RUSSIAN STATE-OWNED OIL COMPANY GAINS CONTROL OF YUKOS SUBSIDIARY...
Russian state-owned oil major Rosneft announced on 22 December that it has bought 100 percent of Baikalfinansgrup and thus gained control of 76.9 percent of Yuganskneftegaz, the main production subsidiary of Yukos for which Baikalfinansgrup successfully bid in a 19 December auction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 20, and 21 December 2004), international media reported. Rosneft, which is expected to be merged with state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom next year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 17 December 2004), is the only fully state-owned Russian oil company and is headed by presidential aide Igor Sechin, who is also in charge of Russian President Vladimir Putin's personal chancellery, utro.ru and dni.ru reported. National Strategy Institute head Stanislav Belkovskii told "Vedomosti" on 22 December that Sechin, Gennadii Timchenko, and others are behind Baikalfinansgrup. Belkovskii claimed Sechin convinced Putin to begin the legal assault on Yukos in 2003. VY
...WHILE EXPERTS BELIEVE YUKOS DEAL CAN DAMAGE KREMLIN'S IMAGE...
Commenting further on the Yuganskneftegaz situation, Belkovskii told "Vedomosti" on 22 December that the 19 December auction demonstrates that the state was interested not in collecting back taxes, as it claimed, but simply in transferring assets from one business group to another. "It was the old redistribution of property as it was in the 1990s, simply the subjects of plunder have changed," dni.ru quoted Belkovskii as saying on 23 December. Former Union of Rightist Forces leader Boris Nemtsov warned that the affair might compromise President Putin personally, as he admitted publicly that he was informed about all matters linked with the auction, dni.ru reported on 23 December. "It is a shameful event, showing that the country continues to live by criminal rules, while the law plays no role," Nemtsov said. State Duma Deputy Sergei Glazev (Motherland) said Putin's remark that the auction was in compliance with Russian law "is surprising in its cynicism." "It is unheard of that a company worth $20 billion has been bought by unknown people for unknown purposes with money of unknown origin. It is looks like a typical plot by influential people aimed at appropriating a big oil company," he charged. VY
...AND YUKOS PROMISES ROSNEFT 'SERIOUS HEADACHE'
Yukos spokesman Aleksandr Shadrin said on 22 December in Moscow that his company wants to extend the restraining order of the U.S. Federal Bankruptcy Court in Houston on companies taking part in the auction to prevent the operation of Yuganskneftegaz by its new buyers, Russian media reported. "We have said that the buyer of Yuganskneftegaz is taking on a serious headache. If the final beneficiary of that deal is Rosneft, what we said would apply equally to that firm," Interfax quoted Shadrin as saying. He added that Yukos will continue to "use all legal means to dispute this illegal deal in the interests of the tens of thousands of [Yukos] shareholders." Meanwhile, at a hearing of the Houston court on 22 December, Yukos's lawyers accused Gazprom of violating the court ban on participating in the Yuganskneftegaz auction, bloomberg.com and other media reported. Yukos has claimed $20 billion in damages from the Yuganskneftegaz sale and will seek compensation. The next court hearing is set for 6 January. VY
WEEKLY SAYS GOVERNMENT AFRAID STABILIZATION FUND MIGHT BE FROZEN
"Argumenty i fakty," No. 51, wrote that according to information obtained by the weekly, "a serious financial-legal war is being prepared by Yukos shareholders in the United States, Britain, Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands." Russian state property and assets abroad, including billions of dollars of the government stabilization fund deposited in United States, could be subject to claims by Yukos shareholders. "The government understands that and is preparing its next move," the weekly commented. VY
BESLAN COMMISSION HEAD BLAMES LACK OF LEADERSHIP
Federation Council Deputy Speaker Aleksandr Torshin, who heads the intraparliamentary commission investigating the Beslan school hostage taking in September, said that the hostage taking was possible because of a lack of leadership and the failure of the security services, "Moskovskii komsomolets" reported on 22 December. "How can one explain why there was no joint command of the counterterrorism operation...in the first 36 hours?" Torshin asked. He added that because of the ineptness of Moscow during the initial stage of the siege, the regional Federal Security Service (FSB) head, Major General Valerii Andreev, took command himself without having the authority to do so. Another failure was the inability of the security officials to organize the adequate collection and processing of intelligence information. Torshin also accused "foreign secret services" of preparing and training the Beslan attackers. At the same time, Torshin said the commission established that the attackers used secret military drugs used by special units of Russian military intelligence to increase their combat readiness. VY
DUMA GIVES INITIAL APPROVAL TO CREATION OF NEW FEDERAL ORGAN...
