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Newsline - June 20, 2006


RUSSIAN MINISTER OPPOSES 'ENERGY OPEC' AND 'ENERGY NATO'
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow on June 20 that he opposes any project for gas producers to form an organization similar to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Interfax reported. He denied that he has heard such proposals, although Valery Yazev, who heads the State Duma's Energy, Transport, and Communications Committee, made the suggestion recently (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1 and 6, 2006). Lavrov nonetheless said that he has "heard other calls to create an 'energy NATO' [of consumers to prevent blackmail by suppliers], and this idea certainly is confrontational." During the recent Ukrainian gas crisis, Polish leaders called on consumers to form an "energy NATO" to protect their interests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 6, 19, and 20, 2006). PM

RUSSIAN LEGISLATOR HAILS POSSIBLE 'GAS ALLIANCE' WITH IRAN
Mikhail Margelov, who chairs the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, was quoted on June 17 by the state-run daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" as saying that Putin's recent meeting in Shanghai with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad could mark the beginning of a "gas alliance" between the two countries that would benefit them both (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15, 2006). At their meeting, Ahmadinejad suggested that the two countries work together to determine the price of natural gas. Margelov noted that "considering that Iran ranks second in the world after Russia in terms of gas reserves, a coordinated gas policy for our countries could make the blue-fuel market more stable and predictable." In related news, the daily "Gazeta" on June 19 discussed the possible implications of an Iranian offer for Gazprom to participate in a gas pipeline linking Iran, Pakistan, and India, which could be extended to China. The paper noted that Russia could exert pressure on its European customers by participating in a pipeline project that would link it to potential Asian buyers. The daily added, however, that "the only problem is that Europe might decide to deal with Russia's gas blackmail seriously and find alternative energy sources. In that case, Russia would have to sell its gas to Asia, but [Asians] won't pay the high prices that Russia charges Europe. Moreover, Gazprom is preparing to help Iran, which is a potential competitor" on the European market (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12, 16, and 19, 2006). PM

RUSSIA SEEKS GREATER ACCESS TO BRITISH GAS MARKET
Gazprom has reached an agreement with the Danish firm DONG Energy to supply it with 1 billion cubic meters of gas annually once the planned the planned North European Gas Pipeline, running from Vyborg to Greifswald, comes into service in 2011, the BBC reported on June 19. For its part, DONG will begin in 2007 to sell 600 million cubic meters of gas to Gazprom's U.K. trading arm, giving the Russian monopolist a greater share of the U.K. market. There was opposition in the United Kingdom recently to the possible Russian acquisition of Centrica, the largest U.K. gas distributor (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 20, 25, and 26, 2006). PM

GAZPROM FINISHES TALKS WITH FIRMS ON SHTOKMAN SHORTLIST
Gazprom Deputy CEO Aleksandr Ryazanov said in Moscow on June 19 that his company has completed negotiations with five companies on the shortlist for development of the Shtokman gas fields, which are slated to begin production in 2011, Interfax reported. He added that Gazprom will soon select two or three firms from that list, which includes Norway's Hydro and Statoil, the U.S. companies Chevron and ConocoPhillips, and France's Total. PM

VENEZUELAN LEADER TO TALK ARMS IN MOSCOW
Venezuelan Ambassador to Russia Alexis Navarro Rojas told Interfax in Moscow on June 19 that President Hugo Chavez will visit Russia on July 25-27, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 16 and 19, 2006). The ambassador added that Chavez wants to visit a "defense plant in Volgograd" and discuss "the global political situation, bilateral relations, oil, and defense acquisitions" with Russian leaders. Navarro said that "if the terms are acceptable, and I think they will be acceptable for us, we will also buy Yak-130 training planes and commercial Il-96 aircraft, the same as Cuban leader Fidel Castro did." Navarro did not say how many aircraft Chavez wants to buy but suggested that the 100,000 Kalashnikov automatic rifles Caracas has ordered from Moscow "are not enough for us." In related news, Navarro told the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina on June 15 in connection with Chavez's planned trip to Russia that Venezuela is dependent on foreign companies for 87 percent of its exports of hydrocarbons. He added that "our country wants to solve this problem." PM

RUSSIA SEEKS CLARIFICATION OF IRAQ HOSTAGE CLAIM
Foreign Minister Lavrov told reporters in Moscow on June 20 that the government is working "around the clock" to ensure the release of one Russian diplomat and three embassy personnel believed to have been taken hostage by unknown people on June 3, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 5, 2006). He added that the ministry is seeking to verify a website report from June 19 that the four are being held by the Mujahedin Shura Council, which is linked to Al-Qaeda. That group allegedly gave Moscow 48 hours to pull out of Chechnya and free Muslim prisoners or "accept the consequences," mosnews.com reported. Akhmed Zakayev, the London-based foreign minister of the Chechen separatist government, dismissed the demand as "a gross provocation by the Russian special services," chechenpress.org reported on June 20. PM/LF

