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Newsline - November 29, 2005


RUSSIAN FAR EAST BRACES AS TOXIC SLICK APPROACHES...
Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry said on 28 November that the toxic slick from a benzene spill in China could affect 70 Russian cities and towns with a total population of over 1 million people, mosnews.com reported the next day. The ministry said it is preparing to turn off running water to the affected area. Officials initially said the spill will reach Khabarovsk, a city of 580,000, on 10-12 December, but Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said on 28 November that it could enter Russia sooner than expected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 November 2005). The disaster began when approximately 100 tons of benzene was dumped into the Songhua River on 13 November after an explosion at a chemical plant in Jilin province, approximately 1,000 kilometers upriver from China's border with Russia. The Songhua is a tributary of Russia's Amur River. BW

...AS OFFICIAL SAYS KHABAROVSK IS PREPARED FOR THE CRISIS...
Oleg Mitvol, the deputy head of the Russian Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources, said Khabarovsk has sufficient water supplies to cope with the crisis, RIA-Novosti reported on 29 November. Khabarovsk is the largest city in the potentially affected area. "Everything has been done to prevent an emergency," Mitvol said. "Schools, enterprises, and other organizations will not be closed when the toxic spill reaches the Amur [River]," he added. China, meanwhile, announced on 29 November that it will supply Russia with free equipment to detect benzene in water, Russian news agencies reported the same day. BW

...AND EXPERT HOLDS OUT LITTLE HOPE OF CLEANING UP GAS SPILL
Ilya Mitasov of the Russian branch of WWF, formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund, told Interfax on 28 November that it will only be possible to remove the benzene spill from the Amur River if the temperature rises above 20 degrees Celsius. The temperature in Khabarovsk in the early morning on 29 November was minus 17 degrees; on 3 December, temperatures are predicted to dip to minus 27 degrees. The Federal Service for the Regulation of the Use of Natural Resources' Mitvol said on 28 November that his agency has advised authorities in Khabarovsk Krai to impose a complete ban on fishing from the Amur River for at least a year, Radio Rossii reported. JAC

MOTHERLAND LEADER VOWS TO CONTINUE CAMPAIGNING DESPITE BAN...
Dmitrii Rogozin, leader of the Motherland (Rodina) party, said on 28 November the party will continue campaigning for Moscow City Duma elections until the Supreme Court hears its appeal, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. Motherland is appealing a ruling by the Moscow City Court barring it from the 4 December elections due to a television advertisement that the court said incited ethnic strife (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 November 2005). "We will continue our election campaign and meet with our voters. Our leaflets and brochures continue to be printed," Rogozin said. He added that Motherland has not seen the lawsuit filed by the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, upon which the court based its decision. Rogozin also said Motherland has not received a summons in the case and has been unable to get a copy of the court's ruling. Rogozin said that Motherland has five days to appeal the decision and the Supreme Court would have another five days to make a ruling -- meaning the case could drag beyond the 4 December vote. "But we hope the Supreme Court will pass a fair ruling [on 2 December]," Rogozin said. BW

...AS ANALYSTS ACCUSE KREMLIN OF TRYING TO CURB PARTY'S GROWING CLOUT
Analysts say the Moscow City Court's decision to ban Motherland from elections to the city's Duma is as an attempt to rein in the party before it gains more influence, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 28 November. "Motherland has been punished because it has bet everything and refused to adhere to behind-the-scenes agreements...dividing the outcomes of the elections," Aleksandr Ivanchenko, director of the Independent Election Institute think tank, said. "The Supreme Court decision will depend on whether or not Motherland will be accommodating." Likewise, Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, which is closely linked with the Kremlin, said the Russian authorities "are not pleased with the way Motherland has been evolving since the last parliamentary elections. It is becoming ever more influential and less manageable. Some people want to put a cap on its growth." BW

PUTIN ORDERS ADDITIONAL FUNDING FOR MILITARY HOUSING
President Vladimir Putin said on 28 November that housing benefits for soldiers are inadequate and ordered Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov to find additional funding, Russian news agencies reported the same day. Speaking at a meeting with government ministers, Putin ordered officials to "immediately cease the swindling" with the housing certificates for military personnel, Prime-TASS reported. Putin said it is unacceptable that armed forces personnel are being given certificates entitling them to housing costing 11,000 rubles ($381) per square meter when the average price for housing is 29,000 rubles ($1,005) per square meter. He instructed Fradkov to find an additional 15 billion rubles ($520 million) in funding. "I am asking you to...coordinate with State Duma deputies the additional allocation of 15 billion rubles," Putin told the government, according to RIA-Novosti. BW

PREMIER ANNOUNCES NEW DIVISION OF LABOR
Prime Minister Fradkov redistributed duties among his deputy prime ministers following the recent appointment of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev, ITAR-TASS reported on 28 November. Medvedev will be in charge of policy relating to economic competition and antimonopoly measures, natural resources, and environmental protection. He will also be responsible for judicial policy and cooperation with prosecutors, and the development of mass communication. "Novoe Vremya," No. 46, noted that Medvedev will remain chairman of the board of Gazprom. Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov, who had previously been the only official with the rank of deputy prime minister, will continue to oversee economic, financial, and monetary policies, according to ITAR-TASS. In addition, he will now coordinate policies for the state transportation, culture, and sports sectors. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who is now also a deputy prime minister, will supervise work with export controls over materials and services that could be used for building weapons of mass destruction. JAC