The State Duma passed a law on the Public Chamber of Russia in its first reading on 22 December, Russian news agencies reported. The vote was 344 in favor with 66 against and one abstention, according to ITAR-TASS. The Communist Party and Motherland voted against the bill. The chamber will be a new federal structure designed to assess draft laws, reconciling the interests of citizens, public associations, and state organs on the most important social and political questions. Its decision will have no legal force and will carry the weight of a recommendation, according to RIA-Novosti. The chamber will be formed in three stages under the current draft, lenta.ru reported. The president will make a list of 42 individuals, who will then confirm 42 representatives of federal public associations as members of the chamber. In the final stage, another group of 42 individuals will be confirmed on the basis of the recommendations of regional public associations. Members will serve for two years. The chamber itself should hold no less than two sessions per year, according to RosBalt. JAC
...AND PASS HOUSING BILLS
Also on 22 December, Duma deputies adopted a package of laws aimed at developing the conditions for mortgage loans and an affordable housing market, RosBalt reported. Lawmakers passed some 17 documents in their third and final readings, including a Housing Code and Civil Construction Code. According to RTR, the authors of the bills hope that housing prices in Russia will decline once they are implemented. JAC
CANDIDATE DISQUALIFIED BEFORE SECOND ROUND ASKS THAT FIRST ROUND BE ANNULLED
Local dairy-product magnate Sergei Gerasimov has asked that the results of the first round of the gubernatorial elections in Ulyanovsk Oblast be declared invalid because of violations of election law, VolgaInform reported on 22 December. Gerasimov won the second-most votes in the first round on 5 December and was ready to compete in the second round against Dmitrovgrad Mayor Sergei Morozov; however, the oblast election commission stripped him of his registration as a candidate on 20 December for allegedly trying to "buy voters" with low prices on milk and kefir. Morozov, who is supported by Unified Russia, had only a slight lead in the first round, and the second round scheduled for 26 December is considered too close to call, according to gazeta.ru on 20 December. Gerasimov told gazeta.ru that his milk factory did lower prices on 15 October but that the action was dictated by his company's board of directors based on their assessment of market conditions and did not have anything to do with the election. JAC
MOSQUE TEACHES IMAMS HOW TO SPOT A TERRORIST
Some 150 imans are undergoing courses on preventing terrorism in Nizhnii Novgorod, "Gazeta" reported on 22 December. Nizhnii Novgorod's mosque is offering courses on traditional Islamic subjects as well as on the struggle against terrorism. According to the daily, the imams will learn how to recognize potential terrorists among the people coming to prayers at their mosques. "As a rule, these people are average, not noticeable people. After a sermon, they come to other mosque attendees and start up conversations about faith, believing that they are authentic Muslims," Damir Mukhetdinov, director of the apparatus for the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Nizhnii Novgorod and Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast, said. The imams also learn the proper construction and reading of sermons so that they can educate believers in the traditions of orthodox Islam and not allow them to be converted by adherents of extremist organizations. JAC
PUTIN SIGNS AMENDMENTS TO LAW ON POLITICAL PARTIES
President Putin signed on 22 December amendments to the law on political parties, the main innovation of which is to raise the minimum number of members in a party to 50,000 nationwide, Interfax and RosBalt reported. More than half of the regional branches must have no fewer than 500 members each, while the remainder of the regional branches should have no fewer than 250 members each. Parties have until 1 January 2006 to comply with the new rules. If they fail to reach a sufficient membership, they will have another year to make the transition from a political party to a public association. The bill was passed by the State Duma on 3 December and the Federation Council on 8 December. JAC
FAR NORTH INCUMBENT ON BALLOT SO FAR
Incumbent Nenets Autonomous Okrug Governor Vladimir Butov was registered on 21 December as a candidate in the 23 January gubernatorial election, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 22 December. However, the daily noted that Butov might still be barred from campaigning. Also on 21 December, the okrug prosecutor filed a lawsuit challenging the recently adopted local law allowing Butov to seek a third term. Some 16 other candidates have registered their interest in running for governor, according to the election commission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2004). JAC
ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER COMMENTS ON TALKS WITH AZERBAIJAN OVER NAGORNO-KARABAKH
Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian rejected on 22 December recent Azerbaijani media reports claiming that the recent series of meetings with his Azerbaijani counterpart are based on a "phased" approach to settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Arminfo reported. Oskanian's comments refer to the incremental, or "phased," strategy of resolving the conflict that was initially attempted by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian. Oskanian did reveal, however, that "principles have remained the same, but have undergone certain modifications which allow Azerbaijan to stay in the talks," according to Mediamax. The statement follows recent rumors of an agreement to cede the Azerbaijani districts beyond the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh prior to any determination of the final status of Karabakh. To date, the official Armenian position has been in favor of a "package" solution that would incorporate all elements of a resolution at the same time. Another round of direct talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers is set to resume in Prague sometime next month. RG
DEFENSE MINISTER REAFFIRMS ARMENIA'S COMMITMENT TO PLANNED IRAQ DEPLOYMENT
Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian reaffirmed on 22 December the Armenian government's commitment to deploy a small detachment of noncombat troops to Iraq, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Addressing a closed meeting of the parliamentary Defense and Security Committee, Sarkisian urged passage of the government's request for authorization in an upcoming parliamentary debate. Sarkisian was joined by Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian, who reported on his planning with Polish military officials to resolve outstanding logistical details of the deployment. The statements follow a recent public-opinion poll that reflected strong domestic opposition to Armenian participation in the U.S.-led mission in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2004). The planed Armenian deployment consists of a 50-member military force to be stationed in an area of south-central Iraq under the control of a Polish-led multinational division. The Armenian unit is to comprise military doctors, sappers, and military truck drivers and mechanics. RG
ARMENIAN EDUCATION MINISTER REPORTS RURAL TEACHER SHORTAGE
Education Minister Sergo Yeritsian said on 22 December that there is a significant shortage of secondary-school teachers in most of the country's rural districts, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Yeritsian revealed that some 250 village schools were particularly short of teaching staff and suffering from years of neglect and noted that although teachers are dispatched to work in the rural areas, "they quit after working for one year, apparently because of difficult living conditions." Ironically, the Education Ministry has been widely criticized for contributing to the shortage by implementing a sweeping dismissal of about 10 percent of all teachers in 2002. RG
IRANIAN DEFENSE MINISTER ARRIVES IN BAKU
Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Safar Abiev, in Baku on 22 December, Turan reported. Shamkhani, in Baku for a two-day official visit, is the latest effort to improve strained relations between Iran and Azerbaijan and is tied to a planned visit by Aliyev to Iran. In a reference to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, Shamkhani said that "the Islamic Republic of Iran has always supported and will support Azerbaijan's territorial integrity in the future" and added that "Azerbaijan's security is our security." RG
AZERBAIJANI COURT SENTENCES GROUP FOR ATTEMPTING TO FORM ILLEGAL PARAMILITARY FORCE
A Baku court on 22 December sentenced a group of 21 defendants convicted of establishing an illegal paramilitary group preparing to carry out attacks against Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turan reported. The leader of the group, Rovsan Badalov, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and four other defendants received sentences of between eight and nine years. The remaining members of the group received sentences of six years or less, and four were given suspended sentences. RG
GEORGIAN PRESIDENT PLEDGES SIGNIFICANT GAINS FROM PRIVATIZATION
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said on 22 December that the government expects to earn more than $200 million from a new privatization plan, ITAR-TASS reported. Saakashvili explained that under the government of former President Eduard Shevardnadze, "90 percent of facilities meant for privatization were sold for miserable sums," and he pledged that his cabinet's new privatization effort will garner over $200 million. Saakashvili explained that he plans to add the proceeds to the state budget and then allocate $70 million to the Georgian Air Force and another $70 million to modernize the Georgian energy sector. RG
GEORGIAN PEACEKEEPERS RETURN FROM AFGHANISTAN
A platoon of Georgian peacekeepers returned from Afghanistan on 22 December after completing their tour of duty, Caucasus Press reported. The Georgian force, comprising a unit from the Sachkhere mountain infantry battalion, had served under the command of German peacekeepers since September 2004. Although Georgia has recently expanded its deployment in Iraq, it decided against extending its peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. RG
KAZAKH DEMOCRACY COMMISSION GETS DOWN TO WORK
A working group in Kazakhstan's National Commission on Issues of Democracy and Civil Society began drafting a political-reform program on 22 December, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Gani Kasymov, leader of the Patriots' Party and head of the group, described the working group's aim as "gathering proposals from all political forces in Kazakhstan." Kazbek Kazkenov, a member of the ruling Otan party, said that two issues are crucial for political reform: the role and functions of the president as head of state, and the role of parliament. Kasymov noted that both the authorities and society need the commission in light of recent events in Ukraine. He said: "The main thing is not to allow so much tension. I'm convinced that Kazakh society couldn't weather such a standoff, since we are influenced by several negative factors, including the intersecting interests of major powers, territorial problems, and ethnic issues." DK
ASIAN DEVELOPMENT BANK GIVES KYRGYZSTAN $33 MILLION LOAN
Ashraf Malik, the Asian Development Bank's (ADB) permanent representative in Kyrgyzstan, announced on 22 December that the ADB has given the country a 32-year $32.8 million loan to rebuild the Osh-Sarytash-Erkechtam road, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The road connects China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The ADB has other programs planned for 2005 as well: $3 million to reduce rural residents' vulnerability to natural disasters, $3 million to develop small and medium business in rural areas, $3 million to prevent neonatal mortality, and $7.5 million to modernize Kyrgyzstan's customs service. DK
KYRGYZ OPPOSITION LEADER LOOKS AHEAD TO ELECTIONS
Kurmanbek Bakiev, head of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, told the BBC in a 21 December interview that the 27 February parliamentary elections will be a crucial test. "If all segments of society are represented [in parliament], there won't be any destabilization in society," he said. "But if parliament is formed taking into account only the interests of the current authorities, then protests are inevitable, as is the case in Ukraine at present." President Askar Akaev recently warned of possible election-related destabilization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2004). Bakiev also said that the opposition group does not receive, or need, financial assistance from any foreign powers. "We have enough businessmen, including representatives of small and medium business, who sympathize with us and are ready to help us to the extent that they can," he said. Bakiev, who has already announced plans to run for president in October 2005, said that Akaev, who has said he will not run again, may yet attempt to stay on in power and groom his daughter as his successor. Bakiev warned, "Such a transfer, or rather, preservation of power, is fraught with serious consequences." DK
