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Newsline - September 7, 2005

Pro-Kremlin political analysts have suggested that the Russian government is under threat of a possible oligarchic coup by tycoons who wielded influence during the era of former President Boris Yeltsin, and "Vremya novostei" reported on 7 September. Sergei Markov, the head of Political Research Institute, warned that the Yeltsin-era oligarchs could join forces with what he described as leftist radicals, and that the Russian government needs to create a powerful coalition to counter the influence of such oligarchs. Two other analysts, Valerii Khomyakov of the National Strategy Institute and Maksim Dianov of the Regional Problems Institute, said Alfa Group head Mikhail Fridman could head the "hypothetic oligarchic junta," the daily newspaper "Vremya novostei" reported on 7 September. BW

President Vladimir Putin denied on 5 September that the Kremlin has created a new class of pliant oligarchs, but he acknowledged that corruption continues to plague Russia, reported. State-controlled gas giant Gazprom is headed by Putin's chief of staff, Dmitrii Medvedev, and state-owned oil company Rosneft is led by Medvedev's deputy, Igor Sechin. Both are aggressively expanding their businesses in line with a Kremlin drive to cement control over Russia's oil sector. At a meeting with Western academics and journalists on 5 September, Putin dismissed suggestions that such officials belong to a new oligarchy. "They don't own shares in these companies, [and] they don't receive dividends from them or salaries," RIA-Novosti quoted Putin as saying. BW

State Duma Deputy Aleksandr Khinshtein (Unified Russia) has leveled new corruption allegations against former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Russian news agencies reported on 5 September. Khinshtein, who is also an investigative journalist, said Kasyanov purchased a 4.7-hectare plot in the village of Usovo in Moscow Oblast for 4.5 million rubles ($158,000) in July 2004. Khinstein claimed that Kasyanov bought the land for $33 per 0.01 hectare (100 square meters), compared with a prevailing market price of $50,000. "This plot of land was either a bribe given to Kasyanov for some favors or its value was deliberately understated to evade taxes," Khinshtein charged. Kasyanov, who is under investigation for other real-estate deals, returned to Moscow on 29 August from an extended vacation on the French Riviera (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11, 12, 13, and 18 July and 30 August 2005). BW

Duma Deputy Khinshtein also alleged that members of the staff of Alfa-Bank were linked to Kasyanov's alleged real-estate purchases, RIA-Novosti reported on 5 September. "All firms that took part in the auction [of the country house] were directly or indirectly linked to a particular oligarchic holding," Khinstein said. "All representatives of firms at the auction were current or former staff of Alfa-Bank." BW

The Russian Foreign Ministry said that Ukraine's decision to hold court proceedings in the Ukrainian language will "infringe on the rights of nearly 20 million ethnic Russians" in the country, ITAR-TASS reported on 6 September. "This means denying a chance to effective juridical protection to ethnic Russians, who make up 40 percent of Ukraine's population," the ministry said in a statement released the same day. "The meaning of legal terms is hard to grasp when they are spoken in a language other than the mother tongue of the one standing trial." The Russian Foreign Ministry called the decision "part of the unsavory campaign regarding the Russian language in Ukraine." BW

President Putin on 5 September announced new planned investments in health care, education, and accessible housing to "significantly raise the quality of life of Russian citizens," Russian media reported. In a Kremlin speech to government ministers, legislative leaders, and members of the State Council presidium, Putin promised to increase monthly salaries of nurses by 5,000 rubles ($177) and salaries of doctors by 10,000 rubles in 2006. He also pledged to upgrade diagnostic equipment at 10,000 health clinics, more than one-third of them in rural areas, during the next two years. As for education, Putin pledged to increase grants for students and wages for young specialists in the sciences. He vowed that by 2008, the number of schools with Internet access will rise to 30,000, which would represent about half of all Russian schools (currently only about 10,000 schools have Internet access). He also promised that 10,000 of Russia's best teachers will receive an annual bonus of 100,000 rubles. Putin called for increasing the rate of housing construction and for new government policies and subsidies to make mortgages more accessible to the public. LB

