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Newsline - August 20, 2004

The Foreign Ministry on 19 August issued a statement on the crisis in the Georgian region of South Ossetia in which it blamed the central Georgian government for "unleashing combat operations" in the conflict zone and calls for "tough measures to be taken against those who consciously violate the accords that have been reached," ITAR-TASS reported. "Tbilisi should understand that such efforts are intolerable and that the time left for stopping movement along this dangerous and risky path is growing shorter and shorter," the statement said. VY

In an editorial on 20 August, "Izvestiya" wrote that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is harboring "romantic dreams" that he has the full support of the United States and that such support might be "an illusion." "It is very unlikely that the United States will put its good relations with Russia on the line because of Georgia," the daily argued. Therefore, Saakashvili should think about a more moderate course of action regarding South Ossetia and Abkhazia, one that does not endanger Georgia's economic and democratic reforms. "We have deep sympathy for Saakashvili, who left a comfortable life in the West for the sake of his homeland, and we wish him success in the noble cause of reunifying his country," the daily wrote. "But in the real world unbridled emotions usually do not contribute to the solution of problems." VY

Delaware State University Professor Sergei Lopatnikov, writing in "Argumenty i fakty," No. 33, argued that Russia should not compete with the United States in the Caspian region, Central Asia, or the Caucasus, and that Moscow should sign a formal Eurasian-Atlantic Treaty with the United States on the model of NATO. He contended that the U.S. military presence in these regions is more beneficial than harmful for Russia because it helps to block the penetration into Russia of Islamist extremism, not only into Chechnya and Daghestan but into the interior regions of Russia as well. In addition, Lopatnikov argued, the U.S. presence could counter the influence in those regions of China, which is strategically much more threatening to Russia because of Russia's weakness in Siberia and the Far East. Lopatnikov's proposed Eurasian-Atlantic treaty would include the United States, Russia, and all the Caucasus and Central Asian countries. Such a treaty, he said, would assuage Russian concerns about the unchecked penetration of the United States into these regions and U.S. concerns about Russian cooperation with Iran. VY

Most Russians believe that the August 1991 coup attempt against then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who was supported by Russia's democratic forces led by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, was nothing more than "an episode in the struggle for power," "Novye izvestiya" and other Russian media reported on 18 August. According to a poll of 1,600 respondents in 29 regions conducted this month by the Levada Center, 36 percent of Russians believe the coup attempt was "a tragic event that caused grave consequences for the country and its people." Only 11 percent view the event as "a victory of democratic revolution that destroyed the power of the Communist Party." Forty-nine percent said that following the 1991 events "the country has gone in the wrong direction," while 27 percent said that the failure of the coup attempt was good for Russia. VY

Writing in "Argumenty i fakty," No. 33, former Communist Party of the Soviet Union International Committee official Andrei Chuzhakin said that the August 1991 events were "a duel between two alcoholics, one calm and quiet and the other blustering" -- referring to coup-attempt leader and then Soviet Vice President Gennadii Yanaev and Yeltsin. Noted journalist Vitalii Tretyakov wrote in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 19 August that Yeltsin and his supporters carried out their own coup after defeating Yanaev's plot. Instead of returning power to Gorbachev, Tretyakov wrote, Yeltsin and his supporters finished off the Soviet Union. VY

The Meshchanskii Raion Court in Moscow on 19 August rejected an appeal by Yukos shareholders Mikhail Khodorkovskii and Platon Lebedev that argued that the charges against them connected with the 1994 privatization of the Apatit fertilizer factory should be dismissed because the 10-year statute of limitations has expired, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 July 2004). The court ruled that it will continue studying the circumstances of the case. Defense attorney Genrikh Padva emphasized to journalists that the appeal should not be interpreted as an admission of guilt. "The petition simply means that the 10-year period for hearing such charges expired in July," Padva said. VY

China is interested in purchasing Yuganskneftegaz, the main production subsidiary of embattled oil giant Yukos that is expected to be sold off to pay Yukos's tax debts, Interfax reported on 19 August, citing an unidentified Chinese government official. "The main question, however, is what policies the Russian government has toward foreign companies in the Yuganskneftegaz auction," the official said. Yuganskneftegaz pumps about 60 percent of Yukos's annual oil output and its shares were frozen after Yukos was found to owe $3.4 billion in taxes and penalties dating back to 2000. VY

"Legal action and even criminal charges against Russia's governors are becoming commonplace," NTV reported on 19 August. The channel reported that a court hearing against Altai Republic President Mikhail Lapshin on charges that he violated the constitution and federal legislation by not doing enough to protect the population before an earthquake last autumn has been postponed. Lapshin is also accused of misusing more than 400,000 rubles ($13,300) and not providing help to Altai residents who suffered from the earthquake. The broadcast also noted that Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov has been the subject of a criminal investigation (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 20 May 2004). The correspondent commented that "political expediency" does not apply in Lapshin's case, saying the investigation was prompted because the "governor is a bad economic manager." However, although President Vladimir Putin performed well in the March 2004 election in Altai, Unified Russia's performance there in the December 2003 State Duma elections was the second worst of all of Russia's 89 regions, with only 26.4 percent of the vote. Lapshin is the former head of the Agrarian Party. JAC

