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Newsline - September 13, 2005

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Radio Mayak ahead of the 13 September opening of the 60th UN General Assembly that Russia would prefer not to rush through reforms of the United Nations in order "not to split" the institution. Lavrov noted that Russia sent former Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov to participate in the "wise men's group" created by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to recommend reforms. While Russia backs many of that group's recommendations, including the concept of expanding the ranks of the Security Council, it is mindful of opposition to such a plan and wants time to seek compromise, Lavrov said. VY

Foreign Minister Lavrov also told Radio Mayak on 12 September that Moscow supports a revision of UN authorization concerning the use of force to resolve armed conflicts. The UN has in the past allowed for force only to resolve international conflicts, but lethal conflicts increasingly involve non-state actors and the UN should be allowed to address that development, Lavrov argued. Russia supports the option of preemptive strikes against international terrorists in cases that can be qualified as "inevitable threats," Lavrov said. "If a state with a good intelligence community receives information about the preparation of a terrorist attack, it has the right to suppress this threat in advance," Lavrov said. "It is senseless to make explanations before the strike occurs." VY

The Russian envoy to the EU in Brussels, Vladimir Chizhov, said that Moscow has no monopoly on politics within the CIS and is prepared for dialogue with the European Union concerning the CIS, "particularly because some countries in the region want to integrate into the EU," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 12 September. But while each country's views might differ about the situation within the CIS, Russia will continue to express its opinions concerning "colored revolutions," Chizhov said. He added that Russia and the EU will discuss economic and energy cooperation and the preparation of a new and comprehensive, 10-year bilateral accord to replace the one due to expire in 2006. VY

President Vladimir Putin is prepared to sign a decree on the creation of a special council to monitor the implementation of ambitious reforms the Kremlin announced earlier this month, "Izvestiya" and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 12 September. Putin's reform plans include changes to federal plans in the education, health, housing, and agriculture spheres and require spending of 150 billion rubles ($5.6 billion) in 2006 and a further 193 billion the following year. Putin is expected to chair the council himself, "Izvestiya" reported. Mark Urnov, the head of the Ekspertisa foundation, was quoted by "Izvestiya" as saying that the council's creation marks a degradation of government institutions. "As the Duma is turned into a rubber-stamp machine, you need a body to compensate for the lack of [legislative] power," Urnov said. But Valerii Draganov (Unified Russia), who chairs the Duma's Committee for Economic Policy, said he endorses the idea of the council but not necessarily Putin's place atop it, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported. "The president should analyze and coordinate the work, but not be in charge of it," Draganov said. VY

The Defense Ministry posted on its official website ( on 12 September the number of Russian servicemen who have died so far this year. The figures show that 182 of the 662 soldiers who have died in 2005 committed suicide, while 183 died in vehicular accidents and another 175 were killed in other types of accidents. Sixty soldiers died in violent clashes with civilians, 14 died at the hands of their fellow soldiers, and 16 were killed because of the negligent handling of weapons. Among combat deaths, 74 federal troops have been killed this year in Chechnya and five others are listed as missing in action. The Chechnya-related figures do not include casualties suffered by troops from the Interior Ministry or the Federal Security Service (FSB), as well as other agencies that compile their own statistics. VY

A group of roughly 100 people participating in a gathering to show their support for jailed former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovskii was attacked by roughly two dozen young men in Moscow on 12 August, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported the same day. The attackers reportedly were chanting slogans that included "Khodorkovskii to Prison!" and wore T-shirts that were said to have been similar to those worn by the pro-Kremlin Nashi (Ours) youth movement. The pro-Khodorkovskii demonstration was organized by Our Choice's Irina Khakamada, and the Human Rights group, which is headed by Lev Ponamarev, and the opposition group Oborona. Police had to intervene to halt the violence, RFE/RL reported. VY

A young woman who was identified as a National Bolshevik Party (NPB) activist approached and struck Education Minister Aleksandr Fursenko during a joint press conference with his German counterpart in Moscow on 12 September, RosBalt and other media reported. NBP activists were distributing material outside the press conference labeling Fursenko an "enemy of the teachers" and claiming that spending on education in Russia under Fursenko has fallen to below the level in Zimbabwe, RosBalt reported. VY

