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Newsline - December 30, 2004


RUSSIAN PRESIDENTIAL AIDE BLASTS GOVERNMENT ECONOMIC INTERFERENCE...
Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on 28 December, presidential economic adviser Andrei Illarionov condemned the takeover of Yukos subsidiary Yuganskneftegaz by state-owned oil major Rosneft, as well as the takeover of Rosneft by Gazprom, as the "swindle of the year," newsru.com and other Russian media reported. President Vladimir Putin last week called this deal "absolutely legal" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2004). Contradicting Putin's 23 December statement, Illarionov also said there is "no way" Russia can double its gross domestic product (GDP) by 2010. Illarionov said that in 2004 Russia adopted a new model of economic development, "switching from an inertia model to an interventionist one, moreover, one with extremely incompetent state intervention in economic policy." Finally, Illarionov said that the victory of Viktor Yushchenko in the Ukrainian presidential election will help Russia to rid itself of "imperial complexes." VY

...PROMPTING ANALYSTS TO DISCUSS HIS MOTIVES
"Vedomosti" wrote on 28 December that by his criticism, especially of the Yukos affair, Illarionov directly challenged President Putin. The paper noted that former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who did the same, was sent into retirement in March. But "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal," No. 149, wrote that it is not the first time that Illarionov has criticized the Kremlin and there are two possible explanations. Either he is doing so with the Kremlin's consent in order to soften domestic and foreign criticism, or Illarionov's role is purely nominal and has no impact on the decision-making process. National Strategy Institute Director Stanislav Belkovskii told RFE/RL's Russian Service on 29 December that Illarionov's remarks simply reflect disarray within the Russian leadership and a "lack of common strategy and national philosophy." He rejected the idea that Illarionov's press conference was a "cover-up" for the Kremlin's policies and said that is "too sophisticated for today's Kremlin." Finally, Belkovskii said he completely shares Illarionov's opinion about the Yukos affair. VY

BUSINESS LEADER ADMITS THAT 2004 WAS A HARD YEAR
Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) President Arkadii Volskii told Ekho Moskvy on 29 December that 2004 was a "difficult year" for the Russian economy but added that he does not believe any major economic crises are looming. Volskii also criticized presidential economic adviser Illarionov for his criticism the previous day of the government's economic policies. "A presidential adviser should help the president instead of undermining what the president says," Volskii commented. He acknowledged, however, that Illarionov was right to express concern about the government's efforts to reduce poverty and to double GDP within 10 years. "[These goals] are not being realized today," Volskii said. He added that a "redistribution of property is under way in this country" and that it "is putting a brake, a serious brake on production growth." He urged the government to release funds currently in the so-called stabilization fund in the form of development loans to business "so the money works for the country instead of for foreign banks." RC

YUKOS CHIEF WARNS PUTIN FROM JAIL
In an article published in "Vedomosti" on 28 December, former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii wrote that by ruining his company, the Kremlin is destroying the Russian economy and provoking a revolution. "The crushing of Yukos shows that bureaucrats are not guided by the interests of the state. They haven't the slightest respect for the state, which they consider only as a mechanism for the accomplishment of their own goals," Khodorkovskii said. "Very soon the predatory bureaucracy will be challenged by furious mobs and that's what we should be afraid of," Khodorkovskii wrote. "The question is what lessons the country will draw from the Yukos affair, whose finale is the most senseless and destructive event for the economy in all of President Vladimir Putin's time in power," he concluded. VY

RUSSIA, CHINA TO HOLD JOINT MILITARY EXERCISES...
Speaking at a government meeting on 27 December, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov confirmed that Russia and China will carry out their first-ever joint military exercises in 2005, strana.ru and other media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2004). "We have agreed with China for the first time in history to hold large-scale exercises on Chinese territory in the second half of next year," ITAR-TASS quoted him as saying. Ivanov added that the Russian contribution to the exercises would mostly be in the form of modern weapon systems, including naval and aviation hardware, long-range aviation, and submarines "to practice interaction with China in various forms of military exercises." Ivanov also said that in 2005 Russia will conduct joint military exercises with France and Italy and will take part in NATO naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea jointly with the United States. VY

...AS MOSCOW PLEDGES TO SUPPLY CHINA WITH 10 MILLION TONS OF OIL
Russian Railways head Gennadii Fadeev announced an agreement in Moscow on 29 December to supply China with 10 million tons (60 million barrels) of oil in 2005, RIA-Novosti reported. LUKoil head Vagit Alekperov announced that his company will supply 3 million tons, while Rosneft will supply 4 million tons and Yukos 3 million tons. Fadeev noted that despite the problems that Yukos is experiencing, the company will not reduce its exports to China. In 2004, Fadeev said, oil supplies to China via rail were 6 million tons and by 2007 could be as much as 15 million tons annually. VY

RUSSIAN SPIN MASTER: MOSCOW'S 'IMPERIAL PROJECT' IS FINISHED
Russian political consultant Marat Gelman told RosBalt on 29 December that following Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko's victory in that country's 26 December presidential elections, Russia must forget about its "imperial project." "The already improbable scenario of restoring the empire has vanished and that is a very serious problem," Gelman said. "Our imperial mentality has been constrained and, if we are to talk about its influence on our political processes, we will see a flow of Unified Russia supporters to Motherland." Gelman, who advised the campaign of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, admitted that there was massive falsification of the vote on the part of Yanukovych's staff. He also admitted he and other Russian spin masters made a lot of mistakes, but lamented that Yanukovych's campaign staff did not heed his advice, but relied instead on falsification. "Falsification is not a campaign technique; it is simply breaking the law," Geman said. "Just like censorship in the mass media." VY

WOULD-BE YUGANSKNEFTEGAZ BIDDERS ARRESTED
Moscow police on 28 December arrested Lev Gorskii, board chairman of Interkom, and Interkom General Director Igor Merkulov on charges of fraud and forgery in connection with the 19 December auction of Yuganskneftegaz, Interfax reported on 29 December. An unnamed law-enforcement source told the news agency that the two men allegedly attempted to use Interkom's Yuganskneftegaz bid to defraud Western creditors. "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 29 December that Gorskii is a retired KGB general and Merkulov served as an adviser to former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk. The paper reported that the two men never submitted to the Federal Property Fund the $1.7 billion deposit required for participation in the Yuganskneftegaz auction and that, as a result, Interkom's bid was disqualified two days before the tender. The daily reported that Merkulov was carrying forged letters from state agencies claiming that Interkom had been authorized by the government to take over Yuganskneftegaz and to pay off the tax debts of oil giant Yukos when he was arrested at Moscow's Sheremetevo Airport. RC

ELECTION CHIEF SPEAKS OUT AGAINST THIRD TERM FOR PUTIN
Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov told Ekho Moskvy on 29 December that it would be a mistake to make constitutional changes that would eliminate the direct election of the president of the Russian Federation, adding that he opposes any changes to the constitution before 2013, including changes to the two-term limit on the president. He added, however, that it might be "a good idea" to require that presidential candidates be nominated solely by political parties, although he said that such a provision should not be introduced before the 2008 presidential election. RC

