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U.S. AUTHORITIES BRIEFLY DETAIN AND QUESTION FORMER DEPUTY FINANCE MINISTER... The FBI on 5 January briefly detained and questioned Federation Council member and former First Deputy Finance Minister Andrei Vavilov after forcing his private plane to land at an airport in northern California, RBK reported on 22 January. Vavilov and his wife were in on their way to Aspen, Colorado, for a vacation when they were forced to land at the request of federal prosecutors. They were released after Vavilov was questioned for four hours, and the couple returned to Russia on 20 January, the news agency reported. According to RBK, the interrogation concerned documents dating back to 1995-97 that might be connected with the case of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who was arrested in the United States on money-laundering charges in 1999. The following year, he was indicted in California on charges he used U.S. banks to launder $114 million he either stole or extorted during the 1990s. JB

...IN CONNECTION WITH ALLEGED MASS EMBEZZLEMENT. In 1996-97, when Andrei Vavilov was first deputy finance minister, he pushed for a deal with top Ukrainian officials in which Ukraine was to pay debts for Russian natural gas by sending construction materials to Russia's Defense Ministry, Russian media reported. Russian prosecutors say the construction materials vanished. Charges were filed against Vavilov in connection with the case in June 2001, but were dropped shortly thereafter, "The Moscow Times" reported on 23 January. According to RBK, $700 million was embezzled from Gazprom under the scheme. U.S. investigators would like former President Boris Yeltsin, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and former Gazprom CEO Rem Vyakhirev to give evidence in the case, and they will be forced to do so should they enter the United States, RBK reported. JB

UKRAINIAN DEPUTY PREMIER HAILS GDP GROWTH IN 2003... First Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Mykola Azarov announced on 22 January that Ukraine's economy expanded by 9 percent in 2003, outpacing the government's 8.5 percent forecast, Interfax reported. Azarov also cited a 28 percent growth in exports, a decline in official unemployment to 3.6 percent, an increase in the average wage (500 hryvnyas [$94]) over the subsistence level (342 hryvnyas), and a significant increase in foreign investment. JM

...AND SEEKS TO DEFUSE FEARS OF HIKE IN BREAD PRICE. Azarov also said on 22 January that recent restrictions imposed by Russia and Kazakhstan on wheat exports will not influence the grain market in Ukraine, Interfax reported. "I don't think that the tense situation with grain reserves in Russia and Kazakhstan will lead to some serious increase in bread prices in Ukraine," Azarov said on Ukrainian Television. Russia imposed a tax on its wheat and rye exports amounting to 25 euros per ton on 15 January. Interfax, quoting unspecified sources in Astana, reported that Kazakhstan has introduced an unofficial ban on wheat exports to Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine's State Statistics Committee reported earlier this month that the country harvested 20 tons of grain in 2003, or roughly half the harvest of the previous year. JM