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Newsline - December 2, 2005

Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii, the chief of the Russian Army's General Staff, said on 1 December that Russia has the technology to circumvent any existing or future antiballistic missile system, Russian news agencies reported the same day. "This is a very expensive technology and its production depends on the situation," Baluevskii said at a press conference in Moscow, RIA-Novosti reported. He added that Russia is no longer planning for large-scale wars and does not consider any state a potential enemy. "We have long stopped preparing for large-scale nuclear and conventional wars," Baluevskii said. "We will continue to prepare for the defense of our territory, but we will not be preparing for a war on foreign land." In remarks reported by Interfax, Baluevskii also ruled out the demilitarization of Kaliningrad. "Never will the Russian political leadership agree to the complete demilitarization of the Kaliningrad region," he said. "We are already modernizing the Kaliningrad group of armed forces." BW

Speaking at the same press conference on 1 December, Baluevskii called for better relations with NATO, but accused the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for meddling in the affairs of former Soviet countries, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. Baluevskii said that "the remnants of old thinking among certain politicians and the military" in Russia and the West is causing unnecessary tension with NATO. "A war between Russia and NATO is not the path we should be seeking," he said. Regarding the OSCE, Baluevskii said it is turning into a surveillance organization that is trying, with American support, to police democratic principles in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). "The United States is more or less involved in these processes," he said. Baluevskii said CIS members have the right to determine their own destiny without foreign influence, and that Russia has the right to defend its interests in the region. BW

Baluevskii also criticized the United States on 1 December for what he called a double standard on nuclear-proliferation issues, Russian and international news agencies reported the same day. "The U.S. has made demands that a number of countries' nuclear programs should be completely transparent," Baluevskii said in reference to Iran and North Korea, RIA-Novosti reported. "On the other hand, the U.S. turns a blind eye to the fact that Israel has for a long time...had a significant nuclear arsenal." He added that military relations with the United States are "impulsive" and inconsistent. "Military contacts between our countries sometimes work impulsively. When there is a problem, there is an increase in activity. When the problem is gone, the activity gradually subsides," Baluevskii said. "Although Russia and the U.S. share views on key issues, we do not feel that everything in our relations is going smoothly," he added. BW

Russia will sell Iran 29 Tor-M1 surface-to-air missiles capable of taking down aircraft and missiles at low altitudes, "Vedomosti" reported on 2 December, citing anonymous defense sources close to the deal. "Several days ago, Russia and Iran signed a contract for the delivery of Tor-M1 SAM systems," an unidentified defense industry official said. According to "Vedomosti," the deal represents the largest sale of Russian military hardware to Iran in five years. "The Iranian contract's price may exceed $700 million," said Dmitrii Vasilev, an analyst for the Center for the Analysis of Strategic Technologies. "Vedomosti" quoted Russian officials as saying that the deal does not violate any of Moscow's international commitments. "Iran is not covered by any international arms-trade sanctions," said Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee. BW

Russia intends during the next meeting of the NATO-Russia Council to push NATO to interact more closely with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Interfax reported on 1 December, citing an unidentified diplomatic source. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will represent Russia at the next meeting of the council in Brussels on 8 December. "The minister will speak about the interaction between NATO and the CSTO. This is very important for us," Interfax quoted the unidentified diplomat as saying. Russia has been actively trying to raise the profile of the CSTO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November and 1 December 2005). Founded in 2002, the CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. Its establishment was widely seen as an attempt by Moscow to curb the influence of NATO in the CIS. BW

Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov on 1 December called for the modernization of the Russian military's weapons and hardware, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. He said Russia needs to "sustain the potential of strategic deterrent forces, including strategic nuclear deter a large-scale aggression" against Russia and its allies. "This is one of the priorities of developing the military organization of our state until the year 2015," Ivanov said. BW

A Moscow court on 1 December sentenced Aleksei Kurtsyn, the deputy property manager of the Moscow branch of Yukos, to 14 years in a high-security penal colony for money laundering, Russian news agencies reported the same day. Moscow's Lefortovo District Court found Kurtsyn guilty on 28 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 November 2005). Two other defendants, Aleksei Aleksandrov and Igor Goncharov, were ordered to pay fines of 1 million rubles ($34,800) each. Investigators said Kurtsyn and his main partner, Mikhail Trushin, a senior vice president of Yukos-Moscow who is still at large, laundered 342 million rubles ($11.89 million) through bogus charity foundations. "Most of the funds landed in the pockets of people who pursued illegal activities," the presiding judge said. BW

Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeev said on 1 December that Russia needed to create a state monopoly on the sturgeon and caviar trade, Russian news agencies reported the same day. "A law needs to be passed immediately on the trade in sturgeon fish and caviar," RIA-Novosti quoted Gordeev as saying. "A state monopoly needs to be established on the trade in sturgeon fish and caviar, including wholesale trade." Gordeev has also recently called for a state monopoly in the country's alcohol market (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November 2005). But "Izvestiya" reported on 2 December that "other ministers, not to mention numerous experts, disagree with Gordeev." Valerii Draganov, chairman of the State Duma's economic-policy committee, told "Izvestiya" that Russian officials are "getting carried away with that magic word 'monopoly.' It is unclear whether the state can manage this entire process." BW