FOREIGN MINISTRY LOOKS BACK ON 2004...
The Foreign Ministry on 29 December posted its assessment of Russia's foreign-policy achievements in 2004 on its official website (http://www.mid.ru). According to the statement, "the main result of the year" was the "substantial intensification" of cooperation between Russia and the countries of the CIS on "new, mutually beneficial terms." The ministry noted Russia's "coordinating role" in promoting the economic integration of the CIS. The statement also notes the "qualitative strengthening of Russian cooperation with the states of Central Asia," including joining the Central Asian Cooperation Organization and the upgrading of the status of Russian forces in Tajikistan. The ministry also lauded Russia's role in combating international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It highlighted border agreements with Ukraine and China and Russia's role in mediating the conflict between Georgia and the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia. Finally, the statement noted progress in Russia's bid for membership of the World Trade Organization and said that "the entire world welcomed the ratification by Russia of the Kyoto Protocol." Interestingly, the Foreign Ministry's statement did not mention the United States. RC

...AND FORWARD TO 2005
In a second statement posted on the Foreign Ministry's official website on 29 December, the ministry laid out its policy priorities for 2005. "Our chief priority remains the development of relations with the CIS countries," the statement said, noting that Russia will hold the rotating chairmanship of the CIS in 2005. The statement said that "Russia is ready to build on its partner relations with the United States, primarily in the struggle against terrorism," and laid out detailed objectives for relations with the European Union, China, and India. It noted that the first-ever joint summit of Russia and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be held next year. The ministry said that Russia remains committed to "its policy of strengthening the UN." "The ultimate goal is to help shape a more secure and stable system of international relations that would best meet the interests of Russia's equal participation in world politics and economics and the tasks of collectively tackling international problems." RC

PUTIN SIGNS COMMUNITY-SERVICE BILL
President Putin on 29 December signed into law a bill on community service as a punishment for certain crimes, ITAR-TASS reported. The measure will give judges the discretion to sentence convicted criminals to fines, imprisonment, or obligatory community service. Community-service sentences are restricted to 60-240 hours and assignments are determined by local government organs. The same day, Putin also signed into law a bill on state holidays (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2004). As a result of the measure, the official New Year's holiday will extend from 1 January to 5 January. The total number of official nonworking holidays will be increased from 11 to 12. Putin also signed on 29 December amendments to the law on local government, ITAR-TASS reported. RC

SPACE FORCES SUBMIT REPORT ON 2004 RESULTS
Russia in 2004 conducted 17 space launches that sent 27 satellites into orbit, ITAR-TASS reported on 29 December, citing the press service of the Space Forces. The press service also reported that there were no false missile-attack warnings in 2004 and that the Space Forces conducted seven intercontinental-ballistic-missile tests. Russia currently has 100 functioning satellites, including more than 60 military satellites, the press service reported. The Defense Ministry reported on 29 December that Russia carried out overflights of 30 countries in 2004 under the terms of the Open Skies Treaty, while 32 countries sent missions over Russian territory to monitor Russian military facilities and exercises, ITAR-TASS reported. The ministry hailed the treaty as "effectively complementing other multilateral disarmament regimes." RC

HUMAN RIGHTS TSAR CALLS FOR RESIGNATION OF BASHKIR INTERIOR MINISTER
Human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin on 29 December criticized police in Bashkortostan, stating that officers had subjected "500 to 1,000 people" to reprisals during 10-14 December after three police officers were beaten in Blagoveshchensk, Interfax reported. He said that police raided several city neighborhoods and that more than 500 people were detained and "exposed to physical actions" at local police stations. Lukin said that he met on 29 December with Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev to discuss the matter after his letter to Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov went unanswered. According to Regnum on 29 December, Lukin has called for the resignation of Bashkir Interior Minister Rafail Divaev. RIA-Novosti reported that Nurgaliev told journalists, "We are preparing a normative document on cultured and polite relations of Interior Ministry personnel toward citizens." RC

SUPREME COURT RULES AGAINST LATIN ALPHABET FOR TATAR LANGUAGE
The Supreme Court on 28 December overturned a law in Tatarstan that would have established the Latin alphabet as the basis for the written Tatar language, gzt.ru reported on 29 December. The decision corresponded to a November ruling by the Constitutional Court that upheld the constitutionality of a federal law requiring that the written forms of all national languages in the Russian Federation be based on the Cyrillic alphabet. After the Supreme Court ruling, Tatar legislature Chairman Farid Mukhametshin said "the matter of reestablishing the alphabet will be continued by our descendents." RC

PUTIN HONORS CHECHEN STRONGMAN
President Putin issued a decree on 29 December bestowing the prestigious Hero of Russia award on Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov in recognition of his "courage and heroism in the line of duty," Russian media reported. Kadyrov, 28, said he considers the award a tribute to all those killed fighting "terrorism" in Chechnya and to the policies launched by his father, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, who was killed by a bomb in Grozny on 9 May. He said his main task now is to locate and apprehend Chechen resistance leaders Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basaev. Russian human rights activists expressed incomprehension and outrage at the award, Reuters reported. Tatyana Lokshina of the Moscow Helsinki Group pointed out that Ramzan Kadyrov is believed to participate personally in the random detention, torture, and killing of Chechen civilians carried out by the so-called presidential security force of several thousand men that he heads. LF

TALKS ON NEW ARMENIAN OPPOSITION ALIGNMENT CONTINUE
Reports that a new, pro-Western Armenian opposition alliance could be finalized by the end of January are likely to prove premature, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 28 December, quoting an aide to the leader of one of the opposition parties involved. Suren Sureniants, an aide to former Prime Minister and Hanrapetutiun party head Aram Sargsian, said Hanrapetutiun is "cautious" and will not try to speed up the ongoing talks. In mid-December, Liberal Progressive Party leader Hovannes Hovannisian said his party, Hanrapetutiun, and a smaller group headed by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian (no relation to Hovannes) might unveil their new alliance in January (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 16 December 2004). LF

DASHNAKS WITHDRAW SUPPORT FOR KARABAKH PRESIDENT
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) released a statement on 29 December harshly criticizing Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, for dismissing Education and Culture Minister Armen Sargsian, an HHD member, last week, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2004). The statement portrayed Ghukasian as weak, dishonest, and uninterested in further democratization. It also pointed out that Ghukasian praised Sargsian for his "efficient work" just days before firing him. The HHD was in opposition to Ghukasian prior to the August 2002 presidential ballot, in which it backed his bid for a second term in return for several senior government posts. Those HHD government officials have now resigned to protest Sargsian's dismissal. LF

