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Newsline - April 29, 2008

The U.S.-based NGO Freedom House on April 29 released its annual assessment of media freedom around the world, noting that Russia "saw continued and substantial decline" in 2007, "The Moscow Times" and other media reported. The country was rated "Not Free," on a par with Sudan, Yemen, Kazakhstan, and others. "Lively but cautious political debate was increasingly limited to glossy weekly magazines and news websites only available to urban, educated, and affluent audiences," the report says. The NGO noted that media freedom has been on the decline throughout most of the former Soviet Union, with worsening conditions for journalists being noted in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, and Turkmenistan. RC

President Vladimir Putin on April 28 held his penultimate meeting as president with key members of the cabinet, Russian media reported. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted that Putin was "sharp, demanding, and meticulous." Putin quizzed Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak on his ministry's work to improve the water-supply infrastructure. Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov reported on the visit to Sochi of a delegation from the International Olympic Committee (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2008). "Moskovsky komsomolets" on April 29 published a summary of Putin's eight years as president, noting that on average he held 145 meetings with foreign heads of state each year. He issued 1,393 foreign-policy-related statements. He participated in 64 summits involving countries from the Commonwealth of Independent States, 17 EU-Russia summits, eight G8 summits, eight meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and addressed three sessions of the UN General Assembly. He made 192 foreign trips to 74 countries. RC

"Vedomosti" reported on April 29 that eight regional leaders have met in the Kremlin with President-elect Dmitry Medvedev since his election on March 2. They were Sakhalin Oblast Governor Aleksandr Khoroshavin, Tyumen Oblast Governor Vladimir Yakushev, Ivanov Oblast Governor Mikhail Men, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov, North Ossetia President Taimuraz Mamsurov, Primorsky Krai Governor Sergei Darkin, and Yaroslavl Oblast Governor Sergei Vakhrukov. The daily reported that all eight received verbal expressions of support from Medvedev. Political analyst Mikhail Vonogradov, however, told the daily he believes decisions regarding the heads of federation subjects will remain Putin's prerogative as prime minister. RC

Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller held talks in Rome on April 28 with outgoing Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Paolo Scaroni, CEO of the Italian energy giant ENI, on various issues, including the South Stream natural-gas pipeline, which will deliver as much as 31 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to Europe. Prodi, meanwhile, turned down an offer from Gazprom to become South Stream's chairman. His spokesman Silvio Sircana said Prodi "was extremely flattered, but reiterated that he wants to take some time off to ponder after leaving Italian politics," "The Wall Street Journal" reported on April 29. The newspaper quoted Sircana as saying that Prodi, who is set to step down as Italy's prime minister when a new government is formed in May, was approached by outgoing Russian President Putin on April 4 during the NATO summit meeting in Bucharest. "Vremya novostei" reported on April 29 that the Russian government apparently thought it could repeat the success it had in convincing Gerhard Schroeder to become chairman of the Nord Stream pipeline project after he stepped down as Germany's chancellor in 2005. "It's not so important precisely who came up with the idea to hire Romano Prodi as head of South Stream," the paper noted. "It is obvious that it was considered and agreed to in the Kremlin and Gazprom. It is obvious that they decided that Prodi would be no more scrupulous in his ties than...Schroeder." As "The Wall Street Journal" wrote of the failed attempt to recruit Prodi: "Gazprom's desire to add political firepower is an indication of the growing unease stirred up by the company's rapid expansion into Europe. Politicians in Brussels and Washington are concerned that Europe is becoming too dependent on energy from Russia." JB

A second round of talks between acting Russian Security Council Secretary Valentin Sobolev, and Said Jalili, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, is set to take place on April 29 in Tehran, RIA Novosti reported on April 29. On April 28, Sobolev and Jalili, who is Iran's top nuclear negotiator, discussed issues of bilateral cooperation and current international and regional problems, and Jalili presented Sobolev with a "packet of proposals" on resolving a variety of global problems, including those connected to fighting the threat of nuclear proliferation, RIA Novosti reported. Sobolev said the talks "are of a peaceful nature and are not directed against any third countries" and that he hoped they would help "advance Iranian-Russian relations." AP, citing Iranian state media, reported on April 28 that the two sides discussed the outlines of "serious proposals" aimed at assuring the international community that Tehran's nuclear program is peaceful. Jalili did not provide details of the proposals, but said Tehran will soon unveil them publicly. "The Islamic Republic of Iran has serious proposals about what to do to reduce threats resulting from the nuclear issue to the minimum," Jalili was quoted as saying by Iran's official news agency IRNA. Also on April 28, Gholamreza Aqazadeh, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told a news conference that the package of proposals is "a comprehensive plan" addressed to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. Aqazadeh said the package was discussed on April 28 with Sobolev during his visit to Iran but was addressed to the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China, AP reported. JB

