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Newsline - December 20, 2005


PRESIDENT HAILS FOREIGN INTELLIGENCE SERVICE...
President Vladimir Putin praised the work of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) in a 19 December Moscow address to mark the service's 85th anniversary, Interfax reported. "The leadership of the country appreciates the excellent job done by the [SVR].... I know that one can rely on your information in making crucial political decisions and that the instructions you get will be fulfilled precisely and on time," he stressed. Putin added that "the content of intelligence data has improved considerably in recent years," including the preparation of timely analyses, forecasts, and concrete proposals. He stressed the importance of anticipating and meeting new threats, particularly in response to terrorism. "This standard must remain high. Life gives us new tasks, and the special services must respond to these challenges quickly and adequately, which presupposes flexibility, high mobility, and quality," he said. Putin warned that "the risk of extremist groups getting hold of weapons of mass destruction and their components is particularly great now." He argued that "the Foreign Intelligence Service, just like Soviet foreign intelligence in the past, is one of the most capable and efficient intelligence services in the world. It is respected both by friends and opponents." PM

...AND ADDS A PERSONAL NOTE
President Putin said in Moscow on 19 December: "I am proud that part of my life was connected with intelligence, with wonderful people and excellent professionals working in the intelligence department," a reference in part to his days in the KGB, including a posting from 1985-90 to Dresden in the former East Germany, ITAR-TASS reported. The news agency added that Putin might well consider 20 December the day of his own profession, having joined the KGB in 1975 and remaining in intelligence until 1990. He headed Federal Security Service (FSB) in 1998-99 and once remarked that there is no such thing as a former KGB man. On 20 December 1995, then President Boris Yeltsin declared 20 December Security Service Workers' Day. On that day in 1917, the Council of People's Commissars created the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to fight "counterrevolution and sabotage." Three years later, the Foreign Department was created. It then underwent 17 name changes prior to 1992. PM

SVR HEAD EXPRESSES CONCERN ABOUT RUSSIA'S NEIGHBORS...
Army General Sergei Lebedev, who heads the SVR, marked its 85th anniversary by saying that "Russians cannot help but be concerned about new military bases and military contingents being deployed around our country. Therefore, the main task facing the [SVR] is to detect military threats to Russia in good time," Interfax reported on 19 December. He added that unspecified political changes in some CIS member states "influence our activity in a certain way. For example, a closer rapprochement between some CIS republics and NATO will regrettably force us to revise some aspects of our cooperation" with them, Lebedev said. Concerning the intelligence services of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are among NATO's newest members, he said that the SVR "does not regard them as adversaries." Lebedev added that "naturally, [their] special services have intensified cooperation with NATO intelligence structures and have been in close contact with them. But I don't think they pose any serious threat to Russia, even though we know they are working against us." PM

...BUT DENIES THERE IS A 'MAIN ADVERSARY'...
General Lebedev told reporters on 19 December in Moscow that unspecified changes have taken place around the world in recent years to enable Russia to abandon the term "main adversary" in discussing its external relations, Interfax reported. He stressed that "new but no less serious threats and challenges facing our state's security have replaced old threats and challenges. Today the most serious threats come from international terrorism, and from religious and nationalist extremism. Hotbeds of tension along the perimeter of Russia's borders continue to smolder." Lebedev also referred to the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and measures against drug trafficking, illegal arms trade, and illegal migration as priorities for the SVR. Asked whether progress has been made in recent years in reducing the threat from the development and proliferation of particularly dangerous weapons, Lebedev said that he cannot "give a definite answer to this question because this is a comprehensive problem and involves steps to counter the spread of both nuclear, chemical, and biological arms and related technologies and materials." He added, however, that "we have been working in close cooperation with other Russian agencies and foreign special services. Our joint efforts have made it more difficult [for terrorists and extremists] to acquire weapons of mass destruction and their components," he said. PM

...AND SAYS THAT IRAN HAS NO NUKES
In interviews marking the SVR's 85th anniversary, General Lebedev said in Moscow on 19 December that Iran has no nuclear weapons, Interfax reported. He added that "we have been monitoring the events surrounding Iran carefully. And we report about [them] to our superiors. We care about how the events develop. But, as of now, we have no information about Iran developing nuclear weapons." He stressed that "consequently, there is no reason to use force against Iran." Asked whether North Korea has nuclear weapons, Lebedev said, "We don't have [any such] information." He said that unnamed foreign governments are wrong to "scare [their] ordinary citizens...with [tales of] Russian spies," but he did not rule out confrontation in Russia's external relations. "As far as confrontation is concerned, I view it as a natural element of international relations. The only question is what exactly one means by it," Lebedev said. "Confrontation can be intellectual, psychological, political, [or] diplomatic. I can say that it continues to exist in relations between intelligence agencies because they, including the [SVR], primarily defend the interests of their own states." PM

RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR SEES BOOM IN CHINA TRADE
Russian Ambassador to China Sergei Razov told a press conference in Beijing on 20 December that China is likely to become Russia's second most important trading partner, after Germany, in 2006, RIA-Novosti reported (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). He cited unnamed experts as predicting a two-way trade value of $29 billion in 2005, which would be a one-third increase over that in 2004. PM

