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Newsline - December 2, 2004

President Vladimir Putin and European Union leader Jan Peter Balkenende spoke by telephone on 1 December to discuss Ukraine's political crisis, international news agencies reported. Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, emphasized the importance of all parties committing themselves to negotiations. "The EU will back any outcome that would receive the support of all parties concerned in Ukraine," Balkenende said. The Dutch government said in a statement that "both leaders stressed the importance of finding a solution within the legal framework of the country and by way of dialogue with all parties concerned." Moscow's relations with the EU have been strained by Ukraine's deadlocked presidential election, in which Russia openly supported Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and the EU and United States backed opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November 2004). BW

Mykola Levchenko, chairman of the Donetsk City Council in eastern Ukraine, on 1 December urged Russian lawmakers to get tough with the West for interfering in his country's internal affairs, ITAR-TASS reported. "America and Western Europe are poking their snout into Ukraine, and Russia is afraid even to touch it with its hand," Levchenko told reporters after addressing a special session of the State Duma's leadership. "Political hooliganism is happening in Kiev today," he said. Levchenko's Donetsk region, heavily Russian speaking and pro-Moscow, has threatened to hold a referendum on autonomy if Yushchenko becomes Ukraine's president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2004). Levchenko denied, however, that such a move would split Ukraine. "It's not about division or separatism, it's about a federation," he said. BW

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov on 1 December praised a broad blueprint for political reform as an important step toward resolving Ukraine's ongoing crisis, ITAR-TASS reported. In an effort to break the impasse in Ukraine, a group of international mediators helped draft a broad plan to change the country's presidential election law, draft a new law on a political reform, and form a new cabinet (see also Ukraine items, "RFE/RL Newsline Part 2"). "I think this is a step toward a settlement," Gryzlov said. Gryzlov was among a group of international officials holding roundtable talks in Kyiv to help resolve the political standoff. The group also includes the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2004). BW

A pro-Kremlin faction in the Duma, meanwhile, has proposed a draft resolution protesting what it calls Europe's interference in Ukrainian affairs, ITAR-TASS reported on 2 December. The motion, sponsored by Nikolai Pavlov of the Motherland faction, denounced "European parliamentarians' actions as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state -- Ukraine." Duma Speaker Gryzlov, meanwhile, lashed out again at Yushchenko's allies. "I think the country is tired of the opposition's forcible pressure," Gryzlov said on 1 December, ITAR-TASS reported. BW

Moscow and Thailand have agreed to tighter cooperation and coordination in combating terrorism, ITAR-TASS reported on 1 December, citing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He said the two countries agreed to share information, prepare for possible joint military and security operations, and work together to cut off funding for terrorist groups. There are "good prospects in the sphere of military cooperation" and "concrete proposals in the sphere of combating drug trafficking and organized crime," ITAR-TASS quoted Lavrov as saying. Russia also offered to supply Thailand with arms and other military hardware. "We guarantee maintenance and supplies of [spare parts], as well as the training of Thai servicemen, which can be arranged either in Russia or in Thailand," Lavrov said. BW

Foreign Minister Lavrov also said that Thailand has agreed to support Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, ITAR-TASS reported on 2 December. After talks with Thai Prime Minister Taksin Chinawat, Lavrov said that "it has been finally decided at this meeting to sign a bilateral protocol on Russia's accession to the WTO." Lavrov added that the Thai prime minister "has confirmed interest in further integration of Russia in the process of interaction in the Asia Pacific region." BW

Economy Minister German Gref is trying to prevent the state-owned natural gas monopoly Gazprom from bidding for a key subsidiary of the embattled Yukos oil company, the newspaper "Vedomosti" reported on 2 December, citing unidentified government sources. Gazprom has said it plans to bid for Yuganskneftegas, a Yukos subsidiary, in a 19 December auction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November 2004). But Gref, who holds a seat on Gazprom's board of directors, moved to block the move on 30 November. "It was clear at the board meeting that he did not agree with it," an unidentified board member said, according to the 2 December "Vedomosti" report. Gref is worried that Gazprom could be vulnerable to lawsuits from Yukos shareholders, who could question the legality of the deal, according to the daily. BW

A Moscow City Court ruled on 1 December that Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the former CEO of embattled oil giant Yukos, must remain in prison at least until 14 February pending his trial on criminal fraud and tax-evasion charges, Russian and international news agencies reported. Prosecutors argued that Khodorkovskii could flee the country or pressure witnesses if released from prison. Khodorkovskii was arrested in October 2003 on fraud and corruption charges. If convicted, he and business partner Platon Lebedev, who was arrested on similar charges in July 2003, could each face up to 10 years in prison. The legal assault on Khodorkovskii and Yukos is widely seen as a political move in which Putin is trying to remove a potential opponent. BW

The State Duma on 1 December approved on second reading a draft law that would end gubernatorial elections, Russian media reported. The bill passed by a vote of 357-61, mostly thanks to support from the Unified Russia and Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia factions. Opposition to the legislation largely came from the Communist and Motherland factions. The draft law does not explicitly grant the president the right to appoint regional leaders, but would in effect enable him to install hand-picked governors of oblasts and krais and the presidents of republics. Regional legislatures would have the right to approve presidential nominees for the top executive post, but the president would have the power to dissolve the regional legislature and appoint an acting regional head for a period of six months should his nominee be rejected three times. The president would also be able to fire regional leaders at any time should they "lose his trust" or fail to fulfill their duties. The draft law encourages current regional leaders elected by popular vote to seek a "vote of confidence" from the president well before the end of their terms. The bill is expected to receive final approval from the Duma in a third and final reading on 3 December, after which it will head to the Federation Council for consideration. LB

