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Newsline - August 18, 2004

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told journalists in Washington on 17 August that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had telephoned Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the situation in the Georgian region of South Ossetia, AP and RIA-Novosti reported. "They reviewed developments there," Ereli said. "We are both working with the parties to promote a dialogue and a peaceful resolution of the issues in South Ossetia." Ereli said that Powell also reiterated U.S. concerns about the situation involving oil giant Yukos, noting the company's importance as Russia's leading oil producer. Powell told Lavrov that Washington believes the chaos created by the Yukos affair could hurt prospects for much-needed foreign investment in Russia's economy in general and in Russia's oil sector in particular. VY

Sergei Ivanov told journalists in Rostov-na-Donu on 17 August that Moscow is concerned about the conflict in South Ossetia and that the standoff can only be resolved "by peaceful means, in a political, diplomatic way," RTR and ORT reported. "We do not need a war near our border," Ivanov said. "One should not forget that most South Ossetia residents are citizens of Russia and we should care about them." An unidentified Kremlin source told RIA-Novosti on 17 August that Tbilisi is pushing Moscow to take the Georgian central government's side in the conflict. "There are efforts to move Georgia's internal, territorial problems onto the plane of Russian-Georgian relations," the source said. He added that ensuring Georgian territorial integrity is a domestic matter for Georgia and that Moscow supports Georgia's territorial integrity provided it takes into account the rights of all people living in the country and international law. VY

In an interview with "Izvestiya" on 16 August, Deputy Duma Speaker and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii said that after his recent, high-profile trip to Abkhazia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 August 2004) he has come to the conclusion that that region "has separated from Georgia forever." "Abkhazia is interesting to us simply because it wants to be with us," Zhirinovskii said. "It is ready to be an associate member or a member of the CIS or to join the Russia-Belarus Union, or to form any alliance except being a part of Georgia," Zhirinovskii said. "Today 60 percent of the Abkhaz population are Russian citizens. They dream of being in Russia. The faster Georgia becomes a member of NATO, the faster Abkhazia will become part of Russia." VY

President Vladimir Putin on 16 August arrived at his summer residence in Sochi, where he is expected to spend the rest of the month having a working vacation, presidential spokesman Aleksei Gromov announced on 17 August, according to Russian media. Putin met there on 18 August with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and he will receive German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac. On 16 August, Putin met with Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov, who briefed him on preparations for the 29 August presidential election in Chechnya. VY

The Interior Ministry on 17 August announced the arrests of five accused members of the banned Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, RTR reported. The men are citizens of Uzbekistan or Tajikistan who were allegedly living in Russia under false documents. Yurii Demidov, deputy head of the ministry's Organized Crime Directorate said that at least two of the arrested men are suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks in Tashkent in March and July. The activities of both Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are banned in the United States, Israel, Russia, and some European Union countries. Nonetheless, Hizb ut-Tahrir maintains a website that coordinates the activities of its members worldwide. Demidov said that the arrested men will most likely be extradited to the countries where they are accused of committing crimes. VY

Russia is about to sign a 20-year agreement with South Korea to provide 5.3 million tons of natural-gas condensate from the Sakhalin gas fields annually, "Izvestiya" wrote on 17 August. The likely supplier in the deal is the Royal Dutch/Shell group consortium Sakhalin Energy, which is currently constructing a plant on Sakhalin for the production of liquefied natural gas. The proposed deal, which is believed to be worth $830 million per year, will include a subcontract under which Russia will purchase condensed-gas tankers from South Korea shipbuilders to transport the fuel from Sakhalin to South Korea. VY

The Supreme Court on 17 August upheld the 15-year sentence for espionage handed down earlier to political scientist Igor Sutyagin, ruling that there were no procedural violations during his trial, Russian media reported. Sutyagin was seeking a new trial on the grounds that the composition of the jury in his trial was illegal, according to Interfax. One of Sutyagin's attorneys, Boris Kuznetsov, said the defense expected the Supreme Court's ruling and that this matter will now be added to an appeal already on file with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Anna Stavitskaya, another defense attorney, told reporters that the European court agreed in March to hear the case in priority order, which "means that the case has special significance," reported on 17 August. JAC

Sutyagin's attorneys believe that a decision by the European Court of Human Rights in Sutyagin's favor could become grounds for the case being reexamined in Russia, although formally the court's ruling would only have the status of a recommendation, reported on 17 August. Lyudmila Alekseeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, told Interfax that the human rights community does not pin any special hopes on the Supreme Court, but will continue to use legal means to try and secure Sutyagin's freedom. "We will mount an international campaign in Sutyagin's defense," Alekseeva said. Sutyagin, who has been in jail for five years, denies the charges, arguing that his work on civilian-military relations was based only on open sources (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 April 2004). JAC

Astrakhan Oblast Governor Anatolii Guzhvin, 59, died suddenly on 17 August of a myocardial infarction, Interfax reported on 18 August, citing the oblast's Chief Federal Inspector Aleksei Zhilyaev. Guzhvin was serving his third term and had been expected to seek a fourth term in the election scheduled for December. He was first appointed governor in 1991 and was then elected to the office in 1996. He was reelected in 2000 with more than 80 percent of the vote. Guzhvin was included on Unified Russia's party list in the State Duma elections last December and was also associated with an earlier party of power, Our Home is Russia. JAC

