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Newsline - January 20, 2006


RUSSIA TRYING TO BUY TIME IN IRANIAN DISPUTE?
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the Iranian nuclear issue in Moscow on 19 January with his French counterpart, Philippe Douste-Blazy, international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006). Lavrov later told reporters that "what is important here is to not blow out of proportion aspects [of this issue] that cause a sensation, such as when the issue should be referred to the United Nations, or when the [UN] Security Council should take its decision. It is important to focus on the main goal, and that is to do everything to prevent any violation of the nonproliferation regime." Lavrov said Russia will take its cue from the assessment of Iran's nuclear program made by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) when the UN agency's board of governors meets in Vienna on 2-3 February. Douste-Blazy called on the international community to stand firm and united in the face of Iran's decision to resume its nuclear-enrichment activities. Mosnews.com reported that Russia's strategy in dealing with Iran is to buy time for Russian diplomats to try to negotiate an end to the growing crisis. PM

EUROPEANS SEEK TO DIVERSIFY ENERGY SOURCES
Hungarian Economy and Transport Minister Janos Koka said in Budapest on 19 January that he has called a meeting of energy ministers from Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia, and Slovakia for the coming week to discuss ways of cutting their dependence on Russian natural-gas deliveries, the "Financial Times" reported. He took the step following Gazprom's recent cuts in supplies to some of its European customers in response to a severe cold wave at home. Koka said he will submit any joint findings from the meeting to the EU. Austria, which holds the rotating EU chair, called again on Europeans to diversify the sources of their energy supplies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 19 January 2006). In related news, a spokesman for Finland's Fingrid state power corporation said in Helsinki on 20 January that Russia has cut its exports of electricity to his country by 30 percent on account of the cold snap. He added that Fingrid is responding by activating unspecified reserve generating facilities and importing electricity from Sweden. PM

WESTERN COUNTRIES TO MONITOR IMPLEMENTATION OF RUSSIAN NGO LAW
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Barry Lowenkron told Ekho Moskvy radio on 19 January that the U.S. government is concerned about Russia's new law governing the work of nongovernmental organizations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006). In Washington, department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "We have repeatedly conveyed our serious concerns about the legislation to the Russian government and will continue to monitor implementation of the law and its impact on Russian civil society closely," dpa reported. And in Brussels, the EU said in a statement that it "will closely monitor the implementation of the law after it comes into effect and expects it to happen in accordance with the standards and obligations laid out in the framework of the Council of Europe and OSCE," RIA-Novosti reported. At his 19 January Moscow press conference, Foreign Minister Lavrov rejected recent U.S. and other Western criticism of the state of democracy in Russia, suggesting that the critics should first concern themselves with similar problems in their own countries. PM

RUSSIA TO CUT CONTRIBUTIONS TO COUNCIL OF EUROPE
Sergei Ryabkov, who heads the Foreign Ministry's Department of Pan-European Cooperation, told Interfax in Moscow on 20 January that "judging by Russia's decade-long experience of Council of Europe membership, one can draw the unambiguous conclusion that our large contribution to the budget of this organization does not have the required effect." He did not elaborate. Ryabkov stressed that cutting the size of the contribution will be a "complicated" procedure and involve changes in Russian legislation but added: "We are working on it." PM

YUKOS GETS A NEW TAX BILL
The once-mighty oil major Yukos said in a statement on 19 January that it will challenge in court a bill for $3.5 billion in back taxes it received from the authorities on 27 December, "The Moscow Times" reported. The company's debts now total about $9.8 billion, the daily "Gazeta" noted. The statement said that "it should be noted that the methods used by state agencies to calculate taxes have led to a situation where the amount Yukos owes in back taxes is eight times greater than its revenues. If penalty payments are added, the tax pressure exceeds 15.5 rubles in taxes for each ruble of revenue." Yukos still has some important assets, such as a 20 percent stake in Sibneft. PM

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT REJECTS CRITICAL HUMAN RIGHTS ASSESSMENT...
Robert Kocharian rejected on 19 January the critical findings of a recent assessment of human rights in Armenia, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The report, issued on 18 January by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, noted that the Armenian "government has failed to improve its human rights record" and accused the Armenian authorities of continuing to restrict civil rights, bully their political opponents and tolerate police brutality (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006). Responding to those findings, presidential press secretary Victor Soghomonian argued that the assessment was "not objective" and contended that "many parts of the report are bewildering because they have nothing to do with reality." RG

