|Saturday, 25 January 2020|
RFE/RL Newsline, 05-05-18
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 RUSSIA REJECTS U.S. SENATE ALLEGATIONS OF IRAQI OIL-FOR-FOOD ABUSESThe Foreign Ministry on 16 May issued a statement expressing its "bewilderment" over a U.S. Senate subcommittee report alleging that Russian officials illicitly profited from the UN-backed oil-for-food program during the era of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, newsru.com reported. "It is difficult to shake the impression that the senators are trying to discredit the United Nations as a whole and to focus attention on other countries while leaving aside the participation of American firms in the realization of the oil-for-food program," the statement said. The Senate report claims that former presidential-administration head Aleksandr Voloshin and other Russian politicians, including Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii, received Iraqi oil allocations in exchange for influencing Russian policy in Hussein's favor. The ministry's statement says all Russian participation in the oil-for-food program corresponded to Russian legislation that mandates compliance with international sanctions regimes. The ministry also noted that it has formed an internal working group to cooperate with the UN commission investigating the oil-for-food program. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on 17 May that the U.S. administration will look into the claims in the Senate report, but added that it has no independent confirmation of any wrongdoing on the part of Russian firms or individuals, RIA-Novosti reported. RC
 COURT CONTINUES READING OF KHODORKOVSKII VERDICTJudge Irina Kolesnikova of Moscow's Meshchanskii Raion Court on 17 May continued reading the verdict in the case of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, Menatep Chairman Platon Lebed, and Volna General Director Andrei Krainov, Russian and international media reported. Although the court did not issue any formal rulings, the judges did report that the defendants' guilt was established regarding all but one of the charges against them. The announcement of the verdict, including the court's opinion on the final charge, should continue on 18 May. Kolesnikova said the court found that the defendants evaded taxes, committed fraud, and embezzled property. The reading of the 1,000-page verdict could take more than a week, defense lawyers told ITAR-TASS. Defense lawyers expressed the hope that the charges relating to the 1994 privatization of the Apatit fertilizer plant might be dismissed because the 10-year statute of limitations has expired, the news agency reported. RC
 ANALYST SAYS YUKOS OWNERS TO BLAME FOR THEIR FATESKremlin-connected political consultant Gleb Pavlovskii told RTR on 16 May that "Yukos is predominantly a political business and its problems are not about mere taxes." He said that former Yukos CEO Khodorkovskii benefited from his connections with the administration of former President Boris Yeltsin and that he is suffering now because of the progress of democracy in Russia. "Khodorkovskii as an individual has fallen victim to the process of building democracy, and democracy is impossible without a strong state," Pavlovskii said. He predicted that there will be little public outcry over the Khodorkovskii trial because most Russians feel the property acquired by the oligarchs in the 1990s was appropriated illegally. He added that Russians resent Khodorkovskii's alleged efforts to "buy out [Russia's] political system." "Many people are against these rich people on the grounds not only that money has been taken out of the country but also because the state has lost its independence," Pavlovskii said. "These rich people tried to buy out party lists or Duma factions. This process has an end: After all, it is possible to buy all the factions and all the party lists, to buy the entire parliament; but then the state becomes someone's property and no longer belongs to the people." He accused the Yukos defendants of "carrying out a negative image campaign" against Russia abroad. RC
 PRO-KHODORKOVSKII DEMONSTRATORS DETAINED IN MOSCOWTwenty-eight demonstrators were detained outside Moscow's Meshchanskii Raion Court on 16 May during the reading of the verdict in the case of former Yukos CEO Khodorkovskii, Interfax reported. Among those detained was Yabloko Moscow branch head Sergei Mitrokhin. A Yabloko spokesman told the news agency that the demonstrators are being charged with violating the rules on conducting protests and with failing to comply with the instructions of law enforcement personnel. RC
 WILL KREMLIN COVER UP YUKOS VERDICT BY DISMISSING CABINET?Rumors that the dismissal of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov is imminent have increased in the Kremlin lately, "Vremya novostei" reported on 17 May. Many among Russia's political elite believe the government could be dismissed at any moment as a way of deflecting public attention from the trial of former Yukos CEO Khodorkovskii and Menatep Chairman Lebedev, the daily reported. Among those named as possible successors are Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitrii Kozak, and Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov. The newspaper also reported rumors that the number of deputy prime ministers, which was reduced to one when Fradkov formed his government, will soon be increased to two or three and that government chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin will be appointed to that post. RC
 MILITARY ANALYST LISTS CAUSES OF CIS UNRESTColonel General Leonid Ivashov, vice president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, said on 16 May that the situation in Uzbekistan is still evolving, Interfax reported. "They say everything is over in Andijon," Ivashov said. "Believe me, this is not the end yet." He said many factors are contributing to the wave of so-called colored revolutions in the former Soviet Union, including "tribal preferences, the triumph of injustice, the lack of public well-being, the confiscation of property, and authoritarianism on the part of newly formed bureaucratic classes." Ivashov said that conditions in Tajikistan are similar to those that sparked unrest in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. "We can see a wide gap between the narrow political stratum and the wider walks of life in Tajikistan as well," he noted. RC
 RUSSIA, KAZAKHSTAN TO NEGOTIATE SIMPLIFIED BORDER REGIMEPresident Vladimir Putin met in Chelyabinsk with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev on 17 May, Russian and international media reported. Putin told Nazarbaev that he has ordered the Foreign Ministry to prepare a project for introducing passport-less border crossings for citizens of the two countries, RIA-Novosti reported. Nazarbaev told journalists following the talks that he and Putin agreed to create a unified standard of domestic identification documents that could be used for simplified border crossing. He added that he also proposed the establishment of joint customs posts along the border to further simplify crossing procedures. RC
 RUSSIA REJECTS IDEA OF EU MEDIATION ON LATVIAN BORDER TREATYForeign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Warsaw on 16 May that Russia is prepared to sign a border treaty with Latvia "if neither side puts forward any preconditions," Interfax reported. Asked about media reports that EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana might be asked to assist in resolving the conflict over the treaty, Lavrov said: "This is the first I have heard of it. It must be a joke. You were simply misinformed. It's just stupid." Meanwhile, the Russian and Estonian governments have both approved a border treaty between those countries, which is expected to be signed on 18 May. RC