Leaders of the State Duma have approved a preliminary work plan for the chamber's fall session, reported on 12 September. Duma committees are to prepare 566 draft laws for consideration: eight submitted by the president, 51 by the government, 30 by the Federation Council, 179 by regional legislatures, one by the Supreme Court, and 297 by Duma deputies themselves. The 56 draft laws designated "high priority" for the session include seven submitted by the president and 42 submitted by the government, according to Duma First Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska (Unified Russia). Of those priority bills, 12 deal with the structure of the state and constitutional rights of citizens; 18 with economic policy; six with social policy; eight with budget, tax and finance policy; and four with defense and security. The remaining eight are international treaties to be ratified. The first reading of the draft 2006 budget is set for 22 September. A controversial measure scheduled for October is the second reading of the law on fighting terrorism. Important bills to be considered in November include a law on natural resources (aimed at stimulating foreign investment) and the second readings of the Forest and Water codes. LB

Almost three months after Gazprom-Media purchased a controlling stake in the daily "Izvestiya," the newspaper's board of directors on 9 September appointed Petr Godlevskii to be the newspaper's general director, "Vremya novostei" and "Gazeta" reported on 12 September. Godlevskii has held various jobs in NTV and the St. Petersburg-based television company Peterburg; most recently, he was editor in chief of NTV's foreign broadcasting. Gazprom-Media head Nikolai Senkevich described him as an ideal candidate, in that he has administrative experience but also understands journalism. "Izvestiya" has long been troubled financially, and an unnamed source at the newspaper told "Gazeta" that employees have not received their salaries for the past two months. Menedzhment-Tsentr, which owns some 38 percent of the shares in "Izvestiya," has long pushed for new financial management at the daily, according to "Vremya novostei," but the previous controlling shareholder Prof-Media took no action. Both "Gazeta" and "Vremya-novostei" predicted that "Izvestiya" Editor in Chief Vladimir Borodin will remain in the job he has held for the past year. LB

Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov's Russian Party of Life on 12 September became the first party to be officially registered for the Moscow City Duma elections, reported. Although party leaders have expressed optimism about the campaign, they have also highlighted potential threats to the legitimacy of the elections. Moscow Duma Deputy Irina Rukina, who heads the Party of Life's list, has repeatedly warned that the decision to schedule the elections for 4 December was not published in the official "Vedomosti Moskovskoi Gorodskoi Dumy" before the legal deadline. In a statement reported by on 9 September, Rukina said the Party of Life is not seeking to reschedule the election but added that, unfortunately, "any Moscow voter may file a lawsuit to challenge conducting the elections on 4 December." Meanwhile, Mironov authored an editorial in "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 9 September asserting that numerous provisions in Moscow's new election law violate federal legislation and threaten to "wreck" the elections. Mironov said the contradictions he uncovered could be resolved and offered his services as a legal consultant to help the Moscow Election Commission "secure the legality of the coming elections." LB

Konstantin Pulikovskii, presidential envoy to the Far East Federal District, on 13 September warned that current prices for gasoline, fuel oil, and other petroleum products threaten efforts to stockpile enough fuel for the winter heating season, Interfax reported. A statement issued by Pulikovskii's press service said he had discussed the matter with Far East governors as well as with federal government ministers. Meanwhile, "Novye izvestiya" on 12 September quoted experts on the oil sector as saying that prices for gasoline and other kinds of fuel will continue to rise, because even higher prices found in other European countries have given Russian oil companies more incentives to sell their products abroad rather than on the domestic market. Although government ministers have discussed various tax measures to stem the price increases (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 September 2005), "the government has no market measures to control prices," the newspaper argued. More expensive gasoline and fuel will push up the cost of numerous consumer goods and services as well, "Novye izvestiya" noted. LB

The leaders of the Republic of Tatarstan have decided to quit the Greater Volga regional association because it duplicates functions of the council of regional leaders convened by the Volga Federal District, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 10 September. The leaders of the Russian Federation's 89 subjects formed eight regional associations, including Greater Volga, in the early 1990s. These associations focused on economic issues and were a potent political force during President Boris Yeltsin's tenure. When President Putin created seven federal districts and abolished direct gubernatorial elections, he curbed the political influence of the regional associations. A presidential decree signed in March of this year that created councils of regional leaders in each of the federal districts was intended to "destroy the [regional] economic associations," according to "Kommersant-Daily." Farid Mukhametshin, chairman of the Tatarstan State Council, and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev have sent an official letter to Greater Volga president, Penza Oblast Governor Vasilii Bochkarev, announcing Tatarstan's departure. A source close to Sergei Kirienko, Putin's envoy to the Volga Federal District, predicted that Greater Volga will soon dissolve. Bochkarev is on a business trip to China and has not commented on the matter. LB

