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He added that such a union would be based on the principles of "voluntarism, pragmatism, and social support" for the integration process, and would also lead to the formation of a "free-trade zone" in the region. During his recent state visit to Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2008), Uzbek President Islam Karimov expressed his opposition to the proposed union of Central Asian states, while Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev has expressed support for the plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2008). Tazhin further hailed on April 25 the bilingual nature of the media in Kazakhstan, noting that Russian-language media outlets face no obstacles, Kazakhstan Today and ITAR-TASS reported. He added that the Kazakh-language media is also developing, but not at the expense of the Russian-language press, adding that there are 467 Kazakh-language, 874 Russian-language, and 879 bilingual newspapers currently in print in Kazakhstan, with another 328 newspapers offered in the 40 different languages of local ethnic groups. He also cited Kazakh state support and subsidies for newspapers in the German, Korean, Ukrainian, and Uyghur languages. RG

During an official visit to Kazakhstan, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Secretary-General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut met on April 25 in Almaty with Kazakh Foreign Minister Tazhin and informed him that Kazakhstan needs to form a team of professional civil servants in order to complete preparations for the start of the Kazakh presidency of the OSCE in 2010, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Speaking to reporters at a joint press conference following the meeting, de Brichambaut explained that while Kazakhstan has "good diplomats and strong leadership," more must be done to resolve outstanding issues. On the same day, the local OSCE Center in Astana convened a meeting on April 25 focusing on ways that Kazakhstan can help reduce climate change by participating in the voluntary market for trading in carbon emissions, according to the OSCE website. The meeting, organized in conjunction with the local UN Development Program office and the Climate Change Coordination Center, was attended by over 40 government representatives, international experts, and potential investors, who also examined measures to promote an efficient climate policy in Kazakhstan and expand investment in climate-friendly technologies. RG

A group of roughly 2,000 Almaty residents rallied on April 26 to protest the city's municipal-development plan, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The demonstrators accused the Kazakh government of "failing to protect its citizens" after a number of private homes were demolished by city authorities to make room for new development. There has also been a sharp rise in urban land and property prices in Almaty, which has led some local officials to attempt to force many middle- and lower-class residents from their homes in order to make way for the construction of high-end building projects. Demonstrators also appealed to President Nursultan Nazarbaev to intervene directly to resolve the issue. RG

Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, who briefly held the Kyrgyzstan presidency for several hours on March 24, 2005, was arrested on April 25 in Bishkek and charged with abuse of office, financial mismanagement, and other corruption-related crimes, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Kadyrbekov, a former close ally of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, previously served in the Bakiev government as the head of the state agency for construction and architecture, as well as the former speaker of the lower house of parliament. In comments to reporters prior to his arrest, Kadyrbekov accused the Kyrgyz authorities of "putting pressure" on him and his family. In September 2005, parliament rejected Kadyrbekov's candidacy for the post of minister of transportation and communications (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 29, 2005). RG

The local authorities in the northern Issyk-Kul region on April 25 denied a request submitted by the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party to stage a march in the village of Tyup to protest the transfer of Kyrgyz territory to Kazakhstan, AKIpress reported. Local police also arrested several members of the opposition party after they arrived in the village in expectation of the planned April 26 march. In defiance of the decision, nearly 300 opposition demonstrators on April 26 staged the planned protest march anyway, AKIpress reported. Led by Ata-Meken leaders Omurbek Tekebaev, Azimbek Beknazarov, and Bolotbek Sherniyazov, the protesters began their march in Tyup carrying flags and banners from the other main Kyrgyz opposition parties, including the For Justice movement and the Asaba (Flag) party. Several deputies from the opposition Social Democratic Party, including Isa Omurkulov and former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, also joined in the march, along with supporters of the Ar-Namys and Green parties. The recent agreement with Kazakhstan effectively ceded 4,000 hectares of the disputed area of Karkyra in the Issyk-Kul region to Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2008). The march was abruptly halted prior to reaching its planned destination after opposition leaders warned of the danger of bloodshed from a likely clash with police. RG