AZERBAIJANI PARLIAMENT PROTESTS NATO OFFICIAL'S KARABAKH PROPOSAL
Azerbaijan's parliament has sent a formal protest to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (PA) following the publication in "Le Figaro" on 18 December of an article on Russia's role in unresolved conflicts in the CIS co-authored jointly by former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio and Pierre Lellouche, who is NATO PA president, according to Azerbaijan's MPA on 29 December as cited by Groong. Palacio and Lellouche argued that the Karabakh conflict differs fundamentally from those in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester, and that "the Europeans, Americans, and Russians should jointly defend a compromise [settlement] that would give Armenia temporary control of Karabakh in exchange for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azerbaijani territory, [with] the final status of Karabakh to be decided by its inhabitants in a referendum in five or 10 years' time." The daily "Ekho" quoted Azerbaijani parliamentarian Alimammad Nuriev on 23 December as dismissing that proposal as "absolutely unrealistic." Meanwhile, analysts in Baku on 29 December cast doubts on parliamentary speaker Murtuz Alesqerov's prediction of 28 December that some of the occupied Azerbaijani districts will be liberated in 2005, zerkalo.az reported on 30 December. LF

TRIAL OF AZERBAIJANI VILLAGERS BEGINS
The trial began on 28 December in Baku in the Court for Serious Crimes of a further 10 participants in the unrest in Baku that followed the disputed presidential election on 15 October 2003, Turan and zerkalo.az reported. The 10 accused, almost all of them residents of the village of Nardaran near Baku, admit to having witnessed clashes between police and opposition protesters, but deny either participating in the violence or resisting arrest. To date, 118 persons have stood trial on charges connected with the clashes; 85 of them received prison sentences. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES 2005 BUDGET...
Deputies approved the 2005 budget late on 28 December, Georgian media and RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. The budget sets revenues at 1.92 billion laris ($1.08 billion) and expenditures at 2.24 billion laris; the government hopes that international organizations will cover the resulting deficit. Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania listed as the budget's three main priorities paying off pension arrears, reducing poverty, and strengthening the armed forces. Defense expenditure is set at over 200 million laris, including 80 million laris from the total 200 million laris that the government hopes to receive from privatization. The budget also provides for raising the minimum monthly wage of state-sector employees to 115 laris in line with an election pledge. LF

...AND FINANCIAL AMNESTY
Deputies approved the controversial financial amnesty bill in the first reading on 22 December, and in the final reading on 24 December by a vote of 125 in favor and one against, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 November 2004) . Under the new law, businessmen must declare previously undeclared assets by 31 December 2005 and pay 1 percent tax on them. The law bars tax authorities from probing tax debts such persons incurred prior to 1 January 2004 . The final version of the bill does not extend to persons whose wealth was acquired through criminal activities, or to those who were members after 17 October 1997 of oversight councils of companies with a charter capital exceeding 1 million laris. LF

LEADER OF NEW GEORGIAN OPPOSITION MOVEMENT COMPLAINS OF POLITICAL PERSECUTION
Just days after several opposition politicians announced their alignment in the "Forward, Georgia!" movement, security officials summoned one of the movement's leaders, former Georgian intelligence chief Irakli Batiashvili, on 27 December for questioning about the alleged intimidation of a student, Georgian media reported. Batiashvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 28 December that he met the student at a restaurant and had a conversation with him, but denied pressuring him or threatening him with abduction. Batiashvili, together with former Imereti Governor Temur Shashiashvili and several former parliamentary deputies, announced the creation of Forward, Georgia! at a press conference in Tbilisi on 24 December, Caucasus Press reported. Interfax quoted Batiashvili, who began his opposition activities in the late 1980s, as saying that the movement will try to consolidate society to oppose what he termed unacceptable attempts to impose authoritarian rule. LF

TWO CANDIDATES REGISTER FOR REPEAT ABKHAZ ELECTION
Two candidates applied by the 26 December deadline to register to participate in the repeat Abkhaz presidential election to be held on 12 January, Caucasus Press reported on 28 December. Chernomorenergo head Sergei Bagapsh, whom the Central Election Commission proclaimed the winner of the disputed 3 October presidential ballot, will run with his former rival Raul Khadjimba as his prospective vice president. Yakub Lakoba, who received some 5 percent of the vote on 3 October, registered with Stella Gunia as his prospective vice president. Former Foreign Minister and Social Democratic Party of Abkhazia Chairman Sergei Shamba, who placed third on 3 October with some 10 percent of the vote, will not participate in the new ballot. Meanwhile the Abkhaz parliament has passed an amendment to the constitution augmenting the powers of the vice president for the duration of the next presidential term in accordance with the Agreement on Measures to Attain National Accord signed by Bagapsh and Khadjimba on 6 December, Caucasus Press reported on 28 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2004). The vice president assumes responsibility for defense and foreign policy, and is empowered to allocate 40 percent of budget expenditures. LF

KAZAKH AUTHORITIES FILE CRIMINAL CHARGES AGAINST LOCAL BRANCH OF SOROS FOUNDATION
Kazakh financial-police officials confirmed on 28 December that criminal charges have been filed against the Almaty-based Soros-Kazakhstan Foundation, Asia-Plus and ITAR-TASS reported. Kazakh authorities contend that the Soros Foundation owes $600,000 in unpaid taxes since 2002, although Soros officials have argued that under the terms of a bilateral U.S.-Kazakh tax treaty, it is exempt from local taxes. The Soros-Kazakhstan Foundation has been operating in Kazakhstan since 1995 and has provided over $45 million in grants to nongovernmental organizations. In a press releases issued on 29 December, the Soros-Kazakhstan Foundation added that the tax-evasion charges are an attempt to pressure the group to "halt its activities" in the country, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. RG

KAZAKHSTAN DISMISSES REPORTS OF INFLUX OF CHECHENS FROM RUSSIA
A statement by Kazakh National Security Committee spokesman Kenzhebulat Beknazarov on 28 December dismissed reports of an influx of Chechen fighters into Kazakhstan from Russia, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Beknazarov added that "the border services of Kazakhstan and Russia are closely cooperating to protect the border" and share "operational information, which allows attempts of border trespassing" to be immediately detected. The statement follows a recent allegation by a spokesman for Russian forces in the North Caucasus, Major General Ilya Shabalkin, that Chechen militants are setting up new logistical routes from Russia into Kazakhstan. RG

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION FORMS ELECTORAL BLOC
The leaders of five major Kyrgyz opposition parties agreed on 27 December to form a new electoral bloc, AKI press reported. The new bloc, consisting of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, the Ata-Jurt movement, the Dzhany Bagyt movement, the People's Congress of Kyrgyzstan, and the For Fair Elections group, seeks to present a united front in preparation for the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections set for the end of February. The opposition bloc also includes nearly two dozen smaller civic organizations and nongovernmental organizations committed to ensuring free and fair elections. The agreement follows an earlier pact between the opposition Ata-Jurt group and People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan on 16 December that unified their political agendas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2004). RG