During his address to political leaders, Putin emphasized that it is important to stick to the parameters in the government's draft 2006 budget, so as not to increase inflation, Russian media reported on 5 September. His speech did not specify the cost of his proposals, but Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov announced soon after the event that the programs would cost at least 100 billion rubles ($3.54 billion) in 2006 alone. Gryzlov predicted that the government and parliament will find ways to fund the social projects outlined by Putin without changing the general budget parameters for revenues and spending, Russian Television (RTR) reported. According to presidential adviser Arkadii Dvorkovich, the programs Putin enumerated will cost approximately 115 billion rubles, "plus or minus 5 billion rubles," in 2006 and perhaps more in 2007 and 2008, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 6 September. Speaking to Russian television networks, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref insisted that the new social spending will not lead to an inflationary spike. In contrast, "Izvestiya" on 6 September quoted Kaliningrad Mayor Yurii Savenko as warning that inflation tends to be linked to the wages that doctors and teachers receive. LB

While members of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party praised Putin's speech, other politicians expressed doubts that the government will fulfill Putin's promises. Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii complained that the government is still projecting a huge budget surplus and does not want to spend money on solving social problems, RTR reported on 5 September. Communist Party of the Russian Federation leader Gennadii Zyuganov argued that the draft 2006 budget is a "cover" rather than the type of "development budget" long advocated by the left opposition, RTR reported. Zyuganov criticized the lack of planned investments in industrial sectors including aviation, machine-building, and automobile and tractor construction. Yabloko Deputy Chairman Sergei Mitrokhin said it is too early to talk about a new policy course, because "in recent years the president has said a lot in his addresses, about very correct and useful things" that have never been implemented, "Izvestiya" reported on 6 September. Similarly, Russian television networks on 5 September quoted Motherland leader Dmitrii Rogozin as saying, "We know full well that none of this will be done until [Putin] replaces this government entirely." LB

Several Russian newspapers on 6 September characterized Putin's speech on new social policies the previous day as a campaign strategy to aid his supporters in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2007 and the presidential race scheduled for 2008. "Gazeta" noted that the Kremlin had proposed "national projects" of modernizing health care and education, and creating a market for affordable housing as early as the summer of 2003. Putin's speech declaring such proposals a top priority is tantamount to an "election platform" aimed at preventing an "Orange Revolution" in Russia like the one that led to a transfer of power in Ukraine, the daily argued. "Gazeta" also quoted Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov as saying it is "very important to improve the social condition of citizens by 2007." Similar assessments appeared in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and "Kommersant-Daily." Boris Makarenko, deputy general director of the Center for Political Technologies, agreed that plans to raise salaries for large segments of the population are directly related to the coming election cycle, even though it is still two years away, REN-TV reported on 5 September. LB

Ivan Starikov, secretary of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) federal political council, will manage jailed businessman Mikhail Khodorkovskii's campaign for a State Duma seat in Moscow, Russian news agencies reported on 5 September. The former head of the Yukos oil company, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in May, has the right to run in the December by-election because he has appealed his conviction, which therefore has not entered into legal force. Starikov said that if election officials refuse to register Khodorkovskii as a candidate, his campaign will organize a "popular election" on the Internet. Both Starikov and former television journalist Sergei Dorenko said on 5 September that a committee backing Khodorkovskii's candidacy will also encourage supporters to write in the businessman's name on their paper ballots, even if he is not registered. However, Russian ballots do not contain lines for voters to write in choices. Meanwhile, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 2 September quoted Starikov as saying that several unnamed, leading public-relations firms have expressed the desire to work for Khodorkovskii's campaign. He said a tender will be held to select a company to flesh out Khodorkovskii's campaign strategy. LB

The Gazprom-Media holding company has purchased a controlling stake in the weekly "Peterburgskii Chas pik" for an undisclosed sum, "Vedomosti" reported on 5 September, quoting the weekly's new general director, Aleksei Turchenko. An unnamed source at the newspaper told "Vedomosti" that Gazprom-Media acquired 70 percent of "Chas pik" shares, while a Gazprom-Media subsidiary called Aura now owns the other 30 percent. A St. Petersburg-based consultant, Kirill Nikolaev, told "Vedomosti" that the deal was likely politically motivated. Nikolaev said that Gazprom-Media could have purchased larger-circulation publications if the holding company were primarily interested in gaining market share in St. Petersburg. "Vedomosti" noted that before the recent deal, "Chas pik," which has been published since 1990, was the only politically oriented newspaper in the city that had not already been acquired by a large media holding company. The newspapers "Smena," "Nevskoe vremya," Vechernii Peterburg," and "Vechernee vremya" all belong to Oleg Rudnov's Baltic Media Group. An unnamed media expert quoted by "Vedomosti" said that Rudnov's holding company has close ties to Gazprom. LB