...AS OTHERS CONFIRM CRITICISM
In contrast to the Armenian president's rejection of a recent human rights report critical of his government, former Armenian Ombudsperson Larisa Alaverdian welcomed on 19 January the report's findings as a realistic assessment of the true state of human rights in Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The report specifically quoted Alaverdian, Armenia's first human rights ombudsperson, and noted that the Armenian "authorities have a history of putting pressure on human rights defenders who are critical of the government," adding that "in 2005, such pressure extended to the ombudsperson's office." Alaverdian was relieved of her duties earlier this month in the wake of a heated dispute with Armenian government officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2006). A senior member of the independent Helsinki Committee human rights group, Avetik Ishkhanian, also defended the report's findings as "impartial and objective," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 19 January. RG

ARMENIAN ELECTION BODY DISMISSES CHARGES OF REFERENDUM FRAUD
Armenian Central Election Commission (CEC) Secretary Tsovinar Khachatrian dismissed on 19 January opposition claims that it has detailed evidence of large-scale voting fraud during the country's late November constitutional referendum, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The CEC was responding to the opposition Artarutiun (Justice) alliance's 18 January release of the findings of its two-month investigation into the Armenian government's conduct of the 27 November 2005 vote. The findings reportedly uncovered documentary evidence supporting their allegations of massive vote rigging to secure passage of the government's set of amendments to the Armenian constitution. Khachatrian dismissed the findings and argued that the opposition claims "absolutely do not correspond to reality." According to the official results released by the CEC, as many as 1.5 million people, or nearly two-thirds of Armenia's eligible voters, participated in the referendum, with some 93 percent voting in favor of the amendments. Those results were widely questioned by international observers, however. RG

ARMENIAN AND AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTS TO MEET IN PARIS
A statement released at the end of talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers on 19 January announced that the Armenian and Azerbaijani president would hold a follow-up meeting in Paris sometime in early February, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The planned meeting was confirmed by Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian, following a closed meeting in London with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov under the auspices of the French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006). RG

NEW PLAN TO COUNTER BIRD FLU ADOPTED IN ARMENIA
The Armenian government adopted a new action plan on 19 January designed to combat the potential outbreak of bird flu from neighboring Turkey, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The plan sets forth a comprehensive set of measures and, according to Agriculture Minister David Lokian, includes new guidelines on how to cull poultry and compensate farmers in the event of an outbreak, and for the training of officials dealing with veterinary security and purchase of special laboratory equipment for quickly detecting the virus. Lokian added that "the adoption of the national program is connected with the issue of receiving a loan and a grant from the World Bank," noting that a World Bank spokesman told RFE/RL on 18 January that the institution is ready to disburse up to $5 million in loans and grants to help Armenia prevent any outbreak of bird flu. RG

AZERBAIJANI OFFICIALS REINSTATE STUDENT HUNGER STRIKERS
Azerbaijani Education Ministry spokesman Bayram Huseynzade reported on 19 January that the authorities have agreed to reinstate two students who have been waging a hunger strike since late December to protest their expulsion from university, Turan and RFE/RL reported. Two of the student hunger strikers, Namiq Feyziyev and Turan Aliyev, were hospitalized earlier this month after remaining on hunger strike for more than 20 days. The students were protesting their expulsion from university for participating in an opposition demonstration, although the authorities contend that their dismissal stemmed from poor grades and disciplinary problems (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2006). RG

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT CALLS FOR ENERGY SECURITY
Mikheil Saakashvili issued a call on 19 January demanding that the government ensure that the country overcomes its dependence on Russian energy by 2009, Imedi TV and RFE/RL reported. During a cabinet meeting on 19 January, Saakashvili instructed his ministers to study appropriate measures for greater energy self-sufficiency and called for the development of the country's gas industry. The Georgia economy depends almost exclusively on Russia for natural gas and the two countries reached a tentative agreement that doubled the price for gas imports from Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2005). RG

FORMATION OF KAZAKH CABINET COMPLETED
President Nursultan Nazarbaev has issued decrees appointing all 16 ministers to the government of Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov, "Kazakhstan Today" reported on 19 January. Nazarbaev appointed Kamaltin Mukhamedzhanov as environment minister, Akhmetzhan Esimov as agriculture minister, Baktykozha Izmukhambetov as minister of energy and mineral resources, and Vladimir Shkolnik the minister of industry and trade. In the previous government, Shkolnik was energy minister, while Izmukhambetov was first deputy energy minister. The remaining 12 ministerial appointments had already been announced (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006). DK