UZBEKISTAN TO START ACCUMULATION PENSION SYSTEM
Uzbekistan's cabinet issued a resolution on 21 December setting 1 January as the start date for an accumulation pension system in Uzbekistan, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported the next day. Beginning in January, an obligatory 1 percent of workers' salaries will be deposited into an individual pension account. A concurrent 1 percent reduction in income-tax payments will offset the new measure. The system will augment the existing state pension fund. Workers who voluntarily opt to transfer more than 1 percent of their earnings to an individual pension fund will be able to set the size and interval of payments independently. DK
BELARUSIAN POLICE DETAIN OBSERVERS FOR UKRAINIAN VOTE
Police officers in Minsk on 22 December detained more than 60 Belarusian monitors for the Ukrainian presidential ballot scheduled for 26 December, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. The monitors were detained during an instruction meeting at a hotel just hours before they were due to travel by train to Kyiv. "The policemen told us that they had a phone call saying that unidentified people were gathered here," human rights activist Ales Byalatski told RFE/RL. "We were taken to a police station for an identification process." The identification lasted beyond the train's departure for Kyiv, leaving the monitors stranded. "It's obvious that the motive behind this action was to prevent Belarusian observers from leaving for the Ukrainian election," Byalatski commented. The monitors reportedly were seeking to catch a bus to Kyiv to allow them to carry out their monitoring duties. JM
BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT SETS SIGHT ON EUROPEAN AGRICULTURAL STANDARDS
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka told a government conference in Minsk on 22 December that the main objective of a draft State Rural Revival Program for 2005-10 is to bring Belarus's agricultural sector up to international standards, Belapan reported, quoting official sources. "Irrespective of whether or not we will be admitted to the European Union, both we and the EU can't get away from this common space, above all, the economic one and, probably, a political one some day," Lukashenka said. "That's why we have to strain to reach their level of foodstuffs, clothes, industrial goods, and living conditions before it is too late.... There is no other way for us, as we are surrounded by Russia and the European Union. We cannot fence ourselves off and live separately. We will have to cooperate with all of them." Lukashenka warned that government subsidies will not be sufficient to revive the agricultural sector. "Iron discipline and painstaking labor will have to compensate for the lack of funds. We will make everybody in the agricultural sector, from managers and experts to common peasants, work at utmost strain day and night," he said. JM
YUSHCHENKO CALLS ON UKRAINIANS TO VOTE IN NEW PRESIDENTIAL RUNOFF...
Opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko called on Ukrainians during a rally of 80,000 people on Kyiv's Independence Square on 22 December to "defend their choice" in the 26 December repeat of the fraudulent late-November presidential runoff, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. "Each vote will help maintain Ukraine's unity," Yushchenko said. "Each citizen must come out so that the result is totally convincing, so that there is no temptation to cheat or disrupt the ballot. I want to warn all of you -- the vote on 26 December will be no easy stroll. There are still forces prepared to disrupt it." Yushchenko called on Ukrainians to gather on Independence Square after the balloting and remain there "until victory." Yushchenko professed to being certain of his presidential victory and pledged to form a cabinet of "national trust" and adopt a five-year government program immediately after the election. JM
...AND SEES NO ROLE FOR HIS RIVAL IN FUTURE GOVERNMENT
Presidential candidate Yushchenko told Russian journalists in Kyiv on 22 December that if he is elected president in the 26 December vote, Prime Minister and presidential rival Viktor Yanukovych will "under no circumstances" be included into a new cabinet, Interfax reported. "If you have lost, you should go," Yushchenko added. Yushchenko did not rule out talks with his presidential rival regarding "the political work that could ensure mutual understanding and the formation of healthier relations." Answering a question about his dioxin poisoning, Yushchenko said the Prosecutor-General's Office should have no major problems in discovering who poisoned him. "It is not a complicated criminal case, because the [poisoning] is limited by a [short] interval of time," Yushchenko said. He said that on the day he is believed to have been poisoned, he ate twice, at two dinners. Yushchenko repeated his earlier suggestion that his poisoning was the authorities' attempt at political assassination. JM
UKRAINIAN SECURITY SERVICE DENIES IT POISONED YUSHCHENKO
The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) issued a statement saying it was in no way involved in the deterioration of presidential candidate Yushchenko's health, Interfax reported on 22 December. Media reports have suggested that Yushchenko, who is suffering from dioxin poisoning, might have ingested poison at SBU deputy head Volodymyr Satsyuk's dacha on 5 September, where he meet with Satsyuk and SBU chief Ihor Smeshko for dinner (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 15 December 2004). JM
YANUKOVYCH VILIFIES RIVAL'S SUPPORTERS AT CAMPAIGN RALLIES
Prime Minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych thanked his backers at a rally in Vinnytsya on 23 December for "not being traitors to their country," Interfax reported. He also addressed orange-clad Yushchenko supporters who were present at the rally: "The orange ones who are here have shown their true colors and demonstrated how to carry out orders and sell their land for foreign money," he charged. Speaking at a rally in Kirovohrad on 22 December, Yanukovych said: "I want you to know that those people who come out to vote for the 'orange coup' in this election are voting against the Ukrainian people. They are acting against those who should be the real owners of Ukrainian land." JM
BOSNIAN GOVERNMENT CRISIS SIMMERS ON...
