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Newsline - January 12, 2005

President Vladimir Putin visited Novosibirsk on 11 January to participate in a conference on the development of information technologies, RTR and other Russian media reported. According to conference organizers, the information-technology sector in Russia is growing at an annual rate of about 20 percent. Putin, however, noted that Russia's share of the sector globally is only about 1 percent. "IT-related business is one of the most dynamic and highly profitable sectors of the world's economy," Putin said. "The opportunities are great, but at the moment we are making very little use of this potential for our own development." Putin said that more high-technology parks and development centers must be created in order to keep Russia's human resources in the country and to attract specialists from other CIS countries. "[Such centers] create new, highly paid, and prestigious jobs," Putin said. "They are geared to a great extent toward young people, toward students, postgraduates, and young specialists. For them, this is an opportunity to achieve success and to realize their abilities right here at home, in Russia." Information Technologies and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman told the conference that a government program exists to create four such centers by 2010 in Moscow Oblast, Novosibirsk, Nizhnii Novgorod, and St. Petersburg. Putin's stopover came en route to a summit in Kazakhstan. RC

Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref spoke out against the possible state takeover of Yuganskneftegaz and urged that the company be privatized, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 11 January. "I consider that both Rosneft and Yugansk, if it becomes state-controlled, should be privatized," Gref said in an interview that was sharply at odds with the Kremlin's policies. Gref said state companies demonstrate slower growth than private companies because the state is an "ineffective" manager. Last week, President Putin dismissed presidential economics adviser Andrei Illarionov as Russia's representative to the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries in what most analysts believe was punishment for Illarionov's critical public statements about the Yukos affair (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2005). RC

After a day of protests across Russia on 10 January against the new law transforming in-kind social benefits to cash payments, more pensioners took to the streets on 11 January. According to Ekho Moskvy, an estimated 7,000 people participated in a demonstration in the city of Sterlitamak in Bashkortostan. Some 2,000 people protested in the republic's capital, Ufa, on 9 January, the station reported. Also on 11 January, about 400 pensioners tried to storm the city administration building in Tolyatii in Samara Oblast, Channel 3 reported. The pensioners blocked the center of the city, tying up traffic there. The city's mayor promised protestors that they will receive cash payments in a few days. Protests were also held in the cities of Samara, Vladimir, Staryi Oskol, and Barnaul, according to JAC

According to "Izvestiya," the transition to the new system of cash benefits has not been smooth. The public-transportation situation in many cities was described as "nightmarish" on the first day after the long New Year's holiday, as conductors tried to cope with the increased number of customers who must pay and/or customers who should pay but would not. In Nizhnii Novgorod, two pensioners beat up a female trolley-bus conductor. In Volgograd, former beneficiaries of free transportation simply refused to pay. According to Channel 3 on 11 January, dozens of conductors across the country were reportedly assaulted. JAC

Meanwhile, charges have been brought against 12 people from Khimki who are accused of violating the law on public demonstration by organizing a protest in Moscow on 10 January, Ekho Moskvy and reported on 11 January. "Moskovskii komsomolets" reported on 11 January that eyewitnesses said a car that was trying to get through a cordon hit four elderly women during that demonstration. In an interview with the daily, Dmitrii Oreshkin of the Merkator Group predicted that the protests will continue but that since there are no longer any organizations capable of organizing a protest campaign properly, the demonstrations will be spontaneous and chaotic. They will not escalate into anything serious, and the authorities will probably dismiss them out of hand, Oreshkin concluded. State Duma Deputy Oleg Shein (Motherland) told Ekho Moskvy that he expects the demonstrations to reach a peak around the end of January or February, when people will have to pay their utility bills. JAC

Just 38 percent of Russians believe that their country is heading in the right direction, while 49 percent said it is in a dead end, according to a ROMIR-Monitoring poll released on 11 January, reported. Among respondents aged 18-34, 46 percent said the country is heading in the right direction, while 53 percent of respondents aged 45 and older said that it is in a dead end. An analogous survey one year ago found that 53 percent of the public believed the country's course was correct, while 29 percent disagreed. A poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that 43 percent of the public wants the government to continue "settling accounts" with major businesspeople in 2005, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 11 January. Only 16 percent said the government should not pursue such policies. Forty-five percent of VTsIOM respondents agreed that the oil-and-gas sector should be fully nationalized, while 33 percent disagreed with that proposal. Only 5 percent of respondents said Russian oil companies should be sold to foreign companies. RC

Non-oil-related economic growth in Russia fell for the sixth consecutive month in December, "The Moscow Times" reported on 12 January, citing Moscow's Narodnyi Bank. The growth rate in December was 3.9 percent, marking the lowest year-on-year growth rate since April 1999. Fourth-quarter growth in 2004 was 4.5 percent, down from 8.6 percent in the same period in 2003. Analysts interviewed by the daily cited "a broad slowdown" and rising costs as contributing to the lower growth rates. The Industry and Energy Ministry released figures on 11 January showing that oil production decreased in December for the third straight month, declining from 9.39 million barrels per day in November to 9.33 million barrels per day. RC

