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Newsline - December 21, 2006

Unnamed German "senior government officials" told the "International Herald Tribune" of December 21 that the office of Chancellor Angela Merkel and officials of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU-CSU) have "toughened" a recent plan on relations with Russia, which was drafted independently of Merkel by the Foreign Ministry, which is controlled by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD). The ministry seeks to promote German and EU ties to Russia on the basis of an expanding network of interrelationships during Germany's upcoming EU Presidency and chairmanship of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries, which begin on January 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20, and December 1, 13, and 20, 2006). The daily reported on December 21 that "under pressure from...Merkel and senior members of the [CDU-CSU], the Foreign Ministry is preparing to include [in its plan] references to human rights and the rule of law.... Both [issues] were absent from the...ministry's original paper." Ruprecht Polenz (CDU), who heads the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, told the daily that "the Foreign Ministry knows exactly what our views are about its paper on Russia.... It is absolutely necessary that we make clear to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin what we think about his policy toward human rights and the rule of law." Polenz noted that Merkel asked Putin in Dresden in October for information regarding the investigation into the killing of critical journalist Anna Politkovskaya but has heard nothing since (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11 and 12, 2006). Polenz added that he fears that the widespread international attention being paid to the recent killing of Aleksandr Litvinenko "will take the spotlight off Politkovskaya. We must not let this happen." Roland Goetz, who is a leading German expert on Russian affairs, told the daily that Merkel's office "is looking beyond the time when Putin is supposed to leave office in 2008.... As yet there is no clear sense about who will succeed Putin or indeed if [he] will try...for a third term." In Moscow on December 21, German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier called for a quick clarification of the Politkovskaya and Litvinenko cases after a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, Deutsche Welle reported. The German minister added that Russian officials are aware that the two slayings have "caused huge damage to Russia's image in the West." PM

Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, told "Izvestia" of December 21 that "the governments of Old [Western] Europe seem to have a good understanding of where the real risks to Europe's energy stability lie. The real problems [in relations between Russia and the EU] do not stem from Europe's excessive dependence on Russian gas, which has been supplied reliably for decades." He argued instead that "the real threat comes from unpredictable transit states," which he did not name, except for Ukraine. Kosachyov believes that "if overt opponents of closer relations with Moscow come to have decisive influence on EU relations with Russia," Moscow will seek bilateral deals. He added that "European politicians should realize for themselves that it is futile and counterproductive for opponents of cooperation to be present in structures which are supposed to ensure cooperation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19 and 26, 2006). Elsewhere, U.K. Member of Parliament Denis MacShane (Labour), who was minister of state for Europe in 2002-05, told the "International Herald Tribune" of December 21 that German Foreign Minister Steinmeier must make it clear to President Putin on his current visit to Moscow that he is speaking for the entire EU when raising human rights concerns. MacShane added that "the Kremlin wants to divide Europe into Old Europe, which it feels it can manipulate and [where it can] have its poodles...and New Europe, which is Atlanticist and which includes the member states from Eastern Europe, Britain, and the Nordic countries. These countries are increasingly nervous about Russia's drift away from the rule of law, press freedom, and human rights." PM

Following the announcement on December 21 of the death of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov (see End Note), State Duma Deputy Kosachyov told Interfax on December 21 that he hopes "that a breakthrough will be made in relations between Russia and Turkmenistan, because this country is our genuinely strategic and most crucial partner in the Central Asian region." Former Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, who once headed the Defense Ministry's International Department and is currently vice president of the Academy for Geopolitical Problems, also told the news agency that Russia should act quickly to promote its interests in Turkmenistan. He said that Turkmenistan has "no more such personalities" who can afford politically to be "neutral with the CIS and even pressure neighboring countries.... That is why the new leadership will begin searching for support...among other CIS member nations." Ivashov believes that this state of affairs "offers Russia an opportunity to become a major strategic partner of Turkmenistan, [especially if] the new special attention to bolstering the country's defense capability in the near future." He argued that "if Russia chooses a passive role, it may further weaken its position in Turkmenistan.... It is known that Turkey and the United States are making vigorous attempts to pursue their interests in Turkmenistan, primarily its oil and gas sector." Oleg Orlov, who heads the human rights group Memorial, told Interfax that Niyazov's death offers "hope that Turkmenistan will move away from all extreme forms of totalitarianism." Orlov added that he hopes "that there are people in Turkmenistan who understand that the country should change." PM