The governing Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) decided in Banja Luka on 22 December that it will call on other leading parties in Republika Srpska to form a joint policy on participation in the central government of Bosnia-Herzegovina as soon as Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic appoints a new prime minister, which will be by 28 December, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The SDS also agreed that Borislav Paravac (SDS), who is the Serbian member of the Bosnian Presidency, will not step down (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 20, and 21 December 2004). The party appealed to members of the international committee supervising the peace in Bosnia not to support attempts by unspecified international organizations to pressure duly elected officials of the Republika Srpska, which is an apparent reference to recent decisions by High Representative Paddy Ashdown to sack nine Bosnian Serb security and police officials and strengthen the central government at the expense of the entities. PM
...WITH HELP FROM SERBIA
Serbian President Boris Tadic, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, and parliamentary speaker Predrag Markovic agreed in Belgrade on 22 December that High Representative Ashdown's decisions are "undemocratic and against the law," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The Serbian leaders added that Ashdown failed to appreciate the efforts made by Banja Luka to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 24 November 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 10 December 2004). PM
BOSNIAN SERBS INVESTIGATE MYSTERIOUS LETTER
Several Bosnian Serb media outlets received a letter on 22 December that was purportedly sent by former Bosnian Serb leader and war crimes indictee Radovan Karadzic, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The author of the letter called on Bosnian Serbs to resist decisions handed down by international authorities, adding that the author will not "hesitate for a minute to sacrifice [himself] for [the sake of] the Republika Srpska." Karadzic's wife, Ljiljana Zelen-Karadzic, dismissed the letter as a fake, saying the style is not even close to that of her husband. President Cavic called the document a "malicious political trick." The authorities are investigating the origins of the letter. PM
MACEDONIAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT HANDS DOWN KEY DECISION
Macedonia's Constitutional Court on 22 December struck down an article in the law on electing members of the parliament, according to which legislators must give up their seats if they switch parties, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. The ruling affects the legislative caucus of the conservative opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), which currently holds 28 of the 120 seats in parliament. The decision thus allows followers of former Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski to form a caucus of the newly founded VMRO-Narodna without giving up the seats they won on the VMRO-DPMNE ticket. According to "Utrinski vesnik," this new group will include at least 13 of the VMRO-DPMNE's lawmakers. Incumbent VMRO-DPMNE Chairman Nikola Gruevski will lead a faction of at least 10 legislators. Five other deputies have yet to decide whether to join the new group, remain with Gruevski, or form a caucus of their own. Because the court ruling followed an appeal by Georgievski that was backed by the governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM), Gruevski said the Constitutional Court ruling shows that there is a tacit "coalition" between the SDSM and Georgievski. UB
ROMANIAN PRESIDENT ENTRUSTS NATIONAL LIBERAL CHAIRMAN WITH FORMING GOVERNMENT...
President Traian Basescu on 22 December tasked National Liberal Party (PNL) Chairman Calin Popescu-Tariceanu with forming Romania's next government in the wake of the inconclusive national elections on 28 November, Mediafax and Reuters reported. Under the constitution, Popescu-Tariceanu must form the government and present its lineup and program to parliament for a confidence vote within 10 days. Basescu noted that the PNL-Democratic Party alliance has the largest representation in parliament because the Social Democratic Party (PSD)-Humanist Party (PUR) ran as an electoral alliance and therefore has separate caucuses in the parliament. He said he cannot be certain that Popescu-Tariceanu will be able to recruit a majority behind a cabinet formed by the PNL-Democratic Party. Basescu also confirmed that he has appointed the outgoing government's Secretary-General Eugen Bejenariu as interim prime minister. MS
...AND POPESCU-TARICEANU HOPES TO ACCOMPLISH TASK WITHIN ONE WEEK
Prime Minister-designate Popescu-Tariceanu told journalists after his nomination by Basescu that he hopes to form a cabinet by 29 December, Mediafax reported. He said he will begin party talks immediately. Democratic Party Chairman Emil Boc suggested after talks with Popescu-Tariceanu that the new cabinet will have 24 members and 17 ministries. The PNL will control 11 portfolios, the Democratic Party nine, and the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania four, Boc said. MS
PARTIES REACT TO ROMANIAN PREMIER-DESIGNATE'S APPOINTMENT
Social Democratic Party Chairman and former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase reacted to Popescu-Tariceanu's designation by saying his party "does not want to contribute to creating a situation of political instability," Mediafax reported. Nastase, who was recently elected speaker of the lower house, said Popescu-Tariceanu's designation is "a matter of [party] vanity more than anything else." Nastase said he had suggested that Basescu promote the formation of a grand coalition. Greater Romania Party (PRM) Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor rejected the possibility of support for a cabinet that includes four UDMR members. Meanwhile, on 22 December, Tudor was elected as one of the Senate's four deputy chairmen, and former President Ion Iliescu was elected leader of the Social Democrats' parliamentary group in the upper house. MS
MEDIATORS CONCERNED OVER INCIDENT IN BENDERY-TIGHINA
The three international mediators in the Transdniester conflict -- Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- expressed concern on 22 December over the growing tension between Chisinau and Tiraspol, Flux and ITAR-TASS reported. They urged the parts to "make additional efforts to ensure the region's security" and to refrain from "any unilateral action that could aggravate tension in the security zone." The appeal was issued after a 20 December incident in which a building in Bendery-Tighina that housed both Russian peacekeepers and the Moldovan police was set on fire. Bendery-Tighina is partly under the control of Tiraspol separatists. Moldovan and Transdniestrian leaders have each accused the other of starting the fire. MS
MOLDOVAN RAILWAY BEGINS RECONSTRUCTION TO BYPASS SEIZED STATION
Moldovan Railways has begun the reconstruction of a rail route that should allow it to bypass a station that was seized earlier this year by Transdniestrian separatists, Infotag reported on 22 December. The separatists subordinated the route between the Bendery-Tighina railway station and Ukraine to the newly created Transdniester Railways after wresting control of the facility in September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 September and 21 October 2004). MS
MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT HAILS ANNIVERSARY OF GAGAUZ-YERI AUTONOMOUS REGION
Speaking in Chisinau on 22 December, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin said that by setting up the Gagauz-Yeri Autonomous Republic 10 years earlier, the country demonstrated that it is capable of respecting the human rights of all ethnic groups on its territory, Infotag reported. He said the autonomous region's special status should serve as an example for resolving interethnic conflicts. Voronin praised the audacity of his predecessors, Mircea Snegur and Petru Lucinschi (who attended the ceremony) for having promoted autonomy as a solution. Turkish President Suleiman Demirel, who also attended, was decorated by Voronin with the Order of the Republic. MS
WILL UZBEKISTAN'S ELECTIONS BE FREE AND FAIR?