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS UKRAINE'S EU DRIVE MUST NOT HARM RUSSIA'S INTERESTS...
Sergei Lavrov said on 28 November that Ukraine's aspirations to join the European Union should be pursued in a way that does not infringe on Russia's national interests, Russian news agencies reported the same day. "Ukraine's intention to join the EU is its sovereign right. But...this process should not infringe on our legitimate interests," RIA-Novosti quoted Lavrov as telling a roundtable at the State Duma. "It is in our interest that the situation be clarified. We want this choice to be made as soon as possible," he added, according to Interfax. Lavrov said Moscow is interested in how the situation develops with its closest neighbor. "But our conclusions will depend on economic expediency and what kind of relationship we develop with Ukraine," Lavrov said according to Interfax. BW

...AND ASSAILS EU FOR VOTING AS A BLOC IN INTERNATIONAL FORUMS
Speaking at the same State Duma roundtable on 28 November, Lavrov criticized EU members for tending to vote as a bloc inside the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Interfax reported the same day. "We are convinced that the EU should not act as a single bloc within organizations that were set up to erase dividing lines," Lavrov said. Lavrov cited a recent attempt by the EU to push for an amendment to a Council of Europe decision that would give EU law precedence over the council's decisions. "Such attempts trigger concern in the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe," Lavrov said. BW

YUKOS'S MOSCOW PROPERTY DIRECTOR CONVICTED OF EMBEZZLEMENT AND MONEY LAUNDERING
Moscow's Lefortovo District Court on 28 November found the property manager of Yukos's Moscow branch guilty of embezzling and money laundering, Russian news agencies reported the same day. The court ruled that Aleksei Kurtsin and eight other defendants laundered approximately $412 million in Yukos assets via fraudulent charities, mainly in central Russia, RIA-Novosti reported. Prosecutors have asked the court to sentence Kurtsin to 13 years in a high-security penal colony and levy fines against him and the other eight defendants. BW

WIDOW OF SLAIN DUMA DEPUTY CONVICTED IN RETRIAL
A court in the Moscow Oblast on 29 November found Tarama Rokhlina guilty of the 1998 murder of her husband, General Lev Rokhlin, who was a State Duma deputy, Russian news agencies reported the same day. "The court believes that her guilt has been established beyond reasonable doubt," RIA-Novosti quoted the trial judge as saying in the verdict. Rokhlina was arrested on suspicion of shooting her husband on 3 July 1998. She was initially convicted of the crime on 16 November 2000, but the Russian Supreme Court overturned the verdict in July 2001 and ordered a new trial. Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that Russian courts had violated Rokhlina's right to a speedy trial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 April and 2 November). BW

TV STATION GIVES JOURNALIST AN IMPROMPTU SABBATICAL
Ren-TV announced on 28 November that it is pulling Olga Romanova off the air for three months, during which time she is supposed to come up with a new information program, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. Romanova was barred from entering her studio by armed security guards on 24 November and her program, "24 Hours," has not aired since (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 November 2005). Also on 28 November, Romanova filed a complaint with a Moscow city prosecutor asking to check the legality of the station using private security guards to bar her from her studio, lenta.ru reported. JAC

HALF-DOZEN REGIONS WIN RIGHT TO CREATE SPECIAL ECONOMIC ZONES
Six regions have won a competition to create special economic zones (OEZ) within their borders, Minister for Economic Development and Trade German Gref announced on 28 November, lenta.ru reported. The winners were: the Zelenograd Raion in the city of Moscow, the city of Dubna in Moscow Oblast, the city of Elabug in Tatarstan Republic, the city of St. Petersburg, and Tomsk and Lipetsk oblasts. Forty-one regions submitted applications, according to Regnum. Putin signed the law on special economic zones in July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 July 2005). The original intention of the law was to diversify investment across Russia; with the exception of Lipetsk, the other five regions already have relatively high levels of foreign and domestic investment. Gref suggested that next year he will recommend that the government help regions in the Far East and Eastern Siberia with their applications, since the quality of many of the applications "was not completely satisfactory," Regnum reported. JAC

FOREIGN STUDENT ATTACKED IN VOLGA CITY
On 27 November, a group of teenagers assaulted a student from Africa in Nizhnii Novgorod, Interfax reported on 28 November. The student, who attends the Nizhnii Novgorod State Medical Academy, was attacked along with his Russian friend as the two walked outside their dorm. This is the second such incident to occur in Nizhnii Novgorod in recent months, lenta.ru reported. On 28 October a student from Colombia sustained injuries when he was attacked with a knife. MS

PUTIN HAILS CHECHEN PARLIAMENTARY BALLOT...
Addressing members of the Russian government on 28 November, President Putin characterized the previous day's elections for a new Chechen parliament as "an important internal political event" and the final stage in the reconstruction of the republic's political system, Interfax reported. At the same time, Putin admitted that "much still remains to be done to remove destabilizing factors" in Chechnya. LF

...AS RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS QUESTION REPORTED TURNOUT
The Memorial human rights center questioned on 28 November the official estimated turnout of over 60 percent during the previous day's Chechen ballot, Interfax reported. In a statement released in Moscow on 28 November, Memorial estimated turnout as lower than in previous ballots, and noted that Grozny was virtually deserted on 27 November. German parliamentarian Rudolf Bindig, one of several observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, likewise questioned the official turnout figure in an interview published on 29 November in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung." Bindig said the few voters he spoke with were frightened and demoralized, and that the new parliament has no power to speak of, and cannot therefore be considered democratic. LF

