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Newsline - November 21, 2005

President Vladimir Putin arrived in Japan on 20 November and said he is confident that relations between Moscow and Tokyo will develop positively despite lingering tensions, Russian news agencies reported the same day. Upon his arrival in Tokyo, Putin noted that this year marks 150 years since Japan and Russia first established bilateral relations, and that next year marks 50 years since the two sides reestablished relations after World War II. "A great deal has been done jointly over these years," Putin said. "Russia and Japan mostly dealt with each other with profound respect." Putin's visit to Japan has been overshadowed by the longstanding dispute over the Kurile Islands, which the Soviet Union seized after World War II (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 16, and 18 November 2005). Putin also said that energy cooperation in Asia is becoming a major priority for Russia. "We understand our partners' interest and will attach priority to energy issues during talks in Japan," Interfax quoted Putin as saying. BW

Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi agreed on 21 November to work out next year the details of an oil pipeline running from Siberia to the Pacific coast, Reuters reported the same day. Russia is building a 4,130-kilometer pipeline across Siberia. The $11.5 billion pipeline will pump 80 million tons of oil a year -- 1.6 million barrels per day - to the Pacific. China has been lobbying for the pipeline to go to its industrial north, but Putin said on 21 November that it will instead go to the Pacific coast, as Japan sought, Reuters reported the same day. "We plan to build the pipeline to the Pacific coast with eventual supplies to the Asia-Pacific region including Japan," Putin said, without giving a timetable or further details. BW

Putin and Koizumi failed during their 21 November meeting to reach agreement on a joint statement on the Kurile Islands, Russian and international news agencies reported. During a press conference after talks with Koizumi, Putin said the lack of a formal World War II peace treaty between Russia and Japan due to the Kurile dispute is hindering economic relations, ITAR-TASS reported. "The lack of a peace treaty is a hindrance," Putin said. "It is by no means helpful, and maybe even restrains some businessmen. I am in accord with my colleague that we should go out of our way to settle this problem. This is why I came to Japan and this is why I have invited the Japanese prime minister to come to Moscow. We are fully resolved to settle those problems," he added. The two sides did sign a series of documents concerning political, economic, and technological cooperation, dpa reported. BW

Russia signed a protocol with Japan on 21 November concluding negotiations on Moscow's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), Russian news agencies reported. Putin and Koizumi signed the agreement following talks the same day. Also on 21 November, Maksim Medvedkov, head of the negotiating department of Russia's Economic Development and Trade Ministry, said Russia still needs to complete negotiations with seven countries on joining the WTO. The seven are: the United States, Canada, Australia, Colombia, Egypt, the Philippines, and Switzerland. Medvedkov said the major stumbling blocks in the talks are in the areas of financial services, aircraft-related issues, sugar, and meat. BW

Following bilateral talks on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Russia and South Korea endorsed a blueprint for improving trade and economic cooperation, Interfax reported on 19 November. The document says relations between Seoul and Moscow "have reached the level of multifaceted and trusting partnership." The two sides agreed to take steps to allow guest workers from each country to work on the territory of the other, to move toward eliminating visa formalities for holders of diplomatic passports, and to cooperate in the energy sector. Specifically, the two sides agreed to jointly explore oil and gas resources in eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East and to set up a task force to arrange for the delivery of natural gas to South Korea via a new pipeline. "We expect that we will soon reach a new level of economic relations," Putin said after his talks with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in Pusan. BW

Seeking ways to expand Russia's contribution to Iraq's reconstruction, Sergei Lavrov met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari in Moscow on 21 November, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "Russian companies are effectively contributing to the reconstruction of several electric-power installations in Iraq, which are of vital importance for the country," Russian Foreign Ministry Mikhail Kamynin said. "Plans are afoot to take part in other projects, too, which will be launched when the security situation gets better," he added. Al-Zebari, who was visiting the Russian capital with an Iraqi delegation, said relations between the two countries have "broad vistas, primarily in the field of energy, oil and gas extraction, [and] restoration of the country's infrastructure and industry." BW

Members of the leftist platform of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party are calling for 500 million rubles ($17.32 million) to be earmarked for supporting nongovernmental organizations in Russia and abroad, "Vedomosti" and "Vremya novostei" reported on 18 November. "First of all, we must defend human rights and freedom in the Baltic states, which are discriminating against the Russian diaspora," claimed Vyacheslav Volodin, deputy speaker of the State Duma. Supporters of the initiative called it an effort to promote democracy, but analysts said the move was an attempt to promote Russian national interests abroad - specifically in former Soviet states - and to curb the influence of pro-democracy NGOs in Russia as elections approach. Nikita Belykh, head of the Union of Rightist Forces, described the proposal as "complete nonsense, saying, "Unified Russia is trying to prevent our country's emerging civil society from asserting itself." Independent State Duma Deputy Sergei Popov, a member of the Yabloko party, said in a reference to "colored revolutions" that the move stems from "a fear of orange moods" on the part of Russia's elite. BW

