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Newsline - November 15, 2006


POLISH PRESIDENT WANTS 'EQUALITY' IN RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA...
President Lech Kaczynski said in a November 15 interview in the Warsaw daily "Dziennik" that Poland is justified in blocking any move by the EU to launch talks on a new EU-Russia partnership agreement, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 13, and 14, 2006). He stressed that Russia must observe "equality and genuine partnership" if it wants good relations with Poland. He argued that "Poland must take a decisive stand. Only in this way will it be allowed to defend its interests." Kaczynski noted that as long as Russia maintains its current embargo on Polish meat and plant products, it is violating its obligations to the EU. As a consequence, either Russia must lift its ban, or the EU must impose similar sanctions against Russia, he added. RIA Novosti said in a commentary on November 15 that Poland is concerned primarily about its food exports and is using the energy issue to "blackmail" Russia. Poland maintains that Russia imposed the food ban for political and not for hygienic reasons, as Moscow claims. PM

...AND EU MINISTER SEEKS POLISH 'UNDERSTANDING'
EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana told RFE/RL in Brussels on November 14 that he has no doubt that a way will be found out of the current impasse involving Polish objections to launching talks with Russia on a new long-term agreement between Brussels and Moscow. He said that "Poland said [on November 13] that they want to have as an element of the negotiations with Russia that Russia accepts the Energy Charter. Russia has said many times that [it is] not against it, [not against] the philosophy of the charter, but that [it has] some difficulties in accepting the manner in which these ideas are expressed. But we have a commitment with Russia to keep discussing this question about the Energy Charter, and I am sure that Poland will understand that." Russia signed the Energy Charter in 1994, but President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly refused to ratify it without substantial modifications. The document would require Russia to open up access to its pipelines, which Gazprom now effectively controls as a monopoly, while seeking greater access to European markets for itself. PM

FINLAND REMAINS 'OPTIMISTIC' ON DEAL WITH RUSSIA
Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country currently holds the EU Presidency, said in Brussels on November 14 that he hopes that EU member states will soon find common ground on launching talks with Russia, RFE/RL reported. He said that "we'll work on a mandate [partnership agreement], and I would expect that we can finalize the mandate and have it adopted by the [European] Council. It can still be done before the [November 24] EU-Russia summit." In Moscow, the daily "Izvestia" reported on November 15 that "the only formal consequence of Poland's protest is a step backward in the EU consultations process. The EU, despite its internal conflicts, is fond of order. Finland, currently chairing the EU, is fond of order as well. Finnish representatives have said repeatedly that Europe and Russia should speak 'with one voice.' Thus, some sort of digestible solution is likely to be found by the time the Helsinki summit opens." PM

LITHUANIA OFFERS SUPPORT FOR POLAND
Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Zygimantas Pavilionis, who participated in the November 13 Brussels meeting of EU foreign ministers, told RFE/RL on November 14 that Lithuania is coordinating its Russia policy with Poland. He said that "starting in September [of this year], Lithuania has constantly consulted with Poland, as our strategic partner, on all questions concerning the Russia-EU agreement. It is not only because [Poland] is our partner, but also because our interests coincide, especially in the energy sphere." Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and Lithuanian legislators have repeatedly warned that Russia uses its energy resources to pressure and "blackmail" its neighbors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19 and November 8, 2006). Russian and some European media have stressed that Poland had no support at the Brussels meeting, but Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" commented on November 14 that Poland has done the EU a favor by insisting that Russia ratify the Energy Charter as a precondition to talks, lest any new agreement lack substance. PM

RUSSIA SENDS MIXED SIGNALS ON POSSIBLE FORMATION OF GAS CARTEL
Arkady Dvorkovich, who is a top economic adviser to President Vladimir Putin, said on November 14 that Moscow currently has no plans to form a cartel of gas producing and shipping countries to strengthen its leverage over Europe, but he did not rule out such an option, mosnews.com reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, October 31, and November 14, 2006). Dvorkovich stressed that "creating cartels is a possible, but not necessarily the most efficient way of solving problems. Under no circumstances would we initiate or insist on that." He added, however, that "if all major gas producers are interested in reaching such an agreement, its creation is possible. No possibilities should be excluded, but I don't think it will happen." PM

