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Newsline - August 23, 2005

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who left Russia "for an extended vacation" after the Prosecutor-General's Office accused him of abuse of office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9, 11, and 12 July and 1 August 2005), has harshly criticized President Vladimir Putin from abroad for suppressing democratic institutions, according to a 22 August report from Foreign Policy Center, a liberal British think tank, international media reported. Writing in the preface to the study "Blueprint For Russia," Kasyanov said that "almost all the essential characteristics of a modern democratic state have in fact disappeared in Russia within a short period of time," reported. "The government and parliament can no longer function without daily instructions and the judiciary is increasingly servile." Kasyanov also noted that no single independent television station "exists any longer." Talking about the economy, Kasyanov pointed out the increasing grip of the state over natural monopolies and said that productive activities have been replaced by a "redistribution of assets." In conclusion, Kasyanov said he believes the Russian people will "restate their commitment to modern democratic values at the forthcoming elections." Kasyanov is believed to be somewhere in the Mediterranean region and set to return at the end of August, Ekho Moskvy reported, citing his press secretary Tatyana Rosbash. VY

Gazprom announced on 19 August that it has started to lay the new strategic North European Gas Pipeline (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 April, 14 and 27 June 2005), which runs from Vyborg, Leningrad Oblast, along the floor of the Baltic Sea to the German city of Greiswald, RIA-Novosti reported on 22 August. The route of the new export pipeline bypasses Poland, the Baltic states, Belarus, and Ukraine and, according to Gazprom, should "reduce the sovereign risks and costs of gas transit," RosBalt reported 19 August. The project is to be finished in 2008 and will cost $7.8 billion. It will supply gas to Germany, Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, and other European states. VY

The Finance Ministry announced on 22 August that it finished its early debt repayment program to the 16 members of the Paris Club and has thus reduced its Soviet-era debt to the group from $43 billion to $28 billion, RTR reported. According to Konstantin Vyshkovskii, the deputy chief of the Finance Ministry's external debt department, as of June Russia has repaid a total of $15 billion of its overall debt, RTR reported. By paying off its debt earlier than originally scheduled, Russia saved some $6 billion in interest payments. Vyshkovskii noted that making early payments does not affect the country's economic stability because the extra money comes from Russia's Stabilization Fund. He added that next year Russia will propose another program for early repayment and hopes to pay off the entire debt to the Paris Club by 2008. VY

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in Moscow on 22 August that Russia will reject Ukrainian proposals it wants to add to the agenda for the CIS summit that begins on 26 August in Kazan, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. He said Kyiv proposed inserting such issues as the demarcation of borders within the alliance and the creation of energy transportation corridors, but the proposals were submitted "too late to be adopted," he said. Kamynin also said that such issues will be discussed in the future. The foreign ministers of the CIS member states are to meet in Moscow on 23 August to discuss reforming the organization as well as cooperation in fighting organized crime, ITAR-TASS reported. VY

Lieutenant General Nikolai Ovchinnikov, the chief of Interior Ministry's Department for Combating Terrorism and Organized Crime, said in Moscow on 22 August that organized crime is stimulated by the "all-pervading corruption [that exists] among bureaucrats," reported. In the first six months of the year, indictments for corruption were brought against some 500 officials. As for organized crime, it not only bribes officials but also tries to infiltrate the government bureaucracy. In the first six months of the year, the Interior Ministry disrupted eight attempts by organized crime members to gain positions in government offices. "It is a very sensitive topic and I do not think we should publicize specific cases in the media," he said, refusing to give further details. VY

Many Russians believe that the most positive qualities of their national character are "kindness and honesty" and "nobleness and decency," according to a poll conducted by the All Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) with 1,600 respondents in 46 regions, reported on 22 August. These qualities were selected by 41 percent and 26 percent, respectively, of those polled. Some 43 percent said that the most negative Russian trait is an "inclination to alcohol," and 23 percent responded with "laziness" and "inertness." VY

Gleb Pavlovskii, the pro-Kremlin political consultant and president of the Efficient Policy Fund, will host a new political show on NTV, "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported on 22 August. He is due to start next month. Pavlovskii, who will have several co-hosts, will reportedly tell how political developments are masterminded and what the potential consequences of such actions can be. VY

