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Newsline - June 26, 2006

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in Moscow on June 25 that his government cannot confirm the claim made in a video earlier that day by the Mujahedin Shura Council, which is an Iraqi-based group linked to Al-Qaeda, that it has killed one Russian diplomat and three embassy personnel who were apparently taken hostage on June 3, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 5 and 20, 2006). "Our sources in Baghdad, at the present moment, are not able to confirm reports about the deaths of the Russian hostages. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Russian Embassy in Iraq, using the available channels and opportunities, continue to work in order to verify the credibility of the information that has emerged," he added. The kidnappers said the hostages were killed due to Moscow's failure to withdraw Russian troops from Chechnya. Their statement added that "God's verdict has been carried out on the Russian revenge for the torture, killing, and expulsion of our brothers and sisters by the infidel Russian government." This is apparently the first time the question of Russia's war in Chechnya has been raised in the context of the Iraq insurgency (see Part 3, below). PM

The board of the Luxembourg-based Arcelor SA steel company agreed on June 25 to accept an improved bid from Mittal Steel, the world's largest steel maker, to form Arcelor Mittal, which will have an annual output of over 100 million tons of steel, London's "Financial Times" reported on June 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 26 and 30, and June 1, 14, and 20, 2006). Arcelor's shareholders must confirm the decision at the end of June. The board's ruling is a defeat for the Russian firm Severstal and its head Aleksei Mordashov, who is close to the Kremlin. Following Arcelor's announcement, Severstal officials said they were "very surprised" by the decision. Severstal, which recently announced it had a binding legal agreement to merge with Arcelor, said it will now study all its options, including legal ones. The BBC commented that there is little that Severstal can do, however, except collect the $175 million "break-up fee" it will be offered from Arcelor. PM

The Paris Club, which is an informal grouping of 19 governments that have large financial claims on various other governments, said in a statement on June 23 that it recently reached an agreement with Russia enabling Moscow to repay $22 billion ahead of time, thereby saving Russia $7 billion in debt-service payments, international media reported. The deal will take effect once the Russian authorities sign it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2006). Increased oil and gas revenues have made it possible for Russia to pay off its debts early, as President Vladimir Putin and other top officials have said that they want to do. PM

Following recent talks between Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller and Iranian Petroleum Ministry officials, Gazprom said in a statement on 26 August that the two sides "made the decision to explore the possibility of setting up a Russian-Iranian joint venture" to prospect for and develop oil and gas fields, Interfax reported. In related news, Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, told Interfax on June 26 that work on the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran is on schedule. "The construction of a nuclear power plant is not a subject for political debate. There is construction technology, and we must strictly abide by it," he argued, referring to Iranian claims that Russia is failing to comply with its Bushehr commitments. PM

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who heads the stockholders' oversight body for the planned North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) running from Vyborg to Greifswald, said in Schwerin on June 23 that mutual dependency between Russia and Europe is increasing because of growing European imports of Russian gas, Deutsche Welle reported. He stressed that the NEGP is of "great strategic importance, not just for Germany but also for all Western Europe." Schroeder added that "there have never been problems [with Russian gas deliveries to Germany], and I am sure that there never will be." He expressed understanding for Russian allegations that Ukraine is a destabilizing factor in energy supplies because gas is illegally siphoned off in transit through that country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2006). Schroeder was accompanied by Matthias Warnig, who heads Dresdner Bank's operations in Russia, is chief executive of the NEGP, and has been widely linked to the former East Germany's Stasi secret police (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2005). Warnig stressed that the NEGP is observing strict environmental standards. He added that construction of the pipeline will begin in mid-2008 as scheduled and that the first Russian gas will arrive in Germany in October 2010. PM

Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiev, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, and 12 other regional leaders who are also members of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party recently signed a letter appealing to the authorities, the media, and the Russian Orthodox Church to oppose "extremist" politicians such as Dmitry Rogozin, who recently resigned as head of the Motherland (Rodina) party, and the National Bolshevik Party's Eduard Limonov, "The Moscow Times" reported on June 26. Limonov and some other opposition leaders said in Moscow on June 23 that the move is part of a Kremlin campaign to undermine the opposition in the run-up to the 2007 elections for the State Duma and the presidential vote in 2008. "In any case, it's recognition of what we do," Limonov added. 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 show Unified Russia in a favorable light. PM