OLIGARCH TO TAKE 41 PERCENT OF TOP STEEL COMPANY
Roman Abramovich, who is reportedly Russia's richest man and politically close to the Kremlin, agreed on June 19 to buy a 41 percent stake in Evraz, which is Russia's largest steelmaker, London's "Financial Times" reported on June 20. The daily noted that is Abramovich's first major investment since he sold the Sibneft oil company to Gazprom for $13 billion in 2005. Evraz itself is preparing to spend $10 billion on acquisitions. The paper observed that Abramovich's latest move is in keeping with Putin-era policies of creating large, integrated companies with important interests abroad. PM

ARCELOR PUTS OFF VOTE ON RUSSIAN OFFER
Officials of the Luxembourg-based Arcelor SA steel company said on June 19 that they will postpone to an unspecified date a planned June 21 vote of shareholders on accepting a merger offer from the Russian firm Severstal and its head Aleksei Mordashov, who is close to the Kremlin, "The New York Times" reported on June 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 26 and 30, and June 1 and 14, 2006). The decision came "in light of current discussions" with Mittal Steel, the world's largest steelmaker. Arcelor management previously seemed bent on thwarting Mittal's bid in favor of the Russian offer to create the world's largest steel company under Mordashov's effective control. Opposition by stockholders has apparently forced management to reconsider its position. "The Economist" in its June 17-22 issue called Severstal "an opaque metals firm controlled by a Russian tycoon who, without launching a bid, was to become the dominant shareholder of the combined group." The weekly argued that the issue is not who will win Arcelor, but whether the rights and wishes of shareholders are respected in the takeover or merger process. PM

KABARDINO-BALKARIA PRESIDENT DISMISSES GOVERNMENT...
Arsen Kanokov, president of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), issued a decree on June 19 dismissing Gennady Gubin as republican prime minister "at his own request," a move that automatically entails the resignation of the entire government, kavkazweb.net reported, citing Kanokov's press service. Gubin, a holdover from the era of Kanokov's predecessor Valery Kokov (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," September 26, 2005 and "RFE/RL Newsline," September 29, 2005), explained his decision to step down in terms of the need to improve the work of the government in speeding up socioeconomic development and promoting a team of "young and energetic specialists with a modern mindset." Also on June 19, kavkaz.memo.ru reported that the KBR parliament has formally asked Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and the speakers of both chambers of the Russian legislature to take measures to write off the republic's tax debt, which amounts to some 3.6 billion rubles ($133.1 million). Those debts accumulated during the 1990s; while many enterprises now pay current taxes regularly, they are unable to pay off the arrears. The KBR parliament therefore proposed amending the Russian Federation Tax Code to provide for a tax amnesty which, deputies argued, would contribute to economic stabilization. LF

...NAMES NEW CANDIDATE FOR PRIME MINISTER
Also on June 19, Kanokov named Deputy Prime Minister Anuar Chechenov as acting premier and then submitted to parliament his proposed candidate to head the new government. That candidate is Andrei Yarin, a Russian born in Nizhny Tagil in February 1970, with degrees in economics from Moscow State University and law from the Russian Interior Ministry's university in St. Petersburg. He has worked in the banking sector and also from December 2002-March 2003 as Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister and from April 2004-April 2005 as deputy governor and prime minister of Ryazan Oblast. Since April 2005 he has served on the staff of presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak. LF

THIRD GEORGIAN MILITANT KILLED IN INGUSHETIA?
The Interior Ministry of the Republic of Ingushetia announced on June 18 that one militant was killed earlier that day in a shoot-out with Federal Security Service (FSB) forces near the village of Nesterovskaya in Sunzha Raion, ingushetiya.ru reported. The dead man was identified as Anzor Borchashvili, a resident of Nesterovskaya. Two men with the same Georgian surname, said to be brothers and also residents of Nesterovksaya, were killed in a shoot-out in the same district in April. They were subsequently identified as members of a militant group headed by Saudi-born field commander Abu-Dzeit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2006). LF

IMF PRAISES 'IMPRESSIVE' ARMENIAN ECONOMIC GROWTH
Visiting Yerevan for a two-day meeting of the so-called Dutch group, IMF Managing Director Rodrigo de Rato praised the Armenian government's "commendable" macroeconomic performance in recent years, as reflected in double-digit GDP growth for the past five years, low inflation, poverty reduction, and improved tax collection, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on June 19. At the same time, de Rato stressed the need to improve tax and customs administrations in a "transparent and nondiscretionary manner," an apparent allusion to corruption that is perceived as benefiting some producers with close ties to the authorities. LF

EMBATTLED ARMENIAN MEDIA COMPANY EVICTED FROM OFFICES
A1+, the former independent Armenian television station that has produced a weekly newspaper since losing its broadcast frequency four years ago, has been forced to vacate the premises it has leased for the past decade from the Armenian Academy of Sciences, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on June 19. A1+ lost a court case demanding compensation for $32,000 it claims to have invested in the premises in question. The Armenian government has made available alternative office space which, however, requires extensive renovation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006). LF