An estimated 700-2,000 striking workers from the Ulyanovsk Mechanical Factory blocked traffic on one of the city's busiest highways on 19 August, ITAR-TASS and reported. The workers were protesting the fact that they have not been paid since March. Thousands of residents were stuck for hours on buses and trams while trying to get to work, according to Ulyanovsk Oblast Governor Vladimir Shamanov was in Moscow at the time, reportedly seeking up 100 million rubles ($3.4 million) from the Defense Ministry to cover the unpaid wages. The Defense Ministry issued a press release saying that it owes no money to the factory and that the ministry already paid the plant 108 million rubles for a completed order. However, Ulyanovsk Oblast Deputy Governor Mikhail Shkanov said the money is stuck in Moscow and never made it to Ulyanovsk for some reason, ITAR-TASS reported. JAC

President Putin traveled to Astrakhan on 19 August to attend the funeral of deceased Astrakhan Oblast Governor Anatolii Guzhvin, who died suddenly on 17 August, RTR reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 2004). Guzhvin was appointed oblast governor in 1991, and before that, he ruled the region as the chairman of the Communist Party oblast committee from 1986. Yakov Vinokurov, chairman of the oblast legislature, told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that he does not expect the date of the next gubernatorial election to be changed from its previously scheduled date of 5 December. Vadim Monin, chairman of the oblast branch of Yabloko, predicted that the current acting governor, Aleksandr Zhilkin, who was Guzhvin's first deputy, will likely run for the office, as will oblast legislator Sergei Bozhenov. Writing on on 18 August, analyst Sergei Mikheev reported that Bozhenov participated in the December 2003 State Duma elections in a single-mandate district in Astrakhan and came in second. Mikheev noted that Bozhenov is little known outside of the city of Astrakhan. JAC

In the same article, Mikheev predicted that the election could trigger a "fierce power struggle" and that the Kremlin's position "could be a critical factor." According to Mikheev, the Kremlin was displeased with the political situation in the oblast and in recent years had replaced almost all senior federal-ministry officials in the oblast with people who had no connections in the oblast or with Guzhvin. JAC

A pensioner in the Novgorod Oblast village of Ilmen has erected a monument to potatoes in front of his house, Regnum and RIA-Novosti reported on 19 August. The 3-meter tall monument is made of metal pipe wrapped around a boulder and bears the inscription, "Thanks to [Christopher] Columbus, Thanks to Peter [the Great] -- You Suited Our Motherland Well." According to Regnum, Zaryadov wants to honor the role the potato played during the famine years of World War II and the years following it. JAC

A monument to President Putin has been placed in a city square in Pskov, and Regnum reported on 19 August. The monument was reportedly the initiative of a public organization called Motherland Against [Pskov Oblast Governor Yevgenii] Mikhailov." Mikhailov is up for reelection in November. The monument is inscribed with the words "To Vladimir Putin from the grateful residents of Pskov." Maksim Kostikov, editor of "Moskovskii komsomolets v Pskove" told Ekho Moskvy that the bust is illegal because city authorities did not give the group permission to erect it. Kostikov predicted that the bust will be removed, noting that two police cars have been parked next to it. Pskov Oblast's chief architect Vladimir Bessonov said he is certain that the sculpture will be removed, Pskov Information Agency reported. JAC

Two police officers were killed and five were wounded on 18 August during a shootout in forests some 10 kilometers from Nalchik, capital of the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, with a group of eight "militants" armed with automatic weapons and grenade throwers, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 20 August. Two of the attackers also died in the exchange of fire. Police and Interior Ministry special-forces troops were mobilized in a so-far fruitless attempt to track down and apprehend the militants, whom republican police have identified as being connected to Muslim Ataev, who is wanted in connection with the killing last fall of a police officer in the town of Chegem. LF

Ramzan Kadyrov told Interfax on 19 August that there is no truth to reports that he no longer supports Chechen Interior Minister Major General Alu Alkhanov, who is widely regarded as the Kremlin's preferred candidate in the 29 August ballot to select a successor as pro-Moscow Chechen leader to Kadyrov's murdered father, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. Ramzan Kadyrov termed such reports an attempt to split the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership. In an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 August, Alkhanov said that "to my knowledge, Ramzan Kadyrov, as one of the leaders of the republic, has not been supporting anyone." The daily observed that "there are posters all over Chechnya suggesting that Ramzan Kadyrov supports Vakha Visaev," who served as an aide to Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. The paper also published a photograph of a three-story building in Grozny with the slogans "Vote for Visaev on 29 August" and "Visaev is our president" in two-foot high letters on the facade, together with a poster depicting Visaev with Ramzan Kadyrov against a larger background picture of Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov (see LF

Union of National Democrats Chairman Arshak Sadoyan, one of the leaders of the opposition Artarutiun bloc, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 19 August that the ruling three-party coalition backs many provisions of the alternative draft constitution that he presented to parliament on 16 August. He said the parliament majority should now withdraw their support for amendments drafted by President Robert Kocharian that were unveiled last month, or reform the constitution by consensus. The opposition has rejected Kocharian's proposed amendments as illegitimate and "cosmetic" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 July and 3 August 2004). At a press conference in Yerevan on 16 July, Sadoyan argued in favor of making radical changes to the constitution before the end of this year with a view to holding preterm parliamentary and presidential elections in which Kocharian would not participate, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

