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Newsline - November 4, 2005


LEBEDEV CONFIDENT SUPREME COURT WILL REVIEW SENTENCE
Former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii's business partner Platon Lebedev, the former head of the Menatep, said on 3 November that he expects the Russian Supreme Court to review his eight-year jail sentence, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. "Today I can make a simple prediction: the Russian Supreme Court cannot authorize deliberately unjust rulings of the Meshchanskii and Moscow City Courts," Lebedev's lawyers Yevgenii Baru and Konstantin Rivkin quoted their client as saying. "As a rule-of-law state, Russia cannot afford to leave illegal rulings in force. If Russia amends the constitution, and ceases to be a rule-of-law state, I will change my prediction." Since 31 October, Baru and Rivkin have been staying in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District in western Siberia where Lebedev is serving his term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 October 2005). BW

RUSSIA AND EUROPEAN UNION SIGN TRADE DEAL ON STEEL
Russia and the European Union signed an trade agreement on 3 November covering certain steel products for 2005-06, RIA-Novosti reported the same day, citing the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade. According to the agreement, Russia will supply the EU with up to 2.2 million metric tons of steel products this year, and 2.5 percent more in 2006. The two sides also agreed to further increases of steel quotas if Russia cancels export duties on waste and ferrous scrap metals. Peter Mandelson, the EU's trade chief, said the agreement will strengthen ties between the Russian and EU economies, and is a step toward abolishing all steel quotas if Russia joins the World Trade Organization. BW

FORMER PRIME MINISTER'S DAUGHTER PULLS OUT OF DUMA RACE IN FAVOR OF SATIRIST
Maria Gaidar, the daughter of former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, has withdrawn as a candidate for the State Duma to allow the popular satirist Viktor Shenderovich to run as the sole liberal, mosnews.com reported on 3 November. At a press conference on 3 November, Maria Gaidar said she thinks it is "absolutely right" that "a single democratic candidate should be elected to the 201st constituency." She said she made her decision after negotiations with Shenderovich and other interested parties. Jailed former Yukos CEO Khodorkosskii had sought to run in the Moscow district in a 4 December by-election, but was barred when the appeal of his conviction for tax evasion and fraud was rejected. BW

RUSSIA SEIZES JAPANESE FISHING BOAT, CREW
Tokyo is demanding that Russia release a Japanese fishing boat and its five-member crew, seized in disputed waters near the Kuril Islands, Russian and international news agencies reported on 4 November. "We object to the seizure by Russia in waters next to the Northern Territories," Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said, using Japan's term for the disputed region. "The government strongly demands the release of the crew members and their boat immediately," he added, according to AP. The boat and crew were seized on 2 November near Kunashiri, one of four disputed islands north of Japan's northernmost island state of Hokkaido. Russian authorities said they seized the boat because it was carrying shrimp, clams, and other kinds of fish that it was not allowed to catch, AP reported. BW

RUSSIA MARKS NEW NATIONAL HOLIDAY FOR FIRST TIME...
Russia marked its People's Unity Day holiday for the first time on 4 November, Russian and international news agencies reported the same day. The holiday replaces the 7 November celebrations that marked the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution -- renamed the Day of Accord and Reconciliation by former President Boris Yeltsin -- with one commemorating a 1612 uprising liberating the Kremlin from Polish occupants. The new holiday marks the end of the Time of Troubles, a period of chaos and strife in early 17th century Russia. A year after the 1612 uprising, Mikhail Romanov was named tsar, founding the dynasty that ruled Russia until 1917. "At that time, people of various creeds, ethnicities, and social strata united to save their homeland and to defend Russia's statehood," RIA-Novosti quoted President Vladimir Putin as saying. Alexei II, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, will lead the celebrations in Nizhnii Novgorod, northwestern Russia where the 1612 uprising began. BW

...AS ANALYSTS SAY HOLIDAY MARKS RISE OF NEW NATIONALISM
Russian analysts say the new holiday is an attempt by Putin to signal the advent of an era of stability after the chaos of the 1990s, the "Financial Times" reported on 4 November. "The new holiday equates the turmoil of the 1990s with the Time of Troubles and declares this time to be over," Andrei Zorin, a professor of Russian history at Oxford University, said. "It promises stability under the new dynasty, which reasserts its power by a show trial of one of the most powerful boyars of the previous reign -- Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- and exile of the others." Zorin added the holiday also signifies a renewal of "Russia's defensiveness toward the outside world." Several nationalist groups have marked the holiday with protests denouncing illegal migrant workers. BW

OTTO LATSIS DEAD...
One of Russia's best-known journalists, Otto Latsis, passed away on 3 November, Russian news agencies reported. Latsis, 72, never recovered from a serious car accident that he was involved in a month ago. Latsis's last place of employment, according to gazeta.ru, was "Moskovskie novosti" where he went after "Russkii kurer" closed shop. Latsis was extremely successful during the Soviet period, writing an economics column for "Izvestiya" from 1964 to 1971. However, his career at "Izvestiya" came to an abrupt end when KGB officers discovered an unpublished manuscript Latsis had written about Stalin during a search of a colleague's office. Latsis was only able to return to journalism again during the beginning of perestroika. From 1987 to 1991, he was first deputy editor of "Kommunist." When the Soviet Union fell apart, Latsis was finally able to return to "Izvestiya," where he stayed until 1997 and then started "Novye izvestiya." JAC

