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BELARUSIAN POLICE ARREST SEVEN DEMONSTRATORS. Police arrested seven activists from the youth opposition movement Zubr who were staging a demonstration in front of the Prosecutor-General's Office in Minsk on 24 January, Belapan reported. The demonstration was intended to commemorate four opponents of the Lukashenka government -- Yury Zakharanka, Viktar Hanchar, Anatol Krasouski, and Dzmitry Zavadski -- all of whom disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1999 and 2000. Some in the anti-Lukashenka opposition consider Prosecutor-General Viktar Sheyman to be among those responsible for the disappearances (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 12 June and 28 August 2001). JM

KUCHMA, PUTIN CLOSE 'YEAR OF RUSSIA IN UKRAINE.' Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Kyiv on 23-24 January for the official close of the "Year of Russia in Ukraine" -- a series of cultural events promoting Russia in Ukraine -- with his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma, Ukrainian and international media reported. "Russia needs a strong Ukraine, while Ukraine, I am confident, needs a strong Russia," Putin said at a gala ceremony in Kyiv on 23 January. "We reaffirmed the Ukrainian-Russian partnership and good-neighborliness," Kuchma commented on his meeting with Putin. The same day, the two sides signed agreements on cooperation between steelmakers and nuclear-energy companies. The following day, Kuchma and Putin visited the Kyivo-Pecherska Lavra (Monastery) in Kyiv, which remains under the administration of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). "The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is now totally independent, including from the Russian Orthodox Church. The only link that remains between the churches is the canonical and spiritual link," Putin said at the monastery. "In my view, this is a very important factor in the unity of our peoples." JM

NEWS AGENCY PROTESTS EXCLUSION FROM KUCHMA-PUTIN NEWS CONFERENCE. French news agency AFP on 24 January disseminated a statement protesting the refusal by the Ukrainian presidential administration to accredit AFP journalist Anna Tsukanova for a Kuchma-Putin news conference the previous day, Interfax reported. The statement charged that Tsukanova was deprived media accreditation for asking Putin upon his arrival at Borispil airport near Kyiv an "unsanctioned" question concerning a possible third presidential term for Kuchma. "This is Ukraine's internal matter. We have come here for a different reason," Putin replied. JM

POLISH RULING COALITION FACES TOUGH VOTE ON AUSTERITY PLAN. The ruling Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union (SLD-UP) bloc on 24 January unanimously pledged support for the so-called Hausner plan, a set of budgetary cutbacks prepared by Economy Minister Jerzy Hausner (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 20 January 2004), Polish media reported. However, the upcoming parliamentary vote on the Hausner plan is expected to be contentious, since the SLD-UP minority government led by Premier Leszek Miller controls just 206 votes in the 460-seat Sejm, which is 25 votes shy of the required majority. The SLD-UP has so far won key votes with the backing of minor parties and independent deputies. But on 23 January, the Peasant-Democratic Party led by Roman Jagielinski refused to support an SLD-UP budget amendment intended to cut railway subsidies, and the ruling coalition lost the related vote. "Yesterday gave us a taste of what may come when we put cutback bills before parliament," Miller said on 24 January. "But this government will not bow to political blackmail, and we will remain open to cooperation in parliament." Some Polish media reported last week that Jagielinski demanded posts in the government for his party in exchange for supporting the 2004 budget. Jagielinski has dismissed those reports. JM

RUSSIAN SENATOR SAYS U.S. RELEASED HIM SCOT-FREE... Andrei Vavilov, the Federation Council member and former first deputy finance minister who was questioned by the FBI in California earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2004), said on 23 January that he was questioned as a witness and that the U.S. authorities have no further claims on him, Interfax reported. He also confirmed that the interrogation was connected to the embezzlement case against former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, denying rumors that it had anything to do either with the cases against oil giant Yukos and its jailed former CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovskii, or with last year's sale of the Severnaya neft oil company, which Vavilov owned, to the state-owned Rosneft oil company. JB

...AFTER QUESTIONING HIM ABOUT EX-UKRAINIAN PREMIER. Andrei Vavilov was questioned in Aspen, Colorado, on 13 January by Martha Boersch, chief of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Strike Force at the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco, "The Moscow Times" reported on 26 January, quoting Vavilov's spokeswoman. Boersch is investigating whether former Ukrainian Prime Minister Lazarenko laundered $114 million in U.S. banks. Investigators suspect the money was part of a $450 million loan to Gazprom that went missing in 1996-97 in a scheme approved by Vavilov, who was then first deputy finance minister. Lazarenko, who was indicted in California on money-laundering charges in 2000, was released from a San Francisco jail in June 2003 pending trial, which is to begin on 17 February, "The Moscow Times" reported. In connection with the Lazarenko case, U.S. prosecutors would like to question former President Boris Yeltsin, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, former Gazprom CEO Rem Vyakhirev, former defense ministers Pavel Grachev and Igor Rodionov, and former Tax Service chief Vitalii Artukhov, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 26 January. JB

GROUP FORMED IN KAZAKHSTAN TO DEFEND PROSECUTED JOURNALIST. A group of prominent defenders of journalists' rights has been formed in Kazakhstan to defend Gennadii Benditskiy, a correspondent for the weekly "Vremya," who is being sued for criminal libel in connection with his investigation into the alleged disappearance of $1.5 million that had been earmarked by the Kazakh Defense Ministry for the purchase of military equipment from Russian and Ukrainian factories, reported on 25 January, citing "Vremya," No. 3. The centrist Ak Zhol party provided the initiative for the committee, citing the necessity to defend freedom of speech and democratic values, as well as to support the struggle against corruption. Among the committee members are National Library Director Murat Auezov, Journalists in Need Foundation head Rozlana Taukina, International Bureau for Human Rights Director Yevgenii Zhovtis, parliamentarians, and journalists. The committee is calling on parliament remove libel from the Criminal Code. Ak Zhol co-Chairman Bulat Abilov announced that two prominent Kazakh lawyers have been hired to defend Benditskiy. BB