Accessibility links

Breaking News

Newsline - January 20, 2005

A map of Russia displayed on on 20 January suggested that demonstrations opposing the social-benefits reform have taken place in all but nine of Russia's 89 federation subjects: the Kirov, Tyumen, and Ryazan oblasts; the Ust-Ordnynskii Buryatskii Autonomous Okrug; and the republics of Kalymykia, Yakutia (Sakha), Altai, Chavash, and Mordovia. On 19 January, rallies were held in Kazan, Samara, Khabarovsk, Nizhnii Novgorod, Izhevsk, Tolyatti, and Chita, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. In Tolyatti, an estimated 500 pensioners gathered in front of the mayor's office. In Samara, where demonstrations began on 10 January, the number of participants had dwindled to 40. JAC

RTR televised on 19 January a conversation between President Vladimir Putin and Mordovia President Nikolai Merkushkin in which the latter noted that in his republic, which is predominantly agricultural, "70 percent of the people who previously got nothing from a benefit entitlement [such as free public transportation] have now received money. For them that's only a plus," Merkushkin said. "So about 10 percent of people are dissatisfied." Putin wrapped up the conversation, noting, "I agree with you that the overwhelming majority of people in such regions as Mordovia have benefited from these reforms." On 18 January, RTR ran a story about a special 24-hour hot line that has been set up in Vladivostok to answer the public's questions about the benefits reform. According to the report, Vladivostok social-service employees have been working without closing or taking days off, and hot lines and consultation points are operating around-the-clock. Meanwhile, the "most important benefit for pensioners, [free] public transportation, has been retained" in the city, the report noted. JAC

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin told reporters on 19 January that the protesting pensioners "have organizers, and highly skilled ones at that," ITAR-TASS reported. Kudrin added that the Communist Party and National Bolshevik Party created schedules for blocking roads that have appeared on the Internet. Kudrin complained that the roadblocks are causing "serious damage to the economy" and preventing ambulances and other essential-services vehicles from getting through. According to RIA-Novosti, Kudrin also alleged that "only 1 percent" of the population has been actively protesting and that provocateurs are involved in the protests. JAC

In Yekaterinburg, police have detained the suspected organizers of a flash mob of 20-30 students who threw coins on the steps of the building housing the Sverdlovsk Oblast branch of Unified Russia, according to on 19 January. The action lasted less than 20 minutes. "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 19 January that police in St. Petersburg picked up more than a dozen representatives of various political movements whom they suspect of participating in unauthorized demonstrations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2005). One of those detained, who wished to remain anonymous, told the daily that St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko asked police to pay attention only to younger organizers. A Leningrad Oblast legislator was among those arrested. According to, representatives of the city prosecutor's office said administrative cases are being brought only "against the organizers of the actions, not the participants, the majority of whom are pensioners." In an interview with "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 18 January, 64-year-old Olga Fedorova, who is facing administrative proceedings regarding her role in protests held in Moscow Oblast, said that "all the talk about 'young instigators' is rubbish." JAC

A group of Kremlin-associated public organizations has issued a joint statement accusing the Communist Party of attempting to score political points from the current unrest over social-benefits reform, ITAR-TASS reported on 19 January. The nine organizations -- including the Union of Afghan Veterans, the Russian Union of the Handicapped, and the Russian Youth Union -- say the wave of protests has "clearly shown the moral and political irresponsibility of the structures calling themselves the opposition." "Taking advantage of temporary glitches and difficulties arising from going over to a new system and playing on the people's lack of information, they are seeking to play the role of guardian of the public interest," the joint statement reads. It accuses the Communist Party and the Party of Pensioners of "cynically draping themselves in populist slogans" and of "urging sick and elderly people into the streets in winter." "The organizers of the protests have gone so far as to call upon the elderly to bring children and grandchildren out onto the streets," the statement says. It concludes that, despite some local-level implementation problems, the benefits reform has been a success. "We call upon everyone whose interests are affected by the reform not to yield to provocation and not to take part in the Communist Party's orchestrated political production," the statement says. RC

An application for a same-sex marriage that was submitted in Moscow by two gay-rights activists has been rejected, "The Moscow Times" reported on 20 January. The two men, Bashkortostan legislator Edvard Murzin and "Kvir" magazine Editor in Chief Ed Mishin, submitted the application this week in order to create a test case that would compel the Constitutional Court to rule on a law that currently defines marriage as an institution between a man and a woman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2005). Mishin told the daily that on 19 January police raided the Moscow offices of his website ( and ordered staff to vacate the premises. He interpreted this as retaliation for the marriage application. Murzin, who is a heterosexual, said the couple will appeal the rejection to the courts and, if necessary, to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. RC

The appeals collegium of the Supreme Court on 19 January upheld a decision by the Moscow Municipal Court and the Qualifications Collegium for Judges that deprived Moscow Municipal Court Judge Olga Kudeshkina of her status as a judge in 2003, RIA-Novosti reported. Kudeshkina was dismissed following an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 30 November 2003 in which she accused the Prosecutor-General's Office of pressuring Moscow Municipal Court judges in connection with a number of criminal cases (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003). She told that the decision was expected because "if the court had overturned the lower court's decision and satisfied my complaint, that would have meant that the Supreme Court recognized that the criticism of the Moscow Municipal Court was justified." Kudeshkina intends to appeal the decision to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, reported. JAC