London's Foreign Policy Center, which is a think tank under the patronage of Prime Minister Tony Blair, said in a new report that President Putin's Russia does not meet either the political or the economic criteria for membership in the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries, of which Russia is the current chair, Reuters reported on June 25. Hugh Barnes, who wrote the study, argued that "Putin's record is no longer in doubt. He has systematically dismantled Russian democracy and that very fact in some ways makes a mockery of the G8." Barnes noted that Russia's economy is expected to move up from the 12th-largest to the 10th, but it is still far from being in the top eight. "Moscow's leadership of the G8 is in danger of reducing the group's credibility and relevance to zero," he noted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 9, 2006). PM

The New York-based Mercer Human Resource Consulting has concluded that Moscow is the world's costliest city to live in, international media reported on June 25. It is followed by Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and London, with the Paraguayan capital Asuncion trailing the list that includes cities in 144 countries. Moscow rose from fourth place in 2005 because of a boom in property prices that has more than doubled the cost of buying an apartment. PM

In a statement posted on June 26 on the Chechen resistance website, the Ossetian jamaat denied responsibility for three explosions that occurred over the previous 24 hours on the territory of North Ossetia. One explosion near a warehouse in Vladikavkaz on June 25 caused minimal damage and no injuries; a second in Prigorodny Raion failed to damage a cell-phone transmission tower, Russian media reported. The jamaat statement suggested that Ossetians employed by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) staged the explosions to compromise the jamaat, and reaffirmed that the latter plans to stage only large-scale operations that will inflict the maximum damage on the Russians and their Christian Ossetian allies. The Ossetian jamaat claimed responsibility for a bank heist in April in which an Ossetian policeman was shot dead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2006). LF

Ramzan Kadyrov has been awarded the degree of candidate of economic sciences by the Makhachkala Institute of Business, Management, and Law from which he graduated in 2002, and reported on June 25. A panel of 13 experts praised his dissertation on the use of contracts in the construction sector as having broad practical applications. On June 22, Kadyrov complained to a meeting of heads of state-controlled agricultural enterprises that despite considerable state investment, that sector does not produce a profit, reported on June 23. Agriculture Minister Khasan Taymaskhanov said at that meeting that most of the republic's agricultural machinery is obsolete and needs to be replaced. LF

In a June 23 telephone interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, who was recently named as the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, listed several of the basic points contained in the so-called framework agreement for a solution to the Karabakh conflict currently being discussed by the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. Those points include the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory; the deployment of international peacekeepers in the conflict zone; the normalization of political and economic relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan; international economic aid for the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic; and a referendum at some subsequent unspecified date on that territory's status. Bryza did not specify which of those points has deadlocked the ongoing peace process (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12, 2006). He added that "we would very much encourage the presidents to accept this framework," but acknowledged that doing so "requires a lot of political courage." LF

Tahir Tagizade, who heads the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry's Press and Information Department, told journalists on June 23 that Bryza's summary of the draft peace proposal is accurate, and that none of the points enumerated contradicts the Azerbaijani position, and reported on June 24. He added that "Azerbaijan has always been prepared to discuss variations on a phased-package settlement that would comprise two stages." The first of those stages, Tagizade continued, would comprise between eight and 10 steps, while the second would restore the ethnic and demographic balance that existed prior to the conflict, put in place security guarantees, and pave the way for a referendum throughout the Azerbaijan Republic on the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh within the territorial framework of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov for his part noted during talks on June 23 in Baku with International Organization for Migration General Secretary Branson McKinley that the repatriation of people displaced by the Karabakh conflict will depend largely on the efforts of international organizations, reported. LF

Addressing a graduation ceremony for army officers on June 23, Ilham Aliyev expressed concern that the ongoing negotiations on resolving the Karabakh conflict have not yielded any results, reported on June 24. He said Armenia has ignored all resolutions adopted by international organizations calling for the liberation of occupied Azerbaijani territory and for a peaceful solution to the conflict, and blamed the failure to reach such a solution on what he termed "Armenia's unconstructive position." As on previous occasions, Aliyev warned that "our patience is not infinite," and asked rhetorically: "How much longer must we continue to participate in the peace process and wait for a solution?" LF