OSCE Chairman in Office and Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel met in Yerevan on 5 September with Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and the following day with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Speaking at a joint press conference with Oskanian on 6 September, Rupelj expressed optimism that a formal agreement resolving the Karabakh conflict could be signed by the end of this year. He said there are signs that Armenia and Azerbaijan are narrowing their differences on key issues and, referring to his talks in Baku the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 September 2005), he suggested that the two sides might find a way to reconcile the principles of the inviolability of territorial integrity (of Azerbaijan) and the right to self-determination (for the population of the NKR). Oskanian confirmed that "common ground between the parties is visible," but he warned at the same time that "the devil is in the details," and that he and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov could find themselves facing "serious obstacles" when they begin elaborating on unspecified "principles" on which agreement has apparently already been reached. LF

Nagorno-Karabakh Republic President Ghukasian told journalists after his talks with Rupelj on 5 September that he considers it unlikely that a peace agreement will be signed before the end of this year, Noyan Tapan reported. At the same time, he characterized as an encouraging sign Azerbaijan's apparent willingness to consider holding a referendum on Nagorno-Karabakh's future status. He signaled that Stepanakert is willing to agree to unpopular concessions but that Azerbaijan must also be ready for such concessions. Ghukasian also argued, as he has consistently done, that Nagorno-Karabakh should participate in OSCE-mediated talks on resolving the conflict. He said the ongoing series of meetings between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are no substitute for such three-way talks. Asked if the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic would agree to a status that is marginally less than independence, Ghukasian said he "cannot imagine that option -- it is the same as being a little bit pregnant," according to Pan Armenian News as cited by Groong. LF

The Prosecutor-General's Office has issued orders to the Interior Minister to arrest Ayaz Mutalibov should he return to Baku to participate in the 6 November parliamentary ballot, reported on 7 September. On 5 September, the Central Election Commission registered Mutalibov, who has lived in Moscow since May 1992, as a candidate for the opposition Yeni Siyaset bloc in Baku's Yasamal Raion, Turan reported. Prosecutors have stripped Mutalibov of the immunity from prosecution to which parliamentary candidates are otherwise entitled. The Prosecutor-General's Office noted that a court ruled in May 2003 that Mutalibov is liable for prosecution for his imputed role in the Soviet military intervention in Baku in January 1990 and for other offenses including terrorism, forming an illegal armed group, abuse of power, and failing to prevent a series of Armenian military victories in the Karabakh war in early 1992. Mutalibov's application to register as a candidate in the 2003 presidential ballot was rejected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 July 2003). LF

Seven members of the opposition youth organization Yeni Fikir abandoned on 6 September the hunger strike they began on 30 August to protest reprisals in the wake of the arrest of the organization's leader Ruslan Bashirli, Turan reported. One of the hunger strikers was hospitalized on 5 September. Yeni Fikir Deputy Chairman Said Nuriev was quoted by the online daily on 7 September as saying that the hunger strike proved successful in that the authorities have stopped harassing the organization's members. Bashirli was arrested in early August and has been charged with conspiring with Armenian secret services to destabilize the political situation in Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 15 August 2005). LF

Majoritarian parliamentary faction leader Beso Djugheli called at a parliament bureau meting on 6 September for an emergency debate on the sharp rise in oil and gasoline prices, Caucasus Press reported. The previous day, Vano Mtvralishvili, who is chairman of the Union of Importers, Producers, and Consumers of Oil Products, told journalists his union has asked the government to exempt diesel fuel from excise duty and to cut by 50 percent the excise duty on gasoline, Caucasus Press reported. Gasoline prices in Georgia have risen by 30 percent in recent days, to 1.85 laris ($1.03) per liter. The Georgian government imports gasoline from Europe, as the quality of Azerbaijani gasoline is considered unacceptably low. LF

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Almaty on 6 September, Kazinform reported the next day. In the course of the meeting, Clinton and Kazakh Health Minister Erbolat Dosaev signed a memorandum for Kazakhstan to join the Clinton Foundation's HIV/AIDS Initiative, which will allow Kazakhstan to purchase high-quality medical supplies to treat the disease. Clinton, who is currently gathering donations to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, asked Kazakhstan for assistance. President Nazarbaev stated that Kazakhstan's government will contribute to the assistance effort. "Let this be a symbol that will show the American people that the people of Kazakhstan have not remained on the sidelines," he said. Clinton also commented on Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. "It is an important decision that Kazakhstan will put forward its candidacy to chair the OSCE in 2009," Clinton said. "I think that for your country the time has come and that it is ready for this." DK

