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Newsline - April 11, 2006


PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER SAYS RUSSIA MIGHT PUT OFF JOINING WTO...
Boris Gryzlov, who is speaker of the State Duma, told Russian news agencies on April 11 that his country will join the World Trade Organization (WTO) only if such a move is in its interests. "If [accession] conditions do not suit our country, then [accession] will be delayed for a long period," he added. Gryzlov stressed that "Russia's accession to the WTO should take place only on favorable terms. There are no other options. Our accession to the WTO is not a goal in itself." Joining the WTO has been a top priority of President Vladimir Putin's leadership, but Putin too has said that Russia will enter that body only if the terms meet its interests. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov opposes membership on the grounds that the Russian economy will suffer as a result (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, and March 30 and 31, 2006). German Gref, who is minister of economic development and trade, was scheduled to brief the leaders of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party on April 10 on Russia's WTO membership bid but instead asked that the meeting be put off until the fall, Reuters reported. PM

...DUE TO ADDITIONAL CONDITIONS?
An unnamed "source within the Russian authorities" told Interfax in Moscow on April 10 that unspecified "Western negotiators are putting forward ever new demands to Russia as a condition for admission to the WTO, and often these demands go beyond the usual set applied to other countries. In these circumstances, Russia might well [reconsider] its plans to join that organization. or at least postpone the process for a while." Also on April 10, the daily "Izvestia" cited an unnamed "high-ranking government official" as saying that "several countries, including the United States, are deliberately pursuing a policy meant to block our admission" to the WTO. That official added that the range of issues and "claims that they [bring up] time and again has been discussed more than once, and everything has [long] been settled." He added that such practices have made Russian decision-makers more receptive to the arguments of those opposed to WTO membership. President Putin said on March 29 that the United States is stalling on Russia's WTO bid. Washington denies the charges. Some Russian commentators suggested recently that the United States wants to "punish" Russia for working against U.S. interests in the Middle East, Central Asia, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, and elsewhere. Georgia for its part refused during talks in Geneva last month to amend its conditions for Russia's accession to the WTO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2005, and February 22 and March 24, 2006). PM

RUSSIAN SENATORS SLAM EU TRAVEL BAN FOR BELARUS...
On April 10, the Federation Council dismissed as counterproductive the European Union's decision to ban travel to EU states by 31 top Belarusian officials, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2006). "The parliamentary delegations of Russia and Kazakhstan to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) must clearly state their positions on the West's anti-Belarus propaganda," Vadim Gustov, chairman of the Federation Council's Committee for CIS Affairs, told the news agency. He added that "the [EU's] decision on Belarus is a case of double standards. For some reason, the EU did not show too much interest in the Afghan or German elections, where voting by mail and online was possible. Europe is preoccupied exclusively by Belarus, which has opted for a non-pro-Western and non-pro-American way. This irritates them very much," Gustov said. He added that the EU is "also vexed by the Russia-Belarus integration processes and the [two states'] drive to form a union state." Vasily Likhachev [correct], who is deputy chairman of the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, told the news agency that "the ban is counterproductive and will have no positive effect" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 29, and 30, and April 6, 2006). PM

...AS DOES AMBASSADOR
Aleksandr Surikov, who is Russia's ambassador to Belarus, said in Minsk on April 10 that he does not agree with the EU's travel ban on Belarusian officials, RIA Novosti reported. "I do not understand this measure, which produces no [positive] effect, but insults the dignity of the state and its people," he added. Surikov stressed that "demonstrating hostility to a man who holds this or that post has nothing to do with promoting democratic principles." PM

GAZPROM IS WORLD'S SIXTH-BIGGEST PUBLICLY TRADED COMPANY
Gazprom's market capitalization, which is determined by the average weighted rate of local shares on the St. Petersburg Stock Exchange, reached $224.56 billion on April 10, Interfax reported. As a result, the company moved up from eighth to sixth place on the list of the world's largest publicly traded companies. In the process, it overtook Royal Dutch Shell (capitalization $218 billion) and Bank of America ($213 billion). Gazprom is now in third place among publicly traded oil and gas companies, after ExxonMobil ($375 billion) and BP ($242 billion). PM

SUSPECT ARRESTED IN KILLING OF AFRICAN STUDENT
A St. Petersburg court issued an arrest warrant on April 11 for an unnamed 28-year-old man whom prosecutors have linked to the recent murder of Samba Lapsar Sall, a communications student from Senegal, an unnamed "police source" told Interfax (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2006). "Charges are to be brought against [the suspect] within the next 10 days. If not, he will be freed," the source said. The source added that "the suspect does not have a strong alibi, and his fingerprints were found on a bottle confiscated from the scene of the crime. The investigation does not, however, have conclusive evidence proving his guilt." Police are investigating the killing as a hate crime. Several hate crimes have been reported in the media in recent months. On April 4, the Moscow-based daily "Novye izvestia" commented that an official campaign against "fascism" and hate crimes is under way in order to channel political protests so that they do not focus on the authorities, and to present the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party in a favorable light. PM