JOURNALIST WATCHDOG VOICES CONCERN OVER KAZAKH NEWSPAPERS
The Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) issued a press release on 19 January voicing concern over the refusal of the Kazakh printing company Dauir to print seven Almaty-based opposition newspapers. The director of Dauir is Svetlana Nazarbaeva, sister-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbaev. The company reportedly informed the newspapers that because of equipment changes it would not renew contracts that expired on 1 January. CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper commented: "We condemn this arbitrary decision to deny opposition newspapers access to the country's main printing press. We call on President Nazarbaev to ensure that Dauir renews its contracts with the seven papers immediately." The press release noted that opposition newspaper experienced difficulties with printing services in September in the run-up to Kazakhstan's 4 December presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September 2006), which Nazarbaev won amid fraud charges from the country's opposition and criticism from OSCE election monitors. DK

TAJIKISTAN CONFIRMS UPCOMING RELEASE OF TWO GUANTANAMO DETAINEES
Salohiddin Nasriddinov, the Tajik deputy minister of foreign affairs, told reporters on 19 January that two Tajik citizens held at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will soon return to Tajikistan, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Nasriddinov said that Tajikistan has received confirmation from the U.S. State Department that the detainees are on their way home. Nasriddinov said that nine Tajik citizens have already been released from Guantanamo but could not provide information on the number of Tajik nationals still detained at the facility. DK

TAJIKISTAN DENIES POLITICAL ASPECT IN BBC SHUTDOWN
The British embassy in Tajikistan has expressed concern over the suspension of BBC FM broadcasts in Tajikistan even as Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry insisted the shutdown was not rooted in politics, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Reuters reported on 19 January. The embassy said in a statement, "On 10 January, after the BBC was unable to complete the process of extending its registration in the 20 days stipulated by Tajik law, the broadcast of its programs was ended," RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The BBC called the 20-day deadline to register with the Justice Ministry, a new requirement for foreign media outlets mandated by recently passed legislation, "unrealistic," Reuters reported. British Ambassador Graeme Loten said that the situation resulted from a "misunderstanding" and urged the Tajik government to allow the BBC back on the air. Igor Sattorov, spokesman for Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry, said the suspension was procedural and had nothing to do with the content of the BBC's programming, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Sattorov said that his ministry was conducting an "expert assessment of the situation" and suggested that broadcasts could be restored as soon as the procedural issues were addressed. DK

RUSSIA APPOINTS NEW ENVOY TO TURKMENISTAN
President Vladimir Putin has issued a decree appointing Igor Blatov Russia's new ambassador to Turkmenistan, Turkmenistan.ru reported on 19 January. Blatov is a career diplomat who has been the deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's General Secretariat since 2000. Russia has not had a full-time ambassador in Turkmenistan since Andrei Molochkov stepped down in July 2004 for health reasons. DK

MINSK INVITES OSCE ELECTION MONITORS
Belarus has invited monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to observe the 19 March presidential election, the ministry's website (http://www.mfa.gov.by) reported on 19 January. The previous day the ministry's press service informed about the invitation of monitors from the Commonwealth of Independent States for that election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006). ODIHR spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on 19 January that before taking a decision on sending its monitors to Belarus, the ODIHR will dispatch a fact-finding mission to that country. Gunnarsdottir said she sees no problem in the fact that Belarus's presidential vote will be followed by parliamentary elections in Ukraine one week later. "We have had experience in sending monitors to more than one country at the same time," she noted. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT FIRES TWO MINISTERS FOR THE SECOND TIME THIS MONTH
The Verkhovna Rada on 19 January voted to dismiss Justice Minister Serhiy Holovatyy and Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov, Ukrainian media reported. Simultaneously, the parliament passed a no-confidence vote in Naftohaz Ukrayiny chief Oleksiy Ivchenko. A relevant resolution was backed by 245 deputies, primarily from the Party of Regions, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party (united), and two factions supporting parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn. On 10 January, the Verkhovna Rada already dismissed the entire cabinet of Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, blaming it for concluding what the deputies saw as a disadvantageous deal with Russia on gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," 10 and 18 January 2006). The "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www.pravda.com.ua) reported that the initial resolution draft included a provision declaring the gas deal with Russia to be illegal and in contravention of national interests but the adopted version does not include this statement. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT CHALLENGES DISMISSAL OF CABINET IN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT
President Viktor Yushchenko has requested that the Constitutional Court consider the legality of the dismissal of Yekhanurov's cabinet by the parliament on 10 January, the presidential press service's website (http://www.president.gov.ua) reported on 19 January. The 18-seat Constitutional Court is not operational at present because the Verkhovna Rada has not nominated its quota of judges and refused to take an oath of allegiance from several new judges nominated by Yushchenko and the Congress of Judges of Ukraine. JM

