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Newsline - April 7, 2006


U.S. SAYS RUSSIA HAS FIFTH-LARGEST GOLD AND CURRENCY RESERVES
U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce David A. Sampson said in Washington on April 5 that Russia has the world's fifth-largest gold and foreign currency reserves and an annual trade surplus of over $120 billion, according to the Commerce Department's website (http://www.commerce.gov/opa/speeches). Its gold and foreign currency reserves total $185 billion, placing Russia just after Japan, China, Taiwan, and South Korea, he noted. Sampson added that Russia's gross domestic product is 12th largest in the world and has grown by 6 percent annually over the past eight years, "fueled by its top exports [which are] oil and natural gas." He noted that "in a number of industries...[including] aviation, automobile manufacturing, and perhaps others, state ownership is increasing; and steps in this direction are evidently being considered, or perhaps floated as trial balloons" in other areas of manufacturing as well. Sampson stressed that "state ownership and control have left industries unable to compete in sectors where adaptation and innovation--rather than an abundance of cheap resources--have been key factors in competitiveness." Meanwhile Russian Central Bank Chairman Sergei Ignatyev said on April 6 that Russia's gold and foreign currency reserves hit a record of $205.9 billion on April 1, having increased by 150 percent in 2005, RIA Novosti reported. PM

GERMANY REPORTEDLY RELUCTANT TO 'HURT SENSITIVITIES IN MOSCOW'...
London's "Financial Times" reported from Berlin on April 7 that several "German businessmen and politicians warned...[the previous day] that criticism of Moscow and alarmist theories about Germany's dependence on Russian gas were harming the country's economic interests" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3 and 6, 2006, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2006). The paper quoted Klaus Mangold, who heads the East-West Committee of German Industry, as suggesting that Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent criticism of Russia's reliability as an energy supplier "hurt sensitivities in Moscow," which was unfortunate in view of the "strategic nature" of the partnership. Eckart von Kladen, a member of the federal parliament from Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and a foreign affairs spokesman, similarly argued that his country's economic relationship with Russia "matters not just because of gas.... Russia is undergoing rapid modernization and upgrading its infrastructure, which is a huge market for our companies." Russia provides Germany with 35 percent of its oil and 40 percent of its gas, with bilateral trade in 2005 valued at $47 billion and growing, the daily noted. PM

...AS PRESSURE MOUNTS
The "Financial Times" suggested in the same article on April 7 that Merkel, who describes the United States as a "friend" but Russia as a "partner," "is coming under pressure to bury her misgivings about President Vladimir Putin's regime and adopt a friendlier tone." An unnamed German government official told the daily that "it is not in Germany's interest to rock this particular relationship," in an apparent allusion to the controversy surrounding former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's relationship with Putin and Gazprom. Merkel's press spokesman declined to say whether she and visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the Schroeder affair, but he denied that the controversy has "burdened a relationship that is flourishing and that we intend to develop." An unnamed "political appointee" to the coalition government said that "Schroeder did this country a great service by backing the pipeline. But why did he have to go and work [so soon] for [Gazprom], of all companies?" PM

MINISTER REJECTS CRITICISM OF RUSSIAN FOREIGN POLICY
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said in Berlin on April 6 that "we often hear from some countries that Russia is becoming strong and unpredictable, but this is not the case," the "International Herald Tribune" reported the next day. "In the 1990s, when the Commonwealth of Independent states was disintegrating and there were fears of Russia breaking up too, some people in the West said they wanted a strong and united Russia. Now we are here. They should be grateful," he added. Lavrov stressed that "Russia's foreign policy is free of ideological considerations.... There must be no going back to zero sum games or political games. We want to play in a team." He told his hosts that "the need by the world for energy supplies will not diminish," which is why a new concept of international relations is called for that will include Russia and Germany. Lavrov also said that he considers Washington's policy aimed at promoting democracy in the world "obsessive," the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported. PM

PRIME MINISTER SAYS THE FLAG FOLLOWS TRADE
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said in Sao Jose Dos Campos in Brazil on April 6 that close political ties with foreign countries follow the development of sound economic links, Interfax reported." I would not set higher targets for geopolitical relations without making a success in the economy first," he said. Fradkov has recently visited China and India, and arrived in Argentina later on April 6. As for Russia's relations with developing countries, Fradkov argued that his country's "ability to realize its potential in this area will depend on Russian businessmen's success in promoting their interests." PM