TWO MILITANTS KILLED IN SHOOT-OUT IN INGUSHETIA
Police in Ingushetia surrounded a house in Nazran on April 11 where a group of militants was reportedly hiding and killed two of them in a one-hour shoot-out in which one police officer also died, ingushetiya.ru reported. A third militant was apprehended. The two dead fighters were identified as brothers, Umar and Magomed Borchashvili, from a village in Ingushetia's Sunzha Raion. Their surname suggests they were of Georgian origin; they were said to be members of the militant group headed by Saudi-born field-commander Abu-Dzeit, according to regnum.ru. LF

DEAD MILITANT IDENTIFIED IN DAGHESTAN
The militant killed on April 10 in a shoot-out with Interior Ministry forces in Makhachkala (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2006) was Makhach Rasulov, aka Yasin, a senior Interior Ministry official told kavkaz.memo.ro as reported by kavkazweb.net. Rasulov was reportedly born in Makhachkala in 1975 and was the "main ideologist" of the Daghestan-based Shari'at jamaat. He is said to have been the mastermind behind a series of killings and terrorist bombings last year, and according to the Interior Ministry official was planning a series of similar terrorist attacks between May 1-9. LF

ARMENIAN OFFICIALS STRESS BENEFITS OF GAS DEAL WITH RUSSIA
Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian denied on April 10 that the sale to Russia's Gazprom of the fifth unit of the Hrazdan thermal power plant will compromise Armenia's energy security, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The opposition Armenian Pan-National Movement released a statement alleging that the sale does endanger national security and was undertaken to preclude mass protests over rising gas prices in the run-up to the parliamentary election due in 2007, according to Noyan Tapan on April 10. Markarian also denied any link between that sale and the planned increase in the price of natural gas Armenia buys from Russia. He said the new gas price ($110 per 1,000 cubic meters compared with the previous $56) will remain unchanged. President Robert Kocharian for his part said on April 8 during a visit to Kotayk that the sale of the Hrazdan facility will positively affect the Armenian economy insofar as it will be paid for in gas deliveries, according to Arminfo as reposted by Groong. Gazprom will reportedly pay $250 million for the Hrazdan facility -- $60 million in cash and the remainder in gas deliveries between now and the end of 2008 that will enable the government to peg gas prices to consumers at the current level. Also on April 10, the opposition Artarutiun bloc demanded that parliament create an ad hoc commission to investigate the terms of the deal with Gazprom, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian rejected that demand as unnecessary. LF

DEMONSTRATORS CALL ON YEREVAN MAYOR TO RESIGN
An unspecified number of residents of districts of Yerevan that are being extensively redeveloped staged a protest on April 10 outside the municipal offices in Yerevan to demand the resignation of city Mayor Yervand Zakharian, according to a report on the A1+ website reposted by Groong. Protest participants, many of whom have contested in court their eviction from residential property scheduled for demolition in connection with the redevelopment, accused Zakharian of extracting bribes from developers, and developers of routinely violating city planning regulations on the maximum permitted height of new buildings. LF

SPOKESMAN DENIES REPORT OF TELEPHONE CONVERSATION BETWEEN ARMENIAN PRESIDENT, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE
President Kocharian's spokesman Viktor Soghomonian denied on April 10 media reports that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Kocharian last week to discuss the Karabakh peace process, according to panarmenian.net as reposted by Groong (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2006). Soghomonian said that the two did discuss the peace process prior to the meeting between Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in Rambouillet, near Paris, in early February. He suggested that the authors of the erroneous report simply confused the date of that telephone conversation. Meanwhile, Bernard Fassier, the French co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, arrived in Baku late on April 10 for talks with President Aliyev and other senior Azerbaijani officials, echo-az.com reported on April 11. LF