The Duma on 1 December voted down proposed changes to the law on mass media that would have restricted the dissemination of pornographic and violent material in the media, including the Internet, to between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m., RIA-Novosti reported. Only 14 Duma deputies voted for the law in the first reading, while 222 voted against. Aleksandr Chuev (Motherland) offered the bill, claiming that crime has risen in direct relation to the increased media exposure of brutality, violence, and erotica. The Duma's Information Policy Committee recommended in a statement that deputies reject the bill, as current legislation adequately regulates the distribution of material in the media and on the Internet. LB

President Putin on 1 December signed a law that grants him the authority to nominate candidates for the chairperson and deputy chairperson of the Audit Chamber, the organ of parliamentary oversight of state agencies and state-owned as well as private firms, Russian news agencies reported. Previously, the Duma both nominated and confirmed the head of the Audit Chamber, while the Federation Council nominated and confirmed the deputy head of the chamber. The president gains the power to submit to the parliament resolutions on dismissing the head or deputy head of the Audit Chamber. A similar draft law cleared the Duma in July but faltered in the Federation Council. The Duma approved the version Putin signed on 12 November, and the upper house easily passed it on 24 November. "Gazeta" on 25 November speculated that the deputies were afraid of provoking tension with the Kremlin over this issue. LB

Addressing the All-Russian Congress of Judges in Moscow on 30 November, President Putin announced that he has submitted to parliament draft laws to "significantly" increase judges' salaries and raise their mandatory retirement age to 70, Russian media reported. He said the measures are needed to safeguard judicial independence and reduce incentives for corruption. "Vremya novostei" reported on 1 December that there are nearly 5,000 vacant judgeships in Russia, up from approximately 1,000 six years ago, as caseloads have increased. Putin later told the congress that he supports doubling or even tripling judges' pay in the short term, with further raises down the road. The average monthly salary for judges in raion courts is currently 27,400 rubles ($978), "Vedomosti" reported on 1 December, citing federal budget data. Judges in oblast courts on average earn 31,000 rubles a month, while members of the Supreme Court and Supreme Arbitration Court earn 44,100 rubles and 34,000 rubles a month, respectively. The current retirement age for judges is 65, except for Constitutional Court judges, who can serve until age 70. LB

In his address to the judges' congress on 30 November, Putin called for battling corruption by requiring judges to file annual income and property declarations. He did not specify which agency would review the declarations. REN-TV reported on 30 November that judges attending the congress are concerned that the package of draft laws Putin submitted to the Duma may take away the judges' power to select members of judicial panels tasked with hearing cases of jurists accused of wrongdoing. Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov has proposed giving the Federation Council the authority to make such appointments. Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev's address to the congress strongly criticized that idea, as well as other attempts to encroach on judicial power, "Vremya novostei" reported on 1 December. Responding to Lebedev's remarks, Putin did not endorse Mironov's proposal but suggested that he is inclined to reduce judges' authority to appoint the panels that discipline them: "Let's be straight with each other: there should not be a situation in which one hand washes the other." LB

Marina Korigova, the 16-year-old Ingush girl detained one month ago in Vladikavkaz on suspicion of telephone contact with one of the Beslan hostage takers, was released from detention on 1 December, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 and 22 November and 1 December 2004). The site attributes the authorities' decision to free Korigova to intensive coverage of her predicament by "Gazeta,", and Ekho Moskvy, and to the intervention of Aleksandr Torshin, chairman of the Federation Council's commission to investigate the circumstances of the Beslan hostage crisis. LF

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov has named First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov to head the commission that regulates the payment of financial compensation to Chechens whose homes and property have been totally or partially destroyed during the two successive wars of the past decade, ITAR-TASS reported on 30 November. Kadyrov warned that he will punish all Chechen officials, regardless of their rank, who seek to embezzle those funds, between 25-30 percent of which are reported to be siphoned off as bribes and kickbacks. Commenting on Alkhanov's decision, noted that "Chechnya's top executioner will now become Chechnya's top thief." Kadyrov is notorious for the brutality of his so-called "presidential guard" and for extorting money from Chechen government officials. He has reportedly invested some of those funds in neighboring North Caucasus republics, and uses the rest to buy state-of-the-art weaponry for his men and to bribe Russian officials, according to RFE/RL's North Caucasus broadcasters. LF

Amnesty International has condemned as "grossly unfair" the trial in Equatorial Guinea of 20 people, including six Armenians, charged with planning to overthrow that country's leadership, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 1 December. The six Armenians, the crew of a transport aircraft that landed in Equatorial Guinea in January to transport equipment, were sentenced on 26 November to between 14 and 24 years' imprisonment. They insist they knew nothing of the planned coup. The Armenian government continues to press for their release, as it has done since their arrest. LF

The opposition Musavat party will not participate in the municipal elections on 17 December, Chairman Isa Qambar told journalists on 30 November, Turan reported the following day. He said that decision was prompted by the Azerbaijani authorities' failure to amend the election law or to implement recommendations made by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights intended to preclude a repeat of the procedural violations that have marred previous ballots. Qambar said Musavat will decide after consultations with its partners in the Our Azerbaijan bloc whether to appeal to their members to boycott the 17 December ballot (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 29 October 2004). LF