On the eve of sixth anniversary of the 1998 financial crisis, a recent survey conducted by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that around 47 percent of respondents expect a new financial crisis analogous to the 1998 cataclysm to occur at any moment, "Izvestiya" reported on 17 August. According to the agency, younger and middle-aged respondents who characterized their financial situation as good were more optimistic, while older respondents were the most pessimistic. Most analysts interviewed by the daily discounted the possibility of a repetition of August 1998. Aleksandr Burya, head of the financial and operational risk section at Mezhdunarodnyi Promyshlennyi Bank, noted that while there is currently instability in the banking sector, today's situation is different because Russia's balance of payments is positive and the ruble's exchange rate is not longer so tightly fixed. Aleksandr Khandyrev, vice president of the Association of Regional Banks, noted that the current high price of oil is stabilizing the budget, and gold and hard-currency reserves are high. JAC

The leaders of a range of political parties and public organizations in Ulyanovsk Oblast have sent an appeal to President Putin asking him to introduce direct presidential rule in the oblast, VolgaInform reported on 17 August. Among the signatories were the Communist Party, Yabloko, the Party of Life, the Green Party, and an association of veterans and a federation of trade unions. According to the letter, the December gubernatorial election and the seemingly inevitable victory of incumbent Governor Vladimir Shamanov is creating a sense of nervousness in the region. The race cannot be a clean one, according to the appeal. It has simply become too risky for anyone to challenge Shamanov following the recent alleged attack on local entrepreneur Khamza Yambaev at the governor's dacha (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 July 2004). Yambaev said that he suffers from internal injuries that make it difficult for him to walk. Ulyanovsk has experienced continuous energy-supply problems during Shamanov's term, and in 2002 a Unified Energy Systems (EES) official appealed to then Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to introduce federal rule in the oblast because of its unpaid energy debts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 June 2002). JAC

National television cameras caught Koni, President Putin's Labrador retriever, entering the president's office during Putin's televised meeting with Khanty-Mansii Autonomous Okrug Governor Aleksandr Filipenko on 17 August, ORT and RTR reported. Filipenko noted that this year his region hopes to boost oil production by 8-10 percent over last year's level and that regional economic growth is expected to reach about 12 percent. According to ORT, Koni did not take an active part in the meeting, but she closely observed it. Although her on-camera appearances are few, RTR noted that Koni appeared indifferent to the bright lights emanating from the bank of television cameras. JAC

The head of the Daghestan Interior Ministry's antiterrorism force and a Russian Interior Ministry Antiterrorism Department official were shot dead by unidentified gunmen on 17 August in the town of Kaspiisk, shortly after a visit to the town by presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Vladimir Yakovlev, Interfax reported. LF

A Yerevan district court on 16 August handed down a six-year suspended prison sentence to Hayk Aramian, the 24-year-old son of former Urban Development Minister Ara Aramian, in connection with a shoot-out five months earlier at a Yerevan cafe, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 2004). Hayk Aramian was found guilty of opening fire with an illegally owned handgun and injuring three people. Ara Aramian resigned from his ministerial post on 9 April but was subsequently appointed as an adviser to parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, who is also chairman of the Orinats Yerkir party of which Aramian is a member (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 June 2004). LF

Hilal Asadov, head of the Baku City Police department engaged in combating organized crime, has been named to head the antiterrorism section of the National Security Ministry, Turan reported on 18 August. The same agency reported the appointment of Colonel Alimusa Aliyev to head the ministry's personnel section, noting that its 16 August report that Colonel Farhab Vahabov was appointed to that post was incorrect. Vahabov will head the ministry administration. LF

The co-chairmen of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone met in Tbilisi on 17 August with Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania to discuss ways of precluding a further escalation of hostilities, Caucasus Press and Russian news agencies reported. Georgian co-Chairman Giorgi Khaindrava told Caucasus Press that those present reaffirmed their commitment to observing the cease-fire agreed upon at a meeting of the commission on 13 August and formally signed by Zhvania and South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity the following day. South Ossetian co-Chairman Boris Chochiev told ITAR-TASS that they also agreed on the withdrawal of illegal armed units from the conflict zone beginning on 18 August, and opening the bypass road that links the valleys of the Great and Small Liakhvi rivers. LF

The independent Georgian television station Rustavi-2 reported on 17 August without citing its sources that the South Ossetian side violated the cease-fire agreement less than one hour after the meeting between Zhvania and the JCC co-chairmen. Caucasus Press on 18 August quoted local Georgian police as saying that the South Ossetians shelled Georgian positions throughout the night, killing two and injuring five members of the Georgian peacekeeping force. Interfax, however, quoted South Ossetian government spokeswoman Irina Gagloeva as accusing the Georgians of opening fire first with automatic weapons and mortars. LF

Georgian Defense Minister Giorgi Baramidze has discussed with his South Ossetian counterpart Anatolii Barankevich the role in the South Ossetian conflict of a so-called "third force" that is not subordinate to the South Ossetian leadership, Caucasus Press reported on 17 August. ITAR-TASS quoted Baramidze as saying this force consists of "15-20 well-trained and well-equipped men whose assignment is to carry out regular attacks on the Georgian side and thus prevent the parties from fulfilling the cease-fire agreement." Georgian Deputy State Security Minister Gigi Ugulava told Caucasus Press on 17 August that the third force consists of mercenaries from the North Caucasus. Baramidze told journalists in Tbilisi on 17 August that the Georgian and South Ossetian military will conduct a joint operation to neutralize the fighters in question. But Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili denied that any third force exists, claiming that Russian peacekeepers are shelling their Georgian counterparts, Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile, South Ossetian spokeswoman Gagloeva told RFE/RL on 17 August that Okruashvili is himself acting independently of the Georgian authorities, and that Baramidze admitted this during his talks with Barankevich. Chochiev too told ITAR-TASS on 17 August that Okruashvili is "a detonator" that serves to intensify the conflict (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 5 August 2004). LF