Vladimir Kuznetsov, a former Russian United Nations official who has been accused of money laundering, was released on bail on 18 November, reported the same day. Kuznetsov, who chaired the UN General Assembly's budget advisory committee, was arrested by the FBI in September and charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering. He pled innocent to the charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2005). Mariya Zakharova, press secretary for Russia's UN Mission, said Kuznetsov was freed after the Russian government posted $500,000 in bail. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Troyanskii said Russia is watching the case closely and providing Kuznetsov with full consular assistance, AP reported on 18 November. Troyanskii added that bailing Kuznetsov out "will help speed up the consideration of his case." BW

In an operation targeting Moscow's bootleg markets, police seized approximately 1,500 compact discs containing confidential information from government agencies and commercial entities, RIA-Novosti reported on 18 November. Law-enforcement officials said they found four separate locations in the Russian capital where the databases were traded. The CDs included databases of several unidentified Russian banks, the Moscow police force, the tax inspectorate, and a federal most-wanted list. The Prosecutor-General's Office asked the Interior Ministry to open a criminal investigation into pirate databases after it was discovered that a CD containing information regarding Muscovites' 2004 tax returns was being sold on the black market for $50-$100 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November 2005). BW

The legislature in Sverdlovsk Oblast voted unanimously on 21 November to give Governor Eduard Rossel a fourth term in office, Russian news agencies reported the same day. Rossel was first elected governor of the region on 20 August 1995. Putin formally nominated him for a fourth term on 17 November. BW

Unnamed Russian servicemen have confessed to apprehending three Chechen civilians on the outskirts of Grozny on 16 November and shooting them in the back of the head as they lay prone on the ground, Interfax reported on 19 November quoting Maksim Toporikov, military prosecutor for the combined Russian forces in the North Caucasus. Nurdi Nukhadjiev, who heads Chechnya's service for the defense of constitutional rights, said the Defense Ministry has not clarified the circumstances of and motive for the killings, and he said that human rights groups intended to stage large-scale protests. LF

Osman Boliev, head of the human rights NGO Romashka, was detained on 15 November while washing his car outside his home in Khasavyurt, Interfax and Chechenpress reported on 18 and 21 November, respectively. A search of Boliev's automobile yielded a hand grenade that served as grounds for charging him with illegal possession of weapons. He is reportedly also suspected of maintaining contacts with illegal armed formations. Boliev has lodged two formal complaints with the Strasbourg-based European Court for Human Rights, one in connection with the abduction of a resident of Khasavyurt in October 2004 and a second in connection with the murder of a six-year-old Chechen girl during a "special operation" in the summer of 2005. LF

Between 10,000-15,000 people participated in a protest rally staged by the Azerbaijani opposition bloc Azadlyq in Baku on 19 November to demand the annulment of the results of the 6 November parliamentary elections, Azerbaijani and international agencies reported. Police reportedly rounded up 10 opposition supporters in Baku earlier that day to prevent them attending the protest, Turan reported. Buses bringing would-be protest participants to the capital from outlying districts were halted by police and turned back. Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar and Ali Kerimli, chairman of the progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, told participants that demonstrations to demand the annulment of the ballot will continue, reported. Qambar appealed to participants to preserve public order and not fall for "provocations." On 20 November, police forcibly dispersed thousands of people who congregated in Fizuli to protest the falsification of the elections, Turan reported the following day. LF

Former Azerkhimiya head Fikret Sadykhov, who was arrested last month and charged with helping to finance a purported coup d'etat planned by former parliament speaker Rasul Gulieyv, has been released on bail, Turan reported on 21 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 October 2005). Former Academy of Sciences President Eldar Salaev, who was likewise implicated in the organization of that purported coup but released from pre-trial detention last week, denied all charges against him in an interview with on 19 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2005). LF

Kofi Annan made a two-hour stopover in Tbilisi on 19 November on his return journey from Islamabad to New York, Reuters and Caucasus Press reported. Speaking at a press conference after his talks with Annan, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili implicitly criticized the international community for failing to prevent reprisals against Georgian civilians in Abkhazia. "I am alarmed and upset that...human rights are being violated and people are being killed before the eyes of the international community," Caucasus Press quoted Saakashvili as saying. He explicitly condemned the torture and killing of young Georgians who refuse to serve in the Abkhaz army, and the Abkhaz authorities' refusal to allow the opening of a UN human rights sub-office in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district. Saakashvili appealed to the UN to be more active in helping to restore Georgia's territorial integrity, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 21 November. Annan for his part responded that the UN will continue to promote efforts to reach a solution to the conflict, Reuters reported, and will make every effort to ensure that both sides "respect the rule of law and respect human rights and the dignity of individuals." During a 21 November speech pegged to the second anniversary of the Rose Revolution that brought him to power, Saakashvili declared that restoring control over Abkhazia is Georgia's "fundamental task," reported. LF

