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Newsline - December 22, 2005


PRESIDENTIAL AIDE SLAMS ISOLATIONISM AND OLIGARCHS
Deputy head of the presidential administration Vladislav Surkov said in Moscow on 20 December that the main task for the immediate future is to continue the current political course, which he described as a synthesis of liberal ideas with national traditions and a pragmatic outlook, "Vedomosti" reported. He warned that Russia faces two dangers, which he described as a "tendency toward a new isolationism" and "the restoration of the oligarchic style of rule." Surkov argued that the nationalist slogan "'Russia for the Russians'...[is a] road to nowhere." He also disagreed with what he called the thesis that democracy thrived when the oligarchs were strong. Surkov said that a revived role for the oligarchs would not promote democracy but would be a "catastrophe for Russia." He also stressed that the authorities have no intention of revising the results of the privatizations of the 1990s but intend to "keep the private property in the hands of the people who have it." PM

GENERAL SUSPENDED FOR USING FORCED LABOR
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov suspended Major General Yevgenii Veselov as deputy commander of the Moscow Military District on 20 December for allegedly employing soldiers' labor to build a house owned by an unidentified woman near the capital, "The Moscow Times" reported. Veselov faces a dishonorable discharge and possible charge of abuse of office. Use of conscript troops free of charge on private building projects is nothing new in the Russian military, and Veselov has reportedly long had the nickname of the "Dacha General" for so doing. The daily noted, however, that this is "the first major disciplinary action since Ivanov ordered an end" to abuse of conscript labor on 8 October. A Defense Ministry spokesman said that Ivanov has asked President Putin to discharge Veselov from the military. PM

EX-FOREIGN MINISTER WARNS AGAINST NATO BASES IN BULGARIA AND ROMANIA...
Yevgenii Primakov, a former foreign minister and current president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told the weekly "Argumenty i fakty" of 21 December that the establishment of NATO bases in Romania and Bulgaria would be a violation the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security between Moscow and NATO, Interfax reported. He said that when he was foreign minister almost a decade ago, he and his colleagues realized they could not block NATO enlargement but decided to try to at least "minimize the negative consequences of this enlargement for our security," which led to Russia's stand on the Founding Act. Primakov stressed that the 1997 pact bans the deployment or storing of nuclear weapons on the territory of new NATO member states, as well as the permanent stationing of the armed forces of old NATO member states there. "And when [NATO] talks about their bases in Romania and Bulgaria, they completely violate these agreements," he said. Primakov charged that "the [establishment] of NATO bases in Romania and Bulgaria definitely threatens our interests." PM

...AS CURRENT MINISTER EXPRESSES CONCERN
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow on 21 December that Russia is closely following what he called NATO's plans to open bases in a number of East European countries, Interfax reported. "The deployment of NATO military infrastructure and its military contingents is a subject of our most meticulous attention," he added. PM

NGO BILL PASSES SECOND READING IN DUMA...
A controversial bill regulating the activities of nongovernmental organizations passed its crucial second reading in the State Duma on 21 December by a vote of 376-10, Russian and international news agencies reported. The bill's sponsors say it creates "a unified procedure for registering all types of NGOs, and bringing them under a single structure, so that the Federal Registration Service can be responsible for this," RIA-Novosti reported. The version of the legislation passed on 21 December incorporated 62 Kremlin-sponsored amendments designed to dampen criticism the bill received from Western governments and human-rights organizations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 23 November, 2, 5, 6, 7, 15, and 21 December 2005). Among the key concessions were amendments permitting branches of foreign NGOs to continue operating in Russia without establishing a separate Russian entity. Another amendment scrapped a requirement that Russian groups wishing to operate informally must register as legal entities. The bill will have a third reading in the Duma on 23 December and then must pass the Federation Council and be signed into law by President Putin. BW

...AS OPPONENTS ASSAIL MOVE
Opponents of the NGO bill, meanwhile, said the Kremlin-sponsored amendments intended to soften it are insufficient and claim that the legislation damages civil society, "The Moscow Times" reported on 22 December. "Despite partial improvements, the bill remains harmful in its mere concept, dramatically extending the powers of bureaucrats and allowing them to interfere in what the groups do and in their finances," said State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov (independent), calling the bill's passage "shameful for Russia's parliamentary system." Ryzhkov added that with this law, the life of civil society in this country will be dramatically complicated. Thousands of groups, both local and foreign, including those involved in charity, will suffer." Responding to President Putin's claim that the bill will help in the fight against terror, Union of Rightist Forces Chairman Nikita Belych said: "Civil society is being controlled under the (guise) of the fight against terror and money laundering," dpa reported. BW