 PUTIN MULLS FURTHER INNOVATION IN SELECTION OF REGIONAL GOVERNORSPresident Putin will propose that political parties that win representation in regional legislatures be allowed to nominate candidates to serve as regional executive-branch heads, "Vedomosti" reported on 16 May. The purpose of the reform is to strengthen the political-party system, the daily reported. At present, the presidential envoys to the federal districts submit candidates to the president for nomination, and the president's choice must then be confirmed by the regional legislature. Putin is expected to discuss the proposal when he meets with Duma Speaker Gryzlov, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, and Duma faction leaders on 18 May. "Parties must play a key role in the political system," an unnamed Kremlin source told the daily. He added that the president retains the right to reject candidates proposed by parties and that a parallel mechanism by which the Kremlin can put forth its own candidates will be created. Oleg Kulikov, secretary of the Communist Party's central committee, told the daily that "the 'party' scheme is better than the current one, which is opaque and corrupt." "But we still insist on a return to the direct election of heads of regions," he added. Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii said the reform "will encourage governors to join Unified Russia, especially since Unified Russia already controls most regional legislatures." RC
 PUTIN REMAINS COMMITTED TO DOUBLING GDPPresident Putin held talks on 16 May on the economic development of the Urals region in Chelyabinsk, RIA-Novosti and other Russian media reported. Putin reminded participants in the meeting that "the goal of doubling gross domestic product as a government strategy over this decade has not been taken off the table and no one has changed it." Putin said that local and national economic indicators incline him to believe the goal can be achieved by the 2010 target. RC
 MOST OF ALL, RUSSIANS FEAR ECONOMIC COLLAPSEThe All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) on 17 May released the results of a survey asking Russians what they fear most, lenta.ru reported. The research, which was conducted in 100 population centers on 23-24 April and in which more than one response could be selected, found that 70 percent of Russian fear a major collapse of living standards, up to and including famine. Sixty-seven percent fear terrorist attacks on strategically important sites, while 59 percent fear ecological catastrophe. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they fear that the Russian nation could disappear as a result of the demographic crisis. Forty-seven percent worry about the possible exhaustion of Russia's natural-resources reserves, including reserves of oil and natural gas. Forty-six percent fear the collapse of the political structure in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, while 42 percent said they fear the possible loss of national territory, such as Kaliningrad Oblast or Primorskii Krai. Just 20 percent said they fear unrest or revolution similar to what happened recently in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. RC
 TRIAL OF BESLAN HOSTAGE TAKER OPENSThe trial began on 17 May at the Supreme Court in Vladikavkaz of the Republic of North Ossetia of Chechen militant Nurpasha Kulaev, Russian and international media reported. According to Russian officials, Kulaev is the only one of the estimated 33 participants in September's mass hostage-taking at a school in Beslan to have survived the storming of the building by Russian security forces. Kulaev is charged on eight counts, including murder, terrorism, and hostage taking; the indictment identified Chechen President and resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov as one of those responsible for planning the hostage taking, although Maskhadov not only denied doing so but expressed his readiness to try to negotiate the release of the children held hostage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 3 September 2004). LF
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 ARMENIAN POLICE SEEK TO THWART OPPOSITION RALLYPolice dispersed residents of the village of Gochtn, near Yerevan, who gathered on 16 May in the village's main square in advance of a rally called by the opposition People's Party of Armenia (HZhK), RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Only a handful of residents finally showed up to meet with HZhK Chairman Stepan Demirchian, who construed the police intimidation as "the great fear felt by a regime in its death throes." LF
 ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTS DISCUSS LIBERATION OF OCCUPIED TERRITORIES...During their 15 May talks on the sidelines of the Council of Europe summit in Warsaw, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan reached agreement on certain points, while on others their positions remain far apart, the online daily zerkalo.az quoted Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov as saying. Mammadyarov said Armenia is willing to agree to the withdrawal of all Armenian forces from seven districts of Azerbaijan surrounding the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), including the so-called Lachin corridor, on condition that adequate security guarantees are provided for the population of the NKR. Such security guarantees have long been one of Armenia's three fundamental conditions for a negotiated solution to the conflict. Mammadyarov added, however, that no concrete timetable has been agreed for the liberation of the seven districts, and many related problems remain to be addressed, including the return to their homes of the former inhabitants. LF
 ...AND ADDRESS COUNCIL OF EUROPE SUMMITIn his six-minute address to the Council of Europe summit in Warsaw on 16 May, Armenian President Robert Kocharian said that Armenia "look[s] forward to deepening our interaction with the European Union within the framework of the 'European neighborhood' policy." (For a full transcript of Kocharian's speech, see http://www.coe.int/t/dcr/summit/20050516speechkocharianen.asp). In that context, he said that Yerevan hopes "to find ways of including the de facto established Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh into the European processes of integration." Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who addressed the summit later the same day, said that Baku is ready to grant the NKR "a high level of autonomy" and to provide security guarantees for its population, ITAR-TASS reported. Aliyev also called on international organizations, including the Council of Europe and the European Union, to pay greater attention to the Karabakh conflict as it constitutes "an obstacle to Azerbaijan's integration into Europe." Speaking in Warsaw later on 16 May, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said Aliyev's offer of a high degree of autonomy for the NKR is unacceptable, according to Mediamax as cited by Groong. Oskanian said that when Nagorno-Karabakh had such autonomous status within the USSR, its population was "discriminated against by the Azerbaijani authorities." LF
 AZERBAIJANI, TURKISH LEADERS MEETPresident Aliyev also met on the sidelines of the Warsaw summit with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, international media reported. Aliyev briefed Erdogan on the Karabakh peace process, and the two men discussed unspecified aspects of bilateral cooperation. LF
 AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION ASSESSES POLITICAL SITUATION...Representatives of the Yeni Siyaset (New Politics) and Ugur (Success) opposition election blocs, together with the leaders of the Vakhdat and National Democratic ("Boz Gurd") parties and the conservative wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, attended a roundtable discussion behind closed doors in Baku on 16 May convened by the 16 October movement, zerkalo.az and echo-az.com reported on 17 May. In a subsequent statement, participants enumerated the conditions they consider necessary to ensure that the parliamentary elections due in November are free and fair. They include creating equal conditions for all parties and blocs wishing to field candidates; permitting political exiles, including former President Ayaz Mutalibov and Democratic Party of Azerbaijan Chairman Rasul Guliev, to return to Azerbaijan to participate in the ballot; annulling the convictions handed down to the members of the 16 October organization to permit them to participate in the ballot; and the adoption of the opposition's proposed amendments to the Electoral Code, including changes in the composition of election commissions.