EU WARNS SERBIA ON WAR CRIMINALS
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on 19 January that Serbia's ties with the European Union are at risk over Belgrade's failure to turn over war-crimes suspects Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), dpa reported the same day. Speaking at a news briefing in Brussels with ICTY chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, Rehn said Belgrade's failure to cooperate by arresting and handing over the two would have "extremely negative consequences," including the possible suspension of negotiations on a stabilization and association agreement. "Suspension of negotiations is certainly one alternative," Rehn said. BW

RUSSIA GUARANTEES THAT FORMER YUGOSLAV PRESIDENT WILL BE RETURNED TO THE HAGUE AFTER MEDICAL TREATMENT
Slobodan Milosevic's defense attorneys have told the ICTY that they have received guarantees from the Russian government that the deposed Yugoslav president would be returned to custody if he is released to receive medical treatment in Moscow, B92 reported on 19 January. In the guarantee, delivered via the Dutch Embassy in Moscow, Russia promised that it will honor all orders from the ICTY if Milosevic is temporarily released. Together with the Russian guarantees, the tribunal was also given "a series of personal promises signed by Milosevic," B92 reported. Milosevic's trial is scheduled to resume on 23 January and the court is expected to render a decision before then. Carla Del Ponte said on 19 January that she was opposed to temporarily releasing Milosevic, noting that he has good medical care at The Hague, Hina reported the same day. BW

SERBIAN OFFICIAL SAYS KOSOVA'S DECENTRALIZATION WOULD NOT MEAN PARTITION...
Goran Bogdanovic, a member of Serbia's negotiating team for Kosova's final-status talks, said on 19 January that Belgrade's plan for decentralizing the province would not mean partition, B92 reported the same day. Bogdanovic made his comments after a meeting with EU Kosova envoy Stefan Lene and Kosovar Albanian officials. "I explained that forming a Serbian entity does not mean that Kosovo would be divided, nor would it be similar to the divisions made in Bosnia-Herzegovina." Bogdanovic said. "The Serbian entity would encompass the current and newly formed municipalities of a multiethnic character with a clear Serbian majority, which means that new municipalities would be established through the decentralization process. Decentralization is also important as a prerequisite for the return of a large number of refugees to the region," Bogdanovic said. BW

...AS EU ENVOY PUSHES FOR COMPROMISE
After the same meeting, Lene called decentralization one of the main issues that needs to be resolved in Kosova's final-status negotiations because it addresses the concerns of the Serbian minority, B92 reported on 19 January. Lene added that he was confident that the two sides will be able to reach a compromise. "Discussions are in progress," Lene said. "Today's delegations had to take stances that correspond with the documents which they have adopted. We do not think that everything has been finalized, this is a process, and we believe that the positions of the two sides will be able to come closer together," he added. Talks on the decentralization issue are scheduled to take place in Vienna on 25 January. BW

MAIN MONTENEGRIN MUSLIM GROUP SUPPORTS INDEPENDENCE
Montenegro Muslim Society President Avdul Kurpejovic said on 19 January that his organization supports Montenegrin independence, Beta and B92 reported the same day. "Montenegro Muslims are lastingly, independently and freely interested in an independent, democratic, and legal state of Montenegro," he said. Kurpejovic added that Montenegrin Muslims are distinct from, and have separate interests from Bosnian Muslims. "That is why the Montenegrin Muslims will vote for an independent Montenegro, because we have never had any other nation or home," Kurpejovic said. BW