CHECHEN LEADER ANNOUNCES TALKS WITH UNNAMED RESISTANCE REPRESENTATIVES
Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov told journalists in Grozny on 29 November he plans to meet "soon" in Brussels with unnamed representatives of the Chechen regime formerly headed by President Aslan Maskhadov, Russian media reported. Alkhanov affirmed that "the policy of reconciliation will be continued, and we are open [for talks with] those who want peace." But he ruled out including in the Brussels talks Akhmed Zakaev, whom he denounced as "a criminal," Interfax reported. Maskhadov's successor Abdul-Khalim Sadullaev in August named Zakaev as deputy chairman of the Chechen Council of Ministers and as his representative for peace talks. Zakaev for his part said in a statement posted 29 November on www.chechenpress.org that the legitimate Chechen leadership will not participate in any talks with those persons, including Alkhanov, whose official position in Chechnya depends on "Russian bayonets." "Alkhanov did not begin this war, he is not waging it, and it is not within his power to end it," Zakaev commented, adding that the resistance is "tirelessly seeking" to begin talks with Moscow with the aim of ending the conflict. LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION DECRIES 'UNPRECEDENTED' REFERENDUM FRAUD...
Addressing several thousand supporters in Yerevan on 28 November, leaders of the Armenian opposition parties that joined forces to campaign for a boycott of the 27 November referendum on constitutional amendments continued to criticize what they termed the falsification of turnout figures, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 November 2005). Viktor Dallakian of the opposition Artaruriun alliance termed the results "a crime against the Armenian people," while the opposition National Accord Party issued a statement accusing the authorities of staging "a constitutional coup." Former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian said the opposition would hold a second protest rally on 29 November, but admitted that public outrage at the referendum outcome is not strong enough to pressure the Armenian leadership to step down. Speaking on 28 November at a press conference in Yerevan, members of the Council of Europe's election monitoring group also observed the discrepancy between the modest number of people who were witnessed voting and turnout figures which they suggested were "overstated in a significant number of polling stations," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. They added, however, that they do not dispute the number of voters who reportedly endorsed the planned constitutional amendments, Noyan Tapan reported on 29 November. LF

...AS OFFICIALS DOWNPLAY VIOLATIONS
Senior Armenian parliamentarians who actively participated in the government-sponsored campaign to persuade voters to approve the constitutional changes sought on 28 November to downplay the allegations of fraud, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Parliament Defense, Internal Affairs and National Security Committee Chairman Mher Shahgeldian (Orinats Yerkir) admitted that "there may have been problems in one or two places," but insisted that otherwise the referendum "was a success." Deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian (Republican Party of Armenia) for his part admitted that "it is impossible to hold a perfect vote" in Armenia, but he insisted that the extent of the reported violations was not great enough to affect the overall referendum results. A minimum of one-third of Armenia's registered 2.3 million voters had to approve the amendments for them to pass. LF

OSCE SLAMS POLICE VIOLENCE IN AZERBAIJAN
The OSCE's Baku office issued a statement on 28 November condemning the violent intervention by police to break up a peaceful meeting in Baku on 26 November to protest the alleged falsification of the outcome of the 6 November parliamentary elections. The statement cited reports that 400 demonstrators were injured in the fracas, including some journalists, and 30 people detained. It called on "all political forces" in Azerbaijan to avoid further confrontation. Office head Ambassador Maurizio Pavesi said the OSCE is ready to facilitate the dialogue between the authorities and opposition that both sides say they want. Meanwhile, presidential-administration official Arastun Mekhtiev told day.az on 29 November that the organizers of the 26 November demonstration provoked the violent police intervention by failing to end the protest at the agreed time. The Baku municipal authorities have not yet responded to a formal request from Azadlyq to hold a further protest rally on 3 December, day.az reported on 29 November. LF

AZERBAIJANI OIL WORKERS LAUNCH NEW STRIKE
Azerbaijani employees of McDermott Caspian Contractors Inc. (MCCI) launched a second strike on 28 November to protest the company management's rejection of their demand for higher wages, the online dailies echo-az.com and zerkalo.az reported on 29 November. Some 2,000 Azerbaijani employees of MCCI staged a one-day stoppage last week to demand the same wages as foreign workers with the same qualifications (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 November 2005). The strikers rejected an offer by MCCI managers to raise wages by 12 percent beginning in January 2006 but also to increase the working week from 45 hours to 50 hours beginning on 5 December. Workers from a second Western corporation have also joined the strike, day.az reported on 29 November. LF

IRAN'S FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS AZERBAIJAN
Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said during a one-day visit to Baku on 28 November that Iran's is a peaceful nuclear program but his country has a right to access nuclear technology, IRNA reported. "This right is not given to us by any country or set of countries, so they cannot take it away," he said at a joint press conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov. This right, Mottaki said, comes from Iran's membership of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), IRNA reported. Mottaki was speaking after meetings with Mammadyarov and other officials, including President Ilham Aliyev, to discuss bilateral trade, transport, and political ties. The completion of existing transport projects, he said, will link Azerbaijan with the Persian Gulf, while ongoing consultations will inform both countries of their political positions and contribute to regional peace. "We have ongoing relations in all...political, economic and cultural areas. We are certain cooperation in any area will help in other areas of bilateral ties," Mottaki said. Iran and Azerbaijan, he added, "will not permit any third country to use either against the other." VS

GEORGIAN PREMIER MEETS WITH NATO OFFICIALS
Zurab Noghaideli met in Brussels on 28 November with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who told him that while the alliance's doors "are open for Georgia," Georgia still has "a long, long way to go" in terms of implementing defense reforms before it will qualify for NATO membership, RFE/RL reported. De Hoop Scheffer declined to offer any specific date by which Tbilisi might receive a formal offer of NATO membership, but he said no third country (presumably Russia) would be empowered to impose a veto. Georgian Minister for European Integration Giorgi Baramidze predicted on 28 November that Georgia will be a full-fledged NATO member by late 2008, Caucasus Press reported, while President Mikheil Saakashvili similarly proclaimed on 24 November that Georgia will join NATO before his presidential term ends. Saakashvili was elected for a five-year term in January 2004. LF