Former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev was arrested while attempting to leave Kyrgyzstan on 6 September, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The Prosecutor-General's Office released a statement saying that Tanaev, who is under investigation on corruption charges, was arrested because his attempt to leave the country represented a violation of the terms of his recent release after answering prosecutors' questions in Bishkek on his case (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 August 2005). Maksim Maksimovich, a lawyer representing Tanaev, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the incident was the result of a misunderstanding. "[Tanayev] didn't intend to hide from anybody. His only mistake was that he didn't inform the investigator," Maksimovich said. "He had to go to Almaty for one or two days to settle some personal matters. He didn't even have anything with him." quoted Maksimovich as saying that Tanaev was brought to the National Security Service after his arrest. DK

One day after an Uzbek commission heard a report charging that religious extremists used bases in Kyrgyzstan to prepare for 12-13 May violence in Andijon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 September 2005), Kyrgyzstan's acting defense minister and Security Council deputy chairman responded with denials, Kabar and RFE/RL's Kyrgyz service reported on 6 September. "Nobody was trained by any extremist groups or instructors on the territory of Kyrgyzstan [for alleged terrorist activities], and there is no such opportunity [for such groups] in the country," acting Defense Minister Ismail Isakov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "Therefore the accusations [by Uzbek prosecutors] are baseless. We think that they are trying to blame somebody else for their own bad work." Security Council Deputy Secretary Vyacheslav Khan called the Uzbek allegations unfounded, Kabar reported. "If the Uzbek side provides any evidence, we are ready to consider it," Khan added. DK

Italian businessman Giorgio Fiacconi was arrested in Bishkek on 5 September, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported the next day. Financial Police Director Kasein Tokochbaev told that tax evasion and other criminal charges were filed against Fiacconi three months ago, explaining that Fiacconi was arrested when he violated the terms of his current release by trying to leave the country. "He has a translator and a lawyer," Tokochbaev added. "While the investigation is continuing, I can't give you details." Edil Baisalov, who heads the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, criticized the move as misguided and detrimental to future foreign investment, reported. "Instead of shutting down criminal elements and organized crime, our law-enforcement authorities are scaring off the last investors and putting Western businessmen in jail," Baisalov commented. DK

Sohib Sulaymonov, an investigator in the Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office, has announced that Tajik police have arrested eight members of an armed group with suspected ties to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 2 September. Sulaymonov said that one member of the group blew himself up as police carried out a special operation in Dushanbe to arrest the individuals. Those arrested included Bakhtiyor Amonboev, an Uzbek citizen described as the group's leader. Sulaymonov claimed that the group has been active in Dushanbe for at least three years and has committed numerous crimes, including murder. The group's aim in Tajikistan was allegedly to conduct military training and recruitment. Investigators also discovered an arms cache in Jirgatol District, in eastern Tajikistan, that concealed 1.5 tons of weapons and explosives. DK

Alyaksandr Lukashenka said at a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov in Minsk on 6 September that he has agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to make radical progress during their upcoming meeting in November toward the development of the Russian-Belarus Union, Belapan reported. According to Lukashenka, his November meeting with Putin will be "significant, momentous, and landmark, particularly in furthering our unity." "We have agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin that in November we will cardinally further the resolution of issues connected with the Constitutional Act of the union state," Lukashenka added. Meanwhile, Fradkov said in Minsk that the two countries will not switch to a common currency in January, as previously planned. "Only a few months are left, and we cannot do that technically," ITAR-TASS quoted Fradkov as saying. JM

Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka told journalists in Minsk on 6 September that Belarus expects Russia to maintain its price for gas to Belarus next year, ITAR-TASS reported. Russia currently exports gas to Belarus at $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters. However, following a meeting with President Lukashenka in Minsk on 6 September, Russian Prime Minister Fradkov said Russia will grant Belarus a credit of $146 million to help Minsk pay for Russian gas in 2006 in connection with a price increase. Fradkov did not say how large this increase might be. Last year, Russia's Gazprom raised the gas price for Belarus from $30 to $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters, while the Russian government gave Minsk a credit of $175 million to compensate for that price hike. President Lukashenka asserted in April, following his meeting with Putin, that the Russian president had pledged to leave the Russian gas price for Belarus in 2006 at the 2005 level (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 8 April 2005). JM

