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Newsline - January 11, 2006

Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry said in a statement on 10 January that the spread of avian flu is a threat to the country's national security, Interfax reported. "The possibility of a bird-flu pandemic in light of the spread of the H5N1 virus, which has now been passed from birds to humans and has changed its biological qualities to become more pathogenic, is a threat to national security," the ministry noted in its emergency-situation forecast for 2006. The forecast said that as many as 27.4 million Russian citizens, or 20 percent of the population, would be at risk of contracting the disease if it spreads on a large scale. The statement noted that possible future mutant strains could spread quickly, especially in cities that have airports receiving flights from China (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2006). PM

A spokeswoman for the Vektor State Virology and Biotechnology Center near Novosibirsk said on 11 January that a strain of bird flu found in Crimea is highly contagious for chickens but is less of a danger to people, RIA-Novosti reported. "This confirms the need to isolate poultry farms and cull domestic fowl on the affected territories, which the Ukrainian authorities have already done," she added. She noted that tests showed that people who had contact with diseased birds did not become sick, either because preventive measures were effective or because the sub-strain in question does not spread to humans. PM

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on 11 January that Sergei Lavrov, who heads that body, told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a telephone conversation that he does not accept some of her recent unspecified comments made at the time of the Russian-Ukrainian gas price negotiations, Interfax reported. He called her remarks "openly politicized and biased." The ministry previously rejected her comments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 9 January 2006). PM

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on 11 January that Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary of State Rice said in their telephone conversation that they are both "disappointed" over Iran's decision to resume uranium-enrichment research, RIA-Novosti reported. The ministry said in a statement on 10 January that Russia calls "upon Iran to promptly return to the moratorium regime and to full-scale cooperation with the [International Atomic Energy Agency] in implementation of the resolutions of the agency's board of governors on the nuclear program of that country," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2006). PM

President Putin told Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Astana, Kazakhstan, on 11 January that "Russia will do its best to help reconstruct Afghanistan and to instill peace there," RIA-Novosti reported. "We will do our best to help you. We all understand that there are a lot of problems in Afghanistan," Putin added. PM

Mikhail Khodorkovskii, who is the jailed former head of oil major Yukos, appealed on 10 January against his transfer to a prison camp near Krasnokamensk, in the Chita Oblast, RIA-Novosti reported. Yurii Shmidt, who is his lawyer, called the Federal Corrections Service's decision to send him there "illegal," adding that Khodorkovskii should have been sent to prison in the area where he lived or was convicted. Platon Lebedev, who is Khodorkovskii's close business partner, was sent to serve a sentence in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in western Siberia. Moscow's Zamoskvoretskii Raion Court recently called on the prison service to justify its decision to send him there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October and 15 and 27 December 2005). PM

Nikolai Bordyuzha, who is the secretary-general of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), told "Moskovskii komsomolets" of 11 January that "any unions set up without Russia's participation on former Soviet territory are bound to fail." He was referring to the Democratic Choice group of countries, which comprises nine countries from the Balkan, Baltic, and Black Sea regions. He stressed that "attempts to ignore Russia and to create clubs of a select few without it will be a waste of time." In the same interview, Grigorii Rapota, who is secretary-general of the Eurasian Economic Community, argued that the prospects for the integration of some former Soviet republics are better now than in the 1990s, when the Commonwealth of Independent States was set up. He said that the leaderships of former Soviet republics were preoccupied at that time with the "formalizing" of national sovereignty, which is now firmly established. "There is no fear [today] that some [state] will take over another. Instead of this, everyone seeks to identify what benefit he can derive" from contacts with other states. Rapota added that "to unite, one must first separate. Remember these words, which Lenin said." PM

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov wrote in the 11 January issue of the "The Wall Street Journal Europe" that "recently...more challenges to [Russia's] national security have emerged." He believes that "chief among them is interference in Russia's internal affairs by foreign states -- either directly or through structures that they support -- and the attempts of some countries, coalitions, and extremist terrorist organizations to develop or gain access to weapons of mass destruction." He did not elaborate. Ivanov said that "we must also be prepared for the possibility of a violent assault on the constitutional order of some post-Soviet states and the border instability that might ensue from that. Arms and drugs trafficking and other kinds of cross-border criminal activity must be closely watched." He cited three priorities for the armed forces: maintaining an effective strategic deterrent capability, developing conventional forces, and improving combat training (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2005). He concluded that "we are not saber rattlers. Russia's political and military leaders perceive the use of force as a last resort, to be used only when and if all other channels [fail]. Cooperation with international institutions helps promote a foreign policy agenda, though unfortunately it does not provide absolute security guarantees. For those, a state needs a highly effective military capability." PM