...FOLLOWING LONG CAREER AS CRITIC OF STALIN, PUTIN
In November 2003, Latsis was attacked near the entrance of his home and sustained a serious concussion. At the time, Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Union of Journalists, said he was not excluding the possibility that the attack was connected with Latsis's activities as a journalist (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2003). In a commentary for "Novye izvestiya" in 2002, Latsis said the era of President Putin has been characterized by a laudably liberal approach to economic policy combined with a creeping authoritarianism. He added that the "elements of fascism are already a hard fact of life [in Russia], particularly in Chechnya" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 August 2002). JAC

MEDVEDEV ESTABLISHES PARALLEL GOVERNMENT BY DECREE?
Presidential administration head Dmitrii Medvedev signed an order on 3 November on the presidium of the Council for the Realization of Priority National Projects detailing the members of the new council, lenta.ru reported. Putin ordered the founding of the more than 40 member council on 21 October for national projects to improve housing, health care, education, and agriculture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 October 2005). The presidium is composed of 17 members and includes primarily ministers and presidential-administration staff. The website gazeta.ru noted on 24 October that the council includes practically all key federal ministers - except one, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. It concluded "If the council intends to work not as a controlling body, but as an executive one, then this is already a direct duplication of the functions of government." JAC

COMMENTATOR PREDICTS PARIS-STYLE RIOTS IN RUSSIA...
Commenting on Ekho Moskvy on 3 November, political analyst Anton Orekh predicted that "something similar to the current riots in Paris's suburbs" could happen in due course in St. Petersburg or Moscow. He noted that the number of crimes committed not only by immigrants but against them "is increasing with each passing day." Orekh continued that among the many unregistered immigrants in Moscow there are many people who "find themselves in an alien environment to which they sometimes simply cannot adapt, and one that does nothing to help them adapt. So while one lot of people shouts 'Russia for Russians,' another lot quietly add 'Home is always best.'" The station conducted a five-minute telephone survey of 1,700 callers among its listeners, which found that 76 percent thought disturbances similar to those in France are quite likely. JAC

...AS NEW BOOK TRACKS HATE-CRIME TRENDS
So far in 2005, the number of murders committed on the basis of nationality has fallen -- 22 versus 25 last year, "Izvestiya" reported on 3 November, citing a new book called the "Price of Hatred: Nationalism in Russian and the Prevention of Racist Crimes." The bad news, according to the book, is that in the second half of 2005 it became harder to punish persons convicted of hate crimes. The book is the work of the Moscow-based SOVA center. In terms of race crimes, the city of Moscow led last year with 107 persons beaten or injured and six murdered. Voronezh came in second with 21 beaten or injured and two murdered. SOVA Center Deputy Director Galina Kozhevnikova admitted that the books' numbers are incomplete at best: The majority of such crimes go unreported since the victims do not want to go to the police. SOVA also noted an increase in the aggressiveness of extremists. The Movement Against Illegal Immigration now opposes not only illegal but undesirable immigration, according to the daily. JAC

MORE PRISONERS MUTILATE THEMSELVES IN PROTEST
About 60 prisoners at a prison colony in Smolensk Oblast have gone on a hunger strike to protest the beatings of inmates there, Interfax reported on 3 November, citing the Moscow-based For Human Rights NGO. According to the group, about 10 prisoners have slashed themselves on the stomach, arms, and neck. The protests follow the introduction of a special Justice Ministry task force a week earlier, whose members allegedly beat a number of prisoners who were born in the years 1980-82, according to the NGO. The Federal Prison Service confirmed on 3 November that a group of 26 individuals in one prison colony in the oblast attempted to upset the organization of "normal life" in the colony by declaring a hunger strike, according to RIA-Novosti. A small number of this group mutilated themselves, according to the service, but the situation at the colony is "calm." Earlier this year, hundreds of prisoners in Lgov, south of Moscow, mutilated themselves to protest the activities of the prison colony administration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August 2005). JAC

KOZAK ARGUES AGAINST LEGAL BAN ON WAHHABISM
Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitrii Kozak told journalists in Rostov-na-Donu on 3 November that he does not consider a legal ban on Wahhabism necessary, Interfax reported. He argued that the existing law on religious extremism empowers the Justice Ministry to take action against radical religious groups. He said true Wahhabism has nothing in common with extremism, but the concept has been adopted "as their banner" by "extremist and terrorist forces." At the same 3 November press conference, Kozak rejected as "a fantasy" the possibility that the North Caucasus could leave the Russian Federation, newsru.com reported. He said that even if unnamed figures sought to split the region from the rest of the Russian Federation, the population of 20 million would not permit it. Also on 3 November, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov met in Rostov-na-Donu with Kozak and the Federation Council representatives from the Southern Federal District, regnum.ru reported. Among the topics discussed were recommended measures to preclude the secession of the North Caucasus, according to newsru.com. LF

