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BELARUSIAN PARTY WANTS LUKASHENKA'S CHALLENGERS TO TAKE PROINDEPENDENCE STANCE. The Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly led by former Supreme Soviet speaker Stanislau Shushkevich has suspended its membership in the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces, Belapan reported on 30 May. The assembly said it will resume its membership only if the council makes President Lukashenka's five challengers in this year's presidential ballot -- Uladzimir Hancharyk, Syamyon Domash, Syarhey Kalyakin, Pavel Kazlouski, and Mikhail Chyhir -- take an unambiguous position regarding Belarus's independence. In particular, Shushkevich's party wants the five hopefuls to include in their election platforms provisions about maintaining Belarus's sovereignty and currency, returning to the 1994 constitution, and restoring the national symbols of independent Belarus that were abolished by the 1995 referendum. The five, whose presidential bids are supported by the council, pledged earlier to develop a union with Russia (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 15 May 2001). JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT MAKES KINAKH'S CABINET A COPY OF YUSHCHENKO'S? Interfax reported on 31 May that President Leonid Kuchma has already appointed 13 members of Anatoliy Kinakh's cabinet. In addition to the five members of the previous cabinet who were renamed to their positions earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 May 2001), Kuchma also reappointed Economy Minister Vasyl Rohovyy, Finance Minister Ihor Mityukov, Justice Minister Syuzana Stanyk, Health Minister Vitaliy Moskalenko, Agrarian Policy Minister Ivan Kyrylenko, and Labor and Social Policy Minister Ivan Sakhan. The cabinet's newcomers are Deputy Premier Volodymyr Seminozhenko and Culture Minister Yuriy Bohutskyy. The former cabinet of Viktor Yushchenko had 20 posts -- those of premier, first deputy premier, three deputy premiers, and 15 ministers. JM

UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS ACCUSE KUCHMA OF INTRODUCING DICTATORSHIP. Implementing his decree on state secretaries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 May 2001), President Kuchma appointed Volodymyr Yatsuba as state secretary for the Cabinet of Ministers as well as four deputy state secretaries. Meanwhile, opposition politicians have voiced fears that Kuchma's move indicates a further assault on democracy on his part. Fatherland Party leader Yuliya Tymoshenko said the introduction of state secretaries is "the logical transformation of the authoritarian [power] system into dictatorship," Interfax reported. Reforms and Order Party leader Viktor Pynzenyk said the decree is politically tantamount to "the liquidation of the institute of the Cabinet of Ministers which is now becoming a window-dressing [body] since the entire power has been focused in the president." Yosip Vinskyy of the Socialist Party also said the decree on state secretaries implies "the introduction of dictatorship" in Ukraine. JM

CHERNOMYRDIN BEGINS AMBASSADORIAL MISSION IN KYIV. New Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin on 30 May presented his credentials to President Kuchma, Interfax reported. Chernomyrdin told journalists after the ceremony that he is not going to force the payment of Ukraine's gas debt to Russia, adding that he prefers to resolve the problem in "a civilized way." Chernomyrdin noted that Russia is going to cooperate with CIS countries as sovereign states. "[There have recently been opinions expressed] that someone wants to devour someone else. This will not happen," Chernomyrdin said. Chernomyrdin criticized Pope John Paul II's plans to visit Ukraine next month. "The pope's visit is Ukraine's affair, but maybe it's not very good and not very right. We are Slav Orthodox [people]. I don't think there should be cracks in our spirituality," AP quoted Chernomyrdin as saying. Chernomyrdin promised to learn Ukrainian during his mission in Kyiv. JM

FORMER POLISH MINISTER CHARGED IN YAMAL-EUROPE PIPELINE PROBE. The district Prosecutors' Office in Gdansk has charged former Industry and Trade Minister Waclaw Niewiarowski with exceeding his powers and harming the public interest, PAP reported on 30 May. Niewiarowski, who served in the Solidarity-led cabinet of Hanna Suchocka in 1993, is accused of allowing the private company Gaz Trading to acquire a 4 percent stake in the Polish stretch of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline, in contravention of an agreement concluded by the Polish and Russian governments. Niewiarowski's case is linked with another investigation into the high-tech fiber-optic cable that was laid along the Polish stretch of the pipeline. The "Gazeta Wyborcza" daily disclosed last year that the potentially profitable cable -- not controlled by the Polish government -- has enough capacity to handle most of Russia's telecommunications traffic with the West (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 21 November 2000). JM

