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Newsline - September 21, 2004

The Federation Council on 20 September began an extraordinary session devoted to combating terrorism, Russian media reported. The council worked on a draft resolution that is expected to be adopted on 29 September and that broadly outlines the legislative changes to be initiated. "The current regulatory legislative base fails to meet the requirements of the situation that has taken shape and to create the necessary conditions for consistent and resolute action against terrorism," the resolution states, according to Interfax on 20 September. The resolution suggests the creation of a threat-status warning system similar to that adopted by the United States following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks there. Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov urged security and law enforcement agencies to take immediate steps to account for their stocks of arms and ammunition. ITAR-TASS reported that the Interior Ministry estimates that up to 72,000 pieces of combat firearms have been stolen or are missing from such stocks. Mironov was named to head a special commission to coordinate the new antiterrorism measures, the news agency reported. RC

The Federation Council on 20 September appointed a special commission to investigate the Beslan school hostage crisis, Regnum and other Russian media reported on 21 September. The commission will be headed by council Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Torshin and will include 11 council members and 10 Duma deputies. The Duma is expected to name its representatives on 25 September, Regnum reported. The Duma members will represent all the factions in the chamber, meaning that there will be no independent deputies on the commission, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 21 September. Federation Council Chairman Mironov announced that "commission members do not have the right to publicize any information about the progress of the investigation or to comment on it except in official press conferences sanctioned by the commission's chairman," and other Russian media reported. The members of the commission from the Federation Council arrived in North Ossetia on 21 September to hear five days of testimony from witnesses and local officials, reported. Mironov told RIA-Novosti on 20 September that the commission might return to the republic later in the investigation if necessary. RC

Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev addressed a closed session of the Federation Council on 20 September and answered questions from council members, Regnum and other Russian media reported. Patrushev told senators that no storming of the school was planned, according to Duma Deputy Aleksei Mitrofanov (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia). When asked by council member Lyudmila Narusova how there could be no plans to take the building when President Vladimir Putin repeatedly stated that there would be no negotiations with terrorists, Patrushev reportedly said, "We simply weren't ready at that moment." Patrushev reportedly told senators that the authorities did not make a decision to lie about the number of hostages during the crisis, but merely were reluctant to disseminate unconfirmed information for fear of escalating tensions in the region, especially between Ingush and Ossetians. He added that there is no evidence that the hostage takers or their accomplices had brought weapons and explosives into the building before the 1 September attack on the school. Mitrofanov said that senators did not ask Patrushev why the authorities failed to cordon off the school sufficiently to prevent civilians from becoming involved in the fighting. RC

The Central Bank has begun requiring Russian banks to keep identity records of all those who make transactions, including both bank customers and the people and organizations to which they transfer funds, RTR reported on 20 September. All banks must also have an on-staff specialist in the area of terrorism financing and money laundering. The new rules are part of the government's stepped-up efforts against terrorism in the wake of the Beslan hostage taking. From now on, anyone opening an account for another individual will have to provide complete biographical information about themselves as well. Vneshtorgbank Vice President Aleksandr Galkin said the new measures will be good for business. "The more transparent our customer is, the better we understand him and working with such a customer becomes more productive from the point of view of business," Galkin said. RC

Central Bank Chairman Sergei Ignatev has said "there are no grounds to expect a system-wide banking crisis before the end of this year," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 20 September. However, Central Bank figures indicate that the interbank lending market is recovering very slowly from the panic of this summer. Bank of Moscow analyst Kirill Tremasov told the daily that "today's [interbank] market is not at all the one that existed at the start of this year." "The main differences are reduced volumes and a sharper segmentation into first-tier banks and the rest," he said. "Everyone has become convinced how dangerous it is to rely on the interbank market to patch holes." Tremasov noted that Standard & Poor's has assigned an average rating of B- to Russian banks, which is five grades below the BB+ rating that Russia as a whole enjoys. Tremasov concluded, however, that the current state of the banking sector is not "critical or threatening." "It would be more appropriate to say that the sector is in a stage of reform and that somewhat raises the risks." RC

Popular ORT television host Vladimir Pozner told "Izvestiya" on 18 September that his program, "Vremena," did not appear during the Beslan hostage crisis because it was on a regularly scheduled vacation. "Before I went on vacation, the station and I agreed on the date for bringing back the program. 'Vremena' was not ready to go on the air in an emergency," Pozner said. "But I think that if we had been summoned, we would have done it one way or another. But we were not summoned." Pozner said that he was not happy with his program last season but that he will continue to produce it next season. "It seems to me the program was extremely flat," Pozner said. "That, of course, was related to the election. Undoubtedly, pressure was felt from the authorities, and some compromises had to be made. That was unpleasant for me. I believe that this year I will not take that kind of step. The program cannot enjoy respect and prestige if for one reason or another it avoids tough topics." Last year, many leading analytical and informational programs -- including NTV's "Namedni," "Svoboda slova," and "Lichnyi vklad"; TVS's "Itogi"; and TV-Tsentr's "Vyvodi" were taken off the air. RC