TWO FSB OFFICERS SHOT DEAD IN INGUSHETIA
Two Russian FSB personnel commandeered to Ingushetia were killed on 3 November when unidentified gunmen opened fire of their car in the village of Ekazhevo, Russian news agencies reported. The gunmen managed to escape. LF

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT UNFAZED OVER REFERENDUM ON CONSTITUTION
Meeting on 3 November with students and faculty at Yerevan State University, Robert Kocharian said that life will continue as before even if voters fail to endorse a package of draft constitutional amendments in a nationwide referendum on 27 November, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He added, however, that failure to endorse those changes would reflect badly on Armenia's image abroad. Kocharian singled out as particularly important the proposal that in future the mayor of Yerevan should be elected by the municipal council rather than appointed by the president, Noyan Tapan reported on 3 November. He said that direct elections for that post could destabilize the country, given that one-third of its total population lives in the capital. LF

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT SAYS ARRESTS AVERTED BLOODSHED
Ilham Aliyev told a government session on 3 November that the arrests last month of former Health Minister Ali Insanov and Economic Development Minister Farkhad Aliyev averted major unrest and possibly a civil war, Reuters reported. President Aliyev said he has no doubts that the two men were helping to fund coup d'etat planned by former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev. He called on ministers who do not agree with his policies to resign, Turan reported on 4 November. Quliyev is a registered candidate in the 6 November parliamentary election, and his supporters said late last month that he will return to Azerbaijan between 31 October and 3 November, but he has not yet done so. Meanwhile on 4 November, day.az reported that tax inspectors have registered numerous violations during inspections of gas stations belonging to the Azerpetrol group, which is headed by Farkhad Aliyev's brother Rafik. LF

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PLANS POSTELECTION PROTESTS
Isa Qambar, chairman of the opposition Musavat party -- which is aligned with Quliyev's Democratic Party of Azerbaijan and the progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) in the Azadlyq election bloc -- told journalists on 3 November he is confident Azadlyq will win the 6 November election if it is free and fair, Azerbaijani media reported. AHCP leader Ali Kerimli similarly predicted on 3 November that Azadlyq will win at least 75 of the 125 parliament mandates. Qambar added that in the event of egregious falsification of the outcome of the vote, Azadlyq will stage mass peaceful protests on 8, 9, and 10 November. The Central Election Commission has pledged to post preliminary results of the ballot over a 24-hour period after the polling stations close on 6 November, according to day.az on 4 November. Qambar condemned the arrest on 27 October in connection with the purported coup d'etat of former Academy of Sciences president Eldar Salaev. LF

ARRESTED AZERBAIJANI YOUTH ACTIVIST AGAIN REMANDED
Ruslan Bashirli, leader of the youth organization Yeni Fikir, has been remanded in pretrial custody for a further two months, echo-az.com reported on 4 November, quoting Bashirli's lawyer Elchin Gambarov. Bashirli was arrested in late July on charges of colluding with Armenian intelligence to provoke mass disturbances (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 15 August 2005). LF

AZERBAIJAN DECLINES TO RESCHEDULE GEORGIAN DEBT
Baku will not sign an agreement on rescheduling Georgia's $16.2 million debt unless Georgia reciprocates by signing a customs agreement with Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani First Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov told journalists in Baku on 1 November, day.az reported. The debt-rescheduling agreement was initialed during Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli's visit to Azerbaijan in July. LF

FORMER ADJAR LEADER FILES SUIT WITH GEORGIAN COURT
Aslan Abashidze, who has lived in Moscow since stepping down in May 2004 as chairman of the Supreme Council of Georgia's Adjar Republic, filed suit on 3 November in the Georgian Constitutional Court rule to demand the return of property confiscated from him and members of his family, rustavi2.com and Russian news agencies reported. The property in question includes sea-side villas, land plots, luxury cars, and works of art worth millions of U.S. dollars. LF

ABKHAZ LEGISLATOR DENIES CITIZENSHIP LAW IS DISCRIMINATORY
Abkhaz deputy parliament speaker Konstantin Ozgan has denied that the recently adopted law on citizenship infringes on the rights of ethnic Georgians, apsny.ru reported on 2 November. That law bestows Abkhaz citizenship on all ethnic Abkhaz, regardless of their country of residence, and on all persons who have lived for no less than five years in Abkhazia since the 1999 referendum endorsing independence, but not on Georgians who fled the republic in 1992-93 and have not returned. Ozgan further denied that Abkhazia ever engaged in ethnic cleansing. On 1 November, Georgian ombudsdman Sozar Subar issued a statement accusing Abkhazia of adopting "an apartheid regime" with the aim of "legitimizing the crime of ethnic cleansing...and other crimes against humanity," Caucasus Press reported. He called on human-rights organizations and the UN to condemn the Abkhaz law. LF