In an address to the sixth annual congress of judges in Bishkek, Kyrgyz President Bakiev criticized on April 25 judges and judicial officials for "unethical behavior," which he said is "unacceptable, no matter whether it is in a courtroom or other places outside the court," AKIpress reported. He noted "a large number of complaints about judges' actions," and added that some legislators are equally guilty of poor behavior. Bakiev then reminded his audience -- consisting largely of senior judges, members of the government and the parliament, governors, and the heads of district-level government -- that "the main point of judicial reform is to raise judges' legal awareness," adding that judges "needed to raise their status and to strengthen public confidence in courts," the website reported. RG

Arriving in Bishkek after an official visit to Kazakhstan (see above), OSCE Secretary-General de Brichambaut met on April 26 with Kyrgyz President Bakiev, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress. Bakiev assured de Brichambaut that cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and the OSCE is "developing quite successfully in the sphere of ensuring security, freedom of speech and economic development" and pledged that "Kyrgyzstan is strictly following the principles of democratic development" with an "active and strong civil society." He also stressed the creation of favorable conditions for the development of small and medium-sized businesses as a key priority of his government. In turn, de Brichambaut praised what he called "progress in democratic development" since his last visit to the country in 2007, pointing out that the "question related to a constitutional reform has been resolved and the parliamentary election was held successfully" in December 2007. De Brichambaut stressed, however, that Kyrgyzstan needs to further develop its democratic institutions, improve the activities of the customs service, and reform the judicial system. RG

In a formal annual address to a session of parliament in Dushanbe, President Emomali Rahmon outlined on April 25 his main priorities for domestic and foreign policy, Asia-Plus reported. Rahmon identified the energy sector as a main priority and said that the government intends to significantly increase its investment in implementing hydroelectricity projects over the next three years, pointing to plans to construct some 80 mini-hydropower plants in the country's more remote mountainous areas. He added that the state will step up efforts to seek private capital investment in state-run energy companies, with a focus on hydropower and thermal electric power stations, but he also called for new efforts to develop Tajikistan's strategic uranium resources, which he claimed could amount to between 13-14 percent of global uranium production. Turning to education, Rahmon stressed the necessity of enhancing the school system, which he criticized for providing a poor level of education, especially at the secondary-school level. His foreign-policy priorities included continued cooperation with Russia, China, and the United States, and he explained that Tajikistan is ready to expand relations with all countries, including Iran and Afghanistan, as part of a broad, "open-door foreign policy," Tajik Television reported. RG

At least 1,000 people marched on April 26 in Minsk to mark the 22nd anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine near the Belarusian border, Belapan reported. Police put the number of participants at no more than 750. The march, organized by Belarusian opposition supporters, began in front of the National Academy of Sciences, where politicians addressed the gathering. Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who leads the Movement For Freedom organization, said his group is circulating a petition urging the Belarusian government to scrap plans to build a nuclear power plant. Another opposition politician, Mikalay Statkevich, renewed criticisms of the Soviet-era authorities for their failure to promptly inform the public about the 1986 accident at Chornobyl, while Lyavon Barshcheuski, the leader of the Belarusian Popular Front, criticized the current government for ignoring widespread opposition to the nuclear power project. "We must solve the energy problem, but not through such methods," Barshcheuski said. The crowd then marched to a church built in memory of Chornobyl victims, where demonstrators observed a minute of silence and laid flowers at a monument commemorating those who died as a result of radiation-linked illnesses. Riot police deployed at the march route did not interfere. AM

During a visit to Homel Oblast on April 26, the anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka described opponents of a planned nuclear power plant in Belarus as "enemies of the people," Belapan reported. Lukashenka accused opposition politicians of capitalizing on the issue for political gains ahead of this year's parliamentary elections. "They will not manage to do this. I will not allow them to do this, using all resources and all the power that I have in my hands today," Lukashenka said. He said that the critics of the nuclear project "would have done just what I am doing, they would have supported me, if they truly cared about the welfare of our people." Lukashenka said that Belarus is surrounded by nuclear plants, and faces nuclear risks in any case. "Was the Chornobyl plant located on our territory? No. Who suffered most from this catastrophe? We, the Belarusians," he said. "Where is the guarantee that a plant in Russia, Ukraine, or even [elsewhere] in Europe is the safest? There are no such guarantees.... So why do we refuse to have a station of our own?" Lukashenka added that a Belarusian nuclear power plant would help the country to reduce its dependence "on oil and gas from one country." The Belarusian government in mid-January agreed to move toward the construction of a nuclear plant expected to start operating in 2018. AM