The Defense Ministry does not plan to end conscription deferments for students, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told the State Duma on 19 January, Interfax reported. Ivanov added, however, that there are far too many legal deferments and that a plan to reform them is being drafted and will be implemented at the end of this year or early in 2006. Ivanov told journalists that the ministry plans to reduce the conscription period from two years to one and that, to do so, "the number of conscripts must be doubled" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 October 2004 and 13 January 2005). "You have to understand this fact," he said. Ivanov also told deputies that all military personnel will get inflation-based pay raises this year, Radio Mayak reported. He said that, as part of the commemoration this summer of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, the government has allocated 1.5 billion rubles ($50 million) for cash payments and in-kind benefits for World War II veterans and for the families of servicemen who died during the war. RC

The magazine division of Finnish media giant SanomaWSOY has purchased Russia's Independent Media for $186 million, "The Moscow Times" and other Russian media reported on 20 January. Independent Media publishes about 30 glossy-magazine titles in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, as well as the newspapers "Vedomosti," "The Moscow Times," and "The St. Petersburg Times." According to "The Moscow Times," Independent Media controls about one-third of the magazine-advertising market in Russia and its 2004 revenues were $92 million. Independent Media founder and CEO Derk Sauer has agreed to remain with the company for at least three years. Sanoma Magazines CEO Koos Guis told "The Moscow Times" that Sanoma does not intend to become involved in the management of Independent Media and that the company's newspapers will remain a key part of the business. Sauer said the company plans to launch new newspaper titles, as well as new, nonpolitical magazines. The purchase must be approved by government antimonopoly authorities and is expected to be completed during the second quarter of this year, Interfax reported. SanomaWSOY is northern Europe's largest media company and had revenues of $3.25 billion last year. RC

A Saratov raion-level court has ordered the local newspaper "Provintsialnyi telegraf" to pay 75,000 rubles ($2,500) to Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov as compensation resulting from a libel ruling, Interfax reported on 19 January. The court ruled that a 7 September 2004 article in the paper damaged Ayatskov's reputation by claiming that Ayatskov's property had been frozen by federal authorities and that he had used oblast funds to pay for his trip to the Summer Olympic Games in Athens. The article also claimed that Ayatskov maintains a yacht and a jet aircraft for personal use with oblast-budget funds. The court ruled that the information in the article was libelous and ordered the compensation payment. RC

Federation Council representative for the city of Moscow Oleg Tolkachev told Ekho Moskvy on 19 January that a monument to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin will be unveiled at the city's Poklonnaya Gora park by 9 May in connection with the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. According to Tolkachev, the monument is not a monument to tyranny but to the wartime leaders who defeated Hitlerism. He added that sculptor Zurab Tsereteli will create a monument to Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt at the Livadiya Palace in Yalta by the 60th anniversary of the Yalta conference next month. The station's website noted that in a later interview with Russian news agencies, Tolkachev disassociated himself from his earlier remarks. JAC

However, reported on 6 December that Tsereteli plans to create a composition devoted to Yalta for the palace in Crimea -- as well as a column dedicated to the Leningrad, Belarus, and Ukraine fronts that would be located in Poklonnaya Gora park. In an interview with "The Washington Post" on 10 June, David Sarkisian, director of the Schusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow, called Tsereteli "a genius of kitsch." He added that he considers Tsereteli the person who has "done the greatest damage to [Moscow]." JAC

In a statement pegged to the Muslim festival of Kurban-Bayram and posted on 20 January on, Aslan Maskhadov expressed his disappointment at the "silent complicity" of world Islamic organizations such as the League of Arab States and the Organization of the Islamic Conference in the face of what Maskhadov termed the "terrible genocide" perpetrated by Russia against the Chechen people. Maskhadov argued that in accordance with their statutes, such organizations are obliged "to defend the rights of all Muslims of the world," including the Chechens. LF

The heads of 34 Chechen NGOs and communities abroad have issued a statement condemning what they term Russia's "terrorist, genocidal war" against the Chechen people and appealing to OSCE member states to do all in their power to halt Russian aggression against Chechnya, reported on 20 January. The statement rejects Russia's official rationale for that aggression -- the "restoration of constitutional order" and "struggle against international Islamic terrorism" -- stressing that "the people and government of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria" firmly endorse the building of a peaceful democratic state. The statement condemns what it terms illegal efforts by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to force Chechnya to remain part of the Russian Federation and equates those imputed efforts with complicity in the genocide of the Chechen people. It calls on Western human rights organizations to exert pressure on the PACE to desist from that policy. LF

