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Newsline - January 11, 2005

President Vladimir Putin met in the Kremlin with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 11 January, RTR and other Russian media reported. Ergodan arrived in Moscow on 10 January for a three-day working visit, primarily to discuss trade and economic relations. At a joint news conference, Putin said that Russia has "consistently ranked as Turkey's second-largest trading partner." He said that bilateral trade was worth $10 billion in 2004, about $2 billion more than projected. "We can reach $15 billion in the near future," Putin predicted. ITAR-TASS reported on 11 January that Turkish construction companies have completed about $12.3 billion in contracts in Russia over the last 15 years and that total Turkish investment in Russia is about $1.5 billion. Putin visited Ankara in December, a visit that Erdogan described as a pivotal moment in bilateral relations. RC

President Putin on 11 January congratulated Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmud Abbas on his projected victory in the Palestinian Authority's 9 January presidential election, RIA-Novosti reported. Putin invited Abbas to visit Moscow, the news agency reported, and said that Russia looks forward to continuing close cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and to implementing the so-called road-map peace plan. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sent Abbas his congratulations on 10 January, the news agency reported. RC

Only Russian military observers will be invited to monitor an April nuclear-safety exercise in the U.S. state of Wyoming, Interfax reported, quoting Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. "This is the first time that only representatives of the 12th Main Department of the Russian Defense Ministry are invited as international observers," Ivanov told reporters. Ivanov was en route to the United States for a four-day working visit, during which he is expected to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush, U.S. national security adviser and Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Ivanov described the trip as a working visit, and said that no documents will be signed during the trip and that it is not connected with the Bush-Putin summit that is scheduled to take place in Bratislava, Slovakia, on 24 February. In addition to Washington, Ivanov will visit New York, ITAR-TASS reported on 11 January. RC

The authorities have reduced their claim for back taxes from telecommunications operator Vimpelcom from $158 million to just $17.6 million, "The Moscow Times" reported on 11 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2004). The government presented the larger claim in December, sparking fears that it was launching a major assault on companies in all sectors of the economy and sending the Russian stock market tumbling. Vimpelcom is controlled by Kremlin-connected oligarch Mikhail Fridman's Alfa Group. "We are grateful for the active role of several senior government officials [in getting the tax claim reduced]," Vimpelcom CEO Aleksandr Izosimov told the daily. "Although Vimpelcom does not agree with the claims of the tax authorities, the company plans to pay the claimed amount," a company statement said. Some analysts have speculated that the original tax claims were the result of a conflict between Fridman and Information Technologies and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman. RC

The State Duma began its spring session on 11 January and established its upcoming legislative agenda, reported. The session will focus on issues relating to the vertical of executive-branch power, counterterrorism measures, and tax and administrative reform. One key piece of pending legislation is a Kremlin-sponsored bill that would establish a proportional-representation system for electing the Duma and would abolish the single-mandate districts. Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov commented that the recent debates within the government about whether it will be possible to double GDP by 2010 mean that the Duma must seriously review economic legislation. RC

Pensioners across Russia on 10 January protested the replacement of in-kind benefits with cash payments, Russian news agencies reported. About 500 retirees from Khimki in Moscow Oblast blocked a major thoroughfare in the city of Moscow for several hours, Ekho Moskvy and RosBalt reported. A similar protest was held in the town of Solnechnogorsk, also in Moscow Oblast, where 800-1,000 people blocked the highway connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg for 90 minutes. The protest was organized by the Communist Party and the Communist Workers' Party. In the Volga River city of Samara, some 300 pensioners blocked one of the city's busiest streets for two hours. The largest rally took place in Almetevsk, Tatarstan, where some 5,000 retirees blocked traffic in the city center for 2 1/2 hours, ITAR-TASS reported. Pensioners there are demanding the restoration of free travel on municipal transport and the restoration of rent and utilities subsidies. JAC

Cyclones that touched down in the southern half of Kamchatka Oblast on 8 and 9 January disrupted communications between the peninsula and the Russian mainland, RosBalt reported on 10 January. Planes traveling to the area from Moscow or Krasnoyarsk were redirected to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Winds measured 34 meters per second. Meanwhile, a cyclone that hit in the northwestern region of Russia cut off electricity to 90,000 residents of Pskov Oblast, RIA-Novosti reported. The city of St. Petersburg experienced heavy flooding on 9 January, according to NTV. The station called it the worst flooding the city has ever experienced in the month of January, citing the city's weather-forecasting bureau (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005). Also on 9 January, Moscow meteorologists reported that the city has experienced unprecedentedly warm temperatures. JAC

