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Newsline - December 16, 2004

Embattled oil major Yukos filed for bankruptcy in the Federal Bankruptcy Court in Houston, Texas, on 15 December in an effort to prevent the Russian government from selling off the company's main production arm, Russian and Western media reported. Yuganskneftegaz, which pumps about 60 percent of Yukos's oil, is slated to go on the auction block on 19 December. Yukos chief financial officer Bruce Misamore stated in a petition for the company's reorganization under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection that "our management board concluded that there is absolutely no chance of our obtaining justice in the Russian court system," reported. If the U.S. court were to determine that it has jurisdiction and that Yukos's creditors are subject to an "automatic stay," the auction of Yuganskneftegaz could potentially be prevented if it is also determined that the stay applies to foreign creditors. It is unlikely, that the Russian government would heed such a U.S. court order. Misamore has a residence in Houston and Yukos claims to have assets there, according to "The New York Times" (see below). The judge was to rule on the Yukos request on the morning of 16 December. VY

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said during a 15 December press briefing posted on that "Yukos management has a right to pursue any legal remedies it determines are in the best interests of the company -- its shareholders." Boucher added that the United States has both publicly and privately expressed to the Kremlin its concern about the Yukos case and "its implications for the Russian economy and for Russia's reputation as a place to do business." VY

The Constitutional Court on 15 December began a review of the provision of the federal law on political parties that sets the minimum membership and number of regional branches required for a party to be legally registered, ITAR-TASS reported. The case was filed by the Baltic Republican Party, a small Kaliningrad Oblast-based party that was banned by a regional court last year. The party argues that the ban on local parties harms "political diversity and pluralism." President Vladimir Putin's representative to the court, Mikhail Mityukov, commented that the ban on small parties is necessary for "the preservation of unity and the protection of the security of the country." Under the federal law, parties must have at least 50,000 members and branches in at least one-half of Russia's 89 regions. Organizations that fail to meet these requirements by 1 January 2006 will have to dissolve or reregister as public organizations. RC

The Constitutional Court on 15 December upheld a federal ban on religious and ethnically based parties, ruling that the constitution's guarantee of Russia as a multiethnic and multiconfessional state "does not allow the creation of political parties on the basis of ethnic or religious affiliation," ITAR-TASS reported. The court further ruled that ethnic or religiously based membership requirements infringe upon citizens' the right of public association. RC

Deputy Central Bank Chairman Aleksei Ulyukaev told journalists on 15 December that the bank no longer needs to build up its gold and hard-currency reserves, ITAR-TASS reported. He said that the reserves have increased by $44 billion this year and that Russia now ranks sixth globally in terms of such reserves. Ulyukaev's statement coincided with reports that the Central Bank earlier this month spent $12 billion in just four days to prop up the ruble (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2004). RC

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, and Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov during a 16 December cabinet meeting all spoke out in favor of increased government control over information and the media, Interfax reported. Ivanov said that much of the programming on television is contributing to the "stupefaction of the population," and he lamented the negative effects on the public, especially on military personnel, of much of the "garbage" that appears in print. "I have ordered an inspection of what they are reading in libraries [on military bases]," Ivanov said. Fradkov said that "negativism" has overtaken the print and broadcast media. "Is it a provocation? Is it a failure to appreciate our circumstances today and tomorrow? Is someone trying to deceive the younger generation?" Fradkov asked. Sokolov expressed his concern with the content of some television broadcasts and print-media products. "But we can't order the media to cover one or another topic," he noted. Nonetheless, he noted an increase in "positive information" on television recently and called on the government to provide more information of this type to the print media. RC

At the same 16 December cabinet meeting, Culture and Mass Communications Minister Sokolov said the government must examine the development and the content of the Internet, Interfax reported. He added, however, that it is too early to formulate a state policy regarding the Internet. He said that banning certain content from the Internet is not practical. "Anyone who wants to can move from one domain to another, crossing borders, without even leaving their apartment," Sokolov said. RC

Russia will create a 2,000-member motorized rifle brigade for international peacekeeping duty by 1 February, ITAR-TASS reported on 15 December, citing Duma Defense Committee Chairman Viktor Zavarzin (Unified Russia). Zavarzin said the unit will be staffed entirely with volunteer soldiers and will be based in the Volga-Urals Military District. It will meet the highest standards of international interoperability and be made available for UN-mandated peacekeeping missions. It will be ready for such service beginning in 2006, Zavarzin said. RC

Fewer than 600 conscripts will begin performing alternative civilian service beginning in the spring, the Interfax-AVN reported on 15 December, citing Colonel General Vasilii Smirnov, head of the Defense Ministry's mobilization service. Smirnov said that 616 conscripts have applied for alternative service, but the number accepted will be smaller as some applicants will be exempted for health reasons or given deferrals (for more on civilian service in Russia, see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 June 2004). "We believe that alternative civilian service as an institution is developing successfully," Smirnov said. "The relatively low number of citizens declaring their wish to go for alternative civilian service only confirms that this category of citizens is not numerous in the Russian Federation." RC

The local branch of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party in Volgograd is calling for the legalization of prostitution as a means of controlling the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 16 December. "Despite the fact that the moral view of this matter will always be divided, under current circumstances prostitution should be legalized," oblast legislator and Unified Russia faction leader Tatyana Tsybizova said. According the report, oblast authorities registered nearly 6,000 cases of sexually transmitted diseases over the first 10 months of this year. According to a local NGO, there are about 400 sex-industry establishments in the oblast and more than 2,000 prostitutes. Oblast human rights ombudsman Mikhail Tarantsov said that legalization would lead to a considerable increase in those numbers and that it would be difficult to control the industry. "The number of those desiring to work in this sphere is rapidly increasing," he said. RC

