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Newsline - September 2, 2005

Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitrii Kozak and Communist Party Chairman Gennadii Zyuganov traveled to Beslan on 1 September, joining North Ossetian President Taymuraz Mamsurov to pay their respects to the victims of last September's hostage taking, Russian media reported. Under tight security, up to 2,000 people, mostly survivors and relatives of the more than 300 killed, gathered in silence in the ruined building. Visiting Krasnodar on 1 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed observing one minute of silence in honor of the Beslan victims, rather than pronouncing "meaningless words," the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" reported on 2 September. LF

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 1 September that Russia will not adopt an anti-Western policy despite the fact that some elements in the West consider his country an enemy, Channel One and other media reported. "As Russian society becomes increasingly consolidated and as its economy grows, forces are reappearing who view our country as an enemy," Lavrov told an audience of students at Moscow's International Relations Institute. "[But] we will not allow anyone to provoke us into adopting primitive, anti-Western policies." Lavrov partly blamed Western media for "distorting the image of what is happening in Russia," according to the Voice of Russia. Russian policy is not directed against the interests of the West, he said, but is aimed at joint solutions to global problems. "In conditions of globalization, the border between external and internal resources for defending national interests is erased, and no country, however powerful, can attain its goals without international cooperation," Lavrov said. VY

In the same address on 1 September, Foreign Minister Lavrov said relations with former Soviet states remain a priority of Russia's foreign policy, Voice of Russia reported. Russia wants to cooperate with many states, Lavror said, particularly Latin American, Asia-Pacific, and African countries. "This is important to both the economic development of our country and to securing state foreign-policy interests," he said. Lavrov also accused the World Trade Organization (WTO) -- which Moscow hopes to join -- of seeking to extract "concessions on various issues" from his country. Russia wants to join the WTO, he said, but "only on terms that benefit Russia." VY

Foreign Minister Lavrov also seemingly issued a warning to the Baltic states on 1 September, declaring that Russia will resist "attempts to rewrite history" and strongly counter such efforts, RIA-Novosti reported. Although he did not name Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, officials there have demanded recognition by Moscow of the Russian occupation of their countries following World War II. Lavrov accused unnamed governments of using democratic tools like the independent media to "charge Russia for a common past" for "selfish motives." Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin on 1 September ordered that Russia's signature be rescinded from the May 2005 Russian-Estonian border treaty that Moscow subsequently denounced (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 28 June and 7 July 2005), according to a Kremlin press release cited by RTR. Officials in Moscow believe the treaty as amended within the Estonian parliament presents Tallinn with an opportunity to make territorial claims on Russia, although Estonia has officially announced that it has no such claims. VY

Gazprom Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Ryazanov said in Moscow on 1 September that recent talks in Kyiv with Naftohaz Ukrayiny officials failed and that the two sides failed to agree on a price for Russian natural-gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006, reported. Gazprom has pressed for a price increase from $50 to $180 per 1,000 cubic meters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June 2005), while Naftohaz has rejected an increase and threatened to increase transit fees on Russian gas bound for Europe. reported that Russian Energy and Trade Minister Viktor Khristenko said Russia will refrain from signing documents on gas supplies in 2006 if it is unable to define prices for 2007 and 2008. "This is our principle position," Khristenko reportedly said. Some observers believe Kremlin political goals are blocking an agreement as much as financial differences. "Gazprom wants to inflict economic collapse on Ukraine," commented on 1 September. VY

The Russian Embassy in Washington and consulate in Houston, Texas, announced on 1 September that more than 30 Russian citizens are among those rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard since Hurricane Katrina struck, RTR reported. At least six Russian students remain trapped in New Orleans, which has been devastated by flooding and the subsequent breakdown of infrastructure and public order. Russian diplomats have compiled a list of 109 Russian students and tourists who might be in the disaster area. A coordinator from the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry flew to the United States to determine whether his ministry can assist in rescue efforts after U.S. officials said they would accept foreign aid in connection with the catastrophe, Channel One reported on 2 September. VY

Boris Makarenko of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technology told RosBalt on 1 September that "terrorist acts on the territory of the North Caucasus, in particularly Daghestan, have turned in a routine occurrence" since last year's Beslan school tragedy. "In the last year, terrorism has not gone beyond the borders of the North Caucasus," Makarenko said. "However, there is no basis for suggesting that this will continue in the future." In an interview with "Gazeta" on 1 September, Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center agreed that instability in the Caucasus has spread since the Beslan tragedy, noting that the authorities have managed to use the Beslan tragedy as a pretext for restricting democratic freedoms. Senior Russian officials and human-rights activists alike have predicted in recent weeks that Kabardino-Balkaria, with a total population of some 800,000, could become the next North Caucasus federation subject to descend into chaos, following Chechnya and Daghestan (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 22 August 2005). JAC