A committee on emergency situations in the city of Khabarovsk has decided to block off a tributary to the Amur River to prevent a toxic slick from China from entering the city's water supply, RIA-Novosti reported on 2 December, citing a statement from Russia's Natural Resources Ministry. "During its 1 December meeting, the committee decided to block off the Kazakevich tributary of the Amur River," the ministry said in a statement released the same day. Additionally, the committee decided to send 5-6 metric tons of absorbent carbon to the cities of Amursk and Komsomolsk-na-Amur, which are located along the Amur. The committee is planning to meet again on 3 December to consider shipping water to the potentially contaminated area. The disaster began when approximately 100 tons of benzene was dumped into the Songhua River on 13 November after an explosion at a chemical plant in China's Jilin Province, approximately 1,000 kilometers upriver from China's border with Russia. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 and 29 November. BW

The Voice of Beslan, the successor group to the Beslan Mothers Committee, has reacted with disappointment to the release of a report on the 2004 Beslan school tragedy by the North Ossetian parliamentary commission, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 30 November. Ella Kesaeva, head of the group, said that the report differs significantly from statements made earlier by parliamentary commission members. Kesaeva told reporters in Vladikavkaz on 30 November that her group is appealing to the U.S. president and Congress, the EU, and the European Parliament to provide assistance with the investigation, Interfax reported. She also said "the report does not answer the main question: Who specifically is guilty of the death of our children?" JAC

According to "Vedomosti" on 30 November, the main finding of the North Ossetian parliamentary commission's report is that the Beslan school-hostage siege was the fault of law-enforcement agencies that failed to prevent the terrorists from entering the school. According to the daily, the report failed to address some of the biggest questions that have been surrounding the investigation, such as how many terrorists attacked the school, what triggered the storming of the school, and why so many hostages died. The newspaper cited unidentified observers as claiming that pressure from the Prosecutor General's Office resulted in the wording of the report being so vague. JAC

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov met with State Duma Deputy Aleksandr Khinshtein (Unified Russia) in Nizhnii Novgorod on 30 November, Ekho Moskvy reported. Khinshtein has been at the center of accusations against Kasyanov regarding his allegedly improper purchase of a lavish summer home outside Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11, 12, and 19 July 2005). Kasyanov is considered a likely presidential candidate in 2008. According to the station, Khinshtein took Kasyanov by surprise and showed up a public meeting where he assailed Kasyanov with questions about the sources of his personal wealth. The same day, a group of about 100 people from the local Pensioners Party and Union of Officers gathered outside the building where Kasyanov was meeting to protest against Kasyanov's presence. Kasyanov told reporters in Nizhnii Novgorod that he does not exclude the possibility of stepping down as a candidate for the 2008 presidential election to make way for a single candidate for the democrats, RIA-Novosti reported. JAC

The Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) is planning on conducting Russia's next census in 2010, Rosstat head Vladimir Sokolin announced on 30 November, reported. Sokolin told reporters via an Internet press conference that the service recently asked the government to prepare a decree establishing 2010 as the next date. The last census, which was conducted in 2002, sparked controversy with its greatly expanded list of nationalities: It listed more than 800 different ethnic groups compared to just 200 in the 1989 census (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October 2002). JAC

NTV reported on 29 November that students in Voronezh who failed to attend the founding congress of the Unified Russia's youth movement, the Young Guards (Molodaya Gvardia), have been asked by their university administration to bring letters explaining their absence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 October 2005). Classes at the Voronezh State University School of Architecture were cancelled to allow students to attend the 16 November congress, and the school's dean, Dmitrii Proskurin, wants to know where 11 students who failed to show up were. Proskurin denies that he cancelled classes because the vice chancellor of the university happens to be deputy head of Unified Russia's political council for Voronezh. According to NTV, some of the first-year architecture students were surprised to learn that they were party activists. One architecture student, Denis Gusakov, told the station that "as far as I know the attendance [at the congress] was not obligatory, but for [students at the architecture school] it was made obligatory." JAC

Activists in Kostroma Oblast have collected more than 13,000 signatures against a possible unification of Kostroma Oblast with neighboring Yaroslavl Oblast, Regnum reported on 30 November. Ivan Starikov, head of Kostroma's Union of Rightist Forces branch, told the agency that the expansion of regions in the North where population density is not so great and cultural and historical connections between people are not so deep is understandable. But the situation in the Central Federal District is fundamentally different. "'Yastroma Oblast,' if appears on the map, will bring nothing good to Kostroma Oblast," he said "I think we should not deprive the oblast of the great national holiday, the 400th anniversary of the House of the Romanovs, which will be observed in 2013 not only in Russia but abroad." Kostroma is considered the birthplace of the Romanov tsarist dynasty. JAC