A district court in Minsk on April 25 fined Vyachaslau Hancharenka, the pastor of a Minsk-based Protestant community, 1.4 million rubles ($653) for collecting signatures in support of legislation liberalizing rules on religious organizations and mass events, Belapan reported. The court ruled that the organizers of the petition failed to apply to the Justice Ministry to receive approval of their draft legislation and permission to collect signatures. On April 22, the court fined opposition politician Pavel Sevyarynets on the same charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2008). The same day, a district court in Homel sentenced opposition youth activist Maryya Tulzhankova to seven days in jail for violating regulations on demonstrations. Tulzhankova on March 23 took part in an event marking the 90th anniversary of the Belarusian People's Republic. Earlier this month, the court sentenced six other people to jail terms or fines on the same charge (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2008). AM

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on April 25 once again introduced Andriy Portnov as the acting head of the State Property Fund, while President Viktor Yushchenko again reinstated Valentyna Semenyuk to the post, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The Cabinet of Ministers, which has criticized the State Property Fund for failing to make privatization measures fully transparent and disrupting the current government's privatization plan, attempted to replace Semenyuk with Portnov for the first time on February 6. The following day, Yushchenko overturned the government's dismissal of Semenyuk on the grounds that the move violated the constitution. Yushchenko argued that appointing officials to the State Property Fund is within the parliament's jurisdiction. On April 25, Tymoshenko again tried to remove Semenyuk based on a decision by a Kyiv court suspending Yushchenko's first decree. Speaking at the office of the State Property Fund, Tymoshenko said: "I am convinced that the president will fight corruption. And in this case Semenyuk, should be brought to account." After his nomination by Tymoshenko, Portnov signed an order to privatize the Odesa Portside Plant, Ukraine's second-largest chemical plant, the privatization of which was earlier suspended by Yushchenko on the grounds that it is not in Ukraine's national interest. Two hours after Portnov's nomination, Yushchenko issued decrees again reversing the government's decisions regarding both the head of the State Property Fund and the privatization of the Odesa Portside Plant. Tymoshenko ordered Portnov not to carry out the presidential decrees. AM

EU member states have agreed on the outlines of a compromise position on Serbia ahead of an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on April 29, although tough negotiations are still expected at the talks, international media reported. The deal would offer certain benefits to Serbia -- possibly including a timetable for visa-free travel -- while also accommodating a demand from Belgium and the Netherlands that Belgrade must prove its full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) before a premembership Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) can be signed. The EU aims to offer renewed support to the Democratic Party (DS) of President Boris Tadic and other Serbian parties seeking closer ties with the bloc. The Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica rejects such ties, saying Serbia cannot sign any agreement that does not explicitly reaffirm Serbia's sovereignty over Kosova. In light of Kostunica's demands, European countries that favor signing the SAA with Serbia now believe that offering the agreement would be counterproductive at this point; they are likely instead to offer the SAA in June, after Serbia's snap election on May 11. A Belgian Foreign Ministry spokesman told international media that his government could agree to such an offer on the condition that the SAA would only come into force only after Serbia demonstrates its full cooperation with the ICTY, a position that seems to be shared by the Netherlands. TV

EU foreign ministers will almost certainly offer an SAA to Bosnia when they meet on April 29, but the actual signing of the document will be delayed until the text of the agreement has been translated into the EU's official languages. The translations are expected to be ready on May 26, when the next monthly meeting of EU foreign ministers is scheduled, or else on June 16, the date of the last foreign ministers' meeting before France takes over the EU presidency from Slovenia. The signing of the SAA, the text of which was initialed last December, was made possible when Bosnia's parliament voted for a police reform package -- the last key condition Bosnia needed to meet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2008). The SAA is the first formal step in the lengthy process toward eventual EU membership. TV

When the Taliban began its rapid rise to power in Afghanistan in 1994, the vast majority of its members were young students of the Koran recruited from hundreds of madrasahs set up at Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Fourteen years later, the Taliban leadership and its supporters no longer consists of young students, as the movement has evolved into more of a network of divergent groups and individuals.

Drawn mostly from Afghanistan's majority Pashtun ethnic group, the original leadership of the Taliban chose the name for the movement because it denotes students of Islamic theology.