Speaking to the U.S. Peace Corps' 2008 Worldwide Country Director Conference in Washington on April 28, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice commented on democratization in the former Soviet Union, including Russia. According to a transcript provided by the State Department's website, Rice said that in areas like the former Soviet Union, there "are times when it feels as if the democratic process is just an inexorable wave moving forward," such as the period of 1989-1991 and in 2005, with the Orange and Rose revolutions, and times when things "level off for a while." She added that "when people's expectations are raised that they're going to have real choices, democratic choices, for leadership, when people get accustomed to circumstances in which their personal freedoms are not abridged, if you can find the support in civil society, if you can find the support in nongovernmental organizations, if the United States stays with that program, I believe you'll see another step up." This is true for Russia, said Rice. "You know, I was in Moscow as a graduate student in 1979," she said. "Russia is not the Soviet Union. Let me be very certain for you. I was in the Soviet Union. I knew the Soviet Union. Russia is not the Soviet Union. And Russians have certain expectations about personal freedoms. They have certain expectations about economic freedoms. I think it's going to make a difference in the long run, maybe even the medium term, to what kinds of politics is actually tolerated in Russia." JB

First Deputy Prime Minister Ummapazil Omarova chaired a session of the government Commission for the Problems of the Russian-Language Population on April 25 in Makhachkala to assess progress in implementing a program adopted in July 2003 on improving social and economic conditions in three northern raions where the population is predominantly Russian, and reported. Speakers at the session admitted that some measures envisaged in the 2003 program have been implemented only partially or not at all, and many villages in the area remain without gas, electricity, or mains water. Lack of employment opportunities and the failure of local authorities in Kizlyar to allocate land plots were identified as key contributing factors to the outmigration of the Russian minority, which decreased in size from over 150,000 in 1989 to 121,000 at the time of the 2002 census. Russians are currently the sixth-largest ethnic group in Daghestan, accounting for less than 5 percent of the total population. LF

The independent website on April 27 summarized the findings of a poll it conducted between March 3-April 27 on how to coerce the republic's leadership to take measures to curtail corruption and human rights abuses. Of a total of 2,333 respondents, 39.3 percent advocated staging protest demonstrations, but almost as many -- 38 percent -- favored "other means," a formula that in the context does not preclude violence or other unconstitutional actions. LF

The new cabinet headed by Tigran Sarkisian presented its draft program to the parliament on April 28, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and reported. Sarkisian listed five key priorities: ensuring stable economic development; building a "civil society anchored in democratic values" and establishing a system of corporate governance on the national and local level; developing education and science; seeking to minimize the discrepancies in economic development between various regions; and implementing an ambitious socio-economic agenda that encompasses a drastic reduction in the poverty level. Economy Minister Nerses Yeritsian predicted annual GDP growth of between 8-10 percent for the period 2008-12, together with an annual increase in investment of 10 percent. LF

Raffi Hovannisian, who served as foreign minister in 1992-93 under President Levon Ter-Petrossian and who now heads the opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on April 28 that he has tried but failed to mediate a dialogue between current President Serzh Sarkisian and Ter-Petrossian, Sarkisian's closest challenger in the disputed February 19 presidential ballot. Hovannisian said that Ter-Petrossian pegged his participation in such talks to the release of dozens of his supporters detained in the wake of violent clashes with police and security forces in Yerevan on March 1-2, while Sarkisian "set a precondition relating to another," unspecified sphere. Hovannisian commented that while he has seen "occasional pleasant statements and stated commitments," there is no concomitant "evidence of good will" on the part of the authorities. Also on April 28, the head of one of numerous NGOs that supported Ter-Petrossian's presidential bid told RFE/RL that the Yerevan municipal authorities have rejected their request to hold an outdoor rally in Yerevan on May 5, while granting permission for Ter-Petrossian to hold a meeting on May 2 at a government conference center of representatives of the two dozen groups that support him. LF

Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibragim told journalists in Baku on April 28 that the documentation accompanying the consignment of Russian equipment for the nuclear power plant under construction in Bushehr, Iran, was incomplete, but that Azerbaijan will "take the appropriate steps" with regard to the impounded shipment as soon as Russia clarifies the nature of the equipment in question, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 22, 24, and 28, 2008). Also on April 28, acting Russian Security Council Secretary Valentin Sobolev, who is in Tehran for talks with the Iranian authorities (see "Russia" above), said that Russia fully complied with customs procedures relating to the shipment, while U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told journalists in Washington that Russia and Azerbaijan should resolve the deadlock over the consignment in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions aimed at precluding the export of materials that could be used for "illicit purposes," presumably meaning the manufacture of nuclear weapons. LF

Georgia has suspended talks with Russia, which were to resume in Geneva on April 28, on the conditions under which Georgia will approve Russia's bid for membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO), reported on April 29, quoting Deputy Economy Minister Tamar Kovziridze. She said Georgian representatives will not return to the negotiating table until President Vladimir Putin's instructions to the Russian government to expand economic ties with the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are rescinded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2008). On April 28, NATO issued a statement following talks in Brussels between NATO ambassadors and former Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze affirming "strong support" for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the ambassadors' shared "view that Russian should reverse recent steps which undermine that sovereignty." The ambassadors "also described statements by Russian officials and political figures considering the possible use of force by Russia in Georgian territory as unhelpful." LF

Ambassador Heikki Talvitie, who is the special envoy of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) chairman in office, met in Tbilisi on April 28 with senior Georgian officials to assess the implications of the recent Russian moves with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili said after those talks that Georgia has invoked the OSCE's rarely used Bucharest format, under which it is entitled to demand from Russia an explanation for the shooting down on April 20 of a Georgian reconnaissance drone, allegedly by a Russian MiG fighter. (An expert quoted on April 29 by pointed to two major flaws in the Georgian version of that incident: Georgian video footage showed the drone hit by a missile over a large expanse of water, calling into question how the Abkhaz managed to retrieve from the Black Sea within hours and demonstrate to journalists what they claimed were the remains. The expert also claimed the MiG was an export model and not that generally used by the Russian Air Force.) Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Giorgi Vashadze said Tbilisi asked Talvitie to insist that international inspectors be granted access to the Russian military base and airfield in Gudauta, which Russia claims to have vacated in accordance with a commitment made at the 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul. LF

Ruslan Kishmaria, who is de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh's representative in Abkhazia's southernmost Gail Raion, denied on April 28 Georgian media reports that the office in Gali of the Danish Refugee Council was fired on earlier that day, reported. The Georgia-based Abkhaz government in exile claimed that up to 12 armed men first opened fire on the building and then attacked and beat up a security guard. LF

Meeting with local residents in the southern city of Shymkent, a group of Kazakh parliamentarians presented on April 28 a new, more restrictive draft law on the freedom of conscience and governing the activities of religious groups, Khabar Television reported. Locals generally praised the deputies for their attempt to curtail the activities of some of the nontraditional religious groups operating in Kazakhstan, including the Jehovah's Witnesses. One of the deputies, Berik Bekzhanov, told the meeting that the draft law also aims to curb the activities of missionaries in the area, which he criticized as "undermining family traditions and social principles." The deputies argued that the existing law on religious activity is "too flexible," and asserted that "some religious organizations have started posing a threat to the principles of tolerance and interreligious accord." RG

In a meeting with senior presidential-administration officials in Bishkek, President Kurmanbek Bakiev on April 28 ordered the head of the presidential administration, Medet Sadyrkulov, and National Security Council Secretary Tokon Mamytov to ensure that stricter controls over state spending are adhered to by all government agencies and ministries, Kabar reported. Bakiev highlighted the need to impose greater control over state spending in the education, social, and health-care sectors and warned that any officials involved in "cases of the inappropriate use of state funds will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." Bakiev also reviewed detailed plans for public activities set for May 5 to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the adoption of the Kyrgyz Constitution. RG