President Viktor Yushchenko chaired an eight-hour meeting of the National Security and Defense Council (NRBO) in Kyiv on 6 September, Ukrainian media reported. The meeting, attended by high-ranking state officials, followed last week's resignation of Oleksandr Zinchenko, chief of the presidential staff, who on 5 September accused several officials in the president's inner circle of corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 September 2005). Presidential spokeswoman Iryna Herashchenko told journalists after the meeting that "there is no crisis within the authorities." "The important, frank, and tough conversation centered on the need to optimize the work of all branches of power and also the need to consolidate the action of the team in power," Inter TV quoted her as saying. Meanwhile, NRBO Secretary Petro Poroshenko, one of the officials accused by Zinchenko of corruption, told journalists on 6 September that he has requested that law-enforcement bodies investigate Zinchenko's allegations. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on 6 September began it autumn session, Ukrainian media reported. Communist Party deputies blocked the parliamentary rostrum, protesting the postponed discussion over bills proposed by the government to facilitate Ukraine's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The parliament managed to adopt several WTO-oriented bill before its summer recess, although the Communist Party caucus attempted to block the debates by provoking scuffles and sounding sirens in the session hall (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 July 2005). On 6 September, the Verkhovna Rada reportedly managed to pass a bill on bringing Ukraine's food quality and safety regulations in line with WTO requirements. JM

Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic said in Belgrade on 6 September that officials of Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Ministry headed by Prvoslav Davinic continue to deny his investigators access to documents relating to the controversial $370 million equipment deal between the ministry and the Mile Dragic company in Zrenjanin, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 and 6 September 2005). Dinkic added that Serbian tax police have nonetheless determined that the company overcharged the government some $100 million more than the firm's usual prices. For example, he noted, Mile Dragic billed the ministry $312 per helmet instead of the usual $206, and $2,121 per flak jacket rather than $780. Elsewhere, the Mile Dragic company denied that the charges it agreed with the ministry were excessive. PM

Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said in Podgorica on 6 September that Serbian Finance Minister Dinkic is wrong in asserting that the Mile Dragic deal was largely the work of Montenegrin officials in the joint state's Defense Ministry, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Djukanovic said that Dinkic used a "tired argument" in suggesting that Montenegrins enjoy parity with Serbs in decision making in the ministry even though Serbia pays nearly 95 percent of the costs. Meanwhile in Belgrade, Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus, who heads the G-17 Plus party to which Dinkic belongs and which recently expelled Davinic, denied recent charges by Djukanovic that the Davinic affair amounts to an attempt by Serbia to take control of the joint state's institutions. Elsewhere, the opposition Serbian Radical Party (SRS) called for an investigation of the affair by the joint state's parliament. PM

Representatives of the Montenegrin opposition and some NGOs charged the government of Prime Minister Djukanovic on 6 September with attempting a cover-up in the murder case of Slavoljub Scekic, who was a top police official, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 August, and 2 and 6 September 2005). The opposition Socialist People's Party (SNP) said that the "mafia is taking over the state." The SNP also argued that Djukanovic has previously admitted that criminal clans exist in Montenegro, but has "forgotten" that they are deeply imbedded in part of "his regime under his protection." Elsewhere, Djukanovic said that he is not concerned for his safety and stressed his determination to press ahead in the war on organized crime. PM

The parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Croat-Muslim federation voted on 6 September to endorse the formation of a joint army and Defense Ministry for all three ethnic groups of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is a prerequisite if that country wants to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 August 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 26 August 2005). The Bosnian Serb parliament recently approved a similar measure, and the next step is for Bosnia-Herzegovina's Council of Ministers to prepare a new defense law and budget. Critics across Bosnia say the reform does not go far enough because it will allow each ethnic group to have a veto over the affairs of the joint military through the joint Presidency, which acts as supreme commander. Critics also note that there will be three separate brigades and command centers, one each based in Serbian, Muslim, and Croatian areas. Each brigade will be divided into three ethnically based battalions, each of which will in turn be linked to its ethnic counterparts in the other brigades under the name of regiment, which is supposed to be of a symbolic nature. The new army will be a volunteer force 10,000 strong, and its structures are scheduled to be in place by July 2007. PM

Paddy Ashdown, the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, announced in Sarajevo on 6 September that he is barring Bosnian officials from issuing pardons until new legislation can be passed, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He said he made his decision following the pardoning of Miroslav Prce, a former defense minister of the Croat-Muslim federation, by the federation's current president, Niko Lozancic. Both men are ethnic Croats and members of the governing Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). Ashdown noted that the Prce affair is just the tip of the iceberg, adding that every third person asking for a pardon in the federation was receiving one, as was every fifth applicant in the Republika Srpska. He said that the pardon system has become a vehicle for granting favors on the basis of political or ethnic loyalties. Ashdown noted that 142 people received pardons in Bosnia during the first eight months of this year. Elsewhere, Lozancic charged that Ashdown's decision amounts to discrimination against pardon seekers on the basis of their nationality by implying that he, as a Croat, is guilty of favoritism if he pardons Croats (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 October 2004, and 1 April and 15 July 2005). PM