LEGISLATION ON CHANGING NOMINATION OF GOVERNORS CLEARS DUMA
The State Duma on 19 December passed in the third and final reading a bill allowing political parties that win a majority in regional legislatures to nominate candidates for governor, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. The bill passed by a vote of 336-57. To become law it must still pass the Federation Council and be signed by President Putin. Under the law currently in force, the president nominates candidates for governor and regional legislatures ratify them. According to media reports, the pro-Kremlin party Unified Russia is preparing similar legislation that would allow a party with a majority in the State Duma to also nominate candidates for prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2005). BW

LIBERAL RUSSIAN POLITICIAN RESIGNS FROM NEFTYANOI BANK
Former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov said on 19 December that he has resigned as a member of the board of directors of Neftyanoi Bank, "The Moscow Times" reported the next day. "I think I need to eliminate political risks," Nemtsov, a critic of President Putin, told "The Moscow Times," without providing further details. Police and prosecutors raided the bank on 8 December and later said the bank was involved in money laundering. Some Russian media, however, have suggested the move was part of an effort by Russian authorities to warn the bank's officials not to finance the potential presidential bid of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 12 December 2005). BW

RUSSIA'S GAZPROM ACCUSES UKRAINE OF DELAYING GAS DEAL
Gazprom on 19 December accused Ukraine of delaying and dodging in negotiations over the price of natural-gas supplies, Russian news agencies reported. "The Ukrainian government delegation virtually refused to make any decision," Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kuprianov said in remarks broadcast on Rossiya state television. "Scant days are left to the new year, when the existing contract runs out, yet we still do not know how we are to supply gas to Ukraine," Kuprianov said. "Nor do we know on what basis gas will pass through Ukraine in transit." Gazprom has been supplying natural gas to Ukraine under a barter agreement for $50 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazprom is seeking to raise the price to $220-230 per 1,000 cubic meters, which is roughly the market price in Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 8, and 13 December 2005). BW

ST. PETERSBURG SUBMITS PROPOSAL TO HOST CONSTITUTIONAL COURT
St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko announced on 20 December that her government and the city's Legislative Assembly have submitted a proposal to the State Duma to move the Constitutional Court from Moscow to St. Petersburg, RIA-Novosti reported. Matvienko said the Duma's council, which approves the lower chamber of parliament's agenda, has already approved the issue for consideration. A bill amending the law on the Constitutional Court is to be prepared soon and submitted to the Duma, Matvienko said. BW

DETAINED RUSSIAN CARGO SHIP LEAVES NORTH KOREAN PORT
A Russian cargo ship detained by North Korean authorities for more than two weeks began its journey home on 20 December, ITAR-TASS reported. North Korean border guards detained the ship, called the Terney, on 5 December after it strayed into Pyongyang's territorial waters to avoid a storm (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 19 December 2005). The ship left the North Korean port of Kimchaek on 20 December and headed toward Vladivostok, according to Andrei Makeev, director of the shipping department of the Ardis Company, which owns the ship. BW

PRO-MOSCOW CHECHEN LEADER CALLS FOR REDUCTION IN RUSSIAN TROOP PRESENCE
Speaking on 19 December at a press conference at Interfax's head office in Moscow, Alu Alkhanov argued that the Russian military presence in Chechnya should be reduced by "thousands" of men, and responsibility for the ongoing "antiterrorism" operation should be turned over to local law-enforcement agencies, Interfax reported. Alkhanov also claimed a dramatic reduction in the number of terrorist acts in Chechnya this year, from 113 in 2004 to 39 in 2005. Alkhanov said the draft power-sharing treaty between Chechnya and the federal government has been submitted to the newly elected Chechen parliament for approval, after which it will be forwarded to Moscow. But in a seeming contradiction, he also declined to rule out the possibility of merging Chechnya and Ingushetia to form a single federation subject, saying merely that the issue should be put to a referendum in both republics, ingushetiya.ru reported, quoting Interfax. LF

SLAVS IN ADYGEYA CONTINUE TO URGE MERGER WITH KRASNODAR KRAI
The Union of Slavs of Adygeya convened its fourth congress in Maikop on 18 December, regnum.ru reported the following day. The estimated 1,200 delegates adopted a resolution calling on President Putin to consider the proposed merger of the Republic of Adygeya into the surrounding Krasnodar Krai and pledged to collect signatures on a petition reinforcing that demand. They further appealed to Adygeya's President Khazret Sovmen to embark on a dialogue with all organizations that represent the interests of the Slavs, who account for some 70 percent of the republic's total 446,000 population. Delegates further decided that the Union will align with the Cossacks and the local Union of Industrialists and Businessmen to participate in the 12 March 2006 parliamentary elections, in which their main rival will be the republican branch of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. Yurii Kanatov, who heads the Adygeya chapter of the Russian National Statehood Party, urged fellow delegates to take advantage of all legal channels for acquiring weapons in order to be in a position to defend "Russia's national interests." LF