In a dawn assault on 19 August led by Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili, Georgian Interior Ministry forces stormed and occupied three strategic hills overlooking the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, Georgian and Russian media reported. Okruashvili told the independent Georgian television station Rustavi-2 that eight Cossacks were killed during the attack, and that his men confiscated two combat vehicles, two mortars, automatic weapons, and ammunition, and also food and narcotics. Okruashvili said he would produce the eight bodies to prove that speculation about a "third force" fighting in South Ossetia was wrong, Caucasus Press reported. But Interfax quoted Georgian Deputy State Security Minister Gigi Ugulava as saying the Georgians recovered the body of only one Cossack, as the dead man's companions in arms had taken the remaining dead with them, Interfax reported, while South Ossetian government spokeswoman Irina Gagloeva denied that any Cossacks were fighting alongside South Ossetian units. Interfax also quoted Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava as saying that the Georgian assault was originally intended as a joint operation with South Ossetian participation to neutralize the so-called "third force" operating in the conflict zone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 2004), but that the South Ossetians subsequently declined to take part. LF

Reacting on 19 August to the news of the Georgian offensive, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili described it as "a brilliant operation," Caucasus Press reported. In a subsequent live television address reported by Rustavi-2 and Caucasus Press, Saakashvili said Georgia is ready to withdraw from the three positions and hand them over to the joint Georgian-Russian-South Ossetian peacekeeping force deployed since 1992 in the conflict zone. In a tacit admission that Tbilisi had deployed unauthorized troops to the conflict zone, Saakashvili said that all units except the 500 peacekeepers Georgia is permitted to deploy there will be withdrawn, and that Defense Minister Giorgi Baramidze will command that force, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili said he wants "to use all methods to avoid conflict and use what is a last chance for achieving peace," Reuters reported. Gagloeva confirmed in a telephone conversation with Interfax late on 19 August that the Georgian withdrawal was under way. LF

Earlier on 19 August, South Ossetian officials accused Georgia of shelling the northern districts of Tskhinvali from the Georgian-populated village of Tamarasheni, injuring four people, Interfax reported. Gagloeva also said that a force of 500 Georgians, including members of the Forest Brothers guerrilla band that for years targeted Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia, launched a ground assault on the town, which South Ossetian forces repulsed, ITAR-TASS reported. On 6 August, the daily "Rezonansi" quoted Forest Brothers commander David Shengelia as saying that the formation has "temporarily disbanded," but that its members were willing to go and fight in South Ossetia if needed. South Ossetian Minister for Special Assignments Boris Chochiev said two people died in the assault on Tskhinvali, but Khaindrava denied that it ever took place, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission announced on 19 August that 612 candidates are campaigning for 67 single-mandate-constituency seats in the Mazhilis (lower chamber) in the 19 September parliamentary elections, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The commission registered 623 of 681 applicants, but 11 candidates withdrew their candidacies after registration. The number could still change, the commission noted. The candidates break down by party affiliation as follows, Kazinform reported: 63 from the pro-presidential Otan party, 41 from the pro-presidential Asar party, 39 from moderate opposition party Ak Zhol, 28 from the opposition bloc of the Communist Party and Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, and 16 from the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan. Other parties are each fielding fewer than 10 candidates. DK

The Asian Development Bank approved on 18 August a new strategy for Kyrgyzstan in 2005-06, Kyrgyzinfo reported the next day. The new strategy provides for up to $40 million in financial assistance each year, with grants making up half of the total. The bank's strategy focuses on reducing poverty by encouraging economic growth, private-sector development, and human development. Target areas are agriculture, the financial sector, regional cooperation, and education. Kyrgyzstan has already received 22 loans from the Asian Development Bank totaling $535.9 million, reported. The bank has also given the country 52 technical-assistance grants worth $31.5 million. DK

Tajikistan's Tax Ministry has accused the opposition newspaper "Nerui Sukhan" of evading taxes by concealing the true size of its print run from tax authorities, Tajik television reported on 19 August. A Tax Ministry spokesman said that an inspection at the Jiyonkhon printing press revealed that 7,097 copies of the newspaper were printed on 18 August instead of the officially declared 2,700 copies. As a result, tax authorities closed down and sealed the printer on 18 August, preventing not only "Nerui Sukhan" from appearing, but also the opposition newspaper "Ruzi Nav" and "Najot," the print organ of the Islamic Renaissance Party, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 19 August. "Ruzi Nav" Editor in Chief Rajab Mirzo told the news agency, "We asked several printers to print our paper, but they refused, saying that the tax police had warned them and they couldn't risk printing our newspaper. That's why we won't be able to publish the latest issue." A "Nerui Sukhan" spokesman said that the circulation discrepancy was a result of a technical error. Tajik television reported that results of the tax investigation will be made public "in coming days." DK

Karim Soliev, a staff member at the academy of Tajikistan's Interior Ministry, presented a book on 19 August with practical recommendations for fighting human trafficking in Tajikistan, Avesta reported. He noted that the Interior Ministry's Department for Fighting Racketeering, Kidnapping, and Human Trafficking has opened 14 criminal cases since its creation on 28 April. Frederick Chenais, who heads the International Migration Organization's mission in Tajikistan, told attendees at the book presentation that human trafficking is an increasingly serious problem in Tajikistan and Central Asia. According to Chenais, burgeoning labor migration provides fertile ground for human traffickers. He said, "Criminal groups are taking advantage of this and luring gullible people, especially women, into their network." DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov told an 18 August cabinet meeting that newspapers and magazines should cut staff and give remaining employees a 50 percent pay raise, Turkmen TV reported. The president asked media outlets to make the changes by 1 January 2005. Niyazov also said that a fourth official television channel will broadcast 24 hours a day in six languages. The new channel may feature materials from U.S.-based CNN. Niyazov said, "I received a letter from CNN asking for two minutes of air time daily on Turkmen TV for broadcasting American programs." According to Niyazov, Turkmenistan's foreign minister has contacted CNN about the request. DK