GEORGIANS 'GENTLY' INDUCTED INTO ABKHAZ ARMY
In compliance with a decree issued last month by Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh, the Abkhaz Defense Ministry is inducting young Georgian men of draft age from Gali Raion to serve in the Abkhaz Army, Caucasus Press reported on 3 November. Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Anatolii Zaitsev gave the number of draftees in question at around 20, and denied that any young Georgians will be forced to sign up. On 12 October, rustavi2.com reported that the Abkhaz are forming a battalion, codenamed Jima (Brother), staffed by Georgians who have been promised unspecified privileges if they renounce Georgian citizenship. LF

KAZAKH OPPOSITION PAPERS SEIZED
Kazakh authorities seized the entire print run of the latest issue of the opposition newspaper "Juma Times" in Almaty, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Interfax reported on 3 November. The Prosecutor-General's Office justified the seizure on the grounds that the newspaper included "articles containing deliberately false information that damages the honor and dignity of a presidential candidate [incumbent Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev] in order to affect the outcome" of the 4 December presidential election. Newspapers are subject to closure in the event of a "repeat offense" under Kazakh law. Last month authorities seized tens of thousands of copies of the opposition newspaper "Svoboda Slova" after it reported on the business practices of Nazarbaev's youngest daughter, Alia Nazarbaeva (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 27 October 2005 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 October 2005). RG

IN KAZAKHSTAN, U.S. GENERAL DOWNPLAYS PRESENCE IN REGION
U.S. Central Command head General John Abizaid met with Kazakh Defense Minister Colonel General Mukhtar Altynbaev in Astana on 3 November, Kazinform and other media reported. Abizaid, who oversees U.S. forces in Central Asia and Afghanistan, told reporters after the meeting that "the presence of the U.S. armed forces in this region is in no way a demonstration of our dominance" and added that U.S. forces are present "only to help the countries of the region to fight terrorism, drug trafficking, and corruption," according to Interfax. Abizaid also appeared to play down the chances of any long-term U.S. military presence in Kazakhstan. "We don't envision opening bases here, unless Kazakhstan, the Kazakhstani government, would invite us to do so," Abizaid was quoted as saying by the U.S. airforcetimes.com website. RG/AH

KAZAKHSTAN AGREES TO EXPORT ELECTRICITY TO CHINA
Kanat Bozumbayev, the president of Kazakh energy company KEGOC, announced a new agreement on 3 November for the export of Kazakh electricity to China, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The roughly $10 billion agreement calls for the export of about 40 billion kilowatt hours of electricity to China and is to be implemented over the next four to five years. Kazakhstan is expected to become China's largest foreign supplier of electricity once the project is launched. RG

KYRGYZ OMBUDSMAN CALLS FOR PENAL REFORM
Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbek Bakir uulu called on 3 November for the introduction of sweeping penal reforms in the wake of the recent series of deadly prison riots, AKIpress reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October and 2 November 2005). Speaking at a news conference in Bishkek, Bakir uulu said the Kyrgyz penal system "will not change until the ranks of the penal department are purged." He further detailed the poor living conditions at such facilities, including inadequate food, a lack of supplies, and overcrowding. RG

OSCE LAUNCHES GUN-COLLECTION EFFORT IN TAJIKISTAN
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Dushanbe office held a ceremony on 1 November to mark the opening of a new center for the collection and destruction of small arms in Tajikistan, Avesta reported. The new OSCE center, located at the Lohur military range near Dushanbe, will train Tajik experts in the first stage of a program aimed at eliminating an estimated 21 tons of ammunition and roughly 26,000 light weapons. RG

VISITING CHINESE DELEGATION MEETS WITH UZBEK PREMIER
Uzbek Prime Minister Savkat Mirziyoev met with a visiting delegation of Chinese officials on 2 November, uzreport.com reported. The delegation, comprising members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), reviewed plans with the Uzbek premier for the expansion of parliamentary cooperation and bilateral trade. Relations between Uzbekistan and China have deepened significantly over the past several months, spurred by increased activity of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The Chinese delegation, which also toured the Tashkent Aircraft Production Plant, is currently on a three-country tour, with visits to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Bulgaria. RG

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT BOOSTS OWN ECONOMIC PREROGATIVES...
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has issued a decree that gives him the final say in the economic sphere, including on key budget, tax, and monetary issues, Belapan reported on 3 November, quoting the presidential press service. In particular, Lukashenka will decide on support for companies and individual entrepreneurs, preferential treatment, and state programs concerning the protection and use of land, forests, water, vegetation, animals, air, and natural resources. Some of the decree's provisions take effect 10 days after its official publication, while the full document will be effective on 1 June 2006. JM

...AND GIVES PREFERENCE TO PRO-GOVERNMENT TRADE UNIONS
The Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) has condemned as discriminatory last month's presidential decree that allowed the pro-government Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FPB) to use government-owned premises free of charge, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 3 November. In particular, the document allows the FPB to use such premises for meetings, offices, clubs, and other activities. The BKDP says the decree runs counter to the country's constitution and the law that stipulates that all trade unions must enjoy equal rights. JM