The high-level Fifth Russian-German St. Petersburg Dialogue met in St. Petersburg on 30 November and 1 December to discuss a wide range of bilateral issues and to develop concrete projects, Russian and German news agencies reported. The central theme this year was Germany after the recent elections, but a variety of issues were also examined in four separate workshops on politics; science, education, and healthcare; economy and business; and culture, mass media, and society. This was the first session that did not include the top leaders of the two countries and hence attracted less media attention than in previous years. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has just taken office, and presented her first major policy speech in Berlin the day the St. Petersburg gathering opened. She and President Vladimir Putin sent greetings to the conference, which Putin called a "powerful intellectual platform for discussing key issues in bilateral cooperation." The 2006 meeting will take place in Dresden. In related news, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will arrive in Moscow on 3 December on his first visit in that capacity, dpa reported. The agency added that he is expected to meet not only with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov but also with Putin and First Deputy Prime Minister Dimitrii Medvedev. PM

Federal Drug Trafficking Control Service Director Viktor Cherkezov has estimated that there are 6 million drug users in Russia, while the number of drug addicts numbers 1.5-1.8 million, Ekho Moskvy reported on 30 November. Cherkezov said that in first 10 months of this year his service shut down about 2,500 drug dens. Cherkezov said that Russia is very concerned by the rise of drug trafficking from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, CSTO General-Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha said on 1 December that Western troops in Afghanistan have failed to stem drug smuggling there due to lack of cooperation. He suggested that the CSTO and NATO together can fare better in the region in stopping drug trafficking, combating terrorism, and dealing with emergency situations. VY

Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on 2 December, Irkusk Oblast Governor Aleksandr Tishanin announced that a Chinese automaker is planning to build an manufacturing plant in the oblast with an annual output of 150,000 cars a year, RosBusiness Consulting (RBK) reported. Tishanin said that a Chinese delegation has visited Irkusk Oblast to select a site for a 300 million euro ($350 million) plant. RBK reported that two Chinese companies, Chery Automobile Co. and Great Wall Motors, are considering building assembly plants in Russia, but did not say which company might be involved in the Irkusk Oblast project. VY

The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, on 30 November sent a letter to Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov asking him to reject controversial proposed amendments to the law on public associations. The draft bill containing the amendments was easily passed by the State Duma on first reading on 23 November. The text of the letter, which was signed by 10 commissioners, was published on the organization's website ( The commissioners wrote that the proposed amendments "would seriously undermine the rights of individuals in Russia to freedom of association" and "would jeopardize the very existence of a number of well-established human rights NGOs." It also stated that the "adoption of these amendments would send a particularly negative signal at a time when Russia is preparing to assume leadership of the G-8 and the Council of Europe." The CSCE is made up of legislators from both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. VY

The Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office released a statement on 1 December announcing the creation of a special commission to investigate reports of voting irregularities in the country's recent constitutional referendum, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The announcement comes in the wake of widespread criticism of the 27 November referendum vote by local and international observers and condemnation by opposition parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2005). In a statement issued on 28 November, the Council of Europe noted that the "extremely low voting activity did not correspond" to the official results and highlighted "clear instances of forged additional signatures on the voters register and of ballot stuffing." RG

Outspoken Armenian opposition leaders Aram Karapetian of the Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party and Garnik Markarian of the Motherland and Honor party accused the Armenian government on 1 December of "repression" by detaining and intimidating opposition activists, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The opposition leaders charged that the Armenian police have been attempting to prevent large number of opposition supporters from attending mass rallies and demonstrations organized to protest the recent passage of the 27 November constitutional referendum. The opposition contends that the Armenian authorities secured passage of the referendum by falsifying the vote results. Police spokesman Sayad Shirinian acknowledged that a number of opposition activists were "invited to conversations" with police officers and warned against organizing "unsanctioned rallies" but added that "there is no need to politicize this," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. RG

The Baku mayor's office issued a statement on 1 December calling on the opposition to move their planned 3 December demonstration from the center of the city to a sports facility outside of the capital, Turan reported. The mayor's office explained that such a move is necessary to ensure public order, citing the 1 December statement by Baku police chief Maharram Aliyev in which he charged that participants in the 26 November opposition demonstration committed "illegal acts, disrupted public order and called for violence and civic disobedience." RG

Two suspected members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) were extradited to Turkey on 1 December, according to the Trend news agency. The two Turkish nationals, Kirbog Ahmet Yusifoglu and Edip Ates Mehsetsahoglu, were deported from Azerbaijan immediately following a Baku court ruling approving the Turkish extradition request. The two were detained by Azerbaijani police following their arrest on charges of armed robbery. A third suspected PKK member, Elif Pelit, is currently awaiting a court hearing on a pending Turkish request for her extradition. RG

