RUSSIA UNMASKS ALLEGED BRITISH SPIES...
RTR state television broadcast footage on 22 January of what it said were four British diplomats engaged in espionage activities, Russian and British media reported. The program also included comments by people identified as Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officials. The report added that one of the British diplomats was in regular contact with many Russian nongovernmental organizations. The BBC said that this appears to be an attempt by the Russian authorities to justify new legislation aimed at more closely controlling NGOs, which some officials have accused of working for Western governments. According to Reuters, an unnamed FSB spokesman said that "everything that was shown [in the program] was true and based on our information." The British authorities regularly decline to comment on intelligence matters, but a Foreign Office spokesman said in London on 23 January that his government "rejects any allegation of improper conduct in our dealing with Russian NGOs." He added that "all our assistance is given openly and aims to support the development of a healthy civil society in Russia." PM
...WHO SAY THEY DID NOTHING WRONG
Lyudmila Alekseyeva, who heads the NGO Moscow Helsinki Group, said in Moscow on 23 January that that one of the four British diplomats might have approved a payment of a $40,000 grant to her organization in 2004, as the RTR broadcast stated, RIA-Novosti reported. She stressed, however, that it does not matter who signed off on the project that involved a trip to the United Kingdom by Russian activists to study international documents on human rights and discuss how to apply them to Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 January 2006). PM
RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER CALLS ON IRAN TO HELP DEFUSE TENSION
Sergei Lavrov said after meeting with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari in Moscow on 23 January that Russia hopes "that our Iranian friends will be able to take a position that will allow the current tension to be defused and the issue to be resolved," RIA-Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2006). PM
AL-JAZEERA REPORTER ATTACKED IN MOSCOW
Abd al-Munim, who is a citizen of Qatar and a correspondent for Al-Jazeera television, was beaten by an unidentified attacker in northwest Moscow on 22 January, Interfax reported. Al-Munim received medical assistance. Police are looking for the attacker, who fled by car. PM
PUTIN WARNS PUBLIC CHAMBER...
President Vladimir Putin told the first full session of the Public Chamber on 22 January that it can expect to run into obstacles in monitoring the work of state officials, "The Moscow Times" reported. "You will run into difficulties. You aren't welcome everywhere," he said. The Public Chamber is a consultative body set up by Putin after he abolished gubernatorial elections in 2004. Human-rights groups and some politicians say it is sham. PM
...AND HIS FORMER AIDE APPEALS TO THE CITIZENS
Andrei Illarionov, who recently resigned as economic adviser to President Putin, wrote in "Kommersant-Daily" on 23 January that Russia has become richer over the past six years but has seen its economic, political, and social freedoms diminish. Russia, he argued, has become a corporate state, in which the state concerns itself primarily with looking out for the interests of its own inner circles and discriminates against outsiders. Illarionov added that the nationalist "nashe" ideology is aggressive and closely related to the corporate state because it divides phenomena into "ours" and "others." He called on citizens to have as little to do with the corporate state as possible as part of an effort to regain lost freedoms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2005). PM
SABOTAGE IN NORTH CAUCASUS DISRUPTS ENERGY SUPPLIES TO GEORGIA, ARMENIA
Two explosions in North Ossetia near the Nizhny Lars border post between the Russian Federation and Georgia's unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia during the early hours of 22 January seriously damaged both strands of the main gas pipeline that supplies gas to Georgia and Armenia, Russian media reported. Experts from Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry initially treated the explosions as the accidental consequence of severe cold, but the FSB concluded after examining the damage that it was caused by explosive charges equal to 700-800 grams of TNT. The prosecutor's office of the Republic of North Ossetia has opened an investigation, and suspects militants from neighboring Ingushetia may have been responsible for the blasts, regnum.ru reported. A third explosion in the Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic damaged the main power line supplying electricity from Russia to Georgia. Experts estimate repairs to that facility will take some two weeks, while repairs to the gas pipeline will be completed within two-three days, ITAR-TASS reported. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan began to provide additional gas to Georgia late on 22 January to make up for the shortfall, while Turkey provided additional electricity, ITAR-TASS reported quoting Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli. LF
RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY REJECTS GEORGIAN ACCUSATIONS