 ...AND VOW TO GO AHEAD WITH BAKU DEMONSTRATIONParticipants in the roundtable convened by the 16 October movement in Baku on 16 May also reaffirmed their shared determination to stage a mass meeting in Baku on 21 May even if municipal authorities do not grant permission to do so. They gave a negative assessment to the dialogue launched earlier this month between some opposition representatives and the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 5 May 2005), and to the decree President Aliyev issued last week stressing the need to ensure that the parliamentary elections are free and fair (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May 2005). LF
 GEORGIA SEEKS TO REASSURE RUSSIA OVER BASES ULTIMATUMGeorgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze told journalists in Tbilisi on 16 May that the resolution adopted by parliament two months earlier setting a deadline of 15 May for reaching agreement on the date for the closure of Russia's two remaining military bases in Georgia has now entered into force, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. But she added that this does not mean the bases have been declared illegal and nor is there any danger, as some Russian politicians have inferred, to the lives of the Russian servicemen stationed there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2005). Kote Gabashvili, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Committee on International Relations, told journalists on 16 May that most points of the amended draft agreement proposed by Russia two days earlier are acceptable to Tbilisi, ITAR-TASS reported. He predicted that it will take no more than one week to reach agreement on the timetable for closing the two bases. Speaking in Warsaw on 16 May after discussing the issue with his Georgian counterpart Salome Zourabichvili, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said talks on determining the time frame for the closure of the Russian bases will continue but did not specify when or where, Interfax reported. LF
 GEORGIA OFFERS REWARD IN CONNECTION WITH BUSH GRENADE INCIDENTThe Georgian Interior Ministry posted a reward of 20,000 laris (nearly $11,000) on 16 May for information leading to the arrest of the person or people responsible for throwing a dud hand grenade at U.S. President George W. Bush while he addressed a crowd of thousands in Tbilisi on 10 May, Caucasus Press reported. A group of FBI agents arrived in Georgia on 13 May to assist the Georgian authorities in their investigation of the incident. Armenia's ambassador to Georgia, Georgii Khosroev, denied on 14 May that the grenade in question was manufactured in Armenia, according to Arminfo as cited by Groong. LF
 GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARY MAJORITY REJECTS PROPOSED BUDGET AMENDMENTSThe two largest Georgian parliamentary factions -- the majority National Movement-Democrats and the Right Wing Opposition -- voted separately on 16 May against the government's proposals to increase budget spending by 66.8 million laris ($36.7 million), Caucasus Press reported. The Right Wing Opposition approved the planned allocation of 20 million laris to victims of last month's flooding but not the allocation of 44.6 million laris to the Defense Ministry for arms purchases. The majority voted to request from the government a more detailed breakdown of the planned expenditures. LF
 FRENCH AMBASSADOR VISITS ABKHAZIAPhilippe Lefort met on 16 May in Sukhum with Abkhaz Vice President Raul Khadjimba and Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, assuring them that France's withholding of international recognition to the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia should not be construed as a mark of disrespect for the region's population, Caucasus Press reported. Lefort noted the significance of French linguist Georges Dumezil's research on the now extinct Ubykh language, which was related to Abkhaz. Lefort was apparently unable to meet with President Sergei Bagapsh and Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab, who left on 16 May for talks with Russian officials in Moscow, Caucasus Press reported. LF
 MINISTER: KAZAKHSTAN SHOULD PULL TROOPS FROM IRAQKazakh Defense Minister Colonel General Mukhtar Altynbaev said on 17 May that Kazakhstan should pull its troops out of Iraq at the end of July, Reuters reported the same day. "We fully met our international obligations," a spokesman quoted Altynbaev as saying. "My opinion is it's time to think of withdrawal or maybe not sending new troops after the term of the current detachment expires at the end of July." Kazakhstan's 27 troops in Iraq are mostly engineers. One was killed along with seven Ukrainians in January while detonating an ammunition cache. BW
 OUSTED KYRGYZ PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER LOSES SEAT IN PARLIAMENTKyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission decided in a 10-to-three vote on 16 May to revoke the parliamentary mandate of Bermet Akaeva, the daughter of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The commission based its decision on materials from its own working group and a letter from the Prosecutor-General's Office on violations of electoral legislation that accompanied Akaeva's victory in recent parliamentary elections. DK
 KYRGYZ PARTY HEAD NAMED FIRST DEPUTY PRIME MINISTERActing President Kurmanbek Bakiev issued a decree on 16 May naming Feliks Kulov, the leader of the Ar-Namys Party, first deputy prime minister, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Kulov agreed to withdraw from 10 July presidential election in exchange for the post of prime minister in a possible Bakiev government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2005). With plans afoot to expand the prime minister's powers, the move could position Kulov to play a key role in the country's political future. DK
 UZBEK REFUGEES REMAIN IN KYRGYZSTAN...More than 500 Uzbek refugees remained in Kyrgyzstan on 16 May as Myrzykan Subanov, the head of Kyrgyzstan's Border Service, said that they cannot be allowed to stay on Kyrgyz territory, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and akipress.org reported. Noting that the Uzbeks cannot at present be considered refugees, Subanov said, "We've gathered them in one place and invited international organizations that could determine their status," akipress.org reported. But he added, "We should respect our neighbors. Even if international organizations were to designate them as refugees, they cannot be allowed to remain on Kyrgyz territory." Meanwhile, a representative of the International Committee of the Red Crescent in Kyrgyzstan told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the organization is prepared to provide humanitarian aid. An RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent reporting from Kyrgyzstan said that "most of the refugees are beaten up, some are wounded." Seven refugees have been hospitalized with bullet wounds, ITAR-TASS reported. The news agency noted that refugees told Kyrgyz authorities that they do not want to return home. DK
 ...TENSE SITUATION PERSISTS ALONG UZBEK-KYRGYZ BORDER AMID REPORTS OF 200 DEADCentral authorities were not in evidence in the Uzbek section of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz city of Karasu/Kara-Suu on 16 May as unconfirmed reports of violence filtered in from the Uzbek town of Pakhtaobod, the BBC and akipress.org reported. A correspondent from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported from Karasu, where local residents rioted against the authorities on 14 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2005), that no policemen came to work on 16 May and residents were "happy that the government doesn't control the town." But the BBC reported that Uzbek troops have sealed off the perimeter of the town. A number of Russian sources, including "Kommersant-Daily" and "Vremya novostei," reported that 200 people were killed in a clash between troops and demonstrators in the town of Pakhtaobod, 30 kilometers outside Andijon, after unrest in nearby Andijon. The reports could not be confirmed and no further information was available. DK
