FORMER KGB MAN NAMED NEW CUSTOMS CHIEF
Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov appointed Andrei Belyaninov, a former KGB official, on May 12 to head Russia's Customs Service, Russian and international news agencies reported. According to the government press service, Belyaninov, like President Vladimir Putin, earlier served as a KGB operative in East Germany. Putin placed the Customs Service directly under Fradkov's control on May 11, a move described as an anticorruption measure. Previously, customs were under the jurisdiction of Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref. Gref, a liberal, has often been at odds with Fradkov, who favors greater state control of the economy. BW
IRAN CRITICIZES RUSSIA OVER BUSHEHR PLANT DELAY
Mohammad Saidi, the deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said on May 12 that he has complained to Russia about delays in completing the Bushehr nuclear power plant, dpa reported. "Iran has complained to the Russian side for not supplying the nuclear fuel for Bushehr in time, and we believe that the Russian side must respect its legal commitments and not only supply the fuel at the earliest term but also compensate the delay," Saidi was quoted by the ISNA news agency as saying. "It was agreed that Russia should present the final timetable for starting the Bushehr plant within the next 20 days," he added. Saidi met in Moscow on May 11 with Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia's Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), who assured him that deliveries of Russian fuel to the plant will take place six months before Bushehr is powered up. Washington is highly critical of Russia's cooperation with Iran on Bushehr, but Moscow says the work, including measures for the return of spent fuel, complies fully with international law. BW
RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS TODAY'S THREAT WORSE THAN COLD WAR...
. Sergei Ivanov said on May 12 that Russia faces more serious threats today than during the Cold War, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. "The threats that existed then are baby talk compared to what exists now," Ivanov told a press conference in Vladimir, according to Interfax. As an example, Ivanov, who is also a deputy prime minister, singled out the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. "Terrorists are doing all they can to get access to weapons of mass destruction," ITAR-TASS quoted Ivanov as saying. Ivanov also said Russia needs to modernize its nuclear forces. "We will not only preserve our nuclear weapons, but we will also improve them," Interfax quoted him as saying. BW
...SAYS NEW PROCUREMENT AGENCY TO BE CREATED BY 2007...
Speaking at the same May 12 press conference in Vladimir, Ivanov said the Defense Ministry plans to cede authority for arms procurement by 2007, ITAR-TASS reported. The new agency, Ivanov said, will also be responsible for procuring equipment for law-enforcement agencies. "The yet-to-be created agency will manage hundreds of billions of rubles a year. There is a very significant anticorruption side to this measure," he said. "Military and law enforcers, not select providers, should be able to decide what equipment to order." In his May 10 state-of-the-nation speech, President Putin called for Russia's arms procurement process to be streamlined (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2006). BW
...REJECTS CRITICISM OF PRESIDENT'S SPEECH
Also on May 12, Ivanov rejected allegations that Putin's state-of-the-nation speech was overly militaristic and confrontational, ITAR-TASS reported. "There was nothing belligerent about it. Russia's territory is stretched over 10 time zones, and without effective armed forces we shall be unable to defend our military, political, or economic interests," he said. "We are not threatening anybody." In his May 10 speech, Putin accused the West of engaging in outdated "bloc thinking," and he called for the modernization of Russia's military (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2006). BW
RUSSIAN FINANCE MINISTER SAYS CURRENCY RESTRICTIONS TO BE LIFTED...
Aleksei Kudrin said in Yekaterinburg on May 12 that all restrictions on the movement of foreign currency in Russia will be abandoned effective July 1, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. Kudrin said the move is an important step toward full convertibility of the ruble, which Putin called for in his May 10 state-of-the-nation address (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2006). Abolishing permits and restrictions on the export of foreign currency will also improve the investment climate, Kudrin said. "Convertibility of the national currency in the whole world depends on the freedom of capital circulation," he added. BW
...RAISES POLICE AND MILITARY PAY
Speaking at the same May 12 press conference in Yekaterinburg, Kudrin said that 25 billion rubles ($929 million) will be allocated from the 2007 federal budget to increase the wages of soldiers and police officers, ITAR-TASS reported. Kudrin said the pay increase will be covered entirely by the federal government. He added that the federal government will take over responsibilities for paying the wages of police officers by 2009. BW
WILL RUSSIA SEND GEORGIAN GASTARBEITERS HOME?