Vlad Vdovin has been named editor in chief of the weekly "Ogonyok," ITAR-TASS reported on 15 December. Vdovin, who was formerly the deputy editor in chief of the Russian version of "Forbes" magazine, replaces Viktor Loshak, who resigned last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2004). Vdovin, 36, told reporters that the magazine will be relaunched in a new format in March. RC

Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev during a meeting with the heads of leading Russian media outlets on 15 December highlighted the intelligence agency's exposure of an Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization in the North Caucasus and reiterated his claim in late October that 10 members of the terrorist organization are operating on Russian territory (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 1 December 2004), ITAR-TASS and other Russian media reported. Patrushev said the FSB has compiled a list of people considered the "most dangerous to national security," which includes Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov and Chechen field commanders Shamil Basaev and Doku Umarov. Patrushev said that Al-Qaeda suspected representative in Chechnya, Abu Havs, is also on the list, as is "one of ideologists of Chechen extremism, Movladi Udugov." Patrushev said the FSB is "working to neutralize them or bring them to court." VY

Patrushev announced during the same 15 December meeting with media representatives that the FSB stopped the activities of 18 alleged foreign spies in 2004, Russian media reported. Criminal charges were brought against two of the 18, and four were expelled, ITAR-TASS cited Patrushev as saying, and six were caught red-handed. He said the FSB also exposed 89 people with alleged ties to "foreign special services and radical nationalist and religious organizations." Sixteen were Russian citizens, of whom seven were arrested and sentenced. Eighteen of the 89 were foreigners who were deported, and a further 32 were denied entrance to Russia. Patrushev also said that the FSB opened 17 cases this year involving the divulgence of state secrets, resulting in the sentencing of 13 people. VY

Patrushev also said at the 15 December meeting that FSB investigations prevented the theft of billions of rubles, Russian media reported. In Chechnya, for example, the FSB discovered the misuse of 2.3 billion rubles ($821 million) in federal funds that were allotted for the reconstruction of the republican economy, according to Patrushev. He said the FSB also thwarted an attempt to transfer illegally $500 million of Gazprom funds abroad. In addition, according to Patrushev, the intelligence agency was involved in preventing computer crimes and disrupted 600,000 attempts to hack into government websites, including 69,000 attempts to infiltrate the president's official site. All together, the FSB initiated 151 legal cases involving the violation of computer security, resulting in the sentencing of 20 people. VY

The Basmanii Raion court in Moscow Oblast has ordered that a criminal case against Yaroslavl Governor Anatolii Lisitsyn be dropped, Interfax and Regnum reported. Lisitsyn was accused of abuse of office, causing more than 1.5 billion rubles ($54 million) worth of damage to the oblast budget (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 August 2004). The court also found that the investigation did not violate Lisitsyn's constitutional rights, a ruling that Lisitsyn said he plans to challenge in a higher court. Last summer, Lisitsyn claimed that the criminal case was manufactured against him as punishment for his criticism of the government's plan to replace in-kind social benefits with cash payments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 July 2004). JAC

The Leningrad Raion court in Kaliningrad Oblast began hearings on 14 December of a defamation suit filed by oblast Governor Vladimir Yegorov against the chairwoman of the local branch of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, Maria Bontsler, RIA-Novosti and reported. Yegorov this spring won the Golden Sledgehammer, a prize awarded annually to the harshest and most unjust state official for activity or lack of activity resulting in the violation of human rights during the military-induction period. Bontsler nominated Yegorov for the prize. According to, Bontsler also wrote an article for a local newspaper about the unsanitary conditions young recruits face during the first three days before they are sent to their place of service. Bontsler wrote that all of the recruits' food, money, and cigarettes are taken away, and they are beaten and subjected to various humiliations. Lidia Sviridova, who heads the Saratov Committee of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers said that the prize has a satirical character and was not intended to belittle the honor of Yegorov personally, reported. JAC

In a statement posted on 15 December on the Chechen website Kavkaz-Center, the radical Islamist group Yarmuk claimed responsibility for the 14 December raid on the headquarters of the Federal Antinarcotics Service in Nalchik, the capital of the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, in which three police officers and a driver were killed, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 16 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2004). Muslims from both titular nationalities of the republic have issued a statement condemning the raid, which was posted on and reposted on on 16 December. The statement characterizes the perpetrators of the raid as "bandits" who committed the egregious sin of killing fellow Muslims for personal financial gain, and who therefore have nothing in common with the republic's Muslim community. On 15 December, ITAR-TASS reported that local police, too, suspect Yarmuk of being behind the 14 December raid, as well as an earlier attack on senior police official Mukhtar Altuev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2004). "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 16 December that Yarmuk consists of some 20 militants from the republic who allegedly underwent training with Chechen militants at a camp in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. LF

Parliament deputies narrowly approved on 15 December a proposal by independent legislator Hmayak Hovannisian to debate two draft bills on ways to compensate those persons whose Soviet-era savings bank deposits were wiped out by hyper-inflation in the early 1990s, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The debate has been scheduled for 20 December. One of the two draft bills was prepared by the opposition Artarutiun bloc, and the other by junior coalition partner Orinats Yerkir, whose chairman, parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, suggested earlier this week that the proceeds from the privatization of the huge Zangezur mining complex be used to compensate depositors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2004). Compensating depositors was a key tenet of Orinats Yerkir's election platform in the run-up to the May 2003 parliament ballot. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia is opposed to any move to pay compensation, as are the IMF and the World Bank. LF