CONTROVERSY CONTINUES OVER PROPOSED ABOLITION OF VOTER TURNOUT THRESHOLD
The State Duma is slated to consider a number of bills on November 15, including one to abolish the requirement for a 20 percent voter turnout for an election to the State Duma and a 50 percent turnout for a presidential vote for an election to be valid, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2006). Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov, who is also a leader of the new "manufactured opposition" party known as A Just Russia, said in a November 15 interview with the daily "Izvestia" that dropping the turnout threshold is "premature." He argued that the move constitutes an attempt by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party to improve its own position, but warned that various recent "moves to change electoral laws will come back to bite Unified Russia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 2006). Mironov suggested that his party will soon start to win regional legislative elections and then "we'll be able to nominate governor candidates...and soon have our own regional leaders." Vladimir Pligin, who heads the State Duma's committee on constitutional law, argued in the state-run "Rossiiskaya gazeta" of November 15 that there is no turnout threshold in many major democracies, including the United States or Canada. He added that "the principle here is the free expression of the people's will in free elections. Voters decide for themselves whether to participate in elections or not." Critics charge that the proposed legislation will deprive voters of the possibility of blocking objectionable candidates by boycotting the election. Pligin argued, however, that "this is one of the most well-educated and politically active societies in the world. Most of our citizens don't want to sit back and passively observe what happens to them." PM

EU SIGNS 'NEIGHBORHOOD' AGREEMENTS WITH SOUTH CAUCASUS STATES
The EU signed European Neighborhood Policy action plans in Brussels on November 14 with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, RFE/RL and international media reported. Those plans comprise incentives, including closer cooperation with the EU and wider access to its internal market, that are intended to expedite democratization and reforms of the justice, energy, health, and education systems, and strengthen regional security. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner stressed on November 14 that the neighborhood policy is not intended as a preliminary step towards EU membership, RFE/RL reported. But Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili nonetheless affirmed at the signing ceremony that Georgia's accession to the EU "is only a matter of time," Caucasus Press reported. The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Vartan Oskanian and Elmar Mammadyarov, both noted that the signing of the agreements creates more favorable conditions for achieving a negotiated settlement of the Karabakh conflict, according to echo-az.com on November 15. LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION PARTY STAGES PROTEST
Opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party leader Raffi Hovannisian together with several supporters staged a picket on November 14 outside the building in Yerevan that houses the Prosecutor-General's Office to demand a response to his protest filed one month earlier over reprisals directed against Zharangutiun in March that Hovannisian claims were carried out on direct orders from the presidential administration, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7 and 23, April 4, and May 31, 2006). Zaruhi Postanjian, a lawyer for Zharangutiun, said computers confiscated from the party's headquarters in March were tampered with and some data "modified" before they were returned. LF

RUSSIAN OPERATOR ACQUIRES ARMENIAN TELECOM NETWORK
The Armenian government's Public Services Regulatory Commission gave the green light on November 14 for the acquisition by the Russian mobile phone operator VimpelCom of the 90 percent stake in the Armenian Telephone Company (ArmenTel) currently owned by Greece's Hellenic Telecommunications Organization SA (OTE), Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. According to unconfirmed media reports, VimpelCom will pay 341.9 million euros ($436.3 million) for that stake, and will in addition repay ArmenTel's 40 million euros debt. Relations between OTE and the Armenian government have weathered numerous crises since the former first acquired a majority stake in ArmenTel in 1998. LF

GEORGIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY REJECTS RUSSIAN COMMENT ON SOUTH OSSETIAN POLL
The Georgian Foreign Ministry has released a statement rejecting comments made on November 13 by its Russian counterpart regarding the November 12 presidential election and referendum in the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported on November 14. Tbilisi rejected the Russian statement that independent observers concluded that the ballot took place "in accordance with the generally accepted principles and norms for the organization and conduct of a democratic ballot." The Georgian statement further described the Russian comments as a reflection of support for the separatist government of South Ossetia and as intended to undermine Georgia's territorial integrity. LF

GEORGIAN DETAINEES APPEAL TO U.S. PRESIDENT
Three Georgian opposition politicians -- Temur Zhorzholiani, Zaza Davitaya, and Vkahtang Talakadze -- who were arrested two months ago on charges of treason in connection with an alleged coup plot masterminded by former National Security head Igor Giorgadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and 8, 2006), have released an appeal through their lawyer in which they call on U.S. President George W. Bush to take unspecified measures to "halt political repression" in Georgia, Caucasus Press reported on November 14. Also on November 14, Caucasus Press reported that the opposition Labor Party has written to the president of the European Parliament alleging that President Saakashvili has imposed a single-party "dictatorial regime" in Georgia. LF

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT ADOPTS FREEDOM OF INFORMATION BILL
Kyrgyz lawmakers on November 14 adopted a bill initiated by President Kurmanbek Bakiev that lays out broad access for citizens and residents to information that is not deemed to be commercial or state secrets, AKIpress reported the same day. The legislation also requires state officials to respond to inquiries directly or via the media, and includes a clause allowing the public to attend government sessions and making them a matter of public record. The law must still be signed by Bakiev before it can go into effect. AN