President Mustafa Batdyev convened a session of the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia cabinet on 19 January at which he announced that body's dismissal, Russian media reported, quoting the presidential press service. Batdyev told ITAR-TASS he was not completely satisfied by the cabinet's performance but did not cite specific examples; he said he hopes the new cabinet will be more effective in the social and economic spheres. Batdyev named as acting prime minister Alik Kardanov, who held that post under Batdyev's predecessor, Vladimir Semenov. LF

The Artarutiun opposition bloc decided on 19 January to continue its 11-month-old boycott of parliamentary proceedings on the grounds that the authorities have not yet met any of their demands, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February and 26 October 2004). But the bloc's leaders said its 14 parliament deputies may still attend debates on "crucial" issues such as constitutional reform and amending election legislation. Artashes Geghamian's National Unity Party, the second-largest opposition faction in parliament, endorsed the Artarutiun decision later on 19 January. Artarutiun board member Viktor Dallakian warned that the bloc will try to sabotage the anticipated referendum on constitutional reforms if the Armenian authorities continue to ignore their demands for a nationwide referendum of confidence in President Robert Kocharian. LF

Pro-government Armenian newspapers expressed outrage on 19 January over Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones's inclusion of the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in a list of what she termed "criminal secessionist regimes" on the territory of the former USSR. At a 13 January news conference with Russian journalists, Jones argued that the removal of such regimes in Transdniester, Georgia's unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh is in Russia's interests. Vahan Hovannisian, who is a leading member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnakstsutiun, a junior partner in the three-party ruling coalition, said he does not believes Jones's statement accurately reflects Washington's policy vis-a-vis Nagorno-Karabakah. Aram Sarkisian of the opposition Democratic Party of Armenia told journalists on 19 January that Jones's statement has seriously damaged Armenia's negotiating position in the ongoing search for a solution to the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

One Azerbaijani was killed on 18 January and several people were injured in a fight in Georgia's Gardabani Raion between Georgian police and Azerbaijanis who were apparently trying to smuggle electronic equipment into Georgia from Azerbaijan, Turan and reported on 19 and 20 January, respectively. Local Azerbaijanis began throwing stones at police, injuring at least one of them, and police reportedly responded by firing into the air. It is the second fatal incident in a predominantly Azerbaijani-populated district of Georgia within the past two months; no one has yet been arrested for the killing of an elderly Azerbaijani woman in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 2004). LF

Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili told Interfax on 19 January that Georgia is ready to resume talks with Abkhazia next month under the aegis of the so-called Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia group. Following talks in Sukhum on 16 January with Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative for the Abkhaz conflict, Sergei Shamba, foreign minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, had similarly signaled on 18 January Abkhazia's readiness to attend the March talks, which will take place in Geneva, Interfax reported. Abkhazia suspended its participation in the UN-mediated negotiating process last summer after Georgian naval vessels opened fire on a Turkish merchant ship in Abkhaz territorial waters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004). LF

A consortium that includes Russia's Evrazia Holding and Georgian shareholders of the Zestafon Ferrous Alloys plant have won a tender to purchase the Chiatura Manganese plant and the Vartsikhe hydroelectric power station for a total of $132 million, Caucasus Press reported on 19 January. Rival bidder Interpipe, which is reportedly owned by outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's son-in-law, is variously reported to have made a rival bid of $120 million, $137 million, or $200 million, but Caucasus Press on 19 January quoted Georgian Economy Minister Aleksi Aleksishvili as saying that Evrazia improved on its initial proposal and offered better terms for reviving the two enterprises. Interpipe board member Igor Yaroslavets was quoted as saying his company was prepared to pay $200 million but that it quit the tender because the Georgian government delayed announcing the outcome. Also on 19 January, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania both hailed the acquisition the previous day by Russia's Vneshtorgbank for an undisclosed sum of a 51 percent stake in the United Bank of Georgia, Interfax reported. LF

An adviser at the Kazakh Embassy in Pakistan was seriously wounded on 19 January at his residence in Islamabad in an apparent robbery attempt, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Police in Islamabad said that it appears that Sapargali Aubakirov was wounded by individuals who then stole his car, APP reported. Police said that there are no indications the attack was linked in any way to terrorism. A doctor at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, where Aubakirov underwent surgery for gunshot wounds, told Pakistan Television that the Kazakh diplomat was in a coma and on a ventilator. DK

Christian Strohal, director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), ended a four-day visit to Kazakhstan on 19 January, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. During his visit, Strohal met with representatives of the Foreign Ministry, Justice Ministry, Prosecutor-General's Office, Central Election Commission, and parliament, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. On 19 January, Strohal met with Nurtay Abykaev, the speaker of Kazakhstan's upper chamber of parliament, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. "We are ready to continue our support and deepen our cooperation with Kazakhstan, with its parliament, civil society, and NGOs in various areas," Strohal said. He cited issues of tolerance and integration as an area where Kazakhstan's positive experience could serve as an example for others. Strohal also said the ODIHR intends to cooperate with Kazakhstan in improving the country's electoral system and fine-tuning a new draft law on terrorism. DK

