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Newsline - July 26, 2005

Audit Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin said on 23 July that his agency will look into how efficiently assets from the so-called Stabilization Fund have been invested, reported. Furthermore, in order to counter arguments that the Stabilization Fund is being eroded by inflation, from 2006 fund assets will be invested in international securities. Until recently, such investment was avoided due to the risk that Russian assets could be seized abroad, Stepashin said, adding that the fund could also invest in the most solid Russian companies. VY

The Russian Supreme Court on 25 July convicted Nina Ivchenko, Vasilii Savelyuk, and Nina Mishina, judges from two Moscow district courts, of real-estate fraud, in which the judges made illegal court decisions for bribes, RTR and reported. According to the prosecution, the judges were part of an organized criminal group, which looked after lonely old Muscovites and after their death transferred their apartments to fictitious inheritors, although the flats were legally city property. For each illegal court decision, the judges received an average of $5,000. In 1997-98, the judges wrongfully transferred 110 apartments, according to the prosecution. The prosecutors have asked for sentences of 12-15 years. The verdict will be announced later this week. VY

Following the adoption of the law on special economic zones (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 July 2005), Leningrad Oblast Governor Valerii Serdyukov announced that one of the first economic zones in Russia will be created in his region on the coast of the Gulf of Finland, reported on 23 July. The zone will be established around a new Russian port on the Baltic Sea, Ust-Luga, which should circumvent the transit of cargo through the Baltic states. Serdyukov added that when the Ust-Luga project is finished, it will have a cargo terminal capable of handling 35 million tons plus a rail ferry to Kaliningrad and German ports. Meanwhile, Economic Development and Trade Ministry spokeswoman Marina Ovsyannikova announced on 25 July that the ministry has already received 24 requests to create economic zones from regions including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Penza, Nizhnii Novgorod. Kaliningrad, and Magadan oblasts. VY

The Defense Ministry announced that its is reducing from 229 to 30 the number of so-called military faculties in higher-educational institutions to close a loophole allowing thousands of young men every year to avoid the highly unpopular draft, reported on 25 July. According to the list of military facilities published in "Kommersant-Daily " on 25 July, 16 universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg and 14 in other provinces gained to right to keep their military faculties to train reserve officers. The students attached to these faculties after graduation will sign contracts with the army for five or six years and serve as officers. Students who have no military training will be drafted into the army as privates, but for one or two years. Defense Ministry head of personnel and training General Nikolai Pankov said that 170,000 students are currently being trained at military faculties. "This is 10 times more than we need," quoted him as saying. VY

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin announced on 22 July that the government expects an inflation rate of 10-11 percent in 2005, "Vremya novostei" reported on 25 July. Earlier this year, the government admitted that inflation would top the original target rate of 8.5 percent in 2005, but at that time ministers projected that inflation would remain below 10 percent. "Vremya novostei" noted that inflation reached 8 percent for the first six months of 2005 and that many analysts believe the final figure for the year could be as high as 14 percent. However, Kudrin predicted that inflation will slow to 4.5 to 5 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 25 July that Russian citizens are deeply concerned about rising prices, according to the latest nationwide poll by Yurii Levada's Analytical Center. Asked what problems the government should address, 47 percent said the government should seek to reduce prices. Indexation of wages and pensions to keep pace with rising prices ranked second, named by 39 percent of respondents, while state-imposed price controls came in fourth with 36 percent. (The battle against corruption ranked third in Levada's poll, named by 38 percent of respondents.) LB

Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov predicted that having a single nationwide election day will impair the ability of "black" public-relations agencies to influence elections, "Izvestiya" reported on 22 July. Election law changes signed by President Vladimir Putin on 22 July stipulate that regional and local elections will be held either on the second Sunday in March or on the second Sunday in October. According to Veshnyakov, PR firms that now move from one region to another using "dirty tricks" will lack the capacity to operate across the country at the same time. He also asserted that the new election rules prohibit registering "doubles" with the same name as existing political parties or candidates in order to confuse voters. However, Yekaterina Kurbangaleeva, general director of the Profigrup political-consulting firm, told "Izvestiya" that "black techniques" such as fake nominating signatures and fraudulent vote counts will not be affected by the new laws. She added that the nomination of "clones" or "doubles" has recently been far less of a problem than it was between 1998 and 2001. Kurbangaleeva predicted that the authorities themselves will find it far more difficult to manage elections in dozens of regions simultaneously under the new system. LB

