RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER CALLS ATTACK ON QANA 'INADMISSIBLE'
Sergei Lavrov said on August 1 that Israel's recent strike on the Lebanese village of Qana to destroy Hizballah installations was an "inadmissible" violation of the right to life and other basic human rights, RIA Novosti reported. Lavrov spoke on behalf of the Council of Europe, of which Russia holds the chair of the Committee of Ministers and which is Europe's leading body to protect human rights. Lavrov stressed that the fight against terrorism cannot justify the killing of innocent civilians and consequent violation of international humanitarian law, as happened in Qana (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 1, 2006). In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on August 1 that the position of Russia and France toward Israel in the UN Security Council has become "problematic" in the wake of the Qana incident, "The Jerusalem Post" reported on August 2. In related news, in a poll released on August 1, the All-Russian Center For Public Opinion Study said that 23 percent of respondents blame Israel for the current crisis and 21 percent blame the United States and other allies of Israel, RIA Novosti reported. About 28 percent blame both Israel and its opponents alike, while smaller numbers criticized Hizballah, Hamas, or their sponsors. A clear majority of 70 percent oppose Russian troops entering the conflict zone, while 43 percent feel Russia should not "interfere" in the dispute at all. PM
COURT DECLARES YUKOS BANKRUPT
The Moscow Arbitration Court declared the once-mighty oil major Yukos bankrupt on August 1, following an appeal by the company's creditors led by the state-run oil giant Rosneft and the tax authorities, Russian and international media reported. Commentators described the decision as the end of Yukos, but company lawyers said they will appeal. The ruling nonetheless appears to mark the end of a three-year drama that has seen Yukos's billionaire founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky jailed in 2005 in the remote Chita Oblast for tax evasion and fraud. Rosneft bought Yukos's biggest production unit, Yuganskneftegaz, for a knockdown price in 2004 as the company was dismembered and sold against tax claims of almost $30 billion. The Kremlin portrays the case against Yukos and Khodorkovsky as a just assault on corporate corruption, but the authorities' conduct has done much to undermine faith in the rule of law in Russia. Critics see the case as a punishment for Khodorkovsky's political ambitions and as the Kremlin's desire to regain control of the energy sector (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, and July 20, 26, and 28, 2006). PM
MINISTER CONFIRMS LIMITS ON FOREIGN ACCESS TO ENERGY RESERVES
German Gref, who is minister of economic development and trade, said on August 1 that Russia will restrict foreign investors' access to the national oil and gas sector, mosnews.com reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 26 and June 21, 2006). The restrictions, which have yet to be spelled out in full, will not apply to small and medium-sized deposits. He added that Russian officials are aware, however, that they need foreign capital to develop large and remote oil and gas fields because Russia does not have the money to do so alone. Gref said that the reason for restricting foreign participation is that Russia considers its energy deposits to be of "strategic importance." In late May, President Vladimir Putin told Russian officials to lower the threshold for energy and minerals deposits to be considered "strategic," thereby raising the bar for foreign firms to enter those sectors. The Moscow daily "Vedomosti" reported on May 25 that Rosneft and Gazprom want to maintain their control over Russia's main oil and gas fields and are behind Putin's order. PM
FORMER NATO CHIEF JOINS BOARD OF JOINT VENTURE
Former NATO Secretary-General and British Defense Secretary Lord George Robertson has become deputy chairman of the TNK-BP oil company, a Russian-British joint venture, the daily "Gazeta" reported on August 1. The Russian authorities have sought to attract prominent foreigners to the management of energy companies and projects, most notably former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who heads the stockholders' oversight body for the planned North European Gas Pipeline (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2006). PM
PUTIN PUTS FSB IN CHARGE OF 'VITAL FACILITY NETWORKS'
President Putin signed a decree on July 31 making the Federal Security Service (FSB), which is the successor to the KGB, responsible for information security of computer and telecommunications systems at "vital facilities," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on August 1. The daily quoted a "reliable source close to the upper echelons of the Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications" as saying that the government compiled a classified list of vital facilities, including television broadcasting installations, in March. The FSB reportedly will monitor how such facilities are protected but will not guard them itself. The daily's source added, however, that "the FSB is particularly interested in the content [of broadcasts]. In fact, it is already in control of many things [by having its own] people in key positions." He said that the FSB will play a role in both the financial aspects of broadcasting and the content in the run-up to the 2007 legislative elections. Experts estimate the official revenues of television broadcasting in Russia for 2005 at nearly $3 billion. PM