MOSCOW ARBITRATION COURT UPHOLDS FOREIGN BANKS' CLAIM AGAINST YUKOS
The Moscow Arbitration Court ruled on 21 December that the Yukos oil company must pay $482.23 million to 14 foreign creditors, Russian news agencies reported. The ruling upheld a decision by London's High Court in June that Yukos defaulted on a $1 billion syndicated loan it received in 2003 from a group of foreign banks. Yukos paid more than half the original amount, but its assets are frozen as Russian authorities attempt to claim back taxes. Yukos, which has a month to appeal the verdict, says the only thing preventing it from paying the debt is a lack of funds, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 22 December. BW

DEFENSE MINISTER ANNOUNCES PLANS FOR NEW LEGISLATION ON MILITARY SERVICE
Sergei Ivanov told a meeting of the Russian government on 22 December that the Defense Ministry will submit four bills on military service for the government to consider in early 2006, RIA-Novosti reported. Ivanov said the proposed legislation would reduce the terms of conscripts to one year, down from the present two-year service. Other legislation would add new draft deferments, enforce stricter terms on voluntary contract soldiers, and grant higher university stipends and additional benefits for volunteer contract soldiers who complete three years of military service. BW

UKRAINIAN OFFICIAL SAYS GAZPROM HAS YET TO MAKE OFFICIAL PROPOSAL ON GAS PRICES
The acting charge d'affaires at the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow, Leonid Osavolyuk, said on 22 December that Kyiv has not yet received any official proposals from Gazprom on natural-gas prices for 2006, RIA-Novosti reported. "We are expecting official proposals on natural-gas transit tariffs and prices," Osavolyuk said. Gazprom this week accused Ukraine of delaying the completion of an agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2005). 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. Ukraine, for its part, is seeking to increase transit fees for Russian natural gas transported via its territory to $3.50 per 1,000 cubic meters per 100 kilometers, up from the current $1.09 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 8, and 13 December 2005). BW

MYSTERIOUS ILLNESS SPREADS TO ANOTHER CHECHEN DISTRICT
Sultan Alimkhadzhiev, who is Chechnya's deputy health minister and the head doctor at Grozny's Republican Pediatric Hospital, told RIA-Novosti on 22 December that the apparent but unexplained illness that has already affected 53 children and 19 adults has spread to the village of Kulary near Grozny (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2005). Two girls from that village have been admitted to hospital with symptoms of poisoning, he said. The authorities in previously affected areas closed all schools there on 21 December until further notice, mosnews.com reported. Medical experts are still at a loss to explain the illnesses, with theories ranging from long-term psychological stress to nerve-gas poisoning. PM

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION FIGURE PULLS OUT OF MULTIPARTY ALLIANCE
Sharvarsh Kocharian, a parliamentarian who leads the small opposition National Democratic Party (AZhK), withdrew from the Artarutiun (Justice) bloc on 21 December, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo reported. The move follows a recent censure of Kocharian by the leadership of the opposition Artarutiun bloc for his refusal to campaign against the government's recently adopted set of constitutional amendments. Kocharian explained that his decision not to join the other eight parties of the opposition bloc stem from the alliance's strategy to provoke a "revolution" over last month's constitutional referendum. The opposition bloc also removed Kocharian on 12 December as its delegate to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. That incident was also seen as an indication of the growing internal power of Hanrapetutiun (Republic) Party leader Aram Sarkisian within the opposition Artarutiun alliance. RG

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT RESHUFFLES SEVERAL REGIONAL OFFICIALS
President Ilham Aliyev issued several decrees on 21 December reshuffling five regional officials, according to the Trend News Agency. The decrees named Mehbali Aliyev as the new local government head in Baku's Nizami district, replacing Abdin Farzaliyev, who was then appointed to the same post in the capital's Narimanov district. Ilqar Abbasov was also named as the new head of Baku's Suraxani district, after his removal from the Narimanov district. In addition to the changes in the capital, the decree also reshuffled the local officials in the southern Lenkoran and Yardimli districts along the Azerbaijani border with Iran. No reason was provided for the appointments. RG

AZERBAIJANI OFFICIAL REPORTS ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM...
The head of the Azerbaijani state committee on religious organizations, Rafiq Aliyev, reported on 21 December on the state of religious freedom in the country, Turan reported. According to the official, the government has officially registered some 335 different religious groups, consisting of 307 various Islamic and 28 undefined groups. Another 10 "religious communities" have submitted documents as part of the application process for official registration. Aliyev also rejected "criticism from international organizations and from the governments of some countries" for discrimination against some religious sects, according to Turan. He further noted that a new law on alternative military service for pacifist religious groups will be drafted sometime next year and promised that the country's law on religion will be presented for debate and possible amendment by the parliament. RG

