Accessibility links

Newsline - December 19, 2005

Russian negotiators failed in four days of tough negotiations in Hong Kong to complete the bilateral membership agreements needed to pave the way for Russia to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), "The Moscow Times" and Interfax reported on 19 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2005). Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref said that Russia hopes to complete the necessary agreements in the first few months of 2006. Differences on access to financial-services markets are holding up a deal with the United States, while issues related to sugar prevented agreements with Australia and Colombia. Several other, unspecified problems have held up a pact with Switzerland. President Vladimir Putin told journalists in Sochi that "these talks are never simple. We want to join the WTO. We will continue this process, but on terms acceptable to Russia's economy." Putin stressed that if any of Russia's partners makes a proposal that "would restrict [our] economic freedom, it would be pointless for Russia to join the WTO." PM

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov failed in his 17 December bid to win the leadership of the small Democratic Party, which is Russia's oldest liberal party and widely seen as his potential springboard for the 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections, "The Moscow Times" and RFE/RL reported. He lost to his rival Andrei Bogdanov in what Kasyanov's spokeswoman described as a takeover of the party meeting. The former prime minister's supporters set up their own gathering in a hotel and elected him as their informal leader. Kasyanov suggested that the authorities engineered the split in the Democrats' ranks. "Today the authorities clearly demonstrated that they are afraid of any political or social movement, any political or social process, [or] any event that takes place without their control. It means that democracy [is in] great danger in Russia. It demonstrates that the authorities think like in the Soviet Union, that everything should be under control. [This] is the beginning of our political fight, fight for democracy, and fight for freedom for everyone," he argued. Kasyanov told reporters nonetheless that he still has not made a decision on whether to set up a new political grouping or continue fighting for control over the Democratic Party. Among those attending his meeting at the hotel were Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader Nikita Belykh and Our Choice leader Irina Khakamada. PM

Unified Russia won comfortable victories in the 18 December elections in the Tver and Tambov Oblasts, where each voter had two ballots, one for a direct mandate and one for a party list, RIA-Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). In Tver Oblast, Unified Russia won one-third of the votes for the 33-seat parliament. Other parties that crossed the 5 percent barrier were the Communist Party (KPRF) with almost 15 percent, Motherland (Rodina) at about 9 percent, People's Will at nearly 8 percent, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) with 7.5 percent, and the Agrarian Party at just over 5 percent. Unified Russia won 16 directly elected seats. In Tambov Oblast, 40.5 percent of those voting cast their ballots for Unified Russia, about 20 percent for the Communists, and nearly 10 percent for the LDPR. Other parties did not meet the 7 percent hurdle. Unified Russia won 15 out of 25 directly elected seats. PM

About 1,500 demonstrators turned out in Moscow on 18 December to protest what they said is rising extremism and to call the attention of the city authorities to the danger, RFE/RL's Russian Service and reported. The meeting was partly in response to rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the Russian capital. Among the sponsors were the SPS, Yabloko, the United Civic Front, and other civic and political organizations. PM

In what has become an annual practice, Nikolai Patrushev, who heads the Federal Security Service (FSB), told reporters in Moscow on 16 December that his agency "foiled the operations of 26 members and 67 agents of foreign intelligence services" over the last year, Interfax reported. "Three members and three agents of a foreign intelligence service were caught in action. Criminal proceedings were launched against one foreign national," he added. Patrushev said that "13 foreign nationals involved in intelligence operations were deported from Russia [and] six foreign diplomats were denied entry into Russia." In addition, the FSB barred entry to "600 foreign nationals justifiably suspected of involvement in extremist operations." He noted that his agency's "most intensive" cooperation is with its partners in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Germany, the United Kingdom, Israel, Kazakhstan, the United States, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and South Korea. PM

Colonel General Igor Valykin, who heads the Defense Ministry's department dealing with nuclear security, told Interfax in Moscow on 17 December that "there have been no attempts to enter our facilities" in the past several years. "Theft or leakage of arms from our facilities is impossible," he stressed. "We have very strict security measures. The very procedure of opening a nuclear facility is so complicated that an official with no access code cannot enter it, let alone a stranger," he added. PM

Russia's three leading news agencies issued a statement on 16 December supporting a copyright infringement lawsuit filed against RosBusiness Consulting (RBK) by the newspaper "Vedomosti," Interfax reported the same day. "The ITAR-TASS, Interfax, and RIA-Novosti news agencies -- the major producers of political, business, and financial information in the Russian Federation -- support the way the 'Vedomosti' newspaper has brought up the issue of legal liability for the violation of intellectual property rights," the statement read. "We welcome the very fact that the effort has been made to defend one's interests in this area and call for bringing this effort in support of intellectual rights protection to a logical and legal end." The statement stressed that such violations "still happen quite frequently." "Vedomosti" filed a lawsuit in Moscow's Arbitration Court on 11 December against RBK for breach of copyright, claiming that RBK posted articles from the newspaper on its website without attribution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and December 2005). BW