KAZAKH ELECTORAL OFFICIAL PLEDGES GREATER VOTING TRANSPARENCY...
Kazakh Central Electoral Commission Chairman Onalsyn Zhumabekov vowed on 28 November to ensure greater voting transparency in the country's upcoming presidential election, Interfax reported. In a meeting in Astana with U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan John Ordway, Zhumabekov reported that initial results from the presidential balloting will be released within 24 hours of the closing of polls. In another move seemingly intended to improve the conduct of the 4 December election, the electoral commission on 28 November reversed its earlier decree introducing the use of special ballot envelopes for the election, according to Interfax. Electoral Commission Chairman Zhumabekov explained that although such "envelopes were used during the last election to the Mazhilis [the lower house of parliament], there are opinions being voiced to the effect that envelopes may be used by some unscrupulous participants in the electoral process" for illegal ballot stuffing. RG

...AND REPORTS ON ACCREDITATION OF ELECTORAL OBSERVERS
As the deadline for the registration of election observers closed on 28 November, the Kazakh Central Election Commission also announced in a meeting in Astana on 28 November that it has formally registered some 1,590 foreign and 163 foreign media representatives, according to Interfax. Meanwhile, the Mazhilis is also considering new amendments to the country's election law, seeking to overturn a prohibition on rallies and demonstrations in the postelection period, Interfax reported on 28 November. RG

KAZAKH OPPOSITION CANDIDATE OUTLINES CAMPAIGN PLATFORM
The leader of the For a Just Kazakhstan opposition bloc, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, outlined his presidential campaign platform in a 28 November televised speech, Kazakh Television reported. Speaking in a 15-minute address featuring video images of impoverished Kazakh families, Tuyakbai vowed to fight poverty, corruption, and injustice. He concluded by warning that "we are turning into a country of sharp contrasts where a social division might lead to an explosion in the future and opposition," with closing video footage showing Kazakh officials on a golf course, riding in expensive foreign cars, and at luxury hotels. RG

VISITING TURKISH MILITARY DELEGATION UNVEILS AID TO KAZAKHSTAN
A visiting delegation of senior officers from the Turkish General Staff announced on 28 November a new $900,000 aid package for the Kazakh armed forces, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. In comments following a meeting in Astana with the visiting Turkish officers, senior officials from the Kazakh Defense Ministry reported that the Turkish military aid consists of unspecified "modern military equipment." The aid is the latest in a bilateral military-aid-and-training program with Turkey; it follows an earlier provision of more than $6 million in equipment to the Kazakh armed forces. The Turkish delegation also signed a similar bilateral agreement on military cooperation with neighboring Kyrgyzstan on 25 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 November 2005). RG

FORMER KYRGYZ MINISTERS LOSE IN PARLIAMENTARY BY-ELECTION...
Results from a parliamentary by-election in the Tunduk district of northern Bishkek indicated on 28 November that former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva and former Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev were among those defeated by Finance Ministry official Janysh Kudaibergenov, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. RG

...AS FORMER PROSECUTOR-GENERAL REGAINS LOST SEAT
In the southern Aksy district of Kyrgyzstan, Azimbek Beknazarov secured about 89 percent of the vote in a 28 November by-election for a second vacant seat in the Kyrgyz parliament, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Beknazarov originally resigned the seat that he won in the February parliamentary elections to become acting prosecutor-general. He was dismissed from that post in September and ran again to regain the same legislative seat. RG

TAJIK OPPOSITION LEADER RESIGNS
The deputy chairwoman of the opposition Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Hurinisso Ghafforzoda, resigned from the party on 28 November and vowed to "create a national movement to revive cultural values," Asia-Plus reported. Although Ghafforzoda said in a published interview that her resignation was because she "was not satisfied with the activities of the party that were not in line with national interests," Social Democratic Party Chairman Rahmatullo Zoirov argued on 28 November that the move was not directed against the party and stemmed from her "personal ambitions." Ghafforzoda also serves as the head of the Oshti-i Millat (National Reconciliation), a nongovernmental organization in the eastern Tajik Rasht District. RG

TAJIK PRESIDENT APPOINTS RADIO AND TELEVISION OFFICIALS
According to the terms of a presidential decree issued on 28 November, officials have been appointed to oversee Tajik television and radio, according to the Avesta website. The former head of the Department for Culture of the Presidential Staff, Abdurahmon Abdumannonov, was named as the new first deputy chairman of the Tajik State Television and Radio Broadcasting Committee, and Samad Hikmatov and Firuza Amirqulova were also appointed as new deputies, Asia-Plus reported. RG

UZBEK FUGITIVE ARRESTED IN SOUTHERN KAZAKHSTAN
A fugitive former Tashkent imam wanted in Uzbekistan on charges of Islamic extremism was arrested on 28 November in southern Kazakhstan, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Ruhiddin Fakhriddinov had evaded arrest since 1998 and is accused of leading the Tashkent branch of the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). RG

BELARUSIAN UNIVERSITY EXPELS STUDENT AFTER TRIP TO FRANCE
Uladzimir Shymau, rector of the Belarusian State Economic University in Minsk, has expelled fourth-year student Tatsyana Khoma, accusing her of a "flagrant violation of internal regulations," Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 28 November. "The university administration has detected an unauthorized and unfounded trip by student Tatsyana Khoma to France and her stay in that country between 11-14 November 2005 during classes," Shymau wrote in the expulsion order. Khoma was simultaneously evicted from her dormitory. "There was a snowstorm that day and I believe it is outrageous to throw a person out onto the street in such weather," she said. While in the French city of Reims, Khoma was elected to the executive committee of the Brussels-based National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB), an umbrella organization of 44 national student unions from 34 countries. More than 3,000 students from 40 countries have reportedly signed an ESIB petition urging Shymau to reinstate Khoma. "All students in Belarus should be able to engage in student movements both nationally and internationally," the petition says. JM