An UNOMIG military representative told the 17 November meeting in Chuburkhindji of representatives of UNOMIG, the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone, and the Georgian authorities that the preliminary investigation into the death on 4 November of Daniel Tsurtsumia yielded no evidence that the killing was ethnically motivated, reported on 18 November citing "Kavkazskii uzel." He suggested that it was connected with Tsurtsumia's criminal activities. Georgian officials claimed that Tsurtsumia was coerced into the Abkhaz armed forces and beaten to death for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance, while Abkhaz Interior Minister Otar Khetsia described him as a criminal who "terrorized" the local population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 November 2005). The same UNOMIG representative said at the 17 November Chuburkhindji meeting that an investigation showed that Georgian allegations that Russian peacekeepers and armored vehicles abetted armed Abkhaz units who opened fire on 13 November on Georgians in Chuburkhindji, killing one person, are untrue, and Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November 2005). LF

Djemal Karkusov, former interior minister of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, and his brother Yan escaped early on 19 November from a Tskhinvali jail, and their relatives solicited the assistance of the Georgian authorities in transferring them to Georgian-controlled territory the following day, Russian media reported quoting Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, who characterized both men as political prisoners. South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity dismissed Djemal Karkusov in June 2004; the two brothers were arrested in early April 2005 and charged with illegal possession of arms, according to "Rezonansi" on 8 June as cited by Caucasus Press. The South Ossetian authorities have formally requested that Tbilisi return the two "criminals," reported on 20 November quoting South Ossetian Interior Minister Mikhail Mindzaev. LF

The Labor Party and the recently formed opposition Democratic Front parliament faction have both said they will not sign the Document on National Consensus drafted by President Saakashvili, which was unveiled for discussion earlier this month, Caucasus Press reported on 21 November. Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili dismissed the declaration as "disgraceful and unacceptable," Caucasus Press reported on 17 November, while Democratic Front secretary Kakha Kukava told Caucasus Press on 21 November he considers it "weak and superficial," and lacking in specifics. Kukava said the only provision of the document the opposition would support is the declared commitment to integration with NATO and the EU. LF

Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission has stripped the CIS Elections Monitoring Organization (CIS-EMO) of its accreditation, "Kazakhstan Today" reported on 18 November. Deputy Prosecutor-General Askhat Dautbaev explained that Kazakhstan allows international organizations to monitor its elections, but he said the CIS-EMO is "a foreign NGO registered in Russia in accordance with that country's laws," Khabar reported. Election Commission Chairman Onalsyn Zhumabekov acknowledged that "we made a mistake [in originally accrediting CIS-EMO]," Kazakh TV1 reported. Meanwhile, CIS-EMO mission head Marina Bogdanovich said that her organization intends to appeal the commission's decision, Khabar reported. As RFE/RL reported on 2 April 2005, CIS-EMO was founded in Nizhnii Novgorod in December 2003. Its missions are distinct from official CIS observer missions, but they have produced reports on recent CIS elections that were consistent with the findings of CIS observer missions and contrary to the findings of OSCE observer missions. DK

Presidential candidate Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, leader of the opposition bloc For a Just Kazakhstan, told a news conference in Almaty on 18 November that he and his supporters have no plans to spark unrest during the 4 December presidential election, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Tuyakbai denied that they "have ever planned or are planning any anti-constitutional actions or measures aimed at destabilizing the situation in the country." Kazakh officials have recently suggested that the opposition has plans to cause disturbances during the election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2005). DK

Lakshmi Mittal, president of Mittal Steel, told journalists on 18 November that the company plans to invest $500 million in projects in Kazakhstan over the next five years, Kazinform reported. Visiting the company's Temirtau plant in central Kazakhstan, Mittal said his company has invested $1.8 billion in Kazakhstan since arriving 10 years ago. DK

Canadian-registered Centerra Gold agreed on the evening of 17 November to provide an interest-free loan of $1 million to state-run Kyrgyz gold company Kyrgyzaltyn to compensate Kyrgyz villagers for damage from a 1998 cyanide spill, reported the next day. Centerra, which operates the Kumtor gold mine in Kyrgyzstan, will transfer an additional $2.7 million to a special account with Kyrgyzaltyn in the course of the next year, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Local residents, who argue that they lost their harvest after the accident, had blocked a road leading to Kumtor since 8 November, demanding compensation. Erkingul Imankojoeva, head of the NGO Karek, told RFE/RL that the villagers have agreed to unblock the highway, but she said that they have not yet dispersed. They are demanding payment of the bulk of the compensation by the end of the year and that the funds be transferred not to a state-run company, but to the NGO Karek. DK

Shokirjon Hakimov, deputy head of Tajikistan's opposition Social Democratic Party, told Asia Plus-Blitz on 18 November that two newly registered political parties are creations of the authorities. He alleged that "pro-government spin doctors" hope to "create a semblance of a multiparty system" with the two parties, which he claimed will act as an "instrument for the [ruling] People's Democratic Party." The two new parties are the Agrarian Party and the Economic Reform Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 November 2005). DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov told a cabinet meeting on 18 November that Turkmenistan will raise the export price of its natural gas for all purchasers to $60 per 1,000 cubic meters beginning on 1 January, reported. Niyazov gave Turkmenistan's business partners until 10 December to conduct negotiations and draw up contracts. The report noted that Russia and Iran currently pay $44 per 1,000 cubic meters for Turkmen gas, while Ukraine pays $58. But Oleksiy Ivchenko, head of Ukraine's state-run oil and gas company Naftohaz Ukrayiny, told reporters in Kyiv on 19 November that Niyazov's announcement does not apply to Ukraine, which has already signed a 2006 contract with Turkmenistan to buy gas for $44 per 1,000 cubic meters, Unian reported. DK

