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Newsline - December 15, 2004

President Vladimir Putin met on 14 December in St. Petersburg with Finnish President Tarja Halonen to discuss bilateral projects, including the planned construction of a major North European gas pipeline slated to go through Finnish territorial waters, ITAR-TASS reported. The 1,189 kilometer pipeline will have an annual projected capacity of 18.7 billion cubic meters and will go from northern Russia to Germany and Britain. The $2.9 billion pipeline is a joint venture involving Russian, German, and Dutch companies and construction is due to begin in 2007. VY

Speaking to journalists after his talks with Finnish President Halonen, President Putin said Russia wants to improve the process for Russian citizens seeking entry into the European Union's Schengen zone, RTR reported. "We do not want to destroy Schengen regulations, but want to [ease] the granting of visas for some categories of our citizens and we have already reached agreement on this with some EU countries," Putin said. He added that Russia "does not want to radicalize the situation with the Russian-speaking minority in the Baltic states, but wants to solve it." "We do not intend to stir up the situation, but we will not pretend that there are no problems to solve, " he said. VY

A group of British investors have made a proposal to buy the stock shares of jailed former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii and his partners, and Interfax reported on 14 December. The offer was sent to Viktor Gerashchenko, Yukos's board chairman. The proposal says the chairman of the British investor group, Konstantin Kogalovskii, can mobilize sufficient funds to buy Khodorkovskii's shares and to repay Yukos's tax debt following the 19 December sale of Yuganskneftegaz, Yukos's main production subsidiary. The proposal suggests an immediate start to talks and says the proposed measure will help save the company. VY

Natural Resources Minister Yurii Trutnev told RIA-Novosti on 14 December that his ministry will offer concessions to the new owners of Yuganskneftegaz to enable them to pay the company's tax arrears. Yuganskneftegaz is to be auctioned by the government on 19 December and state-controlled Gazprom is widely viewed to be the most likely purchaser (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December). "We'll probably allow them an extension," Trutnev said. "That much is obvious. I think it's the only correct thing we can do and I can't really imagine handling it any other way." He said that the ministry has no intention of revoking Yuganskneftegaz's production license and that his goal is "to ensure that Russia's natural resources are used rationally and to the benefit of the entire country." RC

The government on 12 December removed Rosneft from the list of strategically important enterprises and included it in the 2004 privatization plan, a move intended to facilitate the company's takeover by Gazprom, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2004). RC

The recently signed law abolishing the direct election of regional governors came into effect on 15 December when the text of the law was published in the government newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta," ITAR-TASS reported. President Putin signed the bill on 12 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2004). According to the news agency, eight gubernatorial elections that were already scheduled for this month and January will be held under the old procedure. The 23 January gubernatorial election in Nenets Autonomous Okrug is expected to be the last election under the old system. Regions that have not yet set dates for their next elections will adopt the new system, and the first region to fall under the news rules is likely to be Samara Oblast. Under the new law, elected governors may serve out their current terms, but they also have the right to petition the president to end their terms early and select a replacement under the new law. RC

Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov on 14 December met with President Putin to discuss the government's efforts to boost the minimum wage, ITAR-TASS reported. The State Duma the same day approved in its second reading a bill that would set the minimum wage at 720 rubles ($25.70) per month as of 1 January 2005, raising it to 800 rubles on 1 September 2005 and to 1,100 rubles on 1 May 2006. Zhukov told Putin that the government intends to establish a balance between the minimum wage and the official subsistence minimum. Putin noted that "debates with deputies on the size of the minimum monthly wage are rather heated." Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov told the news agency that the minimum-wage bill will have its third and final reading on 15 December. RC

The Economic Development and Trade Ministry on 14 December released its socioeconomic-development program for 2005-08, ITAR-TASS reported. The ministry forecasts that the percentage of the population living below the subsistence minimum will decrease from 17.3 last year to 5.2 percent by 2015. The report further predicts that the so-called coefficient of funds, which measures the disparity between the richest and poorest 10 percent of Russians, will decrease from 14.8 percent to 13.5 percent by 2015. The portion of the population officially considered to be middle class -- earning more than six times the official minimum wage -- is predicted to rise to 50-60 percent by 2010. RC

The government intends to double Russia's energy efficiency by 2020, Deputy Industry and Energy Minister Andrei Reus said on 14 December, ITAR-TASS reported. He said that current consumption levels in Russia are higher than the global average by a factor of 2.3 and exceed European averages by a factor of 3.1. Energy waste is currently between 39 and 47 percent of annual consumption, he said, and nearly one-third of the waste is concentrated in the fuel-and-energy sector. Industry and the housing-and-utilities sector also account for significant energy losses. A Duma hearing on energy policy on 14 December urged the government to speed up its work on a new draft law on energy conservation, Prime-TASS reported. Deputies also called on the government to order the Industry and Energy Ministry to file an annual report on state energy-consumption policy and on Russia's adherence to the terms of the Kyoto Protocol. RC

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on 14 December that his ministry's budget will be increased by 22 percent in 2005, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 15 December. The daily speculated that the increased funding means that the government expects even more problems related the degradation of the country's infrastructure. Shoigu reported that in 2004, the ministry responded to more than 16,000 emergencies. In the first 11 months of the year, there were 951 "emergencies of a natural, technical, or biological-social nature," as a result of which 2,077 people died and more than 22,000 were harmed. He added that 15,781 people died in 207,596 registered fires, many of which were exacerbated because more than one-third of Russian villages do not have fire equipment and more than one-quarter of private homes do not have telephones. RC