AZERBAIJAN, TAJIKISTAN HOPE TO INCREASE WINE EXPORT TO RUSSIA
In the wake of Russia's ban on the import of wines from Georgia and Moldova, Azerbaijani wine producers have reached a preliminary agreement with Russia to increase exports of their products, day.az reported on April 11. Tajikistan too hopes to take advantage of the Russian demand for wine: Agriculture Ministry official Pirmahmud Dostiev was quoted on April 10 by regnum.ru as saying Tajikistan has a reserve of 500,000 decaliters of quality wine and could increase output this year to meet increased demand from Russia. A second Tajik official, however, admitted to regnum.ru on April 10 that the country's viticulture sector has not yet recovered from the damage inflicted by then-CPSU General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign in the late 1980s and by the 1992-97 civil war. On the plus-side, he noted that Tajik grapes have a high natural sugar content and the wine produced from them is free from chemical additives. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT 'WILL NOT DISSOLVE PARLIAMENT, DISMISS CABINET'
Georgian parliament deputy speaker Mikheil Machavariani dismissed on April 10 as "balderdash" media speculation that President Mikheil Saakashvili intends to dismiss the government and call new parliamentary elections, Caucasus Press reported. But Aleksandre Shalamberidze, deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on regional policy and self-government, suggested on April 10 that it would be logical for Saakashvili to dissolve the parliament and government in order to avert an anticipated political crisis, Caucasus Press reported. He said preterm elections would enable the population to choose a new parliament better able to meet its needs. LF

GEORGIAN HUMAN RIGHTS OMBUDSMAN UNVEILS FINDINGS OF PRISON INVESTIGATION
The office of Georgia's human rights ombudsman has released an assessment of the physical injuries sustained by six prisoners transferred from the No. 1 prison in Tbilisi to the No. 7 prison and a further 15 prisoners transferred to No. 6 prison in Rustavi in the wake of the violence at No. 1 prison during the early hours of March 27, Caucasus Press reported on April 10 (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2006). The prisoners now in No. 7 prison told officials from the ombudsman's office they were physically and verbally insulted and humiliated, beaten, and then not only initially denied medical care but forced to lie naked on iron beds with no mattress. One of them is reportedly now paralyzed, the others, including an epileptic, are in a serious condition. The ombudsman recommended their immediate hospitalization. Two of the prisoners transferred to Rustavi are suffering from gunshot wounds sustained during the March 27 disturbances; those wounds have reportedly become infected due to inadequate medical treatment. LF

KAZAKH PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER SAYS FORM OF GOVERNMENT AT ISSUE IN REFORMS
Darigha Nazarbaeva, head of the Asar Party and daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, has argued in an appeal to Oralbai Abdykarimov, deputy chairman of a new democratization commission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2006), that the main question facing Kazakhstan is the country's form of government, Navigator and "Kazakhstan Today" reported on April 10. Nazarbaeva stated that the commission should set out first and foremost to answer the question of what kind of political system Kazakhstan should have. She also recommended that the commission make decisions "collegially" rather than on the basis of a majority vote. Nazarbaeva suggested as well that Asar could head a working group on the development of political parties. DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT ASKS MINISTERS TO LEAVE POLITICAL PARTIES
President Kurmanbek Bakiev has given ministers until April 13 to end their membership of political parties or give up their posts, akipress.org reported on April 10. Bakiev said that it is "unacceptable" to combine party activities and government service. He cited the example of Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, who recently stepped down as head of the Ar-Namys Party and suspended his membership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2006). DK

CHINA TO FUND TAJIK HIGHWAY
Tajikistan has negotiated an agreement with China under which Beijing will provide a loan of $269 million for road construction in Tajikistan, Avesta reported on April 10, quoting a source in the Tajik Transportation and Roads Ministry. The loan, with an interest rate of 2 percent, will go toward rebuilding a highway linking Dushanbe and the Uzbek border, including a tunnel under the Shahriston mountain pass. An earlier report indicated that Tajik negotiators failed to reach an agreement with their Chinese counterparts during talks in Beijing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2006). DK

TAJIK COURT HALTS ACTIVITIES OF JOURNALISTS' UNION
A court in Dushanbe has halted the activities of the Tajik Union of Journalists for three months, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on April 10. The court argued that the union's charter violates provisions of Tajik law. But Sherali Yahyoev, a member of the group's leadership, told RFE/RL that the Justice Ministry has approved the union's charter. "If the charter contained errors, the ministry should have proposed bringing the document into line with legal requirements and only then approved it," Yahyoev said. For its part, the Justice Ministry said that the union was informed of the problems in its charter 30 days ago and ignored a request to rectify them. Davlat Sulaymonov, an official in the ministry's registration department, said that the union will be dissolved if it fails to resolve the problem in three months. DK

TURKMEN PRESIDENT REPLACES PROSECUTOR-GENERAL
President Saparmurat Niyazov has issued a decree appointing Muhammatguly Ogshukov prosecutor-general, turkmenistan.ru reported on April 10. He replaces Gurbanbibi Atajanova, whom Niyazov released from her duties in connection with her retirement. Ogshukov had occupied the post of first deputy prosecutor-general since 2002. Atajanova, who had served as prosecutor-general since 1997, was a key figure in numerous criminal cases against high-ranking officials during her tenure in office. DK