President Niyazov said that 9,000 prisoners will be amnestied on 9 November to mark the end of Ramadan, reported on 19 August. The president added: "Traitors to the homeland, enemies of the people, murderers, criminals who have caused the country great harm, and repeat offenders will not be released. Let them serve their full sentence. Clemency applies only to people who have repented." He also said that Turkmenistan's prisons now hold 15,500 inmates. DK

One of the three suicide bombers who struck Tashkent on 30 July was a Kazakh citizen, Russia's reported on 19 August. Fifteen defendants accused of involvement in late March-early April violence in Uzbekistan are currently on trial, and Uzbek prosecutors showed a picture of Avaz Shoyusupov in court on 19 August. Shoyusupov allegedly blew himself up in the lobby of the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office. The defendants identified Shoyusupov and said that they met him in Kazakhstan in early 2004. Defendant Abdunosir Zulfiqorov said that Kazakh authorities arrested Shoyusupov after the late March-early April attacks, the BBC's Uzbek Service reported, though the report did not identify Shoyusupov as a Kazakh citizen. Kazakh authorities later released Shoyusupov, however. Two anonymous Uzbek Interior Ministry sources told the BBC, "The Kazakh side needs to be asked why it released Shoyusupov." No comment was forthcoming from Kazakh authorities, who have denied previous Uzbek allegations that alleged terrorists trained in southern Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 July 2004). DK

Russia's law transferring the right to collect value-added tax (VAT) on Russian oil and gas exports to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to the governments of those countries, which was signed earlier this week by Russian President Vladimir Putin, will not be automatically applied to Belarus, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 19 August. "As we were told in the Belarusian Finance Ministry, [this law] pertains to other CIS countries [than Belarus] for the time being," Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh told RFE/RL. "Levying VAT in Russia on oil and gas supplies to Belarus will be canceled only after the signing of an intergovernmental agreement on indirect taxes." Meanwhile, the Russian government on 19 August approved a $175 million credit to Belarus, of which $150 million will be used by the Belarusian government to pay for Russian gas supplies. In June, Belarus signed a contract with Gazprom on buying 10.2 billion cubic meters of gas in 2004 at $46.68 for 1,000 cubic meters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 June 2004). JM

Prime Minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych said on 19 August that the government will work with regions to have bread prices reduced, Interfax reported. "We will meet with the leadership of each region, we will have talks to persuade them in an amicable way," Yanukovych said in Poltava. "We propose to reduce [bread] prices but not at the expense of farms." He added that Poltava Oblast is prepared to reduce bread prices by 10 percent as soon as September. Meanwhile, Communist Party leader and presidential candidate Petro Symonenko has called on the government to stop "uncontrolled exports of grain." "Having no conditions for the preservation and processing of harvested grain, farms are forced to sell grain to profiteers for a song," Symonenko said. "Grain is already being shipped abroad at world prices in an uncontrolled way through Ukrainian sea ports, in particular, Odesa and Illichivsk." JM

President Leonid Kuchma reprimanded Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk and sacked First Deputy Defense Minister Oleksandr Oliynyk on 19 August for their failure to demilitarize and ecologically revive the Balaklava Bay in Sevastopol, as Kuchma ordered in mid-2003, Ukrainian media reported. "The fixed capital and property of the disbanded military units that were deployed along the Balaklava Bay have not been fully released, whereas the released property is being transferred to commercial structures for conducting entrepreneurial activities," Kuchma said in a decree meting out punishments for Marchuk and Oliynyk. "Ecologically dangerous production capacities continue to operate in the Balaklava Bay area." JM

President Kuchma has ordered the suspension of the privatization of Ukrtelekom, the largest national telecommunications operator in Ukraine, and a chemical plant in Odesa, Ukrainian media reported on 19 August, citing the presidential press service. Earlier this month, the government announced the sale of a 43 percent stake in Ukrtelekom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August 2004). The opposition has subsequently accused the government of selling off state properties on unfavorable terms for the state before the 31 October presidential elections. The presidential press service said Kuchma made his decision "taking into account the recent speculation concerning privatization processes in Ukraine." JM

Our Ukraine leader and presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko has suggested that this week's fire in the editorial office of the daily "Postup" in Lviv may have been inspired by the authorities, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported on 20 August. According to police, the fire, which on 18 August destroyed 48,000 hryvnyas ($9,000) worth of equipment and property, was an act of arson. Yushchenko compared setting fire to the "Postup" editorial office with preventing Our Ukraine from holding a convention in Donetsk in October (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 4 November 2003), the controversial mayoral election in Mukacheve in April (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 28 April 2004), and the recent shadowing of him by Interior Ministry officers in Crimea (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 August 2004). "These are desperate actions of the same kind," Yushchenko said. "The authorities are weak and they are not going to conduct an honest political play. They not only illegally use law enforcement bodies and administrative resources, but also have no scruples against cooperating with overtly criminal groups." JM