Gennadii Bukaev, an aide to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, warned on 1 December that Moscow will close its borders with Abkhazia in the event of further "unconstitutional actions" by presidential challenger Sergei Bagapsh, Russian media reported. Bukaev said the Russian authorities regard Vladislav Ardzinba as Abkhazia's legitimate president. He alleged that Bagapsh, whom the Abkhaz Central Election Commission proclaimed the winner of the 3 October ballot to elect Ardzinba's successor, is supported by "criminal elements," that are trying to seize power by force, Interfax reported. Bukaev's statement followed a meeting in Sukhum between Bagapsh and visiting Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kolesnikov, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 2 December. The paper quoted Bagapsh as saying that Kolesnikov tried to persuade him to agree to repeat elections, but that he refused. Later on 1 December, Abkhaz Prime Minister Nodar Khashba, a former senior Russian government official, said that Moscow will halt rail communication with Abkhazia beginning on 2 December and will tighten security procedures on the border with Abkhazia, ITAR-TASS reported. Khashba said he will ask the Russian leadership to reconsider that latter measure because it will affect first and foremost ordinary people "who should not be made to suffer as a result of Abkhaz politicians' irresponsible actions." LF

Bagapsh too warned on 1 December that closure of the Russian-Abkhaz border would constitute "a catastrophe" for the unrecognized republic's population, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 2 December. He said such a move would inevitably trigger a backlash in Abkhazia that "would be very bad for Russia." Bagapsh denied having committed a single unconstitutional or illegal act, claiming that Moscow simply considers him an unsuitable figure and is therefore seeking to compromise him. On 2 December, Caucasus Press quoted Bagapsh as saying that under Abkhaz law, the experts from the Russian Central Election Commission who arrived in Sukhum to examine all documentation relating to the 3 October ballot have no right to do so. LF

In Tbilisi, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava condemned Bukaev's 1 December threat as "pure blackmail," Interfax reported. Khaindrava said that the border in question is that between Russia and Georgia, and that Russia "should mind its own business." At the same time, Khaindrava was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 2 December as saying that if Russia makes good on its threat to close the border with Abkhazia, the Georgian authorities are ready to ship humanitarian aid to Sukhum. Georgian First Deputy Foreign Minister Kakha Sikharulidze summoned Russia's ambassador to Tbilisi, Vladimir Chkhikvishvili, on 1 December and handed over a note protesting the visit to Sukhum by Kolesnikov and First Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandr Chekalin, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania accused the leadership of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia on 1 December of failing to implement the demilitarization agreement he and South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity signed in Sochi on 5 November, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2004). Under that agreement, both sides pledged to pull out of the conflict zone all troops except for the 500 peacekeepers they are entitled to deploy there, and to destroy all fortifications. The deadline set for doing so was 18 November, but Minister for Conflict Resolution Khaindrava warned on 15 November that neither side would be able to meet that deadline (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November 2004). On 30 November, Interfax quoted South Ossetia's Deputy Defense Minister Ibragim Gassiev as saying that the unrecognized republic is fully complying with the Sochi demilitarization agreement. But on 2 December, the daily "Akhali taoba" quoted Georgian parliamentarian Guram Vakhtangishvili as alleging that South Ossetia has not withdrawn a single serviceman from the conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported. Also on 2 December, Khaindrava decried the military maneuvers held by the South Ossetian armed forces on 30 November-1 December in the Djava district, which lies outside the conflict zone. He said holding such war games violates all agreements between the two sides. LF

Serik Abdrakhmanov, chairman of the Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament) committee on international affairs, plans to file a 10 million tenge ($77,000) defamation suit against opposition newspaper "Zhas Alash," Khabar TV reported on 1 December. Abdrakhmanov charged that "Zhas Alash" conducted a "smear campaign" against him after he raised questions about the newspaper's privatization. He also noted that he may seek a larger sum in damages. Also on 1 December, Kazakh TV reported that Mazhilis deputy Mikhail Troshikhin has asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to take measures against the opposition newspaper "Respublika" for publishing materials that Troshikhin considers insulting to President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Mazhilis deputies. The report noted that "the newspaper has published absurd articles mocking the president.... Mazhilis deputies are raising the question of whether 'Respublika' should be banned in accordance with the law." DK

Yuriko Shoji, UN resident coordinator and UNDP resident representative for Kazakhstan, met with President Nazarbaev in Astana on 1 December to discuss the development of UN-Kazakh cooperation, Kazinform reported. Speaking at a press conference after the meeting, Shoji praised Kazakhstan's accomplishments. "We are confident that annual increases in investment in education, health care, and social services will produce long-term benefits in the country's development," she said. "The UN is pleased to note that Kazakhstan has achieved the goals of ensuring universal primary education, gender equality in education, and is also on the road to eliminating poverty," Interfax-Kazakhstan quoted her as saying. The UNDP's 2005-09 development program in Kazakhstan is focused on poverty reduction, democratic development, and gender and environmental issues. DK

Human rights defender Tursunbek Akun, who had been missing since 16 November, reappeared on the evening of 1 December when persons unknown dropped him off at a Bishkek hospital, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Akun, who complained of head pain, told an RFE/RL correspondent that he had been abducted by officials from the National Security Service (SNB). Doctors had no immediate comment after their initial examination of Akun. SNB Deputy Chairman Tokon Mamytov vigorously denied any involvement, telling RFE/RL, "The SNB and Interior Ministry had nothing to do with the detention [of Akun by unknown individuals]." DK

Azim Turagulov, a spokesman for Uzbekistan's National Security Service (SNB), told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 1 December that Uzbek security forces do not conduct covert operations abroad and had nothing to do with Akun's disappearance. Kyrgyz ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu had suggested on 30 November that Uzbek security forces may have had a hand in Akun's disappearance (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2004). DK

The Russian flag was lowered on the Khorug detachment of the Tajik-Afghan border on 1 December in a ceremony to mark the handover of the 212-kilometer section of the border to Tajik guards, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Major General Nuralisho Nazarov, head of the Tajik border guards' general staff, and Lieutenant General Aleksandr Manilov, first deputy chief of Russia's Federal Border Service, attended the ceremony. "This was a great international mission of Russian border guards in Tajikistan," ITAR-TASS quoted Manilov as saying. Russia will begin transferring the final 100 kilometers of the 881-kilometer Pamir section of the border to Tajik jurisdiction on 2 December. DK