Mirza Sakit Zahidov, a staffer of the opposition newspaper "Azadliq" and brother of its chief editor, Qanimat Zahidov, was arrested on June 23 and charged with possession of heroin, reported on June 24, citing an Interior Ministry press release. His whereabouts remain unknown. Qanimat Zahidov ruled out the possibility that his brother might have been in possession of drugs and condemned his detention as part of a deliberate campaign by the authorities against the free press. LF

OSCE Chairman in Office and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht traveled on June 23 from Tbilisi to Tskhinvali, where he met with Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, and with Major General Murat Kulakhmetov, commander of the joint peace keeping forces deployed in the conflict zone, Georgian media reported. De Gucht, who hosted in Brussels on June 14 a donors conference that raised some 10 million euros ($12.5 million) for reconstruction in the conflict zone, inspected several construction projects and visited a hospital. De Gucht praised the meeting the previous day between the Georgian and South Ossetian interior ministers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 23, 2006). At the same time, he criticized as a threat to the peace process a demonstration outside the OSCE Office in Tskhinvali by residents of Ossetian village of Prisi protesting the relocation of a Georgian police post (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 16, 2006). De Gucht also proposed additional, unspecified measures to expedite a settlement of the conflict, to which both sides have reacted constructively, Caucasus Press reported. Also on June 23, Caucasus Press quoted Kulakhmetov as saying that during the previous day's talks, the Georgian Interior Ministry agreed to remove the police post in question. LF

Approximately 200 people staged an authorized rally in Amaty on June 24 to protest proposed amendments to Kazakhstan's media law, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Organized by the Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan, free-speech NGO Adil Soz, and opposition party Ak Zhol, the protest was intended to express journalists' concern over controversial amendments to Kazakhstan's media law passed recently by the lower chamber of parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1, 6, 14, and 22, 2006). Adil Soz head Tamara Kaleeva said that while the upper chamber is likely to pass the amendments, "there is hope that the head of state will veto this law." Bolat Abilov, a leader of the opposition party Naghyz Ak Zhol, also condemned the proposed changes, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. "Can we get objective, fair information today about what's happening in the country without these changes? Probably not, and that is sad," Abilov said. "But these changes will finish off freedom of speech in Kazakhstan once and for all." DK

Tuigunaly Abdraimov, chairman of Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission, told journalists on June 23 that voters in future parliamentary elections should vote for party slates instead of individual candidates, news agency reported. Abdraimov argued that party-slate voting will help to prevent vote-buying. "There are 75 single-seat constituencies in our country, each of which has about 30,000 voters. This is why moneybags opted to run in the 2005 parliamentary elections," Abdraimov said. "Voter turnout in elections usually is about 50 percent. This means that one needs to bribe 6,000-8,000 voters to win an election. We were directly confronted with this in previous parliamentary elections." A referendum on constitutional reform is scheduled by yearend, and draft constitutions prepared by a task force headed by former Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov currently envisage party-slate parliamentary elections in place of single-seat constituencies. DK

A Tajik official on June 23 cast doubts on a report by the Uzbek website that the Uzbek authorities have arrested a Tajik citizen allegedly sent to Uzbekistan to carry out terror attacks, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The initial report claimed that the Tajik Interior Ministry dispatched Murodollo Juraev to Uzbekistan on a secret terror mission. But Anvar Taghoymurodov, the Tajik official alleged to have sent Juraev on the mission, told RFE/RL that the allegation is "groundless." Taghoymurodov said that Juraev, whom he described as an Uzbek citizen, was arrested in 2000 in Tajikistan and subsequently sentenced to a 12-year prison term for involvement in a 1997 coup attempt by Mahmud Khudoiberdiev. Taghoymurodov did not clarify whether Juraev was later released and, if so, how he made his way to Uzbekistan. Tajik Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Sattarov told RFE/RL that the reports of Juraev's arrest in Uzbekistan should be investigated. Qosimshoh Iskandarov, an expert at the Center for Conflict Studies in Tajikistan, told the BBC's Persian Service that Juraev's arrest could represent Uzbekistan's reaction to the recent convictions of Uzbek spies in Tajikistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, 2006). DK

