YUKOS SUBSIDIARY AUCTIONED OFF TO OBSCURE COMPANY...
Yuganskneftegaz, the main production subsidiary of embattled oil major Yukos, was sold on 19 December at auction in Moscow for 260.7 billion rubles ($9.35 billion) to the unknown Tver-based Baikalfinansgrup, Russian and Western news agencies reported. Only two contestants, Gazpromneft and Baikalfinansgrup, placed bids in the auction organized by the Russian Federal Property Fund (RFFI). The Baikalfinansgrup representative avoided journalists after the auction. Acting RFFI Chairman Yurii Petrov said that he does not know who stands behind Baikalfinansgrup, but that "all the financial documents of the company are in order" and that it sent the $1.7 billion auction deposit, RBK reported. If the company fails to pay the rest of the Yuganskneftegaz bid in two weeks, the Yukos subsidiary will become federal property, he added. Meanwhile, Yukos spokesman Yurii Shadrin announced in Moscow on 19 December that his company considers the auction illegal and will continue to take all possible steps to prevent the further selling off of its assets. VY
...WHICH SOME BELIEVE TO BE GAZPROM AFFILIATE...
Aleksandr Shokhin, the chairman of the Coordination Council of Business Organizations of Russia and a former finance minister, said on 19 December that he believes that Baikalfinansgrup is affiliated to Gazprom one way or another, RTR reported. Aton Capital analyst Steven Dashevskii also described Baikalfinansgrup as a Gazprom front organization. "By putting forward an unknown company, Gazprom would like to protect itself from the risks linked with potential claims from Yukos shareholders against the company in international courts," polit.ru quoted him as saying. One of the auction's results is that the U.S. bankruptcy court's injunction has not been violated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2004) and that nobody can accuse Gazprom of buying Yukos assets, "Kommersant-Daily" commented on 20 December. It means that the struggle over Yukos will continue, but not publicly, the newspaper noted. VY
...AND FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS YUKOS IS RUSSIA'S BUSINESS
Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on 17 December, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the situation with regard to Yukos will be resolved based on Russian law only, RTR and other media reported. "Someone might be interested in covering these events in a manner so as to build up sensational tension in Russia's relations with the West and call prospects for the investment climate in Russia into question," Lavrov said. "That is to a great extent a politicized and ideologized attempt to use the mass media for such purposes," he added. VY
PUTIN CALLS ON SECURITY SERVICES TO 'CURB TERRORISM'
Speaking in Moscow on the eve of the professional holiday of the security organs, Vladimir Putin said on 19 December that in 2004 Russia was the target of "unprecedented terrorist attacks," and he called on the Russian security community to "curb terrorism and extremism," RTR and ORT reported. "It is extremely important to fight any manifestation of religious and national extremism and block the activity of those organizations that are working to divide our society," Putin said. "Today it is obvious that only a strong state can oppose terrorism, and that terrorism can be stopped only by using the whole might of the state and the support of Russian society as a whole," he added. Putin noted that the government took measures this year to strengthen the state security organs not only in the center, but also in the regions. He added that he expects more results in fighting corruption, drug trafficking, and organized crime. "These crimes corrode the economy, compromise the government, and undermine Russia's international prestige," Putin said. VY
RUSSIA AND IRAN AGREE TO EXTEND NUCLEAR COOPERATION
Federal Atomic Energy Agency Director Aleksandr Rumyantsev said in Moscow on 17 December after a meeting of the Russian-Iranian Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation that the construction of a second nuclear reactor at the Bushehr nuclear power station is being discussed, RIA-Novosti and other Russian and Western media reported. The first reactor should be ready by 2006. Rumyantsev said that Russia supports Iran's ambitious nuclear program and may build seven more nuclear reactors for Iran, at a total cost of $10 billion. "We believe that Iran needs such nuclear capacities for the peaceful application of nuclear technology," he said. The United States and Israel have repeatedly called for Moscow to stop helping Tehran to acquire nuclear technology, as they fear that Iran is attempting to produce a nuclear weapon. VY
NEW DRAFT TERRORISM BILL WOULD ENCROACH ON CIVIL LIBERTIES
The State Duma passed in its first reading on 17 December a bill on combating terrorism that would impose restrictions on certain freedoms and give the special services expanded powers in the event of a terrorist alert or when a special operation is being carried out, NTV reported. The vote was 385 in favor and 47 against, according to RosBalt. According to NTV, under the bill the prime minister is granted extra powers to declare a state of terrorist danger, while governors will be able to do the same in the regions. The heads of the special services can impose quarantines and curfews, order telephone taps, and ban demonstrations, rallies, and rock concerts. Duma Deputy Speaker Sergei Baburin (Motherland) said the bill contains a lot of discrepancies that should be removed before the second reading, "Izvestiya" reported on 17 December. According to Interfax, in a state of emergency, the mass media would have to check its materials about a terrorist attack with operational headquarters and would not have access to the zone of a counterterrorism operation. According to "Izvestiya," a number of articles in the law as it is currently written violate the constitution. JAC/VY
GOVERNORS TO TENDER RESIGNATIONS EN MASSE NEXT YEAR?
The State Council's presidium met in a town near Tver on 16 December, "Izvestiya" reported the next day. The daily cited an unidentified source in the presidential administration who said that governors have been told that they can voluntarily submit their resignations after 1 January, and President Putin will forward their names on to the regional legislatures. And the governors themselves may judge how good their chances are of being confirmed by their own legislatures. According to "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 15 December, after the new law canceling gubernatorial elections comes into force, regional executives will serve five-year terms. According to "Izvestiya," appointed leaders will have somewhat broader powers than elected ones. For example, they have to reach agreement with Moscow on candidates for federal law-enforcement positions in their regions. JAC
WEEKLY SUGGESTS DUMA PROBE FINANCING OF PUTIN YOUTH GROUP
"Novaya gazeta," No. 92, presented a number of detailed questions regarding the financing for the pro-Putin youth movement Moving Together. The weekly invited the State Duma to consider the questions "an outline for a parliamentary enquiry" that could be sent to the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Federal Security Service, and the Interior Ministry. The weekly asks whether Moving Together received more than 1.4 million rubles ($50,000) paid into a certain bank account last year from the Western companies Uplands Ventures and Norbury Trading. The weekly then asks whether these companies are connected to Gazprom and the presidential administration. When contacted by the weekly, Moving Together leader Vasilii Yakemenko dismissed the notion that his group is receiving money from foreign organizations as laughable. In October, "Novaya gazeta" lost a lawsuit for libel against presidential envoy Sergei Kirienko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October 2004). JAC
TWO INCUMBENTS WIN THIRD TERM...