The security department of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK), the state-owned company that broadcasts RTR and Radio Rossii, has sent a message to all its regional affiliates warning of possible terrorist attacks on broadcasting centers, "Izvestiya" reported on 21 September. The message states that the warning is not prompted by "concrete information" but rather by "the general tension." However, it requires that local broadcast centers implement unprecedented security measures. "Izvestiya" correspondents in Astrakhan and Rostov-na-Donu reported stepped up security when they entered the local broadcasting centers. NTV's affiliate in Samara has reported that security agencies have received information that militants intend to take over one or more television-broadcast centers. A manager at Astrakhan's Sem Plyus television company reported that a police major warned him of a similar threat, the daily reported. An unnamed VGTRK source told "Izvestiya" that the company has issued similar security warnings following major acts of terrorism in the past. RC

Severnaya Verf, the largest shipyard in St. Petersburg, has been taken over by Mezhprombank, "Gazeta" reported on 17 September. The bank reportedly paid "tens of millions of dollars" for 53.48 percent of the shipyard, which has estimated orders of $2 billion. Mezhprombank is controlled by Federation Council member Sergei Pugachev, who is a close confidant of President Putin. Mezhprombank reportedly bought the stake from the Novye Programmy holding company, which is controlled by oligarch Vladimir Potanin's Interros group. Although Severnaya Verf currently specializes in military vessels, a Mezhprombank official told the daily that "one could manufacture civilian ships there, oil tankers for example." RC

A new trial of physicist Valentin Danilov, who is charged with fraud and selling state secrets to China, began in the Krasnoyarsk Krai Court on 20 September, NTV and REN-TV reported. A jury acquitted Danilov of the same espionage and fraud charges last December, but the Russian Supreme Court overturned that verdict in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003 and 9 June 2004). Contrary to speculation over the summer that judges alone would determine Danilov's guilt, the retrial is being held before a jury. However, details about the proceedings are sketchy because the courtroom is closed to the public and the media. Danilov's attorney, Yelena Yevmenova, told NTV that she could not discuss the issues considered on the first day of the retrial because the court had severely limited the defense team's contacts with journalists. In voiding Danilov's acquittal, the Russian Supreme Court cited procedural violations by the defendant's attorneys. LB

The procurator's office for the Tverskoi Raion in Moscow is questioning members of Grigorii Yavlinskii's Yabloko party in connection with a criminal case, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 18 September. An investigator told the daily that a Yabloko member allegedly cursed at a police officer during a 16 September protest outside the Prosecutor-General's Office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September 2004). Although the case comes under Article 319 of the Criminal Code (insulting an official), Yabloko activists claim the investigation is politically motivated. They deny that anyone insulted the police during the protest. Furthermore, they claim investigators are seeking information unrelated to any alleged insult: the names of those who attended, the slogans they used, and the means by which they informed the media about the place and time of the protest. "Kommersant-Daily" noted that prosecutors are not questioning members of the Communist Party, which also participated in the protest. An investigator told the daily that "the communists did not insult anyone." LB

Human Rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin has formed a working group to consider an amnesty for some illegal immigrants to the Russian Federation, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 18 September. According to Lukin, the amnesty would apply to migrants who have lived in Russia for a long time, have integrated into society, and have not committed any other crimes. Lukin told the daily that the issue is timely, because such amnesties frequently precede the toughening of immigration laws. The hostage crisis in Beslan has put immigration restrictions on the political agenda, but Lukin dismissed the suggestion that the amnesty envisioned by his working group might help terrorists: "A terrorist, I assure you, will not seek to obtain citizenship or a residence permit." According to Lukin, an amnesty would reduce opportunities for corruption among bureaucrats and would increase tax revenues from longtime residents. In the same interview, Lukin criticized a proposal by Moscow city authorities to toughen registration rules for foreigners living in the Russian capital. He argued that such a move would be imitated by other city mayors, leading to the disintegration of Russia into "feudal estates." LB

A Moscow district court on 20 September rejected a lawsuit alleging that official negligence led to the death of the plaintiff's daughter during the October 2002 hostage crisis in a Moscow theater, Interfax and reported. Some 130 people died and more than 700 were injured during the siege and eventual storming of the theater. Many survivors and relatives of those who died there have sued city and federal agencies, thus far unsuccessfully. According to an unnamed source from a legal-assistance NGO, which provides legal assistance to the victims, the court set aside this case pending the conclusion of the Moscow prosecutor's office's criminal investigation of the hostage crisis. Once that investigation is finished, would-be plaintiffs will be able to review documents they are seeking, including an official document declining to open criminal cases against the special services or medical agencies, the source told Interfax. LB

A long-awaited report by the Audit Chamber has concluded that flaws in legislation and "the absence of a free market for oil in Russia" permitted the large Russian oil companies Yukos, LUKoil, and Sibneft to avoid paying most taxes, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 20 September. When the Audit Chamber announced its review of those companies, some observers expected a report citing criminal wrongdoing. Instead, the chamber's report focused on loopholes that enabled the companies to reduce their tax payments, such as subsidiaries that served as "internal offshore companies." The report also criticized current laws that allow oil exporters oriented toward oil exports to pay far lower taxes than companies that extract and refine oil for the internal market. LB