President Putin rejected a bill on 11 January that would have restricted the sale and consumption of beer in public places, Ekho Moskvy reported. According to State Duma Economic Policy Committee Chairman Valerii Draganov (Unified Russia), Putin said the bill should be reworked so that the criteria for a ban on beer drinking in public places are clarified and the places themselves are specified. He also requested that the clauses relating to underage drinking be clarified. The bill was passed by the State Duma on 26 November and the Federation Council on 8 December. Committee Deputy Chairman Yurii Medvedev (Unified Russia) told that Russian regulations need to address the issue of non-alcoholic beer. "Indeed the term is more for advertising purposes, because it is impossible to make beer completely non-alcoholic. In Europe, for example, they call it 'weakly alcoholic,'" he said. JAC

Duma Deputy Mikhail Grishankov (Unified Russia) added that the Duma "needs to finish the discussion about whether beer is an alcoholic drink or not" and whether its consumption is ruinous to one's health. Chief Health Inspector Gennadii Onishchenko said that almost 60,000 Russian children are alcoholics. JAC

"Izvestiya" published on 11 January the results of a survey it conducted among experts at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies regarding the chances of various governors being reappointed to their posts. According to the survey, Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleev, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev, St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko, and Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Khloponin have excellent chances of being renamed to their positions by President Putin. Slated for unemployment, according to the experts, are Kostroma Oblast Governor Viktor Shershunov, Karachaevo-Cherkessia President Mustafa Batdyev, Altai Krai head Mikhail Yevdokimov, and Tula Oblast Governor Vasilii Starodubtsev. Starodubtsev is a member of the Communist Party and participant in the 1991 August coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, while Yevdokimov is a former television comic. Starodubtsev's term expires in April. JAC

A new radio service has been launched on the streets of Krasnoyarsk via loudspeakers that operate daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., REN-TV reported on 11 January. According to the station, the radio service broadcasts music, news, announcements, and advertising. The broadcasts initially contained no advertising, but commercial time has been gradually increased and is expected to continue increasing. An unidentified woman told the station that the advertisements are annoying, as they are a nuisance "everywhere, both on television and radio broadcasts." Another passer-by was quoted saying, "There is a lot of noise, and the music is wrong." The REN-TV correspondent concluded by noting that the creators of the street-radio project are convinced that "the fact that not all residents are enthusiastic about the project is only a matter of time and getting used to it." Meanwhile, in Nizhnii Novgorod, residents there have been treated to 10 hours a day of a local commercial radio station on Bolshoi Pokrovka street (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2004). The complaints of some residents who live near or on that major street have apparently fallen on deaf ears. One unidentified male resident told RFE/RL's Nizhnii Novgorod correspondent: "If I am at my home for no more than 40 minutes, maximum, then I can endure it. My wife gets a headache." JAC

Speaking at the ceremonial opening of a new school building in the village of Alleroi on 11 January, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov announced that beginning this year, all Chechen school children will be taught "the basic tenets of Islam" from an early age in order to minimize the likelihood that as adults they will be "dragged into the ranks of extremists," Interfax reported. LF

For reasons that remain unclear, police in the Khasavyurt Raion of Daghestan detained Zulay Kadyrova, the sister of Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, on 10 January as she was returning from Daghestan to Chechnya, reported the following day. According to doctors, Kadyrova sustained a broken arm during questioning. Ramzan Kadyrov and some 150 members of his so-called presidential security force reportedly traveled to Khasavyurt on 11 January and meted out physical retribution to members of the police, then returned to Chechnya taking Kadyrova with them. LF

President Robert Kocharian warned Armenia's top tax officials on 11 January against creating loopholes to enable companies owned by themselves or their close associates to avoid paying taxes, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He stressed that the State Taxation Service must treat all businesses "equally and fairly," adding that the country's double-digit economic growth has not yet translated into a palpable improvement in living standards due to tax evasion. Kocharian also condemned tax officials' selective approach to inspecting companies' records, noting that some companies that do not enjoy high-level protection are inspected several times per year, while others are spared such inspections. LF

