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BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT THREATENS TO ABANDON ACCORDS WITH RUSSIA... President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on 13 February that Minsk might renounce unspecified bilateral agreements with Russia if Gazprom continues to pressure Minsk to pay more for gas deliveries and reduce the asking price for a stake in Belarus's gas-pipeline operator (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 13 and 27 January 2004), Belarusian Television reported. "We are offered some $300 million or $400 million [by Gazprom for pipeline operator Beltranshaz]...for what international auditors value at $5 billion," Lukashenka said, adding that agreeing to such a deal would constitute a "crime." "Speaking straightforwardly, the problem is as such: 'Give us [Beltranshaz] for free, then we will open a gas valve for you,'" Lukashenka said to characterize the Russian position. "And now they keep on opening and closing it. They are blackmailing [our] country and people, and they are probably blackmailing Western Europe, because [their] gas goes across Belarus to Western Europe." JM

...AND PROPOSES EXCHANGE FOR GAS DEPOSIT IN YAMAL. Lukashenka added on 13 February that he would demand higher transit fees on natural gas bound for Europe in exchange for a price of $50 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas, Belarusian Television reported. Neighboring Ukraine currently pays the same $50 price for Russian gas. But Lukashenka added that Gazprom wants no part of such a deal, according to the report. The Belarusian president also proposed selling a 50 percent stake in Beltranshaz for a gas deposit on Russia's Yamal Peninsula from which Belarus could extract some 15 billion-20 billion cubic meters of gas per year. "Why are Americans and Germans allowed to extract gas there, and we are not?" Lukashenka asked. "And why it is legally permissible in Russia to buy just 20 percent of such a [state-owned] asset, while they demand that we give them all, and moreover free of charge?" JM

UKRAINIAN PREMIER SAYS HE WILL RUN FOR PRESIDENT IF SUPPORTED BY ALLIES. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said on 14 February that he has not yet decided whether to run for president, Interfax reported. "Today, my task as head of government is to deal with other problems and other duties," he said at a meeting with voters in Donetsk Oblast. Yanukovych declared that he will run for president if members of his own party and political allies wish it. "I primarily have in mind the leaders of political forces that today represent the centrist bloc, both in parliament and in the state," he said. Yanukovych, prime minister since November 2002, also heads the Party of Regions, which has 67 seats in the Verkhovna Rada. A late-January poll by the Democratic Initiatives Fund and the Kyiv-based International Institute of Sociology found that 22 percent of voters would support Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko (down from 26 percent in October), 9 percent Viktor Yanukovych (versus 10 percent), and 8.9 percent Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko (15 percent in October), 4.2 percent Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz (from 4.5 percent), and 3.2 percent Yuliya Tymoshenko (from 4 percent). The same poll suggested that 70 percent of respondents do not want President Leonid Kuchma to seek re-election in 2004. JM

ONE IN THREE UKRAINIANS REPORTEDLY WANTS TO EMIGRATE. A poll conducted in late January by the Democratic Initiatives Fund and the Kyiv-based International Institute of Sociology suggested that 34 percent of Ukrainian citizens would like to move to another country, Interfax reported on 16 February. The pollsters concluded that 7.7 percent would choose to move to Russia, 7.4 percent to Germany, 3.9 percent to Canada, 3.8 percent to the United States, 1.8 percent to France, 1.2 percent to the United Kingdom, and 1.2 percent to Israel. JM

OSCE MAKES PUBLIC MEDIATORS' PLAN FOR MOLDOVA'S FEDERALIZATION. The OSCE mission in Chisinau on 16 February published the new proposals worked out at the 26 January Sofia meeting of the three mediators of the conflict -- Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE, Flux reported. The plan envisages granting Transdniester the status of a "federation subject," but no mention is made of Moldova's own status. The proposal stipulates that Transdniester has the right to draft its own constitution and separate legislation, but that federal legislation would take precedence. Transdniester would also have its own executive, and a separate budget and fiscal system partly derived from local taxation and partly from allocations from the federal budget. Federal Moldova would have a bicameral parliament, president, and government, according to the plan. MS

SEA TRAGEDY CLAIMS BULGARIAN, UKRAINIAN CREW. Seventeen Bulgarian and two Ukrainian sailors are believed to have been killed when the freighter the "Hera" sank on 13 February during a snowstorm near Istanbul, reported. Bad weather conditions hampered rescue operations, which continued on 16 February near the Bosphorus Strait, AFP reported. None of the 19-member crew are believed to have survived. Preliminary investigations have established that the company that hired the sailors in Varna was not legally registered, reported. According to AFP, the Cambodian freighter was owned by a Bulgarian. UB

RUSSIAN GAS SUPPLIES TO BELARUS REPORTEDLY HALTED. Russian gas supplies to Belarus stopped on 18 February at 10:00 a.m. Moscow time due to "the lack of a contract between economic entities," ITAR-TASS reported, quoting Vladimir Kondrachuk, general director of Russian gas trader Transnafta. In practical terms, the decision means that the gas flow across Belarus has been reduced by Gazprom by some 20 million cubic meters a day. Belarus's daily gas consumption is reportedly 64 million cubic meters. Last week, Transnafta signed a short-term gas-supply contract with Belarus that expired on 18 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004). Gazprom has refused to supply gas to Belarus since the beginning of the year, demanding a higher price for deliveries and favorable terms in the potential purchase of a controlling stake in Belarus's gas-pipeline operator Beltranshaz (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 17 February 2004). Kondrachuk said Transnafta is ready to sign a new gas-supply agreement with Belarus on previous terms, with gas priced at $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters. He added that Belarus owes Transnafta $16.7 million for gas deliveries in January and $26 million for those in February. JM