This year's newly lengthened New Year's holiday brought tragedy for many Russians, with many cases of alcohol poisoning and a rise in the number of injuries recorded, "Izvestiya" reported on 10 January. In the city of Krasnoyarsk, the number of fires registered over the holiday period almost doubled compared with the previous year. In the majority of cases, "Izvestiya" reported, the fires resulted from alcohol-induced neglect. Vladimir Oblast also experienced an unprecedented number of fires over the holidays. However, the police department in the city of Vladimir concluded that criminals were resting along with ordinary citizens, because it did not register any increase in the number of crimes. The daily concluded that "judging by everything, the only people to win from the holiday were the sellers of alcohol products." President Putin signed a bill into law on 29 December extending the New Year's holiday, as a result of which state-sector employees and others were off from 31 December to 10 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2004). JAC

Three unknown assailants beat up RFE/RL's correspondent in Ioshkar-Ola, the capital of the Marii-El Republic, on 7 January, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The attackers did not ask the victim, Yelena Rogacheva, for money. Rogacheva said she suspects the attack came in connection with her professional activities. At the time of the attack, she was returning from a party marking the anniversary of the local opposition newspaper "Dobrye sosedi." In a broadcast on 23 December, Rogacheva quoted local activists who reported that a number of violations of election law took place during the 19 December republican presidential election, in which incumbent President Leonid Markelov was elected to a second term. Markelov's style of rule has been characterized as "authoritarian." JAC

A painting by Apollinarii Vasnetsov has been stolen from the State Art Museum in Kaluga, reported on 10 January. The painting, "Forest," was signed by the artist in 1880. Two unemployed men have been arrested in connection with the investigation, but the painting has not been found. Vasnetsov, a landscape painter, was known for his depictions of the scenery of central and Siberian parts of Russia. JAC

President Robert Kocharian has ordered an investigation into allegations that senior customs officials routinely accept bribes in order to help large-scale importers avoid taxes, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 10 January. Speaking on Armenian Public Television, Kocharian said customs officials' failure "to act in a civilized and lawful way" negatively affects economic activity, while an end to such malpractice would yield "positive results." Senior executives from one of Armenia's leading coffee importers claimed last summer that State Customs Committee Deputy Chairman Gagik Khachatrian personally solicited a bribe from that company in 2003 in return for undervaluing the price of imported coffee beans, thereby reducing the import tax the company would be required to pay. The executives said that after they refused the offer, the customs retaliated by overstating the value of coffee they imported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 July 2004). LF

Hrant Bagratian, who served as Armenian prime minister from February 1993 until November 1996, claimed on 10 January that Armenia has incurred losses of 330 million euros ($433.2 million) by failing to convert most of the country's foreign-currency reserves from U.S. dollars to euros over the past three years, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Bagratian accused the Armenian National Bank of erring in failing to convert at least part of its foreign-currency reserves, currently estimated at $550 million. He claimed that that sum was worth 700 million euros when the single European currency was introduced in January 2002 but is worth just 370 million euros today. Bagratian argued that since Armenia's trade with the EU far exceeds that with the United States, the authorities should have made a greater effort to promote the euro and encouraged local importers to price their goods in euros. LF

Representatives of the Alliance in the Name of Azerbaijan (DVIA), the Amal movement representing the Azerbaijani intelligentsia, the Agrydag charitable organization, and the NGO Caucasian Conference announced in Baku on 10 January the formation of an election alliance named Solidarity and Trust, Turan and the online daily "Ekho" reported on 10 and 11 January, respectively. The alliance elected DVIA coordinating council Chairman Ilgar Gasymov as its chairman. The bloc comprises 26 NGOs and movements together with individual figures from both the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party and the opposition Musavat and Democratic parties. Amal members stressed that the new alliance is open to all and is ready to cooperate with "all democratic forces" to ensure that the parliamentary elections due in November are free and fair, and that the estimated 2.4 million Azerbaijanis currently working abroad are able to cast their ballots. It plans to field candidates in all of the country's 125 constituencies. LF

The independent Union of Workers of Azerbaijan has issued an appeal to the country's various opposition parties to set aside their rivalries and covert overtures to the authorities and close ranks in a Unified Opposition Movement, reported on 11 January. The appeal accuses the present leadership of being solely preoccupied with retaining power, rather than seeking solutions to the problems the country faces. It argues that those problems can be resolved only after a fair presidential election, not as a result of parliamentary elections. LF

Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin and Georgian Economic Development Minister Aleksi Aleksishvili signed an agreement in Tbilisi on 10 January establishing a direct rail and ferry link between the Kazkav terminal at Novorossiisk and the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, Russian and Georgian media reported. The ferry, which will carry freight in rail cars, will initially operate twice weekly and will facilitate goods transport not only between Russia and Georgia, but also Russia and Armenia. Arsen Ghazarian, chairman of the Armenian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists, told RFE/RL' s Armenian Service on 10 January that the new rail link could cut the cost of transportation between Armenia and Russia by as much as 30 percent. Direct rail transport from Russia to Georgia and Armenia has been suspended since the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia. LF

Economic Development Minister Aleksishvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 10 January that transforming major enterprises into joint-stock companies rather than selling them to foreign bidders would not contribute to economic development, as the securities market in Georgia is still in its infancy, Caucasus Press reported. Aleksishvili was responding to a letter sent by leading economists to Georgian leaders decrying the government's strategy of selling major state-owned enterprises to foreign investors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005). LF

In what appears to be a last-ditch attempt by Moscow to prevent the election of Sergei Bagapsh as president of Abkhazia, several more political parties and movements, including the Apsny party that backs outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba, the Union of Defenders of the Motherland, and the Social Democratic Party of Abkhazia formed last fall by former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba called on 10 January for the postponement of the repeat presidential election scheduled for 12 January, Apsnipress reported on 10 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005). They argued that the time frame allocated was too short to ensure the holding of truly free and fair elections and that holding the election now in line with the Agreement on Measures to Attain National Accord signed by Bagapsh and his pro-Moscow rival, former Prime Minister Ral Khadjimba, last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 7 December 2004) might give rise to even greater tensions within society. LF

Opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), which an Almaty court ordered liquidated on 6 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2005), announced in a statement at a 10 January news conference in Almaty that "attempts to present DVK as an extremist organization that allegedly violates the constitution and laws of Kazakhstan are without merit," "Navigator" reported. Petr Svoik, a member of the DVK political council, told journalists, "DVK will continue its activities. How and in what form is just a technical issue, which could be solved easily and in different ways," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. In a reference to events that swept the communist regime from power in Czechoslovakia in 1989, Asylbek Kozhakhmetov, chairman of the party's political council, warned, "A 'velvet revolution' is inevitable in Kazakhstan if the authorities do not seek normal ways of dialogue with the opposition." DVK also received support from a seemingly unlikely source, when Kazbek Kazkenov, deputy chairman of the pro-presidential Otan party, told reporters in Almaty on 10 January, "I express sympathy with DVK," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Kazkenov noted the possibility of appeal through the courts, as well as an appeal to President Nursultan Nazarbaev, whom Kazkenov described as "the guarantor of the constitution." DVK has already stated its intention to appeal the court decision. DK

Supporters of Roza Otunbaeva, the co-chairwoman of the opposition movement Ata-Jurt who was recently denied registration to run in the 27 February parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005), continued to demonstrate in Bishkek on 10 January, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The protestors, who were joined by members of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, numbered 150, and wore yellow to symbolize imminent change. A counterdemonstration of about 200 carried placards condemning Kyrgyzstan's parliament and sported the colors of a pro-presidential party. The two groups exchanged words but remained peaceful. Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov warned on 10 January that the opposition should not try to put pressure on the authorities and should refrain from calls for civil disobedience, ITAR-TASS reported. Otunbaeva has stated her intention to appeal the district election commission's decision to deny her registration. DK

President Imomali Rakhmonov signed a number of decrees on 10 January to replace high-level officials, Tajik Television reported. Lieutenant General Abdurahmon Azimov was removed as chairman of the State Border Protection Committee and commander of border troops; he was replaced by Saidamir Zuhurov, who was relieved of the position of deputy prime minister. Deputy Interior Minister Davlatnazar Bulbushoev and Deputy Agriculture Minister Siroj Murodov were also dismissed. The heads of four regions in Khatlon Province were also replaced. The move follows a series of dismissals and appointments announced on 5 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2005) and a late-December 2004 address in which Rakhmonov criticized corruption among high-ranking officials, RFE/RL's Tajik Service noted. DK

Tajikistan's Justice Ministry has refused the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) registration in Tajikistan because of errors in its application, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 10 January. A Justice Minister official told the news agency that the ministry has asked NDI to make corrections and resubmit its documents. DK