UKRAINE OFFERS TO HOST MEETING OF ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTS
Following talks in Kyiv on June 19 with his visiting Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk said Ukraine has offered to host further talks between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan on approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict, day.az reported. LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION PARTY ALLEGES OMISSIONS FROM REVISED VOTER LISTS
Georgian Central Election Commission Chairman Guram Chalagashvili told journalists in Tbilisi on June 19 that his commission has completed the first stage of compiling a comprehensive list of Georgian voters, Caucasus Press and rustavi2.com reported. He said that list currently numbers 3,200,000 people with Georgian identify papers, including 922,300 residents of Tbilisi. At the same time, he conceded that the list may contain duplications and names of some people who are deceased, and that the names of people who have not yet exchanged their old Soviet-era passports for new Georgian passports have not been included. He said the list will be posted on line next month so voters can check whether their names have been included. Opposition Labor Party member Paata Djibladze, who attended Chalagashvili's press conference, later told Caucasus Press that names of Labor Party supporters living in Tbilisi's Gldani district have been omitted from the list; he also claimed that the number of voters has been deliberately overstated. LF

U.S. DIPLOMATS VISIT ABKHAZIA
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza and U.S. Ambassador to Tbilisi John Tefft met in Sukhum (Sukhumi) on June 19 with Sergei Bagapsh and Sergei Shamba, president and foreign minister, respectively, of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, to discuss the prospects for resolving the conflict between Abkhazia and Georgia, Interfax reported. Bryza told journalists after those talks that both sides have shown willingness to make progress toward resolving the conflict, and that it may prove possible to draft a compromise peace settlement that contains elements taken from the respective peace plans they recently unveiled, Civil Georgia and the Abkhaz news agency apsny.ru reported. But Abkhazia has already rejected the Georgian proposal on the grounds that it does not contain "a single provision acceptable to Abkhazia or that could narrow the differences between the two sides" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 2, 2006). Shamba told RFE/RL's Georgian Service in an interview on June 19 that the two sides have tried actively over the past year to narrow the differences between them, and that he believes a rapprochement is possible, but that this is "a complicated process" that will take some time. That process, Shamba continued, has already yielded "good results," but the culmination is "not yet in sight." LF

OSCE SLAMS 'RESTRICTIVE' AMENDMENTS TO KAZAKH MEDIA LAW
In a June 19 press release on the OSCE website, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklos Haraszti asked the Kazakh government to withdraw from parliament proposed amendments to the country's media law. Haraszti alerted Kazakh Culture and Information Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev to "restrictive elements, such as high administrative fines and registration fees for media outlets, and mandatory re-registration in case of any minor changes in business data," the press release stated. "Kazakhstan has the chance to demonstrate its commitment to become the leading media reformer in the region," Haraszti argued. "It would be regrettable if this opportunity were missed with the hasty adoption of these amendments." The proposed amendments have also drawn criticism from journalists inside Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1 and 6, 2006). DK

KAZAKH PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER CALLS FOR NEW PRO-PRESIDENTIAL PARTY
Darigha Nazarbaeva, daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, told a conference of the pro-presidential Asar Party, which she heads, in Almaty on June 19 that pro-presidential forces should unite and form a new party, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The new party, "based on principles of broad, intraparty democracy," should "become a real ruling party," Nazarbaeva said. "No other party will be able to compete with such a party for the next 50 years -- this is the goal we should set for ourselves," she said. Nazarbaeva said that political opposition exists primarily within the "apparatus of the state," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. "Behind the outward, primarily decorative shell of the opposition stands a part of the clan-bureaucratic system that has entered into a tactical alliance with financial-industrial groups, the 'oligarchs,'" Nazarbaeva said. "Together, they use young politicians as political puppets." Nazarbaeva called this phenomenon "lethally dangerous for society." DK

KYRGYZ TASK FORCE PREPARES DRAFT CONSTITUTIONS
Azimbek Beknazarov, head of a constitutional reform task force, said on June 19 that three draft constitutions have been prepared and presented to President Kurmanbek Bakiev, akipress.org reported. Beknazarov noted that the task force was unable to come to a consensus on a number of issues, including immunity for the president and prime minister. Beknazarov said that the task force will now begin a nationwide tour to familiarize citizens with the three drafts, which envisage presidential, parliamentary, and mixed forms of government, news agency 24.kg reported. "On about July 8, we'll return from the regions, and by July 15 we'll add all suggestions and comments to the drafts," Beknazarov said. "By August 1, all of the documents will be presented to the president and Constitutional Council." After the Constitutional Council reviews the drafts, parliament will consider them in fall 2006, Beknazarov said. DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT SLAMS LAX DISCIPLINE IN GOVERNMENT
President Bakiev told ministers at a June 19 meeting in Bishkek that they cannot take any vacations until December, Kabar reported. Bakiev criticized the executive branch for lax discipline and said that the cabinet's ineffective work is hampering the country's development. "If I learn that even one minister has taken a vacation before December, I'll take measures," Bakiev warned. "I feel that now is not the time to relax, but the time to work." DK