SWEDEN FREES DETAINED RUSSIAN RESEARCHER
The Swedish authorities on April 7 released Andrei Zamyatnin, a Russian agricultural scientist at Uppsala University, who had been held since mid-February on suspicion of spying for an unnamed country, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, and March 16, 17, and 31, 2006). It is not clear exactly why the authorities freed Zamyatnin, who is currently staying in the Russian Embassy in Stockholm. His lawyer told reporters that Zamyatnin intends to seek "moral damages" from the Swedish authorities for "harming his professional reputation." PM

NEW YUKOS VICE PRESIDENT DETAINED
Police in Moscow detained Vasily Aleksanian, who is vice president of the embattled Yukos oil company, on April 6 at the request of the Prosecutor-General's Office, lenta.ru reported. Aleksanian was appointed to the post only recently in an apparent effort to save the firm from bankruptcy. A spokeswoman for the prosecutors said he is suspected of money laundering and embezzlement. Yukos' former chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is serving an eight-year prison sentence in the remote Chita Oblast for fraud and tax evasion after a trial that was widely viewed as politically motivated and engineered by the Kremlin. Russian courts have also placed some of Khodorkovsky's closest associates behind bars (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, and March 16 and 20, 2006). PM

SENEGALESE STUDENT SHOT DEAD IN ST. PETERSBURG
An unidentified assailant killed Lamzar Samba, a communications student from Senegal, outside a nightclub in St. Petersburg early on April 7 as he and his friends left a party there, news.ru reported. A gun decorated with a swastika was found nearby. Samba belonged to the local African Union, which is a human rights organization that represents the interests of the city's African community. Deputy Prosecutor Andrei Lavrenko told reporters that "for the lack of any other motive, we believe this [attack] was racially motivated." Federal Interior Ministry experts have joined the investigation, Interfax reported. PM

PROSECUTORS APPEAL IN HATE-CRIME CASE
Prosecutors in St. Petersburg filed an appeal with the Supreme Court on April 6 in connection with the recent ruling by a court there regarding the murder of a 9-year-old Tajik girl. The sentence was widely criticized as too lenient because the main murder suspect was freed and his associates were found guilty only of "hooliganism" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31 and April 4, 2006). PM

THOUSANDS DEMONSTRATE IN SUPPORT OF ADYGEYA PRESIDENT
Thousands of people from across Adygeya, together with a delegation from the neighboring Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic, converged on Maikop on April 6 to demonstrate their support for Adygeya President Khazret Sovmen, regnum.ru reported. Participants in the meeting also protested the alleged failure of the republic's police to crack down on "nationalist and fascist organizations," meaning those organizations representing Adygeya's majority Slav population who are lobbying for the republic to be subsumed into the surrounding Krasnodar Krai, and voiced their opposition to any changes in the republic's status (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 10, 2006). The meeting was reportedly organized by members of Sovmen's entourage in the wake of his April 4 standoff with the republic's parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2006). LF

DETAILS OF RUSSIAN-ARMENIAN GAS AGREEMENT REMAIN UNCLEAR
In an April 6 statement, Russia's state-owned Gazprom announced that under an agreement finalized with Armenia, it will gain control of the export pipeline currently under construction to provide Armenia with gas from Iran, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Gazprom said it will take possession of the first, 40 kilometer section of that pipeline this autumn, and that the ArmRosGazprom joint venture will be awarded the right to build the second, 197-kilometer section. But a senior Armenian government official told RFE/RL on April 5 that the deal with Gazprom, under which that company is to receive the fifth unit of the Hrazdan thermal power plant, does not entail yielding control of the export pipeline from Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 6, 2006). Armenian Energy Minister Armen Movsisian similarly told journalists on April 6 that the pipeline "has not yet been built, there are no shares in it, and it therefore cannot be sold." And on April 7, Gazprom amended the statement on its website to remove any reference to its acquisition of the pipeline from Iran, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. A separate Armenian government statement on April 6 said Gazprom will pay a total of $248.8 million for the Hrazdan facility, of which almost $189 million will be paid in natural gas to be supplied between now and the end of 2008. According to Movsisian, that agreement will translate into a price increase for Armenian households of only 10 percent. Opposition parliament deputy Stepan Zakarian (Artarutiun) criticized on April 6 as "a serious mistake" the reported ceding of the Iran pipeline to Gazprom, while parliament deputy speaker Tigran Torosian called on Prime Minister Andranik Markarian to provide a formal explanation for the government's U-turn on yielding further assets to Russia. LF