RUSSIAN EXPERT SAYS CUBAN OFFICIALS KNOW WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN TO THEM
Sergei Karaganov, who heads the influential Foreign and Defense Policy Council (SVOP), a conservative Russian think tank, told Interfax in Moscow on August 2 that "no dramatic changes will take place in Cuba's domestic and foreign policy" as long as the team headed by Defense Minister Raul Castro, who is ailing President Fidel Castro's younger brother, remains in charge. Karaganov believes that "it is [nonetheless] practically inevitable that policies will be liberalized somewhat sooner or later. Cuba's current leadership realizes perfectly well that they will all be fired if drastic changes take place, and that they might even go on trial." He noted that this was the pattern followed in postcommunist Eastern Europe. Karaganov thinks that there will be no fights among "clans" as long as the president remains alive. "It is clear that Castro is ill. But it is also clear that the best doctors in the world [will be available to] treat him. I have heard rumors about his death for the past 30 years," he added. PM
CUSTOMS STATION FOR CHINESE GOODS OPENS NEAR MOSCOW
Federal Customs Service head Andrei Belyaninov opened a customs office on August 1 near Solnechnogorsk in Moscow Oblast for Chinese goods, Interfax reported. Chinese Ambassador to Russia Liu Guchang said the opening shows that the two countries' governments are moving toward stabilizing trade relations. Belyaninov added that the station should help reduce the volume of "gray imports" from China. The Chinese state company Trade Development and Management of Investments in Europe Center launched the project and owns the office. The Russian state has lost huge sums of money in recent years through the outright smuggling of Chinese goods into Russia or through their importation under dubious circumstances. Belyaninov is a former KGB official who was appointed to his present post in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and May 12, 2006). PM
INGUSHETIAN POLICE ATTACKED IN NORTH OSSETIA
Unidentified assailants opened fire late on August 1 in the settlement of Maysky in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion on a car in which Ingushetian police officers were traveling, ingushetiya.ru and regnum.ru reported on August 2. Initial reports that two police officers were killed proved erroneous, but Amirkhan Akhsoyev, acting head of the Criminal Search Department, was seriously injured, as was a local resident. Two Ingushetian traffic police were shot dead in the same district one week ago. LF
U.S. MINSK GROUP CO-CHAIRMAN VISITS AZERBAIJAN
Matthew Bryza, who is the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, met in Baku on August 1 with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov to discuss the ongoing search for a solution to the Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijani media reported. Few details of those talks were made public. Nizami Bakhmanov, who represents the former Azeri community of the unrecognized republic and who likewise met with Bryza, said the latter noted that Armenia has new proposals for resolving the conflict and is demonstrating the "political will" to reach a settlement. Bakhmanov rejected as inappropriate Bryza's appeal for Baku to show comparable political will, stressing Baku's readiness to offer the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic "broad autonomy" as part of Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry official Tahir Tagizade said on August 1 that Baku considers illegal plans by the leadership of the unrecognized republic of Transdniester to hold a referendum on September 17 on that region's independence from Moldova, day.az reported. LF
ANOTHER AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITIONIST JAILED
A Baku district court handed down a three-year prison sentence on August 1 to Sakhavat Babayev, who is a member of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), day.az reported. Babayev was founded guilty, on the basis of complaints by his employees that he neglected to pay their salaries, of abuse in the course of commercial activity. He is the second AHCP activist to be jailed on dubious grounds within the last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27, 2006). LF
AZERBAIJAN'S RIOT POLICE SUBORDINATED TO INTERIOR MINISTRY
Azerbaijan's Rapid Reaction Police Regiment, which until now has been subordinate to the Baku Municipal Police Department, has been transferred to the immediate jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry, the online daily zerkalo.az reported on August 2. The paper noted that this move strengthens even further the position of long-time minister Colonel General Ramil Usubov, who has just dismissed his first deputy Vilayet Eyvazov and several other deputy ministers. LF
GEORGIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY REJECTS RUSSIAN CRITICISM
A statement posted on the Georgian Foreign Ministry's website (http://www.mfa.ge) on August 1 rejects criticisms of last week's police operation in the Kodori Gorge contained in a July 31 Russian Foreign Ministry statement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2006). The Georgian response refuted Russian allegations that the operation risks fuelling tensions and could result in a "confrontation." It stressed that the operation in Kodori was intended solely to "restore order." It further called for the "active and direct involvement" of the international community in the search for a political solution to the Abkhaz conflict, arguing that Russia is no longer qualified to act as a mediator given that it increasingly tends to side with Abkhazia. LF