Uzbekistan's Central Election Commission announced on 10 January that the 9 January runoff elections to the lower house of parliament in 58 districts were conducted successfully, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Commission head Buritosh Mustafoev said that 5.4 million voters cast ballots, a turnout of approximately 80 percent. The 120 deputies of the lower chamber of parliament will go into session in mid-February, ITAR-TASS reported. DK

The Belarusian government introduced multiple-entry visas for foreign tourists on 1 January, billing the move as "a goodwill gesture aimed at promoting economic and cultural relations and stepping up personal contacts," Belapan reported on 10 January, quoting Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh. Savinykh told the news agency that foreign tourists may now apply for double- and triple-entry Belarusian visas. He recalled that citizens of the EU, Andorra, Croatia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway have been able to apply for 30-day guest or business visas without producing a formal invitation since 1 October. Simplified visa processes have also been in place for citizens of Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, and Uruguay since 1 August 2003. Savinykh said that nationals of all of the above-mentioned countries may now obtain such visas also at the consular office at Minsk National Airport upon their arrival in Belarus. "The Foreign Ministry's recent steps have reduced the formalities for issuing Belarusian visas to a minimum and are evidence that Belarus is open to foreigners to the highest possible degree," Savinykh said. JM

The Central Election Commission announced officially on 10 January that Viktor Yushchenko won the 26 December repeat of the late-November presidential runoff in Ukraine with 51.99 percent of the vote (15.1 million voters) versus Viktor Yanukovych's 44.2 percent (12.8 million voters), Ukrainian media reported. Turnout was 77 percent. Yushchenko won in Kyiv and 16 western and central regions, while Yanukovych won in Sevastopol and nine eastern and southern regions. The official results of the vote need to be published in two official newspapers, "Holos Ukrayiny" and "Uryadovyy Kuryer," to become irreversible. JM

Presidential also-ran Yanukovych told journalists in Kyiv on 11 January that he will never accept the officially announced results of the 26 December runoff, Interfax reported. Yanukovych vowed to appeal the results with the Supreme Court and, if that appeal fails, to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Yanukovych has claimed the repeat poll confirmed the results in the second round on 21 November, when the Central Election Commission at the time awarded him victory with 15.1 million votes versus Yushchenko's 14.2 million votes. Yanukovych claims that the current result in favor of Yushchenko reflects what he sees as unconstitutional amendments to the election law passed hastily by the Verkhovna Rada on 8 December in order to limit voting from home (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2004). Yanukovych's proxy, lawmaker Nestor Shufrych, announced on 10 January that Yanukovych's election staff will appeal the official results of the latest vote with the Supreme Court while employing a "respected Swiss law firm." The potential appeal, although widely regarded as unlikely to succeed, could postpone Yushchenko's inauguration. JM

Lame duck President Leonid Kuchma on 10 January ordered Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko and Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk to begin immediate planning for a withdrawal of the 1,600-strong Ukrainian contingent from Iraq in the first half of 2005, Ukrainian media reported, quoting Kuzmuk. Kuchma's order appears to be a direct response to a bomb explosion that killed eight and injured six Ukrainian soldiers in Iraq on 9 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005). The Verkhovna Rada on 11 January passed a resolution reiterating its decision of 3 December to pull Ukrainian troops out of Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2004), and President-elect Yushchenko has also vowed to bring the Ukrainian soldiers home. JM

About 5,000 ethnic Albanians demonstrated in Presevo near the borders with Kosova and Macedonia on 10 January to protest the recent killing of 16-year-old Dashnim Hajrullahu, an ethnic Albanian, by a Serbian border guard, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005). Some speakers called for international troops to replace Serbian soldiers and police in the region. Presevo's Mayor Riza Halimi said that "if it is the desire of the state to defend its integrity and sovereignty by murdering a child, then such a state has no chance of survival," Reuters reported. In Nis, the District Court established that one soldier shot Hajrullahu about 500 meters from the Macedonian border. The teenager had reportedly visited relatives on the Macedonian side of the border and was returning home when he was shot under still unexplained circumstances. Local Albanians were used to visiting relatives and friends throughout the region in Yugoslav times and still often disregard the relatively new frontier boundaries. PM

In Prishtina, several Kosovar dailies on 10 January called for international peacekeepers to be sent to the Presevo valley area following the killing of Hajrullahu by a Serbian soldier. In Podgorica, Nikola Gegaj, who is an ethnic Albanian deputy in the parliament of Serbia and Montenegro for Montenegro's governing Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Language Service that he was expressing his views and not those of the DPS when he recently said that the killing of the teenager was not accidental. Gegaj argued that the shooting reflects what he called Belgrade's policy of killing Albanians rather than including them in the political system and its institutions. PM

Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Minister Prvoslav Davinic said in Belgrade on 11 January that police will soon replace soldiers in the border area in the Presevo region, Reuters reported. He also promised to increase the number of legal border crossing points there. On 10 January, Serbia and Montenegro's Minister for Human Rights and Minority Rights Rasim Ljajic, and Nebojsa Covic, who is Belgrade's point man for southern Serbia and Kosova, paid separate visits to the Presevo region, each warning unnamed people against "misusing" Hajrullahu's death for political purposes, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. In Belgrade, representatives of Kosova's Serbian minority met with Serbian President Boris Tadic, saying in a declaration that independence for Kosova is "unacceptable" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 7 January 2005). Elsewhere, Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica attended a televised fund-raising benefit for the Serbian minority, which was chaired by Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle. PM

Ninety-nine of the 140 members of Albania's parliament voted on 10 January in favor of an electoral reform package drafted with OSCE help and aimed at eliminating past irregularities in preparing voters' lists, counting votes, and determining electoral districts, Reuters reported. Members of the opposition Democratic Party and the Socialist Integration Movement of former Prime Minister Ilir Meta, who split from the ruling Socialists, have promised to launch Ukrainian-style protests if they feel that Prime Minister Fatos Nano is trying to steal the mid-2005 elections. PM

Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski announced during a cabinet meeting on 10 January that he will not allow any further delays in the implementation of reforms, however painful they may be, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. To achieve this goal, Buckovski promised a so-called medium-term plan for structural reforms, which outlines precise measures and deadlines for their implementation. Government sources told the daily that the reforms will be carried out at any price and not be influenced by the upcoming local elections or other political developments. For much of 2004, the political process in Macedonia was blocked by the early presidential elections and the referendum on the government's redistricting plans (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 10 December 2004 and 7 January 2005). UB

Greater Romania Party (PRM) Senator Mihai Lupoi announced on 9 January he has resigned from the PRM and has become an independent lawmaker, the daily "Ziua" reported the next day. Lupoi said he had "deceived" himself into believing the PRM was the political party in which he might fulfill his political credo. He said he now realizes that the PRM is a "leader's party" devoid of internal democracy, as demonstrated by the fact that he was "abandoned" by PRM caucus members when he proposed earlier this year that the party join the conservative European People's Party (EPP). The EPP is the single largest bloc in the European Parliament. Lupoi said he quit the PRM in order to "spare some colleagues the embarrassment of voting for my exclusion against their own conscience." PRM Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor on 10 January countered by saying that Lupoi was expelled from the PRM in December 2004 because, over a four-year period, "he stole from the party 1.5 billion lei [$51,370]," Mediafax reported. MS

The PRM said on 10 January that it has expelled from its ranks five parliamentary deputies of the National Syndicate Bloc who joined the PRM in late 2004 and ran on its lists in the November parliamentary elections, Mediafax reported. The PRM said the five had "seriously encroached" on party discipline. According to media reports, the five had backed the cabinet headed by Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu in the 28 December 2004 vote of confidence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2004) and were negotiating with the senior ruling Justice and Truth alliance over parliamentary support in the future. Following Lupoi's resignation and the ousting of the five deputies, the PRM's parliamentary representation has been reduced to 20 senators and 43 deputies. MS

Former National Liberal Party (PNL) Chairman Valeriu Stoica told journalists on 10 January that he is considering running again for the position of PNL leader, Mediafax reported. Stoica said he might do so in order to back a merger between the PNL and its Justice and Truth alliance partner, the Democratic Party. Following Theodor Stolojan's decision to retire as the presidential candidate of the alliance in October 2003, current Prime Minister Popescu-Tariceanu became interim PNL chairman. A congress of the party slated for 4-6 February is to debate the merger with the Democrats and to elect a new PRM chairman. Stoica also said the merged PRM-Democratic Party should join the EPP. MS

Visiting French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin on 10 January said he is concerned over the number of Romanian immigrants illegally entering France, Mediafax, AP, and dpa reported. He expressed particular concern over networks of human traffickers who bring children into France and force them into begging. De Villepin and his new Romanian counterpart Vasile Blaga signed an agreement on fighting illegal migration and human trafficking. The French minister also met with President Traian Basescu and Prime Minister Popescu-Tariceanu. MS

