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Newsline - December 12, 2005

President Vladimir Putin is expected in Kuala Lumpur shortly to meet with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and then to attend the first 16-country East Asia Summit on 14 December, Russian and international news agencies reported on 12 December. On 10 December, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signed the first-ever cooperation agreement with ASEAN in the Malaysian capital. He stressed that Russia "considers ASEAN its important partner in creating a multipolar world and a common regional security system, and counteracting new threats and challenges." But he also said that economic cooperation is important and requires "special efforts on both sides" to improve it. "We can't bypass Russia-ASEAN cooperation in the field of development, especially if you consider how pressing the issue is for our own regions of Siberia and the Far East," Lavrov added. It is not clear what might come out of the planned ASEAN-Russia summit during Putin's visit, since ASEAN's main concerns are not Russia but Sino-Japanese relations, the rice trade, and Myanmar. As regards the East Asia Summit that follows the ASEAN meeting, Beijing hopes to use it to create new regional structures without the United States, but Japan and Australia are expected to take any anti-U.S. edge off of that gathering (see "Trouble in the Neighborhood,", 25 August 2005 and End Note below.) PM

Russian and Chinese authorities signed an agreement in Khabarovsk on 12 December to monitor the quality of water in the Amur River at numerous sites, Interfax and RIA-Novosti reported. The Chinese maintain that the polluted Songhua River, which flows into the Amur, is contaminated "only" by benzol and nitrobenzene, but the Russian authorities want to test for additional, unspecified substances as well (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2005). In related news, authorities in Khabarovsk Krai on 11 December banned fishing in the Amur and trading in fish caught there, RFE/RL reported. They said that bans will be lifted once experts are convinced that fish from the river pose no health threat to humans. PM

German and Russian officials symbolically began construction of the North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) linking their two countries at Babayevo, which is 800 kilometers east of St. Petersburg, on 9 December, RFE/RL and the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported. The first section will go from Babayevo, which is on an existing line, to Vyborg and then along the floor of the Baltic Sea to Greifswald. It scheduled to begin operating in 2010 and is 51 percent owned by Russia's Gazprom, with the remaining 49 percent equally divided between two German firms. Germany gets about 35 percent of its gas imports from Russia, while Gazprom controls 60 percent of Russia's reserves, which are approximately 16 percent of the world's total (see "Work Begins On Baltic Gas Pipeline,", 9 December 2005). The NEGP has already led to political controversy, first of all because of concerns in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland that they are being bypassed by the project and were not consulted on it. Polish media have commented on the alleged links to the former East German Stasi of Matthias Warnig, who heads Dresdner Bank's operations in Russia and is chief executive of the NEGP. A scandal emerged in Germany over the weekend surrounding the appointment on 9 December of former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as head of the NEGP shareholders oversight committee amid charges of corruption and conflict of interest. Putin is a friend of both Warnig and Schroeder, who finalized the NEGP during the last weeks of his chancellorship. PM

The Duma voted on 10 December to lift restrictions on foreign ownership of shares in Gazprom, reported. President Putin is reportedly seeking to build the company into an energy business to rival Exxon Mobil, which is the largest publicly traded oil company in the world. PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov said in Moscow on 11 December that rising Western influence in some former Soviet republics should not infringe upon Russia's own interests in the region, RFE/RL reported. He argued that the involvement of "nonregional players" like the United States and the EU is becoming "more visible" in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). He said in an English-language interview with Russia Today, the 24-hour English-language global TV news channel launched the same day, that the Western presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus is based on legitimate interests, like promoting antiterrorism efforts and securing energy resources. But he stressed that the West should pursue its interests in a way that acknowledges Russia's "historic, cultural, and economic" ties to the region. PM

The Russia Today TV channel stopped broadcasting on 12 December after detecting that hackers were attempting to enter its computer system, reported. The broadcaster said in a statement: "Due to attempts to break into the channel's computer system from outside and a suspected virus infection, the channel has had to cease broadcasting until technical malfunctions are mended." Russia Today apologized to its viewers for the interruption in transmissions. PM

Russia's biggest nongovernmental organization dealing with migration issues has shut down its operations, citing the government's proposal to toughen laws on NGOs, Ekho Moskvy reported on 11 December. Lidiya Grafova, the head of the umbrella Forum of Migrants' Organizations, told the broadcaster that the group's foreign sponsors have frozen funding pending final government decisions on the draft NGO law. The proposed law would require local branches of foreign NGOs to reregister as Russian entities subject stricter financial and legal limitations. President Putin has promised to amend the bill following sharp criticism from foreign rights organizations, the EU, and the United States. The Forum of Migrants' Organizations, which was founded in 1996, comprises 198 migrant-assistance organizations in 47 Russian regions. PM