Two members of the Tbilisi municipal council have announced their intention to challenge in court city Mayor Zurab Chiaberashvili's demand that they resign after testing positive for drug abuse, Caucasus Press reported on 17 August. All six men were originally appointed by the head of the city executive branch Bidzina Bregadze, who ordered repeat drug tests without first consulting Chiaberashvili. Bregadze told Caucasus Press on 17 August that there is no substance to rumors that the incident has given rise to tensions between himself and Chiaberashvili. LF

The Open Society Foundation announced on 17 August the results of a Gallup poll measuring trust in political parties among voters in Almaty, Kazakh TV reported. Respondents expressed their greatest faith in the pro-presidential Otan and Asar parties, which are trusted by 24 percent and 21 percent of those queried, respectively. The moderate opposition party Ak Zhol came in third place, trusted by 8.3 percent of respondents. The poll results are based on a sample size of 600 of a population of approximately 15 million. DK

Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) leader Asylbek Kozhakhmetov announced on 17 August in Almaty that the opposition bloc of DVK and the Communist Party has filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court against the Central Election Commission, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The suit seeks to reverse the commission's decision to prevent the bloc from using the official title "The opposition bloc of Abdildin and Zhaqiyanov (union of communists and DVK)." Kozhakhmetov said that a separate suit filed with the Supreme Court aims to recover dividends for 361,092 investors in investment privatization funds. The suit is intended to remedy the inequality of large-scale privatization in the 1990s. Kozhakhmetov called it "only the first step toward returning national and natural riches to the people of Kazakhstan." DK

Ghaffor Mirzoev, a former Drug Control Agency head who was arrested on 6 August on a variety of charges, has admitted that he is partially guilty as charged, his lawyer Qayum Yusupov told a news conference on 17 August in Dushanbe, Avesta reported. However, Mirzoev "does not plead guilty in full to any of the charges," Asia Plus-Blitz quoted Yusupov as saying. Mirzoev is accused of illegally crossing borders, failure to pay customs duty, abuse of office, tax evasion, and weapons possession, according to Avesta. A murder charge may also be pending. Yusupov made a number of other statements to journalists. He told them that police roughed up Mirzoev during the arrest and subsequently denied him access to legal counsel, although lawyers were able to meet with their client earlier this week. Moreover, Mirzoev knew about his impending arrest but took no action because "he was loyal to the authorities and the homeland," Asia Plus-Blitz quoted Yusupov as saying. Finally, Yusupov denied reports of a political subtext in the case, stating that "there is no political motive behind the arrest of our client," ITAR-TASS reported. DK

Tajik Prosecutor Bahodur Hamidov announced on 17 August that the preliminary investigation of former Interior Minister Yaqub Salimov's case is complete, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Salimov's case will move to the courts as soon as the defendant has familiarized himself with the case materials, perhaps as soon as the end of the month. "This depends on Salimov himself," Hamidov said, "since we don't limit the time the defendant can take to study the criminal case." Salimov, who was extradited from Russia to Tajikistan in February 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2004), faces charges of treason and organizing a coup attempt. DK

Sherali Khayrulloev told Interfax on 17 August that the United States has made no request to deploy military forces in Tajikistan. The defense minister said that the deployment of U.S. forces in Tajikistan is unlikely given the presence of Russia's 201st Motor Rifle Division, which is slated to become a permanent Russian military base. "The United States has only offered material assistance in acquiring equipment for improving and tightening border control, in particular its Tajik-Afghan and Tajik-Chinese sections," Murod Shaimov, a section chief on the Tajik Security Council, told Interfax. The remarks apparently came in response to speculation following U.S. President George W. Bush's recent announcement of an impending redeployment of U.S. troops overseas. DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov has issued a decree removing the heads of two of the country's three television channels, Turkmen TV reported on 16 August. The decree relieves Ilmurat Ashirov from the top post at the Yashlyk (Youth) channel, and Gurbangeldi Annaev from the Altyn Asyr-Turkmenistan (Golden Age-Turkmenistan) channel. The decree cited serious shortcomings in both directors' work. DK

The trial of 15 people charged with involvement in late March-early April terror attacks resumed on 17 August in Tashkent, Uzbek TV reported. Police officer Mirzohid Qoldibekov gave testimony about a shoot-out that began after he and his partner asked two men for their documents on 28 March. Police officer Qodir Rahimov testified that a woman blew herself up in the Chorsu market on 29 March, killing several of his fellow officers. The trial, which began on 26 July, was adjourned on 9 August because of a defense lawyer's illness, ITAR-TASS reported on 17 August. The Supreme Court's press service told the news agency that half of the defendants have already entered guilty pleas. DK

Anatol Mikhaylau, rector of the recently closed private European Humanities University (EHU) in Minsk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 July and 2 August 2004), said on 17 August during an online news conference featured on RFE/RL's Belarus Service website ( that all EHU students will be offered places at foreign institutions of higher learning. According to Mikhaylau, universities in the United States and Germany might enroll 40 and 100 EHU students, respectively, while Polish universities have declared their readiness to offer training to all students of the liquidated Belarusian institution. Mikhaylau is currently on a training program in Washington. JM