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT DEPUTY ACCUSES CUSTOMS COMMITTEE OF EXTORTION
Speaking at a press conference on April 6, Tatul Manaserian (Artarutiun) accused the State Customs Committee of engaging in systematic extortion of bribes from importers, according to Noyan Tapan and Arminfo as reposted by kavkazweb.net. He calculated the loss in budget revenues from such machinations as equal to 1.5 percent of GDP, with losses from the import of gasoline at $55 million per year and of coffee at $10 million. Manaserian cited the case of the embattled coffee importer Royal Armenia, which was required to pay twice as much in customs tariffs as its nine rival importers after its executives rejected an offer by customs officials to understate the value of imports in exchange for a massive bribe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2004; January 11, June 28, and October 14, 2005; and March 20, 2006). LF

AZERBAIJAN 'WILL NOT JOIN ANTI-IRAN COALITION'
Azerbaijan wants to maintain "good neighborly" relations with all regional states, and for that reason will not join any coalition against Iran, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov told journalists in Baku on April 6, day.az and echo-az.com reported. Azimov said his recent talks in Washington touched on Iran's insistence on its right to conduct uranium enrichment and the hypothetical threat to the region from Iranian nuclear weapons. But, Azimov added, the United States "does not want anything from Azerbaijan" in that context. Azimov reaffirmed Baku's position that all countries have the right to use nuclear energy for exclusively peaceful purposes. Also on April 6, presidential-administration official Novruz Mammedov told journalists that the agenda for President Ilham Aliyev's visit to Washington in late April is being finalized, day.az reported. It will be Aliyev's first official visit to the United States since he came to power in October 2003 in an election that Washington criticized as falling short of international standards for a free and democratic ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2003). LF

GEORGIAN ELECTION BODY REJECTS PROPOSED REFERENDUM ON RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA
Georgia's Central Election Commission rejected on April 6 a proposal, submitted by a group of Georgian citizens after consultations with Russian Ambassador to Tbilisi Vladimir Chkhikvishvili, to hold a referendum on relations with Russia, Caucasus Press reported. Respondents would have been asked: "Do you consent to improving relations with Russia and to the signing of a treaty on friendship and cooperation with that country?" Talks on a framework bilateral treaty began in 2000, and it was hoped to sign that document last fall, but further talks were suspended due to rising tensions over Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia. An opinion poll of 700 Georgians conducted last month revealed that 94.4 percent of respondents regard Russia as Georgia's enemy, according to the weekly "Kviris palitra" as cited by Caucasus Press on March 27. LF

BID TO LIMIT DEMONSTRATIONS IN KYRGYZSTAN FAILS...
Bishkek's City Council on April 6 refused to consider a proposal by the city's mayor, Arstanbek Nogoev, to introduce a moratorium on demonstrations, Ferghana.ru and akipress.org reported. The proposed regulation would have banned demonstrations within 200 meters of major government buildings and a number of other institutions. Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu argued that the legislation violated the constitution, akipress.org reported. The council had passed a similar measure in January 2005, in a move seen as an attempt to prevent unrest in the lead-up to February 2005 parliamentary elections. Deputies voided that legislation on February 21, 2006. DK

...AS NGOS PLAN 'RULE OF LAW' MARCH
In the course of the City Council debate, deputy Vladimir Rumyantsev charged that municipal authorities were hoping to limit demonstrations in light of a planned march by NGOs on April 8, akipress.org reported. Representatives of civil society are planning a rally on that day calling for a stronger rule of law in Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyz radio reported on April 6. Organizers include legislator Kubatbek Baibolov, of the Ar-Namys Party, and the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society. Their appeal stated, "We can no longer tolerate a situation in which contract killings, political intimidation, and criminal attacks on businesses are becoming an everyday occurrence. We cannot silently watch government officials gradually merge with criminals." DK