"Vedomosti" publisher Mikhail Dubik praised Russian news agencies for their support on 17 December, saying that intellectual property rights must be defended, Interfax reported the same day. "All civilized market players understand that the intellectual property problem needs to be sorted out. I am very pleased with a statement in which these leading news agencies said that not only do they see this problem as a matter of concern, but they are also trying to join forces to find a solution to it as soon as possible," Dubik said. RBK, meanwhile, said it plans to join the statement by Interfax, ITAR-TASS, and RIA-Novosti. "RBK is going to join the statement by Russia's three news agencies that underscores the need to ensure legislative regulation of information activities on the Internet," RBK said on its website. "RBK fully shares its colleagues' concern over the intellectual property problem," it said. Dubik called RBK's statement "a publicity stunt and an advertising move." BW

The Russian Embassy in Pyongyang announced on 19 December that North Korea has given permission for a detained Russian cargo ship to leave its territorial waters, RIA-Novosti reported. Ambassador Andrei Karlov said he was told by the North Korean authorities that the decision to release the vessel was due to the "friendly relations" between Moscow and Pyongyang. The cargo ship "Terney" was detained on 5 December after it strayed into North Korean territorial waters to avoid a storm (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2005). BW

Transport Minister Igor Levitin has asked President Putin to sign a draft law that will create a Russian naval international register of ships that would give greater protection to Russian commercial sailors, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "Today, unfortunately, about 80,000 Russian seamen sail under other countries' flags and have no legal protection," Levitin said. Levitin's move came after 12 Russian sailors were released after spending 23 months in jail in Nigeria after being accused of illegally possessing crude oil. He said the adoption of the Russian naval international register of ships would make sure "our sailors will remain under Russia's jurisdiction." He also said the move would be financially profitable. "We can bring about 700 ships back under the Russian flag practically without spending budget money and transport an additional 180 million tons of a sum of 2.5 billion U.S. dollars," he added. Putin promised Levitin that he will sign the legislation. BW

Belarusian Prime Minister Sergei Sidorskii said on 19 December that Russia has agreed to provide Belarus with 21 billion cubic meters of natural gas next year at a price of $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. Sidorskii made his comments at a meeting of the Russia-Belarus Union state's Council of Ministers in Moscow. "I have said it many times and will emphasize it again that Russia is interested in deeper and long-term cooperation with Belarus in the fuel and energy sector," Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said at the same meeting. Russia's approach to Belarus on energy matters differs sharply with that toward other former Soviet republics like Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltic states, which are being asked to pay market prices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 8, 13, 14, 15, and 16 December 2005). BW

Belarusian Prime Minister Sidorskii said on 19 December that Moscow and Minsk spent more than 2.5 billion rubles ($87 million) on bilateral programs in 2005, RIA-Novosti reported. The sum represents 90 percent of the Russia-Belarus Union state's budget, Sidorskii added. Speaking at a session of the union state's Council of Ministers in Moscow, Sidorskii said the funds were spent on 40 different programs or joint events. The Russia-Belarus Union was created in 1997 to foster political and economic integration, but the agreement remains largely on paper. Belarus was scheduled to adopt the Russian ruble this year, but the move has been indefinitely postponed. BW

President Putin met for five hours on 16 December in Sochi with his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian to discuss various aspects of bilateral cooperation, including in the energy sphere, ITAR-TASS and reported. Speaking at a press conference after those talks, Putin opined that the future of the CIS depends on gas supplies from one member state to another, but that the price of that gas is not a decisive factor and is dictated by purely economic considerations. Russia announced earlier this month that beginning on 1 January 2006, Gazprom will increase its prices for gas supplied to the three South Caucasus states, Ukraine and Moldova, which until now were below world prices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 December 2005). Armenian Energy Minister Armen Movsisian, who accompanied Kocharian to Sochi, told journalists on his return to Yerevan that all three South Caucasus states will be asked to pay $110 per thousand cubic meters of gas compared with the previous $56, reported on 17 December. That agency quoted "Kommersant-Daily" as reporting that in fact Armenia will continue to pay the previous price, and will receive a credit from Moscow to cover the increase; that loan will be repaid not in cash but with shares in state-controlled enterprises. LF

Former Armenian Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian told a demonstration of a few hundred people in Yerevan on 16 December that 68 prominent intellectuals, artists, opposition politicians, and human rights activists, together with thousands of ordinary citizens, have appended their signatures to his open letter addressed to President Robert Kocharian, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The signatories include poet Silva Kaputikian and opposition party leaders Vazgen Manukian (National Democratic Union) and Aram Sargsian (Hanrapetutiun). The open letter contains 21 questions concerning Kocharian's citizenship; his and his family's assets; the alleged falsification of the 2003 ballot in which Kocharian won a second term; and whether he has ever committed murder, or given orders to have anyone killed. Kocharian's spokesman Victor Soghomonian said on 12 December Kocharian will not respond to those "ridiculous" insinuations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 13 December 2005). LF