Leonid Markelov, the president of Marii El Republic, has joined the chorus of those advocating a third term for President Putin, "Izvestiya" and "Novye izvestiya" reported on 22 August. Markelov on 21 August called not only for amending the constitution to allow the president to serve more than two terms, but also for extending the presidency's current four-year term to five or seven years. He argued that Russia "has a very serious chance to make an economic breakthrough, because an epoch of political stability has arrived." Although Putin has spoken out against amending the constitution, Markelov argued that "there are situations in which it's necessary to sacrifice personal interests for the sake of [other] people." The Kremlin did not issue a statement on Markelov's comments. Aleksei Makarkin, deputy general director of the Center for Political Technologies, speculated that Putin's team is not responding to the latest calls for a third term because they have not yet determined whether reelection or selecting a successor would be the best scenario for 2008. LB

Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov has ruled out any chance that the president's term limits will be removed before the 2008 presidential election, "Vedomosti" reported on 22 August, citing comments Mironov made to journalists on 19 August. Mironov said two terms are enough, and he characterized attempts to change the constitution to give Putin a third term as "the first little step to a dictatorship." As for lengthening the president's term from four years to five, he said such a question should not be on the agenda now but "absolutely should be raised when the time comes to change the constitution, in perhaps 20 years." Mironov also confirmed that he is not planning to run for president in 2008. In the 2004 presidential election he finished last among the six candidates with 0.75 percent of the vote. LB

The monetization of social benefits produced political shock waves earlier this year, but economic experts "are unanimous" in concluding that the policy has "spurred economic growth," according to "Vedomosti" on 22 August. Many categories of citizens who had traditionally received social benefits in the form of free transportation or utilities are now receiving payments from the government to cover the cost of certain goods and services. The new system has meant higher cash payments to, and profits for, companies in the transportation and communications sectors, and also distributors of medicine. Although state monopolies such as the Russian railways or the Moscow City Telephone Network have benefited most from cash payments distributed to citizens who used to receive free services, economists quoted by "Vedomosti" said that the influx of funds from the federal budget to the business sector have nonetheless accelerated economic growth. The newspaper predicted that beginning in 2006, the extension of the monetization policy to additional types of social benefits will continue this trend. LB

Russian Pension Fund head Gennadii Batanov announced on 19 August that the gradual increase of the retirement age is inevitable "in the foreseeable future," "Gazeta" reported on 22 August. Speaking at a session of the Pension Fund board in Penza, Batanov predicted that the pension age will be increased by six or 12 months annually. "Gazeta" noted that in 2004, when the government reduced the social tax used to finance the pension system, then Pension Fund head Mikhail Zurabov warned that citizens would have to work for eight years longer in order to bring the system into balance. However, government officials who were preparing the controversial policy to monetize social benefits did not want to further increase social tensions. Excess revenues from high oil prices have allowed the federal government to cover the holes in the pension fund's budget this year. Igor Nikolaev, director of the department of strategic analysis for FBK, told "Gazeta" that the government is unlikely to begin raising the pension age until after the 2008 presidential election. The newspaper noted that government officials announced the planned monetization of social benefits on 16 March 2004, two days after President Putin's reelection. LB

Arkadii Volskii on 22 August denied rumors that he will soon step down as president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), RIA-Novosti reported. But in comments to editors in chief from regional media outlets, Volskii acknowledged disagreement within the RSPP over the union's goals and said he would comply if the RSPP board asked him to resign at a meeting scheduled for 30 September. Earlier this month, some Russian media speculated that Volskii would be replaced, possibly by the RSPP's much younger new executive secretary, Nikolai Tonkov. "Vremya novostei" on 15 August quoted unnamed sources in the RSPP as saying the union has lost influence and needs a new leader who can raise its profile and stand up for the interests of big business in the public discourse. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 23 August, a faction led by Interros head Vladimir Potanin favors replacing Volskii, while rival oligarch Oleg Deripaska wants Volskii to stay. Speaking to "Kommersant-Daily," Tonkov denied that there is a conflict between groups allied with Potanin and Deripaska. However, he asserted that RSPP "needs new faces," because "the dialogue between business and the authorities" has broken down recently. LB