FORMER CHECHEN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER'S MOTHER APPEALS TO ECHR
Zura Alikhadzhieva, the mother of Ruslan Alikhadzhiev, who served from 1997-99 as Chechen parliament chairman under then-President Aslan Maskhadov, has filed a complaint with the European Court for Human Rights concerning her son's forced abduction five years ago, Interfax reported on 19 December, quoting the Russian human-rights organization Memorial. Alikhadzhiev was forcibly taken from his home in Chechnya's Shali Raion in May 2000; FSB officials subsequently denied any knowledge of his whereabouts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 September 2000). LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LEADERS REAFFIRM COMMITMENT TO REVOLUTION
Aram Karapetian told a 19 December conference in Yerevan of his Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party that the radical opposition remains committed to establishing a broad coalition with the aim of launching a campaign next year to force the resignation of the present Armenian leadership, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Both Karapetian and former Prime Minister and Hanrapetutiun party Chairman Aram Sargsian argued that if the present leadership is not replaced, it will rig the 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections. Sargsian dismissed as spurious the argument that the Armenian opposition cannot mobilize enough supporters to topple the present leadership, pointing out that Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev was ousted in March 2005 by only 3,000 people. LF

ARMENIAN PRIME MINISTER ADMITS CONSTITUTIONAL REFERENDUM WAS FLAWED
Andranik Markarian told a congress on 17 December of his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) that the 27 November referendum on a package of constitutional amendments was marred by "unnecessary" ballot stuffing and other unspecified violations, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 19 December. Markarian denied that those violations determined the outcome of the referendum, in which according to official data turnout was 65 percent, of whom some 93 percent voted in favor of the changes. At the same time, he said the government should draw the "appropriate conclusions" and take steps to preclude a repeat of such violations during the parliamentary election due in 2007. LF

MINSK GROUP CO-CHAIRMEN VISIT AZERBAIJAN
The three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group held talks in Baku on 16 December with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev, President Ilham Aliyev, and with the head of the former Azerbaijani community of Nagorno-Karabakh, Nizami Bahmanov, Azerbaijani media reported. At a subsequent press conference, the co-chairs expressed cautious optimism that 2006 might mark a breakthrough in the peace process. They noted that an OSCE planning group is currently in Azerbaijan to assess needs for a peacekeeping contingent that would be deployed once a formal peace settlement is signed. They also said a meeting may take place in late January or early February between President Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian. But Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov told journalists in Baku on 19 December that the meeting between the two presidents should not be merely "a formality," and should take place only if there are "serious grounds" and a set agenda, zerkalo.az reported on 20 December. LF

ABKHAZ, SOUTH OSSETIAN LEADERS MEET
The leaders of the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity, met in Moscow late on 18 December, Kokoity told Interfax the following day. Their talks focused on their respective conflicts with the Georgian central government and the status of efforts to resolve them. Bagapsh told RIA-Novosti last week that the two conflicts are interrelated and neither can be resolved in isolation. He also underscored the importance and relevance of the imminent talks on Kosova's status. On 19 December, a spokesman for an association representing Georgia's Ossetian population endorsed as "the first step toward restoring mutual trust" between the two sides the peace initiative Kokoity unveiled one week ago, regnum.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2005). Meanwhile, repair work on the Inguri hydroelectric power plant in Abkhazia, which supplies electricity to Georgia, has been suspended indefinitely following the killing of the plant's security officer, Caucasus Press reported on 19 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2005). The Siemens team conducting the repairs refuses to continue work without better security in place. LF

RUSSIAN MOBILE-PHONE OPERATOR ISSUES STATEMENT ON DISPUTE IN KYRGYZSTAN
Russia's Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) and Kazakhstan's Alliance Capital issued a press release on 19 December asserting that the 15 December takeover of Kyrgyz cellular operator Bitel by Rezervspetsmet was illegal, akipress.org reported. The release said that Fellowes International Holdings Limited never acquired the three offshore companies that own Bitel, and that Fellowes never had the right to sell Bitel to Rezervspetsmet. Representatives of Rezervspetsmet, which reports have linked to Russia's Alfa Group, seized Bitel's offices in Bishkek on 15 December, asserting that they were the company's rightful owners (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2005). The press release noted that Bitel employees can continue to go to work and collect their salaries, but MTS, which had announced its acquisition of Bitel from Alliance Capital before the takeover (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2005), placed all responsibility for the company's current operations on Rezervspetsmet and "structures affiliated with it." In closing, the press release said that Bitel's management will make every effort to reassert its ownership rights to the company. The press release was also signed by Daniyar Omurzakov, the Bitel director who was removed after the Rezervspetsmet takeover. DK

KYRGYZSTAN HOLDS LOCAL ELECTIONS
Kyrgyzstan held elections on 18 December for the heads of organs of self-government in villages, settlements, and towns, akipress.org reported. The elections saw 1,548 candidates competing for 369 positions. Turnout was reported at 52.4 percent. DK

FRENCH DEFENSE MINISTER MEETS WITH TAJIK PRESIDENT
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie met with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on 19 December to discuss bilateral relations and military cooperation, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. After the meeting, Alliot-Marie commented, "We talked about the reconstruction of [Dushanbe airport's] runway and the stay of the [French] troops," Avesta reported. But Alliot-Marie deflected journalists' question on how long France's remaining 150 troops would stay in Tajikistan, ITAR-TASS reported. France recently reduced its contingent of troops in Tajikistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 November 2005). DK