RUSSIA TRANSFERS MILITARY TRAINING FACILITY TO TAJIKISTAN
Russia's Federal Security Service's border directorate in Tajikistan formally transferred control on 29 December of a military-training facility to the Tajik Border Guard Service, Asia-Plus reported. The Lohur training center, located 40 kilometers southwest of Dushanbe, consists of a sizable complex of training grounds, a firing range, and two barracks housing base personnel. The facility serves as the operational base for counternarcotics and counterproliferation surveillance and is home to some 200 specially trained dogs that patrol the Tajik-Afghan border. The transfer follows an agreement reached on 27 December between Russian and Tajik border-guard officials. RG

RUNOFF ELECTION FOR LOWER HOUSE OF UZBEK PARLIAMENT SET
Uzbek Central Election Commission Chairman Buritosh Mustafoev announced on 29 December that runoff elections for some 58 seats in the lower house of the Uzbek parliament will be held on 9 January, Asia-Plus and Uzbek TV reported. The election was held on 26 December for 120 seats in the lower house but was widely criticized for failing to meet democratic standards (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2004). RG

UZBEK FOREIGN MINISTER PLEDGES CONTINUED SUPPORT FOR U.S. WAR ON TERRORISM
In comments during a 28 December press conference in Tashkent, Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safaev affirmed Uzbekistan's continued support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism and pledged to cooperate with the United States until its "mission in Afghanistan is over," Interfax reported. Safaev also noted that "Germany is using our infrastructure in the south of the country." The comments follow a meeting on 21 December with visiting U.S. Central Command deputy commander Lieutenant General Lance Smith, according to Uzbek TV. RG

PROTESTANT GROUP LEADER IN BELARUS FINED FOR UNAUTHORIZED GATHERING
A district court in Minsk on 29 December fined Vasil Yurevich, the leader of an unregistered New Life Church community affiliated with the Association of Full Gospel Christians, 3.6 million Belarusian rubles ($1,670) for holding an unauthorized gathering of community members in the Belarusian capital in November, Belapan reported. JM

BELARUSIAN MINISTRY DISSATISFIED WITH IDEOLOGY COURSES AT UNIVERSITIES
The Education Ministry has criticized the level of teaching of state ideology at the country's institutions of higher education, Belapan reported on 29 December, citing an official press release. "It is intolerable that instructors sound insincere while lecturing, have superficial knowledge of the basics of Belarus's ideology, or do not understand the substance of the country's political, social, and economic developments," the release said. In order to improve teaching standards, the ministry reportedly suggested that top-rank instructors share their experience with their colleagues, and that members of the Belarusian National Youth Union, which has cells in all institutions of higher education, actively involve themselves in ideological work. JM

BELARUS'S FOREIGN DEBT TOTALS $800 MILLION
Finance Minister Mikalay Korbut told journalists on 29 December that Belarus's foreign debt rose by $150 million in December, pushing the country's total debt to some $800 million, Belapan reported. The debt increase largely stemmed from a $175 million loan Belarus received from Russia in mid-December, of which $25 million will be used toward paying off old debts to Russia. According to Korbut, the government is planning to use the Russian loan to finance the budget deficit. The loan, disbursed by the Russian government under the Libor floating rate plus 0.8 percent, is to be repaid between 2006 and 2010. JM

YANUKOVYCH REFUSES TO STEP DOWN AS UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER
Following a call on 28 December from Viktor Yushchenko, a group of his supporters blocked the entrance to the government offices in Kyiv on 29 December and prevented Premier Viktor Yanukovych's cabinet from holding a scheduled meeting there, Ukrainian media reported. Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, who defied the Verkhovna Rada's vote of no confidence in Yanukovych's cabinet on 1 December and on 7 December relieved Yanukovych of his duties for the remainder of the presidential election campaign, recently reinstated him by decree. Yanukovych reportedly held a cabinet meeting at a different location in Kyiv later on 29 December. "When they [the opposition] say I should resign now [as prime minister], my response to that is: Let them continue their lawlessness, but, as a matter of principle, I will not submit a resignation," Yanukovych told journalists on 29 December. "I know why they insist on my resignation," he added. "It is because they are shivering with fear now, just as they did in the beginning. And they have every reason to think so. We will have our say in the future -- in the near future." JM

YUSHCHENKO TIPS TYMOSHENKO AS NEW UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER...
Yushchenko, whom the Central Election Commission declared winner of the 26 December presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2004), said on Channel 5 on 29 December that his parliamentary bloc, Our Ukraine, will support Yuliya Tymoshenko for the post of prime minister in a new cabinet that is to be created in the coming weeks. Yushchenko said a working group, which includes Tymoshenko, is now discussing the formation of the new cabinet. Asked what other candidates are being considered for the premiership, Yushchenko named one of his election campaign leaders Petro Poroshenko, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, and Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs leader Anatoliy Kinakh. JM

...REVEALS PRINCIPLE OF DIVISION OF ELECTION SPOILS...
Yushchenko told Channel 5 on 29 December that jobs in a new government formed under his presidency will be distributed among his political allies according to a system of "political quotas." "For example, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc will obtain one-fourth of jobs in the ministries, government offices, committees, and administrations," Yushchenko said. "Such a principle will be proposed for the Socialist Party as well." According to Yushchenko, the new prime minister should not simultaneously lead a political party or engage in business activities. "In a few weeks' time you will become witnesses to an interesting political process," Yushchenko pledged. He also said he is ready to replace all regional governors after assuming the post of president. JM

...AND SETS POLICY PRIORITIES
Yushchenko also said on Channel 5 on 29 December that fight against corruption, social policy, and European integration will be key priorities of his presidency. Yushchenko simultaneously stressed that Ukraine's European integration should not be a "policy of extremes." "We need to understand that we can go to the West only after we have normalized relations with our neighbors," he said. "I am sure that Europe will never accept someone with a suitcase of new problems." Touching upon Russia, Yushchenko said this country is "our eternal neighbor with which we are due to have wonderful relations." JM

BOSNIAN PRIME MINISTER SAYS POLITICAL CRISIS WILL NOT AFFECT REFORMS...
Bosnian Prime Minister Adnan Terzic told parliament on 29 December that the ongoing political crisis will not affect his government's reform efforts, Fena reported. Commenting on the resignation of two Bosnian Serb ministers from his cabinet, Terzic said it is important to note that their decision did not come in response to the government's work, but to High Representative Paddy Ashdown's decision to fire high-ranking Bosnian Serb officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 20, 21, and 28 December 2004). Terzic added, however, that the resignation of the Republika Srpska prime minister hampers the decision-making process. "It is crucial that we get a new [Republika Srpska] government as soon as possible. Without it the [Bosnian] Council of Ministers cannot make decisions that will represent a full consensus and cannot go further into reforms," Terzic said. UB