Modest Kolerov, who heads the presidential department for inter-regional and cultural relations with foreign states, warned on May 11 that "Georgia will bear the consequences, primarily from the point of view of labor," if it makes good on its stated threat to withdraw from the Commonwealth of Independent States, Interfax reported. There are an estimated 250,000-300,000 Georgians currently living and working in Russia, who wire home million of dollars every year to support their families. If forced to return to Georgia, they would swell the ranks of the unemployed, currently estimated at 350,000, according to Caucasus Press on May 11. LF
ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER STEPS DOWN
Artur Baghdasarian announced his resignation as parliament speaker at a press conference in Yerevan on May 12, one day after three more deputies quit the parliament faction of his Orinats Yerkir (OY) party, reducing its strength to 11, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9 and 11, 2006). He cited as the reason for that move disagreements over both domestic and foreign policy. Also on May 12, Baghdasarian as chairman announced that OY has pulled out of the three-party coalition government in which it was a junior partner. Just hours before Baghdasarian's press conference, Urban Development Minister Aram Haroutiunian, one of the three OY ministers, resigned from OY, Noyan Tapan reported. Baghdasarian incurred the wrath of President Robert Kocharian by arguing in a German newspaper interview last month that Armenia should aim in the long term to join the EU and NATO, and Russia should not try to prevent it from doing so (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 5, 2006). Baghdasarian met with Kocharian late on May 11, regnum.ru reported, quoting Kocharian's press secretary Viktor Soghomonian, who did not give details of the meeting. LF
AZERBAIJAN 'WILL NOT QUIT CIS'
Azerbaijan is not considering following the example of Georgia and Ukraine, both of which have hinted that they may intention to withdraw from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Azerbaijani presidential administration official Novruz Mammedov told RIA Novosti, Caucasus Press reported on May 11. Mammedov added that he sees "no need" for Azerbaijan to quit the CIS. Azerbaijan joined the CIS in early 1992 but pulled out several months later following the election of then-Azerbaijan Popular Front Chairman Abulfaz Elcibey as president; Azerbaijan rejoined the CIS in late 1993 after Elcibey was ousted in a bloodless coup and former Communist Party First Secretary Heydar Aliyev returned to power. Baku's failure to align with Georgia and Ukraine calls into question the future of the GUAM alignment (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova), which is scheduled to change its name to the Organization for Democracy and Development (ODD) at a summit in Kyiv on May 22-23, according to Caucasus Press on May 6. Moldovan Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan was quoted by regnum.ru on May 11 as saying that the government is considering the possibility of leaving the CIS and will soon inform parliament of its decision. GUAM thus seems likely to mutate into ODD rather than GU or even GUM. LF
SOUTH OSSETIA, GEORGIA AGREE ON DONORS CONFERENCE
A two-day meeting of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetia conflict zone opened on May 11 in Tskhinvali, Caucasus Press reported. The participants agreed to hold meetings between interior and education ministers of Georgia and the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, and to hold a donors conference in Brussels in late June to discuss postconflict reconstruction in the conflict zone, for which the EU has earmarked some 10 million euros ($12.7 million), according to the Russian co-chairman of the JCC, Ambassador Yury Popov. Both the South Ossetian and the North Ossetian representatives at the meeting, Boris Chochiyev and Teimuraz Kusov, condemned what Kusov called Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili's "irresponsible" May 1 pledge to resign if Georgia does not reestablish its hegemony over South Ossetia by the end of this year, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 3, 2006). Sounding a conciliatory note, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava, who serves as Georgian JCC co-chairman, admitted that the rights of the Ossetian population have been violated, but he denied those violations constitute the "genocide" of which the South Ossetian leadership has accused Tbilisi. At the same time, Khaindrava said Tbilisi has begun a legal analysis of the 1992 Dagomys agreement that serves as the legal basis for the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported. LF
KAZAKH COURT SENTENCES FORMER SECURITY OFFICIAL
A district court in Almaty imposed a one-year prison sentence on May 11 after finding retired Kazakh National Security Service Colonel Arat Narmanbetov guilty of slandering First Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev, Interfax and gazeta.kz reported. Aliev, the son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, was accused by Narmanbetov of involvement in the killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14 and March 31, 2006). RG
JOURNALISTS CALL ON KAZAKH CULTURE MINISTER TO RESIGN
The leadership of the Kazakh Journalists Union issued a statement in Astana on May 11 demanding the resignation of Culture, Information, and Sport Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbaev, Interfax reported. The union, led by Aspar Party Chairwoman Darigha Nazarbaeva, who is President Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, accused Yertysbaev of being "unfit to hold the post" and denounced him for alleged "authoritarian methods" and "censorship." Yertysbaev, who was appointed minister in January, recently threatened to restore full state control over the Khabar television channel, which is controlled by Nazarbaeva (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). RG