UN PROBING WEAPONS PLANE IN BULGARIA. Investigators from the UN and Bulgarian police have thus far failed to discover who dispatched weapons made in the Czech Republic that were discovered in a plane seized last month at a Bulgarian airport, the Czech daily "Lidove noviny," cited by dpa, reported on 30 May. The case is being investigated because of the suspicion of an attempt to violate the UN arms embargo against Eritrea. The Czech government has acknowledged that the weapons are of Czech fabrication, but it said the shipment was approved as a legitimate sale to Georgia. However, crew notes found inside the Ukrainian plane suggest that the actual destination was Asmara, in Eritrea. Following an intelligence tip, Bulgarian police seized the plane after it landed to refuel. MS

NEW UKRAINIAN PREMIER HAS CLOSE TIES TO PUTIN. Moscow newspapers have pointed out that Anatoliy Kinakh, the new prime minister in Ukraine, spent his formative years in Leningrad as "a member of Putin's team," in the words of "Izvestiya" on 30 May. Kinakh graduated from a Leningrad shipbuilding institute and worked in the city. VY

Russia's Gazprom has named a new chief executive after months of speculation about reforms at the world's biggest gas company. But the appointment of Deputy Energy Minister Aleksei Miller to replace Rem Vyakhirev as Gazprom's chief executive may only add to the mysteries that surround Gazprom and the Russian government's aims.

Most analysts were surprised by the Gazprom board's choice of Miller, a virtual unknown who had not appeared on any published lists of potential successors in the past week. On 29 May, the "Financial Times" had tipped Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko to take over from Vyakhirev, whose contract expired on 30 May.

The paper also reported speculation that Sergei Bogdanchikov, head of the Rosneft oil company, would get the job. But in the end, it was Miller, a 39-year-old bureaucrat who started his career in St. Petersburg city government, giving him a possible tie to President Vladimir Putin.

More recently, Miller ran the Baltic Pipeline System, a project to give Russian oil a direct route to Europe while bypassing ports in the Baltic countries.

But until 30 May, it was even uncertain that Vyakhirev would be asked to step down. Recent reports suggested that the board would extend his term temporarily as a compromise with minority shareholders who saw him as an obstacle to reforms.

Vyakhirev had come under fire for Gazprom's alleged asset transfers to companies linked to the relatives of executives. This week, Gazprom announced a net profit of over 60,000 million rubles ($2.1 billion) last year, according to Russian accounting standards. But its stock market value is only a fraction of what Western oil firms are worth.

The company, which accounts for one-fourth of federal tax payments, is 38 percent owned by the state. The relationship between the government and Gazprom has always been a matter of mystery. As the successor to the old Soviet gas ministry, Gazprom serves Russian foreign policy in controlling gas trade and transit with countries of the near abroad.

Yet, the government has acted for years as if reform of the monopoly's murky dealings is a matter beyond its ability to control. This week, many media reports called Gazprom a "state within a state." But that description suggests that the government only lacks the power to reform Gazprom. The real question may be whether it has the will.

On Wednesday, Putin called for more "transparency and efficiency" in Gazprom's operations, a statement that was seen as supporting the move to oust Vyakhirev. But at the same time, a Gazprom spokesman said Vyakhirev could be appointed as company chairman at the next shareholders meeting. The signal raised doubts about the true extent of the change.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Robert Ebel, director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that so far there have been few signs that a new course has been charted.

"The future of Gazprom is no clearer today than it was yesterday," Ebel said. As for lifting the veil of mystery surrounding the company, he said that "this certainly didn't do it. It just adds to it."

Because so little is known about Miller or the motives for his appointment, the mystery continues, Ebel said.

Miller's experience with the Baltic Pipeline System could be a sign that Putin intends to pursue his policy of building bypasses around problem countries even more vigorously than before.

Putin recently appointed Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former prime minister and Gazprom chairman, as Moscow's ambassador to Ukraine. The Russian government has been pressing Poland to cooperate on a new gas export pipeline to Western Europe that would detour around Ukraine. At the same time, Moscow has been trying to gain control over Ukraine's transit pipelines to its European customers.