Olvia Press, the official news agency of the Transdniester Moldovan Republic, reported on 7 September on preliminary results of the census held in the breakaway region from 11-18 November 2004. According to the census, Transdniester is inhabited by 555,000 people, down from 679,000 registered in the Soviet-era census in 1989. Women account for 54 percent of Transdniester's population. In terms of ethnicity, Moldovans account for 31.9 percent of the republic's population; Russians, 30.3 percent; and Ukrainians, 28.9 percent. More than 80 percent of Transdniestrians declared that they are Orthodox believers. JM

Gasoline prices in Moldova on 6 September rose by 16 percent, for diesel fuel by 6.3 percent, and for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) by 10.4 percent, Infotag reported. It marked the sixth gasoline price hike in Moldova this year, amounting to a total increase of some 52.2 percent. JM

Kosova's President Ibrahim Rugova announced on 5 September in Prishtina that U.S. military doctors have diagnosed him as having "localized lung cancer." Should he lose his fight with the disease or choose to leave office, Kosovars will be hard-pressed to find a suitable successor.

Rugova, who was hospitalized at a U.S. base near Heidelberg, Germany, from 27 August to 3 September, said in Prishtina that "with the help of God, I will overcome this battle and continue to work...for the recognition [of the independence of] our country Kosova." He did not indicate that he has considered stepping down. If he resigns or is unable to carry out his duties, parliamentary speaker Nexhat Daci of his Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) would carry out the presidential duties.

Rugova's announcement confirms what many have long suspected, namely that he has a serious medical problem that might make it difficult for him to lead Kosova through the negotiations with the international community, which are expected to start before the end of 2005. Since the late 1980s, Rugova has been the symbol of passive resistance to Serbian rule through the shadow-state he helped build up in response to former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's destruction of the province's autonomy. The Serbian leader's violent crackdown and ethnic-cleansing campaign in 1998-99 discredited pacifism among many Kosovars in favor of the militant resistance led by the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). But the Sorbonne-educated Rugova nonetheless remains a father figure to most of his countrymen.

In fact, Rugova has been their virtually unchallenged leader for the past two decades, and it is difficult to imagine anyone easily stepping forward to fill his shoes. Adem Demaci, who is known as "Kosova's Mandela" for the long years he spent in communist prisons without compromising his principles, is one of the few other people who probably enjoys almost universal respect among Kosovars. Demaci, however, is elderly, has generally shunned active politics, and might not seek or accept the post. He seems to enjoy speaking critically from outside the political establishment and would probably regard public office as a constraint on his political independence.

In any event, it would not be easy for the LDK to find a replacement for the president, and Rugova has not groomed a successor. Other prominent government leaders besides Daci include Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi of the smaller Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK), who took up that post to replace AAK founder Ramush Haradinaj. Haradinaj cannot hold office because the Hague tribunal has indicted him for war crimes.

The main opposition leaders are Hashim Thaci of the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) and publisher Veton Surroi of the relatively new ORA party. Thaci and Haradinaj have their respective political bases in different branches of the former Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). Surroi is well known both at home and abroad but lacks the sort of large power base that Rugova, Thaci, and Haradinaj have.

In fact, part of Kosova's potential leadership problem at this difficult time on the presumed eve of status talks is that the province has passed from oppressive rule from Belgrade to a semi-colonial government by the UN's civilian administration (UNMIK) without having had time to develop the kind of institutions from which new leaders might emerge, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Consequently, most politicians like Thaci or Haradinaj have their power bases rooted not in institutions but in their home regions, their clans, or their old UCK networks -- or a combination of the three.

If Rugova departs the scene, it might be possible for the parties to agree on a neutral figure like a senior university professor to succeed him, but would that person have the necessary political authority to conduct negotiations on Kosova's final status? Or might it not be time to take a different approach and select a young leader not linked to the power struggles of the 1980s and 1990s? Kosova has one of the highest birthrates in Europe and consequently a very young population. Some of those people might favor one of their own for Kosova's leadership, someone like former student leader Albin Kurti, who spent several years in Serbian prisons.