RUSSIAN FEDERATION COUNCIL HEAD VISITS UZBEKISTAN
Sergei Mironov, chairman of Russia's Federation Council, met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent on April 10, UzA reported. Karimov called Mironov's visit further proof of strengthening relations between Russia and Uzbekistan, noting that 14 official Russian delegations have visited Uzbekistan in the past five months. Mironov told reporters after his meeting with Karimov that Russia fully supported Uzbekistan's actions to put down unrest in Andijon in May 2005, ITAR-TASS reported. Calling the unrest "acts of terror with far-reaching goals," Mironov said that Karimov and his government took "the only correct step to preserve the country's territorial integrity and restore law and order." DK

UZBEK FOREIGN MINISTRY DENIES RENDITION ALLEGATION
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry has denied the charge in a recent Amnesty International report that Uzbekistan cooperated with the U.S. government on the rendition of terrorism suspects, Interfax and press-uz.info reported on April 10. The Foreign Ministry announced that "the Amnesty International statement has absolutely no basis in reality. [It] is most likely based on the organization's speculation rather than on actual facts." The report, which appeared on Amnesty's website (http://www.amnesty.org) on April 5, was titled "Below the radar: Secret flights to torture and 'disappearance.'" DK

MINSK TO TAKE RECIPROCAL MEASURES AGAINST EU VISA BAN
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on April 10 that it will take reciprocal measures in response to the EU decision earlier the same day to place President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and 30 other Belarusian officials on a travel-ban list in connection with the flawed March 19 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2006), Belapan reported. "The European Union and the United States cannot change the choice of the Belarusian people," the ministry said. "To respond with bans to the choice of the people means to reject the right of the citizens of Belarus to live in their country at their own discretion, not at somebody else's." Minsk added that its visa-ban measures will "affect similar categories of persons in accordance with international practices." The EU imposed its visa ban on the Belarusian president, the leadership of the presidential administration, the ministers of education, information, and justice, the chairman and deputy chairman of the Committee for State Security (KGB), the chairman of the lower house of parliament, the prosecutor-general, several judges, the head of the state television and radio company, and the country's seven regional election officials. JM

UKRAINE'S ORANGE REVOLUTION ALLIES CONTINUE COALITION TALKS
Former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, leader of the eponymous political bloc, met with Roman Bezsmertnyy, head of the Our Ukraine People's Union, and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz on April 10 to discuss the formation of a democratic coalition in the newly elected Verkhovna Rada, Ukrainian media reported. "Our decision is firm. All three sides have declared that a coalition will consist of three political forces -- the Our Ukraine bloc, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party. Any other political forces will not be allowed to join it," Tymoshenko told journalists after the meeting. The three allies from the 2004 Orange Revolution reportedly decided to draft a coalition agreement within the following two days. "We believe the road we have taken is the right one. We see no threats so far," Bezsmertnyy commented on the coalition talks. JM

OFFICIALS ANNOUNCE FINAL RESULTS OF UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
The Central Election Commission on April 10 made public the final results of the March 26 parliamentary poll, Ukrainian media reported. The Party of Regions won 32.14 percent of the vote, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc 22.29 percent, Our Ukraine 13.95 percent, the Socialist Party 5.69 percent, and the Communist Party 3.66 percent. In the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada, the Party of Regions will have 186 seats, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc 129, Our Ukraine 81, the Socialists 33, and the Communists 21. Of the remaining 40 parties and blocs, the closest to overcoming the 3 percent voting hurdle were the Natalya Vitrenko Bloc (2.93 percent) and the Lytvyn People's Bloc (2.44 percent). Election turnout was 67.7 percent. JM

SERBIAN PREMIER SAYS KOSOVA'S INDEPENDENCE WOULD DESTABILIZE REGION
In an interview published in the daily "Politika" on April 10, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said independence for Kosova would have serious negative consequences for the region, AP reported. Kostunica said independence would "represent a precedent with unforeseeable consequences" for Europe and the Balkans. Kostunica proposed direct talks with Kosovar Albanians that would not include independence, but would envisage "a compromise that ensures autonomy for Kosovo that is in accordance with European" standards. BW

MONTENEGRIN OPPOSITION LEADER PLEDGES TO RETIRE IF INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM SUCCEEDS
Montenegrin opposition leader Predrag Bulatovic has said he will retire from politics in the event that Montenegro becomes an independent state, Beta and B92 reported on April 10. "I do not believe that the Montenegrin independence project will succeed, but if it does, then I will definitely not be involved in politics any longer," he said. Bulatovic's pledge echoes a similar promise by Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic to quit politics should the independence referendum fail, B92 and Beta reported. The Montenegrin independence referendum is scheduled for May 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2 and 3, 2006). BW