BOSNIANS HELP EUFOR UNCOVER LARGE ARMS CACHE
EU peacekeepers (EUFOR) said on 19 January that they have found the largest weapons cache since the start of their operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina in late 2004, Reuters reported the same day. EUFOR said it found the cache -- containing more than 500 antipersonnel mines, 200 mortar bombs, hand grenades, explosives, and a rocket launcher -- in an underground bunker in northwest Bosnia. EUFOR said locals stopped a patrol on 16 January and showed peacekeepers an underground reinforced-concrete bunker located in a wooded area near the northern town of Bosanska Dubica, in Republika Srpska. "This has been by far the most successful harvest operation in the history of EUFOR," it said in a statement. BW

WAR-CRIMES SUSPECT WANTED BY CROATIA ARRESTED IN AUSTRALIA
Australian police announced on 20 January that they have arrested a former Serbian commander wanted in Croatia on war-crimes charges, international news agencies reported. Dragan Vasiljkovic was arrested in Sydney after Australia received a request from the Croatian government, Reuters quoted Australian Attorney General Philip Ruddock as saying. Zagreb accuses Vasiljkovic of torturing and killing Croatian soldiers and civilians in Serbian-held territories during Croatia's 1991-95 war, when he commanded a Serbian paramilitary unit. Croatian Justice Minister Vesna Skare Ozbolt said Zagreb will formally request Vasiljkovic's extradition next week. "We will certainly help speed up the procedure as much as possible. I hope that the whole process could be completed by the spring," she told Reuters. BW

MOLDOVAN OFFICIAL DENIES GAZPROM GIVEN HIGHER STAKE IN MOLDOVAGAZ AS PART OF GAS DEAL
Moldovan Economy and Trade Minister Valeriu Lazar said on 19 January that Chisinau did not agree to give Gazprom a larger stake in the gas-transit joint venture Moldovagaz, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. When Moldova and Gazprom agreed on the compromise price for natural gas of $110 per 1,000 cubic meters, there was widespread speculation that Chisinau had agreed to increase Gazprom's share in Moldovagaz (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 17 January 2006). Lazar, however, dismissed the speculation. "That agreement concerns supplies of gas to Moldova and its transits only, but it says nothing about transfers or sales of shares," Lazar said. He added, however, that increasing Gazprom's stake was discussed. 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. BW

WHAT IS BEHIND MOSCOW'S 'IRANIAN GAME?'
The board of the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is set to discuss the issue in early February and may vote to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions. On 14 January, Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defense minister, was reported as saying that "if Iran does not stop all research and practical work on uranium enrichment, the referral of the Iranian nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council cannot be ruled out." The same day, Sergei Mironov, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, said the referral would be a "natural move." Since then, however, Russia has made clear it will not be pigeonholed in its stance on Iran. As momentum gathered for a crackdown on Tehran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 17 January joined the West in rejecting a call by Iran for fresh negotiations, saying no new talks would be held until Iran brought to a halt the atomic fuel research work it resumed last week.But Lavrov also said Russia was not yet ready to join Western moves for Iran to be referred immediately to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions. EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said 18 January that Russia has proposed a delay in referring Iran to the Security Council, and that a proposal by Moscow -- originally rejected by Tehran -- to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian soil remains a possibility. The United States and the so-called EU-3 of Britain, France, and Germany, feel the Security Council, with its powerful enforcement mechanism, is the best forum for resolving the Iran nuclear crisis. But Russia and fellow Security Council member China hope the issue can be resolved within the IAEA, which has no substantial punitive power of its own.There are economic and geopolitical interests behind Russia's softer stance on Iran. Most notably, there is the $1 billion Bushehr nuclear power station that Russia is set to complete in Iran this year -- a project that was strongly opposed by Jerusalem, which sees Iran as its primary security threat, and Washington.Then there are energy ties. Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported that Russia's state-controlled Gazprom monopoly has invested up to $750 million into a number of energy projects in Iran. Russian exports to Iran of metals and machine manufacturing supplies have reached a total of about $2 billion a year. A second key area of Russian exports is arms sales, which resumed in 2000 after Russia left the so-called Gore-Chernomyrdin protocol, a secret agreement between Moscow and Washington about restricted arms deliveries to Iran.In late December 2005, Russia signed a deal worth $700 million with Iran to sell 29 of its Tor M-1 antimissile systems. And there is room for such sales to grow. Russian officials with ties to the country's military-industrial complex will be loathe to sacrifice these sales for the sake of UN sanctions. Russia in October 2005 also launched a booster rocket carrying eight satellites, one of which belonged to Iran. There are plans to launch a second Iranian satellite in 2007. Geopolitically, Iran is Russia's biggest neighbor in the Caspian, where Moscow is looking to restore its influence and take advantage of short transport corridors leading to the Persian Gulf. But in late 2005, Russia began distancing itself from the strong anti-Semitic rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and complying with Western desires to use its close ties with the Islamic Republic as a lever in the nuclear issue. This was in part because of Russia's desire to maintain special relations with Israel. An important commercial ally for Russia, Israel also has strong ties with the United States.Jerusalem soon joined the United States and Western Europe in urging Russia to intervene on the Iranian nuclear issue, and on 17 January, sent its top security and atomic-energy officials to Moscow to press the point. It remains to be seen whether Iran will be referred to the Security Council, or how veto-wielding China and Russia will act in such a case. Although Beijing and Moscow are currently united in their opposition to sanctions, sanctions would have a different impact on each. Sanctions would mean a cutoff in Iranian oil supplies, leading to a drastic increase in world oil prices -- a massive boon to supplier nations like Russia, and a major setback to increasingly energy-hungry consumer nations like China. For now, Russia appears to be keeping its options open. What may be happening behind the scenes is a domestic battle between three political camps: pro-economic forces who relish the thought of Russia profiting from Iran sanctions, foreign-policy watchers seeking stronger ties with the West, and defense-industry stalwarts who hope to boost military sales to Tehran.