ABKHAZ-GEORGIAN TALKS UNDER UN AEGIS CANCELLED
A meeting in Sukhum (Sukhumi) scheduled for August 2 of the UN-sponsored Coordinating Council has been cancelled after the Abkhaz side withdrew its consent to attend, Caucasus Press reported on August 1. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze said the Abkhaz side objected to the inclusion in the Georgian delegation to that meeting of a former Georgian resident of Abkhazia's Gagra Raion. Abkhaz presidential envoy to Gali Raion Ruslan Kishmaria was quoted by apsny.ru as telling Interfax on August 2 that four of the proposed nine members of the Georgian delegation are representatives of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government in exile. Kishmaria accused Georgia of deliberately sabotaging the ongoing search for a political solution to the conflict. LF
RUSSIA SUSPENDS LAUNCHES OF ROCKET TYPE THAT CRASHED IN KAZAKHSTAN
Igor Panarin, a spokesman for Russian space agency Roskosmos, announced on August 1 that Russia has suspended launches of the Dnepr rocket, a converted RS-20 ballistic missile, pending the outcome of the investigation of a failed launch in Kazakhstan on July 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27, 2006), Interfax-AVN reported. Panarin told the news agency that Russia will compensate Kazakhstan for any damage to the environment. Kazakh Deputy Education and Science Minister Azamat Abdymomunov, chairman of the investigative commission, said that a medical examination of residents of Zhanakala and Kuandariya, the settlements closest to the crash site in Kyzylorda Province, uncovered no health problems as of July 31, Interfax reported. On July 31, the opposition movement For a Just Kazakhstan issued a statement calling for the inclusion of independent experts and parliamentary deputies from Kyzylorda Province in the investigation, Navigator reported. DK
KYRGYZSTAN, TAJIKISTAN FAIL TO AGREE ON ENERGY PRICES
Delegations from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have failed to agree on a price for exports of Kyrgyz electricity to the Tajik Aluminum Plant, akipress.org reported on August 1, quoting a source from Kyrgyz Electrical Stations. The talks, which took place on July 20-24, focused on the export of 1.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electrical energy between September 1, 2006, and May 31, 2007. The Tajik side reportedly insisted on a price of $.01 per kilowatt-hour, while the Kyrgyz side wanted a higher price. Talks are set to resume in mid-August. DK
TAJIK PRISON RIOTERS RECEIVE LENGTHY SENTENCES
A Tajik court has sentenced 12 prisoners charged with inciting a riot at a prison in Qurghonteppa last year to lengthy prison terms, Asia Plus-Blitz and RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on August 1. Bahodur Abdulmajidov, whom prosecutors described as the ringleader, received a 29-year sentence. Eleven other inmates were sentenced to jail terms ranging from six to 25 years. Four prison guards received three-year prison terms for negligence. Inmates rioted at Qurghonteppa's maximum-security prison in August 2005 over living conditions. According to the BBC's Persian Service, some relatives of inmates allege that two prisoners were killed as the disturbances were quelled. DK
U.S. MINING COMPANY MAY LEAVE UZBEKISTAN
U.S.-based Newmont Mining may sell its 50-percent stake in the Zarafshan-Newmont joint venture in Uzbekistan to cover a $48 million tax claim, the company reported in its second quarter 2006 results, released on July 27. Newmont noted that Uzbek courts in June hit the joint venture with a $48 million tax judgment. The company called the tax claims "without merit" and vowed an appeal, but it allowed that "the ultimate outcome of these matters cannot be determined at this time." Newmont put the value of its stake in Zarafshan-Newmont at $94 million as of June 30 and stressed that it "is exploring all options to recover the value of its investment in the Joint Venture, including the possible sale of the asset or international arbitration." DK
BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT URGES STRONGER ECONOMIC PRESENCE IN RUSSIA
Alyaksandr Lukashenka on August 1 urged "active steps" to reinforce Belarusian companies' presence in Russia, Belapan and Belarusian Television reported. Lukashenka was speaking at a meeting with the heads of Belarusian diplomatic missions abroad in Minsk. "Today we are solemnly marching across the ocean to Venezuela, which is approximately 12,000 kilometers from here," Lukashenka said, apparently referring to a recent visit by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to Minsk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 25, and 26, 2006). "But we do not act just beside us where we have long been able to work and where people speak the same language as us." Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski said he expects Belarus's exports to Russia in 2006 to stand at $6.5 billion. He added that Belarus's exports in 2005 totaled $16 billion. JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT REPORTEDLY DRAWS CLOSER TO ASPIRANT TO PREMIERSHIP...