...AND DOWNPLAYS ISLAMIC EXTREMISM IN AZERBAIJAN
Rafiq Aliyev, said on 21 December that the threats posed by Islamic extremist Wahhabi groups are "exaggerated," Turan reported. In comments during a presentation of an official report in Baku, Aliyev dismissed reports of a growing Islamic radical movement and stated that "the followers of this movement only come to mosques to pray." According to state statistics, there are 1,300 officially certified mosques in Azerbaijan, although no more than 500 offer regular religious services. RG

GEORGIAN FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS AZERBAIJAN
Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili arrived in Baku on 21 December for a one-day working visit, Caucasus Press reported. Bezhuashvili met with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Elmar Mammadyarov, and President Ilham Aliyev to discuss bilateral relations, regional energy, and the proposed restoration and extension of a railway link via Georgia from Turkey to Azerbaijan. RG

RIOT ERUPTS IN GEORGIAN PRISON
Georgian security forces converged on a prison in Kutaisi on 21 December after prisoners staged a riot within the facility, Rustavi-2 television reported. The estimated 100 prisoners reportedly initiated the riot as part of a protest action directed to garner attention to the prison's poor living conditions. The prison lacks heat, adequate water, and suffers from constant electricity shortages, according to Civil Georgia. Deputy Justice Minister Givi Mikanadze dismissed the prisoners' complaints, however, and argued that the Kutaisi prison "meets international standards as well as Georgian law." As the riot turned into a standoff between prisoners and guards, elite units from the Interior Ministry surrounded the prison as ambulances and other emergency vehicles were in place nearby. The Georgian penal system has been plagued by serious problems, including a series of riots and prison escapes, and poor living conditions for many years. RG

GEORGIAN PREMIER REVEALS DETAILS OF GAS AGREEMENT WITH RUSSIA
Following negotiations in Tbilisi with a visiting official of the Russian Gazprom natural-gas monopoly, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli revealed on 21 December new details of a new agreement on Russian gas supplies, the Caucasus Press and RFE/RL reported. Noghaideli confirmed that the agreement's planned 70 percent increase in supplies is to include a sharp price hike, from $64 to $110 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2005). Noghaideli revealed, however, that Gazprom had agreed to nearly double the transit fees Georgia receives to transport gas on to Armenia, from between $5-$6 to roughly $11 per 1,000 cubic meters for every 100 kilometers. Gazprom Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Ryazanov also affirmed the company's plan to purchase a stake in Georgia's main natural-gas pipeline. RG

KAZAKH, KYRGYZ PREMIERS MEET TO DISCUSS BILATERAL RELATIONS
Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov met with his Kyrgyz counterpart Feliks Kulov in Taraz, Kazakhstan, on 21 December to discuss bilateral relations, Khabar and Kabar reported. Kulov told a briefing after the meeting that Kyrgyzstan recognizes Kazakhstan's ownership of four resorts in the Issyk-Kul region of Kyrgyzstan, Khabar reported. For its part, Kazakhstan will decide within a month whether to legalize the status of 70,000 Kyrgyz migrant workers in Kazakhstan, Kabar reported. Kazakhstan will also employ more Kyrgyz workers in its energy sector. Moreover, by year's end Kazakhstan will finalize the location for a market in the country's Zhambyl region where Kyrgyz agricultural producers will be able to sell their wares, Kazinform reported. Khabar noted that Kazakhstan is the main consumer of Kyrgyzstan's products, with bilateral trade volume in 2005 of approximately $300 million. DK

CHINESE MINISTER LOOKS TO 'ENHANCE COORDINATION' WITH KYRGYZSTAN
Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov met with Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in Beijing on 21 December, Xinhua reported. Li stated that China intends to "enhance cooperation" with Kyrgyzstan through the United Nations and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan). Jekshenkulov noted that good relations with China are a priority for Kyrgyzstan's foreign policy. DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT BACKS REFERENDUM ON TYPE OF GOVERNMENT
President Kurmanbek Bakiev told a meeting of Kyrgyzstan's Constitutional Council on 21 December that he supports the idea of holding a nationwide referendum on the country's future form of government, akipress.org reported. The referendum will ask whether citizens prefer a presidential, presidential-parliamentary, or parliamentary republic; whether immunity from prosecution should be ended for the president, deputies of parliament, and judges; and how judicial reform should be conducted. A possible fourth question may ask whether the population approves giving the president and parliament authority to change the constitution. Bakiev did not give a specific time for holding the referendum. DK