Barnett Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan and director of New York University's Center on International Cooperation, explains that the youngest of the original Taliban were Afghans who were born or grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

"The Taliban, of course, are an indigenous Afghan or Afghan-Pakistani organization which really grew up during the 20 years that there were millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan -- where the only education available for them was in madrasahs, often in [Pakistan's] tribal territories," Rubin says. "It recruited from those people and it really had a local agenda."

But the Taliban's supreme spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is much older. He was born sometime around 1959 in the village of Nodeh near Kandahar into a family of poor, landless members of the Hotak tribe -- one of many sub-tribes and clans within the Ghilzai branch of Pashtuns.

Omar became a village mullah in the Mewand district of Kandahar Province. He also fought against Afghan President Najibullah's communist regime from 1989 to 1992 as a member of Mohammad Yunus Khales' Hizb-e Islami -- a mujahedin group headquartered in Pakistan that had received Western aid and support during the 1980s that was channeled through elements of Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence (ISI).

Significantly, Mullah Omar's Ghilzai tribe is a historical adversary of another important ethnic-Pashtun group -- the Durrani tribe of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Antonio Giustozzi is a research fellow at the London School of Economics who has studied the evolution of the Taliban since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Giustozzi tells RFE/RL it would be wrong to consider today's Taliban a single ethnic group or tribe.

"I would basically describe it as a religious network which turned into a political movement," Giustozzi says. "And then they started expanding -- co-opting other religious networks, and then gradually going beyond those religious networks to start forming alliances with local communities or local power players."

He explains that the Taliban lacks a strong organizational structure and is essentially still a network based on personal relations between the leadership and people at the local level.

"Mullah Omar is not an authoritative leader," Giustozzi says. "He is more like a broker among different members of the leadership who may have differences over issues of how to fight the war or whether to negotiate or not. So in a sense, it is modeled from their experience as clerics."

In his recently published book, "Koran, Kalashnikov And Laptop: The Neo Taliban Insurgency In Afghanistan," Giustozzi describes how the Taliban leadership has recently embraced new strategies and technologies, including computers and suicide bombings. Giustozzi's book also describes how the Taliban has reorganized and adapted to changing political conditions in Afghanistan since 2002.

"Of course, the top leaders are people who have been with the Taliban for a long, long time. So in that sense, the very top leaders are still the same," Giustozzi explains. "What is new is that they are trying to incorporate new constituencies and, therefore, represent different tribes and communities. So as their constituencies change, they also adapt to those constituencies."

He says the original Taliban were largely Ghilzai, from the Ghilzai confederation, while in 2003 and 2004, the majority of the leadership were actually Durannis. "We actually are not totally sure today what the composition of their leadership is," Giustozzi adds. "But one can detect an attempt to represent the different constituencies at the level of the leadership."

Giustozzi also notes that the goals claimed by the Taliban have changed, along with its fighting tactics, as the security and political situation in the country has evolved. "Today, the Taliban are essentially a guerrilla movement, whereas in the 1990s -- even in the early days of 1994 or 1995 -- they were never something like that," Giustozzi says. "Even when they were fighting for power, they were not using these guerrilla tactics. They were more like an army moving along the highways and trying to occupy the provincial centers. In that sense, the main difference is the way they operate. It is not so easy to say what their actual aims are."

But he says that, too, might change. "Essentially, they say what they want is just to get the foreigners out of the country," Giustozzi explains. "But even in the early days, they were claiming that their main aim was to pacify the country and bring back law and order -- not to become a kind of government which would stay in power indefinitely, which, of course, proved not to be correct once they actually took Kabul."

As for ordinary Taliban foot soldiers, recent research suggests that the Taliban has been recruiting a younger generation of Afghans to carry out suicide attacks and to fight within its rank and file.

Working for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Christine Fair last year studied the phenomenon of suicide bombings across Afghanistan. Her work led to important conclusions not only about suicide bombers, but also about the emergence of this new generation of Taliban fighters.

"The important big picture is Afghans like to tell you that this is a Pakistani phenomenon," Fair says. "As we all know, there is Pakistani involvement. There is recruitment across the border. In the tribal areas, madrasahs figure prominently. But even if Pakistan went away, you still have a largely Afghan-driven insurgency."