NATO formally approved on 16 December the International Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) that Armenia submitted in June, according to PanArmenian Net on 17 December as cited by Groong. LF

Artur Baghdasarian has written to his Lithuanian counterpart Arturas Paulauskas to express appreciation for the adoption by the Lithuanian parliament on 15 December of a resolution recognizing as a genocide the mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1918, reported on 16 December. The Lithuanian resolution was put forward by deputies from center-right opposition parties and was adopted by 48 votes in favor, none against, with three abstentions, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 16 December. LF

Police in Baku dispersed several dozen opposition activists who sought to stage an unauthorized demonstration on 18 December on Gelebe Square, and detained up to a dozen of them, ITAR-TASS and reported. The opposition requested official permission from the Baku municipal council to stage a protest march and rally (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2005), but the council issued permission only for a rally at the motorcycle racing track in the city outskirts, a venue the opposition has repeatedly rejected. LF

At a 17 December meeting of the opposition Musavat party, one of the three members of the Azadlyq alliance that convened the 18 December protest, party Deputy Chairman Sulkhaddin Akper accused Ali Kerimli, chairman of the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular front Party, of making an "unforgivable mistake" by embarking on a sit-down protest following the opposition protest rally in Gelebe Square on 26 November, reported. Police resorted to violence to end that protest, injuring dozens of people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 November 2005). Since then, the Baku municipal authorities have withheld permission for opposition rallies on Gelebe Square. LF

During talks in Tbilisi on 16 December, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli and Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin signed a formal agreement to establish an international consortium that will raise funds to repair and then operate the railway linking Russia with Georgia and Armenia via Abkhazia, Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported. Armenian Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian said the same day that Armenia is ready to participate in that project immediately. Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the agreement on 17 December as a step towards implementing the agreements he and then Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze signed in March 2003; those agreements, which included the resumption of rail traffic via Abkhazia, were intended to expedite a solution to the Abkhaz conflict (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 March 2003). LF

Georgian National Bank Chairman Roman Gotsiridze announced on 15 December that the accounts in Georgia of all Russian banks that cooperate with, or have official representation in, the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia will be closed on 1 January 2006, Caucasus Press reported. Gotsiridze and other Georgian National Bank officials have repeatedly accused unnamed Russian banks of engaging in money-laundering in Abkhazia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May and 3 June 2005). LF

Sergei Bagapsh told Interfax on 14 December that a meeting between himself and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili could take place before the end of this year, provided that the two sides' respective foreign ministers sign the long-awaited document on the nonresumption of hostilities before then. He added that that document is almost ready. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba said on 15 December that the Bagapsh-Saakashvili meeting could take place either in Geneva, Sochi or Sukhum, reported. On 16 December, Bagapsh announced in St . Petersburg that he would discuss with Saakashvili only economic issues, such as energy and communications, Caucasus Press reported. At the same 16 December press conference in St. Petersburg, Bagapsh warned that Abkhazia will suspend all talks with Georgia in the event of a new Georgian attack on South Ossetia. Also on 16 December, Bagapsh was formally presented with the "In the Name of Russia" order, Interfax reported. LF

In a 16 December press release, the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) expressed concern at the increasing number of violent incidents in the Abkhaz conflict zone, and about the apprehensions triggered among the district's Georgian population by Abkhaz arguments that they should adopt Abkhaz citizenship and serve in the Abkhaz army. UNOMIG called on both sides to cooperate in a crackdown on criminal activities, and reaffirmed its readiness to convene a high-level meeting to address security issues. LF

Eduard Kokoity told Georgian journalists in Tskhinvali on 14 December that he is ready to discuss his recently unveiled proposals for ending the conflict with Georgia only with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and not with Prime Minister Noghaideli, Caucasus Press reported on 15 December. Noghaideli, however, insists on a meeting with Kokoity, Caucasus Press reported on 19 December. LF

The bodies of four Georgians abducted in June in the South Ossetian conflict zone and subsequently murdered were handed over to their families on 15 December and buried on 18 December, Caucasus Press and reported. The bodies were recovered on 13 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2005). On 14 December, Kokoity identified those responsible for the abduction and murders as a criminal gang that includes both Georgians and Ossetians, reported. LF

A report by Bishkek Public and Educational TV on 16 December quoted President Kurmanbek Bakiev as saying that the United States will pay $200 million per year for its air base in Kyrgyzstan. In comments on 15 December, Bakiev stressed that Kyrgyzstan is not "bargaining" with the United States over the base, but rather seeking a new agreement under market conditions, Kabar reported. Kabar quoted Bakiev as saying that "in comparison with what exists today, the sum [paid for the base] will be several dozen times higher." He did not give a concrete amount, and the report saying that the United States will pay $200 million a year could not be confirmed. The "Financial Times" reported on 15 December that Bakiev wants to increase lease payments for the base from current levels of $2 million per year to $200 million. DK