KYRGYZ OFFICIALS BLAME AIRCRAFT COLLISION ON U.S. CREW
Kyrgyz Transport and Communications Minister Nurlan Sulaymanov has blamed the recent collision of a Kyrgyz Airlines plane with a U.S. military KC-136 at Manas Airport on the U.S. crew, 24.kg reported on November 14. Sulaymanov said the Foreign Ministry is discussing the issue of compensation for damages with U.S. officials. One of the Kyrgyz Tu-154's wings caught fire following the collision, which occurred during takeoff on September 26; the aircraft was carrying 52 passengers bound for Moscow. President Bakiev uses the airplane that was damaged in the incident for official trips abroad. AN

TAJIK AUTHORITIES LAUNCH RESETTLEMENT EFFORT
The first group of residents to be resettled from southern Tajikistan to the western part of the country were relocated on November 14, Regnum news agency reported the same day. The group, of 56 families from the Kulob region, moved to the Tursunzade region, Kulob regional official Sukhrobsho Farruhshoev said. He added that some 1,000 volunteer families will gradually be moved to western Tajikistan, which borders Uzbekistan. Farruhshoev described the project as an attempt to develop new lands in the Tursinzade region. But some local observers were quoted by ferghana.ru as saying it seeks to offset the primarily ethnic Uzbek population with ethnic Tajiks. AN

UZBEK HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDER RELEASED UNEXPECTEDLY
A regional court in the town of Namangan acquitted Arabboy Qodirov, the head of the local branch of the Ezgulik Human Rights organization, on November 13, Germany-based uznews.net website reported the next day. Qodirov was detained in May and subsequently convicted on charges of anticonstitutional activities and falsifying documents, but his lawyers and colleagues appealed the court's decision. During recent EU-Uzbek talks in Brussels, Uzbek officials reportedly expressed a willingness to launch a human rights dialogue. EU officials who said they remain "profoundly concerned" by the human rights situation in Uzbekistan voted on November 13 for an extension of an arms embargo for another 12 months and a visa ban for 12 top Uzbek officials for six months. AN

UZBEKISTAN, AFGHANISTAN AGREE NEW ELECTRICITY SUPPLIES
Uzbekistan's Uzbekenergo and the Afghan Energy and Water Resources Ministry signed an agreement in Tashkent on November 13 under which Uzbekistan will supply electricity to Afghanistan's northern, southern, and central regions, Russia-based afghanistan.ru website reported on November 14. Uzbekistan is already the main supplier of electricity to Afghanistan, which faces serious shortages. The agreement comes after a recent visit of Afghan Energy and Water Resources Minister Ismail Khan to Tashkent, where he discussed expanding cooperation in electricity supplies. Afghanistan is reportedly seeking a similar deal with Turkmenistan. AN

U.S. ADDS UZBEKISTAN TO LIST OF COUNTRIES OF 'PARTICULAR CONCERN'
The U.S. State Department has announced the inclusion of Uzbekistan on its list of the world's worst violators of religious freedoms, Reuters reported on November 14. Washington describes Uzbekistan as a country where ordinary Muslims are harassed, detained and accused of extremism, and Christians routinely face abuses. The U.S. ambassador for religious freedom, John Hanford, said the list should serve as a signal to countries that they have serious problems, and he added that the Uzbek government "continues to target observant Muslims for arrest, often considering conservative Islamic practice to be evidence of extremism and terrorism." Representative Tom Lantos (Democrat, California), who is likely to be nominated to chair the House International Relations Committee, welcomed the State Department's decision on Uzbekistan. AN

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION FIELDS SOME 1,000 CANDIDATES FOR LOCAL ELECTIONS
The united democratic opposition has registered some 1,000 candidates through the signature-collecting procedure for local elections scheduled to take place on January 14, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported on November 14. Authorities refused to register several prominent leaders of opposition parties and independent trade unions as candidates, including United Civic Party Chairman Anatol Lyabedzka, United Civic Party Deputy Chairman Yaraslau Ramanchuk, and trade unionists Alyaksandr Bukhvostau and Henadz Fyadynich. Theoretically, Lyabedzka and Ramanchuk can still make the ballot if they are proposed by their party. JM

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITIONIST RELEASED FROM PRISON
Former lawmaker Syarhey Skrabets was released from a correctional facility on November 15, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Skrabets was arrested in May 2005, and the the Supreme Court sentenced him in February 2006 to 2 1/2 years in prison, finding him guilty of defrauding a bank in a case that was widely believed to be politically motivated. Skrabets went on hunger strike on October 20, in solidarity with hunger-striking Alyaksandr Kazulin, a former opposition presidential candidate who is serving 5 1/2 years in the same facility from which Skrabets was released. JM