Vartan Oskanian and Elmar Mammadyarov met in Prague on 12 January for talks under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group that Oskanian said last month would mark the beginning of a new phase in their search for the optimum approach to resolving the Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2004). Oskanian and Mammadyarov first met jointly with the Minsk Group co-chairmen; the latter then met individually with each of the two ministers. Those separate talks focused, among other issues, on the OSCE delegation that is to travel to the conflict zone later this month to review the extent to which Armenians have settled occupied Azerbaijani territory. Oskanian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service after the talks, which lasted four hours, that he and Mammadyarov have not reached "full agreement" on the principles of a settlement. But, echoing his December statement, he added that "there is a general framework of issues" that need to be consolidated. Both Mammadyarov and Oskanian said that their respective countries will not compromise on their basis principles for a settlement, Azerbaijani media reported. Both ministers characterized the atmosphere at the talks as positive. Mammadyarov said his next meeting with Oskanian could take place in late February or early March, according to Mammadyarov denied that he and Oskanian discussed either a specific peace proposal, or the possibility of an exchange of Azerbaijani territory, or the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. LF

Azerbaijan's Court for Grave Crimes passed sentence on 12 January on 10 people, mostly residents of the village of Nardaran, accused of participating in clashes between police and opposition supporters in Baku in the wake of the disputed October 2003 presidential election, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2004). Two of the accused were sentenced to three years' imprisonment; the remaining eight received three-year suspended sentences. LF

The progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHChP) and the Azerbaijan National Independence Party issued separate statements on 12 January condemning the alleged harassment since May 2004 by security officials in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic of AHChP activist Elman Abbasov, Turan reported. Nakhichevan security personnel have reportedly threatened to charge Abbasov with espionage on behalf of the United States unless he agrees to "cooperate" and denounce local fellow opposition activists, including Asaf Guliev, head of the Nakhichevan Center for Democratic Development. Abbasov has issued a formal appeal to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and to international human rights organizations to protect him against the pressure being exerted on him, Tutran reported on 11 January. LF

Polling stations opened as scheduled on 12 January throughout the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia to allow voting in the repeat presidential election, but Georgian media reported enhanced security in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, with unidentified security personnel seeking to prevent the region's population from casting their ballots, Caucasus Press reported. In addition, Apsnypress reported on 12 January that "many" would-be voters were refused permission to vote as polling station officials refused to recognize the validity of the documentation they obtained in order to participate in the 3 October presidential ballot. Those documents were legally valid only for two months. Voter turnout of at least 50 percent of the registered 113,136 voters is necessary for the poll to be valid. LF

Dubbing 2005 the year of social stability and housing construction, President Askar Akaev used an address on 11 January to praise the progress of reforms in Kyrgyzstan and continue his criticism of revolutionary political change, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Akaev said democracy has put down "deep roots in the consciousness of the Kyrgyz people." He noted, however, that upcoming 27 February parliamentary elections create a "very favorable" environment for "a variety of provocateurs," Interfax reported. In a clear reference to recent protests in Bishkek (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005), the president said, "What makes the danger worse is that our homegrown provocateurs now have skilled coaches who have learned how to use provocations.... No significant event has occurred,... but certain groups are already trying to pitch tents and infect people with yellow plague." He concluded, "I want to call on the entire nation to counter the exporters of revolution and the provocateurs." Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev echoed the president's remarks, telling journalists on 11 January that the political situation in the lead-up to parliamentary elections is worrisome, RFE/RL reported. DK

Leaders of five opposition movements decided on the evening of 10 January to suspend protests in front of parliament in Bishkek until 17 January, reported on 11 January. The protests began after a district election commission on 6 January approved, and then quickly rejected, former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva's candidacy in parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005). Nevertheless, 50 protestors gathered in Bishkek on 11 January to support Otunbaeva, who is co-chairwoman of the opposition movement Ata-Jurt, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. reported that the Legislative Assembly will vote on 17 January to amend the election law to allow former ambassadors to run for office. The district election commission rejected Otunbaeva's candidacy because, it argued, she has not resided in the country for the last five years. Otunbaeva has already filed a civil-rights suit in a Bishkek court. DK

Tajikistan's Central Election Commission has decided that Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, the jailed head of the Democratic Party, cannot run in 27 February parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 11 January. Muhibullo Dodojonov, head of the commission's secretariat, said the criminal charges that Iskandarov faces in Tajikistan preclude his registration as a candidate. Iskandarov, who was arrested in Moscow in early December on corruption charges at the request of Tajik authorities, is currently being detained in Russia. A Democratic Party spokesman said Iskandarov, who heads his party's slate, should be able to take part in elections on the basis of an amnesty clause in Tajik law. But the Prosecutor-General's Office noted that Iskandarov faces embezzlement charges that relate to his tenure as the director of national gas company Tojikgaz; those charges are not covered by the amnesty, which is intended for acts committed during the 1992-97 civil war. DK

