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Newsline - May 23, 2006

European Union leaders said on May 23 that they will press Moscow at a summit in Sochi later this week to ensure stable energy supplies and to reform the natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, Reuters reported. "The summit will give some orientations on the subject of energy," Marc Franco, head of the European Commission's mission to Russia, told Reuters. "We want secure supplies and the Russians want secure demand. It is clear that we will have to find some kind of arrangement in order to, shall we say, promote these common goals," Franco added. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel are scheduled to arrive in Sochi on May 24 for the summit, which begins on May 25. BW

In a letter to EU officials on May 22, Viktor Khristenko called for a calmer dialogue on energy issues between Moscow and Brussels, Reuters reported. Echoing statements he made in a commentary published on May 8 in the "Financial Times" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2006), Khristenko said in his letter there is "no reason to doubt" Russia's reliability as an energy supplier. "In the countries of the European Union, a debate is continuing about the reliability of Russian gas deliveries, and over Russia's intention to diversify its energy export routes," Khristenko wrote. "In our view, these questions are acquiring an overly politicized tone which is misleading public opinion in European countries. It would be sensible to take some joint steps which would bring calm to the energy debate as a whole, making it more objective," he added. Khristenko also said Moscow's plans to seek new energy export routes, which have caused some alarm in Europe, are part of the country's longstanding energy strategy. "In this way, this widely-known direction of Russia's energy policy cannot be regarded as directed against the interests of European gas consumers," he wrote. BW

Igor Shuvalov, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in an interview published on May 23 in the daily newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that Moscow's commitment to democracy will not be on the agenda at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Interfax reported. "I do not think that this issue will be brought up. When G8 leaders speak to Putin, they understand perfectly what the president of Russia is doing," Shuvalov said. Shuvalov blamed the Western media for creating a negative image of Russia. "It did not take the Western media long to create a negative image of Russia," he said. "As a result, the impression has been created that something terrible is happening to democratic processes in our country. But has the situation really worsened over the past four years? Does Putin really hold tremendous powers? The answer is negative. We simply have a strong vertical structure of power, which helps tackle only individual issues," Shuvalov added. BW

In the same interview, Shuvalov denied that Putin's recent state-of-the-nation address was a response to critical comments from U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, Interfax reported on May 23. "It had been drafted long before Cheney's statement," Shuvalov said, referring to Putin's May 10 speech (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2006). " For this reason, it should not be viewed as the head of the Russian state's response to the U.S. vice president. The president is not going to respond to such statements," he added. In a speech on May 4, Cheney accused Russia of backsliding on democracy and using its energy resources for blackmail (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). Shuvalov attributed recent American criticism of Russia to domestic politics. "They have to make such statements because they feel pressure from the public and from Congress. It is as simple as that," Shuvalov said. "Many opponents of [U.S. President George W.] Bush have an excellent opportunity to criticize him for supporting Putin. They have always played this card," he added. BW

Metropolitan Kiril of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who is the head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, said on May 22 that the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches need to work together to preserve Christian culture in Europe, ITAR-TASS reported. "Time is ripe for our two churches to cooperate for the sake of preserving Christian values in the life of modern Europe," Kiril said. "At a time when Europe has been trying to break away from its Christian roots, Christians in the East and in the West must work together to campaign for Christian values," he added. Kiril also acknowledged that "there remain theological problems dating back to the Middle Ages," and that "these themes must be studied and the theological dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox churches resumed." Kiril met with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican on May 18, but did not discuss a possible papal visit to Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 19 and 22, 2006). BW

The daily newspaper "Izvestia" reported on May 22 that relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches are becoming increasingly warmer under Pope Benedict XVI, according to ITAR-TASS. "With each new meeting in the Vatican, the dialogue with the Catholics gets warmer. It looks as though this time the theme of preparations for a summit meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch was brought up for the first time," the daily wrote. The daily newspaper "Vremya novostei" similarly wrote that common interests in an increasingly secular Europe are bringing the two churches together. "The Moscow Patriarchate seems to be prepared to iron out differences with the Catholics inside Russia for the sake of a strategic alliance with the Vatican in the European political scene," Vremya novostei" wrote. "Both the Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate are unanimous they should step up efforts to enhance the authority of Christianity in the Old World." BW