With 99 percent of the ballot counted, incumbent Kurgan Oblast Governor Oleg Bogomolov won the second round of the gubernatorial election on 19 December with 49.2 percent of the vote, RIA-Novosti reported. Bogomolov's opponent Yevgenii Sobakin, head of the Moscow-based Komservis, had 40.1 percent of the vote. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party nominated Bogomolov, while Sobakin had the backing of the Union of Rightist Forces. Bogomolov had been expected to win in the first round after his chief rival, local legislator Sergei Kapchuk, was disqualified from the race, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 2 December. In Khabarovsk Krai, Governor Viktor Ishaev got 85.4 percent of the vote in his bid for reelection on 19 December, according to preliminary estimates, Interfax reported. The remaining candidates each got less than 5 percent of the vote. JAC
...AS UNIFIED RUSSIA CANDIDATE BEATS 'NONE OF THE ABOVE'
According to preliminary estimates, State Duma Deputy Nikolai Denin (Unified Russia) is the new governor of Bryansk Oblast, where second-round gubernatorial elections were held on 10 December, RIA-Novosti and Interfax reported the next day. Denin got 77.83 percent of the vote compared with 10.32 percent for Yevgenii Zelenko, a local representative for the Union of Rightist Forces. The option "against all" was slightly more popular than Zelenko with 10.62 percent. The incumbent Communist Governor Yurii Lodkin was prevented by a court decision from seeking reelection (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 9 December 2004). JAC
MUSEUM WORKERS DECLARE HUNGER STRIKE IN KOSTROMA
A dozen workers at the Ipatevskii Monastery Museum in Kostroma Oblast have entered the third day of a hunger strike to protest the transfer of the monastery compound over to the Kostroma Russian Orthodox diocese without making adequate preparations for the housing of the museum contents, RTR reported on 19 December. They are refusing not only to eat but also to go home, and they want the museum's director reinstated and their case to be brought back to the Moscow Arbitration Court. The governor has proposed to move the museum to an old fire observation tower, but workers say that the space is too small to display even a small part of the collection. According to Regnum on 17 December, legal experts believe the museum would win if the case is brought to Arbitration Court. JAC
INGUSHETIA'S DUMA DEPUTY DISTANCES SELF FROM CONTROVERSIAL DRAFT BILL
Mukharbek Aushev, who is Ingushetia's representative in the State Duma, denied to the independent website ingushetiya.ru on 17 December that he lobbied for the passage in the first reading on 1 December by the Republic of Ingushetia's parliament of a draft bill on municipalities that fails to list as part of the republic's territory the disputed Prigorodnyi Raion transferred to North Ossetia's jurisdiction in 1944 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2004). Aushev is the head of the Ingushetian chapter of the Unified Russia party, whose representatives have a majority in Ingushetia's parliament. LF
NORTH CAUCASUS RAID 'INTENDED TO DESTABILIZE'
Oleg Shandibin, chairman of the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria's Security Council, told journalists on 17 December that the raid three days earlier on the republican office of the Federal Drug Control Agency was intended to destabilize the republic by sparking "a bloody feud" between different ethnic and religious groups, Russian agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 December 2004) . Russian presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitrii Kozak told ITAR-TASS the same day that the gunmen who attacked the department, killing four guards and making off with quantities of weaponry, were aware that the building was guarded less securely than Interior Ministry arms depots. LF
ARMENIAN DEFENSE MINISTER SLAMS OPPOSITION...
. Speaking at a roundtable discussion of national security issues on 17 December, Serzh Sarkisian said opposition efforts to portray the country's leadership as weak and illegitimate could encourage unnamed "unfriendly states" to consider military aggression, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Sarkisian affirmed that the Armenian leadership is committed to democratization. "We must definitely hold the best elections. We must definitely have the most sophisticated society. We must be the most democratic and humane country because the armies of such countries enjoy the love and respect of the people," Sarkisian reasoned. LF
...CALLS FOR REGIONAL SECURITY SYSTEM
Speaking at the same roundtable discussion on 17 December, Sarkisian expressed support for the creation, advocated by the international community, of a regional security system for the South Caucasus, Noyan Tapan reported. He also stressed the importance of Armenia's military cooperation with Russia, but argued that those ties do not constitute an obstacle to Armenia's aspiration for closer integration into European structures, Noyan Tapan reported. LF
ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER HOPES FOR END TO OPPOSITION BOYCOTT
Artur Baghdasarian said in an interview with Armenian Television's second channel on 18 December that an end to the 10-month boycott by opposition deputies of parliament proceedings would improve the drafting and passage of legislation, according to Arminfo as cited by Groong. Baghdasarian said that if opposition deputies are not prepared to return to parliament, they should give up their mandates. He characterized the political situation as stable and dismissed as illogical calls for preterm parliamentary and presidential elections. At the same time, he acknowledged the existence of "conflicts of interest" within the ruling three-party coalition. Baghdasarian advocated caution in amending the Electoral Code to alter the ratio of mandates allocated in single-mandate constituencies and under the party-list system, noting as on previous occasions that "the guillotine is not the best remedy for dandruff." LF
PROCEDURAL VIOLATIONS MAR AZERBAIJANI MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS
Both international and local observers witnessed instances of ballot-box stuffing during the 17 December Azerbaijani municipal elections, Turan reported. U.S. Ambassador Reno Harnish told journalists in Baku on 17 December that international observers witnessed such violations in several precincts. Council of Europe monitors counted 592 ballots cast in one precinct where the total number of registered voters was 252, Turan reported on 18 December. The opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party, the only major opposition party to participate in the elections, issued a press release on 17 December noting instances of multiple voting, ballot-box stuffing, and refusals by local courts to add to electoral rolls the names of people who had been omitted. The Election Monitoring Center, a local NGO, registered similar irregularities, Turan reported. Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov announced on 18 December that voter turnout was 46 percent, but opposition election observers queried that figure, saying they estimate that no more than 10-15 percent of the electorate cast their ballots. The overwhelming majority of the 38,041 candidates were either members of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party or nominally independent. LF
AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT SAYS ARMENIA'S TIES WITH RUSSIA COMPLICATE SETTLEMENT OF KARABAKH CONFLICT...