About 50 people from the Democratic Union and Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) observed a minute of silence in the style of Soviet-era dissidents in Moscow on 11 December to mark Human Rights Day, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The gathering marked the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Union's first major dissident demonstration. Earlier, Valeriya Novodvorskaya of the Democratic Union said that reforms have ground to a halt and that Russia "needs dissidents again." Meanwhile, an unspecified number of activists gathered in Blagoveshchensk, where police beat or detained hundreds in a special operation one year ago. Lyudmila Alekseeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, and Lev Ponomarev, who leads the For Human Rights Movement, sought to collect information about the results of an investigation into the incident. Official figures state that 342 residents of Blagoveshchensk were injured. PM

Unified Russia is leading in the 11 December legislative elections in Novosibirsk Oblast, with 33.12 percent of the votes and more than 98 percent of all votes counted, reported. The Communists (KPRF) come next with 21.65 percent, followed by the Agrarians (APR) with 13.47 percent and the Liberal Democrats (LDPR) with 9.71 percent. Some 8.7 percent of the voters cast their ballots against all candidates. In the elections for the Khabarovsk Krai legislature, Unified Russia is leading with about 41 percent of the votes and 75 percent of all votes counted. The Communists took 16 percent, and 13 percent rejected all. The LDPR won 12 percent, followed by Motherland (Rodina) with 10 percent. PM

The Prosecutor-General's Office announced on 9 December that documents seized from the Moscow office of Neftyanoi Bank prove that the bank was involved in money laundering, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. "Investigators said the documents seized from the Neftyanoi commercial bank were evidence that it had used fake companies and their accounts to conduct illegal bank transactions and launder money," the Prosecutor-General's Office said in a press release the same day. "They discovered around 20 stamps of organizations, which investigators said had been involved in the illegal financial transactions. Heaps of banking papers and computer servers, which investigators believe were used by the bank in illegal transactions, were found in the cellar." Police and prosecutors searched the bank on 8 December. Some Russian media have speculated that the move was an attempt to warn the bank's officials - who include former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov - not to finance the political opposition activities of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2005). BW

Foreign Minister Lavrov said on 11 December that Moscow is opposed to any attempts to politicize the issue of Iran's nuclear program, reported the same day, citing Russia Today TV. "We would be very strongly opposed to any attempts to politicize this issue and to be guided by anything except the need to keep the nonproliferation regime intact," Lavrov told Russia Today. Lavrov added that Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran on the Bushehr nuclear power plant is being carried out "in a fully transparent manner under permanent monitoring of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors." The United States and Israel have criticized Russia for a recent decision to sell Iran antiaircraft missiles (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2, 5, 6, 7, and 8 December 2005). BW

The Chechen resistance released a statement to kavkaz-center on 11 December claiming that the explosion and fire that killed pro-Moscow Chechen Security Council Secretary Rudnik Dudaev earlier that day was caused by a remote-controlled mine, reported. But Ziyad Sabsabi, the permanent representative in Moscow of the pro-Russian administration, rejected that claim as absurd, insisting that Dudaev's death was "a tragic accident," Interfax reported. According to the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities, Dudaev died of asphyxiation in a fire that destroyed his trailer home in the government compound in Grozny. Deputy Interior Minister Akhmed Dakaev said the cause of the fire is being investigated; he suggested it may have been started by an electrical fault. Dudaev, a career KGB officer, was named to head the Security Council in February 2001. LF

President Putin flew to Grozny on 12 December where he addressed the first session of the Chechen parliament elected on 27 November, Russian media reported. Putin exhorted the legislators to "work for the good of Chechnya," dpa reported. He expressed satisfaction that "peace has come to the republic and our enemies have nothing more to do here." Putin went on to accuse the Chechen leaders of the 1990s, meaning Presidents Djokhar Dudaev and Aslan Maskhadov, of putting their personal interests above those of the Chechen people, according to RIA Novosti as cited by, and of distorting the Koran and seeking to discredit Islam. He affirmed that "Russia has always been the most faithful, consistent and reliable defender of the interests of the Islamic religion." Putin also met separately in Grozny with pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov and with acting Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov to discuss unspecified issues concerning the socioeconomic rehabilitation of the war-torn republic. LF

Raffi Hovannisian, who served from 1992-93 as Armenian foreign minister, read out at an opposition demonstration on 9 December an open letter to President Robert Kocharian, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The letter, which Hovannisian subsequently delivered personally by hand to the presidential palace, contained 21 questions to which Hovannisian requested an answer by 16 December. They focus on Kocharian's citizenship (he was born in the Azerbaijan SSR); his and his family's assets; the alleged falsification of the 2003 ballot in which Kocharian won a second term; and whether he has ever committed murder, or given orders to have anyone killed. Hovannisian, who was born in the United States, was barred from participating in the 2003 presidential election on the grounds that he became an Armenian citizen only two years earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2003). LF