President Putin's recent proposal that regional legislatures endorse gubernatorial candidates nominated by the president will mean the end of political consulting in Russia, predicted on 13 September. "There will still be public relations, but the efforts will not be directed at selecting a candidate but at convincing the population that the Kremlin's choice is the correct one. There will be a cohort of official Kremlin public-relations people, but the market in spin doctoring will cease to exist." Foundation for the Development of Parliamentarism Vice President Sergei Kalmykov told the website that "the spin doctors have lost yet another large chunk of their earnings pie -- gubernatorial elections." "Even if alternative candidacies are proposed, it is meaningless to speak about a campaign," Kalmykov said. "The regional legislatures have only 15-20 voters. This is the death knell for political public relations in Russia." The website reported that Russian political consultants are actively seeking to make up for the loss of gubernatorial campaigns by stepping up their activity in other CIS countries. RC

Svetlana Gannushkina, who is a member of the human-rights organization Memorial, told Interfax on 20 September that the proposal to pardon former Colonel Yurii Budanov, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for raping and murdering a young Chechen woman four years ago, is "unacceptable" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September 2004). Gannushkina said that if President Putin approves that request she will quit the Russian presidential Pardons Commission. Aleksandr Petrov of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office said pardoning Budanov "would send the wrong signal" to the Russian military and could lead to a deterioration of the human-rights situation in Chechnya. Pavel Krashenninikov (Unified Russia), chairman of the Russian State Duma Legal Affairs Committee, told ITAR-TASS that Budanov's request for a pardon is ill-timed. An unnamed Justice Ministry official informed Interfax on 20 September that Budanov's plea was accompanied by procedural violations, and that he has only paid 11,000 rubles ($375) of the 380,000 rubles compensation ordered by the court to the victim's family. In Moscow, Tatiana Dmitrieva, director of the Serbskii Institute of Psychiatry, insisted that the institute's conclusion that Budanov is insane is valid, even though the court that passed sentence on him chose to ignore that diagnosis, Interfax reported. LF

Chechen mufti Akhmed-hadji Shamaev told ITAR-TASS on 20 September that public opinion in Chechnya is against pardoning Budanov. Residents of Tangi-Chu, where the murdered woman lived, demonstrated on 20 September, according to A larger protest is scheduled in Grozny on 21 September. LF

Romano Prodi visited Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia from 17-19 September for the last time before his term of office as European Commission president expires. Prodi encouraged the leaders of all three countries to persevere with political reforms and to take advantage of the opportunities for closer cooperation with the EU contained in that organization's New Neighbors program. Speaking in Baku on 17 September after meeting with President Ilham Aliyev, Prodi said the EU supports efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group to mediate a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but will not intervene in that dialogue, ITAR-TASS reported. He also noted that Azerbaijan is the only South Caucasus state to have repaid in full the $57 million it received in loans from the EU. And, in an allusion to domestic political tensions, he warned that "there can be no democracy without opposition," Turan reported on 17 September. LF

In Tbilisi on 18 September, Prodi said the EU and the EC will not mediate in Georgia's conflicts, Caucasus Press reported. Prodi met on 19 September in Yerevan with Armenian President Robert Kocharian to discuss Armenian-EU relations, Armenian-Turkish relations, and the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan reported. Prodi told journalists in Yerevan that it is premature to speculate about whether and when the South Caucasus states might join the EU. Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania was quoted on 18 September by Caucasus Press as saying Georgia could do so within three or four years. LF

Artak Sargsian, who represents the Orinats Yerkir party headed by parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, was named on 20 September as the winner in a by-election the previous day in central Armenia's Kotayk region, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Sargsian garnered 63 percent of the vote. A ballot three weeks earlier in which Sargsian polled just 32 votes more than his closest rival, Arayik Hayrapetian, who represents the Nig-Aparan regional organization headed by Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, was annulled following allegations of vote rigging (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 September 2004). The daily "Haykakan zhamanak" on 16 September attributed Hayrapetian's decision to pull out of the repeat election to pressure exerted by President Kocharian on Hovsepian not to jeopardize a victory for Orinats Yerkir, which now has 22 of the 131 deputies and is the second-largest parliament faction. LF

Opposition Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar testified on 20 September at the trial of seven opposition activists accused of organizing mass protests in the wake of the 15 October presidential ballot, reported on 21 September. Qambar told the court he remains convinced that he, not Ilham Aliyev, was the rightful winner of the presidential ballot. He said he personally called on his supporters to convene in Baku on 16 October to protest the authorities' rigging of the election outcome. That meeting degenerated into violence between police and Qambar supporters. LF

Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze on 20 September asked Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili to explain to the parliament's committee on foreign relations why Georgia is at risk of losing its voting rights at the UN because of unpaid membership dues amounting to almost $6 million, Caucasus Press reported. Burdjanadze argued that the Foreign Ministry should have acted earlier to avert that possibility, ITAR-TASS reported. The arrears date back at least five years, and Tbilisi has avoided forfeiting its voting rights only by paying off portions of that debt at intervals. On 17 September, Caucasus Press quoted an unidentified Georgian Foreign Ministry official as saying that Georgia paid its voting rights for 2004 on 7 September and has rescheduled payment of the arrears over a 10-year period. Speaking in New York on 20 September, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili described the work of Zourabichvili, whom he personally appointed foreign minister in March, as "not ideal," but he acknowledged that she has contributed a great deal to Georgia's relations with Europe, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

The opposition New Rightists have released a statement calling on the Georgian government to begin the process of withdrawing from the Commonwealth of Independent States, which the party terms an "absolutely useless organization," Caucasus Press reported on 21 September. In an earlier statement, the New Rightists criticized President Saakashvili for not defending Georgia's interests more resolutely at last week's CIS summit in Astana. In early August, the New Rightists issued a similar call for Georgia to leave the CIS on the grounds that Russia, as a fellow CIS state, was trying to undermine Georgia's independence by supporting the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia. LF

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced in Astana on 20 September that the previous day's parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan did not meet OSCE standards, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Vice President Ihor Ostash, who headed the OSCE observer mission in Kazakhstan, told a 20 September news conference, "The 19 September parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan fell short of OSCE and Council of Europe standards for democratic elections," RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. A 19 September OSCE preliminary report noted "serious shortcomings" and strong pro-government bias in media, but recorded some improvements over past elections. Central Election Commission (CEC) head Zagipa Balieva told journalists at a 20 September news conference in Astana that she had anticipated such criticism (For complete information on the elections see "Kazakhstan Votes 2004" at DK

Information Minister Altynbek Sarsenbaev, who is also cochairman of moderate opposition party Ak Zhol, tendered his resignation in Astana on 20 September to protest what he called "unfair" parliamentary elections the previous day, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. In a statement published by opposition newspaper "Navigator," Sarsenbaev announced, "I do not consider it possible to stay in the cabinet and be a part of an executive branch that actively interfered in the election campaign and took part in the falsification of election results." Sarsenbaev also called for the resignation of Imangali Tasmagambetov, head of the presidential administration, and CEC Chairwoman Balieva. DK

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev announced after a meeting with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in Astana on 20 September that Kazakhstan intends to increase uranium exports to South Korea from 800 tons a year to 1,000 tons a year, RIA-Novosti reported. The two presidents also said that they intend to simplify visa procedures for their citizens, and Nazarbaev expressed his support for South Korea's approach to easing tensions with North Korea, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. They also signed a number of cooperation agreements intended to increase business and trade ties. Trade volume between the two countries was $370 million 2003, ITAR-TASS reported. DK

Nikolai Tanaev met with Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Executive Secretary Zhang Deguang on 20 September in Bishkek, Kyrgyz TV reported. The two discussed preparations for a 23 September meeting of heads of governments from SCO member states (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) in Bishkek. Presaging the main themes of the upcoming meeting, Tanaev said, "The SCO plays an important role in Kyrgyzstan's attempts to counteract international terrorism, religious extremism, the illegal trade in drugs and weapons, and illegal migration," reported. For his part, Executive Secretary Zhang Deguang said that the meeting will mark a new phase in the organization's development. DK

Tajikistan's Office of the Prosecutor-General has completed its investigation of former Interior Minister Yoqub Salimov and sent it to the Supreme Court, Tajik television reported on 20 September. Salimov faces charges of treason, banditry, abuse of office, and a number of weapons violations. Salimov was extradited from Russia to Tajikistan in February 2004. DK

Kazakh authorities arrested Ali Purmuhammadov, a former field commander during Tajikistan's 1992-1997 civil war, in Almaty on 19 September, Asia Plus-Blitz reported the next day. Better known as "Ali the Boxer," Purmuhammadov was detained at the request of Tajik authorities. Tajik Deputy Prosecutor-General Abdusami Dadaboev told the news agency, "The issue of [Purmuhammadov's] extradition will be resolved soon." DK

Belarus's district election commissions have registered 359 candidates for the 17 October parliamentary elections to the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives, out of the 692 seeking registration, Belapan reported on 20 September, quoting Central Election Commission Secretary Mikalay Lazavik. Of those registered, 151 were fielded by political parties, 137 by the staffs of enterprises, and 71 made it to the ballot by collecting at least 1,500 signatures of support. Some 150 aspirants have appealed against their registration denials to the Central Election Commission, which is to consider these appeals by 27 September. Some 40 percent of candidates proposed by Belarusian opposition parties were reportedly denied registration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September 2004). Those who failed to obtain registration include lawmakers Valery Fralou, Syarhey Skrabets, and Uladzimir Parfyanovich, who staged a 19-day hunger strike in June in an unsuccessful effort to amend the country's Election Code and secure the release of jailed opposition politician Mikhail Marynich. JM