TURKISH MINISTER VISITS TAJIKISTAN TO TALK TRADE
Turkish State Minister Mehmet Aydin met with Tajik Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov in Dushanbe on 21 December to discuss ways to boost trade between the two countries, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Aydin is the co-chairman of a commission on Tajik-Turkish trade cooperation that is holding a two-day session in the Tajik capital. Bilateral trade volume fell by 25 percent in 2004-05, from $177 million in 2004 to $125 million for the first 11 months of 2005, the BBC's Persian Service reported. DK

MORE SENTENCED AS ANDIJON TRIALS CONTINUE IN UZBEKISTAN
Forty-two people have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from 12 to 20 years in three trials in Tashkent, the BBC reported on 21 December, citing a statement by Uzbekistan's Supreme Court. The individuals were found guilty of various charges, including murder and terrorism, in connection with unrest in Andijon on 12-13 May. DK

UZBEK PROSECUTORS REPORTEDLY OFFER TO FREE OPPOSITION FIGURE FOR $200,000 'FINE'
Nigora Hidoyatova, the sister of jailed Uzbek opposition leader Nodira Hidoyatova, told ferghana.ru on 21 December that investigator Ramazan Pulatov told her that her sister can go free if she pays a fine of $200,000. The fine would go toward compensating material losses prosecutors allege Nodira Hidoyatova caused through tax evasion. The report noted that Nodira Hidoyatova, coordinator of the opposition Sunshine Coalition, has refused the deal and continues to assert her innocence. DK

BELARUSIAN LEGISLATURE APPROVES 2006 BUDGET
The Council of the Republic, Belarus's upper house, passed a 2006 budget bill on 21 December, Belapan reported. The bill was endorsed by the lower house, the Chamber of Representatives, a week earlier. The document slates revenues at 33.9 trillion rubles ($15.8 billion), an 18 percent rise on this year. The budget deficit is projected at 1.1 trillion rubles, or 1.5 percent of gross domestic product. The government expects the average monthly wage in 2006 to stand at an equivalent of $265. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT STAYS CALM OVER GAS-PRICE DISPUTE WITH RUSSIA
President Viktor Yushchenko expressed his certainty on 21 December that Kyiv and Moscow will break a deadlock in talks over gas prices for 2006 and find a mutually acceptable compromise, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "If we filter out politics, speak about rational relations, and remember that we are eternal neighbors, we must avoid steps that discredit or cause unease to one side or the other," Yushchenko told journalists during a visit to Kherson Oblast. "I'm convinced that we will find an answer to how, on the one hand, to set a [ new transit] tariff, which is two or even 2 1/2 times lower than the regular tariff on this market, and on the other, to set a higher price than the one we have been paying for Russian gas until now. All this can be resolved so that nobody will suffer." Gazprom is demanding a price of $220-$230 for 1,000 cubic meters of gas from Ukraine in 2006, up from $50 for 1,000 cubic meters this year. Kyiv is proposing to phase in a gas price hike over four to five years. JM

REGIONAL ACTIVISTS QUIT FORMER UKRAINIAN PREMIER'S PARTY OVER 'DICTATORSHIP'
Six managers of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc's (BYuT) regional headquarters in Lviv Oblast have left the party ranks, quoting their disagreement with the bloc's list of candidates for the 2006 parliamentary elections and the way the party is run by its leadership, UNIAN reported. "We have become angry after we saw the bloc's list of parliamentary candidates. There are practically no representatives of Lviv Oblast," said Mykhaylo Muzhylivskyy from the BYuT's Lviv headquarters. "There is a dictatorship in the party. They need only a voiceless herd," his colleague, Ihor Komarnytskyy, added. ITAR-TASS reported that more than 100 rank-and-file BYuT members in the Lviv region followed the example of their regional managers and left the party. A poll conducted by the Socis Center for Social and Political Studies from 14-19 December among 2,000 Ukrainians found that if parliamentary elections were held "next Sunday," the Party of Regions would be supported by 22.3 percent of voters, the Our Ukraine bloc by 16.1 percent, and the BYuT by 11 percent. JM