MINSK SEEKS EXPLANATION OF UKRAINIAN PREMIER'S STATEMENT ABOUT LUKASHENKA...
Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ruslan Yesin told journalists on 3 November that Minsk has asked Kyiv to explain a statement Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov reportedly made about Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka two days earlier, Belapan reported. ITAR-TASS reported that Yekhanurov told journalists in Washington on 1 November that Lukashenka is a "talented propagandist," adding, "Now I understand why women in the 1930s shouted, 'I want a baby by the Fuehrer!'" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 November 2006). Yesin said the Belarusian government wants to know whether Yekhanurov actually made the statement and, if so, what he meant by it. JM

...WHILE MOSCOW IS 'PERPLEXED' BY WTO REMARK
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a televised statement on 3 November that Moscow was "somewhat perplexed" by a comment Yekhanurov reportedly made about Ukraine's potential WTO membership, Russian and Ukrainian media reported. According to Interfax-Ukraine, Yekhanurov told journalists in Washington on 1 November that Ukraine's accession to the World Trade Organization would be "practically impossible" if Russia joined the organization first. "We can assure that if Russia joins the World Trade Organization ahead of Ukraine, it will do everything necessary to speed up our neighbor's entry into that organization," Kamynin added. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT APPOINTS NEW PROSECUTOR-GENERAL...
The Verkhovna Rada confirmed Oleksandr Medvedko as the country's new prosecutor-general on 3 November, Ukrainian media reported. Medvedko, who was a deputy prosecutor-general, was backed by 303 deputies, well above the 226 votes needed for confirmation following his nomination by President Viktor Yushchenko. "The Prosecutor-General's Office must quickly undertake steps easily understood by public opinion to show it wants to establish the truth and take legal measures in cases long subject to public debate," Reuters quoted Medvedko as saying in the parliament. Medvedko replaces Svyatoslav Piskun, whom Yushchenko sacked last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 October 2005). JM

...AS PRESIDENT URGES FASTER INVESTIGATION OF HIGH-PROFILE CASES
President Yushchenko welcomed the confirmation of Prosecutor-General Medvedko on 3 November and pledged to press the new prosecutor-general to step up probes in high-profile cases, Interfax-Ukraine reported on 3 November, quoting the presidential press service. Yushchenko has in mind the five-year-old case of the murder of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and vote rigging in last year's presidential election, according to his press service. "It is intolerable that one year after the Orange Revolution, during which millions of people protested the total falsification [of the vote], the Prosecutor-General's Office has not yet been conducting an active investigation into who organized those acts," Yushchenko was quoted as saying. JM

ROLLING POWER OUTAGES LIKELY TO BRAKE ALBANIAN ECONOMY
Albania's central bank suggested on 3 November that planned daily power outages lasting up to 12 hours are likely to harm the Albanian economy and stifle growth, Reuters reported the same day. Albania announced power cuts of up to 12 hours earlier this week, after limited rainfall put water levels below the "death point" when turbines stop. "The intensity of this crisis and how much it will affect Albanian businesses will determine whether the target of 6 percent growth for 2005 can be met," the central bank said in a statement at the end of a two-day meeting. Central bankers urged Albanian officials to minimize the country's dependence on the rainfall necessary to keep hydroelectric dams functioning. More than two-thirds of the 20 million kilowatt hours of electricity that Albania uses every day comes from hydroelectric dams, while the remainder is imported. Environmentalists have opposed plans to build thermal plants in the southern town of Vlore. BW

LABOR MINISTER SAYS SERBIA WILL HAVE TROUBLE PAYING PENSION ARREARS
Serbian Labor Minister Slobodan Lalovic said on 3 November that the government will be hard pressed to find the funds to pay the back pensions it owes to retirees, "Danas" and B-92 reported the same day. Pension arrears in Serbia are currently about 12 billion dinars ($168 million). Lalovic made his announcement one day after the Serbian government presented its 39.6 billion-dinar budget for 2006 to the Serbian parliament, Beta and B-92 reported on 2 November. The budget seeks to lower public spending to 1.3 percent of GDP. BW

MILOSEVIC SEEKS TO SELL BELGRADE VILLA
Deposed Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is selling his villa in Belgrade's upscale Dedinje district, Reuters reported on 2 November. The villa is located next to the ex-leader and current war crimes defendant's official residence, which NATO bombed in 1999. According to the daily newspaper "Glas Javnosti," which quoted unidentified sources, Milosevic is seeking 500,000 euros ($600,000) for the property. Milosevic originally paid the equivalent of 5,000 euros for the villa, "Glas Javnosti" reported. BW

PRO-INDEPENDENCE 'ARMY' PUBLISHES THREATS IN KOSOVA NEWSPAPERS
An armed group in Kosova published an ultimatum giving ethnic Albanian leaders until the end of this week to declare independence from Serbia, Reuters reported on 2 November. The group, which calls itself the Army for the Independence of Kosova, published warnings in two Prishtina newspapers and promised "many difficulties" for parliamentarians if they fail to declare independence. Officials with KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosova, have dismissed the group as "bandits," but the United Nations has described them as "organized," Reuters reported. The group began setting up checkpoints in western Kosova in October, according to local media reports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 October 2005). BW