TURKMEN PRESIDENT ABOLISHES STATE OIL AND GAS COMPANY
President Saparmurat Niyazov has abolished the state oil and gas company Turkmenneftegaz, Prime-TASS reported on 19 December. The company dealt with the sales of oil, gas, and oil and gas products. In the future, the state company Turkmengaz will handle gas sales and the Turkmenbashi refinery complex will handle sales of oil and liquefied natural gas. DK

UZBEK OPPOSITION LEADER ARRESTED
Nodira Hidoyatova, the coordinator of the opposition Sunshine Coalition, was arrested in Tashkent airport on the night of 18 December on her return from Moscow, ferghana.ru reported the next day. Her sister, Nigora Hidoyatova, leader of the unregistered opposition party Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Farmers), told the news agency that an investigator from the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office said that Nodira Hidoyatova was arrested in connection with a criminal charge of tax evasion. Nigora Hidoyatova said the investigator, whom she identified as Ramazan Pulatov, warned her as well, saying that "something could happen" to her. The leader of the Sunshine Coalition, Sanjar Umarov, has been jailed on corruption charges since October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 26 October 2005). DK

UN TORTURE RESEARCHER CALLS FOR PROSECUTION OF UZBEK INTERIOR MINISTER
Manfred Nowak, the UN special rapporteur on torture, said on 16 December that Germany should prosecute Uzbek Interior Minister Zokir Almatov, the BBC reported on 19 December. "The special rapporteur recalls that victims of torture have a right to legal redress [for] crimes of torture, that torture is subject to universal jurisdiction and that states are under the obligation to investigate allegations of torture, independently of where such acts have occurred," Nowak was quoted by the UN News Service as saying. A number of Uzbek survivors of Andijon and victims of torture have appealed to Germany to prosecute Almatov, who is reportedly undergoing cancer treatment in Germany (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2005). DK

OPPOSITION CANDIDATE URGES BELARUSIANS TO JOIN HIS PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN
Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a presidential contender proposed by Belarus's democratic opposition in October, has called on compatriots to join his election campaign, Belapan reported on 19 December. Milinkevich said in a statement that the authorities decided to call an early presidential election for 19 March because they realize that the opposition hopeful stands a fair chance of winning the vote. "My campaign team has already been joined by several thousand people. This is enough for us to struggle, but there should be more of us so that we could gain victory," Milinkevich said. He told Belapan that calls from some opposition politicians to boycott the vote are "nonsensical." "I oppose a boycott because I believe that this would lead people to become completely disappointed with pro-democracy forces. People will call them impotents who are good for nothing," Milinkevich noted. JM

GERMAN, FRENCH EMBASSIES SLAM BELARUSIAN TELEVISION FOR VISA-LINKED ALLEGATIONS
The German and French Embassies in Minsk have issued statements to dismiss Belarusian Television's accusations that the diplomatic missions encourage visa applicants to engage in opposition activity, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 19 December. Belarusian Television on 16 and 18 December showed long lines in front of the German Embassy and two unidentified men in front of the French Embassy saying that embassy employees advised them in private to take part in opposition protests if they want to obtain visas to EU countries easily. "Lies and half-truth on Belarusian Television about the issue of visas in embassies of European Union countries discredit and undermine our efforts to improve Belarusian-German relations," German Ambassador Martin Hecker said in a statement. "The French Embassy flatly rejects the possibility of such a conversation [with visa applicants]. This is part of flagrant propaganda aimed to represent the European Union as Belarus's enemy," the French mission stated. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT ADOPTS 2006 BUDGET
The Verkhovna Rada on 20 December adopted a 2006 budget bill, Ukrainian media reported. The document was supported by 226 deputies, the minimum number required for its passage. The bill was adopted after three abortive votes earlier the same day. JM

UKRAINIAN PREMIER CONFIRMS READINESS TO SWITCH TO NEW GAS RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA
Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov told journalists in Kyiv on 19 December that Ukraine does not object to Russia's proposal to switch to new conditions of Russian gas supplies to and gas transit across Ukraine as of 2006, Interfax-Ukraine reported. According to Yekhanurov, both sides have not yet agreed on an acceptable "price formula." "We are ready to switch to a new price formula," Yekhanurov stressed but added that the prices Gazprom has proposed to Ukraine so far were quoted "without thinking." Yekhanurov was commenting on the failure to reach a compromise in his gas talks with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov in Moscow earlier the same day. JM

UKRAINE'S CENTRAL ELECTION COMMISSION UPDATES ITS WEBSITE ON 2006 ELECTIONS
The Central Election Commission on 20 December launched a new chapter devoted to the 2006 parliamentary elections at its official website (http://www.cvk.gov.ua). The chapter includes, among other data, election lists of the Communist Party and the Party of Regions as well as an election campaign schedule. JM