The Moscow District Military Court sentenced Igor Vyalkov, a Federal Security Service (FSB) lieutenant colonel, to 10 years in prison after convicting him of spying for Estonia, reported. The court also ruled to strip Vyalkov of his rank. According to court documents, Vyalkov met several times in 2001-02 with an Estonian secret service agent and gave him secret information about FSB border troops as well as copies of FSB publications on counterintelligence activity against Scandinavian intelligence services. Vyalkov reportedly received $1,000 for his work, court documents said. The court rejected as "groundless and unconvincing" Vyalkov's statement that he communicated with the Estonian intelligence officer in order to expose him. VY

Unidentified gunmen attacked the Federal Antinarcotics Service (FSNK) branch in Nalchik, capital of the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, early on 14 December, Russian media reported. The gunmen handcuffed and then shot dead three of the agency's officers and a driver, and escaped with a weapons haul that included 36 assault rifles, 136 handguns and quantities of ammunition. Interfax quoted an unidentified law enforcement official as saying the raid may have been an act of revenge on the part of a local drug baron, or alternatively the raiders simply wanted weaponry. That official dismissed as premature media speculation that the raid was organized by radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev. FSNK spokesman Aleksandr Mikhailov said investigators suspect that the local militant Islamic organization Yarmuk is responsible for the attack. Meanwhile, the rebel Chechen website published a statement purportedly from the Yarmuk group claiming responsibility. In the statement, Yarmuk accused the FSNK of having ties to drug dealers. It continued that since the FSNK began operating in Kabardino-Balkaria the number of drug addicts in the region has grown tremendously. LF/VY

Southern Federal District presidential envoy Dmitrii Kozak flew to Nalchik the same day and said the first duty of investigators is to find the attackers and recover the weapons, RTR and NTV reported. The official investigation will be led by Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Shepel, who is tasked with determining why police did not prevent the raid. "If there had been such [advance warning], then such a crime or, at least the removal of such an arsenal of weapons, would have been impossible," Kozak said, RTR reported. The raid on the FSNK office and the seizure of the weapons is a "very bad sign," NTV commented. Three months before the Beslan school hostage taking in September, Chechen militants made a similar raid in Nazran, also seizing weapons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 June 2004), NTV noted. VY

The pro-Moscow Chechen government ruled on 14 December that Chechens deported to Central Asia in 1944 on orders from Soviet leader Josef Stalin will receive financial compensation, ITAR-TASS reported. They will be eligible for 75 rubles ($2.68) for each month they spent in exile; the maximum compensation is 10,000 rubles. The Chechen government earmarked 5 billion rubles for such payments. Chechnya is reportedly the only federation subject that has not yet made such payments to surviving victims of Stalin's repression. The family of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, including his elderly relatives who were detained on 4 December by the FSB, presumably qualify for such compensation payments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 December 2004). LF

The Zangezur Copper and Molybdenum Combine in southeastern Armenia has been sold to a German-led consortium for $132 million, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 14 December, citing Trade and Economic Development Minister Karen Chshmaritian. Initial reports of the sale gave the price paid as only $40 million. Chronimet acquired a 75 percent stake in the combine, with two Armenian-owned companies each securing a 12.5 percent share. The new owners are to invest $150 million in modernizing the combine and have pledged to create an additional 1,500 new jobs. Chshmaritian told journalists that Chronimet was selected in preference to two rival bidders, one Russian and one from the United States, because it undertook to smelt the extracted ore locally rather than export it. Armenian parliament Chairman Artur Baghdasarian proposed on 14 December that the Armenian government use the proceeds from the sale to compensate people whose Soviet-era savings accounts were wiped out by inflation in the early 1990s, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

Vartan Oskanian told journalists in Yerevan on 14 December that as a result of his recent meetings in Sofia and Brussels with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov, unidentified "obstacles" to proceeding to the "second stage" of their ongoing series of talks on approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict have been removed, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He said he thinks that second stage could begin early in 2005. Echoing the statement adopted last week at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Ministerial Council meeting in Sofia, Oskanian said his earlier meetings this year with Mammadyarov yielded "a framework of issues that can serve as a basis" for a future peace deal. He did not elaborate. LF

Under an agreement signed in London on 14 December, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) made available two separate loans to Azerbaijan totaling $170 million, according to a press release posted on the bank's website the same day ( Of that sum, $110 million goes toward the estimated $4.3 billion cost of developing the Shah Deniz offshore natural-gas deposit, and the remaining $60 million toward the cost of constructing a 690-kilometer gas pipeline to export that gas via Georgia to Turkey. LF

The seven prominent Azerbaijani politicians sentenced in late October to up to five years' imprisonment on charges of inciting mass unrest in the wake of the disputed October 2003 presidential election appealed those sentences last week to the Supreme Court, Turan reported on 14 December without giving a precise date. The Appeals Court upheld those sentences on 19 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 November 2004). LF