Turkmen opposition sources reported on 1 December that Niyazklych Nurklychev, Turkmenistan's former ambassador to Belgium, may have defected. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov issued decree on 29 November removing Nurklychev from his post and stripping him of all state honors "for serious shortcomings in his work," reported. No further official information was forthcoming. The Turkmen opposition site Gundogar reported on 1 December, citing an anonymous official in Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry, that Nurklychev in fact requested political asylum in an unidentified European country 10 days before the 29 November presidential decree. A number of Turkmen ambassadors have defected in recent years, some of them going on to join the opposition abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 November 2001, 5 February 2002, and 6 May 2003). DK

President Niyazov sacked Ishanguly Gulmuradov, governor of Dashoguz Province, for corruption on 1 December in the course of a working tour of northern Turkmenistan, Turkmen TV reported. Niyazov berated Gulmuradov, saying, "Why do you not feel ashamed to take bribes?" Kakamurat Annagulyjov was appointed governor in Gulmuradov's place. DK

Yunal Said Lutfi, envoy of the OSCE chairman in office and deputy chairman of the National Assembly of Bulgaria, told a news conference on 30 November in Ashgabat that the organization hopes that Turkmenistan will invite OSCE observers to monitor the 19 December parliamentary elections, ITAR-TASS reported. Lutfi met with Ovezgeldy Ataev, the speaker of Turkmenistan's Mejlis (parliament), and other officials during a 29-30 November visit to Ashgabat to discuss increased cooperation between the OSCE and Turkmenistan, reported. DK

President Islam Karimov has issued a decree amnestying several categories of prisoners on the occasion of Constitution Day (8 December), Uzbek TV reported on 1 December. The amnesty will apply to women serving a first sentence, offenders younger than 18, men older than 60, "reformed" members of extremist organizations, and others. The decree will be implemented over the course of three months after it goes into effect on 8 December. DK

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 1 December told the newly appointed head of the presidential administration, Viktar Sheyman, to focus his efforts on increasing stability in the country and ensuring better control of the government system at all levels, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Sheyman pledged to work toward strengthening the power system in the country. "The external situation, primarily events in Ukraine, shows that modern political techniques [and] weak control within a country may lead to serious consequences," he said. JM

Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko and his presidential rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, held roundtable talks in Kyiv on 1 December to resolve the ongoing standoff over the disputed presidential vote, Ukrainian media reported. The talks were attended by President Leonid Kuchma and foreign mediators: EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, OSCE Secretary-General Jan Kubis, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, and Russian State Duma Chairman Boris Gryzlov. The sides adopted a document that has been described by Yushchenko and Kuchma as a compromise. According to the document, the conflicting sides agreed to work toward eliminating the use of force in resolving the election crisis; unblock government offices that are being surrounded by pro-Yushchenko protesters; prepare proposals for concluding the presidential election following a ruling of the Supreme Court; prepare a new presidential election law jointly with a constitutional reform shifting the balance of power from the president to the parliament and the prime minister; and work toward preventing an economic crisis in Ukraine. JM

Following the roundtable talks with Premier Yanukovych on 1 December, Yushchenko told tens of thousands of his supporters on Independence Square in Kyiv that he will agree only to a rerun of the 21 November presidential runoff, not a completely new presidential election, as postulated by President Kuchma (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2004), Ukrainian media reported. "If the idea of a completely new election is raised again, there is absolutely no point in taking part in these talks [with Yanukovych]," Yushchenko said. According to Yushchenko, the Supreme Court's ruling on the 21 November runoff will be crucial for further developments in Ukraine. "If [the Supreme Court decision] is made in the context of the political decisions made by the Verkhovna Rada [no-confidence vote in Yanukovych's cabinet on 1 December], I can say firmly, dear friends, that we are [just] one step away from resolving the political crisis in Ukraine," Yushchenko said on Independence Square and called on the crowd to stay there until such a ruling is passed. JM

Yushchenko's adherents will unblock the building of the Cabinet of Ministers only after Premier Yanukovych and his ministers leave their posts, following the no-confidence vote in the cabinet by the Verkhovna Rada on 1 December, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported on 2 December, quoting lawmaker Petro Poroshenko, Yushchenko's political ally. Poroshenko was commenting on an accord between Yushchenko and Yanukovych providing for the removal of the ongoing blockade of the government offices. "There is no government, it was dismissed, and this [dismissal] does not require any additional steps on the part of the president or the premier," Poroshenko said. Meanwhile, Yanukovych said on 1 December that the parliamentary no-confidence vote in his cabinet was illegal. "I will never recognize a decision taken under pressure," Ukrainian media quoted him as saying. "They [parliament] approved the decision in political terms. But it is against the law, it is against the constitution." JM

As the Ukrainian Supreme Court was viewing Yushchenko's complaints of massive vote fraud in Ukraine's eastern oblasts for the third consecutive day, Yanukovych filed a complaint on 1 December claiming that results of the 21 November presidential runoff were falsified in a number of constituencies in western Ukraine, Interfax reported. According to Yanukovych, the alleged falsification took place in many polling stations where Yushchenko beat Yanukovych overwhelmingly or by a wide margin -- notably in the Volyn, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, Rivne, Ternopil, Khmelnytskyy, Cherkasy, Chernihiv, and Chernivtsi regions as well as in the capital. Following last week's announcement of the Central Election Commission awarding victory to him, Yanukovych claimed that the 21 November runoff was fair and honest. JM