KYRGYZ OPPOSITION LEADER COMMENTS ON RECENT CABINET RESHUFFLE
Opposition leader Omurbek Tekebaev, a former Kyrgyz parliament speaker, saidon May 11 said he welcomes the recent reshuffling of senior cabinet posts, but argued that it is not enough to spur lasting reform, Interfax reported. Tekebaev, a leading organizer of recent opposition demonstrations, added that "resolving a number of staff issues was the least of the opposition's demands" and said the opposition "expects the authorities to conduct political and economic reform that will improve the situation in the country." Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev announced a reshuffle of cabinet ministers on May 10, replacing several senior ministers who have been sharply criticized by the opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2006). RG
FRANCE SET TO INCREASE FORCES IN TAJIKISTAN
Jerome Mallard, the military attache of the French Embassy in Tajikistan, confirmed on May 11 that his country plans to increase its military contingent currently deployed in Tajikistan, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. French forces, deployed in Tajikistan since 2001, are to be bolstered by three Mirage fighter jets and an additional group of pilots and technical staff who are expected to arrive in Dushanbe in the coming weeks. France regularly maintains two military-transport aircraft and about 125 personnel in Tajikistan to provide logistical support for French operations in Afghanistan. The expansion of the French force in Tajikistan is slated to last through October, similar to a previous temporary deployment of six Mirage aircraft in 2005 to coincide with Afghan elections. RG
UZBEKISTAN DENIES LANDING RIGHTS TO NATO DELEGATION
A NATO delegation was denied permission to land in Uzbekistan for refueling on May 11, AFP reported. The delegation -- made up of U.S., British, and Lithuanian officials -- was reportedly forced to cancel a scheduled three-day visit to Afghanistan as a result of the move. RG
UZBEK CUSTOMS OFFICIALS SEIZE RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL
A report released by the Uzbek State Customs Committee on May 11 claims that border guards have seized a shipment of radioactive scrap metal that was en route to Iran, uzreport.com and Interfax reported. The seizure included zinc powder and oxidized zinc with traces of cesium-137 radionuclide. The discovery reportedly was triggered after border guards stationed in the southern Uzbek district of Bukhara were alerted by detectors indicating a high level of radioactive emission. The report added that Uzbek officers also seized another shipment of oxidized molybdenum with traces of radioactive radium, uranium, and thorium en route from Kazakhstan to Tajikistan. RG
UZBEK PRESIDENT ESTABLISHES STATE DEVELOPMENT FUND
Uzbek President Islam Karimov issued a decree on May 11 calling for the establishment of a new state Reconstruction and Development Fund, according to uzreport.com and Interfax. The decree stipulates that the new $1 billion state fund should focus on "securing dynamic, sustainable, and balanced social and economic development, as well as conducting effective structural and investment policies." The tax-free fund should finance projects selected by the Uzbek government in "the areas of the economy, structural reform, and the modernization of production." RG
BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION LEADERS RELEASED FROM JAIL
Authorities on May 11 set free Belarusian Party of Communists leader Syarhey Kalyakin and Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Kalyakin and Vyachorka were jailed last month for 14 and 15 days, respectively, for their role in an opposition demonstration in Minsk on April 26 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 28, 2006). "I am ready to continue the struggle against the regime," Belapan quoted Kalyakin as saying to journalists after his release. On May 13, the same jail released former united opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, trade union activist Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, and youth leader Zmitser Dashkevich, all of whom were jailed for participating in the Chornobyl Way rally, Belapan reported. Viktar Ivashkevich, who is also serving a 15-day jail term for the Chornobyl demonstration, is expected to be released next week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 5, 2006). JM
BELARUSIAN HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST BARRED FROM GOING ABROAD
Border guards and customs officers at the Minsk airport on May 13 did not allow Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BKhK) Chairwoman Tatsyana Protska to board a plane to Berlin, where she was expected to address a forum on human rights in Belarus, Belapan reported. Customs officers reportedly confiscated an annual BKhK report on Belarus's human-rights situation and a videocassette containing material related to the country's March presidential election. JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT RULES OUT 'ORANGE-BLUE' COALITION
President Viktor Yushchenko said in an interview with the May 12 issue of the Warsaw-based "Gazeta Wyborcza" that he does not foresee the creation of an "orange-blue" governing coalition between the Our Ukraine bloc and the Party of Regions led by his former presidential rival, Viktor Yanukovych. "The best option is an orange coalition [of Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party]," Yushchenko said. "It is possible that the Party of Regions will support us in some situations.... But an orange-blue coalition is excluded today." Yushchenko added that he does not rule out that Yuliya Tymoshenko may once again assume the post of prime minister. Yushchenko stressed that future coalition partners, before forming a cabinet, should agree on a "common strategy" regarding reprivatization, the status of veterans of the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the status of the Russian language in Ukraine, and European integration. Yushchenko begins a two-day official visit to Poland on 12 May. JM
UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENT SACKS NAFTOHAZ HEAD
A meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers on May 11 dismissed Oleksandr Ivchenko from the post of the head of Naftohaz, Ukraine's state-run gas-transportation monopoly, Ukrainian media reported. Ivchenko, who headed Naftohaz since March 2005, reportedly asked to be relieved from his post in order to take up a parliamentary seat. Under Ukrainian legislation, parliamentarians cannot hold government or corporate posts. Ivchenko was Ukraine's key negotiator in a January gas deal with Gazprom, under which the price of gas imported by Ukraine in 2006 rose to $95 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazprom officials have already signaled that they want to raise this price again in the second half of 2006. Meanwhile, in an interview with the Kyiv-based business weekly "Kontrakty" on May 11, President Yushchenko reiterated his stance that the gas price agreed in January will last five years. JM
UN REPORT PRAISES KOSOVAR LEADERSHIP
A report by the head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) praises the province's leadership for improving the lives of the ethnic Serbian minority and establishing a working democracy, Reuters reported on May 11. According to the report, which UNMIK chief Soren Jessen-Petersen will present to the UN Security Council in June, Kosova's leadership has "revitalized" efforts to improve the lives of Serbs and other ethnic minorities and create a functioning democracy. "As a result of this intensified effort it is now possible to discern progress across the broad front on standards implementation," Reuters quoted the report as saying. If Kosova's institutions "maintain their present level of commitment, we should witness substantial further achievement in the coming months," it adds. BW
NATO CHIEF URGES COMPROMISE IN KOSOVA...
During a visit to Kosova on May 11, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer urged ethnic Albanians and Serbs to seek a compromise in determining the province's future, dpa and AFP reported the same day. "NATO realizes, and everybody should realize, that the status process can only be successful through compromise," de Hoop Scheffer said in remarks reported by dpa. He added that he hopes that "the status talks will result in a situation where there is not hope and expectations for one and frustration for another side," AFP reported. During his visit, de Hoop Scheffer met with Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu, Prime Minister Agim Ceku, UNMIK head Jessen-Petersen, and representatives of the Serbian community. BW
...AND WARNS EXTREMISTS
During the same visit on May 11, de Hoop Scheffer said NATO will not allow extremists on either side to destabilize Kosova's final-status negotiations, AFP reported the same day. "Anybody who would like to spoil the process or harm it, would be defeated by KFOR," he said. During a tour of KFOR's facilities, dpa quoted de Hoop Scheffer as saying that the 17,000-member NATO-led peacekeeping force "is here to stay in the important periods Kosovo is going through with the status talks under way. KFOR is here for every single [Kosovar], majority and minority alike " BW
SERBIAN OFFICIAL SAYS MLADIC ARREST DAYS AWAY
Zoran Loncar, Serbia's minister for local government, said on May 11 that war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic will be arrested "in a few days," Reuters reported the same day. Speaking at a press conference after a cabinet meeting, Loncar said he hopes "no one will be surprised" if "fulfillment of the Hague [tribunal] obligation" is completed within the next few days. "I express optimism and hope that this can happen in a few days," added Loncar, who is a member of Serbia's National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal. BW
U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE, HEAD OF BOSNIAN PRESIDENCY DISCUSS CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the chairman of Bosnia-Herzegovina's three-member presidency, Sulejman Tihic, on May 11 to discuss the issue of government reform, dpa reported the same day. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the main item on the agenda was "the importance of promoting constitutional reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which we believe would strengthen...their ability to achieve their Euro-Atlantic aspirations." The lower house of Bosnia's parliament in April failed to pass a series of constitutional reforms that would have streamlined the country's governance and given more power to the central government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20 and April 27 and 28, 2006). BW
PARIS CLUB REPORTEDLY AGREES TO RESTRUCTURE MOLDOVA'S DEBT
The Paris Club of creditor countries has agreed to restructure $150 million of Moldova's debt, Interfax reported on May 12. Citing an unidentified source in the Moldovan team negotiating the issue, the creditors agreed to restructure the foreign loans Moldova received before December 31, 2000, for 15- and 20-year periods. Those loans will have a five- and 10-year grace period, respectively. According to the deal, Moldova must hold talks by the end of 2006 with its foreign creditors -- the United States, Russia, Japan, Germany, and Italy -- to work out the details of the restructuring. BW
AZERBAIJAN TO HOLD REPEAT ELECTIONS
Voters in Azerbaijan will go to the polls on May 13 to elect parliament deputies in 10 constituencies (of a total 125) where the outcome of the November 6 parliamentary ballot was annulled.