Speaking during a visit to Ukraine, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said on 1 December that he ruled out any suggestion of a Georgian withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Caucasus Press reported. He explained that although he was closely following a recent discussion of the subject in the Georgian parliament, he added that "personally, I am against Georgia's withdrawal from the Commonwealth." But Saakashvili did stress that "the CIS should be reformed and, instead of adopting declarations that are forgotten in a couple of days, it should work out concrete and real matters," and added that "CIS countries should have freedom of action." RG

President Nursultan Nazarbaev addressed Kazakhstan's Senate, or upper house of parliament, as it went into session anew on 1 December, Interfax-Kazakhstan and "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Calling the Senate a "stabilizing" force in Kazakh society, Nazarbaev laid out four tasks facing the nation: industrialization, preparing the agricultural sector for WTO accession, ensuring prosperity, and liberalization. By a unanimous vote of all 38 deputies present, senators reelected Nurtai Abykaev speaker of the Senate. The Senate consists of 39 deputies, 32 of them elected in indirect elections and seven of them appointed by the present. The most recent elections were held in fall 2005. DK

Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the presidential candidate of the opposition bloc For a Just Kazakhstan, told AFP in a 1 December interview that a victory for incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbaev in the country's 4 December presidential election will push Kazakhstan toward dictatorship. Warning that "the political authorities in our country are going more and more toward authoritarianism and dictatorship," Tuyakbai said that if Nazarbaev is not stopped on 4 December, "In seven years' time we will be one of the worst countries in the world, like North Korea or Turkmenistan." The opposition candidate said that he felt he could force a run-off with Nazarbaev in an honest election, but expressed scant faith that the ballot will be fair. Tuyakbai stressed that the opposition will "use all constitutional means" to protest in the event of disputed results. Finally, the opposition candidate expressed disappointment at the West's rapt attention to Kazakhstan's energy potential and its relative inattention to the need for democratic reforms. DK

Lawmaker Alisher Sabirov, who headed a commission to investigate the 20 October slaying of deputy Tynychbek Akmatbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October 2005), told Kyrgyzstan's parliament on 1 December that imprisoned criminal kingpin Aziz Batukaev was responsible for Akmatbaev's death, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Akmatbaev's brother, Ryspek Akmatbaev, had charged that Prime Minister Feliks Kulov had a hand in his brother's death (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 October 2005), but Sabirov said the commission found otherwise. He stated, "According to the materials we gathered, and the explanation of Prime Minister Kulov, we did not establish any concrete evidence of the indirect involvement of either Kulov or [parliamentary speaker Omurbek] Tekebaev in this crime." Sabirov said that the murder resulted from a conflict between Aziz Batukaev and Ryspek Akmatbaev. The commission also uncovered evidence of a significant breakdown in law and order within Kyrgyzstan's penal system. Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev announced on 1 December that large quantities or weapons, narcotics, and cash were seized in Penal Colony No. 31, where Akmatbaev was killed, in the wake of the murder. DK

Richard Hoagland, U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan, met with President Imomali Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on 1 December to discuss bilateral relations, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. At the end of the meeting, Hoagland voiced objections to a 26 November article in the state-run newspaper "Jumhuriyat." The article charged the American Bar Association's Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (ABA/CEELI) is undermining traditional values in Tajikistan with its seminars. Avesta reported that Hoagland addressed the newspaper's editors in a letter, calling the article a "classic example of a groundless mudslinging campaign." Calling the article an attempt to harm Tajik-U.S. relations, Hoagland said, "An apology is due not only to the United States and the U.S. Embassy, but also to President Rakhmonov and the people of Tajikistan." "Jumhuriyat" editor in chief Kamol Abdurahimov told RFE/RL that the article's author was merely exercising his right to free speech. Also on 1 December, Hoagland met with representatives of the ruling People's Democratic Party, telling them that U.S. democracy-promotion efforts in Tajikistan are not intended to spark a revolution, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. DK

At least three trials of defendants accused of involvement in May violence in Andijon are now underway in Uzbekistan, ITAR-TASS reported on 1 December, citing the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office. The press service of the Prosecutor-General's Office told the news agency on 1 December that trials were taking place in Andijon, Tashkent, and Sirdaryo. Meanwhile, reported on 1 December, citing the Uzbek Supreme Court's press service, that 18 defendants are on trial in Andijon, 15 in Tashkent Province, and 25 in Sirdaryo Province. The report said that the trials are taking place behind closed doors for security reasons. Human Rights Watch recently issued a press release charging that Uzbek authorities had prevented its representatives from attending at least two ongoing closed trials of Andijon defendants (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2005). DK

The Chamber of Representatives on 2 December voted 97 to four to approve in the second reading amendments to the Criminal Code that stipulate tough penalties for activities "directed against people and public security" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 November 2005), Belapan reported. In particular, the bill proposes penalizing people with jail terms of up to two years for "providing a foreign country, or a foreign or international organization with patently false information about the political, economic, social, military, and international situation of the Republic of Belarus." The bill has been criticized by Belarusian human rights activists and opposition figures as repressive and intending to gag criticism of the government ahead of the 2006 presidential election. "The adoption of the bill means that a de facto state of emergency has been declared in Belarus," a former Constitutional Court Judge Mikhail Pastukhou told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service on 1 December. "I see no apprehensions connected with the adoption of the bill.... You do not say anything bad about your family, wife, and children in public. So you should not say anything bad about your country as well," Deputy Justice Minister Alyaksandr Petrash told Belarusian journalists the same day. JM