An Uzbek court has ruled that U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corporation, which operates a gold-mining joint venture in Uzbekistan, owes $36 million in back taxes for the period 2002-04, Reuters reported on June 24. Newmont said in a statement that its joint venture plans to appeal the ruling. The company also stated that "other government entities [in Uzbekistan] have initiated a series of actions that, if implemented, would adversely affect certain material project agreements and operations." DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka told journalists on June 24 that the ongoing nine-day Belarusian-Russian military exercises "Union Shield 2006" is evidence of complete understanding between the militaries of the two countries, Belapan reported. "Military bases, as you know, are springing up near the western border of our state like mushrooms after the rain. We have to respond and show that our militaries are worth their salt," Lukashenka noted at a training ground near Baranavichy after observing the war games. Union Shield 2006 involved 8,800 troops, including 1,800 from Russia, as well as tanks, armored vehicles, combat planes and helicopters, and Russian strategic bombers. The previous day Minsk hosted a summit of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization, which comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who chaired the summit, said at a news conference that Uzbekistan, which withdrew from the organization in 1999, has opted to resume its participation in it. Following the news conference, Lukashenka, Armenian President Robert Kocharian, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, and Putin left for a recreation center near Minsk for what official information sources called "no-necktie" talks. JM

President Lukashenka said at a summit of the Eurasian Economic Community in Minsk on June 23 that he is concerned at the slow pace in setting up the community's customs union, Belapan reported. "Speaking frankly, this process is not proceeding as quickly as we would like. We've made almost no progress in the establishment of a common customs schedule over the last year. The unification of customs duty rates still remains at a level of 62 percent. The governments of the community's member states appear to be making a somewhat insufficient effort in this regard," Lukashenka said. The Eurasian Economic Community is made up of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, Russian President Putin said in Minsk on June 23 that a merger of the Eurasian Economic Community and the Central Asian Cooperation Organization would have a "serious positive effect." The Central Asian Cooperation Organization consists of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia, while Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine have observer status. JM

The newly formed parliamentary coalition -- Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party -- wants to swear in judges of the Constitutional Court on June 27, UNIAN reported on June 26, quoting Ivan Bokyy, a member of the Verkhovna Rada's interim presidium. Bokyy added that the opposition Party of Regions and Communist Party are "decidedly" against this idea, demanding that the parliament elect speaker and constitute parliamentary committees first. Mykola Katerynchuk of Our Ukraine told journalists that the Communist Party is planning to block the parliamentary rostrum and prevent President Viktor Yushchenko from entering the session hall if the coalition pushes for the swear-in ceremony. The Constitutional Court has been inactive for nearly a year, because opposition lawmakers refused to invest its judges, fearing that President Yushchenko may ask the court to cancel the 2004 constitutional reform. Last month, Yushchenko threatened not to grant the coalition's request that he submit its preferred prime-ministerial candidate to parliament for approval if the legislature fails to swear in the constitutional judges. JM

Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) deputy head Srdjan Sreckovic said on June 25 that divided pro-democracy parties need to form a common front against resurgent nationalist forces, AP reported the same day. "We must take full responsibility for the future of our country," Sreckovic said. "We must not allow the return to power of the past forces and ideas." Recent public-opinion polls show a rise in support for nationalist parties in Serbia. Sreckovic said, "there should be no differences" among liberal parties "over strategic issues that lie ahead." These include Serbia's EU integration, closer ties with NATO, and the fight against crime and corruption, he said. Serbia's next election "should produce a government with full democratic capacity," he said. Sreckovic's SPO is part of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's ruling coalition, which also relies on support from Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia. The largest pro-Western party, the Democratic Party (DS), led by President Boris Tadic, remains in opposition. BW

Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic said on June 25 that Belgrade should invite foreign security services to help arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, AP reported the same day. He added that an evaluation of efforts to arrest Mladic will be placed at the top of the agenda at a June 29 cabinet meeting. "This problem has to be solved," Dinkic said at a meeting of his G17 Plus party, which is part of the governing coalition. "Military, civilian, and other security structures should work together to locate Mladic," he added. "If our services are unable to finish the job, foreign services should help us, I support that. We should try to solve this problem together with the European Union and the United States." BW