 REPORTS ALLEGE THAT UZBEK TROOPS KILLED WOUNDED PROTESTERSReports by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and Reuters on 16 May cited eyewitness accounts of the violence in Andijon on 13 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 16 May 2005) alleging that government troops killed wounded demonstrators as they lay on the ground. A woman identified as Muqaddas told IWPR, "[Military servicemen] got drunk, and in this condition they shot and killed the wounded. In my presence, they shot down a woman with two small children." A man identified as a 31-year-old cobbler told Reuters, "I saw soldiers killing several wounded with single shots to the head after asking, 'Are there any wounded around?'" DK
 UZBEK INTERIOR MINISTER SAYS 70 ARRESTED AFTER ANDIJON UNRESTInterior Minister Zakir Almatov announced on 15 May in Andijon that the authorities have detained 70 organizers of the unrest in the city, Interfax reported the next day. Svetlana Ortiqova, a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office, said prosecutors have opened a criminal case in connection with the mass disturbances. The Prosecutor-General's Office said in a statement, "Legal proceedings were instituted under the articles of the Uzbek Criminal Code for the organization and involvement in massive disorders, murder, attempt on life of law enforcers and hostage-taking," ITAR-TASS reported. The Interior Ministry also said that approximately 70 people were killed in the violence, "Kommersant-Daily" reported. Independent reports of the death toll have run as high as 500 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2005). DK
 U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT 'DEEPLY DISTURBED' AT REPORTS OUT OF UZBEKISTANCommenting to the press on 16 May in the wake of recent violence in Andijon, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Uzbekistan to undertake reforms, calling the country's political system "too closed," Reuters reported. At the State Department's daily press briefing the same day, spokesman Richard Boucher said, "We are deeply disturbed by the reports that the Uzbek authorities fired on demonstrators [on 13 May]. We certainly condemn the indiscriminate use of force against unarmed civilians and deeply regret any loss of life," the State Department reported on its website (http://www.state.gov). Boucher also called on the Uzbek government to allow the "Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations full access to the region so we can get the facts." British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who recently criticized the Uzbek government in similar terms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2005), said on 16 May that Britain's ambassador in Uzbekistan is negotiating with the country's Foreign Ministry to allow international observers and journalists access to Andijon, Reuters reported. DK
 CHINESE COMPANY TO INVEST $600 MILLION IN UZBEK ENERGY SECTORShavkat Majidov, a senior manager at Uzbekistan's national oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz, told a news conference in Tashkent on 16 May that China National Petroleum Company plans to invest $600 million in Uzbekistan's oil and gas fields, Interfax reported. Majidov said that he has just returned from China, "where the parties agreed on the main points of setting up the joint venture." DK
 BELARUS OPPOSITION DAILY WARNED, SUED FOR LIBELBelarus's Information Ministry has issued a warning to the only opposition daily "Narodnaya volya," the second warning received by the newspaper this year, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 16 May. Two official warnings issued to a publication within a year are sufficient for the authorities to close it. The ministry said the daily released false information by publishing the names of five people under a manifesto of the opposition movement Will of the People, which was launched in February (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 11 March 2005). Simultaneously, the five people in question have sued the daily for libel, saying they did not sign the manifesto and demanding a total of 250 million Belarusian rubles ($116,000) in damages from the newspaper. "Narodnaya volya" Editor in Chief Iosif Syaredzich told RFE/RL that the ministry effectively assumed the prerogative of a court by denying his newspaper a chance to publish a correction, assuming that it made a mistake, an option allowed by the media law. Meanwhile, Will of the People leader Alyaksandr Kazulin suggested that the authorities might have used pressure to make the five people revoke their signatures. "People supporting [our manifesto] are pressured to withdraw their signatures by way of threats and blackmail," he said. JM
 LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT NOTES BELARUS'S ABSENCE AT COUNCIL OF EUROPE SUMMITLithuanian President Valdas Adamkus said at a Council of Europe summit in Warsaw on 16 May that Belarus remains "a gray zone on the map of European democracies," BNS and PAP reported. "One European country [Belarus] is missing today. The country whose citizens believe in the principles of the Council of Europe but who cannot enjoy them in practice," Adamkus said. "The Alyaksandr Lukashenko-led regime continues isolating itself from the free European family and democratic values, isolating Belarus's people at the same time," Adamkus added. JM
 UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT WRANGLES OVER ARREST OF FORMER GOVERNORSLawmakers from the opposition caucuses of the Social Democratic Party-united and the Regions of Ukraine on 17 May blocked the parliamentary rostrum following an abortive vote on putting on the agenda an appeal to Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun to release from detention former Donetsk Oblast Governor Borys Kolesnykov and Transcarpathian Oblast Governor Ivan Rizak, Ukrainian news agencies reported. The motion to discuss the appeal regarding Kolesnykov and Rizak was passed by a sufficient number of deputies in a repeat vote after a recess. Kolesnykov was arrested in early April on charges of extortion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 April 2005), while Rizak was detained on 13 May on charges of abuse of power and of driving a former rector of Uzhhorod University (Transcarpathian Oblast) to commit suicide. The opposition believes the arrests of Kolesnykov and Rizak are the current authorities' revenge on allies of former Premier Viktor Yanukovych during the 2004 presidential campaign. JM
 UKRAINIAN PREMIER FOGS REPRIVATIZATION ISSUEYuliya Tymoshenko on 16 May denied that the government has prepared a list of 29 companies that were privatized under objectionable circumstances in the past and will soon be subject to a review, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www2.pravda.com.ua/) reported. Deputy Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh and President Viktor Yushchenko said on 12 and 13 May, respectively, that those privatization deals would be reviewed. Tymoshenko told journalists that the government will instead propose a law on the revaluation of privatized properties. "The [draft law] includes no list [of companies], only criteria [for revaluation]," Tymoshenko said. "We will not allow anybody to manipulate the selecting or revaluation of companies that belong to the opposition or to those who are now in power. As the prime minister I'll tell you that I'm against any [reprivatization] lists because they are fraught with partiality." JM
 UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SEEKS TALKS WITH RUSSIAN COMPANIES TO AVERT FUEL CRISISViktor Yushchenko on 16 May called for negotiations with Russian oil companies to end a deepening fuel crisis in Ukraine, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Yushchenko said the crisis can be averted if the Ukrainian side adopts a "more clear position" on fuel price controls. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tymoshenko has denied that the government's price controls were responsible for the current shortage of gasoline in the country, and she accused Russian oil companies of trying to undermine the new Ukrainian government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2005). Tymoshenko is proposing to urgently adopt a law on temporarily canceling customs duties on oil imports to defuse the fuel crisis. LUKoil and TNK-BP reportedly introduced rationing at their Ukrainian gasoline stations on 16 May, establishing a limit of 10 liters of gasoline per vehicle. JM
 U.S. REPORTEDLY SET TO LAUNCH PLAN FOR KOSOVA"The Washington Post" reported on 17 May that "the Bush administration has decided on a new strategy designed to finally settle whether Kosovo will become fully independent of Serbia, [unnamed] U.S. officials said." An unnamed "senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity...[that] 'if you freeze the situation for two or more years, you are likely to create a pressure cooker.'" The Washington-based daily added that "the plan, which Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns will announce in congressional testimony [on 18 May] and a speech [the following day], has been carefully worked out in intensive discussions with UN and European officials. The United Nations will shortly appoint Kai Eide, the Norwegian ambassador to NATO, to assess whether Kosovo is ready for final-status talks. Once that certification is made, probably by mid-autumn, then the United Nations will sponsor international negotiations on whether Kosovo should remain part of Serbia, become independent, or achieve a hybrid status." Eide made a study on Kosova for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2004, in which Eide called on the UN to move quickly on giving the Kosovars a "road map" for the future, but Annan was more cautious (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 August and 17 December 2004). PM
 UNMIK CORRECTS POSITION ON DEMARCATION OF KOSOVAR-MACEDONIAN BORDERThe UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK) said on 16 May that the demarcation of the border with Macedonia need not wait until Kosova's final status is resolved, RFE/RL's Macedonian subunit reported. He added, however, that UNMIK does not have a mandate to decide on demarcation lines, which is the prerogative of states. The spokesman's remarks were aimed at correcting a recent statement by one of his colleagues, who said that the border cannot be demarcated before Kosova's final status is decided because neither UNMIK nor the current Kosovar institutions have a mandate to deal with demarcation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February and 13 and 16 May 2005). UB
 BOSNIAN SERBS AGAIN BLOCK POLICE REFORMThe international community's high representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Paddy Ashdown, said in Sarajevo on 16 May that talks with political leaders from across Bosnia-Herzegovina broke down due to the continuing refusal of Bosnian Serb authorities to accept a depoliticized, nationwide police force with administrative units that cross interentity borders, as demanded by the EU, Reuters reported. "The talks failed because the [Republika Srpska] representatives were not able to conform to the...principles laid down by the European Union," he noted. Ashdown added that "a great opportunity has been lost, and the citizens of this country will pay a heavy price for that" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April and 11 May 2005). Police reform is one of the most important issues standing in Bosnia's path to further Euro-Atlantic integration. Current police structures are subordinated to the respective entity governments and closely tied to local political structures. The proposed reforms are designed to break those links. PM
 CROATIAN PRESIDENT CANCELS TRIP TO SERBIAOn 16 May, Croatian President Stipe Mesic canceled an upcoming visit to Serbia because of a ceremony at Ravna Gora the previous weekend honoring a former Serbian royalist, World War II General Draza Mihailovic, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Mesic's office said in a statement that he objects that the "gathering had the support of the Serbian authorities," which is an apparent reference to the presence of Serbia and Montenegro's foreign minister, Vuk Draskovic, who also heads the Serbian Renewal Movement. In response, Draskovic's ministry said in a statement that "historical facts [should] not be an obstacle to relations.... Let us look to the future...[and] not make our relations with our neighbors conditional on their attitude towards past events." Mihailovic is widely regarded by Serbs loyal to the memory of Josip Broz Tito's Partisans and by non-Serbs as an Axis collaborator or war criminal. Mihailovic nonetheless has a following among Serbs of the monarchist and Serbian Orthodox tradition, many of whom still regard him as a hero, albeit a tragic one (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 April and 13 May 2005). U.S. authorities in Belgrade recently presented Mihailovic's daughter with a medal awarded posthumously to him by President Harry S. Truman in 1948 in recognition of Mihailovic's Chetnik forces having saved over 500 downed U.S. airmen and other citizens. The Croatian Foreign Ministry protested the awarding of the medal, Hina reported. PM
 RUSSIA BANS IMPORTS OF WINES, FRESH PRODUCE FROM MOLDOVARosselkhoznadzor, Russia's veterinary and phytosanitary agency, banned imports of Moldovan fruits and vegetables as of 16 May, Russian and Moldovan media reported. According to Rosselkhoznadzor, the reason for the ban is Moldova's insufficient plant protection measures that do not preclude "dangerous diseases and pests from entering Russia," Flux reported. The ban also extends to Moldovan wines, which account for two-thirds of Russia's wine imports. Moldovan exports to Russia have made up 37 percent of the country's total exports since the beginning of 2005. Russia banned Moldovan meat exports a month ago, claiming dumping allegations. JM
 MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT, COUNCIL OF EUROPE HEAD MULL TRANSDNIESTER PROBLEMVladimir Voronin discussed the settlement of the Transdniester conflict with Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis in Warsaw on 16 May, on the sidelines of a Council of Europe summit, Moldovan Radio reported. Voronin told Davis that representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE as well as Moldovan and Transdniester officials met in Vinnytsya, Ukraine, the same day to discuss a conflict-settlement plan proposed by Ukraine. Voronin said the plan is expected to include three key aspects: a special status for the Transdniester region, the establishment of legal control along the Transdniester stretch of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova. JM
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 ITALIAN AID WORKER KIDNAPPED IN KABULUnidentified assailants kidnapped an Italian woman in downtown Kabul on 16 May, international news agencies reported. The woman, identified as Clementina Cantoni, worked for the international aid agency CARE. The abduction of Cantoni occurred in the central Shahr-e Naw district of Kabul close to where a bomb placed in an Internet cafe killed two Afghans and a citizen of Myanmar working for the UN on 7 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May 2005). No one has claimed responsibility for the blast or for the kidnapping. AT