A broad coalition of ethnic Macedonian opposition parties announced on 19 August that more than 150,000 citizens have signed a petition to call a referendum on the new Law on Territorial Organization, Macedonian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 August 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2, 23, and 30 July, and 13 August 2004). The organizers of the petition drive said they will continue to collect signatures until the 23 August deadline to make sure that the validity of the signatures is beyond question. Former Interior Minister Pavle Trajanov, who is among the supporters of the petition, said the parliament must set a date for the referendum within 30 days after the speaker receives the petition, while the referendum must take place within 90 days after the announcement of the date, "Dnevnik" reported. As a result of this, the local elections that are slated for 21 November are likely to be postponed once again (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004). Meanwhile, the governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM) and the Liberal Democrats (LDP) are reportedly planning to call their own referendum on the redistricting law, "Dnevnik" reported. Their coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Union for Democratic Integration (BDI), opposes any such plans, arguing that referendums supported by only one ethnic group will only polarize society. UB

On 19 August, a court in Bitola sentenced Serbian Orthodox Bishop Jovan to 18 months in prison for inciting religious and ethnic hatred, Reuters reported. Jovan, who became a central figure in the long-standing dispute between the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MPC) and the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) when he switched allegiance from MPC to the SPC in 2003, was arrested in January for "conducting illegal religious services on non-church land" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 January and 6 August 2004). Prosecutors also charged that he published calendars and other religious literature that allegedly slandered the MPC. After the trial, Jovan's lawyer said he will appeal the verdict. The central problem is deeply rooted in what historians call the Macedonian Question and interrelated issues involving the traditional Balkan tendency to equate one's nationality with one's religion. In 1967, the communist Macedonian authorities recognized a MPC separate from the SPC and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which has a much smaller number of Macedonian adherents than the other two. The SPC and other Orthodox churches do not recognize their Macedonian counterpart, regarding it as schismatic. PM

Philip Goldberg, who is Washington's new chief of mission in Kosova, said in Prishtina on 19 August that the United States has a special role to play in Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 and 29 July 2004). He stressed that Soeren Jessen-Petersen, who is the new head of the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), has the support of the United States in carrying out his "ambitious agenda" at what is a time of hope in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16, 17, and 18 August 2004). Goldberg called for more responsibilities to be transferred to Kosova's own institutions, noting that the United States also supports a multiethnic society in the province. PM

Responding to widespread criticism from Kosova's ethnic Albanian majority and some foreign NGOs that the privatization process supervised by the UNMIK and the EU has been badly handled, Katja Wallrafen, a spokeswoman for the UN mission department in charge of reconstruction and economic affairs there, told RFE/RL on 19 August that the UN-run Kosovo Trust Agency is moving forward with a third round of privatization and is preparing for a fourth round (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 August 2004). There is a 15 September deadline for bidding in the third round on 13 companies, including a large metallurgical complex, printing plants, and a bottling plant. The UN agency had suspended the privatization process after two rounds in October 2003 because of concerns about its legality. The privatization process is complicated by the unresolved status of Kosova. RM/PM

Daniel Serwer, a Balkans expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace, recently told RFE/RL that, regardless of the Kosova status question, the provisional institutions of self-government should be put in charge of the privatization process, RFE/RL reported on 19 August. On 2 August, "The Wall Street Journal in Europe" ran an article critical of the UN's performance in Kosova entitled "Balkan Mire," noting that Germany's Count Nikolaus Lamsdorff, who heads the EU's economic "pillar" of UNMIK, has been "wary of experts paid by the U.S. government, whom he termed 'hired guns.'" The article suggested that the UN and EU economic project in Kosova has been characterized by incompetence, corruption, cronyism, confusion, and a tendency to elbow Americans out (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 March and 29 July 2004). RM/PM

Serbian President Boris Tadic told the Belgrade daily "Vecernje Novosti" of 20 August that former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, who is one of former Yugoslavia's most wanted war crimes indictees, "is somewhere between Bosnia and Serbia," Reuters reported. Tadic added that his information comes from unspecified "police and military reports I am getting." He also said that if Belgrade does not cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, the international consequences for his country will be "catastrophic." Serbia and Montenegro's Minister for Human Rights and Minority Rights Rasim Ljajic, who also chairs the National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, told "Danas" that "the reason [Mladic] is not extradited is that we don't know where he is. We have nothing to hide" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 30 July, and 5 and 12 August 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 2 July 2004). PM

Traian Basescu, co-chairman of the opposition National Liberal Party (PNL)-Democratic Party alliance, said on 19 August that Prime Minister Adrian Nastase suffers from a "follower's complex," Mediafax reported. He said that Nastase is in competition with President Ion Iliescu for the chairmanship of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) and therefore believes he can transfer this situation to the PNL-Democratic Party alliance. Basescu said that unlike the situation in the PSD, there is no competition between himself and PNL Chairman Theodor Stolojan, "because we can distribute neither ministerial portfolios nor power within the party." Basescu said the "clique" headed by Nastase "has been a four-year government of thieves." He also said it is "painful to ask Stolojan about his past and to forget one's own past" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 August 2004). According to Basescu, "the day might come" when Nastase will have to reveal whether he has some $1 billion abroad. Nastase said in reply that "the thief is crying robbery." He demanded that Basescu produce proof of his allegations. MS

Democratic Party Chairman Basescu said on 19 August his party is opposed to allowing President Iliescu to run on the PSD's party lists in the November parliamentary elections, Mediafax reported. The ad hoc parliamentary commission in charge of electoral legislation decided earlier this week that Iliescu can run as an independent on the PSD lists, although as president he is not supposed to be affiliated to any party. Basescu said the decision is tantamount to infringing constitutional provisions. Democratic Party Deputy Chairman and Cluj Mayor Emil Boc said he will propose to the PNL-Democratic Party alliance to appeal against the commission's decision to the Constitutional Court. MS