SREBRENICA TRIAL BEGINS IN BELGRADE
The trial of five former Serbian policemen accused of taking part in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre began in Belgrade on 20 December, international news agencies reported. The five were members of a Serbian police unit called the Scorpions and were featured in a video shown in June at the war crimes trial of deposed Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 June 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 10 June and 1 July 2005). The video, which was later broadcast on Serbian and Bosnian television, show the Scorpions executing six Muslim boys dressed in civilian clothes. It sparked outrage in the Balkans and appeared to confirm Serbian participation in the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Serbian militias. The trial marks the first time Serbia has tried anyone in connection with the Srebrenica massacre. BW

...AS BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA'S STATE COURT APPROVES 11 OTHER SREBRENICA INDICTMENTS
Bosnia-Herzegovina's State Court announced on 20 December that it has approved the indictment of 11 Bosnian Serbs for genocide, dpa reported. The 11, who are accused of genocide against Bosnian Muslims in the village of Kravica, near Srebrenica, were charged on 15 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2005). The killings at Kravica were part of the Srebrenica massacre. Ten of the defendants are in custody, while one remains at large. BW

BELGRADE SAYS IT DOESN'T HAVE DOCUMENTS ON MLADIC SOUGHT BY ICTY
The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has requested that Serbia and Montenegro turn over items missing from the dossier of war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, but Belgrade says it doesn't have them, B92 reported on 19 December. Rasim Ljajic, Serbia and Montenegro's coordinator for cooperation with the ICTY, said the tribunal is seeking Mladic's discharge papers from the former Yugoslav People's Army (JNA), a June 2002 postal receipt allegedly signed by Mladic, and documents showing the JNA's command over Mladic, including orders, missions, and promotions. Ljajic said the Army of Serbia and Montenegro has replied that the items were not in Mladic's dossier and they are not in their archives. BW

KOSOVA SEEKS TO EXPAND GOVERNMENT, DESPITE SERBS' PROTEST
Kosova's Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi said on 19 December that the province's government will be enlarged to include a justice ministry and an interior ministry, B92 reported the same day. Serbian officials, both in Kosova and in Serbia, voiced opposition to the move, saying setting up the ministries on the eve of a decision on the province's final status could prejudice the process. Leaders of the Serbian National Council for Northern Kosovo said the move violated UN guidelines for final-status negotiations. Milan Ivanovic, a member of the council, said the move would complicate negotiations between Belgrade and Prishtina and called on international officials, and officials in Belgrade, to prevent the change from taking place. BW

SERBIAN PRIME MINISTER PRESSES CASE ON KOSOVA IN BULGARIAN VISIT
Vojislav Kostunica pressed his case to keep Kosova in Serbia on 19 December during a meeting in Sofia with his Bulgarian counterpart Sergei Stanishev, B92 reported the same day. Kostunica stressed that a solution for Kosova has to be found within Serbia's existing borders, with full autonomy and rights for all ethnic communities in the province. "Europe solves open issues by finding new ways to protect the rights of minorities, not by embarking on a dangerous adventure of altering international borders", Kostunica said. "Belgrade wants a compromise over the future status of Kosovo and has made this transparent by putting forward several proposals for a solution. A compromise is not independence, but different levels of autonomy for Kosovo," he added. BW

EXPLOSION ROCKS ALBANIAN NEWSPAPER OFFICE
An explosion shook the offices of "Shekulli," Albania's largest daily, on 18 December causing damage but no injuries, AP reported the next day. A bomb exploded on the night of 18 December outside the paper's offices while 15 staff members were inside, Editor in Chief Robert Rakipllari said. "It was a great shake and the Internet stopped for a second because of the explosion," AP quoted Rakipllari as saying. "We have had no conflict. We have had no threats. I'm sure this was some type of warning, but I can't explain it," he added. Prime Minister Sali Berisha called Rakipllari to ask about the blast, AP reported. BW

CZECH FOREIGN MINISTER SUPPORTS MOLDOVA'S EU ASPIRATIONS, CALLS ON RUSSIA TO LEAVE TRANSDNIESTER
Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, in Chisinau to open his country's new embassy, said on 19 December that Prague supports Moldova's efforts to integrate with the European Union, Flux reported the same day. "This process will be complicated and long-lasting, but it needs political will on the part of the Republic of Moldova. Political representatives in Chisinau have to be ready for this," Svoboda said after meeting with Moldovan Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan. Svoboda said he and Stratan also discussed the Transdniester conflict. "This conflict is a complicated one, and the Czech Republic supports the efforts of the Republic of Moldova and, certainly, insists on Russian Federation respecting commitments...concerning the withdrawal of its armament from the territory of the Republic of Moldova," Svoboda said. BW

WHERE DOES THE PROPOSED RUSSIA-BELARUS UNION GO FROM HERE?
It has been nearly 10 years since Russia and Belarus declared their will to form a common state. In September, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka promised "landmark" decisions to be taken by the end of this year regarding Belarus's integration with Russia. However, his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 15 December did not provide any clue as to what those decisions might be.

It was long expected that Lukashenka and Putin would meet in Moscow, in mid-November or mid-December, within the framework of the Higher Council of the Russia-Belarus Union State. That forum also includes the prime ministers and foreign ministers of both countries. Back in September, Lukashenka suggested that this upcoming meeting would be "significant, momentous, and landmark, particularly in furthering our unity."

