GAZPROM TAKES CONTROL OF SAKHALIN-2 FROM SHELL
President Vladimir Putin attended the Moscow signing ceremony on December 21 in which the state monopoly Gazprom acquired a stake of 50 percent plus one share in the $20 billion Sakhalin-2 gas project from Shell, Mitsui, and Mitsubishi, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12 and 13, 2006). Putin said that "Gazprom decided today to take part in the joint Sakhalin-2 project. This is a corporate decision. The Russian government was informed about it and we have no objections to it, we welcome it." He added that "the Russian government and investors are interested in the implementation of this project.... Once again, I want to stress that we will do everything to carry this project through." Gazprom Chairman Aleksei Miller announced that "the price of this package is $7.45 billion," which his firm will pay in cash to the three foreign companies, whose shares in the project have been halved. The "International Herald Tribune" suggested on December 22 that this price "is below market rate." Shell's chief executive, Jeroen van der Veer, said that the deal has brought "stability" to the project. The U.K.'s "Financial Times" noted Moscow has "effectively dropped" its concerns about ecological damage and cost overruns, which had been used by the Russian authorities to challenge the continuation of the project. Putin said that he is "very pleased that our environmental agencies and our investors have agreed about the resolution of the questions which have arisen." He also thanked the three foreign companies for their "flexibility in the course of negotiations." Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko, who recently criticized Sakhalin-2's cost overruns, said that "the project is becoming more expensive, and there are objective reasons for this." PM
WILL RUSSIA NOW TURN ITS ATTENTION TO OTHERS?
The deal giving Gazprom control over Sakhalin-2 was widely seen in international media on December 21 and 22 as a successful attempt to renegotiate the terms of a production-sharing agreement (PSA) in order to include Russian state monopolies like Gazprom and Rosneft. The U.K.'s "Financial Times" reported on December 22 that "clawing back control over Sakhalin-2 is seen by the Kremlin as 'restoring justice,' one senior Russian official said. 'The only problem is that in Russia the law and justice are not the same thing,' he added." On December 12, Britain's "Daily Telegraph" already wrote that "the move by the Kremlin [to take over Sakhalin-2] will be seen as a sign that Russia will no longer tolerate foreign investors controlling strategic assets." Several Russian and international media outlets suggested on December 22 that Russia will now "turn on" other PSAs, namely BP's TNK-BP project to develop eastern Siberia's Kovykta gas field and France's Total's PSA for the Kharyaga oil field, (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20 and 25, 2006). The U.K.'s "Daily Telegraph" on December 22 quoted Anatoly Ledovskikh, who heads the Federal Agency for the Use of Natural Resources (Rosnedra), as saying that "I very much hope that TNK-BP and Gazprom reach an agreement. They have no choice." President Putin told French President Jacques Chirac in September that any threats to Total's license were "exaggerated." But on December 21, Ledovskikh's deputy, Pyotr Sadovnik, said that Total's license will be reconsidered on December 22 because the firm allegedly failed to give proper evidence of the field's reserves, RIA Novosti reported. Recently, environmental concerns were also raised against Total, as they were against Shell. PM
RUSSIA AWAITS NEW TURKMEN LEADER
Following the announcement on December 21 of the death of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that "we hope that the handover of power [in Turkmenistan] is carried out in the framework of the law, that continuity in our relations is ensured, that the new leadership works for the good of the citizens of Turkmenistan, for the good of all those who live in the country, for the development of relations with Russia, and for maintaining stability in the Central Asian region," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006). Konstantin Kosachyov, who chairs the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, noted that "Niyazov did not leave a definitive successor. Unfortunately, there have been no democratic institutions, which in such cases naturally bring new political leaders to the foreground, in the country in recent years. Clans have a strong influence in the country, and it is obvious that a fierce struggle for power should be expected, either behind the scenes or in the open." He added, however, that "regardless of who the new leader of Turkmenistan is, one can expect a serious shift in the country's foreign-policy course." Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is deputy speaker of the State Duma, argued that "Saparmurat Atayevich [Niyazov] chose the form of government that suits exactly the conditions of all those who live in Turkmenistan. There is no other way to rule Turkmenistan. He set a standard that an absolute majority, 90 percent of Turkmenistan's citizens, were content with. And he never created his own cult [of personality]." Communist Party (KPRF) leader Gennady Zyuganov told reporters after laying flowers at Joseph Stalin's tomb at the Kremlin wall to mark Stalin's birthday that "Niyazov has done a lot for the country. Most importantly, he has been able to subordinate the interests of the gas-production industry to the needs to every Turkmen citizen. They have had access to everything at minimal prices and even for free." On December 22, stratfor.com noted that "Russia has the most to gain from controlling Turkmenistan -- and the best chance at succeeding." PM
GERMAN MINISTER HAILS RUSSIA AS 'PARTNER'