...AS PRESSURE ON REPUBLIKA SRPSKA CONTINUES
Michael Humphreys, head of the European Commission's delegation in Bosnia, said in Banja Luka on 29 December that he expects the EU to begin talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Bosnia in the first half of 2005, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Humphreys underscored that the EU will not influence the election of a new government in the Republika Srpska. He added, however, that the EU expects the new government to be reform-oriented and to comply with its international obligations. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dragan Mikerevic resigned on 17 December to protest against Ashdown's decision (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2004). UB

SERBIAN PRIME MINISTER SAYS MONTENEGRO SHOULD ELIMINATE SEPARATION FROM ITS VOCABULARY...
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on 29 December that he expects the EU to convince the Montenegrin leadership to hold direct elections for the joint parliament of Serbia and Montenegro, thus complying with the Constitutional Charter of the union state, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Kostunica said Montenegro may hold a referendum on independence only after the elections for the joint parliament. Addressing the Montenegrin leadership, Kostunica said: "There will be no separation, forget this word." UB

...AS MONTENEGRIN PRIME MINISTER REITERATES INDEPENDENCE PLAN
In response to Kostunica's statement, Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said in Podgorica that Kostunica's insistence on direct elections will lead to a "spontaneous breakup" of Serbia and Montenegro; RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Djukanovic said the chances of reaching any compromise with Belgrade are very slim, and claimed that Belgrade is seeking to complicate Montenegro's path to independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 and 26 October 2004). UB

BELGRADE FORMS KOSOVA COUNCIL
The Serbian government formed a Council on Kosova on 29 December, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The council, which is to be headed by Prime Minister Kostunica, will include government members as well as representatives of political parties, Kosovar Serbs, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, and the Serbian Orthodox Church. Kostunica said the council will unite all forces that will play significant roles in tackling the challenges Serbia will face in 2005. Kostunica told a press conference that the international community is "speaking fatalistically regarding [Kosova's] final status and only thinks in terms of independence." He said that the difference between the existing Coordinating Center for Kosova headed by Nebojsa Covic and the new council is that the center is an institution of the government of Serbia and Montenegro, while the council will be a Serbian government institution only. UB

KOSOVA PROTECTION CORPS HEAD WANTS TO FORM KOSOVAR ARMY BEFORE INDEPENDENCE
Agim Ceku, commander of the civilian Kosova Protection Corps (TMK), told a press conference on 29 December that the TMK should be transformed into a Kosovar army even before the province's final status is resolved, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2004). Ceku said the only problem the TMK must overcome is the low participation of the Serb minority in the corps. UB

KOSOVAR OPPOSITION LEADER SAYS GOVERNMENT IS HURDLE ON PATH TO INDEPENDENCE
Hashim Thaci, who leads the opposition Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK), told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service on 28 December that the Kosovar government headed by Ramush Haradinaj of the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK) will be problematic during upcoming talks on the final status of Kosova. "This is a government of isolation, without perspective for Kosova and the citizens," Thaci said, underscoring that only the joint efforts of all political players in Kosova can achieve the Kosovar people's goal of independence. Although Thaci welcomed talks with all neighbors, including Belgrade, he said the government is making a mistake in supporting the inclusion of Belgrade in discussions on Kosova's future status. "The Democratic Party has decided not to hold talks with Belgrade on the political status of Kosova. This will be decided by the people of Kosova," Thaci said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2004). UB

MACEDONIAN AUTHORITIES PLACE DETAINED STUDENTS UNDER HOUSE ARREST
A court in Tetovo on 28 December ordered that two detained ethnic Albanian students be placed under house arrest for 20 days, marking the first time the punishment has been applied since it was introduced earlier this year, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Police arrested the students after a 25 December police operation resulted in a shootout in which one student was killed and a student and a police officer were wounded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2004). Both detainees hail from Bujanovac in southern Serbia. The police operation was intended to capture Lirim Jakupi (aka the Nazi), one of the alleged leaders of an armed Albanian group that has at times controlled the village of Kondovo outside Skopje (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 December 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 10 December 2004). Jakupi managed to escape to neighboring Kosova, where he was arrested by UNMIK police. UB

PRESIDENTS GIVE GREEN LIGHT FOR BALKAN OIL PIPELINE
The presidents of Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria signed on 28 December a declaration of political support for the planned 912-kilometer pipeline that will transport oil from the Bulgarian port of Burgas to Vlore on Albania's Adriatic coast, Reuters reported. The U.S.-registered Albanian Macedonian Bulgarian Oil Corporation formed to build the pipeline has already secured some $900 million of the estimated at $1.2 billion cost of the project, which is expected to be operational by early 2008. Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski said on 28 December that the AMBO pipeline will not preclude construction of a pipeline from Burgas to the Greek port of Alexandropolis bypassing the Turkish straits. He termed that Russian-Bulgarian-Greek project "equally important." A senior Kazakh oil sector official expressed support on 10 December for the Burgas-Alexandropolis pipeline, Interfax reported. LF

ROMANIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES NEW CABINET
A joint session of Romania's bicameral parliament on 28 December approved by a vote of 265:200 the lineup and the program of the cabinet proposed by National Liberal Party Chairman Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, Mediafax and international news agencies reported. Romanian media reports emphasized that the measure passed by a larger margin than expected and that 24 opposition members belonging to either the Social Democratic Party (PSD) or the Greater Romania Party (PRM) must have broken ranks in the secret vote. According to the daily "Cotidianul," this group included five lawmakers of the National Syndicate Bloc elected to the lower house on the PRM's candidate list. The daily "Evenimentul zilei" of 30 December cited former President Ion Iliescu as saying he voted for the new cabinet in order to promote "political stability and government alternation." The cabinet is made up of 25 ministers from the three blocs that make up the new coalition government, the PNL-Democratic Party alliance (Justice and Truth alliance), the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR), and the Humanist Party (PUR). It was sworn in by President Traian Basescu on 29 December (see "New Romanian Cabinet Ushers In Liberal-Democratic Spirit," 29 December 2004, rferl.org). MS

ROMANIA GETS FLAT TAX
During its first meeting on 29 December, the new government issued an emergency ordinance introducing a flat 16 percent income and corporate tax as of 1 January 2005, Mediafax and AP reported. The flat tax topped the priorities in the coalition government's program. Emergency ordinances go into effect immediately, although they are later subject to parliamentary approval. The flat 16 percent tax replaces personal income taxes ranging from 18 to 40 percent and a 25 percent corporate tax (see "New Romanian Cabinet Ushers In Liberal-Democratic Spirit," 29 December 2004, rferl.org). MS

FORMER ROMANIAN PRESIDENT SAYS PSD CHAIRMANSHIP IS NOT HIGHEST PRIORITY
Former President Iliescu, who is now a senator representing the PSD, told journalists on 29 December that he does not consider a return as the head of the party his "high priority," Mediafax reported. A PSD congress slated for February 2005 is expected to elect a party chairman. The position is now held by former Prime Minister and current lower-house speaker Adrian Nastase. Iliescu said that the PSD's highest priority should be to conduct a "solid analysis" and rethink the opposition's strategy. He declined to tell journalists whether he will run for the post of party chairman. During debates prior to the parliamentary vote on the new cabinet, Iliescu said on 28 December that Romania "does not need early elections." He explained that an early ballot would paralyze the government's activity for at least two months, Mediafax reported. MS