AFGHANISTAN TO SUPPORT CENSORSHIP OF 'IMMORAL' BROADCASTS...
In an interview with the Mashhad-based Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran on 17 January, Afghan Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism Sayyed Makhdum Rahin said that while his country's "media regulations" allow all Afghans access to "free press or television stations," limitations exist which are "not imposed by the government but are in line with Islamic and national principles" of the country. According to Rahin, some private media outlets "do not observe the established regulations" and do not respect the Islamic and national principles of Afghanistan. While both his ministry and a media monitoring commission have advised the media outlets to observe the regulations, there are still "some irregularities," Rahin added. Rahin told the Iranian radio station that imposition of restrictions "on the broadcasting of immoral programs" had "nothing to do with freedom of the press or broadcast." Rahin has been walking on a tightrope between freedom of the media and the conservative elements trying to limit such freedoms. AT

...AS NORTHERN TV STATION IS SHUTDOWN...
The Culture and Information Department of Balkh Province has closed the Basharat cable television, which broadcasted in Mazar-e Sharif, the provincial capital, the official Balkh Television reported on 18 January. The head of Balkh's Culture and Information Department, Saleh Mohammad Khaleq, said that Basharat was closed down for broadcasting "films and songs that were against Islam and Afghan culture." Khaleq warned other cable operators in Mazar-e Sharif to be respectful of the country's culture and Islamic principles in their broadcasts. Basharat is the first cable operator to be shut down by authorities in Balkh. The report does not mention what sorts of songs or movies were considered offensive. AT

...WHILE KABUL-BASED TELEVISION STATION IS FINED
The media monitoring commission met under the chairmanship of Information, Culture, and Tourism Minister Rahin in Kabul on 19 January and voted to fine the Afghan Television station, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported. Afghan Television was fined 50,000 afghanis (approximately $1,000) for broadcasting nudity. The commission issued a serious warning to operators of television stations and cable networks to refrain from broadcasting nudity or other immoral content. The Afghan Supreme Court issued a ban on cable television in 2003, but the ban was gradually ignored with the support of Rahin. However, in 2004, Rahin backed the Supreme Court's decision to ban cable networks (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 and 30 January 2003 and 18 November 2004). AT

INDIA TO DISPATCH 300 MORE COMMANDOS TO AFGHANISTAN
New Delhi has decided to send approximately 300 armed commandos to Afghanistan to provide security for the Indian state Border Roads Organization personnel operating in there, the New Delhi-daily "The Asian Age" reported on 19 January. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) commandos will be deployed in the Kandahar and Nangarhar provinces in southern and eastern Afghanistan, respectively, and in Kabul. Currently there are around 50 ITBP commandos in the Indian mission in Kabul. In November, the neo-Taliban abducted and later executed an Indian driver working with the Border Roads Organization in Nimroz Province in southwestern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 23 November 2005). The presence of armed Indian commandos near the Afghan-Pakistani border is likely to increase tensions between Kabul and Islamabad as Pakistan has accused India of using its consulates in Afghanistan to ferment trouble across the border. AT