President Putin hosted a gala reception in Moscow on December 20 to mark the day of the security forces, which was known in Soviet times as the Day of the Chekist and marked the anniversary of the founding of what became known as the KGB, Russian and international media reported. Putin, who is a former KGB agent and who briefly headed its successor organization, the Federal Security Service (FSB), said in a statement that "the personnel of the security services firmly stand guard for Russia's national interests," reported. He added that "their best workers have always shown patriotism, competency, a high degree of personal and professional decency, and an understanding of the importance of their work for the good of their fatherland.... There are many glorious pages, bright examples of true heroism and courage in the history of national state-security organizations.... It is a profession [of those] who love our motherland." PM

President Putin told Russia's Security Council in Moscow on December 20 that the social and economic isolation of the resource-rich Far East from the rest of Russia poses a "serious threat to our political and economic positions in the Asia-Pacific region, and to Russia's national security, without exaggeration," RIA Novosti reported. He called for the setting up of a special commission to plan the development and integration of the region. "It is crucial to improve coordination between all levels of power for the sake of successful development of the Far East," particularly infrastructure, Putin added. PM

Roman Abramovich resigned as governor of Siberia's remote Chukotka Autonomous Okrug on December 20, a post he held for six years, and Britain's "Financial Times" reported on December 21. He is generally considered politically close to the Kremlin and is reportedly Russia's richest man, with wealth estimated by "Forbes" at about $18 billion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2006). A spokesman for Abramovich said in Moscow that "in six years [Abramovich and his team] have basically rebuilt the whole region from the bottom up" and that his departure "is a matter of mission accomplished." The spokesman denied media speculation that Abramovich, who sold his Sibneft holding in 2005 to the state-run monopoly Gazprom, is suffering from stress or was under political pressure to resign. suggested that it is unlikely that Abramovich has fallen from the Kremlin's favor and that he could reemerge on the political scene in a different post. PM

Deputies adopted a formal appeal on December 20 to Khazret Sovmen to resign as president before the end of the year, in order to facilitate decisions on personnel appointments and the adoption of amendments to the 2007 budget, reported. Sovmen's presidential term expires on January 13, 2007, and on December 13, deputies approved the candidacy of Maykop Technological University Rector Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov, President Putin's proposed candidate, to succeed him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006). Tkhakushinov has pledged to name a Russian as prime minister and to allocate 50 percent of government posts to Slavs, who account for almost two-thirds of the republic's population. LF

Supplies of Russian natural gas to Armenia continued to be sharply reduced on December 20 for a third consecutive day after a gas pipeline transiting Georgia was damaged in a landslide, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Although Armenia was able to receive some imports of gas through a much smaller reserve pipeline, Shushan Sardarian, a spokeswoman for the ArmRosGazprom (ARG) national gas operator, said that "the volume of the imported gas met only one-third of our domestic demand." Alexander Khetaguri, the president of the Georgian Oil and Gas Corporation, announced on December 20 that repair work on the damaged section of the pipeline has been completed. He said supplies to Armenia are expected to return to normal capacity within days, Yerkir and RIA Novosti reported. In order to meet domestic demand during the crisis, Armenia relied on some 1.2 million cubic meters of gas from a large underground strategic reserve north of Yerevan, according to Caucasus Press. Imports of Russian gas supplies serve as the principal source of winter heating in Armenia and account for some 40 percent of Armenia's electricity production. RG

The mayor of a large village in southern Armenia was killed on December 20 after being shot by unknown assailants, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo. Senior police official Armen Yeritsian revealed that the victim, 60-year-old Roland Mkrtchian, was the mayor of the village of Nalbandian and was gunned down in front of his home. Yeritsian added that police investigators have determined that he was fatally shot by what they believe to have been two gunshots fired from a hunting rifle, suggesting that the gunman was "not a professional." Relatives and friends of the victim told police that the killing was politically motivated and accused Albert Heroyan, the recently dismissed governor of the region, and Nahapet Gevorgian, a parliamentarian from the area, of complicity in the killing, citing a dispute between the victim and the two men since Mkrtchian's reelection in July. The killing follows a similar case in August, when Tigran Petrosian, the mayor of Dalar, a village in the neighboring Ararat region, was fatally shot, reportedly by his predecessor and rival Gegham Badalian. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan, the head of the Standardization and Compliance Department of the Trade and Economic Development Ministry, Robert Dayan, announced on December 20 that imports of foodstuffs from Turkey will be banned, as they fail to meet Armenian standards for certification and labeling, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Dayan explained that all foodstuffs imported into Armenia are subject to obligatory Armenian-language labeling and said that some 44 classified foodstuffs have been subject to the new requirements, with the remainder of imports set to be covered after July. He further explained that many foodstuffs imported from Turkey fail to meet Armenian standards and noted that the issue has not been resolved given the lack of diplomatic relations with Turkey, Regnum reported. RG

