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PUNDITS HAIL APPOINTMENT OF FORMER GERMAN LEADER TO PIPELINE BOARD... Several Russian experts said in Moscow on March 30 that the election of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as head of the stockholders' oversight body for the planned North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) running from Vyborg to Greifswald is good for Russian interests, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 29, and 30, 2006, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2006). Vyacheslav Nikonov, who heads the pro-Kremlin Politika Foundation, said that Schroeder is "a man who can ensure good political cover for the [NEPG] project." Stanislav Belkovsky, who leads the National Strategy Institute, noted that Poland and the Baltic states oppose the NEGP and that "therefore a political heavyweight with a serious [profile] on the European scene is needed to combat this serious lobbyist pressure. Schroeder has confidential relations with the Russian authorities, and this will allow him to accomplish [his] tasks effectively." Political Forecasting Center Director Konstantin Simonov said that Schroeder's appointment means that Russians "are really capable of involving top [foreign] politicians in achieving our goals." Vladimir Likhachev, who is deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Energy Research, called Schroeder "a felicitous choice," adding that the NGEP could eventually "replace the Ukrainian pipeline" to move Russian gas to Europe. PM

GAZPROM ANNOUNCES PRICE HIKES TO BELARUS. Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller said in Moscow on March 30 that he has informed Belarusian Energy Minister Alyaksandr Ageyev that Gazprom will raise its prices to Belarus to "European levels" in 2007, news agencies reported. Miller added that Minsk will respond by the end of April. Belarus currently receives gas at a subsidized price of $47 per 1,000 cubic meters -- far below prices paid by customers in Europe and Ukraine. PM

UKRAINE'S RICHEST MAN DENIES SEEKING PREMIERSHIP, VOWS TO STUDY UKRAINIAN... Rynat Akhmetov, who participated in Ukraine's March 26 parliamentary elections on the Party of Regions' candidates list, told a press conference in Kyiv on March 30 that he is not seeking to become prime minister, Interfax reported. The Party of Regions won a plurality in the election and Akhmetov -- the party's main financial backer and Ukraine's richest man -- has frequently been named as a potential premier in the next government. Akhmetov also announced that his party wants to hold a national referendum on the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO. "As for NATO, we advocate a democratic approach -- as far as we know, 75 percent of the population of Ukraine is opposed to joining NATO." Commenting on the Party of Regions' intention of giving Russian the status of an official language in Ukraine, Akhmetov said that "society needs the Russian language and the authorities have to take this into account." He also promised to learn Ukrainian. RK

...AND DEFENDS HIMSELF, BUSINESS AGAINST ALLEGATIONS OF IMPROPRIETY. During his Kyiv press conference on March 30, Akhmetov denied allegations that he has a criminal past and described his business dealings as completely legal, Interfax reported. Akhmetov owns a 90 percent stake in the Donetsk-based System Capital Management Corporation (SCM), which he founded in 2000. SCM controls more than 90 companies concentrated in the iron ore, coal, steel, and energy generation sectors, as well as interests in insurance and banking, food and beverage services, and hotels and hospitality. He said that recent rumors that he plans to sell his business to Russian, American, or Indian businessmen are not true. "We only acquire" he told journalists. RK

UKRAINIAN OLIGARCH UNDER INVESTIGATION BY PROSECUTOR-GENERAL'S OFFICE. Viktor Pinchuk, a son-in-law of former President Leonid Kuchma and one of Ukraine's richest men, is under investigation by the Prosecutor-General's Office for possible fraud related to the Nikopol Ferrous Alloy Works he owns, "Kommersant Ukrayiny" reported on March 31. The newspaper reported that prosecutors are looking into $450 million that two companies Steelex and Travis -- both alleged to be owned by Pinchuk -- may have made from the sale of alloys produced by the Nikopol plant. In a related development, Ihor Kolomoyskyy, head of the Dnipropetrovsk-based Privat company, filed a suit in the U.S. state of Massachusetts against Pinchuk and his Nikopol partners Jerry Margolis, Viktor Vekselberg, and Oleksander Abramov. Kolomoyskyy alleges in the suit that Pinchuk and his partners paid a bribe of $50 million to unnamed Ukrainian officials to prevent the renationalization of Nikopol Ferrous Alloy Works, the Russian daily "Vedomosti" reported on March 31. RK

TALKS ON TRANSDNIESTER POSTPONED. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on March 30 that negotiations between Moldova and separatist Transdniester, which were scheduled to resume next week, have been postponed due to rising tensions, Reuters reported the same day. The talks were scheduled to take place on April 4 and 5 in Chisinau. "Due to the current...situation it has become absolutely clear to me that there is no agreement between all participants to hold the next round of talks next week," William Hill, the OSCE representative in Chisinau, said. "The talks are not blocked, they are delayed." Hill gave no indication when the negotiations would resume. Both Russia and the pro-Moscow Transdniester leadership have protested new customs rules designed to curb smuggling that require that goods passing between the breakaway region and Ukraine clear Moldovan customs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). BW