Culture Minister Mona Musca on 10 January banned any further showing in Romania of a Hungarian documentary film on the 1920 Trianon Treaty on the grounds that it is chauvinistic, dpa reported. The 14-part documentary was produced by Hungarian film director Gabor Koltai and is based on the works of Hungarian historian Erno Raffayi. A shorter two-hour version was shown in Cluj on 9 January under the auspices of the local Hungarian Reformed Theological Institute. Reformed Bishop Laszlo Toekes appears in the documentary. Hungarian State Television (MTV) and Duna TV, which broadcasts for Hungarian minorities abroad, refused to broadcast the documentary on grounds that it was anti-Semitic and incited revisionism, according to dpa and reports in Romanian dailies of 10 January. MS

The Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) on 10 January appealed again to the Constitutional Court against the parliament's decision to hold the elections on 6 March 2005, Flux reported. An earlier appeal by the PPCD was rejected by the court on procedural grounds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2005). The PPCD says the legislation approved by parliament on 24 December 2004 should have been published in the official gazette and failure to do so promptly has rendered the parliament's decision null and void. The decision was published in the gazette on 28 December 2004. MS

Two prominent NGO activists -- one from Prishtina and the other from Belgrade -- have warned that it is dangerous to delay action on resolving the final status of Kosova any longer. They stress that acting soon is necessary not only for Kosova's sake but also for that of the democratization of Serbia.

Veteran Kosovar student activist Albin Kurti and Sonja Biserko of Belgrade's Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia (HCHRS) wrote in Dublin's "The Irish Times" of 5 January that time has come to resolve the status of Kosova.

They argue that the province "is in a state of political turmoil and economic stagnation due to the insistence by the international community on deferring consideration of its final political status until it is deemed that a satisfactory level of political 'standards' has been achieved. While this may appear to represent a responsible policy in theory, in practice it is quite the opposite: it ignores realities on the ground, exacerbates intercommunal tensions, and prevents any effective inward investment. In reality it represents a failure of nerve by the international community and a desire simply to play for time and defer difficult decisions."

The authors note that the interethnic violence of 17-18 March in Kosova played into the hands of those in Serbia and the international community who, for whatever reasons, are reluctant to grant Kosova's 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority self-determination and majority rule. "Much is made of the outbreak of violence in March as an example of Kosova's unpreparedness for self-determination: in reality it is the economic crisis precipitated by Kosova's unresolved status that is the root cause of intercommunal tensions and resultant instability," Kurti and Biserko argue.

They also hold that the root of the instability in the region lies in Serbia, and that the democratization of Serbia is the central problem that must be faced if peace and prosperity are to come to the western Balkans.

"The roots of the recent Yugoslav tragedy lay in the resurgence of extreme nationalism in Serbia. This found its initial outlet in the brutal suppression of Kosova, especially from 1987 [under Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic], which in turn galvanized the movements for independence in Slovenia and Croatia," the two NGO officials believe. They also stress that "today it is Serbia's continued designs both on Bosnia and on Kosova and the unwillingness of the international community to deal with these in a determined and proactive manner, particularly regarding Kosova, which is the primary source of instability in the region."

Kurti and Biserko believe that "the problems of Kosova are inextricably linked with the continued ascendancy of the ultranationalist agenda within Serbia, which manipulates the Serbian minority in Kosova in pursuit of its own agenda, while the current policies of the EU have the effect of encouraging aspirations in Belgrade towards the ethnic partition of Kosova."

In addition, they argue, "the flashpoints of instability -- Serbia and Montenegro, Kosova, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia -- all have their origins in the as yet incomplete process of disintegration of Yugoslavia and the undefined borders of Serbia, particularly concerning the status of Montenegro and Kosova. Hence a democratic transformation within Serbia is essential for regional stability. Unfortunately, the anti-Milosevic coup of 2000 did not fulfill whatever tentative promise it held in this regard."

In fact, the authors believe, much of Serbian political culture remains stuck in the Milosevic era. "Milosevic's Greater Serbia policies are being resurrected, typified by [Belgrade's] policy towards Montenegro, Vojvodina, Kosova, and the Republika Srpska, by the renewed dominant influence of promoters of ultranationalism -- in, for instance, academia and the [Serbian] Orthodox Church -- and by Serbia's continuing state of denial regarding its primary responsibility for war crimes. Meanwhile, the army continues as a redoubt of extreme nationalism," Kurti and Biserko argue.

