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Newsline - December 15, 2006


EU WARNS RUSSIA OVER 'DIVIDE AND RULE' IN RELATIONS WITH MEMBER STATES
European Commission spokesman Philip Tod said in Brussels on December 14 that "we told the Russians that we did not think it was acceptable [for them] to only have contacts with some member states [over meat imports]. Russia should be talking to the EU as a whole," "The Wall Street Journal in Europe" reported on December 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27 and December 13, 2006). The paper noted that "analysts say Russia is picking on areas in which the EU is most vulnerable to internal divisions, such as agriculture and energy. 'It's divide and rule,' says David Kernohan of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies. 'It's an emerging pattern.' The [commission's] rebuke comes as relations between the EU and Russia grow increasingly strained, and Moscow has made the most of rifts within the EU over how to contend with Russia's role as the bloc's dominant supplier of natural gas and oil." The EU recently criticized Russia's year-old ban on Polish agricultural products, which Poland calls illegal and politically motivated. The dispute between Moscow and Warsaw has led Poland to block the start of talks on a new EU-Russia comprehensive cooperation agreement to replace the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which runs out in 2007. Russian officials have been active in recent days seeking to secure bilateral deals on meat imports with Germany and Ireland. Denmark and Germany are by far the EU's largest suppliers of meat to Russia. Total EU meat exports to Russia in 2005 amounted to about $2.2 billion. On December 13, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution "stressing the importance of unity and solidarity among the member states," Radio Polonia reported. The resolution expressed solidarity with Poland, "which is suffering discrimination under Russia's trade policy." On December 14, Polish President Lech Kaczynski and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso reportedly reached an unspecified understanding on overcoming Poland's veto on EU-Russian talks on a new cooperation agreement, the "International Herald Tribune" reported. The daily quoted Polish diplomats in Brussels as saying that the matter will most likely be resolved very soon. PM

RUSSIAN LEGISLATOR REJECTS JAPANESE SUGGESTION ON TERRITORIAL DISPUTE
Russian State Duma Deputy Speaker Oleg Morozov rejected on December 14 a suggestion made by Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso earlier that day on resolving a decades-old dispute over the southern Kurile Islands by partitioning them, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006). Morozov denied that any territorial dispute exists. He said that "Russia's position today is that we do not discuss any territorial issues with Japan. We believe there are no such problems today. Therefore, any proposal on this subject should be preceded by a discussion of more general issues, for instance, whether this problem exists at all." He added that "there are other very important political issues that we are prepared to discuss with Japan today, and they should certainly come before any discussions on the so-called territorial issue. Today, there is no such issue for Russia." On December 15 in Tokyo, Aso denied that he made a formal offer the previous day, news agencies reported. Shortly after Aso made his initial statement on December 14, a Foreign Ministry spokesman told Russian journalists that the minister's remarks did not constitute a formal proposal. The Red Army occupied the four islands, which the Japanese call the Northern Territories, after the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in the last weeks of World War II in the Pacific. Aso, like his predecessors, has often said that his country will not agree to any peace treaty without the return of the four islands. PM

GAZPROM CHIEF SEEKS TO CREATE 'WORLD'S LARGEST COMPANY'
In an interview with the daily "Novye izvestia" on December 13, Dmitry Medvedev, who is first deputy prime minister and chairman of the state-run natural-gas monopoly Gazprom, said that "there is every chance that we can turn Gazprom into the world's largest company in capitalization terms. A company to be reckoned with. A company that will be a key player in the energy market, in any part of the world" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2006). Medvedev called for the deregulation of the domestic gas market and indicated that increasing domestic prices will make it more profitable to extend energy supply networks. Gazprom is currently selling gas within Russia at artificially low prices. At the same time, he defended Gazprom's own monopoly status. "Gazprom has always been, and still remains, a monopoly.... Gazprom is a unique corporation, and in my view, one of the state's achievements in the past 15 years is that it hasn't destroyed its largest company. Our state must have a stake in [those vital] sectors, without which it could fall apart. The state's withdrawal from those sectors might prove fatal for Russia." Medvedev stressed that "if we split up Gazprom, we would have a situation where there are many such players and they wouldn't be able to compete with the largest companies from other countries. That is not in the state's interests." PM

SECURITY CHIEF SAYS REGIONS AND CITIES ARE HOTBEDS OF CORRUPTION
Nikolai Patrushev, who heads the Federal Security Service (FSB), was quoted by the Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" on December 15 as saying that Russia faces "a growth of corruption among officials, first and foremost at the regional and municipal level." He added that his "analysis of the economic security situation shows criminal elements are making active attempts to penetrate government structures, take enterprises and banks under their control, [and] get hold of the levers of influence in certain territories." President Vladimir Putin moved to consolidate his control over the regions in late 2004, when he ruled that governors will henceforth be appointed by him rather than elected. His government is now seeking to enact federal legislation that would effectively abolish the duties of Russia's mayors and would subordinate local administration to the regional governors. The authorities have been waging a nationwide anticorruption drive for months. Critics charge, however, that corruption is so rampant in Russia that the few cases involving officials actually charged might be based on ulterior motives, such as removing politically problematic individuals from office. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin told the cabinet on December 7 that the government must withdraw from business if it wants its anticorruption campaign to succeed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 22 and 28, and December 7 and 8, 2006). PM