But Lukashenka's meeting with Putin in the Russian sea resort of Sochi on 15 December was held at very short notice. And, contrary to expectations, it was devoted to economic matters, not political. "I want to confirm our agreements regarding relations between our financial agencies," Putin said. "You will recall our talks about the need to support our Belarusian partners and achieve balanced decisions with respect to energy supplies. The Russian government has prepared the necessary documents and I hope they will be adopted by the end of this year."

Did Lukashenka really want to meet Putin just to confirm that Belarus will receive Russian gas in 2006 at the same price as this year, that is, at $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters? Putin promised not to increase this price for Belarus as early as in April, and Gazprom officials have reconfirmed this pledge on more than one occasion.

It was indirectly confirmed that Lukashenka may have discussed political issues with Putin when, the following day, Belarus's lower house of parliament hastily and unexpectedly announced that next year's presidential election will take place on 19 March. The election will take place four months ahead of the latest date allowed for the vote by the country's constitution.

Many Belarusian and Russian commentators have said that Lukashenka met with Putin primarily to communicate his decision to hold the presidential election at an earlier date and seek the Kremlin's approval for his anticipated third term. Whatever answer he might have received from Putin, Lukashenka looked rather pleased when thanking the Russian president for continuing gas and oil supplies at discount prices. "I want to thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], because your government and your energy companies have carried out your order and we have practically finalized our contract for gas and oil supplies to Belarus," Lukashenka said. "We have learned to save, and to save well. This year we may have not even imported the agreed volumes of gas and oil in full because our supplies have been sufficient for our economy."

It is likely that, once again, Putin will back Lukashenka's bid for the presidency. After the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, Moscow seems to have developed an allergy for any other "colored revolution" in the post-Soviet area. Therefore, Lukashenka, a loyal political ally of Russia since his inauguration in 1994, could count on the Kremlin's political and economic support for his reelection this time as well.

It is not clear, however, what Lukashenka had to promise to Putin in exchange for such support. Last year, Moscow unambiguously indicated that it wants control over Beltranshaz, the state-run operator of Belarus's gas-pipeline network. Lukashenka, who promised in 2002 to set up a Belarusian-Russian venture to run Belarusian gas pipelines, backed down on his decision in 2004. That provoked an angry response from Gazprom, which even cut off Belarus's gas flow for one day.

Earlier this month in Moscow, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka said the talks about the purchase of a stake in Beltranshaz by Gazprom have been reopened.

The most recent Lukashenka-Putin meeting also appears to signal that Moscow has shifted its attention from political to economic issues in its relations with Minsk even further than before.

Earlier this month, Russia-Belarus Union State Secretary Pavel Borodin divulged to journalists that both sides are currently working on no fewer than nine versions of the Constitutional Act of both states, that is, a common-state constitution. However, neither Lukashenka nor Putin found it necessary to say a word about this issue after their talks in Sochi.

This may not be so surprising when one recalls that Russia's clearest stance so far on integration with Belarus was formulated by Putin in August 2002. Putin then proposed an "ultimate unification" of both states by incorporating Belarus into the Russian Federation as a whole or dividing it into seven new federal regions. Arguably, such a form of integration hardly needs any additional constitution at all.

At that time Lukashenka indignantly rejected this incorporation proposal. But will he be able to withstand such an integration scenario during his anticipated third term, when economic considerations might force the Kremlin to increase gas prices for Russia's staunchest post-Soviet ally as well?

INTERIM AFGHAN PARLIAMENTARY LEADERS APPOINTED...
The director of Afghanistan's National Assembly secretariat, Azizullah Ludin, announced the interim leaders of the National Assembly on 19 December, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Qazi Habibullah Ramin was named the interim speaker of the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) and Gharghashta Katawazi was chosen as his deputy. Wali Jan Saberi was selected as the provisional secretary of the People's Council. In the Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga), Mohammad Isa Shinwari was nominated as the interim speaker. The interim appointments will be terminated once both houses elect their own officials. The National Assembly convened in Kabul for the first time on 19 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2005). AT

...AS OUTSPOKEN DELEGATE ATTACKS 'WARLORDS' IN PARLIAMENT
Speaking at a news conference after the National Assembly was inaugurated in Kabul on 19 December, Malalai Joya, a female representative from Farah Province in western Afghanistan, offered her "condolences to the people...for the presence of warlords, drug lords, and criminals," in the parliament, "The New York Times," reported on 19 December. Afghanistan's people "are like broken-winged pigeons caught in the claws of blood-sucking bats after being released from the Taliban cage," Joya said, adding that "most of these bats are in the parliament," AFP reported on 19 December. As a delegate to the Constitutional Loya Jirga in 2003, Joya objected to the presence of former mujahedin leaders in the assembly, calling them "criminals." That comment led to her expulsion from the meeting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December 2003). AT

AFGHAN JOURNALISTS NOT ALLOWED TO PARLIAMENT CONVENING
More than 100 Afghan and foreign journalists protested in Kabul on 19 December after being barred from covering the inaugural session of the National Assembly, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Journalists were put in a separate room and not allowed to cover the ceremonies. "Security officials were not courteous when democracy took its first steps in a country that witnessed its first parliamentary meeting in more than three decades," journalist Mostafa Basharat said. Only a handful of foreign reporters were allowed to cover the inaugural ceremonies. AT