President Mikheil Saakashvili announced on 14 December the government changes that have been the subject of persistent rumor for the past week, Georgian and Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 9 December 2004). As anticipated, Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili has been named defense minister, replacing Giorgi Baramidze, who has been promoted to the post of deputy prime minister with responsibility for European integration. Baramidze replaces in that position Tamar Beruchashvili, who will receive another, as-yet-unannounced government position. State Security Minister Vano Merabishvili will head the new Ministry of Police and Public Order created by merging the former Interior and State Security ministries. Economy Minister Kakha Bendukidze was named state minister with overall responsibility for economic reforms, Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania told journalists on 14 December. Former Tbilisi chief architect Mikheil Svimonishvili has been appointed minister of agriculture. Zinaida Bestaeva, an Ossetian from Tskhinvali, has been named state minister for civil integration in what Zhvania portrayed as a deliberate effort to integrate qualified Ossetians into the national government, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Meeting in Geneva on 13-14 December, UN Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guehenno and representatives of the five countries that represent the "Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia" group (Russia, the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) reviewed the state of the Georgian-Abkhaz peace process, Georgian and Russian media reported. Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy for Abkhazia, was quoted by Caucasus Press as saying that the participants focused on three main groups of issues: confidence building and security, repatriation of displaced persons, and joint economic projects. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava expressed disappointment on 14 December that Georgia was not invited to send representatives to the talks after the Abkhaz side declined to do so, Caucasus Press reported. Khaindrava invited Abkhaz presidential candidate Sergei Bagapsh to embark on direct talks aimed at resolving the conflict. LF

Vladislav Ardzinba has appointed Sergei Shamba to the post of foreign minister that he held for seven years before resigning six months ago, Interfax reported on 14 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 June 2004). Shamba was simultaneously named a deputy prime minister, as was Viktor Khilchevskii, deputy director of state-owned Abkhaz Airlines. Deputy Interior Minister Colonel Serzh Matosyan, a leading member of Shamba's Social Democratic Party of Abkhazia, was named minister for emergency situations, Caucasus Press reported on 15 December. Also on 14 December, the new Abkhaz Central Election Commission confirmed as that body's chairman former Justice Minister Batal Tabagua, whom Ardzinba proposed for that position on 10 December. LF

Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Khaindrava accused the South Ossetian authorities on 14 December of dragging their feet over compliance with the demilitarization agreement signed in Sochi on 5 November, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported. At the same time, he said that Georgia has already withdrawn from the conflict zone all troops in excess of the 500 peacekeepers it is permitted to deploy there. Khaindrava further construed South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity's recent prediction that hostilities in the conflict zone will resume within weeks as "a warning," Caucasus Press reported. Also on 14 December, Major General Marat Kulakhmetov, who commands the Russian peacekeeping contingent in South Ossetia, confirmed that the demilitarization process is proceeding slowly, but claimed that the region is nonetheless clearly less tense than previously, Interfax reported. On 11 December, Georgian Prime Minister Zhvania told journalists that the Georgian leadership intends to unveil "soon" a plan for resolving the conflict, Caucasus Press reported. LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev addressed representatives of foreign diplomatic missions on 14 December in Astana, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The president praised Singapore's achievements and said that Kazakhstan should follow an "Asian" path that stresses political stability. He touted his country's economic achievements over the past year, citing 7 percent inflation and gross domestic product (GDP) of $37 billion. Nazarbaev added that Kazakhstan's investment-grade credit rating puts it on a par with the Eastern European countries that have joined the European Union. He promised greater protections of investors' rights and called for investments into the non-raw-materials sector. On the international front, Nazarbaev said that Russia and the United States are Kazakhstan's "strategic partners." Finally, he warned that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and urged that the United Nations play a key role in preventing proliferation. DK

President Nazarbaev issued a decree on 14 December appointing Sauat Mynbaev minister of industry and trade and deputy prime minister, Kazinform reported. Mynbaev had been deputy prime minister and head of the state press service, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. In accordance with Kazakh law, he has given up his previous posts, although he remains a deputy prime minister with his new appointment. DK

The Kyrgyz NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society issued a statement on 14 December asking President Askar Akaev to be objective in his assessments of domestic politics, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. More specifically, the coalition disputed the president's remark at a recent conference that the Kyrgyz opposition is following the example of opposition groups in Georgia and Ukraine and seeking support abroad. The coalition also asked Akaev to ensure the observance of all rights and freedoms during February 2005 parliamentary elections, a call that was echoed by the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan. DK

Tajik opposition parties continued to react to the arrest of Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, head of the opposition Democratic Party, in Moscow on 9 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2004), RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 14 December. Muhiddin Kabiri, deputy head of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), said that the IRP is concerned that the arrest could endanger the national reconciliation that Tajikistan has achieved with such difficulty. Mirhuseyn Nazriev, head of the Socialist Party, was more categorical, saying, "I think that the arrest of the Democratic Party leader is purely political." Andrei Shugurov, deputy head of the OSCE Center in Dushanbe, said, "Only an unbiased and fair trial can render a verdict on this case." For their part, local branches of the Democratic Party have asked the party leadership to consider boycotting the 27 February parliamentary elections to protest the arrest, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Tajikistan is currently seeking Iskandarov's extradition on terrorism and embezzlement charges. DK

Russia's Unified Energy System (EES) announced in a 13 December press release that EES Chairman Anatolii Chubais and delegations from Iran's and Tajikistan's energy ministries signed a protocol in Tehran confirming their intention to cooperate on the construction of Tajikistan's Sangtuda hydropower plants. The sides' next meeting will take place in January in Dushanbe. For its part, Russia has agreed to begin work on the Sangtuda-1 plant in 2005, completing it within four years. The press release notes that the plant will provide energy for export to Iran. DK