BANKER GUNNED DOWN IN ST. PETERSBURG
In central St. Petersburg on December 14, unidentified gunmen fired from a passing car at a second vehicle, killing banker Igor Koptev, Interfax reported, citing unidentified local police sources. Koptev was the former board chairman of an unspecified commercial bank that had its license revoked by the Central Bank in 2001. On December 5, Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika announced that the authorities have "solved" the drive-by killing in September of Central Bank official Andrei Kozlov, who led efforts against money laundering and took away the licenses of numerous banks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 15, and 18, October 13, and December 6, 2006). It is not clear if that investigation has been closed. PM

PRESIDENTIAL VOTE RESCHEDULED
Just one day after Aleksandr Veshnyakov, who heads the Central Election Commission, said that the presidential election will be held on March 9, 2008, his commission announced that the vote will actually take place on March 2, Interfax reported. The reason offered for the change is that March 9 is a public holiday, and current electoral legislation specifies that a vote cannot be held on a holiday (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006). PM

AUDIT CHAMBER PRAISES CHECHEN RECONSTRUCTION EFFORTS
The Chechen government met on December 14 outside Grozny with a team from the Russian Audit Chamber headed by its chairman Sergei Stepashin, who delivered a preliminary assessment of the government's use of budget funds during the first nine months of 2006, the official website chechnya.gov.ru reported. Stepashin praised Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov for his success in "consolidating the best forces within the republic" and for the volume of reconstruction work carried out "within a very short time." He blamed the Russian Ministry for Regional Development for "bureaucratic hassles" that prevented completion of some reconstruction projects. Kadyrov's predecessor as prime minister, Sergei Abramov, now a member of the Audit Chamber, criticized the Economic Development and Trade Ministry for failing to release funds earmarked for Chechnya. On December 15, Kadyrov met in Grozny with First Deputy Prime Minister Odes Baysultanov and reconstruction coordinator Akhmed Gekhayev to make arrangements for the payment of some 116 million rubles ($4.4 million) in back wages owed to construction workers in Grozny, chechnya.gov.ru reported. Investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya suggested four months ago that a high-ranking Russian government delegation that visited Grozny in late July warned Kadyrov unambiguously that further large-scale embezzlement of budget funds allocated for reconstruction would not be tolerated (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," August 18, 2006). LF

JAILED AZERBAIJANI JOURNALIST'S APPEAL REJECTED
Azerbaijan's Appeals Court upheld on December 15 the three-year prison sentence handed down two months ago by the Court for Serious Crimes to satirical journalist Mirza Sakit Zahidov, day.az reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2006). That latter court found Zahidov guilty of possession of drugs. Zahidov claims that plainclothes police planted drugs on him when they detained him. He repeated in court on December 15 that his trial and sentence were politically motivated. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT PREPARES TO AMEND CONSTITUTION
Deputies approved on December 14 in the first reading by a vote of 168-12 a package of constitutional amendments that the opposition believes are intended to enable the ruling United National Movement to increase its hold on power, Caucasus Press reported. The amendments will extend by several months the term of the current parliament (which expires in April 2008 and curtail that of the president (which expires in early 2009) to permit the holding of simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections during the last quarter of 2008. The rationale cited for those changes is the need "to consolidate power in the face of pressure from Russia," Caucasus Press reported on December 13. "Our goal is to secure high legitimacy for the political force that will win the next elections, and to prevent a crisis," that agency quoted parliamentarian Gia Bokeria as saying. The amendments also empower the president to dismiss parliament twice during one presidential term, although doing so a second time will automatically necessitate a new presidential ballot. He will also be empowered to recall ambassadors without parliamentary approval, but parliament must still approve new ambassadorial nominees. Further proposed amendments, of which the opposition has signaled approval, strip the president of the post of chairman of the Council of Justice, which will devolve on to the chairman of the Supreme Court. Opposition Democratic Front leader Kakha Kukava told journalists on December 14 that his faction submitted 18 separate objections to President Mikhail Saakashvili, who did not acknowledge receipt of them, Caucasus Press reported. The Council of Europe's expert Venice Commission is to rule on the proposed amendments on December 15. LF