Armenian parliament Chairman Baghdasarian and President Robert Kocharian told visiting Russian State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov on 15 December that Moscow should make good on its pledges to invest in the Armenian enterprises ceded to Russia in late 2002 in lieu of repayment of Armenian debts, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 July, 6 November, and 5 December 2002). Gryzlov also met with Prime Minister Markarian, who solicited Russian assistance in facilitating transportation between Russia and Armenia, Noyan Tapan reported. Gryzlov promised to work for Armenia's inclusion in the planned North-South transport corridor and for the reopening of rail transport from Russia to Armenia via Georgia. Gryzlov told journalists that Yerevan's intention to send noncombat military personnel to join the international peacekeeping operation in Iraq will not negatively affect Russian-Armenian relations, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2004). LF

Reno Harnish told journalists in Baku on 15 December that there is no truth to a report published in the Arabic-language newspaper "Al-Asharq al-Awsat" that the U.S. National Security Council has drafted plans for the occupation of Iran, Turan and reported on 15 and 16 December, respectively. That plan allegedly called for U.S. ground forces to enter Iran from Azerbaijan after massive bombing targeting the Iranian military and facilities where Washington suspects Tehran of working to produce nuclear weapons. Harnish stressed that Washington is working closely with its European partners to find a peaceful solution to the issue of Iran's imputed desire to develop nuclear weapons. LF

Government officials in the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have expressed concern at the possible implications of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's decision to appoint Irakli Okruashvili as defense minister, Interfax reported on 15 December. Abkhaz presidential press secretary Roin Agrba noted that Okruashvili has a reputation as a "hawk," adding that "we are curious to know what [he] has to offer in the way of a Georgian-Abkhaz peace settlement." In Tskhinvali, South Ossetian Foreign Minister Murat Djioev similarly recalled that during the summer of 2004 Okruashvili openly advocated a new war to restore Georgian control over the breakaway region. Presenting Okruashvili in the early morning of 16 December to one of Georgia's top regiments, Saakashvili acknowledged that Okruashvili is the third person to serve as defense minister this year, but added that "I give you my word that he will retain this portfolio until Georgia's territorial integrity is completely restored," Caucasus Press reported. Abkhaz Defense Minister Vyacheslav Eshba commented later on 16 December that Okruashvili will remain Georgian defense minister "forever," Apsnipress reported. LF

Abkhazia's National Assembly adopted on 15 December amendments proposed by outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba to the new law on the presidential election passed last week, ITAR-TASS reported. The amended law does not include any mention of the "Agreement on Measures to Attain National Accord" signed on 6 December by presidential candidates Sergei Bagapsh and Raul Khadjimba. It raises from 25 percent to 50 percent the number of registered voters who must cast their ballots for the election to be valid. Parliament scheduled the repeat presidential election for 12 January. LF

In an interview with Interfax-Kazakhstan on 15 December, Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev said that "stable and predictable" relations with China are a top priority for Kazakhstan. "The cornerstone of our relationship [with China] is oil and gas cooperation," Toqaev said. "An oil pipeline to China is being built, and its importance goes far beyond the framework of bilateral relations. It is, without exaggeration, an international geopolitical issue." Recalling that Kazakhstan has conducted joint military exercises in the past with China, Toqaev stressed that future exercises "should be aimed at counteracting specific threats posed by terrorist organizations." Surveying the past year, Toqaev said that "this year has been quite successful for Kazakhstan's foreign policy, as we have managed to strengthen our security and defend our long-term national interests through diplomatic means." DK

At a press conference in Bishkek on 15 December, Kyrgyz human rights activist Tursunbek Akun gave details of his alleged abduction on 16 November and subsequent 15-day disappearance, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. He repeated his earlier claim that officers from Kyrgyzstan's State Security Service (SNB) abducted him, saying that they promised him and his family a yearlong vacation in Turkey provided Akun drop his petition drive to impeach President Askar Akaev. SNB spokespeople have denied Akun's allegations. Also on 15 December, Nurlan Mambetaliev, an investigator with the Bishkek police, said that Akun may have fallen victim to a blackmail attempt, staged his own disappearance, or vanished to evade a lawsuit filed in connection with unpaid debts, Kyrgyzinfo reported. Mambetaliev noted that the case is progressing slowly because Akun, who is the only witness to his own disappearance, has failed to give testimony to police, citing ill health. DK

Tajikistan's Majlisi Namoyandagon (lower chamber of parliament) on 15 December approved the composition of the Central Election Commission (CEC), RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. CEC Chairman Mirzoali Boltuev noted that the 15-member commission has four new members, including a representative of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party. But Latif Hadyazoda, an independent Tajik expert, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that the commission has remained largely unchanged. "That's why I think that with the commission as it exists today, the upcoming elections, and especially elections to both chambers of parliament, will repeat the mistakes of the past," she said. DK

Tajikistan's Coalition of Political Parties for Free and Transparent Elections in a 14 December statement expressed concern over the parliamentary elections to be held in February-March, Asia Plus-Blitz reported the next day. The statement said the government is for free and transparent elections in word only, while in practice it supports unfair electoral legislation, limits the role of opposition parties, and harasses the independent press. Meanwhile, Mamlakat Joychieva, deputy chairman of the Democratic Party's Dushanbe branch, told the news agency on 14 December that the party will boycott parliamentary elections if party leader Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, who was recently arrested in Moscow, is extradited to Dushanbe and convicted. DK