Peter Winglee, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission in Tajikistan, told a press conference in Dushanbe on 14 December that Tajikistan has succeeded in reducing its external debt from $1.3 billion at the end of 2003 to $822 million at present, Avesta reported. Winglee noted that the current debt equals 41 percent of GDP, "a considerable decrease compared to the debt Tajikistan had at the end of last year, which was 66 percent of GDP." The bulk of the debt reduction resulted from a 16 October agreement with Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 October 2004). Winglee stressed that Tajikistan still needs to pay down its remaining debt. DK

Uzbek Deputy Interior Minister Hikmat Ibrohimov announced at a 14 December news conference in Tashkent that the Barrier-2 antidrug operation, which began on 1 October, netted over 1 ton of illegal drugs, Uzbek TV reported. Ibrohimov said that participating states confiscated 509 kilograms of heroin and 548 kilograms of opium in the course of the operation. Participants in Barrier-2, which was initiated by Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, were Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, the United States, and Uzbekistan, ITAR-TASS reported. DK

The European Union on 14 December awarded its highest human rights prize, named after the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAZh), an independent organization defending press freedom in Belarus, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and international news agencies reported. The prize, which includes a 50,000 euro ($66,000) award, was presented to BAZh Chairwoman Zhanna Litvina by European Parliament President Josep Borrell. "It is very important to us that European society, European institutions, do not give way in their support for the principles of free speech and human rights," Litvina said at the award ceremony in Strasbourg. "This is because as soon as these principles, this position weakens, the repressive apparatus inside the country start working even harder and we will come under even stronger pressure." Borrell said the prize recognizes the work of journalists "who often put their lives at risk to inform their co-citizens," Belapan reported. JM

The Committee for State Security (KGB) has arrested the director general and the acting sales manager of the Naftan oil refinery in Navapolatsk, Vitsebsk Oblast, on suspicion of involvement in fraudulent export transactions, Belapan reported. Naftan Director Kanstantsin Chasnavitski and the company's acting sales manager, identified by the KGB press service as Martynau, have been charged with embezzlement through abuse of office. If found guilty, the executives may be sentenced up to 15 years in prison and have their property confiscated. JM

The Constitutional Court has received a petition from 46 lawmakers arguing that the amendments to the presidential-election law passed by the Verkhovna Rada on 8 December in a package with other bills (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2004) violate the country's constitution, Interfax reported on 15 December, citing Constitutional Court spokesman Volodymyr Shlyaposhnikov. Following the Supreme Court's 3 December verdict invalidating the 21 November presidential runoff, the parliament set 26 December as the date for a repeat runoff. At the same time, Shlyaposhnikov stressed that the Constitutional Court cannot annul the Supreme Court's decision, since ruling on court decisions is outside the Constitutional Court's competence. JM

Presidential candidate and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said in Mykolayiv, southern Ukraine, on 15 December that thousands of his supporters are prepared to come to Kyiv after the repeat presidential runoff on 26 December "to prevent a revolt in this country," Interfax reported. "It is impossible to stop the movement of the people for the protection of their rights and constitutional rule," Yanukovych said. "Volunteers are coming to get registered in many regions. Yesterday I was in Sevastopol, and 35,000 people registered there! Those people are planning to go to Kyiv after the 26 December vote." Yanukovych revealed that some 300 organizations have been set up in Kyiv for the same purpose. "These are all volunteer organizations that are unwilling to permit a revolt," he stressed. JM

Prime Minister Yanukovych has rejected a report by the "Financial Times" of 14 December suggesting that he urged President Leonid Kuchma to use Interior Ministry troops to quell the "Orange Revolution" following the flawed 21 November presidential runoff (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2004), Interfax reported. "Let me just say that this information is false," Yanukovych said in Sevastopol on 14 December. "I only asked that order be restored. There was no talk of bringing in troops. Rather it was about ensuring order properly and observing the Ukrainian Constitution." JM

The Ukrainian government on 13 December paid $7.8 million to Russia to settle compensation claims by families of the Russian citizens killed in the crash of a Russian Tu-154 jetliner on 4 October 2001 (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 16 October 2001), Interfax reported. The plane carrying 78 passengers, primarily Russians and Russian-born Israelis, was downed over the Black Sea by an errant Ukrainian missile fired by antiaircraft defense troops from the Crimean Peninsula. Ukraine has also signed an agreement with Israel to pay $7.6 million to families of the Israeli victims of the crash. JM

The State Statistics Committee has reported that the Ukrainian population was 47.35 million by the end of October 2004, Interfax reported. That number represents a drop of 268,400 people compared to the end of December 2003. JM

Forensics expert Ivanka Baralic told reporters in Belgrade on 14 December that the two conscripts who died of gunshot wounds on 5 October near Belgrade's Topcider military complex "were murdered" by an unspecified "third person," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Presenting the report of an independent commission investigating the deaths, she explicitly denied the military's claim that Dragan Jakovljevic killed himself after shooting Drazen Milovanovic. "Neither soldier committed suicide, they were murdered," she added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 14 December 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 November 2004). Bozo Prelevic, who heads the commission, noted that neither conscript had previously displayed aggressive or suicidal tendencies. In response to the report, military investigative Judge Vuk Tufegdzic said that the army stands by its version of the Topcider events. Some critics have suggested that the soldiers were shot by a third party because they discovered the presence of one or more indicted war criminals at the facility. PM

Former Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic, who is the attorney for the Jakovljevic family, said in Belgrade on 14 December that he will soon file a lawsuit against unidentified "persons from the Army of Serbia and Montenegro...[for] trying to falsify the truth" in the deaths of the two conscripts near Topcider on 5 October, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM

