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Newsline - September 18, 2006

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Sochi on September 17 that he aims to increase Russia's share of the oil supplies imported by the countries of the Asia-Pacific region from the current 3 percent to 30 percent within a decade, RIA Novosti reported. He made his remarks to visiting parliament speakers from the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries, four of which are West European. Earlier in September, Industry and Energy Minister Andrei Dementyev made a similar statement, adding that Russia wants to increase its share of the Asia-Pacific region's natural-gas imports from 5 to 25 percent by 2020. He said that those goals could be met if planned energy projects in Russia's Far East are implemented, including those in the area of Sakhalin Island. He noted the importance of the recently launched East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline (ESPO) project, which will transport oil from eastern Siberian fields to Japan and South Korea, with an eventual extension to China (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 26, July 17, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006). Since early 2006, Putin and other Russian officials have suggested that Russia could divert energy exports from Western Europe to the Pacific Rim if the Europeans do not like Russia's terms. On March 23, "The Moscow Times" quoted Russian oil and gas analyst Valery Nesterov as saying that "there is much more politics in [Putin's] announcement [of the ESPO extension to China] than there is economics, since all the calculations have yet to be done." PM

London's "Sunday Telegraph" reported on September 17 that Russia's Natural Resources Ministry has written to Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and Total SA to demand "original texts" of agreements on joint production deals reached during the 1990s. The paper noted that those agreements were concluded at a time when oil prices were low and Russia sought foreign capital. Now that Russia is awash in petrodollars, the government is reportedly seeking to ease the foreigners out in favor of domestic, state-run firms like Gazprom and Rosneft. London's "Financial Times" wrote on May 25 that the Russian authorities are considering revising some existing oil and gas deals with foreign partners in order to further tighten Russian state control over energy resources. Those projects include Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 26, August 4, and September 6, 2006). Russia needs foreign technology, however, to develop the remote hydrocarbon deposits it must open up if it is to meet its ever-expanding targets for exports. PM

Igor Shuvalov, who is a top Kremlin aide and was President Putin's chief planner for the recent G8 summit in St. Petersburg, told Interfax in Sochi on September 17 that the state-owned oil company Rosneft will be "privatized sooner or later, in a period from three to 10 years." He suggested that no one individual owner would be allowed to have more than 10 percent of total shares. Shuvalov added that the company will continue to use the system of launching an initial public offering (IPO) in order to privatize, as it did to a limited extent recently (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15 and July 7, 2006, and "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," April 28 and July 21, 2006). Citing an anonymous "Kremlin official," reported on September 17 that the authorities want to keep control over Gazprom and its export activities but seek to encourage more competition on the domestic market, with Rosneft as the flagship of its new policy. PM

President Putin told top government officials in Sochi on September 17 that the recent drive-by killing of Central Bank executive Andrei Kozlov reflects the extent to which criminals are using the banking system for their own purposes, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14 and 15, 2006). Putin noted that "billions of rubles" are being laundered monthly, involving "the movement of enormous financial resources abroad." Combating money laundering and shutting down banks involved in the process was Kozlov's best-known activity. Central Bank Chairman Sergei Ignatyev promised Putin that Kozlov's work will continue. Putin told him and Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, and Aleksandr Bortnikov, who is deputy head of the Department of Economic Security of the Federal Security Service (FSB), that money laundering also feeds corruption and makes funds available for "enormous bribes," as well as for drug trafficking. The president called for setting up an "interagency working group" on economic crimes with officials from the Central Bank, the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Federal Tax Service, the Interior Ministry, the FSB, and financial intelligence agencies. He recently set up another interagency group to deal with the "repatriation" of ethnic Russian "compatriots" living abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27, 2006). PM

President Putin said in Sochi on September 17 that world religious leaders should exercise "responsibility" and restraint in their public utterances, Russian news agencies reported. He added that "we understand how sensitive such matters are." His comment came amid widespread negative reactions in the Islamic world to some historic citations made by Pope Benedict XVI in a recent theological presentation in Regensburg, Germany. PM