Fair describes the situation as a "cross-border phenomenon," and says that "the insurgency is not going to be resolved if you think that the problem stops either at one side or the other of the Afghan border."

Her findings are supported by a series of interviews with Taliban fighters in Kandahar Province that was published online last month by the "Toronto Globe And Mail."

Those interviews suggest NATO air strikes and drug-eradication programs have fed the insurgency in southern Afghanistan. Many Taliban soldiers said their family members were killed in air strikes or that they had been opium-poppy farmers until their crops were destroyed by drug-eradication teams.

Some said family members who were killed were innocent civilians. Others admitted that they joined the insurgency to replace older male relatives who were killed while fighting in the Taliban ranks.

Paul Fishstein, the director of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent Kabul-based research organization that receives funding from the United Nations, the European Commission, and other international donors, says that researchers should be careful not to oversimplify the demographics of today's Taliban.

"We always have to be careful about referring to 'The Taliban,'" Fishstein says. "Often, anything violent -- anything bad that happens -- is attributed to either 'the enemies of Afghanistan' or, more generally, 'The Taliban.'"

Fishstein concludes that the structure of today's Taliban is complex -- and that foreign researchers often have difficulty understanding the rivalries and local agendas that have contributed to the resurgence of the movement.

"What we generically refer to as 'The Taliban' is a set of different individuals and groups who have differing grievances, differing motivations, differing attitudes -- and take a hostile attitude toward the [Afghan central] government," Fishstein says. "There's an awful lot of groups out there that either have personal grudges, political grudges, or actually profit from the lack of law and order in the country."

(Ron Synovitz is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

In an interview published in "The New York Times" on April 26, President Hamid Karzai criticized the U.S. and British conduct of the war in Afghanistan, saying that his government needs to be given the lead in policy decisions, Reuters reported. According to Karzai, Taliban members and their supporters are discouraged from coming forward and laying down their arms, because U.S. forces continue to arrest suspected Taliban members, and he wants that to stop. A local official said on April 27, however, that 24 Taliban insurgents, including a group commander, have surrendered to the government in the southern province of Kandahar, Xinhua news agency reported the same day. The rebels laid down their arms in Shah Wali Kot district. The government has encouraged insurgents to lay down their arms and join the government's effort to restore peace and reconstruct the war-torn country. Karzai said the real threat comes from Taliban and Al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan, and not in Afghan villages. "The sanctuaries must go, period," the newspaper quoted him as saying. Regarding civilian casualties, Karzai said: "I am not happy with civilian casualties coming down; I want an end to civilian casualties. As much as one may argue it's difficult, I don't accept that argument." Karzai also called for greater Afghan autonomy. "For the success of the world in Afghanistan, it would be better to recognize this inherent character in Afghanistan and work with it and support it," he said. AT

President Karzai survived an assassination attempt during a military parade in Kabul on April 27, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Alleged Taliban insurgents fired mortars and bullets at the dignitaries in the spectator stands, killing two people, a tribal chief and a parliamentarian, and injuring 11, officials said. Government ministers along with leaders of political factions were seen ducking for cover after gunfire sounded at the celebration. Live television coverage of the event was cut off shortly afterward. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and said that it disrupted the ceremony to show that it can carry out attacks anywhere in Afghanistan. "We cannot say Afghanistan is free. Afghanistan is still under the domination of infidels. This ceremony being held by mujahedin is baseless," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed said by telephone. Karzai appeared on national television within an hour and confirmed that arrests were made. "The enemy of Afghanistan, the enemy of the security and development of Afghanistan tried to disrupt the celebration and tried to create fear," he said. "Fortunately, the Afghan security forces surrounded them and some of the suspects were arrested, and, thank God, now everything is all right and the people of Afghanistan should be calm and confident." AT

According to Afghan officials, three police officers and four suspected Taliban were killed by bomb blasts on April 26, while 17 people, including a census official, were killed the day before, AFP reported on April 26. "Four terrorists were killed when the vehicle that they used to transport explosives for terrorist activities exploded. We think they were Taliban," Laghman Province spokesman Abdul Wakil Atak said. Local spokesman Rahmatullah Samoon reported that 15 Taliban rebels were killed in Paktia Province in a NATO air strike. He said the insurgents were preparing to attack a government compound when they were attacked. NATO has not confirmed its involvement, however. AT