The Montenegrin parliament voted 35-29 on 14 December to approve a nonbinding resolution opposing the government's proposal to go ahead with the controversial Buk Bijela hydroelectric project for the Drina River in the Republika Srpska, which would flood Montenegro's Tara River Canyon, the deepest in Europe and the second deepest in the world, the Podgorica daily "Vijesti" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23, 27, and 30 August 2004). Environmentalists hailed the resolution, which was supported by deputies from most parties participating in the parliament's work, except those from the governing Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), who voted against the proposal. Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (DPS) recently told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service that no final decision has been made regarding the dam-construction proposal, adding, however, that the issue needs to be discussed with regard to Montenegro's electricity needs as well as in view of environmental considerations. PM

Branko Crvenkovski said in Skopje on 14 December that the presence of an armed ethnic Albanian group in the village of Kondovo outside Skopje is a potential threat to stability in Macedonia, "Utrinski vesnik" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 and 10 December 2004). "Independent of whether they are armed criminals who are hiding behind political demands or politically motivated armed groups, the matter must be resolved quickly," Crvenkovski said, adding that the time for negotiations with the group is over. Crvenkovski also said that the government has already prepared unspecified "operational plans" for Kondovo. Meanwhile, NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary-General for Crisis Management and Operations Robert Serry met in Skopje on 14 December with Prime Minister-designate Vlado Buckovski, MIA news agency reported. Serry expressed confidence that the government can resolve the situation in Kondovo very soon. UB

The House of Nations approved legislation on 14 December establishing a flat value-added-tax rate of 17 percent, which will take effect throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina on 1 July 2005, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. A joint committee representing the two houses of the parliament must now work out the differences between the upper house's version of VAT legislation and that of the lower house, which provides for several VAT rates depending on the type of goods sold rather than a single flat rate for all goods. Establishing unified VAT rules for the entire country is an important step in Bosnia's hopes for closer ties to the EU. Prime Minister Adnan Terzic recently threatened to resign if the legislation were not passed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 November 2004). Many Bosnians fear that the new legislation will spur price hikes, further reducing the already low standard of living. The German broadcaster commented that legislation designed to bring Bosnia closer to European standards could actually serve to bring it closer to those of Africa. PM

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn on 14 December rejected calls by Romania's President-elect Traian Basescu to reopen accession negotiations on two chapters of the acquis communautaire, AFP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2004). Romania closed "technical" accession negotiations on 8 December and ended "political" negotiations in Brussels on 14 December. Rehn told journalists that from the European Commission's point of view "it would be tempting to say 'yes' to Mr. Basescu's proposal, because we were not happy with the outcome [of the negotiations] -- mainly because it is rather too generous for Romania." An EU summit in Brussels on 16-17 December is expected to give the green light to Romania's and Bulgaria's accession in 2007, subject to monitoring under the so-called special clause. MS

Humanist Party (PUR) Chairman Dan Voiculescu said on 14 December that the national interest would best be served if a national-unity government is formed in two stages, Mediafax reported. Voiculescu said that as a first step, the cabinet would include the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR), and his own PUR, and would benefit from the parliamentary backing of the 18 deputies representing national minorities in the lower house. A second stage, he said, would be to transform that cabinet into one of national unity, capable of ensuring political stability and eliminating the risk of failure to meet EU conditions for accession in 2007. Voiculescu did not specify what other parties the national-unity cabinet might include. He also said he believes the next cabinet should be headed by outgoing Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, rather than by Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, whom the PSD designated for the position. MS

Outgoing President Ion Iliescu said on 14 December that he would prefer a government that would include both the PSD and the National Liberal Party (PNL)-Democratic Party alliance to help the country's drive toward EU membership, AP reported. Iliescu said this would be "the best solution" to cope with the hung parliament that resulted from the 28 November parliamentary elections, and he warned that early elections would be "a real danger" for Romania's quest for EU integration. Miron Mitrea, who on 13 December was designated leader of the PSD parliamentary group in the lower house, said that under the new conditions created by Basescu's election as president, his party no longer insists on having Geoana appointed as premier and would agree to having Nastase continue in that position. Mediafax on 14 December cited former PSD Prime Minister Nicolae Vacaroiu as saying his party will be able to "produce a surprise" and create a majority for a PSD-PUR-UDMR government in the Senate, where, unlike in the lower house, it does not have one. According to Mediafax, Greater Romania Party Senators Mihai Lupoi and Dorel Onaca might defect to the PSD. MS

PNL Chairman Calin Popescu-Tariceanu said on 14 December that any coalition with the participation of the PSD would amount to failure in the struggle against corruption and for modernizing state structures, Mediafax reported. Popescu-Tariceanu, whom the PNL-Democratic Party alliance designated for the premiership post, said a coalition formed by the PSD-PUR-UDMR would "create the possibility for Nastase to save himself" and would therefore be against the national interest. Democratic Party Executive Chairman Emil Boc said the same day the alliance does not rule out forming a minority government that could be joined at a later stage by other political forces. Meanwhile, Varujan Pambuccian, who heads the group of 18 deputies representing each a national minority, said the group has not decided which of the two main forces to back. Pambuccian said negotiations will begin with both sides on 15 December and the group will act as a single unit. The PSD is counting on this group's backing, but Pambuccian's statement casts doubt on it. MS