The Chechen community in Astrakhan has issued a statement demanding that the oblast authorities identify and bring to trial the young Kalmyk men who attacked Chechen homes in the village of Yandyki last week, Interfax and reported on 22 and 23 August, respectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 August 2005). Four people -- one Dargin and three Chechens -- have been arrested and charged with hooliganism in connection with the mass fighting that erupted between Chechen and Kalmyk residents. LF

One man was killed on 22 August and two police officers injured when an explosive device blew up under a main gas pipe close to a hospital in Nazran, Russian media reported. Ingushetian Deputy Prosecutor Dmitrii Gurulev said the remote-controlled bomb was aimed at the republican police, reported. The bomb exploded as a police patrol car drove past. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili and Irakli Okruashvili arrived separately in Armenia on 21 August for a two-day unofficial visit, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Georgian media reported. Meeting with journalists on 22 August following talks at President Robert Kocharian's summer retreat at Lake Sevan, the two presidents stressed the absence of tension and unresolved problems in bilateral relations, according to ITAR-TASS. They also enumerated sectors in which they hope to intensify bilateral cooperation, including food processing and urban construction. Saakashvili further argued for the need to integrate the economies of all three South Caucasus states. LF

In a statement released on 20 August and posted on the Armenian Foreign Ministry website (http://www., Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian rejected the argument adduced in recent weeks by Azerbaijani officials, including President Ilham Aliyev, that profits from the sale of its Caspian oil will enable Azerbaijan to increase its military expenditures and thus, by implication, win a new war to bring the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic back under the control of the central government. Oskanian countered that "time works to no one's advantage, because as a result of the unresolved conflict, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh all suffer." He warned that the Azerbaijanis "can neither seduce us nor, worse, scare us with their oil," and that "Armenia always has the ability to militarily counter any Azerbaijani military budget." Oskanian further described recent Azerbaijani characterizations of the Karabakh peace process as wishful thinking. He said that "each time Azerbaijan does not achieve what it wants, they either bad-mouth the [OSCE] Minsk Group, or express dissatisfaction or disaffection with the negotiating process.... That's what they're trying to do now." LF

The Azadlyg bloc released a statement on 22 August taking issue with comments President Aliyev made three days earlier while visiting Ismailly Raion, Turan reported. On that occasion, Aliyev dismissed as inappropriate opposition demands that he participate personally in a dialogue between political parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 August 2005). Azadlyg accused Aliyev of seeking to avoid political responsibility, a tactic the bloc attributed to his imputed "political inexperience and lack of interest" in ensuring that the 6 November parliamentary elections are free and fair. In related news, police broke up two election campaign meetings organized by Azadlyg on 20 August in Zakatala, northern Azerbaijan, and Lenkoran, in the extreme southeast of the country, reported on 23 August. Local authorities did not grant prior permission for either of those two gatherings. LF

Ramiz Tagiev, who is an adviser to opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) Chairman Ali Kerimli, told journalists in Baku on 22 August that the National Security Ministry (MNB) sought last month to co-opt him in a bid to replace Kerimli with a figure who would cooperate with the Azerbaijani authorities, Turan and reported on 22 and 23 August respectively. Tagiev said that Umid party Chairman Igbal Agazade introduced him to an MNB official who paid him some $1,500, offering a further $50,000-$100,000 if he succeeded in winning over Ganimat Zahidov, editor of the AHCP newspaper "Azadlyg." Tagiev said he agreed to the MNB proposals, having reached agreement with Kerimli that he should do so in order to determine what steps the MNB planned against the AHCP. On 15 August, the MNB agent informed Tagiev that the ministry planned to storm and occupy AHCP headquarters the following day and force Kerimli to step down. Agazade rejected as "fairy tales" Tagiev's allegations that he acted as go-between, reported on 23 August, and he accused Kerimli of resorting to "political games" to counter the damage inflicted on his political reputation by his contacts with arrested Yeni Fikir youth movement Chairman Ruslan Bashirli, according to Turan. The MNB dismissed Tagiev's revelations on 23 August as "absurd," Turan reported. LF