The government is drafting a law to combat the adoption of children by foreigners who use private brokers not accredited by the Russian state, Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko disclosed in an interview published by "Izvestiya" on 22 July. Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov and members of the State Duma have called for greater regulation of foreign adoptions generally, in light of several publicized cases of child abuse (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 May and 15 July 2005). However, speaking to "Izvestiya," Fursenko did not advocate stricter regulations of adoptions arranged by accredited agencies. When asked about the death of a 2-year-old adopted Russian girl in the United States, Fursenko emphasized that "America was horrified" by the case. In contrast, Duma Women, Family, and Youth Committee Chairwoman Yekaterina Lakhova (Unified Russia) on 19 July called for a moratorium on foreign adoptions, "Izvestiya" reported. Meanwhile, a new poll by the ROMIR agency found that 56 percent of respondents oppose adoption of Russian children by foreigners, reported on 25 July. However, 51 percent said there is no need for a new law regulating foreign adoptions, while 44 percent supported passing such a law. LB

A "public Orthodox television channel" called Spas (Savior) will begin broadcasting on 28 July as part of the NTV-Plus basic satellite package, reported on 25 July. Approximately 40 percent of the programming will have a Russian Orthodox theme, according to the network's press service. Several prominent figures will host shows on Spas: Duma Foreign Relations Committee Deputy Chairwoman Natalya Narochnitskaya (Motherland); Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad Kirill, who heads external relations for the Russian Orthodox Church's Moscow Patriarchate; and Eurasia Party leader Aleksandr Dugin, an anti-American geopolitics theorist. Meanwhile, RBK reported on 25 July that Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov recently called for a new state television network that would emphasize Orthodox programming. Sokolov suggested that the network would be part of the All-Russian State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK) and could be launched in 2007. So far no funds have been allocated for the project. According to RBK, sources at VGTRK are unaware of any plans for such a network. RTR, which is part of VGTRK, already broadcasts some shows with Orthodox themes, as well as a program aimed at Muslim viewers. LB

Kamchatka Oblast Governor Mikhail Mashkovtsev confirmed on 25 July that he will not run for governor again, whether or not voters in Kamchatka approve a merger with Koryak Autonomous Okrug, RIA-Novosti and reported. He had previously said he would not run for governor of a new Kamchatka Krai if the referendum scheduled for this October passes. Mashkovtsev was reelected in December 2004 with the support of the Communist Party, defeating a candidate backed by Unified Russia. The Kamchatka Prosecutor's Office recently closed two long-running criminal investigations against Mashkovtsev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 June and 13 June 2005). LB

The Tatar Public Center announced in Kazan that it has initiated a protest against the installation in the city of a bust of Peter the Great and already collected 5,000 signatures to that effect, reported on 23 July. Kazan's city government plans to erect the Russian emperor's bust in the city center on 27 August as one of events to celebrate the millennium of the city's founding. Tatar Public Center activist Yunis Kamalutdinov told that his organization is outraged by the "ill-considered decision by the Kazan administration and categorically protests the installation of the monument to Peter I, who destroyed half of the Tatar nation." VY

Addressing a gathering of young Armenians from both the Republic of Armenia and the diaspora at the resort of Tsakhkadzor on 23 July, Serzh Sarkisian argued that the only way to resolve the Karabakh conflict is through compromise, Noyan Tapan reported on 25 July. Sarkisian said that provided Armenia's three main concerns are met, he sees no objection to relinquishing control of the Azerbaijani territories surrounding the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) that are currently occupied by Armenian forces. The three Armenian conditions are that under any peace agreement, the NKR will not be vertically subordinated to the Azerbaijani authorities, it will not exist as an enclave, and that adequate security guarantees must be found to preclude a resumption of hostilities. Sarkisian incurred harsh criticism five months ago from the militant Public Initiative to Defend the Liberated Territories, comprising Armenian veterans of the Karabakh war, for expressing willingness to cede the occupied territories as part of a Karabakh peace deal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2005). LF

Sarkisian, whom many observers believe will seek the presidency when incumbent Robert Kocharian's second term expires in 2008, also told youth forum participants on 23 July that he believes Armenia should introduce dual citizenship and make it available to diaspora Armenians, Noyan Tapan reported. But he added that citizenship should impose duties as well as conferring the right to participate in Armenian elections both as a candidate and by voting. Among those obligations he listed military service. LF