Uzbekistan is set to hold parliamentary elections on 26 December, but it is all but certain to be a one-sided affair. Opposition parties are not taking part directly in the elections and are urging a boycott by voters, who for their part seem to care little about the upcoming event. Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has sent a "limited mission" to observe the polls, in which five pro-government parties will vie for 120 lower-house seats in the parliament, the Oliy Majlis, which is set to become bicameral. Representatives from the CIS, including Russia and Tajikistan, will also monitor the vote.
There's unlikely to be even a whiff of fraud about Uzbekistan's parliamentary polls, as authorities have simply barred opposition parties from taking part.
All five parties competing for seats in the lower-house have publicly expressed support for President Islam Karimov. They include the People's Democratic Party, the Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party, Milliy Tiklanish (National Renaissance), Fidokorlar (Self-Sacrificers), and the Liberal Democratic Party.
Together with a few citizens' groups, the parties will field 517 candidates.
The Justice Ministry, however, has rejected election registration applications from the three main opposition parties -- Erk (Freedom), Birlik (Unity), and Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants).
Karimov nonetheless vowed the polls would be free and fair during an address on 2 December to the last session of the Oliy Majlis.
"The forthcoming elections should, primarily, be fully in line with the principles envisaged in the constitution, the election laws and regulations. The elections must be unbiased and fair and should be held in a free, transparent and open way, without any pressure or influence from the outside. In a word, they must demonstrate our electorate's free will. I think that all of you will support me on this, and we all are responsible for this," Karimov said.
But Western observers say Uzbek authorities have already succeeded in setting the stage for unfair elections.
Kimmo Kiljunen, a member of the Finnish parliament and former vice president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly, told RFE/RL: "To organize elections which are not free and fair, it's not typical that you are manipulating the election results technically. What is most typical -- and I have been in very many election observation processes -- is that you create the pre-climate, the election climate for the election campaign, [to be] unfair. That the media is biased, and that you might in many cases eliminate candidates which are somewhat opposing the government. This is clearly the situation where you might have 'free' but not fair elections."
Erk and the Free Peasants are urging voters and the international community to boycott the polls, saying the presence of international observers would give Uzbek authorities the grounds for claiming the elections to be legitimate.
Erk's leader-in-exile, Muhammad Solih, told RFE/RL: "In the current situation, the only way we can and have to choose is boycotting the elections. Because even expressing a desire to participate in elections dictated by the government amounts to legitimizing the government and the vote. It means betrayal of the opposition's goals and ideas of democracy."
Nigora Hidoyatova, head of the Free Peasants party, was the first to call on foreign leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, to boycott the elections. Despite the boycott, she said her party will continue to work with potential Uzbek voters. "No, we will stir the masses to greater activity in order to involve them to politics," she said. "And we will also raise awareness of our people."
The Birlik opposition party, however, is not taking part in the boycott. Rather, its members decided to register as candidates from citizens' groups and also to monitor the elections.
The party's U.S.-based leader, Abdurahim Polat, said a boycott is only possible in a free country with a strong civil society and independent media, because only then could the boycott influence public opinion.
Polat said that if elected, Birlik members are going to raise important issues in the new parliament. "The main issue is an economic one, since the economic situation of the Uzbek people is getting worse," he said. "But at present, no economic reforms are possible since the whole economy is chained to the political system. No progress is possible without changing this system, without creating a real legislature and independent judiciary."
The OSCE has sent a "limited mission of observers" to monitor the elections. But groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW) have argued against sending any kind of international observers.
In a letter to the OSCE last October, HRW Executive Director Holly Cartner said there are no grounds for fair polls in Uzbekistan, where "opposition political parties cannot function without fear of interference, harassment, confiscation of materials, and detention and ill treatment."
Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokeswoman for the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, told RFE/RL it is too early to comment on the issue. "We will have a small observation [team] in Uzbekistan. We have a group of 21 observers in Uzbekistan at the moment," she said. "They have been there since the beginning of December, but I think that we should just wait and see how elections day goes on [26 December before commenting further]."
Unlike the OSCE, Vladimir Rushailo was ready to comment after his arrival in Tashkent in November. Rushailo heads the CIS Executive Committee mission, which will monitor the Uzbek polls.
Asked about the election ban on opposition parties, Rushailo told a news conference on 30 November that the mission did not intend to review the decisions of Uzbek officials.
Rushailo expressed satisfaction with the preparation process and praised the introduction of a 30 percent quota for women candidates. He also said he was pleased that ballots are published in Uzbek as well as in Russian, Karakalpak, Tajik, and Kazakh.