President Tadic on June 24 distanced himself from remarks by Prime Minister Kostunica critical of the EU, AP reported the same day. Kostunica criticized EU policy toward Serbia on June 18 as "deeply wrong" and having "produced exclusively negative effects" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2006). "I do not subscribe to such false patriotism," Tadic said at a meeting of his Democratic Party. Serbia needs "a government that is not in confrontation with the world," Tadic said. "If someone in Serbia thinks a confrontation with Europe is the right thing to do...the Democratic Party and myself have nothing to do" with such views, he added. It is up to the EU to "determine standards for our inclusion" in the bloc, and not for Serbia to chose terms as an aspiring member, Tadic said. BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina's internationally appointed High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling said on June 23 that his office will close down next year, international news agencies reported the same day. "We have decided to close the Office of the High Representative. The office will close on June 30 next year and preparations for the closure will start immediately," Schwarz-Schilling was quoted by AFP as saying. "Today's nature of the international community's involvement in Bosnia must change as the country moves from peace implementation to Euro-Atlantic integration," he added. The high representative has the power to fire elected officials and impose laws. The decision is seen as a sign of progress and normalization in Bosnia. Schwarz-Schilling stressed that the international community will remain "fully engaged" in Bosnia through the EU and NATO. Following the closure of the Office of the High Representative, Schwarz-Schilling will remain in Bosnia as an EU special representative, playing a coordinating and advising role. BW

Igor Smirnov announced on June 25 that Transdniester and the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia plan to hold referendums in the fall on their respective foreign policies, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. Smirnov said the referendums will ask voters to respond to questions about "foreign policy and strategic development." He also said it is possible that Transdniester might include a question about "people's attitude to further negotiations on a Dniester settlement, which will be the grounds for establishing interstate relations with Moldova." Smirnov also elaborated on plans by the three separatist regions to establish a joint peacekeeping force (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2006). "These troops will be formed on a permanent basis, but will be put into action only if Russian troops are forced to pull out" of the self-proclaimed republics, he said. BW

Authorities in the breakaway Transdniester region on June 24 released two Moldovan policemen who had been held for over a week, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. Transdniestrian special forces arrested five Moldovan police officers on June 14 while they were allegedly photographing unspecified facilities in Tiraspol. They were accused of planning to abduct people who oppose Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2006). Three of them were released on June 19. The remaining two -- Bendery deputy police chief Constantin Condrea and Stefan Mangar, the head of the Moldovan Interior Ministry's department for fighting organized crime -- were released on June 24 following intervention by Russian officials, ITAR-TASS reported. Moldovan Interior Minister Gheorghe Papuc said the arrests were a "provocation" in response to the investigation by Moldovan police of a human-trafficking criminal group. BW

The three allies of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine -- the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party -- decided on June 22 to recreate their ruling coalition, which existed for eight months in 2005. The renewed Orange coalition, however, comes into being under new rules of the political game determined by a constitutional reform that took effect at the beginning of 2006.

Yuliya Tymoshenko, leader of the eponymous political bloc, was fond of asserting during the parliamentary election campaign earlier this year that voting for the Verkhovna Rada on March 26 would decide who would actually govern Ukraine over the next five years. In this way she was highlighting the new, enhanced powers of the parliament and the cabinet of ministers vis-a-vis the presidency, which are a result of the constitutional changes made during the peak of the Orange Revolution in December 2004.

Would Tymoshenko repeat that assertion now, after her party has rejoined the ruling coalition and she personally is poised to become prime minister once again? Perhaps yes, but arguably with less confidence -- this because her coalition partners from Our Ukraine have made a considerable effort during the nearly three months of coalition talks in order to install an elaborate system of checks and balances to prevent her from gaining too much power.

A coalition deal signed on June 22 provides for the distribution of election spoils between the Orange allies on a broadly proportional basis. This means that the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (129 seats) should get 53 percent of government posts, Our Ukraine (81 seats) 33 percent, and the Socialist Party (33 seats) 14 percent.

But this arithmetic does not apply to some major state posts that the constitution defines as a presidential quota. In particular, the president has the right to appoint the foreign minister, the defense minister, the prosecutor-general, the head of the Security Service, the head of the National Bank, and all regional governors. It should be expected that these appointments will be made by President Viktor Yushchenko mostly from the ranks of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine.

Moreover, presidential prerogatives include appointing half the members of the National Radio and Television Council, the National Bank Council, and the Constitutional Court. The president also has veto powers on legislation, which can be overturned by no fewer than 300 votes in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada. Thus, even after the 2004 shift from the presidential to parliamentary form of governance in Ukraine, President Yushchenko appears to have more political clout than most of his counterparts in Central Europe.