Tajikistan's Majlisi Namoyandagon (lower chamber of parliament) passed Tajikistan's 2005 budget on 15 December, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The budget calls for expenditures of $425 million. Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov termed the budget socially oriented, noting that 46 percent of expenditures will go to providing social services to the population. DK

Turkmenistan's Central Election Commission (CEC) has selected 200 national observers to monitor the country's 19 December parliamentary elections, reported on 15 December. The CEC said in a statement that "no special invitations were issued for representative of foreign states to take part in the elections as observers. At the same time, foreign representatives may, if they wish, submit such applications." Since the Turkmen side has chosen not to invite international observers, the elections, which observers and Turkmen opposition figures abroad have dismissed as an empty exercise, appear certain to take place without outside monitoring. DK

Aleksandr Veshnyakov, head of Russia's Central Election Commission, met with Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safaev and Uzbek Central Election Commission (CEC) head Buritosh Mustafoev in Tashkent on 15 December, ITAR-TASS reported. Veshnyakov told journalists that Uzbek legislators have placed their trust in the country's CEC by granting it substantial powers. Veshnyakov also said that no elections are beyond reproach simply because multiple candidates compete for single seats. DK

Senior officials from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine met in Minsk on 15 December for meetings on the creation of a Single Economic Space (SES), RFE/RL's Belarus Service and ITAR-TASS reported. Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Andriy Kobyakov, Ukrainian acting Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko, and Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Sauat Mynbaev attended the gathering. Azarov told journalists afterward that the parties reached agreement on the free transfer of persons, their vehicles, and funds across state borders, Kyiv-based "Delovaya nedelya" reported. Citizens will not be required to declare cash up to $3,000 between signatory countries under the new terms, for instance. In addition, the parties agreed that citizens of member countries may remain on the territory of other member countries for up to 90 days without registering. However, Azarov noted that Belarus wants additional time to conduct internal consultations on the latter point, since according to current legislation foreign citizens may stay in Belarus without registration for just 30 days. SES presidents met in Astana in September, where they tasked the High-Level SES group with developing documents by the end of 2004 to ease border-crossings for citizens of member states (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 September 2004). JAC

Representatives of presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych have submitted a complaint to Ukraine's Central Election Commission requesting an investigation into allegations that the U.S. government financed Ukrainian opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko's campaign, UNIAN reported on 15 December, quoting Nestor Shufrych, Yanukovych's representative to the commission. "The United States' meddling in Ukraine's internal affairs is obvious," Yanukovych told AP in a 13 December interview. "It is appearing as the financing of Yushchenko's campaign." Meanwhile, Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko called for the creation of a parliamentary commission to look into "U.S. financing of the election campaign of one of the candidates for president -- Yushchenko," ITAR-TASS's Kyiv correspondent reported. JAC

Outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has issued a decree dismissing Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) First Deputy Chairman Volodymyr Satsyuk, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( and the opposition Channel 5 reported on 15 December. According to the website, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn announced the information about Satsyuk at a meeting with judges in Kyiv. Satsyuk had been combining his positions in the Security Service and as a legislator in the Verkhovna Rada, which is illegal. According to Lytvyn, the decree was backdated so that a Kyiv court decision on 14 December requiring Satsyk to be relieved of his parliamentary post would not have to be implemented. Opposition presidential candidate Yushchenko dined with Satsyuk and the latter's SBU superior, Ihor Smeshko, at Satsyuk's summer house around the time that Yushchenko contends he was poisoned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2004). JAC

The governors of Lviv and Kharkiv oblasts have resigned, Interfax and UNIAN reported on 15 December. Lviv Oblast Governor Oleksandr Sendeha told reporters in Lviv that he sent a letter of resignation to President Kuchma following a meeting with the Lviv Oblast legislative assembly the previous day. Sendeha said many baseless criticisms were lodged against him at the meeting and he does not want his name "soiled," according to Interfax. Kharkiv Oblast Governor Yevgenii Kushnaryov told reporters in Kharkiv on 15 December that he is resigning in order to participate actively in the presidential campaign for Prime Minister Yanukovych. He also announced his intention to leave the Popular Democratic Party and create a new party. According to Kushnaryov, the Popular Democratic Party has split, with one side supporting Yanukovych and the other Yushchenko, according to UNIAN. JAC

Members of a Bosnian police-reform commission chaired by former Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens agreed in principle in Sarajevo on 15 December to set up a joint police force for all of Bosnia-Herzegovina under a single ministry that will be responsible for security issues, replacing the present system of entity and cantonal police authorities, "Nezavisne novine" and RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. There was no agreement, however, on whether to divide the new police system into five, 10, or 11 administrative districts. Some reports indicate that the Bosnian Serb interpretation of the new administrative system is tantamount to preserving the present arrangement of ethnically separate forces. PM

High Representative Paddy Ashdown said in Sarajevo on 15 December that "it is unfortunate that the [Republika Srpska] representatives...felt unable to agree to this concept of modern policing," adding that he will soon announce a police-reform program that will require approval by the parliament to take effect, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2004). Ashdown stressed that he cannot impose police reform without legislative approval because police reform is an important precondition that Bosnians must meet themselves before the EU will start talks with them on a Stabilization and Association Agreement -- the first, formal step on the road toward membership in the Brussels-based bloc. Ashdown is expected to announce a package of measures on 16 December in response to the Bosnian Serb failure to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 and 12 October and 3 November 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 September 2004). PM