KOSOVA SETS UP INTERIOR, JUSTICE MINISTRIES...
The United Nations Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) on 20 December formally established Interior and Justice ministries for the Kosovar government, turning over powers that had been in UN hands, Hina reported the same day. Speaking at a news conference in Prishtina, Kosova's Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi and Jean Dussourd, the UN official in charge of police and the judiciary, said it will take three months to get the ministries up and running. With the addition of the two ministries, Kosova's government will consist of 14 ministries. UN officials say the new ministries will assume their powers gradually and will be subject to a "vigorous accountability policy" in which the UNMIK head will have the right to intervene, Reuters reported. BW

...WHICH SERBIA SEES AS DANGEROUS
Serbia on 21 December called the creation of Interior and Justice ministries in Kosova a "reckless and dangerous political move," international news agencies reported the same day. "At the very start of talks on the future status of Kosovo such moves only go in favor of the extremist policy of the Albanian leadership in the province," Serbia's negotiating team on Kosova's status said in a statement quoted by Reuters. Belgrade urged UNMIK head Soren Jessen-Petersen to reconsider his decision, which it claims "jeopardizes Serbian and other non-Albanian communities in the province and directly burdens political talks on Kosovo's future status," Reuters reported. BW

FRENCH PRESIDENT CALLS FOR COMPROMISE IN KOSOVA TALKS
After meeting Serbian President Boris Tadic in Paris, French President Jaques Chirac called on all sides in UN-sponsored talks on Kosova's final status to enter negotiations in the spirit of dialogue and compromise, AP reported on 21 December. Chirac urged Belgrade and Prishtina to "engage in this negotiation without any preconception about how it will end," according to presidential spokesman Jerome Bonnafont. The talks are scheduled to commence next month. Chirac also urged Belgrade to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in apprehending Bosnian Serb fugitives Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. Chirac also offered "his support to democratic forces in Serbia and Montenegro -- the only ones in a position to help Serbia move closer to Europe." BW

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA SET TO INTRODUCE VAT
Bosnia-Herzegovina is planning to introduce a 17 percent value-added tax (VAT) on 1 January, "The Southeast European Times" reported on 21 December. The move is expected to reduce illegal trrade and bring an additional 75 million euros ($89 million) to the state budget. Bosnia is currently the only country in Europe that does not have a VAT. Since the brunt of the price increases resulting from the tax will be felt by the poor, outgoing High Representative Paddy Ashdown is urging Bosnian authorities to protect the most vulnerable. According to "The Southeast European Times," Ashdown said the VAT will initially cause some chaos and that is why it would be good for the government to prepare some mechanisms to protect the poor." BW

ALBANIAN PREMIER ANNOUNCES NEW ANTICORRUPTION MEASURES
Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha said on 21 December that his government is instituting an anticorruption drive that will financially reward citizens who report official graft, dpa reported the same day. "We are firmly determined to bring the public into the fight against corruption," Berisha said, adding that anybody who reports corruption will be rewarded with 6 percent of the amount saved by the government. Berisha said other measures will also be taken, including closer scrutiny of the family connections of officials in corruption-plagued sectors, such as customs and tax authorities. BW

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT HOPES RUSSIA'S WTO ENTRY WILL SOLVE GAS-TAX PROBLEM
Vladimir Voronin said on 22 December that he supports Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) because he thinks it will help resolve the problem of how Moscow taxes the gas it sends to Moldova, ITAR-TASS reported. "We hope that Russia's membership in that organization will help solve the problem of levying value-added tax from the country recipient of the goods instead of levying it from the producer country," Voronin said. He added that Moldova loses approximately $100 million a year because Russia charges Chisinau VAT for the supplied gas rather than levying it in Russia. BW

GEORGIA, RUSSIA MOVE CLOSER ON GAS ISSUES
Following talks in Tbilisi between Gazprom Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Ryazanov and Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, a tentative agreement on the volume and price of Russian gas deliveries to Georgia was reached in Tbilisi on 20 December. The Russian natural-gas monopoly also reiterated a proposal to buy a stake in Georgia's main natural-gas pipeline.

Ryazanov was initially expected in Tbilisi on 14 December. However, Gazprom had rescheduled the visit at the last moment.

The postponement initially fuelled speculation that relations between Georgia and Russia would reach a new record low amid Gazprom's insistence that Tbilisi pay more for its gas deliveries as of next year. But Kakha Bendukidze, the Georgian state minister in charge of economic reforms, later suggested that the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute could be responsible for the delay.

Citing market constraints, Gazprom earlier this year announced plans to charge most of its CIS neighbors near-European prices for its gas deliveries. This triggered angry reactions in Georgia and Ukraine, where parliamentarians and government officials accused Russia of "blackmailing" their respective countries, which are seeking closer ties with the West and NATO.