The opposition blocs Ata-Jurt and the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan's held an unsanctioned demonstration with 500 participants in the center of Bishkek on 19 January, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Demonstrators demanded an end to the hounding of the authorities' political opponents and the right to participate in 27 February parliamentary elections. Topchubek Turgunaliev, leader of the Erkindik party, addressed the crowd, saying, "Starting on 1 February, we will begin collecting signatures across the country to impeach President [Askar] Akaev." Roza Otunbaeva, co-chairwoman of Ata-Jurt, said, "President Akaev's son and daughter have announced their intentions to run for parliament, as have the son of [Prime Minister Nikolai] Tanaev, the son and son-in-law of [presidential-administration head Toichubek] Kosymov. Is this the kind of parliament we want?" DK

Major General Nuralisho Nazarov, first deputy chairman of Tajikistan's Border Protection Committee, told a meeting of the Paris Pact's group on Tajikistan in Dushanbe on 19 January that his country needs $100 million to shore up its borders, ITAR-TASS reported. The meeting, which focused on how Tajikistan will guard its frontier with Afghanistan after Russian forces finish handing over control of the border to their Tajik counterparts, was attended by representatives of Afghanistan, Britain, China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United States, the BBC reported. A spokesman for Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency, which hosted the meeting, warned that the flow of drugs from Afghanistan has picked up since Russian border guards turned over a 900-kilometer section of the border in December, ITAR-TASS reported. Lieutenant General Abdurahmon Azimov, who until recently commanded Tajikistan's border troops, stressed, "Unless the Afghan people themselves begin rooting out drugs on their land, the problem will never be resolved." DK

According to the Belarusian Tax Ministry, recent trade problems with Russia are caused by Russia's Federal Tax Service which, in the opinion of the Belarusian side, has not explained to Russian traders how to work under a new rule for collecting value-added tax (VAT), RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 19 January. On 1 January, Belarus and Russia switched to the country-of-destination principle in VAT collection. According to Minsk, the new rule means that Russian exporters to Belarus should reduce the prices of delivered goods by the VAT share they had to pay to the Russian budget in 2004. However, Russian traders reportedly refuse to do so. "We cannot command the Russians, they are not fulfilling the agreement [on VAT collection in 2005]," RFE/RL's Belarus Service quoted a Belarusian Tax Ministry official as saying. JM

The opposition Belarusian United Civic Party (AHP) has demanded the dismissal of Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski, Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau, and Finance Minister Mikalay Korbut, saying that the government was caught unprepared by the negative fallout from the switch to the new VAT collection rule with Russia, Belapan reported on 19 January. "Managers have no clear idea how VAT payments should be made in accordance with the new procedure," the AHP said in a statement. "Shipments from Belarus to Russia and from Russia to our country have been put on hold." According to the AHP, the current Belarus-Russia trade crisis has revealed the Belarusian government's inability to reach common ground with its major partner on key economic and legal matters. JM

During the hearings in the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 18 January, Condoleeza Rice, U.S. President George W. Bush's nominee for secretary of state, listed Belarus along with Cuba, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Iran, and North Korea as "outposts of tyranny," international news agencies reported. Minsk responded the same day by saying that Rice is out of touch with the situation in Belarus. "The mention of Belarus in Condoleezza Rice's announcement shows that her conception of Belarus is, unfortunately...quite far from reality," Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh told AP. "False stereotypes and prejudices are a poor basis for the formation of effective policy in the sphere of foreign relations." JM

The Supreme Court ruled in the early morning hours of 20 January to reject an appeal by presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych against the victory of his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, Ukrainian and international media reported. "The appeal by presidential candidate Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych alleging inaction by the Central Election Commission concerning the outcome of the presidential election of 26 December and the resolution adopted by the [Central Election] Commission regarding the outcome of the presidential election and the disclosure of the results on 10 January is hereby rejected," Supreme Court Chairman Anatoliy Yarema said. "The decision is final and not subject to appeal." Additionally, the 20 January issues of the official newspapers "Uryadovyy kuryer" and "Holos Ukrayiny" published the official election results, according to which Yushchenko won 51.99 percent of the vote (15.1 million voters) compared with Yanukovych's 44.2 percent (12.8 million voters). The court ruling and the newspapers' publication finally open the way for Yushchenko's inauguration, which is set to take place in the Verkhovna Rada on 23 January. JM

The Ukrainian news agency UNIAN on 20 January published details of a coalition deal signed in July by Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko and Yuliya Tymoshenko, the leader of the eponymous opposition bloc, on their concerted efforts in the presidential election campaign and the distribution of government posts after an anticipated Yushchenko victory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July 2004). Under the deal, Yushchenko pledged to nominate Tymoshenko for the post of prime minister as well as use "the force of his moral authority" and "a balanced personnel policy" to persuade the Verkhovna Rada into approving her nomination. Oleksandr Turchynov, Tymoshenko's partner in her bloc, confirmed that the deal was made. JM