Armenian Parliamentary Chairman Artur Baghdasaryan warned on 12 September that the government's proposed constitutional amendments will need to overcome widespread apathy to secure adoption in a November national referendum, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Adding that many Armenians remain blase despite the government's attempt to garner public support for the changes to the country's constitution, Baghdasaryan stated that "we need to explain the significance of constitutional reform to our people" and called for more "effective propaganda." Recent surveys suggest that a mere 13 percent of Yerevan residents intend to participate in the referendum. The proposed constitutional amendments follow more than a year of intense negotiations within the ruling three-party coalition and are viewed by the Council of Europe, European Union, and the United States as an important reform necessary to reduce the powers of the presidency. Several parties aligned in the opposition Artarutiun bloc and former Prime Minister and National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian have pledged to campaign against the referendum, arguing that the proposed amendments do not go far enough in reducing the powers of the executive branch (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6, 9, and 12 September 2005). RG

Following a meeting of its 13 deputies, the leader of the Artarutiun opposition bloc, Victor Dallakian, announced on 12 September that the opposition will continue its boycott of parliamentary sessions, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Dallakian said there will be a tactical shift in the 18-month boycott, however, and added, "We will participate in the discussion of only those bills that are very important for the public." The announcement appears to reverse recent statements by the Artarutiun bloc and the National Accord Party (AMK) promising to end their boycott of legislative session (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 9 September 2005). The nine-party Artarutiun bloc, the largest opposition alliance in Armenia, launched its boycott of parliament in early February 2004 to protest the pro-government majority's refusal to debate proposed constitutional amendments that would have led to a vote of no confidence in President Robert Kocharian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 and 4 February 2004). RG

Armenian Public Service Regulatory Commission Chairman Robert Nazarian announced on 12 September that the U.K.-registered owner of Armenia's national power grid has requested that the Armenian government allow its formal sale to a little-known subsidiary of the RAO Unified Energy Systems (EES), RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Government approval is required for any sale under the terms of the 2002 privatization of the Electricity Networks of Armenia (ENA). Russia's EES assumed management of the privately owned Electricity Networks of Armenia in June through a 99-year, $73 million acquisition that was legally upheld by Armenia's Public Service Regulatory Commission last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 August 2005). British-registered Midland Resources Holding had controlled the network since 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 June and 21 July 2005). A perceived lack of transparency in the complex Armenian energy sector has spurred sharp criticism by the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in recent months. RG

The executive director of Armenia's Medzamor nuclear power plant, Gagik Markossian, announced on 12 September that the facility will be closed for two months on 1 October for refueling and to upgrade the plant's security systems, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Markossian added that the new security upgrades will include modern "radioactive monitoring" and chemical analyses of the light water used in the sole Soviet-era reactor. The measures will be funded by an EU grant of 3 million euros ($3.7 million), he added. The security upgrades follow an inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in June and discussions in Yerevan with IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei the following month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 July 2005). The 26-year-old Medzamor light-water reactor accounts for almost 40 percent of Armenian energy consumption and has been subject to regular IAEA inspections since its reactivation in 1995. Russian electricity monopoly RAO EES assumed management of the Medzamor plant in 2003 in return for the cancellation of $40 million in outstanding Armenian debt for past Russian fuel supplies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September 2003). RG

Azerbaijani authorities arrested opposition youth activist on 12 September on charges that he plotted against the state, according to Turan. The deputy chairman of the opposition youth organization Yeni Fikir (New Thinking), Said Nuriev, was also accused of accepting money from "foreign groups" to finance an attempt to overthrow the Azerbaijani government. The case marks the second arrest in recent weeks of a prominent leader of Yeni Fikir. The organization's leader, Ruslan Bashirli, was arrested last month for alleged treason and accepting money from Armenian intelligence agents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 August and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 15 August 2005). RG

Azerbaijani National Security Minister Eldar Mahmudov issued a warning on 12 September that the authorities "will take all necessary steps" to prevent instability in the run-up to the parliamentary elections set for 6 November, Turan and RFE/RL reported. The warning comes in the wake of repeated assertions by Azerbaijani officials alleging that unnamed foreign organizations are seeking to destabilize the pre-election situation. As Azerbaijan is under increasing pressure by the international community, some 20,000 opposition supporters participated in a rally in Baku on 10 September to demand guarantees that the elections will be free and fair (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 September 2005). RG

The Georgian parliament's deputy speaker, Mikheil Machavariani, called on 12 September for the formation of a special commission to investigate cases of conflicts of interest and ethics for legislators, Civil Georgia reported. Machavariani also called for an "investigative commission to probe into conflict of interests of some parliamentarians" in response to recent allegations by opposition deputy Davit Gamkrelidze that Machavariani and National Movement Party deputy Koba Bekauri illegally exert control over the Opiza customs terminal. Gamkrelidze also accused Machavariani of framing 202 television channel founder Shalva Ramishvili on extortion charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 September 2005). RG