TURKMEN PRESIDENT COMPLETES CHINA VISIT
Saparmurat Niyazov spent the last day of his visit to China in Shanghai, where on April 6 he visited Turkmen students studying in China, Turkmenistan.ru reported. The highlight of Niyazov's visit, which began on April 2, was the signing of a framework agreement to build a natural-gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China by 2009, with details to be worked out by the end of 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2006). DK

RIGHTS GROUP BLASTS GERMAN REFUSAL TO PROSECUTE UZBEK EX-MINISTER
Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on the organization's website (http://www.hrw.org) on April 6 stating its intention to challenge the German federal prosecutor's decision not to open a case against former Uzbek Interior Minister Zokir Almatov. HRW was earlier involved in a complaint against Almatov by Uzbek citizens in December 2005 seeking to try Almatov under German law for alleged mass killings in Andijon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 16, 2005). Almatov had been undergoing medical treatment in Germany but has since returned to Uzbekistan. HRW noted in its April 6 statement that German Federal Prosecutor Key Nehm decided on March 31 to forego action against Almatov because he considered the chances of a successful investigation and prosecution "nonexistent." HRW said that the decision "is a blow for victims in Uzbekistan and damages Germany's reputation as a principled leader on behalf of international justice." Holly Cartner, HRW's Europe and Central Asia director, said, "The prosecutor should have begun a criminal investigation into Almatov's alleged crimes as soon as he arrived in Germany and prevented him from leaving." DK

CANADIAN CITIZEN FACES EXTRADITION TO CHINA FROM UZBEKISTAN
Huseyin Celil, a naturalized Canadian citizen who has been arrested in Uzbekistan, faces extradition to China, where he could face the death penalty, the "Toronto Star" and the "Globe and Mail" reported on April 6. A Chinese court sentenced Celil, described by his family as a Chinese-born Uyghur rights activist, to death in absentia for his political activities, the "Globe and Mail" reported. Celil, who gained Canadian citizenship several months ago, traveled to Tashkent to meet with his family. Uzbek authorities arrested him on a Chinese warrant on March 26. Celil's wife, Kamila Celil, told the "Toronto Star," "He can't go to China, because they will arrest [him] and they will kill him." Celil said that she does not believe Uzbek assurances that her husband will not be extradited. Canadian officials said that they have offered the family assistance but noted that Canadian privacy laws prevent them from providing details. Canada does not maintain an embassy in Uzbekistan; the country's embassy in Moscow is dealing with the matter. DK

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION LEADER CALLS RECENT ELECTION A COUP FOR PRESIDENT
Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich said on April 7 that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka no longer has any right to rule the former Soviet republic, dpa reported. In a meeting with German lawmakers in Berlin, Milinkevich said Lukashenka's victory in the March 19 election with 83 percent of the vote was a coup. He added that the demonstrations following the vote showed that the people of Belarus are prepared to "fight for a new life." BW

AMBASSADOR SAYS BELARUS RECEIVES UNFAIR TREATMENT FROM U.S.
Mikhail Khvostov, the Belarusian ambassador to the United States, has accused Washington of treating Minsk unfairly and appealed for a fresh dialogue, dpa reported on April 6. At a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Khvostov said that with the harsh criticisms of Belarus's presidential election, the United States was not being evenhanded with former Soviet republics. "We do not accept threats and sanctions," Khvostov said. "We are really a young developing country. We need dialogue on how to improve." Khvostov defended President Lukashenka's reelection, saying it was indicative of Belarusians' desire to have a "strong personality." He also defended Minsk's close relationship with Russia, saying Moscow offers Belarus "stable oil and gas supplies and a market with 200 million people." BW

FORMER UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER ACCUSES PRESIDENT OF STALLING IN ORANGE COALITION TALKS
Yuliya Tymoshenko accused President Viktor Yushchenko of wasting time in forming a parliamentary coalition joining forces from the 2004 Orange Revolution, Reuters reported on April 6. The Our Ukraine People's Union (NSNU), the leading party in the Yushchenko-backed Our Ukraine election bloc, drafted a protocol of intentions proposing to form a "coalition of democratic forces" and presented it to the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and the Socialist Party on April 5 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 6, 2006). The document calls for the coalition to work to implement Yushchenko's presidential program. Tymoshenko, however, is seeking a memorandum giving the prime minister's job to the coalition party with the most seats -- hers. "Signing yet another document -- this is simply absurd," Tymoshenko said at a news conference. "This document is just stalling. We will take no notice of such documents and will wait for Our Ukraine to put its signature to a memorandum." BW