Viktor Yushchenko has found "some understanding" with his presidential rival from 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, in talks on the formation of a new government in Ukraine, Ukrainian media reported on August 1, quoting presidential spokeswoman Iryna Herashchenko. "A rapprochement of positions has taken place, we can speak about some understanding, in particular, regarding such an important issue of principle for the president as the unity of Ukraine and abandonment of the topic of federalism," Herashchenko said about a nine-hour-long meeting between the two politicians on August 1. She expressed hope that parliamentary leaders will be able to hold a roundtable meeting on August 2 and sign a declaration of national unity, which will map out the political priorities of a future governing coalition. Yanukovych was proposed as a candidate for the post of prime minister on July 18 by a coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party. President Yushchenko has been trying for the past two weeks to bring Our Ukraine into this coalition. August 2 is the constitutional deadline for President Yushchenko to submit to parliament or reject Yanukovych's nomination as the new prime minister. JM
...AS SOME OPT FOR NEW ELECTIONS
Some 5,000 activists of the Ukrainian People's Party (UNP) marched in downtown Kyiv on August 2, demanding that President Yushchenko disband the Verkhovna Rada and call for new elections, UNIAN reported. "During the four months that passed after the March elections, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine has proven incapable of resolving complex issues that are facing Ukrainian society. This is linked to the fact that, as a result the use of manipulative electoral techniques, parliament includes only those parties and blocs that represent political-business groups, which are waging an uncompromising war over the redistribution of property," the UNP said in a statement. The UNP led by Yuriy Kostenko took part in the March 26 parliamentary elections in the Kostenko-Plyushch Bloc, which failed to overcome the 3 percent voting barrier that qualified for parliamentary representation. The dissolution of the current parliament is also demanded by the Yuliya Tymoshenko Block (129 seats), which has refused to take part in parliamentary debates for the past two weeks. JM
SLOVENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS SERBIAN PREMIER'S KOSOVA REMARKS PROBLEMATIC
Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel said on August 1 that Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's latest comments about Kosova's final status present a major problem for the international community, B92 and Beta reported the same day. "I think that the stance that Serbia is prepared to sacrifice its European perspective is from our point of view and the point of view of the EU and the Western world, a problem," Rupel said. "In the last phase of the Kosovo status discussions, various statements have been coming from all sides that are doing everything but helping to solve the problem of Kosovo's final status." In a July 31 interview in the Serbian daily "Danas," Kostunica said Serbia will never give up Kosova, even if it means sacrificing its chances for EU membership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2006). BW
SERBIAN FOREIGN MINISTER DENIES THREAT TO PULL HIS PARTY OUT OF GOVERNMENT
In comments published on August 1, Vuk Draskovic said reports that he threatened to pull his Serbian Renewal Movement (SRO) out of the government if he loses a parliamentary confidence vote are false, B92 reported the same day. Serbian media reported Draskovic's threat to resign on July 31 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2006). Draskovic said he will not use the SPO "as a hostage for my own politics," the daily "Blic" reported on August 1. "I am only asking for the parliament to vote for the foreign minister at its first meeting following the summer recess. If I am not elected, this will show a lack of confidence in European politics, the politics of the SPO as well," he said. BW
SERBIAN PREMIER SAYS RUSSIA'S GAZPROM WILL INVEST $1 BILLION IN SERBIA'S PIPELINES
Vojislav Kostunica said on August 1 that Russia's state-controlled natural-gas monopoly Gazprom has agreed to invest nearly $1 billion in Serbia's pipelines, UPI reported the same day. Kostunica called the Gazprom investment a positive development that has created "a good legal and economic basis" for economic development, Tanjug news agency reported. Serbian Energy Minister Radomir Naumov said the pipeline network, running from Turkey via Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia, to the north of Italy, will have a capacity of 20 billion cubic meters of gas per year. BW
MACEDONIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES SPEAKER
Macedonia's parliament elected Ljubisha Georgievski as speaker on August 1, Makfax reported the same day. Georgievski, a legislator from the nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), won election by a vote of 69-0 with 20 abstentions. Only 89 of the 120 lawmakers cast ballots. Prior to the vote, members of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) left the chamber to protest being left out of the new cabinet. "I would like to express my gratitude to those who voted for me, as well as to those who abstained from voting, thus establishing the picture of a genuinely democratic parliament", Georgievski said in his inaugural speech. The VMRO-DPMNE won the July 5 elections with a total of 45 seats and has agreed to a coalition deal with the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSH) and three smaller parties that will give it a total of 64 seats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7 and 19, 2006). BW
BOSNIAN MUSLIMS ASSAIL CARTOON'S DEPICTION OF MUHAMMAD
Muslim leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina on July 31 assailed an episode of the animated U.S. television series "South Park" for depicting the Prophet Muhammad, AFP reported the same day. The episode portrayed the Muslim prophet, Jesus Christ, Krishna, and Buddha as friends who fight against evil. It was broadcast on the privately owned OBN network on July 29. "The broadcast is unacceptable and we condemn it and consider it to be a kind of provocation," Enes Ljevakovic, the head of a Bosnian Islamic council, said. "According to Islamic tradition, the presentation of the Prophet Muhammad or any other prophet is unacceptable...even if their presentation is not sarcastic but in a positive light." OBN defended broadcasting the cartoon, saying it portrayed the prophet and other religious figures in a positive light. The network also said the episode could be considered a lesson in morality. BW
DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE IN SOUTH CAUCASUS REMAINS ELUSIVE
A decade and a half after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its successor states continue to confront profound challenges to establishing democratic governance. The legacy of the failed communist system in tandem with Soviet-era leadership that has in most cases managed to retain political control has resulted in a new class of 21st-century autocratic and hybrid regimes.