The deal also stipulates that 55 percent of the government and state administration cadres will be selected by Our Ukraine and 23 percent by the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. "The [remaining] 22 percent of posts is reserved by the founders of the coalition for ensuring the formation of a new parliamentary majority," UNIAN quoted from the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko accord. Tymoshenko's partner in her bloc, Turchynov, said the priority for the bloc is to have Tymoshenko installed as prime minister. "We are aware that after the appointment of prime minister, the percentage quotas [mentioned in the deal] are to be revised, taking into account the interests of those political forces that will form and support the government," Turchynov told UNIAN. JM

Ethnic Albanian legislators in southern Serbia's Presevo District parliament agreed on 19 January to reject a recent offer from Belgrade to take part in the work of the government's Coordination Center headed by Nebojsa Covic, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 14 January 2005). Ethnic Albanians widely regard the center as a vehicle to facilitate Belgrade's involvement in the affairs of Kosova. The legislators demanded that Belgrade demilitarize the Presevo region, open additional border crossings to Kosova and Macedonia, and reduce the size of the border security zone from 5 kilometers to 200 meters. The moves follow the recent killing of an Albanian teenager by a Serbian border guard. Some Albanian politicians and media in southern Serbia and Kosova charge that Belgrade wants to foment tension in the region in order to force a delay on talks about Kosova's final status (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 December 2004 and 7 January 2005). PM

A spokeswoman for EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana told the Beta news agency from Brussels on 20 January that Solana has postponed a planned visit to Belgrade because some unspecified problems he wanted to discuss "have not matured enough to be solved." The United States and the Hague-based war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, recently criticized Belgrade for foot-dragging in cooperating with the tribunal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 July and 24 November 2004, and 14 January 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 September and 19 November 2004). The EU is also concerned with the future and viability of the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro, which is known locally as "Solania" after the man chiefly responsible for its creation. PM

On 19 January, a New York judge ordered the extradition of former Bosnian Ambassador to the UN and Foreign Minister Mohamed Sacirbey to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he faces corruption charges, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 29 July 2004). The extradition order has been suspended for 10 days pending an appeal by Sacirbey's lawyer. The former diplomat, who has dual U.S. and Bosnian citizenship, said in a telephone interview that he intends to ask the U.S. court whether it is legally possible "to treat an American citizen in such a fashion." Known as Sacirbegovic in Bosnia, his father was a close friend of late President Alija Izetbegovic, dating from the years after World War II when the two men were political prisoners of Josip Broz Tito. The former diplomat maintains that the charges against him are politically motivated. PM

In a speech before the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on 18 January that Macedonia might be the next candidate country for the EU, according to the EU's official website ( Rehn said the European Commission will form its opinion as to whether Macedonia will be granted candidate status as soon as it receives Skopje's replies to the questionnaire for prospective EU candidate countries in mid-February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 October 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 February, 5 March, and 8 October 2004). "How long [it] will take [Brussels to evaluate the replies] depends on the quality of the replies," Rehn said, adding that he expects the commission to reach a decision by the end of 2005. "If political development in [Macedonia] continues positively, we may have another candidate country and sound benchmark for the Western Balkans," he said. UB

Traian Basescu said on 19 January in Constanta that he will withdraw his complaint against two prosecutors from the National Anticorruption Prosecution (PNA), Mediafax reported. Basescu launched the complaint after he was indicted in August for his role in the alleged illicit privatization of Romania's maritime fleet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 August 2004 ). He then claimed that the charges against him were politically motivated. Basescu said on 19 January that he considers his conflict with the PNA to be "extinguished" and that there will be no political interference in the work of the PNA. He said the justice system must "take its course." Right after his election as president in December last year, the new presidential adviser on judicial affairs, Renate Weber, said that as the president Basescu is immune from prosecution. MS

Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) Chairman Bela Marko said on 19 January that "for now" the UDMR opposes moves to recall the two speakers of Romania's bicameral parliament, former Prime Ministers Adrian Nastase and Nicolae Vacaroiu, Mediafax reported. President Basescu earlier this month advocated replacing the two speakers, and the Democratic Party decided to submit to parliament a proposal for the action. The junior coalition Humanist Party is also opposed to the move (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6, 7, 10, and 18 January 2005). Marko said it is not entirely necessary that the two speakers belong to parties from the ruling coalition, but their recall might become justified if they tried to slow down legislation proposed by the coalition. Nastase and Vacaroiu belong to the opposition Social Democratic Party. MS

Several associations representing people who fought in the 1989 anticommunist uprising released on 19 January a "list of shame" that includes the names of current officials who were allegedly involved in attempts to crack down on the uprising or use it for their own political purposes, Mediafax and AP reported. The associations called on President Basescu to take action leading to the dismissal of those officials or their prosecution. Among those on the list are former President Ion Iliescu, former Prime Minister Petre Roman, Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Eugen Badalan, and former Chief of Staff Constantin Degeratu, who was recently appointed military affairs adviser to Basescu. MS

Graeme Justice, who is the IMF permanent representative in Romania, said on 19 January that Bucharest must step up structural reforms if it wants to join the EU in 2007, AFP reported. Justice said the IMF is worried that "budgetary wage increases [by the former government]...and recent tax cuts are likely to add to inflationary pressures if not offset by a tightening of fiscal policies." He said that the cabinet headed by Calin Popescu-Tariceanu is aware that its recent decision to introduce a 16 percent flat tax "will result in immediate revenue losses in 2005 and will need to be offset through a shift towards indirect taxation or cuts elsewhere." MS