The Donetsk Oblast Council on 1 December adopted a resolution to hold a regional referendum on 9 January to seek constitutional amendments that could introduce a federal system in Ukraine and give their region a status of republic in a new federation, Interfax reported. The resolution confirms the council's vote of 28 November to seek such a status for the region, which overwhelmingly voted for Yanukovych in the 31 October and 21 November presidential election rounds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 November 2004). Donetsk Oblast Council Chairman Borys Kolesnykov told journalists that after staging the "consultative" referendum on 9 January, the region will begin collecting signatures for organizing a national referendum on Ukraine's federalization. Meanwhile, Donetsk City Council Secretary Mykola Levchenko urged the Russian State Duma at its extraordinary session on 1 December "to toughen its positions on Ukraine" in the ongoing Ukrainain crisis. "America and Western Europe are sticking their noses into Ukraine, while Russia is afraid even to touch it with its hand," ITAR-TASS quoted Levchenko as saying at a news conference after the session. JM

The EU's EUFOR mission (aka Althea) took over peacekeeping responsibilities in Bosnia-Herzegovina from NATO-led SFOR at a ceremony at Camp Butmir near Sarajevo on 2 December, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August, and 23, 24, 29, and 30 November 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 March and 16 July 2004). Most of the 7,000 EUFOR peacekeepers are currently serving with SFOR and simply changed the insignia on their uniforms. Personnel from 22 EU member states and 11 other countries are taking part in the new mission, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. German Defense Minister Peter Struck told Berlin's Info Radio that EUFOR does not expect to have to deal with large-scale violence and will eventually be wound down. EUFOR's mission includes catching war criminals, helping local police crack down on organized crime, and preparing Bosnia to meet the requirements of eventual EU membership. The outgoing 700-strong U.S. Bosnian mission will be replaced with a 150-strong unit at Eagle Base and an additional 100 personnel in Sarajevo under U.S. Brigadier General Steven Schook, who commanded SFOR. The Americans will concentrate on catching war crimes indictees and training the Bosnian military. Despite some EU reluctance over a continuing U.S. military presence in Bosnia, the Bosnian authorities invited the Americans to remain. PM

Speaking at the ceremony at Camp Butmir near Sarajevo on 2 December, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called the end of the SFOR mission and the transition to EUFOR "a truly historic occasion," RFE/RL reported. "This is a watershed in Bosnia and Herzegovina's development, and it is also proof of the developing cooperation between the European Union and NATO," he added. De Hoop Scheffer argued that "in the safe and secure environment that NATO's presence has created, Bosnia and Herzegovina has made considerable progress. The citizens of this country no longer live in fear. State institutions have been established and human rights are now respected." He noted that it remains NATO's "goal to welcome Bosnia and Herzegovina into our Partnership for Peace program once the well-known conditions are met. All Balkan countries will then be united with the rest of Europe in a cooperative security framework, and this will be a further indication that we have overcome a difficult past and are working together to build a promising future." PM

EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana said at the Camp Butmir ceremony near Sarajevo on 2 December that "the European force will mesh with the European Union's substantial engagement [in Bosnia] in so many areas: a formidable economic commitment, a police mission deployed, [and] a solid political relationship," RFE/RL reported. Solana added, however, that "we expect from the leaders of the country a dedicated commitment to strengthen your institutions, your democracy, [and] your economy in a responsible manner. The people of Bosnia do not deserve less. In each of these challenges that we have ahead, you always will find the support of the European Union and the support of NATO." PM

Serbian Interior Minister Dragan Jocic told a Belgrade press conference on 1 December that an incident the previous evening involving the motorcade of Serbian President Boris Tadic and a black Audi was not an assassination attempt, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2004). "I can announce, after the initial concern that it was an assassination attempt...[that] we concluded that it was a traffic violation," the minister said. He blamed the incident on Miroslav Cimpl, a local man whom Jocic said works for the security department at the U.S. embassy. Jocic stated that Cimpl became angry when Tadic's convoy signaled him to pull over and allow the motorcade to proceed. Cimpl then began to "maneuver" his car, which hit one of Tadic's escort cars. Jocic concluded that "it was a traffic accident, and there is no need to look for anything else behind it. We are talking about the American Embassy here, and America is a serious country. They watch whom they employ." Jocic added that Cimpl had "no idea" that the convoy belonged to the president. PM

Many Montenegrins reacted angrily on 1 December to recent remarks by Vojislav Kostunica that the model used for the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992 cannot be applied to Serbia and Montenegro because Montenegro is too small, having only one-fourth the population of Belgrade, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported from Podgorica. A spokesman for Montenegro's governing Democratic Party of Socialists said that Serbia wants to hold on to Montenegro in order to have an outlet to the sea. Kostunica has previously made disparaging remarks about Montenegro, sometimes using the diminutive "Gorica" to refer to it. PM

Talks are under way on the distribution of portfolios among the three major coalition partners in the cabinet of Macedonian Prime Minister-designate Vlado Buckovski, "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 2 December. Buckovski's Social Democratic Union (SDSM), which is the largest coalition partner and which was in charge of seven ministries in the outgoing cabinet, will have six in the new one. SDSM politicians will head the ministries of foreign affairs, interior, justice, finance, culture, and health. Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members will head the ministries of defense, labor and social affairs, and environment. In addition, the LDP will also be granted one ministerial position without portfolio. The ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) will be in charge of the ministries for transport, education, agriculture, economy, and local self-government. One of the sticking points in the coalition talks seems to be current Transport and Communication Minister Agron Buxhaku of the BDI, who faces corruption allegations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 November 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 November 2004). UB