Sarkisian further ruled out in his 23 July address the possibility that the Armenian leadership will be overthrown in a "colored" revolution such as took place in Georgia in November 2003, Ukraine in December 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in March 2005, Noyan Tapan reported on 25 July. Sarkisian explained that in each of those countries, the ousted leadership were holdovers from the former Soviet elite, while in Armenia that elite was already removed from power in the early 1990s. Sarkisian further argued that those so-called "revolutions" were in fact coups, and "to be a coup participant means to be a state criminal." He said that it may be possible for the opposition to mobilize up to 30,000 people in Armenia, but this is not enough to stage a revolution. LF

The "radical wing" of the Azerbaijani opposition is amassing weaponry in order to stage riots and blacken the country's international image in the runup to the 6 November parliamentary elections, Deputy Interior Minister Vilayat Eivazov told journalists in Baku on 25 July, and Interfax reported. Eivazov predicted that such efforts will fail, and that "healthy forces" will win the elections. He warned the groups in question to abandon their subversive activities or risk being publicly identified. Visiting Kuba in northern Azerbaijan on 25 July, President Ilham Aliyev similarly warned that he will not permit anyone to undermine political stability, Turan and ITAR-TASS reported. Ali Kerimli, chairman of the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, rejected Eivazov's accusations the same day as "a provocation," and he denied the existence of any armed groups in Azerbaijan, reported. Eivazov further told journalists on 25 July that his ministry and that of national security are taking measures to neutralize "wahhabism," meaning radical Islamic groups, and to prevent acts of terrorism and confrontation, reported. Azerbaijani National Security Ministry personnel killed three alleged "wahhabis" in a shoot-out two weeks ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 July 2005). LF

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 25 July that a Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer, whom he named as Colonel Anatolii Ivanovich Sysoev, recruited residents of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia to commit a series of terrorist acts on Georgian territory, including the 1 February car bombing in Gori in which three people were killed, Caucasus Press, Russian media, and Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 and 2 February 2005). Merabishvili said two Ossetians responsible for that bombing were arrested on 17 July. Meeting with Merabishvili later on 25 July, President Mikheil Saakashvili lauded the Interior Ministry for having apprehended the "dangerous criminals," Caucasus Press reported. At the same time, he vowed to prevent the uncontrolled spread of weaponry in regions of Georgia not under the control of the central government, and he said Tbilisi will solicit Moscow's assistance in doing so. Saakashvili further stressed that "we want a peaceful dialogue and a peaceful settlement" of the conflict with South Ossetia. Also on 25 July, parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Givi Targamadze told journalists that the group of saboteurs allegedly recruited by Sysoev numbered 120 people, Caucasus Press reported. Targamadze said he hopes Russia will now withdraw those agents from Georgian territory. On 26 July, Caucasus Press quoted Merabishvili as saying that the South Ossetian saboteurs have in their possession four Igla shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles capable of shooting down civilian or military aircraft. LF

In separate statements released on 25 July, the Russian Foreign and Defense ministries and the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi all rejected as untrue Merabishvili's allegations that the Gori bombing was the work of a group of saboteurs recruited by a GRU officer, Interfax reported. The Russian Defense Ministry affirmed that "there are no Russian military intelligence agents on Georgian territory," while the Russian Foreign Ministry said the people whom Merabishvili named "do not work for any Russian organization." LF

Boris Chochiev, who is the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia's minister for special assignments, told Interfax on 25 July that no residents of that republic "were involved or could have been involved" in plotting the Gori car bombing, and that Merabishvili's allegations of a South Ossetian link to terrorist acts in Georgia are unfounded. Chochiev added that the two residents of South Ossetia arrested on 17 July were apprehended after Georgian police found drugs in their possession. Chochiev said that initially the two men were not charged with the car bombing, but that one of them later confessed to that crime under "pressure" from Georgian special services. "Kommersant-Daily" on 26 July quoted Chochiev as questioning Merabishvili's claim that the car bombers transported 100 kilograms of explosive to Gori. Chochiev noted that residents of South Ossetia are searched so thoroughly for contraband when entering Georgia that it is "impossible even to smuggle in a small bag of flour." LF

Andranik Markarian began a two-day visit to Georgia on 24 July by undertaking with his Georgian counterpart Zurab Noghaideli a tour of the predominantly Armenian-populated region of Djavakheti in southern Georgia, Georgian agencies and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 25 July. The two prime ministers met with local Armenians in several villages and in the regional center of Akhalkalaki. Armenia has agreed to provide financial and economic assistance to the impoverished region, including the reconstruction of local schools and an intensive road-building program to lessen the region's isolation. On 25 July, Markarian met in Tbilisi with President Saakashvili and parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze. LF

Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov told a press conference in Bishkek on 26 July that the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan will remain until the situation in Afghanistan normalizes, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Isakov was speaking after a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who is on a three-day trip to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Isakov later told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service: "In reality, there is no reason to say that the [security] situation has improved. The terrorist attacks in London, Egypt, and also in Afghanistan itself prove that. That is why only after the situation has improved, this issue [U.S. withdrawal from the Ganci air base at Bishkek's Manas airport] will be considered by the two sides in accordance with agreements between Kyrgyzstan and the United States only." Rumsfeld also met with Kyrgyz President-elect Kurmanbek Bakiev in Bishkek on 26 July, congratulating him on his recent election to the presidency and promising to support Kyrgyzstan "on its path to democracy and a market economy." DK

Queried on 25 July about the possible loss of a U.S. base in Central Asia, Rumsfeld replied: "We're always thinking ahead. We'll be fine," AP reported. The remark, which comes against a backdrop of cooling U.S.-Uzbek relations in the aftermath of violence in Andijon on 13 May, implies that contingency plans exist to replace the U.S. air base in Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan. In a similar vein, "The New York Times" on 25 July quoted a source it described as a "senior [U.S.] Air Force officer familiar with operation in the region" as saying that U.S. Central Command is eyeing "'workarounds' the event the Pentagon is forced to leave the Uzbek base." The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) recently asked the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan to give a timetable for withdrawing from military facilities in Central Asia. Rumsfeld will not visit Uzbekistan on his current visit to Central Asia. DK

President-elect Bakiev has issued a decree that seeks to limit government interference in private business, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 25 July. The decree calls for the formation of a commission to develop measures to streamline regulatory organs and reduce opportunities for government harassment of businesspeople. Responsibility for implementing the decree will lie with acting First Deputy Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, who is Bakiev's presumptive choice for prime minister after the presidential inauguration on 14 August. DK

Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, the head of Tajikistan's Democratic Party, will go on trial on terrorism and corruption charges on 2 August, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 25 July. Iskandarov, who once headed the state gas concern Tojikgaz, has been awaiting trial in Tajikistan since late April. He was originally arrested in Russia in December 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2004), subsequently freed, and later transported to Tajikistan under mysterious circumstances (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 April 2005). DK

"Poland will not be provoked by hostile actions of the Belarusian authoritarian regime," Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said in an interview with Radio Polonia on 25 July, Belapan reported. Kwasniewski was commenting on a program broadcast by Belarusian Television last week that accused the Polish Embassy in Minsk of espionage, according to RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "We must not let ourselves be embroiled in adventurist campaigns that would create a bad impression that Poland is not a carrier of peace and stabilization," he said. Kwasniewski's statement came amid an escalating diplomatic row between Minsk and Warsaw. Warsaw has accused the Belarusian authorities of interfering in the operation of the Union of Belarusian Poles, while Minsk has accused Polish nationals of spying. The conflict escalated with reciprocal diplomatic expulsions in May, when Minsk ousted Polish diplomat Marek Bucko (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," 27 May and 22 June 2005). RK

Former Belarusian State University rector Alyaksandr Kazulin was elected chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) at its 24 July convention in the House of Writers in central Minsk, Belapan reported on 25 July. The party was formed in April by uniting the Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party-Popular Assembly (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 11 March 2005). Police officers and plainclothes agents arrived at the meeting halfway through the convention and ordered all delegates to leave the premises because of an alleged bomb threat, according to the party's press office. However, the delegates ended the convention only after electing Kazulin party leader. RK

The Minsk City Court on 25 July rejected an appeal by the Minsk daily "Narodnaya volya," which is the country's only nationwide daily, against the large damages awarded in two libel suits that threaten to cripple it, Belapan reported. In June, a Minsk district court ordered the paper to pay over $53,000 in damages in two separate libel suits (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 15 June 2005). RK

Israeli and Ukrainian defense officials signed an agreement on 25 July for security and military cooperation, "The Jerusalem Post" reported. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and visiting Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko signed the agreement at a meeting in Tel Aviv. The agreement is to lead to cooperation in fighting terrorism, as well as joint military maneuvers and defense industry cooperation. "In these days, when global terror is becoming an epidemic and is sending its arms everywhere, as we saw in London and in Egypt, we believe that all the nations of the world have to unite and cooperate against terror," "The Jerusalem Post" quoted Mofaz as saying. Israeli troops recently returned from Ukraine, where they trained with NATO forces for the first time. RK