Gazprom has threatened to turn off gas supplies to Ukraine if the latter does not agree to the proposed price hike. Kyiv in turn has floated the idea of retaliating by raising the rent of the port of Sevastopol, which is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

Addressing a panel of political experts in Washington on 16 December, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili suggested that Tbilisi and Kyiv form a common front against Russia.

Yet, the reality is that Tbilisi is heavily dependent on Moscow for its energy supplies and, as Noghaideli told a business forum on 17 December, Russia remains Georgia's leading investor and main economic partner.

The 20 December gas talks ended in a much more relaxed atmosphere than Bezhuashvili's recent comments could have suggested. Addressing reporters at the end of the meeting, Prime Minister Noghaideli said Russia's gas imports to Georgia will increase by more than 70 percent next year. "Gazprom once again confirmed the volume of gas Georgia will receive next year. It will be approximately 2.25 billion cubic meters. This year it was about 1.3 billion cubic meters. As you can see, the increase will be significant," he said.

Ryazanov in turn confirmed Gazprom's intention to hike the price it charges Georgia and the other two South Caucasus states of Armenia and Azerbaijan to $110 per 1,000 cubic meters as of next year. "For Georgia, the price will be the same as for [the] other [two] countries, although I must say I believe this is not entirely fair from a strictly commercial viewpoint. If you take Armenia, for example, we have a joint venture there, of which we own 45 percent," Ryazanov said. "[Armenia's] pipeline [network] belongs to our joint venture. Since we're earning money through sales to consumers, Armenia was entitled to expect some clemency on our part. Yet, we decided to introduce a single price of $110 for the whole Transcaucasus region."

Gazprom currently charges Georgia $64 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas. It reportedly charges Armenia $56.

In return for the price hike, Ryazanov said Gazprom had agreed to pay Georgia more for the transit of gas deliveries meant for Armenia. "We're currently paying about $5-$6 [per 1,000 cubic meters and] per 100 kilometers. Next year we'll pay nearly $11. Considering that [Georgia's main] pipeline has no compressing station, this is a very high price that does not exist anywhere in the world," he said.

Gazprom currently pays its transit fees to Georgia in kind, with Tbilisi receiving approximately 10 percent of the Russian gas meant for Armenia.

Ryazanov said on 20 December that Gazprom was unhappy with the current deal and wanted to pay its transit fees in cash. However, he said the sides could not reach a final agreement on that issue. "What we agreed upon [today] -- that is to sign a long-term agreement and finalize it during the first quarter [of next year] -- envisions that we pay cash [for the transit of gas deliveries to Armenia]," he said. "I don't know what tariff will apply [in the future], but we'll try to reach an agreement."

In order to settle the transit-fee issue, Georgia has suggested that both sides set up a joint venture that would, among other things, supervise gas deliveries to Armenia. However, Noghaideli said Gazprom had rejected the offer and made an alternative proposal.

"We have proposed setting up a joint venture, whose main task would be to oversee the transit of gas through Georgia and realize joint investments in [our] gas sector," Noghaideli said. "As Mr. Ryazanov informed us today, Gazprom in return says it is interested in acquiring stakes in our [main] gas pipeline, or even purchasing the pipeline. [Before giving our answer], we first need to study this proposal thoroughly and in detail."

This is not the first time Gazprom has expressed interest in acquiring the pipeline through which all its gas supplies to Georgia and Armenia are shipped. In 2003, the Russian company and the government of then Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze had reached a tentative agreement on this issue. The Georgian opposition, then led by Mikheil Saakashvili, denounced the deal, saying it was Russia's attempt to tighten its energy grip on the country.

But once elected president, Saakashvili changed his stance. In February, he said his government resumed talks with Gazprom over the possible sale of Georgia's main pipeline.

The United States reacted negatively to the announcement, saying any privatization deal with Gazprom would ruin its years-long efforts to secure Georgia's energy independence from Russia.

In September, Washington granted Tbilisi a $295 million assistance package to help it renovate the pipeline and implement other rehabilitation projects.

The deal, which was signed by the Millennium Challenge Corporation on behalf of the U.S. government, says Georgia has no right to sell part, or all, of the pipeline to any third party without Washington's consent.