 KABUL DAILY HINTS AT A FOREIGN SOURCE FOR INCITING RECENT VIOLENCE IN AFGHANISTANDiscussing the recent student-led anti-U.S. demonstrations, "Erada" wrote on 14 May that if the protests are studied closely, it would be clear that the "protestors had planned things in advance and were well-equipped with masks, pistols," and other equipment. The demonstrators' actions were "carried out by known and trained circles" who are working for "their foreign leaders," "Erada" commented. Following the publication of the "Newsweek" article on the alleged desecration of the Koran, "Pakistani media agencies immediately spread the news" to provoke "public sentiment in the frontier regions" between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the daily added. "Erada" indirectly agrees with Afghan President Karzai that the demonstrations were in reality a reaction to the proposed long-term U.S.-Afghan "strategic partnership" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2005). AT
 FORMER PRIME MINISTER REJECTS AMNESTY OFFERHead of Hizb-e Islami and former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has rejected an amnesty offer extended to him by the head of the Independent National Commission for Peace in Afghanistan, former President Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, IRNA reported on 15 May. Repeating the demand made earlier by the neo-Taliban to the same amnesty offer, Hekmatyar said that the commission "should have, in fact, asked the American troops to quit Afghanistan instead of asking the Mujahedin to lay down [their] arms," IRNA reported. Hekmatyar urged his supporters to "rise against the Americans, British, and other foreign forces and defend your homeland." Mojaddedi made the controversial offer on 9 May, but faced with criticism from both Afghan and U.S. circles, he retracted his offer on 11 May, blaming the media for misconstruing his remarks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 12 May 2005). Hekmatyar is considered a terrorist by the U.S. State Department and is reportedly cooperating with the neo-Taliban in anti-Afghan government and anti-coalition force activities. AT
 KABUL WEEKLY SAYS PEOPLE GROWING IMPATIENTThe pro-mujahedin "Payam-e Mojahed" on 12 May commented that the recent violent demonstrations in several Afghan cities show that the people's patience is running out after the government's implementation of "anti-Islam and anti-jihad policies," referring to the fight waged by the mujahedin groups against Soviet forces in the 1980s and against one another in the 1990s. According to "Payam-e Mojahed," while people have expressed their discontent about the news of the alleged desecration of the Koran, "the root cause of the protests is deemed to be the [Karzai] government's actions over the past three-and-a-half years." The U.S.-based "Newsweek" had reported that interrogators at the U.S. detention facility in Cuba had dishonored the Koran, though the magazine has since retracted its story (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2005). AT
 IRAN, 'EU-3' TO MEET ON 23 MAY FOR NUCLEAR TALKSIranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said in Tehran on 16 May that Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hassan Rohani will meet the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany (EU-3) on 23 May in Europe to discuss Tehran's intention to renew sensitive nuclear activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 16 May 2005), ISNA reported the same day. He said he cannot predict "100 percent" that Iran and the EU-3 will reach an agreement, but expressed hope the talks will yield "a formula" that "will both safeguard our rights and remove their concern," ISNA reported. Iran says it has a right as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium into fuel for power stations, but Western states fear highly enriched uranium might also be used for bombs. "If our rights are not assured, we have already taken our decision," Kharrazi said. Separately, Iranian and European diplomats will reportedly meet in Brussels on 17 May to discuss political and economic cooperation, IRNA reported on 16 May. Political talks are to include human rights in Iran, regional security, terrorism, and nuclear nonproliferation, IRNA stated. VS
 CASPIAN SEA WORKING GROUP MEETS IN TEHRANThe Caspian Sea Working Group, including representatives of littoral states seeking a legal regime for the lake, began their 17th meeting in Tehran on 16 May, ISNA reported that day. Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari told ISNA the same day that such talks constitute "a long process," and while coastal states have agreed on "various items," this session would address the "important subject" of dividing the sea's resources." He said Iran opposes a "militarized" Caspian or a pipeline across it. It has proposed a treaty on confidence-building and stability, "and we shall talk about this convention beside the legal regime," he told ISNA. He said Iran has discussed with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan its claim to 20 percent of the sea, based on its interpretation of international laws, and "we have more or less reached some good results," ISNA added. In a speech to open the meeting, Foreign Minister Kharrazi said Iran hopes the various rounds of talks will produce a regime governing all activities and use of resources in the sea, bring states together to tackle environmental problems, terrorism, and organized crime, but also ensure the exclusion of outside states from Caspian affairs, ISNA reported. VS
 IRAN, AZERBAIJAN IMPROVE DEFENSE COOPERATIONThe defense ministers of Iran and Azerbaijan, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani and Colonel General Safar Abiev, respectively, signed a defense agreement in Tehran on 16 May intended to boost cooperation on defense, joint research, training, and to enhance regional stability, IRNA reported the same day. The agreement, Shamkhani told a press conference after the signing, is "neither against a third country nor influenced by a third country," IRNA reported. Abiev denied, in turn, that Azerbaijan will allow unspecified enemies of Iran to establish a "military base" on its territory, IRNA reported. Shamkhani said Iran and Azerbaijan already have an agreement disallowing the use of their territory by hostile forces to launch an attack on either country, and "Azerbaijan has shown so far that it feels bound to implement" it. Abiev said he visited Iranian arms factories and "saw the production...of modern weapons." Iran is "especially making modern, high-quality weapons in the electronics sector," he said. Shamkhani said he is satisfied with Iran's improved cooperation with regional states and its "technical capability, scientific potential, and trained workforce" in the defense sector, IRNA added. VS
 JUDICIARY CHIEF WANTS SICK PRISONERS TO BE GIVEN LEAVEJudiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi has issued a directive allowing convicts imprisoned for lesser offences, and gravely ill prisoners to be given leave for three months, Radio Farda reported on 16 May. Certain inmates who are considered political prisoners, including lawyer Naser Zarafshan and investigative writer Akbar Ganji, who is reportedly ill, might benefit from the decision, Radio Farda reported, citing Tehran attorney Muhammad Hussein Aqasi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 April 2005). This was a seemingly "generous" gesture by Ayatollah Shahrudi intended to facilitate a decision by subordinates to "allow these people to go on leave," Aqasi told Radio Farda. Separately, the Tehran chief prosecutor Sa'id Mortazavi has reportedly challenged a supreme-court decision to acquit pollster Abbas Abdi of espionage charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2005), the daily "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 16 May. Mortazavi has objected in writing to the judiciary chief, who has referred his protest to a supreme-court department for consideration, "Aftab-i Yazd" added, citing Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimi-Rad. Mortazavi was the judge who initially sentenced Abdi to jail (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 20 January and 10 February 2003). VS