UKRAINIAN PREMIER VISITS KAZAKHSTAN
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych visited Kazakhstan on December 14 and met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov in Astana for talks focused on joint projects, news agencies reported. Akhmetov and Yanukovych said the two countries will "study Ukrainian companies' possibilities that may help implement Kazakhstan's plans to build nuclear power plants and electricity-generating and transport infrastructure facilities on its territory," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. After their meeting, Nazarbaev announced that Ukraine will supply Kazakhstan with two AN-148's, a new regional jet, in 2007, Interfax-AVN reported. Finally, Akhmetov said that bilateral trade volume is set to total $1.5 billion in 2006, after reaching just over $1 billion in 2005, ITAR-TASS reported. DK

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER TOUTS JOINT PROJECTS ON KAZAKH VISIT
Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki met with Kazakh President Nazarbaev in Astana on December 14 to discuss bilateral relations and economic cooperation, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Mottaki said that Iran and Kazakhstan plan to build an oil refinery in northern Iran, ITAR-TASS reported. Kazakh Transportation and Communications Minister Serik Akhmetov said that Iran may build a petrochemical plant in Kazakhstan's Atyrau province, Interfax reported. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan's Transportation and Communications Ministry announced that Kazakhstan may export up to 1 million tons of wheat annually to Iran. According to Akhmetov, bilateral trade volume should reach $1.8 billion in 2006, and possibly $2.5 billion in 2007. DK

RUSSIAN ALUMINUM COMPANY PLANS TO INVEST $1.5 BILLION IN KAZAKHSTAN
Artyom Volynets, business development manager for the Russian aluminum company SUAL, told an investment forum in Almaty on December 14 that SUAL plans to build a $1.5 billion smelter in Kazakhstan, Interfax reported. Volynets said that if a feasibility study is successful, construction will start in 2008 and production in 2010, with production reaching full capacity of 500,000 tons a year in 2011. Additionally, SUAL has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Kazakh electricity company Nurenergoservice to supply the smelter with power, RBK reported. DK

KYRGYZ LEGISLATORS OVERRIDE VETO ON ARMING THEMSELVES
Kyrgyzstan's parliament on December 14 overrode a presidential veto of a bill that will allow deputies to carry firearms, akipress.org reported. The amendment, which was first passed on September 22 and subsequently vetoed by President Kurmanbek Bakiev, will allow legislators to obtain and carry firearms with the permission of the speaker of parliament. Because 53 legislators, a two-thirds majority, voted in favor of the amendment, it becomes law within a month whether or not the president signs it. DK

KYRGYZSTAN TO PAY MORE FOR UZBEK GAS
Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov announced in Bishkek on December 14 that Kyrgyzstan will pay $100 per 1,000 cubic meters for gas purchased from Uzbekistan in 2007, the 24.kg and akipress.org news agencies reported. Under an agreement reached in Tashkent on December 13, Kyrgyzstan will buy 850 million cubic meters of gas from Uzbekistan at the new price; Kyrgyzstan paid $55 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2006. To compensate for the hike, Usenov said Kyrgyzstan will initially charge Uzbekistan 1.1 cent ($0.011) for each kilowatt-hour (KwH) of electricity and progressively raise the price to a targeted two cents by the end of 2007. Uzbekistan this year paid one cent ($0.01) per KwH of Kyrgyz electricity. DK

FORMER TAJIK DRUG CZAR GOES ON HUNGER STRIKE
Abduqayum Yusufov, a lawyer representing former Drug Control Agency head Ghaffor Mirzoev, told Avesta on December 14 that his client has begun a hunger strike to protest his treatment in prison. Yusufov said that Mirzoev is being denied meetings with his defense team and that prison authorities have reduced the number of packages he can receive from his family. Mirzoev, who is also a former commander of the presidential guard, was sentenced to life in prison in August for planning a coup, murder, and other crimes. He denies the charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 14, 2006). DK

TURKMENISTAN SEEKS CASPIAN TALKS WITH AZERBAIJAN
In a December 13 statement, Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry proposed high-level talks with Azerbaijan over the division of the Caspian seabed, but only in the context of existing agreements, turkmenistan.ru reported the next day. Responding to recent statements by Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov about differences between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry affirmed the validity of a 1991 project to delimit the Caspian seabed. Arguing that "there cannot be any problems and disputes if the documents officially designed by the two countries' experts are available," the ministry proposed "negotiations with the Azerbaijani side at the level of the presidents of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan or the foreign ministers of the two countries." Ongoing talks between the Caspian littoral states (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan) have yet to produce a comprehensive agreement on delimitation. DK

EU DELEGATION VISITS UZBEK CITY OF ANDIJON
A delegation of European Union experts led by Finnish diplomat Pekka Oinonen visited the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon on December 14 in a bid to assess the bloodshed there in May 2005, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Oinonen told RFE/RL that the delegation met with city officials, but had no time to talk to residents. The Uzbek government, which has persistently refused to let the international community investigate the Andijon events, agreed on November 8 to "discuss" last year's events with EU experts. In return, the EU did not expand the sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan last year and contented itself with extending the existing ones for another six months. DK