Turkmenistan resumed gas exports to Russia and Ukraine on 10 January after cutting them off on 1 January in the course of contract negotiations, Russia's "Vedomosti" reported on 11 January. Ukraine has already agreed to pay $58 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas in 2005, a $14 price hike on the previous year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2005). A source in Gazprom told "Vedomosti" that the Russian natural-gas monopoly will continue to pay $44 per 1,000 cubic meters and 76 cents to transport 1,000 cubic meters 100 kilometers. Nevertheless, Turkmen negotiators plan to raise the price issue again when Gazprom Chairman Aleksei Miller visits Ashgabat in mid-January, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 11 January. Finam investment-company analyst Mariya Radina told "Gazeta" on 10 January, "Gazprom will have to make concessions. It needs the gas, and that enables Turkmenistan to feel very comfortable on this issue." DK

Indian Commerce and Industry Minister EVKS Elangovan met with Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safaev in Tashkent on 11 January, Uzbek Television reported. Their talks focused on bilateral cooperation, regional security issues, and the situation in Afghanistan, UzA reported. At a business seminar in Tashkent the same day, a delegation of Indian businessmen met with their Uzbek colleagues to discuss cooperation in the chemical, textile, pharmaceutical, and construction industries, as well as information technology. DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 11 January accused the Russian government of backtracking on its commitments under the 1999 Union State Treaty, saying that Russia does not supply Belarus, as it should under the treaty, with gas at Russian domestic prices, Belapan reported. Last month, Belarus and Russia's Gazprom concluded a gas-supply contract for 2005 establishing the price at $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters, which is the same as that in 2004. However, Belarusian customers are expected to get gas at a higher price following the adoption of the country-of-destination principle in the collection of value-added tax (18 percent) on Russian gas as of 1 January (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 23 December 2004). "As before, our government is a sort of Gazprom branch," Belarusian Television quoted Lukashenka as saying on 11 January. "Why are we not increasing tariffs for the transit of [Russian] gas [via Belarus]? Why are we not increasing them by 20 percent?" JM

President Lukashenka on 11 January agreed to the government's proposal that, in order to compensate for what the government see as an increase in the cost of Russian gas imports, prices of gas for individual and corporate consumers be raised as of 1 February, Belarusian Television reported. Thus, in the nine subsequent months, utility bills for Belarusian households will reportedly increase by 2 percent compared to those in 2004, while state enterprises will have to pay $72.3 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas, that is, $5 per 1,000 cubic meters more than in 2004. JM

The Supreme Court on 11 January satisfied a request from presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych to block the publication of the official results of the 26 December presidential vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2005) from being published in either of the country's two official newspapers, "Uryadovyy kuryer" and "Holos Ukrayiny," until the court makes a ruling on a new complaint against the official election outcome by Yanukovych, Ukrainian media reported. The decision effectively pushes back Yushchenko's presidential inauguration, which was expected this week, to a later date. Yanukovych's election staff manager, Taras Chornovil, said on 11 January that Yanukovych is planning to appeal to the Supreme Court on 12 January and request that the court rule that it is impossible to establish the real expression of the voters' will in the 2004 presidential election. "This means that we may demand that the election be declared invalid -- not just some election round but the entire election, which will require a repeat election," Chornovil said. JM

Yuliya Tymoshenko, a staunch political ally of Ukrainian President-elect Viktor Yushchenko, published an article on what Russia should expect from Yushchenko's presidency in the 11 January issue of Moscow-based "Vedomosti" daily, one of Russia's leading business newspapers. Tymoshenko wrote that the Yushchenko entourage has unsuccessfully tried to get in touch with the Kremlin since the spring in order to deter the Russian presidential administration and President Vladimir Putin from taking "ill-considered" steps toward Yushchenko. According to Tymoshenko, Russia's strategic interests will not suffer from Yushchenko's presidency. She pledged that Yushchenko will propose new investment possibilities for "responsible" Russian capital in Ukraine, including in the military-industrial sphere. Tymoshenko also assured "Vedomosti" readers that under the Yushchenko presidency the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Ukraine will in no way be restricted. "I do not rule out that in the medium term Ukraine may become a member of NATO," Tymoshenko wrote. "However -- jointly with Russia. My personal view is that Ukraine and Russia cannot find themselves in qualitatively different, let alone hostile to each other, defense [alliances]." JM

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman Dimitrij Rupel, who is also Slovenia's foreign minister, said in Prishtina on 11 January that the province's "future is in the hands of its citizens, both Albanians and Serbs, and they must be very careful in what they do," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. In an apparent reference to the tendency of many members of Kosova's Serbian minority to take their political guidance from Belgrade, Rupel stressed that the OSCE wants Serbs to regard Kosova "as their home and Prishtina as their capital" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 December 2004, and 13 August and 17 December 2004, and 7 January 2005). Representatives of Kosova's elected institutions asked Rupel for Slovenia to become more involved in promoting Kosova's integration with the EU. Rupel said in a press statement that the relations between Slovenia and Kosova are excellent. Slovenia has long sought to regain or retain its traditional markets in former Yugoslavia, and both the EU and NATO have urged Ljubljana to play an active role in promoting the Euro-Atlantic integration of its southern neighbors (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 30 January and 15 October 2004). PM

Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Minister Prvoslav Davinic told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service in Belgrade on 11 January that the authorities will replace border troops with police along all frontiers, not just along the Macedonian border (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 11 January 2005). He stressed that the move will meet one of the criteria required for admission to the EU. Davinic noted that the apparent policy change is linked to the recent killing of an ethnic Albanian teenager by troops along the Macedonian border and the subsequent demand by local Albanians for Serbian troops there to be replaced by international ones. The minister did not say when police will replace the soldiers. Croatia has long called for the removal of Serbian troops along their common border in response to several apparently isolated incidents. PM

Albanian Defense Minister Pandeli Majko said in Tirana on 11 January that the authorities will use $18.3 million in U.S. funding to destroy by 2007 a huge stockpile of lethal chemicals acquired by the late dictator Enver Hoxha from China in the 1970s, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005). Claesen Wyckoff, who heads the U.S. State Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency, said that he will soon visit the site near Tirana where the 16 tons of mustard gas and arsenic-based chemicals are stored. The poisons were recently discovered in one of Hoxha's numerous bunkers, having been unprotected for more than a decade. The Albanian authorities have permitted only one reporter from "The Washington Post" to visit the area, which, they say, is now guarded "as well as the state treasury." PM

A row has broken out in Macedonia over the country's designated ambassador to Bulgaria, Xhevat Ademi, "Dnevnik" and other media reported. Ademi, who was nominated for this position by the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), is included on the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control "Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons" list, which consists primarily of people with suspected criminal or terrorist connections (see "I know that I was on the blacklist, but I do not know whether I still am," the private A1 TV quoted Ademi as saying. Ademi and Kastriot Haxhirexha, who is also blacklisted, were members of the small radical National Democratic Party (PDK), which was formed during the 2001 conflict between the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (UCK) and the Macedonian authorities. The PDK presented itself as the political arm of the UCK. However, after the end of the conflict, former leaders of the disbanded UCK formed the BDI. In June 2003, the PDK merged with the BDI (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 May 2001 and 16 June 2003, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2 November 2001). A similar row over a diplomatic appointment for a blacklisted individual emerged in Bosnia in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 October 2004). UB

In an interview with the private channel Realitatea TV on 10 January, President Traian Basescu said he wants to find out "the truth about the [1989] revolution" and intends to "push things" as far as his constitutional prerogatives allow in order to have this clarified, Mediafax and Revista Presei Online reported the next day. Basescu said it is "inadmissible" for the Romanian people to be in the dark about why 1,300 people had to die after communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted in the uprising on 22 December 1989. Basescu was hinting at allegations that the so-called terrorists of December 1989 were acting on orders aimed to legitimize the National Salvation Front headed by former President Ion Iliescu as defender of the revolution. He said he hopes people will learn the truth before his mandate ends in late 2009. Basescu also said the law on accessing the files of the former Securitate must be amended to make genuinely accessible all files that do not affect national security. MS

In his televised interview on Realitatea TV, President Basescu said lower-house speaker Adrian Nastase's complaint against him at the Constitutional Court lacked credibility, Mediafax and Revista Presei Online reported the next day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005). Basescu said the complaint might have been justified if he had in any way acted in order to bring about Nastase's dismissal as Chamber of Deputies speaker. "It is unthinkable," he said, that the head of state would have less freedom in expressing political opinions than any other Romanian citizen. Basescu also said he will abide by any decision pronounced by the court on Nastase's complaint (Mediafax on 11 January reported that Senate speaker Nicolae Vacaroiu has launched a similar complaint with the court.) Basescu also said he does not believe the Democratic Party would agree to be merged into the National Liberal Party (PNL), as suggested by some PNL members, and that the merger is more likely to succeed if the two formations set up a new "Popular European" party. MS

Social Democratic Party (PSD) Chairman and lower-house speaker Nastase told journalists on 11 January that he intends to run for another term as the head of the PSD, Mediafax reported. Nastase said that former President Iliescu "will be forever the party's founding chairman." Iliescu formally rejoined the PSD the same day and said he does not rule out the possibility of running for the party's chairmanship. "I place my credibility at the service of the PSD, we need credible people up front," Iliescu said. In a presumed reference to Nastase, Iliescu said his own moral authority stems from having never "used power for the purpose of getting rich." On 10 January, 14 local PSD branches from Transylvania and the Banat issued a declaration calling for decentralizing the decision-making process in the PSD. They refrained from calling for Nastase's dismissal and said Iliescu cannot be expected to be "the great reformer." A PSD congress is slated to elect the party's new leadership in February. MS