In a 22 January address to the Georgian people, President Mikheil Saakashvili implicitly blamed Russia for the sabotage of the gas pipelines, noting that the explosions occurred in a region under Russian control, "The Washington Post" reported. Saakashvili similarly told the "Financial Times" that the blasts were deliberate retaliation for Georgia's efforts to reduce its 100 percent dependence on Russian gas supplies by securing alternative supplies from Azerbaijan and Iran. He added that Islamic militants in the North Caucasus had "no reason" to target Georgia. The Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement (http://www.ln.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/639DBEB9537CBDD8C32570FF002A9904) on 22 January rejected Saakashvili's accusations as "hysterical and confused," and it accused "practically the entire Georgian government" of seizing on the sabotage as a pretext for intensifying their "anti-Russian campaign." Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov likewise expressed "surprise" on 22 January at the Georgian accusations, advising that the incident should not be "politicized," ITAR-TASS reported. LF
MAJORITY ARGUES THAT ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT NOT EMPOWERED TO INVESTIGATE ALLEGED REFERENDUM FRAUD
Leading members of the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) parliament faction commented coolly on 20 January on a draft motion submitted by the opposition Artarutiun faction to set up an ad hoc committee to investigate reports of serious procedural irregularities during the 27 November referendum on a package of draft constitutional amendments, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. HHK faction leader Galust Sahakian pointed out that the parliament has no legal authority to undertake such a probe, which is the prerogative of the Central Election Commission and police. Sahakian said he will seek to persuade the faction to vote against the proposal. Armen Rustamian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun, one of the two junior partners in the ruling coalition, suggested that the opposition proposal was intended less to investigate the fraud allegations than to exploit them in a bid to embarrass the country's leadership. LF
WORLD BANK APPROVES NEW LOAN TO ARMENIA
The World Bank approved on 19 January the second installment, worth some $20 million, of a three-year lending program, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 20 January. In a statement, the bank noted Armenia's "exemplary economic performance" and the government's continued efforts to reduce poverty. The loan is intended to cover part of Armenia's anticipated $155 million budget deficit for 2006. LF
ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER GIVES MORE DETAILS OF LONDON TALKS
Vartan Oskanian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service late on 19 January that his talks in London on 18-19 January with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group served their purpose in that the two sides clarified their respective positions. Oskanian said he and Mammadyarov will now brief their respective presidents in preparation for a summit that French President Jacques Chirac has offered to host (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2006). Oskanian confirmed that the London talks focused on the "basic principles" for a settlement that are set down in a "half-page text" formulated by the Minsk Group co-chairs (see "Foreign Ministers Seek To Finalize 'Basic Principles' For Resolving Karabakh Conflict," rferl.org, 16 January 2006). He said those principles (nine of them, according to Mammadyarov) serve as "guidelines" for the talks between the foreign ministers and presidents and, if agreed to, "could serve as the basis for a more detailed document." He added that with regard to some of those basic principles the two sides' positions are "still far apart." LF
ARRESTED EX-MINISTER'S MOTHER APPEALS TO AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT
Shovket Aliyeva, the mother of arrested former Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev, has appealed to President Ilham Aliyev to permit her son's transfer from a detention center to a hospital to allow him to receive qualified medical treatment for his increasingly life-threatening circulatory problems, day.az reported on 20 January, citing APA. Aliyev has experienced repeated health problems since his arrest three months ago on charges of plotting a coup d'etat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 and 29 December 2005 and 4 and 11 January 2006). LF
ABKHAZ PRESIDENT APPEALS TO UN SECURITY COUNCIL
Sergei Bagapsh wrote on 20 January to the UN Security Council asking that his unrecognized republic be permitted to send a representative to attend the 26 January council session that will focus on the Abkhaz conflict, regnum.ru reported. Bagapsh expressed appreciation and gratitude for the efforts of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia, the Friends of the UN Secretary-General group of countries, and the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone to preserve stability in the region. At the same time, he deplored what he termed Georgia's unwillingness formally to abjure the use of force. Noting that any solution to the conflict must address the interests of both sides, Bagapsh advocated abandoning as unrealistic and unworkable the "Basic Principles for the Division of Competencies between Georgia and Abkhazia" drafted by former UN special representative Ambassador Dieter Boden (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April and 5 November 2001 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 January 2002). Instead, he advocated signing a formal document abjuring the use of force and militant rhetoric; ending the international blockade of Abkhazia; implementing the confidence-building measures agreed upon during talks in Sochi three years ago, including the resumption of rail traffic via Abkhazia, the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons, and renovating the Inguri hydroelectric power station; and beginning "civilized negotiations" on all issues relevant to the conflict, with the exception of Abkhazia's status. LF