The Austrian national oil-and-gas company OMV announced on 14 December that it has completed a 1.5 billion euro ($1.99 billion) deal giving it a 51 percent stake in the Romanian Petrom state company, dpa reported. In July, OMV acquired a 33.4 stake in Petrom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 July 2004). Petrom retains a 40.74 percent stake and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) 2.03 percent. The remaining 6.23 percent is owned by various shareholders. MS

The three mediators in the Transdniester conflict began a two-day meeting in Vienna on 14 December to examine new proposals for improving security and mutual trust between Chisinau and Tiraspol, Infotag reported. The proposals were made by Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, who visited Moldova in June as chairman in office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE are primarily discussing proposals to improve trust in the security zone separating the two conflicting sides. Moldovan Reintegration Minister Vasilii Sova said ahead of the meeting that Chisinau insists on eliminating from the proposal references to "the armies" of the conflicting sides, since the breakaway authorities do not have an army but "illegal armed formations" in the zone. MS

Last week, President Leonid Kuchma signed a decree allowing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to go on leave to campaign for the rerun presidential election on 26 December. Simultaneously, Kuchma appointed First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov as acting head of the cabinet. Kuchma's decisions effectively defied the Verkhovna Rada's vote of no confidence in Yanukovych's cabinet on 1 December. At the same time, however, they have stripped Yanukovych of considerable political leverage that he possessed in the campaign while he was full-fledged prime minister.

Yanukovych left Kyiv for his native region of Donetsk. He has so far made campaign trips to Luhansk and Sevastopol, his two other electoral strongholds, but failed to appear in any central region of the country, let alone in western Ukraine, which voted overwhelmingly for his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, on 31 October and 21 November. The rules of the election endgame for Yanukovych have radically changed in comparison with the two previous votes. Now most regional governors seem to have lost faith in Yanukovych's ability to win and either sided with his rival or taken a neutral position in the campaign.

Even more significantly, the "Orange Revolution" has liberated the Ukrainian media from the clutches of official censorship and self-censorship, and now both Yanukovych and Yushchenko receive more or less equal and balanced coverage on most television channels. This represents a crucial breakthrough in the media sector in Ukraine, especially as in the first week of the Orange Revolution only the pro-Yushchenko Channel 5 showed antigovernment rallies on Independence Square in Kyiv and in other Ukrainian cities. According to Ukrainian media, now only the Donetsk-based Ukrayina television channel has remained completely devoted to Yanukovych in presenting a one-sided picture of developments in the country.

It is no wonder, perhaps, that this new political situation in Ukraine has forced Yanukovych into recasting his political image as a government-supported candidate into something more digestible for voters outside his political strongholds in the east and south of Ukraine. Yanukovych has begun to promote himself as an independent candidate who is disengaged from President Kuchma in particular and the Ukrainian government in general. "My opponents are using a propagandistic stereotype [by referring to] the Kuchma-Yanukovych regime," he told journalists on 6 December. In fact, Yanukovych revealed, as prime minister he was forced to make compromises with the presidency and "restrain his emotions" because, he added, he wanted to procure an "economic wonder" for all of Ukraine as he did in the Donetsk region while he was its governor.

Yanukovych also suggested that his two-year premiership represented a "new power" in Ukraine. "I can say openly that two types of state power have existed in our country for the last two years -- old power and new power," Yanukovych said on 6 December. "So our citizens should make their own conclusions as to whether Yanukovych is a candidate of the new power or the old power. I am sure that Yushchenko represents an attempt by the old power to seek revenge."

On 9 December, Yanukovych distanced himself from the current authorities even further by charging that they are doing nothing to prevent what he sees as "persecution" of his supporters in Ukraine. "I am the candidate of 15 million [voters]," he said on the Ukrayina television channel. "I am not campaigning as a candidate from the shameful authorities that have given up their position." According to Yanukovych, a part of the government has now sided with Yushchenko. "In fact, I have to fight today against a united group," he added.

A day later, Yanukovych took the biggest swing to date at his former political allies and patrons. "We have no president in Ukraine," he told journalists in Donetsk. "If you see him, show me where he is. Where was he during this orange coup d'etat?" And Yanukovych overtly accused the government and Kuchma of betraying him. "I am very frustrated by the fact that I trusted those cowards and traitors with whom I've worked for two years. I was right when I said that I've worked for the past two years fighting not only to strengthen my position but also against these shameful authorities."

Yanukovych also came out with several memorable phrases about Ukrainian journalists and their role in the country. "Be free and value your rights, be such as you should be by your nature -- free, honest, and independent," the Mass Information Institute website ( quoted him as saying last week. What is more, Yanukovych recalled the case of slain Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze -- about which he remained silent during his two years as prime minister in Kyiv -- and promised to take the case "under his personal supervision in order to investigate this resonant crime."

In other words, Yanukovych stepped onto the same path for which he previously scolded his presidential rival, Yushchenko; namely, he has became highly critical of the power system only after losing his clout in it. It seems to be a path followed by many other politicians elsewhere, but Yanukovych has a strong point here in highlighting the ambiguous political behavior of "president-in-waiting" Yushchenko, who served as prime minister in 1999-2001 and worked together with the "shameful authorities" without paying much attention to either the situation of the Ukrainian media in general of the Gongadze case in particular.

Is Yanukovych's astounding transformation into an oppositionist genuine? There are few in Ukraine who believe so. Parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn spoke for many when he opined on 13 December that Yanukovych's current antigovernment rhetoric is just an element of campaign propaganda intended to mobilize some part of the anti-Kuchma electorate into taking his side. "I think [this rhetoric takes its origin] in the election logic that makes us distance ourselves from the power system and remain in it at the same time," Lytvyn said.