The group of militants targeted by Daghestan's Interior Ministry in a sweep operation in Untsukul district in early January is currently pinned down in a mountain cave, Interfax reported on 11 January quoting an Interior Ministry spokesman. RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service reported on 4 January that fierce fighting began the previous day, and that on 4 January combat helicopters attacked the militants' positions near the village of Gimry, 25 kilometers southwest of Buynaksk. On 5 January, Chechen Press reported that the fighting had ended, and that contrary to Russian media reports, the Daghestani police failed to find the bodies of any slain militants. On 11 January, Chechen Press posted an e-mail allegedly received from Daghestan's Shariat djamaat listing its combat successes between 8 and 27 December. That e-mail claimed that fighting continues in Gimry and that the Shariat djamaat lured Daghestani Interior Ministry special forces into an ambush and have killed or wounded more than 80 of them. LF

The opposition Artarutiun parliament faction plans to renominate outgoing human-rights omsbudsman Larisa Alaverdian to the position, which she was constrained to vacate last week in line with a newly enacted constitutional amendment, Artarutiun member Viktor Dallakian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 10 January. That amendment stipulates that the ombudsman, hitherto named by the president, will now be elected by the parliament. On 26 December, Alaverdian sent an open letter to parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian arguing that she should be permitted to continue discharging her duties until the legislature reassembles after the winter recess, and on 5 January she appealed to the Constitutional Court to overturn President Robert Kocharian's decree setting up an interim commission to replace her (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2006). In her annual report in the spring of 2005, Alaverdian harshly criticized human-rights infractions by the Armenian authorities, including the violent dispersal by police of antigovernment demonstrators in April 2004. LF

Speaking at a 10 January press conference on Armenia's foreign policy over the past year, Vartan Oskanian expressed the hope that during President Kocharian's upcoming visit to Moscow an agreement will be reached on a mutually acceptable price for supplies of Russian gas that will not seriously impact on Armenia's economic development and living standards, Noyan Tapan reported. Russia announced last month an increase in gas supplies to all three South Caucasus states from $56 to $110 per 1,000 cubic meters. Speaking on Armenian Public Television on 26 December, Oskanian said that price hike was at least in part politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 December 2005). Oskanian described the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline currently under construction as one of the main components of Armenia's energy security, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

Oskanian told the same press conference in Yerevan on 10 January that he will meet on 17-18 January in London with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov in the presence of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group to prepare the ground for a meeting between the two countries' presidents, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The date and venue of that summit have yet to be decided. Oskanian predicted that after the two rounds of talks, "it will become clearer" whether a breakthrough could be achieved in 2006 in the search for a solution to the Karabakh conflict. LF

Colonel General Levan Nikoleishvili, who is chief of General Staff of the Georgian Armed Forces, rejected on 10 January criticism by Boris Chochiev, deputy prime minister of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, that the recent rotation of the Georgian peacekeeping contingent deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone was undertaken in violation of existing agreements, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2006). Nikoleishvili said Georgia abided by the requirement that such rotations must be announced in advance. Meanwhile, Major General Marat Kulakhmetov, who commands the Joint Peacekeeping Force in the conflict zone, argued that persistent "aggressive statements" by Georgian politicians make it impossible to embark on the demilitarization of the conflict zone and disarmament of illegal armed groups envisaged in the successive peace plans proposed by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Caucasus Press reported on 11 January. Kulakhmetov rejected repeated Georgian claims that the Russian peacekeepers are ineffective and claimed that their performance is improving. LF

Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava has written to Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini and to Major General Sergei Chaban, commander of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone, to express his disquiet at what he termed the Russian peacekeepers' failure to prevent a recent upsurge of attacks and robberies in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district, Caucasus Press reported. In all such cases, Georgian media have identified the victims as Georgians and the perpetrators as Abkhaz criminals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2006). Khaindrava argued that the deployment in Gali of UN Civilian Police would help end such crimes. Such civilian police were deployed two years ago in the Georgian sector of the conflict zone but the Abkhaz authorities have consistently argued that their deployment on Abkhaz territory is not necessary. In a 10 January interview with, Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba implied that Georgia is behind the increase in violent attacks in Gali over the past month and intends to adduce them to substantiate its campaign to internationalize the peacekeeping operation in the conflict zone. LF

Papal Nuncio to the South Caucasus Claudio Gugerotti was summoned on 10 January to the Georgian Foreign Ministry, where First Deputy Minister Valeri Chechelashvili demanded an explanation for Gugerotti's "unacceptable" failure to inform the Georgian authorities in advance of his trip earlier this month to Abkhazia, Caucasus Press reported on 11 January. Gugerotti met in Sukhum on 5 January with Foreign Minister Shamba, and the following day with Deputy Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaya, according to Caucasus Press on 5 January and on 6 January. LF

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev met on 10 January with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Astana, RFE/RL and Kazakh TV reported, where they discussed bilateral and regional cooperation. Karzai is one of many foreign leaders in the Kazakh capital to attend Nazarbaev's 11 January presidential inauguration. The 65-year-old Nazarbaev has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989 and was elected to a another seven-year presidential term in December in an election viewed by observers as failing to meet international standards (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 2005 and "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 30 December 2005). RG

In another meeting in Astana on 10 January, President Nazarbaev welcomed visiting Latvian and Polish officials, Interfax reported. Meeting with Latvian Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis and Polish parliamentary Chairman Bogdan Borusewicz, Nazarbaev discussed energy cooperation between the three countries, focusing on the importance of energy supplies and diversification for the countries of Northern Europe and reviewing plans for the Odesa-Brody-Gdansk oil-pipeline project connecting the Black and Baltic seas. RG

Vladimir Putin arrived in Astana on 10 January, accompanied by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, to attend the 11 January inauguration of President Nazarbaev, ITAR-TASS reported. Putin is expected to sign three bilateral agreements with his Kazakh host and is to hold a separate meeting with Afghan President Karzai while in Kazakhstan, according to Interfax. Putin is also expected to meet on 11 January with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, in their first direct meeting since the recent gas dispute between their two countries. RG

In comments following his arrival in Astana on 10 January, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili expressed hope that Kazakhstan will soon become the leading foreign investor in his country, RFE/RL reported. After meeting with Kazakh President Nazarbaev, Saakashvili praised the current level of bilateral economic cooperation, particularly in the energy, tourism, and construction sectors, and lauded Nazarbaev's economic reforms as a model for Georgia, according to Kazakh TV. RG

Members of the outlawed Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir group held an event on 10 January to distribute free meals and toys in southern Kyrgyzstan at the start of the Eid Al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice, Islamic holiday, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Although police attempted to disperse the gathering in the city of Osh, local residents were able to convince police officials to allow what they argued was a peaceful event devoted to an Islamic holiday. Hizb ut-Tahrir is generally believed to enjoy widespread support in areas of southern Kyrgyzstan. The group is banned in all Central Asian states because of its stated aim of forming a regional Islamic caliphate, though it claims to advocate political change through peaceful means only. RG

The European Union issued a statement on 10 January welcoming Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev's decree extending the moratorium on the death penalty in Kyrgyzstan, AKIpress reported. The EU statement, issued by the German Embassy in Bishkek, noted that the "EU is ready to support Kyrgyzstan's efforts to abolish the death penalty and continues to offer its assistance in reforming relevant legislation." The Kyrgyz decree, issued on 30 December, was accompanied by plans to prepare new legislation that would permanently ban capital punishment and impose lengthy prison sentences or life imprisonment instead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2006). Kyrgyzstan first introduced a moratorium on the death penalty in December 1998, and it has been extended by presidential decree every year since. RG

In an effort to minimize the risk of bird flu (avian influenza) spreading to Tajikistan, officials in Dushanbe announced on 10 January a new ban on all imports of poultry from Turkey, ITAR-TASS reported. The ban follows an earlier Tajik decision to prohibit imports of poultry meat and live poultry from several countries, including China, Iran, and some Russian regions. Tajikistan's chief veterinarian, Amirbek Mullodjanov, explained that although there have been no cases of bird flu in the country, a quarantine is currently in force at all major poultry yards in Tajikistan as a precautionary measure. RG