BELARUSIAN PROSECUTORS DROP SLANDER CASE AGAINST HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDER
The Minsk city prosecutor's office has dropped a slander case against human rights advocate Hary Pahanyayla that was reopened in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 May 2005), Belapan reported on 28 November. Pahanyayla, a deputy chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, was accused of slandering President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and other officials during an interview last year with a Swedish television station. Pahanyayla said in the interview that Lukashenka, along with former Prosecutor General Viktar Sheyman, former Sports Minister Yury Sivakou, and Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau, might be involved in the disappearances of three opposition figures and a journalist in Belarus in 1999 and 2000. "[City prosecutors said] that I slandered no one, which means that all I said in the interview was true," Pahanyayla told the agency. "We can keep on suspecting the officials of involvement in the disappearances and demand that they be subjected to questioning." JM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT DISMISSES IDEA OF COUNTRY'S ISOLATION AS 'SIMPLY RIDICULOUS'
President Lukashenka has told Chinese journalists that Belarus is not an isolated country, Belarusian Television reported on 28 November. Lukashenka was being interviewed by Chinese media ahead of his trip to China on 4-7 December. "We are often criticized by those who say Belarus has allegedly become isolated because some European countries have a cool attitude toward our country and the United States is blocking Belarus," Lukashenka said. "To this I reply unambiguously that we have good relations with China, Russia, India, the Middle East, and many countries in Latin America and Africa. So it's simply ridiculous to speak of any isolation." JM

UKRAINE WANTS TO PUMP RUSSIAN GAS TO EUROPE UNDER UNCHANGED TARIFFS
The Ukrainian oil and gas transport company Naftohaz Ukrayiny said on 28 November that it wants to continue sending Russian gas through its pipelines to Europe under existing conditions -- that is, charging $1.09 per 1,000 cubic meters per 100 kilometers of transit, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Naftohaz Ukrayiny was responding to the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom's statement earlier the same day saying that Gazprom is ready to pay for gas transit across Ukraine according to "European tariffs." Gazprom also proposed to sign a contract with Naftohaz Ukrayiny on Russian gas transit to Europe for 2006, before discussing the price of Russian gas supplies to Ukraine for that year. Gazprom deputy head Aleksandr Ryazanov suggested on 29 November that Ukraine in 2006 should pay more than the current price of $50 for 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas. "Of course, with the [former] price of $80 [for 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas] at the border with Germany, the price of $50 for Ukraine, excluding transportation costs, was considered acceptable," Ryazanov said. "But when this price [for Germany] becomes $200, the price of $50 is too small. It doesn't even cover our real costs for production and transportation of the gas to the CIS countries." JM

UKRAINIAN FINANCIAL MOGUL TO RUN FOR OPPOSITION PARTY
Rynat Akhmetov has accepted an offer from former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to run in the 2006 parliamentary elections as a candidate for the Party of Regions, which is headed by Yanukovych, Ukrainian news agencies reported on 29 November. "I have decided that this is the best moment for me to take part in political life, and that I'll be of maximum benefit to Ukraine as a parliamentary deputy," Akhmetov said in a written statement. Akhmetov is widely believed to be Ukraine's richest man, with a fortune estimated at nearly $2.5 billion. Akhmetov is the largest shareholder of the System Capital Management concern, and his business interests range from steel and machine-building plants to telecom companies, banks, and the Shakhtar Donetsk soccer club. Akhmetov backed Yanukovych during the 2004 presidential campaign but distanced himself from active participation in politics. JM

UKRAINIAN WHISTLEBLOWER REPORTEDLY WANTS TO RETURN HOME
Former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko is planning to return to Ukraine from the United States, where he was given political asylum in 2001, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on 28 November, quoting former Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksander Yelyashkevych, also a refugee in the United States. In 2000, Melnychenko fled abroad and made public the so-called Melnychenko tapes -- hundreds of hours of alleged recordings of conversations in the office of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. In particular, the Melnychenko tapes suggest that Kuchma and other former and current high-ranking Ukrainian officials may have been behind the kidnapping and murder of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in September 2000. JM

HAS THE BOSNIAN SERB GOVERNING COALITION SPLIT?
Mladen Ivanic of the Party of Democratic Progress (PDP) announced in Banja Luka on 27 November that his party has ended its coalition with the larger Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. SDS President Dragan Cavic said in response on the Alternative Television station that his party is no longer the "slave" of its former junior partners, whom he termed "political parasites." But Krstan Simic of the opposition Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) told RFE/RL on 28 November that Ivanic's statement amounts only to "political exhibitionism" and that the SNSD will believe him only when the PDP withdraws its ministers from the government. PM

BOSNIA FACES LONG WAIT FOR EU MEMBERSHIP
Igor Davidovic, who is Bosnia-Herzegovina's chief negotiator in its talks with the EU for a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), said in Banja Luka on 28 November that Bosnia's "transition period" before it receives full EU membership will probably last about 10 years, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 14 October and 25 November 2005). Hopes have been high in Bosnia that the launching of SAA talks will lead to a quick influx of foreign investments and a return to the visa-free European travel that all former Yugoslavs enjoyed in the last decades of communist rule. PM

PARTIAL REPRIEVE FOR OUSTED BOSNIAN POLITICIANS
Bosnia-Herzegovina's outgoing High Representative Paddy Ashdown announced in Sarajevo on 28 November that all politicians whom he removed from office during his tenure may now return to some positions in public life, his website (http://www.ohr.int) reported. Such officials may "apply for, and hold if selected, non-managerial public positions within administrative bodies that are appointed through open competition," he said, but are still banned from holding elected office or top-level posts (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 July and 14 October 2005). PM