In Moscow on December 21, German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier told Foreign Minister Lavrov that it is important for Russia to clear up the killings of critical journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Aleksandr Litvinenko if it wants to improve its image in the West, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006). Referring to a new EU-Russia comprehensive cooperation agreement to replace the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which runs out in 2007, Steinmeier stressed that it should include principles of energy cooperation. He did not mention the EU's Energy Charter, which Moscow signed in 1994 but never ratified, or its Transit Protocol, which would require Russia to open up access to its pipelines, which Gazprom now effectively controls as a monopoly, while seeking greater access to European markets for itself, the daily added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27 and 29, and December 1, 7, and 13, 2006). Steinmeier also met with President Putin, with whom he discussed Germany's plans for its upcoming EU Presidency and chairmanship of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries, which begin on January 1, as well as the Middle East and unspecified other international issues. In the evening, he met privately with opposition figure and former chess champion Garry Kasparov and also with First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Steinmeier told reporters that he made clear to his hosts that Germany does not hesitate to raise "critical questions" with Russian officials. He added, however, that Berlin also values Moscow as an important and major partner. He said that "we must be able to cooperate in order to resolve conflicts." PM
RUSSIAN BORDER GUARD OFFICIAL REPORTS ON ARMENIAN-TURKISH BORDER SECURITY
Speaking to journalists at a Yerevan press conference, Lieutenant General Sergei Bondarev, the head of Russian border guards in Armenia, said on December 21 that some 407 people were arrested in 2006 for illegally crossing the Armenian border with Turkey, Yerkir reported. Bondarev added that although the border remains secure, border guards also discovered a hidden cache of explosives and five electric detonators. In addition to the arrests, a total of $153,000 worth of smuggled goods was also seized last year. RG
ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT RATIFIES EXTRADITION ACCORD WITH IRAN
The Armenian parliament voted on December 20 to approve an extradition accord with Iran, Arminfo reported. Justice Minister David Harutiunian explained that the accord was part of a larger set of bilateral agreements that included new intergovernmental measures on legal cooperation and mutual assistance in law-enforcement investigations. Those agreements were previously ratified by the Iranian parliament in July 2006. RG
AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT RULES OUT ANY COMPROMISE ON NAGORNO-KARABAKH
In comments during a visit to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, President Ilham Aliyev ruled out on December 21 any compromise on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turan reported. Aliyev called on Armenia to "take a constructive position in the negotiations" over Karabakh and warned Armenia "not to look for excuses trying to buy time." He further stressed that "Azerbaijan will never grant independence to Nagorno-Karabakh" and noted that the Azerbaijani economy is seven times bigger than that of Armenia, with a military budget equal to the total Armenian state budget. Aliyev also reaffirmed Baku's offer of "autonomy" for Karabakh but warned that "in the future there may be no such opportunity," according to day.az. RG
AZERBAIJANI FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS WITH VISITING OSCE OFFICIAL
Elmar Mammadyarov met on December 21 with the visiting director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Christian Strohal, in Baku, today.az reported. Mammadyarov pledged that "Azerbaijan is ready to cooperate with OSCE in all spheres" and the OSCE official vowed that "we intend to expand the cooperation with Azerbaijan in carrying out political reforms." Strohal stressed that Azerbaijan must do more to protect the freedom of media, which he identified as "important for the existence of free society." RG
RUSSIA CUTS GAS SUPPLIES TO SEVERAL GEORGIAN REGIONS
Russia's Itera Oil and Gas Company imposed on December 21 new reductions of gas supplies to several regions of Georgia, Rustavi-2 television and RIA Novosti reported. The gas cutoff affects six regions of eastern Georgia, including Marneuli, Khashuri, Telavi, Zestaponi, Sighaghi, and Dedoplistsqaro. Itera officials defended the cutoff as a response to a total of 750,000 laris ($430,000) in arrears for earlier gas shipments to the six regions, but promised that "the gas supply will be resumed only after the debts have been paid." RG
GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER COMMENTS ON PROPOSED EXTENSION OF TAX BENEFITS FOR MEDIA
Georgian parliament Chairwoman Nino Burdjanadze explained on December 21 that the proposed extension of tax benefits for the country's print media will require further study, Civil Georgia reported. Following the 2004 revision of the Georgian Tax Code, the Georgian print media has enjoyed preferential tax benefits by being granted an exemption from the 18 percent value-added tax, the 20 percent profit tax, and the tax on property, according to Caucasus Press. Opposition deputies presented a proposal to parliament to prolong the tax benefits for at least two more years. RG
RULING PARTY REJECTS GEORGIAN OPPOSITION DEMAND FOR CORRUPTION PROBE