In an address to the Civic Forum in Astana on 12 September, President Nursultan Nazarbaev promised increased state funding to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) but warned them that they must obey Kazakh laws, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Noting that the state should cooperate with NGOs in social and infrastructure projects, Nazarbaev promised to increase state funding for NGOs to 1 billion tenges ($7.5 million) over the next five years. He warned, however, that "parliament and the government will closely follow both foreign and domestic NGOs on issues of the implementation of our laws and the constitution of the country." Addressing the topic of recent legislation on nonprofits that the Constitutional Council deemed unconstitutional (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 August 2005), Nazarbaev said that parliament had ample justification to try to tighten controls on NGOs. "They could see the dangers taking place in neighboring countries, where foreign NGOs impudently pumped money and destabilized society," he said. "These states turned out to be defenseless, and you know very well what is taking place in these countries." DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev has vetoed a bill on the structure of government over a change legislators introduced into a provision on the formation of government agencies, reported on 12 September. The original text of the provision read, "Administrative agencies can be created as organizational structures within ministries or state committees..." Deputies, who passed the law on 8 September, changed "can be created" to "are created." Daniyar Narymbaev, the president's representative to parliament, explained that Bakiev vetoed the bill because, according to the constitution, administrative agencies can also be created outside of ministries. Narymbaev denied that the veto represents an attempt by the president to secure his control over certain segments of government. DK

A parliamentary commission has come out in support of a request by the Prosecutor-General's Office for parliament to vote on the possibility of stripping Aidar Akaev, son of former President Askar Akaev, of his immunity from prosecution, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 12 September. Prosecutors have requested the move so that they can try the younger Akaev on corruption charges. Iskhak Masaliev, who chaired the commission, said that even if Akaev loses his immunity, he will retain his mandate and can resume his duties as a legislator if he is cleared of criminal charges. DK

Approximately 100 protesters seized the regional Prosecutor-General's Office in the border city of Karasuu and held it for two hours on 11 September, reported the next day. The demonstrators were protesting what they described as foot-dragging in the investigation of the recent slaying of local businessman Abdalim Junusov, who had been involved in a legal dispute over the Karasuu market with parliamentary deputy Bayaman Erkinbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 September 2005). Angry protesters attacked Jyldyz Bekbaeva, editor in chief of the local newspaper "Jany muun," and a crew from the television station TRK Osh-3000, Kabar reported. Bekbaeva told the news agency that the attack occurred when a member of the crowd accused her of supporting Erkinbaev. DK

A consortium of companies from Uzbekistan, China, Malaysia, Russia, and South Korea will develop gas fields in the Aral Sea area, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 12 September. The companies, which will hold equal 20 percent stakes in the consortium, are state oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz, China National Petroleum Corporation, Malaysia's Petronas Carigali Overseas, Russia's LUKoil Overseas, and Korea National Oil Corporation. Experts told Russia's "Vedomosti" that the companies could invest up to $2 billion to identify recoverable reserves of up to 1 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. LUKoil spokesman Grigorii Volchek told the newspaper that the stakeholders will complete a feasibility study over the next two months with an eye to signing a production-sharing agreement in 2006. Dmitrii Tsaregorodtsev, an analyst with Rye, Man & Gor Securities, told "Vedomosti" that the project is a promising one for LUKoil. He commented, "It is in line with what investors have always wanted for Russian oil companies -- geographic diversification and production diversification." DK

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ruslan Yesin on 12 September criticized the European Commission's tender to organize two years of independent broadcasting to Belarus starting in January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 September 2005), RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. "Under the circumstances when Europe is lacking resources for its own programs, the announcement of tenders for implementing politically involved projects, particularly on the eve of important political events, represents direct interference in the domestic matters of a sovereign state," Yesin said, apparently referring to the upcoming presidential election in Belarus in 2006. JM

Meeting with outgoing Cuban Ambassador Felix Leon Carballo in Minsk on 12 September, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka asked that his best wishes be relayed to Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Belarusian Television reported. "If he [Castro] comes to Europe some day and manages to visit Belarus during such a trip, we will receive him as the closest and best [friend]," Lukashenka said. JM

Viktor Yushchenko instructed the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) on 12 September to investigate within the next 10 days the allegations of corruption in the presidential entourage that were voiced earlier this month by former presidential chief of staff Oleksandr Zinchenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 September 2005), Interfax-Ukraine and UNIAN reported. Yushchenko gave this instruction while introducing new SBU chief Ihor Drizhchanyy. Drizhchanyy replaced Oleksandr Turchynov of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, who tendered his resignation on 8 September when Yushchenko sacked Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and her cabinet. According to Yushchenko, Turchynov's performance was highly unsatisfactory. "[The SBU] proved unable to radically change the situation during the past seven months," Yushchenko said, criticizing the Turchynov-led service particularly for the situation on the state border. "The problems of trading in humans and narcotics and of refugees have remained at last year's level," Yushchenko stressed. JM