Aleksandr Veshnyakov, head of Russia's Central Election Commission (TsIK), also visited Tashkent in mid-December and concluded that the Uzbek voters had a genuine choice since there are at least four candidates for every available seat. The TsIK as well as the State Duma will have observers among the 70 CIS representatives monitoring the Uzbek vote.
However, both Rushailo and Veshnyakov failed to note that of the 517 candidates, only 13 are non-Uzbeks. Six Russians, four Tajiks, and three Kazakhs are registered, but observers say they have little chance of being elected.
Tashkent-based independent sociologist Bahodir Musaev said the Russian mission is in Tashkent to help the Uzbek government. "In my opinion, [Russian] political experts came to help [Uzbek] officials prevent major errors and not anger voters, because the current situation is very hard in the country," he said. "There is a strong social tension."
Russia is one country Tashkent can expect assistance from. The United States is another. Washington criticized the 1999 parliamentary polls, but Uzbekistan has since become a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.
Paul Jones, the U.S. envoy to the OSCE, said on 16 December that the United States hopes the elections will be free and transparent. But he added in the statement: "We also note with regret that no truly independent opposition candidates will be taking part in these elections, a development unfortunately calling into question whether the elections will be truly competitive."
(Golnaza Saidazimova is a Prague-based RFE/RL correspondent. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)
U.S. CONSTRUCTING FOUR MILITARY BASES FOR AFGHAN ARMY
At a news conference in Kabul on 22 December, U.S. military spokesman Major Mark McCann said the United States is building four military bases in Afghanistan for use by the Afghan National Army (ANA), Reuters reported. McCann said that the bases are "not for U.S. use." The bases, each designed to accommodate some 4,000 ANA personnel, are being built in western Herat Province, southern Kandahar Province, northern Balkh Province, and southeastern Paktiya Province. Iranian sources have expressed concern over the base being built in Herat, which borders Iran (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 17 December 2004). AT
AFGHAN WOMEN'S AFFAIRS MINISTRY TO REMAIN IN PLACE
In an interview with Afghan Voice Agency on 22 December, Women's Affairs Minister Habiba Sarabi said her ministry will remain intact in the new Afghan cabinet. Sarabi dismissed speculation that her ministry might be absorbed into another institution. Sarabi recommended the establishment of more family courts in addition to the only existing one in Kabul. AT
COMMANDER WEST OF KABUL DISARMS
Abdul Ahmad, a local commander in the central Afghan Wardak Province, voluntarily surrendered his weapons to the government, Afghanistan Television reported on 22 December. General Mohammad Basir Salangi, security commander of Wardak, said other commanders also wanted to disarm along with Abdul Ahmad but weather prevented them from doing so. "We will witness the handover of weapons by other local commanders in the near future," Salangi pledged. AT
GEORGIA ENDS MILITARY PRESENCE IN AFGHANISTAN
A Georgian Defense Ministry source said his country has ended its participation in the international peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan and will not send additional troops, Interfax-AVN reported on 22 December. The source said 50 Georgian troops returned home on 22 December from Afghanistan, where they had worked with the German contingent of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. AT
IRANIAN PRESIDENT VISITS EARTHQUAKE SITE
President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami visited the city of Bam on 22 December, IRNA reported. An earthquake of 6.3 magnitude struck the city on 26 December 2003, killing ove 25,000 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless. The international community rushed to provide humanitarian assistance, leading to speculation at the time on the possible rekindling of Tehran-Washington relations. Khatami's current visit, according to the state news agency, is to assess progress on reconstruction of the city. Local and national officials have been heavily criticized over the shoddy construction methods that led to the tremendous loss of life as well as the pace of reconstruction. BS
IRANIAN STUDENTS SPLIT ON PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES
Members of the Office for Strengthening Unity's central council on 21 December asked a former speaker of parliament, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, to be a candidate in the upcoming presidential election, Mehr News Agency reported. The Office for Strengthening Unity is Iran's main politically active student organization and is generally supportive of reform efforts. Mehdi Darvish, the student organization's public-relations chief, said the two sides discussed their views on the reformists. Members of another student organization, the Islamic Assembly of Independent Students, met with a presidential candidate on 22 December, according to Mehr News Agency. The students questioned conservative candidate Ali Akbar Velayati about his views. A member of the student assembly, Ali Khezriyan, said the students are critical of the policies of Presidents Khatami and Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. During the meeting, Khezriyan said, Velayati focused on his plans for the economy. BS
IRAN ANNOUNCES ARREST OF 'NUCLEAR SPIES'
Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said in Tehran on 22 December that Iran has arrested more than 10 "nuclear spies" in Tehran and Hormozgan over the last few years who were working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Israel's Mossad, state television reported. "Three of those spies were employees of the Atomic Energy Organization," Yunesi said. "Some of them were military officers and some of the others were self-employed." Yunesi added that any information the United States obtained through these agents was "worthless." The Mujahedin Khalq Organization, an exile opposition group that is on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations, has been the source of several reports on covert Iranian nuclear activities. Yunesi claimed that the United States let the MKO make these announcements in order to divert attention from its principle agents. BS
IRAN ACCUSED OF MAKING URANIUM POWDER
Anonymous diplomats in Vienna said on 21 December that by making uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) powder, Iran is violating the spirit but not the letter of its agreement to freeze uranium-enrichment activities, AFP and Reuters reported. Making the UF4 is permissible, although according to AFP this is a precursor to UF6, a gas that is used in centrifuges to make enriched uranium. BS
IRAN TO GET INTERNET POLICE SOON
Nasrollah Jahangard, secretary of the Supreme Information Council, announced that efforts are under way to create an Internet-police unit in coordination with the national law enforcement forces, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 18 December. Jahangard said a law on Internet crimes has been written and there is a budget for training judges on information technology. He added that the judiciary has "reacted positively" to a request to form a specialized tribunal for high-tech crimes. Jahangard connected these developments with the desire to protect software creators. It is unclear whether this announcement is connected with one on 20 November, when parliamentary computer-crimes-committee Secretary Reza Parvizi said the computer penal law relates to the filtering of websites, ISNA reported. BS
U.S. MILITARY SAYS SUICIDE BOMBER LIKELY CARRIED OUT MOSUL ATTACK...