MONTENEGRO SEEKS TO KEEP BORDER WITH SERBIA OPEN AFTER INDEPENDENCE
Montenegrin Interior Minister Jusuf Kalamperovic has said that if an independence referendum passes, Podgorica will propose that the Serbian-Montenegrin border remain open, B92 reported on April 10. Kalamperovic said that the government is drafting an agreement allowing Montenegrin and Serbian citizens to cross the border with only their national identification cards. He added that the agreement will include measures for a regular border-control system. Kalamperovic said he hoped that Serbia will take similar measures in the event of independence. BW

TURKISH PRESIDENT BACKS BOSNIA'S NATO AND EU BIDS
During a visit to Sarajevo on April 10, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer pledged Ankara's backing for Bosnia-Herzegovina's efforts to join the EU and NATO, dpa and AP reported the same day. After meeting with members of Bosnia's collective tripartite presidency, Sezer said Turkey plans on deepening bilateral economic ties with the Balkan country. Sulejman Tihic, the chairman of Bosnia's presidency, said both countries seek admission to the EU and will cooperate toward that goal. Bosnia, he added, hopes to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program and is counting on Turkey's support. BW

EU TELLS MOLDOVA TO FOCUS ON HUMAN RIGHTS, RULE OF LAW
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev on April 11 that Chisinau should concentrate on essential reforms rather than on membership in the bloc, international news agencies reported. "Moldova has made quite important advances on the economic, political, and also structural-reform side," Ferrero-Waldner said in an April 11 meeting with Tarlev. These advances have resulted in Moldova being included in the EU's GSP Plus scheme, the bloc's equivalent of "most-favored-nation" status, which eases access to the European market. Ferrero-Waldner added, however, that "a lot of effort" still needs to be invested in reforms in the area of human rights, minority protection, and the rule of law. Ursula Plassnik, foreign minister of Austria, which currently holds the EU presidency, said Moldova must "manage its expectations in a responsible way." BW

GEORGIA'S PARLIAMENTARY OPPOSITION CHALLENGES LEADERSHIP
Following several days of deliberations, three opposition parliament factions -- the Democratic Front comprising the Conservative and Republican parties, the New Conservatives (aka New Right Wing), and the Industrialists -- made public on April 7 a list of conditions for ending the boycott of parliamentary proceedings they declared on March 31. Representatives of the majority United National Movement-Democrats have responded with an all-out campaign to drive a wedge between the various boycotting factions and induce them to abandon that boycott -- even though the dissenters between them account for only 36 of the 224 parliament mandates, and their absence will therefore have only minimal impact on day-to-day parliamentary proceedings. The opposition deputies will continue, however, to participate in the work of parliament committees.

The catalyst for the opposition boycott was the 31 March decision by the parliament majority to suspend the mandate of opposition deputy Valeri Gelashvili (Republican) on the grounds that parliamentarians are not permitted to engage in business activities. Gelashvili, a wealthy businessman, came under pressure from Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava in late March after a fire destroyed a school building in Tbilisi that Gelashvili hoped to acquire in order to construct a new school building on the same site.

Detailed lists published in various newspapers in recent weeks of businesses allegedly owned by government ministers and deputies from the majority United National Movement-Democrats faction suggest that the nominal ban on parliamentarians engaging in commercial activity is honored more in the breach than the observance. In that light, some might view the decision to strip Gelashvili of his deputy's mandate as vindictive or hypocritical, or both.

The opposition conditions for ending its boycott are: changes to the election law that would give the opposition representation on election commissions and guarantee the secrecy of the ballot; the introduction of direct elections for the post of mayor of Tbilisi and other major cities; the resignation of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili; the dismantling of the Interior Ministry's so-called "death squads"; and the creation of a special parliamentary commission to investigate crimes those death squads are suspected of having committed.

Even while the three factions were hammering out their demands last week, parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze held separate talks with Industrialist faction leader Zurab Tkemaladze on April 5 and with Pikria Chikhradze of the New Rightists the following day in a fruitless attempt to persuade them to abandon the boycott. The Democratic Front declined to meet with Burdjanadze on the grounds that she is President Mikheil Saakashvili's "puppet," according to "The Messenger" on April 6.

The boycott is not the first time the opposition groups in question have formed a tactical alliance: the Conservative party, the Right-Wing opposition, the Tavisupleba (Liberty) movement, and the extra-parliamentary Labor party concluded a formal agreement last summer to field a single candidate in each of five parliament by-elections on October 1. Then on March 3, representatives of the New Rightists, the Conservative party, the Republican party, and the Labor party, vowed to coordinate their policies with regard to what Republican party leader Davit Usupashvili termed "certain problematic issues," according to Civil Georgia on March 4.