President Yushchenko has submitted the candidacy of Yuriy Yekhanurov for the Verkhovna Rada's approval as the head of a new cabinet, Interfax Ukraine reported on 13 September, quoting the presidential press service. Yushchenko appointed Yekhanurov as acting prime minister on 8 September, shortly after the dismissal of Tymoshenko. Yekhanurov was head of the State Property Fund in 1994-97; he worked as economy minister, first deputy prime minister, and first deputy chief of the presidential administration in the era of former President Leonid Kuchma; and he organized Yushchenko's parliamentary election campaign in 2002 and presidential election campaign in 2004. Last March, Yekhanurov was elected head of the central executive committee of Yushchenko's governing Our Ukraine People's Union party. Yekhanurov, 57, needs 226 votes in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada for approval. His predecessor, Tymoshenko, was approved in February with a record number of 373 votes. JM

Tymoshenko said in an interview with "Kommersant-Daily" on 13 September that last week's dismissal of her cabinet has inaugurated a campaign for the 2006 parliamentary elections in Ukraine. "I think a parliamentary campaign has started, therefore attempts are being made to remove all possible competitors from it," Tymoshenko said. "I know that the fight will be very harsh and intense. It will be the fight of those who want to wipe me off the political map of my country. [This fight] will be very unfair. But I have fought for eight years to finally make my country acquire moral ideals, and I will without fail follow this path to its logical conclusion in order to have a government that does not steal, to have officials that do not steal, and to have a country that could be relieved of this oppression." JM

Talks on police reform ended in stalemate in Banja Luka late on 12 September after Republika Srpska Prime Minister Prime Minister Pero Bukejlovic said that his delegation has "no mandate" to sign an agreement with the Croat-Muslim federation and the central authorities of Bosnia-Herzegovina giving the central government control over the police, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 2005). Failure to reform the police along nonethnic administrative lines is the main obstacle to Bosnia's integration into the EU. Bosnia must present a plan for police reform to Brussels by 15 September if it expects to start Stabilization and Association talks. The Bosnian Serbs consider the proposed police reform unconstitutional and a threat to the sovereignty of the Republika Srpska because the proposed police administrative boundaries will cross entity lines and deny each entity control of its own security forces. PM

The police-reform talks for Bosnia-Herzegovina broke off on 12 September despite a last-minute offer from the EU to launch Stabilization and Association talks if the three parties to the negotiations would at least sign an agreement on police reform, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service and Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. Bosnian Prime Minister Adnan Terzic said that the offer from Brussels is evidence that the European Commission attaches great importance to Bosnia's European integration. On 13 September, the Bosnian Serb parliament is scheduled to meet in an extraordinary session on police reform. A group of 11 NGOs from the Republika Srpska appealed to Serbian President Boris Tadic to take a public stand on police reform. Euroskepticism has been spreading in recent months in the western Balkans amid a growing perception that the EU is reluctant to give those countries serious prospects for joining the Brussels-based bloc (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 August 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 3 and 17 June 2005). PM

The Hague-based war crimes tribunal filed contempt charges against two Croatian journalists on 12 September for revealing the name of a protected witness in 2000, Reuters reported. Josip Jovic of the daily "Slobodna Dalmacija" and Marijan Krizic of the weekly "Hrvatsko slovo" published the name of a witness in the case against Bosnian Croat General Tihomir Blaskic for war crimes in central Bosnia's Lasva Valley between 1992 and 1994 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 and 5 August 2004). Each contempt charge carries a maximum possible 7-year prison sentence or a $123,000 fine. The men have their first court date on 26 September. Blaskic was released from prison in early August 2004 after the tribunal reduced his sentence. His supporters maintain that the Croatian authorities under late President Franjo Tudjman failed to give the tribunal important evidence exonerating Blaskic of responsibility for the 1993 Ahmici massacre in order to make him a scapegoat, possibly because the Bosnian Blaskic was not part of the Herzegovinian Croatian nationalist inner circle. PM

U.S. President George W. Bush said in a message to Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha that he should be proud of the recent peaceful transition of power from the Socialists to the Democrats, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 July and 9 and 12 September 2005). The EU's British presidency said in a statement in London on 12 September that "the EU welcomes the conclusion of the election process in Albania, which has resulted in the first peaceful transfer of power since the fall of communism." The statement added that Brussels "calls on the new parliament and the new government to advance Albania's progress towards EU integration by beginning work without delay and with genuine commitment on a clear and strong reform agenda." PM

Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission on 12 September disqualified 28 candidates from competing in Afghanistan's national and provincial parliamentary elections that are due to take place on 18 September. The new disqualifications brought to 45 the number of candidates barred from the UN-backed vote. Rights groups have expressed concern that figures implicated in major rights abuses are being allowed to stand in the elections. Among those rights groups is Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has been monitoring the election campaign for the past two months in provinces across the country. RFE/RL spoke with Sam Zia Zarifi -- the leading researcher in Afghanistan for HRW -- about candidate disqualifications and other election issues. The New York-based nongovernmental organization will release a report on its findings on 15 September.