INTELLECTUAL SAYS BELARUS'S SUPPLY OF 'HONOR FOR SALE' HAS BEEN EXHAUSTED
Valery Bulhakau, editor in chief of the intellectual Belarusian-language monthly "Arche," told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on November 14 that Belarus during the rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, like the Belarusian SSR, has been "a prostitute selling its honor to Russia." "This honor consisted of her [Belarus's] ethnic idiosyncrasies -- its language, culture, genuine traditions, and so on," Bulhakau noted. According to Bulhakau, Moscow invested heavily in Belarus during the Soviet era in order to make the republic loyal to the center and to prevent the Belarusians from becoming a nation. "From this point of view, Russia's recent [gas-price proposals] show that the Russians have begun to realize that the Belarusians have nothing more to sell on the symbolic level. The Belarusians have already become almost identical with the Russians, therefore their resources of honor for sale have been exhausted. If this logic is true, then we will unavoidably see a serious increase in gas prices," Bulhakau said. JM

UKRAINIAN INTERIOR MINISTER REPORTEDLY SUSPECTED OF CORRUPTION
Deputy Prosecutor-General Renat Kuzmin said in a television interview on November 14 that Ukrainian prosecutors believe that Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko has been involved in corruption, Ukrainian media reported. Kuzmin said the alleged corruption is linked to an investigation into the killing earlier this year of Roman Yerokhin, a colonel in the Interior Ministry. Asked by a journalist to be more specific about Lutsenko's alleged corrupt actions, Kuzmin said the issue involves the "unlawful promotion of police officers, unlawful issue of combat handguns to individuals who have no right to carry weapons, and a lot of other [violations]." Lutsenko was one of President Viktor Yushchenko's nominations to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's cabinet. JM

UKRAINIAN PRO-PRESIDENTIAL MINISTER WANTS TO REMAIN IN YANUKOVYCH'S CABINET
Health Minister Yuriy Polyachenko said on November 15 that he is ready to stay in Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's government, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Polyachenko added that he does not support the decision of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine People's Union to go into opposition. Polyachenko was appointed health minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov in September 2005 and proposed by Our Ukraine for the same job in Yanukovych's cabinet in August 2006. After the Our Ukraine parliamentary caucus decided to go into opposition in October, Polyachenko and three other ministers proposed by Our Ukraine tendered their resignations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19, 2006). The Verkhovna Rada on November 1 accepted the resignations of Justice Minister Roman Zvarych and Culture Minister Ihor Likhovyy. JM

UKRAINIAN FOREIGN, DEFENSE MINISTERS QUESTIONED IN PARLIAMENT
Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk and Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko delivered reports in the Verkhovna Rada on November 15 on their cabinet performance, as they were requested to do by parliament last month, Ukrainian media reported. Lawmakers from the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party criticized Tarasyuk and Hrytsenko for what they saw as their unsatisfactory work and negligence in office. The Verkhovna Rada failed to pass any resolution on either minister during its morning sitting. Tarasyuk and Hrytsenko were nominated for their cabinet posts by President Yushchenko. JM

EU DELAYS BOSNIA TROOP REDUCTION
European Union defense ministers on November 13 postponed a decision to reduce the size of the EU's peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina, AP reported the same day. Brussels is considering reducing the 6,500 strong EUFOR peacekeeping force to as few as 1,500 troops. But defense ministers, worried that potential unrest in Kosova could spread to Bosnia, decided to postpone the decision. "A decision to reduce troop strength is under consideration," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told the defense ministers' meeting. "The situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina allows this." Solana added that member states should not take a decision before December and not begin the reductions until February 2007 at the earliest. French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the EU must make sure it has enough troops in the region in case unrest spreads from Kosova. "We can envisage a reduction of the Bosnia force on condition that we maintain the ability to return in force quickly if the region, especially Kosova, becomes unstable," she said. BW

EU OFFICIALS BACK DELAY ON KOSOVA DECISION
Also on November 13, Solana said he supports United Nations special envoy Martti Ahtisaari's decision to delay his recommendations on Kosova's future until after Serbia holds elections, AP reported the same day. "It will be better...to see if the strong democratic government may come out in Serbia that will be, for the future, beneficial for everybody," Solana said. Other EU officials agreed with Solana's assessment. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said a delay "is sensible" given the January 21 elections in Serbia. Rehn added, however, that the delay "cannot be too long...because we cannot leave Kosova in legal limbo." And Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, who chaired separate EU foreign ministers' talks with Ahtisaari, said the delay would not harm efforts to bring lasting stability to the Balkans. "We are not afraid it will destabilize the situation," he told reporters. The UN announced on November 10 that it will postpone a decision on Kosova's final status until after Serbia's election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2006). BW