On orders from Chechen resistance leader and acting President Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev, an opinion poll was conducted in Chechnya between March 3-May 10 to determine popular attitudes towards the resistance and the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities, the resistance website reported on May 22. Of a total of 983 persons polled in towns and districts across the republic, 79 percent expressed their support for the legitimate leadership headed by Sadullayev, but 67 percent admitted that they are afraid to express that support publicly. Only 7 percent expressed support for the pro-Moscow authorities headed by Alu Alkhanov. An overwhelming majority -- 89 percent -- blamed the "occupation forces" for ongoing abductions and murders of civilians, and 53 percent identified Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov and East Battalion commander Sulim Yamadayev as among the primary perpetrators of such crimes. Seventy-eight percent of pollees described the situation in Chechnya as a war; 67 percent believe that war has already spilled over into other North Caucasus republics, and a further 16 percent believe that "sooner or later" the fighting will engulf the entire North Caucasus. Seventy-three percent of pollees favor the merger of Chechnya with other North Caucasus republics, but 58 percent do not believe that is feasible before the occupying Russian forces withdraw. LF

A Stavropol Krai court sentenced Nur-Magomed Khatuyev on May 22 to 12 years' imprisonment for his participation in the June 1995 hostage-taking in the south Russian town of Budennovsk, Interfax reported. Two other participants in that raid, which was masterminded by radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, were sentenced last week to 11 and 12 years in jail. LF

In line with his May 12 announcement, Artur Baghdasarian formally relinquished the post of parliament speaker on May 22, Noyan Tapan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 12 and 15, 2006). Two other deputies elected from the Orinats Yerkir party of which Baghdasarian is chairman, Mher Shahgeldian and Gagik Mkheyan, formally resigned their posts as chairmen of the parliament's committees on Defense, National Security and Internal Affairs, and on Nature Protection issues. Baghdasarian affirmed in his resignation speech that "we will fight against a society of fear. We will fight for a free society," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. That pledge led to a shouting match between Baghdasarian and opposition National Accord Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian, whom Baghdasarian accused of accepting secret financial support from Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Geghamian rejected that allegation. LF

The United Labor Party (MAK) headed by wealthy businessman Gurgen Arsenian, which has six parliamentary mandates, joined the coalition government on May 22, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The MAK is entitled to the culture portfolio, the post of deputy minister of labor, and two deputy governorships (in the provinces of Lori and Shirak), Noyan Tapan reported on May 23. It has already proposed, and President Robert Kocharian has appointed, Hasmik Poghosian, who is not a MAK member, as culture minister. MAK will also name the new chairman of the parliament's committee on Defense and National Security. LF

Arman Melikian, a senior adviser to Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on May 22 that the previous day's referendum in which the electorate of Montenegro voted in favor of leaving the joint state with Serbia is not relevant to the Karabakh conflict. Melikian recalled that the Karabakh Armenians voted 15 years ago, in late 1991, to secede from the then-Azerbaijan SSR. He added that he sees no need for a repeat referendum, even if Azerbaijan agreed to it, as the overwhelmingly Armenian population of the NKR has already clearly demonstrated its desire for independence. In December 2004, NATO Parliamentary Assembly President Pierre Lellouche and former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio unveiled a proposal for resolving the Karabakh conflict that would give Armenia temporary jurisdiction over the NKR, the population of which would vote in a referendum some 10-15 years later on its final status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 21, 2005). LF

Lawyers for former Health Minister Ali Insanov have appealed last week's ruling by a Baku district court to remand him in pretrial detention for a further five months, reported on May 23. Insanov, who was dismissed and arrested last October on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the country's leadership, reportedly suffers from a variety of serious health problems (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4, 17, and 30, February 8 and 28, and March 15, 2006). LF