The authors add that Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Serbia is playing no useful role regarding Kosova. "Belgrade's policy towards Kosova is entirely negative: essentially to prevent participation of Serbs in Kosova's institutions, to undermine international engagement, and to demonize Albanians. [This is] a policy that has to date been successful, and that can only lead ultimately to the partition of Kosova, which would have disastrous consequences for the wider region."

Kurti and Biserko believe that the stakes are too high for the international community to delay any longer. "Only through concerted EU-U.S. action in support of Kosova's self-determination, Prishtina and Belgrade may agree upon a mutually acceptable solution subsequently endorsed by the [UN] Security Council: that is the only way to stabilize the Balkans. However, without a more proactive engagement by the EU, the political dynamics of Serbia will continue to thwart the best intentions of the EU in this direction," they maintain.

The U.S. military plans to help the Afghan National Army (ANA) in a recruitment drive aimed at bolstering the fledgling force, Xinhua News Agency reported on 10 January. "Eleven more recruitment centers are set to open in the next few months, bringing the total to 35, including two centers in Kabul," said Graig Weston, head of the U.S. Office of Military Cooperation in Afghanistan. Weston said the recruitment centers will be established in the southern Afghan provinces of Helmand, Nimruz, Zabul, and other regions where neo-Taliban insurgents are thought to operate. Under the Bonn agreement signed in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban, postwar Afghanistan was to have an army numbering 70,000 troops loyal to the new government. According to Weston, more than 21,000 have already been trained. "Today the Afghan National Army has more than 21,000 soldiers, about 17,800 trained soldiers, and more than 3,400 in training," Weston said. U.S. military officials say the army will be at full strength in September 2007. MR

A top UN official said Afghan authorities still need to figure out how refugees and nomads will vote, along with other logistical details, before parliamentary elections slated for this spring can go forward, AP reported on 10 January. Jean Arnault, the UN's envoy to Afghanistan, told the UN Security Council that the government must determine the populations of electoral districts, saying the figures must be agreed upon 120 days before the vote. "District boundaries must therefore be finalized within the next couple of weeks at the latest," Arnault said. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in April or May. Arnault said other issues that needed to be dealt with included updating voters' lists and revisions of the electoral law. A UN-backed independent election commission is supposed to set a date for the vote within the next few weeks, he said. MR

A top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden could be hiding inside the country, AP reported on 10 January. Colonel Gary Cheek, who leads U.S. forces in 16 Afghan provinces, also said neo-Taliban leaders seem to be less organized, despite continued insurgent activity along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. "It would appear that the Taliban in particular may be fragmenting and that its central core of leadership is unable to direct coordinated actions," Cheek said. "I would guess that there are a lot of things the Taliban and others want to do, but their ability to do those things is limited." Forces loyal to Taliban commanders such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have kept up attacks on U.S. forces near the mountainous Pakistani frontier. Cheek said that bin Laden and other terrorist leaders and insurgents may be in that area. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said last month that bin Laden was "definitely" still in the region. MR

An aid group training midwives in Afghanistan said the country needs roughly 5,000 female health-care providers over the next 10 years to curb its high infant-mortality rate, "Health & Medicine Week" reported on 10 January. According to Dr. Jeffrey Smith, a safe motherhood adviser in Afghanistan for the Johns Hopkins Program for International Education in Reproductive Health, a class of 24 midwives graduated in April. Afghanistan has one of the worst infant-mortality rates in the world. "Midwives are so few and far between, we are really looking at the birth of midwifery in Afghanistan," Smith said. "Are you able to deliver a baby successfully? That's the goal of the program. So when they get into the hospital they can make the most efficient use of that clinical environment," Smith said. MR

A recent edict from the Public Establishments Office (Edareh-yi Amaken Omumi), which deals with issues such as listening to music and lewd behavior, regulates the time billiard parlors in Tehran can stay open, Radio Farda reported on 10 January. Billiard parlors must close by 11 in the first six months of the year (March-September) and by 10 in the last six months of the year (October-March). Moreover, no new pool halls will be licensed. Physical Education Organization official Hassan Mirza Aqabeig told Radio Farda there are 450 licensed billiard parlors in Tehran. He added that no family wants its children shooting pool until 2:30 a.m. Reza Haidari, a young man who occasionally hangs out in billiard parlors, told Radio Farda that young people go to these places to relax and have fun. He said he has heard of places where boys and girls played billiards together, but he never went to one himself. BS