Former Osh Oblast Deputy Governor Kushbak Tezekbaev was sentenced on April 28 to five years in prison after being convicted of corruption, abuse of office, and embezzlement, AKIpress reported. A district court in the southwestern Jalal-Abad region handed down the sentence and ordered that Tezekbaev serve his sentence in a medium-security prison. Tezekbaev was first arrested in July 2007 after he was caught embezzling over 1 million soms ($26,000) sent by the Moscow city authorities as aid for people made homeless in an earthquake in early 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2007). Seitkasym Jeenbekov, an associate of Tezekbaev and the financial and logistical division chief of the Osh Oblast administration, and Timur Kamchybekov also appeared before the court on April 28 and received a 3-year and 1-year suspended sentence, respectively. RG

On his first-ever state visit to Afghanistan, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov met on April 28 in Kabul with his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, and signed a set of bilateral agreements on energy, transport, and culture, ITAR-TASS and AFP reported. The new energy agreement calls for the construction of a new natural-gas pipeline to transport Turkmen gas through Afghanistan and on to Pakistan and India. Speaking to reporters following the meeting, Afghan presidential spokesman Siamak Herawi explained that the energy agreement also provides Turkmenistan with exploration rights in several oil and gas reserves in Afghanistan. The state visit is the latest in a series of moves by Berdymukhammedov to bolster relations with Afghanistan, following the Turkmen decision to write off some $4 million in Afghan debt and the donation of $300,000 worth of free electricity to Afghan regions along the 90-kilometer-long Turkmen-Afghan border, Turkmen Television reported. RG

The website of RFE/RL's Belarus Service remained unavailable from the afternoon of April 26 to the morning of April 28 due to a denial-of-service attack, RFE/RL reported. The attack, which coincided with marking by the Belarusian opposition of the 22nd anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster near the Belarusian border, also affected the availability of other RFE/RL websites. The director of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Alyaksandr Lukashuk, said that the website was bombarded with a huge amount of fake requests that exhausted the capabilities of the server and made the website unavailable to visitors. However, the attack brought about a show of solidarity among the electronic media in Belarus. "At least 30 independent organizations and websites became our volunteers. They were printing and publishing coverage of our journalists as their top stories," Lukashuk said. AM

During a visit to a heavily contaminated area near Khoyniki, in Homel Oblast, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said that all Chornobyl-related problems will be solved in Belarus within the next five years, Belapan reported on April 28. Lukashenka cited the government's efforts to revitalize districts affected by the fallout from the accident. "Some time has passed and we see renovated towns here. The mortality rate has dropped by 20 percent and the birthrate has gone up in these districts. People have made up their mind. They are wiser than us, we should simply not traumatize them," Lukashenka said. Lukashenka accused the country's previous leadership of failing to help people living in contaminated areas. "We have managed to change this mind-set. We have explained to the people that we will not abandon them, but provide necessary support," he added. AM

A district court in Homel on April 28 sentenced opposition activist Syarhey Tryfanau to 10 days in jail for violating regulations on demonstrations, Belapan reported. Tryfanau took part in an April 23 commemorative event marking the 90th anniversary of the Belarusian People's Republic. He was arrested on April 25 and held in a detention center until his trial. Tryfanau is the eighth person sentenced on this charge since the demonstrations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24 and 28, 2008). AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on April 28 told her Russian counterpart Viktor Zubkov in Kyiv that Ukraine has paid off its debts for gas delivered to Ukraine by Russia, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "Over these past three months, we have been able to smooth out our relations, sign new contracts, and build practically a direct relationship [without intermediaries]," Tymoshenko said. "Today we sent our last payment [to Russia], which fully settles [Ukraine's] total debt for natural gas. And we can say at this time that Ukraine has paid off all of its debts," she said. Zubkov said that the settlement of the debt "opens the way to further developing solid cooperation in the gas sector and building a relationship for many years to come, with understandable, transparent contracts for gas supply and gas transit through Ukrainian territory." Zubkov did not provide further details. Neither prime minister said how much the debt amounted to. Previously, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said that Ukraine owed some $2 billion to Russia for gas consumed in 2008, but Tymoshenko denied that it was so much, instead citing a figure of nearly $900 million. AM