BELARUS APPOINTS 'SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE' FOR RELATIONS WITH EUROPE
Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau has appointed Syarhey Haydukevich, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus and a deputy in the Chamber of Representatives, as his "special representative" for relations with European organizations and parliaments, Belapan reported on December 14. "I believe that my appointment is a good start for a dialogue with Europe. Because I'm an opposition politician, twice candidate for president, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party, which is considered a constructive opposition force," Haydukevich told journalists on December 14. However, among supporters of former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich and the Political Council of United Pro-Democratic Forces, Haydukevich is widely seen as a politician totally servile to the authoritarian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The "Nasha Niva" independent weekly's website (http://www.nn.by) commented that by appointing Haydukevich, the Belarusian authorities "are mocking the Europeans." "The appointment of the leader of a pseudo-opposition party and a technical candidate for president to such a post can be interpreted as a gesture of demonstrative scorn for the European Union," the website added. JM

BELARUS ACCUSES MOSCOW OF VIOLATING TRADE ACCORDS BY IMPOSING CRUDE OIL TAX
Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou told journalists on December 14 that Russia's recent decision to charge a duty of some $180 per ton on crude oil exports to Belarus as of January 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2006) violates several bilateral agreements on free trade, Belapan reported. At present, Russia supplies crude oil to Belarusian refineries without levying any customs duties. President Lukashenka is scheduled to talk with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on December 15. Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy think tank, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on December 14 that the Kremlin has lost all hope that by offering economic support and preferences to Lukashenka it may persuade him to integrate Belarus closer with Russia. "It is senseless to pump Russian money into a bottomless barrel. Particularly since the Belarusian people do not receive anything from it, and the largest part of the money goes to Lukashenka's entourage and power structures. With all my respect to them, I do not think that Russia should subsidize them," Karaganov said. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT INSISTS ON RETAINING FOREIGN MINISTER...
Viktor Yushchenko told a news conference with foreign correspondents in Kyiv on December 14 that he does not recognize the dismissal of Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk by parliament on December 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006), the "Ukrayinska pravda " website (http://www.pravda.com.ua) reported. "Any legal expert will tell you that if the president submits a candidate for foreign minister to parliament for approval, it is also the president who initiates the discharge of this minister," Yushchenko said. The Ukrainian Constitution, while giving the president the right to nominate the foreign minister, does not specify who should propose a motion to dismiss him/her from the post. "Borys Ivanovych Tarasyuk is performing his duties as foreign minister. I have rejected an initiative from Prime Minister [Viktor Yanukovych] to change [Tarasyuk]," Yushchenko stressed. Following the vote on his dismissal, Tarasyuk has been barred from attending cabinet meetings. JM

...AND ACCUSES PRIME MINISTER OF PROVOKING 'CONFLICT'
President Yushchenko also admitted to foreign correspondents in Kyiv on December 14 that his relations with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych are bad, Reuters reported. "I agree that relations between the president and the prime minister are becoming more of a conflict. But I want to stress that I was not an author of this conflict," Yushchenko said. Yushchenko also charged that his rivals in the government are trying to seize all executive power. "A new team has come. The feeling is that the entire world is under their feet, that they can do whatever they want from morning till night. There is a desire for revenge, to see everybody defeated," Yushchenko noted. "[But] they will not make the president change his position," he added. JM

BOSNIA, MONTENEGRO, AND SERBIA FORMALLY JOIN NATO PROGRAM...
Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia were formally inducted into NATO's Partnership for Peace program on December 14, international news agencies reported the same day. "This will help to bring the region more fully into the Euro-Atlantic family," dpa quoted NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as saying. The three countries signed agreements on entering the program, seen as a stepping stone to full NATO membership, on the 14th anniversary of the Dayton peace accords, which ended Bosnia's 1992-95 war. Noting the anniversary, de Hoop Scheffer said Bosnia "has finally moved from the Dayton era to the Brussels era," AP reported. At its summit in November, NATO decided to issue invitations to the three countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). The inductions brought into NATO's orbit all six countries that emerged from the violent breakup of Yugoslavia: Slovenia became a full member of the alliance in 2004, while Croatia and Macedonia, both currently Partnership for Peace members, hope to join NATO in 2008. BW