A district court judge in Minsk on 17 August dismissed a slander suit filed by United Civic Party (AHP) Chairman Anatol Lyabedzka against Belarus's three government-controlled television networks -- the Belarusian State Television and Radio Company, ONT, and STV -- which broadcast the documentary "The Road to Nowhere" in May, Belapan reported. In the documentary, an unidentified off-camera commentator said: "When Mr. Miller [Gazprom head Aleksei Miller] ordered the cutoff of gas supplies to our republic in [the freezing] cold, wishing to force our leadership to sell him Beltranshaz for a song, pseudo-patriot Lyabedzka in fact came out in support of this move.... It would be the worst nightmare to imagine this lackey [Lyabedzka] selling our national wealth to his oligarch friends, if he were to grab power in Belarus by some miracle." The judge reportedly agreed with STV Director Alyaksandr Zimouski, who argued in the court that Belarus's media law allows reporters to express opinions of "evaluative nature." JM

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 17 August decreed that elections to the 64-seat Council of the Republic, Belarus's upper house, take place from 18 August to 18 November, Belarusian Television reported. The Council of the Republic is a legislative body of regional representation, which is elected by local councilors and appointed by the president. Each of Belarus's six oblasts, the city of Minsk, and the president delegate eight members each to the upper house. JM

Presidential candidate and Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko said at a meeting with voters in Crimea on 17 August that the Our Ukraine parliamentary caucus will demand that the Verkhovna Rada consider the issue of deployment of the Ukrainian peacekeeping contingent in Iraq immediately after the opening of its session on 7 September, Interfax reported, quoting Yushchenko's press service. According to Yushchenko, the session must be attended by President Leonid Kuchma and Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk who, Yushchenko stressed, should explain "the meaning of Ukraine's further military presence in Iraq." Yushchenko pledged to "bring the Ukrainian boys home from Iraq" if elected president. JM

The election staff of presidential candidate Yushchenko has collected 1.5 million signatures in support of his presidential bid, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported on 18 August, citing the election staff's press service. A registered candidate for the 31 October election must submit at least 500,000 signatures in support of his or her candidacy to the Central Election Commission by 20 September. JM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said during a meeting with a Greek businessman in Athens on 17 August that the current pace of economic growth in Ukraine could be maintained by legalizing shadow capital, UNIAN reported, citing Yanukovych's press service. "We believe that time has come to implement an amnesty for the shadow incomes of citizens," Yanukovych said. According to the prime minister, the process of legalizing shadow incomes in Ukraine may take five years. JM

Kyiv's Court of Appeals on 17 August confirmed the verdict by the Iraqi Central Criminal Court sentencing Ukrainian sailors Mykola Mazurenko and Ivan Soschenko to seven years in prison each for oil smuggling, Interfax reported. Mazurenko and Soschenko, who were detained and convicted in Iraq last year, were extradited to Ukraine in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 June 2004). The two seamen may file their appeal against the 17 August ruling with Ukraine's Supreme Court within 10 days. JM

Soeren Jessen-Petersen, the new head of the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), said in Prishtina on 17 August that the coming months will be crucial for determining Kosova's final status, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 17 August 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 and 29 July, and 6 and 13 August 2004). "There is a limit to how long you can keep a place in limbo," he said, adding that "it is incumbent on me to try to lead the process with a greater sense of urgency," Reuters reported. Jessen-Petersen feels that the international community failed to understand the depth of frustration among the 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority, which came to a head in widespread violence on 17-18 March. Calling for movement on the status issue, he noted that "the international community seemed very content with having [UNMIK] as an interim administration. There didn't seem to be the necessary urgency to move forward." Jessen-Petersen added that "in the not too distant future...we will embark on the process that will gradually take us toward a review of standards and final status discussions." He said that he is willing to listen to Belgrade's suggestions on administrative decentralization. His remarks are likely to disappoint those who sought to delay movement on status in the wake of the March violence. PM

Speaking on the sidelines of a ceremony marking the third anniversary of the Ohrid peace accord, Ali Ahmeti, who heads the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), said on 16 August that his party opposes calls for a Greater Albania, "Utrinski vesnik" and "Dnevnik" reported. Ahmeti said that calls for the formation of a Greater Albania, Greater Macedonia, or Greater Serbia belong to the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. "Today, on the threshold of the 21st century, the people in the Balkans and around whole world face totally different conflicts" than previously was the case, Ahmeti said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 August 2004). Reporters had asked Ahmeti to comment on an article in the Albanian-language "Fakti" of 16 August, in which Shpetim Pollozhani of the Association of Albanian Political Prisoners and Wounded called for setting up a United States of Albanians consisting of Albania proper, Kosova, and the Albanian-populated parts of Macedonia. UB

On 17 August, Theodor Meron, who heads the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, ordered the release of Bosnian Croat Anto Furundzija from a prison in Finland, where he has served two-thirds of his 10-year sentence for war crimes, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Finnish law permits the early release of prisoners who have completed two-thirds of their sentences. After leaving prison, Furundzija returned to Zagreb en route to Vitez in central Bosnia. Refika Memisevic, who heads a group of war crimes survivors, said that the tribunal has called its credibility into question by releasing Furundzija and, in early August, former Bosnian Croat General Tihomir Blaskic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 July and 5 August 2004). PM