At that time, the primary focus of opposition was the spontaneous protests by thousands of Georgian traders against new legislation requiring them to acquire and install cash registers, and the four parties between them succeeded in mobilizing between 5,000-7,000 people in Tbilisi on March 30 to protest that requirement, and also the January killing, allegedly at the behest of senior Interior Ministry personnel, of banker Sandro Girgvliani and the death of seven inmates in fighting in a Tbilisi prison on March 27.

This opposition tactical alliance is, however, tenuous, as evidenced by the New Rightists' refusal to talk directly with the seven Industrialist parliamentarians, who defected from the New Rightists in February to form their own parliament faction. (The Democratic Front acted as a go-between in those talks, according to Civil Georgia on April 6.) So why, in that case, have the Georgian authorities reacted so nervously and launched an all-out bid to undermine the boycott, especially as the number of deputies involved is so small that it will have only minimal impact? Why not instead emulate the ruling Armenian coalition, which for two years was content to let the opposition parliament deputies who walked out of the parliament chamber in early February 2004 simply cool their heels and stew in their own juice?

There are several possible explanations. First, the Georgian leadership is clearly on the defensive in the wake of the March prison disturbance. In a televised address on April 9, Saakashvili appealed to all political parties to set aside their ambitions and unite to work for the "common goal" of building a prosperous and democratic state. Second, the conditions the opposition set for abandoning its boycott were widely known even before they were formally adopted on April 7. Some of those demands were obvious nonstarters: President Saakashvili has repeatedly made it clear he will not dismiss Interior Minister Merabishvili. Indeed he cannot risk doing so: he may some day need Merabishvili's help to rein in Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili. Moreover, Caucasus Press on April 7 quoted Gogi Topadze, leader of the Industry Will Save Georgia party, as pointing out that the firing of another government minister would bring the total number of dismissals to six, or one-third of the total, which would necessitate the resignation of the entire cabinet.

On the other hand, the Georgian leadership could find itself in an uncomfortable situation should the Council of Europe or the OSCE express support for the opposition's demands for representation on election commissions and that city mayors be democratically elected, rather than appointed by fiat. Therefore, the Georgian leadership's anxiety may well have been prompted not by the prospect of a parliamentary boycott per se, but by the implications of being publicly presented with a list of conditions for lifting it. And third, opinion polls suggest that Saakashvili's popularity has eroded to the point that if a presidential election were held now, he would not win the required 50 percent plus one vote required for a first-round victory.

In a trenchant analysis of the Georgian political situation published last summer, commentator Ghia Nodia made two crucial points that are relevant to the current standoff. He noted that the Georgian opposition is weak not only because it is divided and has few parliament mandates, but because it lacks popular leaders and ideas capable of mobilizing the population at large. Consequently, Nodia continued, the opposition pins its hopes on, and seeks to capitalize on, growing public dissatisfaction with government policy -- which is precisely what it is seeking to do now. And second, Nodia pointed to a "communication breakdown" within the political elite in which government and opposition "simply do not speak to each other any more," with politicians instead engaging in "monologues" that frequently stoop to the realm of personal insults. The opposition's boycott of parliament, in tandem with its unacceptable demands for shelving that boycott, is likely to strengthen, rather than undercut, that absolutist approach.

AFGHANISTAN, INDIA SIGN THREE BILATERAL AGREEMENTS...
Visiting President Hamid Karzai and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed bilateral agreements in New Delhi on April 10 on education, exchange programs, rural development, and standardization, Doordarshan DD News Channel reported. New Delhi also announced an additional $50 million in assistance to Afghanistan. Speaking to reporters at a joint news conference with Karzai, Singh said his country and Afghanistan are committed to jointly countering the terrorism threat. Saying that terrorism has now spread throughout the region, including to Pakistan, Singh called on Islamabad to join hands with Afghanistan and India in their counterterrorism efforts. Karzai said that India has gone "out of its way" since 2002 to help Afghanistan in "all walks of life." Karzai arrived in New Delhi on April 9 for his fourth official visit to India (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2006). AT

...AS NEW DELHI ASKS FOR HELP OBTAINING TRANSIT RIGHTS THROUGH PAKISTAN
Prime Minister Singh told reporters in New Delhi on April 10 that he and President Karzai discussed the issue of transit rights for Indian goods to Afghanistan through Pakistan, PTI News Agency reported. Singh said he has requested such rights from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and has now asked Karzai to use his influence in Islamabad to the same end. Karzai told reporters that he has also raised the issue with "Brother Musharraf," who has allowed the transit of Afghan goods to India over Pakistani territory. Karzai added that he hopes Islamabad will allow transit in the reverse direction "very soon." AT