Regardless of who leads Kosova in the coming months and years, it appears headed for a prolonged troubled period even if the status question is resolved to the satisfaction of a majority of its citizens -- which, in their view, can only mean independence.

First, its elected institutions remain shaky and untested, which is a problem that has confronted many newly independent countries over the past 60 years. The only real solution to the problem, however, seems to be learning by doing.

Second, there is virtually no issue on which the 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority and the Serbian minority agree. This is bound to lead to prolonged quarrels or even violence, which Belgrade might be quick to exploit for its own political purposes.

Third, UNMIK is widely seen as discredited and having outstayed its welcome, even though KFOR and NATO continue to command the majority's respect. Because UNMIK enjoys so little credibility, any attempt to delay resolving the status issue can only make political tensions worse. Some observers have gone so far as to suggest that if violence breaks out among the ethnic Albanian population again, it might be directed not at the Serbs this time but at UNMIK and perhaps some Kosovar politicians regarded as corrupt.

U.S. and Afghan forces killed 12 suspected neo-Taliban guerrillas in fighting in southern Afghanistan's Zabul Province on 5 September, AFP reported the next day. A U.S. military statement said nine suspected insurgents were also arrested during the fighting. U.S. military officials said U.S. and Afghan troops came under fire from neo-Taliban insurgents in the area when they landed a helicopter near a suspected guerrilla hideout. "We were engaged as soon as we got off the helicopters. We returned fire and the enemy fell, one by one," said Sergeant Major Bradley Meyers, whose troops were involved in the fighting. No casualties among U.S. or Afghan troops were reported. Zabul Province spokesman Gulab Shah Alikhil put the body count among neo-Taliban fighters at 11, saying 17 were captured. MR

Pakistan has rejected claims by an Afghan government official that the bodies of two Japanese tourists were dumped in Afghanistan after having been killed in Pakistan, Indo-Asian News Service reported on 6 September. "The record with our immigration authorities at the border show that the Japanese had crossed into Afghanistan in broad daylight," said Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Muhammad Naeem Khan. Two Japanese high-school teachers traveling as tourists were discovered dead in southern Afghanistan on 5 September with gunshot wounds to the head. The had been reported missing near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border on 8 August. Kandahar Governor Assadullah Khalid had claimed the two were killed in Pakistan by attackers who carried the bodies into Afghan territory. Pakistani officials countered that the Japanese were killed after having crossed into Afghanistan at the border town of Spin Boldak. MR

Afghanistan has urged Pakistan proceed slowly in repatriating refugees, Xinhua News Agency reported on 6 September. "This is our request to the government of Pakistan -- to continue its hospitality as it did in over 2 1/2 decades and not to pressure refugees to return," said Mohammad Karim Rahimi, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Pakistan has in recent months stepped up efforts toward repatriating thousands of Afghan refugees who settled in Pakistan during years of fighting in Afghanistan. Pakistan has threatened to close or relocate refugee camps along its border with Afghanistan. "While we are grateful to the people and government of Pakistan for hosting millions of Afghan refugees in over the past 2 1/2 decades, we request them at this time to help facilitate the voluntary repatriation of remaining refugees living there," Rahimi said. MR

Speaker of parliament Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel has cancelled a trip to New York for an Interparliamentary Union meeting, Iranian state radio reported on 6 September. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi described Haddad-Adel's move as a protest against undiplomatic and insulting U.S. behavior. Haddad-Adel reportedly could not obtain a U.S. visa in time. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to visit New York for a United Nations meeting later in the month. BS

Mohammad Sadiq Kabudvand, director of the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Kurdistan, told Radio Farda on 6 September that Ismail Mohammadi was executed in Urumiyeh on 3 September. Mohammadi was arrested three years ago in Bukan for collaboration with the Kurdish independence organization Komala, and he was sentenced to death one year ago. Executed at the same time was Mohammad Panjbini, who was sentenced to death for membership in a Kurdish separatist organization. Another Kurd, Jahangir Baduzadeh, also is on death row at Urumiyeh prison, as is Mustafa Rasulpur, who was sentenced for killing an Iranian security officer. BS

Kurdistan Islamic Group leader Ali Bapir, his children, and other relatives have visited Iran, "Jamawar" reported on 6 September, citing an anonymous "well-informed source" who did not provide an exact date. Bapir reportedly met with an official from Iran's Intelligence and Security Ministry and with representatives of his own organization. BS