RFE/RL: After a two-month observation mission in most of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, what is Human Rights Watch's overall assessment of the election campaign?

Zarifi: Human Rights Watch's assessment of the campaign period, not the election [voting] period itself, is that the country has to be looked at essentially in two separate processes. In the south, the insurgency has really impeded the election process. Things are significantly worse than they were last year for the presidential election [in October 2004]. In other parts of the country, there is real grounds for happiness because there haven't been major outbreaks of factional violence. Most disputes seem to have been channeled into politics. At the same time, there is a sense of disappointment and frustration among voters because there are a number of militia commanders who are either directly candidates or are pushing proxy candidates.

RFE/RL: A year ago, when a majority of Afghans voted for Hamid Karzai to be their president, Human Rights Watch was warning that parliamentary elections had a greater propensity for direct intimidation by militia commanders trying to become members of parliament in order to legitimize their powers. Now that the campaign season is nearly finished, have those fears of direct intimidation materialized?

Zarifi: Human Rights Watch, like other monitoring organizations, hasn't come across really much evidence of systematic violence. That's what we mean by direct intimidation. We haven't seen very many cases of people bringing out guns and tanks and ordering villages to vote a certain way. What we have seen is that the memory of atrocities in Afghanistan is still very fresh. And very little has been done to have any sense of accountability [for crimes against humanity that were committed during the last 25 years].

RFE/RL: Has Human Rights Watch found any evidence suggesting that indirect intimidation might influence the outcome of [the 18 September] vote? If so, what are some of the ways that voters are being indirectly intimidated?

Zarifi: Indirect intimidation is having your local commander now standing for parliament. It's true that his guns may be not visible now. Or less visible than they were before. But we've heard probably the same threat in many different places in Afghanistan - where commanders say: 'We know where you are. We expect a certain number of votes. And remember, we're going to be here when the international community is gone.'

RFE/RL: There have been complaints by Afghan voters against parliamentary candidates who are alleged to have committed crimes against humanity. But the Election Complaints Commission that has the power to remove such candidates from the ballot says there must be clear and convincing evidence that such allegations are true before it will take action. What is your reaction to this position?

Zarifi: There hasn't been an independent judiciary in Afghanistan for 25 years -- and even before that. The election commission says, 'We can't sideline candidates unless in the case that there is a conviction of crimes against humanity against them.' Well, there's not a single person in Afghanistan with a conviction like that. There are about 5,800 candidates. There were probably complaints lodged about over 500 of them. And only some very minor figures were struck from the list.

RFE/RL: Does the research of Human Rights Watch suggest that parliamentary election victories are likely for warlords who are candidates and who employ indirect intimidation against voters in their area?

Zarifi: I talked to one elderly gentlemen, a farmer in Samangan Province, who put it really succinctly. He said, 'We want the government to keep these commanders out of our lives. We don't want these commanders to be in parliament. But if the government isn't willing to challenge them, how can they ask us -- who live with them every day -- to vote against them. Why do they put the burden on us?'

RFE/RL: Can you be specific about the names of candidates about whom voters have expressed concerns?

Zarifi: Some very prominent people like [radical Islamist] Abdul Rasul Sayyaf are running. He is a commander [for] whom there is very strong evidence about his involvement in human rights abuses throughout the civil war in Afghanistan. There are people from the Taliban that are running -- like Ahmad Rocketi, who was a commander who cooperated with the Taliban. And his past record on atrocities is quite well known. There are people from the communist era running. There are a couple of generals from the communist era running who have very questionable pasts. So I think the electoral commission could have been a little more forward-leaning in keeping the lists clean.

RFE/RL: Are you suggesting that the procedures for eliminating candidates with questionable pasts from the ballot needs to be revised? What other system might be more effective in calming the fears of voters who worry about having a warlord for a parliamentary representative?

Zarifi: It's not just a question of a judicial finding. The Afghan Human Rights Commission had suggested that there be an educational minimum at least [to be eligible as a candidate for parliament]. And this was a very modest standard of 10th grade, for instance. Having just that standard would have sidelined quite a number of the local militia commanders. Unfortunately, that requirement wasn't even taken up. And as a result, there is really a sense that this is another opportunity lost -- that the Afghan people are, again, ahead of their own government.

Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission has disqualified 28 more candidates from participating in the upcoming elections, the majority of them because of links to warlords, AFP reported on 12 September. The disqualifications, which bring the total number of individuals prohibited from running to 45, included former Taliban commander Qumandan Didar in Kabul and three major commanders from the northern Baghland Province, but left out other militia commanders who have been accused of human-rights abuses. The 28 candidates will remain on the ballots, which have already been printed. Some believe this could cause confusion for some voters. CP

The Kabul-based Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium has released a report suggesting a lack of trust among Afghan voters with some of the more than 5,800 candidates participating in the upcoming elections, IRIN reported on 12 September. The survey, which was based on interviews with about 500 potential voters, found that people were worried about local commanders, criminals, and warlords getting elected. Many of those interviewed called on the government to disqualify more candidates who were linked to crimes. The survey also found that there was a poor level of understanding among voters, particularly women, of the electoral process or the role of a parliament in government. CP

While meeting in New York on 12 September with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf released a plan to construct a fence between his country and Afghanistan aimed at curbing the number of insurgents who use the border to launch antigovernment violence, AFP reported. According to Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri, the proposal is aimed at undermining claims that Pakistan is not doing enough to curb the insurgency in Afghanistan. "We don't want anybody, ever, to say Pakistan is not doing enough," Kasuri said. Kasuri said he had yet to hear the Afghan government's reaction to the proposal. CP

Hamid Karzai said in a letter that Afghanistan remains at the forefront of the battle against terrorism, according to Bakhtar News Agency, citing a statement released on 11 September expressing sympathy for victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. He added: "With much regret it must be said that remnants of those saboteurs and enemies of Islam and humanity enter into the Afghan territory even today. They arson schools, kill religious figures, ethnic chiefs, doctors, engineers, and teachers." Karzai called for greater cooperation and coordination to accelerate the fight against terrorism. CP

Manuchehr Mottaki said on 12 September that Iran's nuclear policy is entirely clear, and if its "natural right" to have a peaceful program is recognized, "we respect the right of the international community to be assured of the peaceful nature" of its activities, ISNA reported the same day, citing an interview with Turkish television. He dismissed as unlikely the threat of U.S. strikes on Iranian nuclear installations. "The Americans threaten all the world.... We do not believe a military attack is likely, but if that happens, our response will be firm and painful." Mottaki said Western concerns about Iran's program are only partly to do with fears over its abuse for military objectives. "The second part of the issue is that they are not inclined to have a developing state become a first-class state" and attain advanced nuclear technology "with numerous applications" for a country, he said. Mottaki said Iran's nuclear policy is based on the "duty" it feels to reassure the international community that its program is strictly civilian, ISNA reported. VS

Tehran's provincial judicial chief Abbas Ali Alizadeh told the press on 12 September that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered the judiciary to give a "firm response" to "louts" and criminals, Fars reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 12 September 2005). Khamenei has ordered "God's laws" to be implemented against criminals, after reading a report on crime that he found "shocking," Fars reported. In an undated letter to Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, Khamenei ordered authorities to combat crime "as vigorously as possible," and give "mischievous" people "the harshest punishments set by God." Alizadeh said he showed Khamenei's letter to a judge who recently asked him what to do with a man charged with forcibly taking money from people and cutting off someone's hand. That "criminal," Alizadeh said, must be considered a man "spreading corruption on earth," a charge applicable to various activities and possibly punishable by death in Iran. Separately, Tehran Chief Prosecutor Said Mortazavi said on 12 September that the courts will begin a "relentless" fight against drug dealers after the current campaign against "louts," ILNA reported the same day. Civil rights, he said, means citizens going to parks and leisure venues without being intimidated by petty criminals and punks. VS

Ayatollah Khamenei appointed Major General Ataullah Salehi as the head of Iran's regular land forces on 11 September, replacing Muhammad Salimi, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day. Salehi entered the army in 1967, helped organize revolutionary "committees" in Isfahan during the 1979 revolution, and more recently ran the personnel and inspectorate departments at the armed forces joint headquarters, Fars reported on 12 September. Separately, Foreign Minister Mottaki appointed Muhammad Reza Baqeri as deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs; Mehdi Safari for Asia, Pacific and Commonwealth of Independent States affairs; and Said Jalili for European and American affairs, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 12 September. Also, ILNA reported on 12 September that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will appoint Tehran City Council member and confidant Masud Zaribafan as "cabinet secretary," though the appointment has yet to be formally announced. Zaribafan already attends cabinet meetings, ILNA stated, and is going to New York with Ahmadinejad, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 12 September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 September 2005). Separately, 10 university heads have recently resigned, former minister for higher education Jafar Tofiqi told ISNA on 11 September. Tofiqi said he accepted their resignations before leaving office, because "they insisted," though he did not say why. VS