Speaking with journalists in Baku on 17 December after casting his ballot in the local elections, Ilham Aliyev commented that if Armenia is indeed a "Russian outpost in the Caucasus," as Russian State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov claimed during a visit to Yerevan several days earlier, then the question arises whether Azerbaijan should not embark on talks on resolving the Karabakh conflict with the overlord of that outpost, rather than the Armenian leadership, Turan and Russian media reported. Aliyev added that during their series of talks in Prague, the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers focused on a "phased" solution to the Karabakh conflict. But Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamlet Gasparian denied this, telling Armenian Public Television later on 17 December that Armenia continues to advocate a "package solution" to the conflict at the Prague talks, Groong reported. Gasparian added that if Baku is unsure whether Russia or Armenia is the more appropriate negotiating partner, it should begin talks with the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. LF
...WARNS GEORGIA OVER RAIL TRANSIT
President Aliyev also said on 17 December that rail cars bound for Georgia via Azerbaijan will continue to be inspected in order to preclude the possibility of any cargo reaching Armenia, Turan reported. A Georgian customs official told Caucasus Press on 18 December that Georgia may consider legal action against Azerbaijan as Georgia has incurred considerable financial damage from the loss of perishable cargoes that have been halted on the border with Azerbaijan for several weeks. LF
SOUTH OSSETIA AGAIN ACCUSES GEORGIA OF NONCOMPLIANCE
The leadership of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia wants Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania to explain to the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetia conflict zone why Tbilisi has not yet implemented the demilitarization agreement that Zhvania and South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity signed in Sochi last month, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported on 17 and 18 December, respectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2004). Interfax quoted South Ossetian Defense Minister Major General Anatolii Barankevich as saying that since that agreement was signed, his men have filled in some 600 meters of defensive entrenchments, while the Georgian side has filled in only 25 meters. He also said South Ossetia has withdrawn from the conflict zone all forces except the peacekeepers it is entitled to deploy there. Also on 17 December, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili instructed Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava to draft new proposals for resolving the conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia under which those territories would be granted autonomous status, Russian agencies reported. Zhvania had said several days earlier that those new proposals will be unveiled "soon" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2004). LF
KAZAKH OPPOSITION PARTY CALLS FOR CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
In a statement published in "Respublika" on 17 December, the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party called for "civil disobedience" to "remove the family clan that has usurped power." Asserting that "2004 parliamentary elections killed the last hope for the possibility of political reforms in the country," the statement lambasted "the ruling clan headed by President [Nursultan] Nazarbaev" for persecuting the opposition with "unconstitutional and illegitimate methods." Dubbing the president and parliament "illegitimate," the opposition party stated: "In our activities we will proceed from how human rights and freedoms are understood in free countries, not from decisions made by thievish governors and corrupt courts. We view these authorities as anti-state, and we are ready only for talks on their removal from power without resorting to any violence, and on their being pardoned for the crimes they have committed." DK
KYRGYZ PRESIDENT WARNS OF DANGERS IN LEAD-UP TO ELECTIONS...
President Askar Akaev told Kyrgzystan's Defense Council on 17 December that he believes "the social and political situation will sharply deteriorate in the country as a result of  parliamentary and presidential elections," Kabar reported. Akaev stated that "religious and political extremism are merging with international terrorism" and "new transborder threats to the country's security have appeared." Akaev said the "activities of the Hizb ut-Tahrir party are also causing serious concern." He stressed that "any activities that go beyond [the framework of the constitution] must be regarded as unconstitutional and as something that harms the interests of the state and society." Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev echoed the president's remarks in comments on 18 December, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported the next day. "We must not allow various religious extremist forces and Western organizations to interfere in our internal affairs during the election campaign and elections with the aim of destabilizing the socio-political situation in the country," Tanaev said. In a clear reference to Georgia's 2003 "Rose Revolution," Tanaev added, "Under no circumstances can we allow a Georgian version of events in Kyrgyzstan." DK
...AS OPPOSITION SEES PREPARATION FOR CRACKDOWN
Kyrgyz opposition leaders interpreted President Akaev's comments as the prelude to a hard-line policy in the lead-up to 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 18 and 19 December. Topchubek Turgunaliev, leader of the Erkindek party, said there is no radical force threatening the country's stability and that the president's comments are aimed at providing an excuse for illegal actions. Orozbek Duisheev, a member of the Communist Party caucus in the Legislative Assembly, told RFE/RL that the authorities are laying the groundwork for a move to stifle dissent under the pretext of combating extremism and radicalism. Edil Baisalov, head of the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, told RFE/RL that the authorities have effectively begun a campaign to crush the opposition. Baisalov warned that the move signals a readiness to copy the hard-line actions of the authorities in neighboring Uzbekistan. DK
TAJIK PARTIES HOLD CONGRESSES FOR PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Tajikistan's People's Democratic Party, Democratic Party, Communist Party, Islamic Renaissance Party, and Social-Democratic Party held congresses on 18-19 December to nominate party slates for the country's 27 February parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and agencies reported. The ruling People's Democratic Party, which is led by President Imomali Rakhmonov, nominated 22 candidates to its party slate, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The Democratic Party nominated 17 candidates, including party leader Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, who is currently in jail in Russia awaiting possible extradition to Tajikistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2004), Avesta reported. The Communist Party nominated 10 candidates to its party slate, and the Islamic Renaissance Party nominated 22 people to its party slate, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The Social Democratic Party nominated 21 people, including Sulton Quvvatov, leader of the unregistered Taraqqiyot party. Twenty-two candidates are elected on party slates to the 63-member Majilisi Namoyandagon (lower chamber of parliament). In 2000 elections, the People's Democratic Party garnered 15 seats, the Communist Party five, and the Islamic Renaissance Party two. DK
...AS DEMOCRATIC PARTY PROTESTS LEADER'S ARREST IN MOSCOW
The Democratic Party appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin at its party congress in Dushanbe on 18 December not to allow the extradition of party leader Iskandarov to Tajikistan without a full investigation of the charges against him, Avesta reported. The congress also called on the United States, European Union, the UN, and the OSCE to defend Iskandarov's rights, ITAR-TASS reported. The appeal stated that Iskandarov "has become a victim of political repression" in Tajikistan. Meanwhile, Bahodir Hamidov, head of the special-affairs bureau in Tajikistan's Prosecutor-General's Office, told Avesta on 16 December that Dushanbe has not yet held talks with Moscow on Iskandarov's extradition. Iskandarov, who was arrested in Moscow on 9 December at the behest of Tajik authorities, faces charges of embezzlement and involvement in terrorist acts. DK
U.S. COMMANDER VISITS TAJIKISTAN
Lieutenant General Steven Whitcomb, U.S. commander of the 3rd Army and Coalition Forces Land Component, met with Lieutenant General Abdurahmon Azimov, head of Tajikistan's Border Protection Committee, in Dushanbe on 17 December to discuss bilateral cooperation, ITAR-TASS reported. "I will be engaged with Afghan issues during the next three years," Whitcomb said. "I count on close contacts with the Tajik military during this period." During his visit, Whitcomb also met with representatives of the Tajik Defense Ministry, Emergency Situations and Civil Defense Ministry, and National Guard, Avesta reported. DK
TURKMENISTAN HOLDS PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Turkmenistan held elections to the country's Mejlis (parliament) on 19 December, Turkmen TV reported. Turkmen government sources reported 76.88 percent turnout in elections that saw 131 candidates competing for 50 seats. Official Turkmen reports hailed a "triumph of democracy," but a preponderance of international opinion has dismissed the elections as a farce. In a representative comment, Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) on 15 December, "The Turkmen election is much worse than an empty exercise. It is a mockery of the citizenry." DK
BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION SHUT OUT OF HOLDING CONFERENCE
Some 200 candidates from the opposition and democratic forces in the 17 October parliamentary elections from across Belarus were prevented from convening a conference at the International Education Center in Minsk on 19 December after the center's administration canceled a rental agreement at the last moment, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The conference was reportedly prohibited by the Minsk City Executive Committee. Although the organizers of the conference had paid in advance for rental of the center's premises, the delegates were shut out of the building and were forced to conduct their meeting in the street. "So far I've thought that the Belarusian authorities are mendacious, but now I see that they are frightened as well, " United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka commented. JM
BELARUSIAN JOURNALIST SEEKS ASYLUM IN BELGIUM
Ales Silich, deputy editor in chief of the Minsk-based private daily "Narodnaya volya," has requested political asylum in Belgium, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 17 December, quoting the journalist's wife, Alla Silich. Alla Silich told RFE/RL that the family's phones have been tapped and apartment watched for the two years since her husband asked President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a news conference in September 2002 about the alleged existence of an off-budget presidential fund replenished with proceeds from unlawful arms trading. "Some unfamiliar people used to phone us without identifying themselves and there was silence if I picked up the phone," she said. JM
UKRAINE REGISTERS 8,000 FOREIGN OBSERVERS FOR 26 DECEMBER BALLOT
The Ukrainian Central Election Commission has registered 8,295 international monitors for the repeat of the flawed 21 November presidential runoff between Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko on 26 December, Interfax reported on 19 December. JM
YANUKOVYCH ENDORSES RUSSIAN LANGUAGE, CONDEMNS SEPARATISM
Vacationing Prime Minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych reiterated in Odesa on 18 December that he would like to grant Russian official-language status in Ukraine if he is elected president, Interfax reported. Yanukovych also spoke against separatist calls in some eastern regions that surfaced following the 21 November presidential runoff (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 1 December 2004). Yanukovych said those calls appeared to be a reaction to "the lawlessness that people felt following second-round voting." "As far as I am concerned, I am in favor of [greater] economic autonomy for our regions," Yanukovych added. JM
YUSHCHENKO FAVORS UKRAINIAN PLEBISCITE ON NATO ISSUE...
Answering a question about whether Ukraine under his potential presidency would apply for NATO membership, Viktor Yushchenko told journalists in Kharkiv on 17 December that a decision on the country's military alignment cannot be made without a nationwide referendum, Interfax reported. Yushchenko stressed that the country's top priorities in foreign policy are obtaining market-economy status, World Trade Organization membership, and associate membership of the European Union. JM
...AND ADVISES CAUTION IN LAYING BLAME FOR HIS POISONING
Yushchenko told journalists in Kharkiv on 17 December that he has no proof that he was poisoned during a dinner with Security Service Director Ihor Smeshko and Deputy Director Volodymyr Satsyuk at the latter's dacha on 5 September, Interfax reported. "[Smeshko and Satsyuk] were at the [5 September] business dinner, but I would not like to say that I'm now making direct accusations [or have] direct suspicions about the involvement of these people in my poisoning," Yushchenko said. "I can only say what I've already said from the Verkhovna Rada rostrum: It was doubtless a political assassination [attempt].... I'm not mentioning any names, I'm only saying that I was poisoned by the authorities." JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT MOVES TO SEND PEACEKEEPERS TO SYRIA
Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma has signed a decree on sending some 200 peacekeepers to the UN Disengagement Force separating Syrian and Israeli forces in the Golan Heights in Syria, Ukrainian news agencies reported on 18 December. The decree still requires the approval of the Verkhovna Rada. Since 1992, Ukraine has participated in a dozen international peacekeeping operations around the world. Ukraine's largest military contingent -- some 1,600 troops -- has been in Iraq since August 2003. JM
THREE BOSNIAN SERB LEADERS QUIT TO PROTEST HIGH REPRESENTATIVE'S RULING...
Following the recent announcements by High Representative Paddy Ashdown and the U.S. government of measures against the Republika Srpska and leaders of its governing Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) and Party of Democratic Progress (PDP), Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dragan Mikerevic (PDP) announced his resignation on 17 December, regional and international media reported. "I am not ready to accept and implement the threats and ultimatums of the high representative," Mikerevic said. The following day, Bosnian Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic (PDP) and Communications Minister Branko Dokic (PDP) also resigned. "We do not want to take part in a process that would lead to the creation of a Bosnia without the [Republika Srpska]. This is an attack on us and a direct consequence of our opposition to unconstitutional changes" imposed by Ashdown, Ivanic said. Borislav Paravac (SDS), who is the Serbian member of the Bosnian Presidency, said that Ivanic's resignation shows that there is a deep crisis affecting Bosnia-Herzegovina's institutions, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He subsequently announced that he also will leave office if the SDS asks him to do so. PM
...AS OTHERS TAKE STOCK
Bosnian Prime Minister Adnan Terzic said in Sarajevo on 19 December that the Bosnian Serbs should sort out the ramifications of the latest Western moves among themselves, adding that the PDP is not a particularly important party, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He added that he understands that it is difficult for someone to carry out the duties of foreign minister if banned from traveling to the United States. Elsewhere, High Representative Ashdown denied Bosnian Serb media reports that he intends to dissolve the Republika Srpska. In Banja Luka, Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic (SDS) said that any attempt to dissolve the Bosnian Serb entity will trigger a referendum among Bosnian Serbs, after which "Bosnia [might] cease to exist." He called a meeting of Bosnian Serb political leaders for 20 December to achieve a consensus in response to the latest Western moves. London's "Financial Times" wrote that the resignations are part of a Bosnian Serb effort to prevent the consolidation of central institutions at the expense of those of the entities. Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service quoted unnamed EU officials as saying in Brussels that nobody will achieve anything by resigning. PM
MACEDONIAN VILLAGE IMBROGLIO RESOLVED
An Albanian armed group in the village of Kondovo outside Skopje agreed on 17 December to disarm following negotiations with the leaders of the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) and the opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH), Ali Ahmeti and Arben Xhaferi, respectively, "Utrinski vesnik" and other Macedonian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 15, and 16 December 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 and 10 December 2004). Xhaferi told a press conference that the group objected to what it called the slow implementation of the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement. The group reportedly consisted of young men from Kondovo, Kosova, and southern Serbia. Allegedly led by Agim Krasniqi, who is a former commander of Macedonia's ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (UCK) that staged an uprising in 2001, the group in effect occupied the village for several weeks. Meanwhile, Interior Minister Ljubomir Mihajlovski said on 17 December that there will be no more negotiations with anybody, adding that attempts to "destabilize the country" will not be allowed to proceed as far as they did in Kondovo. UB
MONTENEGRIN PRESIDENT SAYS THAT UNION WITH SERBIA IS A FLOP
Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service on 17 December that the joint state with Serbia does not really function in any of its aspects. He declined to comment on recent remarks by several Serbian leaders to the effect that Montenegro is too small to be independent, adding, however, that there are countries with fewer than Montenegro's 620,000 inhabitants that enjoy economic stability and a good standard of living (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 December 2004). Vujanovic predicted success for the referendum on Montenegrin independence expected by 2006. Referring to Belgrade's boycott of the new Prishtina leadership, Vujanovic argued that Kosova's Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj is the legal head of government and that the Belgrade authorities must continue to talk about Kosova's future with that government with the help of the international community. Vujanovic noted that Haradinaj has pledged to work with and respect the decisions of the Hague-based war crimes tribunal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 and 9 December 2004). The Serbian authorities refuse to deal with Haradinaj, whom they consider a war criminal for his role in the 1998-99 conflict between Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces and the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). PM
ROMANIA OFFERED EU ACCESSION DEAL...