UKRAINE BANS RUSSIAN LIVESTOCK
Ukraine's Agriculture Minister Oleksandr Baranivsky said on April 6 that Kyiv will impose a ban on livestock products from Russia, Interfax and RBC reported the same day. Citing the poor quality of Russian livestock products, Baranivsky said the ban will go into effect "within a few days" and that "all documents have already been drawn up," Interfax reported. He added that Ukraine will lift a ban that has been in place on livestock products from Poland, Belarus, and Moldova, RBC reported. On January 18, Russia banned Ukrainian meat and dairy products, saying they were of poor quality and endangered consumers' health. Six dairies were later permitted to sell their products on the Russian market following audits from Moscow officials. BW

COUNCIL OF EUROPE ACCUSES NATO OF DENYING IT ACCESS TO KOSOVAR PRISONS
Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis said on April 6 that NATO and the KFOR peacekeeping mission it leads have denied the group access to prisons under international control in Kosova, B92 reported the same day. The Council of Europe has been seeking access to the prisons to see the conditions in which inmates are held. "There is a problem in the case of Kosovo, because we have been denied all access to the prisons under the control of KFOR and NATO. I wrote to the NATO secretary-general 18 months ago, and we are slowly losing our patience," Davis said. "I was under the impression that NATO should defend liberty, freedoms of the citizens, and human rights." Davis said the problem is not with the UN Mission in Kosova, but with NATO and KFOR. BW

CONTACT GROUP TRIES TO REJUVENATE KOSOVA STATUS TALKS
In an attempt to reinvigorate stalled talks on Kosova's future, representatives from the Contact Group, which comprises United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia, met with the province's officials on April 7, AP reported. The previous day, diplomats from the Contact Group urged Serbia to seek "realistic solutions" regarding the province's fate. UN-backed talks on Kosova's final status reached an impasse on April 3 due to Belgrade's insistence on an autonomous Serbian entity within the province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2006). BW

BOSNIAN FOREIGN MINISTER BACKS BALKAN FREE-TRADE ZONE
Bosnia-Herzegovina's Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic has said that his country supports a free-trade zone in the Balkans, dpa reported on April 6, citing the Austrian daily "Kurier." "We're very much interested in a free-trade zone in the western Balkans. Isolated markets simply aren't so attractive for investors," the newspaper quoted Ivanic as saying in an interview published on April 6. "Setting up a free-trade zone brings short-term high costs, but in the longer term more advantages." An EU proposal to establish a free-trade zone in the western Balkans has received mixed responses in the region. Croatia is cool to the idea, fearing that it could revive Yugoslavia, while Macedonia has given it lukewarm support. Serbian officials have come out in favor of the proposal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2, and 6, 2006). BW

MACEDONIAN OFFICIAL SEEKS CLEAR CRITERIA FROM EU...
Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister Radmila Sekerinska said on April 6 that Skopje hopes to begin negotiations with the European Union by the end of this year, but called on Brussels to set clear conditions, Reuters reported the same day. "Clear conditions, even if they are stricter, are actually good for candidate countries because then if you deliver, the EU cannot withdraw from the commitments," said Sekerinska, who is in charge of international integration. "General talking about absorption capacity does not help. Talking about general institutional weaknesses does not help." Macedonia officially became a candidate for EU membership in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2005). Brussels is scheduled to report later this year on Macedonia's progress. "If the [European] Commission report is favorable for Macedonia, I am hopeful that the EU could make a decision on a date of negotiation by the end of the year," Sekerinska said. BW

...SAYS INTERNAL DIVISIONS ON ENLARGEMENT COULD HARM BALKANS
Deputy Prime Minister Sekerinska also said on April 6 that she hopes internal divisions in the EU about expansion will not harm Macedonia's chances for accession, Reuters reported the same day. "I do hope that the whole internal discussion [in the EU about further enlargement] will not endanger this decision [on Macedonia's candidacy]," Sekerinska said. She added that the EU's internal disputes are bad for the Balkans, where Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro are hoping to sign association accords with the bloc this year. "This is hurting the region because it undermines the pro-reform forces," she said. "Populists, radical forces are there and they will take the argument and they will seize the opportunity. If I cannot actually say that membership is viable in due time because of the EU internal dilemma, then many people will say, Why should we make the investment, can we postpone it?" BW