President Bakiev met with the leaders of political parties in Bishkek on 17 December to discuss constitutional reform, reported. He did not express a firm preference for either a presidential or a presidential-parliamentary system, saying only, "I am for the system that the people choose." Bakiev did say that he feels that parliament should discuss the constitution article by article. He also said that he has no qualms about giving up the post of president, declaring, "I never clung to power." The details of other contributions to the discussion were not immediately available. DK

Uzbekistan has resumed exporting electrical power to Tajikistan, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 16 December. Tajik Deputy Energy Minister Abdullo Yorov told RFE/RL that Uzbekistan will export 10 million kilowatt-hours of electricity to Tajikistan a day. Yorov said the deliveries began on 15 December. Tajikistan will pay $0.026 per kilowatt-hour, compared to $0.03 paid in previous years. The report also noted that Tajikistan will import 2 million kilowatt-hours of electricity daily from Kyrgyzstan through Uzbekistan. DK

A shakeup took place in the management of Turkmenistan's energy sector at a cabinet meeting in Ashgabat on 15 December, reported the next day. President Saparmurat Niyazov dismissed Atamurat Berdiev from the posts of deputy prime minister and oil and gas minister. Berdiev, who asked to be dismissed claiming insufficient expertise, was named minister of economy and finance. The new minister of oil and gas is Gurbanmurat Ataev, who had been first deputy minister. At the same cabinet meeting, Niyazov set 2006 production targets for the country's natural-gas industry at 71 billion cubic meters, with over 50 billion cubic meters earmarked for export. DK

President Niyazov gave ministers six months to learn English, Turkmen Television reported on 15 December. Addressing "all senior officials," Niyazov said that within six months they must be able to conduct negotiations with foreign companies in English without an interpreter. He warned, "If you fail to do this, you cannot be a minister." DK

In a 16 December interview with the BBC's Uzbek Service, exiled opposition leader Muhammad Solih, head of the banned Erk party, said that Uzbekistan's current regime "cannot be reformed." Calling the current regime the source of all the country's other difficulties, Solih said that all opposition groups agree that the regime "must be changed." He stressed that the means of regime change would be "democratic." Solih elaborated: "We are working with representatives of all segments of society. We're working with people in the power agencies.... Many people in government are dissatisfied with [President Islam] Karimov's policy. There are dissatisfied people among army officers and even among officers of the National Security Service. We're working together with them." Queried about the potential for change in 2006, Solih eschewed direct predictions, saying only that "2006 will be a historic year for Uzbekistan. It could even mark the beginning of big changes." DK

Following last week's scheduling of a presidential vote for 19 March 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2005), the Central Election Commission said it will register nomination groups to collect signatures in support of presidential candidates until 23 December, Belapan reported. To get on the ballot, a presidential contender needs to collect at least 100,000 voter signatures. Apart from democratic opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who was selected in October to challenge President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 October 2005), four more aspirants have signaled their intention to run. They are lawmaker Syarhey Haydukevich, leader of the Belarusian Liberal Democratic Party; Alyaksandr Kazulin, leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada); former Foreign Minister Pyotr Krauchanka; and Zyanon Paznyak, exiled leader of the Conservative Christian Party. The 61-year-old Paznyak has been living abroad since 1996, when he fled the country for fear of being jailed. JM

Viktor Yushchenko said in a weekly radio address on 17 December that Ukraine will not face any energy crisis in connection with Gazprom's recent announcement to increase gas price for Ukraine more than fourfold in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2005), Ukrainian media reported. "One has a price to pay for everything, first and foremost for independence. If Ukraine truly wants to become economically independent, sooner or later we will have to accept market relations in the energy field and switch to rational energy consumption," Yushchenko said. He asserted that both Russia and Ukraine will benefit from a switch to market relations and prices in gas supplies and transit. "I am convinced that the price should be increased gradually, without shock therapy for national industry," Yushchenko noted. "It is necessary to draft and implement a transitional system of gas rates which would minimize repercussions for the population. The system of transitional rates should be in place for two or three years and should gradually lead to a single rate which would reflect the real cost of gas for Ukraine." JM

A number of Ukrainian parties and blocs held conventions on 17 and 18 December to endorse their lists of candidates for the 26 March 2006 parliamentary elections, Ukrainian media reported. They included the Our Ukraine Yushchenko Bloc, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Socialist Party, the Not So! Bloc based on the Social Democratic Party-united, and the Lytvyn People's Bloc based on the People's Party led by parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn. The Party of Regions led by former Premier Viktor Yanukovych and the Communist Party compiled its election lists earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," 16 December 2005). Central Election Commission head Yaroslav Davydovych said last week that 38 political parties and blocs want to take part in the 2006 parliamentary elections. The elections will be Ukraine's first under a fully proportional, party-list system. Polls suggest that six to seven parties stand the chance of obtaining no less than 3 percent of the vote, which qualifies for parliamentary representation. JM