GEORGIAN ENVOY SIGNALS WILLINGNESS TO COMPROMISE
Irakli Alasania, who is Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict, hinted in Tbilisi on 20 January that the Georgian leadership might drop the amendments it introduced into the UN-mediated "Draft Agreement on International Guarantees of Security and Non-Resumption of Hostilities," Caucasus Press reported. Caucasus Press on 18 January quoted Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba as telling Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative for the Abkhaz conflict, that the Georgian government has unilaterally made "unacceptable" changes to that draft (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006). Alasania said the Abkhaz are disappointed that the draft does not designate the Russian peacekeepers deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone the international guarantor of Abkhazia's security. Georgia's parliament raised the possibility in October of demanding the peacekeepers' withdrawal unless they demonstrate greater effectiveness in preventing attacks on the predominantly Georgian population of Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 October 2005). LF
GEORGIAN MINISTER REJECTS REPORTS OF GUERRILLAS
Meanwhile, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava denied on 20 January after meeting in Tbilisi with U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Julie Finley that Georgian guerrillas are operating in the Abkhaz conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported. Khaindrava said that "hotheads" must realize that any such guerrilla activities would impede the search for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. On 17 January, the Abkhaz Foreign Ministry issued a formal statement asking the international community to pressure the Georgian government to put an end to the illegal activities of Georgian guerrillas operating in Abkhazia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January 2006). LF
SOUTH OSSETIA DENIES IT RECEIVES WEAPONRY FROM RUSSIA
The Foreign Ministry of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia released a statement on 20 January rejecting as a fabrication a 19 January Georgian Foreign Ministry statement claiming that Russia is illegally channeling weaponry to South Ossetia, Civil Georgia reported. The Georgian accusations were based on the discovery of an antiaircraft system during monitoring of the conflict zone on 13-14 January undertaken jointly under the OSCE aegis by Georgian, Russian, and North Ossetian personnel. The South Ossetian statement rejected the Georgian allegations as intended to discredit the South Ossetian leadership in the eyes of the international community and to substantiate Georgian arguments for the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force from South Ossetia. LF
U.S. COMMANDER HOPES FOR KAZAKH-NATO MILITARY EXERCISES
Charles Wald, deputy commander of U.S. European Command, said while in Astana on 20 January to meet with senior Kazakh officials that "we will do everything possible to conduct joint NATO-Kazakh military exercises," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Wald met with Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev and Defense Minister Colonel General Mukhtar Altynbaev, Khabar reported. Their talks focused on cooperation between NATO and Kazakhstan in combating terrorism, narcotics smuggling, and human trafficking. "I believe that Kazakhstan's cooperation with NATO is at a good level and will continue to develop," Wald commented. He also noted that the United States is providing the Kazakh army with radio equipment to ensure communications with NATO forces on compatible frequencies. DK
ATTEMPTED DISMISSAL OF KYRGYZ GOVERNOR SPARKS PROTEST
A group of 500 protesters returned Jalalabad Governor Jusupjan Jeenbekov to his office on 20 January despite a 19 January decree by President Kurmanbek Bakiev dismissing the governor, akipress.org reported. Usen Sydykov, head of the presidential administration, had arrived in Jalalabad to conduct talks with the protesters but was unable to convince them to allow Iskander Aidaraliev, whom Bakiev had designated Jeenbekov's successor, to assume his new duties, ferghana.ru reported. Ferghana.ru noted that Jeenbekov is the second "revolutionary governor" -- governors who assumed their posts after the 24 March 2005 fall of President Askar Akaev -- to be removed by Bakiev; Osh Governor Anvar Artykov was dismissed in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). Jeenbekov told a press conference on 20 January that he argued with Jusup Bakiev, President Bakiev's brother, in a telephone conversation the day before the president issued a decree removing him, akipress.org reported. Jeenbekov suggested he might follow Artykov's example and join the opposition to President Bakiev. Jeenbekov, who is reportedly carrying on with his duties despite the presidential dismissal, said he is scheduled to meet with President Bakiev on 25 January. DK