The World Bank said in a report released on September 15 that Russia ranks 151st among 208 countries in terms of accountability, political stability, effectiveness of the government, the quality of regulatory bodies, the rule of law, and control over corruption, "The Moscow Times" reported on September 18. The United States finished 28th, while the United Kingdom placed 17th. In the study entitled "Governance Matters: A Decade Of Measuring The Quality Of Governance," Zambia (148), Uganda (149), and Swaziland (150) placed ahead of Russia, while Niger (152), Kazakhstan (153), and East Timor (154) were just behind. Northern European countries led the list, while Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo were at the end. In terms of political stability -- which is a favorite theme of President Putin -- Russia placed on a level with the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, and Israel in a list led by Iceland, with Iraq at the bottom. For rule of law, Russia finished together with Ecuador, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. For control of corruption, Russia placed on a level similar to that of Nicaragua, East Timor, and China. In the 1970s, then-West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt privately referred to the Soviet Union as "Upper Volta with missiles," whereas more recent observers have compared Russia to corrupt and oil-rich "Nigeria with missiles." PM

Andrei Kokoshin, who is chairman of the State Duma's Committee for the CIS and the Russian Diaspora, said in Moscow on September 18 that "the very fact that the [September 17] referendum [on independence from Moldova and unification with Russia] was held in Transdniester is a consequence of the policy that the leadership of Moldova has been pursuing for several years," Interfax reported. He added that Moldova conducted that policy "with the support of the West and by ignoring such a strong political reality as the sentiments of the people of Transdniester." He noted that the international community's expected forthcoming decision on the status of Kosova will "no doubt affect the solution of the problem of Transdniester." Kokoshin, like most other Russian commentators, did not mention that Kosova had a legal status under that 1974 Yugoslav and Serbian constitutions virtually equal to those of the six federal republics, which cannot be said of Transdniester. PM

The parliamentary leader of Armenia's governing Republican Party (HHK) pledged on September 15 that his party will work to ensure that the May 2007 parliamentary elections will be free and fair, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. HHK leader Galust Sahakian added that although he "understands" recent concerns over election fraud expressed by its junior coalition partner, his party remains committed to upholding "democracy and the rule of law" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2006). RG

A new World Bank report released on September 15 noted "a marked improvement" in some aspects of governance in Armenia, but stressed that the country remains far behind world standards, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The World Bank's 2006 report, entitled "Governance Matters: A Decade Of Measuring The Quality Of Governance," added that although Armenia has made progress in curbing corruption, political stability, and improving the rule of law in the past eight years, it is still governed worse than most countries of the world. The report, which rated over 200 countries in six component areas of good governance, assigned Armenia a percentile ranking of 41. Although the rating remains low, it marks a significant improvement over the country's 29 percent ranking in the last such survey in 1998. RG

Speaking to reporters in Yerevan following an annual meeting of the Armenian diplomatic corps, Vardan Oskanian warned on September 16 that a recent Azerbaijani diplomatic initiative in the United Nations "diverts attention" from the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process and may even "slow it down," Arminfo reported. The foreign minister was referring to an initiative of the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development-GUAM group seeking to add the issue of the region's "frozen" conflicts to the agenda of the UN General Assembly. Oskanian characterized this as is a "new challenge" for Armenia, but said that it stems from the fact that "pressure on Azerbaijan is growing." He earlier warned of "a question mark" over future peace talks if Azerbaijan proceeded with the UN initiative (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 15, 2006). RG

In a meeting in Baku, Azerbaijani National Independence Party Chairman Ayaz Rustamov signed a cooperative agreement on September 16 with Saleh Ibrahim, a representative of the Iran-based Southern Azerbaijan Independence Party, Turan reported. The agreement pledged cooperation in seeking the "establishment of a united Azerbaijan and the formation of a democratic and law-governed society," and vowed to pursue "joint measures against the Iranian government's chauvinistic policy of national discrimination and assimilation" against ethnic Azeris in Iran. The signing of the agreement follows a recent forum in Baku in which participants resolved to promote "the rights and freedoms" of the ethnic Azeri minority in Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2006). RG

Arriving in Baku on an official visit, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Eurasia James MacDougall met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and other senior officials on September 15, according to Turan. Meeting with Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev, MacDougall reviewed current training and assistance programs designed to modernize and develop the Azerbaijani armed forces and bolster maritime security in the Caspian Sea. MacDougall also expressed appreciation for the deployment of Azerbaijani peacekeepers to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosova, and announced that the two countries "are on the threshold of a new level of cooperation in the military, economic, and security spheres." MacDougall arrived in Azerbaijan after meeting with senior Georgian officials to review the Georgian NATO Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) and discuss that country's strategic defense strategy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2006). RG