The Kyiv Appellate Court on 19 December began preliminary hearings in the case involving the murder of Internet journalist Hryhoriy Gongadze in 2000, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. The proceedings take place behind closed doors and are attended by three former police officers suspected of killing Gongadze, Mykola Protasov, Valeriy Kostenko, and Oleksandr Popovych, as well as their lawyers. JM

European Union leaders on 17 December officially made Macedonia a candidate for membership, international news agencies reported the same day. But EU leaders said in a statement that Skopje's entry into the EU would need to wait until the bloc has a broader debate about the extent of its enlargement. The statement also reflected French demands that further debate should precede any new members being admitted. "The European Council makes clear that further steps will have to be considered in the light of the debate on the enlargement strategy," Reuters quoted the statement as saying. BW

Serbian President Boris Tadic on 16 December called on his government to account for its efforts to arrest war crimes suspects, Hina reported the same day. Tadic spoke after Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague, was highly critical of Belgrade in a report to the UN Security Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2005). "There is no doubt that the Serbian government is responsible for cooperation with the Hague tribunal," Tadic said. He added that the government must now make clear "what has been done in cooperation with the tribunal and why the report was so negative." Tadic added that integration into international institutions, foreign investment, and improved living standards all depend on successful cooperation with the Hague-based tribunal. "We have to do everything at all ministries so as to improve our international credibility," he said. BW

Serbia and Montenegro Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said on 16 December that Del Ponte's negative report should be viewed as a "last warning" to Belgrade, Hina reported. "All deadlines for the arrest of the accused have been broken and the international community's patience is at an end," Draskovic said. "There is danger that negotiations on stabilization and association with the EU will be suspended. Without removing the Hague obstacle we can't even think of joining [NATO's] Partnership for Peace [program]," he added. "Our negotiating position regarding the status of Kosovo is already weakened both politically and morally. The people are at a loss, the state is at a loss," Draskovic added. BW

Christian Schwarz-Schilling, who is scheduled to become the international community's next high representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina in January, told the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of 15 December that he wants to make that country "a normal European state" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 25 November 2005). He does not believe in immediately abolishing the two entities -- the Republika Srpska and the Croat-Muslim federation -- in order to strengthen the central state, but stressed that the entities "are administrative units of the Bosnian state and must see themselves as such," not as representatives of an ethnic group. He said that the future constitutional order is a matter for the Bosnians themselves to determine, adding that "the Bosnian politicians must create the necessary [political] majorities for a constitutional reform themselves." Referring to the powers that the high representative has to intervene in politics, Schwarz-Schilling feels that he will not use that authority "to intervene in day-to-day administrative issues" but only in the case of an "obvious blockade" by individual politicians who are holding up their country's integration into the EU. He wants to reduce bureaucracy and promote small and medium-sized businesses that will create jobs. He said that some subsidies will be needed to jump-start economic development, as was done in Germany after World War II. PM

Mirsad Tokaca, director of the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Center, announced on 17 December that a total of 98,837 civilians and soldiers were killed in Bosnia-Herzegovina's 1992-95 war, Hina reported the next day. The figure is considerably lower than the commonly cited figure of 200,000 dead. "We estimate the final number of victims will not exceed 102,000," Tokaca said. "Establishing the truth today is a precondition for a future without war conflicts," he added. Tokaca said the research, carried out over a four-year period, was financed by the Norwegian government. By far the largest proportion of fatalities was suffered by Muslims, who accounted for 63,687 deaths, or 67.87 percent of the total. Some 24,216 Serbs were killed, accounting for 25.81 percent of war fatalities, and 5,057 Croats died, accounting for 5.39 percent. BW

The Belgrade Institute for School Textbooks and Teaching Aids has printed the first textbook in the Croatian language for use by students in Serbia, Hina reported on 16 December. The book, a Croatian translation of the third-grade textbook "Nature and Society," was printed with the approval of Serbia's Education Ministry, according to Ivica Stipic, a member of the executive board of the Croatian National Council, an umbrella organization representing the Croatian minority in Serbia. The organization says it plans to ensure that all other textbooks for Croatian schoolchildren are ready before the 2006-07 school year. BW

Moldova and the breakaway Transdniester region have failed to make any progress in the second round of talks that concluded late on 16 December, international news agencies reported the next day. The talks were held in the "five plus two" format, with Moldova, Transdniester, Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as full participants and the United States and the European Union attending as observers. The parties discussed six issues, Reuters reported, including an OSCE observer mission for elections, the demilitarization of the region, reforming the peacekeeping mission, and monitoring the military-industrial complex, and the security situation. William Hill, head of the OSCE mission in Moldova, said he was dissatisfied with the lack of progress, RIA-Novosti reported on 17 December. The next round of talks is scheduled for 26-27 January. BW

With polling centers in Iraq now closed, election officials are starting to tally up the results of the 15 December parliamentary elections, a task that could take up to two weeks.