In comments during a meeting with leading Armenian human rights activists, U.S. charge d'affaires Anthony Godfrey expressed on December 20 Washington's strong backing for their work and said that the United States believes their activities are "critical" for Armenia's democratic future, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Godfrey told the activists that "the United States stands in solidarity with you -- the country's brave men and women who are doing such essential work as supporting a free press, fighting against trafficking in persons, advocating for freedom of religion, and supporting women's rights." The meeting, which included the Armenian government's human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, was organized to coincide with International Human Rights Day. One of the participants, Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, added that the United States and the West in general have done "more than enough" to highlight problems in Armenia. He explained that "the reasons why the situation with human rights in Armenia is disastrous are purely domestic," adding that "we have only ourselves to blame for that." RG

In comments to journalists during a Baku press conference, Azerbaijani presidential-administration official Ali Hasanov announced on December 20 that a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a strategic foreign-policy priority in the coming year, ANS radio reported. Hasanov added that Baku expects international organizations to help reach a resolution to the conflict, but warned that unless the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group makes "a sharp U-turn" on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, "other organizations will be involved in the problem's resolution." He also noted that "Azerbaijan has been strengthened from a military standpoint," adding that "we now rely on the Azerbaijani Army and economy" instead of counting on the "international community" to settle the Karabakh problem. RG

An unidentified official of the Azerbaijani Transportation Ministry announced on December 20 that the Japanese government will help to finance the construction of a high-speed railway network in Azerbaijan, Interfax and reported. The Japanese Itochu Company is expected to conduct a preliminary study of the high-speed rail project prior to Tokyo's disbursement of a $200,000 grant to the Azerbaijani government. According to the Azerbaijani official, the project is part of a broader Asia-Europe high-speed railway network featuring modern trains capable of traveling at between 250-350 kilometers per hour. RG

In a report to the Georgian cabinet, Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli announced on December 20 that Azerbaijan will become Georgia's main supplier of natural gas next year, Imedi television and Civil Georgia reported. Noghaideli explained that current talks under way with Azerbaijani and Turkish officials have progressed and are now largely focusing on "technical details." He explained that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is in Turkey for a second day of negotiations, but predicted that the talks will forge a new agreement on redistributing the Turkish share of natural gas produced by Azerbaijan's offshore Shah Deniz gas field in the Caspian Sea. Energy Minister Nika Gilauri also announced on December 20 that a final agreement with Turkey on the Shah Deniz gas deal is expected to be announced following a meeting between Saakashvili and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on December 21. Gilauri, who is accompanying Saakashvili on his official visit to Turkey, confirmed that negotiations with Azerbaijani officials have concluded, with "only technical details" concerning the schedule of gas delivery currently under discussion. Gilauri added that Georgia may also agree to export electricity to Turkey in exchange for the Turkish gas quota. Those talks have proven more difficult than initially expected and were reportedly deadlocked the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20, 2006). After a year of mounting confrontation with Russia, Georgian officials are anxious to diversify gas supplies and reduce their significant dependence on Russian gas imports. RG

In a statement during his official visit to Turkey, Georgian President Saakashvili praised on December 20 Georgia's ties with Turkey and hailed Turkey as Georgia's "window to Europe," Imedi television and Civil Georgia reported. Saakashvili inaugurated the opening of new Georgian Embassy in Ankara and welcomed the Turkish decision earlier this year to end visa requirements for travel from Georgia. He also stressed the importance of the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway project as a link to the European railway network, overcoming "many years of isolation." During the visit, a new bilateral agreement on preferential trade was also signed that reduced Turkish import tariffs on Georgian wine and agricultural products and includes measures designed to promote foreign investment, Caucasus Press reported. RG

China and Kazakhstan issued a 13-page document titled "China-Kazakhstan Cooperation Strategy for the 21st Century" in Beijing on December 20, the Xinhua news agency reported. The strategy outlines future cooperation in numerous spheres -- including the construction of oil and gas pipelines -- and envisions an expansion of bilateral trade from current levels of nearly $7 billion to $10 billion in 2010 and $15 billion in 2015. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev is on a five-day visit to China that has seen the signing of 10 bilateral agreements (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10, 2006). DK

Kazakhstan may provide Kyrgyzstan with up to $100 million in financial assistance, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on December 20, citing a Kazakh government press release. The discussion took place at a meeting in Astana between Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov and Kyrgyz acting First Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov. Kazakh officials noted that Kazakhstan is the largest investor in Kyrgyzstan, with $56.2 million in investment in the Kyrgyz economy in the first 10 months of 2006, ITAR-TASS reported. DK