Belarusian investigators on 1 December questioned Professor Aleh Manayeu, head of the Vilnius-based Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI), in connection with his recent press articles about the popularity ratings of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. NISEPI was forced to move to Lithuania after Belarusian authorities closed down the polling agency in April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 April 2005). NISEPI participated in conducting an independent exit poll during the October 2004 constitutional referendum, which suggested that Lukashenka actually lost the plebiscite and should not run for a third term in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 26 October 2004). Last month the Belarusian government issued a directive requiring that all pollsters who plan to conduct surveys concerning national referendums, presidential and parliamentary elections, and the political situation in the country, and then make public their results through mass media, should apply for accreditation to a special panel under the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November 2005). "Someone in the top echelons of power is trying to do everything possible to prevent all poll results, apart from those obtained by government-controlled pollsters, from being published in the press," Manayeu told RFE/RL. JM

Nearly 200 representatives from 23 countries gathered in Kyiv on 2 December to hold a political forum of the Community of Democratic Choice, an initiative launched by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in August, Ukrainian media reported. "Today's forum is set to inaugurate a new format of cooperation between countries of the Baltic Sea region, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Black Sea region, and the Caucasus. This format of interaction -- or, rather, permanent dialogue -- is based on common desire to transform our part of the European continent into an area of democracy, stability, and prosperity," Yushchenko said at the opening of the forum. "Our initiative is not directed against any third countries or institutions. On the contrary, I see the Community of Democratic Choice as open dialogue between friends, adherents of ideas for promoting democracy and the supremacy of law." In addition to Yushchenko and Saakashvili, the forum was attended by the presidents of Romania, Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Macedonia, and Slovenia. The 2 December political forum was preceded by a civic forum of the Community of Democratic Choice, which was held in Kyiv the previous day. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on 1 December signed an order to send 50 servicemen to Iraq in 2006, Ukrainian media reported, citing the presidential press service. According to Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, this group will consist of 30 army officers, 10 border guards, and 10 police officers, who will help Iraqi authorities implement projects to restore Iraq's infrastructure. Hrytsenko added that the group has nothing in common with the 1,600-member Ukrainian military contingent that is currently being withdrawn from Iraq. Ukraine is to conclude the pullout of its peacekeeping contingent from Iraq by the end of this year. JM

Several tens of thousands of people turned out in Prishtina on 1 December to welcome back from The Hague Fatmir Limaj, who was a major figure in the former Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), and Isak Musliu, both of whom were recently acquitted of war crimes by the international tribunal, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2005). Limaj said that he will continue to work for a Kosova in which all citizens will be free and equal under the law. In Belgrade, the government of Serbia and Montenegro's Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal said that the acquittals will not help build the Serbian public's confidence in the tribunal. Instead, the council concluded, the acquittals will strengthen the hands of those Serbs opposed to all cooperation with that body. But Rasim Ljajic, who heads the council, stressed that Belgrade will continue to work with the tribunal despite the acquittals. PM

Serbian President Boris Tadic told the Belgrade weekly "NIN" of 1 December that it would help the Serbian negotiating position in the upcoming talks on Kosova's final status if parliamentary elections took place soon, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He argued that fresh elections would give "full legitimacy" to the Serbian negotiating team. Tadic noted, however, that the governing coalition has rejected his appeal for an early vote and the formation of a "government of democratic forces" afterward. Recent polls suggest that Tadic and his Democratic Party would be the big election winners among pro-reform parties, and that most of the parties in the current minority government would not meet the 5 percent requirement to return to the parliament. Polls also indicate that the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) of Tomislav Nikolic and the relatively new Force of Serbia Movement (PSS) of oligarch and politician Bogoljub Karic would join the Democrats as the main vote-getters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 November 2005). PM

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica called off his long-planned visit to Russia recently after Russian authorities failed to "confirm an appointment" for Kostunica to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the private Beta news agency reported, citing Moscow's "Kommersant-Daily." According to that paper, the Serbian leader's main purpose in going to Russia was to talk to Putin, but the Russian president chose not to meet with a man whom he allegedly regards as responsible for steering some key Serbian privatization sales in banking and the oil industry to Serbian oligarchs and away from Russian investors. The daily notes that Putin met with Serbian President Tadic in November even though Tadic is considered more Western-oriented than Kostunica and has less real power than the prime minister does. "Kommersant-Daily" concluded that Putin was willing to talk with Tadic because Kosova topped his agenda, and that issue is reportedly of interest to the Russian leader. It is not clear what Kostunica wanted to discuss with Putin. PM