ITALY PROPOSES RESTARTING EU-SERBIA TALKS
At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on November 13, Italy called for talks with Serbia on a Stabilization and Association Agreement to be restarted, B92 reported on November 14. Italy's Deputy Foreign Minister Famiano Crucianelli said the SAA talks, suspended in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 3, and 4, 2006) should be restarted in order to help Belgrade get over the eventual shock of losing Kosova. "The opening of EU-Serbia discussions could be granted with the condition that the future Serbian government would have to definitely meet the demands of the Hague court and arrest [Bosnian-Serb war crimes indictee] Ratko Mladic," Crucianelli said. BW

SERBIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS SUPPORT FOR KOSOVA INDEPENDENCE DECLINING
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said on November 14 that he believes that support for Kosova independence among Contact Group members is wavering, B92, Beta and FoNet reported the same day. "The Western part of the Contact Group -- the U.S., France, Great Britain, and Italy -- are still closest to some form of independence. However, their stance is not as resolute today as it was at the beginning of the Kosovo discussions," Draskovic said. He added that in the event that Kosova is granted independence, Serbia will need to respond by increasing its influence in the world and in the EU. "Then we will have the opportunity to revise any eventual wrong decisions that were made," he said. BW

MOLDOVA, GEORGIA VOW TO COOPERATE ON FROZEN CONFLICTS
Moldova and Georgia decided on November 13 to work together to resolve "frozen conflicts" in the former Soviet Union, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. The agreement to work together on the issue was made during a meeting in Chisinau between Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili. "The problem of the frozen conflicts may be resolved only if the territorial integrity of the two countries is maintained," Voronin's press service said in a statement. The two sides, Voronin said, also agreed to "settle other problems together," including "advancing...our countries to Europe." Moldova's Foreign Affairs and European Integration Ministry has already released a statement condemning South Ossetia's independence referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2006). BW

WHAT LED TO GEORGIAN DEFENSE MINISTER'S DEMOTION?
In a surprise move on November 10, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced the dismissal of Georgia's hawkish Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and his appointment to the post of economy minister. Okruashvili succeeds Irakli Chogovadze, who was simultaneously named to head the Georgian Oil and Gas Corporation following the resignation of its president, David Ingorokva, in the wake of a corruption scandal involving one of his subordinates.

Saakashvili named to succeed Okruashvili as defense minister former Finance Police head David Kezerashvili, whom he described as "young but daring, educated and firm. He displayed high professional and human qualities as financial police chief ...We fully trust Kezerashvili and think that he will make a perfect defense minister," ITAR-TASS reported. Kezerashvili, who is 28, graduated from the Department of Law and International Relations of Tbilisi Sytate University and began work at the Justice Ministry in 2001 when Saakashvili was minister; he is also a co-founder of Saakashvili's United National Movement.

Kezerashvili assured the television station Rustavi-2 on November 12 that "restoration of the territorial integrity of Georgia remains our major goal, and nothing has changed," Caucasus Press reported on November 13. Okruashvili for his part has made clear that he is less than enthusiastic about his new appointment, which several commentators see as a demotion. He commented to his new subordinates on November 11 that "my heart and soul remain with the army," Caucasus Press reported.

Saakashvili's public explanation for transferring Okruashvili from the defense to the economy ministry was that Georgia's economy "is now our battle front," and that the managerial and organizational talents of Okruashvili, whom Saakashvili described as "our strongest minister," are best deployed there, according to the Russian daily "Kommersant" on November 13. But commentators in both Tbilisi and Moscow have offered several alternative explanations. One, proposed by Georgian opposition parliamentarian Tina Khidasheli, stems from Okruashvili's aggressive stance with regard to the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia. As interior minister, Okruashvili, who was born in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, was behind an abortive incursion into that republic in the late summer of 2004 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," August 5 and 20, 2006). And in February 2006, he publicly vowed to step down as defense minister if he failed to bring the breakaway region back under the control of the central Georgian government by the end of this year, enabling him to celebrate New Year 2007 in Tskhinvali. Khidasheli therefore suggested that in light of repeated Russian statements in recent months accusing Georgia of plotting a new military action against South Ossetia, Saakashvili "sacrificed" Okruashvili in the name of trying to improve strained relations with Moscow, a move she condemned as "setting a bad precedent," according to "Kommersant."