A group of teachers and another group of about 200 nurses gathered outside the Iranian parliament in Tehran on 9 January to stage employment-related protests, according to Iranian newspapers on 10 January. The teachers, who taught at overseas Iranian schools, complained that they had not received their full salaries and benefits, "Hemayat" reported. The teachers' earlier demonstration outside the Management and Planning Organization did not yield results, and legislator Mohammad Hussein Nejad-Fallah asked them to select one person to represent them. The nurses demanded salary increases, an end to privatization in their field, fewer night shifts, and a larger pool of nurses, "Sharq" reported. Several parliamentarians met with the demonstrators and promised to look into their grievances. The result of this was an agreement to hire more nurses, Dashtestan representative Seyyed Abdolmajid Shoja told "Sharq." BS

Iranian state television reported on 9 January that U.S. oil services company Halliburton has won a tender to drill in two phases of the South Pars gas field. "Some American officials have shares in Halliburton," state television added without providing any names. Reuters reported on the same day that a U.S. grand jury has subpoenaed Halliburton in order to get information about the work of its Cayman Islands unit in Iran. Halliburton is adamant that it is legal for its offshore subsidiaries to work in Iran. BS

"Islamic Iran will not tolerate the presence of America in the region and considers it a threat against its interests," Islamic Revolution Guards Corps deputy commander Brigadier General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr said on 10 January, Fars News Agency reported. He went on to tell a gathering of IRGC and Basij personnel in Khuzestan Province that the pursuit of oil explains the U.S. regional presence. He said Iran will not tolerate this situation. BS

Militants detonated car bombs in the Iraqi cities of Tikrit and Al-Basrah on 11 January, international media reported. Two booby-trapped cars detonated in Al-Basrah, one outside the Interior Ministry offices in the city, another outside the Al-Hamdan Police Center, Al-Arabiyah television reported. Initial reports indicated that one person was killed and seven wounded in the attacks. A third car bomb killed at least six people and wounded five outside police headquarters in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, Reuters reported. Hospital officials said the casualties were all members of the Tikrit police force. Militants also attacked a minibus south of Baghdad on 11 January, killing eight and kidnapping three, Reuters reported. The identity of the victims was not immediately clear. KR

Iyad Allawi told reporters in Baghdad on 11 January that three field commanders working for fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi have been arrested in Mosul, Beirut's Al-Manar television reported on 10 January. Allawi said that members of Jaysh Muhammad have also been arrested, including Saman Abdallah al-Shaykh, Ali Husayn al-Khafaji, and Abd al-Aziz Sa'dun Hammudi. According to Allawi, the arrested men have made "significant confessions." "Jaysh Muhammad is a terrorist group that is responsible for the murder of many Iraqis and non-Iraqis, not to mention decapitations. It is run by the former Ba'athist regime," the prime minister said. Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 10 January that Allawi is expected to announce detailed security plans that will be implemented between now and election day on 30 January. KR

Unidentified gunmen attacked the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) office in Mosul on 10 January, reported. An unidentified KDP spokesman told the website that Mosul police detained at least 20 individuals suspected of masterminding the attack. The office has been targeted on four previous occasions in the past year, the website reported. Four Iraqis were found dead on the streets of Mosul on 9 January. Iraqi and multinational forces closed five bridges spanning the Tigris River in Mosul on 10 January, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. The move followed intense shelling initiated a day earlier by multinational forces attempting to rout out insurgents. Additional checkpoints have also been set up and rapid intervention forces were deployed to various areas of the city, Al-Sharqiyah reported. KR

The Ansar Al-Sunnah Army posted a videotape and statement to its website ( on 10 January claiming responsibility for the execution of a supposed drug dealer in Mosul. The group says in the statement that it arrested Mosul's "most famous drug dealer," Husayn Ali Husayn, "who used to sell intoxicating pills to the misguided." The group claims that God's judgment was implemented upon Husayn, adding, "He was make an example out of him." The videotape shows Husayn confessing to selling pills. He is then handcuffed, blindfolded, and shot in the head. KR

The United Kingdom will send an additional 400 troops to Iraq ahead of the 30 January elections, reported on 10 January. They will be based in Iraq for what Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon described as a "limited period." A senior army officer told the BBC that the decision to deploy more troops comes after intelligence warnings about the threat of violence at polling centers throughout Iraq. "Their job will be to protect [the centers] and the voters from the threat of attack and intimidation," the website quoted the officer as telling "The Sunday Telegraph." The U.S. military announced last week that it will deploy more than 35,000 U.S. troops to Baghdad on election day. KR