Some mothers of victims of the Beslan tragedy have requested political asylum in "any country that respects human rights," according to a report by Ekho Moskvy on 1 September. Ekho Moskvy noted that those purportedly seeking asylum should not be confused with members of the Beslan Mothers Committee that was expected to meet with President Putin on 2 September. Chairwoman Susanna Dudieva said her committee is in no way related to the asylum appeal distributed on 1 September. JAC

On 1 September, an official day of mourning for the victims of last year's Beslan school tragedy, a representative of the Beslan Mothers Committee read a statement accusing federal authorities of freeing the hostages in a "cruel way," Zvezda TV reported. "It is clear that for the federal authorities in Russia we are just members of [North] Caucasus ethnic groups," committee representative Ella Kesaeva said. "The hostages were treated worse than cattle in a slaughterhouse. The majority of those killed were blown up, shot using tanks and grenade launchers, burnt alive by Shmel flamethrowers." In an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 1 September, Alekandr and Tatyana Karpov, directors of a public organization unifying the surviving hostages of the October 2002 Moscow theater crisis, called on members of the Beslan Mothers Committee to unite with their organization. "We do not meddle in politics, but life has forced us to poke our nose into it," Tatyana Karpova said, adding that "life has forced us to go to Strasbourg," where the European Court for Human Rights is based. JAC

The pending merger of Kamchatka Oblast and Koryak Autonomous Okrug might have to be put on hold due to the okrug's pressing financial situation, ITAR-TASS reported on 1 September. The okrug is scheduled to hold a referendum on the merger on 23 October, but only 100,000 of the estimated 4 million rubles ($142,000) needed to cover the costs of holding the referendum has been transferred to the okrug election commission. Progress on holding the referendum in Kamchatka is faring better, but not all of the necessary financing has been allotted. There, the regional election commission has 2 million of the 13 million rubles required. JAC

Presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko has submitted to the presidential administration a list candidates for the post of the head of Perm Krai, the new entity that would be formed on the basis of Perm Oblast and Komi-Permyatskii Autonomous Okrug, reported on 1 September. Kirienko told reporters that the name of the acting head of Perm Oblast Oleg Chirkunov is the first on the list "in terms of sequence and importance." The new regional entity is supposed to be formed by 1 December, according to RosBalt. Putin appointed Chirkunov as acting governor in March 2004 after elected Governor Yurii Trutnev left to take up the post of Natural Resources Minister. Chirkunov previously served in the Federation Council and in Perm Oblast's legislature. JAC

State Duma Mikhail Markelov (Motherland) told RosBalt on 1 September that a draft bill on preventing terrorism could be used to pressure the political opposition if approved. "This law is still very crude and will need a great number of amendments, but the chief danger is that governors can on the basis of a terrorist threat introduce a special regime in regions under which citizens' activities would be very strictly controlled," said Markelov, who is a member of the Duma's Security Committee. The law is expected to be adopted this fall. JAC

State Duma Deputy Aleksei Mitrofanov (Liberal Democratic Party) is promising to film two sequels to the pornographic film "Yuliya," which depicts a hypothetical love affair between Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 August 2005), Novyi Region reported on 1 September. The first film will be called "Yuliya's New Adventures," he said, and the other "Tough Mrs." The film "Yuliya" is expected to appear in Moscow this month, Novyi Region reported. Also speaking on 1 September, Russian Ambassador to the Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin said that "it hurts and offends me that there are people such as Mitrofanov," reported. JAC

U. S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans pledged on 1 September to work "very intensively" to ensure that Armenia's next elections are free and fair, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Evans added in an RFE/RL interview that the country is "headed in the right direction," citing a recently adopted set of constitutional amendments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 September 2005). The Armenian government's proposed constitutional amendments, which garnered the support of the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, the European Union, and the United States, include measures aimed at curbing the powers of the executive branch. Having received parliamentary approval, the amendments are now subject to a national referendum in November. RG