Deputies from the ruling United National Movement announced on December 21 that they are against a proposal by opposition lawmakers to form a special commission to probe corruption and "alleged abuse of property rights" by Georgian authorities, according to Caucasus Press and Civil Georgia. Opposition deputies led by Republican Party leader Davit Berdzenishvili have charged that dozens of property owners in Tbilisi have been forced to "voluntarily" transfer office space to the state after pressure from the Prosecutor-General's Office. The most prominent case involved Jacob Shamatava, who alleged on December 19 that prosecutors were pressuring him to hand over to the state his plot of land in a Tbilisi suburb near the U.S. Embassy. The day after Shamatava made this allegation during a joint news conference with opposition Conservative Party deputy Kakha Kukava, he was arrested and accused of fabricating documents through which he managed to obtain ownership rights over the disputed plot of land. RG
KAZAKHSTAN CONSIDERS FINANCIAL AID FOR KYRGYZSTAN
Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov met on December 20 with Kyrgyz acting First Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov in Astana to discuss a planned $100 million Kazakh aid package for Kyrgyzstan, ITAR-TASS reported. Kazakhstan is the leading investor in Kyrgyzstan, having invested $56.2 million for the first nine months of 2006, compared to $63.1 million invested by all other CIS states during the same period. RG
KYRGYZ DEMONSTRATORS PROTEST DEBT-REDUCTION PROGRAM
Roughly 200 Kyrgyz students and youth activists staged a demonstration on December 21 in Bishkek to protest Kyrgyzstan's participation in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt-reduction initiative, according to the 24.kg news agency. The Kyrgyz cabinet recently approved the terms for participation in the HIPC and is expected to meet with officials from the IMF and World Bank in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2006). Kyrgyzstan's possible participation in the initiative has sparked widespread debate and small protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2006). RG
TAJIK AIR FORCE TO RECEIVE RUSSIAN EQUIPMENT
Russian Air Force deputy commander Lieutenant General Aytech Bizhev announced on December 21 that the Tajik Air Force will be equipped with modern Russian air-defense and communications systems, Interfax reported. The Russian equipment, including modern air-navigation technology and automated command and control systems, is to be provided to Tajikistan by February 2007 in order to more closely integrate the Tajik air-defense network within the broader CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) system. Russian military technicians are also due to arrive in Tajikistan to assist in the installation process and to provide training for Tajik Air Force personnel. RG
TURKMENISTAN ANNOUNCES NEW ACTING HEAD OF STATE...
Following the announcement of the death of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006), Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was named on December 21 acting head of state, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported. Berdymukhammedov -- who is a dentist by training -- was also named the organizer and ceremonial head of state for Niyazov's funeral, which is scheduled for December 24, according to Turkmen state television. Berdymukhammedov is 49 years old and is rumored to be a relative of Niyazov. RG
...WHO MAKES TELEVISED NATIONAL ADDRESS
The new acting leader of Turkmenistan, Deputy Prime Minister Berdymukhammedov, made a nationally televised address on December 21 explaining that his selection was confirmed by his fellow ministers and the members of the Turkmen State Security Council, Turkmen television reported. He added that parliament speaker Ovezgeldy Ataev -- who according to the constitution should succeed Niyazov -- was rejected by the Turkmen cabinet and State Security Council as a candidate to serve as acting president "because a criminal case was brought against him by the Turkmen Prosecutor-General's Office." Berdymukhammedov pledged that "Turkmenistan will continue the policy of Saparmurat Niyazov" and stressed that "the Turkmen people will remain committed to the precepts, directives, and instructions of their leader, and they will continue and bring to the end the things he started," ITAR-TASS reported. RG
EXILED TURKMEN OPPOSITION LEADERS VOW TO RETURN
Several leading members of Turkmenistan's exiled opposition announced on December 21 that they intend to return to their homeland following the death of President Niyazov, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported. In a statement from Stockholm, former Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister and opposition Watan (Homeland) movement leader Khudaiberdy Orazov announced on December 21 plans to cooperate with "other representatives of the opposition" to return to Turkmenistan "to participate in the presidential election," ITAR-TASS reported. Former Turkmen Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev, a leader of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces of Turkmenistan, explained that his party's leadership intends to return to Turkmenistan in the "near future" and that they have a chartered plane in Ukraine ready for their use. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko also announced on December 21 plans to attend the Turkmen state funeral. RG
INTERNATIONAL REACTION TO TURKMEN LEADER'S DEATH REMAINS MUTED
The death of President Niyazov led on December 21 to a series of restrained and muted international statements, with the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat releasing a statement expressing condolences but stressing its "hopes for a peaceful, smooth constitutional succession," RFE/RL reported. EU spokeswoman Emma Udwin added the hope that "Turkmenistan will again embark on a road towards democracy when a new leader comes to power in the country," RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Niyazov simultaneously held the posts of president, prime minister, and armed forces commander in chief, as well as the head of the Democratic Party, the only registered political party in Turkmenistan. RG