A Ukrainian helicopter on April 28 crashed into an offshore drilling platform in the Black Sea, killing all 20 people on board, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. One man initially survived, but later died from his injuries. The helicopter clipped the platform with its tail rotor, plummeted, and burst into flames. Transportation Minister Yosyp Vinskyy said that the accident is under investigation, but the most likely reason for the crash is the "human factor." A similar accident happened a month ago, when a helicopter belonging to the border-guard service crashed into the Black Sea, killing 13 people. AM

Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Bart Rijs has told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service that there is no agreement yet among EU foreign ministers -- scheduled to meet in Luxembourg for their monthly talks on April 29 -- on whether to offer Serbia a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), a first step toward EU membership. "I think it is much too early to say what the common position of the European Union will be, which will be formulated tomorrow," Rijs said on April 28. The Netherlands and Belgium, the last two EU member states to insist on full Serbian cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) as a precondition for signing the SAA, earlier put forward a compromise proposal under which Serbia would now be offered a date to sign the SAA -- June 16 -- after the early parliamentary elections to be held on May 11, but still on condition of full cooperation with the ICTY. But on April 28, the EU's Slovenian presidency cast doubt on the proposal, and the Dutch Foreign Ministry also downplayed the reported deal. Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel told reporters on April 28, "We are still trying to find a solution that would satisfy both the Serbs and the Dutch and the Belgians and all of us, and as you can understand, this is difficult." Rijs also told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service: "We are still discussing a common position with the presidency of the EU and with other European partners. For the result we will have to wait until tomorrow." Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic is expected to attend the meeting of EU foreign ministers. TV

Local police in Kosova's Gjilan region, near the border with Macedonia, found high-caliber weapons and large amounts of ammunition in a car they checked on April 28, local and international media reported. Four Kosovar Albanians in the car were arrested. The cache included 90 mortar rounds, 47 rocket-propelled grenades, and antiaircraft machine guns, police said. The car was apparently on its way to Macedonia. In 2001, Serbia ceded a sliver of land along the border to Macedonia, which Kosovar authorities opposed, saying Serbia had no right to make such a deal. Armed masked men have recently been in evidence on the Kosovar side of the border, according to local reports, threatening to take up arms to fight for the territory. The local police and NATO peacekeepers deny any unusual activity in the region. TV

Speaking on April 26 on Moldovan television, Vladimir Voronin condemned the April 17 assertion by Romanian President Trajan Basescu that unspecified circles in Ukraine are discussing a possible territorial claim on the disputed Transdniester republic, reported on April 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 21, 2008). Voronin said that such "meddling" on the part of the Romanian leadership "creates a huge obstacle" to resolving the Transdniester conflict, and he accused Bucharest of routinely seeking to thwart any progress made toward such a settlement. He said Moldova and Ukraine have established "constructive relations" and are ready to cooperate in seeking to resolve the conflict. Ukraine is a member of the so-called 5+2 group engaged in doing so. LF

Sakha (formerly known as Yakutia), the vast and resource-rich republic in the Russian Far East, could become the next "hot spot" if the Kremlin follows its current approach and appoints an outsider as that region's next leader, rather than promoting someone from within, according to Russian analyst Dmitry Verkhoturov, who specializes in Russian regional affairs. In an April 25 essay (, Verkhoturov discusses Moscow's policy of appointing outsiders to head regional government, demonstrates why that approach has generally worked to the central government's advantage, and then explains why it would almost certainly backfire in Sakha.

Since President Vladimir Putin abolished elections for federation-subject heads in late 2004, he has generally named people from distant regions to take the top job. That has been the case, for example, in Buryatia, Arkhangelsk, Kostroma, Amur, and Irkutsk. Only in Sakhalin, Smolensk, Tula, and Kamchatka did he promote from within. It appears, Verkhoturov suggests, that Putin wants as the heads of regions people who do not have local ties or support that they might use to develop independent power bases, and who are thus dependent on the federal leadership and Unified Russia, and whose earlier jobs were of so much lower status -- often mayoralties -- that they will remain grateful for promotion, and therefore loyal.