President Ilham Aliyev has scheduled for 13 May 2006 repeat elections in 10 constituencies where the outcome of the 6 November parliamentary ballot was annulled, and ITAR-TASS reported on 10 December. Meanwhile the opposition Azadlyq bloc remains divided over whether to participate that repeat ballot, according to Panakh Gusein, head of its election staff, reported on 12 December. Gusein said the six Azadlyq candidates who won election on 6 November will not participate in the work of the new legislature. LF

On 9 December President Aliyev dismissed Medjib Kerimov from the post of industry and oil minister which he had held since 2001, naming him instead to head Azerkhimiya, com and reported on 9 and 10 December, respectively. Fikret Sadykhov, the former head of Azerkhimiya, was dismissed in late October and detained on suspicion of involvement in an alleged coup plot, but subsequently released on bail (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 October and 21 November 2005). Natik Aliyev (no relation to the president), who has headed the state oil company SOCAR since 1993, was appointed Industry and Energy Minister in Kerimov's place; Baku Oil Refinery Director Rovnag Abdullaev will succeed Aliyev as president of SOCAR. LF

Ambassador Valerii Kenyaikin, who is the Russian co-chairman of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring the security situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone, met in Tbilisi on 10 December with Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava to discuss how to defuse rising tensions, Georgian media reported. ITAR-TASS on 12 December quoted Kenyaikin as saying the previous day that both sides advocate cooperation, rather than confrontation. But while South Ossetian Minister for Special Assignments Boris Chochiev insists of convening a special emergency session of the JCC, Kenyaikin and Khaindrava said separately they think separate meetings between Kenyaikin and the two conflict parties would prove more effective. Khaindrava was quoted on 10 December by ITAR-TASS as saying he will not meet with South Osssetian representatives until the fate of four Georgians abducted in the conflict zone in June is clarified. The brother of one of the four missing men was sent a package containing severed limbs, with a note demanding payment of several thousand U.S. dollars for the return of the bodies, according to Caucasus Press on 5 December. A spokesman for the South Ossetian Interior Ministry told on 10 December that the Georgian side is obstructing the investigation into the abductions. LF

A representative of PetroKazakhstan, the Canadian-registered company recently purchased by China National Petroleum Corporation, told Interfax on 9 December that the company has appealed a Kazakh court ruling fining PetroKazakhstan over $700 million (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2005). The representative did not supply further details on the appeal. DK

Members of the opposition bloc For a Just Kazakhstan face criminal charges in connection with an allegedly fraudulent document they displayed at an 8 December press conference, Khabar reported on 9 December. Dzhaksylyk Baitukbaev, a prosecutor in Almaty, told Khabar that For a Just Kazakhstan activists displayed a letter they said was written by Central Election Commission Chairman Onalsyn Zhumabekov to the presidential administration. Zhumabekov subsequently told prosecutors that the letter was a forgery. DK

In a 10 December telephone conversation, U.S. President George W. Bush asked recently reelected Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to investigate fraud allegations in connection with Kazakhstan's 4 December presidential election, AP reported the next day. White House spokesman Blair Jones said, "Allegations of irregularities in the election were noted and the president stressed the importance of Kazakhstan investigating the facts related to these allegations." Jones added that Nazarbaev promised his U.S. counterpart he will look into the charges. DK

The Kyrgyz independent television station Pyramid sustained an unsuccessful forcible takeover attempt on the night of 9 December, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Fifteen men tried to force their way onto the station's premises, but parliamentary deputies and human rights activists helped the station's staff to ward them off, Interfax reported. Pyramid journalists told that Maksim Bakiev, the son of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, was behind the attempt, allegedly perpetrated on behalf of the firm Media Invest. Deputy Kabai Karabekov also charged that the president was complicit, RFE/RL reported. But Nadyr Momunov, a spokesman for Bakiev, told RFE/RL, "There is no direct or indirect connection of the president to this conflict [surrounding Pyramid TV]." reported that Media Invest acquired a stake in Pyramid from the firm Areopag, which had acquired the stake earlier when the station handed over a 50 percent stake to raise money to buy new equipment. Pyramid employee Irina Litvyakova told RFE/RL that the station's journalists plan to hold a demonstration in central Bishkek on 12 December to protest what they believe is an attempt to gain control over the station in order to alter its independent editorial positions. DK

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) plans to loan Kyrgyzstan $90 million over the next three years for poverty reduction and private-sector improvements, AP reported on 9 December. "The medium-term challenge is for the county to achieve sustainable growth while pursuing fiscal consolidation without hurting the most vulnerable groups," ADB country director for Kyrgyzstan Ashraf Malik said. DK