Arben Xhaferi and Menduh Thaci, who are the leaders of the opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH), have resumed talks with the inhabitants of the village of Kondovo outside Skopje to find a political solution to the presence of an armed Albanian group controlling that village, "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 16 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 14, and 15 December 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 and 10 December 2004). Alluding to President Branko Crvenkovski's recent statement that the time for negotiations is over, Thaci said on 15 December that he still believes a political solution is possible. In related news, Ali Ahmeti, who is the chairman of the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), said that he, too, believes that the Kondovo problem must be resolved through talks. UB

A spokesman for the Macedonian Interior Ministry on 14 December denied recent reports in the Albanian media that the final destination of three Yugoslav-made Strela 2-M shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles was Kondovo, according to "Utrinski vesnik." The missiles were seized and four smugglers arrested by the Albanian police outside Tirana earlier this week after entering Albania from Montenegro, whose police worked closely with their Albanian counterparts to intercept the contraband, Reuters reported. Albanian police officials said that the smugglers paid $130,000 for the missiles in Bosnia, adding that they were intended for transshipment to Macedonia. UB/PM

President-elect Traian Basescu signaled his willingness to call early elections on 15 December when he told journalists in Bucharest that he is determined to appoint National Liberal Party (PNL) Chairman Calin Popescu-Tariceanu Romania's next prime minister, Mediafax reported. "If the president were unable to fulfill the mandate he received from the people, he would have to turn to the people again" to decide what political parties refuse to understand, Basescu said. "Cohabitation is an invitation to instability." If parliament rejects a vote of confidence in the government that Popescu-Tariceanu proposes, there is no other solution than to call early elections, he suggested. The Romanian Constitution stipulates that the president must appoint a prime minister from among members of the party that has an absolute majority in parliament. If no such majority exists, the president may dissolve parliament if the legislature twice refuses to endorse a prime minister. Sixty days must pass between the first no-confidence vote and parliament's dispersal. MS

Social Democratic Party (PSD) official Viorel Hrebenciuc said on 15 December that his party "might find early elections a convenient solution" to any stalemate over a new ruling coalition, Mediafax reported. Hrebenciuc said the Social Democrats won 500,000 more votes than the PNL-Democratic Party alliance did in the 28 November elections and there is no reason why they should move to the opposition benches. Greater Romania Party (PRM) Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor said his party welcomes the prospect of early elections, provided they are conducted under strict international supervision to prevent the type of vote fraud that he and others have alleged was committed by the outgoing cabinet. Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) Chairman Bela Marko said his party rules out early elections. Humanist Party (PUR) spokesman Bogdan Pitigoi said early elections would not be beneficial and would divert public attention from the country's urgent problems. MS

The leadership of the ethnic Hungarian UDMR on 15 December retreated from reported plans to sign a new coalition agreement with the Social Democrats and the PUR, Mediafax reported. UDMR Chairman Marko said that instead of the agreement, the Social Democrats produced a document mentioning the formation of a parliamentary "bloc" among the three parties. Social Democrat Hrebenciuc called it a "technical mistake" and said negotiations with the UDMR will continue. But the UDMR later the same day began negotiating with the PNL-Democratic Party alliance on a possible cabinet headed by Popescu-Tariceanu, according to Mediafax. Popescu-Tariceanu said after the meeting that he was satisfied with its outcome. Marko said his party will continue negotiations with both the Social Democrats and the PNL-Democratic Party alliance. MS

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel returned a state honor received in 2002 to outgoing President Ion Iliescu to protest the president's recent awarding of state honors to two former nationalist politicians, RFE/RL's Romanian Service reported on 15 December. Wiesel objected to Iliescu's conferral of the same order earlier this month to PRM Chairman Tudor and another honor to former PRM Senator Gheorghe Buzatu. In a letter addressed to Iliescu, Wiesel said he read "with sadness and disappointment" that Iliescu -- who in 2003 set up the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, chaired by Wiesel -- "has now chosen to decorate two individuals whose hate-filled beliefs" oppose the commission's "lofty goals." Wiesel said "Corneliu Vadim Tudor and Gheorghe Buzatu are known Holocaust deniers and anti-Jewish." Wiesel said he hopes Iliescu "will understand that I cannot belong to any group of which Vadim Tudor is a member. Hence my decision to resign from the National Order Romania's Star and to no longer wear its insignia of Grand Officer." MS

The Russian Foreign Ministry on 15 December described a recent statement by Moldovan Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan characterizing the Russian military presence in Transdniester as a "foreign military occupation" "absurd, irresponsible, and unfriendly," BASA-Press and Infotag reported. Stratan made the remark at the 6-7 December meeting in Sofia of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2004). The Russian statement suggested that "a group of Russian military still remains in Transdniester after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the 14th Army, and it has a unique mission: to guard the depots with Russian weapons, which are to be evacuated to Russia." It went on to say that "the reason the withdrawal of Russian weapons [has been halted] is known: the deterioration of Chisinau-Tiraspol relations after the refusal of the Moldovan authorities to sign [in November 2003] the Kozak memorandum -- a document which represented a real solution [for solving] the Transdniester conflict." MS