Responding to questions during a 1 September interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, U.S. Ambassador Evans rejected any suggestion that Washington is pursuing any policy of "regime change" for Armenia. "It is not our policy to suggest that political change should happen in the streets," Evans said, and he warned against any such action due to the "risk that people would be hurt." Evans was clear in his warning against any repeat of past voting irregularities during Armenia's 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections, saying that "one of the clear lessons of the last few years, particularly in this part of the world, to everyone should be that if elections are falsified, election results are tampered with, there will be trouble of one sort or another," according to RFE/RL. But Evans added, "We will be working very intensively with not only the government but other institutions and elements of Armenian society to help Armenia ensure that those elections are indeed free and fair." RG

Azerbaijani police forcibly dispersed a group of activists from the opposition youth movement Yeni Fikir and the Azerbaijan Popular Front on 1 September, Turan reported. The activists were distributing leaflets in Baku's Sahil Square before police intervened. Although several participants were struck with police truncheons, there were no reports of serious injury, Turan reported. Members of the Yeni Fikir youth movement recently launched a hunger strike following the arrest last month of their leader, Ruslan Bashirli (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 August 2005 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 15 August 2005). RG

Following the clash with police in Baku, opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party Deputy Chairman Vuqar Huseynov was arrested on 1 September for allegedly "violating order and calling for disturbances," according to Turan. Later the same day, Huseynov was sentenced by a Baku court to a 10-day period of administrative detention after being found guilty of "resisting arrest." Huseynov was reportedly subjected to violence while in custody, according to Turan. RG

A group of ethnic Azerbaijani activists staged a demonstration on 1 September in the southern Georgian district of Gardabani, the Caucasus Press reported. The demonstrators held a picket at a Georgian police checkpoint outside the village of Vakhtangisi and distributed Azerbaijani-language leaflets calling for greater rights for the several hundred thousand ethnic Azerbaijanis living in southern Georgia. The activists, led by Telman Gasanov, demanded the appointment of ethnic Azerbaijanis to official government positions in the region, the introduction of dual Georgian and Azerbaijani citizenship, and an easing of customs tariffs on cross-border trade. Gasanov vowed to stage a larger mass rally on 15-16 September if the Georgian government fails to address his concerns. He also threatened to demand full autonomy for the majority ethnic-Azerbaijani districts of southern Georgia unless conditions are improved, Azerbaijan's ANS-TV reported. RG

The founder of the private 202 Television company, Shalva Ramishvili, released an open letter on 1 September arguing that his videotaped acceptance of a bribe was part of an elaborate sting operation to expose corruption, the Caucasus Press and Civil Georgia reported. Ramishvili explained that he accepted the bribe of $30,000 from parliamentarian Koba Bekauri to pave the way for videotaping a second bribe, of $70,000, as evidence of the deputy's corruption. Ramishvili was sentenced on 29 August to three months' pretrial detention (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 August 2005). RG

In an address before a joint session of parliament on 1 September, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev outlined a number of domestic and foreign policy innovations, Kazinform and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. A presidential election is expected to be held in December (pending a decision by parliament), and Nazarbaev, who has already announced his intention to run, pledged that he will do "everything required to ensure that the forthcoming election is absolutely free and transparent." Nazarbaev also said he will create and head a state commission to draw up a six-year plan for democratic reforms. Kazakhstan also intends to pursue its campaign for the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2009, Nazarbaev said, vowing a "comprehensive program" to prepare Kazakhstan's bid. In foreign policy, the president said cooperation with Russia, China, the United States, and the Europe Union will be priority tasks, ITAR-TASS reported. He stressed, however, that it is "very important for Astana to be an active member of the [CIS] Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization." DK

Kyrgyzstan's parliament confirmed Feliks Kulov, head of head of the Ar-Namys Party, as prime minister on 1 September, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Kulov's candidacy garnered 55 votes out of 66 deputies present, with just eight "against" and three ballots defaced. Before his confirmation, Kulov outlined his anticrisis program to legislators, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The aim of the program, Kulov said, will be to accelerate the development of a market economy free from corruption with the aim of meeting people's everyday needs. Kulov promised a more transparent budget with fewer unjustified expenditures. He said social expenditures will be treated not as a drain on the budget but rather as investment that raises the country's overall potential. He also said a reduction in state-imposed restrictions will make Kyrgyzstan more attractive to investors. And finally, Kulov promised to make the fight against corruption a top priority. "I will not be corrupt, my family will not be corrupt, and my team will not be corrupt," Kulov said. DK

Maksim Maksimovich, a lawyer representing Aidar Akaev, announced on 1 September that the son of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev did not attend the opening session of Kyrgyzstan's parliament after unknown individuals threatened his life in a telephone call to his father in Moscow, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The younger Akaev, who was elected to parliament in spring elections, had previously vowed to take up his seat in parliament. A parliamentary commission is slated to review a request to strip Aidar Akaev of immunity from criminal prosecution in connection with corruption charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 June 2005). DK

Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov told journalists on 1 September that his office will make a "legal" decision on the fate of the 15 Uzbek citizens currently detained in Osh, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. He noted that while a number of countries have expressed a willingness to accept the detainees as refugees, none has yet given its official approval. Beknazarov added that negotiations are currently under way with Ukrainian authorities on the matter. Explaining that the Security Council rejected his earlier proposal to make a "political decision" on the detainees, Beknazarov said, "Now the Prosecutor-General's Office will make a legal, not a political, decision." Kyrgyz prosecutors are currently reviewing documents provided by Uzbekistan allegedly proving the detainees' involvement in serious crimes in Uzbekistan. "If it is not proven that a person committed a crime, he will be seen as a refugee," Beknazarov commented. The detainees fled Uzbekistan after violence in Andijon on 12-13 May and were later placed in detention in Kyrgyzstan after Uzbek authorities, who would like to see them returned to Uzbekistan, provided materials on their alleged criminal involvements. DK

Viktor Trufanov, deputy head of Russia's border service, told Interfax-AVN on 1 September that Russia has fully transferred control of the Tajik-Afghan border to Tajikistan. "The last sector of the Afghan-Tajik border under the control of the Panj unit of the Russian border guards was transferred to our Tajik colleagues on 1 September in accordance with the intergovernmental agreement," he said. "From now on, Tajikistan will guard the border unaided." Trufanov noted, however, that a Russian task force will remain in Tajikistan. DK

"Gazeta Wyborcza" reported on 2 September that a business plan for creating an independent radio station to broadcast to Belarus from Poland is to be ready by mid-September. According to the Warsaw-based daily, Poland will ask Brussels to sponsor broadcasting to Belarus from the sum of some 2 million euros ($2.5 million) that the European Commission has recently allocated to support democracy in Belarus. In August, Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka decided to earmark 950,000 zlotys ($290,000) for the Polish nongovernmental organizations planning to create an independent Belarusian-language radio (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 August 2005). "Nobody wants to remove [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka by force. The attitude to him will depend on the attitude of Belarusians to him. But with its policy the EU -- and it is Poland's aim -- should stimulate a positive change inside the Belarusian nation," Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld said before an informal conference of EU foreign ministers in Newport, Wales, on 1 September. JM

Several thousand workers of the Nikopol Ferroalloy Plant in Zaporizhzhya Oblast staged a protest rally in front of the plant on 1 September against what they see as an attempted takeover of their company by the industrial group Privat, which is allegedly supported by Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, Ukrainian media reported. The rally was broadcast live on three television channels that are linked to Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, son-in-law of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. A week ago the Kyiv Appellate Court annulled the sale of 50 percent-plus-one-share in the Nikopol Ferroalloy Plant to the consortium controlled by Pinchuk and ordered the stake to be returned to the state. On 30 August Privat, which holds a 27 percent stake in the Nikopol Ferroalloy Plant, organized a shareholders meeting and appointed a new manager of the plant. President Viktor Yushchenko instructed the government to resolve the conflict according to the law and restore "normal conditions" for the plant's operation. According to Yushchenko, the conflict reflects a clash of interests between two financial-industrial groups that were formed under the previous regime. JM

Mykhaylo Brodskyy, an adviser to Prime Minister Tymoshenko, said on Channel 5 on 1 September that close associates of President Yushchenko are involved in corruption. "I declare that there is nothing but corruption around Yushchenko," Brodskyy said. In this context Brodskyy mentioned the names of Petro Yushchenko, the president's brother, National Defense and Security Council Secretary Petro Poroshenko, top presidential aide Oleksandr Tretyakov, Transport Minister Yevhen Chervonenko, and presidential adviser Mykhaylo Doroshenko. According to Brodskyy, the conflict around the Nikopol Ferroalloy Plant is essentially between Tymoshenko, who wants to resell the plant at an open auction, and the presidential entourage, which allegedly wants to obtain a reward of $50 million for making it possible for Pinchuk to sell the plant to Russian businessmen. JM