UZBEK HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST DETAINED IN TASHKENT
Umida Noyazova was arrested on December 21 by police at the Tashkent airport after arriving on a flight from Kyrgyzstan, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Noyazova, who has worked with the U.S.-based organization Human Rights Watch in the past, was detained by police who seized her computer and computer discs. The reason for her arrest is not clear and the Uzbek authorities have not yet charged her with any offense. RG
RUSSIA CONCLUDES BASING AGREEMENT WITH UZBEKISTAN
Russian Air Force deputy commander Lieutenant General Aytech Bizhev concluded a new agreement on December 21 providing Russian forces with basing rights at a military airfield in Uzbekistan, Interfax reported. The agreement, covering Russian access to Navoi airfield, provides Russian forces with the option of deploying fighter jets and bombers to the air base in exchange for an upgrade of the airfield's navigation systems and the provision of "air-defense weaponry" by the Russian Air Force. The airfield currently hosts Sukhoi Su-27 and MiG-29 aircraft of the Uzbek Air Force. RG
EU TAKES TRADE MEASURES AGAINST BELARUS...
The European Commission on December 21 announced that it will withdraw tariff preferences granted to Belarus under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) if the country fails to improve its poor labor standards within the next six months, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and dpa reported. The EU move comes after a commission inquiry established systematic violations of core labor rights in Belarus, including the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. "Where countries systematically flout core labor standards, we need to be prepared to act. This decision is a test case of our collective commitment to the promotion of workers rights as an integral part of our trade policy," EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson told journalists. Currently some 12 percent of Belarus's exports to the EU are shipped under reduced GSP tariffs. According to estimates, the withdrawal of GSP benefits for Belarusian exports of wood, chemicals, and textiles could result in annual losses to Minsk of some $300 million euros ($400 million) in trade with the EU. JM
...AS MINSK SLAMS BRUSSELS FOR 'SHORT-SIGHTEDNESS'
Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou said on December 21 that the EU's move to suspend the GSP tariff benefits for Belarus is marked by political "short-sightedness," Belapan reported. "What catches the eye is that the EU's decision is completely inconsistent with its declared objective to provide support to the Belarusian people," Papou asserted. "The EU's decision will not become a serious challenge for Belarus's economy and citizens," he added. Papou urged the EU to "have a sober assessment of the situation in Belarus, recognize its successful social and economic development, and the country's big contribution to the strengthening of security and stability in Europe." JM
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT HEADS TO KYIV FOR FACE-TO-FACE TALKS
Vladimir Putin arrived in Kyiv on December 22 for one-on-one talks with his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yushchenko and to participate in the inaugural session of an intergovernmental commission, Ukrainian and Russian media reported. Putin's last meeting with Yushchenko in Kyiv took place in March 2005. According to Russian presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko, both presidents will discuss issues connected with energy supplies, the two countries' bids to enter the World Trade Organization, and the Single Economic Space conceived by Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine in 2003. Ukrainian presidential spokeswoman Iryna Vannykova said Yushchenko and Putin are expected to sign five documents, including on readmission and border control. Yushchenko told Interfax-Ukraine on December 21 that Russia and Europe are equally important in Ukraine's foreign policy. "Ukraine has always been and will always be Russia's friend," Yushchenko added. JM
UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT ENDORSES DISMISSAL OF SECURITY CHIEF
The Verkhovna Rada on December 22 approved the dismissal of Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) chief Ihor Drizhchanyy, Ukrainian media reported. The motion was supported by 407 deputies. A similar motion was rejected by parliament last week. President Yushchenko dismissed Drizhchanyy last month and earlier this month appointed him deputy secretary of the National Defense and Security Council. Under the Ukrainian Constitution, the nomination and release of the SBU chief by the president must be approved by parliament. Oleksandr Turchynov from the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc told journalists on December 22 that the ruling coalition may have endorsed the dismissal of Drizhchanyy in exchange for some compromise from the president. Earlier the same day, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said Yushchenko signed the 2007 budget bill that was vetoed by him last week and amended by parliament earlier this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20, 2006). The amended budget bill reportedly ignored most reservations raised by Yushchenko in his veto. JM
SERBIAN JUSTICE MINISTER CALLS FOR PURGE OF LAW ENFORCEMENT