WORLD BANK ALLOCATES $15 MILLION FOR TAJIK PROJECT
The World Bank's board of executive directors on 19 January approved a $15 million grant to improve municipal services in eight Tajik cities, the bank reported in a news release on its website (http://www.worldbank.org). The project, which will begin in March and last for five years, is aimed at infrastructure improvements for residents of Danghara, Istaravshan, Konibodom, Kulob, Qurghonteppa, Rasht, Vahdat, and Vose, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. DK
TAJIK PRESIDENT RETURNS FROM TURKEY VISIT
President Imomali Rakhmonov returned to Tajikistan on 22 January after a three-day visit to Turkey, Anatolia reported. In the course of his visit, Rakhmonov met with Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Prime Minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan, and parliamentary speaker Bulent Arinc to discuss bilateral ties and Turkish investment in Tajikistan. In an address to Turkish businessmen on 20 January, Rakhmonov voiced dissatisfaction with the low level of Turkish investment in Tajikistan and invited Turkish entrepreneurs to pursue projects in his country, the "Turkish Daily News" reported. DK
TAJIK POLICE COMPLETE INVESTIGATION OF DUSHANBE BLASTS
Interior Minister Humdin Sharipov told a news conference in Dushanbe on 19 January that the investigation of explosions that struck the Tajik capital on 31 January and 13 June 2005 has been completed, Avesta reported. Sharipov said that one of the organizers of the blasts, "a member of the extremist organization, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, blew himself up in his own house while he was being detained." Sharipov declined to name individuals in custody because at least two suspected organizers of the attacks remain at large. One person was killed in the two explosions, which both took place near Tajikistan's Emergency Situations Ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 February and 14 June 2005). DK
RUSSIA TO PAY MORE FOR UZBEK GAS IN 2006
Aleksei Miller, chairman of Russia's Gazprom, and Uzbek President Islam Karimov reached an agreement on 20 January for Russia to buy 9 billion cubic meters of Uzbek gas in 2006 at a price of $60 per 1,000 cubic meters, Reuters reported. The price represents a 25-percent increase on Russia's 2005 gas purchases from Uzbekistan, which totaled 8 billion cubic meters. Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said that Gazprom will sell up to 7 billion cubic meters of the Uzbek gas it buys in 2006 to Rosukrenergo, a company half-owned by Gazprom, for subsequent sale to Ukraine as part of a complex deal between Russia and Ukraine on 2006 gas shipments. President Karimov's press service announced that Gazprom, which plans to increase the throughput capacity of the Central Asia-Center pipeline that runs through Uzbekistan, intends to invest up to $1.5 billion in Uzbekistan's energy sector in the future, Interfax reported. DK
RIGHTS GROUP PRESSES FOR INFORMATION ON JAILED UZBEK ACTIVIST
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a 20 January press release on the organization's website (http://www.hrw.org) that the Uzbekistan government "must clarify" the fate of rights activist Saidjahon Zainabiddinov, who has reportedly been sentenced to a seven-year prison term for having provided information to foreign journalists about the Uzbek authorities' violent suppression of unrest in Andijon in May (see "Human-Rights Activist Reportedly Sentenced In Secret Trial," rferl.org, 13 January 2006). "Uzbek authorities are hiding information about Zainabiddinov's whereabouts," Holly Cartner, HRW Europe and Central Asia director, commented. "They should immediately tell Saidjahon's family and the international community what has happened to him." Cartner added: "Uzbek authorities are punishing Zainabiddinov for telling the world what happened in Andijan. He should be released immediately." Unconfirmed reports indicate that Zainabiddinov was convicted for spreading false information and sowing panic among the population. DK
BELARUSIAN-RUSSIAN ASSEMBLY APPROVES 2006 UNION BUDGET
The Belarusian-Russian Parliamentary Assembly approved the 2006 budget of the Belarus-Russia Union State in Moscow on 20 January, ITAR-TASS reported. The budget totals 3.1 billion Russian rubles ($110 million), including Russia's contribution of 1.76 billion rubles, Belarus's contribution of 948 million rubles, and 259 million rubles in Belarus's debts on its budget contributions between 2000 and 2003. Eighty-two percent of the budget is allocated for 40 joint programs and events, including the development of computer technologies, diesel-car making, radio electronic systems, as well as special and dual-purpose equipment. Belarus-Russia Union Secretary Pavel Borodin said 8,000 companies employing up to 300,000 workers of the two countries currently work on union projects. JM
KYIV ASKS MOSCOW TO DELAY SIGNING 2006 GAS CONTRACTS