The attack that killed 22 people on a U.S. military base in Mosul on 21 December was most likely the work of a suicide bomber, U.S. officials announced the next day. Speaking in Washington, General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said an "improvised explosive device worn by an attacker" appeared to have caused the blast, Reuters reported on 22 December. "Evidence found at the site includes components normally associated with improvised explosive devices. There was no physical evidence of a rocket, mortar, or other type of indirect fire weapon," the U.S. military's Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a press release posted on the command's website (http://www.centcom.mil) on 22 December. Officials had initially said the explosion in a mess tent at the U.S. military's Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul was caused by a rocket attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2004). The attack killed 22 people, including 14 U.S. soldiers, four U.S. civilian contractors, three members of the Iraqi security forces, and one "unidentified non-U.S. person," the CENTCOM said. BW
...AS MILITARY EXAMINES SECURITY AT BASES
In the wake of the 21 December bombing in Mosul, which raised questions about how a suicide bomber could infiltrate a heavily guarded U.S. installation, the military has begun reexamining security at bases throughout Iraq, AP reported on 23 December. "It is a fluid situation where our security measures and plans are constantly being adapted and reworked," said 1st Sergeant Steve Valley, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad, according to AP. The Marez facility in Mosul is surrounded by blast walls and barbed wire, and U.S. troops search and check the identity of every person who enters, AP reported. Iraqis perform several jobs at the base, including cleaning, cooking, office work, construction, and translating. BW
U.S. FORCES ROUND UP 43 SUSPECTED MILITANTS IN RAIDS ON IRAQI REBEL STRONGHOLDS...
U.S. Marines have detained 43 suspected militants in a series of raids south of Baghdad, Reuters reported on 23 December, citing a statement by the U.S. military. The raids were the latest in a series that has captured around 600 militants. Marines, backed by Iraqi security forces and police, detained 21 suspected guerrillas in the rebel stronghold of Al-Yusufiyah and captured another 13 in the town of Haswah and nine in Al-Mahmudiyah. BW
...AS VIOLENCE CONTINUES
Three Iraqi civilians and a policeman were killed on 23 December in separate attacks on a mosque and a police station in or near Baghdad, AFP reported the same day, quoting unidentified police sources. A mortar shell struck the Ashra Mohammadia Mosque in western Baghdad, a Sunni Muslim place of worship, killing three Iraqis and wounding three others. A mortar shell also exploded outside a police station in Baghdad's Al-Mamun district, killing one police officer and wounding another. And in Ba'qubah, northeast of Baghdad, insurgents assassinated a policeman. In other violence, roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier and wounded two others in western Baghdad on 23 December, Reuters reported the same day. On 22 December, a suicide bomber rammed a car into an Iraqi checkpoint outside Al-Latifiyah, just to the south of Al-Mahmudiyah, killing nine people and wounding 13, Reuters reported the next day. BW
REPORT: IRAQIS IN IRAN CAN VOTE IN JANUARY ELECTION
Iraqi citizens living in Iran will be allowed to vote in Iraq's 30 January elections, dpa reported on 23 December, citing Iranian media reports. According to the reports, which quoted the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Tehran has signed an agreement with the International Organization for Migration that would allow Iraqi refugees to cast ballots between 28 and 30 January. Voting facilities will be available in Teheran, Shiraz, Mashhad, Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, and Ahvaz, dpa reported. BW
REPORT: IRAQI OFFICIAL SAYS PHOTOS SHOW SYRIAN OFFICIALS WITH INSURGENTS
Iraq's newly appointed ambassador to Syria, Hassan Allawi, claimed his country has photographs showing Syrian officials with guerrillas who were captured when U.S. and Iraqi forces stormed Al-Fallujah in November, "The Times" of London reported on 23 December. "Prime Minister Iyad Allawi wrote a letter to the Syrians saying he had the pictures but was not going to release them despite being under pressure from the Americans to do so," "The Times" quoted Hassan Allawi as saying. Ambassador Allawi said the photographs were found on a leader of a group of former Ba'athist intelligence personnel who served under Saddam Hussein. He said one picture showed a guerrilla identified as Moayad Ahmad Yasin (aka Abu Ahmad) standing next to a senior Syrian official. Yasin was arrested in Al-Fallujah in mid-November, "The Times" reported. In an interview with the Jordanian newspaper "Al-Rai," Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi said that in his message to the Syrian president he "included evidence and confessions by terrorist elements and asked for help to stop acts of terrorism being staged from Syria," dpa reported on 23 December. BW