The Serbian Interior Ministry announced on 17 August the dismissal of Goran Radosavljevic (aka Guri) as head of its elite Gendarmerie unit, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Radosavljevic said that nobody gave him a reason for his removal from the Gendarmerie post and appointment to an advisory position, adding that it's not his business to question orders but to carry them out. His replacement is General Borivoje Tesic, who is currently his deputy. The ministry's statement said that personnel changes are under way as part of a ministry-wide reorganization linked to the war on terrorism. Nebojsa Covic, who is the Serbian government's pointman for Kosova and southern Serbia and who previously worked closely with Radosavljevic there, said that he suspects that political motives are behind the dismissal. Reuters and dpa noted that the Gendarmerie is likely to play a key role in any extradition to The Hague of indicted war criminals. One of the leading indictees is police General Sreten Lukic, who was Radosavljevic's boss during the 1998-99 Kosova conflict, when Radosavljevic commanded special police there. He is one of the last top-level police officials who is a carryover from the rule of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. PM

Prime Minister Adrian Nastase on 17 August attacked Theodor Stolojan -- his National Liberal Party (PNL) rival in the November presidential election -- by calling him "a puppet" in the hands of Democratic Party Chairman Traian Basescu, Mediafax reported. Nastase also said Stolojan is backed by a "financial and banking mafia that placed him at the head of a team that is after power and could create many problems" if it wins the November parliamentary elections. Stolojan responded the same day by telling journalists that Nastase "should be ashamed" of using "undignified and indecent attacks to discredit" the opposition PNL-Democratic Party alliance. Stolojan said that no candidate to the "high office of state president should transform a political debate into a struggle of vanity and attacks below the belt." He said he "refuses to pick up the glove Nastase threw into the mud" because "Romania's citizens have nothing to gain" from such a debate. MS

Prime Minister Nastase on 17 August denied reports that the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) envisages a pre-election alliance or a postelection governing coalition with the extremist Greater Romania Party (PRM), Mediafax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 August 2004). Nastase said the PSD envisages negotiating with the Humanist Party and the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) about forming either pre-election alliances or a postelection governing coalition. He said a meeting between the PSD and the UDMR leadership is slated for 24 August. In turn, UDMR Chairman Bela Marko ruled out any possibility of the UDMR entering a coalition government of which the PRM would be part, Mediafax reported. MS

The ad hoc parliamentary commission examining legislation for the November parliamentary elections decided on 17 August that organizations representing national minorities in the lower house must garner only 3,500 votes to gain representation, Mediafax reported. By comparison, candidates not representing a minority group must collect 20,000-25,000 votes. The decision changes legislation adopted by the Senate in June, which considerably raised the threshold for parliamentary representation of national minorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February and 21 April 2004). A vote for the commission's proposal in the lower house would override the upper house's decision. MS

Prime Minister Nastase told journalists on 17 August that Ukrainian presidential hopeful Yuryi Zbitnev's calls for Transdniester to be "reintegrated" with Ukraine and Moldova reunited with Romania would violate European and international norms, Mediafax reported. Nastase said that Zbitnev's calls are motivated by his political ambitions ahead of the Ukrainian presidential elections in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 August 2004). Also on 17 August, Flux reported from Kyiv that a plan very similar to Zbitnev's was recently drawn up by the Ukrainian nongovernmental organization Center for Strategic Initiatives. Meanwhile, Stanislav Belkovskii, president of the Russian Institute of National Strategy, said on Tiraspol television on 16 August that "Russia needs an independent Transdniester as a stronghold for influence in this European region," Infotag reported. Belkovskii is the author of a plan according to which Moldova would rejoin Romania while Transdniester would become an independent sovereign state benefiting from Russian military protection. MS

Transdniestrian Education Minister Elena Bomeshko on 17 August touted a compromise proposal to resolve the issue of the closure of schools teaching Moldovan (Romanian) with Latin script, Infotag and ITAR-TASS reported. She said that under the compromise, such schools would be registered as educational institutions with nongovernmental status. Moldovan Reintegration Minister Vasilii Sova said the proposal is "another trick aimed at pacifying international public opinion," ITAR-TASS reported the same day. MS

Amnesty International said in a statement released on 17 August that the decision of the Tiraspol authorities to close down schools teaching Moldovan (Romanian) with Latin script amounts to a violation of the right to freedom of expression, Infotag reported. The international human rights watchdog the same day said the director and 10 pupils of the Bendery-Tighina boarding school besieged by Transdniester militiamen have lodged a complaint against Russia with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The complaint is based on the ECHR's recent ruling on the "Ilascu group," according to which Russia is responsible for the violation of human rights by Transdniester (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 July 2004). MS

In an apparent attempt to further harm the Transdniestrian economy, the Moldovan Foreign Ministry announced on 17 August that as of 20 August the traffic of commodities via all border checkpoints situated along the Transdniester border with Ukraine is temporarily suspended. The ministry said the decision applies only to companies and was necessitated by the threat posed to Moldovan economic security. Exports of Transdniestrian goods will have to be redirected to crossing points on the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, the ministry states. Last week, Ukraine announced a similar decision. MS

President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign into law a bill converting certain social benefits, such as free public transportation and medicine, to cash payments, and regional leaders are already signaling that they do not plan to implement it vigorously. It's little wonder. The bill has inspired weeks of protests across Russia. Polling data shows the public is pessimistic about how their own economic well-being will be affected. And regional leaders have been set up to take the blame if any hitches occur along the way.

Prior to the bill's adoption, in late July, 10 of the 12 governors who are members of the Far East and Trans Baikal Interregional Association sent a letter to President Putin asking him to suspend the process of monetizing social benefits. The governors charged that the planned reform violates the constitution by altering the social character of the state. At a meeting last week of the Coordination Council of Far East Governors, presidential envoy to the Far East Federal District Konstantin Pulikovskii declared that the letter was a "political mistake" orchestrated by Khabarovsk Governor Viktor Ishaev and Sakha Republic President Vyacheslav Shtyrov, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 14 August. He accused them of trying to create the impression that the federal center does not care about citizens' welfare. "This is not so," he insisted.