As in the run-up to that ballot, many of the total 125 candidates have complained of harassment by local officials and restrictions on campaigning. But even though presidential administration officials affirm that the authorities will do all in their power to ensure that the vote is "democratic, transparent, and fair," few if any opposition politicians are inclined to believe them.
The November 6 ballot, which international observers characterized as flawed by ballot stuffing, multiple voting, vote rigging, and other violations, gave the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) and independent candidates aligned with it an overwhelming majority in the new legislature.
Opposition parties and electoral blocs won only a handful of seats. Some opposition deputies declined to take up their parliament mandates as a way of protesting what they termed a rigged election, and some opposition parties, including the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) progressive wing, declared a boycott of the repeat vote.
Others, including the Musavat party, nonetheless decided to participate in the new legislature. Disagreement over whether or not to participate in the new parliament and the repeat ballot led to the split in February of the Azadliq election bloc that previously united two of the country's oldest and most influential opposition parties, Musavat and the AHCP.
A total of 154 candidates originally registered for the May 13 repeat vote, of whom 29 subsequently withdrew. Of the remaining 125 candidates, 60 are nominally independent (although some of those are YAP members), and a further 18 declined to state their party affiliation, according to echo-az.com on May 9. Musavat is fielding 10 candidates, YAP nine, and the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP), five; other opposition parties, including the Communists, have between one and five candidates. The number of names on the ballot paper in individual constituencies ranges from seven to 19, day.az reported on April 24.
Presidential-administration official Ali Hasanov pledged on May 2 that the Azerbaijani authorities will do all in their power to ensure that the ballot is "democratic, transparent, and fair," according to the online daily echo-az.com on May 3. And Central Election Commission head Mazahir Panahov warned local election officials on April 25 that they risk arrest and prosecution for any failure to comply strictly with election procedure, including the requirement first introduced last November to mark voters' fingers with indelible ink to prevent them voting more than once.
But opposition candidates have been complaining for weeks that local election and government officials are engaging in the same illegal and repressive measures that marred previous parliamentary elections.
Musavat party Deputy Chairman Arif Hacili was quoted on April 26 by echo-az.com as complaining that the local authorities in Zakatala, where he is registered as a candidate, are now "openly" interfering in the election campaign, whereas in the run-up to the November 6 vote they were more circumspect about doing so. In at least two constituencies -- Jalalabad and Sumgait -- opposition candidates have appealed to President Ilham Aliyev to intervene and create fair conditions for all candidates, according to echo-az.com on May 5 and zerkalo.az on May 11.
Anticipating foul play, thousands of Azerbaijanis have registered as observers, and NGOs will conduct exit polls. But few experts hold out much hope for a really clean ballot, and even if opposition candidates, rather than nominal independents who are YAP members, win all 10 seats, the opposition will still constitute only a tiny minority within parliament.
Perhaps a more serious threat to the democratic process are the feuds that have split one opposition party (AMIP) in the wake of the November election and which pose a threat to two other parties, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan and Musavat. Musavat is scheduled to hold a congress in the near future at which according to the party's statutes, Isa Qambar, who has served as its leader for over a decade, should resign and make way for a new chairman.