HEALTH WORKERS KILLED IN NORTHWESTERN AFGHANISTAN...
Unidentified gunmen attacked a health clinic in the Qades district of Badghis Province on April 10, killing four physicians and a driver, international news agencies reported. Badghis Governor Enayatullah Enayat confirmed the report, adding that he has no "further details about this incident," Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported the same day. AT

...AS NEO-TALIBAN CLAIM RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE ATTACK
Qari Yusof Ahmadi, purporting to speak for the neo-Taliban, claimed responsibility on behalf of that group for the killing of five health workers and a driver in Badghis Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on April 10. "We killed four doctors of a nongovernmental organization and set the clinic on fire," Ahmadi told Pazhwak. Three foreign and two Afghan staff members of Doctors Without Borders were killed in June 2004 in Badghis, an act for which the neo-Taliban immediately claimed responsibility, although those killings were later deemed to have been the work of local commanders, rather than neo-Taliban militants (see "RFE/RL Newsline, June 3 and July 29, 2004). AT

NORTHEASTERN AFGHAN GOVERNOR CONCEDES INABILITY TO STOP POPPY CULTIVATION
Badakhshan Province Governor Monshi Abdul Majid has said that opium-poppy cultivation has increased in his province and admitted that he is unable to reverse the trend, Herat-based Sada-ye Jawan Radio reported on April 10. Abdul Majid blamed the international community for failing to honor pledges of assistance to needy farmers that would enable them to plant alternative crops. He said his forces have been unable to use force to prevent the cultivation of opium poppies out of fear that such action would prompt desperate farmers to commit antigovernment activities. Abdul Majid said drug traffickers have also increased their activities in his province, which borders Tajikistan, Pakistan, and, at very high altitudes, China. Abdul Majid claimed the existence of mobile heroin laboratories in Badakhshan. AT

IRANIAN PRESIDENT PROMISES NUCLEAR NEWS TO MAKE COUNTRY PROUD
Speaking in the northeastern city of Mashhad on April 10, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad promised his audience a big surprise in the near future, state television reported. "God willing, while I am in Mashhad, I will announce good news about the nuclear issue which will be a cause for pride," Ahmadinejad said. He also predicted that officials from other countries would be pleased with the development, according to IRNA. Parliamentarians, government officials, and nuclear experts have recently made similar predictions of forthcoming "good news" in the nuclear field, iranews.org reported on April 10. Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, visited the legislature on April 9 and announced the upcoming news, according to irannews.org. Two anonymous legislators told irannews.org the news is that Iran has managed to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent. One of those sources reportedly went on to say that Iran therefore is not dependent on other countries and will be a member of the so-called nuclear club. BS

U.S. PRESIDENT DISMISSES REPORTS OF U.S. PLANS TO ATTACK IRAN AS 'WILD SPECULATION'
President George W. Bush on April 10 rejected media reports suggesting that U.S. military plans are being drafted for a possible "major air attack" on Iran that could include tactical nuclear weapons (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 10 April 2006). "I read the articles [about Iran] in the newspapers this weekend," Bush told an audience at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., according to Radio Farda. "It was just wild speculation, by the way. What you are reading is wild speculation, which...happens quite frequently here in the nation's capital." Bush stressed that the United States does not want Iran to be armed with nuclear weapons, Radio Farda reported, but he also insisted that this does not mean going to war. "The doctrine of prevention is to work together to prevent the Iranians from having a nuclear weapon.... I know we hear in Washington [that], you know, prevention means force. It doesn't mean force necessarily. In this case, it means diplomacy." BS

...AS TEHRAN REACTS ANGRILY
Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said in an April 10 interview with Al-Jazeera that news reports of U.S. contingency plans for attacking Iran with nuclear weapons represent "psychological warfare," Fars News Agency reported "These [kinds of] threats are only expressed by parties who are totally incapable of acting on their promises," Larijani said. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi made a similar statement about psychological warfare the previous day, Fars reported. Iranian state radio carried a commentary on April 10 that attributed the media reports -- particularly that in "The New Yorker" -- to psychological warfare. The commentary added that just a few of author Seymour Hersh's reports and analyses come true, and this specific one has been described as "idiotic" by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Such articles, the commentary continued, are meant to undermine calm in Iran. They also are meant to undermine the impressive accomplishments displayed at the previous week's naval exercises in the south, the broadcaster concluded. BS