The board of directors of PetroKazakhstan, a Canadian-registered company with oil holdings in Kazakhstan, has agreed to a $4.18 billion buyout offer from an affiliate of China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), "Kazakhstan Today" reported on 22 August. Under the deal, which still requires two-thirds approval from a PetroKazakhstan shareholders meeting in October, CNPC will pay $55 per share of PetroKazakhstan, a 21.1 percent premium on PetroKazakhstan's closing price as of 19 August. PetroKazakhstan shares rose nearly 20 percent to $65.25 (from $54.19) on the Toronto stock market in early trading on 22 August, CP reported. In an intriguing footnote to the deal, CNPC will pay PetroKazakhstan shareholders $54 in cash for each share they hold plus one share, valued at $1, in a company to be headed by current PetroKazakhstan CEO Bernard Isautier, AP and "The New York Times" reported. The new company will explore opportunities in the oil and gas sector in Central Asia outside Kazakhstan. An Indian joint venture's bid $3.5 billion for PetroKazakhstan last week against an initial CNPC bid of $3.2 billion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 August 2005). DK

Analysts noted that the CNPC bid for PetroKazakhstan, which will be China's largest foreign acquisition if it goes through, fits in with a policy of securing energy resources for the country's growing economy. Steven Dashevsky, chief analyst at Moscow-based Aton Brokerage, told Reuters, "There is a clear logic for the Chinese in this acquisition as they further strengthen their position in Kazakhstan, whose output is growing fast and which controls 3.3 percent of global oil reserves." Vincent Noual, a Geneva-based analyst for IHS Energy, told "The New York Times" that PetroKazakhstan's oil holdings and track record render it attractive. He said, "It is a jewel; you look at the way they increased production." Others noted the high premium CNPC was prepared to pay. John Kuzmik, a partner in Houston-based energy law firm Baker Botts, told "The New York Times" that "China has consistently been willing to overpay for assets; it's more of a security issue for them than the absolute price." Another Chinese company recently withdrew an $18.5 billion bid for U.S.-based Unocal due to political opposition to the deal. But the CNPC buyout could still face hurdles, as Reuters reported that the Indian joint venture that has already placed one bid for PetroKazakhstan is readying a counter-bid. DK

Former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev arrived in Bishkek on 22 August and met with Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov, reported. Tanaev, who faces three criminal cases in Kyrgyzstan, went free after his testimony; prosecutors had initially wanted to arrest him, but after he voluntarily appeared to present testimony they agreed to release him on his own recognizance after he signed a statement that he will not leave the country, ITAR-TASS reported. Maksim Maksimovich, the lawyer representing Tanaev, told reporters that his client met with Prosecutor-General Beknazarov for two and a half hours in the morning, Interfax reported. Tanaev faces a variety of corruption charges but maintains his innocence. Maksimovich explained, "He did not plead guilty, but said that everything he had done was for the benefit of the state." Tanaev fled Kyrgyzstan after street protests toppled President Askar Akaev on 24 March for Russia, where he was born. DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov sacked Construction Minister Amangeldy Rejepov on 22 August, Turkmen Television First Channel reported. The opposition site Gundogar reported that Rejepov now faces criminal charges. He was replaced by Atamurad Berdyev, deputy prime minister in charge of construction, industry, and energy. Also on 22 August, Niyazov appointed Aganiyaz Akyev, who holds the post of property manager in the presidential administration, as deputy prime minister and coordinator of relations with the CIS, Turkmen television reported. Akyev will attend an upcoming CIS summit in Russia along with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov. Niyazov also ordered that Saparmamed Valiev, the former head of the country's state oil company, be stripped of his titles and official awards, including Hero of Turkmenistan. Valiev was recently fired from his post amid an ongoing corruption probe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 August 2005). Additionally, the president signed a decree banning lip-synching in concerts. DK