HAGUE JUDGE ENTERS NOT-GUILTY PLEA FOR SERBIAN RADICAL PARTY LEADER
The judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj on 3 November, Hina and B-92 reported the same day. The judge, Carmel Agius, entered the plea after Seselj refused to do so himself. Seselj is charged with 14 counts of war crimes committed against Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Seselj, the leader of the largest opposition party in Serbia, has been in ICTY custody since his voluntary surrender on 24 February 2004. BW

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT SAYS FOREIGN SUPPORT PROPPING UP EX-SOVIET SEPARATIST REGIMES
Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin told a GUAM security forum on 3 November that separatist movements in former Soviet states are supported "from outside" and would fail without such assistance, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. "The separatist regimes in the post-Soviet space exist at the expense of assistance from several of our regional partners, which actually support illegal activities there," RIA Novosti quoted Voronin as saying. "Without this outside assistance, these regimes would simply fall." Voronin added that banks operating in breakaway regions in the former Soviet Union are illegal and "represent an ideal mechanism for money laundering." In a joint statement released on 4 November, GUAM states Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova said Russia's continued military presence in Moldova and Georgia presents a serious obstacle to settling conflicts in those countries and urged Russia to withdraw, Moldpres reported the same day. BW

ELEVENTH HOUR CONCESSIONS UNLIKELY TO INFLUENCE OUTCOME OF AZERBAIJANI VOTE
Even before the polls open for Azerbaijan's 6 November parliamentary elections, anyone who genuinely believed that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's 11 May decree instructing government officials at all levels to ensure that the ballot is free, fair, and transparent -- marking a clean break with the electoral malpractice of the past decade -- must be disappointed.

True, the international community has registered some notable improvements over previous elections, specifically the lifting of restrictions of opposition parties seeking to participate, and greater access to the media for opposition candidates. Over 2,000 candidates succeeded in registering, of whom some 450-500 have either withdrawn or, in a handful of instances, had their registration cancelled for violations.

But the overall pattern, familiar from the elections of 1995, 2000, and 2003, of blatant intervention by local officials to support the government-backed candidate(s) in conjunction with harassment of opposition candidates -- still persists -- and has been documented in detail in preliminary assessments of the election campaign released in recent weeks by Human Rights Watch and the OSCE'S Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The general assessment is that the changes to electoral law endorsed by the Azerbaijani parliament at the behest of President Ilham Aliyev and in response to persistent pressure from the U.S. and the Council of Europe, are too little, too late, or, as "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" suggested on 2 September, a mixture of showmanship and brinkmanship. The Azerbaijani authorities did not, after all, yield on the opposition's most pressing demand, supported by the Council of Europe, for additional representation on election commissions.

The U.S. and the Council of Europe have greeted the most recent concessions, including the lifting of restrictions on local NGOs wishing to monitor the ballot and the use of indelible ink to mark voters' fingers to preclude multiple voting. Over 500 candidates had called for the latter innovation in an appeal addressed to President Aliyev, the Azerbaijani parliament, the Central Election Commission (MSK), and the OSCE in early October, according to zerkalo.az on 22 October. But some observers have queried whether it can be successfully implemented. Georgia and Denmark have provided Azerbaijan with indelible ink and the ultraviolet light bulbs needed to detect it, but it is questionable whether local officials at over 4,500 polling stations could be trained in how to use that apparatus in less than two weeks. The website echo-az.com on 1 November quoted Central Election Commission (MSK) Secretary Natig Mamedov as saying that those technical preparations are "almost complete." It is also possible that President Aliyev's 25 October instruction that voters need not, after all, produce a voter identification document in order to obtain a ballot sheet may compound confusion at polling stations or create loopholes for malpractice.

And one innovation -- the planned conduct, funded by USAID, of exit polls in 65 of the 125 constituencies -- has already become the subject of suspicion and speculation. (Two further companies have been contracted to conduct parallel exit polls by clients whose identity has not been disclosed, according to a Eurasia View analysis of 5 October.) The 65 constituencies in question were reportedly chosen at random, but they do not include those where five leading members of the three major opposition parties aligned in the Azadlyq bloc -- Ali Kerimli and Fuad Mustafaev of the progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), Isa Qambar of the Musavat party, and Rasul Quliyev and Sardar Djalaloglu of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (ADP) -- are candidates, according to zerkalo.az on 3 November. Nor is the Baku constituency where President Aliyev's wife, Mehriban, is running as a candidate for the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party among those where exit polls will be conducted. It is, moreover, by no means certain how reliable the exit polls will prove to be. It was suggested by zerkalo.az on 19 July that many Azerbaijanis are either too conservative, or may be afraid, to admit publicly to having voted for an opposition candidate.

Meanwhile two recent opinion polls have yielded very different prognoses concerning the composition of the new legislature. The first, conducted by the ADAM Sociological Center, was conducted from 17 September-16 October in 10 cities and districts, including Baku and Gyanja. Its findings were summarized by Turan on 28 October. Of 1,000 respondents, 31.2 percent said they intend to vote on 6 November for Azadlyq, 22.7 percent for the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), 6.3 percent for the Yeni Siyaset (YeS) bloc that unites a number of prominent former officials and opposition political figures, 2.5 percent for the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan, and 16.7 percent for independent candidates.