GROUP CLAIMS IT KILLED IRANIAN HOSTAGE IN SOUTHEAST
Al-Arabiyah television from Dubai reported on 19 January that it has secured a video in which an armed Sunni group in Pakistan's southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province calling itself Jundullah claims it has executed an Iranian hostage. The group claimed that it executed Captain Abbas Namju of the Iranian army's border guard because the Iranian government violates the rights of the Sunni Muslim minority. A Sunni seminary in the province reportedly condemned the execution. Jundullah took credit for seizing nine border guards in late-December, and in an early January telephone call to Radio Farda it threatened to kill the hostages if the government does not release detained members of the group. Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei said on 19 January that the hostage takers face severe punishment, IRNA reported. The official "Iran" newspaper reported on 16 January that an Iranian government delegation has traveled to Pakistan to work on freeing the hostages. Islamabad has promised to cooperate. The daily added that the Iranian government's effort to work with local tribal leaders and elders did not bear fruit. BS

HRW SAYS IRANIAN SITUATION DETERIORATING
Radio Farda reported on 18 January that Human Rights Watch's most recent report, which was released that day, finds that the situation in Iran deteriorated in 2005. The HRW report says freedom of expression is suppressed by the Iranian government, which has closed publications, imprisoned reporters, and gone after online journalists. Therefore, the few independent newspapers still in existence practice self-censorship, the report stated. Writers and intellectuals are leaving the country, are imprisoned, or are silent, it said, and imprisoned individuals, furthermore, face torture or lengthy solitary confinement and their access to legal representation is restricted. The absence of independent media allows the government to act with impunity, HRW added. BS

TURKEY COMPLAINS OF IRANIAN GAS SHORTFALL
Anonymous sources in the Turkish Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources say the supply of natural gas from Iran has dropped sharply, Anatolia news agency reported on 19 January. Iran is supposed to provide 26 million cubic meters a day, but the actual flow now is 5-6 million cubic meters. The Iranian side reportedly attributes the shortfall to technical difficulties at production sites. BS

ISFAHAN-NAJAF FLIGHTS TO BEGIN SOON
The managing director of Iran's Thamin A'immah Cultural-Travel Services Institute, identified only as Mr. Amini, said on Isfahan provincial television on 19 January that commercial flights between the cities of Isfahan and Al-Najaf will begin soon. He said overland travel to Al-Najaf from Mashhad normally takes two days, and the drive from the Mehran border crossing to Al-Najaf takes some 14 hours. Currently, flights to Al-Basrah go through Kuwait and on to Baghdad and take several hours, he said, while the Isfahan to Al-Najaf flights will take only 70 minutes. Amini said the airport near Al-Najaf was previously for military use, so the runways were extended by 200 meters and widened by 7.5 meters. Moreover, an aircraft parking area and perimeter fence had to be built, and temporary arrival halls were set up. Amini added that the airport now has a navigation system, control tower, fire engines, and handling facilities. Najaf Airlines is 51 percent Iraqi held and 49 percent Iranian. BS

IRAQ'S ELECTORAL COMMISSION RELEASES FINAL ELECTION RESULTS
The Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission (IECI) released final results for December's parliamentary elections on 20 January saying the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) won 128 seats in the 275-member parliament. The Kurdistan Coalition won 53 seats, and the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front garnered 44 seats. Another Sunni Arab bloc, the National Dialogue Front, won 11 seats. The National Accord Front, led by former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, garnered 25 seats. The results leave the UIA and the Kurdistan Coalition just one seat short of the two-thirds majority needed in parliament to push through a new government. Other parties and lists that secured seats in the parliament are: Kurdistan Islamic Union, five seats; National Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc (Sunni), three seats; Risaliyun (Shi'ite, Sadr movement), two seats; Mesopotamia List (Al-Rafidayn -- Christian), one seat; Iraqi Turkoman Front, one seat; Iraqi Nation List (Mithal al-Alusi -- Sunni), one seat; Yazidi Movement, one seat. KR