But the situation in Sakha, Verkhoturov argues, is sufficiently different to warrant a change in the Kremlin's approach. While Sakha Republic Governor Vyacheslav Shtyrov was reconfirmed only in 2006, people there and in Moscow "understand" that his real term is coming to an end. On the one hand, he has fought with Moscow over diamonds, and with the former mayor of Yakutsk over power. And on the other, he did not deliver a high enough percentage of votes for Unified Russia in the December State Duma elections. Moreover, many in Moscow are concerned about the growth of "protest" movements in Sakha, which is one of the largest donor regions of the country, a trend that if it continues might call that flow of cash into question. Consequently, it is clear that Moscow wants to find someone new to replace Shtyrov.

If the Kremlin follows the course it has adopted elsewhere, the new leader almost certainly would come from the western or northwestern portion. Verkhoturov for his part says that he personally thinks the appointee would probably be transferred from one of the regions or cities in the Northwest Federal District. Installing such an outsider would not be a problem: the new man would simply learn a few phrases of the Sakha language, just like the outsider who was appointed president of Buryatia learned a few words in Buryat. And "it is not excluded that with this [his] sympathy for the [Sakha] would end."

But if Moscow proceeds in that way, there are three reasons to believe that the situation in Sakha would quickly deteriorate. First, the major companies in Sakha have no real place for ethnic-Sakha executives at the highest levels. Consequently, without a political representative, many Sakha would feel excluded and thus more ready to listen to nationalistic criticism.

Second, these large mining concerns (diamonds, gold, tin, and uranium) have taken the highly unpopular step of inviting in a sizeable contingent of ethnic-Chinese guest workers, a policy that has infuriated both the Sakha and the ethnic Russians living among them. Imposing someone on Sakha who has no ties to either group could lead to the intensification of these feelings.

And third, and this is Verkhoturov's most compelling argument: Moscow needs to recognize that Sakha is not like the other non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation. The Sakha, "unlike the majority of non-Russian peoples of Russia, have to a large extent preserved their culture, language...and their unity." (The Sakha are a Turkic people and constitute the largest ethnic group in their republic. At the time of the 2002 census, they accounted for 45.54 percent of the population of 949,280, followed by the Russians with 41.15 percent.)

Consequently, Verkhoturov continues, "the assignment to the republic of an outsider, who comes from far away and does not understand the Sakha mentality, and who will become the agent of the companies in the raw-materials colonization of the region, will inevitably call forth a sharp outburst of nationalism." That danger is all the greater because of the unresolved social and economic problems in that enormous republic. If social conflicts multiply, and if the new "outsider" republic head engages in social demagogy with phrases like "'life has become better, life has become happier,'" then "this northern region could become the new Russian 'hot spot.'"

All Moscow has to do to avoid such a course of events, Verkhoturov suggests, is to allow the Sakha to have one of their own as president of the republic, and thereby ensure that their voice is heard in the front offices of the natural-resources-extraction companies working there. If the Kremlin does that, Sakha will not become a problem, but rather will be a loyal federation subject.

(Paul Goble is a specialist on Russian history who served as publisher of "RFE/RL Newsline" from 1997-2001.)

Afghanistan began investigations on April 28 into how insurgents could get close enough to President Hamid Karzai and other dignitaries at a military parade in Kabul to carry out an attack that left three Afghans dead, AFP reported on April 28. The parade was intended to show the Afghan National Army's growing strength, and took weeks of preparation. The Taliban, who claimed responsibility for the attack, said that its purpose was to prove that it has the power to hit even the country's most important annual military parade. Karzai immediately ordered an investigation to find out how the militants violated security to fire bullets as well as launch rockets behind the stage where he and a host of Afghan and foreign dignitaries were seated. Defense Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak told reporters: "First, it will investigate the plot and identify those behind the attack...and second it will find out where the problem in providing security lay." The inquiry team will include the Defense and Interior ministries, the intelligence agency, and the presidential security guard. However, the Afghan security forces were praised for their quick response; soon after the attack, they shot and killed three attackers in a building about a kilometer from the stage. The insurgents killed a legislator and a tribal leader, and wounded about 10 other people, the Defense Ministry said. A 10-year-old boy was also killed in the crossfire. AT