UKRAINIAN BROADCASTER DROPS FM RETRANSMISSION OF RADIO LIBERTY. Broadcaster Dovira halted the FM retransmission of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service programs on 17 February, saying the programs do not suit Dovira's pop-music, youth-oriented format (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004). RFE/RL President Thomas Dine recently called the Dovira move "a deeply disturbing political development and serious setback to freedom of expression in Ukraine." Dovira had been rebroadcasting five hours of RFE/RL programs per day on its nationwide FM network since 1998. The latest RFE/RL audience figures show a 30 percent increase in listenership in Ukraine over the past 12 months, mostly among young listeners in the 15-24 age group. "This isn't just about RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service -- this is about denying Ukrainians the information they need to make sound decisions about the future of their country," Dine said. RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service continues to broadcast on shortwave to Ukraine, and its programs are still available on independent FM stations in six cities, including Odesa and Simferopol. JM

U.S. COURT LAUNCHES TRIAL OF FORMER UKRAINIAN PREMIER. A court in San Francisco has begun "intensive preparations" for the trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister (May 1996-July 1997) Pavlo Lazarenko, who is accused of laundering $114 million through U.S. banks, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported on 18 February. Lazarenko is also accused on 30 other counts, including a number of financial machinations for a total sum of $200 million. If found guilty, Lazarenko faces as long as 370 years in prison. Lazarenko, who has been in a San Francisco jail since 1999, was reportedly released on bail of $86 million in June. Lazarenko denies the charges, maintaining that he is a victim of political intrigue within the Ukrainian leadership. JM

CHISINAU, TIRASPOL, SUBMIT PROPOSALS TO OSCE MISSION... Negotiators representing Chisinau and Tiraspol on 17 February submitted their response to the new plan for Moldova's federalization worked out by the three mediators in the conflict -- Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE -- at their 26-27 January Sofia meeting, Infotag reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). The Moldovan response and counterproposals were submitted to William Hill, OSCE mission head in Chisinau, by Reintegration Minister Vasile Sova, while mission member Andrzej Klimcik met in Tiraspol with Valerii Litskay, who holds the separatist government's foreign-affairs portfolio. Sova said the proposals submitted by his government are based on the recommendations of the mediators and on the Russian plan for Moldova's federalization, which is often called the "Kozak memorandum" in reference to Russian first deputy presidential-administration head Dmitrii Kozak. In an interview with the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Sova said the Moldovan side took into account earlier accords and drafts, including the Kozak memorandum. Litskay said in a separate interview with the daily that further progress in the negotiations is impossible without the sides specifying their position on the Kozak memorandum. He stressed that both President Vladimir Voronin and Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov initialed each page of that document, which Moldova at the last minute failed to sign. MS

RYBKIN DRUG TEST PROVES NEGATIVE... Ksenia Ponomareva, campaign manager for presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin, told Ekho Moskvy on 17 February that preliminary results of medical tests performed on Rybkin have not shown any traces of narcotic or psychotropic substances. Medical specialists will continue to study the samples for substances that are not easily identified. Rybkin has claimed he was lured to Kyiv under false pretences and then drugged as part of a "special operation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). Meanwhile, a Moscow tourist company has made inquiries to Rybkin asking to use his name of on a new package tour running between Moscow and Kyiv, "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported on 16 February. The package would include one-way travel by train to Kyiv with a return to Moscow by airplane through the VIP hall of the Boryspil airport, two nights in a Ukrainian hotel, and two nights in a private apartment. Tea and sandwiches are included. The daily also reported that a feature film about Rybkin is also being considered. Producer Arkadii Shvartser said he envisions a scene in the film in which U.S. President George W. Bush calls President Putin to ask, "Where's Rybkin?" JAC

...AS ANALYST SAYS REACTION TO DISAPPEARANCE REVEALING. Dmitrii Furman, writing in "Moskovskii novosti," No. 5, argued that the reaction to Rybkin's disappearances has been even more interesting than the event itself. According to Furman, the "liberal" media favored the theory that Rybkin was being punished for his disclosure of President Putin's secret financial dealings. "Why did such a thought immediately come to mind?" he asked. "Because it is the most natural theory in post-Soviet countries -- it comes from the biographies of our political elite." All of the presidents of CIS countries, possessing uncontrolled power, "divided up billions of dollars worth of property," he wrote. "Could they really not have a million dollars or so in their own pocket? ...It is as unlikely as the director of a Soviet store not bringing home a piece of defective sausage." However, he concluded that life, as it frequently happens, turns out to be more absurd than the logically constructed versions of events: "Rybkin, thank God, simply ran out on his wife to Kyiv." JAC