On 2 September, Albania's Central Election Commission declared former President Sali Berisha's Democratic Party the winner of the 3 July parliamentary elections, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 25 August 2005). The delay in announcing the Democrats' victory was due to the need to clarify numerous complaints and conduct a new vote in three constituencies. President Alfred Moisiu called the first session of the new legislature, in which the Democrats and their allies will have 80 out of 140 seats, for 2 September. Following the commission's announcement, outgoing Prime Minister Fatos Nano formally conceded defeat and resigned as chairman of the Socialist Party. He nonetheless called the election results "politically unacceptable" and blamed "electoral violence and illegitimate winners" for his ouster. Berisha called Nano a sore loser, adding that the two-month delay in finalizing the election results is probably without precedent in Europe. He noted that the controversial 2000 U.S. presidential election took less time -- 36 days -- to resolve than the latest vote in Albania, a much smaller country. PM

Italian Lieutenant General Giuseppe Valotto, a former brigade commander in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, took command of the 17,100-strong KFOR peacekeepers from France's General Yves de Kermabon at a ceremony in Prishtina on 1 September, local dailies and Reuters reported. For the first time at a KFOR ceremony, the Serbian military was represented in the person of General Dragan Paskas, who is chief of staff of Serbia and Montenegro's Army. The Kosovar government protested Paskas's presence, calling it "unacceptable and insulting." Officials of Kosova's police force and the civilian Kosova Protection Corps (TMK), which consists mainly of former Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) guerrillas, boycotted the ceremony to show their displeasure at the presence of the Serbian general. The TMK said in a statement that Belgrade's military "must implement many standards in order to deserve our and NATO's respect and partnership." TMK commander Agim Ceku stressed that Paskas represents an army that committed crimes in Kosova. The opposition Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) of Hashim Thaci, who is a former UCK commander, called the inclusion of Paskas a "serious provocation" for the public and the political process, adding that Kosovar leaders were wrong to attend the ceremony. The daily "Zeri" wrote that it was "major mistake" of the French general to end his mission by including a top Serbian officer in the ceremony. PM

Croatia asked Greece on 1 September to extradite Hrvoje Petrac, a Croatian tycoon whom Greek Coast Guard police arrested on an international warrant the previous day, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service and Reuters reported. The Croatian authorities have 40 days to submit the necessary documents, and Interior Minister Igor Stefanec told RFE/RL that the authorities have already started work. Petrac is formally wanted in an extortion case, but the main interest in him is because of his alleged links to former General Ante Gotovina, who is Croatia's most wanted fugitive war crimes indictee. Petrac is widely suspected of being part of Gotovina's support network that enables him to stay on the run. Following his arrest, Petrac said in a Greek court, "I would like to say good, good luck to my Prime Minister [Ivo] Sanader in his political suicide." PM

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Argentinian judge told Reuters in Buenos Aires on 1 September that Argentina will extradite former Bosnian Serb paramilitary leader Milan Lukic to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal rather than to Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 12 August 2005). Serbian authorities previously said that they expected Argentina to send him to The Hague. Lukic had asked to be sent to the tribunal, saying that he fears for his life in Serbia, where he has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for war crimes. Lukic has suggested that unnamed Serbian former colleagues of his might kill him to prevent him from making wartime secrets public. Some observers have pointed out that Lukic, like many of the people he fought with, has apparently long been involved with the criminal underworld, where he might also have enemies. PM

Judge Radovan Mandic said in Podgorica on 1 September that police beat up 31 prisoners in the Spuz jail while allegedly searching cells a few hours earlier, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service and Reuters reported. At least five of the prisoners required hospitalization. "Since this is not a military junta but a state ruled by law, the perpetrators of this morning's incident will have to bear responsibility," Mandic said. Investigative magistrate Hamid Ganjola told the news agency that he issued a warrant for the cells to be searched but not for "beatings," adding that the police "have done something inadmissible." Police spokesmen denied that the police had broken any law. State Prosecutor Vesna Medenica announced an investigation into the affair. The lawyer for Damir Mandic, who has been accused of murdering an opposition newspaper editor, told reporters that the police entered his client's cell yelling "Where is Mandic," dragged Mandic from his bed, and proceeded to beat him. He is currently on trial before Judge Mandic, who broke off the proceedings to deal with the prison incident. PM

Igor Smirnov, president of the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester, told journalists in Tiraspol on 31 August that Chisinau's policy toward Tiraspol has taken "the form of a state-waged robbery under the banners of democracy and human rights observance," Infotag reported on 1 September. "The Moldovan economic blockade has inflicted $56 million in damages on us -- half of our $110 million budget," Smirnov asserted. He added, however, that Tiraspol is ready to resume negotiations with Chisinau and international mediators on the Transdniester settlement. JM