Last week, the European Commission started a procedure of suspending benefits for Belarus under the EU's Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), Belapan reported on 22 August. The commission has given the Belarusian government six months to bring the country's regulations into line with its international commitments and eight months more to carry out 12 recommendations of the International Labor Organization regarding the treatment of trade unions in the country. If the European Commission sees no progress on the recommendations in 14 months, it will request the EU Council of Ministers to temporarily abolish the GSP benefits for Minsk. According to the commission, the move would mean an annual loss of 100 million euros ($122 million) for Belarus. The GSP extends duty-free treatment to certain products that are imported from designated developing countries. The purpose of the GSP, which was initiated by the United States and other industrial countries in the 1970s, is to promote economic growth in developing countries by stimulating their exports. Last year Belarus exported some $5 billion worth of goods to the EU. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko told journalists in Kyiv on 22 August that Ukraine will continue to take part in the Single Economic Space (SES) that was formally set up in 2003 by Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine, Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko's statement came after Ukrainian Economy Minister Serhiy Teryokhin announced last week that Kyiv will switch to bilateral economic relations with Moscow and may subsequently withdraw from the SES (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 August 2005). Yushchenko added that Ukraine will contribute to efforts to establish the SES and come up with 10 initiatives concerning "the most complicated and urgent problems" at a CIS summit in Kazan, Russia, on 26-27 August. JM

Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko told a forum of Ukrainian diplomats in Kyiv on 22 August that the government is considering a "procedure for privatization amnesty" with regard to state properties that were sold in the past and are now being disputed in court, Ukrainian media reported. Tymoshenko urged Ukrainian ambassadors abroad to inform the world that Ukraine is not conducting reprivatization. "Who is spreading this information campaign that Ukraine is a reprivatizer?" Tymoshenko said. "These are the well-known people who owned the Kryvorizhstal [steel mill] and the Nikopol Ferroalloy Plant. They have enough money to buy any PR agency in the world, and they do so." The Kryvorizhstal and Nikopol Ferroalloy companies, which have recently been regained by the state, were controlled by Ukrainian oligarchs Rynat Akhmetov and Viktor Pinchuk. JM

President Yushchenko and other state officials participated in the inauguration of the Boryspilska metro station in Kyiv on 23 August, on the eve of Ukraine's 14th anniversary of independence, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The Kyiv metro's three lines extend for some 60 kilometers and have 45 stations. JM

Soren Jessen-Petersen, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service in Prishtina on 22 August that the future of ethnic minorities in Kosova is one of the toughest issues involved in defining the province's final status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 August 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 7 January and 20 May 2005). He argued that the first part of the problem is that the representatives of the Serbian minority are not willing to take part in the negotiating process. He added that it is difficult to make progress on issues relating to minorities if they themselves do not participate. Jessen-Petersen said that the second aspect is that both Belgrade and Prishtina have come to link the question of minorities with that of the province's final status, on which the two sides have very different interests. This applies to issues like decentralization as well as to the return of displaced persons and refugees. The tendency of the main parties involved in the process to establish such a link makes it very difficult to register progress in talks on minority-related issues, he added. PM

Jessen-Petersen told RFE/RL in Prishtina on 22 August that he makes no promises about whether Kosova will become independent. But, he added, in the event that it does gain independence, it will be up to the authorities there to decide on whether they want a continuing international presence and what form it might take. Jessen-Petersen noted that once Kosova's final status has been decided, the terms set down in UN Security Council Resolution 1244 will have been carried out, and that the legal basis for UNMIK will cease to exist. He feels nonetheless that there will be a continuing role for the EU in Kosova as well as for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. These are matters, he added, that the new Kosovar authorities will have to decide. Jessen-Petersen suggested that those authorities will probably also want an unspecified foreign security presence but he did not mention KFOR, NATO, or the United States by name. PM

Kai Eide, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy for Kosova and who will soon issue a paper on Kosova's readiness for final status talks, said in Belgrade that he is not yet satisfied with how the international community's standards have been implemented in Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 August 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 August 2004). He added, however, that he does not exclude that he will be able to make more positive conclusions in his final report. Eide made his remarks after meeting with Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic. PM

Moldova has concluded its 2005 grain harvest, gathering 1.4 million tons of grain, including nearly 1.1 million tons of wheat, which is "the largest crop in recent years," Infotag reported on 23 August, citing the Agriculture Ministry. The average wheat yield was 3,060 kilograms per hectare, which is 10 percent more than last year. JM

Moldovan families need to spend at least one average monthly salary, or some 1,300 lei ($103), to equip one child for the school year due to start on 1 September, Infotag reported on 22 August. The cheapest school uniform and shoes cost some 500 lei and 250 lei, respectively. JM

In a speech to the legislature on 21 August, newly installed Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad laid out his plans for the next four years, and legislators then began debating the men Ahmadinejad proposed as cabinet ministers one week earlier. Each prospective minister will have 30 minutes to address parliament, and the entire process might continue until 25 August. Legislators' comments in the last week indicate that three to six of the nominees will encounter resistance.