In a diplomatic note addressed to the Moldovan Foreign Ministry, Russia demanded on 19 January that Chisinau reverse its decision to curb freedom of travel to Transdniester for diplomats accredited in Moldova, Flux and ITAR-TASS reported. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the Moldovan decision "raises deep concerns in Moscow because of the obstacles that will inevitably arise as our official representatives fulfill their mission" of mediating the conflict with the separatist region, according to ITAR-TASS. The note said that concern is also shared by Ukraine, which alongside Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is a mediator in the conflict. Transdniester "Justice Minister" Viktor Balala said Chisinau is attempting to deny the international community first-hand reliable information on Transdniester, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 and 19 January 2005). MS

Democratic Moldova Block (BMD) Chairman and Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean said on 19 January that he is not surprised by the fact that three members of the former Braghis Alliance are running on the Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) lists for the 6 March parliamentary elections, Flux reported. Urechean said the Braghis Alliance was set up in haste in 2001 without carefully screening its parliamentary representatives. The Braghis Alliance later became part of the Our Moldova alliance which, in turn, is now a member of the BMD. Also on 19 January, Sergiu Coropceanu announced he has left Our Moldova and predicted that several Our Moldova parliamentarians will also leave the alliance. Coropceanu, who is deputy chairman of one of the alliance's local branches, said he is "puzzled" by the principles used to set up the BMD candidate list for the 2005 parliamentary elections. MS

When Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced his cabinet in late December, most observers hailed it as a technocratic team mostly devoid of warlords and other unsavory elements among Afghanistan's powerful elite.

On the other hand, human rights advocates pointed to the appointment as energy minister of former Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan as a disappointment.

The inclusion of Ismail Khan in the cabinet -- provided that the former militia leader concentrates on his current job -- can be viewed as the successful conclusion of one of Karzai's most daring maneuvers.

Until September, this self-styled "amir," or ruler, of western Afghanistan was one of the major obstacles to Kabul's plans to expand the central government's sway over the outlying provinces. While Karzai publicly announced his policy to rein in various warlords -- referred to by Kabul as "regional commanders" -- in May 2003, he made little progress with Ismail Khan, who continued to rule his fiefdom of Herat virtually independently.

While most petty (and some of the more powerful) warlords might have been regarded as easy targets for a Kabul diplomatic campaign, since most had woeful human rights records and did not have broad popular support, Ismail Khan was indeed a tough target.

In contrast with warlords who in the years following the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001 roamed Afghanistan as ministers, governors, presidential candidates, or commanders, Ismail Khan's rule arguably had a positive side. He appears not to have been merely interested in enriching himself and his immediate associates; and unlike with most of his peers, there is no hard evidence that he was involved in the narcotics industry. Under Ismail Khan's dictatorial "emirate," Herat witnessed a reconstruction boom that included clean and efficient roads -- something still sorely lacking even in Kabul.

While Ismail Khan initially withheld from Kabul all -- and later at least a large portion -- of the tax revenues generated by Afghanistan's main border crossing with Iran, he earmarked a significant portion of it for public projects. Such policies assured substantial popular support in Herat. Ismail Khan's past is untainted by any suspicion of gross human rights abuses, and he has maintained his legendary status as a mujahedin commander during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

These attributes, together with his substantial military power, rendered Ismail Khan a tough challenge for Karzai.

Finally, in September, through prudent political moves and perhaps some luck, Karzai managed to remove Ismail Khan from power and sought to appoint him minister of mines and industry in his transitional administration.

Ismail Khan opted out of that ministerial post in Kabul and instead remained in Herat as a "private citizen." However, and more importantly, he did not cause any trouble and tried to help calm the situation after some of his supporters, angered by his dismissal, went on a rampage in the city of Herat.

Karzai's decision to include Ismail Khan in his first postelection cabinet ought to be viewed not only through the prism of Ismail Khan's behavior while ruling Herat but also within a context of the possible peaceful end to warlordism throughout Afghanistan.

The fact that Ismail Khan now sits in the cabinet and takes orders from Karzai is a significant victory in itself. Regardless of the fact that he is no energy expert, if Ismail Khan manages to run his department efficiently, relying on expert help for technical matters, the decision to include this decommissioned warlord in the government could have positive repercussions in ending other warlords' careers.

Of course, Ismail Khan did not choose to be part of Karzai's cabinet; he simply had no better options. Recent Afghan history illustrates that those who rule by the gun also respect force. History also shows that these figures fight only when cornered -- once there are no other options.

Removing the warlords while leaving them an option to save face, or in some cases even to serve the state, might thus be the best available option for Karzai, who still does not have anything resembling a military that is capable of projecting his orders by force.