The second poll was conducted by the Rey Sociological Center among 500 residents of Baku and Sumgait and a further 1,000 residents of unspecified regions of the country on 26-27 October, and its findings were posted on 28 October by day.az, which appears sympathetic to the country's leadership. That second poll registered more than double the support for YAP -- 59.1 percent, while support for independent candidates was almost the same as in the first poll (17.4 percent). Azadlyq received 6.3 percent support, Yeni Siyaset 1.2 percent, and the Liberal Party 0.4 percent. A similar poll conducted by Rey several weeks earlier registered only 39.4 percent support for YAP, with 27.3 percent of respondents undecided, according to echo-az.com on 7 October.

Speaking at a press conference in Baku on 3 November, AHCP leader Kerimli predicted that if the voting on 6 November is truly free and fair, Azadlyq will garner no less than 75 percent of the 125 parliament mandates, Turan and day.az reported. The previous day, YAP Executive Secretary Ali Ahmedov similarly told ITAR-TASS his party hopes at a minimum to retain the 74 seats it currently holds in the legislature.

AFGHAN PROSECUTOR RELEASES MEN HELD OVER CANDIDATE SLAYING
Prosecutors in Balkh Province on 2 November released three men detained in connection with the assassination in late September of Ashraf Ramazan, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Ramazan, a candidate for the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) of the Afghan National Assembly, was killed along with one of his bodyguards on 27 September in Mazar-e Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh. Ramazan's murder led to large protests in Mazar-e Sharif and in Kabul, prompting the central government to send a special police detachment to Balkh that in October arrested the three men (see "REF/RL Newsline," 29 September and 12 October 2005). Prosecutor Abdul Khaleq La'lpurwal said that Habib al-Rahman, Khan Bai, and Sayyed Asad are all affiliated with the Jami'at-e Islami party and were detained at the request of Ramazan's family. The men were released after Ramazan's family failed to "present solid proof" of their guilt, La'lpurwal told Pajhwak. Protesters in Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul had alleged that Balkh Governor Ata Mohammad Nur, who also is affiliated with Jami'at-e Islami, was somehow implicated in Ramazan's death. Ramazan won a seat in the national legislature from Balkh that protesters have demanded should be turned over to his brother. AT

U.S., AFGHAN FORCES DISCOVER WEAPONS CACHE
Afghan National Army and U.S. troops discovered a weapons cache in the east-central Ghazi Province on 1 November, the American Forces Information Service reported on 2 November. The cache contained a heavy machine gun, light machine guns, assault rifles, 135 rocket-propelled grenades, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and materials for making improvised explosive devices (IEDs). U.S. Army Colonel Patrick Donahue called the find "significant." Afghan National Police in Nangarhar and Konar provinces also turned in two other weapons caches to U.S.-led coalition forces, the same source reported. AT

ESTONIA TO INCREASE MILITARY PRESENCE IN AFGHANISTAN
Tallinn has decided to increase the number of troops it maintains with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) six-fold to 150, AFP reported on 3 November, quoting Estonian Defense Minister Jurgen Ligi. The mandate of the Estonian forces has been extended for two years, Ligi added. Estonian troops will join the U.K.-led provincial reconstruction team in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. Estonia currently has 23 soldiers deployed with ISAF. AT

AFGHAN AIRLINES TO LEASE, PURCHASE BOEING PASSENGER JETS
State-owned and -operated Ariana Afghan Airlines has decided to lease two Boeing 757s from Boeing Capital Cooperation and purchase four 737-700 airplanes that would be delivered beginning in 2009, according to a 2 November press release issued by Boeing. The agreement reportedly includes training for Ariana's flight and cabin crews and maintenance and engineering staff, with the 757s scheduled for delivery this month. Ariana survived years of conflict in Afghanistan but lost most of its fleet during the U.S.-led operations that ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001. The airline currently operates with aircraft donated by India and Russian-built jets that remained intact. AT

IRANIANS DEMONSTRATE IN FRONT OF ITALIAN EMBASSY
Students from several universities staged a demonstration in front of the Italian Embassy in Tehran on 3 November, Fars News Agency reported. Reuters estimated the crowd at "a few dozen people." The organizers apparently are reacting to Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini's observation, during a recent visit to Israel, that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's calls in late October for Israel's elimination are "irresponsible and raving, a very serious obstacle to the peace process." Fini added, according to "La Repubblica" on 1 November, "There is funding coming in from other countries, and particularly from Iran, in favor of the people who do not want peace." Fini also called Iran "a threat to the world," "La Stampa" reported on 2 November. "We must raise our guard in view of its nuclear ambitions," Fini added. "Strong, united international commitment is required, and the [UN] Security Council must address the issue at the very earliest." The Italian ambassador in Tehran, Roberto Toscano, was summoned twice to the Iranian Foreign Ministry to receive a protest note about a demonstration outside the embassy in Rome, "La Stampa" reported on 3 November. BS