President Bakiev has issued a decree removing Osh Province Governor Anvar Artykov from his post, reported on 10 December. Bakiev named Adam Zakirov, who had been deputy head of the Management Academy, acting governor. Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, who was in Osh on 10 December, said that Bakiev will meet with Artykov on 12 December and offer him a new position. "The president asked me to express on his behalf, on behalf of the government, great gratitude to Anvar Artykovich [Artykov] and to thank him for his great job done during the short time [he was acting governor] in the making of the [Osh] region," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service quoted Kulov as saying. DK

Marizo Khalifaev, head of the anticorruption department in the Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office, announced on 9 December that all officials will have to make their sources of income public starting on 1 January, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. All state employees will have to submit declarations detailing the amount and source of their income to the Taxation Ministry. The report noted, however, that officials' relatives will not be obligated to submit declarations. DK

President Imomali Rakhmonov told Afghan Energy and Water Minister Mohammad Ismail Khan in Dushanbe on 9 December that Tajikistan plans to export electrical power to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. "President Hamid Karzai, as well as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and I reached an agreement in Mecca to build a power line linking Tajikistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan," Rakhmonov said. The president's press service told the news agency that the details will be worked out in the near future. DK

In talks in Ashgabat on 11 December, Aleksei Miller, the head of the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, and Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov failed to reach an agreement on the price Russia will pay for Turkmen gas shipments in 2006, reported. Turkmenistan recently announced that it plans to raise the price of its natural-gas shipments from $44 per 1,000 cubic meters to $60 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November 2005). The report said that a Gazprom delegation will come to Turkmenistan to continue the talks before 31 December. DK

Germany and Uzbekistan have signed an agreement allowing German forces to remain at a base in Termez, Interfax reported on 11 December. The report noted that Germany has agreed to make infrastructure improvements at the base. AFP reported on 25 November, citing an unnamed official in Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry, that Germany would be allowed to keep its 300 troops in Uzbekistan despite an Uzbek decision to evict the United States from its Karshi-Khanabad air base (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 August 2005) and a late-November Uzbek announcement that NATO countries will no longer be allowed to use Uzbek airspace. DK

Orifjon Oydin, the husband of Uzbek opposition leader Nigora Hidoyatova, died in a hospital in southern Kazakhstan on 8 December, reported on 12 December. Oydin suffered a gunshot wound to the head in an attack on him by unknown assailants in Kazakhstan on 28 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November 2005). Hidoyatova, who heads the unregistered opposition party Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Farmers), has described the attack as politically motivated. DK

An adviser to Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz was denied entry into Belarus and briefly detained at the border on 11 December, Reuters and ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "Belarusian border guards asked me to leave my car, took my passport, and told me I was an undesirable person," Reuters quoted Michal Dworczyk, the prime minister's adviser for emigre and Polish ethnic community affairs, as saying on the Polish news channel TVN24. The Polish consul general in Hrodno and another Polish government official traveling with Dworczyk on diplomatic passports were not detained. The officials had planned to make Christmas visits to ethnic Polish communities in Belarus. "We will have the Foreign Ministry clarify the matter with the Belarusian Embassy in Warsaw and we will also request clarification," Reuters quoted Polish government spokesman Konrad Ciesiolkiewicz as telling the PAP news agency. BW

Gazprom head Aleksei Miller insisted on 9 December that the company applies market principles to "all foreign partners without exception" including Belarus, Interfax-Belarus reported on 12 December. "General market principles will be applied to Belarus as well. We proved this last year by securing a rise in the prices for gas exports. I don't think this story has been forgotten in Ukraine either," Miller said. Gazprom, which is seeking to raise prices to European levels for Ukraine and Moldova, said on 6 December that it will continue to supply natural gas to Belarus at the same reduced price as in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 2005). Miller justified the discrepancy by saying that Russia and Belarus are in the process of forming a union state and that Belarus is the only country where Gazprom owns the gas main. Miller added that the company has resumed talks over the Belarusian gas-distribution monopoly Beltransgaz which could give Gazprom control over the country's entire gas-transportation network. BW

President Viktor Yushchenko on 11 December said that all of Ukraine's troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2005, Interfax reported the next day. "I promised to withdraw the Ukrainian peacekeepers from Iraq. To date, 800 of our soldiers have already returned to Ukraine, The rest, a further 800 or so, will be welcomed home between 20 and 30 December. They will celebrate New Year's Eve with their families," Yushchenko said in a radio address on 10 December. "The 1,600 Ukrainian peacekeepers have trained 2,700 Iraqi troops -- a complete brigade of three battalions," he added. BW

President Yushchenko said that while he understands that many Ukrainians were disappointed with his split with former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, he does not regret firing her, ITAR-TASS reported on 12 December. According to ITAR-TASS, Yushchenko told reporters that he should have dismissed Tymoshenko "much earlier, in June, when the first economic crisis arose in the country." Tymoshenko was sacked in September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 September 2005). "I am an economist and I know how to manage the economy of the country," Yushchenko said. "But I hoped that the cabinet of ministers would work and communicate as a team. Regrettably, conflicts and personal ambitions began to make a hindrance even in the period of the unpleasant crisis. Economic adventurism had gained an upper hand. So there is nothing to regret," Yushchenko said. BW