Ukraine on 21 January asked Russia to reschedule the signing of gas accords between Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayiny for 25 January, Ukrainian and international media reported, quoting Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov. Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayiny planned to sign gas-supply contracts for 2006 on 21 January. Those contracts result from the 4 January framework agreement between them and the Swiss-based intermediary RosUkrEnergo (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," 10 January 2006). Naftohaz Ukrayiny was also expected to sign an accord with RosUkrEnergo on the creation of a joint venture for managing gas sales in Ukraine. "Unfortunately, we have been unable to get the documents ready," Yekhanurov said. "The first question is the price of gas, how prices are established, and how long they are to remain in place." Meanwhile, some media in Ukraine and Russia have speculated that the delay might have been provoked by Turkmenistan, which allegedly has so far failed to confirm prices or volume of its gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006. JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT URGES PRE-ELECTION STABILITY
President Viktor Yushchenko on 22 January appealed to political rivals to ensure stability in the country in the ongoing campaign for the 26 March parliamentary elections, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. Yushchenko was speaking on Unification Day, the anniversary of the failed attempt to form an independent Ukrainian state in 1919. "Elections are a sacred matter," Yushchenko said. "Not for you, but for the voters. The best compliment a politician could possibly pay to his nation is to ensure that our election takes place in political stability." Yushchenko wants the Verkhovna Rada to back down on its dismissal of Yekhanurov's cabinet earlier this month over a controversial gas deal with Russia. Presidential Secretariat head Oleh Rybachuk told journalists the same day that Yushchenko will address the nation on 23 January to present proposals to overcome the country's current political crisis. JM
KOSOVA'S PRESIDENT DIES, LEAVING LEADERSHIP VOID...
Kosova President Ibrahim Rugova died of lung cancer on 21 January leaving a leadership void on the eve of final-status talks for the province, international news agencies reported the same day. The government declared 15 days of official mourning and tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians walked past Rugova's villa in Prishtina to pay tribute. Rugova, 61, was diagnosed with lung cancer in September 2005. "The aim to which he dedicated his life is that of a free Kosova," Soren Jessen-Petersen, head of the UN Mission in Kosova said at a special session of parliament. "It is a vision whose realization remains in the hands of you, Kosova's political leaders, whose unity and commitment to the president's mission will be vital in the coming months." Rugova's body will lie in state in Kosova's parliament from 23 January and will be buried on 26 January in Prishtina. BW
...AS FINAL-STATUS TALKS POSTPONED
The first direct talks on Kosova's final status have been postponed due to Rugova's death, international news agencies reported on 22 January. The talks, scheduled to begin in Vienna on 25 January, have been pushed back to early February, dpa quoted Hua Jiang, a spokeswoman for the UN's chief negotiator for the talks, Martti Ahtisaari, as saying. International officials expressed concern that Kosova will lack unity in the absence of the widely popular Rugova. Albert Rohan, the deputy head of the UN negotiating team, called Rugova's death "a great loss for the people of Kosova, and for the status process." Rugova, Rohan added, had been the "unifying factor" in his province, and "the symbol of the wishes of the Kosova people." Parliament has three months to elect a new president. Parliamentary speaker Nexhat Daci will fulfill Rugova's duties until a new president is elected, B92 reported on 23 January. BW
SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH COMPLAINS OF HARASSMENT
In an open letter, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle alleged that the church is being subjected to harassment and hate speech in the northern Vojvodina province, B92 reported on 23 January. Pavle alleged that hate speech against the Orthodox Church is being spread "from the highest places and through some media outlets." He added that "champions of hate speech" include Vojvodina's top officials "among whom the former speaker of the Vojvodina parliament, Nenad Canak, certainly stands out." Canak denied the allegation and independent analysts dismissed Pavle's claims, noting the church's privileged position in Serbian society. The letter identified a failed attempt to steal some sheet metal and three icons from the roof of a church in the village of Grabovo, near Beocin, and a fire in the Rakovac Monastery in the Fruska Gora area as examples of harassment. Police caught the thieves from Grabovo and established that the cause of the fire in Rakovac resulted from mistakes made by a construction worker. BW
PROTESTS AND BLOCKADES PLANNED FOR MACEDONIA OVER ELECTRICITY, TOBACCO DISPUTES
Separate protests by a group opposed to the sale of Macedonia's electric company and by disgruntled tobacco growers have been planned for various parts of the country on 23 January, Makfax reported. The Voice for Light Association, a group organizing nationwide protests against the sale of Macedonia's Electric Power Company (ESM), plan protests in Prilep, Bitola, Ohrid, Kicevo, Veles, Stip, Strumica, Kumanovo, and Kriva Palanka. Meanwhile, tobacco growers in Strumica, unhappy with the price the government is offering for their crop, announced plans to set up roadblocks at Novo Selo at the Macedonian-Bulgarian border. BW