Qambar, however, was quoted by day.az on April 28 as saying he intends to seek a third consecutive term as party leader. Qambar refused to acknowledge his apparent crushing defeat by then-acting President Aliyev in the October 2003 presidential election, claiming that the election returns were falsified and that he was the true winner with 60 percent of the vote.
Official returns gave Aliyev some 80 percent of the vote and Qambar 12.8 percent, while exit polls of 2,414 voters at 200 polling stations throughout Azerbaijan conducted by the independent ADAM Center and Turan gave Qambar 46.2 percent of the vote, followed by Aliyev with 24.1 percent.
In the wake of the November 2003 election, Azerbaijani commentators argued at length that the older generation of opposition leaders, including Qambar, were a "spent force," and they predicted that new leaders and alignments would emerge in the run-up to the 2006 parliamentary elections. But the one new alignment that did emerge, Yeni Siyaset (New Policy, YeS) which grouped together influential figures, garnered only a handful of parliament mandates, and its future remains unclear.
In an interview published on April 27 in echo-az.com, commentator Ilqar Mamedov affirmed "the so-called old opposition is totally demolished and has exhausted all its moral, physical, human, and ideological reserves." And he described the leaders of those established opposition parties as having failed to work on presenting a "modern" image. But such criticism is unlikely to impel either Qambar, or his younger former ally, Ali Kerimli of the AHCP, to retire from active politics, especially given the absence of popular and charismatic rivals.
U.S. GENERAL ACKNOWLEDGES INCREASE IN TALIBAN ACTIVITY IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
At a U.S. Defense Department news conference on May 10, coalition-forces commander in Afghanistan Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry said that the Taliban have increased their activities and numbers in some parts of Helmand, Kandahar, and Oruzgan provinces, according to the official Defense Department website (http://www.defenselink.mil). Explaining that increase, Eikenberry said the enemy is "not necessarily" becoming stronger, but that the Taliban are seeking to fill a vacuum created by "very weak institutions of the state." Fighters have also changed tactics in Afghanistan, Eikenberry said, shifting toward "increasing use of improvised explosive devices" and suicide bombings. Eikenberry said there is no "conclusive evidence" that there has been "any migration from Iraq to Afghanistan of foreign fighters" who might be importing skills learned in Iraq. There has been much speculation that Al-Qaeda is trying to coordinate terrorist activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan with Iraq (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," July 5, 2005). AT
KABUL WANTS CLARIFICATION FROM PAKISTAN ON KILLING OF INDIAN ENGINEER
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff, Jawed Ludin, said on May 10 that the administration expects Islamabad to clarify its position on the accusation made by a Taliban commander that Pakistani intelligence had a hand in the recent killing of an Indian engineer in southern Afghanistan, Tolu Television reported. A Taliban commander wishing to remain anonymous previously told Tolu that Amir Khan Haqqani, whom he identified as the military commander of Taliban fighters in Zabul Province, opposed killing K. Suryanarayan, who was abducted by the Taliban in Zabul on April 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2006). The source alleged that Suryanarayan was eventually killed by Mullah Latif, a militiaman under the command of Mawlawi Mohammad Alam Andar, on orders from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). "One thing I would like to mention is that an Afghan national cannot commit such a crime," Ludin told Tolu. Suryanarayan was beheaded, while Afghan officials have blamed decapitations and suicide bombings on non-Afghans. "The reports on Pakistani ISI involvement in the incident are very important" to Afghanistan, Ludin said, adding that Kabul expects Islamabad to "clarify its stance on the issue." AT
KABUL POLICE CHIEF REJECTS RIGHTS GROUP'S ACCUSATIONS
General Abdul Jamil Junbesh on May 11 rejected recent accusations by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) of his involvement in a number of serious crimes, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. In a May 4 press release, HRW urged Karzai not to reappoint Junbesh as Kabul's police chief, accusing him of murder, torture, intimidation, and bribery (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). Junbesh called the allegations the result of a personal conspiracy against him. Presidential chief of staff Ludin has also rejected the HRW accusation against Junbesh as unsubstantiated. AT
NEW DELHI RENEWS INTEREST IN TRANS-AFGHAN PIPELINE PROJECT