Approximately 70,000 people rallied in Split on 11 December in support of former Croatian General Ante Gotovina, Hina reported the same day. Gotovina was arrested in the Canary Islands on 7 December and transferred to the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia on 10 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 9 December 2005). The rally was organized by the Croatian Disabled Homeland Defense War Veterans Association, which called on the government in Zagreb to get Gotovina's case transferred from The Hague and to Croatian jurisdiction. Demonstrators chanted Gotovina's name and carried signs saying "General, we are with you," and booed at the mention of government officials' names. Zeljko Strize, a leader of the association, said that veterans "are ashamed of the current government and its policy that curries favor with powerful world figures." Smaller protests were held in other Croatian cities and in the city of Mostar in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. BW

Gotovina's defense attorney Marin Ivanovic, meanwhile, said on 11 December that he expects his client to get "a fair and correct trial" and pledged to prove the general's innocence, Hina reported the same day. "We expect a fair and correct trial. We trust the Hague tribunal," Ivanovic said. Gotovina's first court appearance is scheduled for 12 December. The Hague-based war crimes tribunal indicted Gotovina in 2001 for alleged crimes against Serbian civilians in August 1995, when Croatian forces under his command ended the Serbs' four-year-long revolt. Ivanovic said that in the 4 1/2 years Gotovina was on the run, his defense team was preparing for an eventual trial. The lawyers have hundreds of documents and have already interviewed hundreds of officials and witnesses. "We will prove that Gotovina" is not responsible for the crimes he is accused of, Ivanovic said. BW

NATO announced on 12 December that its troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina have searched the home of a man in Pale believed to be helping former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic evade capture, dpa reported. "The search was conducted in an effort to find additional information about the support network and to collect information that may determine Radovan Karadzic's location," NATO said in a statement. BW

Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic on 9 December called on war crimes fugitives Karadzic and former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic to turn themselves in for trial, international news agencies reported the same day. "I once again call on Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to surrender to the Hague tribunal," Reuters quoted Cavic as saying on the sidelines of a conference in Banja Luka. "It needs to be understood that the institutions and the people of the Republika Srpska have become hostages of this situation and it definitively has to end," he added. Cavic said he does not think the two are on the territory of the Republika Srpska, but nevertheless called on law-enforcement bodies to locate them. "If they do not want to hand themselves in, I call on the Republika Srpska Interior Ministry and all regional agencies to fulfill their international obligation and once and for all erase this topic from the agenda," he said, according to Reuters. BW

The European Union is preparing to play a "leading role" in Kosova after a final settlement is reached, dpa reported on 9 December. According to a report by EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, Brussels "could take on responsibilities in the police and rule of law and certain economic areas" and suggests officials begin "contingency planning" for such a possibility. The report said, however, that Brussels is not planning to replace the current UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) with a similar European operation. "The future international civilian presence after UNMIK shall...not be EUMIK," dpa quoted the report as saying. BW

Chisinau failed for the fourth time on 11 December to elect a mayor due to low turnout, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. Turnout for the election was less than 20 percent, far short of the one-third of the city's voters required for the poll to be valid. Mayoral elections also failed on 10 and 24 July and 27 November due to low turnout (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 November 2005). "I am tired of so many elections," Moldovan parliamentary speaker Marian Lupu said, adding that parliament should consider changing the law on turnout. The post has been vacant since April, when former Mayor Serafim Urechean stepped down to take up a parliamentary seat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September 2005). BW

Traian Basescu told Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin on 10 December that Chisinau must establish political control over its entire territory, including the breakaway Transdniester region, in compliance with Moldova's Constitution, BASA and reported the same day. Basescu's comments came as Voronin was in Bucharest on an official visit. Voronin said that both Chisinau and Bucharest were disappointed that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's ministerial summit in Ljubljana failed to pass a final resolution on the Transdniester issue (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 2005). BW

Recent high-level contacts between Moscow and Beijing have again placed relations between the two giant neighbors in the spotlight. But despite some well-publicized business developments, a number of basic problems remain.

Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev announced in Beijing on 8 December that President Vladimir Putin will travel to China in late March 2006 to attend the opening ceremony of the Year of Russia in China. Medvedev, who chairs his country's Year of China in Russia organizing committee, added that Putin will also attend the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in China later that year.

He made the announcement after meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who is also general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Hu told Medvedev that China will deal with the toxic chemical spill on the Songhua River, whose waters flow on to Khabarovsk, with a "highly responsible" attitude. "We will take all necessary and effective measures and do our utmost to minimize the pollution and reduce the damage to the Russian side," Hu said, adding that "relevant problems will be properly solved with our joint efforts and close cooperation."