...AS SERBIAN PRESIDENT VOWS TO FULFILL HAGUE OBLIGATIONS
After signing the Partnership for Peace accession document on December 14, Serbian President Boris Tadic pledged to arrest all wanted Serbian war criminals, AP reported. "We are fully committed to finalize this process and arrest all indictees and extradite them to the war crimes tribunal," Tadic said. "I believe that never before in the history of Southeast Europe has such a concrete opportunity to overcome regional strife and conflict...presented itself," he added. Serbia was admitted to the Partnership for Peace (PfP) despite objections from the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia over Belgrade's failure to arrest Ratko Mladic and other war crimes fugitives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). Nebojsa Radmanovic, who currently heads Bosnia's tripartite Presidency, said he hopes the country joins NATO by 2009. "PfP membership is the first but most important step toward membership in NATO and the European Union," he said. "I hope that this will forever cement peace in Bosnia." BW

OSCE HONORS FIVE SERBIAN PEOPLE OF THE YEAR
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Mission in Serbia presented its Person of the Year award for 2006 to five people on December 14, B92 reported the same day. Dragic Josifovic, head of the Interior Ministry's Police Education Directorate, was honored for his work in transforming police training. Petar Teofilovic, the ombudsman for Vojvodina province, was recognized for his human rights advocacy and education of young people. Biljana Stojanovic, an adviser on minority education to the Ministry of Education and Sports, was honored for promoting intercultural understanding. Djordje Vlajic, a BBC correspondent in Serbia, was awarded for advancing freedom, fairness, and accuracy in the media. Vladimir Jelenkovic, director of the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, was honored for his work in promoting the achievements of the Serbian-American inventor, physicist and engineer. "The award recognizes these individuals' contribution to implementing the mission's programs and upholding OSCE values through their work," OSCE Ambassador Hans Ola Urstad said. BW

UN CHIEF IN KOSOVA WARNS AGAINST FURTHER DELAYS
Joachim Ruecker, the head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), said on December 13 that the Security Council needs to make a decision quickly on the province's status or risk instability, AP reported the next day. Any delays beyond January, Ruecker warned, could aid extremists. "Resolving Kosovo's status would benefit the entire Balkan region, including Belgrade," Ruecker said. "Further delay would entail significant political and economic costs for Kosovo, for our neighbors, for the region as a whole, and for the international community." Ruecker told the UN Security Council that "anxiety has clearly risen" since UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari announced that he will delay his recommendations on Kosova until after Serbia's January 21 elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2006). "Delay will raise tension and play into the hands of extremists on all sides," Ruecker warned. "Delay will not make a solution easier -- it will make it much more difficult. No one can have an interest in such an outcome." BW

U.S. AUTHORITIES ARREST 26 BOSNIAN SERBS FOR CONCEALING WAR ROLES
Police in the United States have arrested 26 Bosnian Serbs for lying about their role in Bosnia-Herzegovina's 1992-95 war, UPI reported in December 14. The Banja Luka-based daily "Nezavisne novine" quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Nebojsa Regoje as saying that Bosnia has unofficial information that four people were arrested in North Carolina and 18 people in Florida. U.S. authorities, meanwhile, confirmed one arrest in Wisconsin, and the families of three Bosnian Serbs in Illinois informed the Bosnian Consulate in Chicago their relatives were arrested, UPI reported. The 26 were arrested on suspicion they kept secret their military past when they entered the United States as refugees. BW

MOLDOVAN PREMIER SAYS LONG-TERM GAS DEAL WITH RUSSIA NEAR
Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev said on December 14 that Moldova expects to sign a long-term contract with Russia's natural-gas monopoly Gazprom, Interfax reported. Tarlev said he hopes the agreement will be signed by December 25 and will maintain the current price for natural gas. "We hope to retain the existing gas prices in the new contract -- $160 per 1,000 cubic meters," he said. Tarlev added that he and Gazprom Deputy CEO Valery Golubev "discussed issues of cooperation in the gas sphere and development prospects on the basis of trust and taking into account the interests of both sides." He added that a long-term contract will be prepared next week and will include a clause on investment cooperation. ITAR-TASS quoted Tarlev as saying that Russia and Moldova are discussing a five-year deal. BW

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION FIGURE'S PROTEST FINDS SOME SUCCESS
Opposition leader Alyaksandr Kazulin, who is serving a 5 1/2-year prison term for his role in challenging the results of Belarus's March presidential election, ended his 53-day hunger strike on December 11. Kazulin's main demand, that the UN Security Council discuss the situation in Belarus, has not been fulfilled. However, the international and domestic reactions that Kazulin's protest generated indicate the effort was not made in vain.

Kazulin was arrested on March 25 and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in a correctional facility for his role in leading street protests in Minsk following the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus on March 19. Together with Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Kazulin unsuccessfully ran against incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in that election. Lukashenka officially won 83 percent of the vote, while Milinkevich received 6 percent, and Kazulin 2 percent.

Kazulin went on hunger strike on October 20, pledging not to end it until the UN Security Council placed Belarus's human rights situation on its agenda and until he was convinced that "the international community will devote its attention to Belarus." He also called on Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski "to take over" the country, asserting that Lukashenka cannot be considered a legitimate president, seeing that his second term expired in September.