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT APPOINTS CIVILIAN AS DEFENSE MINISTER...
President Vladimir Voronin on 28 December appointed independent parliamentary deputy Valeriu Pleasca as Moldova's new defense minister, Flux and Infotag reported. Pleasca replaces Brigadier General Victor Gaiciuc, who was dismissed in October in the wake of massive armament plundering from military arms depots. At Pleasca's swearing-in ceremony on 29 December, Voronin said the appointment of a civilian as defense minister is in line with Moldova's efforts to introduce European norms. Pleasca was elected to parliament in 2001 on the lists of the Braghis Alliance, but later left that formation. He recently headed an ad hoc parliamentary commission that ruled that Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca's involvement in the real estate business constitutes a conflict of interests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 October and 28 December 2004). MS

PRESIDENTIAL ADMINISTRATION WILL NOT USE STATE TV DURING 2005 CAMPAIGN
President Voronin said in a message to Teleradio Moldova's Council of Observers on 28 December that neither the presidency nor the government will utilize the services of Moldovan Television or Radio Moldova in the campaign for the 6 March parliamentary elections, Flux and Infotag reported. Voronin said there will be no coverage whatsoever of the current activities of incumbent officials as of 1 January. He said the decision is aimed at preventing "unfounded accusations of abuse of administration resources," according to ITAR-TASS. Voronin said information regarding the government and the presidency's activities will be sent only to the official Moldpress agency, which will disseminate it to other media outlets. PPCD Deputy Chairman Valeriu Saharneanu said Voronin's statement was hypocritical and that the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) has long been engaged in electoral campaigning. MS

MOLDOVAN TELEVISION GETS NEW MANAGER
The Council of Observers overseeing the activity of Teleradio Moldova on 29 December appointed Adela Raileanu as executive director of Moldovan Television, Flux reported. Raileanu, who was news director of the station, replaces Victor Tabarta, who was appointed executive director of Radio Moldova. MS

FORGING POLITICAL ALLIANCES IN THE NEW UKRAINE
Ukraine's Central Election Commission has announced that Viktor Yushchenko won 52 percent of the vote in the presidential ballot on 26 December compared to Viktor Yanukovych's 44 percent, according to its preliminary figures. Yanukovych has contested the results with the Central Election Commission and the Supreme Court, claiming that amendments to the presidential election law introduced between the abortive second-round runoff on 21 November and its repeat on 26 December were unconstitutional and deprived millions of disabled Ukrainians from exercising their right to vote from home.

Yushchenko's victory was so convincing, however, that even Yanukovych's election staff does not appear to believe that the Central Election Commission or the Supreme Court will sustain the complaints. So Yushchenko is likely to be inaugurated by mid-January.

But the man who has led Ukraine's amazing political rebirth and survived potentially deadly dioxin poisoning still faces serious political threats.

Apart from awakening grand hopes both at home and abroad that democracy might take deeper root in Ukraine, the "Orange Revolution" has instilled in millions of Ukrainians the firm belief that Yushchenko is truly capable of ousting "criminal clans" from power in Kyiv and making the lives of ordinary Ukrainians better in the short rather than long term -- as he pledged during the election campaign. He will have to deliver substantially on his election promises in 2005 if he wants to improve his political position ahead of the parliament-approved reductions in presidential powers that will take effect in one year and the March 2006 parliamentary elections. Arguably, 2005 will be a year of primarily domestic concerns for Yushchenko. Kyiv's relations with Moscow and Brussels will likely remain on the back burner as Yushchenko grapples with the political legacy of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma. And the domestic problems that Yushchenko will face in the coming year appear immensely complex.

To begin with, Yushchenko needs quickly to build a parliamentary coalition and propose a prime minister who might be acceptable to such a coalition. Both tasks will present major headaches. The main problem is that his parliamentary base, the Our Ukraine bloc, along with its current political allies -- Oleksandr Moroz's Socialist Party, the eponymous political bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko, and Anatoliy Kinakh's Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs -- has just 150 deputies, which is well below the 226 votes needed to pass most resolutions in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada.

The "Orange Revolution" has prompted numerous defections from previously pro-Yanukovych parliamentary caucuses, but these defectors -- who include a group of some 50 nonaligned deputies -- need yet to be effectively courted by Yushchenko. Still, even absolute success would translate into a total of 200 votes rather than the required 226. Yushchenko must therefore draw at least two other minor parliamentary groups into his camp in order to form a new government on solid footing. Presumably, such parliamentary maneuvers will lead to offers of government posts to people who appear distant from the ideals of the "Orange Revolution" -- or even who stood by his rival's side when the revolution was taking place.

Choosing a prime minister is a difficult problem, too. Yuliya Tymoshenko has made little secret of her willingness to accept the job. The same applies to lawmaker and businessman Petro Poroshenko, who supported Yushchenko's "Orange Revolution" both financially and propagandistically (Poroshenko owns the Channel 5 television station that took much of the credit for having promoted Yushchenko's presidential bid consistently throughout the campaign).

Tymoshenko is widely perceived as a radical and a bitter enemy of pro-Kuchma oligarchs, so her potential premiership could exacerbate tense relations between Yushchenko and the deep-pocketed elements from eastern Ukraine who supported Yanukovych and control a hefty segment of the national economy. Poroshenko is seen as a moderate in comparison to Tymoshenko, but his strong business connections arguably weaken his credibility as a fair-minded political dealer in the post-Kuchma era.

Yushchenko might indeed decide on a less colorful, less controversial, and less politically known than Tymoshenko or Poroshenko for the job of prime minister.

On the other hand, Yushchenko during his presidency will certainly face strong opposition from the political camp of his presidential rival, outgoing Prime Minister Yanukovych. Some 12.8 million Ukrainians voted for Yanukovych on 26 December, and his defeat appears to have inflicted a sort of personal trauma on many of them. The 2004 presidential election has doubtless made Yanukovych a natural opposition leader in Ukraine.

Yanukovych leads the Donetsk-based Party of Regions, which draws its support primarily in Ukraine's eastern and southern regions. But this regional party has every chance to become a major national player after the 2006 parliamentary elections, which are to be held under a fully proportional party-list system and a 3 percent threshold to qualify for parliamentary representation.

The Kyiv-based Razumkov Center conducted two interesting polls recently, one from 6-9 December and the other from 14-19 December, on voter preference on a hypothetical parliamentary ballot. The first poll offered respondents a list of 20 parties, while the other presented the same list of parties with the names of their leaders attached. The first poll found that just four parties -- Our Ukraine (with 28.8 percent backing), Yanukovych's Party of Regions (14.5 percent), Petro Symonenko's Communist Party (6 percent), and Oleksandr Moroz's Socialist Party (4.5 percent) -- could count on overcoming the 3-percent barrier in the current environment.