President Islam Karimov issued two decrees on 18 November, removing Qodir Ghulomov from the post of defense minister and replacing him with Ruslan Mirzaev, official news agency UzA reported. Ghulomov, a physicist who was appointed defense minister in September 2000, will become the president's adviser on technical and educational issues, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. His replacement is the former secretary of the National Security Council. Mirzaev worked for many years in the National Security Service (SNB) and is seen as a protege of SNB head Rustam Inoyatov, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service noted. DK

More than 120 writers attended the founding congress of a Union of Writers of Belarus in Minsk on 18 November, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The congress unanimously elected lawmaker Mikalay Charhinets, who is also known as a novelist, as chairman of the new organization. The new, government-supported union is seen as an alternative to the Union of Belarusian Writers, which celebrated its 70th anniversary earlier this year and which government-controlled media outlets have branded as politicized and nationalistic. Ales Pashkevich, chairman of the Union of Belarusian Writers, and his deputies Barys Pyatrovich and Eduard Akulin, were reportedly forced out of the building where the congress took place. Writer Valyantsin Taras told RFE/RL that the authorities are most likely preparing the formal liquidation of the Union of Belarusian Writers. JM

Belarusian border guards on 20 November confiscated the passport of Andrzej Poczobut -- an activist of the Union of Poles in Belarus (SPB) who remains loyal to former SPB Chairwoman Anzhelika Borys -- when he was returning to Hrodna from Warsaw, where he met with Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, Belapan reported. "I was detained for more than three hours on the border. They confiscated my passport because my foreign-travel stamp was annulled earlier," Poczobut told the agency. In order to be allowed to travel abroad, Belarusians need to have a special stamp in their passports from a relevant visa and registration department. Poczobut managed to get to Poland through Russia and Ukraine. Marcinkiewicz reportedly promised support to members of the former SPB leadership that was ousted in August, at an SPB congress which Warsaw said was orchestrated by Belarusian special services (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 August and 9 September 2005). Meanwhile, Borys on 17 November was questioned by investigators for the 53rd time this year and accused of embezzling SPB funds in 2004, PAP reported. JM

Former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who was sacked by President Viktor Yushchenko in September, has appealed to former political allies of the Orange Revolution to unite in order to prevent the possible return to power of former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Reuters reported on 19 November. "I think we can unite before the [26 March parliamentary] elections or perhaps after them. I will make every effort to unite our forces.... A counterattack headed by Yanukovych as a possible candidate for prime minister is very real. We must not let down our guard," Tymoshenko told journalists in Kyiv on 19 November. She said she will take part in official celebrations of the first anniversary of the Orange Revolution on Independence Square in Kyiv on 22 November. According to a poll conducted by the Razumkov Center among 1,993 Ukrainians from 3-13 November, Yanukovych's Party of Regions is backed by 17.5 percent of voters, the pro-government Our Ukraine Bloc (the Our Ukraine People's Union, the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, and the People's Rukh) by 13.5 percent, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc by 12.4 percent. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko has signed a decree establishing a Day of Freedom on 22 November, the date on which Ukrainians in 2004 launched popular protests known as the Orange Revolution, Interfax-Ukraine reported on 21 November, quoting the presidential press service. The decree was signed "with the aim of promoting the ideals of freedom and democracy in Ukraine [and] ingraining the feeling of national pride in citizens, while taking into account the historic experience of events in the autumn of 2004." According to the Labor Code, the Day of Freedom can become a day-off in Ukraine only after the decree is endorsed by the Verkhovna Rada. JM

The Shevchenkivskyy district court in Kyiv ruled on 18 November that President Yushchenko's decision last month to sack Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun was illegal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 18 October 2005), Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. The court also ruled that Piskun must be restored to the post. Justice Minister Serhiy Holovatyy, who represented Yushchenko in the court, commented after the verdict that the president's team "lost the first battle but will win the war," adding that he will appeal the ruling after obtaining its full text. Piskun, who was appointed prosecutor-general in July 2002, was already dismissed by former President Leonid Kuchma and reinstated by another Kyiv district court in December 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2004). JM

