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Newsline - January 19, 2006


GAZPROM CUTS GAS SUPPLIES TO EUROPE IN FACE OF EXTREME COLD...
Gazprom has reduced its deliveries to several European countries in response to extremely cold temperatures at home, which reached minus 31 degrees Celsius in Moscow on 19 January with no relief in sight, Russian and international media reported. Reports regarding the extent of the cuts and the countries involved vary, but Gazprom insists it is meeting its domestic and foreign contractual obligations. A spokesman told "The Moscow Times" that "the situation is very tense," adding that "it is possible that some of our partners are getting less [gas from Gazprom] than they would like." Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko said that the government is considering releasing an unspecified quantity of fuel reserves for the domestic market. In Rome, the Italian government called an emergency meeting with the heads of the largest power companies to plan a response to a 5.4 percent drop in Russian gas deliveries, the "Financial Times" reported. In Budapest, Economy and Transport Minister Janos Koka said that the 20 percent cuts Hungary is facing are "not unusual," but he noted that he is continuing international talks aimed at diversifying sources of energy imports. Russia's behavior in the recent dispute with Ukraine over gas prices prompted some countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary to take steps to reduce their dependency on Russian energy supplies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2006). PM

...AS RUSSIANS SEEK TO COPE
Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov appealed to employers on 18 January to let their staffs have the next two days off to "ease the burden on the capital's power system during the severe cold," RIA-Novosti reported. Several dozen deaths from exposure have been reported across Russia since the recent cold snap began, including 12 in Novgorod Oblast and 10 in Volgograd Oblast. In Moscow, 11 people have died from exposure since 16 January. In several regions across Russia, including Chita Oblast in Siberia, thousands of people were left without heating recently when pipes in their central-heating systems burst. In Yaroslavl, staffers at a traveling circus reportedly fed elephants a mixture of vodka and water to keep them warm. Keepers at the Lipetsk zoo gave monkeys wine for the same reason. In Moscow, police reportedly stopped their usual practice of evicting vagrants from stairwells and metro and railway stations. The cold did not, however, deter many Russians from marking Orthodox Epiphany on 19 January by jumping into lakes and rivers in a traditional practice recalling the baptism of Christ. PM

RUSSIA BANS MEAT IMPORTS FROM UKRAINE
The Russian Agriculture Ministry announced on 18 January that it has banned the import of all livestock products from Ukraine as of 20 January, lenta.ru reported. The ministry said in a statement that the Federal Veterinary Inspectorate has determined that poor veterinary controls in Ukraine regarding the "delivery, transfer, and processing of meat [mean that] Russia is threatened with the import of animal diseases and low-grade products hazardous to human health." Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Oleksandr Baranivskyy commented later that the ban will not affect the meat-production sector in Ukraine, Interfax-Ukraine reported. He argued that his country exports little meat to its neighbor because its primary concern is supplying its own domestic market. Russia has banned the import of livestock products from third countries that have transited Ukraine since 30 December. The Federal Veterinary Inspectorate issued a statement in May 2005 similar to the latest one announcing a ban on imports of wine and fresh produce from Moldova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 May 2005). PM

RIGHTS ACTIVIST CALLS GERMAN CHANCELLOR A 'MODEL'
Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees head Valentina Melnikova told the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of 18 January that German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked her on Merkel's recent visit to Moscow to keep her abreast of how the new legislation regulating nongovernmental organizations is enforced (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2006, and "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January 2006). Melnikova added that Merkel is "simply great" and a "model" for European leaders visiting Russia. The activist said that Merkel is the first European head of government to meet with Russian rights campaigners in a long time, adding that only American officials usually meet with them. PM

U.S. CAUTIONS RUSSIA ON DEMOCRACY RECORD
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington on 18 January that Russia's poor record in implementing democracy is likely to put it in an awkward position during its current chairmanship of the Group of Eight industrialized countries, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2006). "If you're going to be a part of the G-8, you'd better be an industrialized democracy or people are going to have a lot of questions when they show up for the G-8 sessions," she added. Rice argued that "it's extremely important that Russia understand that certain responsibilities come with...being the chair of an organization that is avowedly of industrialized democracies." PM

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCHDOG REGISTERS LITTLE PROGRESS IN SOUTH CAUCASUS
In its annual world report for 2006 (http://hrw.org/wr2k6/), Human Rights Watch (HRW) failed to register major improvements in any of the three South Caucasus states. It concluded that the Armenian government "failed to improve its human rights record," and noted pressure on human rights activists and the ombudsman's office and continuing recourse by police to torture and ill-treatment of detainees. In Azerbaijan, HRW similarly noted abuse and torture by police, and it assessed the November 2005 parliamentary election as marred by "numerous irregularities" and as having fallen "far short" of international standards. Georgia's track record on human rights was deemed "uneven," as reflected in "increasing government influence" on the media, the use by police of torture, and harassment of Chechen refugees. LF