The task will be complicated by the issue of fraud. While election day violence was minimal, complaints of voting fraud and other irregularities circulated from early on election day. Still, so far, fewer complaints have surfaced than in January's election to Iraq's interim parliament.

While the spokesman of the Iraqi Independent Election Commission (IECI), Farid Ayar, acknowledged that violations had occurred, he downplayed their significance, saying some violations were to be expected.

Prior to the election, the head of the IECI, Adil al-Lami, said 140 complaints about allegedly illegal campaign activities had been filed. These will be investigated, he promised.

The complaints voiced by political parties and the IECI on election day were similar to complaints filed following the January elections: some polling centers did not open and voters complained of having to travel long distances to cast their ballots; a number of polling centers were short of ballots and ballot boxes; some voters found their names were missing from electoral lists and some were turned away at polling centers; and political parties and police were accused of intimidating voters to vote for specific parties in several towns.

So far, the most serious election-day complaints have come from Kurdish leaders. In the highly sensitive Kirkuk Governorate, which Kurds hope will ultimately be incorporated into the Kurdish autonomous region, hundreds of Kurds were reportedly turned away from polling centers after their names could not be found on voter lists.

Earlier last week, Kurdistan Regional Government President Mas'ud Barzani accused the IECI of plotting to steal some 200,000 votes in Kirkuk during the elections. Barzani said he would hold the IECI responsible for any problems facing Kurdish voters in Kirkuk on election day.

The IECI addressed the issue ahead of the 15 December vote, saying in an undated press release posted to its website ( that it found "abnormal patterns" in voter registration in Kirkuk. The statement noted that its board of commissioners had rejected 81,297 voters' registration applications, for reasons that included: failure to produce sufficient evidence their identity; use of the same document by more than one person; failure to sign registration forms; and identical signatures found on multiple application forms.

A Kurdish minister in Iraq's transitional government, Minister of Municipalities and Public Works Nisreen Barwari, complained that Kurds in Baghdad and other Arab cities were prevented from voting, Kurdistan Satellite TV reported on 15 December.

Barwari said that Kurdish peshmerga fighters assigned to protect her were turned away from polling centers in Baghdad. She also claimed to have witnessed "intimidation" against Iraqi Kurds, adding that Kurds have been marginalized in the voting process. These violations were carried out "with the knowledge" of the IECI, she asserted.

In the northern city of Mosul, hundreds of Kurdish voters who voted successfully in the constitutional referendum in October found that their names had been removed from voter rolls; some illiterate voters claimed that election workers assigned to help them vote ignored their preferences and cast ballots for other parties.

In the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah, western news agencies reported that Iraqi police had used loud speakers to urge voters to vote for the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), and election officials complained that the Alliance attempted to intimidate polling workers. Secular Shi'ite political candidates said they feared there had been fraud.

Similar incidents were reported in two cities to the south of Baghdad -- Al-Najaf and Al-Hillah -- and in the northern town of Tal Afar. Hatim Bachari, a campaign manager for the secular Iraqi National List in the southern city of Al-Basrah, told the Los Angeles Times that electoral commission employees hung banners for the United Iraqi Alliance inside voting centers.

In Karbala, 70 kilometers south of Baghdad, Al-Sharqiyah television reported that the governor was using local security services and government resources to promote the UIA list.

Voters in Baghdad, Al-Ramadi, and Al-Fallujah complained that their names were absent from voter rolls. Some said they had voted without problem in the constitutional referendum in October.

In some areas, it appears that the IECI underestimated the number of voters who would go to the polls, with the result that a shortage of ballots or ballot boxes (or both) was reported in many towns dominated by the minority Sunni Arabs, including Samarra, Al-Ramadi, Al-Fallujah, and Ba'qubah.

IECI spokesman Farid Ayar said on 16 December that the commission would not view a shortage of ballots as an election violation.

The IECI has said it is looking into complaints that votes were forged at some polling centers. Should those complaints be verified, the IECI would cancel the results of the polling station, he said.

The IECI signaled before the election that it would conduct audits of the integrity, transparency, and credibility of votes across the country. "Audit activities include taking physical stock of electoral materials, checking on the actual number of polling locations, checking of materials for signs of tampering, reviewing [the] counting of forms against reported figures, visually inspecting the cast ballots, [and] looking for unusual patterns of voting," IECI head al-Lami said on 13 December.