IRAQI ACCORDANCE FRONT HEAD PLEADS FOR RELEASE OF U.S. JOURNALIST
Adnan al-Dulaymi, head of the Iraqi Accordance Front, pleaded for the release of U.S. journalist Jill Carroll on 20 January, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. Armed men abducted Carroll outside al-Dulaymi's Baghdad office on 7 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2006). "This [abduction] pained and saddened me because the journalist who was abducted came to hold an interview with me. After she left our headquarters without interviewing me, she was abducted 300 meters away from our headquarters," al-Dulaymi told reporters. "I urge those who abducted her to release her unconditionally...I will personally follow up on the issue of the release of Iraqi male and female prisoners from Iraqi and U.S. jails," al-Dulaymi said, alluding to the kidnappers' demands (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January 2006). "The abduction of this noble journalist will downplay the importance of, and obstruct, my efforts. I call on you to release this woman for the sake of God, and for the sake of our country, religion, honor, and gallantry," he added. KR

INTERNATIOANAL TEAM CONFIRMS ELECTION FRAUD TOOK PLACE...
The International Mission for Iraqi Elections (IMIE) released its final report on its assessment of the 15 December parliamentary elections in Iraq on 19 January (http://www.imie.ca). The team, which was looking into allegations of election fraud, concluded that fraud had indeed taken place. The report noted that "Some 2,000 complaints were submitted alleging a wide-range of electoral violations and irregularities that include ballot-box stuffing and theft; tally-sheet tampering; intimidation; violence; voter-list deficiencies; shortages of ballots; multiple voting; improper conduct of the police and Iraqi National Guard; voting by security forces [twice]...campaigning within polling centers; and non-observance of the silent day." But the IMIE did not specify which of the allegations were proven to have taken place but said, "many of the complaints deemed most serious by the IECI were properly investigated and judiciously resolved....Nevertheless, the IECI did not have at its disposal the technical and human resources to adequately and expeditiously investigate and resolve the volume of complaints it received." KR

...BUT STOPS SHORT OF CALLING FOR NEW IRAQI ELECTION
The IMIE stopped short of calling for a rerun of the parliamentary election in affected areas of the country in its 19 January report. The IECI's decision to cancel the vote in 227 out of some 30,000 polling stations due to fraud also led to the annulment of legitimate ballots, the report noted, adding: "Canceling ballot boxes without a new election being called in the affected area is particularly regrettable in an electoral system of list proportional representation where the number of votes required to win or lose a seat may vary from governorate to governorate as well as from a given seat to another seat." The report called for future legislation to explicitly authorize and specify "the conditions under which re-voting should be used...for particular polling centers in which fraud, irregularities or other circumstances have been determined to have significantly distorted the election results." The final report praised voter turnout on election day, and commended the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission (IECI) for its "cooperation, transparency, and responsiveness." KR

WHO SAYS IRAQI GIRL DID NOT HAVE BIRD FLU
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on 19 January that an Iraqi teenager that died of influenza did not have bird flu, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January 2006). "It has been investigated and discounted. It is not an H5N1 [bird flu] case," said WHO spokesman Dick Thompson. KR

IRAQI HIGH CRIMINAL COURT CHIEF AL-JUHI SAYS TRIBUNAL JUDGE TO STAY
Ra'id al-Juhi, the chief investigating judge of the Iraqi High Criminal Court, said on 19 January that the newly-appointed head of the Iraqi Special Tribunal panel presiding over the Al-Dujayl trial is not subject to the de-Ba'athification law, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on the same day. Al-Juhi said Judge Sa'id al-Hammashi will not step down, and the court will not recognize the decision announced by the De-Ba'athification Commission that labeled al-Hammashi a Ba'athist (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006). Meanwhile, al-Juhi told London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the court has not issued a decision on the resignation of Rizgar Muhammad Amin, who resigned as head of the tribunal last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2006), the daily reported on 19 January. He added that Amin will continue to preside as one of five judges on the trial unless he officially removes himself from the case. Al-Juhi said he expects the Al-Dujayl trial to conclude within the next two months. KR

ITALIAN DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS TROOPS WILL LEAVE IRAQ BY END OF 2006
Antonio Martino announced on 19 January that all Italian troops will withdraw from Iraq by year's end, international media reported. "The military operation Antica Babilonia (Ancient Babylon) will end its mandate gradually over the course of the year 2006 and the mission will be considered over and accomplished at the end of the year," Martino told the defense committees of Italy's Senate and Chamber of Deputies, AFP reported on 19 January. Italy currently has 2,900 troops in Iraq; Martino said he expected half of those troops to depart the country by May. KR

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