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT DEMOTES MILITARY PROSECUTOR
Robert Kocharian dismissed Gagik Djahangirian on 18 January from the post of chief military prosecutor that he occupied for almost eight years, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In a separate decree, Kocharian appointed Deputy Prosecutor-General Armen Khachaturian to succeed Djahangirian as chief military prosecutor, while naming Djahangirian to Khachaturian's former post in what some observers consider a clear demotion. Djahangirian headed the investigation into the Armenian parliament shootings of October 1999 in which eight people died. He said on several occasions he believed the five gunmen responsible were acting on the behest of unnamed people who sought to stage a coup, but failed to identify and apprehend those people. The trial of the five gunmen established that they acted alone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 October 2000). LF

ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI FOREIGN MINISTERS MEET WITH KARABAKH MEDIATORS
Vartan Oskanian and Elmar Mammadyarov met separately in London on 18 January with the French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan reported. The two ministers were scheduled to meet face-to-face on 19 January to discuss "basic principles" for a settlement that the two countries' presidents may formally endorse at a summit next month (see rferl.org "Foreign Ministers Seek To Finalize 'Basic Principles' For Resolving Karabakh Conflict"). The precise date of that meeting will also be discussed during the London talks. LF

KARABAKH OFFICIALS COMMENT ON PEACE PROCESS
Lieutenant General Seyran Ohanian, defense minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, told journalists in Stepanakert on 18 January that the Karabakh leadership should be represented at the ongoing peace talks, regnum.ru reported. "Not a single step should be taken without taking our people's opinion into account," the news agency quoted him as saying. Ohanian also told journalists that OSCE military officials will inspect Karabakh positions along the Line of Contact next week to assess the requirements of the multinational peacekeeping forces that are likely to deployed in the event of a formal settlement of the conflict, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Vahram Atanesian, who chairs the NKR parliament's standing committee on foreign affairs, noted that any peace plan must address the issue of the NKR's northern Shahumian district, which has been under Azerbaijani control since 1991-92, when the entire Armenian population was deported, Noyan Tapan reported on 18 January. Atanesian claimed that the Azerbaijani government is encouraging displaced Meskhetians to settle in Shahumian. LF

AZERBAIJANI HUNGER STRIKERS SUSPEND PROTEST
The young Azerbaijanis on hunger strike to protest the expulsion of two of their colleagues from Baku colleges decided on 18 January to suspend their protest action until next week following a pledge by Education Minister Misir Mardanov that the two young men will be permitted to resume their studies, day.az and echo-az.com reported on 19 January, quoting Said Nuriyev, chairman of the opposition youth group Yeni Fikir (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6, 13, 17, and 18 January 2006). LF

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION WANTS REFERENDUM ON ELECTION PROCEDURE...
Leading members of Azerbaijan's Azadliq opposition bloc and of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party and the National Unity movement decided during talks on 18 January to launch a campaign for a nationwide referendum on amending the constitution to reintroduce proportional representation, echo-az.com reported. During the parliamentary elections of 1995 and 2000, 100 deputies were elected in single-mandate constituencies and a further 25 under the proportional system; constitutional amendments passed in 2002 abolished the proportional vote (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 1 July 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 August 2002). LF

...REMAINS UNDECIDED OVER PARTICIPATION IN REPEAT ELECTIONS
Opposition Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar told echo-az.com after the 18 January meeting that his party has still not decided whether to participate in the repeat voting on 13 May in 10 constituencies in which the results of the 6 November parliamentary election were invalidated (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 January 2006). He said Musavat will decide in early February whether to do so. The Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, like Musavat a member of Azadliq, decided on 18 January not to field candidates in the 13 May revote, day.az reported. Meanwhile, Panah Huseyn, who served as Azadliq's campaign manager and won a parliamentary seat, was quoted by APA news agency as saying that if Azadliq does not formally rule within 20 days on whether its successful candidates should participate in the work of the new legislature, he will decide himself whether or not to do so, day.az reported on 19 January. LF

UN ENVOY MEETS WITH ABKHAZ OFFICIALS
Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, who is Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for the Abkhaz conflict, met in Sukhum(i) on 18 January with Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh, Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, and parliament speaker Nugzar Ashuba to discuss the deteriorating situation in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district, apsny.ru reported, quoting regnum.ru. Tagliavini proposed that the interior ministers of both Georgia and the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia attend the upcoming weekly meeting of Abkhaz and Georgian officials, UN observers, and representatives of the Russian peacekeeping forces in the conflict zone to focus on security issues in Gali. Caucasus Press on 18 January quoted Shamba as telling Tagliavini that the Georgian government has unilaterally made changes to the UN-mediated Draft Agreement on International Guarantees of Security and Non-Resumption of Hostilities, and that those "unacceptable" changes necessitate further discussion of the draft. Meanwhile, Bagapsh told Georgian residents of Gali that security problems in that district cannot be solved without their help and support, which he solicited, Caucasus Press reported on 19 January. LF