Ahmadinejad's speech was broadcast live by the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network. In his discussion of foreign affairs, the president adopted a resentful tone and expressed Third World and nationalistic sentiments. He complained that Iranian imports from unspecified other countries amount to millions of dollars, but those same countries do not import Iranian goods or buy Iranian oil.

"Those very countries, which should be thankful for our contribution to their economic success, now act as if we owe them something," Ahmadinejad said. "In political issues, they have a hostile approach toward us. They are not ready to recognize our legitimate rights. They go as far as to interfere in our domestic politics under different pretexts, including human rights and false accusations. They want to silence us on the important issues that are going on in the region and the world of Islam. They want us to follow their discipline in our foreign policy."

Ahmadinejad said Iran will not accept such "tyranny and injustice."

The Ahmadinejad government's foreign-policy program calls for cooperation with other Islamic countries, and lists as its priorities "relations with the Islamic world, the Persian Gulf region, the Caspian Sea region, Central Asia, the Pacific area, and Europe," Fars News Agency reported. It backs the Palestinian people. It opposes neocolonialism and efforts at "world domination," and it calls for greater cooperation with nonaligned countries.

Ahmadinejad's foreign policy calls for relations with all countries except Israel -- "forever" -- and the United States -- "as long as it is not prepared to observe the honor and the interests of our nation."

Ahmadinejad said his candidate as foreign minister, Manuchehr Mottaki, is the best choice because of his 20 years' experience as a diplomat and his two terms as a member of parliament.

Ahmadinejad said spirituality is on the government's agenda and warned that ethics could be degraded by liberalism. He called for the promotion of Islamic values and principles, and he said the promotion of the Koran and the teachings of Imam Ali (Nahj ol-Balagheh) will strengthen families.

His government program also emphasized the role of Islam in enhancing "national solidarity," and it discussed activities at mosques, religious boards, and the Basij, and also during religious holidays. State broadcast media is to emphasize Iranian and Islamic culture "with the purpose to cause subcultures to adapt themselves to public culture." There should be greater cooperation between seminaries and universities.

Ahmadinejad said prospective Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Mohammad Hussein Safar-Harandi is qualified because of his lengthy experience in media affairs, IRNA reported. Hojatoleslam Mustafa Purmohammadi is qualified to be interior minister, Ahmadinejad said, because of his education in Qom and his knowledge of Islamic sciences. Prospective Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei is qualified for the job because he is a specialist in international law and is familiar with the ministry's work.

Lawmakers began their debate after the president's presentation and his comments on the proposed cabinet ministers. Legislators' statements in the days after Ahmadinejad submitted his list indicate that it will not be smooth sailing for all of them.

Mohammad Reza Bahonar, the deputy speaker, predicted on 19 August that the majority of proposed ministers will win votes of confidence, IRNA reported. Speaking two days earlier, Kazem Jalali, rapporteur of the Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, said he believes the proposed ministers of defense and armed forces logistics (Mustafa Mohammad Najjar), of foreign affairs (Mottaki), and of intelligence and security (Mohseni-Ejei) will win votes of confidence easily, Fars News Agency reported on 17 August.

"Resalat" newspaper reported on 17 August that legislators are very critical of four of the prospective cabinet members, "Iran News" reported. The four are: Masud Mir-Kazemi as commerce minister, Mohammad Suleimani as communications and information technology minister, Ali-Reza Ali-Ahmadi as cooperatives minister, and Ali-Akbar Ashari as education and training minister. Opposition to these individuals reportedly is connected with their lack of public visibility in the past.

Malayer's Hassan Zamani said in the 17 August "Aftab-i Yazd" that Ahmadinejad could have done better and predicted that five or six of the candidates might not win approval.

A 16 August report in "Mardom Salari," which included interviews with several legislators, made a similar point. It said the majority of the individuals named by Ahmadinejad have no record of activity at such a high level, and the legislators predicted that just three or four of the proposed ministers will win a vote of confidence.