The Indian Petroleum Ministry has prepared a proposal to raise the possibility of India using natural gas supplied through the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) gas pipeline, the New Delhi-based daily "The Indian Express" reported on May 11. In its proposal, the ministry reportedly says that in view of "burgeoning gas demand...joining the TAP project offers [India] the possibility of an alternative source of gas supply." Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran wrote in April to the Petroleum Ministry that New Delhi's participation in the TAP project would give India "leverage with Iran on the IPI [Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline] project." Saran expressed concern over international tension concerning Iran's nuclear program. Moreover, TAP "would be in tune with the latest U.S. strategic thinking" for the Central Asia region, Saran wrote, adding that New Delhi's interests would be better served it were part of the TAP project rather than outside it. The TAP pipeline is an estimated $3.45 billion undertaking designed to transport natural gas from the Dawlatabad field in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and then eventually to India (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 27, 2003, and February 25, 2005). In February, India expressed its interest in joining TAP pending approvals that should be forthcoming in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 17, 2006). With Indian participation, the pipeline will be renamed TAPI, for Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India. AT
UN NUCLEAR CHIEF HOPEFUL ON IRAN DOSSIER
Muhammad el-Baradei, the head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), welcomed on May 11 the decision to postpone any sanctions against Iran and offer it new incentives to curb its nuclear program, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2006). He said in Amsterdam that he hopes "both sides will move away from the war of words" and adopt a "cool-headed approach," Reuters reported. Iranian Supreme National Security Council spokesman Hussein Entezami said the same day that any proposals by Western states could not include a demand that Iran end activities related to uranium enrichment and fuel production. Iran says it has a right to make fuel, but the West is concerned it may use its know-how to make nuclear bombs. Reuters quoted unidentified diplomats as saying that el-Baradei has advised Western states to accept a limited enrichment program in Iran under IAEA supervision, or risk provoking Iranian intransigence. VS
OFFICIALS DISCUSS POWER PLANT DELAYS
Iran's Atomic Energy Organization deputy chief Mohammad Saidi told ISNA in Moscow on May 11 that he discussed with Russian Atomic Energy Agency chief Sergei Kiriyenko the accelerated completion of the Bushehr nuclear plant, which Russia is helping Iran build (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2006). "These talks were about the latest situation" in Bushehr, Saidi said, adding that Iran has suggested working round-the-clock to make up for construction delays. He said the plant is "92 percent" complete and if Russian and Iranian contractors collaborate on making certain "parts," it could "become operational in the minimum time." Saidi said he conveyed Iran's dissatisfaction with Russian delays in sending fuel for the reactor; he said this is a contractual obligation for Russia, and he urged them to do so "at the first opportunity," though there is no "precise time yet for when fuel will be sent." A joint team is to examine technical aspects of construction in the next 20 days, and inform Iranian and Russian authorities of a timetable for the plant's completion, Saidi told ISNA. VS
IRAN'S PRESIDENT DENOUNCES ISRAEL AGAIN
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told students in Jakarta, Indonesia, on May 11 that if Western states do not believe Iranian statements "on Israel, when we say it will soon disappear, they should stop supporting it and see what happens," ISNA news agency reported the same day. He said Israel was "created on the basis of threats" and would "be destroyed if Westerners did not support it." To hide Israel's inherent "weakness," he said, Western states "have started a psychological war and are accusing us of violence." Ahmadinejad said Western powers created Israel firstly "to get Jews away from Europe.... They forced many Jews to emigrate through anti-Semitism, especially in Great Britain." Secondly, he said, they sought a "permanent threat" and a "stick" to wield against Middle Eastern states. If the West believes in its democratic ideals, he said, "let them hand Palestine over to [Palestinians], and allow [its] Muslims, Jews, and Christians to determine their country's fate," ISNA reported. He also accused Western states of "donning the mask of concern" over Iran's nuclear program, when they have "arsenals full of nuclear and germ weaponry." Are "they really concerned about Iran accessing nuclear weapons? The answer is certainly negative. How can they oppose nuclear weapons when they build them?" he asked. VS
PARTY CHIEF: IRAN'S CONSERVATIVES HAVE WORK TO DO