 DEPUTY MINISTER SAYS 60,000 IRANIANS 'HAVE AIDS'Deputy Health Minister Hussein Malek-Afzali said in Tehran on 16 May that "at present, 60,000 Iranians have AIDS," the daily "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 17 May, citing IRNA. He did not specify whether he meant these people were infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, or have, less probably, developed full-blown AIDS. The Health Ministry estimated that in March more than 10,000 Iranians were HIV-positive (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 April 2005). Malek-Afzali was satisfied that the infected population in Iran is "10 times less than the world average," but warned that "figures in recent years" show an "increase in the rate of spread" of infection, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. He urged public bodies, including state television and radio, to inform the public of the status of AIDS in Iran, and said Iran has only carried out "10 projects" to study AIDS and HIV in the country. Most of those, he said, have been to investigate the sexual practices of young Iranians in such places as Tehran, Semnan, and Qazvin, northeast of Tehran, the daily added. VS
 SHI'ITE LEADERS URGE RESTRAINT FOLLOWING SECTARIAN VIOLENCEIraq's Shi'ite leaders called on their followers not to stage revenge attacks against Sunnis, AFP reported on 17 May. Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on 16 May called on both communities to work toward better relations, according to Prime Minister al-Ja'fari. "Sayyed Sistani insisted on the brotherhood between Shi'ites and Sunnis and the need to include our Sunni brothers in the constitution-drafting process," al-Ja'fari told reporters after meeting the cleric in the holy city of Al-Najaf. Al-Ja'fari, a Shi'ite, met al-Sistani a day after the discovery of at least 46 bodies killed execution-style (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2005). Several of the corpses were Sunnis, apparently killed in revenge attacks, sparking fears that Shi'ite militiamen were retaliating against attacks by Sunni insurgents. A close aide to al-Sistani, Sheikh Qasim al-Gharawi, was also killed in Baghdad along with his driver on 15 May. Radical Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr also urged his followers to show restraint. "Any action targeting unarmed civilians is forbidden under any circumstances," al-Sadr said in a rare public appearance in Al-Najaf. BW
 IRAQI SOLDIERS TO BE BARRED FROM RAIDING MOSQUES FOLLOWING COMPLAINTSSeeking to ease escalating sectarian tensions, Iraqi Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi said his troops would be forbidden from raiding mosques following complaints about their conduct, Reuters reported on 16 May. "We received many complaints over the last days. We shouldn't be a source of fear among Iraqis," al-Dulaymi said. "We hear soldiers are raiding mosques and places of worship and terrifying civilians, children, and worshippers." The announcement came after the influential Sunni Muslim Clerics Association accused the Iraqi government of state terrorism. "There is an unjustified silence that may be interpreted as acceptance of security violations that are undertaken by Iraqi soldiers and militias that cooperate with them," Muthanna al-Dari, the group's spokesman, said. "We are facing state terrorism and the terrorism of security organizations using their official name as a cover to achieve their targets. Over the last two days soldiers have carried out a campaign of invasions [of mosques] and arrests." BW
 IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER ARRIVES IN BAGHDAD FOR HISTORIC VISITKamal Kharrazi arrived in Baghdad on 17 May for talks with top Iraqi officials, two days after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise trip to Iraq, international news agencies reported the same day. Kharrazi's is the highest-level visit by an official from Iran since Saddam Hussein's ouster. Laith Kubba, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister al-Ja'fari, said Kharrazi will hold talks with al-Ja'fari and Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari, AP reported. Under Hussein, Iraq waged war against Iran from 1980-88 in which more than 1 million people were killed. Relations, which remained cool after the war, have improved since the U.S.-led ouster of Hussein. The United States has accused Iran of supporting insurgents in Iraq. BW
 POLICE CAPTURE SUSPECT IN BEHEADINGS, ROADSIDE BOMBINGSPolice in the Iraqi city of Karbala have arrested a man suspected of beheading 16 members of the security forces, dpa reported on 17 May, citing city police chief Abbas al-Hassani. The man, who was not identified, was captured in a raid east of the city. He admitted to killing 13 policemen and three Iraqi soldiers as well as to setting explosives on a road used mostly by Shi'ite pilgrims. According to dpa, the suspect was receiving support from Syrian sources. BW
 ARMY RESERVIST FOUND GUILTY OF ABU GHURAYB ABUSEA military jury found Army reservist Sabrina Harman guilty on 16 May of all but one charge related to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghurayb prison, international news agencies reported the same day. Harman, 27, who appeared in some of the most notorious Abu Ghurayb prison photographs, was found guilty of five counts of maltreatment of prisoners and one count of conspiracy. Harman, who holds the rank of specialist, could face five and one half years in prison. She is to be sentenced on 17 May. BW
 AL-QAEDA SAYS IRAQI SUNNIS WHO HELP DRAFT CONSTITUTION ARE INFIDELSThe Al-Qaeda affiliated militant group in Iraq said Sunni Muslims who participated in drafting the country's new constitution are infidels, Reuters reported on 17 May. The announcement, posted on a website used by Islamic militants, followed calls by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iraqi transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari for Sunnis to be included in drafting the new basic law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2005). "The crusaders' hag [Rice] came to sully the land of the caliphate...and wants the participation of apostates and secularists claiming to be Sunnis," the group led by Jordanian Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi said in the statement posted on the Internet on 17 May. "Would anyone draft the constitution other than those who do not believe in God's book.... Our Sunni faith stipulates that the sword and bullets be the only dialogue between us and worshippers of the cross." BW
 WESTERN CONCERN ABOUT MARI SAID TO BE A COVER FOR PLANS TO SEIZE RUSSIAN NUKESBy Paul Goble
Increasing international attention to and condemnation of human rights abuses in Mari El, a Finno-Ugric republic in Russia's middle Volga region, has infuriated Russian commentators, three of whom have suggested that this focus is part of a broader plot to destabilize Russia, overthrow Russian President Vladimir Putin, and seize control of Russia's nuclear weapons.
On 12 May, the European Parliament unanimously passed a resolution denouncing the violation of human rights, media freedom, and democratic procedures in Mari El, and its members called on officials in both Moscow and the republican capital of Ioshkar-Ola to live up to their commitments to observe these rights. The resolution, advanced by representatives of the three independent Finno-Ugric countries -- Estonia, Finland, and Hungary -- comes on the heels of three other indications that the international community is beginning to turn its attention to what is taking place in Mari El that few outsiders have kept track of.
First, earlier last week, members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to Igor Nikitin, the president of the Russian Association of Christian Churches, expressing their "deep concern" about the actions of Russian police against Christian groups in the middle Volga (see http://www.portal-credo.ru/site/print.php?act=news&id=3334).