Azerbaijan's chief Muslim cleric denounced on September 16 recent remarks on Islam by the pope as "an insult to all Muslims," ANS-TV reported. Sheikh ul-Islam Haci Allahsukur Pasazada condemned the recent remarks of Pope Benedict XVI as an insult to all Muslims of the world and accused the pope of seeking to "spread animosity" between Christianity and Islam. The criticism was echoed by the imam of Baku's Cuma Mosque, Ilqar Ibrahimoglu, who described the pope's comments as "ill-considered and irresponsible thoughts" and called on Benedict to recognize the "depth of the wound he has caused," "Azadliq" reported. RG

In a speech before a crowd of thousands gathered at a youth rally in Tbilisi, Mikheil Saakashvili announced on September 16 plans to open a youth camp in the Kodori Gorge, Imedi television reported. Saakashvili said that the new youth camp will be established next summer in the Kodori Gorge, which he hailed as "the first part of Abkhazia to be liberated." He also called for a new "courageous generation" of Georgian youth to "show courage in the face of Russia's economic embargo on Georgia," which he argued is aimed at "turning Georgians against one another." RG

A court in southern Kazakhstan ruled on September 15 to uphold a five-year prison sentence for opposition activist Alibek Zhumabaev, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Zhumabaev, a leading figure in the For a Just Kazakhstan movement, was arrested in the run-up to the 2006 presidential election and convicted in May on charges of organizing mass disturbances (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2006). RG

A senior Kazakh security official announced on September 15 that the National Security Committee has formally requested the addition of two groups to Kazakhstan's list of banned terrorist organizations, "Kazakhstan Today" and reported. Askar Amerkhanov, the deputy chief of staff of the National Security Committee's counterterrorism center, added that the formal request was submitted to the Prosecutor-General's Office seeking the banning of the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo religious sect and another unspecified "regional grouping." RG

Nursultan Nazarbaev inaugurated Kazakhstan's largest information-technology (IT) park outside the former capital Almaty on September 15, according to Kazinform and "Kazakhstan Today." The new IT park, located within the special economic zone established in 2003 in the village of Alatau, seeks to attract global IT companies and aims to emerge as an "intellectual center" for the region. Nazarbaev said that nearly a dozen of the world's leading IT and communication companies have already committed to offices and training centers in the Alatau IT City information-technology park. RG

Members of Kazakhstan's pro-presidential Otan and Asar parties held their fourth annual conference on September 16 in Almaty, Khabar television reported. Presiding over the meeting of the two recently aligned parties, Otan party Chairman Bakhytzhan Zhumagulov and Asar party Chairwoman Darigha Nazarbaeva (the daughter of President Nazarbaev) unveiled plans "to train and prepare" a new generation of political leaders and to pursue a greater "dialogue with other political forces." The conference further resolved to expand participation in local elections, assist in supporting state efforts to combat corruption and to develop civil society and youth policy in Kazakhstan. RG

The Congress of the Kyrgyzstan People convened a meeting on September 17 in the southern town of Bospiek, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. In speeches to an estimated 2,000 supporters, leaders of the opposition congress -- which unites several political parties, unions, and civic groups -- reiterated calls for constitutional reform and threatened to seek the resignation of President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov if the government fails to heed its demands. RG

Prime Minister Kulov on September 15 ordered the acquisition and introduction of polygraph devices for governmental bodies, AKIpress reported. The order follows the initiation of a pilot project using lie detectors in tax and custom agencies and is justified as an element of the Kyrgyz government's effort to combat corruption and "tighten discipline in government bodies." RG

A prime-ministerial summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) concluded in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on September 15, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Asia-Plus reported. Delegates of the SCO summit issued a statement pledging to improve the transport network connecting their countries and vowing to develop new energy export routes that would serve SCO member states. The statement also called for the formation of a new "SCO Energy Club," in order to coordinate regional energy policy and promote cooperation in the energy sector among SCO members. The summit was attended by the prime ministers of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan and the Uzbek deputy prime minister, as well as representatives from SCO observer states Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov also met with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the summit and reviewed plans for expanding bilateral trade and investment, as well as discussing details of the upcoming joint military exercises, Tajik state television reported. China held its first-ever joint military exercises with Kyrgyzstan in 2002 and with Kazakhstan earlier this year. RG