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his Ukrainian counterpart Yushchenko signed a Kazakh-Ukrainian action plan for 2005-2006 in Kyiv on 18 November, Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko commented that the current Ukrainian-Kazakh relations are "practically cloudless," adding that trade between the two countries now stands at some $1 billion annually and may be increased by one-third in the following two to three years. Yushchenko also told journalists at a press conference of both leaders that his talks with Nazarbaev ended with Kazakhstan's agreement to buy seven Ukrainian An-148 planes. "We export to Ukraine oil and gas, farm goods, and other items. There have been no other proposals. And none are needed. Kazakhstan is a sufficiently democratic country," Nazarbaev said in response to the question as to whether he discussed the Orange Revolution with Yushchenko. Nazarbaev, who has been in power since 1989, will run for reelection on 4 December. JM

EU foreign ministers issued a statement in Brussels on 21 November to mark the 10th anniversary of the Dayton peace agreements that ended the 1992-95 conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina and announce the start of Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) talks with that former Yugoslav republic, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 November 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 September and 14 October 2005). It is unclear when the talks will begin, but RFE/RL reported that December is a realistic possibility. The statement noted that "the opening of negotiations marks an historic moment in Bosnia's...development, as the first important step towards its establishment of contractual relations with the EU." The ministers also argued that the talks are a clear sign that the "future of the western Balkans lies in the EU." At the same time, the ministers stressed the need for "full cooperation" with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal and for "decisive action" to arrest fugitive indictees. The SAA talks and eventual EU membership are important for ordinary Bosnians as a means to secure job-providing foreign investment and visa-free travel, which most former Yugoslavs over 30 still remember from the era before the dissolution of that country. PM

Bosnia-Herzegovina's outgoing High Representative Paddy Ashdown told Banja Luka's "Nezavisne novine" of 21 November that the ongoing Washington talks involving leading Bosnian politicians and Western diplomats will not lead to a new constitution (see "Bosnia-Herzegovina: Can It Turn Over A New Leaf?" He stressed that "pressure" will not produce change, which will be the result only of a long process. Ashdown suggested that progress on a new constitution is likely only after the 2006 elections. He argued that the 1995 Dayton agreement, which includes Bosnia's current constitution, has been a success because it is both tough and flexible. Ashdown appealed to all political leaders in Bosnia to work together for European integration, because that is the only way to ensure foreign investment and visa-free travel. The "International Herald Tribune" reported on 21 November that unnamed U.S. and European diplomats at the Washington talks hope to reach "an agreement of some kind" by 22 November on a new constitutional framework for Bosnia. PM

Croatian President Stipe Mesic said in Zagreb on 20 November that the security situation in Croatia has "become disturbing" following a recent series of armed robberies in banks and post offices in several cities, including the capital, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He argued that it is possible for one or two murders or robberies to occur without anyone being able to figure out what was behind them, but not something on the scale of the recent crime wave. Mesic called on the government and parliament to take appropriate action, but did not elaborate. PM

Authorities in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region opened their own mint on 18 November, saying the locally minted money would go into circulation on 21 November, Flux and ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "This will enable us to cover the shortage of cash money and ensure our financial security," Transdniestria's self-proclaimed president, Igor Smirnov, said at an opening ceremony, according to ITAR-TASS. Yuri Tverdohleb, head of Moldova's "state bank," said some of the equipment for the mint was bought in Germany and some was made locally. Transdniester began circulating its own banknotes -- featuring the 18th-century Russian military commander Aleksander Suvorov -- in 2000 but had to mint the coins in Poland. Late last year, Moldovan and Ukrainian authorities stopped a truck in Lviv, Ukraine, that was carrying coins to Transdniester from Poland. Moldova filed a formal complaint with the European Union over the incident. BW


Armenia's estimated 2.4 million registered voters will be called upon to vote on 27 November in a referendum on a package of draft constitutional amendments. Passage will require that a minimum of one-third of those voters approve the amendments -- which the United States, European Union, and Council of Europe have described as "vital" for the ongoing reform process.

But most opposition parties reject the amendments, arguing that the Armenian authorities themselves lack legitimacy, and therefore do not have the right to reform the country's basic law. The opposition is therefore urging voters to boycott the referendum, the outcome of which they accuse the leadership of planning to falsify.

The process of drafting the amendments and their passage by parliament has been protracted and acrimonious. It has, moreover, been overshadowed by the failure of a previous constitutional referendum two years ago. On that occasion, just over 52 percent of registered voters participated, with "yes" votes only narrowly exceeding "no" votes, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 28 May 2003.

In September 2004, three separate draft packages of proposed amendments were submitted to the Armenian parliament, prepared respectively by the ruling three-party coalition, the pro-government United Labor Party, and veteran oppositionist Arshak Sadoyan, leader of the National Democratic Party. Those three drafts were then submitted for evaluation to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, which assessed the first two as an improvement on the present constitution; but the Venice Commission rejected Sadoyan's as failing to address certain crucial issues related to human rights and the judiciary, according to Noyan Tapan on 22 December. The commission further suggested a number of changes to the government draft, specifically with regard to expanding the powers of the legislature, limiting the president's authority to appoint and dismiss judges, and introducing elections for the post of Yerevan mayor.