Among the fundamental governance challenges confronting the post-Soviet states are widespread economic hardship, entrenched corruption, poor policy-feedback mechanisms, and state institutions that are insufficiently responsive to ordinary citizens' needs.
The three countries of the Caucasus are a microcosm of sorts for the former Soviet Union's contemporary governance problems. Each confronting poverty, extensive corruption, and weak governing institutions, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia offer a window into the roadblocks and opportunities for reform in the post-Soviet space.
At the same time, even within this rather small geographic area there is a good deal to differentiate the three countries. Azerbaijan is poised to enjoy enormous energy wealth with the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil export pipeline, which constitutes a unique opportunity to propel the country to another level of development. Given the absence of any independent, countervailing institutions to check Azerbaijan's insular ruling elite, however, this considerable wealth may well fuel even greater corruption.
Armenia, for its part, seems bogged down in political stagnation, groping for a pathway to reform its political system to complement its recent economic upswing. In 1998 and 2003, Robert Kocharian was declared the winner in presidential ballots that international monitors deemed plagued by fraud and irregularities. Expectations that the November 2005 constituional referendum would prove cleaner were not met, raising basic questions about Armenia's capacity to hold a sound election.
Georgia, the first of three countries in the former Soviet Union to experience a "colored revolution," has enjoyed some progress following President Eduard Shevardnadze's ouster. Nevertheless, the struggle since the Rose Revolution of late 2003 to implement deeper reforms shows just how terribly steep the reform curve is in the post-Soviet republics.
In order to better understand the diverse forces at work in those and other similar countries, Freedom House issues its annual study, "Countries at the Crossroads," which examines democratic governance in a set of strategically important "middle performing" countries. The three countries of the Caucasus were among the 30 states evaluated in this year's edition, which covers events in 2004 and 2005. It reveals decidedly mixed performance in the Caucasus on all four governance indicators addressed in the study: accountability and public voice, civil liberties, rule of law, and anticorruption and transparency.
Since the last review in 2004, Azerbaijan slipped in all four main indicators, while Armenia's performance fell in three of the four categories. Georgia improved in all four categories, largely on the basis of the rotation of political power in 2004 and reforms implemented since that time.
Azerbaijan evidenced little in the way of genuine reform. The parliamentary elections in November 2005, like the presidential ballot of November 2003, failed to meet international standards. International observers and local reformers had hoped these elections would prove to be a turning point in Azerbaijani politics, but were disappointed by the scale of intimidation of opposition candidates and serious irregularities in the tabulation of ballots.
More fundamentally, key institutions that should form the building blocks of a democratic system have failed to rise to that challenge. Law enforcement and the judiciary remain highly corrupt and subject to the control of the executive. News media, due to the deep intrusion of the authorities, are unable to operate freely and independently. National broadcast media in particular are under the firm control of the regime or those aligned with it. Recent reprisals against journalists -- including the kidnapping and beating in May of Bahaddin Haziyev, editor in chief of the newspaper "Bizim yol," and the arrest and detention of satirical journalist Mirza Sakit -- give grounds for concern.
The programs of Azerbaijan's first public-service broadcasting channel, finally unveiled in August 2005, differ little from state television. Absent a politically independent public broadcasting steering committee, the channel is unlikely to achieve basic institutional independence.
In an otherwise poor assessment of Azerbaijan, there was a bright spot in the area of rule of law. The authorities put in place a new system for testing and approving judges in 2005 and approved the first class of judges under this new system, which contains a range of safeguards.
Armenia's performance also left a good deal to be desired. Intense attention focused on the referendum held on November 27, 2005. The proposed constitutional amendments were endorsed by a number of major external actors, including the Council of Europe and the U.S. government. Nevertheless, the referendum process and its implementation came under intense criticism from the Armenian opposition, as well as outside observers. First among the concerns cited by a Council of Europe observer team was the government's claim of 93 percent turnout, which did not square with far lower levels of voting activity monitored by observers. The Armenia report further suggests that the referendum "reinforced the widely held belief that Armenians cannot change their leadership through elections."
The tight control of media, the deep links between Armenian officialdom and business circles, and high levels of corruption have also cast a pall over engagement with the Millennium Challenge Account.
In contrast to its two neighbors, Georgia has demonstrated signs of a genuine commitment to reform. In the two-year review period, Georgia's scores improved in all four measures of good governance, most noticably in the sphere of governmental accountability due to the free and fair conduct of the elections in January and March 2004. However, reforms are still incomplete. Presidential appointments to the Central Election Commission still lack transparency. Further, the real extent of the administration's commitment to fair electoral rules will only be evident in a more competitive political environment as various political parties gain popularity and are able to effectively challenge the National Movement.