IRANIAN PARLIAMENTARIAN GIVEN JAIL SENTENCE
The Tehran Province Penal Court has sentenced a member of parliament to jail, ILNA reported on April 9. Ali Dirbaz, who represents Bandar Abbas and is also managing director of the banned "Tamadon-i Hormozgan" weekly, must serve 20 months behind bars and is banned from press activities for insulting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran's Islamic revolution. The weekly reportedly published what it thought was a foreign report about AIDS without realizing that it criticized Khomeini. If a higher court confirms the sentence, Dirbaz will finish his term in office before serving jail time. BS

RIGHTS GROUP ALLEGES OFFICIAL ABUSE OF ETHNIC ARABS IN IRAN
Amnesty International issued an "urgent action" report 4 April documenting alleged torture and ill treatment of prisoners of conscience -- including a pregnant woman and the wife and children of an Arab activist -- in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Radio Farda reported on April 6. The report claims that Hoda Hawashemi and her 2- and 4-year-old sons were arrested and their whereabouts are unknown; they are the wife and children of fugitive Arab rights activist Habib Farajallah Chaab. Amnesty International expressed concern about Masumeh Kabi and her 4-year-old son and Soghra Khudayrawi and her 4-year-old son. In another case cited by Amnesty International, an abortion was reportedly performed in early April on Sakina Naisi after blood loss "possibly caused by torture and ill treatment." Naisi's husband, Ahmad Naisi, also is a wanted Arab activist. BS

IRAQI SHI'ITE ALLIANCE FAILS TO AGREE ON PREMIER NOMINATION...
The United Iraq Alliance (UIA) met for two hours on April 11 to discuss the nomination of Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to the post of prime minister in the incoming government but failed to reach agreement, international media reported. The UIA was to meet and issue a decision on its nominee on April 10, but postponed the meeting, reportedly at the request of al-Ja'fari's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party. Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and secular Shi'ite parties oppose al-Ja'fari's nomination and have asked the UIA to choose another candidate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2006). Meanwhile, an unidentified National Assembly spokesman said that the acting speaker of parliament, Adnan Pachachi, will announce on April 12 the date parliament will convene, Reuters reported. Parliamentarians said last week that if the UIA failed to issue a decision on al-Ja'fari's nomination, they would put the nomination to a vote in parliament. Should that happen, it appears that al-Ja'fari's nomination would be voted down. KR

...AFTER ONE PARTY IN ALLIANCE VOWS TO PROPOSE NEW CANDIDATE
UIA member and Al-Fadilah (Islamic Virtue) Party spokesman Sabah al-Sa'di told Reuters on April 11 that his party is ready to nominate another candidate to the premiership. "If the alliance does not keep al-Ja'fari, we will nominate our own candidate who we believe can play a significant role in pushing forward the political process because we are a moderate party inside the alliance," he said. "We believe our nominee will be accepted by the other parties." The nominee in question may be Al-Fadilah head Nadim al-Jabiri, who was nominated earlier this year along with al-Ja'fari and Adil Abd al-Mahdi ahead of an internal UIA election. Al-Jabiri withdrew under pressure from within the UIA. KR

SUNNI LEADER CLAIMS U.S.-IRAN TALKS ON IRAQ AIMED AT DESTROYING RESISTANCE
Muslim Scholars Association official in charge of foreign relations Abd al-Salam al-Kubaysi told London-based "Al-Hayat" on April 10 that proposed talks between the United States and Iran on Iraq will aim at defeating the Iraqi resistance, the daily reported on April 11. Al-Kubaysi contended that the goal of the talks will be to reach an "agreement and cooperation to strike the Iraqi resistance that wants to liberate the country from occupation." Al-Kubaysi accused Iran of "fabricating" sectarian strife between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs, and claimed Tehran was involved in the assassinations of Sunni "opposition" leaders. On Sunni-Shi'ite dialogue, al-Kubaysi told the daily: "We now see Islamic Shi'ite parties in control of the government in Iraq, but they are unwilling to unite with the Sunni Islamists to liberate the country from occupation and achieve stability and security. This is something that is incomprehensible to us." He added that recent talks between Sunni and Shi'ite leaders in London failed to reach any kind of agreement. Sunni and Shi'ite religious leaders are expected to meet again in Amman on April 22 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 6, 2006). KR

AUSTRALIAN FOREIGN MINISTER TESTIFIES AT WHEAT PROBE
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told a government inquiry on April 11 that he was not been aware of diplomatic reports that Australian wheat exporter AWB was paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime, Reuters reported. When asked about 21 diplomatic cables raising concerns about illegal kickbacks between 2000 and 2004, Downer said he did not have "a specific recollection of having received or read this cable, or of it otherwise being brought to my attention," in a statement referring to each cable. The UN said in a 2005 report that AWB paid $222 million in kickbacks to the Hussein regime through a trucking company that acted as a front for the regime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2006). KR

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