KAZAKH PARLIAMENT CONFIRMS PRIME MINISTER
The two chambers of Kazakhstan's parliament on 18 January voted unanimously to confirm Daniyal Akhmetov to stay on as the country's prime minister, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. President Nursultan Nazarbaev proposed Akhmetov's candidacy in the wake of his own recent reelection (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2005), which automatically brought the prime minister and cabinet's mandate to an end. Akhmetov has been prime minister since June 2003. Also on 18 January, the president signed decrees appointing a cabinet, Kazinform reported. The ministers are: Qasymzhomart Toqaev, foreign minister; Mukhtar Altynbaev, defense minister; Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov, interior minister; Erbolat Dosaev, health minister; Byrganym Aitimova, education and science minister; Askar Mamin, transportation and communications minister; Gulzhana Karagusova, labor and social-security minister; Shalbai Kulmakhanov, emergency situations minister; Kairat Kelimbetov, economy and budget-planning minister; Zagipa Balieva, justice minister; Ermukhamet Ertysbaev, culture, information, and sport minister; and Natalya Korzhova, finance minister. DK

KAZAKH GAS COMPANY OUTLINES TARIFF, ACQUISITION, AND PIPELINE PLANS
Serik Sultangaliev, director of Kazakh national gas transporter KazTransGaz, told a news conference in Astana on 18 January that KazTransGaz is preparing for negotiations with Russia's Gazprom on an increase in transport tariffs for gas shipped to Russia through Kazakhstan, ITAR-TASS reported. The report noted that in 2005, Kazakhstan raised transport tariffs from $0.68 to $1.10 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas for each 100 kilometers. Sultangaliev also said KazTransGaz plans to acquire assets from Kyrgyz gas company Kyrgyzgaz in exchange for Kyrgyzstan's $18 million debt resulting from Kazakh gas shipments, Kazinform reported. Daniyar Berlibaev, director of Intergaz-Central Asia, announced the same day that KazTransGaz plans to boost the capacity of the Central Asia-Center gas pipeline, which transports gas from Turkmenistan to Russia, from 42 billion cubic meters a year to 55 billion cubic meters in 2007, Interfax reported. Long-term plans include a throughput capacity boost to 75 billion-90 billion cubic meters by 2010, which will cost roughly $2 billion. DK

KYRGYZ PROSECUTORS DROP CHARGES AGAINST REPUTED CRIME BOSS
Sultan Baratov, a Bishkek deputy prosecutor, announced on 18 January that the prosecution has decided to drop multiple murder charges against reputed crime boss Ryspek Akmatbaev, akipress.org reported. Akmatbaev and other defendants had been charged with the murder of policeman Chynybek Aliev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 May 2004) and a number of other killings. The case drew nationwide attention when Akmatbaev's brother, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, was gunned down in a prison in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October 2005) and Ryspek Akmatbaev subsequently led a series of demonstrations calling for the removal of Prime Minister Feliks Kulov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24, 25, 26, and 27 October 2005). DK

TAJIK COURT REJECTS APPEAL BY OPPOSITION PARTY HEAD
The appeals court of Tajikistan's Supreme Court has upheld the latter's verdict against opposition Democratic Party head Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 18 January, quoting Muhammadali Vatanov, deputy head of the high court. Azam Badriddinov, a lawyer representing Iskandarov, denounced the ruling and vowed to appeal to international judicial bodies. Iskandarov was convicted on terrorism and corruption charges and sentenced to a 23-year prison term in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 October 2005). DK

RUSSIAN COMPANY BUYS TWO UZBEK MOBILE-TELEPHONE OPERATORS
Vimpelcom, Russia's second-largest cellular-telephone operator, announced on 18 January that it will pay $275 million to acquire Uzbek mobile operators Buztel and Unitel, Reuters reported. Vimpelcom will pay $200 million for Unitel, $60 million for Buztel, and assume about $16 million in debt owed by the two companies. With 364,000 subscribers, Unitel has a 31-percent market share in Uzbekistan, where mobile-phone penetration is currently 4.5 percent. DK

TWO BELARUSIAN PRESIDENTIAL CONTENDERS RECEIVE OFFICIAL WARNINGS
Belarus's Central Election Commission on 18 January issued official warnings to the nomination groups of Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Zyanon Paznyak, two candidates who seek to challenge incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the 19 March presidential ballot, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The commission claimed that the two groups were engaging in electioneering, which is prohibited during the ongoing collection of ballot signatures. Milinkevich, the candidate of the united opposition forces, said his group will contest the warning in the Supreme Court. "The warning is far-fetched, we object to it and will challenge it," Milinkevich said. "We are well aware that this is psychological pressure, an attempt to slow down the fast pace that we've reached, make us less active and sow the seeds of uncertainty into the ranks of our allies." The commission did not elaborate on the legal consequences that these warnings might entail for Milinkevich and Paznyak. "If these politicians [Milinkevich and Paznyak] keep breaching laws, they may be denied registration," ITAR-TASS quoted Central Election Commission Secretary Mikalay Lazavik as saying on 17 January. JM

MINSK INVITES ELECTION MONITORS FROM POST-SOVIET AREA
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has invited organizations from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Eurasian Economic Community to monitor the 19 March presidential vote in Belarus, Belapan reported on 18 January, quoting the ministry's press service. Minsk has not yet invited the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to observe the poll. Last week, the Belarusian authorities were urged to do this by Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, OSCE chairman in office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2006). JM