Other regional leaders have adopted a similar stance to the Far Eastern rebels, declaring their intention to protect their electorate from Moscow's arbitrary whims. After the Duma passed the bill on 5 August, Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov stated in a press conference on 7 August that his government will preserve all benefits Muscovites currently possess, Interfax-Moscow reported on 8 August. "Our veterans and other persons eligible for social welfare payments, including pensioners, will receive all [their] current benefits, including free passage on city public transportation. We will proceed as I promised earlier: People will not suffer as result of the reform," Luzhkov pledged. And before the bill had passed even its first reading, Sergei Katanandov, president of Karelia declared on 3 June that his government will not convert in-kind benefits, such as the installation of phones and free medicine, to monetary payments if the recipients of these benefits do not want such a conversion, RIA-Novosti reported, citing the republican government's press service. "For those [residents] who want to [continue] receiving [such] benefits and not cash, the government will provide this opportunity. Payments for these benefits will come out of the republican budget. There is no reason to be afraid," Katanandov said.

The adoption of the social welfare benefits reform takes place against a backdrop of tightening federal control over regional revenues and a reduced share of revenues from the tax on profits and water. This month the State Duma and Federation Council passed amendments to the Budget and Tax Code, which "virtually require the transfer of all budgets of all levels to the federal treasury," "Gazeta" reported on 3 August. The new Budget Code also abolishes grants to the regions to pay state-sector wages or disaster relief. In the future whenever a region needs funds urgently, it will have to borrow the money from Moscow and pay interest -- a very low percentage of interest, but interest nonetheless.

In an address to the Federation Council, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin reassured the representatives that the amendments to the budget law will not leave regions without enough revenue, RIA-Novosti reported. He said that a special reserve fund of 30 billion rubles ($1 billion) is being created to ensure that regional budgets are balanced in 2005. However, some regional officials remain "indignant" about the new federal budget policy, according to "Vedomosti" on 12 August. An unidentified official from the Volga Federal District told the daily that "According to the new rules, we cannot compete for federal money, but we don't have enough budget resources. We plan to raise money by other means, for example, to take credits for state securities -- this is quicker and simpler than asking for federal money." The Sakha Republic is similarly bewildered about how it will pay for social benefits. The republic's Finance Minister Ernst Berezkin said on 11 August that paying cash benefits for the region's 55,000 persons who are eligible to receive social welfare benefits would create an enormous budget deficit in 2005 of 400 million rubles ($14 million), Regnum reported. The basic sources for additional revenue, besides tax receipts, would be the sale of government property. However, the plan for the sale of government property only anticipates the generation of 100 million rubles in the first half of 2005. Natalya Golovanova of the Center for Fiscal Policy noted that "the Finance Ministry [in Moscow] is always saying that the grants will be distributed for the balancing of the budgets according to a formula, but nobody sees this formula."

Further complicating implementation is the fact that gubernatorial and parliamentary elections are coming up in a number of regions. Elections for new governors or presidents will be held in 13 regions before the end of the year. Parliamentary elections will take place in 11 regions. In Volgograd Oblast, where incumbent Governor Nikolai Masyuta is up for re-election in December, the benefits reform has already come up as an issue in the election campaign. Media controlled by Volgograd Mayor Yevgenii Ishchenko criticized Masyuta for proposing on the floor of the State Council a moratorium on introduction of the monetization and accused him of trying to rebel against President Putin, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 9 August. When this characterization failed to bring Ishchenko any political dividends, Maksyuta was then attacked from the opposition direction as "governor-traitor" not to Putin but "of the region's interests." Maksyuta, who is nominally a communist, is so far taking a wait-and-see approach. He told the daily that around 2/3 of the oblast population is eligible for social welfare benefits to a greater or lesser extent. He said the price of the benefits is estimated at 4.7 billion rubles a year, and it is not yet known what part of this sum will be covered in the oblast budget and what part in the federal budget. "People are talking about only 12 percent of our expenses for this compensation coming from the federal center," he said. "This would be too great a load."

In Saratov Oblast, Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov is not facing re-election but he is facing an ongoing corruption investigation. And perhaps not coincidentally, he seems determined to find a solution to the problems created by the new reform without blaming Moscow. In an interview with "Novaya gazeta," No. 56, Ayatskov said that of the 2.674 million residents in his region, 1.5 million receive some kind of other benefits. "Many of these are unjustified. For example, a mother, who drives around in a Mercedes, gets a child subsidy," he said. He also noted that "if the budget was amended to divide social spending responsibilities equally between Moscow and the regions, we would be able to meet those commitments. But what is being proposed at present -- 64 percent paid by the regions and 36 percent paid by Moscow would be difficult for us." In order to raise the necessary funds, he vowed to cut government staff in Saratov beginning with his own.

In an article in "Novaya gazeta," No. 54, Rostislav Turovskii of the Center for Political Technology concluded that the first rebellion by regional leaders to the benefits reform -- the letter from the 10 Far East governors -- "is evidence that the system is experiencing some sort of crisis." Turovskii characterized the situation as one in which "the governors are losing control over regional economics" and are becoming "social workers" who are responsible for the welfare of the budget sector. Moscow is shifting responsibility for social payments -- to state-sector workers, citizens eligible for benefits, and veterans -- onto meager regional budgets. Turovskii asserted that the Kremlin has decided to make governors deal with the worsening situation in the social sphere. However, it may come to rue this decision: "In Russia, the question 'who is to blame?' can split the elite even under the most authoritative regime, for not only the president is concerned about his rating." He continued, "Small wonder that now instead of expressing unanimous approval, the governors are arguing about the hot issue of social reform."