Opposition deputy Omurbek Tekebaev said on December 20 that parliament did not consider dissolving itself in a closed session the same day, AP reported. On December 19, Kyrgyzstan's cabinet resigned and called on parliament to dissolve itself to pave the way for new elections. Echoing Tekebaev's remarks, deputy speaker Kubanychbek Isabekov said, "Parliament is not preparing to dissolve itself," Kabar reported. DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev met with the heads of political parties in Bishkek on December 20, with party leaders voicing approval of the cabinet's resignation and some expressing support for the idea of parliament's self-dissolution, reported. Emil Aliev, head of the Ar-Namys Party -- formerly headed by Prime Minister Feliks Kulov -- said parliament may have no choice but to dissolve itself to make it possible to implement the recently approved constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 9, 2006). And Ishak Masaliev, head of the Communist Party, called parliament's self-dissolution an "optimal way out of the situation." DK

Bakiev signed a decree on December 20 appointing Bayimbet Murataliev governor of Talas province, Kabar reported. News agency reported on December 19 that the former governor in Talas, Jusupjan Jeenbekov, was removed from his post on December 18 and appointed first deputy minister of ecology and emergency situations. DK

A court in Bishkek has ruled in favor of Janysh Bakiev, the former deputy head of the National Security Service, in Bakiev's lawsuit against the legislature, reported on December 20. Janysh is the brother of President Kurmanbek Bakiev. The court ruled that parliament -- which voted to implicate Janysh Bakiev in a scandal involving former opposition parliamentarian Tekebaev's detention on drug-related charges in Poland (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2006) -- must apologize to Bakiev. DK

Simon Storesund, senior vice president of Norway's Hydro Aluminum, told a press conference in Dushanbe on December 20 that his company will buy 800,000 tons of primary aluminum from the Tajik Aluminum Plant (Tadaz) over the next four years, Avesta reported. Under the agreement, Hydro will annually provide Tadaz with 150,000 tons of alumina, the raw material used to produce aluminum. The announcement followed Storesund's meeting with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov. Hydo and Tadaz were previously involved in a complex business dispute, and a spokesman for Hydro commented on December 20, "We are very glad that we have been able to settle our dispute with Tadaz and reach a new positive accord." DK

Tajik law-enforcement agencies have confiscated a total of 5.545 tons of narcotics in 2006, Interfax reported on December 20, citing data from the Tajik Interior Ministry. The breakdown of seizures indicated that the Interior Ministry seized 2,345 kilograms of drugs -- including 1,196 kilograms of heroin -- while the Drug Control Agency seized 3,200 kilograms, including 1,366 kilograms of heroin. DK

Turkmen television announced early on the morning of December 21 that President Saparmurat Niyazov died of a heart attack at 1:10 a.m. (see End Note). An additional announcement stated that the Turkmen government has formed a commission to handle funeral arrangements. Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov will head the commission, Reuters reported. DK

The International Helsinki Federation (IHF) and Amnesty International said on December 20 that Turkmen environmental activist Andrei Zatoka has been detained at the airport in the northern city of Dashoguz, AP and AFP reported. In a statement, the IHF said Zatoka's arrest is likely "an act of intimidation motivated by his civil-society engagement." Holly Cartner, the Europe and Central Asia director for Human Rights Watch, denounced the detention as "arbitrary and politically motivated," and expressed concern that Zatoka could be tortured in detention. DK

The Council of the Republic, Belarus's upper house of parliament, on December 20 passed a bill on preventing and combating extremism, Belapan reported. The bill defines extremism as steps by political parties, public, religious, and other organizations as well as Belarusian and foreign citizens to plan, prepare, and commit acts aimed at overthrowing the constitutional system, the establishment of illegal armed groups, and conducting terrorist activities. Stsyapan Sukharenka, chairman of the Committee for State Security (KGB), described the bill during the session as "extremely necessary" ahead of what he called "events prepared" by the opposition. In particular, Sukharenka warned, opposition forces are planning to carry out civil-disobedience campaigns aimed at changing the existing constitutional order during local elections in January. The bill on extremism was already passed by the lower house in October and rejected by the upper house several days later. The government subsequently presented the rejected bill without any revisions to the legislature, which passed it without reservations this time. JM

Also on December 20, the Council of the Republic adopted a 2007 budget bill, Belapan reported. The bill predicts next year's consolidated budget revenues to be 40.4 trillion rubles ($18.8 billion) and spending at 41.8 trillion rubles, with a deficit equal to 1.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). According to the budget estimates, GDP will grow by 9 percent and the annual inflation rate will total 7 percent in 2007. JM

The UN General Assembly on December 20 adopted a resolution on human rights violations in Belarus by a vote of 72 to 32, with 69 states abstaining, Belapan reported. The document condemns Minsk's failure to cooperate with the UN special rapporteur, bring electoral regulations into line with international standards, and hold a free and fair presidential election. It also voices concern about the harassment of opposition activists, nongovernmental organizations, and journalists covering opposition demonstrations, and about the criminal prosecution of opposition leaders. JM