ROUNDTABLE CLARIFIES IRANIAN COUNCIL'S SUPERVISORY ROLE
Participants in a 2 November roundtable program on Iranian state television tried to shed light on new powers granted to the Expediency Council in early October (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 October 2005). Council member Majid Ansari noted that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is constitutionally entitled to turn over some of his powers to another person or entity, and he argued that the Expediency Council is best suited to supervise the work of the three branches of government. Another council member, Morteza Nabavi, said this would not limit the three branches and that their input was sought when drawing up the relevant framework. Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai stressed that the body is not trying to become more powerful, nor will it legislate. Rezai said the Expediency Council neither approves nor proposes laws. BS

IRANIAN JUDICIARY CHIEF DECRIES ECONOMIC CORRUPTION
Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi told a closed session of Iran's legislature on 2 November that inefficient economic institutions are at the root of corrupt practices, IRNA reported, and he added that the duality of the economy -- neither completely state-owned nor completely private -- contributes to the situation. Hashemi-Shahrudi also noted a lack of investor confidence or security. He said transparent, simple, and straightforward economic and financial regulations are needed, whereas complicated banking, customs, and tax laws in Iran tend to discourage prospective investors. He said Islamic law prefers to rely on negotiation and mediation to resolve problems, and he added that there will be a greater emphasis on the prevention of crimes and the incarceration of criminals. BS

IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS TALKS UNDER WAY WITH BA'ATHISTS
Hoshyar al-Zebari told London's "Al-Hayat" that unofficial talks are under way with some Ba'athists in an effort to bring them into the political process, the daily reported on 3 November. Al-Zebari said he supports "turning the nationalist Ba'athists who were not involved in violations [against the Iraqi people] into a positive opposition in the country." He said the talks are with individual Ba'athists rather than representatives of the party. "The Saddamist Ba'ath Party is totally excluded from any political participation because it simply acts on the principle of either ruling Iraq or burning it," al-Zebari said, adding: "Dialogue and reconciliation with these elements is impossible because the principle that we agreed upon with [Arab League Secretary-General] Amr Musa is that there should not be reconciliation with the past but with the present and the future." The Arab League is expected to host a reconciliation conference for Iraq's disparate groups in Cairo later this month. KR

IRAQ'S GRAND AYATOLLAH ANNOUNCES EID AL-FITR
Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's office said in an e-mail announcement on 3 November that the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan will begin on 4 November, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. The holiday is declared upon the sighting of the crescent moon, and al-Sistani's office said that attempts to spot the moon on 2 November failed. "Accordingly, [3 November] will be the last day of the holy month of Ramadan, while Eid al-Fitr will start" on 4 November, the statement said. Sunni Muslims began the Eid on 3 November after the crescent moon was spotted over Saudi Arabia. KR

SIX IRAQI POLICEMEN KILLED AT CHECKPOINT
Insurgents killed at least six Iraqi policemen and wounded 10 others in an attack on a checkpoint in Buhriz, approximately 65 kilometers from Ba'qubah, on 4 November, Reuters reported. An unnamed police official said that the insurgents, armed with assault rifles and heavy weapons, stormed the checkpoint around 8 a.m. as Shi'ite Muslims were marking the beginning of the Eid al-Fitr holiday. One policeman told Reuters that nine officers were killed in the attack and 12 injured, the news agency reported. KR

AL-ZARQAWI GROUP VOWS TO EXECUTE MOROCCAN HOSTAGES IN IRAQ...
Jordanian-born Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's terrorist group (Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn) announced in a 3 November Internet statement that the organization's "legal commission" has decided to execute two Moroccan Embassy staffers whom it kidnapped in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 November 2005). "After studying the situation of the captured, the court realized without a shadow of a doubt that they were supporters" of multinational forces, the statement said. It added that the hostages' "atheism and war against Islam went even further when they supported the government [Iraqi] of the apostates," which it described as being run by Shi'ite Iraqis. "This is what their statements confirmed and what their government did not conceal when it sent them in advance to prepare for the arrival of its 'ambassador' whom it had promised to the government in Baghdad, despite its knowledge of the warnings issued by the mujahedin and the war they had declared" against embassies operating in Iraq. The statement said al-Zarqawi's group will make an example of the Moroccans in order to dissuade other foreign missions from operating inside Iraq. The statement scoffed at claims of diplomatic immunity for the men, noting: "There is no immunity except for those who guard Islam." KR

...WHILE MOROCCAN GOVERNMENT DENOUNCES STATEMENT, SAYS HOSTAGES ARE MARRIED TO IRAQIS
The Moroccan Foreign Ministry denounced the al-Zarqawi group's purported decision to execute its Moroccan hostages in a 3 November statement, Maghreb Arab Presse reported the same day, calling the decision "contrary to the noble precepts of Islam and to the basic values of humanity." The ministry also noted: "Executing two innocent individuals after a bogus trial, because of their faith and their belonging to the Moroccan embassy...is mere 'cowardice.'" It added that the two Moroccan hostages are married to Iraqi women and have worked in the Iraqi Embassy for 20 years. "The Al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq [has] apparently chosen to resort to the ultimate barbarity," the statement continued, adding, "All Moroccans rise up against the intention to lynch the two employees and reiterate their call to unconditionally free them." KR

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