Mohammad Nabi Habibi, secretary-general of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, told a party conference in Tehran on May 11 that the "fundamentalists" may have won the last set of municipal, parliamentary, and presidential polls, "work has in a sense just begun," Fars news agency reported the same day. He urged greater cooperation between "prominent fundamentalist personalities and formations," and said the government should not make promises it cannot fulfill. "We expect councils, parliament, and the government not to make ill-considered or unfeasible promises to the people, especially when these are beyond the system's financial abilities," lest they provoke "very worrying and brittle" consequences, he added. Failed promises, he said, will cause "a divide between government and the people." The cabinet's intermittent trips to provinces -- during which President Ahmadinejad promises local people state monies and assistance -- are positive, he said, "if the promises made...are subject to precise scientific and practical studies." He said Iranians want respect for religious values, justice, and service from the government. VS
OBSERVER EXPECTS RESTRICTED POLLS IN IRAN
Political activist Said Madani told RFE/RL's Radio Farda on May 11 that he thinks it unlikely conservatives controlling key state bodies will allow a free run for reformers or moderates in two coming elections, for municipal councils and the Assembly of Experts, a clerical assembly that appoints and oversees the work of Iran's supreme leader. The polls are to be held simultaneously in the Persian month following October 23 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," April 28, 2006). Madani said the conservatives controlling parliament and the presidency intend, as in the past, to vet electoral aspirants for the two elections to ensure entry for those they consider genuine regime loyalists. "It is unlikely that in these conditions they will be more flexible than before over the presence of nonconservative forces," he said, adding that they may be even more restrictive than before. "There are signs of this already," he said, as indicated by some legislators' prposal to transfer parliament's constitutional power to oversee municipal elections to the Guardians Council, which oversees all other elections. "General conditions show that the preconditions for free elections do not exist," he concluded. VS
IRAQI SHI'ITE PARTY QUITS TALKS ON CABINET
The Al-Fadilah Party, a Shi'ite political party belonging to the United Iraqi Alliance, has pulled out of talks on the formation of the cabinet, Reuters reported on May 12. "We will not return to the negotiating table and we have announced our final position. We withdraw from the formation of the government and we will stay in parliament to express the voice of the people," party spokesman Sabah al-Sa'di said. The party had been fighting the alliance's nomination of Husayn al-Shahristani as oil minister, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on May 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2006). Al-Fadilah supports the nomination of current acting Oil Minister Hashim al-Hashimi; parties outside the alliance support the nomination of former Oil Minister Thamir al-Ghadban, a career oil executive and secular Shi'ite. Al-Sa'di also accused U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad of influencing the negotiations, Reuters reported. KR
IRAQI AYATOLLAH ORDERS MOSQUES CLOSED IN SOUTHERN TOWN
Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani ordered all Shi'ite mosques closed in the southern Iraqi town of Al-Zubayr in solidarity with the town's Sunni Arab community after one of its imams, Sheikh Khalid al-Sa'dun, was gunned down earlier this week along with two of his aides, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on May 12. Al-Sa'dun was a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party. Al-Zubayr is a majority Sunni town some 20 kilometers south of Al-Basrah, where Shi'ite militiamen have been carrying out a campaign of attacks and intimidation against the minority Sunni community in recent months. KR
DANISH INTELLIGENCE REPORT SAYS CIVIL WAR WILL BREAK OUT IF FOREIGN TROOPS LEAVE IRAQ
A threat assessment by the Danish Defense Intelligence Service says it is likely that civil war will break out should foreign troops leave Iraq, Denmark's "Politiken" reported on May 11. The report contends that violence against coalition forces is worst in central and southern Iraq. It adds that there is a heightened risk of violence because of the growing distrust among religious groups, and that Iraqis living in religiously mixed cities -- particularly in the Baghdad, Diyala, and Al-Basrah governorates -- are fleeing violence in large numbers. The report concludes that foreign forces should remain in Iraq well past mid-2007 when Iraqi security forces are expected to reach their full strength, in order to buttress the Iraqi forces. The report coincides with a government bill seeking a one-year extension of the Danish troops' mandate in Iraq. KR
IRAQI DAILY CLAIMS REBELS HAVE TAKEN OVER DIYALA GOVERNORATE
The government has lost control over the Diyala Governorate, east of Baghdad, to gunmen based there, "Al-Zaman" reported on May 11. The report claims that the 350,000 people in the provincial capital Ba'qubah are living in a state of terror and can hardly protect themselves. Government employees have left their jobs, and residents say that the lawlessness is worse than that in 2003. The daily reported that kidnapping is widespread, and noted that many families that pay ransoms do not receive their loved ones back. KR