UKRAINIAN SECURITY BODY BACKS PRESIDENT'S STANCE ON CABINET OUSTER
The National Security and Defense Council (RNBO) on 18 January urged the Verkhovna Rada to annul its 10 January no-confidence motion in the cabinet of Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, thus supporting an earlier demand by President Viktor Yushchenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2006), Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko chaired a session of the RNBO earlier the same day. The RNBO also responded to Yushchenko's calls to hold a referendum on constitutional reforms passed in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January 2006) by advising him to set up a special commission to analyze the reforms that were adopted by the Verkhovna Rada as a compromise to overcome a presidential-election deadlock. The Verkhovna Rada is expected to hold a session on 19 January with the participation of Yushchenko and cabinet ministers to discuss the current standoff between the government and the parliament. RNBO Chairman Anatoliy Kinakh told journalists on 18 January that the RNBO expects the legislature to annul its dismissal of Yekhanurov's cabinet and to take an oath of allegiance from several new judges of the Constitutional Court in order to make this body operational. JM

LEAFLETS PREDICTING RUSSIAN INVASION APPEAR IN UKRAINE...
Interfax-Ukraine reported on 18 January that unidentified distributors have been disseminating leaflets in the port of Henichesk near the Azov Sea, predicting a Russian military intervention in Ukraine. The report was confirmed by the Russian newspaper "Trud" in its 19 January issue. The leaflets, attributed to the Party of Regions led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, reportedly claim that Russia "has made the decision to bring a limited contingent of Russian troops and special units to Ukraine to establish control over gas pipelines considered vital to Russia." The leaflets also urge locals "to come to the nearest peacekeeping headquarters within the first 14 days of the Russian military operation to provide them with names and descriptions of Orange Movement activists." The Russian Black Sea Fleet has a radar station in Henichesk. Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko told journalists in Kyiv on 17 January that the Russian Black Sea Fleet had illegally deployed a group of its marines at the radar station in Henichesk, adding that Russian troops movements in Ukraine should be coordinated in advance with Ukraine. According to "Trud," the Henichesk marines are armed only with rubber batons. JM

...AS KYIV NOTIFIES MOSCOW OF UNAUTHORIZED MOVEMENT OF TROOPS IN CRIMEA
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has called on the Russian Foreign Ministry to abide by the bilateral agreement on the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, Interfax-Ukraine reported on 19 January, citing Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vasyl Filipchuk. Filipchuk said Kyiv sent a note to Moscow saying that Russia has violated the agreement by making unauthorized relocations of its troops and military equipment in Crimea. He did not elaborate. Meanwhile, Interfax-Ukraine quoted an unidentified source in the Russian Black Sea Fleet as saying that fleet commanders deployed armed marines at four major lighthouses on the Crimean coastline. The protection of Sarych, the southernmost lighthouse on the peninsula, was reportedly reinforced with an armored personnel carrier. JM

BOSNIAN SERB POLICE LAUNCH UNSUCCESSFUL HUNT FOR TOP WAR CRIMES SUSPECT...
Hundreds of Bosnian Serb police launched an unsuccessful hunt in eastern Bosnia on 18 January for what officials described as a top war crimes suspect, international news agencies reported. Police spokesman Radovan Pejic confirmed that the hunt was sparked by a tip and targeted either former commander Ratko Mladic or wartime leader Radovan Karadic, according to Reuters. Police searched the Veliki Zep military complex near the eastern Bosnian town of Han Pijesak -- where Mladic had his military headquarters during Bosnia's 1992-5 war and where he was last reported seen in mid-2004 -- Reuters reported. Karadzic is also believed to be hiding in eastern Bosnia, near the border with Serbia. NATO says he was last reported seen in late 2003. "The Hague suspect we were looking for was not found," Reuters quoted spokesman Pejic as saying. BW

...AS SPECULATION MOUNTS OVER MLADIC'S WHEREABOUTS
A spokeswoman for Hague war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said it is unlikely that Mladic is in Bosnia-Herzegovina, SRNA and Reuters reported on 18 January. "According to all our information, Mladic is in Serbia, not in Bosnia," Florence Hartmann, a spokeswoman for Del Ponte, said. Meanwhile, the newspaper "Glas javnosti," quoting unidentified sources, reported on 18 January that Mladic is in Russia and that secret talks are under way between Moscow and Belgrade about turning him over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). B92 cited a report in the daily newspaper "Blic" claiming that Mladic is in negotiations with the tribunal to turn himself in from a foreign country. BW