A second opposition politician, Imedi party chair Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, was similarly quoted on November 13 as stating that Okruashvili was "sacrificed" in the name of Georgian-Russian relations. But if this was indeed Saakashvili's hope, it seems to have been misplaced: "Kommersant" on November 13 quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying that Okruashvili's dismissal "makes no difference. In order to resume a dialogue, [the Georgian leaders] first have to abandon the idea of using force" against Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Opposition Labor party leading member Djondi Baghaturia was quoted by the daily "Akhali taoba" on November 13 as suggesting that Okruashvili was demoted because other top officials felt threatened by his popularity and influence. According to a poll conducted by the weekly "Kviris palitra," the findings of which were published on November 6, over 90 percent of the 552 respondents considered Okruashvili the second-most influential figure in Georgia after Saakashvili, while 59 percent of the 463 respondents in a subsequent poll termed Okruashvili "the most attractive" Georgian politician, according to Caucasus Press on November 13.

Other analysts, however, believe that more sinister motives lay behind Saakashvili's decision to sideline Okruashvili, namely that Saakashvili feared Okruashvili might try to oust him. Interfax on November 10 quoted Sergei Markov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Research, as saying that "this is the most important news from Georgia in 2006 -- it means that Saakashvili has averted a coup attempt." Markov added that in recent months, "Georgia has had not a Saakashvili regime but a Saakashvili-Okruashvili regime, in which the army was more loyal to the latter."

"Kommersant" for its part quoted a Kremlin insider as observing that "the impression is that Saakashvili considered [Okruashvili] excessively independent, and therefore dangerous." But "Kommersant" also quoted unnamed Tbilisi analysts as dismissing the coup hypothesis on the grounds that Okruashvili's imputed popularity was grossly exaggerated, and that he "lacked the resources" to stage a successful seizure of power.

How Okruashvili's removal will impact on the Georgian armed forces remains unclear. Civil Georgia on November 11 quoted the Georgian daily "Rezonansi" as predicting that Kezerashvili is intended only as a stopgap figure, and that Georgia's envoy to the UN Irakli Alasania will soon be recalled to Tbilisi to head the defense ministry.

AID GROUPS WARN UN OF THREATS TO AFGHAN SOCIETY, NONPROFIT ACTIVITIES
The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) expressed security and rights concerns in a meeting with a visiting UN Security Council delegation in Kabul on November 13, Pajhwok Afghan News reported on November 14. The UN delegation was on a four-day visit to gather information about the security situation in Afghanistan. ACBAR, which brings together about 80 aid agencies involved in humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, described escalating violence, human rights violations, and "insufficient peace and reconstruction strategies" to the UN visitors. The group argued that current international efforts in Afghanistan -- focused on military action, donor-driven aid, and Western-style democracy -- may not be well suited to a country that has seen foreign intervention fail time and again. The agencies advocated a shift in strategy from counterterrorism to promotion of human security. The Security Council representatives were also warned that aid agencies are likely to curtail their activities in Afghanistan due to security concerns. CJ

SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN TO RECEIVE UN FOOD ASSISTANCE
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) announced from Kabul on November 14 that it will distribute food to thousands of people affected by violence and recent drought, the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported the same day. The WFP said some 70,000 people in the drought-affected southeastern provinces of Zabul, Oruzgan, and Kandahar will receive more than 1,100 tons of food, including cereals, oil, and iodized salt. An additional 2,000 tons of food will be distributed to 200,000 people in 26 districts in the provinces of Helmand, Nimroz, Zabul, Oruzgan, and Kandahar through a food-for-work program. The food-for-work program is designed to provide food for the needy while it repairs important infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and schools. The WFP also plans to pre-position 21,000 tons of food in seven provinces across Afghanistan, to provide assistance to 2.3 million people, before the areas become inaccessible due to heavy snowfall. In light of current food shortages, the agency is calling for further international donations. CJ

AFGHAN PRESIDENT LAUDS NEW LAND-MINE LAW
Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed his support for the implementation of a new international law requiring the destruction of land mines and unexploded ordnance to avoid postconflict casualties, Karzai's office announced on November 14. "The government of Afghanistan fully backs the international convention against land mines and unexploded ordinances," the presidential announcement said, adding that the law is crucial to ensuring the security and safety of the Afghan people. The Protocol on Explosive Remnants of War -- a protocol to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons -- took effect on November 12. The agreement is the first of its kind requiring "parties to an armed conflict to clear all unexploded munitions that threaten civilians, peacekeepers and humanitarian workers once the fighting is over." CJ

JOINT SECURITY CENTER OPENS IN PANJSHIR
A military center that will be operated by Afghan and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel opened in Afghanistan's northern Panjshir province on November 14, Pajhwak reported the same day. At the center's ceremonial opening in the provincial capital, Bazarak, the commander of U.S.-led Combined Task Force-76, Benjamin Freakly, said the goal of the center is to bolster security in the region by improving coordination among army, police, and intelligence forces. Panjshir Governor Bahlol Baheej said the location of the center is strategic, as the province borders seven other provinces, including Kapisa, a currently volatile area of northern Afghanistan. Baheej indicated that the presence of the center will help prevent militants from establishing a presence in Panjshir. CJ