Speaking to journalists, Tajik President Rakhmonov said on September 16 that he has not yet decided whether he will run for reelection in the November 6 presidential election, ITAR-TASS reported. The president, having ruled Tajikistan since 1994, promised to announce his decision "in the coming week," noting that none of the eight official parties have yet nominated a candidate despite the fact that the election campaign has already officially begun. Rakhmonov reportedly intends to make the announcement during the congress of his ruling People's Democratic Party scheduled for September 23-24. Recently adopted national referendums allow Rakhmonov to run for two more seven-year presidential terms. RG

International condemnation of the Turkmen government mounted as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the OSCE each issued statements on September 15 protesting the death in custody of RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova, RFE/RL reported. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Jose Diaz said that the UN body is "very disturbed" by Muradova's death and called on Turkmen authorities to conduct a "thorough, prompt, and independent investigation into the cause" of Muradova's death. The OSCE also called for an "exhaustive and impartial inquiry" into her death. Human rights groups -- including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders -- have also demanded a probe into Muradova's death. Muradova's family was notified of her death on September 14. Although Turkmen security officials said she died of natural causes, relatives said they saw marks on her neck and a "large wound" on her forehead that they and rights groups believe suggest she died during an interrogation. A Turkmen court last month sentenced Muradova and two co-defendants to six years in prison following a 10-minute trial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 15, 2006). RG

The Turkmen Central Election Commission met in Ashgabat on September 16 and announced that local elections will be held on December 3, Turkmen state television reported. The commission discussed the logistics and preparations for the district and town-council elections and approved regulations concerning the voting procedures. RG

An Uzbek regional court in Tashkent issued a ruling on September 15 sentencing prominent imam Ruhiddin Fakhriddinovto a 17-year prison term, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Rakhriddinovto was convicted on charges of religious extremism and terrorism in a closed trial held in the town of Chirchiq, north of Tashkent. Fakhriddinov, who was captured in southern Kazakhstan in November 2005 after evading arrest since 1998, is accused by the Uzbek authorities of being a leader of the banned radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). RG

Alyaksandr Milinkevich said at a rally of some 1,500 people in Minsk on September 16 that he does not believe that future elections in Belarus will offer people a real political choice, Reuters and Belapan reported. "The opposition no longer believes in elections in Belarus. We must hold street protests. We have to have more and more of them. Only in this way can we overturn dictatorship," Milinkevich said. The rally, which was connected to a rock concert to demonstrate solidarity with political prisoners in Belarus, was authorized by the authorities but ended ahead of the planned time because of a sudden electricity cutoff. Milinkevich called on participants in the rally to gather later at a central square to place candles in memory of opponents of the ruling regime who disappeared without explanation. Some 100 primarily young people reportedly gathered at October Square later the same day but were immediately turned away by police. An unconfirmed number of demonstrators were detained and are reportedly to be tried on September 18. JM

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on September 15 called on the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) to become an "independent global center of political force," Belapan reported. Lukashenka was speaking at a summit of the NAM in Havana. "This moment has come now. It may be too late tomorrow. We should by no means allow ourselves to be removed one by one to the backyards of our planet or torn to pieces like Yugoslavia and other states and drawn into the shade so that nobody will ever see us," Lukashenka said. He also called on members of the NAM to coordinate their stance on issues discussed by the United Nations. "Together we are able to prevent [the United Nations] from being used as a tool in crackdowns on countries that implement an independent policy," Lukashenka noted. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko said on September 15 that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's statement in Brussels the previous day about Ukraine not being ready for a NATO Membership Action Plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 15, 2006) was "wrong," Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. "I believe this argument...represents a point of view that is wrong, does not meet national interests, and must be corrected," Reuters quoted Yushchenko as saying at a news conference after talks with Yanukovych that Yushchenko described as "not particularly pleasant." JM

Petro Poroshenko, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council in 2005, said in an interview with the Kyiv-based Channel 5 on September 17 that Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov considered the idea of holding a referendum on the unification of the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester with Ukraine. "I can confirm that during my personal meetings with Smirnov, he more than once expressed the intention of holding a referendum on joining Ukraine," he said. Poroshenko called the September 17 referendum in Transdniester on secession from the Republic of Moldova and a potential merger with Russia a "dangerous precedent." "It could be easy to move after this to self-determination for Ossetia, Abkhazia, and a referendum in Crimea on secession," Poroshenko added. JM

European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has sent a letter to the Serbian government warning that time is running out for Belgrade to capture war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, Reuters reported on September 15, citing an unidentified EU official. "The letter emphasizes the need for action now because there is a risk of running out of time to finalize negotiations by the end of the year if it doesn't happen soon," the official said. Reuters quoted unidentified EU officials as saying that Serbian politicians seem to be clinging to false hope that negotiations for a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) could be restarted without Mladic being captured. The EU suspended talks on an SAA with Belgrade in May due to Serbia's failure to capture Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). BW