PROBE UNCOVERS STATE-OWNED PHONE COMPANY'S PAYMENTS ON BEHALF OF MILOSEVIC'S SON...
An investigation into Mobtel, Serbia's top mobile-phone operator, has revealed that the company paid sizable credit-card bills for the son of deposed Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, dpa reported on 18 January. According to a probe of tycoon Bogoljub Karic's business dealings, Mobtel paid a $55,000 credit-card bill for Marko Milosevic from a 1997 trip to Rome, the daily newspaper "Vecernje novosti" reported, according to dpa. At the time, Karic owned half of Mobtel while the state owned the other half. Karic, who is said to be Serbia's richest businessman, made his fortune thanks in part to close ties to the Milosevic regime; he is under investigation for allegedly attempting to bribe lawmakers into joining his newly formed political party, Force of Serbia Movement (PSS) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13, 17 and 18 January 2006). BW

...AS SERBIA AND AUSTRIA VOW TO SET UP WORKING GROUP TO RESOLVE MOBTEL DISPUTE
Austrian Vice Chancellor Hubert Gorbach and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica agreed on 17 January to set up a working group to resolve a dispute over Mobtel, dpa reported the next day. An Austrian consortium led by the Vienna-based Mobilkom company bought a stake in Mobtel from Serbian tycoon Karic in May. The deal was murky and the size of the stake that the Austrian consortium purchased is unclear, dpa reported. The company, worth an estimated $1.3 billion, is the object of an ownership dispute between Serbia's PPT telephone company and Karic, and is in international arbitration in Zurich. Serbia revoked the company's license last month. BW

SERBIAN PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER SAYS KOSOVA TALKS SHOULD FOCUS SOLELY ON DECENTRALIZATION
Aleksandar Simic, a senior adviser to Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica, said on 18 January that Belgrade will insist that final-status talks on Kosova not focus on independence for the province but rather on decentralization within Serbia, B92 reported the same day. "My legal stance, and the stance of many international law experts, is that the discussions will not include talks of whether Kosovo will remain a part of Serbia-Montenegro, because that has already been determined by Resolution 1244, unless the citizens of Serbia decide otherwise," Simic said, referring to the 1999 UN Security Council resolution ending the Kosova conflict. "The discussions will be led around what measure and level of essential autonomy the region will receive. I think that this is the only way to make sure that all international laws are respected," Simic said. BW

WORLD BANK CALLS ON ALBANIA TO USE INTERNATIONAL AID MORE EFFICIENTLY
The World Bank on 18 January urged Albania's government to take steps to ensure that international aid meant to fight poverty and unemployment is managed more effectively than in the past, AP reported. "The challenge for the new government is how to implement the [aid] projects, how to get the results," said Nadir Mohammed, World Bank country manager for Albania. Mohammed added that a previous three-year, $130 million loan to Albania was poorly managed. On 10 January, the World Bank announced a three-year, $196 million loan for Albania to fight poverty and unemployment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2006). The World Bank has granted Albania approximately $950 million in aid since 1991, AP reported. BW

MOLDOVAN EX-DEFENSE MINISTER SENTENCED TO PRISON FOR ABUSES
A court in Chisinau on 18 January sentenced former Moldovan Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat to 10 years in prison for abuse of office, RIA-Novosti reported. Pasat, who was arrested at Chisinau's international airport in March, was charged with abuse of office in connection with the sale of 21 MiG-29 fighters to the United States in 1997. The prosecution maintains that Pasat inflicted a loss of more than $50 million on the state through that deal (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Poland, and Moldova Report," 8 July 2005 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 October 2005). Pasat has called the case politically motivated, an allegation prosecutors have denied. BW

ARMENIAN PARTIES LOOK AHEAD TO 2007 PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
There are still 16 months to go before the Armenian parliamentary elections due in May 2007. But already signs are surfacing of tensions within the current three-party coalition government and within the opposition Artarutiun (Justice) bloc that constitutes the larger of two opposition parliament factions. And new parties and alliances are likely to emerge in the run-up to the ballot.

The first indications of tensions within the coalition government took the form of an exchange of barbs one year ago between Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, chairman of the Republican Party of Armenia and the longest-serving prime minister in the 15 years since Armenia became independent, and parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, head of the Orinats Yerkir (OY, Law-Based State) party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 28 February and 2 and 11 March 2005). Some observers in Yerevan anticipate that Baghdasarian's sometimes populist statements could herald a bid for the presidency in 2008 when incumbent President Robert Kocharian's second term expires. The constitution does not permit Kocharian to seek a third presidential term.

Then in December 2005, Baghdasarian broke ranks with the country's authorities and alleged "serious ballot-stuffing" during the 27 November nationwide referendum on a package of draft constitutional amendments. Local observers questioned official statistics according to which turnout in the referendum was over 65 percent. Baghdasarian pledged to submit evidence of that malpractice to the Prosecutor-General's Office, which had undertaken to examine allegations of fraud.

Asked on 23 December to comment on rumors of a possible coalition breakup, Baghdasarian said that despite some internal disputes, the coalition has until now succeeded in tackling the problems that have arisen, Noyan Tapan reported. But at the same time, he predicted "a serious political discussion" within the coalition in 2006 focusing on its future activities and principles. He added that he does not exclude the emergence of "different political arrangements" in the course of 2006.