The Minsk-based charity Milaserdnasts has failed to have its employees entered in the national computerized worker registry because of a language dispute, Belapan reported on 20 September. Syarzhuk Kruchkou, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Language Society (TBM), told Belapan that the Ministry of Labor and Social Security refused to issue social security cards to members of the Milaserdnasts staff because their application forms were filled out in Belarusian. Milaserdnasts complained about the decision to the Minsk Economic Court but it refused to accept the suit. However, the Supreme Economic Court forwarded the suit to a lower court following Milaserdnasts' request. In July, the court took the ministry's side, finding nothing wrong with its decision to turn down the Belarusian-language applications. Kruchkou said TBM will appeal to the UN Commission on Human Rights should Belarus's courts uphold the ministry's decision irrevocably. JM

The Prosecutor-General's Office has begun an inquiry into the public allegations that opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko's recent bout of poisoning may have been caused by a deliberate attempt on his life, Interfax reported on 20 September, quoting Prosecutor-General's Office spokesman Serhiy Rudenko. Last week, Yushchenko's campaign manager Oleksandr Zinchenko cited Austrian doctors as saying that Yushchenko's ailment was caused by "a viral infection and chemical substances that usually do not appear in foodstuffs" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 20 September 2004). The Verkhovna Rada voted by 425-17 on 21 September to set up an ad hoc commission to look into reasons behind Yushchenko's poisoning. "What happened to me is not linked to a food problem," Yushchenko told lawmakers before the vote. "What happened to me is a problem linked to the political regime in Ukraine." Yushchenko also commented sarcastically on the official investigation into his poisoning. "You are posing questions that you do not intend to answer," Yushchenko said, referring personally to President Leonid Kuchma. JM

Lawmaker Dmytro Svyatash announced in the Verkhovna Rada on 21 September that 15 lawmakers from the Democratic Initiatives-People's Power caucus have restored their membership in the pro-government coalition, Interfax reported. The 15 lawmakers reportedly suspended their participation in the pro-government alliance in protest against the government's decision two weeks ago to pool state stakes in the Halychyna and Ukrtatnafta oil refineries with the basic capital of state-controlled oil company Ukrnafta (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 September 2004). Last week, President Kuchma revoked the decision, ordering that those stakes be pooled with the basic capital of the state-run gas company Naftohaz Ukrayiny. Apart from the Democratic Initiatives-People's Power caucus, the pro-government parliamentary coalition has been abandoned by some 30 lawmakers from the Center and Popular Agrarian Party groups. JM

Some 70 ethnic Ukrainians from Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region on 20 September crossed the Moldovan-Ukrainian border and are marching to Kyiv to request that the Ukrainian authorities defend them from the economic sanctions imposed on Transdniester by Moldova, Interfax reported. "We are forced to take this action, because the economic situation in Transdniester is becoming more and more acute," said Volodymyr Bodnar, deputy of the Supreme Council of the unrecognized Transdniestrian Republic and head of the Union of Ukrainians of Transdniester. "Foreign Minister" Valerii Litskai told RFE/RL last week that some 20,000 people in Transdniester have Ukrainian passports. JM

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke on 20 September in New York to the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia, Romania, and Italy, as well as to an unnamed top U.S. diplomat, about his recommendations for speeding up discussions on Kosova's final status and stepping up the reform process there, RFE/RL reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 August, and 10 and 17 September 2004). Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, who drafted a recent report on Kosova for Annan urging a quicker resolution of the status issue, and Soren Jessen-Petersen, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), also participated. Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana told RFE/RL that "we just cannot stay idle and wait for time to go by and then eventually decide on various [issues]. The conversation today [centered] on the process of decentralization and transfer of competencies" from UNMIK to local elected officials. He also noted that "there are some voices saying we should wait...[for] a general review of the standards before entering any discussion about status, while others are saying, with some logic, that we should press for standards and have...devolution and decentralization [at the same time] and make the whole process work [as a whole]." PM

In an online interview with users of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service website on 20 September, Croatian President Stipe Mesic dismissed the argument that possible independence for Kosova will lead to fragmentation of other states in the region ( Mesic argued that the Croatian authorities will "accept any legal and legitimate decision" on Kosova's final status, adding that his advice to other Balkan countries is to accept European standards and look toward the future rather than the past. Asked who was the greater man, the late Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito or Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, Mesic replied that it is impossible to compare the two because they lived in different times and under different circumstances. Mesic declined to take a stand as to who was at fault regarding the tensions in the 1990s between Tudjman and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic. Mesic argued that this is a matter for historians to decide since neither Tudjman nor Izetbegovic is alive and hence able to answer. PM

In the 20 September online interview, Mesic said that three states existed in the 20th century under the name Yugoslavia and all of them failed. Mesic said he believes that the future of the former Yugoslav republics is to join the European Union, which some of them will do sooner, others later. Asked whether he, as the last president of the second or communist-era Yugoslavia, feels some responsibility for the demise of that state, Mesic replied that it was clear to him when he arrived in Belgrade in 1991 that federal Yugoslav institutions had ceased to function. The solution, he felt, was to reach a new political agreement among the republics. But, Mesic argued, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic did not want such a compromise. Instead, Milosevic sought to break up Yugoslavia and create a greater Serbia, Mesic argued. In the course of carrying out his plan, Milosevic indulged in genocide and other war crimes, and for that he is now answering before the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, Mesic said. PM