As with previous hunger strikes by members of the opposition, nobody expected the Belarusian authorities to pay any particular attention to Kazulin's protest, let alone heed his demand that Lukashenka should resign. True to form, the government-controlled media remained silent on Kazulin during his entire 53-day fast.

Milinkevich, concerned about Kazulin's deteriorating health, last week called on him to stop his protest. "One of [Kazulin's] demands -- that the UN Security Council view the Belarus issue -- cannot be fulfilled. The council will not consider such an issue -- even the Cuba issue has not been raised there, because there are those who can block it," Milinkevich reasoned.

However, Milinkevich made a point of mentioning Kazulin's courage when accepting the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought in Strasbourg on December 12. He acknowledged in his acceptance speech that the prize was not his alone, as it was also earned by other politicians and ordinary Belarusians who defy Lukashenka's rule. Milinkevich singled out Kazulin, saying that he "has been on hunger strike for two months in jail now. His condition is very grave. His life is under serious threat. This award also belongs to him."

Previously, both Milinkevich and the Political Council of United Pro-Democratic Forces, the Belarusian opposition's coordinating body, sent appeals to the leaders of Group of Eight (G8) countries to put the human rights situation in Belarus on the UN Security Council agenda.

On December 8 -- the same day some 500 people in Belarus went on a one-day hunger strike in solidarity with the fasting Kazulin -- the UN human rights rapporteur on Belarus, Adrian Severin, expressed his "deepest concern" over the opposition leader's health condition. A day later, a statement issued by the German Embassy in Belarus on behalf of the European Union called on the Belarusian government to "promptly release" Kazulin.

These efforts both at home and abroad may have contributed to Kazulin's decision to halt his protest, even though his basic demands were not met. But his aim that the world "devote its attention to Belarus" may have been partially realized.

The most sensational development regarding Kazulin's protest came late on December 12 in New York, when U.S. envoy to the UN William Brencick raised the issue during a closed-door UN Security Council session. The U.S. move reportedly angered Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin to such an extent that he called off the UN Security Council's planned discussion on Iran's nuclear program.

According to Yury Khadyka, deputy chairman of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, the diplomatic row in New York was a big moral victory for Kazulin. Kazulin "survived an unbelievably tough hunger strike and achieved an unbelievable goal: the problem of human rights in Belarus has been put [on the international agenda]," Khadyka said. "[This week] we had the U.S. decision [to raise the Kazulin issue in the UN Security Council] and the presentation of the Sakharov Prize to Milinkevich. These events testify that the world, even if with difficulty, is beginning to pay attention to the situation of lawlessness in Belarus."

Subsequently, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning Washington's proposal to view the Kazulin case in the UN Security Council as an attempt "to turn the Security Council into a platform for discussing issues dictated by U.S. home-policy interests."

True or not, there was at least one aspect of the U.S. step regarding Kazulin that was not mentioned in Moscow's note. Belarusian human rights defender Ales Byalyatski told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that in making its proposal in the Security Council, the U.S. government in effect also expressed its concern over whether Kazulin will die in prison or not.

"The fact that [Washington] took such a step shows that the human rights situation in Belarus is very grave," Byalyatski said. "But [this step] also manifests normal concern for the health of a human being on the part of those people in the U.S. government who took this decision. This decision is in stark contrast to how the Belarusian authorities behave themselves."

Hunger strikes by political opponents of undemocratic regimes are often seen as an act of utter desperation and a protest of last resort. While Kazulin's fast did little to alter this general perception, it nevertheless confirmed that such protests can still arouse emotions of solidarity and moral support -- at least in some parts of the world.

ISLAMABAD SIDESTEPS AFGHAN LEADER'S OUTBURST
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasim Aslam said in Islamabad on December 13 that her country is doing everything possible to prevent its territory from being used by militants active in Afghanistan, Karachi's "Dawn" reported on December 14. Reacting to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's most recent criticism of the Pakistani government for supporting terrorists in his country, Aslam told "Dawn" that Islamabad is "taking military action" and has also launched "a comprehensive strategy which has a political dimension to ensure that the local population does not support any militancy in Afghanistan" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006). Pakistan is also looking forward to the return of Afghan refugees, she said. The refugees' repatriation "would remove the presence of Afghans close to the border [with Afghanistan] which appears to prompt allegations from Kabul" against Pakistan, Aslam added. Stressing that he was not talking about Karzai, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri said in Islamabad on December 13 that it is "a common human reaction [that] when you have difficulties, you find somebody else to blame." Those who "are well informed...they know better. They know what Pakistan is doing, they know the price Pakistan is paying," Kasuri added. AT