LEBANESE, PALESTINIAN OFFICIALS MEET WITH IRAN'S SUPREME LEADER
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei received Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri in Tehran on November 14 and congratulated him on the Lebanese people's "victory" over Israel in July, IRNA reported. Berri was heading a delegation of members of Hizballah and Amal, Lebanon's Shi'a parties. Khamenei said the Lebanese fight against "America and the Zionist regime" was "unprecedented" and he called Hizballah chief Hasan Nasrallah "an exceptional figure." Khamenei attributed the perceived success in part to "unity and solidarity" between Amal and Hizballah "brothers." U.S. policies "in the world and the region are heading for defeat," Khamenei said, and "one must...make the most use of these opportunities." Berri was in Tehran to attend the Seventh Public Forum of Asian Parliaments for Peace. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki met separately with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmud al-Zahar, in Tehran on November 14, reiterating Iran's support for Palestinian aspirations. He said the United States and Israel are "currently faced with various failures in international and regional arenas in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine," and "American officials are now seeing the results of their mistaken approaches in various areas." These, Mottaki said, have led to electoral defeat for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's removal, "and other electoral aftershocks." VS

IRANIAN PRESIDENT PROMISES NUCLEAR BREAKTHROUGHS
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in Tehran on November 14 that Iranians will be informed of "two important and very advanced achievements in technology" by the Ten Days of Dawn, the 10-day period each February commemorating the 1979 revolution, IRNA reported. "In one of these two technologies, no country has so far been successful," he said. "The Ten Days of Dawn this year will be 10 days of magnificent festivities...in the nuclear and technological fields." Ahmadinejad gave no details of the breakthroughs but said that by February, "these two achievements will be at the people's disposal and will formally enter the Iranian market." He also spoke of the economy, stating that the government is working to encourage and provide a favorable environment for small business start-ups intended to create many jobs fast. "If we imagine that a country can be run with large-scale investment alone, we are mistaken," IRNA quoted him as saying. VS

IRANIAN FORMER MINISTER SAYS HE WARNED BRITAIN TO STAY OUT OF IRAQ
Former Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said in Tehran on November 14 that the United Kingdom and the United States are "late" in asking Iran to help them resolve the problems of Iraq, ISNA reported. He said he told British Prime Minister Tony Blair a month before Iraq's 2003 invasion by Anglo-American forces not to "dirty yourself" with the war and to advise the United States not to enter "the Iraqi quagmire," recalling Britain's own historical experience in Iraq. Britain, as one of the powers that dismembered the Ottoman Empire, oversaw Iraq's transition to full independence in the 1920s and 1930s. Kharrazi said that at another meeting one year after the invasion he advised Blair to leave Iraq. "They are stuck in Iraq today," Kharrazi said. "They can neither stay in the Iraqi government, nor can they leave Iraq. And we have no choice but to think of our best interests and those of the people and government of Iraq." What reason is there, he asked, "for us to help people who are against us and who seek to disrupt the state of the entire Middle East?" VS

TENSIONS ARISE IN BUENOS AIRES IN WAKE OF ARGENTINIAN ARREST WARRANTS
Arrest warrants issued by Argentinian prosecutors against former Iranian officials accused of planning a 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires have heightened tensions between the two states and caused discord within Argentina's own government, Radio Farda and Reuters reported on November 13 and 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 27 and November 13, 2006). Argentina accused Iran on November 13 of meddling in its internal affairs by complaining about investigations into the bombing case, and its foreign ministry summoned Iranian charge d'affaires Mohsen Baharvand to explain why an Iranian prosecutor reportedly asked for arrest warrants to be issued for Argentinian judges working on the case. Baharvand was handed a letter at the ministry refuting Iranian criticisms of Argentina's investigations, Reuters reported on November 13. Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner has also asked for the resignation of left-wing senior civil servant Luis D'Elia, who recently went to the Iranian mission in Buenos Aires to deposit documents critical of Argentinian judges handling the dossier, Reuters reported. VS

IRAQI PREMIER TO VISIT TURKEY
Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki is scheduled to visit Turkey on November 15 to discuss bilateral relations between the two nations, "Kurdistani Nuwe" reported on November 14. Discussions concerning the normalization of Kirkuk are expected to be on the agenda. Turkey has expressed concern about Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which attempts to address the issue of Kirkuk, calling for the process to be delayed. In addition, Turkish officials are expected to call for Iraqi military intervention to prevent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels from attacking Turkish positions from northern Iraqi bases. On September 18, the Iraqi government announced that it had closed down the offices of the PKK in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2006). Al-Maliki will also discuss the sharing of water resources and the possibility of opening up new border crossings between the two countries to boost trade. SS