Masumeh Dehqan, wife of imprisoned attorney Abdolfattah Soltani, has been allowed to see him, Radio Farda reported on 5 September. Dehqan told Radio Farda that after not seeing Soltani for 37 days, she and her mother-in-law met privately with him at Evin prison for half an hour. She said Soltani knows that he is innocent of any wrongdoing, but that nobody has informed him of what is going on or how long the situation will last. Dehqan said she received permission to see her husband after meeting with Judge Said Mortazavi the previous week. She said her husband looks physically weakened. BS

A senior Iranian representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Cyrus Nasseri, is refusing to return home from Vienna because of his alleged involvement in a corruption case, Fars News Agency reported on 6 September, citing an anonymous "informed source." Nasseri is a member of the board of directors of Oriental Oil Kish, and the National Iranian Oil Company announced in August that it is suspending contracts with Oriental Oil and Halliburton in connection with allegations of bribery and corruption (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 August 2005). On 5 September, state television reported, Pars Oil and Gas Company managing director Akbar Torkan announced that Oriental Oil bribed three of his staff members. BS

The Assembly of Experts -- an elected body of 86 clerics tasked with selecting the supreme leader and supervising his performance -- began its semiannual meeting on 6 September, IRNA reported. Chairman Ayatollah Ali Meshkini extended condolences to families of victims of Hurricane Katrina, and criticized the U.S. government's treatment of the hurricane's victims. Meshkini said Iran will not forgo its legal and religious right to use nuclear technology peacefully, said Iran does not seek to develop weapons of mass destruction, and accused the United States of trying to transform the world into a village in which it is the chief. Meshkini barred the media immediately after his opening statement, Fars News Agency reported. Hojatoleslam Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi, secretary of the assembly, told state radio on 6 September that the possibility of postponing the assembly's next election, which is scheduled to take place in about one year, is not on the agenda. BS

President Jalal Talabani told Al-Iraqiyah television during a 6 September interview that former President Saddam Hussein admitted to an investigating judge from the Iraqi tribunal that he gave the order for the 1988 Al-Anfal campaign in which an estimated 100,000 Kurdish civilians were killed, and 4,000 villages destroyed. "He confessed to the Al-Anfal executions and the orders issued in his name," Talabani said. Calling Hussein a war criminal, Talabani added that the deposed president "deserves to be executed 20 times a day for his crimes against humanity." AP cited Jordan-based Hussein family lawyer Abd al-Haq al-Ani as saying on 6 September that Talabani's claims were fabricated. Al-Ani told the "Jordan Times" a day earlier that the setting of an October trial date for Hussein is "politically motivated" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 September 2005). KR

Kurdish security chief Masrur Barzani announced during a 6 September press briefing at the Pirmam summer resort that two terrorist groups have been apprehended in Irbil, reported the same day. Barzani described one group as a six-member group affiliated with Al-Qaeda; the second group consisted of three members and is affiliated with the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army. He accused the groups of attacks and the attempted killing of a number of Kurdish officers, as well as attacks on South Korean troops stationed in Irbil and for explosions near Salah Al-Din University. KR

Iraqi security forces have officially taken over responsibility for security in Al-Najaf, international media reported on 7 September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 2005). The U.S. military pulled hundreds of troops out of the Shi'ite holy city on 6 September in keeping with the scheduled handover, reported. It was the first transfer of an entire city from coalition to Iraqi hands. Lieutenant General Steve Boylan said that U.S. forces will continue to work with Iraqi troops in the city in an advisory role. KR

The U.S. military bombed two small bridges in the western Iraqi town of Al-Karabilah on 6 September as Iraqi insurgents claimed control over the nearby town of Al-Qa'im, international media reported the same day. Supporters of fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi declared Al-Qa'im the "Islamic Republic of Al-Qa'im" in banners hung at the town's entrances, reported. According to Al-Jazeera television, armed groups gained control of the town following clashes between rival tribal groups -- one in support of the insurgents and another that opposes them. U.S. and Iraqi forces are also battling insurgents north of Al-Qa'im in the town of Tal Afar. U.S. Marines have some 5,000 troops in the Al-Anbar governorate, but American officers have said it is not enough merely to bring the governorate, which also includes the volatile cities of Al-Ramadi and Al-Fallujah, under control, reported on 7 September. Insurgents kidnapped the son of the Al-Anbar Governor Ma'mun al-Alwani in Al-Ramadi, local officials told the daily on 6 September. Al-Anbar's previous governor was kidnapped in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 May 2005). He later died during a U.S. raid on the house in which he was being held. KR