Smirnov also told journalists on 31 August that any future peacekeeping operation in Transdniester can be conducted "only under Russia's leadership," Infotag reported on 1 September. "We should recognize that Russia has applied a classical mechanism for the peacekeeping operation [in Transdniester], and the model demonstrated its efficiency," Smirnov said. "One may consider other variants, including a peacekeeping mission under the [Organization for Security and Democracy in Europe] OSCE aegis, but all the same the Russian Federation must play a leading role in it. Our people trust Russian peacekeepers. Russia is present here because it has always been here." Transdniester officially marks the 15th anniversary of its secession from Moldova on 2 September. JM

A survey by the Razumkov Center polling agency from 5-12 August confirmed what was signaled earlier by other Ukrainian pollsters -- namely, that the new government of President Viktor Yushchenko is gradually losing its popularity, following its installation in February on a nationwide wave of enthusiasm incited by the November-December 2004 Orange Revolution. In an April poll, the Razumkov Center found that 52 percent of Ukrainians thought that the new authorities were better than the old ones; in August this indicator fell to 37 percent.

It appears that apart from any other consequences, such a public mood primarily indicates that the probability of any radical socioeconomic reforms being launched by President Yushchenko prior to the parliamentary elections due at the end of March 2006 is virtually nil. The government will almost certainly focus on short-term measures, both economic and propagandistic, to keep the electorate from turning against the new authorities completely, rather than make any reformist steps that would require everyday austerities.

As reported by the "Zerkalo nedeli" weekly in its 24 August-2 September issue, the Razumkov Center found in August that for the first time since the Orange Revolution more Ukrainians think that things in the country are going in the wrong direction rather than the right one -- 43 percent versus 33 percent. In April the analogous indicators in a similar poll were fairly upbeat -- 23 percent versus 54 percent.

Moreover, the number of respondents who think that the country's economic situation under the Yushchenko government has deteriorated is more than double the number who think that it has improved -- 41.5 percent versus 20.5 percent (19 percent versus 27 percent in April). Ukrainians' confidence in the future has also shrunk considerably -- a mere 12 percent of respondents now think that prospects for the future improved versus 48 percent of those who believe that they have worsened (in April the proportion was 32 percent to 26 percent).

On the positive side, Ukrainians in August still tended to believe that the level of democracy and media freedom under Yushchenko's rule increased rather than decreased -- 38 percent versus 20 percent and 46.5 percent versus 14.5 percent, respectively.

The Razumkov Center confirmed that the popularity of the ruling parties is also sliding. In August six political parties were potentially able to overcome the 3 percent vote threshold to qualify for parliamentary representation. The Our Ukraine People's Union was supported by 20 percent of those polled, the Party of Regions by 14.2 percent, the Fatherland party by 10.5 percent, the Communist Party by 5.5 percent, the Socialist Party by 4.2 percent, and the People's Party by 4.1 percent. In a similar poll conducted in May, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine People's Union and Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko's Fatherland were backed by notably larger electorates -- 31.6 percent and 15.5 percent, respectively.

The results of the survey are rather surprising, given the government's reports on the allegedly improving financial situation of Ukrainians. According to the government, real incomes rose in January-June by some 27 percent. And the average monthly wage in Ukraine by the end of June officially stood at some 820 hryvnyas ($160), exceeding by 80 percent the country's subsistence minimum. So, why should people be dissatisfied?

Former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych criticized the Yushchenko government as early as April, saying that it was sacrificing the country's economic development for temporary social benefits. Ukraine's economic growth in 2005 slowed to some 5 percent from the 12-percent growth reported in 2004 by Yanukovych's cabinet. According to Yanukovych, the pension and wage increases that the new government "thoughtlessly" introduced to reinforce the postrevolutionary enthusiasm in the country were actually devoured by a subsequent jump in inflation. And Yanukovych argued that in April Ukrainians already had to pay three times more for food and other necessities than a year before.

Tymoshenko's cabinet has officially admitted that inflation in Ukraine in the first half of 2005 was 6.7 percent. However, International Monetary Fund experts estimate it to be 15 percent. The latter figure may explain why Ukrainians now tend to believe that their economic situation has worsened rather than improved, particularly if we take into account that most of them spend their incomes almost completely on food and other essentials.

"Zerkalo nedeli" also points to another potentially hazardous misstep that the Yushchenko government has made in bestowing its postrevolutionary generosity on the populace. The weekly argues that Yushchenko's pension and wage hikes embraced generally pensioners and the poorest segment of Ukraine's workforce, that is, the people who categorize themselves as the "lower class" (approximately 30 percent of Ukrainians). However, this largesse -- the weekly adds -- did not produce any lasting shifts in this group's political sympathies. In April Yushchenko was backed by 45 percent of lower-class voters and opposed by 25 percent of them, but in August support for the president in this social group fell to 32 percent, while opposition rose to 35 percent.