In his 10 January interview with Realitatea TV, President Basescu said his country's relations with Moldova are a "foreign policy priority," Mediafax and Revista Presei Online reported the next day. Basescu said Romanian foreign policy in the last 10 years has neglected Moldova and the importance of the Black Sea region. As a result, he said, Romania finds itself "out of the game" in the search for a solution to the Transdniester conflict, despite the fact that Moldova has a "large [ethnic] Romanian majority." He said he is ready to visit Chisinau and raise these issues with his Moldovan counterpart Vladimir Voronin. "Just as we granted the [ethnic] Hungarians all the rights, we are entitled to demand that all the rights of [ethnic] Romanians be respected, whether in the [Serbian] Timoc Valley or in the Moldovan Republic," Basescu said. MS

A Chisinau court on 11 January stopped a libel lawsuit launched by Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean against President Voronin, Flux reported. The court ruled that as head of state, Voronin benefits from immunity and cannot be sued while in office. Urechean filed the suit after Voronin accused him of corruption and of setting up a "mafiosi structure" in the Chisinau mayoralty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 2004). MS

One of the big decisions facing the Russian government this year is what, if anything, to do with the money that has accumulated in the so-called stabilization fund. The creation of the fund, which is now worth more than 500 billion rubles ($16.7 billion) because of unprecedented global oil prices, was widely hailed domestically and abroad as one of the government's signal economic achievements of 2004.

Recognizing Russia's overwhelming economic dependence on the export of raw materials -- especially energy -- the government created the fund at the beginning of 2004 to accumulate proceeds from high oil prices in a special account that could then be used to ameliorate the economic effects of significant downturns in energy prices in the future. When oil prices are above $25 per barrel, as they were throughout 2004, up to 90 percent of the excess proceeds on oil exports are automatically diverted to the fund. Already by the end of March, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov was boasting that the fund contained nearly $5 billion.

Despite the windfall from high oil prices, the Russian economy still faces numerous problems that make it increasingly difficult for politicians simply to allow the vast resources of the stabilization fund to sit idle, waiting for a rainy day. As might be expected, left-leaning politicians led the call for using the stabilization fund to resolve social problems.

Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov, during this summer's debate over the monetization of most in-kind social benefits, cited the fund in his rebuttal to government claims that social benefits had to be restructured for economic reasons. "The country's huge hard-currency reserves and the stabilization fund deprive the government of the right to speak about an inability to afford benefits," Zyuganov wrote in an open letter to President Vladimir Putin in June. "Rather, it is a case of the government's clear lack of desire to fulfill the norms of the Russian Constitution." Although the government has not made any announcements regarding the use of the stabilization fund for the monetization of benefits, periodic media reports indicate that some regions expect just such a policy. On 29 December, for instance, Regnum quoted Federation Council member Yevgenii Bushmin, who represents the administration of Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast, as saying that his region expects to receive 100 million rubles from the fund for benefit payments this year.

Of course, opposition arguments like Zyuganov's carry little weight in Russia these days, but other voices within the government and the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party have also been floating ideas for spending the stabilization fund. Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov told a cabinet session in August that in 2005 the fund "will cease to be a cumulative institution and will become an instrument of active budget policy."

In the wake of a wave of horrific terrorist attacks in August and September that culminated with the Beslan school hostage taking, the government proposed sharp increases in defense and antiterrorism spending, increases which many argued should be covered from the stabilization fund. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin -- who has been one of the staunchest figures opposed to spending the stabilization fund, except for the noninflationary purpose of paying down the country's foreign debt -- conceded in an October interview with "Itogi" magazine that the fund could be used to pay for such things as the creation of an Interior Ministry fingerprint database and other projects that are "an important part of the fight against terrorism."

Union of Russian Entrepreneurs and Industrialists (RSPP) President Arkadii Volskii, one of the Kremlin's most loyal supporters in the business community, told Ekho Moskvy on 29 December that the government's policy of accumulating hard-currency reserves and building up the stabilization fund is inhibiting economic development. He accused government economic managers like Finance Minister Kudrin and Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref of adhering to a stubborn belief -- "some kind of blockheadedness" -- that "it's good when money just sits there." Volskii said some of the funds should be distributed to business in the form of development loans "so the money works for the country rather than for foreign banks."

Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, writing in "Trud" on 3 December, made similar arguments, accusing the government of a policy of "accumulation for its own sake." He criticized the government's policy of investing the fund in foreign securities, saying that doing so was tantamount to "supporting the foreign producer, not the domestic producer."

More nefariously, perhaps, political scientist Sergei Markov told on 30 December that one potential use of the stabilization fund could be to "purchase assets" in Ukraine as a way of increasing Russia's influence there in the wake of the 26 December victory of opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

In October, Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko proposed several possible uses for the stabilization fund, including a federal program for the development of civil aviation and a guarantee fund to attract investment to the housing and municipal-services sectors, reported.