MOLDOVAN, GEORGIAN PRESIDENTS DISCUSS WINE BAN, TRANSDNIESTER
Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin spoke by telephone with his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili on April 6 to discuss joint measures to resume wine imports to Russia, Interfax reported the same day. Russia announced a ban on Moldovan and Georgian wines on March 27, citing safety considerations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). "The presidents discussed the current situation and coordinated measures to settle the situation," the Moldovan president's press service told Interfax. The two also discussed issues of "Moldovan and Georgian territorial integrity" and Saakashvili expressed his support for new customs regulations on the Transdniester portion of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border aimed at curbing smuggling (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). Voronin also accepted Saakashvili's invitation for an official visit to Georgia, the Moldovan press service said. BW

AFGHAN CONFIRMATION DEBATE TESTS LEGISLATURE, OPPOSITION
The lower house of the Afghan National Assembly, the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), began the confirmation debate over President Hamid Karzai's proposed 25-member cabinet on April 4. The process is expected to take about two weeks, and marks the first major cohabitation test for Afghanistan's elected legislature vis-a-vis the executive branch. The process also provides a litmus test of relations between Karzai's administration and the fractured opposition led by lower-house speaker Mohammad Yunos Qanuni.

The fact that the People's Council is questioning each proposed minister individually is in itself a defeat for President Karzai, whose preference was for a single, up-or-down vote on the entire cabinet.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on April 5, Karzai stressed his desire for a transparent confirmation process. He expressed his hope "that our deputies will accept or reject these choices according to professional standards, their patriotism, and their integrity; and that no other criteria should determine their decisions." Karzai expressly rejected possible objections based on "any regional or ethnic bias" and said, "If a minister is rejected, I hope that the reasons given for the rejection will be enunciated so that we know why our proposed ministers were not acceptable."

Article 74 of the Afghan Constitution approved in January 2004 stipulates that if the People's Council wants to reject a nominee, it should do so explicitly and "on basis of well-founded reasons." A simple majority of those lawmakers must then express no confidence in that nominee in a plenary vote.

Speaker Qanuni and his allies appear to be ready and willing to flex their muscles and challenge Karzai's dominance in the Afghan power structure. The nascent opposition could use the confirmation process to issue its first real challenge to the government. Some in Qanuni's camp regard the cabinet-confirmation process as a chance to demand that opposition members be included in the government.

The president clearly opposes that interpretation. Karzai challenged the Qanuni camp by reshuffling his cabinet in March -- days before his proposed government was presented to the National Assembly. The most obvious change was at the Foreign Ministry. Karzai gave that portfolio -- held for four years by Abdullah Abdullah -- to a former foreign-affairs adviser, Rangin Dadfar Spanta.

Abdullah was the last of the Shura-ye Nezar (Supervisory Council) triumvirate that was considered a strong power base in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. (The other two members of that "triumvirate" were former Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Qanuni himself, who served initially as Karzai's interior and later as education minister.)

Karzai stressed to Radio Free Afghanistan that Abdullah was not excluded, but rather chose to stay out of the new government. He emphasized that the makeup of the new cabinet is founded on "practical reasons...[not] political reasons," which suggests Karzai no longer regards Abdullah as a political asset.

Parliamentary speaker Qanuni called April 4 a "historic day" following a quarter of a century of pain. He said Afghans have finally arrived at a point where they are choosing their own cabinet. What Qanuni meant by the nation choosing its own cabinet will become clear as the confirmation hearings continue.

Qanuni might use the scrutiny of Karzai's choices to showcase the power of the opposition that he informally leads. That scenario would require generating enough votes to reject nominees who are seen as the president's main allies.

If Qanuni opts to flex opposition muscles -- and garners enough opposition support to vote down a few major nominees -- Karzai will be forced to recognize that an effective opposition exists in the People's Council. That would presumably lead him to either tailor his policies accordingly, or seek to incorporate the opposition into his own government.

But if Qanuni tries -- and fails -- to block nominees for political reasons, then his standing in the parliament and as the unofficial leader of the opposition could be in grave danger.