Lawmakers from the ruling Party of Regions prevented Borys Tarasyuk from attending a cabinet meeting in Kyiv on December 20, Ukrainian media reported. Tarasyuk was dismissed from the post of foreign minister by the Verkhovna Rada on December 1, but President Viktor Yushchenko subsequently issued a decree ordering Tarasyuk to remain in his job. Yushchenko maintains that parliament dismissed Tarasyuk unlawfully, arguing that such a dismissal should have been preceded by a presidential motion. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych demanded on December 20 that Yushchenko select a new candidate for the post of foreign minister and instruct First Deputy Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko to attend cabinet meetings instead of Tarasyuk. Tarasyuk was also prevented from attending a cabinet session last week. JM

Bosnian Serb police said on December 19 that they are tightening security around Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik following reports of an assassination plot, dpa reported the same day. Bosnian media quoted a confidential police report as saying that a Serbian organized crime group, the Zemun clan, was planning to kill Dodik during one of his visits to Sarajevo. The reason for the alleged plot is Dodik's crackdown on money laundering and disputes over the privatizations of several state companies, AKI reported, citing unidentified police officials. Republika Srpska Interior Minister Stanislav Cadjo said measures to protect Dodik were increased while police further investigate the allegations. BW

Vahid Heco, the industry and energy minister for Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim-Croat Federation, has blocked the privatization of the country's only aluminum smelter, Aluminij Mostar, Reuters reported the same day. Heco annulled a decision by Bosnia's privatization agency to send bid invitations for an 88 percent stake in Aluminij to firms regarded as possible strategic partners. Heco said the minimum value of the stake, which was set at 150.3 million Bosnian marks ($102.5 million), was too low. He also said bid invitations contravened the law. "According to the privatization law, it must be privatized through a public tender," Heco told Reuters. He said he expected the privatization agency to draft a new balance sheet for Aluminij and offer it for sale through a public tender. BW

The trial of four Bosnian Serbs charged with crimes against humanity in Bosnia-Herzegovina's 1992-95 war opened in Sarajevo on December 20, Reuters reported the same day. Prosecutor David Schwendiman said the four defendants -- Zeljko Mejakic, Momcilo Gruban, Dusan Knezevic, and Dragan Fustar -- are charged in connection with atrocities committed at the notorious Omarska and Keraterm detention camps in western Bosnia. The accused allegedly took part in killings, beatings, and rapes at the two camps. "The four took part in a widespread and systematic attack in the area around the town of Prijedor, where 7,000 non-Serbian civilians were detained, tortured, and many of them killed on the basis of their ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation," he said. All four men, who were transferred in May from the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, pleaded not guilty to the charges. BW

The head of NATO's liaison office in Belgrade, French Brigadier General Yannick Asset, said on December 20 that the alliance will not transit any troops through Serbia until February, B92 reported the same day. Asset said in an interview with B92 that the new NATO office's main tasks will be implementing the alliance's transit contract with Serbia, supporting defense reform, and supporting activities related to the Partnership for Peace program. "The transit contract is a good foundation for the cooperation between Serbia and NATO when it comes to Kosovo. It will facilitate NATO's rapid troop transfer to Kosovo, should that be necessary, in order to protect any community in danger," Asset said. Serbia joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program last week, and NATO opened its liaison office on December 18. Originally, officials said the first NATO transits would move through Serbia in January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15 and 19, 2006). BW

Vladimir Voronin announced on December 20 that Moldova will buy gas from Russia's Gazprom for $170 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2007, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. The price is just $10 higher per 1,000 cubic meters that the price Moldova paid in 2006. Voronin said the relatively small increase is contingent upon unspecified joint projects Chisinau offered the Russian state-controlled gas monopoly. "We have no alternative to the natural-gas imports," Voronin said. "We get it from one pipe, along which Gazprom supplies gas to all CIS states, as well as in Europe. No one will separate us from this pipe to give us a cheap gas. The natural-gas price for Moldova will reach the average European level by 2011." The deal is scheduled to be signed on December 28. Also on December 20, Moldova's government gave Trade and Economy Minister Igor Dodon permission to sign the protocol approving Russia's membership in the World Trade Organization, international news agencies reported. BW

Also on December 20, in a sign that Chisinau's chilly relations with Moscow may be improving, President Voronin said Russia is Moldova's strategic partner, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "Russia has been and remains our strategic partner irrespective of who is in power in Chisinau and in Moscow," Voronin said. "Russia is our main economic partner, the main market for our goods and a supplier of energy carriers." Voronin added that the two countries' common interests go beyond economics. "Our relations are based first of all on universal values, on a common history and human relations," he said. "As history would have it, Russian-Moldovan friendship is an axiom." Voronin also said he wants good relations with Romania, but urged Bucharest to consider his country an "equal" state, international news agencies reported. "We cannot accept big brothers or big sisters," he said. "We had big brothers in the former Soviet Union. And as long as officials in Bucharest don't understand this, there will be problems in our bilateral relations." BW

Born in Ashgabat, capital of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, on February 19, 1940, Saparmurat Niyazov died early on December 21 in a strange new world of his own creation. He was Turkmenbashi, head of all Turkmen, president-for-life of an independent Turkmenistan -- where even the renamed months of the year paid homage to Niyazov and his family.