Prime Minister Adrian Nastase told journalists in Alba-Iulia on 1 December that Traian Basescu -- his rival in the 12 December presidential runoff -- ought to leave the race, Mediafax reported. Nastase said that unless Basescu does so, he would have to spend his time explaining to voters "the damage he caused to Romania" by claiming that the Social Democratic Party (PSD) used fraud to finish first in the 28 November parliamentary elections and first-round presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2004). "Luckily, the noise made by Basescu will not have a serious impact, because Romania benefits from a credible and serious image abroad," Nastase said. Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, who is a PSD candidate for the post of premier, said in Bucharest the same day that Basescu has dealt Romania "a serious and perfidious blow" by asking that the 28 November ballot be annulled. "This demonstrates that Basescu is ready to wreck the national ship for the sake of his own interests," Geoana said in an allusion to Basescu's former profession of sailor. MS

Basescu told Mediafax on 1 December in reaction to Nastase's statement that he has no intention of pulling out of the race. He said he would never consider the returns of the election as legitimate, but would do nothing beyond asking state authorities entitled to rule on the matter to investigate his accusations and deliver a ruling. Basescu said it is not he who is attempting to "bring about Romania's Ukrainization, but those who committed the fraud." In an interview with the daily "Evenimentul zilei" on 2 December, Basescu said that until recently the PSD and its acolytes "have been stealing everything they could lay their hand on" and now "they are also stealing the electorate." MS

Greater Romania Party (PRM) Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor said on 1 December that he is asking members of his party and its supporters to boycott the 12 December ballot because "the runoff is the result of enormous fraud," the dailies "Jurnalul national" and "Evenimentul zilei" reported the next day. Tudor also said it would be normal for Basescu to pull out of the presidential race if he is persuaded that the first round was fraudulent. Tudor also claimed that ahead of the 28 November ballot, Prime Minister Nastase phoned him and attempted to talk him into cooperating with the PSD. He said the PRM would "never cooperate with a party that wins elections through fraud" and he would rather "shoot myself in public" than do so. Cooperation with the opposition National Liberal Party (PNL)-Democratic Party alliance, Tudor said, would be "more natural," provided the opposition alliance rid itself of "mafiosi." Tudor also said the PRM will "not encourage social turbulence" and will "not ask anyone to go on the street. But if people do go on the streets and ask me to join them, I shall join," he said. MS

Supporters of the PNL-Democratic Party alliance booed and hissed Prime Minister Nastase on 1 December at ceremonies marking Romania's national day in Alba-Iulia, Mediafax reported. Rival groups of supporters from the ruling PSD retaliated by shouting that party's electoral slogans. The national day was marked without incident in Bucharest, where head of state Iliescu presided over a military parade. MS

United States and European Union representatives in the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna on 30 November called on Russia to sign the Moldovan-proposed Declaration on Stability and Security for the Republic of Moldova (DSSM), Flux reported the next day. Russia opposes that document. The U.S. and EU representatives also called on Russia to withdraw its troops and arsenal from Transdniester and called the closing of Moldovan schools teaching with Latin script by the separatist authorities "provocations and aggressive steps aimed at torpedoing the negotiation process." The U.S. and the EU representatives reiterated positions according to which the Ukrainian-Moldovan border must be monitored on its Transdniester section. They called on Ukraine to agree to having international observers placed on Ukrainian territory for this purpose. MS

Vladimir Voronin said in an interview with PRO TV- Chisinau on 30 November that he has not yet decided whether to seek a second term in 2005, Infotag reported the next day. Voronin said that "circumstances independent of the will of Vladimir Voronin as an individual" might influence his decision. In addition, he said, he has "commitments to society and to the [ruling Communist] party. We shall discuss this problem [in the party] and shall decide how to act," he said. Voronin's mandate runs out next April. MS

"No Al-Qaeda leaders are in Iran," Iranian Deputy Interior Minister Ali Asqar Ahmadi said at a 28 September news conference in Tehran. "Iran has never permitted the transit of terrorists to Iraq or any other country from its own territory," he added.

Although Tehran has repeatedly issued such denials, two separate Iranian officials confirmed in 2003 and early 2004 that Iranian authorities are holding Al-Qaeda members in custody, and that they will be brought to trial as they constitute a threat to Iran's national security, ONASA news agency reported on 15 February 2004. But to date, no such trial is known to have taken place.

Reports nonetheless persist that hundreds of Al-Qaeda operatives along with some 18 senior leaders -- including Saif Adel, Al-Qaeda's military commander, and Osama Bin Laden's son, Saad, are living in Iran. Spain's top counterterrorism judge has dubbed this Al-Qaeda's "board of managers," according to the 1 August "Los Angeles Times." A French counterterrorism official says that these leaders have "controlled freedom of movement" inside Iran, AFP reported on 15 July, and the London-based Arabic daily "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reports that some are even living in villas near the Caspian Sea coast town of Chalus, AFP reported on 28 June. Other accounts of their activities are far more disturbing. U.S. communications intercepts indicate that the 12 May 2003 attacks on the expatriate compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, were orchestrated from Iran, according to the 1 August "Los Angeles Times," and though others may be involved, European government officials reportedly point to Adel as the primary suspect.

Moreover, French government officials are reported to suspect that the Al-Qaeda leadership based in Iran played a role in the suicide bombings that targeted Western and Jewish interests in Casablanca, Morocco, that occurred four days after the Riyadh attacks and resulted in the death of 33 civilians as well as 12 suicide bombers

Al-Qaeda members in Iran are also said to have funded the Istanbul bombings in November 2003, in which two synagogues, the British Consulate, and a London-based bank were bombed and 63 people were killed, according to court testimony provided by Adnan Ersoz, one of 69 charged in connection with these incidents, AFP reported on 13 September.