Criminal charges have been filed against former Dnipropetrovsk Governor Mykola Shvets, Interfax-Ukraine reported on 26 July. The charges against Shvets include misuse of large amounts of state funds for personal gain during his tenure as governor from 1999-2003, a Prosecutor-General's Office spokesman said. According to Interfax, Shvets has left Ukraine and is living in an undisclosed location. This is the latest case of a governor appointed by former President Leonid Kuchma being charged with criminal activity. The former governors of Donetsk, Sumy, and Transcarpathian oblasts have all been indicted on similar charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6, 17, and 18 May 2005). RK

The state prosecutor's office and the police announced in Zagreb on 25 July that they have launched an investigation into the murder of more than 20 Serbian civilians in Osijek in the fall of 1991, regional and international media reported. A brief police inquiry at the time was quickly closed without any indictments. Most of the victims are believed to have been executed and their bodies dumped in the Drava River. Recently appointed Interior Minister Ivica Kirin has named Vladimir Faber, an experienced officer from Zagreb, as police chief in Osijek and assigned five special investigators to the case. The investigation was opened after an alleged witness told his story to the weekly "Feral Tribune." The witness also said that the killings were ordered by Branimir Glavas, the leading political kingpin in the area (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 April 2005). Croatia is anxious to prove to the EU that it is serious about dealing with war crimes committed by Croatian citizens. PM

Several ethnic Croat officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina said on 25 July that they reject the Constitutional Court's recent decision to accept a draft media law that does not include three channels for public television, one each in the "Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian languages," Hina reported from Mostar. Ivo Miro Jovic, who is the Croatian member of the Bosnian Presidency and its current chairman, said the bill contains "elements of racism" because it prevents the Croats from cultivating their traditions and culture through public radio and television broadcasts. Ivan Madunic, who heads the parliamentary faction of the governing Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), said that the Croats need their own "space to live in" and will have to start building it from scratch. Ethnic Croat political leaders plan to appeal the decision to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Passing new media legislation is a prerequisite for Bosnia's concluding a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. Serbo-Croatian is a single language with dialect differences based on geography rather than ethnicity. Nationalists of each respective group have nonetheless sought to cultivate real or manufactured differences between the dialects (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2005). As the smallest of Bosnia's three main ethnic groups, many Croats fear a loss of control over their lives unless they have a legal entity of their own instead of being included in a federation with the Muslims. PM

Communist candidate Zinaida Grechanaya won 87 percent of the vote in Chisinau's repeat mayoral election on 24 July, but the results were again invalidated because of low turnout, BASA news agency reported. Only 19.8 percent of registered voters took part, while at least one-third must vote for an election to be considered valid. Turnout in the previous mayoral election was 27 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 July 2005). Observers who monitored the election reported no major violations. Stefan Uritu, director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights/Moldova, told a news conference on 25 July that the elections complied with standards of the Council of Europe and principles of the Organization for Security and cooperation in Europe. The Central Election Commission is to set the date for new elections within 60 days. RK

The authorities of the unrecognized breakaway Republic of South Ossetia have rejected three times, most recently earlier this month, successive offers by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to grant the region "the broadest autonomy" within a unitary Georgian state. On 25 and 26 July, Georgian officials accused South Ossetians acting under orders from Russian military intelligence of staging a car bombing in central Georgia in February that killed three people, and they alleged that the same group of saboteurs has missiles capable of shooting down aircraft. Could those allegations herald an imminent military operation to bring South Ossetia back under Tbilisi's control?

Taking the oath of office in January 2004, Saakashvili pledged to restore Georgia's territorial integrity by bringing its three former autonomies back under the control of the central government. Saakashvili succeeded within months in triggering the ouster of Aslan Abashidze, the authoritarian leader of the Republic of Adjara. Following last August's spectacular failure to repeat that scenario on the first attempt in the breakaway unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, Saakashvili unveiled in his 21 September 2004 address to the UN General Assembly a plan for resolving peacefully Tbilisi's decade-old conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia by offering the two regions "the broadest conceivable autonomy" within a unitary Georgian state. But the leaders of both unrecognized republics rejected that offer out of hand.