Chairing the first cabinet meeting of the year, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov vowed on 9 January to continue efforts to establish a "true democracy" in the country, Turkmen TV reported. Niyazov also reviewed preparations for the country's upcoming local elections and discussed plans for the construction of new housing and schools. RG

The trial of Uzbek rights activist Saidjahon Zainabitdinov opened in Tashkent on 10 January, AP reported. Zainabitdinov faces charges of defamation and antigovernment activities, which are seen as linked to his descriptions of the bloody clash between demonstrators and security forces in the eastern city of Andijon in mid-May. At the time, Zainabitdinov provided foreign reporters with detailed accounts of the Andijon events, which witnesses reported as including Uzbek troops indiscriminately firing on the unarmed crowd, killing possibly hundreds of civilians. The Uzbek government maintains that 187 people died in an extremist uprising and has refused international calls for an independent inquiry into the incidents. Over the past three months, Uzbek courts have convicted some 150 people in closed trials criticized by human-rights groups. RG

As part of a broader move to tighten border security, Uzbek Deputy Health Minister Bakstiyor Niyozmatov announced on 10 January that the Uzbek government has imposed an alert for all 96 public health and hygiene control posts on its borders in response to the outbreak of bird flu in Turkey, ITAR-TASS reported. Niyozmatov added that the Uzbek government imposed a similar ban on the import of live poultry, poultry meat, eggs, and by-products from Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and a number of Russian regions as early as October. An Uzbek delegation is also scheduled to attend an international meeting on bird flu to be convened in Beijing on 17-18 January. RG

European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin said in Brussels on 10 January that EU-funded radio and television broadcasts to Belarus will start before the parliamentary elections scheduled in that country for 19 March, RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent reported. "I can confirm it is definitely the case that there will be a decision on the successful candidate for the new contract for broadcasting into Belarus in January," Udwin said. "That will happen within the month of January, so we are just a week or two away from that now.... There will be specific TV and radio programs dedicated to the election [in Belarus], broadcast ahead of the election date." Last year the European Commission announced an international tender for organizing broadcasting to Belarus in 2006 and allocated 2 million euros ($2.5 million) for that purpose (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," 16 September 2005). JM

Iosif Syaredzich, editor in chief of the daily "Nasha volya," has appealed to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka after a print run of the daily was intercepted on Belarus' border with Russia for the second time this month, Belapan reported on 10 January. Syaredzich requested that the authorities stop interfering in the work of his newspaper. The 27,000-copy print run of "Narodnaya volya" was stopped on 9 January on its way from a printing plant in the Russian city of Smolensk and offloaded at the district police department in Dubrouna, Vitsebsk Oblast. Customs officers held up the newspaper's first issue on 3 January and released it the following day after the printer delivered a missing document. "Narodnaya volya," along with a dozen other private periodicals, has been banished from printing plants in Belarus since October 2005. It also has no access to retail and subscription distribution services monopolized by the state. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on 10 January voted to dismiss the cabinet of Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, Ukrainian media reported. The no-confidence motion was supported by 250 deputies, primarily from the parliamentary opposition caucuses of the Party of Regions led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Social Democratic Party-united, the Communist Party, and two groups supporting parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn. Lawmakers simultaneously asked the government to continue work until a new cabinet is formed. The parliament also adopted a resolution blaming Yekhanurov's cabinet for creating a threat to national security with last week's deal on gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2006). The votes took place after Yekhanurov's address to lawmakers, in which he defended the gas deal with Gazprom and a Swiss-based intermediary as beneficial for Ukraine. JM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who traveled to Astana on 10 January to attend the inauguration of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, said the same day that the dismissal of Yekhanurov's cabinet was illegal and pledged to contest the move in the Constitutional Court, Ukrainian media reported. In a statement placed on his official website ( on 11 January, Yushchenko said the sacking of the government was an attempt at destabilizing the situation in Ukraine. "I declare that the government continues to exercise its powers. Social stability and prospects for the country's development will be secured," the statement reads. Yushchenko said the parliament is to blame for the fact that the country has no operational Constitutional Court at present. He also noted that the dismissal of the cabinet is one of the "initial consequences of the nonsystemic and ill-considered changes" to the Ukrainian Constitution adopted in December 2004. JM