Alternatively -- and particularly if he cannot garner enough votes to reject major nominees -- Qanuni might try to portray himself as above partisan politics. That would require that he conspicuously seek to rally lawmakers by touting the merits and qualifications of nominees -- without regard to his stated agenda. Such an approach would leave the burden of demonstrating that his choices were the best for the country on Karzai's shoulders. But it would also allow the president to maintain virtually all political initiative -- ensuring there is no proactive opposition.

Whatever the outcome, the current confirmation process is -- to borrow Qanuni's characterization -- a "historic" event. Much of the debate is being heard by the Afghan public. What Afghans do with this opportunity will profoundly affect their march toward a democratic society.

AFGHAN LOWER HOUSE CONTINUES CABINET DEBATE
The People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) questioned nominees for the Interior and Culture and Youth Affairs portfolios on its third day of confirmation hearings over President Hamid Karzai's proposed cabinet, Tolu Television reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5 and 6, 2006). Zarar Ahmad Moqbel (Interior) and Sayyed Makhdum Rahin (Culture and Youth Affairs) briefed legislators on their work plans but "faced serious reactions" from the parliamentarians, the report noted. Moqbel was questioned over ethnic imbalances in his ministry, allegations of corruption and criminality within the police force, and reports of Pakistani incursions into Afghan territory. Moqbel said he has informed the Pakistani Foreign Ministry regarding at least one reported Pakistani incursion. The Tolu Television report did not discuss questions put to Rahin. AT

SUSPECTED SUICIDE BOMBERS DIE IN BLAST IN SOUTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN
Two men died when their explosives-laden vehicle blew up in the Ya'qubi district of Khost Province on April 6, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Provincial police chief General Mohammad Ayyub said the police are examining the mutilated bodies of the two men to determine their identities. He did not speculate over the apparently premature detonation of the explosives. AT

LEBANESE LEGISLATOR WARNS OF IRAN-SYRIA COALITION
Farid Makari, deputy speaker of the Lebanese National Assembly, said during an April 6 visit to Moscow that his country fears the possibility of an Iran-Syria coalition, Interfax reported. Makari said he does not want Lebanon to be the battlefield for such a coalition. He said he is trying to make Russia aware of the situation, and added that Russia has always contributed to the resolution of Arab issues. BS

ALLEGED EFFORT TO KILL BALUCHI LEADER IN IRAN FAILS
An unidentified spokesman for the ethnic Baluchi group known as Jundullah said in an April 5 telephone call to Al-Arabiyah television that reports on Tehran television about the group's leader are untrue. The spokesman said Iranian military forces tried to kill Abdulmalik Rigi in Dul Bandi, Sistan va Baluchistan Province, near the border with Pakistan. However, he continued, they hit one of their own vehicles and killed its occupants. The spokesman went on to say that Rigi is unharmed. Jundullah has claimed responsibility for the March 16 attack on a motorcade traveling between the cities of Zahedan and Zabul in which more than 20 people were killed and another seven were injured (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 March 2006). The group released a videotape in which it said it is holding several hostages. BS

IRANIAN AMBASSADOR CALLS FOR NEGOTIATED SOLUTION TO NUCLEAR ROW
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, said in an April 6 op-ed in "The New York Times" that a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis is "possible and eminently within reach," and added that Tehran has tried to "resuscitate" negotiations with Berlin, London, and Paris. Not only has Iran accepted rigorous inspections by the UN since October 2003, but "Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic, has issued a decree against the development, production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons." Zarif concluded by saying that "pressure and threats" will not yield results, whereas "political will" and "serious negotiations" will produce a solution. BS

IRAN READY TO SIGN NONAGGRESSION PACTS WITH NEIGHBORS
Iran's "Noble Prophet" naval exercises ended on April 6, and Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad Najjar announced in Bandar Abbas the same day that Iran is willing to conduct joint exercises with any of the Persian Gulf littoral states, IRNA reported. He added that Iran is willing to sign a nonaggression pact with any of its southern neighbors. Noting the demonstrations of new equipment during the exercises, he promised more demonstrations in the near future. Also in Bandar Abbas, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi said, "We hope the transregional powers have got the message of the war game," IRNA reported. He warned that insecurity in Iran is a threat to transregional powers. BS