MINISTER SAYS KYRGYZSTAN AWAITS U.S. ANSWER ON BASE AGREEMENT
Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov told reporters on June 18 that a second round of talks on a new agreement for the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan will begin soon, Interfax-AVN reported the next day. "We expect to receive a reply from the U.S. State Department soon and will then gather for a second, final round, tentatively to be held in Bishkek as well," he said. Jekshenkulov said that the Kyrgyz-U.S. talks did not come up at a recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Shanghai. "None of the SCO member countries raised the issue of the Kyrgyz-American talks on the antiterror coalition's further presence at Manas Airport during the recent summit," he said. Kyrgyzstan is seeking higher lease payments from the United States for the U.S. air base, although recent reports have indicated that the Kyrgyz government has moderated its initial demand for a hundredfold increase to $200 million a year in lease payments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 5, 2006). DK

RUSSIAN-TURKMEN GAS TALKS FAIL TO PRODUCE AGREEMENT
Talks between Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller and Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat on June 19 failed to produce an agreement on the price and volume of Turkmen gas shipments to Russia in the second half of 2006 and 2007-09, turkmenistan.ru reported. The report said that further talks have been postponed until Miller has a chance to consult with the "Russian leadership." A Gazprom press release on June 19 noted that both Gazprom and Turkmenistan are "fulfilling their obligations" in accordance with previously concluded contracts. The press release stated that under a December 29, 2005, agreement, Gazprom will buy 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Turkmenistan at $65 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2006. DK

TURKMEN SECURITY MINISTER ALLEGES 'PLOT' WITH UKRAINE CONNECTION
National Security Minister Geldymukhammed Ashirmukhammedov told a meeting of law-enforcement officials on June 19 that a person with ties to the Turkmen opposition abroad has been detained on suspicion of planning disruptive activities, Turkmen television reported. Ashirmukhammedov identified that person as Annagurban Amanklychev, noting that arms and ammunition were discovered in Amanklychev's car. Ashirmukhammedov said that Amanklychev was invited to Ukraine by Turkmen opposition figures abroad "in order to teach him intelligence gathering and sabotage in Turkmenistan." Ashirmukhammedov also said that French Embassy officials, foreign officials, and British citizens provided Amanklychev with assistance. But in a press release on June 18, the Bulgaria-based Turkmen Helsinki Foundation reported that Turkmen Helsinki Foundation member Annagurban Amanklychev, a rights activist, was arrested in Ashgabat on June 16. The report suggested that Turkmen police might have planted weapons or drugs in Amanklychev's car in order to provide a pretext for arresting him and putting a stop to his rights activities. DK

U.S. IMPOSES FINANCIAL SANCTIONS ON BELARUSIAN OFFICIALS
U.S. President George W. Bush on June 20 issued an executive order imposing targeted financial sanctions on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and nine senior officials of his government in response to what Washington sees as a fraudulent presidential election on March 19, international media reported. "These persons will not be able to access any assets that they might have in the United States, and U.S. financial institutions, wherever located, will not be able to provide any financial services to them," White House spokesman Tony Snow commented on the sanctions. The officials targeted by the sanctions also include the justice minister, the interior minister, the KGB chief, the head of the Central Election Commission, the head of the State Radio and Television Company, the Security Council secretary, the head of presidential bodyguards, a deputy head of the presidential administration, and the commander of a special rapid-reaction unit. JM

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITIONIST FINED FOR FLYING BANNED FLAG ON TELEVISION TOWER
A court in Vitsebsk on June 19 fined Krystsina Shatsikava some $2,200 for hanging up a white-red-white flag on a television-transmitter tower in Vitsebsk on June 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2006), RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. A white-red-white flag was the official symbol of independent Belarus before Lukashenka became president in 1994 and banned the flag the following year. "It was my rebellion against what is taking place in the country, against the information blockade," Shatsikava said in the court. The policeman who hauled Shatsikava down from the television tower said in the court that she "put up resistance, was excited, tried to bite," and kicked him. Meanwhile, a witness of the incident told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that Shatsikava was harshly beaten by servicemen who were involved in getting her down. JM