Leaders at an EU summit in Brussels on 17 December agreed to sign the EU accession treaty with Romania and Bulgaria in April and to allow those countries to join the bloc in January 2007 provided they continue the reform process, Mediafax and international news agencies reported. EU representatives "note[d] with satisfaction" the progress made by Romania, but added that Bucharest needs to fight widespread corruption and implement EU standards in competition and environment legislation. They added that they will "continue to monitor closely" Romania's preparations and issue recommendations "if appropriate." The EU leaders praised Bulgaria for its "successful completion" of accession talks and said Sofia will be "able to assume all the obligations of membership in the envisaged time of its accession, provided that it continues its efforts to that end," according to AP. Accession could be delayed for both countries by one year under a "safeguard clause." The ceremony on 17 December was attended for Romania by outgoing President Ion Iliescu, President-elect Traian Basescu, and outgoing Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. MS
...AS PRESIDENT-ELECT BASESCU WITHDRAWS THREAT TO REOPEN NEGOTIATIONS...
President-elect Basescu said in Brussels on 17 December that under his leadership Romania will not demand to reopen negotiations on the Energy and Competition chapters of the acquis communautaire, Mediafax reported. Basescu threatened such a move while campaigning ahead of the 12 December presidential runoff against Prime Minister Nastase. MS
...AND BIDS FAREWELL TO DEMOCRATIC PARTY
President-elect Basescu quit the Democratic Party on 18 December to comply with provisions on ensuring a nonpartisan president, Mediafax reported. Basescu, who had served as party chairman since 2001, designated Executive Chairman Emil Boc as his successor until May, when a national convention is expected to pick a new leader. Basescu told a meeting of the Democratic Party's leadership that it should impose a moratorium on the admission of new members for six months to avoid opportunists joining the party in the wake of its electoral success. Basescu also said he intends to quit politics after serving as president, adding that no one should safeguard his place in the Democratic Party. "I intended to withdraw [from the chairmanship] in 2005, but the people willed that I do it earlier," Basescu said. Outgoing President Iliescu is slated to return to head the Social Democratic Party (PSD). MS
PARLIAMENTARY MANEUVERING HINTS AT NEW ROMANIAN COALITION
The Democratic National Bloc (BND) signed an agreement on 19 December on extending parliamentary support to a cabinet formed by the National Liberal Party (PNL)-Democratic Party alliance, Mediafax reported. The BND had said earlier the same day that it would have its own caucuses in both houses of parliament -- independent of the parliamentary groups of the Greater Romania Party (PRM), on whose lists it ran in the 28 November national elections. Five BND deputies and senators were elected on those lists. A BND spokesman said the new parliamentary groups will be joined by lawmakers from the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Humanist Party (PUR), who fielded a joint list ahead of the 28 November elections. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) decided on 18 December to continue talks with the PNL-Democratic Party alliance on participating in a possible government. UDMR Chairman Bela Marko said that outgoing President Iliescu's planned pardon of jailed activist Miron Cozma "created a situation in which the UDMR cannot...be in the same boat" with the Social Democratic Party. Marko said the later revocation of the pardon by Iliescu does not help, "because the damage is done" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2004). In turn, the PUR empowered Chairman Dan Voiculescu to continue negotiations with both sides. MS
RFE/RL HONOREES FOLLOW ACTIVIST'S EXAMPLE OVER ROMANIAN AWARDS...
Following the recent example set up by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, 15 current and former RFE/RL journalists announced on 17 December their personal decisions to return state honors and diplomas to outgoing President Iliescu to protest Iliescu's decoration of the Greater Romania Party's ultranationalist Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor, Mediafax and the dailies "Adevarul" and "Evenimentul zilei" reported. (Editor's note: RFE/RL journalists were singled out for honors by the Romanian state following that country's transformation to democracy that began in 1989.) "The club of people who receive state decorations should be a select one," the journalists said in an open letter to the president. "If we accepted being part of it [after Iliescu decorated Tudor and former Greater Romania Senator Gheorghe Buzatu], we would be going against the principles we stood up for at RFE, an institution insulted by Tudor, a notorious representative of xenophobia and anti-Semitism" and "distort[ing] the real significance of Romanian history," which they said does not justify Buzatu's "admiration of Marshal Ion Antonescu." On 18 December, Romanian-born U.S. historian Randolph Braham also returned a state distinction received last month to Iliescu. Braham said he was "perplexed and disturbed to learn that you have recently bestowed similar high honors on individuals who have in the course of the years besmirched the good name of Romania by their venomous anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denying campaigns" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2004). MS
...WHILE NATIONALIST HONOREE JOINS THE FRAY...