Similar oblique criticism of the conduct of the referendum came from the second junior coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (HHD). The chairman of its bureau, Hrant Markarian (no relation to the prime minister), told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that "I think the reputation of all of us was damaged" by what he termed the "falsifications." Markarian added, however, that he does not believe the malpractice was on such a scale as to prove decisive in securing the passage of the amendments in question.

Speaking in Yerevan on 22 December at a ceremony to mark the 115th anniversary of the HHD's foundation, Markarian addressed the misgivings of some party members over the HHD's decision to join the government. He explained that the HHD's rationale for doing so was to contribute to internal political stability, which, he continued, is contingent on "justice" and eradicating corruption, a objective for which, he said, the HHD will continue to fight. Markarian went on to address President Kocharian personally, affirming that "the HHD cannot accept injustice irrespective of who perpetrates it and against whom.... The causes and consequences of this injustice are corruption, poverty, and the atmosphere of impunity in the country."

Commenting on Markarian's address, the opposition paper "Chorrord Ishkhanutiun" observed on 23 December that "It is clear that the main target of Dashnaktsutiun criticism in the forthcoming year 2006 will be the government of Andranik Markarian." The paper suggested that the HHD is well aware that it has no hope of winning a majority in the next parliament (it garnered 11 percent of the vote in 2003), and has therefore decided to create an "opposition image" for itself ahead of the 2007 elections.

Meanwhile, the independent daily "Aravot" pointed out on 11 January that there is no love lost between OY and the HHD. The paper quoted an unnamed leading HHD member as saying he would prefer the return to power of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's Armenian Pan-National Movement to Baghdasarian's election as president. Ter-Petrossian banned the HHD in 1994, paving the way for the trial of 31 of its members on trumped-up charges of terrorism.

The apparent failure of the campaign spearheaded by Artarutiun to persuade voters to boycott the 27 November referendum resulted in a major tactical disagreement among several of its most prominent leaders. Former Prime Minister and Hanrapetutiun (Republic) party leader Aram Sargsian, who for the past two years has sought to mobilize the population to push for the peaceful overthrow of the present leadership, convened a series of rallies in December to protest the apparent rigging of the referendum outcome. At a meeting in Yerevan on 8 December, he and the heads of several other parties aligned in Artarutiun announced plans for the creation of a broad-based anti-government "civic movement" comprising not only politicians but representatives of civil society, that would launch a "serious struggle" aimed at ousting the present Armenian leadership.

But Stepan Demirchian, Kocharian's defeated challenger in the 2003 presidential runoff ballot, distanced himself and his People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) from those plans on 14 December, saying he sees no point in participating in further anti-government rallies. On 26 December, Demirchian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that he does not think Armenia is ripe for the kind of spontaneous mass uprising that proved the catalyst for the peaceful revolutions in Georgia in November 2003, Ukraine in December 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in March 2005. Demirchian conceded that tactical differences between himself and Sargsian may precipitate the collapse of Artarutiun in 2006, but he added that "the HZhK can operate separately, while cooperating with reliable partners." He predicted that "there will certainly be regroupings in 2006 within both the government and opposition camps."

A further possible blow to Artarutiun is the rumored imminent defection of one of its leading members, Viktor Dallakian, who is reported to have agreed to serve as nominal head of Prosperous Armenia (BH), a new pro-government party currently being established by wealthy oligarch Gagik Tsarukian. According to "168 Zham" on 11 November, Tsarukian aspires to a "big faction" in the Armenian parliament that would include "a number of prominent entrepreneurs and politicians" whom the paper declined to identify. In a 21 December interview with the daily "Haykakan zhamanak," Tsarukian said BH aims to unite influential and uncorrupt people to tackle unspecified political and socio-economic problems.

Dallakian declined on 11 January to comment to RFE/RL's Armenian Service on the rumors of his alignment with Tsarukian, but he too hinted at "the emergence of new serious political forces that will play a serious role in Armenia's political life."

Others, however, have questioned whether money alone can transform BH into an influential political party. Prime Minister Markarian pointed out in an interview published on 14 January in "168 zham" that even if Tsarukian spends millions on his election campaign, "you can't create a powerful party in one year or six months. It may...have powerful resources. But these are different things." At the same time, Markarian admitted that he and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian have recently met several times with Tsarukian in a bid to dissuade him from establishing a new political party. Sarkisian for his part denied on 16 January any connection with BH, saying he has not been invited to join its ranks and does not expect to be. He added, however, that he will announce at the end of this month whether or not he plans to run as a candidate from Prime Minister Markarian's HHK in the 2007 parliamentary ballot.

Some Yerevan commentators believe that BH is intended to provide support for Sarkisian's candidacy in the 2008 presidential election. Others have suggested that President Kocharian has given the green light for the creation of several new opposition forces that will compete among themselves for influence and votes and thus preclude the possibility of an opposition victory next year.