A suicide bomber blew himself up on 20 January outside a northern Afghan mosque in an apparent assassination attempt against powerful ethnic Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, RFE/RL reported. Dostum was unhurt in the blast, which injured 20 others, five seriously. The attack occurred in Dostum's hometown of Shiberghan at the end of open-air prayers to mark the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. Video of the attack shows the northern Afghan militia commander approaching thousands of worshippers who had gathered outside the mosque. The bodies of his guards and supporters protected Dostum from shrapnel. The general's brother, Qadir Dostum, was among those who sustained minor injuries. He told Reuters he was embracing his brother at the moment of the explosion and was struck in the face by shrapnel. Dostum was a key leader in the former United Front (aka Northern Alliance), which worked with U.S. forces in the campaign to oust the Taliban in 2001. PB

President Hamid Karzai has appointed an election commission to organize the country's forthcoming elections, Afghanistan Television reported. "I approve the formation of an independent commission to organize and monitor any kind of elections and refer to general votes in the country," Karzai stated in a 19 January decree. Besmellah Besmel has been appointed chairman of the Independent Elections' Commisssion and Mohammad Ayyub Asil its deputy chairman. The members of the commission are: Mastura Stanekzai, Same'ollah Taza, Abdul Hakim Morad, Keshen Singh, Honaryar, Najla Ayyubi and Mo'mena Yari. The commission's first task is to organize Afghanistan's parliamentary elections scheduled for April or May. Before the parliamentary election can be held Karzai has to set the electoral district boundaries, a decision that is dependent on knowing the number of people living in each area. The country will not have a scientific census, rather it will rely on statistically-based estimates -- something that could lead to disagreements between various ethnic groups who have overstated their numbers. AT

Mofti Latifollah Hakimi, purporting to speak on behalf of the neo-Taliban, claimed that the militia killed five Afghan soldiers in Khakrez District of Kandahar Province on 19 January, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Hakimi also told AIP that in a separate attack the neo-Taliban have killed Commander Asadollah, who he said was spying for U.S. forces. AIP could not confirm Hakimi's claims. AT

Dr. Ahmad Khattab Kakar, head of Kabul's mental hospital, said on 19 January that according to recent statistics that around 30 percent of the Afghan population is suffering from mental illnesses and drug addiction, Afghan Voice Agency reported. Kakar attributed the high level of addiction to the migration of Afghans to neighboring countries. Two patients in Kakar's hospital blamed their addiction and subsequent psychological problems to associating with the "wrong people" while abroad. AT

Afghan Defense Ministry Spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi rejected on 19 January recent reports that U.S. special operation forces had entered Iran through Afghanistan, Afghan Voice Agency reported. Azimi told reporters in Kabul that Afghanistan will never allow other countries to use its territory to intervene in neighboring states. The report about U.S. special-operations personnel carrying out missions in Iran was reported in a recent article of "The New Yorker" magazine, a claim which, Afghan Voice Agency added, has been rejected by the United States Defense Department (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January 2005). AT

Ahmad Husseini, Iranian deputy interior minister and the chief of the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs, said on 19 January that Afghan refugees can no longer stay in Iran because there is no more aid from international organizations, IRNA reported. Husseini said Iran cannot bear the costs alone. Husseini said one million Afghan refugees remain in Iran. Two days earlier, Husseini dismissed allegations that Iran is forcibly repatriating Afghans. BS

Hojatoleslam Ali Mobasheri, head of the Revolutionary Court, said on 19 January that a complaint against Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has not been filed and there is no point in summoning her, IRNA reported. Mobasheri said Ebadi and her lawyers misunderstood a communication from the court (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 January 2004). Ebadi had called the summons illegal and had refused to appear for questioning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2005). BS

Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice said during her 18 January confirmation hearing in Washington that future Iran-U.S. relations depend on Iran's support for terrorism, its nuclear activities, and its respect for human rights, Radio Farda reported. In response to Senator Joe Biden's question about "regime change," Rice said: "The goal of the administration is to have a regime in Iran that is responsive to concerns that we have about Iran's policies, which are about 180 degrees antithetical to our own interests at this point." She continued, "That means that the regime would have to deal with its nuclear weapons' obligations, deal with the fact that there are Al-Qaeda leaders who have been there, deal with the fact that they're supporting Hizballah and terrorism against...the Middle East peace process." Rice added, "I do want to say that the Iranian people, who are among some of the most worldly, in a good sense, that we know, do suffer under a regime that has been completely unwilling to deal with their aspirations, and that has an appalling human rights record." BS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 19 January that Rice's comments, as well as earlier ones by President George W. Bush, are indicative of a troublesome agenda, IRNA reported. Assefi referred to "extremist neoconservative" policies and approaches. Assefi advised Rice to review her country's past actions so she can avoid repeating previous mistakes. He said Iran has the diplomatic potential, popular support, and military capability to respond to any unwise actions. An Iranian state radio analyst using the name "Mr. Kheratmand" said on 19 January that Rice was repeating administration policy from the last three years. He said the U.S. supports the European nuclear initiative because it has no alternative. Kheratmand went on to say that Iran-EU talks are making progress even though the U.S. wants to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. He predicted that the change in leadership at the State Department will not result in tangible changes in U.S. global policies. BS