FATAL SHOOTOUT IN NORTHWEST BOSNIA
One police officer and a local criminal Abdulah Bajric (aka Dule) were killed and two police officers were wounded on the Bihac-Cazin road in northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina as police gave chase to Dule in a car late on 28 November, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Dule was released from jail that morning but immediately committed an unspecified new criminal offense, which led to police efforts to arrest him again. PM

LEADING SERBIAN POLITICIANS MEET
Serbian President Boris Tadic met oligarch and opposition politician Bogoljub Karic in Belgrade on 28 November to discuss Tadic's proposal on the future of Kosova and Karic's complaints about charges made in the media recently that he has been bribing members of the parliament, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 November 2005). Recent polls suggest that Tadic, Karic, and the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) leader Tomislav Nikolic would emerge as the three most powerful politicians if early elections were held now. PM

MOLDOVAN CAPITAL FAILS TO ELECT MAYOR FOR THIRD TIME
Mayoral elections in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau held on 27 November were declared invalid due to low turnout, Flux and Moldpress reported the next day. According to preliminary figures, just 23 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, well below the one-third of the electorate needed to make the poll valid. "Given this situation, the Central Election Commission, within two weeks, is to fix a new date for the repeated local elections," said Ion Stratulat, chairman of Chisinau's Electoral Council, according to Moldpress. Flux reported on 28 November that the date for the new poll will be 11 December. The elections were Chisinau's third attempt to elect a mayor this year. Elections on 10 and 24 July were also declared invalid due to low turnout. The post has been vacant since April, when former Mayor Serafim Urechean stepped down to take up a parliamentary seat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September 2005). BW

BREAKING THE WILL OF IRANIAN POLITICAL PRISONERS
Activists say Iran has adopted a tactic of housing political prisoners together with common criminals as a way of breaking their will. Iranian officials deny the charges and even maintain that the country has no political prisoners at all.

More than 2,000 Iranian prisoners were freed in early November after receiving an amnesty from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is traditional to grant such amnesties on religious holidays -- it was Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan -- and other significant events.

Such events get a great deal of publicity in Iran, and they are touted as examples of an inherently merciful justice system that is based on Islam. In fact, the majority of individuals released on such occasions were imprisoned for relatively minor offenses such as writing bad checks. The Iranian penal system also deals with tens of thousands of individuals arrested for narcotics-related offenses -- smuggling, dealing, or abuse -- as well as the usual panoply of violent criminals, including murderers and rapists.

The country's prisons hold 132,564 inmates, Iranian Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad said on 26 July. Political prisoners and juvenile offenders are often housed with these criminals, partly in an effort to break them, but also because the legal system does not distinguish between types of crimes.

Journalist Akbar Ganji, attorney Abdolfattah Soltani, and student activist Ali Afshari are in jail for, respectively, exposing the corruption and hypocrisy within the regime, defending dissidents, or participating in events that embarrass the government. But these political prisoners are held together with regular criminals.

Iranian dissident Mohsen Sazegara, who was imprisoned in early 2003 and who is now a fellow at Yale University, said in a recent RFE/RL interview that it is a common practice to place political prisoners and juveniles with regular criminals. Sazegara said this is extremely dangerous, and he cited a conversation he had with Akbar Ganji in November 2003, when he was on temporary leave.

According to Sazegara, Ganji told him in a conversation in November 2003 that Ganji was pressured by the prosecutor -- Judge Said Mortazavi -- to renounce his "Republican Manifesto," which criticizes the Iranian system of Islamic government and the supreme leader. When Ganji refused to comply, he was sent to a cell with regular criminals. Ganji said the other inmates treated him respectfully, but the situation was difficult. The prisoners' smoking cigarettes and narcotics affected Ganji's asthma adversely, and the noise in the cell was so bad that Ganji could not read or rest without interruption.

Ganji told Sazegara that one day, during the short recess in the prison yard, he saw a death-row inmate trying to cut a juvenile's throat. The young man escaped with a minor injury. Ganji learned that a prison gang instigated the attack, because death-row inmates enter lengthy new trial processes if they commit another crime, and this will delay their execution.

Sazegara sees the psychological consequences of mixing political prisoners with criminals as particularly troubling. A young political activist, Sazegara said, typically has a very "sensitive soul." Forcing these people to live under such humiliating conditions is a powerful tool in the hands of the regime, one it uses to break down opponents.

It is not just political prisoners who endure such dangers, according to Sazegara. Individuals jailed for bouncing checks or financial fraud are housed with murderers, and the associated pressures can turn the prisoner into a hardened criminal. Sazegara believes that prison management is one of the most primitive and underdeveloped components of the Iranian judicial system, and he ascribed this to officials associated with a traditional conservative political group called the Islamic Coalition Party (Hezb-i Motalefeh).

A 17-year-old male was raped and killed by five inmates in the Adelabad prison in Shiraz on 19 November, the Baztab website reported. The young man was imprisoned for a minor crime and had been transferred to a cell with adult criminals -- some of them convicted murderers -- because the juvenile section was closed for a research project. Baztab reported that this was the third such case in the Shiraz prison this autumn. Baztab reported that the killers confessed to their crime but the prison's public-relations office tried to downplay the case as a quarrel among inmates.

Human rights activist and lawyer Mehrangiz Kar told Radio Farda on 20 November that prison guidelines call for classification of prisoners by age, crime, background, and record. Kar said the teenager's murder reveals serious flaws in the country's judicial system. The law, Kar said, treats girls as young as nine and boys as young as 15 as adults.

Supreme Court Judge Bahram Bahrami condemned the Adelabad case, Baztab reported. He said that the proper classification of prisoners has been implemented in only four prisons in Tehran.