Zoran Stojkovic said on December 21 that law-enforcement bodies need to be purged of corrupt elements in order to more effectively fight organized crime, UPI reported the same day. Speaking to a meeting of judicial officials in Nis, Stojkovic said the Serbian government must "cleanse state institutions," including the police, prosecutors, and the judiciary. Stojkovic added that when Vojislav Kostunica's government took power three years ago, there was insufficient legislation on the books to effectively fight organized crime and corruption. "We had to start from scratch and now we have a much better situation," he said. BW
PACE CALLS ELECTION A TEST OF SERBIA'S DEMOCRATIZATION
A delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) said on December 21 that Serbia's upcoming election is a test of the its democratization, B92 reported the same day. The delegation, in Serbia from December 18-21 at the invitation of electoral officials, praised new electoral legislation allowing diaspora voting and new administrative measures facilitating greater gender balance and ethnic-minority representation in politics. It also lauded an improved media environment with less interference from the authorities, while noting that economic pressure on journalists from vested interests is still present. The delegation said, however, that it is concerned about the rise of radical sentiments in some quarters of the Serbian electorate. A 20-member team from PACE is scheduled to observe the January 21 vote. BW
POLICE IN KOSOVA SEIZE LARGE WEAPONS CACHE
Police and KFOR peacekeepers in Kosova seized a large cache of weapons and ammunition in the western village of Stutica on December 20, and arrested three people connected with the weapons, B92, Beta, and dpa reported the same day. Police found over 100 artillery grenades, several antitank mines, automatic weapons, hand grenades, bullets, military uniforms, and gas masks in a house in the village of Stutica, located 40 kilometers west of Prishtina. Police also confiscated two vans as part of the investigation. The three people arrested were local government officials, dpa reported. Among those arrested were an adviser to the Labor and Welfare Ministry and two members of the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK) party. In a statement, the Kosovar government said it regrets that one of its officials has been arrested. The AAK said it was "surprised" that two of its officials were involved. BW
REPORT WARNS AGAINST FURTHER DELAYS ON KOSOVA STATUS
In a report on December 20, the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned that internal divisions in the European Union over Kosova's status could destabilize the region. "A number of EU states are showing signs that they are reluctant to change Kosovo's status in the face of continued Serbian opposition," the report said. "If Brussels fails to coalesce quickly around a strong internal consensus, it risks inheriting a major new crisis." UN envoy Marrti Ahtisaari is to present his proposals for Kosova's status after Serbia's January 21 elections. According to the report, Germany and Italy "appear to prefer waiting for a Serbian government to form and then trying to finesse some aspects of the package with it." Spain, Greece, Cyprus, and Romania, which joins the EU in January, are sympathetic to Serbia's anti-independence position. "Nervous Kosovo Albanian leaders worry they may not be able to contain public pressures beyond March," the report said, adding that "EU unity is vital...to keep the status process on track." BW
EU ENVISIONS LONG-TERM MISSION IN KOSOVA
A European Union official said on December 21 that the international community will remain engaged in Kosova indefinitely, but the nature of its mission will change over time, B92 reported the same day. After the province's final status is decided, the European Union will replace the existing UN mission. Torbjorn Solstrom, the special envoy of EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, said Brussels doesn't have a strategy to leave Kosova, but rather to integrate the province into the EU. The main goal of the EU mission, Solstrom said, is to oversee the implementation of the Kosova's status agreement and to administer the province's fulfillment of conditions for eventual EU entry. BW
MOLDOVA TO SIGN ON TO RUSSIA'S WTO MEMBERSHIP BY YEAR-END
The Moldovan government announced on December 21 that Chisinau plans to sign a protocol on Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) by the end of the year, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. The signing is scheduled to take place on December 28. The government's press service said the cabinet has granted Trade and Economy Minister Igor Dodon authorization to sign the document. Moldova and Georgia are the last two WTO members that must agree to Russia's accession. In November, Chisinau and Moscow overcame a major hurdle when Russia agreed to lift a ban on Moldovan wines (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). BW
THE PARANOIA OF ARMENIAN POLITICS
Much of the recent political developments in Armenia have been dominated by two main themes -- the ongoing mediation of the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh and the approaching electoral cycle. Neither of these two themes represents anything new for Armenian politics.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains locked in a seemingly endless series of talks and meetings between Armenian and Azerbaijani officials, fueled by an occasional outburst of enthusiasm, only to be followed by yet another diplomatic setback or lost opportunity. And just as predictably, a series of tactical maneuvers, most often obscured by the opaque and murky nature of Armenian politics, routinely define the months leading up to elections in Armenia.
From a broader perspective, and for much of the past 15 years of Armenia's independence, politics have been largely confined to an ever narrowing set of issues, with little debate and even more limited discourse. Within the increasingly restricted political parameters, democratization has become disabled. This too is nothing new for Armenia.