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad on 17 August announced that a cease-fire agreement was reached between forces loyal to Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan and local commander Amanullah Khan, international news agencies reported. Khalilzad said that the cease-fire is holding and that units of the Afghan National Army supported by the U.S. Air Force are trying to prevent renewed fighting, Radio Afghanistan reported on 17 August. "We have been working very closely with the government of Afghanistan to bring about an immediate end to the fighting, to disengage the combatant forces some 20 to 30 kilometers from each other, and to set the conditions for enduring stability in that part of the country," Khalilzad said, "The New York Times" reported on 18 August. According to the U.S. envoy, there have been "significant" casualties in the latest round of fighting that began on 13 August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 17 August 2004), AP reported on 17 August. The death toll stood at 26 before Amanullah Khan's forces began a push toward Herat city on 17 August. Khalilzad's interference in the conflict came after Amanullah's forces came within 20 kilometers of the city, the BBC reported on 17 August. AT

Both Khalilzad and Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai have condemned Amanullah Khan's actions against Ismail Khan, AP reported on 17 August. "I have indicated to Amanullah that any attack to threaten the city [of Heart] is unacceptable and we would expect him to move back his forces," Khalilzad said, adding that he "mostly explained the consequences of continued fighting," "The New York Times" reported on 18 August. While the newspaper reported that there have been suggestions that some members of Karzai's administration opposed to Ismail Khan encouraged Amanullah Khan to launch the attack, AP reported that Karzai's spokesman Jawed Ludin referred to Amanullah Khan as "a warlord." While Amanullah Khan has long pledged allegiance to central government, Ludin said that the commander is not affiliated with the National Army and warned that whoever "is responsible for this breakdown and breach of security will be brought to justice," AP reported. AT

U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan have denied reports that they carried out air strikes against Amanullah Khan's forces, AFP reported on 18 August. Herat police chief Ziauddin Mahmudi claimed on 17 August that when Amanullah's forces reached Adraskan District, they "were bombed by coalition planes." In addition, commanders from both of the warring sides reported that U.S. planes dropped bombs on their respective foes, the AP reported on 17 August. AFP quoted U.S. military spokesman Major Rich Peat as saying on 18 August that "we did not conduct any air strikes in the Herat area today," although it should be noted that the bombing in question would have taken place on 17 August. At the request of the Afghan administration, the U.S. Air Force is "providing air support to the Afghan security forces," Peat added. Khalilzad did say that a number of U.S. military trainers are embedded with the National Army, "The New York Times" reported on 18 August. In late 2002, when heavy clashes took place between forces loyal to Amanullah Khan and to those supporting Ismail Khan, the situation came under control only when U.S. forces interfered, reportedly by bombing both sides (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 5 December 2002). AT

Commander Amanullah Khan, speaking from Shindand air base located in the south of Herat Province, said on 18 August that his forces have withdrawn from conflict zones around Herat and have been replaced by National Army troops and members of foreign forces, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. The warlord said that Herat Province is peaceful and reiterated that his forces are obeying orders from Kabul regarding the U.S.-brokered cease-fire and the withdrawal of his forces from the points of engagement. Amanullah Khan's surprising advancement against Ismail Khan's forces may have finally given Kabul a chance, with the permanent deployment of the National Army in the province, to bring Ismail Khan, the self-styled "amir" (ruler) of Herat, under its direct control (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 25 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 August 2004). In addition, with the deployment of National Army troops in Herat instead of Ismail Khan's own militia, the governor would be less able to interfere in the October presidential elections, a scenario that could play out in areas where warlords are more powerful than Kabul. AT

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton said on 17 August at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., that Iran is a "fundamental proliferation challenge" and its weapons of mass destruction efforts "pose grave threats to international security," according to the State Department's website ( Bolton said Iran therefore must be "isolated," not "engaged." In detailing "Iran's true objectives," Bolton said that Iran wants to use highly enriched uranium and plutonium. The plutonium can be secured through a heavy-water production plant and through the light-water reactor at Bushehr, he said. Bolton dismissed Iranian claims that it needs nuclear power to fulfill its electricity needs or so it can export its oil and gas. He said that Iran's evasiveness in dealing with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicate Tehran's true intentions. Now is the time, Bolton said, to report this issue to the UN Security Council. The IAEA board of governors is scheduled to discuss Iran in September. BS

Two members of parliament on 17 August expressed their apprehension over the upcoming IAEA board of governor's meeting, state radio reported. Tehran's Hussein Sheikholeslam said that Iranian officials who participate in the discussions with the IAEA must not let the issue become politicized, because this is what the enemy, which he failed to name, wants. Sheikholeslam said that Iranian activities are transparent. Another legislator, Mohammad Talai-Nik, said he believes Iran's nuclear file will remain open and under IAEA review. "They may raise a series of new expectations and demands and pretexts," he added. Talai-Nik described these so-called pretexts as part of a process of attrition on the part of the United States. He said Iran must take the initiative in blocking these pretexts. BS