Rajai Shahr prison, which is on the outskirts of the city of Karaj, is notorious for housing all types of inmates together. Sadegh Naghashkar, spokesman for an organization defending political prisoners, told Radio Farda on 15 November that three inmates at that prison are protesting the situation. Cultural activist Assad Shaghaghi, Democratic Party of Iran member Behruz Javid-Tehrani, and Ahvazi-Arab activist Khalid Hardani have started a hunger strike because they are housed with rapists and murderers and fear for their lives.

Iranian officials' statements about the imprisonment of individuals for their political activities suggest that the situation will not change soon because it is not taken seriously. State Prosecutor-General, Hojatoleslam Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi, said recently that there are very few political prisoners in Iran, "Mardom Salari" reported on 24 November. His subsequent dismissive comments indicate that individuals imprisoned for their political activities should not expect improvements.

"A certain lady passed away in an incident in our country," Dori-Najafabadi said. "Well, no one was happy about this. But you must have noticed how the Canadians blew the case out of proportion for the sake of their own problems."

Dori-Najafabadi was referring to the summer 2003 case of Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi, who was arrested for taking photographs outside Evin prison. She subsequently died of head injuries suffered while in custody. Nobody has been punished for administering the fatal beating.

"And there was the case of a certain gentleman who was at the hospital and created all that fanfare," Dori-Najafabadi continued. He was referring to the case of Ganji, who has been imprisoned for almost six years and who recently ended a lengthy hunger strike.

In June 2004, Ali Akbar Yasaqi, the new Prisons and Corrections Organization chief, said there are no political prisoners in the country. "I positively stress there are no political prisoners in Iranian prisons," he said. Yasaqi explained that this is because parliament has not passed legislation defining political crimes.

AFGHAN SECURITY FORCES REPORTEDLY TO GET 'BILLIONS' IN U.S. AID
A senior U.S. military official said in Kabul on 28 November that the United States will provide "billions" of dollars in aid for reform of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) over the next two years, Xinhua News Agency reported. "As far as [the] fund issue is concerned, [the] U.S. will spend billions of U.S. dollars on the reform of ANA and ANP," the agency quoted Chief of Office of Security Cooperation-Afghanistan Major General John Brennan as telling reporters. "In the past one year, over $1 billion have been put in the reform of ANA and ANP, and we anticipate the process to continue for a couple of years." Coalition forces have trained more than 26,900 ANA soldiers since May 2002; another 3,250 are currently in training. "We have built a central training facility and seven regional training centers," Brennan said. "In about six to nine months, 50 to 60 percent of the police will be equipped with communication equipment and vehicles. Besides that, we also have the future five-year plan of constructing or refurbishing all the police facilities." MR

AFGHANISTAN PROMISES FURTHER DISARMAMENT
The Afghan government has threatened to forcibly disarm police and other officials who possess illegal arsenals, AFP reported on 28 November. "District chiefs, police commanders, and others who work in government posts still have illegal weapons," Disarmament and Reintegration Commission representative Mirzada Bakhtbeg said. The Interior Ministry's counterterrorism chief, Manan Farahi, said, according to AFP, "If they don't disarm, the government will use force to disarm them." Afghanistan this year launched the second phase of a UN-backed disarmament program called the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups, which targets militia leaders and armed bands who have so far refused to relinquish their weapons. Farahi said most of the known illegal weapons are in the hands of warlords operating in northern Afghanistan, an area that has been largely unaffected by the neo-Taliban insurgency. MR

AFGHAN OFFICIAL SAYS U.S. SOLDIERS GOT OFF LIGHTLY FOR CORPSE BURNINGS
A spokesman for Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry said on 28 November that the disciplinary action taken against U.S. soldiers who burned the corpses of neo-Taliban fighters did not go far enough, AFP reported. "I think it was very lenient," Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Naveed Ahmad Moez said. "It should not have been a lenient punishment for those who have committed such [an] action." On 26 November, the U.S. military said its investigation into the incident nearly two months ago concluded that two soldiers burned the decomposing bodies of neo-Taliban insurgents for hygiene, a practice allowed by the Geneva Conventions. U.S. officials acknowledged that the act violated the tenets of Islam, which calls for bodies to be buried, and issued the reprimands. Psychological-operations specialists reportedly then used a loudspeaker to challenge neo-Taliban fighters to come out and retrieve the burned corpses, according to international media. A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the burnings but stopped short of criticizing the reprimands. "Whatever the purpose, the reason, the burning of human bodies -- enemies, friends, or whoever -- is against the religious and cultural values of the people of Afghanistan and against human dignity and we condemn it," Karzai spokesman Karim Rahimi said, according to AFP. "We want in future that such incidents should not happen again." MR

IRANIAN OFFICIAL RESPONDS TO EU OFFER ON TALKS
Supreme National Security Council spokesman Hussein Entezami told ISNA in Tehran on 28 November that Europe's latest offer for preliminary talks on Iran's nuclear dossier will likely start at a junior level before moving to a more formal political level. "The agenda and time and place of talks are not clear, [but] both sides will resume talks at the level of specialists, then at a senior level," he said. "Presumably, talks will resume within a specific, focused, and timed framework." He said Iran has received no formal Russian proposal over fuel production for Iranian nuclear plants on Russian territory and added, "Iran emphasizes uranium enrichment on its soil." Entezami said foreign participation in fuel-production activities "is welcome," as proposed recently by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. A framework for talks is not a precondition, he said, but designed to ensure that "we do not end up here, where Iran has to put aside the fuel cycle or enrichment, or transfer it" abroad, he said. "Iran's right to access peaceful nuclear technology must be safeguarded," Entezami said. VS