Yet there has been an interesting shift in Armenian politics in recent weeks, marked by a convergence between the politics of Armenian nationalism and the paranoia of Armenian politicians.
This shift first emerged with the arrest and subsequent deportation of a prominent veteran of the Karabakh war. The authorities charged Lebanese-born Zhirair Sefilian, and his associate Vartan Malkasian, with plotting the violent overthrow of the Armenian leadership. The incident sparked immediate suspicion and apprehension, with some charging a conspiracy, linking the arrest to rumors of a possible breakthrough peace deal with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
According to this line of reasoning, the motivation for the arrest was driven by the politics of nationalism, compounded by the paranoia of politicians. But this presupposes one essential, and specific, variable -- a looming peace deal. Only in such a case could the arrest be seen as a preemptive move to deflect dissent and overcome opposition. The key question, however, remains: is there really such a pending deal on Nagorno-Karabakh?
The more realistic understanding of the arrest lies in a broader context. It is the broader perspective that reveals a more general paranoia of politicians, unrelated to any sense of nationalist politics. In this way, the arrest and deportation of Sefilian was actually preceded by a similar incident, only weeks before.
In early December, the Armenian authorities deported an ethnic Armenian activist from the predominantly Armenian-populated southern Georgian region of Djavakheti to Georgia. The activist, Vahagn Chakhalian, a leader of the United Djavakhk organization campaigning for regional autonomy, was first arrested in October, just hours after he, his parents, brother, and fellow activist Gurgen Shirinian were reportedly stopped and attacked as they arrived in Yerevan.
The linkage between the arrests and later deportations of both men is based on more than tactics or techniques, however. Both cases demonstrate that it is the paranoia of the political elite that is driving the most recent political developments in Armenia. Both men posed a threat, not in terms of the politics of nationalism, but more as a perceived threat to paranoid politicians.
Yet what is most ironic is the pronounced and misplaced paranoia among the political elite. The real threat to their power comes not from anything that these people could or would do prior to elections. The real threat stems from the elections themselves, as the political elite still seems unable to realize that the May 2007 and 2008 election are the true challenges, to them and to the country. And until the ruling elite recognizes the necessity for improved elections, arrests and deportations will do little to ensure stability and security in Armenia.
OUTGOING NATO COMMANDER CALLS FOR MORE TROOPS IN AFGHANISTAN
U.S. General James Jones recently called for more troops to support efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan's International News Network reported on December 22. Jones, who just completed a tour as supreme commander of NATO, said the force in Afghanistan is still 2,500 troops short. He added that, although Poland has agreed to send an additional 1,000 troops, other alliance members plan to pull their troops out of Afghanistan. Noting that there is no purely military solution in Afghanistan, Jones said that "the violence in Afghanistan is more than just the Taliban. It comes from the drug cartels. It comes from the crime and corruption. It comes from tribe-on-tribe violence." There are currently at least 32,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, including more than 11,000 U.S. troops. CJ
UN REPORT FOCUSES ON CIVILIAN CASUALTIES
A report released by the United Nations on December 18 calls upon NATO to take decisive action to avoid further civilian casualties in Afghanistan, the UN Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) reported on December 20. The report is in response to civilian casualties during a recent attack on an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) convoy in Kandahar city. "This report should be taken seriously by the government and NATO because these actions have created a negative sentiment among the people in Kandahar against NATO and the government," IRIN quoted a Kandahar resident as saying in reaction to the report, The city has been at the center of Taliban militant actions against NATO-led ISAF troops, and approximately 1,000 civilians have been killed in violence in Afghanistan this year. The report also called upon NATO to provide compensation payments to civilian victims. ISAF spokesman Major Dominic Whyte said in Kabul that "compensation of civilian victims is a national responsibility and any issues relating to this should be directed along national lines." CJ
BRITISH AIDE IN AFGHANISTAN ACCUSED OF SPYING FOR IRAN
A military aide to a British NATO commander in Afghanistan has been accused of spying on behalf of Iran, AFP reported on December 21. Corporal Daniel James, an interpreter for Lieutenant General David Richards, is charged with passing information to a "foreign power" believed to be in Iran. AFP cited the U.K.'s "Daily Telegraph" as reporting that James passed information that is "calculated to be directly or indirectly useful to the enemy." There is some dispute over how much sensitive strategic information James would have had access to, according to AFP. James recently appeared at London's City of Westminster magistrates' court regarding these charges, though it is unclear yet whether the case will come to trial. If prosecuted, James would be the first person charged under the 1911 Official Secrets Act in 20 years. CJ
IRANIAN MINISTRY FINALIZES TEHRAN POLL RESULTS