A spokesman for the Macedonian government said on 20 September that the government is weighing the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with Iraq, A1 TV reported. The statement came during a press conference on the fate of three Macedonian workers who were kidnapped near Baghdad on 21 August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2004). The spokesman also said that the Macedonian Foreign Ministry expects information about the three hostages from its Iraqi counterpart. UB

In an interview with the Transdniestrian Olvia-Press agency, Tiraspol "Industry Minister" Iurii Ganin said the Transdniestrian authorities are considering whether to sue Moldova over the economic blockade initiated by Chisinau in August, Flux reported on 20 September. He said the fact that Transdniester is not recognized as a state is not an obstacle. He added that in the 1997 memorandum on bilateral normalization of relations, Transdniester was granted the right to economic freedom and now that right has been taken away from the region. Therefore, he argued, Tiraspol can state "from within the Commonwealth of Independent States" that the memorandum has been breached. He admitted, however, that in Transdniester there are no experts to pick up the case, adding that Tiraspol depends on foreign legal assistance. ZsM

A number of Iraqi political groups have taken steps to organize ahead of the January elections despite numerous comments last week by government and UN officials who said that elections might be postponed due to increasing violence.

Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi worked to counter talk of a delay when he vowed during a meeting in London with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on 20 September that the country will "definitely...stick to the timetable of the elections in January next year."

Some apparently disenchanted political groups, tribal leaders, and individuals sidelined for assembly seats in last month's Iraqi National Conference gathered in Beirut on 29 August to kick off what they termed a preparatory conference for the Iraqi National Founding Council. The chairman of the council, Abd al-Amir al-Rikabi, heads the Iraqi National Democratic Movement. The Lebanese daily "Al-Safir" of 1 September cited al-Rikabi as saying that a 60-member preparatory committee was elected at the conference. The attendees were described as tribal chiefs, Kurds, Turkomans, and Assyrians; civil-society representatives; nationalist leaders; Nasirite and democratic parties; Islamic leaders, including Muslim Scholars Association members and representatives of Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; who reportedly claim to represent more than 6 million Iraqis. The preparatory committee called for the council to move its activities inside Iraq by establishing offices in Baghdad, Karbala, and Al-Basrah. Al-Rikabi reportedly said that the council intends to act as an "executive government" in Iraq, "Al-Safir" reported.

Conference attendees were apparently bound by the belief that Iraqis are being subjected to a formula set by the occupation that does not coincide with their vision for Iraq. Al-Rikabi voiced opposition to the former Iraqi Governing Council and interim government, saying that the Iraqi state -- but perhaps referring more specifically to the interim assembly -- does not fulfill the conditions of Iraq's national structure, especially its pluralistic nature. Conference attendees also advocated resistance against the occupation, saying it is a legitimate national and religious right. The conference was also attended by Socialist Progressive Party leader Walid Junblat, and representatives from the Lebanese Communist Party and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Iraq's two largest Islamic groups entered into discussions in early September about forging an alliance in preparation for the January elections, Baghdad's Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 5 September. Leaders from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, reportedly met with representatives of the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party on 5 September to discuss the possibility of merging the two parties into one current, SCIRI spokesman Rida Jawad Taqi said. Taqi added that SCIRI is also courting smaller Shi'ite groups, such as the Al-Fadilah Party, and an al-Sadr splinter group led by Muhammad al-Ya'qubi. A SCIRI-Da'wah alliance would arguably form the largest political grouping in Iraq and place the alliance in a strong position for the elections.

Al-Sadr's "Ishraqat al-Sadr" weekly published an article on 8 September calling on SCIRI and Al-Da'wah to include the "al-Sadr trend" in its alliance. "We demand that the leaders of SCIRI and Al-Da'wah Party hold negotiations with the leadership of the al-Sadr trend in order to work out a form that unifies the Shi'ite people and to ensure the victory of their unified list because we are heading toward an important stage -- the building of the new Iraqi state," the article said. The article is intriguing in that al-Sadr himself has on several occasions in recent months said that he has no interest in participating in the political process. He agreed in late August to take part in the process as part of a negotiated settlement to the standoff with U.S. and Iraqi forces in Al-Najaf. However, he has made similar statements in the past, only to recant. London's "Al-Hayat" reported on 10 September that his movement is in the process of writing a "political program" that contains 25 articles addressing the political, economic, and social issues that he raised during his Friday prayer sermons in recent months. Al-Sadr aide Abu Zahra al-Nasiri told "Al-Hayat" that the decision of al-Sadr to join the political process scared many politicians who "are afraid of the popularity of this movement."

Three Sunni groups -- the National Front for Iraq's Tribes, the National Democratic Party, and the Iraqi National Movement -- organized a rally in Baghdad on 11 September calling on the Iraqi people to unite ahead of the January elections. It is unclear whether these groups will attempt to forge a political alliance ahead of that vote.