News agencies reported a strong conservative showing on April 25 in a second round of parliamentary elections in Iran, although the conservative winners reportedly include both supporters and critics of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. According to AFP, conservative candidates won some 200 of Iran's 290 parliamentary seats, reformists won 50, and independent candidates 40. But AP reported a conservative majority of 170 out of 290 seats, with 117 of those seats going to Ahmadinejad allies. State authorities banned many reformists from running in the March 14 elections, which prompted some prominent candidates to withdraw in protest. VS

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on April 27 that Iran is willing to discuss any issue the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wishes to raise regarding its nuclear program, the Mehr news agency reported. But Hosseini added that Iran has already sufficiently responded to queries about alleged evidence that it has sought to develop nuclear weapons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2008). Hosseini said that the IAEA stated in late 2007 that such evidence was unverified, and agreed not to consider the purported weaponisation evidence as a separate issue from other discussions of Tehran's nuclear program. He added that Iran "will not accept any issue" for discussion outside the framework of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and its relations with the UN agency. IAEA deputy chief Olli Heinonen is reportedly due to return to Tehran on April 28 for further talks, agencies quoted an unnamed source close to the IAEA as saying on April 27. AFP reported that the talks will focus on bilateral cooperation, the IAEA's next report on Iran, and "differences of opinion between Iran and the IAEA." VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said on April 27 that he believes a U.S. attack on Iran is unlikely, and that the United States will probably not get involved in "another highly dangerous situation," IRNA reported. He noted the difficulties the United States military is facing in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as "the Americans' domestic problems." Hosseini apparently made the statement in response to recent comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said that another Middle East war would be "disastrous on a number of levels," Reuters reported on April 27. Hosseini also said the timing of another round of talks with the United States on Iraqi security will be announced in due course, IRNA reported. VS

Yahya Rahim-Safavi, the Iranian supreme leader's senior adviser on military affairs and a former head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, said on April 27 that oil and gas resources give Muslim countries power they should use "intelligently" to serve Islamic interests and put the "forceful and domineering powers...back in their place," the Fars news agency reported. He was speaking to a meeting of university geography department heads from the province of Tehran. He said regional groupings and international organizations increasingly help states achieve goals they could not achieve by themselves. Rahim-Safavi said that the "strategic passageways" and land and sea routes in the region mean Muslims have their finger on the world's "economic pulse," and that an Islamic common market and a single currency could turn the Middle East into a future "global power pole." "Understanding this situation, if it occurs, will undoubtedly provoke the terror and anger of America and the enemies of Islam and Muslims," Fars quoted Rahim-Safavi as saying. VS

Prison authorities in the city of Qom in north-central Iran on April 27 hanged two prisoners convicted of drug trafficking, AFP reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Iran has executed 72 people so far this year, according to AFP. Separately on April 26, the head of the antinarcotics police for the greater Tehran region, Javad Kashfi, said that police confiscated 6 tons of drugs in the Persian year to late March 2008, as well as some 1 million illegal pills and capsules, which he said was about 15 percent more than the previous year, "Iran" reported on April 27. Also on April 26, police killed a suspected trafficker in a shoot-out near the town of Rafsanjan in eastern Iran, arrested four other suspected traffickers, and confiscated more than 2,700 kilograms of opium, "Kayhan" reported the next day. One of those arrested was identified as a "bandit chief" called Kambiz, a police official from the Rasul-i Akram security base in eastern Iran told IRNA on April 26. The police official, Bahram Noruzi, said police also confiscated a number of cars, nine hand grenades, and seven rifles or machine guns, "Kayhan" reported. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told Al-Arabiyah television on April 25 that the government has four demands that all militias must abide by if they want to escape the government crackdown on armed elements. These are: surrendering heavy and medium weapons; noninterference in state affairs; noninterference in the tasks of the police and army in all areas of the country; and the handover of wanted persons "or lists of the ones you say are criminal gangs and you are innocent of them." The last point refers to rogue militia members, particularly from Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. Al-Maliki said that he made numerous attempts over several months to resolve the crisis with the Al-Mahdi Army before launching security operations in March in Al-Basrah and Baghdad. He added that although al-Sadr declared a cease-fire for his militia last year, rogue elements of the Al-Mahdi Army never abided by it, and their activities never stopped. He listed the activities as smuggling, demanding protection money from businesses, abductions, and killings. Al-Maliki added that he does not intend to hold negotiations with the Al-Mahdi Army or any other armed force. He also downplayed the ongoing security operations in Al-Sadr City. "Al-Sadr City is not at all besieged," he said. "All roads leading to the city are open. Foodstuffs and electricity are there 24 hours a day. The ration cards continue to be used...traffic is open for anyone who wants to go there and return from there." He accused "Iran, foreign parties and organizations, and other countries" of interfering in Iraq and supporting armed groups there. KR