UKRAINE HEARS MANY COALITION OFFERS, BUT SEES NO COALITION DEAL YET
The Verkhovna Rada resumed its session on June 20 with statements from the five parliamentary parties, Channel 5 reported. Our Ukraine caucus leader Roman Bezsmertnyy appealed to all parliamentary forces to create a "stabilizing coalition." Communist Party caucus leader Petro Symonenko urged lawmakers to form an "anticrisis coalition" and elect parliamentary leadership. Mykola Azarov from the Party of Regions called on all political forces in parliament to set up a "broad coalition." Yuliya Tymoshenko from the eponymous political bloc was also optimistic, even if simultaneously sarcastic, about prospects of forging a ruling coalition in Ukraine. "I can state that as events are unfolding, I do not reject the possibility that Our Ukraine will simultaneously sign two coalition agreements: one with the Party of Regions and one with our bloc," she said. The Verkhovna Rada adjourned its debate until the afternoon in hope that the interested parties may come up with a specific coalition proposal by then. JM

KOSOVAR LEADERS ASSURE U.S. ON MINORITY RIGHTS
At a meeting in Washington on June 19, Kosova's president and prime minister told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that they will build a democratic multiethnic country if independence is granted, AP reported the next day. Prime Minister Agim Ceku said he and President Fatmir Sejdiu told Rice that they seek to build a stable, democratic country, but that Kosova needs Washington's help. "We are looking for Kosovo to become a normal country," Ceku said after meeting with Rice. Washington has been stressing the need for Kosova's leaders to reach out to the province's minorities, AP quoted State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck as saying. Ceku said the majority of people in Kosova understand that it is "in their best interest to accommodate minorities." BW

BOSNIA ASSUMES LIMITED CONTROL OF ITS AIRSPACE
Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 19 gained the authority to manage its own airspace for the first time in over a decade, dpa reported the same day. Transport and Communications Minister Branko Dokic and the commander of the European Union Force (EUFOR) in Bosnia, Major General Gian Marco Chiarini, signed a protocol in Sarajevo giving Bosnia limited control over its airspace, which has been under international control since the end of the 1992-95 war. A EUFOR statement said Bosnian authorities can now manage airspace upward from flight level 100 (3,000 meters). Aircraft below this level are still controlled by international troops in Bosnia. Djordje Ratkovica, the director of Bosnia's Directorate for Civil Aviation, said the protocol "gives back Bosnia ownership over its airspace, which was controlled by the international troops since the Dayton peace agreement was signed to stop the country's 1992-95 war." BW

SERBIAN BISHOP ACCUSES KOSOVAR ALBANIANS OF VANDALIZING CHURCH
An Orthodox bishop on June 19 accused ethnic Albanians of trying to erase Serbian culture from Kosova, AP reported the same day. Artemije made his comments in the town of Obilic, where thieves last week stole four golden crosses from the domes of the Presveta Bogorodica (Holy Virgin) church. They also stole parts of the church's roof, and windows and doors. "The latest act of vandalism by [ethnic] Albanians shows that the extremists...are resolved to completely wipe out everything Serbian in Kosovo," Bishop Artemije said, according to the Beta news agency . "Since KFOR troops [NATO-led peacekeepers] arrived in Kosovo in 1999, 150 Orthodox temples have been vandalized or demolished by Kosovo Albanians. The fate of Serbian heritage in Kosovo is very much under threat," he added. BW

ALBANIAN PRESIDENT PUSHES FOR ELECTORAL REFORM
Albanian President Alfred Moisiu urged lawmakers on June 19 to set aside their differences and pass electoral reforms necessary for closer integration with Europe, AP reported the same day. "Much time has been lost and that is damaging for the future of the country's integration," Moisiu said. "Still political forces deal with words and do not sit down and resolve problems," he added. Moisiu said the reforms need to be made before local elections expected to be held early next year. They are also necessary to help the country meet internationally recognized democratic standards. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored last year's general elections, recommended the reforms. But Moisiu said an 18-member parliamentary committee tasked with drafting amendments to the election laws has primarily engaged in partisan bickering. Specifically, the committee has been deadlocked over whether to draw up a new electoral roll or use the one from the 2005 general election. BW

MOLDOVAN OFFICIAL SAYS CHISINAU WILL OFFER INVESTMENT PROJECTS TO GAZPROM
Moldovan First Deputy Prime Minister Zinaida Greceanii said on June 19 that Chisinau plans to offer Gazprom a role in investment projects in the country in exchange for an acceptable price for natural gas, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "The talks with Gazprom have been constructive and purely economic," he said. Greceanii, who is Moldova's chief negotiator in the talks with Gazprom, did not elaborate on the details of the investment projects. Under a temporary agreement that expires on July 1, Gazprom is supplying Moldova with natural gas for $110 per 1,000 cubic meters. Last year, Gazprom initially tried to get Moldova to pay $160 per 1,000 cubic meters. BW

IRAN'S DIPLOMATIC SHUFFLE LEAVES VEXING QUESTION
Tehran is expected to dispatch new ambassadors to London and Paris as part of an ongoing diplomatic shuffle that began shortly after President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's inauguration in August. Hints of the diplomatic housecleaning emerged last fall, with reports that the envoys to the UN mission in Geneva, Germany, Malaysia, and France and the United Kingdom had been recalled or would soon be replaced.

Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Mostafavi announced in early June that Iran's new ambassadors to the United Kingdom and France would take their posts soon. Ali Ahani -- whose most recent assignment is ambassador to Belgium and the European Union and who has previously served as ambassador to East Germany, France, and Italy -- is headed to Paris. Rasul Movahedian-Attar, who has served as ambassador to Portugal, will serve as Tehran's ambassador in London.

Their posts have been in limbo since observers warned of a looming purge of Iran's diplomatic corps by the new president, Ahmadinejad, months after he took office in August. Ahmadinejad has embarked on a confrontational foreign policy path, and it appeared that he would select foreign representatives more in tune with his tougher approach -- particularly on the nuclear issue.

The rapporteur of Iranian legislature's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Kazem Jalali, said at the time that the Foreign Ministry had submitted a list of 30-40 envoys who would be "removed, replaced, or whose tenure will come to an end" by March 21, 2006, according to ISNA.

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki confirmed that statement, adding that "some ambassadors have reached the retirement age or asked for early retirement," Fars news agency reported on November 2, 2005. At the same time, Mottaki denied that Iran's permanent representative at the United Nations in New York, Mohammad Javad Zarif, would be replaced.

The substitution of foreign envoys is not unusual for an incoming executive like Ahmadinejad's. But complaints soon emerged over perceived delays in naming replacements.

The reformist daily "Etemad-i Melli" on January 28 quoted anonymous sources who said the ambassadors to France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom had been selected, as well as a new representative to the UN mission in Geneva. But the newspaper also argued that the new ambassadors selected by Ahmadinejad's fundamentalist government had neither the "experience, expertise, [nor] command enjoyed by their counterparts in the reform government [of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami]." The paper conceded that they were not complete novices. It named Movahedian-Attar and Ahani among the planned appointments.

The paper added that Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, who most recently represented Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna and who previously served as ambassador to the United Kingdom and to Pakistan, would be sent to Paris. It predicted that Alireza Moayeri, who previously served as deputy foreign minister for research, would serve in Berlin.

Abolfazl Zohrevand, who served as the consul in Herat, would serve as ambassador in Rome, the reformist daily continued. While Zohrevand is a relatively junior figure, he reportedly is close to Mujtaba Hashemi-Samarei, one of the president's top advisers. The daily added that Zarif, the representative at the United Nations, is "facing enormous pressure to resign." The selection of Ahani, Movahedian, and Zohrevand was confirmed in early February by another reformist daily, "Mardom Salari," on February 6.

An official report in mid-April then announced that 60 of Iran's ambassadors would be replaced. The appointment of two specific diplomatic representatives was announced at that time. Ambassador to the IAEA Ali-Asghar Soltanieh would take over as the new Iranian representative at the UN office in Vienna, while Soltanieh would replace Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, who would serve as ambassador in Berlin, Mehr news agency reported on April 16.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi has said that the replacement of 60-70 ambassadors has been planned since Ahmadinejad took office, IRNA reported on April 18. He added that 120 ambassadors are replaced every three years -- or 40 ambassadors in an average year.

Some Iranians have been critical of the diplomatic housecleaning, arguing that mass personnel changes might weaken the country's diplomatic apparatus. Others have recommended waiting to see whether the replacements are truly qualified or mere political appointees, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 18.

But legislator Suleiman Jafarzadeh hailed the changes as long overdue. He praised President Ahmadinejad's policies, and said that only ambassadors who believe in them wholeheartedly can act convincingly and effectively. Jafarzadeh suggested that "one of the reasons the Ahmadinejad government has not had a suitable image abroad is the failure by the ambassadors to adequately defend [Ahmadinejad's] image around the world." He called such a failure "a betrayal of Ahmadinejad."

The country's powerful hard-line Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) has remained in the background during all this diplomatic bloodletting. But should the new ambassadors and the Foreign Ministry stumble, the IRGC is ready to fill the vacuum. The IRGC's public-relations chief, Seyyed Ahmad Mohieddin Morshedi, said in mid-May that the IRGC is well known internationally and is ready to participate in international relations, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on May 17.The spokesman explained that "the IRGC has military relations with many countries, and those who want to stand against tyranny in the world follow our model." He cited Hizballah as an example of a "purely Lebanese system," adding ominously that while the IRGC has "no direct part in it...our models significantly influence the revolutionary movements of Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan." The spokesman also said that while "the IRGC is not a meddler, it has a part to play in international diplomacy."