MOLDOVA TO IMPLEMENT NEW CUSTOMS RULE ON TRANSDNIESTER
Reintegration Minister Vasile Sova, who is in charge of Moldova's efforts to resolve the Transdniester conflict, said on 22 January that Chisinau has no plans to impose an economic blockade on the separatist region, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. Sova added, however, that as of 25 January, all companies in Transdniester must process all imports and exports through Moldovan customs offices. All companies in the region, he added, must be registered in Moldova. "The government will offer discounted registration to all companies in the unrecognized [Transdniester] republic and will thus make it possible for them to legalize their activity and work without restrictions and bans," Sova said. Officials in Transdniester called the measures an economic blockade and parliamentary speaker Yevgeny Shevchuk warned on 21 January that the breakaway region could pull out of the talks on settling the regional conflict. Moldova and Ukraine signed the new customs rules on 31 December. BW
KOSOVA AFTER RUGOVA
The death of Kosova's President Ibrahim Rugova on 21 January comes shortly before talks on the province's final status are slated to begin. The loss of the ethnic Albanians' most senior leader only makes an already difficult political situation even more complicated.
Rugova was the virtually unchallenged leader of the Kosovars for the past two decades. He championed change through nonviolence and was a tireless advocate of independence, which all Kosovar Albanian political parties now support.
Of course, the Serbian crackdown of 1998-99 and the ensuing conflict that led to the end of Serbian rule effectively discredited the nonviolent approach and brought to prominence a new generation of leaders through their roles in the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). But Rugova retained an unquestioned moral authority, and it is difficult to imagine anyone easily filling his shoes in that respect. Adem Demaci is known as "Kosova's Mandela" for the long years he spent in communist prisons and for his integrity, but he is elderly and has generally shunned active politics.
Moreover, it will not be easy for Rugova's faction-ridden Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) to find a replacement for him, and Rugova did not groom a successor. Although parliamentary speaker Nexhat Daci belongs to the LDK, it is not clear who will ultimately emerge as the party's new leader. Some observers have suggested that the LDK, the origins of which go back the ethnic Albanian branch of the former League of Communists of Yugoslavia, might split or undergo some other significant changes.
Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi belongs to the smaller Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK). He took up that job to replace party founder Ramush Haradinaj after the Hague tribunal indicted Haradinaj for war crimes early in 2005. Kosumi's behavior in office has been controversial and tainted by charges of corruption, which hardly recommends him for higher office.
The main opposition leaders are Hashim Thaci of the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK), and publisher Veton Surroi of the relatively new ORA party. Thaci and Haradinaj have their respective political bases in different branches of the former UCK. Surroi is well-known both at home and abroad but lacks the sort of large power base that Thaci and Haradinaj have.
In fact, part of Kosova's leadership problem is that the province has passed from oppressive rule from Belgrade in 1999 to a semi-colonial government by the UN's civilian administration (UNMIK) without having had the opportunity to develop its own democratic structures. Consequently, most important politicians like Thaci or Haradinaj have their power bases rooted not in modern political institutions but in their home regions, their clans, or their old UCK networks -- or a combination of the three.
It might yet be possible for the various parties to agree on a neutral figure like a senior university professor to succeed Rugova, but that person is unlikely to have the necessary political authority to lead the status talks. Some commentators have suggested that it might be time to take a different approach entirely and select a young leader untainted by earlier power struggles. Such a person would also be more representative of one of the youngest populations in Europe.
Regardless of how the leadership struggle develops and who leads the Albanians in the status talks, Kosova appears headed for troubled times. First of all, the Serbian side in the talks is unlikely to show flexibility in the run-up to the early Serbian parliamentary elections widely expected in 2006. None of the top Belgrade politicians wants to appear to the voters as "weak" on Kosova, even if in private some of those leaders acknowledge that the province is lost.
Second, some media reports suggest that the major international powers are prepared to impose a status solution in the face of Serbian and Albanian intransigence. According to that scenario, Kosova would become independent but with international guarantees for the Serbian minority. Since the Serbs and Albanians can agree on very little, the foreigners are likely to have a continuing and sometimes controversial role on the ground.