Former PRM Senator Buzatu said on 19 December that he is returning his state honor to President Iliescu to protest the latter's having decorated Elie Wiesel in 2003, Mediafax and AFP reported. Buzatu said he would have declined the order on Faithful Service from the start had he known Iliescu had honored the renowned Jewish and minority-rights activist. Buzatu claimed that Wiesel said during a 2003 visit to his country of birth that "Romania killed, killed, killed" its Jews and said Wiesel is "simplistically splitting" Romanians into "those who negate the Holocaust and those who do not." Wiesel has authored more than 40 books and been honored by the French and U.S. governments for his activism. MS
...AS ILIESCU APPEARS TO BACKPEDAL AGAIN
Buzatu's offer might have represented an attempt to preempt a reversal by President Iliescu, Romanian media reported on 20 December. Returning from Brussels on 17 December, President Iliescu hinted at a reversal over the mounting scandal accompanying the state honor bestowed on nationalist politician Tudor. Iliescu called that move and his pardon of miners' leader and antigovernment activist Miron Cozma "road accidents." Iliescu revoked his pardon of the Cozma on 17 December after domestic and international outcry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2004). MS
IS ARMENIA HEADING FOR AN 'APRICOT REVOLUTION'?
At a congress on 9 December, the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), which ruled Armenia from 1991-98, adopted a resolution calling for the ouster of what it termed the country's current corrupt leadership. That statement, coinciding as it did with the Ukrainian opposition campaign to force a repeat of the flawed 21 November presidential runoff, has fueled speculation that Armenia might also be headed for regime change, and specifically for the return to power of the HHSh and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian. That speculation is based largely on the belief that the Armenian leadership is under intense pressure from the international community to make significant concessions in the Karabakh peace process, in line with arguments that Ter-Petrossian made in the fall of 1997. Ter-Petrossian, some pundits reason, is a more acceptable figure for the West than incumbent President Robert Kocharian.
The series of mass opposition demonstrations in Yerevan in March-April testifies to the strength of popular feelings of alienation, anger, and disgust at perceived high-level corruption and protectionism. But predictably, President Kocharian's security adviser Garnik Isagulian dismissed the possibility of an "Apricot Revolution" in Armenia in the wake of the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine. Isagulian told "Hayots ashkhar" on 2 December that "there is no real alternative to the present leadership." He also pointed out that Ter-Petrossian's occasional meetings with foreign diplomats should not be conflated with a desire by the West for him to return to active politics.
Many Armenian political observers, too, are skeptical, that the HHSh enjoys broad popular support. The independent daily "Azg" on 1 December reported that of the 30 people its correspondents polled on the streets of Yerevan, not one reacted positively to the possibility of former President Ter-Petrossian's return to power. In addition, the HHSh has been weakened in recent years by the defection of many of its most effective activists to Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia. "Haykakan zhamanak," which has links to the HHSh, nonetheless proclaimed on 4 December that "Ter-Petrossian's return to the public political arena is already a reality." It added that only Ter-Petrossian can preside over a victory of democracy in Armenia by virtue of being "the legitimate and recognized leader of liberal democratic forces" -- a formulation that fails to take into account the December 1998 confession by former Interior Minister Vano Siradeghian that the outcome of the September 1996 presidential ballot was rigged to ensure a second term for Ter-Petrossian. It also overlooks the fact that it was under Ter-Petrossian that Armenia concluded a series of crucial economic and military-cooperation agreements with Russia, as well as signing (in May 1992) the CIS Collective Security Treaty.
On 11 December, "Haykakan zhamanak" quoted an unnamed opposition politician as claiming that Washington has given the green light for regime change in Armenia. "The United States has decided, with President [George W.] Bush's blessing, to help the opposition in Armenia carry out regime change.... In order to humiliate and morally destroy this regime, it has been decided that they must quit power under the pretext of failing to bring about a pro-Armenian solution to the Karabakh conflict," that politician was quoted as saying.
Should the HHSh be contemplating active measures to topple the present leadership (as opposed to simply waiting to assess the impact of the international pressure its leaders allege is being exerted on Kocharian to agree to a settlement of the Karabakh conflict on terms disadvantageous to Armenia), then it may have to act swiftly or risk losing out to a nascent rival opposition alliance. Opposition party leaders told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 10 December that they are preparing to establish a new alignment that will not only seek to oust Kocharian, but will also espouse a more pro-Western foreign policy. Political figures named in connection with the putative new bloc include former Prime Minister and Hanrapetutiun party Chairman Aram Sargsian, former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, and Liberal Progressive Party leader Hovhannes Hovannisian (no relation to Raffi). Sargsian confirmed to RFE/RL that "I am in favor of any new and expanded [opposition] structure." Sargsian attended last week's HHSh congress as a guest, but there have been no indications that the HHSh is being considered as a possible member of the new opposition alliance. Indeed, any cooperation with a party that many Armenians associate with years of poverty and desolation could prove more of a liability than an asset for Sargsian, who may himself run in the next presidential election.
An alignment between Hanrapetutiun and Raffi Hovannisian would seriously weaken the Artarutiun opposition alliance headed by People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) Chairman Stepan Demirchian. Artarutiun was the driving force behind the mass protest demonstrations last spring. "Haykakan zhamanak" on 9 December quoted an unnamed senior HZhK member as saying Demirchian has not been invited to join the Sargsian-Hovannisian alignment. But six days later, Sargsian was quoted by the same paper as saying that Demirchian is participating in the talks on setting up a new opposition alliance.
Meanwhile, a second constituent member of Artarutiun, Vazgen Manukian's National Democratic Union, is reportedly on the verge of quitting Artarutiun and joining forces with Ashot Manucharian, another long-time opposition figure who, like Manukian, served under Ter-Petrossian in the early 1990s, but later distanced themselves from him and founded opposition parties. The two men have signed an agreement on establishing two consultative councils, one of leaders of political parties and a second that will focus on foreign policy, Noyan Tapan reported on 3 December. Both Manukian and Manucharian, however, would probably be more circumspect with regard to a possible reorientation of Armenian foreign policy than would the unequivocally pro-Western Hovannisians. For that reason, a presidential candidate from that camp might be able to count on covert backing from Russia in the event of a preterm presidential ballot.
Indeed, having suffered the humiliation of seeing its preferred candidate defeated in Ukraine, Moscow might play safe by backing rival candidates in Armenia, not only the one from the Manukian-Manucharian bloc but possibly also the existing leadership's choice to succeed Kocharian, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third presidential term. The two most likely candidates at this juncture are Defense Minister Sarkisian and parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian. In an interview published on 9 December in the independent "Golos Armenii," Sarkisian dodged the question whether he intends to run for president when Kocharian's second term expires in 2008.
AFGHAN PRESIDENT SEEKS LEGAL COUNSEL ON FORMATION OF CABINET...