AFGHANISTAN, CHINA SIGN COOPERATION TREATY
President Hamid Karzai signed a treaty of cooperation with his Chinese counterpart President Hu Jintao in Beijing on June 19, the second day of his four-day official visit to China, Xinhua reported. The treaty calls for both countries to work jointly to fight the "three evil forces" of "separatism, extremism, and terrorism, as well as transnational crimes," Hu reportedly said during his talks with Karzai. Karzai welcomed China's involvement in Afghan reconstruction and pledged that Kabul will continue to uphold the "one-China" policy -- regarding Taiwan as part of the People's Republic of China. AT

MORE THAN 30 RELATIVES, FRIENDS OF AFGHAN LAWMAKER SLAIN...
Thirty-two relatives and friends of Afghan National Assembly member Dad Mohammad Khan have been killed in two separate attacks in the southern Helmand Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on June 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2006). Dad Mohammad told Pajhwak that the Taliban killed five people, including his brother, when they were returning from the neighboring Kandahar Province. When other members of Dad Mohammad's family and friends attempted to collect the bodies of the slain men, the Taliban stuck again, killing 27 people, including Dad Mohammad's son and another brother. "I was stunned to know that members of my family were killed only 2 kilometers away from [a] base of the Afghan National Army, police, and the coalition forces," Dad Mohammad said. Helmand provincial police chief Major General Nabi Molakhel acknowledged that a number of people were killed but did not disclose their identities or precise numbers. "Ten relatives of mine are still missing, and five are wounded," the lawmaker told AFP on June 19. Deputy Governor of Helmand Mullah Amir Akhund told AFP that 30 people, including two brothers and a son of Dad Mohammad, were killed in Sangin district. AT

...AS NEO-TALIBAN CLAIM RESPONSIBILITY
Purporting to speak for the Taliban, Yusof Ahmadi said on June 19 that his movement was behind the massacre of Dad Mohammad's relatives, AFP reported. "After the attack in which five people were killed, they started fighting Taliban. More than 30 of them were killed," Ahmadi said. Ahmadi, who initially told Pajhwak Afghan News that Taliban were responsible for having killed Dad Mohammad's brother, told the agency on June 19 that those killed were police and military personnel, not civilians. Dad Mohammad previously served as head of Helmand's police department. AT

NORWAY DEPORTS AFGHAN ASYLUM SEEKERS
Norwegian immigration authorities deported an Afghan asylum seeker on June 19, the first time they have done so since a voluntary repatriation deadline for a number of Afghan nationals expired in May, NRK reported. The unidentified deportee's 2003 application for asylum was rejected in 2005, and he has been permanently barred from entering Norway on the basis of a rape conviction. More than 20 Afghan asylum seekers continue their hunger strike in Oslo following the rejection of their applications. AT

IRAN FEATURES IN U.S. PRESIDENT'S SPEECH
President George W. Bush focused on Iran during a June 19 commencement address at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, Radio Farda reported. Bush charged that the Iranian leadership sponsors terrorism, represses its own people, threatens Israel, and defies international treaty obligations by "pursuing nuclear activities that mask its effort to acquire nuclear weapons." Bush expressed his hope that Iran will suspend uranium enrichment and commence negotiations with the United States and other countries, and he described the international proposal submitted to Tehran in early June as a "historic opportunity." Bush also reached out to the Iranian public, praising the country's history and culture and acknowledging its scientific accomplishments. "We believe the Iranian people should enjoy the benefits of a truly peaceful program to use nuclear reactors to generate electric power," he said. "So America supports the Iranian people's rights to develop nuclear energy peacefully, with proper international safeguards." Bush referred to $75 million in the U.S. budget that he said will contribute to "openness and freedom," fund radio and television broadcasts to Iran, support human rights activists and civil-society groups, and promote academic exchanges. Bush said he anticipates a day when Iranians can enjoy "the full fruits of liberty." BS

IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER DENOUNCES U.S.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a June 19 meeting in Tehran with government officials that "the most vital challenge which originates from abroad is anti-Iranian sentiments and moves of the U.S.," Fars News Agency reported. Khamenei attributed perceived U.S. hostility to Iran's anti-imperialism and to U.S. policies. More American plots are on the way, Khamenei warned, because economic sanctions, the 1980-88 war with Iraq, and the cultural offensive have not yielded results. Khamenei also condemned Al-Qaeda and its activities in Iraq. BS

LEBANESE 'RESISTANCE' FIGURE VISITS IRAN
Mustafa Dirani, a leading figure in Lebanese Hizballah who until late 2003 was imprisoned in Israel, met in Tehran on June 19 with Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, IRNA and Mehr News Agency reported. Mottaki hailed Dirani's "resistance" during imprisonment and said this symbolizes the struggle against Israel. Dirani thanked Iran for the spiritual support it has given the Lebanese and Palestinian people. BS