Finally, if and when the Kosovar Albanians obtain the independence they want, the problems of corruption and poverty will remain. Kosova's elected institutions are still shaky and untested, but their performance will have to be credible if Kosova is to get the investments it needs. This is a problem that has confronted many newly independent countries over the past 60 years, and the only way out is the rocky road of learning by doing.
AFGHAN LEADER SUGGESTS 'A NEIGHBOR' IS BEHIND ESCALATION OF VIOLENCE
In answer to a caller's question during a weekly program on Radio Afghanistan on 21 January, Afghan President Hamid Karzai charged that "a neighbor" of Afghanistan has had a hand in the recent upsurge of violence in southern Afghanistan. Pointing to a series of deadly suicide attacks in Kandahar Province, Karzai said that "the reason for these attacks is the continuation of subversive endeavors" by foreigners whose aim is "to dominate" Afghanistan. The former Taliban regime was part of a "hidden invasion" of Afghanistan "for a second time by a neighbor" after the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979, Karzai said. While clearly pointing to -- but refraining from identifying -- Pakistan, Karzai added that since the collapse of the Taliban regime following the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, those "who controlled Afghanistan during the Taliban regime have not altered their intentions." Karzai went on to say that the unnamed neighboring country has continued to interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs and, for "this reason, terrorism and attacks [are] still prevailing in Afghanistan." While Karzai has refrained from implicating Pakistan in recent terrorist attacks in his country, other Afghan officials have been less diplomatic. Demonstrators in Kandahar Province have also marched to protest Pakistan's alleged role in recent bombings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 18 and 19 January 2006). AT
ASIA DEVELOPMENT BANK VACATES AFGHAN OFFICE AFTER REMOVAL OF SECURITY BARRIERS
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) closed its Kabul office on 22 January after Afghan authorities removed the security barriers around its compound, the official National Television of Afghanistan reported. An ADB representative was quoted as saying that the Afghan Interior Ministry accepted the bank's position that security barriers must be re-erected before it reopens offices in Kabul and other cities. But Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammad Yusof Stanizai denied that report, saying a presidential decree of 31 December gave all organizations one week to remove such barriers around their compounds. When the deadline expired, Stanizai said, the ministry "had to start removing barriers in stages." President Karzai issued the decree ordering foreign embassies and other groups to remove unauthorized security barriers in Kabul after the Afghan National Assembly began debate on such obstructions and the resulting traffic jams (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 16 January 2006 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2006). AT
DIRECTOR OF PENALIZED TV STATION UNSURE OF INFRACTION
The director of privately owned Afghan Television, Ahmad Shah Afghanzai, said on 21 January that he does not know which of the station's broadcasts sparked a recent fined by the government-appointed media-monitoring commission, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported. Afghanzai also questioned the extent to which the commission "has the authority to fine the media without a judicial ruling." According to the official Bakhtar News Agency, the commission voted on 19 January to fine Afghan Television for having broadcast nudity but provided no further details (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2006). AT
AFGHAN SOLDIERS SELLING WEAPONS, PAKISTANI DAILY ALLEGES
Newly armed and trained soldiers belonging to the Afghan National Army (ANA) are selling their U.S.-made weapons on the "open market," the Karachi-based daily "Islam" reported on 21 January. ANA soldiers are selling their weapons because the government is not paying their wages on time, the report alleged. The ANA is generally considered the most successful security arm of the new Afghan government. The Afghan government has not commented on the report. AT
IRAN'S CENTRAL BANK, FOREIGN MINISTRY DENY SHIFTING FUNDS FROM EUROPE
The Central Bank of Iran denied on 21 January and again on 22 January that it is withdrawing its holdings in European banks, Fars News Agency and AP reported. Bank Governor Ebrahim Sheibani said on 20 January that Iran is transferring its foreign reserves to Southeast Asia, according to ISNA. "We transfer foreign reserves to wherever we see as expedient," he said. "On this issue, we have the transfer and are still doing so." One day later, his bank's public-relations office said previous policies remain unchanged, Fars News Agency reported, and it denied that funds are being transferred to Southeast Asia. On 22 January, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi also denied that Iran is withdrawing its foreign-currency reserves from Western banks, AP reported. "We have not moved or transferred our hard-currency assets," he said. "The report on the move is not correct." AP reported that Iranian funds in European banks could be worth as much as $50 billion. BS