The discovery that German intelligence spied on an Afghan minister has disappointed Kabul, but the incident will not harm future ties between the two countries, Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Bahin has said, AFP reported on April 27. Bahin told AFP that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called his Afghan counterpart to apologize, and said that those involved will be fired or transferred. German media revealed last week that the country's intelligence service illegally monitored e-mail correspondence between Commerce Minister Mohammad Amin Farhang and a reporter for the German news weekly "Der Spiegel" in 2006. Bahin said that the Afghan government has been assured that "this was the only case and it would not be repeated." "We are very sad about this issue, especially from a friendly government," he added. Farhang declined to comment. The incident sparked sharp criticism by a German parliamentary commission of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND). While it is unclear why the BND spied on Farhang, who has a German passport and once lived in Germany, "Der Spiegel" said he has been a confidential source for several of its articles in recent years. AT

Chief of Defense Air Marshal Angus Houston said on April 28 that an Australian soldier has been killed in southern Afghanistan by Taliban insurgents, according to the Australian Associated Press. Lance Corporal Jason Marks, 27, was killed when insurgents attacked his patrol. "He died during the conduct of a patrol which was engaged by Taliban extremists in Oruzgan Province," Houston told a press conference in the Australian capital, Canberra. Four other soldiers were wounded but their injuries are not life-threatening. AT

The acting secretary of the Russian Security Council, Valentin Sobolev, discussed Iran's nuclear program with officials in Tehran on April 28, including what Tehran has called a comprehensive set of Iranian proposals to reassure the international community on the goals of the program, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili said after meeting with Sobolev that Iran will reveal details of the plan later, but he said it could provide a "good subject for discussion" with the 5+1 powers -- the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, which have led efforts to coerce Iran to curb and clarify its nuclear activities. Jalili said Iran is ready to talk and has "serious proposals" intended to minimize "threats" surrounding the nuclear issue. The two sides also discussed the delay to the delivery of parts for the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which Russia has helped build in southern Iran, that have been halted by Azerbaijani officials on the border with Iran, Radio Farda reported. The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aqazadeh, said in Tehran on April 28 that Iran's proposals are intended to show its readiness "to cooperate with all its capacity to resolve the remaining issues" concerning its program, AP reported. Iran is being pressured to clarify or verify recent information presented by UN nuclear inspectors indicating past efforts to develop nuclear weapons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24 and 28, 2008). VS

Western diplomats meeting in Geneva on April 28 cited Iran and Syria as examples of the danger of nuclear proliferation under the present Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), prompting an angry reply from Iran's envoy at a nonproliferation conference, Reuters reported. At the start of a two-week conference to discuss the NPT, the EU condemned Iran's defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. These have asked Iran to curb sensitive nuclear fuel-production activities and to clarify the recent evidence of the "weaponization" of its nuclear program. Andrej Logar, the Slovenian envoy representing the EU at the conference, said, "the EU is resolved not to allow Iran to acquire military nuclear capabilities and to remove any proliferation risks posed by" Iran's program, Reuters reported. Iranian envoy Mohammad Taqi Hosseini denounced -- reportedly speaking out of turn -- "lengthy and exaggerated allegations that distort the truth" about Iran's uranium-enrichment activities. He insisted that Iran is abiding by its NPT obligations. Separately, the British Foreign Office stated on April 28 that Foreign Secretary David Miliband is to host a meeting of the 5+1 powers in London soon to discuss Iran's nuclear program, AFP reported. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to attend the meeting, it added. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad stopped in Pakistan on April 28 where he held brief but "very cordial and useful meetings" with President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, IRNA reported. Musharraf and Ahmadinejad discussed boosting trade and finalizing an agreement on a natural-gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan. Later the same day in Colombo, Ahmadinejad signed five agreements with Sri Lanka, including on helping to develop an oil refinery there, and on financing the construction of a dam and hydroelectric power plant, IRNA reported. VS