Afghanistan's National Assembly held its first session in Kabul on 19 December, international news agencies reported. The parliament -- consisting of a 102-member upper house, the Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga), and a 249-seat lower house, the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) -- is the country's first elected legislative body in more that three decades. An Afghan parliament last met in 1969 during the reign of former King Mohammad Zaher Shah, who attended the opening ceremony, Afghan National Television reported on 19 December. Addressing the opening ceremony, President Hamid Karzai told the representatives that "with the formation of the National Assembly, the main pillars of the Afghan government are now completed under" the Afghan Constitution, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on 19 December. Afghanistan "has resisted for thousands of years and it will remain standing for all eternity," he added. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney also attended the opening ceremony. "He was here with us on the two best occasions, my inauguration [in December 2004] and the parliament's," Karzai said of Cheney's presence, AFP reported. AT

In a statement released to the media on 16 December, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed that many of the new legislators, including up to 60 percent of People's Council deputies, are directly or indirectly connected to current or past human rights abuses. According to HRW, in the Council of Elders, where one-third of the seats are appointed by President Karzai, new appointees linked to serious human rights abuses include former Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim; former Taliban government official Mawlawi Arasla Rahmani; and Sher Mohammad Akhunzada, who prior to his appointment to the Council of Elders served as the governor of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 14 December 2005). "The international community will try to portray the opening of parliament as a triumph," HRW's Asia research director Sam Zia-Zarifi said. "But many Afghans are worried about a parliament dominated by human rights abusers." AT

According to information from detainees at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the United States operated a secret prison in Afghanistan until 2004 where detainees were subjected to torture and other mistreatment, HRW said in a 19 December press release. Eight detainees now held at Guantanamo described to their attorneys how they were held at a facility near Kabul at various times between 2002 and 2004. The detainees, who called the facility the "dark prison" or "prison of darkness," said they were chained to walls, deprived of food and drinking water, and kept in total darkness with loud music or other noise blared at them for weeks at a time. "The U.S. government must shed some light on Kabul's 'dark prison,'" HRW researcher John Sifton said. According to HRW, most of the detainees claimed that they were arrested in other countries in Asia and the Middle East, and then flown to Afghanistan. AT

An e-mail statement sent on 17 December by the neo-Taliban, and later confirmed by purported neo-Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif, challenges reports by Western and independent Afghan media outlets, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. The statement, which was sent to AIP by the "Taliban Islamic Movement Press Committee," claims that after ousting the Taliban regime from power in Afghanistan in late 2001, the United States "not only established military bases, but also set up some propaganda centers under different names," and lists RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, and the Sulh and Arman radio stations. But the statement reserves its harshest criticism for Kabul-based Tolu Television. The statement rejects a report by Tolu that "claimed that famous Taliban commanders, respected Mullah Brother Akhund and respected Mullah Dadullah Akhund, were negotiating with the government" in Kabul. In their statement, the neo-Taliban tell "all those who seek credible reports about the Taliban" not to trust coverage from any radio or television station based in Kabul or the West. AT

European Union heads of state meeting in Brussels on 17 December condemned recent remarks by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad calling the Holocaust a "myth" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13, 15, and 16 December 2005), Reuters reported the same day. The EU leaders said that Ahmadinejad's statements were "wholly unacceptable" and without a "place in civilized political debate," Reuters reported. The EU also expressed concern at Iran's failure to dispel suspicion over its nuclear program. In Tehran on 18 December, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi told the press the Holocaust is "an academic subject," and "there are different views on it," ISNA reported the same day. He said that Iran opposes any discrimination against religions, but "I wonder why [the] matter is being treated this way." The "emotional" Western reaction, he said, is "far from logical" and has "no place in today's civilized world." He added that the West should learn to "listen to other people's views," even if they disagree, "just as we disagree with many of the Europeans' views," ISNA reported. VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi also dismissed as "political" on 18 December a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly on 16 December deploring rights abuses in several countries, including Iran, ISNA reported. The resolution was reportedly sponsored by Canada, and approved by countries including the EU and the United States. Assefi said the condemnation of human rights abuses has become a "tool at the hands of certain countries," which means "nobody in the world pays any attention to such resolutions." He accused Canada of its own rights abuses, including the "deplorable" state of its indigenous population. "Human rights are absolutely not respected in Canada, and we simply do not see...Canada as being in a position to comment on human rights," ISNA quoted him as saying. He also described as "vulgar and incoherent" a 15 December statement by New York-based Human Rights Watch implicating Iran's intelligence and interior ministers in the killings of dissidents in the 1990s and earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2005). The statement ( called them "ministers of murder," but, Assefi said, "I think Human Rights Watch watches over Western interests more than it does over human rights." VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi also said EU negotiators should not "ask for too much" in coming talks on Iran's nuclear program (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 December 2005), while Iran will be asking for its rights and nothing more, ISNA reported on 18 December. "We have not asked too much from the start, nor will we in the future," he said. The next session, he said, will be "on how Iran's rights concerning [uranium] enrichment will be respected...we have said we are ready to...cooperate with the [International Atomic Energy] Agency and there is no concern over any possible deviation by Iran," he said, referring to Western concerns over any move by Iran to make nuclear weapons. Talks will go well, he said, "if Europe recognizes Iran's rights, and naturally if there is any question of excessive demands, there will be a different atmosphere," ISNA reported. Separately, President Ahmadinejad signed on 13 December a law blocking UN inspections of Iranian nuclear installations if it is referred to the UN Security Council, AFP reported on 17 December. VS