A recent report from the Washington-based Center for Security Policy about 400 public companies that do business with states that support terrorism notes that Norway's Statoil is among its "Dirty Dozen" because of its ties with Iran ( According to the report, Statoil plans to invest up to $300 million in Iran's South Pars gas field, and it adds that Statoil intended to pay more than $15 million to Horton Investments in order to gain influence in Iran (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 August 2004). The Center for Security Policy report accuses Statoil of sending the message that "sponsoring terrorism is fine as long as our company makes a profit," and of undermining U.S. diplomatic efforts and sanctions. Statoil refused to comment on the Center for Security Policy report, "Aftenposten" reported on 15 August. Iranian Oil Engineering and Development Company official Ali Akbar Al-i Aqa said on 15 August that Statoil is one of the companies that have purchased documents needed for a possible bid to develop the new Yadavaran oil field in Khuzestan, IRNA reported. Yadavaran has proven reserves of some 17 billion barrels, according to the Iranian official. In addition to Statoil and companies from China, France, and Russia, Tehran is negotiating with India's Videsh LTD to develop 20 percent of the oil field in exchange for 5 million tons of liquefied natural gas. BS

The Iranian legislature on 16 August suspended for one year aspects of the Fourth Five-Year Plan that deal with privatization, IRNA reported. The legislature argued that the bill should have been considered by the legislature previously, but the Sixth Parliament already approved the Five-Year Plan. IRNA went on to say that the current parliament wants to see greater state control of the economy. Deputy Petroleum Minister for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mahmud Astaneh said on 15 August that the legislature has omitted other articles of the Five-Year Plan that will affect development of the oil and gas sectors and the oil and petrochemical industries, IRNA reported. Omission of these articles, Astaneh said, will cut state revenues by more than $80 billion. The specific articles affect the percentage of oil and gas sales that will go to the government. Other parts of the plan that are affected deal with transportation, mail and telecommunications, and information technology. BS

Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) deputy commander Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr said on 16 August that "if a missile is fired at the Bushehr [nuclear] power plant, Israel must say good-bye forever to the Dimona nuclear center, which is where nuclear weapons are produced and kept in that country," Radio Farda and Fars News Agency reported. Speaking during military exercises that were taking place in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province, Zolqadr said that dozens of countries use nuclear technology and Iran also has a right do so peacefully. BS

Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan said on 18 August that he expected Iraqi and U.S. forces to carry out a "decisive battle" in the holy city of Al-Najaf against militants from the Imam Al-Mahdi Army loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Al-Arabiyah television reported. Media reports indicate that heavy fighting is currently taking place in the city. Reuters cited Falah al-Muhana, the director of Al-Najaf's main hospital, as saying on 18 August that 29 casualties from the fighting have arrived at the hospital. There are no other figures on the number of dead and wounded, according to the news agency. KR

Al-Sadr refused to meet on 17 August with a delegation from the Iraqi National Conference (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 August 2004) due to security concerns, his spokesman Ahmad al-Shaybani told Al-Jazeera the same day. Al-Shaybani said that al-Sadr requested that U.S. forces stop shelling Al-Najaf's old city and Imam Ali shrine so that negotiations could take place, but the shelling was not halted. Al-Sadr has in the past taken advantage of breaks in the fighting to bring in more fighters and weapons to the shrine, which they use as a base. Al-Najaf Governor Adnan al-Zurufi denied to Al-Jazeera on 17 August that there was any obstacle to the meeting, adding that Iraqi forces delivered the eight-member delegation to the shrine. "No security problems that would preclude such a meeting have been noticed," he added. Meanwhile, a "New York Times" correspondent who traveled with the delegation to Al-Najaf reported on 18 August that "both sides were partly correct" -- there was sporadic fighting when the delegation arrived in Al-Najaf, but the sound of U.S. armaments eventually ceased. KR

A group identifying itself as the Secret Action Group of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army has posted a statement on the Internet vowing to strike Iraq's main southern oil pipeline unless U.S. troops withdraw from Al-Najaf, Reuters reported on 18 August. "We set ablaze an oil well in Al-Amarah. This is a simple warning to the government of [Prime Minister Iyad] Allawi and to occupation forces, that we will bomb the main south oil export line if they do not leave Najaf within 48 hours and end the siege," the 16 August statement said. Reuters reported that it was unable to verify the veracity of the statement, and did not mention to which website the statement was posted. A government spokesman said on 15 August that an oil well near Al-Amarah was attacked that day. KR

Delegates to the Iraqi National Conference met for a fourth day on 18 August to select 81 members to the interim National Assembly, international media reported. The delegates were scheduled to elect members on 17 August, but postponed the vote after sending a delegation to Al-Najaf to negotiate with al-Sadr. The standoff in Al-Najaf dominated the three-day conference. The 100-member assembly will also comprise 19 members of the defunct Iraqi Governing Council. Delegates did agree on 17 August on the mechanism to be used to cast votes for members of the assembly, Al-Arabiyah reported. KR

U.S. forces in Al-Najaf raided on 17 August the headquarters for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the organization's Badr Brigades office in the holy city, Al-Jazeera reported. Two Badr guards were killed in one of the raids, according to a statement by al-Haj Hasan Abu Ali, who heads the Badr organization in the city. The reason behind the raid is not known. Meanwhile, Baghdad's "Al-Ittihad" reported on 17 August that police and multinational forces arrested the secretary-general of Hizballah in a recent raid on the organization's office in Baghdad. Hasan al-Sari was arrested along with two of his colleagues, Hashim al-Shawki and Ruhan al-Jabiri. Al-Sari served as a member of the Iraqi National Conference's Preparatory Committee. KR