Serbia and Montenegro's platform for UN-backed talks on Kosova's final-status negotiations will seek to form Serbian municipalities in three parts of the province, B92 reported on 10 January. The platform, part of which was given to the media the previous day, calls for the formation of Serbian municipalities in the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica, which is in northern Kosova, in Kosovska Pomoravlja, which is in central Kosova, and in Metohija. "The part related to decentralization is very important for us because the actual adoption of our key demands will enable us to secure a normal lifestyle for the Serbian community in Kosovo and, something that is also very crucial, returning a great number of refugees to the region," Serbian presidential adviser Leon Kojen said. The platform also calls for the protection of the most important Orthodox Christian shrines, with safe zones encircling major religious sites, Hina reported. BW

Miodrag Vukovic, an official with Montenegro's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), called on Serbia to leave Montenegro alone and focus on its own problems, B92 and Beta reported on 10 January, citing the daily "Dnevnik." "Serbia needs to leave Montenegro alone and turn its attention to its own problems," Vukovic said. "They have many, from Kosovo, to the fact that European Union talks may be cut off because of their lack of cooperation with The Hague, and the fact that it is an undefined nation, that is not even sure of its borders." Vukovic was particularly critical of Serbian Justice Minister Zoran Stojkovic for suggesting that if Montenegro becomes independent, then about 270,000 Montenegrin citizens who live in Serbia would lose their right to vote. "Unlike Europe, which makes an effort to expand on human rights, these key values of civilization are obviously, to Stojkovic, low-ranking on his list of priorities. I honestly hope that Serbia does not share Stojkovic's sentiments," he said. BW

Macedonia on 10 January opened a consulate in Montenegro with a ceremony in Podgorica attended by both country's presidents, Makfax reported the same day. "Through the opening of our consular office in Montenegro we have reconfirmed our commitment to strengthening the relations between Macedonia and Montenegro," Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski said. Earlier, Crvenkovski held talks with Montenegrin counterpart Filip Vujanovic on regional issues, including Kosova's final-status talks. "We discussed issues of common interest in 2006, including the upcoming talks on Kosovo's status and Belgrade-Pristina relations. We have concluded that Macedonia and Montenegro have similar and even identical stands over the situation in the region," Crvenkovski said. He added that Macedonia will support whatever decision Montenegrin voters make in an independence referendum expected later this year. Vujanovic, for his part, congratulated Crvenkovski on Macedonia's recently acquired EU-candidate status. BW

A court in the central Croatian city of Sibenik has ordered police to issue an international arrest warrant for Dragan Vasiljkovic for war crimes committed between in 1991 and 1993, Hina reported on 10 January. Vasiljkovic, also known as Captain Dragan, commanded a Serbian military unit suspected of committing atrocities against prisoners and civilians in Knin and Glina in June and July 1991, respectively, and in Bruska in February 1993. Vasiljkovic, who holds both Serbia and Montenegro and Australian citizenship, lives in Australia. BW

The European Union on 10 January called on Russia and Moldova to resume deadlocked talks on the price of Russian natural gas, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. Austria, which currently holds the EU presidency, released a statement calling on both Moscow and Chisinau to work toward a fair and mutually acceptable solution. Meanwhile, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said Russia's state-run natural-gas monopoly expects to sign a contract on gas supplies with Moldova soon. "A contract with Moldova for 2006 has not been signed yet, but the Moldovan side has assured us that all issues will be coordinated soon, and the contract will be signed," Kupriyanov said. He added that Gazprom's proposed price of $160 per 1,000 cubic meters is "economically justified." BW

Moldova has agreed to place the assets of the joint venture Moldovagaz located in the breakaway Transdniester region under the management of Gazprom, ITAR-TASS reported on 11 January, citing Moldovagaz CEO Gennadii Abashkin. The move is part of an attempt to reach agreement on the price Moldova pays Gazprom for natural-gas supplies. Abashkin did not provide further details, ITAR-TASS reported. Gazprom already owns a controlling stake of 50 percent-plus-one-share in Moldovagaz. The Moldovan government owns 35.33 percent, the Transdniestrian administration has 13.44 percent, and the remaining shares are held by individual investors. In November, Transdniester's parliament voted to hand over its stake in Moldovagaz to Gazprom to pay its gas debts. BW

As the newly inaugurated Afghan National Assembly began its first week on deliberations on issues other than its own procedural matters, two significant patterns appeared to emerge: first, that this parliament is prepared to pursue a populist agenda; and second, that it is likely to challenge the executive branch's seemingly exclusive hold on power.