U.S. VICE PRESIDENT SAYS U.S. COMMITTED TO AFGHANISTAN
Speaking to U.S. troops based at Bagram air base north of Kabul on 19 December, Vice President Dick Cheney said that Washington remains "firmly committed to the safety of the Afghan people, to the success of its democracy, and to lasting peace and stability in the region," the American Forces Press Service reported. Calling the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan part of the "battle for the future of civilization," Cheney said that the United States and its allies are going to win this battle. Cheney was in Kabul to participate in the inaugural ceremonies of the Afghan National Assembly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2005). AT

SPANISH PRIME MINISTER MAKES SURPRISE VISIT TO WESTERN AFGHANISTAN
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero visited Herat Province on 19 December to pay tribute to 17 Spanish servicemen who died there in August when their helicopter crashed, Madrid's RNE Radio 1 reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 August 2005). Spanish Defense Minister Jose Bono and Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos accompanied Zapatero in the surprise trip to Herat, EFE news agency reported on 19 December. As part of his visit, Zapatero met with Spanish troops deployed in neighboring Badghis Province, Sada-ye Jawan Radio reported on 19 December. Spain currently has around 500 troops serving in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. AT

IRAN STANDS FIRM AHEAD OF NUCLEAR TALKS...
Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Gholam Reza Aqazadeh-Khoi said in Tehran on 19 December that Iran's nuclear "capabilities" are "irreversible, and cannot be eliminated," though he said Iran will try to "win the international community's trust" in the peaceful nature of its program, IRNA reported the same day. He said President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's proposals on foreign participation in fuel-production activities in Natanz, a plant near Tehran, "go beyond customary assurances in the world." If the Europeans "understand the point that the best way right now is to interact with Iran," talks set for 21 December "will be successful," IRNA quoted him as saying. He said Iran will enter the talks with "entirely clear, very serious and determined views," adding that all factions in Iran agree on "Iran's rights" and "the Europeans have admitted in various forms that they cannot easily overlook Iran's rights." VS

...AS SECURITY OFFICIAL CONFIDENT
Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said in Tehran on 19 December that "the national will of Iranians to enrich uranium is serious," IRNA reported the same day. Addressing the press after meeting with Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Tsuneo Nishida, he said the coming round of talks will address "nuclear nondeviation, and I hope the talks will move toward assuring Iran's rights [with] positive results." He dismissed the idea that the international community does not trust Iran, and said talks are "to resolve misunderstandings." The Iranian delegation, including Foreign Ministry and nuclear-energy specialists, will be led by Supreme National Security Council deputy head for international affairs Javad Vaidi, he added. Talks will take place "discreetly at the political directors' level in Vienna" on 21 December, Reuters quoted EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana's spokeswoman Christina Gallach as saying on 19 December. VS

IRAN DISMISSES CLAIMS ON PERSIAN GULF ISLANDS...
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi described on 19 December in Tehran as "baseless and unacceptable" the "repetitive positions" of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on three disputed islands in the Persian Gulf, IRNA reported the same day. Iran holds the islands, but they are also claimed by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 June 2004). The GCC -- which is made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the U.A.E. -- reportedly referred to the matter in a 19 December closing statement of its 26th summit in Abu Dhabi. Assefi said Iran and the U.A.E. should pursue bilateral talks to reach an agreement on the fate of Abu Musa, one of the islands, IRNA reported. GCC Secretary-General Abd al-Rahman al-Attiyah said in Abu Dhabi on 18 December that Iran continues to occupy the islands in spite of many U.A.E. calls for "direct, peaceful negotiations" or the matter's referral to the International Court of Justice, according to the U.A.E. Information and Culture Ministry's website (http://www.uaeinteract.com). VS

...WHILE GULF STATES CONCERNED OVER NUCLEAR NEIGHBOR
Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi praised on 19 December the GCC's call on Israel to open its nuclear program to UN inspections, in a summit statement that urged a nuclear-free Middle East but failed to mention Iran, Reuters and IRNA reported the same day. This was not for lack of concern at Iran's program, as summit participants thoroughly discussed the program, especially the proximity of the nuclear power plant Iran is building in Bushehr on its southern coast, Reuters reported. U.A.E. Foreign Minister Rashid Abdullah al-Nuaimi told Reuters on 19 December that GCC states are "extremely worried and concerned" by the plant and the consequences of any mishap there. Oman's Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi said on 18 December that the GCC is not pressuring Iran over its program, and wants "good relations" with Iran, but he urged talks to resolve outstanding questions on this program, with due regard for "the environmental impact" of Bushehr, uaeinteract.com reported the next day. GCC Secretary-General al-Attiyah said on 18 December that GCC states do not fear Iran's program if it is peaceful, though "the issue will not be neglected" if it isn't. He told reporters "we do not want to see" the Bushehr reactor, "which is closer to our coast than...Tehran," posing "perils and damages to us," uaeinteract.com reported the next day. VS