President Hamid Karzai told reporters in Kabul on 19 December that the announcement of his cabinet has been delayed because he wants to select ministers who -- in line with the Afghan Constitution -- do not hold dual citizenship and "are highly educated," Radio Afghanistan reported. Karzai, who was inaugurated on 7 December, said he is consulting with legal experts on how best to deal with constitutional requirements stipulating that ministers should possess higher educations and may not hold non-Afghan citizenship. "I am working carefully to form a clean and efficient cabinet; therefore, I do not think it is important whether the cabinet is announced today or tomorrow," Karzai said. "A reliable and trustworthy cabinet and a cabinet based on the will of the people is what we seek." Karzai's cabinet selections are generally regarded by many observers as his first major test since winning the 9 October presidential election (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 8 December 2004). AT
...AND HINTS AT HANDING ELECTORAL RIVAL KEY DEFENSE POST
President Karzai "indirectly acknowledged the appointment of Mohammad Yunos Qanuni as the defense minister" during his 19 December news conference, according to state broadcaster Radio Afghanistan. The station did not elaborate on how Karzai discussed Qanuni's possible appointment as defense minister, however. Qanuni placed a distant second to Karzai in the presidential election but took a majority of votes in several key, Tajik-inhabited provinces in which Karzai's first vice president, Ahmad Zia Mas'ud, had been expected to attract many voters. Qanuni served as defense minister during the mujahedin government in the 1990s and was Karzai's interior and later education minister in the post-Taliban transitional government. AT
EIGHT DEAD FOLLOWING KABUL PRISON SIEGE...
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi told journalists on 17 December that a standoff at Pul-e Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul and the ensuing raid left eight people dead, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Azimi said three Pakistanis and one Iraqi prisoner died along with four Afghan police officers when a prison escape turned into a riot. The standoff ended when Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers intervened. According to Pul-e Charkhi prison chief Abdul Salam Bakhshi, the riot began when an inmate killed a security guard with a razor blade and seized his assault rifle, AFP reported on 17 December. A gun battle ensued, then two armed Pakistani prisoners reportedly barricaded themselves in for 12 hours before being killed when ANA forces stormed the facility. AT
...AS PAKISTAN REQUESTS 'TRANSPARENT' PROBE INTO CASE
Pakistani Ambassador Rostam Shah Mohmand told AIP on 18 December that Islamabad has asked Kabul to conduct "a transparent and independent investigation" into the incident at Pol-e Charkhi prison. In a letter addressed to the Afghan Foreign Ministry, Mohmand said that "we tried to end the clashes peacefully...but the Afghan government did not allow us." Islamabad's envoy to Afghanistan also complained that the Afghan side did not allow his embassy access to a wounded Pakistani prisoner. ANA Major Amin Jan said on 17 December that his troops wanted to resolve the crisis "peacefully" but responded when they were attacked by the prisoners, AFP reported. AT
KANDAHAR GETS NEW IRANIAN CONSUL
The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced on 19 December that Hussein Sheikh Zein-ed-Din has been appointed consul to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, IRNA reported. Formerly head of the Center for Iraqi Reconstruction, Zein-ed-Din also served as ambassador to Colombia. Zein-ed-Din was in Bogota in late 1999, when Colombian authorities became concerned about Iranian activities in the demilitarized zone and raised questions about Iranian military advisers working on a slaughterhouse in a region that had few cows and was controlled by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. Zein-ed-Din claimed that area was chosen because Iran wants to contribute to the Colombian peace process (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 December 1999). Colombian officials later expressed the belief that Iran was training FARC personnel in the use of explosives (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 August 2000 and 29 April 2002). BS
TEHRAN FREEZES FORMER AFGHAN LEADER'S ASSETS
The Iranian government has frozen the bank accounts of former Afghan Prime Minister and current Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the BBC reported on 18 December and "Arman-e Melli" newspaper reported from Kabul the following day. Hekmatyar's mujahedin group was based in Pakistan during the anti-Soviet jihad, and he served as prime minister when the mujahedin seized power in Afghanistan (1992-96). Hekmatyar fled to Iran after the Taliban takeover, and Tehran expelled him in early 2002 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 March 2002). The freeze reportedly is in response to a request from a United Nations committee that monitors sanctions against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. BS
IRANIAN INTELLIGENCE MINISTER'S VISIT TO BAKU YIELDS THREE NEW PROTOCOLS
Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi's mid-December visit to Baku resulted in the addition of three new protocols to an earlier memorandum of understanding, Azerbaijan's Space TV reported on 19 December. The protocols were signed when Yunesi met with Azerbaijani National Security Minister Eldar Mahmudov, and they focus on counternarcotics, counterterrorism, organized crime, smuggling, and illegal trade. The protocols were added to a memorandum signed in July 2002, according to Space TV. BS
LABOR UNREST OCCURS UP AND DOWN IRAN
The employees of a textile factory in Gilan Province have not received their wages for seven months and are threatening to march from the provincial capital of Rasht to the capital city of Tehran, Radio Farda reported on 19 December. The factory workers have complained to the local House of Labor. In the city of Khomein, workers at the Nakh-e Talai (Golden Thread) factory have not worked for almost four weeks because of unpaid wages, Radio Farda reported. There is no electricity at the factory and it is not operating. Isa Kamali, a House of Labor official in the southern city of Bushehr, cited cases in which workers there have not been paid for months, Radio Farda reported. He said this is an especially risky situation in the Asaluyeh area, where there are more than 50,000 Iranian and foreign workers, because this affects national security and the oil sector. BS
IMPRISONED STUDENT'S CASE COMES UP FOR REVIEW
The case of a young student whose image personified the Iranian student demonstrations of July 1999 in the international media comes up for review on 20 December, according to the man's attorney. A photograph of Ahmad Batebi waving a bloody shirt was published by major international media, and Batebi has been in prison for more than five years since the 1999 tumult. Batebi's attorney, Khalil Bahramian, told Radio Farda on 19 December that after much effort he had the opportunity to read his client's file and he sees absolutely no reason for his continuing imprisonment. Batebi is charged with acting against national security, the lawyer said, but in fact he was helping emergency crews tend to the injured from clashes between students and hard-line vigilantes who stormed the Tehran University campus. The 15-year sentence against Batebi is groundless and he should be released immediately, Bahramian claimed. Bahramian also told Radio Farda that he has received a court summons. He is unaware of the reason for the summons, he said. BS
IRANIAN LEGISLATOR DIES AFTER AUTO ACCIDENT