Prosecutor-General Qorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi has warned of the harmful cultural effects on Iranian children of Western games and toys such a Barbie, Batman, and Spider-Man dolls, Radio Farda reported on April 28, citing Iranian news agencies. He warned in a letter to First Vice President Parviz Davudi that these and other dangerous products such as video games should set off "the alarm bells for all state officials," Radio Farda reported. "We have to find a replacement to counter this attack targeting children and youngsters." Dorri-Najafabadi called for measures to safeguard the "Islamic and revolutionary culture and values" and help ensure "the survival of toy factories in Iran." He said such Western toys do not "respect the right criteria" -- presumably in terms of morality and conduct -- Radio Farda reported. VS

Eight senior members of Saddam Hussein's regime are to stand trial on April 29 for the 1992 killing of 42 businessmen accused of hiking prices on key commodities at a time when Iraq was under international sanctions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2008). The most high-profile defendant in the case is former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who has been in coalition custody since 2003. This is the first case before the High Tribunal in which Aziz has been charged with a crime. "There is no credible evidence against Aziz," his lawyer Badia Arif told Reuters on April 29. "The prosecution assumes that just because [Aziz] was a member of [Hussein's] Revolutionary Command Council, which carried out the death sentences, he is guilty." Aziz's son, Ziyad Tariq Aziz, told Al-Jazeera television on April 29 that his father sent a letter through his lawyer a day earlier saying the trial is a prosecution of persons and symbols of the former regime, rather than a trial based on hard facts. Other defendants in the case include Watban Ibrahim al-Hasan, Hussein's half-brother, who served as interior minister at the time of the executions; Sab'awi Ibrahim al-Hasan, Hussein's other half-brother and the former head of Iraqi intelligence; former Defense Minister Ali Hasan al-Majid; Mizban Khadir Hadi, a former member of the Revolutionary Command Council; Ahmad Husayn Khudayyir, chief of Hussein's presidential office; Abd Hamid Mahmud, Hussein's personal secretary; and former Central Bank Governor Isam Rashid Huwaysh. KR

The Iraqi government is considering reinstating the draft, saying it is necessary in light of the current security conditions, Iraqi media reported on April 28. Under Saddam Hussein's regime, military service was compulsory, and most draft dodgers were imprisoned or severely punished, though few families were able to pay bribes to get permission for their sons not to serve. Conscription was banned under the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority and subsequently declared illegal in the constitution, which calls for a volunteer army. Hadi al-Amiri, chairman of the parliament's Defense and Security Committee, said last week that the draft will be reintroduced with "minor modifications," "Al-Zaman" reported on April 28. He said the military will offer decent wages to servicemen. "Al-Zaman" quoted military analysts as saying the government cannot find enough volunteers to meet its needs. The report cited the refusal of more than 1,000 security personnel to fight militiamen in Al-Basrah last month, and the long delay in launching security operations in Mosul as evidence of the poor state of the military. The Kurdish newspaper "Hawlati" on April 27 quoted Jabbar Yawar, head of security in the Kurdistan region, as saying he does not believe parliament will support the introduction of compulsory service, and that it was a failed system under Hussein's regime. Kurdish legislator Ra'uf Uthman told the newspaper that he will not vote in favor of the draft, and indicated that the regional government will not support it. "No Kurdish young man is ready to serve the military in Baghdad," he said. KR

The Interior Ministry announced on April 28 that it will soon begin issuing new Iraqi identification cards, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Major General Yasin al-Yasiri, who heads the ministry's General Directorate of Citizenship and Residency, said that specialized technical committees are working to design cards that meet international standards. The "unified" cards will replace the ration card, citizenship certificate, and civil-status identity cards, and will be the only identification document Iraqis need to carry. KR

Dozens of Iraqis gathered at Saddam Hussein's tomb in his hometown of Al-Awjah on April 28 to commemorate his 71st birthday, pan-Arab Al-Jazeera television reported the same day. Al-Sharqiyah television, which represents the Sunni Arab perspective in Iraq, reported that "hundreds of people" participated in the commemoration, including "chieftains, men of religion from all parts of Iraq, and representatives of the Childhood Organization in Salah Al-Din Governorate." Al-Jazeera reported that dozens of children were in attendance, carrying pictures of Hussein and flowers. The Hussein regime routinely rounded up schoolchildren and university students and bussed them to rallies and parades, where they were forced to demonstrate in support of the dictator. KR