According to unconfirmed media reports, the June 22 coalition deal allocates the post of prime minister and nine ministerial portfolios to the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. Our Ukraine is to take the posts of parliamentary speaker and deputy prime minister as well as five ministerial portfolios. The Socialist Party will have to satisfy itself with the post of first deputy prime minister and three ministerial portfolios.

The posts of heads of parliamentary committees are distributed among the coalition partners under a similar proportional scheme, but an adopted system of checks and balances assures that Our Ukraine and the Socialist Party control those committees that deal with the spheres of cabinet activities under the control of ministers from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc.

The Orange coalition deal also includes a chapter called "The Regulations of the Coalition's Activities," which sets internal rules and procedures for arriving at coordinated decisions. According to these rules, every coalition partner has the power of veto over proposed legislation, and consensus is needed for submitting a draft bill or resolution to the Verkhovna Rada.

The main programmatic issues -- mapping out principal foreign and domestic policies and drafting the cabinet's program of action -- are to be tackled by the General Assembly of the Coalition, which consists of all 243 lawmakers from the three Orange parties. The General Assembly of the Coalition adopts resolutions by voting: a decision is deemed passed if it is supported by more than 50 percent of lawmakers in each coalition party.

On a daily basis, the work of the coalition is coordinated by the nine-member Coalition Council, which is made up of three lawmakers from each coalition party.

There are also rules obliging the coalition to consult on issues of special importance with the three top state officials: the president, the prime minister, and the parliamentary speaker.

In particular, the coalition, through its council, has to hold mandatory consultations with the president regarding the determination of foreign and domestic policies and a program of socioeconomic development. The same applies to submitting the candidacy of a prime minister for parliamentary approval.

The prime minister is restricted in his/her actions by a requirement to hold mandatory consultations with the Coalition Council regarding the nomination of cabinet and other officials whom the constitution assigns to his/her sphere of authority. A similar requirement applies to cabinet dismissals.

In other words, for the first time in Ukraine's 15 years of independence, the Ukrainian political elite have agreed on a set of rules that can make running the government in the country a fairly transparent and civilized business. This circumstance, coupled with the constitutional reform that distributes political clout among the power branches more evenly, may be seen as an indisputable gain of the Orange Revolution.

However, the upsetting part of all this is that people intending to run a new government in Ukraine are essentially the same people who split in September 2005 among mutual accusations of corruption and/or encroaching upon each other's prerogatives.

Our Ukraine's proposal that Petro Poroshenko, Tymoshenko's fiercest enemy in the 2005 feud within the then-Orange coalition, take the post of parliamentary speaker seems to be an ill-advised "parliamentary check" on Tymoshenko as the head of the cabinet. There is a great likelihood that the former rivalry between these two might start anew, plunging the new coalition once again into recriminations and quarreling.

Incidentally, representatives of the opposition Party of Regions predict that precisely because of the incompatibility of such individuals as Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, the new Orange coalition is doomed to collapse in the same way as its Orange predecessor did. Bracing itself for such an eventuality, the Party of Regions is keeping its options open and has avoided saying "no" to a future coalition with Our Ukraine.

Our Ukraine unambiguously suggested that its own coalition with the Party of Regions is a possibility when it invited its main enemy in the Orange Revolution to participate in coalition talks last week. Therefore, what looked like an attempt to blackmail Tymoshenko into becoming more pliant in the coalition talks a week ago may well prove to be a practical move.

The reclusive former leader of the Taliban regime, Mullah Mohammad Omar, has reportedly released an audiotape in which he claims that the Taliban are not finished, AFP reported on June 25. The authenticity of the audiotape -- which was broadcast by Geo, a private Pakistani television channel -- could not be verified, the report added. The voice warns Afghan President Hamid Karzai that if "today the American military abandons you, you [will] have no standing," and reminds Karzai of the Soviet Union's failed attempt to subdue Afghanistan. Pakistani journalist Sami Yusofzai told Geo on June 25 that when compared with a 1995 audiotape, the new audiotape "appears to be exactly the same voice." Outside of written proclamations attributed to Mullah Omar, he has not been heard from since he fled Kandahar in early December 2001. Even when he was the leader of the Taliban regime, Mullah Omar was seldom in contact with the media. AT