Niyazov's humble Soviet beginnings provided no hint of the road that lay ahead. His father, Atamurat, was killed in 1942 while fighting the Germans in the Caucasus. His mother, Gurbansoltan, and two brothers perished in a 1948 earthquake that leveled Ashgabat. The young Saparmurat was raised first in an orphanage and later in the home of a relative.

But the orphaned Niyazov worked hard to make the best of the opportunities the Soviet system offered him. He joined the Communist Party in 1962, and in 1967 he graduated from the Polytechnic Institute in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). A job at a power plant in the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) led to a series of increasingly important positions in the local Communist Party bureaucracy.

In 1985, after a brief stint in Moscow as an instructor at the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Niyazov became chairman of the Turkmen SSR's Council of Ministers and first secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party.

Described by those who knew him during the Soviet era as self-effacing and ingratiating, Niyazov took a cool stance on the reforms begun by Mikhail Gorbachev. When a group of hard-liners attempted a coup against Gorbachev in 1991, Niyazov supported them. But as the futility of efforts to hold the Soviet Union together became apparent, Turkmenistan struck out on its own, declaring independence on October 27, 1991.

Freed from Soviet constraints, the once-modest party functionary rapidly established himself as the center and source of all power in independent Turkmenistan. Niyazov became president of the new country, and the uncontested 1992 presidential election he won was the last to be held. By 1993, he had assumed the title Turkmenbashi (head of all the Turkmen), and in 1999, the country's docile legislature proclaimed him president for life.

Two parallel tendencies quickly emerged under Niyazov's rule. First, he stamped out not only dissent, but the very possibility of dissent, using his security services to remove all potential threats to his power. Second, he encouraged a cult of personality, dotting the landscapes with monuments to himself, renaming the months of the year, and authoring a book -- the "Ruhnama," or "Book of the Spirit" -- that became a compulsory part of curricula at all levels of the country's educational system.

Niyazov survived an apparent assassination attempt in 2002, responding with purges and show trials. In a memorable and disturbing spectacle, Boris Shikhmuradov, a former deputy prime minister, gave a self-abasing videotaped confession in which he called himself a "criminal" and Niyazov a "gift to the Turkmen people."

State television broadcast the confession nationwide, and audiences cried out for Shikhmuradov's execution at public screenings. Shikhmuradov received a 25-year prison sentence and has not been seen since.

Amid the megalomania, Niyazov took care to channel some of the export revenues from his country's abundant natural-gas reserves to populist initiatives, providing ordinary people with free salt, electricity, and gas.

But much of the profit went to fund projects as lavish as they were bizarre, from the construction of a winter wonderland to the creation of a vast artificial lake. Meanwhile, accounts seeped out painting a dire picture of rampant corruption, a failing health-care system, and education subordinated to one man's cult of personality Niyazov's penchant for regulating the smallest details -- with decrees banning lip-synching and forbidding opera and ballet -- made him a darling of international media, which served up regular reports mocking his dictatorial excesses.

But for Turkmenistan's 5 million people, shut off from the world under the watchful eyes of the secret police amid an arbitrary jungle of directives and decrees, it has all been deadly serious. Now, with Niyazov gone, we may finally learn what life under his fickle rule was really like.

Intelligence officials said on December 19 that they have arrested 23 suspected Taliban during separate raids in Konduz Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported the same day. One official, on condition of anonymity, said one of the detainees is the prayer leader of a mosque in Khanabad, while another is a local bank official. The two men are purportedly responsible for organizing attacks against security forces and recruiting militants in the area, respectively. All of the detainees were residents of Konduz and neighbouring Baghlan Province. The raids also turned up Taliban documents, explosives, and a videocassette of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban and de facto ruler of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Officials were tipped off by an intelligence report that approximately 250 Taliban and Al-Qaeda members were hiding in the two districts. JC

Nearly 1,000 students in the southern province of Kandahar have stopped going to school due to threats of violence by the Taliban, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on December 19. "I stopped going to school, because the Taliban warned us in leaflets that they would cut our ears if we did not [stop going to school]," 12-year-old Juma Khan said. According to Khan, the Taliban posted threatening letters on school walls, warning the students of severe punishment if they continued attending school. Other students said they live in constant fear of suicide bombings. In a recent visit to Kandahar, Afghan President Hamid Karzai acknowledged that the poor education situation -- 259 out of a total of 781 schools in the south are closed -- is due to insecurity. Education Ministry officials say about 180 out of a total of 9,000 schools across the country have been burned down by insurgents. JC