MINISTRY PLANS MORE SECURITY AT IRAN'S UNIVERSITIES
Asghar Zarei, the head of the security affairs department at Iran's Science, Research, and Technology Ministry, has said the ministry will propose a bill to tighten security procedures at universities, but "the ministry and the new government are not following a policy of restriction," Radio Farda reported on 19 December. Zarei said the security department at every university must ensure the security of employees, "computers and data, physical security, and personnel security." The security department, he added, must be informed of trips abroad by lecturers and the entry on campus of "foreign guests," while student "ceremonies, student activities, formations, and publications" must be within the bounds of the "law and existing procedures," Radio Farda reported. Separately, government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said in Tehran on 19 December that the government "does not in any way wish to impose censorship on the press and media, and believes [they] are attentive to their responsibility to report with care and safeguard national interests," IRNA reported. "We trust the country's media." VS

IRAQ'S ELECTION COMMISSION RELEASES PARTIAL ELECTION RESULTS
Iraqi Independent Election Commission (IECI) Director-General Adil al-Lami announced partial election results to reporters in Baghdad on 19 December, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Al-Lami said over 90 percent of the ballots have been counted in the Dahuk, Al-Sulaymaniyah, Babil, Dhi Qar, Maysan, and Al-Basrah governorates. The results showed the Kurdistan Coalition leading in the Dahuk (with 90 percent of the vote), Irbil (with 95 percent), and Al-Sulaymaniyah governorates (percentage not given), with the Kurdistan Islamic Union in second place. The United Iraqi Alliance has a significant lead in the Baghdad, Babil, Karbala, Al-Najaf, Dhi Qar, Maysan, and Al-Basrah governorates; former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List appears to be in second place in those governorates except for Baghdad, where the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Accordance Front trails the United Iraqi Alliance. The Iraqi National List is currently in third place in Baghdad, where 89 percent of the votes have been counted. KR

IRAQI ACCORDANCE FRONT CALLS FOR NEW VOTE IN BAGHDAD...
The Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front challenged the IECI's partial election results for Baghdad on 20 December and called for a new vote, international media reported. "We demand a rerun of the election in Baghdad," Adnan al-Dulaymi told reporters in Baghdad. Tariq al-Hashimi, who heads the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is part of the front, told reporters that the IECI should "immediately revise the figures," adding, "The ball is now in the IECI'S court." Meanwhile, IECI Chairman Husayn al-Hindawi told reporters in Baghdad that the complaints were "politically motivated." "No one is satisfied with the results but those who won are less critical than others of course," Reuters quoted him as saying. "If [the front] has proof of fraud then they should send a letter to the commission and we will reply to them," he added. Iraqis had from 15-18 December to file election-related complaints. KR

...AS IRAQI MEDIA REPORTS POLITICAL PARTIES BEGIN DISCUSSING NEXT LEADERSHIP
Iraqi media reported on 19 December that political parties have already begun discussions as to the composition of the next government. According to Al-Sharqiyah television, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and the Kurdistan Coalition are battling over whether to include Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List in the discussions; the Kurds support Allawi's inclusion, while the UIA is reportedly against it. Meanwhile, the UIA has called for the inclusion of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front in the talks. Several media outlets have reported that the UIA has proposed that Shi'ite leader Adil Abd al-Mahdi be named prime minister, and Jalal Talabani retain his role as president with enhanced powers. Talabani had complained that his role as president of the transitional government was limited by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari. According to some reports, Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr objects to Abd al-Mahdi becoming prime minister. KR

IRAQ'S DR. GERM, MRS. ANTHRAX AMONG THOSE RELEASED FROM COALITION CUSTODY
Two leading female scientists who served under Saddam Hussein's regime were among those released from coalition custody on 17 December, nytimes.com reported on 20 December. Rihab Rashid Taha, vilified in the international press as Dr. Germ, and Hudah Salih Mahdi Ammash, dubbed Mrs. Anthrax, were two of 24 former regime members released, according to Iraqi lawyers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2005). Badi Arif Izzat, who represents the two women, told "The New York Times" that Prime Minister al-Ja'fari agreed to release the 24 as a goodwill gesture toward the Sunni Arab community in Iraq; the majority of those released were Sunni Arabs. A U.S. military statement only acknowledged that eight detainees were released, and refused to identify the detainees for privacy and security reasons. Iraqi Justice Minister Abd al-Husayn Shandal said the transitional government opposed the release of the eight, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 20 December. The two women's lawyer told "The New York Times" that some of the 24 have already left Iraq, adding that most of them risk revenge attacks by Iraqis. The newspaper also reported that former Iraqi National Monitoring Directorate head Husam Muhammad Amin was among those released. KR

IRAQI OIL MINISTER THREATENS TO RESIGN OVER FUEL-PRICE INCREASE
Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum threatened to resign on 19 December to protest a decision by the transitional cabinet to triple the cost of fuel, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Bahr al-Ulum told reporters at a Baghdad press briefing that the fuel-price hike will affect Iraq's neediest citizens. The price hike was announced earlier this month and has been highly criticized in Iraqi media. Iraqi government officials said the increase was required under a 2004 agreement signed by the interim government with the World Bank and Paris Club to reduce Iraq's debt by 80 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 November 2004). KR

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