Salih al-Ubaydi, al-Sadr's official spokesman, rejected al-Maliki's conditions in an April 26 interview with Al-Arabiyah television. "Before we begin speaking about the conditions, we need to discuss the variables and the ground on which the prime minister stood when giving these conditions. [Al-Maliki] actually stood on quicksand rather than on solid ground. The variables are incorrect and false. During his meeting yesterday, he said that there is no targeting of Sadrists either politically or physically, which was proven to be untrue," al-Ubaydi contended. "If the ground that al-Maliki based his conditions on is incorrect, then why are we discussing these terms?" he asked. "He who wants to present his terms needs to be strong and capable of presenting or doing something." KR

Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr issued a statement on April 25 reiterating that his threat of launching an "open war" is directed against the so-called occupation forces, and not against the Iraqi government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 21, 2008). He warned the government not to interfere "in favor of the occupier," saying, "We want to liberate you and your that our government can have a full, credible sovereignty." "We will not allow anybody to consider the antioccupation resistance a crime," he added. Al-Sadr praised police and army personnel who refused to fight the Al-Mahdi Army in Al-Basrah, and praised Al-Mahdi militiamen for their patience. "You waged a holy war when you were ordered and you took patience and committed yourselves to the [cease-fire], but the enemy is waiting for you to meet disaster," he told the militia. Finally, he called on Iraqi security forces to support his goals. "We must be one hand to fight the unbelievers ideologically, culturally, and militarily." Al-Sadr spokesman al-Ubaydi told RFE/RL on April 22 that the "open war" will target coalition forces, not Iraqi forces (see "Iraq: Al-Sadr's Militia 'Won't Fight' Government,", April 22, 2008). A parliamentary delegation toured Al-Sadr City on April 27 and called on the government to halt military operations, which are reportedly taking a toll on the civilian population. Fifty-eight people, including five children and eight women, were injured in clashes there on April 27, AP reported on April 28. Parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani announced the same day that al-Sadr representatives have agreed to meet with the Executive Council, which is comprised of the president, both vice presidents, and the prime minister. KR

Rival Iraqi factions concluded a three-day meeting in Finland on April 27 to discuss ways to end ongoing sectarian and political disputes, AP reported the same day. Thirty-six Iraqis took part in the talks, although it is unclear whether representatives of the so-called resistance were present. Those identified as having attended the meeting all hold positions within the Iraqi government and represent political parties that are currently aligned in government, including State Minister for National Dialogue Akram al-Hakim, Kurdish lawmaker and regional parliament speaker Fu'ad Ma'sum, Shi'ite legislator Ali al-Adib, and Sunni legislator Usama al-Tikriti. The participants agreed to hold a follow-up meeting in Baghdad in three months. "I am satisfied with the progress we have achieved in the difficult circumstances of our ongoing conflict and trust that we can achieve more in the coming months," said one participant, legislator Humam Hammudi, who chairs the Constitutional Review Committee in parliament. The meeting is the second of its kind to be sponsored by the Crisis Management Initiative, which is headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). KR

The heads of several parliamentary blocs met at the Dukan summer resort in Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate on April 25 to discuss ongoing political developments, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on April 26. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker attended the meeting. The main topic of the meeting was to discuss the revision of the cabinet and the formation of a national-unity government. The leaders also discussed the need to reach political settlements and agree on a new political platform. "The important issue here is to reach national accord on the common basic national principles.... We should focus on general national issues and should not be wasting our potential, efforts, and energy on minor differences," Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said at the meeting. Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who also attended the talks, said that he will not rejoin the government until it truly commits to ending the sectarian quota system. Allawi told Al-Sharqiyah that he does not believe there is a genuine desire on the part of the government to allow marginalized parties to take part in the decision-making process. KR