Romanian Prime Minister Nastase said in Iasi on 19 August that the EU should become involved in the resolution of the Transdniester conflict and that it should appoint a special envoy for this purpose, Mediafax reported. Nastase said his government would be willing to cooperate with such an envoy in order to counteract "the aberrant measures taken by the Transdniester authorities against Romanian schools." Nastase also said Romania is willing to grant scholarships to students of the closed schools, but that this must be done with care, as "this is precisely what the Transdniester authorities are after: they want a purge" of the Romanian-speaking population in the region. MS

The three mediators in the Transdniestrian conflict (Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE) on 19 August handed to separatist "Foreign Minister" Valerii Litskay their proposals for settling the conflict over the closed schools, Infotag and ITAR-TASS reported. Under the proposals, the six schools teaching in Moldovan (Romanian) would continue using the Latin script and would operate in line with Moldovan educational standards and curriculums, but would be registered with the Transdniester "Education Ministry." Moldova has already agreed to the proposals. MS

In a statement released on 19 August, the OSCE's Mission in Moldova said that the separatist authorities' decision to ban two OSCE Mission members from Transdniester territory "stands in clear contravention of the agreement signed by the Transdniestrian leadership in 1993" and represents "a unilateral revocation of that agreement," Infotag reported. Acting OSCE Mission head Neil Brennan said that the incident at the orphanage in Bendery-Tighina was the result of "the uncooperative attitude of Transdniestrian militia, who refused to abide by current agreements." Brennan also said that the separatist authorities' claim that a militiaman was injured during the 17 August incident is "pure fabrication" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 August 2004). The UNICEF office in Moldova announced the same day that it has commenced delivering hot lunches to the students and teachers who maintain a vigil in the orphanage besieged by the militiamen, thus replacing the two OSCE members who did that before being banned from Transdniester. MS

Anyone who doubted the political savvy of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr must by now admit that the cleric more than makes up for his lack of an ideological platform with his ability to influence the Iraqi political scene. No sooner had the office of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani announced that the ayatollah would fly to London for medical treatment, than al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army intensified its attacks on Iraqi and U.S. forces in a number of cities across Iraq.

The two-week standoff has allowed the cleric to thrust his movement into the spotlight. Delegates to the Iraqi National Conference, which got under way on 15 August to elect an interim National Assembly, were wholly preoccupied by the standoff in Al-Najaf from the opening session, and much of the conference's focus was consumed by efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis. Al-Sadr's "game" with the interim government went something like this: intense fighting broke out between al-Sadr militiamen and Iraqi and U.S. forces on 5 August. The following day, the U.S. military said it had killed about 300 militiamen. Al-Sadr's spokesman claimed that only 36 militiamen were killed. The fighting spread to a number of cities throughout the country. On 7 August, Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al-Husayni al-Shirazi issued a statement calling on all parties to lay down their arms and enter into negotiations. The fighting raged on, however, and the Iraqi Health Ministry reported heavy casualties in Al-Najaf and Baghdad.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi traveled to Al-Najaf on 8 August to meet with officials there, and threatened to forcibly remove the militiamen if they did not leave the holy city. Allawi appeared to offer al-Sadr an opportunity to "save face" by telling journalists later that day in Baghdad that he was not sure that the Al-Najaf fighters were even linked to the cleric. Al-Sadr remained defiant. His aide, Hazim al-A'raji, told Al-Jazeera on 8 August that the Imam Al-Mahdi Army would not leave Al-Najaf unless ordered to do so by the religious authorities there. On 9 August, al-Sadr pledged to remain and fight multinational forces "until the last drop of my blood," Al-Arabiyah reported.

The standoff appeared to drive a wedge among members of the interim administration. Vice President Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, a prominent member of the Shi'ite Al-Da'wah Party, called on U.S. forces to leave Al-Najaf on 11 August, telling Al-Jazeera, "Iraqi forces can administer Al-Najaf to end this phenomenon of violence in this city that is holy to all Muslims." Prime Minister Allawi appeared to have a different plan in mind: on 12 August, Iraqi and U.S. forces launched a major offensive on al-Sadr positions in Al-Najaf. The Health Ministry reported on that day that 165 Iraqis were killed and 600 wounded in 24 hours of fighting between al-Sadr militiamen and Iraqi-U.S. forces across the country. Thousands of Iraqis in Al-Nasiriyah and Baghdad demonstrated in support of al-Sadr, who ignored a plea by the office of Ayatollah al-Sistani to end the conflict. Al-Sistani representative Hamid al-Khaffaf told Al-Jazeera on 12 August that the ayatollah had sent representatives to negotiate with al-Sadr.

The interim government also entered into talks with the cleric, Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib announced on 13 August. But Prime Minister Allawi pulled out of the talks on 14 August and fighting resumed the following day, which coincided with the convening of the Iraqi National Conference. Just minutes into the conference's opening session, delegates from the Shi'ite Council interrupted the proceedings to demand that the government resume talks with the cleric and ask him to participate in the political process. Al-Sadr has refused earlier attempts by Allawi to bring him into the political process. Shi'ite scholar Husayn al-Sadr, a distant relative of Muqtada, addressed the conference, and demanded that a committee be formed to find a solution to the standoff. Later that day, State Minister Wa'il Abd al-Latif announced that the government would resume talks with the cleric, but added that the door for negotiations would not remain open for long. "Once the deadline is over, the other position will be taken," he said.