But the most dismal indicator appears to be a drop in enthusiasm for Yushchenko among those Ukrainians who classify themselves as the "middle class" (some 60 percent of the population). According to the Razumkov Center, in April Yushchenko was backed by 51 percent of middle-class voters and opposed by 21 percent of them, whereas in August these indicators were 34 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

According to sociological surveys, more than 70 percent of Ukrainians supporting Yushchenko at rallies during the Orange Revolution belonged to the middle class. Arguably, representatives of this social group are the most likely candidates to form the backbone of a future society that could wholeheartedly accept a market economy and parliamentary democracy. For them time-serving state charity seems to be not so important as a purposeful policy to recast the current mix of Soviet-era socialism and post-Soviet oligarchic capitalism in Ukraine into a transparent and civilized market-economy system with a strong middle class as its stabilizing core. Regrettably, Yushchenko has so far failed to show or even convince the public that he intends to make any steps in this direction.

U.S. military commanders in restive Paktika Province have predicted a sharp rise in violence by neo-Taliban insurgents ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for 18 September, AP reported on 1 September. Militant activity has risen in the area as the ballot nears, battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Timothy McGuire said, adding that insurgents will likely step up attacks in the week before the elections but refrain from attacks on election day. Afghan security forces will be responsible for protecting most of the 150 polling stations in the province, though Western troops from the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan will be on hand. "Our expectation is that the Afghans are going to do 98 percent of this," said Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan. MR

Suspected neo-Taliban guerillas abducted a British man and killed three Afghan policemen near the western city of Herat, AFP reported on 1 September. Guerrilla fighters kidnapped the unidentified man, who was initially said to be an engineer but later described as a security consultant or journalist, and an Afghan interpreter after attacking a road-construction site in Farah Province on the night of 31 August. Neo-Taliban guerillas, not normally active in the west, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the Briton is alive and in their custody. Neo-Taliban spokesman Mufti Latifullah Hakimi said the Briton's name is David and that he was wounded in the attack. "We brought him a doctor and now he's fine," Hakimi said, though he offered no information about the fate of the interpreter. Hakimi said neo-Taliban commanders have not yet decided what to do with the Briton. MR

Backed by U.S. troops and helicopters, Afghan forces stormed a suspected neo-Taliban base in southern Afghanistan on 30 August and killed nine insurgents, AP reported on 1 September. The raid targeted a cave complex in Oruzgan Province thought to serve as a base for some 80 neo-Taliban fighters who have been staging guerilla attacks in the area, according to Oruzgan Governor Jan Mohammad Khan. In a separate incident the same day, U.S. Marines and Afghan troops conducting a joint patrol in Asadabad in eastern Konar Province came under fire from five suspected insurgents. A U.S. military statement offered no information about casualties among the attackers but said no Afghan or U.S. forces were hurt in the clash. MR

Health authorities in Afghanistan plan to vaccinate some 7 million children under the age of 5 against polio, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) announced on 1 September. The three-day campaign, led by the Afghan Public Health Ministry with support from UNICEF and the World Health Organization, is scheduled to begin on 5 September. Afghanistan is among a handful of countries where new cases of polio still appear, despite a long-running campaign worldwide to eradicate the disease. Afghanistan reported four cases of polio in 2005. Five polio cases also appeared in 2004. MR

Masumeh Shafii, the wife of dissident journalist Akbar Ganji, said in a 1 September fax to ILNA that her husband is not being allowed to receive visitors. Ganji recently ended his 70-day hunger-strike, and Shafii said she and her children have not been allowed to see Ganji since 26 August. They go to the Milad Hospital every day, she said, but visitors are banned and they have no information on his health. She added that some officials promised that her husband would be released, but this has yet to happen. BS

Iranian weblogger Mohammad Reza Nasab-Abdullahi has been released from prison after serving six months, ILNA reported on 31 August (According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), he was released on 27 August). The Kerman Revolutionary Court sentenced him for acting against national security and insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranian Internet journalist Mujtaba Lotfi was released on 28 August after serving more than six months, according to RSF. RSF added that there are other charges against the two and they could be sent back to jail. The press watchdog said one more blogger, Mujtaba Saminejad, remains in jail; he was arrested in February and was given a two-year sentence. Attorney Nemat Ahmadi said on 14 August that another blogger, his client Afshin Zarei, has been held in "temporary detention" for eight months, ILNA reported. Ahmadi said Zarei is charged with insulting the supreme leader. BS