Serbian and Croatian war crimes prosecutors reached an agreement on September 17 resolving the issue of where to hold future trials involving their respective citizens, B92 and FoNet reported the same day. According to the agreement, future war crimes suspects will be tried in the country in which they are residing when arrested. In the past, war crimes defendants were tried in the country where the offense allegedly took place. Serbian war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic said the agreement will help overcome legal obstacles in Serbia and Croatia regarding extradition. The agreement is scheduled to be formally signed in Zagreb this week. BW

Speaking at a graduation ceremony for military officers on September 17, Serbian President Boris Tadic said the military must never again be used to solve internal political issues, B92 reported the same day. Tadic also said Serbia's armed forces need to be a "factor of stability" in the region. "Serbia has the goal of becoming a part of the European family [and] the military is a part of that goal," he said. "Our military is proof that Serbia is a modern, democratic nation. Our military is a part of our democracy, because it is under civil and democratic control." BW

The deputy UN envoy to Kosova's final-status talks, Albert Rohan, said on September 15 that the talks are in jeopardy and chances for success are increasingly slim, AP and the BBC reported the same day. "We're approaching a moment where by talking alone we won't accomplish the goal," he said. "We could talk for another 10 years and not change anything. The prospect of progress in these talks is increasingly slim." Serbian and ethnic Albanian negotiators wrapped up the ninth round of talks in Vienna on September 15. The session addressed issues of decentralization aimed at giving minority Serbs greater autonomy and voice. But like the previous eight rounds, the negotiations ended in stalemate. BW

Election officials in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region said on September 18 that voters in the September 17 referendum came out overwhelmingly in favor of independence, international news agencies reported. The self-proclaimed republic's Central Election Commission said 97.1 percent of the vote was in favor of independence, with 95 percent voting against reunification with Moldova. At 3 p.m. local time, the commission said turnout was 58.8 percent of Transdniester's 389,000 registered voters, more than the required 50 percent. Russia has called for the results of the referendum in pro-Moscow Transdniester to be respected, but no Western country has endorsed the vote. BW/DW

There are many reasons to expect Moscow's deteriorating ties with the West will continue their downward trend this autumn. But the key one may be growing differences over the breakaway regions of Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia and their stated desire to proclaim independence from Moldova and Georgia.

The issue pushing the frozen conflicts to the fore are two independence referendums -- one in Transdniester on September 17, the second in South Ossetia on November 12.

Russia, which has long acted as support for the separatist regions, is looking at the plebiscites in two ways: a chance to bring the regions into the Russian fold, and -- more importantly -- a way to begin a reconsolidation of the post-Soviet republics under the patronage of Moscow.

The West is steering clear of the votes. The Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe, the European Union, and the United States have all disavowed the referendums, saying that, in support of the territorial integrity of Georgia and Moldova, they will not recognize the results. Moscow, meanwhile, has stopped short of indicated whether it will recognize the ballots, but says it has long respected the "principle" of such referendums.

The situation in each of the three breakaway enclaves is different, but there is one thing they have in common. Since their formation in the wake of the Soviet collapse -- via armed conflicts aided, directly or otherwise, by the Kremlin -- they have all served Moscow as useful levers against Chisinau and Tbilisi.

In its support of Tiraspol, Sukhum(i), and Tskhinvali, Russia has aimed to keep restive Moldova and Georgia within its orbit. But that strategy has intensified over the past several years, as both Chisinau and Tbilisi made plain their aim of Euro-Atlantic integration and potential NATO and EU membership.

Now, for Moscow, the separatist regions can be used as more than just a thorn in the side of Moldova and Georgia. They are bona fide roadblocks on their path to Western integration. Both the NATO and the EU prohibit the accession of states with unsettled border or territorial disputes. Moscow, therefore, is interested in seeing the conflicts stay frozen as much as Chisinau and Tbilisi would like to see them thaw.

Russia has worked hard to cement its influence in the three breakaway regions, providing both military and economic support. First and foremost, Moscow has been very liberal in the provision of Russian passports to enclave residents. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, 85 percent of the population is estimated to hold Russian documents and receive social benefits and pensions as Russian citizens. That figure in Transdniester is considerably lower, but perhaps not for long. Russia's ambassador to Moldova, Nikolai Ryabov, last week announced that a new fast-track process for receiving Russian passports has been launched in Tiraspol.