SOUTHERN AFGHAN GOVERNOR, PROTESTERS ALLEGE PAKISTANI INVOLVEMENT IN SUICIDE ATTACKS
A crowd estimated at more than 1,000 gathered in Spin Boldak, Kandahar Province, on 18 January to condemn Pakistan for its alleged involvement in a deadly suicide attack two days earlier, AFP reported. The protesters chanted, "Death to ISI [Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence]! Death to Taliban and Al-Qaeda!" and demanded that Pakistan "hand over the murderers of our martyrs and innocent civilians." Protesters claimed that Islamabad is fomenting instability through its support of groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban even as it professes to be fighting terrorists. Kandahar Governor Asadullah Khaled has claimed to have evidence suggesting that Pakistan was behind some of the recent suicide attacks in his province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2006). Khaled addressed the protesters in Spin Boldak on 18 January, alleging that the ISI is "training and harboring terrorists," Pajhwak Afghan News reported. AT

AFGHAN PRESIDENT REPORTEDLY ORDERS COMMISSION TO EXPLORE RECENT SUICIDE ATTACKS
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered the creation of a commission to examine the circumstances behind recent suicide attacks in Kandahar Province, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported on 18 January. The broadcaster did not specify the makeup of the commission, but it suggested the move was a response to accusations by Kandahar Governor Khaled that Pakistan has been behind such attacks. AT

AL-QAEDA 'SPOKESMAN' SAYS AL-ZAWAHIRI IS ALIVE
Ahmad Solaiman, describing himself as a member of Al-Qaeda based in Afghanistan's northeastern Konar Province, on 17 January dismissed reports that Al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a recent U.S. air strike, saying Osama bin Laden's lieutenant is safe and well, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 18 January. Solaiman, speaking via telephone from an "undisclosed location," said al-Zawahiri was not among those killed in the U.S. air strike on 13 January in the Pakistani village of Damadola, near the border with Afghanistan. Solaiman, claiming to be in charge of Al-Qaeda's media affairs, called al-Zawahiri "one of the mujahedin leaders in Afghanistan and [he] is in contact with other leaders." Rejecting reports that al-Zawahiri was in Damadola for a meal, Solaiman said that in "view of his hostility toward America,... al-Zawahiri is not so naive" as to go to an obvious location for a meal "where he would endanger his life." Conflicting reports on the strike in Damadola and whether Zawahiri was among those killed have emerged since the incident, in which more than a dozen people were reported killed. Pakistani intelligence sources were quoted on 19 January as claiming that the dead include a son-in-law of al-Zawahiri and an Al-Qaeda bomb-making expert, Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, RFE/RL reported. AT

AFGHAN ENVOY SAYS NO FOREIGN PRESSURE EXERTED ON PRESIDENT TO DELAY IRAN VISIT
Afghan Ambassador to Iran Mohammad Omar Daudzai said in Tehran on 18 January that the recent cancellation of a planned visit to Iran by President Karzai was not prompted by international pressure, IRNA reported. Karzai was due to meet in Tehran on 16 January with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, but the meeting was canceled for what Afghan officials have described as technical reasons, including difficult weather conditions. Some media have speculated that Karzai canceled the trip in light of the international standoff over Iran's nuclear activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2006). Daudzai said Karzai postponed two previous visits to Iran and former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami put off a trip to Kabul. Afghan authorities have set no new date for Karzai to meet with Ahmadinejad. AT

IRAN, EU NUCLEAR MEETING CANCELED
Ali Asqar Soltanieh, Iran's representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said on 18 January that a scheduled meeting between Iran and European officials has been canceled, Fars News Agency reported. Soltanieh explained that the Europeans have not responded to an Iranian request to hold the meeting at his office. Meanwhile, anonymous diplomats told AFP on 18 January that Britain, France, and Germany have formally requested an emergency IAEA meeting on 2 February. In Tehran, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad called on the Europeans and the United States to change their stance on the nuclear issue, IRNA reported. "Come down from your ivory tower and think logically, because the world cannot be run on the basis of force and injustice," he said. "Today, logic and thought rule in the world." Ahmadinejad accused unnamed countries of using international organizations as instruments for bullying other states. He also said that Iran favors a world free of nuclear weapons. BS

IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER CALLS NUCLEAR KNOWLEDGE SIGN OF 'INDIGENOUS CAPABILITY'
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told visiting Tajik President Rakhmonov and his delegation on 18 January that Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology demonstrates its academic prowess, IRNA reported. "Acquiring nuclear knowledge is an example which proves the progress of Iranian scholars, which has raised a lot of hue and cry," Khamenei said. "However, the main reason for the reaction of the Westerners is our young scientists' indigenous capability to acquire this advanced technology." BS

VISITING TAJIK PRESIDENT SIGNS AGREEMENTS IN TEHRAN
Presidents Ahmadinejad and Rakhmonov signed eight memorandums of understanding in Tehran on 18 January, IRNA reported. The texts deal with banking, construction of dams and power plants, energy cooperation, the standards of goods and products, transportation, and cooperation between foreign ministries. Rakhmonov and the Tajik delegation were also granted an audience with Supreme Leader Khamenei, state television reported. Khamenei reportedly stressed Iran's potential for training students and researchers from Tajikistan, citing the country's "nuclear knowledge" (see item above). BS