Perhaps in response to opposition from Kudrin and Gref, Khristenko has since changed his tactics a bit. On 2 January, he told RosBalt that "indubitably we cannot touch the funds that go into the stabilization fund." He added, however, that the government in 2005 could create "in addition to the stabilization fund" a sort of "development fund, the resources of which could be used to fund strategically important projects that are capable of exercising systematic influence on the development of our economy." Although, Khristenko did not say where the money for this development fund would come from, Kudrin told ITAR-TASS on 1 November that he will propose reducing the amount currently set aside for the stabilization fund by raising the threshold beyond which profits are diverted into the fund from $20 per barrel to $21.50 per barrel.

Such concessions notwithstanding, Kudrin, Gref, and presidential economic adviser Andrei Illarionov have so far presented a united front, advocating spending the stabilization fund only on reducing Russia's foreign debt. Any domestic use of the fund, Illarionov has said, threatens to spawn inflation and endanger the government's macroeconomic program.

In the wake of the vocal opposition of these liberals to the government's actions regarding Yukos over the past 15 months, the battle over the stabilization fund could be the issue that ultimately pushes them out of the government. As economist Vladimir Mau told "Vedomosti" on 30 December: "A sharp political battle has already evolved around the 'cheap money' in the stabilization fund. Pressure to use the fund's money given high oil prices will only grow and will only become more difficult to resist."

State-run Afghanistan Television plans to broadcast programs in several of Afghanistan's minority languages, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 11 January. The television station currently only broadcasts programs in Dari and Pashto, the official state languages. Under the new plan, which has been approved by President Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan Television would allocate 20 percent of its total airtime to other languages recognized by the Afghan Constitution, while dividing the remaining 80 percent of the airtime equally between Dari and Pashto. In addition to the two official languages, the constitution recognizes Uzbek, Turkmen, Baluchi, Pashai, Nuristani, and Pamiri as official third languages of the country in areas where the majority of the people speak those languages. It is unclear which of these languages would be used in Afghanistan Television broadcasts. AT

During a meeting between a European Commission delegation and Afghan Information and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin in Kabul on 11 January, ways to improve the professional and technical capabilities of Afghanistan's official media outlets were discussed, Afghanistan Television reported. The European Commission promised to provide technical assistance to Bakhtar News Agency and Afghanistan Radio and Television for the next five years. In addition, the European Commission is planning to enhance the capabilities of the official radio and television stations to reach the country's provinces. AT

According to the German Defense Ministry, that country's troops stationed in Afghanistan will have to confront greater risks in 2005 as the war on drugs intensifies, "Der Spiegel" reported on 10 January. German intelligence sources have warned the country's military that if the drug lords see their sources of income diminish as a result of the efforts by the U.S., U.K., and Afghan governments to confront the growing narcotics problem in Afghanistan, German troops stationed in the opium-poppy-growing northeastern provinces of Konduz and Badakhshan could come under increasing threat. The Bundestag mandate permitting German participation in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) explicitly excludes counternarcotics efforts. Afghanistan accounts for 87 percent of the global supply of opium, but NATO has ruled out tackling the issue thus far (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 18 June 2004). AT

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Pakistan reached an agreement in Islamabad on 11 January to conduct a census of all Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the Associated Press of Pakistan reported. The census, which is to be finished in 30 days, will provide the first detailed information on the number and background of Afghans living in Pakistan. Pakistani Minister for States and Frontier Regions Sardar Yar Mohammad Rind said that all Afghans who have arrived in Pakistan since 1979 must participate in the census and anyone "who does not participate...will be considered illegal and treated according to Pakistani laws." The census will assist Pakistan and the UNHCR to develop policies for those Afghans who do not leave Pakistan before the end of the UNHCR voluntary assisted-repatriation program in March 2006. Since early 2002, the UNHCR has assisted 2.3 million Afghans to return home from Pakistan and it is expected that an additional 400,000 will be repatriated in 2005. However, according to UNHCR estimates, around 1 million Afghans currently live in refugee camps and an unknown, but significant number are living in Pakistani cities. AT

Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami introduced the budget for the year beginning 21 March to the legislature on 9 January, IRNA reported. The budget, approximately $172 billion, is 30 percent larger than the previous year's. It anticipates economic growth of 7.1 percent and a 14.5 percent inflation rate. Khatami said imports are expected to be $32.3 billion (up 5 percent), and non-oil exports will be $8.5 billion (up 10.7 percent). Oil revenues are expected to fall almost $2 billion to $14.1 billion, and petrochemical production will increase by 37 percent to 27 million tons. Khatami described some major projects that will begin in the coming year, including the building of six dams. Looking back, Khatami said that in the 7 1/2 years he has been in office he has focused on taxes rather than oil revenues to deal with the country's daily expenses. The other accomplishments of his administration, Khatami said, are a unified exchange rate, decentralization of the government, and providing job opportunities for young people. BS