The Moldovan Foreign Ministry responded on 15 December by saying Russia's statement earlier the same day amounts to a further illustration of Moscow's "continued brutal meddling in Chisinau's internal affairs," BASA-Press reported. The ministry pointed out that Russia has not met commitments made at the Istanbul OSCE summit in November 1999 to withdraw its troops and arsenal from Transdniester. It added that Chisinau and Russia agreed in 1992 to cooperate in the settlement of the Transdniestrian conflict in a document that "refers to Russian peacekeeping operations, rather than the presence of Russian troops and ammunition" in the breakaway region. Russia's rationale for postponing its withdrawal -- Chisinau's refusal to sign the Kozak memorandum -- "is an action best described [as] 'blackmail,'" the Moldovan statement said. It added that the "decision to sign [or not] the Kozak memorandum rests with the authorities of a sovereign and independent state." MS

Iranian governmental bodies are locked in a dispute over when to hold the country's next presidential election -- in May or in early June -- but three conservative figures have already declared their intention to be candidates. Such eagerness stems from the conservatives' lopsided domination of the February 2004 parliamentary polls and their belief that they can duplicate these results. The country's reformist organizations -- known as the 2nd of Khordad Front after the date of President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's May 1997 election -- are less sanguine, and they appear to have lost what little unity they once had. To date, therefore, no viable reformist candidate has stepped forward.

Indeed, some reformist leaders reportedly are backing the candidacy of Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who is usually seen as a favorite of the center-right or the "pragmatic conservatives." A 4 December editorial in "Farhang-i Ashti" said that reformists such Mashallah Shamsolvaezin and Sadeq Zibakalam openly support Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization and the Islamic Iran Participation Party support him implicitly. The editorial ascribed the support for the ex-president to age-cohort divisions within the reformist front, and added that the younger reformists favor Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The "middle-aged reformists" oppose a Hashemi-Rafsanjani candidacy.

An article in the 4 December "Sharq," on the other hand, asserted that the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization and the Islamic Iran Participation Party support the candidacy of former Science, Research, and Technology Minister Mustafa Moin.

Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh announced on 15 November that Moin had agreed to be a presidential candidate. Mustafa Derayati, a leading figure in the Participation Party, said in the 5 December "Sharq" that his organization has chosen Moin.

These announcements may have come as unwelcome news to Moin, who said on 5 December in Shiraz that "I have not made a decision about participating in the presidential election," the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. Moin added in his speech that people should not expect a repetition of the 23 May 1997 elections, when dark-horse reformist candidate Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami won a surprise landslide victory.

Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez) Secretary-General Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi also is being promoted as a possible candidate. One of the members of the association, Mohammad Baqer Zakeri, said on 1 December that Karrubi is the strongest potential reformist candidate, Mehr News Agency reported.

At the Mardom Salari party's 2 December congress in Tehran, Karrubi said that he still has not made up his mind on running for president, IRNA reported. Karrubi repeated his position, in an interview that appeared in the 5 December "Sharq," that he has yet to make up his mind. He predicted that the reformist 2nd of Khordad Front could win the election if it coordinates its actions and if public participation is high.

Choosing a candidate is not the only difficulty the reformists are facing. They must also choose one who will survive the Guardians Council's vetting process.

Presidential adviser Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi said a strong reformist candidate has not come forward because potential candidates fear having their candidacies disallowed by the Guardians Council, "Sharq" reported on 5 December. A member of the Guardians Council should run for president, Abtahi recommended, as a test of public support for the institution that makes decisions on behalf of the people.

The reformists should choose a presidential candidate who is "committed, capable, competent, powerful, insightful, and prudent to the extent that he will not be doubted and disqualified," according to a letter from Qom reformists that was published in the 29 November "Aftab-i Yazd." The letter stressed the importance of unity in the 2nd of Khordad Front, and suggested that the reformist groups should meet and take a common stance on what they can do to meet public demands.

"Reaching consensus on one candidate is the only way the reformists can win," Mardom Salari party Secretary-General Mustafa Kavakebian said, according to the 20 November "Mardom Salari." Consensus, he went on to say, would "minimize the chances of "disqualification."

Former parliamentarian Hussein Ansari-Rad expressed similar concerns in the 22 November "Farhang-i Ashti." After the mass disqualification of candidates for the 2004 parliamentary election, he said, a lot of people think that conditions for a free election no longer exist. Reformists want a candidate who will be allowed to run. Their choices are limited.

Who the reformists tap as their leading candidate remains to be seen -- Moin, Karrubi, or somebody else. The candidates still have some time to decide, as a date for the election has not been set. They need to hurry, however, as the unofficial campaign period -- marked by party meetings and get-out-the-vote speeches by big name political figures -- will begin in January.

Kidnappers in eastern Afghanistan killed a Turkish hostage after being "cornered" recently by security forces and subsequently escaped, according to an Interior Ministry spokesman quoted by AFP on 15 December. The victim was identified by Turkish diplomats as Eyup Orel, who was working on a U.S.-funded road project in eastern Kunar Province when he was abducted on 14 December. His body was found in eastern Afghanistan on the morning of 15 December, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal said. Orel's driver and interpreter, also taken hostage, were reportedly freed unharmed. "After security forces cornered [the hostage takers], they released the driver and interpreter but killed...the Turkish engineer," Mashal said. The kidnappers escaped, Mashal added. Orel was the second Turkish national to be killed in Afghanistan this year and the fourth foreigner taken hostage in a span of seven weeks. Mashal said Orel's body "is being transported by helicopter" from eastern Afghanistan to Kabul, where it will be handed over to Turkish officials. Mashal said the exact circumstances of Orel's death remain unclear. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has condemned the killing. "I am angered that the enemies of Afghanistan have killed a brother and fellow Muslim in pursuit of their goal of disrupting reconstruction in Afghanistan," Karzai said. MR