Spanish investigators believe that even the 11 March commuter train bombings in Madrid were at least partially planned from the Al-Qaeda base in Iran. Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, named by Spanish police as a primary suspect, is suspected of having operated from Iran, as is another suspect, Amer Azizi, who is believed to have spent time in Iran before returning to Spain to carry out the attacks, according to Spanish communications intercepts cited in the "Los Angeles Times."

These intercepts indicate that Azizi met with then-Al-Qaeda-affiliate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist believed to be behind various assassinations, car bombings, and beheadings in Iraq. It is widely reported that he too has used Iran as his base of operations, where he was able to extend his reach as far as Europe, and where he remains the primary suspect in terror plots involving chemical and biological weapons attacks on targets in Europe that were foiled in 2002 and 2003, according to law enforcement authorities in London and Paris cited by the "Los Angeles Times."

U.S. government officials are said to believe that al-Zarqawi had more contact with the Iranian government than he ever did with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, according to "Newsweek" of 25 October. Although some U.S. analysts remain skeptical of the notion that al-Zarqawi could have established a close relationship with the Shi'ite regime given his alleged hostility toward Shi'ites in general, Jordanian intelligence have corroborated the existence of such links, the weekly reported.

That al-Zarqawi was indeed allowed to operate from Iran was confirmed by a commander of the elite Al-Quds unit of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), General Qasem Suleimani, who reportedly said that the IRGC provided assistance and refuge to al-Zarqawi in order to prevent the establishment of a pro-U.S. regime in Iraq, according to "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 11 August. The general's remarks contrast with the official position of the Iranian government, which is that it has "no affinity" with Al-Qaeda and has from time to time arrested and extradited various Al-Qaeda suspects to their home countries.

In August, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry foiled a series of assassinations allegedly being planned by Al-Qaeda's Adel along with a high-ranking leader of the IRGC, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 19 August. The plot, which was revealed in recorded telephone calls, targeted U.S. military, CIA, and FBI personnel in the former Soviet Republics that neighbor Iran. According to the Arabic daily's source, the plot was apparently conceived in order to force a confrontation with both the United States and Iran's northerly neighbors -- Armenia, Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan exclave, and Turkmenistan -- and it furthermore shows the deep divisions between the hard-line and reformist factions in determining Iranian foreign policy.

Many Iran experts are not surprised that the IRGC might provide assistance and refuge to Al-Qaeda members at the same time that other elements of the Iranian government, such as the Intelligence Ministry, are arresting and extraditing Al-Qaeda suspects. Many experts believe the IRGC operates beyond the control of elected politicians in Tehran and answers only to the hard core of the unelected clerical elite. As a top French law enforcement official told the "Los Angeles Times": "Iranians play a double game. It is a classic Iranian style of ambiguity, deception, manipulation. Everything they can do to trouble the Americans, without going too far, they do it. They have arrested important Al-Qaeda people, but they have permitted other important Al-Qaeda people to operate."

Three civilian and three military U.S. personnel died when their plane crashed in Bamiyan Province on 28 November, international news agencies reported on 1 December. "The aircraft was located late [on 30 November] -- it was up in the mountains in Bamiyan," a U.S. military spokesman told AFP. The spokesman said all six passengers were killed in the crash, Reuters reported. The cause of the crash is under investigation, but hostile fire has been ruled out. AT

Sabir Mo'min, one of the purported spokesmen for the Army of the Muslims (Jaysh al-Muslimin), the group which claimed responsibility for kidnapping and holding hostage three UN election workers, branded the group's leader, Sayyed Akbar Agha, a "criminal," the Islamabad daily "The News" reported on 30 November. Mo'min told "The News" that Akbar Agha took $1.5 million in order to release the hostages. "We are looking for [Akbar] Agha. He has gone into hiding. We would punish him once he is caught," Mo'min said from an undisclosed location. Akbar Agha refuted Mo'min's allegations and told "The News" that neither he nor his group received any ransom. "If we wanted money we could have cut a ransom deal much earlier when $4 million was offered to us," he said. He added that former mujahedin commander Mullah Malang "assured us that 24 out of the 26 Taliban prisoners would be freed." He said they freed the UN hostages based on this assurance. Afghan authorities have maintained that the hostages were released unconditionally (for more on the hostage crisis, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 8 and 18 November 2004). AT

Mawlawi Mohammad Ishaq Manzur, claiming to speak on behalf of the Army of the Muslims, said on 1 December that his group has split from the neo-Taliban, Dubai-based Geo TV reported. According to Manzur, the differences between his group and the mainstream neo-Taliban focus on religion. Manzur identified Sayyed Akbar Agha as the amir (commander) of the Army of the Muslims. Saber Mo'min mentioned in August that a group called the Muslim Army of the Taliban Society under the leadership of Akbar Agha had broken ranks with the neo-Taliban, and the neo-Taliban have since not recognized the new group as part of their movement (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 August 2004). AT

Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) announced on 1 December that it has arrested an alleged "nuclear spy," state television and IRNA reported. This individual, identified as "Asqar S," reportedly created a fake company that manufactured uranium-enrichment centrifuges. His intention was to show that, despite its commitment to freeze such activities, Iran has not stopped assembling the centrifuges. The MOIS went on to say that the accused has "a record of espionage for foreigners," he hoped to earn money through the company, and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is behind this scenario. This arrest coincides with a trial in Tehran of other alleged nuclear spies (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 6 September and 23 November 2004). BS