Much remains to be done, however. Although the authorities have made important headway by passing the law on freedom of speech and expression, many Georgian journalists report that the state continues to exert undue influence over broadcast and print outlets. Moreover, judicial authorities claim that prosecutors and officials in the executive branch do not hesitate to use more direct methods of pressuring judges.
Despite its strong will to tackle the issue, corruption remains a significant problem in Georgia. In only one example, several senior tax officials were arrested in 2005 for soliciting a bribe from a foreign businessman to write off 3 million laris ($1.65 million) in taxes he owed to the state. However, the fact that the media freely reported on the scandal and that the government officials were, in fact, prosecuted, signals that the administration is less willing to tolerate such infringements.
Moreover, several important measures were passed aimed at combating corruption, including laws on conflict of interest, increasing salaries for judges and police, reducing the number of businesses requiring a special license from 900 to 159, and prosecuting corrupt officials at all levels of government. Corruption nonetheless remains a serious obstacle to economic growth and further political development in Georgia.
And there are fundamental questions about the commitment to and capacity for reform in all three countries. For example, all lack a capable and competitive political opposition. The Armenian and Azerbaijani regimes deny the opposition any meaningful opportunity to communicate with mass audiences. Control of television and radio licensing is so strict that little critical comment on the authorities' performance is heard by ordinary citizens.
In Georgia, the corruption and decrepitude of the Shevardnadze regime served as the catalyst for a political clean sweep spearheaded by Mikhail Saakashvili, whose overwhelming victory in the presidential election of January 2004 effectively propelled the opposition into government. Now, Georgia sorely needs an opposition to counterbalance the current government so that the democratic impulse of 2004 transforms into enduring democratic institutionalization.
Of course, the region remains hostage to debilitating frozen conflicts that drain attention and political energy from the day-to-day work of providing sounder governance. Armenia and Azerbaijan remain at loggerheads over Nagorno-Karabakh, while Georgia faces immense political challenges in the form of the breakaway regions of Abkazia and South Ossetia.
A Georgian breakthrough consolidating reforms would send an important signal for reformers in neighboring countries and elsewhere in the CIS. At the same time, however, the experience in Georgia over the past 2 1/2 years is a sobering reminder of precisely how difficult and protracted such a reform effort is.
(Sanja Tatic and Christopher Walker are co-editors of "Countries at the Crossroads," Freedom House's annual survey of democratic governance, whose 2006 findings are being released on August 3 and can be found at http://www.freedomhouse.org.)
AFGHANISTAN HOSTS COUNTERNARCOTICS FORUM WITH COLOMBIANS
Colombian counternarcotics officials met with their Afghan government counterparts in Kabul on August 1 to share tips on how to stem the illegal drug trade, AFP reported. Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of opium, while most of the world's cocaine comes from Colombia. "We discussed the Afghan government's counternarcotics efforts, the capacity built so far in the past three years, and also shared their experience regarding counternarcotics," Afghan Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Daud said. Colombian counternarcotics head Oscar Atehortua said counternarcotics efforts are about more than just the drug trade. "It is also to fight against terrorist groups," Atehortua said. Atehortua said Colombia can offer Afghanistan advice on controlling drug growth in the country. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has so far rejected the aerial spraying of poppy fields to wipe them out, a method that Colombia frequently uses. MR
INSURGENTS KILL THREE BRITISH SOLDIERS IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
Suspected neo-Taliban guerrillas killed three British servicemen on August 1 in southern Afghanistan, AFP reported. The attackers used rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns against an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrol vehicle in Helmand Province, coalition authorities said. "Attack helicopters were deployed in close air support with the aircrew reporting at least one insurgent killed," an ISAF statement said. "Three ISAF soldiers were killed in this attack, and one was wounded. It is confirmed that the troops were British." Nine British soldiers have died so far this year in southern Afghanistan, where NATO assumed command on August 1. Most of the 4,000 British troops deployed in Afghanistan are based in Helmand Province. Britain recently approved a plan to send additional troops to Afghanistan following a rise in insurgent activities, particularly in southern parts of the country. MR
COALITION REPORTS ARREST OF AL-QAEDA OPERATIVES IN AFGHANISTAN
U.S.-led coalition officials claimed on August 1 to have arrested four Al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, AP reported. Afghan authorities were reportedly involved in the arrest of four suspects whom a coalition statement said were smuggling explosives into Afghanistan. The statement said the suspects did not resist arrest near the village of Sewakay in Khost Province, an area where neo-Taliban insurgents and Al-Qaeda fighters are known to be active. The coalition statement offered no details about the suspects or what their fate will be. MR