Iran has banned wheat imports from countries where avian flu (bird flu) has occurred, ITAR-TASS reported on 1 September. Agricultural Jihad Minister Mohammad Reza Eskandari said in the 21 August issue of "Kayhan" newspaper (before he won a confidence motion) that all the ministry's plans are based on a "20-year horizon document" that predicts self-sufficiency in wheat, as well as feed grain, hay, rice, and sugar. On 16 August, the legislature allowed the import of wheat to take advantage of unused capacity at flour mills and to create jobs, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported. BS

India's External Affairs Minister Kunwar Natwar Singh is scheduled to leave for Tehran on 2 September for a three-day visit, India's PTT news agency reported on 1 September. The main topics of the visit are to be the nuclear issue and cooperation in the energy sector. Other aspects of bilateral relations will be discussed as well, according to PTT. Iran and India have been discussing for several years a natural-gas pipeline that will cross Pakistan, but Washington is reluctant to see this project reach fruition. Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani was in India recently, where he met with Singh on 31 August, Doordarshan TV reported. During the visit, Larijani stressed that Iran will not go back on the resumption of activities at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility, which began in early August. The two also discussed cooperation on energy issues and the pipeline project, India's PTI news agency reported on 31 August. Larijani said, "The focus of our negotiations with India is on strategic relations, particularly in the field of energy and more particularly, on a natural-gas pipeline and the liquefied-natural-gas supply to India." He added that Iran-India cooperation contributes to regional security. BS

Iraq hanged three convicted criminals on 1 September in the first executions since Saddam Hussein was deposed in March 2003, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Government spokesman Laith Kubba announced the executions, saying Bayan Ahmad Sa'id, Uday Dawud Salman, and Dhahar Jasim Hasan were hanged in Baghdad. The men were found guilty by a criminal court in Wasit on charges of kidnapping, murder, and rape (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 2005). Kubba added that he believes the reinstatement of the death penalty will help deter future criminals. Iraq's Presidency Council signed the death sentences as required by law. President Jalal Talabani, who stands opposed to the death penalty, delegated his signing authority to one of his two vice presidents. KR

Ibrahim al-Ja'fari ordered the establishment of a higher judicial committee to investigate the 31 August stampede that left nearly 1,000 Iraqis dead and about 500 injured, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 1 September. Government spokesman Kubba told reporters at a press briefing the same day that Higher Judicial Council head Midhat al-Mahmud will lead the investigation. "What is important is for this committee to present recommendations on the procedures to be followed to prevent the occurrence of such a tragic incident in the future," Kubba said. He added that 3 million dinars (about $2,041) will be offered to the families of the dead and wounded to help ease their suffering. Other forms of assistance will also be offered, he said without elaborating. Kubba said it appeared there is "no direct link" between the stampede and the mortar attack that occurred earlier that day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 September 2005). KR

The Independent Election Commission has said that it faced a number of obstacles in trying to register some 16 million Iraqis during the monthlong registration process in August, IRIN reported on 1 September. Voter registration has been extended until 7 September in the Sunni-populated Al-Anbar Governorate to allow for more people to register after insurgent threats delayed the process, officials said. Local Al-Anbar election commission representative Umar Kubaysi told IRIN that only 19 of the 29 planned registration centers in the governorate were able to open. Meanwhile, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 1 September that election officials accused politicians and some members of the media of exerting pressure on the commission and questioning its integrity. The commission has reportedly asked the UN to look into the issue. The commission also said that it has the right to sue any party that attempts to obstruct the political process by conspiring against the commission. KR

The Independent Inquiry Committee headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker has reportedly found that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan bore primary responsibility for mismanagement in the UN oil-for-food scandal, reported on 2 September. Volcker briefed Annan on the report on 1 September; Annan's office refused to comment on the meeting. The committee is expected to publicly release its findings in a 700-page report on 7 September. The report will also fault Annan for not taking action to halt suspected abuses by contractors, said diplomats who spoke with Annan after his meeting with Volcker. The diplomats added that Annan has claimed that investigators have found "no smoking gun" or evidence of wrongdoing by Annan. The secretary-general reportedly said he will not resign. The report will also address the responsibility of UN Security Council member states that knowingly allowed Saddam Hussein's regime to reap billions of dollars from smuggling and kickbacks, reported. KR