In early May, the Armenian parliament approved a slightly revised version of the draft prepared by the ruling coalition. Sadoyan promptly denounced that draft as "evil" and warned that it could lead to an "Asian-style dictatorship," according to Noyan Tapan on 13 May. He called on all political forces to reject that draft. In seemingly partial agreement, the Council of Europe's Venice Commission expressed in late May its "deep dissatisfaction" at the authorities' failure to take into account its previous recommendations. That negative assessment prompted the two opposition parliamentary factions -- the Artarutiun bloc and the National Accord Party (AMK) -- to advise their members to reject the proposed changes, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 31 May. In late June, Armenia submitted to the Venice Commission an amended draft that addressed the commission's three main concerns. The commission approved the revised draft on 21 July, but opposition parties nonetheless continued to demand further changes and boycotted the subsequent parliament debates in August and September at which the final draft was approved.

Yet despite their shared disapproval of the draft amendments and apprehension that the government would resort to subterfuge to ensure their approval by the population at large, the opposition initially failed to agree on a course of action. Even during the emergency debate in late August in which the draft was approved in its first and second readings, Artarutiun and the AMK announced that they rejected the draft and would urge voters to vote against them, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Days later, they announced plans to stage rallies across the country in an attempt to persuade voters to reject the proposed changes. But on 16 November, just 11 days before the referendum, most opposition parties shifted tactics and decided to urge voters to boycott.

Opposition leaders, first and foremost former Prime Minister and Hanrapetutiun party Chairman Aram Sargsian, repeatedly accused the authorities of seeking to falsify the outcome of the plebiscite and warned that attempts to do so would trigger a spontaneous uprising and the collapse of the regime. "We will be living in a new Armenia on 28 November," Sargsian declared on 11 November in the town of Yeghard.

The Armenian authorities too launched an intensive public-relations campaign to drum up support for the proposed constitutional amendments, for which 21 political parties plus the People's Deputy parliamentary faction expressed their backing in an 18 October statement, Noyan Tapan reported.

Some aspects of that campaign, such as orders issued to teachers in Yerevan by the city mayor to persuade students and their parents of the merits of the planned changes, have fueled opposition suspicions that the authorities plan to rig the outcome of the vote. And while television stations are not charging for government-sponsored advertising promoting the constitutional changes, the opposition has encountered problems in securing paid airtime to argue its case against, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 31 October.

While Armenian officials are unanimous in insisting that the voting will be free and fair, and that they will not resort to rigging to obtain the required minimum number of votes in favor of the proposed changes, differences of opinion have emerged within the ruling coalition over the likely impact of failure. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said on 6 October that speculation that the failure of the referendum would necessitate the government's resignation is misplaced, Noyan Tapan reported. Galust Sahakian, who heads the parliamentary faction of Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), suggested that it would be better for the draft not to pass than for it to be pushed through by means of violations. But Armen Rustamian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun argued on 22 September that failure to pass the amendments would mean "failure for Armenia" insofar as it would, he suggested, be construed by the European Union and the Council of Europe as a rejection of Europe and of European values, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

In a 28 October address to students at Yerevan State University that was subsequently posted in English translation on the Foreign Ministry's website (, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian sought to demolish the opposition's arguments against the proposed changes and the "myths" that he said have grown up around some of them. Oskanian dismissed as "excuses with no underpinnings" the argument that the present Armenian leadership does not have the right to reform the constitution because it was not legitimately elected and has repeatedly violated it. He further dismissed as "myths" claims that the revised constitution would make it possible for the parliament to endorse changes in the country's borders, without the issue being put to a nationwide referendum; would give non-citizens the chance to buy unlimited quantities of land in Armenia; would make it possible, by removing the existing ban on dual citizenship, for Diaspora Armenians to play the decisive role in running the country; and would grant the incumbent president immunity from prosecution and lift the existing ban on a president serving more than two consecutive terms. (President Robert Kocharian's second term in office expires in early 2008.) Senior HHK lawmaker Samvel Nikoyan reminded voters in Armenia's northwestern Shirak district on 17 November while seeking to persuade the population to endorse the proposed constitutional changes that Kocharian has repeatedly vowed that he will not seek a third term. "All the political forces that have backed [the president] until now are of the opinion that the constitution must be respected and that no president should have the right to be reelected for a third term," Nikoyan said.

Kocharian's national security adviser, Garnik Isagulian, affirmed on 16 November, "I can say for certain that we will get a 'yes' vote. We will get more votes than are required by law," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. HHK faction head Sahakian predicted on 18 November that the ratio of "yes" to "no" votes will be 80:20, Noyan Tapan reported. AMK Chairman Artashes Geghamian proclaimed with similar confidence on 16 November that "the constitutional changes are doomed to be rejected by our people. That is obvious to all of us."

According to an opinion poll conducted by the Vox Populi center in Yerevan in early November and summarized on 18 November by Noyan Tapan, 54 percent of respondents intend to participate in the referendum, of whom 46.6 percent said they will vote "yes." Whether that comparatively low level of support is due to deep-rooted discontent with the present leadership remains unclear.