SOUTHERN AFGHAN JAIL RIOT LEAVES ONE DEAD
One prisoner died when inmates at a prison in southern Afghanistan staged a protest that turned violent on August 1, Xinhua news agency reported. Helmand Province police chief Nabi Jan Mullahkhil acknowledged that police fired on inmates at the province's main prison in Lashkargah, which houses about 300 prisoners who have complained of inhumane treatment. Mullahkhil said an investigation into the incident is under way. "We are trying to find a peaceful solution to the problem through negotiation with the inmates," Mullahkhil said. MR
IRANIANS REJECT UN RESOLUTION
Rejecting a July 31 Security Council resolution ordering Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment activities, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in Bojnurd in northeastern Iran on August 1 that Iran is peaceful and law-abiding but has a right to obtain "peaceful nuclear technology" and will not allow itself to be addressed in a threatening manner, IRNA and Reuters reported. "Iran's enemies should know that the Iranian people consider the use of nuclear science a right, and will not forego this right," IRNA quoted him as saying. Western powers are concerned that Iran's nuclear know-how could help it make bombs. On August 1, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said the resolution has no "legal facet or basis," IRNA reported. Asefi said the resolution serves the purposes "of certain states" and seeks to "swiftly close the road to negotiations." It will have "no constructive results," he said, and "can only worsen the situation." A member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Kazem Jalali, said the same day that the "Americans seem to be trying their best" to move the dossier from "the path of dialogue" toward "creating some kind of crisis," ISNA reported. VS
FORMER GERMAN MINISTER VISITS TEHRAN
Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was in Tehran on August 1 to speak at a seminar on Iran-EU relations, ISNA reported. He spoke at the research department of the Expediency Council, a key policymaking body. Fischer said Iran's relations with the EU now require an essential rethink, and he voiced concern over the "increasing crisis in the region." Iran's nuclear rights are important, he said, but "Iran must respect the international community's desire for confidence-building measures." The EU, he said, has accepted Iran's right to develop peaceful nuclear energy, but concerns persist over Iran's "haste" to construct a new nuclear plant and some activities related to fuel making. "Our concern is that if Iran [has] nuclear weapons, other regional states will begin a race to access these weapons," ISNA quoted Fischer as saying. VS
IRANIAN PARTIES BACK LEBANESE RESISTANCE
Iranian politicians from a number of different factions met in Tehran on August 1 to express support for Hizballah in its ongoing battle against Israeli forces in Lebanon, ISNA and IRNA reported. Participants in the "Conference of Iranian Political Parties and Formations in Support of the Resistance of the People of Lebanon and Palestine" included former President Mohammad Khatami, government critics, and Palestinian Authority and Hizballah envoys in Tehran. Ali-Akbar Mohtashamipur, a former minister and founder of Hizballah, said Israel has dumped "20,000 tons of bombs" on Lebanon in its strikes, and the Israelis and "their criminal supporters" should be put on trial, ISNA reported. Khatami excoriated international bodies and Arab states for their perceived passivity in the face of what he described as Israeli aggression. Former Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi said Israel is the "reason why violence comes out of the Third World," ISNA reported. Liberals Emadeddin Baqi, Ezzatollah Sahabi, and Ebrahim Yazdi -- who have criticized Iran's regime on other issues -- also spoke at the conference. On July 31, Executives of Construction (Kargozaran-i Sazandegi) leader Mohammad Hashemi-Bahramani told ISNA that the Israeli strikes are a "humanitarian" issue unrelated to "political inclinations," adding that "we see how all...groups, whatever their opinions...or level of commitment to religion, Islam, or the regime have joined voices." Hussein Kashefi of the reformist Participation Front said on July 31 that Iranian parties concur on the "rights" of the Lebanese and Palestinians, and consider Israel a "usurper," ISNA reported. VS
IRANIAN SECURITY FORCES IGNORE FAMILY APPEAL FOR AUTOPSY, BURY DEAD DISSIDENT
A dissident who died in prison days after he reportedly launched a hunger strike (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2006) has been swiftly buried near the town of Amol in northern Iran despite a request by his parents for an autopsy, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on August 1. Radio Farda stated that Akbar Mohammadi's parents flew to Tehran from Turkey late on July 31 to see his body but were detained by security forces at Tehran Airport, then taken at about 4:00 in the morning with their son's body toward Amol for a burial. Some 5,000 security agents were in the vicinity for this process, Radio Farda quoted Reza Mohammadi, Mohammadi's brother, as saying. Agents also prevented some 700-800 well-wishers and relatives who had come to the airport to see the parents from entering the airport building on July 31. Another brother, Manuchehr Mohammadi, is also in prison for political activism, and the parents had asked that he be allowed to see his brother's body, although it was not clear whether he did, Radio Farda reported. VS
IRAN'S REFORMERS EXPRESS DISTRUST OVER PROPOSED ELECTION OVERHAUL