A group of 48 legislators has written to Culture Minister Mohammad Hussein Saffar-Herandi objecting to the increased blocking of websites by the authorities, while 12 legislators have written to President Ahmadinejad asking him to order the removal of filters on "permitted" websites, Radio Farda reported on 18 December, citing ILNA. But journalist and Association in Defense of Press Freedoms spokesman Mashallah Shamsolvaezin told Radio Farda on 18 December that the restrictions are no surprise, and the objections of legislators will prove fruitless, coming as they do from the minority group of reformist legislators with little influence in government. Saffar-Herandi, he said, "has shown that he only believes in those media that absolutely preach and...approve government policies." He said that with the closure of numerous newspapers and journals, the government is focusing on the Internet, while Tehran's chief prosecutor can use tried-and-tested "excuses like 'the publication of false reports,' 'spreading corruption', or 'promoting secularism,'" to order websites blocked, Radio Farda reported. VS

Arab and Western media reported on 18 and 19 December that U.S. forces have freed nine former members of the Hussein regime from coalition custody. Al-Arabiyah television reported on 18 December that the freed were to be transported to Amman on 19 December. Among those freed men are: Humam Abd al-Khaliq Abd al-Ghafur, the former Iraqi minister of higher education and scientific research; Ahmad Khalil Murtada, former transport minister; Sattam al-Qu'ud, a chieftain of the Al-Dulaym tribe and the former secretary-general of the Iraqi Intellectual Committee; and Asil Tabrah, who served as Uday Hussein's first deputy on the Iraqi Olympic Committee. Sheikh Majid al-Qu'ud, brother of one of the released detainees, told dpa that the nine were being flown to Jordan for security reasons after their names were found on extermination lists compiled by militias seeking revenge against the former regime, the news agency reported on 19 December. The other Ba'athist leaders released were Fadil Mahmud Gharib, Husam al-Alusi, Hazim al-Shaykh al-Rawi, Tha'ir Husam al-Din Muhammad, and Ibrahim Khalil Husayn, dpa reported. KR

The Iraqi Independent Election Commission (IECI) on 18 December began looking into 345 complaints of violations carried out before and after the 15 December elections, IECI official Safwat Rashid told reporters on 18 December, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Rashid said that several electoral lists will be fined 5 million dinars (about $3,410) for violating an IECI ban on campaigning during the 48 hours prior to the elections, including the Iraqi National Grouping; the Iraqi National Dialogue Front; the Arab Iraqis Movement; the Kurdistan Coalition List; the United Iraqi Alliance; the Iraqi Accordance Front; and the Iraqi National List. Rashid said the majority of complaints filed with the IECI related to campaigning. The rest of the complaints related to voter lists and interference in the political process by political party agents, police, and even IECI employees. He said the majority of complaints were not serious, but some complaints, if valid, could lead to the disqualification of ballot boxes. KR

Salih al-Mutlaq, head of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, told reporters at a 18 December press briefing in Baghdad that unnamed Shi'ite parties carried out illegal campaign activities aimed at obstructing support for his list in the National Assembly elections, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Al-Mutlaq contended that the behavior of some rival lists was regrettable, adding that some rival parties resorted to killing candidates and attacking party offices. Addressing U.S. President George W. Bush, al-Mutlaq said: "Do not believe that a real democratic process has taken place in this country. If anyone tries to delude you into believing this, he is mistaken." KR

Iraqi militants freed German national Susanne Osthoff after three weeks in captivity on 18 December, international media reported. Osthoff was kidnapped along with her driver on 25 November near Irbil. Her driver was reportedly not released on 18 December, but dpa cited sources on 19 December as saying that he has subsequently been freed. The German government was reportedly involved in attempts to free Osthoff, but German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has refused to discuss the circumstances of Osthoff's release and whether any ransom was paid. KR

Jordan's state security court sentenced fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi to death in absentia on 18 December, Jordan's Petra news agency reported the same day. Two other terrorists were also sentenced to death -- one in absentia, the other is in custody -- for a failed suicide attack on the Al-Karamah border crossing in December 2004. A three-judge court said al-Zarqawi and Dhirar Ismail Abu Odeh helped plan the attack, in which Saudi national Fahd Nu'man al-Fahayqi attempted to drive an explosives-laden truck into oil tankers and other vehicles at the border crossing. Al-Fahayqi's truck landed in a ditch and the explosives failed to detonate; he was then captured by border police. The three men were also charged with the transport and possession of explosives and missiles. This is the second death sentence issued against al-Zarqawi by a Jordanian court; the first was in connection with the 2002 assassination of U.S. Agency for International Development official Lawrence Foley (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 August 2003). KR