SUICIDE BOMBER KILLS FOUR IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
An man laden with explosives blew himself up near a convoy of Afghan police in Qalat, the provincial capital of Zabul Province, on December 14, killing four civilians and injuring some 30 people, including three policemen, the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. The blast took place after a convoy of presidential security guards traveled through Qalat, Reuters reported on December 14. Residents of Qalat believe that the presidential guards' convoy was the target of the attacker. President Karzai had just concluded a visit to Kandahar Province, southwest of Zabul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13 and 14, 2006). AT

AFGHAN CIVILIAN WOUNDED IN BLAST
An Afghan civilian was wounded when a remote-controlled explosive device detonated in District No. 8 of Kabul on December 14, Tolu Television reported. The explosion reportedly was targeting a convoy of Italian troops serving with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Kabul police chief Ali Shah Paktiyawal said no arrests have yet been made. AT

PROTESTS AGAINST U.S.-LED OPERATION HELD IN SOUTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN
Hundreds of people held a peaceful protest in Khost Province on December 14, voicing their anger at civilian deaths in military operations by U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan security forces, AIP reported. The protesters specifically condemned the killing of four men and a woman by coalition forces on December 11 in Khost's Mandozai district. Mazar Ali, a Mandozai elder, told AIP that he knows "that the people killed by the coalition forces did not have any links with terrorists." He asked that an international court prosecute those who misinformed coalition forces about the identity of those killed and also hold accountable the coalition forces who did the killing. Mazar Ali said coalition forces should coordinate their military operations with local officials and tribal elders. According to a press release by coalition forces on December 12, five people were killed in retaliatory action after coalition forces were shot at from a house. Some protestors said that they want Karzai's government to "ask the foreign troops to stop killing us or we'll stop supporting his government," AFP reported on December 14. AFP put the number of protestors at 3,000. AT

IRANIAN PRESIDENT WANTS ISRAEL 'CLEARED UP'
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a group of rabbis in Tehran on December 14 that Jews would not be blamed for the "crimes" of Israel, but Western powers should still "clear up" the "forged" state they have set up in the Middle East, IRNA reported. He was speaking to anti-Israel rabbis who attended the controversial Holocaust seminar in Tehran on December 11 and 12. Ahmadinejad said "the great powers and Zionist leaders" should "clear up" the "forged regime" they founded "with lies" and make way for a referendum to determine the future of former Palestinian lands. He said the West speaks of human rights even though Israel has become a "great prison" for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. "The crimes of the Zionist regime and [its] supporters...in occupied Palestine and the killing of defenseless...women and children will not be ascribed to the Jews," he said. He said Jews should join a great front of monotheists and their religious leaders against the Zionists, the supporters of the Israeli state. IRNA quoted the rabbis as telling Ahmadinejad that the formation of an Israeli state is against Jewish religious teachings and that Zionists participated in "the killing of Jews" in World War II with unspecified "financial and political support." VS

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY PROTESTS EU RULING ON MILITANTS
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said in Tehran on December 13 that a decision by the European Court of Justice to release frozen assets belonging to the militant opposition group Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MEK) was legally unjustified and "unacceptable," RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on December 14, citing IRNA (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2006). He said the ruling goes against the spirit of UN Security Council Resolution 1373 setting out states' duties in fighting terrorist groups. Separately, former parliamentarian and reformist leader Naser Qavami told ISNA on December 13 that the EU decision is "political" and a "great mistake." He said it is "no secret to anyone" that the MEK is a terrorist group, "and they are proud to be terrorists." The group has been involved in bomb attacks in Tehran, directly mainly at government targets, and fought against Iran in parts of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. Qavami said the European Court of Justice should not discredit itself by deciding to "back a terrorist group whose terrorist nature is clear to the world." VS

MINISTRY READY FOR IRANIAN ELECTIONS
Interior Minister Mostafa Pur-Mohammadi said on December 14 at Tehran election headquarters in the Interior Ministry that all election agents are ready to perform their allotted duties on December 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006), and he expressed hope for a "lively presence" at the polls, ISNA reported. He said that with swift counting, results for the municipal-council and Assembly of Experts elections should be ready by the evening of December 16. Representatives of competing candidates will be allowed to oversee voting on polling day, he added. Deputy Interior Minister Mostafa Samareh-Hashemi said the same day in Tehran that about 1.3 million people involved with elections nationwide will assure their "accuracy and good health," ISNA reported. Voting, he said, will be from 9:00 to 19:00 unless an extension is necessary. On December 13, the head of the Electoral Security Headquarters, Ismail Momeni, said 250,000 police and military forces will assure security, using planes and helicopters where necessary, ILNA reported. The Guardians Council, the top supervisory body, also issued a statement that day assuring the public it will keep a "precise" watch over "every single vote," ISNA reported. VS