Until recently, Moscow's support of Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia shopped short of recognizing outright their "independence" from Moldova and Georgia. Moreover, the Kremlin on many occasions stressed its loyalty to the notion of territorial integrity. This stance clearly reflected Kremlin fears that a pro-separatist position would fuel independence ambitions in places where it is decidedly inconvenient for Moscow, most notably Chechnya.

But a significant shift in that policy could be seen this year. In January, Russian President Vladimir Putin linked the issue of unrecognized states to the anticipated resolution of the status of the Serbian province of Kosova. "If someone believes that Kosovars can get full state independence," Putin said, "why should we refuse the same for the Abkhaz and South Ossetians?"

Since then, Putin has several times referred to Kosova as a model for the frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space. In doing so, Putin appears eager to mobilize the support of Spain, Turkey, China, India, and other countries with their own separatist difficulties.

Assuming sufficient turnout, the results of the Transdniestrian and South Ossetian referendums will be the same -- a resounding "yes" for independence, with an eye on eventual union with Russia. (Abkhazia, for its part, will not hold a similar plebiscite, but will pursue its own drive for independence based on the results of its 1994 referendum.)

But the results are largely meaningless. While Russian law provides for the adoption of foreign states into the federation, the provision applies only to regions subject to international law, which South Ossetia and Transdniester are not.

Why, then, are the referendums being held? One reason is Moscow's desire to keep the conflicts simmering in order to hamper Georgian and Moldovan NATO and EU bids. But there is a second possible reason as well -- an ambition among Soviet nostalgists to set a precedent for reintegrating former Soviet territory with Russia, with the eventual aim of creating a new but familiar superstate -- a kind of USSR-2.

Economist Mikhail Delyagin, the director of the Moscow-based Globalization Institute, offered perhaps the best description of the concept in a commentary published on September 11 in "Nezavisimaya gazeta." The recognition of the breakaway regions, he wrote, "will launch a real, not fictitious, reintegration of the post-Soviet space."

He added: "The disintegration of the USSR turned us into a divided nation. This applies to not only Russians, but also Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Belarusians, and others. And we should recognize ourselves as being divided people moving toward reunion."

Other pundits find the idea appealing as well. The economic analytical site, for example, in August published a 25-page report proposing a possible course for Russia's policy goals through 2015. They include the creation on the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States a state, or superstate, comprising a population of 300 million and based on a common market and currency.

Another similar project, published on, proposes the creation by 2014 of a new state, Eurasian Rus. It begins with the unification of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Armenia, all by 2008. By 2010, this hypothetical superstate will have grown to include Mongolia, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, and Bulgaria. Four years later, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, North and South Korea, and all of Eastern Europe will have joined the club as well.

However fantastic such a project may seem, the breadth of its ambitions cannot be ignored, especially considering that Russia's leading Unified Russia party has already labeled itself the party of "historical revanchism" with an eye to the 2007 parliamentary elections.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai left Kabul on a trip to the United States and Canada on September 17, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. A press release issued by Karzai's office on September 14 announced the Afghan leader will attend the 61st session of the UN General Assembly in New York before traveling to Ottawa for an official visit to Canada. Karzai is expected to conclude his trip with a four-day official visit to the United States, with stops in Washington, D.C., and Florida. At a news conference in Kabul on September 16, Karzai said he will hold a joint meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Washington, the official Afghanistan National Television reported. AT

During a visit to the Afghan Defense Ministry in Kabul on September 16, President Karzai restated his long-standing policy of reconciliation for "Afghan Taliban who are not exploited by foreign elements," Afghanistan National Television reported. Responding to a question from RFE/RL, Karzai said his administration has "always been ready to hold talks with the Taliban who are Afghan nationals and are the sons of Afghanistan" and are living in Afghanistan who "might have been somehow disappointed." Turning to the 2005 parliamentary elections, in which a number of members of the ousted Taliban regime participated, Karzai said that their participation illustrated the readiness of his administration to "hold talks with Afghan Taliban...who have no links with Al-Qaeda or other enemies of Afghanistan." However, in a less conciliatory vein, Karzai added: "But we will never hold talks [with those] who enter our country under the name of Taliban or the foreigners" or Afghan nationals who are "servants of foreign intelligence services and the enemies of Afghanistan." In most of his earlier comments about the reconciliation program for the neo-Taliban, Karzai extended the amnesty offer to everyone except for 100-150 unspecified former Taliban members who had committed grave crimes against the Afghan people. While Karzai did not specify which foreign intelligence services he was implicating, Karzai and other Afghan officials have accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of backing the ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan. AT