One of the first issues raised by the National Assembly's lower house, the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), concerned the security barriers erected around the capital Kabul. Such barricades are employed primarily by foreign diplomatic missions, military units, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for reasons of security, but they cause enormous traffic jams and make parts of the city inaccessible for residents.

Reports suggested that the parliamentary debate on such a popular topic prompted President Hamid Karzai to order the Interior Ministry to issue a notice on 31 December declaring all barriers that block "footpaths, streets, and roads" illegal and ordering all foreign missions and NGOs to remove them within a week. The notice cautioned that if the barriers are not removed, the "ministry will take action" against those responsible. The Interior Ministry said that there were 46 such obstructions, without identifying them.

A People's Council member and former planning minister within Karzai's Transitional Administration with a history of populist rhetoric, Ramazan Bashardost, told the parliament recently, "We have to open the roads that have been closed by foreign princes and war princes," according to "The New York Times."

Another contentious issue among Afghans has been the real or perceived notion that the multitude of NGOs functioning in their country -- estimated at more than 3,000 -- has been profiting excessively from aid money earmarked for Afghanistan. Soon after his appointment as planning minister in March 2004, Bashardost launched a probe to evaluate the activities of nongovernmental groups in the country. Bashardost said at the time that those organizations had a negative impact on Afghan reconstruction and had wasted millions of dollars in aid money. After his electoral victory in October 2004, President Karzai reportedly came under pressure from foreign governments to exclude Bashardost from his new cabinet, and the Planning Ministry was in fact abolished.

Now the People's Council has decided to summon NGO representatives to question them on issues of accountability.

The independent Kabul daily "Cheragh," in a 4 January editorial, accused NGOs of embezzling international aid and welcomed the legislature's efforts to increase such groups' accountability. "If the Afghan parliament takes the plundering NGOs to task and quizzes them, they will indeed be bringing the enemies of the people to justice and people will be happy with this measure," the editorial asserted.

When it ordered the removal of unauthorized security barriers, the Karzai administration essentially conceded that the new parliament can already force issues upon it. If the administration grants exemptions to some of those foreign organizations who seek to negotiate over the removal of security barriers (as some have suggested they will), the executive branch's credibility would almost certainly be challenged by voices inside the People's Council. Moreover, the opposition would be handed a popular issue that pits the parliament against the government and could be interpreted as demonstrating government disregard for the public and weakness in the face of foreign pressure.

The lower house can maneuver the government into a similar corner if it decides to curtail the activities of a large number of foreign NGOs. After his selection as speaker of the People's Council in late December, Mohammad Yunos Qanuni resigned as head of the unofficial National Understanding Front -- a loose alliance of would-be opposition parties -- and pledged to work constructively with the government.

But Qanuni and his allies appear willing and ready to flex their muscles and challenge Karzai's dominance in the Afghan power structure. The first high-profile opportunity to challenge the government will come when the cabinet faces a vote of confidence.

The weekly "Payam-e Mojahed," the official mouthpiece of the Jami'at-e Islami party to which Qanuni once belonged, asserted in an editorial on 4 January that the Afghan political system is "semi-presidential," as the 2004 constitution grants parliament a supervisory role vis-a-vis the executive branch. In a possible sign of things to come, the weekly added that while President Karzai "chairs the cabinet...he does not have full authority to form the cabinet. A vote of confidence from the parliament is required. That is why the next cabinet will be a mixed one" that would include Karzai supporters and opponents alike.

While Karzai worked hard to avoid the establishment of a parliamentary system, complete with a prime minister, and to prevent political parties from gaining a strong foothold, Afghanistan's National Assembly may well trumpet its new presence by challenging presidential authority and drawing Karzai into popular contests that he simply cannot win.