Masumeh Shafii, the wife of dissident journalist Akbar Ganji, currently held in a Tehran jail, told Radio Farda on 11 September that she has not been allowed to visit her husband or speak to him for a week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 September 2005). She said she now believes he is being kept in a special wing outside the prison chief's authority, though prison authorities have told her he is being held in an ordinary cell. Every time she calls, she said, she is told "he is in a meeting, or in the wing, unavailable, or ring in half an hour...tomorrow morning, or in the afternoon." She said she would "no longer keep quiet," and has written a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urging him to ask visiting President Ahmadinejad "to respect justice regarding [dissident prisoners], including Mr. Ganji." She handed the letter to the UN representative office in Tehran on 11 September, Radio Farda reported. VS

Ibrahim al-Ja'fari defied a $100,000 bounty on his head by visiting the front lines in the latest U.S.-Iraqi operation to rid insurgents from Tal Afar on 12 September, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on the same day. Al-Ja'fari reportedly congratulated troops on the operation's success. Meanwhile, the Red Crescent said it has asked a number of countries to provide aid for the families of Tal Afar who were evacuated to a makeshift tent camp outside Tal Afar last week, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 12 September. The Red Crescent said it has already received aid from the UN children's fund (UNICEF). The station reported that some 500 tents were set up to accommodate families fleeing the fighting in Tal Afar. Iraqi police commander Major General Rashid Fulayih said that 80 percent of the city has been reclaimed by the U.S. and Iraqi military. KR

Zalmay Khalilzad called Syria the "number one offender" in the Middle East working to obstruct progress in Iraq on 12 September, the U.S. State Department's "Washington File" reported ( Khalilzad told reporters at a briefing in Baghdad that Syria knowingly allows terrorists to use its territory for training exercises and permits them to cross its border into Iraq to kill Iraqis. Noting Syria's "blatant interference" in Iraqi affairs, he warned: "Our patience is running out. [The Iraqis' patience] is running out. We have given [Syrians] every opportunity to mend their ways, to change. They have not done that." Addressing the Syrian government, Khalilzad said: "They should not miscalculate...they need to decide." Syrian interference in Iraq "will be dealt with," he said, adding: "all options are on the table." KR

Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah responded to the ambassador's remarks, telling Al-Jazeera television on 12 September: "It is regrettable that [such language] was used by an ambassador of a superpower, who should be more committed to the traditions of international relations." He later called Khalilzad's warning "a clear escalation in a series of successive pressures on Syria." Dakhlallah said that "everyone" is aware of the efforts exerted by Syria, which he described as a "small and developing country," in controlling the border. He said that Syria has for months tried to conclude a security agreement with Iraq, but claimed that the U.S. has tried to obstruct the agreement. He then accused Iraqi border police of taking bribes from cars transporting weapons into Iraq, saying: "The problem lies on the Iraqi side, not the Syrian side." KR

London's "Al-Hayat" on 12 September cited Kurdish, Shi'ite, and Sunni representatives to the talks on the constitution as saying the situation remains deadlocked. Independent Kurdish politician Mahmud Uthman said that the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance has refused "any changes to the draft constitution" and has not left any choice "other than to wait for the opinions of the U.S. and British sides [and] the United Nations" to weigh in on the draft. He added that Sunni Arabs raised several issues, including the removal of the de-Ba'athification article from the draft and the issue of Iraq's identity. "There was agreement on some of these points but there was no agreement on other ones, like citizenship and federalism, and these were referred to the next National Assembly." Kurds want federalism approved in principle in the constitution but the mechanisms for implementation deferred until the next National Assembly. KR

Shi'ite politician Sami al-Askari commented on the talks sponsored by Kurdistan Regional Government President Mas'ud Barzani by saying: "The issues of federalism and de-Ba'athification are red lines that are impossible to negotiate," "Al-Hayat" reported on 12 September. Al-Askari dismissed any talk of possible U.S. and U.K. pressure on the Shi'a to make concessions. "The [Sunni] agreement with the Kurdish bloc is of no value without the [Shi'ites'] approval and the U.S. and British sides understand very well that there are issues that are nonnegotiable." He contended that the Sunnis "will be unable to bring down the constitution" because they only represent 20 percent of the people. Sunnis "will not succeed in mobilizing two-thirds of the votes in three governorates," al-Askari predicted. KR