Mittal Steel company announced in Banja Luka on 1 December that it will set up a memorial at its Nova Ljubija iron-ore mines near Prijedor in Bosnia-Herzegovina to honor those who died at the Serb-run concentration camp there during the 1992-95 conflict. Many Muslims and Croats were killed, raped, or tortured in the Omarska concentration camp in the mine's administrative buildings at that time. In 1992, television pictures of emaciated prisoners at the camp went around the world, evoking memories of Nazi camps in World War II and turning much of international public opinion against the Serbs. Mittal Steel is the world's largest steel producer and acquired the complex after the war. Originally linked to India, it has helped revive some moribund postcommunist East European steel companies, including Poland's massive Nowa Huta near Krakow. PM

Exporters of Moldovan farm products have lost between 40 and 80 percent of their income due to a Russian ban on fruit, vegetable, and meat imports from Moldova, ITAR-TASS reported on 1 December. Citing a survey by the Union of the Association of Farm Producers (Uniagroprotect), which was released in Chisinau on 1 December, ITAR-TASS reported that Moldova has failed to diversify its agricultural exports. Russia imposed the ban in May, claiming that Moldovan meat and produce did not meet Russian standards. Moldovan officials claim, however, that Chisinau has complied. "Moldova has complied with all of Russia's requirements. But there has been no reply from Russia," Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev said. BW

It might seem early to think about the next election in Iran, since the presidential race, which ended in the upset victory of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, took place just six months ago. Moreover, the new president does not even have a complete cabinet yet, with the parliament rejecting his nominee for petroleum minister late last month. Nonetheless, political observers in Iran began discussing the next election -- for the Assembly of Experts, currently expected to take place in October 2006 -- as early as July.

Some of the discussion focuses on how the country's political struggles will play out in the race. It also reflects the fact that this body of 86 clerics -- which meets just twice a year -- has the constitutional power to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader, the most powerful individual in the state. Major points of contention are who will decide which candidates are eligible and whether or not the election will be postponed.

There are two prominent schools of thought on what the Assembly of Experts might do next -- both of which center on the belief that there is currently an intense rivalry for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's position. One school of thought has it that Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who is the deputy chairman of the assembly, and other top clerics want to replace the current system of Vilayat-i Faqih (leadership of the supreme jurisprudent) with a looser system of Visayat-i Fuqaha, which they interpret as general supervision over national affairs by a council of clerics.

This speculation, however, is based on unproven and questionable data -- the supposed rivalry between Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khamenei. If such a rivalry really existed, then Khamenei would not have expanded the Expediency Council's powers in September to oversee other branches of government. The two men may disagree on some issues -- this is inevitable when two people have worked closely on controversial issues for roughly 40 years -- but there is very little substantive evidence that they are competitors. If anything, the two men depend on each other, and the current Islamic republic is a reflection of their joint efforts.

The second school of thought has it that ultra-conservatives want Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi to be the next supreme leader. Mesbah-Yazdi is the hard-line cleric that Ahmadinejad follows, and a number of Mesbah-Yazdi's former students at the Haqqani seminary currently hold cabinet positions.

Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi allegedly back a messianic interpretation of Islam, in which they hope that the 12th imam, known also as the Mahdi and who is in occultation, will return and restore justice to the world. According to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Ahmadinejad told a 16 November national conference of Friday-prayer leaders that "our mission is paving the path for the glorious reappearance of Imam Mahdi."

The replacement of state officials by Ahmadinejad appointees, furthermore, has led to claims that the Hojjatieh Society, which was banished in 1983, is enjoying a revival. This society espouses similar views on the return of the Hidden Imam, and this would not be the first time that there are claims of a Hojjatieh comeback.

According to this school of thought, the new members of the assembly would engineer Mesbah-Yazdi's ascent to the leadership. The major flaw with this theory is that the Guardians Council's clerics, who are appointed by the supreme leader, are unlikely to allow the candidacy of individuals who will excessively upset the status quo.

The last Assembly of Experts election took place in October 1998. Public participation that year was around 46 percent; it was approximately 37 percent in 1990, and approximately 77 percent in 1982.

Coming on the heels of reformist Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's 1997 presidential victory, there was speculation that similarly inclined individuals would do well in the 1998 race. There were even calls for the participation of nonclerics, and nine women tried to run. But the Guardians Council, which determines candidates' eligibility and supervises elections, changed the rules.

In the past, would-be candidates had to demonstrate ijtihad, the highest form of Islamic learning, which enables Koranic interpretation. But in 1998 all potential candidates had to demonstrate the proper political inclination as well. The council accepted fewer than half of the 396 applicants and none of the women. The council allowed a number of incumbent Assembly of Experts members to run again even though they failed to pass the ijtihad examination. The council argued that these people could do so because Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had approved their credentials previously.