Morteza Karami, a parliamentary representative from Ilam, died on 19 December as a result of injuries he suffered in a 7 December automobile accident, state television reported. His burial is scheduled for 21 December. Iran has one of the highest traffic-fatality rates in the world. BS
IRAQ STOPS ISSUING VISAS TO IRANIANS
Muhammad Majid al-Shaykh, the Iraqi ambassador to Iran, said on 19 December that his country has stopped issuing visas to Iranian pilgrims because of the security situation in Iraq. Al-Shaykh rejected Jordanian King Abdullah's earlier assertion that 1 million Iranians have entered Iraq to vote in that country's 30 January elections. He explained that the only visas issued to Iranians are business visas. "Therefore, how is it possible for 1 million Iranians to have entered Iraq?" he asked, apparently dismissing the possibility of illegal immigrants to the country. "No foreigner can enter Iraq without a visa, otherwise they will be arrested." Iranian Foreign Ministry official Masud Khaleqi said on 18 December that more than 1,500 Iranian pilgrims have been detained in Iraq, IRNA reported. Families of the detainees demonstrated in front of the Foreign Ministry in Tehran and demanded information on their loved ones. BS
SUICIDE BOMBERS STRIKE AL-NAJAF AND KARBALA, WHILE IRAQI ELECTION OFFICIALS ARE SLAIN IN BAGHDAD
Suicide car bombers attacked Iraq's two main Shi'ite holy cities of Al-Najaf and Karbala on 19 December, killing at least 62 people and wounding more than 140 others, international news agencies reported the same day. Also on 19 December, gunmen executed three Iraqi Election Commission officials at point-blank range after dragging them from their car. In that brazen attack, dozens of unmasked men attacked the election officials' car in the middle of morning traffic before laying them on the busy Baghdad street and shooting them. The two explosions, which appeared to be coordinated, took place two hours apart and were not far from two important Shi'ite shrines, the Imam Ali Mosque in Al-Najaf and Imam Hussein Mosque in Karbala. The blast in Karbala was the second in that city in five days (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2004). Shi'ite leaders blamed the attacks on Sunni militants seeking to disrupt elections scheduled for 30 January. "They are trying to ignite a sectarian civil war and prevent elections from going ahead on time. They have failed before and they will fail again," Reuters quoted Mohammad Bahr al-Uloum, one of Iraq's most respected Shi'ite clerics, as saying. "The Shi'ites are committed not to respond with violence, which will only lead to violence." BW
AUTHORITIES DETAIN 50 PEOPLE IN AL-NAJAF, SAY AL-SISTANI MIGHT HAVE BEEN TARGET
Authorities have detained 50 suspects in connection with a recent explosion in the Shi'ite holy city of Al-Najaf, and in an attempt to prevent future bombings have banned cars from entering the downtown area, Governor Adnan al-Zurufi said on 20 December, international news agencies reported the same day. "Fifty people, some of them from Al-Najaf and others from outside, have been detained. One person detained this morning is a citizen of an Arab country. They are all being interrogated," AP quoted al-Zurufi as saying. He added that Shi'ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who lives several hundred meters from where the blast went off, might have been a target. "We have had information for a long time that his eminence Ayatollah al-Sistani is a possible target, but we are taking all measures to protect him." Al-Sistani has declared that voting in the elections is a religious duty for all Shi'ites. BW
SADDAM HUSSEIN WARNS AGAINST 'AMERICAN PLOT' TO DIVIDE IRAQ...
Speaking through his lawyer, ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein warned Iraqis to beware of what he called U.S. plans to divide and weaken the country, international news agencies reported on 20 December. "Our representative in Iraq told us that the president warned the people of Iraq and the Arabs to beware of the American scheme aimed at splitting Iraq into sectarian and religious divisions and weakening the nation," said Bushra Khalil, a Lebanese member of Hussein's defense team, according to AP. "The president sent recommendations to the Iraqi people to remain united and not fall in the trap of America's slogans," she said on 19 December. "He said Kurds, Arabs, Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Christians are all Iraqis who all have to stand united against the American plot." Ziad al-Khasawneh, the head of Hussein's defense team, said, "President Saddam recommended to the Iraqi people to be careful of this election, which will lead to dividing the Iraqi people and their land," AP reported. Hussein met for four hours with Iraqi lawyer Khalil al-Duleimi, a member of his defense team, on 16 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2004). It was the deposed Iraqi leader's first meeting with one of his lawyers. BW
...AND LAWYER ASSAILS PRISON CONDITIONS
Al-Khasawneh, the head of Hussein's defense team, also criticized the deposed Iraqi leader's living conditions and challenged the U.S. account of his capture, international news agencies reported on 20 December. "The president is [being] detained in a completely isolated room 3 meters [by] 5 meters and does not know what is going on around him. Before [16 December] he has not met anyone except his American guards and representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross," the dpa news agency quoted al-Khasawneh as saying. He also said that U.S. accounts of Hussein's capture in a "spider hole" near Tikrit on 13 December 2003 are false. "Regrettably most of [what] the U.S. troops said in this respect was untrue, because the president was arrested during recitation of Koranic verses at a house in his hometown Tikrit. They only wanted to distort his image vis-a-vis the Iraqi people," al-Khasawneh said. BW
REPORT CLAIMS HUSSEIN'S DEFENSE TEAM IS PREPARING LEGAL CHALLENGE IN U.S.
Hussein's attorneys are preparing a legal challenge in the United States against his trial for war crimes, London's "Sunday Times" reported on 19 December, citing documents leaked by the deposed Iraqi president's defense team. Clive Stafford Smith, a British human rights lawyer, has prepared a 50-page brief containing advice to take the case to U.S. courts to ensure he receives a fair trial. The brief, titled "The Iraqi Special Tribunal as Victor's Justice -- the inherent illegality of the whole process," argues that United States law should govern Hussein's trial because it is taking place at the behest of the U.S. government. "We want to approach this trial in as many ways as possible to show that the U.S. was behind the process," the paper quoted the brief as saying. "This will help prove the lack of legitimacy of the process, as well as the bias in it." BW
FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS WITH PAKISTAN'S PRESIDENT
Interim Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on 20 December to discuss issues including next month's elections in Iraq, international news agencies reported the same day. "Iraq is passing through a difficult time, and the government of Pakistan wishes peace and stability there," AFP quoted a Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying after al-Zebari's arrival. "Pakistan continues to watch the situation in Iraq with great interest and hopes this visit [will] further strengthen the ties between the two brotherly countries for their mutual benefit," the spokesman said. Speaking in Abu-Dhabi prior to leaving for Pakistan, al-Zebari said the Iraq government is considering the idea of counting ballots from the 30 January elections outside the country for security reasons, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 19 December. BW