Equally unclear is what percentage of voters have a clear understanding of the changes they are being asked to approve, especially as voters are required to say "yes" or "no" to the entire package rather than to vote on individual changes or, as was the case in the 2002 Azerbaijani constitutional referendum, on groups of proposed amendments. That referendum entailed approving or rejecting eight distinct packages of changes relating to such issues as the conduct of parliamentary and presidential elections, the conduct of referendums, the restructuring of the government, and judicial reform, according to on 30 August 2002.

An Indian engineer, his two Afghan bodyguards, and his Afghan driver were kidnapped in Nimroz Province in southern Afghanistan on 19 November, All India Radio and other media reported on 20 November. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Yusof Stanezai told the radio station that the Indian engineer worked for Border Roads Organization, an Indian government-owned company. Qari Mohammad Yusof, purporting to speak for the neo-Taliban, threatened to kill the Indian engineer, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on 20 November. "We give 48 hours [from 20 November] to the Indian company to stop its operations and leave Afghanistan. Otherwise we will kill their kidnapped engineer," Mohammad Yusof told AIP. The neo-Taliban vowed to put the three Afghans on trial and "execute them if a death ruling is issued," the spokesman claimed. The Indian national has been identified as M. R. Kutty, All India Radio reported on 21 November. A Lebanese citizen working for a firm supplying road-construction companies in Afghanistan was kidnapped in August by the neo-Taliban and later released following the reported withdrawal from Afghanistan of the company for which he worked (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 18 August 2005). AT

An explosion in Kabul on 18 November targeted a patrol vehicle belonging to the Portuguese contingent of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, killing one soldier, the Lisbon daily "Publico" reported. Three Portuguese soldiers were injured in the blast, AFP reported on 18 November. Portugal has around 200 soldiers serving with ISAF. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. The source of the explosion is yet to be determined. AT

Mullah Abdul Hai Motma'in read out a statement purportedly issued by the neo-Taliban threatening to bring down non-commercial aircraft flying in Afghan airspace, AIP reported on 18 November. The statement begins with a warning that the defense capabilities of the "mojahedin of the Taliban's Islamic Movement" have improved, therefore "countries which are not considered responsible for the occupation and invasion" of Afghanistan should not operate aircraft that "are not part of international airlines" over Afghan airspace. The statement also warns all "national and international" firms not to supply "equipment to foreign invaders." AT

Mullah Motma'in, claming to speak for the neo-Taliban, has rejected reports that his group has held talks with U.S. officials in Islamabad, AIP reported on 18 November. Calling reports of the alleged meeting "rumors," Motma'in said that while U.S. authorities have "invited" the neo-Taliban for talks, the condition that all foreign troops be withdrawn from Afghanistan has been accepted and as such no meetings have taken place. Javed Ibrahim Paracha, a former member of Pakistan's parliament, alleged that he met on 14 November with U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs Karen Hughes, who reportedly requested his help in negotiation with the neo-Taliban, Lahore's "Daily Times," reported on 18 November. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad has denied any meeting took place between Hughes and Paracha. AT

The Iranian legislature ratified a bill on 20 November that compels the government to resume all suspended nuclear activities should the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) refer the country's nuclear case to the UN Security Council, Mehr News Agency reported. One hundred eighty-three of the 197 legislators present at the session voted in favor of the bill, while 10 opposed it and three abstained. The IAEA governing board will discuss Iran at its 24 November meeting. BS

Iran has provided limited cooperation with efforts to investigate its nuclear program, according to a report released on 18 November by IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei. "Full transparency is indispensable and overdue," he wrote, according to the "Los Angeles Times" on 19 November. "The agency has been frustrated in its effort to obtain documentation, answers to questions and access to scientists and sensitive sites," the newspaper added. El-Baradei's report refers specifically to the Lavizan-Shian military site, which was razed in 2004. An anonymous "senior source close to the IAEA" said the agency would like to test equipment used at that site, according to the "Los Angeles Times." BS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 20 November expressed disappointment in IAEA Director-General el-Baradei's report because it does not end the agency's interest in Iran's nuclear program, state television reported. Assefi also said this most recent report proves that the governing board's 24 September resolution on Iran was "invalid" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September 2005). The IAEA's request to visit Lavizan-Shian or other military sites will be considered if that request complies with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty's Safeguards Agreement, Assefi said, suggesting Tehran would interpret strictly any calls for inspections. Iranian parliamentarian Alaedin Borujerdi, who serves on the national security and foreign policy committee, on 20 November described the IAEA report as more positive than previous ones, ISNA reported. He said referral to the Security Council is unlikely unless the United States pressures Europe. BS

Seyyed Mohsen Tasaloti, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's third nominee to head the Petroleum Ministry, denied on 20 November that either he or a family member is a U.S. citizen, state television reported. The legislature is investigating allegations that Tasaloti has dual citizenship and his daughter is a British citizen, according to Kamal Daneshyar, who heads the parliamentary Energy Committee, who was quoted by ILNA on 19 November. Meanwhile, Daneshyar said that Tasaloti's opponents are campaigning against him in earnest, ILNA reported. Daneshyar declined to speculate on the outcome of the vote of confidence in Tasaloti, which is scheduled for 23 November. BS