Released last week after a 60-day imprisonment, online journalist Ruzbeh Mir-Ibrahimi announced in a letter published in the 1 December "Etemad" that he has seen the error of his ways. Mir-Ibrahimi wrote that he was used as part of an "evil project," and he regrets that his interviews and writings misrepresented the realities of Iran and the country's political system. Mir-Ibrahimi said that "foreigners and counterrevolutionaries" supported a secret "network" that operated in and out of the country. This alleged network, which consisted of reformist politicians in Iran and "fugitives" who left the country, was waging psychological warfare against Iran. Mir-Ebrahimi said he cooperated with "many illegal sites" and he was a source of reports and interviews for radio stations that included Radio Farda. These allegations about an international anti-Iranian network are very similar to some that appeared in a 29 September editorial in the daily "Kayhan" titled "The Spider's Web" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 October 2004). Mir-Ebrahimi also wrote that he experienced "nothing but kindness and respect" during his detention. BS

Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami met in Tehran with the governors-general of Gilan, Gulistan, and Mazandaran provinces on 1 December, state radio reported. He urged them to reach the government's development targets and called for greater industrial investment in the region. Khatami told the officials, furthermore, that the provinces's tourism potential should be exploited. The tropical northern part of the country is a popular tourist destination, and Iranian families visit cities like Ramsar so they can enjoy the Caspian Sea beaches. BS

Interior Ministry and security officials from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey attended a 30 November-1 December conference on Iraq in Tehran, international news agencies reported. The event turned into a debate between Tehran and Baghdad over who was more responsible for insecurity in both countries. Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim al-Jafari urged Iran to secure the borders and stop the transit of foreign insurgents, AFP reported. Iraqi delegates also said some of the country's neighbors are putting their political interests ahead of Iraqi interests, MENA reported. Iranian Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari complained on 1 December that weapons entering Iran from Iraq are causing serious problems, IRNA reported, and he also urged Baghdad to act against the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, an anti-Iranian group that has been based in Iraq since the 1980s. "Nothing can justify the presence in Iraq of terrorist groups who cooperated with the regime of Saddam Hussein and who committed crimes against the Iraqi people and the neighbors of Iraq," Musavi-Lari said, according to "The Daily Star" on 1 December. BS

The Pentagon announced on 1 December that U.S. troop levels will be increased to reach 150,000 in the run up to elections in January, the BBC reported. "The purpose is mainly to provide security for the elections. But it's also to keep up the pressure on the insurgency after the Fallujah operation," Army Brigade General David Rodriguez said at a Pentagon press conference. About 138,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed in Iraq. The move will require some units to have their stay in Iraq extended from 12 to 14 months and will include a temporary deployment to Iraq of about 1,500 elite 82nd Airborne Division soldiers, Reuters reported. EA

The leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) announced in Salah Al-Din on 1 December that the political representation of the two Kurdish factions will appear on the same list for the January elections and take part in a single Kurdish parliament, reported. Following a meeting with Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), KDP leader Mas'ud Barzani said that "the Kurdish political powers have reached an agreement to present a joint list for the general elections as well as for the Kurdish parliament," AFP reported. At a joint press conference held by the two groups, Talabani echoed the message of unity, saying: "We call on the people of Kurdistan to participate in the elections as we need every single vote to obtain as many seats as possible in the Iraqi National Assembly." Iraqi Kurds will vote in the 30 January election for the national assembly and the 111-seat Kurdish autonomous parliament. EA

Four Iraqis and a U.S. soldier were killed in separate explosions north of Baghdad, reported on 30 November. According to witnesses and the military, a car bomb exploded near a U.S. military patrol in Bayji, a Sunni town north of Baghdad, killing four Iraqi civilians and injuring 19 people, including two U.S. soldiers. Citing Bayji hospital worker Samir Mehdi, reported that seven dead civilians and 18 injured were received at the hospital, including a child. Bayji is the site of a major oil refinery and has witnessed increased attacks since the U.S.-led forces launched a large-scale assault to reclaim Al-Fallujah, reported. A U.S. soldier died the same day of wounds sustained when a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad, reported. The death brings the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in November to 135, the AP reported, citing the Pentagon. EA

Iraq's Ministry of Human Rights has earmarked $7.5 million in aid to Al-Fallujah following the U.S.-led assault, "Al-Zaman" reported on 30 November. The funds are the second disbursement, following $45 million given to pay for imports of food, tents, and other essentials. Tens of thousands of Al-Fallujah's 350,000 residents fled before the U.S.-led assault was launched in early November. Aid agencies have only recently been able to assist the Iraqis, who have settled in makeshift camps outside of Al-Fallujah. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society dispatched its second convoy of humanitarian aid to the city on 29 November. EA

Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi met with Iraqi exiles in the Jordanian capital Amman on 1 December, UPI reported. The purpose of the visit was for the Iraqi leader to hear the exiles' views on the January elections. "The objective is to secure the participation of the largest possible number of Iraqis in the general elections planned for the end of January," said Allawi spokesman Tha'ir al-Naqib. According to al-Naqib, Allawi met with businessmen, tribesmen, and academics, although he avoided conversations with anyone connected to the Ba'athist regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The previous day Allawi met with Jordan's King Abdallah, who encouraged Allawi to hold the January elections as planned. EA

According to a report released by the British charity Medact on 30 November, cases of vaccine-preventable diseases are increasing and relief and reconstruction work is mismanaged, "Arab Times" reported. "The health of the Iraqi people has deteriorated since the 2003 invasion," said Gill Reeve, Deputy Director of Medact. "Immediate action is needed to halt this health disaster." According to researchers, the situation is the result of the U.S.-led invasion. The Iraqi interim government dismissed the report as poorly researched. The report was based on interviews in Jordan with Iraqi civilians, relief organizations, and health professionals. EA