Some hard-line legislators saw Ahmadinejad's list of cabinet ministers one day before he formally submitted it, IRNA reported on 14 August. Elias Naderan, who serves on the parliamentary Energy Committee, said a number of his colleagues objected to the proposed petroleum minister, Ali Saidlu. Another member of the committee, Mohsen Yahyavi, argued that Saidlu has no experience in the oil sector.

U.S. military spokeswoman Lieutenant Cindy Moore said on 22 August that coalition and Afghan forces have killed more than 100 militants in southern and eastern Afghanistan in the last three weeks, VOA reported. In operations in Deh Chopan District in the southern province of Zabul, "approximately 65 enemy combatants were killed," Moore said. Additionally, 40 militants were killed in the eastern province of Konar. In one of the bloodiest months for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, 14 soldiers have been killed in August in operations against enemy forces, the report added. Konar Governor Asadullah Wafa said that he expects guerrilla activity to subside in his province and the remaining militants to stop their opposition to the government, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 22 August. Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi said that only one Afghan soldier was killed during the above-mentioned operations. AT

Two police officers were killed and a third injured on 22 August when their vehicle was targeted by a remote-controlled explosive device in Oruzgan Province, AFP reported. In neighboring Zabul Province, two policemen were killed and three injured on 21 August by a roadside explosive device. While no one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, Oruzgan Governor Jan Mohammad Khan blamed the neo-Taliban for the incident, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 22 August. AT

An unidentified suspected terrorist blew himself up on 22 August in Kandahar Province's Spin Boldak District, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Kandahar security chief Abdul Malek Ahmadi told Pajhwak that the man, believed to have been a suicide bomber, entered the district by car from Pakistan. When suspicious police tried to stop the vehicle, however, the driver detonated himself. AT

The Afghan Special Narcotics Force on 22 August raided drug-storage sites in Nimroz Province, a press release from the Interior Ministry indicated the same day. The raid in Nimroz was part of the government's efforts to "rid the country of the shame of drugs," the statement added. While Nimroz Province is not considered a major producer of narcotics, drugs are commonly trafficked through the province to Iran and beyond. AT

Masumeh Shafii, the wife of dissident journalist Akbar Ganji, confirmed in a 22 August interview with Radio Farda that her husband has ended his hunger strike, which went on for more than 70 days. Shafii saw her husband on 21 August for the first time in three weeks. She said he was in the Milad Hospital's intensive-care unit for three weeks, but now he is consuming a prescribed diet and his health has improved. Reporters Without Borders welcomed Ganji's decision in a 22 August statement, before adding, "Nonetheless, the fight to obtain his release continues and we strongly hope that his perseverance will not result in his being kept in prison until he completes his sentence." BS

Ali Larijani, the new secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said during the 21 August ceremony honoring his predecessor that Iran will announce its new nuclear initiatives soon, ISNA reported on 22 August. Larijani succeeds Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, who will stay with the council as the supreme leader's representative. Many luminaries, including Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and former President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, attended the event, "Iran" reported on 22 August. Hashemi-Rafsanjani expressed regret that Rohani did not retain this position. He said the council must be above politics or factional concerns. Rohani will begin work at the Center for Strategic Research, a think tank. Turning to nuclear activities, Rohani said on 22 August that Iran will negotiate with the EU and resume activities at the nuclear facility in Natanz. BS

An unnamed official from the National Iranian Oil Company announced on 22 August that the activities of two energy companies are being suspended in connection with allegations of bribery and corruption, state television reported. The two companies are Halliburton and Oriental Oil Kish. Halliburton announced that it is withdrawing from Iranian activities in spring 2005 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 February and 30 March 2005). The Oriental Oil case may be part of a politically motivated anticorruption drive, as there is speculation in Iran that the company is being targeted for its connections to the family of Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi-Rafsanjani. BS

Dr. Mahmud Sorush, an Iranian Health Ministry official, said on 22 August that 56 new cases of cholera were reported the previous day, ISNA reported, and this brings the national total to 810. Ten people have died of the disease, he said. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has ordered the Agriculture Jihad Ministry to compensate vegetable farmers whose livelihood is adversely affected by a government ban on produce, IRNA reported. BS