Iranian state radio on 19 November announced the resignation of Hussein Abdeh-Tabrizi, head of the Tehran Stock Exchange. Managing-board chief Heidar Mostakhdemin-Husseini said Abdoh-Tabrizi submitted his resignation in September and was asked to stay on until legislation on bonds was clarified. Mostakhdemin-Husseini said Mohammad Nahavandian is the preferred candidate to head the exchange. Later the same day, state television announced that Nahavandian, who heads the national center for globalization studies and who served previously as deputy commerce minister, has been selected as the new head of the Tehran Stock Exchange. However, it appears that Nahavandian, who was in Tunis when the announcement of his appointment was made, was not consulted. Upon his return to Tehran, ISNA reported on 20 November, Nahavandian said in a letter to Mostakhdemin-Husseini that he is not interested in the job because of other commitments. The Iranian stock market has been troubled since the election of President Ahmadinejad, and the market index has fallen precipitously (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 October 2005). BS

Meeting on the sidelines of a conference on Iraq in Cairo, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki and Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara on 19 November emphasized their countries' unity against foreign pressure, IRNA reported the next day. They also discussed the UN report by Detlev Mehlis about the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Syria is accused by many of being behind that incident. Al-Shara said Damascus will continue to cooperate with the United Nations. One day earlier, President Ahmadinejad and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad discussed regional developments by telephone, IRNA reported. BS

Some 100 Iraqi leaders met in Cairo on 19 November for the start of a three-day Arab League-sponsored conference on national reconciliation, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. In his comments to the 19 November opening session, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari criticized acts of terrorism carried out in the name of resistance. "We are the sons of the resistance. Who can give us lessons about the resistance?" the prime minister asked, referring to the 30-year Shi'ite struggle against the Ba'athist regime in Iraq. "Whoever wants to put an end to the presence of coalition forces should not be part of the terrorist network; he should be part of the security apparatus, because our people want us to provide them [with] security," al-Ja'fari told conference delegates. Speaking about the Ba'ath Party, he said: "There is a culture in the Ba'ath that gave Iraq this heritage of bad practices. A culture that came to Iraq in the name of the Arabs and which has cut our roots, plundered our resources, and attacked our dignity. Therefore, we have put red lines: No more Ba'ath in Iraq." KR

Muslim Scholars Association head Harith al-Dari told conference delegates in Cairo on 19 November that certain conditions need to be met before dialogue can begin, RFI reported the same day. Al-Dari's conditions include: setting an "internationally guaranteed timetable" for the withdrawal of multinational forces; recognizing that resistance is a legitimate right and terrorism of all kinds is "a rejected crime"; dissolving armed militias and returning the Iraqi Army to work; releasing detainees held without charge; and setting up committees to investigate "the crimes committed by occupation forces and Iraqi security elements." Al-Dari called on "the American people and their lawmakers to pressure their administration into withdrawing its troops from Iraq." The Sunni Arab leader criticized Prime Minister al-Ja'fari's speech, calling it exclusionary and a failure to admit the reality on the ground in Iraq. Al-Ja'fari held a private meeting with al-Dari on 20 November, and it was later announced that a tentative agreement had been reached on the release of detainees and the eventual withdrawal of multinational forces. KR

Kurdish President Mas'ud Barzani said on 20 November that Iraqi Kurdistan will declare its independence should civil war come to the country, Iraqi media reported the same day. Speaking to reporters in Irbil upon his return to Iraq from a tour that took him to Washington, London, Berlin, and Rome, Barzani said, according to Kurdistan Satellite Television: "If a civil war broke out and the Shi'ites and Sunnis were to separate, we would be left with no option but independence. We cannot become part of either the Shi'ites or the Sunnis. It is possible for us to stay within the framework of a federal, democratic, and pluralistic Iraq. Otherwise, and apart from that Iraq, we have no place in Iraq." Barzani told reporters that his tour was successful, saying, "The achievements are political, moral, and economic at the same time." KR

Major General Muntadir al-Samarra'i told Al-Arabiyah television in a 19 November interview that Interior Minister Bayan Jabr is operating a secret security apparatus that targets those opposed to the government through arrests and assassinations. Al-Samarra'i is the former commander of the ministry's special forces. He claimed that in addition to the Al-Jadiriyah detention center (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2005), there are six other secret prisons torturing prisoners with the knowledge of senior officers. "There is a secret regiment the size of an army regiment within the Interior Ministry that has the authority and the necessary equipment to carry out raid campaigns, arrest, and [detention], and imprison [suspected opponents] in detention centers. When families begin to look for them in every detention center, they do not find them. They later find that [detainees] have been killed and their bodies thrown on roadsides," al-Samarra'i charged. He said the head of the purported secret security apparatus, an Iranian colonel, goes by the name Ahmad Salman. Al-Samarra'i also contended that the ministry is a cover for the activities of the Badr militia. KR