But for many voters in the east and south of Ukraine, Yanukovych's bitter words about official betrayal and cowardice sound convincing. Those who voted for Yanukovych on 31 October and 21 November see the Orange Revolution in Ukraine not only as the prime minister's personal defeat, but also as a grave national setback. For them the prevalence of the "poor rural west" over the "rich industrial east" of the country comes not as a triumph of democracy over authoritarianism but rather as personal humiliation and frustration. It is they who appear to be primarily targeted by Yanukovych in his brand-new role as an oppositionist.

Afghan security forces in the southern Kandahar Province have announced the arrest of the personal security chief of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the former leader of the Taliban regime, Dubai-based Geo TV reported on 14 December. Tor Mullah Naqibullah was arrested at his residence on 13 December along with Mullah Abdul Qayyum Ahangar, identified as Naqibullah's "accomplice." Kandahar Security Department head Abdullah Laghmani said that the two men "were involved in every terrorist activity in Kandahar Province against the government and coalition forces," AP reported on 14 December. According to Laghmani, "important documents" that contain the names of other neo-Taliban members were seized during the arrest. "I don't know if it [the arrests] will help in the capture of Mullah Omar, but it will definitely help to reduce bomb attacks and insurgency in Kandahar because he [Mullah Naqibullah] was the main person organizing these kinds of attacks," Kandahar police chief Khan Mohammad said, AFP reported on 14 December. It is unclear whether the arrests are related to Laghmani's recent claims that a "secret network" of neo-Taliban has been exposed, resulting in the arrests of two individuals and their driver (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2004). AT

A Turkish engineer who was kidnapped on 14 December has been found dead, according to 15 December press release from the Afghan Foreign Ministry. The ministry identified the slain man as Mohammad Ayyub, and said his body was discovered on the road between Konar and Jalalabad. The engineer was kidnapped and his security guard killed in the village of Chawki, Konar Province, international news agencies reported. According to a report by Anatolia news agency on 14 December, the engineer was also accompanied by his driver and a translator, both of whom are missing. No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping or killings. AT

Government spokesman Jawed Ludin told a news conference in Kabul on 14 December that President Hamid Karzai's office has not received a letter of resignation from Planning Minister Ramazan Bachardost, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported. "We were informed by the media" about Bachardost's resignation, Ludin added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2004). According to Ludin, Bachardost "is an important and respected member of the cabinet," and Karzai "likes him very much." Bachardost reportedly resigned on 13 December after the government rejected his decision to shut down some 2,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). During his news conference, Ludin told reporters that the government "has started amending the laws regulating the activities of NGOs and measures have been put into operation." The measures are subject to approval by the cabinet. He did not link the issue with Bachardost's comments that most of the NGOs in Afghanistan are counterproductive. AT

Military Corps No. 7 and No. 8 have completed the UN's Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program, Radio Afghanistan reported on 14 December. General Abdul Manan, the Defense Ministry's official in charge of the DDR in northern Afghanistan, said on 13 December that 28,400 officers and enlisted personnel have joined the program. Military Corps No. 8, which is loyal to strongman General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Military Corps No. 7, which is loyal to current Balkh Province Governor General Ata Mohammad Nuri, have been battling each other in parts of northern Afghanistan since the collapse of the Taliban regime. Observers believe that if Dostum and Nuri are, in fact, left without any military units, the prospects of a more lasting peace in northern Afghanistan will improve. AT

The Afghan Supreme Court in a 14 December announcement called on government authorities and citizens to uphold Islamic values, Radio Afghanistan reported. "Regretfully, some images, said to be Prophet Mohammad, have been recently found," the statement said, without further explanation. "This is not just shocking to every Muslim, but it is also disturbing for our countrymen's Islamic sentiments and causes evil in our society," the announcement added. The Supreme Court demanded that the authorities arrest those responsible for distributing such images, "so that they can be dealt with in accordance with the law." Under the Afghan Constitution, anything deemed to be against Islam is illegal. This stipulation leaves much room for interpretation in the Sunni-dominated country, as Sunni's regard the display of likenesses of prophets and important Islamic figures to be against Islam while Shi'a do not. AT

Palestinian Foreign Minister and Fatah leader Faruq Qaddumi, who arrived in Tehran on the evening of 12 December, met on 14 December with President Hojatoleslam Khatami, IRNA reported. Khatami expressed disappointment that those who claim to support human rights do not protest against suppression of the Palestinians. He pledged that Iran will always support the Palestinians, saying it hopes for the "establishment of a free Palestine with an independent government and the holy Qods [Jerusalem] as its capital." The previous day, an Iranian state radio Middle East expert calling himself "Mr. Kazemzadeh" said that the coincidence of Qaddumi's trip to Iran and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Mahmud Abbas' (Abu Mazen) visit to other regional states is revealing, state radio reported. What this shows, Kazemzadeh said, is an effort to emphasize the continuing relevance of the PLO within the context of militant groups, as well as recognition of Iran's attention to the Palestinian issue. BS