Meanwhile, two political groups last week discussed their platforms in the Iraqi press. Abd al-Muhsin Shalash, who heads the Free Iraqi Society Party, gave an interview to Baghdad's "Al-Manar al-Yawm," published on 14 September, in which he said that his group's unofficial stance is that it does not seek to participate in "any agency or congress that has come about through the occupation." Shalash contended that he was not invited to participate in the conference to elect an interim assembly. He claimed his party remains neutral on a number of issues, adding that the party instructed him that "we should wait and ask God for his help" rather than take impulsive stands. His grouping encompasses some 30 political parties and supports peaceful resistance to the occupation.

Shalash said of the January elections: "The future shows us that the Iraqi people will be driven and directed within what is called the elections. They will take part in an operation called voting, but it will be like the marriage of a man to a woman he does not love. He walks together with her, holding her hand in front of the people.... But his heart is crying."

The group's political platform calls for a stable Iraq that respects all religions and ethnic groups and rejects the occupation and "all the laws and regulations that the people did not participate in forming." "We have a comprehensive political project that believes that change must come from within, not through foreign oppression," Shalash said.

The Iraqi Arab Socialist Movement published its political program in Baghdad's "Al-Jaridah" on 13 September. The group's platform is based on forging national unity. The report claimed that the interim government's ministries were set up based on a division along sectarian, national, and religious quotas, as was the appointment of ambassadors and deputy ministers. "Thus, everyone started to give allegiance to the different sectarian, ethnic, national, and religious groups and parties, and not to [the] country, causing the national program to be absent." "The last chance that is open to our people and their national and democratic forces is finding representative institutions through free elections."

The group said it is willing to "cooperate and form an alliance with all our people's national, Pan-Arab, and Islamic forces" in order to enter the election with a unified broad-based front that "expresses the interests of the broadest social sectors" of Iraqi society.

The Iraqi Arab Socialist Movement has proclaimed support for political and religious freedom, freedom of the press, the return of the displaced to their homes and lands, support for Islam as the official religion, separation of the three branches of government, a condemnation of terrorism, and a national-reconciliation program. It has also called for expanded labor laws, support for women's rights, social welfare, and free health care and education. It supports federalism and recognition of Kurdish and minority rights.

Afghan Transitional Administration Deputy Chairman Ne'amatullah Shahrani escaped an attempt on his life on 20 September in the northern Konduz Province, Radio Afghanistan reported. Shahrani, one of four deputies to Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, was on his way to inaugurate the reconstruction of the Takhar-Badakhshan road, when a land mine exploded, hitting his vehicle. Shahrani was unhurt, but reports indicated that one security guard was injured. AT

An unidentified spokesman for a group calling itself Jaysh al-Muslimin al-Afghani (Afghan Army of Muslims) has claimed responsibility for trying to kill Shahrani, Al-Jazeera reported on 20 September. In a related development, 15 unidentified people have been detained on suspicion of detonating a land mine as Shahrani's motorcade was passing by, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. The identity of the suspects has not been released. AT

Two U.S. troops were killed and two U.S. and two Afghan National Army troops were wounded in clashes with unidentified fighters in Paktika Province, Hindukosh News Agency reported on 20 September. The statement from the coalition forces in Kabul did not elaborate on the details of the incident. Coalition forces indicated that their troops came under separate attacks from "enemies" on 20 September in the Dehrawud District of Oruzgan Province and Qalat District of Zabul Province, both in southern Afghanistan. There were no reports of casualties in these two engagements. AT

Mullah Abdul Latif, purporting to speak on behalf of the neo-Taliban, said that its militias killed two U.S. troops and injured five others in Paktika, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 20 September. Abdul Latif also claimed that a U.S. battle tank was destroyed by a remote-controlled bomb in Dehrawud District of Oruzgan injuring three U.S. soldiers. AT

An unidentified spokesman for U.S.-led coalition forces said on 20 September that an additional 1,000 U.S. troops will be dispatched to Afghanistan in order to ensure security in the southern part of the country, Radio Afghanistan reported. The spokesman said that a number of these troops have already arrived in Afghanistan and, once the entire contingent arrives, it will be sent to southern Afghanistan. The additional troops will leave Afghanistan after the elections, the report added. It is not clear whether the additional troops will leave after the 9 October presidential election or after the parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 2005. The additional troops are part of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, the BBC reported on 20 September. The United States has around 18,000 troops in Afghanistan battling neo-Taliban and remnants of Al-Qaeda. AT

Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami told a gathering of disabled veterans and their families in West Azerbaijan Province on 20 September that the U.S. attitude toward Iranian nuclear efforts reflects a reliance on power and force, state television reported. "The world is a cruel place," Khatami said. "It is a world full of lies. Just see what is happening in the world today. The Iranian nation is the target of the great powers' pressure and verbal attack so that it can't progress. What is happening regarding our nuclear activities these days is a sign of perversion in the world and the rule of power and force over international relations." Khatami added that there is pressure against Iranian nuclear activities because of the country's "crime" of seeking independence, pursuing progress, and wanting to "strengthen its model of religious democracy." If the United States is so worried about human rights and nuclear proliferation, Khatami asked, why is Israel not under similar pressure? BS