Purported Taliban speaker Mohammad Hanif dismissed the purported Mullah Omar audiotape broadcast by Geo as a fake, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on June 25. "I can confidently say that Mullah Omar has not issued any new audiotape to the media," Mohammad Hanif told AIP in a telephone interview. Anyone attributing the tape to Mullah Omar is "guilty of deception," he added. Qari Mohammad Yusof, who also claims to speak for the Taliban, rejected the authenticity of the audiotape as well. AT

General Mohammad Zaher Azimi issued a warning to Taliban militants to stop fighting or be killed, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported on June 25. Discussing the ongoing Operation Mountain Thrust, a joint military campaign undertaken by the Afghan National Army and the U.S.-led coalition in southern Afghanistan, Azimi asked "why Afghans should be killed" and their country destroyed. Azimi went on to say that, in the current war, the "opponents will not achieve success" but will instead be defeated and killed. Azimi said that 150 Taliban fighters have been killed as a result of the two-week-old Operation Mountain Thrust. President Karzai has lamented the death of Afghans, including Taliban deaths, in recent military campaigns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 23, 2006). AT

Three employees of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan and two Afghan government employees have been kidnapped in Nuristan Province, international news agencies reported on June 25. Mohammad Hanif, purporting to speak for the Taliban, called AIP on June 25 to claim responsibility for the kidnappings. "The Taliban has kidnapped the heads of Public Works Department and Public Health Department and a number of doctors in Nuristan," he told AIP. The abductees have been "taken to a secret location," where a "decision about their fate" will be taken, he warned. Mohammad Hanif did not elaborate on any demands for the release of the hostages. AT

Iranian Petroleum Minister Seyyed Kazem-Vaziri-Hamaneh said on June 25 that Iran will use oil as a weapon -- presumably restricting oil exports -- only "if the country's interests are jeopardized," Fars News Agency reported. Vaziri-Hamaneh said that under normal conditions this is not an issue, and, furthermore, Iran would like to enjoy normal relations with other countries. The imposition of sanctions, he said, would lead to oil price hikes, with the price for a barrel of oil reaching $100. BS

The head of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, Fada-Hussein Maleki, provided details on drug-seizure rates on June 25, one day before the UN-sponsored International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, Mehr News Agency reported. Maleki said Iran confiscated 360 tons of illegal drugs in the year from March 2005-March 2006. Some 955 gangs of smugglers were broken up during this time frame, he added. Maleki complained that the international community is not supporting the Iranian counternarcotics effort. The United States provided the UN with $700 million to spend on counternarcotics in Latin America in 2002, Maleki noted, while in the same year the UN provided Iran with $10 million. Maleki said Iran has asked the UN for $500 million in counternarcotics assistance. Maleki said in a lecture before the Tehran Friday Prayers sermon on June 23 that synthetic drugs are worsening the situation, IRNA reported. BS

Ahmad Kavandi, an adviser to the governor-general of western Iran's Hamedan Province, said on June 25 that demand for narcotics is plaguing 90 percent of Iranian society in different ways, Fars News Agency reported. Kavandi said the trade in illegal drugs is demand driven, and this is why there is a supply. Demand reduction is necessary, he said. In Urumiyeh on June 25, a police official said 439 kilograms of drugs were seized in the first three months of the Iranian year (which began on March 21), Fars News Agency reported. Qasem Rashidnejad, the deputy-chief for counternarcotics in West Azerbaijan Province, said 2,945 people were arrested in the same period for smuggling, dealing, or being addicted to drugs. BS

On June 25, the second day of his visit to Iran, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul met with his counterpart, Manuchehr Mottaki, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani, and parliament speaker Gholamali Haddad-Adel, IRNA reported. At a joint press conference with Mottaki, Gul said Ankara wants to see the Iranian nuclear crisis resolved peacefully and through diplomacy, as this would help the region and the world. BS

Two members of the Kurdish Pejak group were killed and two others were wounded and arrested in a clash with Iranian police in Salmas, West Azerbaijan Province, Fars News Agency reported on June 25. Pejak is affiliated with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). Four soldiers were killed and three others were wounded during Turkish and Iranian military operations against PKK-affiliated People's Defense Forces (HPG) guerrillas on June 23, the Kurdish Roj television reported on June 24. The clash, in which one guerrilla was killed, took place in the Ozalp District of Van (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2004.) BS