The Iranian Interior Ministry is proposing changes to Iranian election rules, and reformers are concerned the proposals would further restrict the range of aspirants allowed to run for public office, local media reports from July 28 and 31 and August 1 suggest. On July 28, the head of the ministry's electoral affairs department, Ali Asghar Karandish, said a comprehensive electoral-system bill would, among other conditions, require presidential hopefuls to obtain the written support of 50 legislators from 20 provinces and 20 members of the Assembly for Experts, a clerical body, in order to become candidates. The bill also tasks the paramilitary Basij militia with reviewing informal reports by members of the public concerning would-be candidates' private lives or reputations. Jurist Bahman Keshavarz said on July 31 that the bill could pave the way for intrusive inquiries into would-be candidates'private lives, which he said is illegal, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day. Mohammad Salamati of the reformist Islamic Revolution Mujahedin party said such "proposals will...add to the atmosphere of concern," the same daily reported on August 1. Former legislator Yadollah Islami said such bills ensure "the gap between the people and state will never be filled," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. But Interior Minister Mostafa Pur-Mohammadi predicted on August 1 that the bill will "open" the environment for voters and candidates, and urged specialists and politicians to study it before reacting, IRNA reported. VS
IRAQI SHI'A COME OUT IN SHOW OF FORCE
Thousands of Shi'a marched on the streets of Baghdad on August 2, claiming they will now take charge of providing security in neighborhoods across the capital, Reuters reported. The men, marching in civilian uniforms and headbands to commemorate the 2003 assassination of Shi'ite Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2003), are reportedly members of popular committees formed by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) Badr Organization. SCIRI head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim told the crowd that Iraqis should form popular committees across the country to face terrorism. "They will defend people of districts; Sunnis, Shi'a, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomans. They do not differentiate between anybody. They will provide support [to] the official security apparatus," he added. KR
FORTY-FIVE SHI'A KIDNAPPED IN WESTERN IRAQ
Gunmen stopped six buses on the Baghdad-Amman road and abducted the Shi'ite passengers on August 1, AP reported the same day, citing Al-Najaf Governor Asad Abu Khalal. Abu Khalal said all 45 of those kidnapped near Al-Ramadi were from his governorate. He said that Baghdad was informed of the abductions, but if the central government does not locate the abductees, he is prepared to send "special troops" from Al-Najaf. However, a senior Interior Ministry official, Sa'dun Abu al-Ula, told the news agency that the abductions have occurred over the past two weeks, with two or three people kidnapped every day. KR
IRAQI MINISTER SAYS UNEMPLOYMENT AT 50 PERCENT
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih has said that the number of unemployed Iraqis has reached 50 percent, "Al-Zaman" reported on August 1. The report did not indicate whether Salih revealed the source of that figure. The Planning Ministry, which Salih headed in the previous government, put the unemployment figure at 30 percent in 2005. IRIN reported on July 25 that some 70 percent of Iraqi women are unemployed. Local NGOs have reported that growing numbers of female professionals are taking jobs as domestic servants in order to provide for their families. "You can...find doctors working as hairdressers, dentists working as chefs, and engineers working in Laundromats. They're desperate, and with poverty increasing, the situation could get much worse," said Mayada Zuhair, vice president of the Women's Rights Association of Iraq. KR
IRAQI PARLIAMENT SPEAKER VISITS DAMASCUS
Parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani arrived in Damascus on August 1 to discuss the ongoing regional instability, including the Israel-Lebanon crisis, the Syrian news agency SANA reported the same day. He reportedly referred to a hostile plan to tear Iraq apart and push it to the brink of civil war, and told reporters that the U.S. presence in Iraq is temporary. Al-Mashhadani added that he expects Iraq's parliament to play a role in ending the U.S. "occupation" in Iraq, so that Iraq and Syria will have the opportunity to restore their relations, SANA reported. KR
IRAQI DEFENSE MINISTER GIVES PEP TALK TO TROOPS
In an address at the Defense Ministry on July 31, Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim al-Ubaydi called on troops to place their loyalty to the state over their loyalty to their tribe or religion, the Multinational Force-Iraq website reported on August 1. "All of your people expect you to be noble and sincere soldiers, who defend Iraq's security and stability," Jasim said regarding Operation Together Forward, which seeks to establish security in the greater Baghdad area. "Joining the military and implementing national obligations necessitate loyalty of nation and people and discard[ing] party, sectarian, and racial affiliations and to [not] politicize the army, which will prevent it from defending the nation and protecting its borders and people of all sects." KR
IRAQI SOCCER COACH CALLS IT QUITS AFTER THREATS
Akram Salman, the head of the Iraqi national soccer team, has resigned after receiving death threats, the Asian Football Confederation announced on August 1, Iraqi media reported. Salman was in Singapore for the 2007 Asian Cup qualifiers when the announcement was made. He took over the team last year. Iraqi Football Association President Husayn Sa'id told Reuters that police are investigating the death threats, and that the association has not yet accepted Salman's resignation. KR