Executive branch spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 20 September that President Khatami will have two cabinet members look into the recent arrests of journalists, IRNA reported. A letter signed by 212 photojournalists and correspondents to Khatami noted that the recent spate of arrests was unpleasant and urged the president to take action. "Though every executive official can ignore the spirit and proceedings of [the] law, you, as the chief executive, have taken [an] oath to execute the constitution item by item and safeguard this national law," the letter stated. (On the arrests of journalists, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 and 17 August and 20 September 2004.) BS

Executive branch spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh on 20 September criticized the legislature's decision to restrict the government's right to sign contracts with foreign companies, IRNA reported. The previous day, the parliament voted to amend two articles of the Third Five-Year Development Plan (2000-05), IRNA reported. The government must obtain legislative permission to conclude any contract in the aviation or telecom fields with a foreign firm or a firm that has no more than 49 percent Iranian ownership. Any agreements signed by the government as of 21 March are subject to amendment, and any agreements must receive legislative approval within three months of their conclusion. Ramezanzadeh said this means parliament must be informed before negotiations commence, and this would undermine the government's role in foreign policy and economic activities with other countries. Economist Said Leylaz told IRNA on 20 September that the only thing this would accomplish is to close the economy even more and to lower productivity. Leylaz stressed the economic value of privatization and foreign investment. BS

The Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology has ordered the closure of the American University of Hawaii, a degree-issuing institution that utilizes distance learning, Radio Farda reported on 20 September (; see the institution's website at The university, which has its worldwide headquarters in Hawaii, has offices in Tehran. According to the report, students did not have to attend classes, and the institution reportedly issued some 8,000 degrees in exchange for tuition that ranged from 50 million to 210 million rials (about $6,300-$26,600). The scandal is even greater because officials from the Tehran Province Justice Department and several ministries earned such degrees. A former instructor, Hushang Nasserzadeh, told Radio Farda that over the last two or three years the government issued warnings in the broadcast and print media that this institution is illegal and it even refused to use the word "university." Nasserzadeh added that the institution's chancellor, Ardeshir Qassemlu, reassured him that he has all the necessary licenses, but according to Nasserzadeh all the institution did was issue degrees in exchange for money in order to satisfy people's egos. Tehran Province Justice Department spokesman Abbasali Alizadeh said in the 9 September "Resalat" that Qassemlu is banned from leaving Iran, and on 14 September he said that the government does not recognize degrees from Hawaii University, Islamic Republic of Iran News Network reported. BS

A video posted to an Islamist website shows the beheading of U.S. civil engineer Eugene Armstrong, Reuters reported on 20 September. His body has been recovered and identified, a U.S. government official stated. A militant group headed by fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad, claimed responsibility for the decapitation. Footage of the murder surfaced on a website previously used by insurgents after the 48-hour deadline set by the group expired. Armstrong was kidnapped along with two co-workers from the Gulf Services Company on 16 September. EA

Al-Zarqawi's group continued to call for the release of all female detainees held by U.S. forces as a condition for the release of the two remaining hostages, AP reported on 20 September. The militants threatened the execution of either U.S. citizen Jack Hensley or Briton Kenneth Bigle within the next 24 hours unless their demands are met. The U.S. military has said that it is holding only two female detainees including Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, who worked as a scientist for deposed President Saddam Hussein. Any other female detainees have been held as common criminals and are not captive at Abu Ghurayb or Umm Qasr, two prisons specifically mentioned by the militants. EA

Deposed President Hussein and former officials from his regime will stand trial within the next few months, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said during an appearance on ABC News' "This Week" program on 19 September. "Roughly speaking, I think October," Allawi responded when asked when the trials might begin. However, he said Hussein might not appear until November or December. Allawi said he doubts the trial of the former president will drag on "because the evidence against him is so much. Really, it's overwhelming. So we hope justice will be served." The death penalty was suspended during the U.S. administration of Iraq and has since been restored. Allawi did not say whether he expects the ousted dictator to be executed if convicted. He noted that Hussein, imprisoned since December 2003, has "not yet" provided interrogators with useful information but that some of the other captured members of his regime have. EA

At least two people were killed and three were wounded from explosions in Al-Fallujah on 20 September, AP reported, citing hospital officials. The cause of the explosions could not be confirmed, although U.S. planes flew overhead throughout the day. According to hospital officials, the two killed were city municipal employees using a bulldozer to work on construction projects near the Al-Fallujah railway station. U.S. forces said recent strikes have targeted insurgents linked to al-Zarqawi. EA

An armed Islamist group has released the 18 Iraqi National Guard soldiers it took hostage, international media reported on 20 September. Al-Jazeera aired a video from the Muhammad bin Abdallah Brigades on 19 September in which the militants threatened to execute the troops unless the authorities released a senior aide to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Hazim al-A'raji, within 48 hours. An aide to al-Sadr, Ali Sumaysim, held a news conference the following day to denounce the guardsmen's kidnapping and called for their release. He denied any connection to the Muhammad bin Abdallah Brigades. It is unclear whether al-A'raji has been released. EA