Saakashvili repeated that offer on two subsequent occasions. In a speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in January he again offered "the broadest autonomy" to both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Saakashvili stressed that under the model he proposed, South Ossetia would enjoy a greater degree of autonomy within Georgia than does its neighbor, the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, within the Russian Federation. Saakashvili explained in his address to PACE that Tbilisi's proposal comprises "a constitutional guarantee of autonomy, that includes the right to freely and directly elected local self governance, including an executive branch and a parliament for South Ossetia. South Ossetia's parliament will...control...issues such as culture, education, social policy, economic policy, public order, the organization of local self governance, and environmental protection." South Ossetia would also, Saakashvili said, have representatives in the national government, parliament, and judiciary. He further said Tbilisi is ready to discuss with the South Ossetian leadership "innovative ideas," including free economic zones, and to permit that leadership to tailor its economic policies to local needs. Saakashvili proposed a three-year transitional period during which a mixed Georgian-Ossetian police force would be set up under the guidance of international organizations, and the South Ossetian army would be absorbed into the Georgian armed forces. He appealed to the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the EU, the United States and Russia to support and facilitate the peace process.

But South Ossetia's President Eduard Kokoity rejected Saakashvili's offer, arguing that South Ossetia is an independent state, if not recognized as such. When Saakashvili convened an international conference in Batumi earlier this month to discuss his South Ossetian peace initiative, both South Ossetia and Russia, which commands the peacekeeping force deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone since 1992, failed to send representatives. (Kokoity's personal representative, Vazha Khachapuridze, was quoted by the Georgian newspaper "Rezonansi" on 15 July as saying Kokoity has his own proposals for ending the conflict. Those proposals have not yet been made public, however, Kokoity may discuss them with Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh during their planned talks in Gagra on 26 July.)

Addressing the Batumi conference on 10 July, Saakashvili said he is prepared to have South Ossetia's autonomous status formally written into the Georgian Constitution. He also offered South Ossetia 15 minutes of air time on Georgian public television and radio, and to pay pensions arrears that have accrued since the conflict was effectively frozen in 1992, reported. International participants at the Batumi conference lauded Saakashvili's offer, as did OSCE Chairman in Office Dmitrij Rupel, according to Caucasus Press on 14 July. But that international endorsement may have been prompted at least in part by relief that Saakashvili has stopped trying to portray the standoff over South Ossetia as one between Georgia and Moscow, and thus play the international community off against Moscow in his favor.

Moreover, the very term "autonomy" is so totally discredited across the former USSR that any conflict settlement based on it is bound to be rejected, as Akhmed Zakaev, European envoy of slain Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, pointed out in an analysis posted on in August 2004. Zakaev noted that within the USSR, the so-called autonomous republics and oblasts -- including the Chechen-Ingush ASSR (and the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast) -- provided minimal concessions to the specific needs of the titular nationality or ignored those needs totally, a policy that instilled in the Chechens and Georgia's Ossetians the impression that they were "second-class citizens." Nor are residents of South Ossetia likely to have been swayed by Saakashvili's pledge to formalize the region's autonomy within the Georgian Constitution. Many of them will remember how the Georgian parliament in late 1990 abolished with one stroke of the pen South Ossetia's status as an autonomous oblast within Georgia, in direct violation of a pre-election pledge by then Georgian leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

In addition, South Ossetian leaders have on several recent occasions expressed concern at the measures taken by Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili since his appointment to that post late last year to strengthen the Georgian armed forces. Okruashvili was born in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, and as interior minister played a prominent role in the abortive assault on South Ossetia last August. He has consistently taken a more hawkish stance on South Ossetia than has Saakashvili.

Tensions in the South Ossetian conflict zone have worsened in the past two months as the result of the shooting by Georgian police of several alleged Ossetian criminals and the abduction in retaliation of four Georgians in early June. Those events have fuelled the perception, both among outside observers and within the Georgian Army, that Tbilisi will launch a new military offensive once the South Ossetian leadership has rejected all possibilities for resolving the conflict peacefully. Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili's allegations on 25 July that Ossetians perpetrated a series of terrorist atrocities in Georgia, and on 26 July that they have weaponry capable of downing civilian aircraft, could be intended to provide the rationale for such an operation.