IRAQI POLITICAL CLERIC VISITS TEHRAN, VOWS TO DEFEND MUSLIM NEIGHBORS
Political leader and Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visited Tehran on 22 January and met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani, local news agencies reported. Mottaki warned the visitor, "The presence of American forces is aimed at gaining hegemony over the Iraqi people's interests and the current crisis in Iraq is resolvable with the departure of the occupying forces," ISNA reported. Al-Sadr reportedly replied positively on expanding Iraq-Iran ties. Larijani described the two countries as natural allies, IRNA reported, and he spoke about the need for security and economic stability in Iraq. Describing the need for unity among Iraqi groups, al-Sadr said, "If the unity is further consolidated, Israel and the U.S. will not be able to have a constant presence in Iraq." He accused the United States of targeting Islamic thought. After the meeting with Larijani, al-Sadr told reporters that his Al-Mahdi Army will provide support if Iran or any other of Iraq's Muslim neighbors faces aggression. BS
IRAN RELEASES IRAQI COAST GUARDS
Iran on 20 January released eight Iraqi coast-guard crewmembers it captured the previous week, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. The Iraqis were detained when they tried to intercept a ship suspected of smuggling oil. Violence reportedly erupted when the ships' Iranian captain called for assistance. After a one-day delay, Iran also returned the body of a ninth Iraqi crewmember who was killed in the incident, Al-Sharqiyah reported on 22 January. BS
IRAQI POLICE REPORTEDLY FOIL PLAN TO ASSASSINATE SHI'ITE LEADER AL-HAKIM
Iraqi police have foiled a plan by insurgents to assassinate Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, international media reported on 20 January, quoting unidentified sources. Reuters reported that the elaborate plan included the use of armed gunmen and suicide bombers. "About 50 people, including several suicide bombers, were going to take part in the attack just as the election results were being announced," an unidentified source told Reuters. Five security forces were injured in a 20 January roadside bomb attack on President Jalal Talabani's motorcade in Tuz Khurmatu, some 60 kilometers south of Kirkuk. Talabani was not traveling in his motorcade at the time of the attack. KR
CAR BOMB EXPLODES OUTSIDE IRANIAN EMBASSY IN IRAQI CAPITAL
A suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle outside the Iranian Embassy and near the entrance to the U.S.-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad on 23 January, killing at least two people and wounding six others, international media reported. AFP reported that Hamza Husayn, a sports journalist for Al-Diyar satellite television, was among the victims. Al-Arabiyah television reported that the blast was followed by intensive shooting but did not say who fired the shots. In a separate incident, two Iraqi police officers were wounded by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on 23 January. Meanwhile, Reuters quoted police officials on 22 January as saying that they discovered the bodies of the other 23 police recruits missing since 35 recruits were abducted when their bus was ambushed as it traveled between Baghdad and Samarra on 17 January. Police Colonel Muhsin Jassim said the bodies of 12 others were found last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006). KR
SON OF AIDE TO IRAQI DEFENSE MINISTER KIDNAPPED
Insurgents have kidnapped and threatened to kill the son of senior Iraqi Defense Ministry official Brigadier General Sabah Abd al-Karim, Al-Arabiyah television reported on 21 January. The young man appeared in a videotape aired by Al-Arabiyah asking Iraqi security forces to end their cooperation with U.S. military forces in Iraq. A group identifying itself as the Revenge Squadron has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Al-Arabiyah reported that Sabah Abd al-Karim recently resigned from his ministry post for unspecified reasons. However, London-based Quds Press reported on 19 January that Abd al-Karim resigned because his grandson had been kidnapped by the Iraqi resistance on 3 January, when the boy was on his way to school. KR
GERMAN HOSTAGE REPORTEDLY CARRIED RANSOM MONEY IN IRAQ
Susanne Osthoff, the German archeologist purportedly kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq last year, was found to be carrying some of the ransom money at the time of her release, Berlin's ddp news agency reported on 21 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2005). Staffers found several thousand U.S. dollars bundled together with rubber bands in Osthoff's clothing when the archeologist took a shower at the German Embassy, the report said. The serial numbers reportedly matched the numbers on bills paid out in ransom for Osthoff's release. Osthoff was not arrested, and German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier reportedly ordered "absolute secrecy" on the matter, according to ddp. The German government reportedly paid $5 million for Osthoff's release, ddp reported. KR