Meanwhile, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Beijing is considering building a "temporary dam" on the Fuyuan waterway to help protect Khabarovsk's water sources from pollution. He added that "China and Russia are still discussing the details of the temporary dam."

The Songhua River flows into the Heilong, which the Fuyuan joins with the Ussuri River to become the Amur near Khabarovsk. The Siberian city draws its water from the lower reaches of the Fuyuan.

London's "The Guardian" noted that "if the plan goes ahead, Beijing will have done more for its neighbors than it did for its own people," who have suffered from their government's delayed and secretive response to the spill. It thus seems clear that China is eager not to allow a potential ecological disaster to harm a mutually beneficial relationship as Beijing seeks to acquire energy supplies and military equipment from Russia.

The Beijing visit was a high-profile international contact for Medvedev, who was made first deputy prime minister in a series of mid-November Kremlin personnel changes that have led to much speculation at home and abroad.

Much of that discussion has centered on the possibility that Medvedev or newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov might -- or might not -- emerge as Putin's chosen successor for the 2008 elections. In any event, Beijing seems to have taken an interest in Medvedev, because otherwise it is difficult to explain why the head of the Chinese state and the CCP would meet with a foreign first deputy prime minister.

In Chinese practice, the political importance of a person is not necessarily reflected by their title, and Beijing's leaders all certainly remember that the late Deng Xiaoping led China on its post-1978 reform course even though his title for most of those years was deputy prime minister.

Bilateral relations have indeed developed apace, reflecting hard-headed mutual interests. On 10 August, Putin told Sergei Razov, his new ambassador to China, that he should "focus on economic ties first of all.... I am talking about the energy sector, like electricity, supplying natural resources, [and] working together in foreign markets."

In 2006, China is expected to build an oil pipeline from the railhead at Blagoveshchensk to the railway line at Heihe across the Amur River, which will have an initial annual capacity of 21 million barrels. The building of additional pipelines will certainly boost Russian sales to the seemingly insatiable Chinese market, which are limited at present largely by the lack of means to deliver the huge quantities of oil that China's expanding economy seeks.

Moreover, the executive director of China National Offshore Oil Corporation, Fu Chengyu, announced on 8 December that his expanding company is interested in "acquiring the assets of Yukos oil company," Interfax reported.

Arms sales are also a big factor in bilateral relations. In September, China agreed to buy 38 aircraft, which consist of Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft and Il-78 refueling planes, for a total of about $1.5 billion. In August, the two countries staged joint military exercises that involved about 10,000 soldiers, most of whom were Chinese, as well as 140 naval ships and submarines, Russian Tu-22M "Backfire" long-range bombers, and Tu-95 "Bear" intercontinental bombers.

Analysts widely concluded that Moscow was seeking to market its aircraft, while Beijing sought to learn the "latest Russian methods" that could be used to thwart a possible U.S. intervention should China decide to settle scores with Taiwan. Most Western editorial comment on the exercises also noted that the drill's purpose was to serve notice to Washington that Moscow and Beijing would not accept U.S. military supremacy in the Far East in the long run.

Moscow and Beijing are, moreover, partners in the SCO, which is one of several regional groupings that both countries are fostering that do not include the United States. Nonetheless, it is not clear whether it will prove to be much more than a propaganda forum for dictators. Furthermore, it remains to be seen how far Russia will prove willing to go in helping an increasingly assertive China in the years to come.

Russia, moreover, might choose at some point to reevaluate its overall policies toward China. During the Cold War, U.S. President Richard Nixon and national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski observed at different times that there are bound to be tensions between two such large and culturally different countries sharing a long common border as do Russia and China, regardless of the ideological colorings of their respective regimes. This is, both men argued, a simple geopolitical fact.

Is it now too unlikely to suppose that at some point various political or military figures in Moscow might question the wisdom of selling sophisticated weapons to a dynamic country that could again become a rival? One does not have to look too deeply into some of the Russian press to find voices that already caution against a possible long-term threat to Russian control over Siberia by a country of 1.3 billion people on the other side of the border.

The list of the 34 members of the Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga) in the Afghan National Assembly appointed by President Hamid Karzai was announced on the official Bakhtar News Agency's website on 9 December ( According to the Afghan Constitution, the president chooses one-third of the 102-member upper house, half of whom should be women. The list includes former Afghan President and current head of the Commission for Strengthening Peace and Stability Sebghatullah Mojaddedi; former Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim; mujahedin-era Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Sabur Farid; Arsala Rahmani, the former deputy minister of higher education under the Taliban and one of the main supporters of Kabul's reconciliation efforts with members of that regime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2005); former Helmand Province Governor Mullah Sher Mohammad Akhundzada; and Qurban Ali Ramazan, a brother of Ashraf Ramazan, an elected member of the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) from Balkh Province in northern Afghanistan who was gunned down in September. One of the 17 female appointees is current Minister for Martyrs and the Disabled Sediqa Balkhi, whose work at the ministry has come under criticism. The National Assembly is set to open on 19 December. AT