The Interior Ministry released on December 21 a definitive list of candidates elected last week to Tehran's municipal council, ISNA reported. Elected to the city council were: Mehdi Chamran, Morteza Talai, Rasul Khadem, Abbas Sheibani, Hadi Sai, Hamzeh Shakib, Alireza Dabir, Parvin Ahmadinejad, Masumeh Ebtekar, Ahmad Masjed-Jamei, Mohammad Ali Najafi, Masumeh Abad, Hasan Bayadi, Khosro Daneshju, and Habib Kashani. Some 1.65 million votes were counted, ISNA reported, citing the ministry's electoral office. Radio Farda reported that the composition of the Tehran city council shows conservatives close to Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf taking six seats, reformers four seats, supporters of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad three seats, with one seat going to an independent, and another to a candidate who appeared on both the pro-Ahmadinejad and the pro-Qalibaf lists. Sai, Ebtekar, Masjed-Jamei, and Najafi are the reformists. A "Kayhan" editorial on December 20 opined that Sai had only won votes for being a popular sportsman -- as he is famous for his exploits in tae kwan do -- not for his reformist affiliations. VS
PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER SAYS IRANIAN GOVERNMENT DID NOT LOSE ELECTIONS
Ali Akbar Javanfekr, President Ahmadinejad's press affairs adviser, told ISNA on December 20 that contrary to media reports the government was not a loser in the December 15 elections, as it had merely "done its duty" implementing the elections and had supported no parties. Claims that the government suffered a defeat in the municipal polls, he said, were "hostile and baseless," and the government "did not support or oppose any party, group or coalition." He said it merely allowed for "all" candidates to compete in a "peaceful" and "healthy" election. He specifically rejected any link with the coalition known as the Sweet Scent of Service, reputedly the list of Ahmadinejad supporters, and the coalition under which Ahmadinejad's sister ran. He said members of the conservative lists had generally voiced support for Ahmadinejad's government. "There is no connection between the government and these coalitions and political groups," he said. Separately, Mohsen Torkashvand, a leading member of the reformist Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, told ILNA on December 20 that the public "very quickly" saw the gap between what the government has done for them since Ahmadinejad's election in 2005 and its promises, and punished it at the polls. VS
IRANIAN PRESIDENT CONTINUES SPEAKING TOUR
President Ahmadinejad continued to address crowds on December 21 as he toured the western Iranian province of Kermanshah, ISNA reported. He said in Islamabad-i Gharb (West Islamabad) that the government is an impartial servant of the people and Iranians are united in the face of Western ploys to sow discord, ISNA reported. He said "enemies" have failed to create "groups and bands" in Iran. Great Britain and the United States, he said, have worked against Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. "They threaten us with sanctions," he said, and now "with a propaganda war, psychological pressure, and...their illegitimate influence in...illegitimate organizations, they wish to block Iran's movement." He added: "I do not know what is going on in the minds of the enemies of Islamic Iran... They imagine only [some Iranians] want to have nuclear energy, when...all [Iranians] want this country to access peaceful nuclear energy." He rejected the threat of diplomatic isolation for Iran over its nuclear program. "I declare here that it is [U.S. President George W.] Bush and his friend [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair who are isolated on the world stage," he said. VS
PAKISTANI FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS WITH OFFICIALS
Khurshid Kasuri was in Iran on December 20-21 and met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki and Supreme National Security Secretary Ali Larijani on December 21, ISNA reported. He met with Ahmadinejad in Kermanshah on December 20. Larijani warned in a press conference that Iran will review cooperation with the UN nuclear inspectorate if the Security Council passes a resolution against Tehran. He said that judging by the text being discussed at the UN, "the nature of this resolution does not have the potential to pressure Iran, though Iran will give a fitting reply." Any resolution would place Iran "in a new position," and prompt it to rethink its cooperation with the UN inspectorate, as well as "in other political, economic, and cultural areas," he said. He contrasted the UN Security Council's "hostile" attitude toward Iran with its indifference to Israel's alleged nuclear arsenal. Mottaki later told the press he has discussed bilateral economic ties and Iraqi and Afghan affairs with Kasuri, as well as the completion of a planned Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. He said experts should meet to discuss details, and pave the way for a trilateral meeting of the countries' heads of state, ISNA reported. VS
IRAN EXECUTES CONVICTED BOMBERS, MURDERERS
Iran hanged three men on December 19 who were convicted of carrying out bombings in 2005 in Ahvaz, the capital of the southwestern Khuzestan Province, ILNA reported on December 20, without saying where the executions took place (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," June 20, 2005). The four were convicted of bombings that targeted the Ahvaz district governor's office and a local bank, the agency added. Separately, six convicted murderers were hanged on December 20, apparently inside a Tehran prison, "Iran" newspaper reported on December 21. The murders occurred either during disputes or robberies, "Iran" reported. One of the hanged was an Afghan who was convicted of killing an elderly couple during a robbery. Two others had killed five taxi drivers on the open road in apparent acts of banditry in 1996-97. VS