Mullah Mohammad Omar, in an audio message released on 25 July, called on supporters of the ousted Taliban regime to put aside their differences and "continue jihad against the invaders," the Islamabad-based daily "The News" reported. If the tape is proven to be authentic, it will be the first instance that the chief of the ousted regime has sent an audio message, "The News" commented. Neo-Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi (also known as Latifullah Hakimi) told "The News" that the "tape is to prove that Mullah Omar is alive" and to contradict "rumors" spread by anti-Taliban forces that he has been killed. In the message, Omar says that the neo-Taliban has formed two military councils to coordinate the militia's activities and has expanded the group's leadership council from 10 members to 18. Each military council is composed of 14 members, Hakimi told Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) on 25 July. The voice, purported to be Omar, added that the West has "invaded us and we resisted the aggression, but now we are on the offensive," Pajhwak News Agency reported on 25 July. AT

One U.S. and one Afghan soldier along with 11 militiamen were killed in clashes between neo-Taliban militants and a joint Afghan-U.S. force on 25 July in Deh Rawud District of Oruzgan Province, Pajhwak reported. In addition, three U.S. and one Afghan soldier were wounded in the operation, AIP reported on 25 July. AT

Two policemen and a civilian were wounded on 25 July in a blast that occurred in the Makroyan area of Kabul, Afghan Voice Agency reported. Neo-Taliban spokesman Hakimi claimed responsibility for the blast, which he said killed four people, Pajhwak reported on 25 July. AT

Five hundred Afghan religious leaders met on 26 July in Kabul to discuss how to reduce drug addiction in the country, a press release from the Afghan Ministry of Counternarcotics indicated. The gathering, which will end on 27 July, has been organized by the Ministry of Hajj and Awqaf (religious endowments) and Ministry of Counternarcotics. The purpose of the meeting is to mobilize religious leaders to combat drug abuse. The symposium aims to understand drug addition from an Islamic perspective and to identify the role mosques can play in various aspects of counternarcotics, the statement added. AT

During an interview in Rome on 24 July, Afghan President Hamid Karzai answered questions posed by an Israeli journalist regarding relations between Afghanistan and Israel, the Tel Aviv-based daily "Ma'ariv" reported. Asked by a correspondent representing the Tel Aviv daily whether Kabul considers establishing diplomatic relations with Jerusalem, Karzai said that while Afghanistan does not "have relations of any kind with Israel at this stage," under the right circumstances the two countries can have relations. "But let's wait and see what happens in the future. As the [Arab-Israeli] peace process moves forward...and mainly when our brothers, the Palestinians, see a better future...Afghanistan will be able to consider establishing relations with Israel," Karzai added. AT

The Qom Seminary Lecturers Association has requested the release of hunger-striking and hospitalized journalist Akbar Ganji, ISNA reported on 25 July. The association's letter to Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi noted the adverse impact this issue is having at home and abroad, and it called for better treatment of people with divergent political views. BS

Ganji's wife, Masumeh Shafii, said in a 25 July interview with Radio Farda that she has sent a letter to the head of the judiciary asking that her husband's case be transferred away from prosecutor Said Mortazavi. Shafii said she asked Hashemi-Shahrudi to handle the case himself. She claimed that Mortazavi told her husband his death would benefit the system 100 percent, and he added that death in the hospital is a normal thing. The official reason for Ganji's hospitalization is not his hunger strike, but because he allegedly needs knee surgery. Given Mortazavi's alleged statements, Shafii said, Ganji does not want to have the knee operation. Having seen her husband on 24 July, Shafii says Ganji's physical condition is worsening. After Tehran Justice Department deputy chief Mohammad Salarkia's denial that Ganji is on hunger strike, Shafii challenged him to give access to independent journalists who can photograph Ganji. She also expressed amazement that Salarkia and Mortazavi, who are not physicians, determined that Ganji's knee needs surgery. BS

The Sanandaj Revolutionary Court has summoned two Kurdistan University student activists, Asu Saleh and Chia Hejazi, the university's Students Islamic Association head, Nusratullah Shariati, said on 25 July, according to ISNA. Shariati said the two are charged with disturbing public opinion through their election-related activities. These activities included inviting reformist speakers. In another predominantly Kurdish town, Mahabad, West Azerbaijan Province, Governor Said Maruf-Samadi said on 24 June that shops have reopened after officials met with the local shopkeepers guild, the municipal council, and community leaders, ISNA reported. The closures took place amid disturbances that followed authorities' shooting and killing a local activist known as Shavaneh (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 July 2005). Maruf-Samadi said most of the 64 people who were arrested have been released, but 11 remain in detention. BS

Iran's Mesbah and Sina-1 satellites will be launched from the Plesetsk cosmodrome in Russia in October, an unnamed Russian defense industry spokesman announced on 25 July, Interfax-AVN reported. The launch of the Molniya-M rocket was scheduled for August but all launches were postponed after a June launch ended in failure. Accompanying the Iranian satellite will be the China-DMC, TopSat from the United Kingdom., Norway's Ncube-2, Germany's UWE-1, Japan's XI-V, and the European Space Agency's SSET Express. The Mesbah satellite will carry out meteorological and geological tasks. BS