Spanish Defense Minister Jose Bono said on 15 December that his country plans to refrain from sending more troops to Afghanistan for the time being, AFP reported. "The participation of more troops in Afghanistan is not planned," Bono told Spanish legislators. Bono's announcement came despite appeals by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer for members to share the burden of the alliance's various missions. NATO assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan last year and expanded its presence in the country beyond Kabul earlier this year. During Afghanistan's presidential elections in October, Spain increased its troop presence from 165 to 1,040. Italy, Britain, Spain, and Turkey are slated to rotate command of international forces in Afghanistan over the next two years, beginning in February. MR

The U.S. military denied systemic abuse of detainees held in Afghanistan despite the deaths of eight prisoners since late 2001, AFP reported on 15 December. The U.S. Defense Department recently disclosed a list of detainees who died in U.S. custody after Human Rights Watch (HRW) complained in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld of foot-dragging and "excessive secrecy" over those cases. The Pentagon confirmed that the deaths are under investigation. In Kabul, U.S. military spokesman Mark McCann told reporters that an investigation of detention facilities by Brigadier General Charles H. Jacoby in May "found no evidence of abuse taking place at these facilities, nor was there any evidence of leaders authorizing or condoning any abuse." McCann acknowledged that the Jacoby report, which remains classified, did not probe past abuses but rather assessed prison conditions in May. HRW accused the U.S. military of stalling in releasing the findings of the report. "These investigations have proceeded extremely slowly and in excessive secrecy," the rights group said. MR

U.S.-led forces killed seven suspected neo-Taliban insurgents in fighting in southeastern Afghanistan on 14 December, AP reported the next day. Fighting between Afghan security forces and suspected guerrillas erupted on 14 December in Khost Province, where U.S. forces were called in to help, according to U.S. military spokesman Mark McCann. "Members of the Khost Provincial Force [KFP] were attacked by anticoalition militia," McCann said. "The KPF returned fire and requested coalition support. The coalition responded by firing artillery." McCann said the incident demonstrated how U.S.-led coalition troops and Afghan security forces are working in lockstep to counter insurgency. "It should serve as a warning to those seeking to disrupt the peaceful political process," McCann said. McCann said no coalition or Afghan forces were injured, according to AFP. Some 18,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan are taking part in an offensive meant to stop insurgents from interfering with parliamentary elections tentatively slated for April. MR

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami stressed in a 13 December meeting with governors-general and legislators from three recently created provinces in northeastern Iran that the move was designed to facilitate budgeting and institutional efficiency, IRNA reported. Khatami said the Iranian legislature voted to divide the northeastern Khorasan Province into three distinct provinces -- Khorasan Razavi, South Khorasan, and North Khorasan -- in April and the Guardians Council approved the measure in May (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 May and 14 June 2004). "The administrative division of Khorasan Province was aimed at the elimination of deprivation, fair distribution of allocated resources, strengthening the infrastructures, and improving people's living standards," Khatami said. He added that the new southern and northern provinces are relatively less developed and require greater attention. The frictions caused by these issues were noted in "Farhang-i Ashti" on 4 December, which reported that, according to the legislation, financing for the new provinces was supposed to be channeled through the original Khorasan Province's budget. However, Bojnurd parliamentary representative Musalreza Servati suggested that Northern Khorasan's governor-general still lacks the necessary equipment and staff. Servati proposed the transfer of 30 experienced people from Khorasan Razavi to North Khorasan. BS

President Khatami made a one-day visit to Birjand, the capital of South Khorasan Province, on 15 December, IRNA reported. Khatami said in a speech to locals that 10 billion rials ($1,137) has been allocated for development projects in the province, and he added that the private sector will receive $100 million from the foreign-exchange reserve fund for participation in provincial projects. Khatami referred to the mining sector's potential, and he also described plans to release funding for the construction of a gas-powered, 700-megawatt power plant. Before leaving, Khatami told reporters that the government's priority is the province's water shortage, IRNA reported. A remedy to this problem, he said, is a project to bring in water from the Alborz and Zagros mountain ranges, which are on the other side of Iran. Khatami also noted that unemployment in South Khorasan is higher than the national average, and he ascribed this to urban migration by inhabitants of areas affected by drought. During his 13 December meeting with officials from the northeastern provinces (see above), Khatami told them that provincial agriculture, construction, and road building need attention. Tourism in the shrine city of Mashhad also needs help, he said. BS

The unemployment rate in Iran now stands at 10.4 percent, according to a Central Bank of Iran (CBI) report cited by state television on 15 December. Deputy Labor and Social Affairs Minister for Planning and Policy Affairs Mohammad Reza Sepehri cited the same figure during an 11 December meeting in Tehran on youth employment, IRNA reported. President Khatami noted a 10.4 percent unemployment rate in October (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 November 2004). Describing government policies on job creation, Sepehri noted an emphasis on private-sector participation, legislative reforms, and the provision of employment facilities. He added that the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry wants to increase job opportunities for women. The ministry is cooperating with the International Labor Organization, Sepehri said. At an earlier conference on the role of employers in social-welfare issues, Welfare and Social Security Minister Mohammad Hussein Sharifzadegan provided data on poverty in the country, "Kayhan" reported on 6 December. "About 10 million citizens live below the poverty line, and more than 1 million of them are suffering from absolute poverty," he said. The eradication of poverty, Sharifzadegan said, is his ministry's most important duty. BS

Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan al-Khuza'i on 15 December repeated his earlier allegations of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, Radio Farda, Al-Sharqiyah television, and other news agencies reported (for his previous assertions, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 August, 13 and 27 September, and 15 November 2004). Al-Khuza'i said Iran is Iraq's most dangerous enemy and a source of terrorism there. He added that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's list of candidates for Iraq's national elections in January is actually an Iranian list, and he accused nuclear scientist Hussein al-Sharistani of being an Iranian agent who worked in an Iranian nuclear facility for two years. Al-Khuza'i said the Iranian and Syrian intelligence services, as well as the former Iraqi regime's intelligence service, are cooperating with Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi to encourage terrorism in Iraq. Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh told reporters in Tehran on 15 December that the Iraqi allegations are only for domestic consumption and will be retracted later, IRNA reported. Ramezanzadeh added that Iran is the biggest contributor to stability and security in Iraq. BS

A total of 6,400 candidates from 100 electoral lists registered to compete in the 30 January elections to Iraq's National Assembly, international news agencies reported. Political parties submitted a total of 66 candidate lists, while 25 came from individual candidates and nine others were submitted by coalitions, AFP reported. A prominent Sunni leader and the head of the Iraqi Independent Democrats Movement, Adnan Pachachi, meanwhile said he fears a massive boycott in rebel-controlled areas that would allow Shi'ites and Kurds to dominate the election. "Since Iraq is being treated as a single constituency, that can only give the [Shi'ite] south and the [Kurdish] north more political weight," Pachachi said AFP reported. Pachachi wants the elections to be postponed to give more time for Sunni rebels to be drawn into the political process. In addition to electing a 275-member national legislature on 30 January, Iraqi voters will also choose 18 local councils while Kurdistan will likewise elect 111 deputies to its autonomous parliament. BW

Officially registering his candidacy for Iraq's parliamentary elections, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi vowed to put an end to the violence and sectarian divisions that have plagued his country, international news agencies reported on 16 December. "We strongly reject the injustice and separation of the past and we are working toward national unity," Allawi said on the first day of campaigning, according to AFP. BW

Rebels in Baghdad killed at least five people in separate roadside bomb attacks on 16 December, international news agencies reported the same day. In western Baghdad, a roadside bomb went off near a passing SUV. After the explosion, gunmen opened fire on the survivors, killing two unidentified foreigners and wounding two others, AP reported. Three Iraqi National Guardsmen died and six others were injured in a separate roadside explosion. Meanwhile, a bomb in the holy city of Karbala killed at least seven Iraqis and wounded 32 others on 15 December, international news agencies reported the same day. Sheikh Abdul Mehdi Karbalai, an aide to Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was said to be among the wounded. An al-Sistani spokesman told Al-Jazeera that the bomb, which went off near the gate to the Imam Husayn mosque, was probably an attempt to assassinate the cleric. Al-Sistani had issued a religious edict calling on all Shi'ites to vote in the 30 January elections, Reuters noted. BW

A senior official in the Iraqi Communications Ministry was killed by gunmen on 16 December, international news agencies reported the same day. Qassim Imhawi, the Communications Ministry's director general, was killed when attackers pulled up alongside his car and opened fire, Reuters reported. Imhawi was traveling from his home in a western district of Baghdad, Reuters reported. A top aide to Communications Minister Muhammad Ali al-Hakim, Imhawi was instrumental in plans to develop Iraq's mobile-telephone network. BW

The pan-Arab newspaper "Al-Asharq al-Awsat" announced on 16 December that it has temporarily closed its Baghdad office due to security concerns, international news agencies reported the same day. The London-based and Saudi-owned daily said armed men calling themselves "mujahedin" threatened on 13 December to blow up the newspaper's office if it did not publish a story within one week about a militant who allegedly led battles in Al-Fallujah. "'Al-Asharq al-Awsat' does not respond to threats or publish news under threat of arms," Reuters quoted the newspaper as writing in its latest edition. "The decision to close the office was taken to protect the safety of our journalists." BW

A senior U.S. military official said suspected Islamic militant leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi is "most likely" in Baghdad after losing his sanctuary in the western city of Al-Fallujah, CNN reported on 16 December. "He can operate pretty safely, we think," said Lieutenant General Lance Smith, the deputy chief of U.S. forces in the Middle East. "In some areas of Baghdad, there are those that would hide him and those that would passively allow him to operate. You can find him someplace else tomorrow." Al-Zarqawi is believed to be the leader of an Islamic militant group attacking coalition and Iraqi targets in Iraq. The group, which describes itself as being allied with Al-Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces and for beheading international hostages. BW

Iraq's oil ministry has awarded the country's first postwar oil-field development contracts, Reuters reported on 16 December, quoting an unidentified Oil Ministry official. Turkey's Everasia won a contract to develop the Khurmala Dome oil field in northern Iraq, where officials hope to raise output to 100,000 barrels per day. Ironhorse Oil & Gas Inc., a Canadian firm, will develop the Himrin field, the official said. Reuters also quoted Ahmad Chamma, an Oil Ministry official in charge of projects, as saying the ministry is examining offers for another contract to raise the output of the Suba-Luhais field from 50,000 to 180,000 barrels per day. The combined cost of the three projects has been estimated at $500 million. BW