But the second poll -- with a list of parties and their political leaders -- painted a somewhat different picture. It suggested that six parties would have deputies in the Verkhovna Rada: Party of Regions-Viktor Yanukovych (20.5 percent backing); Our Ukraine-Viktor Pynzenyk (17.1 percent); Socialist Party-Oleksandr Moroz (8 percent); Fatherland Party-Yuliya Tymoshenko (6.7 percent); Communist Party-Petro Symonenko (6.2 percent); and the Popular Agrarian Party-Volodymyr Lytvyn (3.5 percent).

First, the Razumkov Center's December polls highlighted the crucial role of leaders in Ukrainian politics: Party stripes do not appear to be of paramount importance to Ukrainian voters.

Second, the polls disclosed a startling and little-known reality: that the Our Ukraine "brand" belongs legally not to Yushchenko but to his political ally, Viktor Pynzenyk. Pynzenyk appears to have managed to re-register his former group -- the Reforms and Order Party -- with the Justice Ministry under the name of Our Ukraine while everyone else from Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc was busy preparing and implementing the "Orange Revolution."

The "appropriation" by Pynzenyk of the Our Ukraine name could became an additional source of political grief for Yushchenko in 2005, after he forms a new government and starts to think about securing political support for himself in the 2006 legislative elections. It is highly unlikely that other parties from the Yushchenko camp would be delighted either to allow Pynzenyk to participate in the election under the victorious bloc so closely associated with the "Orange Revolution" or to agree to field their candidates on Pynzenyk's party ticket. Besides, as the polls suggested, support for Our Ukraine might be significantly lower once voters realize the astounding fact that the Our Ukraine party is not run by Yushchenko.

In other words, Yushchenko should perhaps be as mindful of his allies in 2005 as of his opponents. It is still unclear which side cause him greater troubles.

AFGHANISTAN PLANS TO HANDLE ITS OWN SECURITY
In his first news conference since being named defense minister, General Abdul Rahim Wardak said in Kabul on 29 December that the Afghan National Army must be capable of carrying out its missions "without the cooperation of ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] and the [U.S.-led] coalition forces," Radio Afghanistan reported. Wardak said that it will take two years to reach the goal of having 70,000 National Army personnel, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 29 December. Wardak said he plans to complete the UN-sponsored Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program by the end of March 2005. However, according to Wardak, until the National Army's ground and air forces reach their full operational capacity, no exact date can be set for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, Afghan Voice Agency reported on 29 December. Afghan officials have said that about 60 percent of the heavy weapons possessed by various armed groups have been collected under the DDR program. If the new Afghan government succeeds in disarming the militias, it would eliminate one of the greatest threats to the state's ability to exercise its power throughout the country. AT

AFGHAN DEPUTY MINISTER RESIGNS TO PROTEST AGAINST CENSORSHIP
Deputy Information and Culture Minister Abdul Hamid Mobarez confirmed in an interview on 29 December with Kabul daily "Arman-e Melli" that he has handed in his resignation. "I am against the censorship exercised by the minister on the media," he said. "I can never agree with Dr. [Sayyed Makhdum] Rahin's censorship and anticultural activities," Mobarez told the daily, without elaborating further. According to "Arman-e Melli," the differences between Mobarez and his boss are not just about Rahin's "inclination toward censorship and interference in media affairs" and that there are "other contentious issues between them." The newspaper did not mention what these issues might be. Rahin, who until recently championed freedom of the media, in November backed a call by the Supreme Court to ban cable-television broadcasts. There was speculation at the time that Rahin was championing a conservative stance in an effort to secure a place in the Afghan cabinet (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 18 November 2004). Previous reports also suggested that Mobarez would be replacing Rahin as minister of information and culture, but Rahin retained his position in the new cabinet. AT

SENIOR AFGHAN FINANCE MINISTRY OFFICIALS REPORTEDLY RESIGN
According to an unidentified senior official in the Afghan Finance Ministry, four officials have resigned from their positions following the appointment of Anwar al-Haq Ahadi as finance minister, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 29 December. The officials are listed as: Abdul Salam Rahimi, a deputy minister; Gholam Jailani Popal, head of customs; Sima Ghani, head of budget department; and Nargis Nagahan, head of cashiers. Aziz Shams, a spokesman for the Finance Ministry, confirmed the resignations of Ghani and Nagahan, but said that Rahimi and Popal, while absent from their offices, will return to work soon. "The way of working and the principles will change with the new appointment, and the [new] minister will have his own polices," Ghani told reporters. "I perhaps will not agree with that, so I have decided to step down." The report does not indicate if there is a family relationship between former Finance Minster Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Sima Ghani. AT

COUNCIL OF AFGHAN RELIGIOUS SCHOLARS CONDEMNS USE OF ALCOHOL AND DRUGS
The Ulema Council of the southeastern Paktiya Province issued a declaration on 29 December demanding a stop to the cultivation of opium poppies and the consumption of alcohol, Radio Afghanistan reported. Since "narcotics are prohibited by the sacred religion of Islam and the [Afghan] Constitution," the Ulema Council "makes an urgent appeal to the brave and religion-loving Muslims of Paktiya to stop cultivating them and dealing in them," the declaration stated. The council also declared that the Koran has "clearly prohibited" consumption of alcohol, which according to the declaration is the "mother of all narcotics." Therefore, "Muslims must definitely abstain from importing, selling, and drinking it." The declaration "once again" asked Muslim citizens of Afghanistan to "abstain from immorality and not to watch or sell immoral films." As Afghanistan's opium cultivation reached new records in 2004, some antidrug agencies have considered using Islam as a way to curb the problem ("RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 1 September, 18 November, and 3 December 2004). However, Islamic scholars voicing their opinions on narcotics would also likely oppose alcohol and films they deem inappropriate, a scenario that could be used as a pretense to ban cable and satellite broadcasting. AT

FIRST REFORMIST ANNOUNCES CANDIDACY FOR IRANIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIPP) Secretary-General Mohammad Reza Khatami announced on 25 December that Mustafa Moin is the organization's candidate for the next presidential election, IRNA reported. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh announced on 15 November that Moin had agreed to be a presidential candidate, but until now Moin has refused to make a commitment (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 November and 14 December 2004). According to Radio Farda on 29 December and IRNA on 28 December, Moin believes that hopelessness and frustration among the country's young people gives him no other option but to run for president. Reformist organizations are not united on Moin as a candidate. Acknowledging this, Khatami said on 25 December that "in the run-up to the presidential election, we see a flurry of activities of political parties to introduce a candidate," IRNA reported. "It is natural for every political party to have a candidate to give the people the chance of free choice." BS