The Afghan Foreign Ministry issued a statement on September 16 calling recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI an insult to Islam, Afghanistan National Television reported. Stressing that it views the current environment as a "time when the need for reconciliation of faiths" is important, the ministry said, the pontiff's remark "intensifies the dispute among the followers of different faiths." The statement called on world leaders to try to develop a "dialogue of civilizations and a better understanding" with Muslims. The National Assembly issued a joint statement in conjunction with the Endowment and Islamic Affairs Ministry and General Council of the Ulama on September 16 describing the pope's remarks as derogatory, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported. A parliamentary spokesman told Tolu that the members of the National Assembly condemn the pope's remarks and believe that "despite being the leader of a major religion, the pope is still unaware of the virtues and characteristics of the Prophet Muhammad...and the great lessons of Islam." Speaking on September 12 at Germany's Regensberg University, where he taught theology in the 1970s, the pope quoted from a written criticism of Islam by Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus. Manuel ruled the Orthodox Christian empire from what is now Istanbul in the 1300s. Benedict quoted a conversation that the emperor wrote about having with "an educated Persian." The quote read: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The Vatican has said the pope regrets the offense that the remarks engendered. AT

The self-described supreme commander of the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, Mullah Dadullah, said that the remarks made recently by Pope Benedict are proof of a worldwide war against Islam, AIP reported on September 16. The pontiff's statements confirm that the battle in Afghanistan is not "between the U.S.A. and Afghans" but rather "it is a fight between Muslims and infidels," Dadullah said, adding, "As [U.S. President George W.] Bush has said in the past, this is a crusade." Dadullah pledged to take the fight to the "heart of Kabul" with "big explosions." He said "hundreds upon hundreds of young" Afghans are joining the ranks of the Taliban and are being educated and trained inside Afghanistan. Dadullah rejected any negotiations with the Karzai administration, saying, "We do not want a solution that does not take care of the interests of Islam." He added that the only solution is for all of the "infidels of the world to leave Afghanistan." AT

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad attended a two-day summit of the Nonaligned Movement in Havana that concluded with a September 16 statement supporting a peaceful nuclear program in Iran, international news agencies reported. The statement also proposed a nuclear-free Middle East and urged Iran to cooperate with the UN nuclear inspectorate verifying the peaceful nature of its program, AP reported. Ahmadinejad held talks with participating statesmen on the sidelines of the summit, including the presidents of Algeria, Belarus, Venezuela, Sudan, and Bolivia, and the crown prince of Qatar, IRNA reported on September 17. Ahmadinejad's program reportedly included signing five agreements with Cuba, and ISNA reported that he also met with ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro. On September 17, Ahmadinejad traveled to Venezuela, where he was greeted by President Hugo Chavez and a 21-gun salute, IRNA and Fars News Agency reported. Ahmadinejad is expected to sign 25 agreements on joint ventures in the oil, petrochemicals, mining, and farming sectors and touching on the production of medicines, training of steel-industry workers, and manufacture of surgical equipment and plastic packaging, EFE and reported on September 17. Ahmadinejad said shortly after his arrival in Caracas that Iran and Venezuela have "common ideas" and "interests" as they fight "global hegemony," reported. VS

The papal nuncio in Tehran, Cardinal Angelo Michela, was summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry on September 17 to hear Iran's displeasure at remarks made by Pope Benedict on September 12 and interpreted as linking Islam with violence (see item, above), IRNA reported. The pope's remarks have caused widespread anger among Muslims. The director-general for Western Europe at the Foreign Ministry, Ibrahim Rahimpur, told the cardinal, "We do not expect the make comments one hears from [U.S. President] Bush on the anniversary of the September 11" attacks, IRNA reported. Rahimpur said Pope Benedict's conduct belies his stated interest in dialogue among religions, and complained that he had made an "incomplete" reference to a historical discussion. Rahimpur wondered aloud why the pope said nothing about the Persian scholar's reply to the controversial 14th-century quotation. "Clearly the Islamic world collectively interprets the pope's remarks as insulting, and he must show more awareness of his religious and political responsibility," Rahimpur said. The nuncio reportedly said the pontiff did not mean to insult anyone. Separately, Tehran's Armenian bishop, Sabouh Sarkissian, and Armenian members of Iran's parliament on September 17 condemned the pope's remarks, IRNA reported. Iranian seminaries also closed down in protest at the remarks, RFE/RL's Radio Farda and AFP reported on September 17. VS

Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati told electoral supervisors in Tehran on September 17 that "only the people's vote" must determine election results and electoral supervisors must thwart "those with power and money, or any group or official" trying to "bring certain people out of the ballot boxes," Mehr reported. Jannati heads the Guardians Council, which determines the eligibility of aspiring candidates and verifies the electoral process. Iranian reformers often criticize the council and allege it works to the disadvantage of reformers, although it maintains it is above politics. Jannati said election results could neither benefit nor harm the council, which "merely does its constitutional duties, including assuring the veracity and health of elections," Mehr reported. Elections in Iran are "totally free," he said, before urging supervisors to prevent any irregularity, as "some people" might try and influence results "at any price," Mehr reported. Iran is to hold elections for local councils, the Assembly of Experts -- a body of senior clerics -- and elections for some parliamentary seats, probably in December. VS

Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi said in Tehran on September 17 that he has chosen a new deputy interior minister for political affairs, to be named in "three or four days," IRNA reported. The deputy oversees the organization of elections, and succeeds Ali Jannati, who is to be Iran's ambassador in Kuwait. Jannati was considered a controversial choice for being the son of Ayatollah Jannati (see above). Pur-Mohammadi was speaking at Tehran's airport before departing for a meeting in Saudi Arabia of interior ministers from Iraq's neighbors. He suggested the next deputy minister is an experienced ministry official approved by President Ahmadinejad, IRNA reported. Separately, Iran will appoint Alireza Sheikh-Attar, currently a deputy foreign minister for economic affairs, as its ambassador in Brussels, Mehr reported, without specifying whether he is to represent Iran in Belgium alone or also with the European Union. It stated, however, that Sheikh-Attar's familiarity with economic affairs makes him a suitable choice for a key city of the European Union. Sheikh-Attar has served as ambassador in New Delhi, and is currently accompanying Ahmadinejad on his official travels in the Western hemisphere, Mehr reported. VS

Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani has left for Jeddah to meet with the interior ministers of the seven states bordering Iraq for a three-day conference, international media reported on September 18. The meeting, hosted by Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz al-Sa'ud, will focus on regional security and is expected to result in the signing of a security-cooperation agreement between Iraq and its neighbors. The agreement, which has been in the works for months, will include provisions aimed at securing borders and preventing cross-border weapons smuggling and border crossings, both by insurgents and would-be pilgrims. The conference between Iraq and its neighbors is the third of its kind; Turkey hosted the 2005 Iraq neighbors conference, while Iran hosted the previous year's conference. KR

Demonstrators in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah rallied against Pope Benedict XVI on September 18 for comments he made last week regarding Islam and violence, Reuters reported. The demonstration was organized by Shi'ite cleric Mahmud al-Hasani (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," August 25, 2006). Al-Hasani's spokesman Ahmad Sa'di said the cleric has demanded the pope and the Vatican stand trial "under UN Security Council resolutions." Demonstrators reportedly burned an effigy of the pope, as well as the U.S., Israeli, and German flags. The pope is a German national. A leading Shi'ite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), posted a statement on its website on September 16 condemning the pope's remarks, calling them "unfounded and incorrect accusations against our true Islamic religion." KR

The Arab League denied reports on September 17 that its envoy to Iraq has resigned, MENA reported the same day. The league's plenipotentiary minister, Ali al-Jarush, called the reports baseless, and added that envoy, Mukhtar Lamani was en route to Jeddah for the meeting of Iraq's neighboring states. KR

Iraqi nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concluded a two-day conference for civil-society institutions on national reconciliation on September 17, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. Attendees reportedly signed a code of honor that included a pledge to reject violence and undertake efforts to support the reconciliation process. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki addressed the September 16 session of the conference, telling participants that they constitute an integral part of the country's national fabric, RFI reported. "Reconciliation will involve only those who recognized others and accepted having them as partners and categorically rejected all existing differences, which are based on narrow sectarian, ethnic, and partisan bases," he said. "Whoever does not clarify his position toward a constructive national participation and the responsibility for protecting the state, its institutions, and laws is not a partner in our political march." KR