When the Assembly of Experts held its semi-annual meeting in September, a handful of members reportedly submitted a motion to change the qualifications for membership. They supposedly wanted even more stringent academic qualifications, going from "relative ijtihad" to "absolute ijtihad," the hard-line "Siyasat-i Ruz" newspaper reported on 10 September. The former qualification permits one to interpret Islamic law, according to the daily, while the latter qualifies one to issue religious decrees (fatwa). The individuals who submitted this motion, furthermore, reportedly wanted the job of vetting candidates taken from the Guardians Council and given to seminarians. They argued that because some council members also compete for the assembly, the normal vetting procedure represents a conflict of interest.

Members of the assembly acknowledged in interviews that they had discussed the possibility of reassigning vetting responsibilities, the pro-reform "Sharq" daily reported on 12 September, citing Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The matter was referred to a committee that will make the final decision. Some assembly members also advocated the presence of nonclerics -- including women and military personnel -- in the assembly.

Another person calling for a change in the qualifications for assembly members was Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, the former speaker of parliament. He said there is an effort to limit the choice of candidates for the assembly, according to the pro-reform "Etemad" newspaper on 23 October, adding that this would reduce public participation in the election. Karrubi recommended letting the assembly's presidium have the final say on disqualified candidates. He added that the religious sources of emulation and prominent theologians -- "who have independent views and opinions and at the same time are affectionate toward the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini]" -- should be authorized to vet candidates' qualifications.

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, secretary-general of the Solidarity Party, also said nonclerics should be allowed to run for assembly seats, reported on 25 November. Asgharzadeh, whose candidacy was rejected in 1998, said these are important elections and the reformists should take a stand.

At least one member of the Guardians Council has called for delaying the next Assembly of Experts election to coincide with the 2008 parliamentary elections, the reformist "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 23 July. "Sharq" reported on 27 November that calls for a postponement continue.

However, a delay seems unlikely at this point. The Iranian regime takes great pride in holding elections on a regular basis, and Tehran cites this practice as a sign of its democratic nature. The regime also holds up public participation in elections as a sign of popular support for the ruling system.

Former Afghan Prime Minister and Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has rejected the renewed call for reconciliation by Kabul, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on 1 December. Hekmatyar's views were expressed in a letter sent to AIP on 30 November. In the letter, Hekmatyar says that President Hamid Karzai has "no authority" to call for peace or reconciliation with the forces opposing his government. The Afghans have "fully understood that peace cannot be achieved while foreign forces are present" in their country, Hekmatyar writes. Peace and security will only be established when Afghans have "an Islamic government of their choice" in place, he adds. Hekmatyar also lashes out at Afghanistan's neighbors, especially Pakistan, which supported him in the 1980s with funds and weapons, mainly coming from the United States. According to Hekmatyar, the earthquake that devastated parts of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and other areas in early October was not an accident but a punishment for Pakistan's support of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. In November Karzai reiterated his call for the armed insurgents to join the national reconciliation program. It is not clear if Hekmatyar personally was offered an amnesty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November 2005). AT

An unidentified Russian source said in Moscow on 1 December that Russia and NATO are planning to adopt a joint assistance program for training Afghan and Central Asian counternarcotics forces, Interfax-AVN reported. A Russian Interior Ministry training facility in Domodedovo is one possible site for the training program, the source added. Speaking in Moscow on 30 November, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha said that CSTO and NATO can cooperate in efforts to reduce the export of illegal drugs from Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November 2005). AT

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a crowd in Dehluran, in Iran's western province of Ilam, on 1 December that Iran is determined to meet its energy needs with nuclear power, agencies reported the same day. "Peaceful use of nuclear energy is our...right, and nobody can deprive us" of it, IRNA reported him as saying. "Every day we consume 1,600,000 barrels of oil...which costs about $30 billion a year, and if we replace this with nuclear energy, we can save at least $15 billion, which can be [spent on] development," ISNA quoted him as saying. On 30 November, he told a separate gathering in the town of Ilam, the provincial capital, that "Western and colonialist states" passed an "unjust resolution" against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency in September, but "we gave Westerners the message that we are standing firm to the end...and when they saw [Iran's] position was solid, they retreated" at the recent 24 November meeting of the nuclear agency, IRNA reported the following day, referring to the 24 November meeting of the nuclear agency, which did not refer Tehran to the UN Security Council, as earlier threatened. Separately, Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Ankara on 30 November that Iranian and European diplomats would hold preliminary talks by mid-December to discuss eventual, formal talks on the nuclear program, AFP reported on 1 December. VS

President Ahmadinejad said in his speech in Ilam on 30 November that the government is determined to establish "justice" in Iran, against the opposition of "those who can no longer reach into" the public purse, IRNA reported. He said that while the Iranian government's "enemies abroad" are "shouting their heads off, and using various tricks to create obstacles" for it, "some inside the country have joined them and are complaining about the government." Unspecified people have "criticized" the government for defending "the legal right" of Iranians to nuclear power, he said. Certain legislators have recently criticized the government's diplomacy, but also its administrative reshuffles. He denounced unspecified "profiteers and opportunists" who have "ensured the failure" of the stock market, in response to government moves to curb their access to "economic and financial centers." Ahmadinejad called such people the enemies of justice in Iran, and defended the appointment of new personnel to government posts. "Some [ask] why revolutionary forces are being removed by the new government. Are the revolutionary forces just a group of 40 to 50 of their friends? You are the ones who think you own the country, and will not let anyone give their opinion," he said. VS