A 50-member delegation comprising conference participants was organized to travel to Al-Najaf on 16 August. The trip was delayed, and on 17 August it was decided that eight members would be flown to Al-Najaf after intelligence reports indicated that militants were planning to ambush the delegation along the road to Al-Najaf. Al-Sadr remained in hiding however, and sent his representatives to meet with the delegation. After three hours, the group flew back to Baghdad empty-handed. The cleric's excuse? He was unable to meet the delegation because of security concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 2004). By then, al-Sadr had succeeded in disrupting the political process in the capital. The three-day conference would have to be extended for another day to allow delegates to vote on an interim assembly.

By 18 August, Allawi's administration appeared to have reached its threshold. Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan told reporters that a "decisive battle" would take place that would remove militants from Al-Najaf. Heavy fighting was later reported throughout the city. By late afternoon, al-Sadr had announced that he would accept the delegation's proposal to leave the Imam Ali Mosque, dissolve his militia, and join the political process. In return, he would be guaranteed safe passage, and would not be arrested on an outstanding warrant for his purported involvement in the 10 April 2003 killing of Shi'ite Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khoi. Al-Sadr failed to mention in his letter to the National Conference when his militiamen would leave the mosque.

The standoff with al-Sadr must be viewed within the context of his previous behavior. Al-Sadr militiamen battled U.S. and Iraqi forces for nearly eight weeks this spring. The cleric finally agreed to withdraw his militia from Al-Najaf in late May after ignoring an 18 May demand by Ayatollah al-Sistani to do so. Under a four-point agreement announced by National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i on 27 May, al-Sadr was to also withdraw his militiamen from all government buildings and allow the Iraqi police to return to their jobs; the militiamen had ransacked, looted, and even burned a number of police stations in the preceding weeks. The agreement also called for al-Sadr's militia to refrain from acting as self-appointed policemen. In turn, coalition forces would withdraw to their bases outside the city. The cleric's militia initially abided by the agreement, but soon resumed its assault on Iraqi police and multinational forces. U.S. military officials have often claimed that al-Sadr takes advantages of the breaks in fighting to regroup and rearm his forces.

Al-Sadr's behavior over the past 16 months has demonstrated that he is not a man of his word. He has backtracked countless times and only makes concessions when confrontations come to a head. The events of the past two weeks will likely continue along the same pattern. The cleric has said countless times that he has no intention of joining the Iraqi political process. His remarks in a 15 May interview with Al-Arabiyah television might best summarize his perspective. When asked if he would turn his militia into a political group as part of a negotiated settlement, he said: "There is not change toward a political organization. [The Imam Al-Mahdi Army] can be neither dissolved nor turned into a political entity." When asked what he would do should U.S. forces storm the Imam Ali Mosque, al-Sadr said, "There will be time bombs to protect the [Imam Ali] mausoleum," adding, "I want one thing: namely, martyrdom."

The Afghan National Army has formed a buffer zone between the two warring factions in Herat Province, Sade-ye Jawan radio reported from Herat on 19 August. National Army Chief of Staff General Fazl Ahmad Aman said that his forces have been deployed in Adraskan and Shindand districts as well as in Shindand air base to prevent further clashes between forces loyal to local warlord Amanullah Khan and the militia of Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan. The highway linking Herat to the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, which was closed when the current hostilities began on 13 August, (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16, 17, 18, and 19 August 2004) has been opened to traffic, Aman added. AT

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai issued a decree on 19 August establishing a fact-finding delegation to examine the most recent conflict in Herat Province, Afghanistan Television reported. The delegation, consisting of Minister Advisers Mohammad Alam Rasekh, Sheikh Nader Ali Mahdawi, and Shahzada Mas'ud, are to evaluate the circumstances of the conflict in Herat and submit a detailed report to Karzai as soon as possible. Karzai has been criticized for not being able to curtail the power of warlords, some of whom, such as Ismail Khan, are officially part of the government. AT

Latifullah Hakimi, purporting to speak on behalf of the neo-Taliban, claimed that the militia has killed eight pro-government soldiers and security guards in two separate attacks, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 19 August. Hakimi said that four security guards were killed in an attack on a convoy carrying government forces in Rahman Qala' village in Ghani Province in south-central Afghanistan. Also, neo-Taliban killed four pro-government soldiers in an attack in Khoja Musa District of Faryab Province in northern Afghanistan, Hakimi claimed. Independent sources have not confirmed Hakimi's claims. AT

An anonymous "security source close to the government of President Mohammad Khatami" said in the 19 August "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that elements in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), its special operations Qods Force, and Al-Qaeda planned to assassinate U.S. military, CIA, and FBI personnel in the Caucasus and Central Asia with the intention of dragging Iran and the United States into an open conflict. The plan was foiled by Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security, which arrested five of the plotters just days before President Khatami's early-August trip to Azerbaijan. The ministry reportedly provided Baku with the names of the plotters in Azerbaijan. BS

Mohammad Nabi Habibi was introduced as the new secretary-general of the Islamic Coalition Party during a 19 August ceremony at Tehran's Jamaran Mosque, ISNA reported. Members of the Tehran municipal council and several parliamentarians attended the event, ISNA reported. Habibi succeeds Habibullah Asgaroladi-Mosalman. Hamid Reza Taraqi wrote in the 8 July "Shoma" that the 70-year-old Asgaroladi insisted at the party's last congress that it should attract new people. As for Habibi, Taraqi wrote, he has 11 years of experience in responsible positions and he has learned from Asgaroladi. "Sharq" reported on 7 July that Habibi is 16 years younger than his predecessor, and has served as Tehran's mayor, a provincial governor, in several ministries, and the IRGC. BS