The head of the EU Election Observer Mission, Emma Bonino, presented the final report on Afghanistan's 18 September elections for the People's Council and provincial councils in Kabul on 10 December, according to an EU press release. "Overall, given their complexity and operational challenges, the elections are an accomplishment, although there were notable shortcomings to be addressed in the future," she said. Bonino praised the preparations of the elections and the election-day procedures; however, she said that "post-election-day developments revealed significant deficiencies." Bonino added that democracy is not confined to elections alone and that the Afghans should think about society and civic culture. The EU mission had 159 observers monitor the polling process in 29 out of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. AT

Nine policemen were killed and two were injured in an attack on 9 December in Garmser district of Helmand Province, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on 10 December. In a separate attack in nearby Zabul Province, the neo-Taliban attacked a security post, killing one policeman and wounding another. AT

A suicide bomber targeting a U.S. military convoy in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan missed his target, but killed an Afghan civilian and himself, Peshawar-based AIP reported on 11 December. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. AT

As the Afghan Air Force begins its recovery, the Defense Ministry is looking at the possibility of female pilots joining the force, state-run National Television of Afghanistan reported on 10 December. Currently, 58 pilots are scheduled to receive training, including two female pilots, Captain Latifa and Captain Lailoma. According to Captain Lailoma, women have proven that they are able to help their country by serving in the air force. AT

Parliament approved Seyyed Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh as Iran's new oil minister on 11 December, with 172 votes for him, 53 against, and 34 abstentions, news agencies reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2005). Vaziri-Hamaneh has been the acting minister since the end of August, was deputy minister under former Oil Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh, and has spent more than 30 years in the sector, also being a director of the state-run National Iranian Oil Company, AFP reported on 11 December. Vaziri-Hamaneh set out some of his plans for the oil sector in parliament on 11 December, including continued exploration to maintain production levels, developing the processing and petrochemical sector to meet domestic demand for gasoline, upgrading pipelines, and encouraging efficient energy use, ISNA reported. Vaziri-Hamaneh is to attend an Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting in Kuwait on 12 December, news agencies reported. VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi said in Tehran on 11 December that Iran and representatives of the EU-3 (Great Britain, France, and Germany) may meet on 21 December to discuss Iran's nuclear program, perhaps in Vienna, ISNA reported the same day. The date "is one of the dates that has been mentioned," he told the press, adding that "the most important subjects" to be discussed in talks will be Iran's "rights...that is the right to enrichment...and we expect the session to take [Iran's] rights into consideration." Supreme National Security Council spokesman Hussein Entezami confirmed the date for talks the same day, ISNA reported. The meeting, Assefi told a weekly press conference, will be "serious, and everything will depend on these negotiations and that meeting," ISNA reported. "You may be sure of one thing...that we shall make our decisions on the basis of the meeting," though he expressed optimism over its outcome, if Europe respects Iran's rights, and "acts on the basis of the norms and protocols of the" Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. "As I said, we do not want anything other than our right, and will not be satisfied with anything less," he said. VS

Atomic Energy Organization head Gholam-Reza Aqazadeh-Khoi said in Tehran on 10 December that Iran is considering the construction of one or two nuclear power plants with foreign participation, for which it hopes to issue tenders in the Persian year that begins on 21 March 2006, news agencies reported the same day. He said foreign participation would be for the construction of a 2,000-megawatt "nuclear electricity plant." Official remarks earlier indicated the intended construction of two power plants (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 December 2005). Iran intends to build its own 360-megawatt light-water nuclear plant in Khuzestan Province, he said without saying when construction might begin, ISNA and AP reported. "We have valuable experience and in terms of resources and equipment, we are able to do this," he said. He expressed hope that the plant will be designed and built by Iranians only. "Some people think it would be difficult to have this type of power plant in Iran, but...they do not know about Iran's capabilities," ISNA quoted him as saying. Aqazadeh said Iran's plant in Bushehr is "90 percent complete," and expected to start operating in 2006. Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency head Sergei Kirienko is to visit the site "this year" to discuss the timetable for completion, he added. VS

Iranian activists held several demonstrations in Cologne, Germany, to mark International Human Rights Day on 10 December and draw attention to the plight of detained dissidents in Iran, Radio Farda reported on 10 December. Separately, Iranian Human Rights Activists Groups in EU and North America, a coalition of 15 groups (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2005), issued a 10 December statement listing rights abuses in Iran in the past seven months. The statement alleged that Iran has in this time interrogated 254 students, 46 reporters or bloggers, prosecuted 157 political or social activists, condemned 101 people to death, and ordered two women to be stoned. Group member Hussein Mahutiha told Radio Farda on 10 December that "given the fact that the extensive, continuous, and planned violation of human rights encompasses all social institutions, writers, pressmen, workers, and can see this is not an isolated matter or the work of a few lawless people," but that it is "planned." VS