Deputy commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, was formally appointed deputy interior minister at a ministry ceremony in Tehran on 30 November, Radio Farda reported on 1 December. The appointment was first reported in Iran on 23 November. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Purmohammadi said on 30 November that with this appointment, "the security index" will go up in Iran, while Zolqadr said that to make security "popular, we need the presence of Basiji forces," referring to a large militia affiliated with the IRGC. The minister also gave his approval to the use of the militia for security purposes, Radio Farda reported. Radio Farda observed that the appointment of a soldier in a civilian ministry has caused concern about the increasing presence of security and military forces in government. IRGC commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi has dismissed such concerns. "Only idiotic politicians have such opinions," Radio Farda quoted him as saying recently. VS

Foreign Minister Mottaki said in Ankara on 1 December that "Iran has no plans on its agenda for negotiations with America," IRNA reported the same day. He said recent reports of possible Iran-U.S. contacts over Iraq, through the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, are due to "issues and America's governing committee." Mottaki said Iran sees two options in Iraq -- one the continuation of "the political and state-building process" that will lead to Iraqi sovereignty and "pave the way for the departure of foreign troops," and the other "the continuation of terrorism" and anarchy. Iran "has from the start chosen the first option, and I hope" developments will lead to "the departure of foreign forces from Iraq," he said. Persistent disorder in Iraq, he added, "will not remain confined to that country, and Iran and Turkey and...neighbors will be affected." Mottaki arrived in Turkey on 30 November for scheduled meetings with senior officials and businessmen. VS

President Jalal Talabani called for more Kurds to be appointed to positions in the central government during a 1 December speech at Patriotic Union of Kurdistan headquarters in Qalacholan, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on 2 December. "In a federal system, the people of Kurdistan have the right to govern themselves. However, because we are Iraqis and form part of Iraq, and because...the central governments represents the national sovereignty and that a number of powers are assigned to the central state bodies, we have to be represented -- according to our proportion -- in the central government," Talabani said. KR

Iraqi Communist Party Secretary-General Hamid Majid Musa criticized the Iraqi Independent Election Commission during a 1 December press conference in Baghdad, saying the commission is improperly applying the de-Ba'athification law to candidates for the 15 December National Assembly election, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 1 December. Musa said that the commission asked his party to withdraw the names of some candidates from the party's electoral list because they were prohibited from running under the de-Ba'athification law. "We have observed the commission's requirement that each candidate sign a written oath that the de-Ba'athification law does not apply to them. Therefore, if there are any doubts surrounding this oath, then they must be proven through evidence and supporting documents, because venomous [allegations]...are detrimental to the democratic system and the freedom of candidates." Musa said that the allegations that some of his list's candidates could not run in the election under the de-Ba'athification law, unless proven, amount to slander. "Some of our candidates have lodged a complaint against the [election] commission and the allegations it made, demanding that it present documents" proving the allegations, he said. KR

Iyad Allawi, head of the Iraqi National List, said that if elected, he would impose a tough security plan to bring stability to the country, in a speech to former army officers in Baghdad on 1 December, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. The plan includes: fast-tracking the training and equipping of the armed forces; changing the leadership and the command hierarchies of the army and police to ensure that their first loyalty is to the state rather than a political party; fixing the political and economic situation in Iraq; and working toward establishing a balanced regional security system. Speaking about the 2003 decision to dissolve the Iraqi Army (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2003), he said: "It is common knowledge that I personally objected, and indeed I staunchly stood against, dissolving the army and security services. I tried hard to restore the Defense Ministry, even when we were in the Governing Council before the transfer of sovereignty. After the transfer of sovereignty, we began to expand [the ministry]." KR

Non-Iraqi Arabs have been banned from entering Iraq ahead of the 15 December National Assembly elections under an Interior Ministry order that went into effect several days ago, international media reported on 1 December. No date has been set for the lifting of the ban. Several non-Iraqi Arabs were prevented from boarding a Royal Jordanian Airline flight from Amman to Baghdad on 1 December, the BBC reported the same day. Non-Iraqi Arabs are suspected of taking part in the insurgency aimed at destabilizing Iraq. KR

The Iraqi government took over responsibility from multinational forces for securing Iraq's borders on 1 December, U.S. Central Command announced in a same-day press release. A ceremony marking the handover was held in the Iraqi-Syrian border town of Husaybah, and attended by Iraqi Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi and Multinational Force - Iraq commander General George Casey. Al-Dulaymi called the handover "a historic day." He later told reporters in comments broadcast by Al-Sharqiyah television: "Our only source of anguish is those who sneak through the Syrian-Iraqi borders. We share borders with five or six countries, but have only complained [about] the brothers in Syria." KR