Democrats 66, a party in the Dutch coalition government, is refusing to work on a proposed compromise that would allow the Netherlands to dispatch 1,200 troops as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) expansion into southern and central Afghanistan, Rotterdam daily "NRC Handelsblad" reported on 9 January. The Dutch cabinet is due to take up the issue of sending troops to Oruzgan Province again soon. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a former Dutch foreign minister, on 9 January urged the Dutch government to speed up "as much as possible" its decision-making process, AFP reported. In December, NATO foreign ministers formally endorsed the expansion of ISAF into the restive areas by July (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 20 December 2005). Canada and the United Kingdom are the other two main contributors of troops for the planned ISAF expansion along with non-NATO-member Australia, and all three countries are waiting for the Dutch deployment that includes attack helicopters necessary for the overall operation. U.S. Undersecretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried said he is "perplexed by the debate in the Netherlands" over the agreement to send forces to Afghanistan, Xinhua News Agency reported on 10 January. Currently the bulk of forces in the areas into which ISAF will expand are from the United States. AT

Czech Defense Minister Karel Kuehnl is reportedly planning to propose doubling the size of the Czech military contingent within ISAF, CTK reported on 10 January. Currently the Czech Republic maintains a unit of 43 soldiers in northern Afghanistan working with one of the German-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams. In addition, 17 Czech soldiers operate in Kabul airport as part of a meteorological and ordinance-disposal unit. AT

At least seven members of the Pakistani security forces have been reported killed in a rocket attack on a military post in a Pakistani tribal region bordering Afghanistan, international news agencies reported. Officials said suspected militants attacked the post near Miranshah, capital of the semi-autonomous North Waziristan tribal region, on 10 January. The assault is reported to have continued for a number of hours. No casualties among the attackers were immediately reported. Eight Pakistani troops were reported killed on 7 January in an assault on another post in the region. Islamabad also alleged that eight civilians were killed in the region as a result of cross-border fire by U.S.-led coalition forces stationed in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2006). AT

Iran resumed nuclear research on 10 January, triggering a flurry of condemnations by Western states, though a Tehran official has stressed that research is all Iran is doing for now, news agencies reported the same day. Mohammad Saidi, a deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said, "The research section concerning our country's nuclear fuel, which was voluntarily suspended 2 1/2 years ago...resumed its activities" on 10 January, ISNA reported. He said Iran agreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 9 January for IAEA inspectors in Iran to "reopen those places on which we agreed." Resumed activities, he said, are merely in "research, and nothing more. We distinguish between fuel-related research and the production of fuel." He did not elaborate on the exact nature of the research, or where exactly it is to take place. Iran and the IAEA, he said, have agreed on specific places where work will resume, though he added, "Our research work is not restricted to a particular time or place," ISNA reported. Iran, he said, will take "serious measures to show the progress of its cooperation with the" IAEA, and resolve the "few" outstanding questions on its dossier before a scheduled March meeting of the IAEA governing board. VS

In apparent contradiction to previous assertions by Tehran officials denying Iran's intention to resume any enrichment-related work, IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei informed the IAEA governing board on 10 January that Iran intends to begin "small-scale" uranium enrichment at its Natanz facility, Reuters reported the same day. An unnamed diplomat cited to Reuters a report el-Baradei presented to the board, in which he said that Iran intends to install "a small-scale gas ultracentrifuge cascade" at the plant, and that later, as part of its research work on centrifuges, it might feed uranium hexafluoride gas into the centrifuges, presumably for further enrichment. That would enhance Iran's enrichment know-how, an area the West wants Iran to abandon altogether. The report indicates that Iran has given the IAEA more details of its plans, as the IAEA requested. In Tehran, the Atomic Energy Organization's Saidi said the IAEA "asked us questions [on] the scope of our nuclear research, and we answered it," ISNA reported. He admitted Iran's research "is not just theoretical work, and includes some practical work, on which we have reached an agreement with the [IAEA]." VS