POSSIBLE INDEPENDENT CANDIDATE SPEAKS OUT
Supreme National Security Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said in the 27 December "Farhang-i Ashti" newspaper that he will run as an independent presidential candidate if the fundamentalist conservatives do not back him. Rezai said that the government he has in mind would continue its values-oriented conduct and would act democratically. He explained that an authoritative government that is not democratic would lead to a closed political atmosphere. According to a 26 December report by Iranian state television, the Welfare Party has announced that Rezai is its candidate. BS

FORMER IRANIAN PRESIDENT REMAINS AN ELECTORAL WILD CARD
Legislator Elias Naderan, a member of the Islamic Iran Developers Council (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami), denounced a number of the country's top officials in a 29 December speech, ILNA reported. The sharpest reaction was to his comments about Expediency Council Chairman and former President Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Parliamentarian Ismail Gerami-Moghaddam said the legislature is not a platform for electioneering, and other legislators said parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel should stop the speech. Haddad-Adel, who also is in the Developers Council, refused to act. A conservative legislator subsequently yelled "American" in an apparent reference to Hashemi-Rafsanjani's predilections, and the session turned chaotic. Mines and Industries Minister Ishaq Jahangiri said on 26 December that Hashemi-Rafsanjani will participate in the presidential election and that he is capable of running the country, state television and Mehr News Agency reported. Jahangiri, who served in the Hashemi-Rafsanjani cabinet and is a member of the centrist-pragmatic Executives of Construction Party, predicted that a Rafsanjani candidacy would have a profound impact on other parties' election strategies. BS

SPECIALISTS ASSOCIATION DIVIDED ON WHO TO BACK IN IRANIAN PRESIDENT ELECTION
Iran Specialists Association (Majma-yi Motakhasesan-i Iran) Secretary-General Reza Zavarei's support for Hashemi-Rafsanjani has upset members of the organization, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 25 December (Zavarei previously announced that he wanted to be a candidate; see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 20 December 2004). Mohammad Ali Izadi, who is a member of the association's central council, has announced that he is qualified to be a presidential candidate because of his personal courage and capabilities. If elected, he said, he would reduce the size of government, reform the economy in line with social-welfare requirements, and provide greater support for the private sector. BS

SUPREME LEADER CALLS FOR HASTE IN BAM RECONSTRUCTION
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met on 29 December with Mohammad Saidi-Kia, director of the Housing Foundation and the chairman of the Headquarters for Rebuilding Bam, a historically significant city in southeastern Iran that was struck by a major earthquake on 26 December 2003, Mehr News Agency and IRNA reported. Khamenei expressed the hope that the city's heritage and traditions will be preserved during reconstruction, while the buildings should be reinforced. He expressed his pleasure at the involvement of local residents in the reconstruction process, and he said cultural institutions should endeavor to boost locals' morale. Khamenei also noted that locals expect the speedy completion of the work. BS

U.S. FORCES BATTLE INSURGENTS IN MOSUL
At least 26 people, including one U.S. soldier, have been killed in fighting between U.S. troops and Iraqi insurgents in the northern city of Mosul, international news agencies reported on 30 December. The fresh fighting began after militants detonated a car bomb near a U.S. outpost, AP reported, citing U.S. military spokesman Staff Sergeant Don Dees. When reinforcements arrived, according to Dees, they came under fire by automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Following the attacks, the U.S. military called in air strikes, killing at least 25 guerillas. One U.S. soldier was killed and 15 were wounded in the clashes, AP reported. The fighting in Mosul came as U.S. forces launched a new offensive in the so-called "triangle of death" south of Baghdad. Brigadier General Jeffery Hammond, assistant commander of the 1st Cavalry Division that controls Baghdad, said U.S. troops were focusing on areas around the town of Al-Mahmudiyah, 40 kilometers south of the capital. BW

MILITANT GROUP THREATENS TO ATTACK POLLING STATIONS
The Army of Ansar Al-Sunnah has threatened to attack polling stations during Iraq's 30 January election, AP reported on 29 December. The group also said in a statement posted on its website that it is imposing what it called a three-day "curfew" beginning on 30 December. "We warn all against participating in the elections that will take place in Iraq, because all polling stations and those present in them will be targeted by the valiant soldiers of Allah," AP quoted the statement as saying. The group said it was imposing the curfew to avoid harming unarmed people while the militants fight "crusaders." Army of Ansar al-Sunnah has claimed responsibility for a 21 December attack on a U.S. Army base in Mosul that killed 22 people, including 14 U.S. troops (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2004). BW

DOZENS KILLED AFTER INSURGENTS LURE POLICE INTO BOOBY-TRAPPED HOUSE IN BAGHDAD
At least 29 people died and 18 were wounded after militants lured police to a house in west Baghdad with an anonymous tip about a rebel hideout and then set off explosives, international news agencies reported on 29 December. Insurgents set off the blast as police were about to enter late on 28 December, AP reported the next day. The U.S. military said on 29 December that between 320 and 360 kilograms of explosives appeared to have been used in the attack, which leveled the house the police were entering as well as 10 neighboring homes. Seven policemen were among the estimated 29 dead, AP reported. BW

TWO AL-ZARQAWI AIDES ARRESTED IN IRAQ
Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops arrested two senior aides to terrorist leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi on 29 December, international news agencies reported the same day. Abu Marwan, believed to be in charge of supplies and weapons for the insurgency, was arrested in the northern city of Mosul, while Reda Bazyani, responsible for communications, was arrested in Baghdad, Deputy Prime Minister for National Security Barham Ahmad Salih said, according to AP. Salih also said that Saddam Hussein will likely stand trial in early 2005. "Concerning Saddam, I think that he will be tried at the beginning of next year," Salih told reporters, according to AP. "The process of gathering evidence and witnesses is ongoing.... The list of accusations against Saddam is long." BW

IRAQI NATIONAL GUARD, ARMY TO MERGE
Iraq plans to merge its National Guard with the New Iraqi Army early next year, Reuters reported on 29 December, citing the Defense Minister Hazim Sha'lan al-Khuza'i. The merger will take place on 6 December. The National Guard, the force in the front line of the war on insurgents, has more than 40,000 troops, while the Iraqi Army has about one-tenth of that number, Reuters reported, citing data the U.S. military provided to the United Nations. It was not clear what the merged force would be called. BW

MASS GRAVE UNCOVERED IN NORTHERN IRAQ
While digging the foundation for a new hospital, workers in northern Iraq uncovered a mass grave containing approximately 60 bodies believed to be Kurds killed by Saddam Hussein's regime following the 1991 Gulf War, AFP reported on 29 December. "They found the remains of six bodies and we think the grave contains about 60 bodies," Kurdish regional Human Rights Minister Salah Rashid said, adding that the grave was found in the Dabashan district of Al-Sulaymaniyah. A total of 259 mass graves containing 300,000 bodies have been discovered since U.S.-led forces overthrew Hussein's regime in April 2003, according to AFP. BW

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