Iraj Amirkhani, the prosecutor-general in Ahvaz, said on June 25 that the "charge sheet" for people accused of having a role in bombings in Ahvaz was issued the same day, ISNA reported. Twenty-two people are accused of crimes, he said, 19 of whom are still in prison. Amirkhani did not say when the bombings took place -- such incidents have occurred in June 2005, October 2005, and January 2005. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on June 23 that the judiciary should overturn the death sentences against at least 10 Iranian-Arabs who were convicted of plotting against the state. HRW reported that a lawyer who represents the accused said the trials were held in camera and that defense lawyers had no chance to discuss the case with their clients beforehand. The defense lawyers said that on June 7 the Revolutionary Court sentenced Zamel Bawi, Jafar Sawari, Raisan Sawari, and Abdolreza Navaseri to death. BS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi denied on June 24 that Iran is interfering in Iraqi affairs, IRNA reported. The previous week, Ambassador David Satterfield, currently the senior adviser for Iraq to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and General George Casey, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, ascribing to Iran support for insurgent activities. Assefi said such accusations are meant to hide alleged U.S. failings in Iraq, and he added that Washington wants a weak Iraqi state in order to justify its occupation. BS

A June 25 Internet statement attributed to the Mujahedin Shura Council has claimed that the group killed four Russian diplomats it abducted in Iraq on June 19. The statement contains a link to a short video clip that the group says is intended to "heal the hearts of the believers and to avenge the torture, killing, and displacement that our brothers are suffering at the hands of the infidel Russian government." The statement also contains Koranic verses and challenges Islamic scholars who claim that the killing of "infidels" is prohibited, saying, "God's book is the judge between us." The attached video shows the four hostages seated and speaking in Russian, after which two masked men can be seen decapitating one of the hostages. Another hostage is seen kneeling as he is shot in the head. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki presented his "Reconciliation and National Dialogue Plan" to parliament on June 25, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day. Al-Maliki said reform must be based on three pillars: a general mobilization to deter terrorists, a development and reconstruction campaign, and reconciliation and national dialogue. To this end, he has formed the National Council for the Reconciliation and National Dialogue Plan, which includes representatives of the three branches of government, the minister of state for national dialogue, and representatives of parliament, tribes, and religious authorities. Provincial subcommittees will also be formed, as will field committees to support the work of the council. "To the one who seeks reconstruction and revision, we extend an olive branch so that we can join hands in building our country. To those who insist on aggression, terrorism, and murder, we extend a hand that carries a firm legal stand to protect our country and people from any interference by the criminals," al-Maliki said. KR

Al-Maliki also identified key principles and policies for the government to follow in his June 25 statement, RFI reported. The principles include the adoption of a "sincere national dialogue with all political visions" that adopt a stand against terrorists and Saddamists; amnesty for detainees who were not involved in terrorist activities, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and the formation of committees to release the innocent; reconsidering the work of the de-Ba'athification Commission; taking quick action to build up the armed forces; supporting the victims of the former regime; compensating those harmed by terrorist attacks; separating the armed forces from the political arena and resolving the problem of militias and illegal armed groups; initiating a large-scale development campaign and tackling unemployment; and returning the displaced to their homes. Al-Maliki did not say how he intends to implement the ambitious plan, but told parliament that members of the national council will host a series of discussions with members of parliament in order to begin the process of reconciliation. KR

Muslim Scholars Association spokesman Muthanna Harith al-Dari told Al-Jazeera television in a June 26 interview that the association intends to study Prime Minister al-Maliki's reconciliation plan. Asked to give his initial impressions, al-Dari criticized the plan for not giving a concrete timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. He said that the plan is different from what the association expected, claiming that the original plan was altered under pressure from the U.S. government. He said the association will not accept a plan that does not set a timetable for foreign forces to leave. "We cannot go into the minor details before dealing with the major problem," he said. He also criticized the plan for calling on the resistance to renounce violence, saying that it is unrealistic to expect the resistance to claim it was wrong. KR

Husayn al-Shahristani told CNN's "Late Edition" on June 25 that oil production under the new government has reached 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd). He said the administration expects production to reach between 2.6 million and 2.7 million bpd by year-end, and 4 million bpd by 2010. Al-Shahristani said that the current output is the highest since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Iraqi production has never topped 3.5 million bpd, he added. KR