With approximately six months to go before Iran's ninth presidential election, a specific date for the event has not been set. The Guardians Council has rejected the dates proposed by Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari -- the Interior Ministry runs elections and the Guardians Council supervises them (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 October, 15 and 29 November, and 14 December 2004). Musavi-Lari said on 14 December that the council's proposal to hold the election after 20 May is unacceptable, IRNA reported. Musavi-Lari reiterated his stand that setting the date for the election does not fall within the council's purview. The timing of the election is just part of a bigger issue, according to Musavi-Lari. "We do not have any major problem with the Guardians Council on the election date. Rather, our problems are much deeper," the mid-ranking cleric said. The most controversial aspect of the council's election-related activity is its vetting of prospective candidates, and its rejection of more than 2000 of them in early 2004 caused an uproar. "Observers believe," IRNA reported, that the council will confirm many reformist presidential candidates in an effort to emphasize the election's legitimacy. BS

Commenting on the reported trial of nuclear spies in Iran, Revolutionary Court official Hojatoleslam Ali Mobasheri said that, in fact, a trial date has not been set yet, ISNA reported. Mobasheri explained that the Ministry of Intelligence and Security's investigation of two of the cases is continuing. The accused are held for 10-20 days so they can provide information on their accomplices or anything else they might have omitted earlier, Mobasheri said. Until then, he added, a trial date cannot be announced. He said that two of the accused, who are in detention, were employees of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization. Iran announced the arrest of several suspected nuclear spies in late August, the trial reportedly began in mid-September, and Mobasheri said at the end of November that the trial was under way (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 6 September, 23 November, and 7 December 2004). BS

Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Minister Ali Shamkhani denied in Tehran on 14 December that Iran is interfering in Iraqi affairs, ISNA reported. "Those who accuse the Islamic Republic of Iran of interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq are political amateurs," he said. Shamkhani was reacting to Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawir and Jordanian King Abdullah's statements about Iranian activities (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 December 2004). What Iran wants, Shamkhani said, is "the quick transfer of sovereignty to [Iraq's] real owners; namely, the Iraqi people." Following a trip to Tehran, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim on 13 December rejected King Abdullah's comments, IRNA reported. "I wish the Jordanian monarch had never said such ridiculous remarks," al-Hakim said. A 12 December statement from the Al-Hawzah al-Ilmiyah seminary in Al-Najaf condemned King Abdullah's statement that Iran seeks to create a Shi'a crescent stretching across Iraq to Lebanon, Al-Najaf News Network reported ( The statement explained that Iraqi Shi'a do not want the Velayat-i Faqih (rule of the supreme jurisprudent) system that exists in Iran, and it noted that Al-Hawzah al-Ilmiyah is considered the world's highest Shi'a authority. BS

Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan said on 15 December that Ali Hasan al-Majid will be the first Hussein-regime official to be tried for war crimes against the Iraqi people, Reuters reported. Al-Majid, a cousin of Hussein and the former secretary-general of the Northern Bureau of Iraq's Ba'ath Party, is often referred to as "Chemical Ali" for his suppression and annihilation of Kurds in northern Iraq. He is also alleged to have played a major role in the suppression of the 1991 uprising against the regime in southern Iraq. "In the next few days we will have the trial of Ali Hasan al-Majid, one of the close followers of Saddam Hussein. He will be the first to be tried," al-Sha'lan said. The minister said that should the trial not get under way next week, it certainly will begin by mid-January, before Iraq's scheduled elections, Reuters reported. KR

Human Rights Watch has said that from 1987-89, al-Majid was given "special powers" equivalent in authority to President Saddam Hussein over northern Iraq. The rights group cites the following human rights violations carried out under al-Majid's direction over the two-year period: mass summary executions and mass disappearance of between 50,000 and 100,000 noncombatants; the widespread use of chemical weapons against the town of Halabja (killing as many as 5,000 residents) as well as dozens of Kurdish villages, killing many thousands of people, mainly women and children; the wholesale destruction of some 2,000 villages, which are described in Hussein-era government documents as having been "burned," "destroyed," "demolished," and "purified," as well as at least a dozen larger towns and administrative centers; and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of villagers. HRW also documents audiotaped meetings held between al-Majid and his aides that depict his animosity toward the Kurds. In one meeting, al-Majid speaks about the Kurds, saying: "I will bury them with bulldozers." HRW's extensive study, " Genocide In Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds," can be accessed on the organization's website ( KR

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told Al-Sharqiyah television in a 14 December program that Iraq remains dependent on multinational forces to maintain security. "To be realistic, the security apparatuses are incapable of completely protecting the Iraqi citizens in Iraq. Based on this, the Iraqi government made a keep the multinational forces in Iraq to help preserve security, protect borders, and develop our military and security capabilities," Allawi said. "The crimes taking place are the result of the destruction that occurred in Iraq." He added that Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates have all contributed weapons to the rebuilding of the Iraqi military. Asked about claims of raids on civilian residences and alleged violations of human rights carried out by multinational forces, Allawi said: "Indeed, this is not the most ideal situation. It is not an ideal situation to keep the multinational forces in the country. We were obliged to do this because the former regime was killing and harming people.... Therefore, there were violations, and there will be other violations. These violations will end when we build our Iraqi capabilities. Then, we will thank them and ask them to leave us." KR

Militants attempted to take over two police stations in the northern city of Mosul on 14 December, Reuters reported on 15 December. Police and National Guard forces successfully staved off the attacks, according to a U.S. military statement posted on the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) website. The attacks appeared to be a coordinated effort. CENTCOM noted that the attacks were the third and fourth time since 10 November (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 15 November 2004) that Iraqi security forces have successfully defended police installations. Reuters reported that Mosul remains without a working police force, adding that Major General Carter Ham has said the lack of an operational force could affect security during January elections. KR