Afghan officials freed 10 Pakistanis on December 20, a day after detaining them for mistakenly crossing the border into Afghanistan, AP reported the same day. The men were arrested in a mountainous, unmarked area of the two countries' border approximately 200 kilometers north of Quetta, according to Abdul Raziq Bugti, a spokesman for the government of Pakistan's Baluchistan Province, of which Quetta is the capital. The men reportedly strayed into Afghanistan while cutting firewood in the area, he said. Of the 10, five were off-duty border guards while the other five were civilians from the Tarkha area. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have recently deteriorated, with Kabul accusing Islamabad of supporting the Taliban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14 and 15, 2006). Afghan officials allege that Taliban fighters are hiding in Baluchistan and cross the porous border to launch attacks against security troops, which Pakistan denies. JC

Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, who was defense minister when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan prior to October 2001, is leading a force of approximately 400 insurgents in the southern province of Kandahar, where a major NATO-led operation is under way, AFP reported on December 20. According to an Afghan army general involved in Operation Baaz Tsuka, Akhund is giving orders to Taliban fighters in and around Panjwayi district. The general, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cited intelligence reports, as well as information from ground troops and captured insurgents, as evidence of Akhund's involvement. As hundreds of NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan troops return to the region for the new offensive, intelligence reports suggest that Akhund has ordered Taliban militants to pull out without fighting. The order, according to the general, may signal that the rebels are "too weak to fight another battle." Nearly 1,000 militants in the region were killed in September during a similar ISAF offensive. JC

Mahmud Ahmadinejad spoke in different towns and districts of the western Kermanshah Province on December 20, denouncing Iran's "enemies" and speaking of Iranian government plans to assist local economies, ISNA reported. He told a gathering in the town of Hersin that Iran will celebrate its nuclear achievements in the 10 days leading up to February 11 -- the next anniversary of the 1979 revolution and fall of the monarchy, ISNA reported. Ahmadinejad said that "enemies" are concerned that Iran is fast becoming an "advanced country and model for other states." He said in a separate speech in Kangavar that "we are a step away from attaining the nuclear peak." He said separately in Sahneh that countries he called "bullies" have gathered and "put on masks and are chanting about human rights, when they have created the most suffocating conditions." He said the "most dictatorial governments" are beholden to states that keep speaking of human rights. He said later in Javanrud that "forceful powers and America, Great Britain, and the Zionist regime are destructible because they have moved away from God's teachings," ISNA reported. Ahmadinejad also met in Kermanshah with Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri, who is currently visiting Iran, IRNA reported. VS

The UN General Assembly has voted to denounce allegedly widespread rights abuses in Iran, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on December 20. The assembly has 192 members; the resolution received 72 votes for, 50 against, and 55 abstentions. The assembly resolution expressed grave concern over the abuse of the rights of many groups in Iran, including dissidents, religious dissidents, journalists, parliamentarians, students, and academics, Radio Farda reported. It added that Iranian diplomats at the UN failed in their efforts to prevent the resolution being passed, though Iran was backed in its efforts by Pakistan and Zimbabwe. The resolution has criticized Iran's judicial system as going against international norms, and deplored the use of torture and public executions. It asked the Iranian government to respect citizens' right to assembly and free expression, and end the use of torture and harassment of opponents and human rights activists, Radio Farda reported. VS

Iranian officials have recently announced Iran's decision to diversify its foreign-currency reserves and currency for transactions and reduce reliance on U.S. dollars in the face of U.S. hostility to Iran's regime, Radio Farda reported on December 16, citing news agencies. Iranian government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said in Tehran on December 18 that Iran will calculate the value of its transactions in euros and rials, the basic local currency unit. "From now on...our foreign assets and oil revenues will be calculated and received on the basis of the euro," ISNA reported. "Our hard-currency resources abroad will be turned to euros, and the Economy Council has made a decision on this," he said. Legislator Morteza Tamaddon said in Tehran on December 19 that "we would benefit from selling our oil in a currency that is rising," adding that the government considered changing its reserve currency "when the price of the dollar began to fall against other currencies," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on December 20. He said foreign threats against Iran are "not without an effect" on the decision. Iran, he added, would do better to diversify with a basket of various hard currencies. VS

Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh said in Tehran on December 20 that Iran's political and economic activities have in the past 27 years "been done under sanctions, so this is nothing new and will not harm Iran in any way," IRNA reported. He was referring to the years since the 1979 revolution that toppled Iran's Westernizing monarchy, and threatened sanctions to punish Iran for allegedly violating its nuclear nonproliferation commitments. "Nothing, not even sanctions" could prevent Iran's growth, he said. "We are used to sanctions and renewed sanctions will not create us any problems," he said. If sanctions are implemented, he said, "the one losing will be Europe, because Iran's oil production has a significant impact on the internal oil market of European countries." Iran could assure oil production for its own domestic needs, he said. Vaziri said oil production has risen in the past year due to new discoveries, while Oil Ministry contracts to buy oil industry equipment are priced in euros, "on the basis of the government's policy that the euro should replace the dollar," IRNA reported. VS

The U.S. military formally handed over security responsibilities for the Al-Najaf Governorate to Iraqi forces on December 20, international media reported the same day. Hundreds of Iraqi police and soldiers gathered in Al-Najaf city's soccer stadium, where the official handover was conducted with great fanfare. "Our heroes. Our brothers in the Iraqi police and army. We need the area to be free of militias so that only the police and army can carry guns. I'm proud of you," Al-Najaf Governor As'ad Abu Gilal said. U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said: "The Iraqi police and Iraqi Army can assume overall responsibility for all law enforcement and security activities. This is a terrific success for Iraq, achieved through the policies of the Iraqi government." The governorate comprises the Shi'ite holy city of Al-Najaf, a historic center of Shi'ite scholarship and home to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of Iraq's Shi'ite community. SS

Newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived in Baghdad on December 20 to meet with U.S. military commanders and Iraqi officials to discuss new ways of dealing with the insecurity in Iraq, international media reported the same day. Gates said U.S. commanders expressed concern that U.S. President George W. Bush is considering a short-term increase in U.S. forces in Iraq. "It's clearly a consideration. The commanders here have expressed a concern about that," he said. Meanwhile, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on December 20 that CENTCOM commander General John Abizaid will be stepping down in March. Abizaid's planned departure clears the way for Gates to recommend his own CENTCOM commander. Abizaid had been due to leave in July this year, but former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked him to stay on until early 2007. SS

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi met with outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York on December 20 and urged the organization to increase its presence in Iraq, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Al-Hashimi said that the UN is in the best position to help alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people. "I reconfirmed to him [Annan] that Iraq would be very much interested to see the United Nations play an increasing role in Iraq," al-Hashimi said. He also stressed the need to amend the Iraqi Constitution in order to achieve national reconciliation. Al-Hashimi also met with newly elected UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said the UN will do its utmost to help the Iraqi people, stressing that Iraq is a priority for the organization. SS

During the December 20 session of the Anfal trial, Iraqi prosecutors presented documents that show former President Saddam Hussein ordered his intelligence service to study the possibility of launching chemical attacks against Iran and the Kurds, international media reported the same day. "Mr. President ordered our office to study with experts launching a sudden strike on bases of [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini's guards and [Kurdish leader Mas'ud] Barzani saboteurs using special ammunition," chief prosecutor Munqith al-Farun read from a 1987 intelligence memo. Another document from the intelligence service requested that the presidency order renewed attacks against the villages with "traditional and special weapons." Prosecutors contend that "special weapons" and "special ammunitions" were a reference to chemical agents, such as mustard and sarin gas. One memo from the northern Ba'ath Party headquarters recommended that prisoners not be decapitated until after being interrogated. "We have no problem with the beheadings of traitors, but it would have been better to bring them to the security headquarters so they can be interrogated and we can extract information before we execute them," the memo said. SS

A new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued on December 20 concludes that Iraq was the most dangerous place for media personnel for a fourth straight year. The report indicates that 32 journalists were killed in Iraq in 2006, with 26 assassinated, making this the deadliest year for representatives of the media in a single country that CPJ has recorded since its foundation in 1981. "When this conflict began more than 3 1/2 years ago, most journalists died in combat-related incidents. Now, insurgents routinely target journalists for perceived affiliations -- political, sectarian, or Western," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon wrote in the report. The CPJ said its latest count brings to 93 the total number of journalists killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, with another 37 support staff also killed. SS

The U.S. military announced on December 20 that coalition forces captured a senior Al-Qaeda in Iraq operative and five suspected terrorists in Mosul on December 14. In a statement, the military said that the leader was known as the "military emir of Mosul" and later the "military emir of Al-Karakh," Baghdad. During that time he reportedly organized an attempt to shoot down of a coalition helicopter in the Ad'hamiyah neighborhood in May. The statement added, "The capture of this terrorist responsible for anti-Iraqi and anticoalition activity will disrupt Al-Qaeda in Iraq operations, slow the facilitation of foreign fighters, and bring coalition forces closer to capturing [Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader] Abu Ayyub al-Masri." SS