Second, the Federal Union of European National Minorities, at its meeting in Budapest the week before, took up the issue of the mistreatment of the Mari and other ethnic groups in the middle Volga (http://www.mari.ee/rus/news/polit/2005/05/01.htm). At that meeting, Vladimir Kozlov, a Mari opposition leader, described the threats his people face. As a result of what Kozlov described as the "Mariphobic" policies of the current Russian leaders of Mari El, there are now no ethnic Maris in the Russian Federation Duma or Federation Council. And the number of ethnic Maris in the republic's bureaucracy has fallen from more than 30 percent in 2000 to only a handful now. Moreover, Russian officials there have cut back Mari language media and instruction in schools so that the linguistic future of that nation is in doubt. They have also sought to close down all independent media there and they have either sponsored attacks or looked the other way when independent journalists -- including Kozlov -- have been beaten or even killed.
Third, these developments have occurred as politicians, analysts, and human rights activists from around the world continue to add their signatures to a Finnish-prepared appeal on behalf of the Mari people. That document, posted on the web at the end of February, has been signed by almost 10,000 people from some 60 countries (http://www.ugri.info/mari/). Not surprisingly, Russian officials in Mari El -- who like most regional leaders there have been used to being able to operate almost completely out of the public eye -- have denounced these statements as the invention of what they say are a small group of malcontents who do not reflect the views of the Mari El people. But neither these officials nor Moscow writers are able to continue to maintain that stance given the outside criticism. And, at the end of last week, three commentaries on a Russian nationalist website offer some disturbing analyses of just why some in Moscow believe that the West is now devoting so much attention to a Mari issue so far way. In the first of these articles, Aleksandr Yeliseyev argued that the vote in the European Parliament must serve as a wake up call for Russians about the West's intentions (http://www.rustrana.ru/article.php?nid=9066). And he suggests that following Poland, Estonia, Finland, and Hungary have decided to use European institutions to weaken Russia. Consequently, Yeliseyev said, everyone must recognize that the Mari people are not really responsible for what is happening: their supporters from abroad are. But, at the same time, he insists that the Kremlin already understands "the entire seriousness of the Finno-Ugric factor" in Russian politics. Indeed, Yeliseyev said, this understanding lies behind ongoing efforts to unite Komi-Permyak Autonomous Oblast with the ethnically Russian Perm Oblast and plans to fold the republics of Mari El and Chuvashia into Kirov Oblast. The question Yeliseyev ended with is the following: will such administrative measures be enough? As he has in other articles, Yeliseyev answered in the negative, arguing that the Mari El issue and the involvement of Europeans in it reflects "a crisis of Russian statehood" which he says is just as clearly in evidence in foreign as in domestic affairs.
In the second article, Andrei Smirnov, who writes frequently on geopolitical topics for a variety of Russian nationalist websites, argued that the West's current obsession with the Mari reflects the coming together of two trends (http://www.rustrana.ru/print.php?nid=9072).
On the one hand, he said, "the time of giants has passed, and the epoch of minorities -- sexual, intellectual, and national -- has arrived." Consequently, he continued, it should come as no surprise that people around the world are devoting far more attention to the Mari than their numbers -- approximately 670,000 -- would appear to justify. And on the other, the West in general and the Finno-Ugric countries in particular have decided to exploit the unhappiness of a numerically small people against a large one -- in this case, the Russians -- for their own purposes, he wrote. The small people, of course, are not in a position to defeat the large one on its own, but together with other small peoples, especially if they are backed by stronger outside elements, that "small" people can repeatedly "attack [the large one] from various sides and not let it live in peace," he concluded.
The Russian Federation, Smirnov added, is "not in a position to support" the cultural institutions of minority nationalities in the way that the Soviet government did, and it should not apologize for that fact, especially since these minorities "for some reason or another have not assumed a proportional part of Soviet-era debts." Instead, he suggested, Moscow should take the offensive on this issue, pointing out to the world that many Estonians, Finns, and Hungarians fought on the side of Adolf Hitler during World War II and that the policies of these three states both then and more recently have left much to be desired. And, at the same time, Smirnov concluded, the Russian authorities must move quickly against any manifestation of separatism by these groups lest it grow into what Smirnov called "a catastrophe" for the Russian Federation similar to what the end of the Soviet Union represented for everyone involved.
The third Moscow analyst, Sergei Pakhmutov, argued that those in both Moscow and the West who are now paying attention to Mari El and trumpeting their support for the cause of the Mari people in fact have far broader and more sinister motives (http://www.rustrana.ru/print.php?nid=9065). According to Pakhmutov, "antigovernment" figures in Russia itself -- including Irina Khakamada, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Garri Kasparov, and "other odious politicians of the left-liberal direction," hope to launch Ukrainian or Kyrgyz-style uprisings in Russian regions like Mari El in order to trigger a countrywide explosion that would help them oust President Putin.
But he wrote that those standing behind them, the Finno-Ugric countries in the first instance and the European and American "special services" as well, are playing the key roles in this effort of promoting "an Orange-style revolution" in a republic which, until recently, few had ever heard of. The reasons for that, Pakhmutov continued, should be obvious, and they have nothing to do with human rights, media freedom, or democracy. Instead, they are about control of Russia's most fearsome weapons. Mari El hosts several of the Russian Federation's most important weapons factories. In addition, he noted that the middle Volga republic is the home of a strategic rocket forces facility where advanced RS-12M missiles are based and also arms dumps which contain many of the Russian Navy's most advanced torpedo and artillery weapons systems. Even if many Russians are not aware of that, Pakhmutov said, Russia's "internal and external enemies" are. And so, working together, these enemies hope either to bring to power a new regime in Mari El that will be less interested in defending Russia's military interests or to destabilize the situation to the point that the international community might decide that UN "blue helmets" would have to be introduced.
If that were to occur, Pakhmutov said, it would transfer effective control over a significant part of Russia's nuclear arsenal to the United States. Of course, Pakhmutov concluded, none of this is inevitable. But neither is it impossible, and he urged that the Russian government be sensitive to what he argued is the fact that the West and its allies in Russia frequently pursue geopolitical goals under the banner of protection for the human rights of ethnic minorities. Yeliseyev, Smirnov, and Pakhmutov, of course, do not speak for the Russian government as a whole, and their arguments likely would be dismissed by many in Moscow as extreme and hyperbolic. But no one should ignore what they say, however farfetched and even paranoid their words may be. Indeed, if one ignores some of their more baroque comments, the arguments of the three parallel those of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, have advanced in recent days and suggest that many in Moscow back an even harder line against non-Russian groups in the Russian Federation and their supporters abroad. To the extent that proves to be the case, it will entail far-reaching and potentially explosive consequences not only for the Mari people, other non-Russian groups, and those both in Moscow and the West who are concerned about their fates but also for the future of the Russian Federation as a whole.