UN REFUGEE AGENCY DESCRIBES ACTIVITIES IN IRAN
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described the nature of its efforts in Iran in its "Global Report 2005," which was released on June 19, one day before World Refugee Day. Some 289,600 Afghan refugees repatriated in 2005, and 5,200 Iraqis returned to their homeland in 2005, according to the report. The UNHCR regards it as important to ensure that repatriations are voluntary and to alleviate residency restrictions in Iran. The UNHCR reported that access for its screening teams was "restricted," although they could have helped prevent the wrongful arrest of documented Afghan refugees during a clampdown on undocumented workers. Overall, UNHCR reported, the number of "arbitrary arrests and deportations" fell in Iran in 2005. The UNHCR report did not specify the number of refugees currently in Iran. "For the millions of displaced persons around the world, please help to keep their hope alive and remember World Refugee Day," UNHCR goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie urged in a webcast on the UNHCR website. BS

IRAQIS ATTACK IRANIAN CONSULATES IN AL-BASRAH, KARBALA
Followers of cleric Mahmud al-Hassani claimed on June 19 that guards at the tomb of Imam Hussein in Karbala blocked their access to that Shi'ite holy site, Baghdad's Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Al-Hassani's faithful then staged a demonstration in front of the Iranian Consulate in Karbala after a cleric identified only as al-Kurani claimed on Iran's Al-Kawthar satellite television station that al-Hassani's followers conspired in the unsuccessful attempt on the life of Islamic scholar Seyyed Murtada al-Qazwini. Al-Sharqiyah identified al-Kurani as an Iranian, but scholar Asad Abu-Khalil claimed on his blog that Ali al-Kurani is a Lebanese Shi'ite cleric who was affiliated with Iraq's Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah party. After the demonstration, the Iranian consul received a letter demanding an apology, and then an Iraqi flag was hoisted on the consulate. Similar events transpired at the Iranian Consulate in Al-Basrah. BS

IRAQIS TO TAKE OVER SECURITY IN SOUTHERN GOVERNORATE
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on June 19 that Iraqi forces will assume responsibility for security in the Al-Muthanna Governorate in southern Iraq, Reuters reported. "That security file will be transferred next month, God willing, and we will set the day," BBC quoted al-Maliki as saying. Australian and Japanese forces under British military oversight have been in control of the region. A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters on June 19 that the handover does not mean there will be an immediate withdrawal of British troops; however, "it does mean there will be a gradual transition to the Iraqis taking control.... This is a significant step toward Iraq controlling its own destiny," Reuters quoted him as saying. BAW

PROSECUTOR CALLS FOR DEATH SENTENCE FOR FORMER IRAQI PRESIDENT
Ja'far al-Musawi, the chief prosecutor in the trial of Saddam Hussein and seven members of his ousted regime, asked the court on June 19 to sentence Hussein, his half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, and former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan to death, AFP reported the same day. Al-Musawi made his call during his concluding remarks for the prosecution in the trial, which is probing the death of 148 Iraqis in Al-Dujayl following a failed assassination attempt on the former Iraqi leader in 1982. Al-Musawi listed the charges against the three defendants as "murder, extreme deprivation of people, torture, and the forcible hiding of people.... These are crimes against humanity because this happened under a wide assault and was organized by the authorities against a group of citizens," AFP quoted him as saying in court. He added that Hussein personally approved death sentences against the 148 Al-Dujayl residents. The defendants and their lawyers will begin presenting their final remarks on July 10, a process that may last up to ten days, according to AP on June 19. A panel of five judges will then deliberate on the case and could arrive at a verdict by September, AP quoted U.S. officials as saying. BAW

U.S. SOLDIERS CHARGED WITH MURDERING IRAQI DETAINEES
On June 19, the U.S. military charged three soldiers with killing three Iraqi detainees on May 9 near the Al-Muthanna chemical complex in Salah Al-Din Governorate, international media reported the same day. A statement issued on June 19 by international coalition forces in Iraq said that "a noncommissioned officer and two soldiers each have been charged with violating several articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including murder, attempted murder, conspiracy, communicating a threat, and obstructing justice," AP reported the same day. The soldiers belong to the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. In an attempt to cover up the incident, the soldiers claimed that the three Iraqis were killed while trying to escape, a U.S. official told AP on June 19. BAW

MILITANT IRAQI GROUP SAYS IT ABDUCTED U.S. SOLDIERS
The Mujahedin Shura Council, an umbrella organization for several militant groups in Iraq, including Al-Qaeda, claimed in a statement posted on the Internet on June 19 that two U.S. soldiers have been captured, Reuters reported on June 19. "We will provide you with more details about the incident in the next coming days," the statement said. The statement was not accompanied by any pictures or videos. The U.S. military has identified the abductees as two soldiers who went missing on June 16 near Al-Yusifiyah, 20 kilometers south of Baghdad, after an attack in which a U.S. soldier was killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2006). "The American military has made very clear that they are going to do everything possible -- I think they've said air, land and sea -- to try and find them," Reuters quoted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as saying on June 19. U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell said on June 19 that a massive search involving 8,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops was under way to locate the two soldiers, AP reported the same day. The statement by the militant group also claimed responsibility for the abduction of four Russian diplomats near their embassy in Baghdad on June 3, AP reported on June 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 5, 2006). BAW

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