IRAN'S FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS AZERBAIJAN
Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said during a one-day visit to Baku on 28 November that Iran's is a peaceful nuclear program but his country has a right to access nuclear technology, IRNA reported. "This right is not given to us by any country or set of countries, so they cannot take it away," he said at a joint press conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov. This right, Mottaki said, comes from Iran's membership of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), IRNA reported. Mottaki was speaking after meetings with Mammadyarov and other officials, including President Ilham Aliyev, to discuss bilateral trade, transport, and political ties. The completion of existing transport projects, he said, will link Azerbaijan with the Persian Gulf, while ongoing consultations will inform both countries of their political positions and contribute to regional peace. "We have ongoing relations in all...political, economic and cultural areas. We are certain cooperation in any area will help in other areas of bilateral ties," Mottaki said. Iran and Azerbaijan, he added, "will not permit any third country to use either against the other." VS

IRANIAN LEGISLATORS VISIT CZECH REPUBLIC
An Iranian parliamentary delegation arrived in Prague on 28 November for a five-day visit and scheduled meetings with Czech officials, IRNA reported the same day. The visit had been postponed recently under unclear circumstances (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 November 2005). The delegation, headed by legislator Hamid Reza Haji-Babai and including members of the Iran-Czech parliamentary friendship group, was met at the airport by Czech legislator Stanislav Fischer (Communists), and Iran's charge d'affaires, Hussein Rezvani, IRNA reported. Discussions with Czech parliamentary speaker Lubomir Zaoralek (Social Democrats), legislators, and other unnamed "senior officials" were to include bilateral state and parliamentary ties, IRNA reported. VS

IRANIAN REFORMERS COMPLAIN OF PRESSURES ON THE PRESS
The Islamic Iran Participation Party has issued a statement expressing concern over an unspecified number of journalists being summoned and admonished recently by state security officials, reportedly with the approval of the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry, although the ministry rejects the charge, Radio Farda reported on 27 November. The party statement notes that the current press law prohibits any pressure on the press but alleges that the relevant article has been ignored "in recent years...by" unspecified "opponents of the free press," Radio Farda reported. The deputy culture minister in charge of press affairs, Alireza Mokhtarpur, has rejected the statement and denied that security officials in his department interrogate journalists. "This is not correct...[and] summoning reporters is not part of the [department's] duties," he said. Mokhtarpur said his ministry believes any illegal summon "is not right," Radio Farda reported. Islamic Iran Participation Party member Mustafa Tajzadeh recently met with reformist pressmen who told him of discreet interviews in which state security officials told them what they should not be writing about, Radio Farda reported, citing Tajzadeh's blog. VS

SUNNI LEADERS, BODYGUARD KILLED IN BAGHDAD
Two Sunni Arab leaders were gunned down along with a bodyguard in Baghdad on 28 November, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on 29 November. Iyad al-Azzi and Ali Husayn were both members of the Iraqi Islamic Party; al-Azzi was a candidate in the December National Assembly election. KR

GERMAN ARCHAEOLOGIST, DRIVER KIDNAPPED IN IRAQ
In a videotaped message that showed a kidnapped German woman and her Iraqi driver and was sent to ARD television, armed men demanded that Germany cut ties with Iraq, bbc.co.uk reported on 29 November. The woman, whom "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" identified as archaeologist Susanne Osthoff, has reportedly been missing since 25 November. It is unclear whether she was abducted in Baghdad or outside the capital. The German Foreign Ministry said a special team has been set up to secure her release. Germany opposed the war in Iraq and has no troops there. KR

NO WORD ON FOUR WESTERNERS KIDNAPPED IN IRAQ
There is still no word on the fate of four Western aid workers abducted in Baghdad on 26 November, bbc.co.uk reported on 29 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 November 2005). U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said British officials have discussed the matter with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari. "We are working on the basis [that] it is a kidnapping," said Straw. The website reported that a multinational hostage team has been put into place and is now trying to determine the abductors and their motives. One of the four aid workers is 70-year-old British national Professor Norman Kember; the other hostages are two Canadian nationals and an American. The British government as a policy does not pay ransoms for the release of kidnap victims. It is estimated that at least 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq over the past 18 months, bbc.co.uk reported. KR

TWO U.K. NATIONALS KILLED IN IRAQI CAPITAL
Two U.K. nationals were killed when militants attacked a bus carrying Shi'ite pilgrims in southern Baghdad on 28 November, AP reported on 29 November. Three other U.K. nationals were reportedly injured in the attack. The victims were all of Indian descent and, according to a 28 November AFP report, had traveled to Iraq from India via Iran. They were en route to the Shi'ite shrine cities of Karbala and Al-Najaf when the bus was attacked in the Al-Dura district of Baghdad. KR

MILITANT GROUP CLAIMS KILLING OF IRAQI CONTRACTORS, BODYGUARDS
In a 28 November statement posted to the Internet, the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army claimed responsibility for the killing of two Iraqi contractors working for the U.S. military and three bodyguards in an ambush carried out in western Iraq, AFP reported on 28 November. The contractors were supplying food to a U.S. base west of Hit; they were identified as Naji Makki Kadhim and Wahid Shuli Muftin. The bodyguards were identified as Finjan Salam Ali, Abbas Salam Abd al-Rahman, and Haitham Jassim Hamza. The statement said the armed group killed the men "a few days ago." The video showed the purported identity cards of the victims. KR

KURDISH ISLAMIC PARTIES REJECT DRAFT CONSTITUTION FOR IRAQI REGION
The Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Kurdistan Islamic Group have rejected a draft constitution for the Kurdistan region, "Aso" reported on 28 November. The groups said they rejected the document because it does not include any references to Islam being the official religion of the region. Like other areas of Iraq, Islam is not the only religion practiced in the Kurdistan region. KR

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