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Muhammad Naim Khan announced on 25 July that even if India gives in to U.S. pressure, Islamabad will build a natural gas pipeline from Iran, AFP reported. "We would welcome Indian association with this project but if it is not feasible with India, we are going to go ahead with the project in any case," Khan said in the Pakistani capital. He said Pakistan needs the gas. The previous week, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he is not sure if the pipeline will get funding and the requisite underwriting. Pakistani Petroleum and Natural Resources Minister Amanullah Khan Jadoon said in Islamabad on 23 July that his country can handle all the pipeline security requirements, IRNA reported. He added, "We, like India, are in need of gas and we know how to take care of the interstate projects and we are committed to its security." BS

An interagency report released on 25 July by the inspectors general of the U.S. Defense and State departments assessing Iraqi police training has concluded that insurgents and criminals have infiltrated the Iraqi police force due to poor vetting procedures ( The 96-page report, dated 15 July, called for a "more rigorous review" of applicants' records. "Despite recent improvements, too many recruits are marginally literate; some show up for training with criminal records or physical handicaps," the report said, adding that the inspectors general agree with Iraqi Interior Ministry and Iraqi Police Service officials that Iraqis are better able to screen potential police recruits than are coalition military personnel. The report recommends a number of modifications to the training process, including a program that focuses on qualitative standards rather than on the number of trained Iraqi policemen, greater control by the Interior Ministry over police, and changes in curricula for police training. KR

John Howard made an unexpected visit to Iraq on 25 July, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. Howard met with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari in Baghdad before heading south to inspect Australian troops stationed in the Al-Muthanna governorate. Speaking before reporters at a press briefing following their talks, al-Ja'fari said the talks focused on the presence of multinational forces in Iraq and the need to expedite the training of Iraqi security forces and set up services and reconstruction projects in the governorates. Howard thanked al-Ja'fari for the work of Iraqi security forces in freeing Australian hostage Douglas Wood (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 June 2005), and said that Australia wants to see a free, independent, and strong Iraq where Iraqis can run their affairs by themselves. "Our role is to extend assistance to the Iraqi government and the Iraqis to achieve this objective," Howard told reporters. Al-Ja'fari thanked Howard for supporting the Iraqi people "at all stages." KR

The Algerian consulate in Baghdad pulled the last of its diplomatic staff out of the country on 25 July, Reuters reported the same day. "I can confirm that there are no longer any Algerian diplomats in Baghdad," Abdelkader Messahel, a minister in charge of African affairs, told reporters in Algiers. The decision follows the kidnapping of two Algerian diplomats in the capital last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 July 2005). A jihadist website posted the identification cards of Algerian Charge d'Affaires Ali bin Arusi on 25 July ( KR

Hundreds of Iraqis protested the erection of a barrier by Kuwaiti authorities at the border with Iraq, international media reported on 25 July. KUNA, Kuwait's state-run news agency, reported that the barrier complies with UN Security Council Resolution 833 on the demarcation of borders. Social Affairs and Labor Minister and acting Information Minister Faisal al-Hajji told KUNA on 25 July that the barrier aims to prevent smugglers and terrorists from crossing the Kuwaiti border into Iraq. Al-Basrah's Deputy Governor Lu'ay al-Battat told Al-Arabiyah television that there is no dispute over the construction of the barrier, though it has provoked a strong Iraqi reaction. "The demarcation was agreed upon...however, we hope that the Kuwaiti brothers would wait for a short while because some of these actions provoke the indignation of the brothers, the citizens in Umm Qasr." KR

Al-Arabiyah television aired footage on 25 July of the Iraqi Special Tribunal questioning a number of former regime members from Saddam Hussein's cabinet. No date was given for the court appearance of Ali Hasan al-Majid, former Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan; and Hussein's half brothers Watban Ibrahim al-Hasan and Barzan al-Tikriti. The former regime members answered questions regarding their positions and responsibilities in the Hussein regime, including the listing of any special committees they chaired. Judge Ra'id Juhi announced that the tribunal will set the date for the first hearings to begin the trials, adding that the trials will likely get under way in one month's time, Al-Arabiyah reported. The tribunal filed its first criminal case against Hussein and three other aides, including Barzan al-Tikriti, on 17 July. The case is related to the 1982 massacre of some 150 Shi'ite Iraqis in the town of Al-Dujayl, in retaliation for an attempted assassination of Hussein (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 July 2005). KR