The National Assembly accepted an unfinished draft constitution on 22 August and voted to allow the drafters three more days to work out the remaining details, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on 23 August. Parliamentary speaker Hajim al-Hasani told reporters following a late-night National Assembly session that the "pending issues" include: "certain aspects" of federalism; the structure of regions; the issue of de-Ba'athification; and the authority granted to the president, parliament, and cabinet. Al-Hasani added that the preamble to the constitution has not been agreed upon, but said that the issue of the distribution of oil revenues has been settled. Elaborating on the issue of regional groupings, al-Hasani said that Sunni Arabs reject a proposed clause allowing for any two governorates to form a region. Instead, they have called for a clause that gives the National Assembly the authority to approve proposals for the establishment of regions, apparently on a case-by-case basis. Asked why the National Assembly accepted an incomplete draft, al-Hasani said: "We were faced with two options, either accepting the draft or requesting another postponement. The majority opted for accepting the draft despite the unresolved issues." KR

Iraqi National Dialogue Council spokesman Salih al-Mutlaq told reporters in Baghdad on 22 August that Sunnis were largely kept out of the past week's negotiations on the constitution, international media reported on 23 August. "I don't trust [the Shi'a and Kurds] anymore," he added. In a press conference broadcast on Al-Sharqiyah television ahead of the National Assembly session, al-Mutlaq also denied the existence of a Sunni split. "The forces that were kept away from the political process have adopted a unified position," he said. "The claims that there are disagreements among us are baseless." He accused unnamed parties of trying to take "exclusive possession" of the constitution, saying, "It is a constitution for all Iraqis, and no party should take exclusive possession of it." KR

Iraqi Islamic Party leader Tariq al-Hashimi told reporters in Baghdad on 22 August that his party did not have time to review the latest version of the draft that was presented to parliament on 22 August, RFI reported. "What I want to tell you now is that we did not finish reading the draft [after it was] presented to the National Assembly. We basically could not make sure whether the amendments we had agreed on this morning were incorporated into the final draft or whether this draft is still repeating the same enactments that had been presented [earlier] today or yesterday. Therefore it is difficult for us to give a realistic evaluation on this draft. We have to finish reading it first," al-Hashimi said. He confirmed to reporters that there are some outstanding issues that require further negotiation. "After [negotiations] the Iraqi Islamic Party will give a definitive statement on the draft constitution." KR

United Iraqi Alliance member and parliamentarian Maryam al-Rayyis applauded the draft constitution, telling reporters in Baghdad on 22 August, "We can assure Iraq and Iraqis that the constitution has been written by Iraqi hands for the first time," RFI reported on 23 August. She commented that although it was not apparent at the National Assembly, Iraqis were "joyful" over the draft. "The celebration started early this morning and has continued until this moment," she added. Al-Iraqiyah television broadcast scenes of celebratory Shi'a on the streets of Al-Najaf and Al-Diwaniyah on 23 August. KR

Al-Rayyis also told reporters in Baghdad on 22 August that the Shi'a object to a Sunni proposal that calls for no mention of the Ba'ath Party or the deposed Saddam Hussein regime in the constitution, RFI reported on 23 August. "Within the few next days, [we will demand]...that it is necessary to have the [Hussein] regime mentioned in the constitution so that everyone who rules Iraq in the future gets a reminder and Iraq may no longer suffer from the tragedy that it suffered for centuries, or for decades," al-Rayyis said. KR

Shi'ite parliamentarian and drafting committee Chairman Humam Hammudi told reporters in Baghdad on 22 August that the draft constitution calls for a decentralized government, RFI reported on 23 August. "There will no longer be the central state as before, now there will be a decentralized state with more powers given to governorates. The ruler will no longer be able to manipulate people through oil supplies but chances will be given to governorates to perform some role in investments and in economic development," he said. Hammudi said he will reveal more details of the draft to the press on 23 August. Asked whether three days is enough time to work out the draft's remaining details, he said: "In fact, we have reached clear and definite positions. These have been written down in the constitution as it has been presented. More dialogue means more assurances to the others, giving more guarantees and explanations, but it does not mean changes in either the chapters or the articles of the constitution." KR