An earthquake with a magnitude of 4.1 struck the Kerman Province town of Jiroft during the evening of 10 January, Radio Farda reported, citing IRNA. A local reporter, Ruhollah Khodishi, told Radio Farda that most families stayed awake all night out of fear, but the earthquake did not cause any casualties. Another earthquake, of a magnitude of 5.8, struck the Mazandaran Province town of Aq Qala on 10 January, IRNA reported. More than 100 people were injured, but an emergencies official named Ibrahim Karimi said most of the injuries were minor. BS

Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad said at an 11 January news conference in Tehran that webloggers who are accused of violating the law will be dealt with according to existing rules and regulations, ILNA reported. New laws, he said, will not be added. He encouraged the webloggers to register any complaints about their treatment while in detention with the Public Prosecutor's Office, rather than with irrelevant authorities. He was presumably referring to the bloggers' statements to presidential adviser Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi that they were tortured. Karimirad said there are laws protecting citizens' rights, and those who accuse the judiciary of wrongdoing are trying to cause trouble and have "ulterior motives." When asked how people can complain about the public prosecutor to the public prosecutor, Karimirad said the judiciary is the final authority in every country and one cannot expect anybody else to deal with possible offenses on the part of the judiciary. President Khatami said on 10 January that he will talk to judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi about these cases, "Etemad" reported. BS

Iraqi Independent Election Commission Farid Ayar spokesman denied that mass resignations have taken place among electoral officials in some governorates, Al-Diyar television reported on 11 January. He told the television that though a few employees have resigned for personal reasons, satellite television reports that claimed several hundred employees resigned en masse are not true. Election commission member Adil al-Lami told Al-Jazeera television that the majority of the members of the commission in the Al-Anbar Governorate have been replaced with Iraqis from outside the governorate. He said the decision was made after local members resigned due to threats from militants. Al-Lami said that seven commission employees have been killed in attacks by militants. KR

In an interview with Al-Arabiyah television on 11 January, Shi'ite parliamentary candidate Husayn al-Shahristani of the Unified Iraqi Coalition criticized Prime Minister Iyad Allawi for not doing more to provide security in Iraq ahead of elections. "If we are serious about holding the elections at their scheduled date as the government emphasizes, such plans should have been implemented long ago in order to protect the citizens in the various hot areas. There are areas in Iraq that are held captive by the terrorists," al-Shahristani said. He further criticized the Allawi government, saying: "It is clear that there is poor performance in the field of security and the field of providing basic services to the people in Iraq like water, electricity, and other basic services. These services are moving from bad to worse and the people are wondering where the money goes if the large oil revenues levied at present are not spent on these basic services or on security and the protection of the citizens." The Shi'ite leader stressed the necessity of Sunni participation in the elections, adding that should Sunnis not participate in the vote, elected Shi'ite leaders will make every effort to include them in the drafting of a permanent constitution. KR

Diyala Governorate police director Brigadier General Iyad Husayn al-Karkhi has reportedly been dismissed for incompetence, Al-Diyar television reported on 11 January. His dismissal was related to the deteriorating security situation in the governorate and the escape of nine detainees from a police station. Former Iraqi Army Colonel Adil Mulan was appointed to replace him, Al-Diyar reported. Meanwhile, a Denmark-based website ( reported on 12 January that Al-Basrah police director Colonel Kazim Sharhan has been fired following an investigation by the Supreme De-Ba'athification Commission that determined he had connections to the former regime. He was replaced by Major General Hasan Sawadi. KR

Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Mas'ud Barzani reiterated on 11 January that Kurds would favor an election postponement if that postponement means broader participation, Al-Jazeera reported. "As far as we in Kurdistan are concerned, we have no problem [postponing the vote]. We are not demanding the postponement of the elections, but if postponement leads to better elections and if this is the opinion of the majority, then we have no objection to postponement," he said. Meanwhile, the Al-Dulaym tribes released a statement on 11 January that the chief sheikh of the tribes, Abd al-Razzaq Inad al-Ku'ud, was killed by U.S. forces between Al-Baghdadiyah and Hit on 9 January, Al-Arabiyah television reported on 11 January. The Sunni tribe said it will boycott the elections as a result of the killing. KR

A court-martial for U.S. Army reservist Charles Graner, the purported ringleader of the prison-abuse scandal at Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb Prison, heard videotaped testimony on 11 January of inmates who said they were abused by Graner, international media reported on 12 January. "They were torturing us as though it was a theater for them," Reuters quoted inmate Husayn Mutar as saying. Mutar was detained at the prison on charges of car theft. "Saddam didn't do this to us," He added. Military prosecutors presented new evidence at the court-martial, including a videotape of forced group masturbation, and a picture of a female detainee ordered to bare her breasts. Graner's lawyer has argued that his client was only following the orders of senior officers. He also claimed that actions such as ordering naked, hooded detainees to form human pyramids are not illegal. KR