GUNMEN KIDNAP SCORES AT IRAQI MINISTRY...
Gunmen wearing police commando uniforms kidnapped an estimated 100 staff and visitors at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research building in central Baghdad on November 14, international media reported the same day. Ministry spokesman Basil al-Khatib said gunmen arrived in pickup trucks, stormed the building, ordered the women into one room, and seized the men. Witnesses said the gunmen reportedly closed off roads around the institute in Baghdad's Al-Karradah district and took away their captives in handcuffs. Iraqi Minister of Higher Education Abd Dhiyab al-Ajili said teaching at Baghdad's universities will be suspended until the security situation improved. Al-Ajili said he repeatedly asked for more university security from the ministries of Defense and Interior, but received none. Head of the Iraqi parliament's education committee, Ala Makki, interrupted the legislative body's session to announce the kidnappings, calling them a "national catastrophe" and urged Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to respond quickly. He also indicated that both Shi'a and Sunnis were abducted. The incident was the largest mass kidnapping since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. SS

...BUT HOSTAGES ARE LATER REPORTED RELEASED
Most of the people reported kidnapped in Baghdad on November 14 were reported freed on November 15. Iraqi state television quoted an Interior Ministry spokesman as saying most of the captives were freed in operations by security forces. There was no confirmation of the report, and it remained unclear how many other hostages are still being held or if any had been injured. Amid suspicions of police complicity in the kidnapping, at least five senior police officers were later reported detained for questioning, including the police chief of the Karrada district, where the abductions occurred. RC

IRAQI INTERIOR MINISTRY DISMISSES 1,258 PEOPLE
The Iraqi Interior Ministry announced on November 13 that it has dismissed 1,258 employees and prospective employees, Baghdad satellite television reported the same day. In a statement, the ministry said 559 current employees and 699 applicants who were still in the process of selection were dismissed. In addition, the ministry said 1,907 complaints concerning employees have been received and were being investigated. The statement added there are 181 cases in court, 41 cases were awaiting trial, and that 25 cases have been dismissed for lack of sufficient evidence. In addition, disciplinary actions were taken in 812 cases. Recently, the Interior Ministry has taken aggressive steps to counter corruption and weed out personnel suspected of having links to militias. On October 17, the ministry reassigned two top police commanders who Sunni Arabs suspected of having links with Shi'ite death squads (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2006). SS

NEW IRAQI COALITION IS FORMED TO COUNTER IRANIAN INFLUENCE
A new political front has been formed in the Diyala Governorate in reaction to the deteriorating security situation and to counter Iranian influence in the region, Baghdad satellite television reported on November 13. The front, formed under the slogan "The unity of Diyala is part of Iraq's unity," is comprised of 10 parties including the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi Turkoman Front (ITC), the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, and the Iraqi National Movement. A statement from the new front said the governorate is going through the worst stage ever in terms of lack of security because of Iran's purported attempts to control it. "The political situation has necessitated the formation of the front in view of Diyala's strategic location, which made it greatly suffer as a result of the Iranian regime's attempts to control it and turn it into a base for gathering its intelligence and destructive forces and agents," the statement said. SS

U.S. SOLDIER TO PLEAD GUILTY IN THE DEATH OF IRAQI CIVILIAN
The lawyer for Lance Corporal Jerry Shumate said on November 14 that his client will plead guilty to aggravated assault in the death of an Iraqi civilian, international media reported the same day. Shumate is alleged to have been one of a group of eight soldiers accused of killing 52-year-old Hashim Ibarhim al-Awad in Al-Hamdaniyah on April 26. Prosecutors accuse the eight of dragging al-Awad from his home and shooting him, then staging a cover-up to make it look as if he was an insurgent who was planting roadside bombs. Two Marines and a Navy medic have already pleaded guilty to charges related to al-Awad's killing. SS

IRAQI POLICE ARREST 30 PURPORTED TERRORISTS IN KIRKUK
The Kirkuk District Police Director Brigadier-General Sarhad Qadir announced on November 14 that 30 accused terrorists have been arrested in the Daquq District of Kirkuk, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) website announced the same day. "Thirty terrorists and suspects have been arrested in the operation, 15 of who were wanted by the police and multinational forces," he said. Qadir also said three cars and 30 weapons were seized in the operation conducted jointly by the Iraqi police, Army and multinational forces. SS

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