Police counternarcotics chief Colonel Mehdi Aboui said on 19 August that drug seizures in Iran in the first quarter of the year (starting 21 March) are 82 percent higher than they were in the previous year, IRNA reported. He said 106,300 kilograms of drugs were seized. Aboui attributed this to the increase in poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. In the same period, Aboui added, 42,500 drug dealers and 97,300 addicts were arrested. Iran is the global leader in opiate seizures, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. BS

Iranian presidential adviser Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur commented on events in Al-Najaf in a 19 August interview with Al-Jazeera television. "We consider this a war between infidelity and Islam. The United States is the spearhead of infidelity. Naturally, we condemn this escalation by the Americans.... We condemn this big massacre against Muslims in Iraq." A day earlier he addressed this topic in an interview with ISNA. He said, "America, its supporters, and international Zionism" will target other Islamic countries if they succeed in Iraq and Palestine, and he accused them of pursuing an anti-Islamic "vendetta." Mohtashami-Pur said Iran would send personnel to Iraq if the Iraqi government requests this, and he dismissed as lies allegations of Iranian interference there. BS

As Iraqi officials and representatives of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr traded threats on 19 August, U.S. forces relentlessly pounded al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army positions in the holy city of Al-Najaf, international media reported on the same day. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced at a 19 August press briefing that he was issuing his "last call" for militiamen to disarm. Asked if the government would hold direct talks with the cleric, Allawi said: "No, the question of a direct meeting and direct negotiations between the government and armed militias is out of the question.... We have shown all good intentions, starting with allowing [al-Sadr's] newspaper to resume publication, the amnesty, meeting with members representing his organization -- his office personally -- our discussions with several dear brothers, who have tried and are still trying but [al-Sadr] refuses." Allawi added that he was waiting to hear directly from the cleric before taking action. Al-Sadr aide Sheikh Ali al-Sumaysim responded to Allawi's comments by saying: "The prime minister is not a party to the negotiations. We are negotiating with the government through the mediation of the Iraqi National Conference," Al-Arabiyah reported. KR

Al-Sadr aide Aws al-Khafaji told Al-Jazeera in a 19 August interview from Al-Nasiriyah that militants loyal to the cleric have no intention of relinquishing their weapons, as the Iraqi National Conference delegation and interim government have demanded. "Here in southern Iraq, particularly Al-Basrah, Maysan, and Al-Nasiriyah, we declared and declare that we will not abandon our weapons, for these are our personal weapons. God be praised, Muqtada al-Sadr said that he will not disband the Al-Mahdi Army," al-Khafaji said. He added that rumors were circulating in Al-Nasiriyah that U.S. forces intended to drop a bomb inside the Imam Ali shrine that contained gas in order to incapacitate or kill the militants holed up in the shrine. Al-Khafaji predicted that a popular revolution will soon take place in Iraq. Reuters reported on 20 August that al-Sadr representatives were preparing to meet with aides to Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to hand over the keys to the Imam Ali shrine. "Handing over the keys mean handing over the administration of this international landmark to the religious authority. We will be ordinary people visiting it," al-Sadr aide Ahmad al-Shaybani said. KR

The U.S. military attacked militants' positions in Al-Najaf and Al-Fallujah overnight, international media reported. Al-Arabiyah reported on 20 August that calm has returned to Al-Najaf after several hours of overnight shelling that left the U.S. military in control of Al-Najaf's Old City, where the Imam Ali shrine is located. Reuters reported that the attack was so fierce that houses located 4 kilometers away shook during the shelling. Meanwhile, U.S. warplanes attacked positions in the Sunni Muslim city of Al-Fallujah twice on 20 August, Reuters reported. The first attack occurred in the early morning hours and reportedly left five people dead and six injured. There was no immediate information on whether casualties were incurred in the second attack. KR

Witnesses in the Iraqi city of Al-Basrah said that Shi'ite militants set fire to the stores and offices of the Southern Oil Company on 19 August, Al-Arabiyah reported on 20 August. Al-Sadr loyalists had threatened on 19 August to torch all oil wells in southern Iraq, the satellite news channel reported. Asked about the 19 August threat, al-Sadr aide Aws al-Khafaji told Al-Jazeera television the same day: "After hearing the provocative statements of the so-called Iraqi minister of state on behalf of his unjust government, some of the people of Al-Basrah and Al-Amarah blew up many oil pipelines and some oil wells. I would like to emphasize the word some. They are threatening to torch all the oil wells in the region, for [the possibility of U.S. and Iraqi forces] storming the mausoleum of the Prince of the Faithful [Imam Ali bin Abi Talib] is not a trivial thing." Al-Khafaji did not say whether al-Sadr sanctioned the attack on oil installations and pipelines. Militants also set fire to an oil pipeline that connects wells in Kirkuk to a refinery in Bayji on 19 August, international media reported. KR

Wasit Governor Muhammad Rida al-Jash'ami announced on 19 August that he will implement martial law in the restive city of Al-Kut, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on the same day. The governor called on the U.S. military to help restore order to the city. "We asked for U.S. planes to bomb areas witnessing an unstable situation," the news channel quoted the governor as saying in a statement. The declaration is the first time that Iraqi officials have implemented martial law since the interim government's announcement of the National Safety Law in July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July 2004). Al-Kut has been the site of ongoing clashes between al-Sadr militiamen and Iraqi and U.S. forces. Scores of Iraqis were reportedly killed in the clashes, and homes destroyed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 August 2004). KR