IRAN FOREIGN ASSETS INCREASE
The Central Bank's Office of Economic Investigations and Policies valued the sum of all of Iran's foreign assets at $57 billion at the end of the Persian month on September 22, Mehr reported on December 13. The figure is 19.9 percent higher than in the Persian month ending March 20, the last month of the Persian year. Separately, Radio Farda reported on December 13 that prominent politicians -- including the parliamentary speaker -- are concerned by the rapidly increasing expenditure of money from Iran's foreign exchange reserve fund, an account for excess petrodollars meant for times when state revenues may fall sharply after a possible drop in crude oil prices. Radio Farda also observed that there has been an unprecedented increase in current expenditures and spending on large-scale projects, and cited President Ahmadinejad as saying recently that the government may use all of its budget for the year ending in March 2007 before that time. Iran earned more than $36.5 billion from crude oil sales in the first eight months of the Persian year, Radio Farda stated. VS

U.S. PRESIDENT DISCUSSES IRAQ POLICY WITH KURDISH LEADERS
U.S. President George W. Bush on December 13 discussed possible changes in U.S. policy in Iraq with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdish regional President Mas'ud Barzani, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 14. White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush made two phone calls to Talabani and Barzani, and the two Iraqis "spoke of how they share the President's [Bush] vision for Iraq and were cooperating to be full partners against terrorism and tyranny, and building the new Iraq." Snow said the Bush administration recently discussed the possible emergence of a moderate political bloc made up of Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish parties. "Both men [Talabani and Barzani] fit into that moderate bloc and pledge their cooperation, not merely in building broader support for the government, but also taking action against those who want to destabilize it through acts of terror," Snow said. SS

IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT SAYS U.S. HAS DUTY TO REFORM IRAQI FORCES
Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said on December 14 that the United States needs to reform the Iraqi security forces before it withdraws from the country, Reuters reported. Speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., al-Hashimi warned that militias would escalate their campaign of killing innocent people if the United States failed to accomplish this goal. "The United States has [a] duty to reform the Iraqi government forces, because it was the United States forces which mistakenly dissolved the previous Iraqi military and security forces -- so there was, more or less, an obligation -- and created this security void now being filled with...sectarian militias, terrorists, and organized crime gangs," al-Hashimi added. Al-Hashimi met on December 12 with U.S. President George W. Bush, who reassured him that Washington will continue its efforts to support the Iraqi government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006). SS

GUNMEN KIDNAP DOZENS IN IRAQI CAPITAL
Gunmen dressed in military uniforms kidnapped more than 25 people from a commercial district in central Baghdad on December 14, international media reported the same day. Witnesses said around 100 gunmen drove up in 20 vehicles to the Al-Sinak district of Baghdad and began abducting shop owners and bystanders. The exact number of hostages is unknown, but local police sources said that up to 70 people might have been abducted. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said that the Interior Ministry is conducting an investigation and "we are waiting for the results," state-run Al-Iraqiyah reported on December 14. Shops in Al-Sinak are owned by a mix of both Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs, and it was not immediately clear why the area was targeted. SS

IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT'S CONVOY ATTACKED
The Iraqi Interior Ministry announced that gunmen attacked the motorcade of Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi in Baghdad on December 14, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported the same day. "The convoy was going toward the Al-Karradah district and reached the Mullah al-Huwaysh Mosque when gunmen opened fire on it. Security guards returned fire," Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Abd al-Karim al-Khalaf said, Reuters reported. A source at the ministry indicated that al-Mahdi was in the convoy, but was unharmed. SS

IRAQI PREMIER TO ANNOUNCE NEW INITIATIVE AT RECONCILIATION CONFERENCE
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced on December 14 that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will announce a new political initiative at the National Reconciliation Conference set to begin on December 16, KUNA reported the same day. Al-Dabbagh did not reveal the nature of the initiative, but indicated that al-Maliki will move to unite Iraq's political factions through his new plan. Al-Dabbagh said that the reconciliation conference will focus on the issues of federalism and security, and the recommendations from the conference will eventually be sent to parliament for discussion. He added that the government has been conducting talks with opposition figures, but not with members of the insurgency or the Iraqi Ba'ath Party. However, State Minister for National Dialogue Akram al-Hakim said on December 13 that Ba'ath Party members will be invited to the conference (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2006). SS

MOST IRAQIS BELIEVE COUNTRY HAS DECLINED SINCE U.S.-LED INVASION
A survey conducted by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies found that 95 percent of Iraqis believe that the security situation in the country has deteriorated since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the Al-Jazeera website reported on December 14. A survey of 2,000 Iraqis found that 38 percent were "not confident" that Prime Minister al-Maliki will be able to improve the situation in Iraq and nearly 90 percent described the Iraqi government's implementation of its commitments and promises as "very poor." Almost 37 percent said they believe that Iraqi security forces are unable to keep order in the country and nearly 66 percent of Iraqis surveyed believe violence would decrease if U.S. forces left Iraq. SS

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