Iran's national police chief, Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, warned on 10 December that a continuing "pollution crisis" in Tehran will kill as many city residents as the 2003 earthquake in Bam that killed over 20,000 people, and a "silent death" will engulf the capital, Mehr news agency reported the same day. He said that about 10 million liters of fuel is consumed in Tehran daily, and this must be cut, though he said less personal car use and more public transport are not enough. On 9 December, he said, 70 percent of cars on Tehran's roads had one occupant, and that "one must change the people's perspective on car use." Legislator Ali Riaz told ISNA on 10 December that parliament's Article 90 committee, which usually deals with public complaints against government agencies, will discuss pollution "at the first opportunity." Separately, Kazem Nedafi, a lecturer at the Tehran Medical Science University, told Radio Farda on 11 December that 5,000 to 9,000 Tehran residents die annually from pollution-related causes. VS

Iraqi Independent Election Commission (IECI) Director-General Adil al-Lami announced on 12 December that voting for the National Assembly elections is under way in prisons and hospitals across the country RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. Military personnel are also expected to begin voting on 12 December, according to an 11 December statement by al-Lami. RFI reported on 10 December that strict security measures will be in place ahead of the 15 December general elections. The measures include a travel ban between Baghdad and other governorates from 12 to 17 December. The government also announced that 16 security men will be assigned to each polling center, and as in the January election, multinational forces will provide back-up to Iraqi security forces in the areas around polling centers. Borders and airports will be closed, and a five-day public holiday will be proclaimed. Additional security measures include the placement of 13,000 concrete barriers at the main entrances to Baghdad. KR

Hamdiyah al-Husayni, who heads the IECI's out-of-country voting operation, told reporters at an 11 December press briefing in Amman that 93 polling centers will be open in 15 countries around the world this week for out-of-country voting in the parliamentary elections, Jordan's Petra news agency reported the same day. Expatriate Iraqis will be able to cast their ballots over a three-day period, from 13-15 December. Al-Husayni said that the Iraqi government allocated $42 million to carry out the vote abroad; the government spent $92 million for out-of-country voting in the January elections. Some 5,000 Iraqi staffers are manning the polling centers and some 2,000 independent monitors will be on hand, al-Husayni said. For more information on the out-of-country voting program, see the IECI's Out-of-Country Voting website ( KR

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Iraqi voters to go to the polls in this week's parliamentary elections in an 11 December statement, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. The statement said the ayatollah does not support any particular list, and he believes voters should elect a parliament that represents the free will of the people. Meanwhile, al-Sistani's representative in Karbala, Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i, reportedly criticized the al-Ja'fari government in his Friday sermon on 9 December, saying it has failed to provide Iraqis with basic needs, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 11 December. He added that if the situation does not change, the political parties currently in government will lose the support of the people. KR

Iraqi Islamic Party Secretary-General Tariq al-Hashimi accused the Iraqi government and the IECI of improprieties in the run-up to the 15 December parliamentary elections during a 10 December press briefing in Baghdad broadcast on Al-Arabiyah television the same day. Al-Hashimi accused security forces of irresponsible behavior because of their alleged refusal to pursue people who attacked Sunni political parties in recent days. He added that members of the government warned his party's workers in Kirkuk against promoting the Islamic Party's platform; he also accused the government of warning party members in the city against filing any complaints of election violations in the city on election day. Al-Hashimi accused the IECI of setting up only half the number of polling centers needed in the Al-Anbar Governorate, and of refusing to set up polling centers in the restive towns of Al-Yusufiyah and Al-Mahmudiyah, both located south of Baghdad. He further contended that the IECI does not have a balanced ethnic composition. KR

Iraqi police said they have identified the body of an Egyptian hostage abducted on 9 December, RFI reported on 11 December. The hostage, Ibrahim al-Sa'id al-Hilali, was reportedly working in Tikrit as a U.S. contractor when he was abducted. Police said that al-Hilali was found dead of a gunshot wound near a village north of Tikrit on 10 December. His identity cards were found in his pocket. KR

Sources within the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association told London's "Sunday Telegraph" that four Western peace activists kidnapped in Iraq may have been taken by a "spy" who infiltrated the mosque, the newspaper reported on 11 December. The sources said the four had met with association members at the Umm Al-Qura Mosque to discuss prisoner abuse in Iraq shortly before being abducted. The sources said an infiltrator at the mosque must have tipped off the kidnappers when the group was leaving the meeting; they were abducted down the road from the mosque. There is still no word on the fate of the hostages. The group holding them, the Brigades of the Swords of Right, threatened to kill them on 10 December unless all prisoners were released from U.S. and Iraqi jails (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2005). KR