(Jean-Christophe Peuch in an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

AFGHAN OPPOSITION LEADER NARROWLY ELECTED PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER
Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, who leads the main opposition to President Hamid Karzai, was elected chairman of the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), the lower house of Afghanistan's National Assembly, on 21 December, AFP reported. Qanuni, who finished a distant second to Hamid Karzai in the September 2004 presidential election, was elected by a vote of 122-117 over Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, and thus also becomes speaker of the National Assembly. In accepting the new position, Qanuni, head of the New Afghanistan Party and the unofficial leader of the National Understanding Front, said his role as chairman precludes him from leading an opposition faction. "It is for the members of the opposition parties to elect someone new," he said. Former President Sibghatullah Mujaddedi was elected chairman of the upper house, the Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga), on 20 December. MR

U.S. SAYS TROOP REDUCTION WILL NOT HURT COUNTERTERRORISM EFFORTS
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on 21 December that the withdrawal of some 3,000 U.S. troops won't affect counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2005), AFP reported. "Of course, the United States will be continuing their contribution to NATO...as well as our individual role with respect to the counterterrorism effort and the training and equipping of the Afghan security forces," Rumsfeld told reporters during a surprise visit to Afghanistan. "We look forward to continuing in those activities and we will continue to be focused on rooting out the Taliban and Al-Qaeda that still exist," he said. Afghan President Karzai said his administration was not worried about the U.S. drawdown, despite a persistent insurgency in the country. "Afghanistan has the total assurance of the United States that it would remain committed to help Afghanistan in all spheres of life including security," Karzai said. MR

AFGHAN PRESIDENT VOICES SYMPATHY FOR POPPY FARMERS
President Karzai said on 21 December that many poppy farmers have no choice in growing the crop because they are so poor, Tolu Television reported. "There might be people who either cultivate poppy because they are very poor and have no other option and there might be people who do it to gain more money," Karzai told reporters during an appearance with U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. "But farmers are not to be blamed for this," he added. "The people of Afghanistan destroyed their pomegranate gardens and cultivated poppy to produce opium because they had no hope for the future." Karzai also noted that "When we asked them to stop cultivation, a UN survey showed a 21 percent reduction in the level of poppy cultivation all over Afghanistan, while a recent U.S. survey showed a 48 percent reduction in cultivation." Afghanistan remains the world's leading producer of opium. MR

IRAN, EU NUCLEAR TALKS RESUME
Diplomats from France, Germany, and Great Britain began talks with Iranian Supreme National Security Council official Javad Vaidi on 21 December in Vienna, AFP and IRNA reported. Other members of the Iranian team, according to IRNA, are Security Council deputy for economic affairs Mohammad Nahavandian, Atomic Energy Organization deputy head for international affairs Mohammad Saidi, Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohammad-Mehdi Akhundzadeh, and Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General for Political and International Affairs Ali-Asghar Soltanieh. Previous discussions were interrupted by Iran's resumption in August of uranium-conversion activities. An unnamed European diplomat told AFP it will not be easy to persuade Iran to forsake enrichment. Interacting with a new Iranian team further complicates the issue -- the last discussions took place in April with representatives of President Mohammad Khatami's government. An unnamed Iranian diplomat told AFP the new talks would be an opportunity for the new players to get to know each other. BS

ISRAELI MILITARY INTELLIGENCE WARNS OF IRANIAN CRUISE MISSILES
Israeli Defense Forces intelligence chief Major General Aharon Farkash-Ze'evi told the Knesset on 20 December that Iran has acquired 12 cruise missiles with a 3,000-kilometer range, "The Jerusalem Post" reported on 21 December. Speaking during his last meeting with the Israeli legislature, Ze'evi said the 12 missiles originated in a shipment of 18 from Ukraine that were bound for Russia. Ze'evi added that Iran seriously endangers Israeli security. In Fars Province on 21 December, meanwhile, Ayatollah Mohieddin Haeri-Shirazi, a representative of the supreme leader, supported President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and his recommendation that Israel be relocated to Europe or North America, Fars Province TV reported. Haeri-Shirazi said, "What Mr. Ahmadinejad has said is what all our people believe, and his remarks were logical." BS

IRANIAN VICE PRESIDENT ARRIVES IN BEIRUT
Vice President Hussein Dehqan arrived in Beirut on 21 December for a three-day visit, IRNA reported. Dehqan is scheduled to meet with President Emil Lahud, National Assembly speaker Nabih Berri, and Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. The previous day, Dehqan was in Damascus, IRNA reported. He said it is essential that Iranian and Syrian officials consult each other at this sensitive time, particularly because of what he described as the chaos caused by the United States. Former Iranian President Khatami was in Beirut in the first week of December, and several Iranian officials -- including Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi -- have visited Damascus in the last two months. BS