Health Minister Kamran Baqeri-Lankarani said in Tehran on 9 January that "there have been no reports so far" of bird flu in Iran, but "we must be vigilant," given its appearance in neighboring Turkey, ISNA reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 January 2006). He said the country has in any case "adopted new measures" in poultry farming, following an epidemic among birds that he described as "mild, but not dangerous" in 2000 or 2001, so "we are more prepared to face the crisis today." Separately, Deputy Health Minister Muayyed Alavian told IRNA on 9 January that some 2,000 people considered at higher risk of infection have been vaccinated in West Azerbaijan Province, near Turkey, including some children aged 2 to 6, some elderly patients, and hospital workers. Iran has stocked up on Tamiflu, a flu medicine, and Health Minister Baqeri said on 9 January "there is enough Tamiflu for any expected epidemic in the country." Also on 9 January, the head of the ministry's disease-management office said Iran has strengthened controls on its frontier with Turkey, emptied poultry farms in border areas, and is banning one-day trips to Turkey to prevent bird flu spreading to Iran, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 10 January. VS

Iranian state television quoted police official Hussein Zulfaqari as saying on 10 January that authorities have arrested 14 members of an armed gang reportedly holding some Iranian policemen in Sistan va Baluchistan Province near Pakistan, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2006). The group earlier told Radio Farda that it was holding seven policemen, though Zulfaqari apparently gave the number of hostages as nine, without saying if they were freed or giving details. He told state television that police caught the suspects after "discovering certain clues." On 9 January, Kerman parliamentary representative Gholamreza Karami said Iran must do more to ensure the security of its eastern frontier, ILNA reported the same day. He said "relevant agencies" must investigate to see if the kidnapping was "political" and "the possibility of its connection with Pakistan." The interior ministers of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan should form a committee, he said, "to examine frontier-security issues with more seriousness than before, so we see less of the existing insecurity." VS

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) reached an agreement on 7 January for the establishment of a single administration for the Kurdistan region, and are expected to begin forming that administration in the next few days, Reuters reported on 10 January. Kurds have been running separate administrations based in Irbil and Al-Sulaymaniyah since 1998; in January 2004 they agreed to merge their administrations, but until now had not agreed on the division of power within the cabinet. Under the latest agreement, Irbil will be the capital of Kurdistan. KDP leader and current Kurdistan Regional Government President Mas'ud Barzani will retain his position for the next two years, while the PUK, headed by outgoing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, will chair the parliament. After two years, the roles will be reversed, according to Reuters. KR

The Al-Basrah Governorate has formed a committee to examine the treatment of detainees in prisons controlled by multinational forces in the governorate, London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 10 January. The committee was formed after families of detainees protested the treatment of detainees and alleged that human-rights violations have taken place in the detention centers. The committee is made up of governorate representatives as well as representatives from Iraq's Justice, Human Rights, and Interior ministries, according to the daily. KR

An Iraqi Kurd holding Austrian citizenship who was sentenced to 30 years in Kurdish prison in December for "defamation of the Kurdish leadership" has gone on a hunger strike to protest the denial of medical aid, Vienna's "Kurier" reported on 10 January. The KDP's security forces arrested Kamal Sa'id Qadir, a Vienna-based lawyer, on 26 October in Kurdistan. According to media reports, Qadir has written dozens of Internet articles critical of Kurdistan Regional President Barzani's policies. The international organization Reporters Without Borders asked Barzani on 6 January to intervene in the 19 December ruling against Qadir, saying: "This incident bodes ill for freedom of expression in Iraq's Kurdish region. We condemn the use of prison sentences to punish press offenses and we are especially shocked at the length of this sentence." KR

Former Qatari Justice Minister and attorney for Saddam Hussein Najib al-Nu'aymi told Al-Jazeera in a 2 January interview posted to its English-language website ( on 10 January that U.S. Justice Department lawyer Christopher Reid and his colleagues are "running the show" in the Al-Dujayl trial of Hussein and his seven co-defendants. "Special courts are usually designed to provide an artificial trial, as long as the court is special, we expect the sentence is ready in the office of Mr. Reid," he said. Al-Nu'aymi also claimed that Iraq's Special Tribunal was illegally formed by the Coalition Provisional Authority during its occupation of Iraq. When asked by Al-Jazeera how he can maintain this contention now that Iraq is an independent state, al-Nu'aymi replied, "[The] Geneva Conventions define the occupation by 'actual presence of soldiers,' so when the situation in Iraq is presented as a restoration of sovereignty that does not mean Iraq enjoys sovereignty." He further contended that if the trial were fair, Hussein would be acquitted "because nothing is really against him up to this moment." The trial is slated to resume on 24 January. KR