IRANIAN KURDISH LEGISLATORS NOTE FUEL SHORTAGES
Saqqez and Baneh parliamentary representative Fakhredin Haidari, the spokesman for the legislature's Kurdish faction, said on 18 January that the supply of natural gas to several parts of the country has been interrupted repeatedly, ISNA reported. Predominantly Kurdish areas have been particularly hard-hit, he said, so signatures for the interpellation of Petroleum Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh are being collected. Fifteen signatures have been collected so far, Haidari said, the minimum required to go ahead with a no-confidence motion. BS

IRANIAN POLITICAL PRISONERS END HUNGER STRIKE
Hunger-striking political prisoners who are being held at institutions in Birjand, Gohar Dasht, Karaj, Kermanshah, Sabzevar, and Semnan have ended their protests in the face of what they have described as heavy pressure from authorities, Radio Farda reported on 18 January. The hunger strikers complained recently of harsh treatment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January 2006). Mohammad Reza Faghihi, the lawyer for two of the prisoners, stressed to Radio Farda that his clients object to the conditions in which they are being held. Faghihi said that, as political prisoners, his clients should not be held with habitual criminals and have requested relocation to Evin prison in Tehran if separate facilities are unavailable. BS

IRAQ FORMALLY ASKS IRAN TO RELEASE COAST-GUARD VESSEL, CREW
According to a statement from the Iraqi Foreign Ministry on 18 January, Foreign Minister Hushyar Zebari has submitted a diplomatic memorandum to Iranian charge d'affaires Hassan Kazem-Qomi requesting the release of an Iraqi coast-guard vessel and its crew, Al-Sharqiyah television reported, citing a statement issued by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry on 18 January. Iranian forces captured the Iraqis on 14 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2006). BS

BODIES OF 25 IRAQI POLICE RECRUITS FOUND IN DESERT AREA
The bodies of 25 Sunni Arab police recruits abducted on 16 January were found in the desert north of Baghdad on 18 January, nytimes.com reported on 19 January. The recruits were traveling from the Baghdad Police Academy to their hometown of Samarra when insurgents reportedly stopped their bus. The fate of the other recruits believed to have been abducted in the same incident remains unclear. Al-Sharqiyah television quoted Iraqi officials on 18 January as saying that 36 police recruits were taken off the bus. AFP reported on 19 January that at least one recruit escaped his would-be captors; he later reported that eight cars and minibuses carrying dozens of gunmen stopped the bus and took the men into the desert, Iraqi General Malik al-Khazraji told the news agency. Sunni Arab police recruits have increasingly been targeted by insurgents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2006). KR

INSURGENT GROUP RELEASES IRAQI INTERIOR MINISTER'S SISTER
The insurgent group Katibat al-Tha'r (Revenge Brigade) released the sister of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr on 18 January, Iraqi media reported. According to Al-Jazeera television, the group released a videotaped statement saying that the woman's abduction was a message to the "henchmen" of the occupation and was intended to expose the outgoing transitional government's lax security measures. The group claimed it released Jabr's sister "in accordance with the principles of Islam," adding that it had treated her with respect during her captivity. KR

NEW CHIEF JUDGE IN AL-DUJAYL TRIAL CALLED A BA'ATHIST
Ali al-Lami, the director-general of the De-Ba'athification Commission, said on 18 January that Iraqi Special Tribunal Judge Sa'id al-Hammashi should not preside over the Al-Dujayl trial because he is a Ba'athist, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2006). Al-Lami said he has petitioned the court to prevent al-Hammashi from presiding over the trial when it resumes on 24 January. Al-Lami said on 18 January that al-Hammashi has been allowed to remain on the bench despite his Ba'athist membership, but contended the judge "must not be allowed to hold a leadership position." Many Iraqis were forced to join the Ba'ath Party under Saddam Hussein's rule in order to keep their jobs. Al-Hammashi is a Shi'ite; the Iraqi Ba'ath Party was dominated by Sunni Arabs. KR

RIGHTS GROUP SAYS SITUATION IN IRAQ DETERIORATED IN 2005
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its 2006 Annual World Report on 18 January, saying the human rights situation deteriorated significantly in 2005. The 544-page report (available at (http://www.hrw.org) accuses the multinational forces, Iraqi security forces, and insurgents of responsibility for the decline. "Any discussion of detainee abuse in 2005 must begin with the United States, not because it is the worst violator, but because it is the most influential," the report notes, adding, "In 2005 it became disturbingly clear that the abuse of detainees had become a deliberate, central part of the Bush administration's strategy for interrogating terrorist suspects." The report calls allegations of detainee abuse by Iraqi security forces a serious concern, and criticizes the Interior and Defense ministries for their failure to establish an effective mechanism for monitoring the treatment of detainees. The report condemns insurgent attacks on civilians, which claimed hundreds of lives in 2005. It also says insurgent claims that mosques, churches, and political-party offices are "legitimate" targets "have no basis in international law, which requires the protection of any civilian who is not actively participating in the hostilities." KR

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