Ibrahim Raisi, deputy head of the Judiciary, said on 18 January that a plan to confront economic corruption is being developed, IRNA reported. This plan will be made available to the public, he said, as will information on all the corruption cases on the courts' dockets. Judiciary official Vahid Sharifi described a corruption case in which individuals invoked the name of Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Ali Urumian from East Azerbaijan Province in order to issue false documents, embezzle money, illegally sell government property, make illegal arrests, and interfere with judicial affairs, "Iran" reported on 2 January. The main defendant, Reza Madhi Tazehkand (a.k.a. Husseini), claimed he is Urumian's office manager and security adviser. Such incidents occurred in Tabriz and on Kish Island. In Tehran, the defendant persuaded a judge to issue an arrest warrant for a nurse from Mehr Hospital, and then illegally detained her after she rebuffed his marriage proposal. BS

Iraqi Independent Bloc leader Ghassan al-Atiyah told reporters in Baghdad on 19 January that his group will participate in elections despite its reservations about them being held in an insecure environment, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. "The poor performance of the American administration and forces when it comes to their responsibility, as an occupying power, according to international law and, since the government did not remedy the deteriorating security situation, there isn't a good atmosphere for a fair and free election process," Atiyah said. He added that nonparticipation by even one sector of Iraqi society "will affect the inclusive character of the elections and, by consequence, its legitimacy." KR

The militant group Tanzim Al-Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn, led by fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for two car bombings in the Iraqi capital on 19 January, Al-Jazeera reported. The group said it carried out the bomb attack in front of the Australian embassy and another attack near a police headquarters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2005). Meanwhile, the militant group Ansar Al-Sunnah Army posted a statement and videotape on its website ( on 19 January claiming responsibility for the kidnapping and execution of two contractors working for a U.S. company. The victims identified themselves in the video as Muhammad Abdallah and Ali Khudayr. They were taken hostage en route to Irbil from Mosul. "Despite all our harsh warnings and continuous operations against everyone who works, prepares for, or participates in elections...there continues to be a group of apostates who are working hard to make [elections] succeed," the group said in a statement, adding that "God's verdict" was that the men be executed for supporting "crusader forces." KR

The Sunni Muslim Scholars Association issued a call on 19 January -- the eve of Id Al-Adha -- for the release of all hostages held in Iraq, Al-Arabiyah reported on 19 January. The group said that Iraqi and foreign hostages should be released; Al-Arabiyah said some 30 persons are being held hostage or are assumed to be hostages in Iraq. That number includes eight Chinese nationals being held by the Islamic Resistance Movement -- Al-Nu'man Brigades. The Muslim Scholars association is reportedly working to help free the hostages, who were kidnapped en route to Jordan, Xinhua news agency reported on 19 January. The association reportedly helped negotiate the release of seven Chinese nationals held hostage in Iraq in April, Reuters reported on 20 January. Meanwhile, a Briton and an Iraqi working for a British security firm were killed near Bayji on 19 January when their convoy came under attack by insurgents. A third contractor from Brazil is said to be missing, Al-Arabiyah reported on 20 January. KR

London-based "Al-Hayat" reported on 19 January that a deal has been struck between representatives of the movement led by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and representatives of the so-called Shi'ite list, the Unified Iraqi Coalition that will secure al-Sadr's support for the list in the 30 January election. The daily cites an informed Shi'ite source as saying that Ahmad Chalabi's Shi'ite Political Council, which has joined the Unified Iraqi Coalition list, mediated negotiations between al-Sadr and the coalition. The source contends that the coalition agreed to award Chalabi the premiership of Iraq following national elections if al-Sadr threw his weight behind the list ahead of the election. A number of al-Sadr supporters have joined the list as independent candidates. Interim National Assembly speaker and Al-Da'wah member Jawad al-Maliki told "Al-Hayat" that the purported deal is "absolutely untrue." Al-Da'wah is one of the leading parties to submit candidates to the coalition's list. Meanwhile, Rida Jawad Taqiy, a leader in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, told "Al-Hayat" that negotiations have taken place. KR

An e-mail update issued on 20 January by the Out-of-Country Voting (OCV) program, being carried out by the International Organization for Migration, has called on Iraqi expatriates to register to vote for the 30 January elections. The OCV has announced extended registration hours in all countries, adding: "Turnout to registration has been slow. Iraq OCV appeals to Iraqis living abroad to exercise their right to vote. Don't miss this historic opportunity to let your voice be heard! Extended hours extends your opportunity to register!" Voter registration ends on 23 January. The e-mail also reminded Iraqis that voter registration information will be kept confidential and "not be shared with any other state or non-state agency, including immigration services of host countries." RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) interviewed the director of Cologne, Germany's voter registration center, Bakhtiyar Ibrahim Mukhriyani, on 20 January. Mukhriyani said that the center has had to turn away a number of Iraqis wishing to register -- as many as 40 yesterday -- because they did not present proper identification documents. Two identification cards are required, of which one should be a passport, or state or internationally-issued document. KR