IRANIAN EX-PRESIDENTS DISCUSS PALESTINE
Former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told the ambassador from the Netherlands, Hein de Vries, on 20 December that Palestinians should be free to decide their own affairs, Mehr News Agency reported. Hashemi-Rafsanjani said Iran does not interfere in Palestinian affairs and it provides the Palestinians with only moral and humanitarian assistance. Hashemi-Rafsanjani's successor, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, said on 23 November that Middle East peace will not be restored until all Palestinians can return to their homeland, Mehr reported. Khatami was speaking at a ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of the death of Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. BS

IRANIAN STUDENT ACTIVIST GIVEN SUSPENDED PRISON SENTENCE
Student activist Said Kalanaki has received a suspended prison sentence for membership in an illegal organization and participating in illegal gatherings, ILNA reported. The charges relate to his participation in 2003 rallies, and he has been free on bail since that time. BS

IRANIAN BAHA'I DIES IN JAIL
Zabiullah Mahrami, a 59-year-old member of the Baha'i faith who has been in prison for 10 years, has died of unknown causes, Reuters reported on 19 December, citing the Baha'i International Community. Mahrami was sentenced to death for abandoning Islam, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison. Mahrami was forced to engage in hard labor at the penitentiary in Yazd where he died. The Baha'i International Community added that there is a renewed crackdown on Baha'is in Iran, and a minimum of 59 Baha'is have been arrested, detained, or imprisoned this year. The Baha'i faith is not constitutionally recognized in Iran, unlike Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, and its adherents are subject to intense repression. BS

FORMER IRAQI PRESIDENT CLAIMS TORTURE BY U.S. FORCES
Saddam Hussein claimed that he and his co-defendants were tortured while in U.S. custody in remarks before the Special Tribunal on 21 December, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. "We were beaten by the Americans, and we were tortured, every one of us," he told the tribunal. "I was beaten on every part of my body, and the marks are still all over me." White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the allegations "preposterous," telling reporters at a 21 December press briefing: "Saddam Hussein is being treated the exact opposite of the way his regime treated those he imprisoned and tortured, simply for expressing their opinions. And so I reject that." Meanwhile, defendants and defense lawyers complained before the tribunal on 22 December that video of the court proceedings is regularly edited out to remove comments by the defense, thereby not giving the defendants a platform to publicize their case. KR

FOUR IRAQI POLICEMEN GUNNED DOWN AT BAGHDAD CHECKPOINT
Four policemen were killed and six wounded when gunmen opened fire on a police checkpoint in Baghdad on 22 December, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry said that unidentified gunmen abducted three women who are employed inside Baghdad's Green Zone on 22 December. A ministry source said three gunmen driving three separate vehicles kidnapped the women in southern Baghdad. KR

GERMAN AUTHORITIES SUSPECT IRAQI DRIVER IN OSTHOFF'S ABDUCTION
German authorities suspect the driver of archeologist Susanne Osthoff of playing a role in her abduction, ARD television reported on 21 December. The driver, Khalid al-Shimani, reportedly worked for a sheikh of the Al-Dulaymi tribe in western Iraq. According to ARD, the sheikh had offered al-Shimani to Osthoff as a driver for her trip to northern Iraq. The German weekly "Stern" reported on 21 December that the abductors were members of the Al-Dulaymi tribe, and that the abduction was financially driven, rather than ideologically driven. KR

IRAQI POLITICAL PARTIES FORM COMMITTEES TO LOOK INTO ELECTION FRAUD
Twenty-four Iraqi political parties announced at a 21 December press briefing in Baghdad that they will form joint committees to look into allegations of election fraud, RFI reported on 22 December. The parties include two major blocs -- the Iraqi National List led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the Iraqi Accordance Front, which comprises three major Sunni Arab parties -- as well as smaller groups including Turkoman and Assyrian parties. The committees will follow up on complaints and disputes and present their findings to the United Nations, Arab League, the European Union, and the Iraqi Independent Election Commission. The groups invited all interested political parties to join the committees, saying their ultimate goal is to press for a rerun of elections under international supervision. KR

IRAQI ELECTION COMMISSION SAYS TURNOUT 70 PERCENT
The Iraqi Independent Election Commission (IECI) announced on 21 December that 70 percent of registered voters went to the polls on election day, international media reported on 22 December. Some 10.9 million of Iraq's 15.6 million registered voters cast ballots on 15 December, compared with 63 percent of voters that went to the polls in the October referendum on the draft constitution. Fifty-eight percent of registered voters went to the polls in January's parliamentary elections. The IECI said that 123,000 votes have been ruled invalid thus far, and 54,000 ballots were blank. The commission continues to investigate reports of alleged voter fraud; it said that 5,100 ballots cast in Baghdad for the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance are under investigation. KR

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