IRAQI SHI'ITE LEADERS DISCUSS NEW COALITION WITH TOP CLERIC
Shi'ite leaders representing several factions within the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on December 21 in the holy city of Al-Najaf to discuss the formation of a new political coalition comprised of Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish groups, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported the same day. An informed source said the aim of the meeting was for Shi'ite leaders to gain al-Sistani's blessing and to assure him that the new coalition will in no way tear apart the UIA. The new coalition is also supported by the U.S. government, said Sami al-Askari, a member of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Al-Da'wah Party. "I met the American ambassador [Zalmay Khalilzad] in Baghdad and he named this front the 'front of the moderates,' and they [the Americans] support it," al-Askari said, AP reported on December 21. Shi'ite leaders are to also meet with Muqtada al-Sadr in the hopes of convincing him to return to the political process and reign in his Imam Al-Mahdi Army, which has been widely accused of carrying out sectarian attacks against Iraq's Sunni Arabs. SS
U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY DISCUSSES SECURITY WITH IRAQI PREMIER
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki on December 21 in Baghdad and discussed how the United States can better help the Iraqi government improve the security situation, international media reported the same day. "Much of our discussion today was focused on how the U.S. can be helpful in the Iraqi government's efforts to accomplish that goal and how, in our partnership, with the Iraqis in the lead, we can best play a supporting role," Gates said at a news conference after the meeting. Gates said he discussed the "the possibility of some additional assistance" with the Iraqis, but there was no mention of specific numbers of additional U.S. troops. On December 20, Gates met with senior U.S. military commanders in Iraq and several expressed concern that U.S. President George W. Bush is considering a short-term increase in U.S. forces in Iraq. For his part, al-Maliki said he was pleased with the meeting and indicated that a new security plan "will be implemented soon according to a new vision." SS
EIGHT U.S. MARINES CHARGED IN KILLING OF IRAQI CIVILIANS
The U.S. military charged eight Marines on December 21 in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Al-Hadithah in 2005, international media reported the same day. Four were charged with unpremeditated murder, while the four others were accused of covering up the incident. The squad leader, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, was charged with the unpremeditated murder of 12 Iraqis and ordering his troops to kill six others. The incident occurred on November 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb killed a Marine and injured two others. The initial military press report said that 15 civilians were also killed by the blast and a subsequent firefight killed eight insurgents. A preliminary military investigation carried out in January 2006 indicated that 15 civilians were accidentally killed by U.S. fire during a battle with insurgents. An investigation of the incident was also carried out by a local Iraqi human rights group; their report included video footage of the aftermath of the incident. "Time" magazine received a copy of the video, which it then forwarded to the military. The military launched a criminal investigation in March 2006 and concluded that after the roadside explosion, the Marines went on a rampage and killed up to 24 Iraqi civilians. SS
BOMBING IN IRAQI CAPITAL KILLS 14
A suicide bomber killed 14 people and wounded 12 others on December 21 outside a police recruitment center in Baghdad, international media reported the same day. A local police official said that the bomber, wearing an explosive belt, walked up to a group of recruits outside the police academy on Philastin Street in eastern Baghdad and detonated the explosives. Al-Sharqiyah television reported that authorities had barred traffic from entering Philastin Street a year ago following a series of suicide attacks. Meanwhile, the police commander of Kirkuk's Al-Adallah district survived an assassination attempt on December 21, MENA news service reported the same day. Local authorities said an explosive device went off when Colonel Adnan Muhammad's motorcade was passing through Al-Wasti, south Kirkuk. Muhammad was unharmed, but two of his guards were slightly injured. SS
IRAQI SUNNI LEADER SAYS MEDIA 'DISTORTS' IMAGE OF INSURGENCY
The leader of the Muslim Scholars Association, Sheikh Harith al-Dari, on December 21 accused hostile media of distorting the image of the Iraqi resistance, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported the same day. Speaking during the Sixth Islamic National Conference in Doha, Qatar, al-Dari said that the resistance only targets the occupation, but he acknowledged that some factions were forced into side battles among Iraqis, an apparent reference to the current sectarian conflict. He also said that what is going on in Iraq is not a sectarian war, but sedition sowed by the occupation. "What is taking place in Iraq is not a war between Shi'a and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds, Kurds and Turkomans, or Muslims and Christians. Rather, there is sedition and this sedition is on the rise. Sedition is not sectarian; neither is it between Sunnis and Shi'a, as some claim," he said. SS