TEHRAN DENOUNCES U.S. DEMOCRACY PROMOTION
"Friends of Uncle Sam in Iran," Tehran television announced on April 6. An unnamed U.S. deputy secretary of state has announced that unnamed Iranian NGOs are receiving "tips and wages" from the United States, Tehran television continued, and these NGOs will do Washington's bidding under the guise of "human rights and democracy." While Washington hopes to contribute to the promotion of democracy in Iran, Iranian hard-liners have often denounced their political opponents by referring to them as U.S. agents. Some pro-democracy activists in Iran have already questioned the wisdom of Washington's openness about its intentions, while others who have participated in civil-society workshops have been questioned by the authorities when they returned to Iran. BS

CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR OPPOSES TALKS WITH U.S.
It is not a good time for Iran to discuss anything with the United States, conservative commentator Amir Mohebbian writes in the April 6 "Resalat" newspaper. The timing of Tehran's agreement to engage in talks on Iraq may reflect an effort to alleviate international pressure on Iran. Mohebbian suggests discussing a range of issues, so strengths and weaknesses could offset each other. He also warns Iran risks creating the impression that it is supporting one Iraqi group -- the Shi'a -- whereas the United States will appear to be the supporter of Sunnis, Kurds, and other minorities, thereby reinforcing U.S. "propaganda" that Iran is interfering in Iraqi affairs. Mohebbian continues: "Holding talks with Americans in Iraq and about Iraq...is not good for Iran's image. And it is not good even for Iran's interests in Iraq and among the countries of the region." The disagreements between Washington and Tehran are so extensive, Mohebbian adds, that "these talks will have no results and Iran will be demonstrated to have a weak position." BS

IRAQI PRIME MINISTER TO DEFY PRESSURE, SEEK SECOND TERM
Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari said on April 6 that he will not yield to mounting domestic and international pressure to give up his nomination to lead the country in Iraq's first permanent post-Hussein government, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day. Al-Ja'fari said he will only step aside if parliament refuses to approve his nomination or if the seven factions inside the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) that nominated him to the premiership withdraw their nomination. Iraq's acting parliament speaker, Adnan Pachachi, was expected to announce the next convening of parliament on April 6, but the press conference was postponed at the last minute, RFI reported. Shi'ite parliamentarian Khalid al-Atiyah told AP that the UIA asked that the session be delayed until all Iraqi parties agree on the nominations for other cabinet posts. Kurdish parliamentarian Mahmud Uthman told RFI in an April 6 interview that negotiations over the composition of the incoming government cannot move forward until the issue of prime minister is resolved. KR

CAR BOMB KILLS DOZEN IRAQIS IN SHI'ITE HOLY CITY
A car bomb exploded outside the gates of the Wadi Salam Cemetery in the holy city of Al-Najaf on April 6, killing at least 12 and wounding some 35 others, international media reported. The casualties included women and children, latimes.com reported on April 7. Local authorities imposed a curfew following the bombing. Al-Najaf police patrol chief Major Imad Muhammad told "The Washington Post" that the bomb may have targeted a demonstration in support of Prime Minister al-Ja'fari, the newspaper's website reported on April 7. Muhammad added that the car bomb detonated within 150 meters of the Imam Ali shrine. KR

MORE MASS GRAVES FOUND IN IRAQ
Eight mass graves containing the bodies of some 1,000 people have been discovered in two villages west of Kirkuk, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) announced on April 6. The PUK said the majority of the victims appear to be Kurds, but some of the victims were Christians and Turkomans native to the area. Elsewhere, two mass graves containing the remains of Shi'a killed during the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein have been unearthed in recent days in the southern Dhi Qar Governorate, Abd al-Husayn al-Mufadal, director of the Dhi Qar Martyrs Center, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on April 6. KR

NORTHERN IRAQI TOWN REPORTEDLY IN HANDS OF TERRORISTS
Insurgent forces have taken control over the northern Iraqi town of Samarra, Baghdad's "Al-Zaman" reported on April 6. "Samarra is still in the hands of terror.... It is outside the jurisdiction and control of the state," Shi'ite cleric Salih al-Haydari told the daily. Al-Haydari said the town's population of 200,000 is powerless in the face of the insurgents. Samarra has seen an escalation in violence since the February 22 bombing of a Shi'ite shrine there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). KR

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