A U.S. delegation headed by Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft traveled on May 22 to Sukhum (Sukhumi) for talks with Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, and other senior officials, reported. Bagapsh explained his concern at the prospect that Georgia may quit the CIS, thereby necessitating the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone. He said that withdrawal would inevitably fuel tension in the conflict zone and could trigger a new exodus of Georgians and undo all the progress achieved to date toward resolving the conflict. He said that rather than agree to deploy a UN police force in the conflict zone as Georgia and the UN want, Abkhazia wants material assistance from the international community to strengthen its own police force. LF

The meeting of the third working group established under the aegis of the UN Coordinating Committee, scheduled for May 22 in Zugdidi, has been postponed as the Georgian side has not had enough time to study President Bagapsh's proposals for resolving the conflict, Caucasus Press reported, quoting Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 12, 2006). The third working group focuses on socioeconomic issues; the May 22 date was set during a meeting of the Coordinating Council last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2006). LF

Ramin Mehmanparast, Iran's ambassador to Kazakhstan, told reporters in Almaty on May 22 that Iran "is ready" to become a full-fledged member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO members: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. But Mehmanparast said he does not know "when they will admit us," adding "It requires a certain amount of time. However, I do not think that this is in any way linked to the issue of Iran's nuclear program." SCO leaders will meet at a June 15 summit in Shanghai, and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad plans to attend. Iran currently holds observer status in the SCO. Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev recently said that the SCO lacks a legal basis for enlargement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2006), but Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev said on May 20 that "serious decisions" will be made at the Shanghai summit, Russia's "Vremya novostei" reported on May 22. DK

Ambassador Mehmanparast also said that Iran believes that the five Caspian littoral states must reach an agreement on the Caspian Sea's legal status before any oil and gas pipelines can be built across the seabed, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Differing approaches to the division of the seabed have deadlocked negotiations on the Caspian's legal status in recent years. Mehmanparast also warned that pipeline projects could inflict "colossal damage on the environment and the ecological system of this unique water reservoir." Two possible pipeline projects to transport Kazakh oil and gas across the Caspian have been under discussion recently. On another energy-related topic, Mehmanparast said that Iran hopes to triple the volume of its oil swap operations with Kazakhstan in 2006. In 2005, Kazakh-Iranian oil swap operations totaled 1.4 million tons. DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev signed a decree on May 22 removing Kyrgyzstan's border troops from the jurisdiction of the National Security Agency (SNB), reported. The border troops will be reformed into a Border Service with a chairman appointed by the president. The Border Service was placed under the jurisdiction of the SNB on May 23, 2005. DK

Feliks Kulov told a cabinet meeting on May 22 that it is necessary to investigate reports that the executive branch instigated regional meetings calling for the dissolution of parliament, Kabar reported. Kulov said that citizens have the right to call for parliament's dissolution, but the executive branch should not play a role in this. At a closed-door session on May 22 to review the "social and political situation" in the country, members of parliament discussed reports that representatives of the presidential administration instigated local meetings to call for the dissolution of parliament, reported. Parliamentary speaker Marat Sultanov said that deputies are "strongly concerned" about the movement for parliament's dissolution, Interfax reported. Sultanov noted that while "such an opinion has a right to exist, what actually matters is that it should not come from the government." DK

Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov announced on May 22 that the military will hold a parade on Bishkek's central Alatoo Square on May 27 to honor the country's armed forces, The opposition movement For Reform! has already announced that it plans to hold a large rally on the same date and in the same place to call for reforms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2006). Isakov said that he first proposed the parade in late February and described the apparent clash with opposition plans as a coincidence. Parliamentary deputy Melis Eshimkanov, one of the organizers of the planned May 27 opposition rally, told that the Defense Ministry's plans create a "stalemate, a conflict." He added, "But we're not going to back down from our goals, and on May 27 40,000-45,000 will come out for a peaceful demonstration." DK

A court in Tajikistan's Sughd Province on May 22 sentenced six residents of Tajikistan and one resident of Russia to prison terms ranging from nine to 19 years for extremist activities committed as members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Sughd Prosecutor Abdughaffor Qalandarov said that the group was planning terror attacks. Qalandarov identified the local group's leader as Jumaboy Hojiev, an Uzbek citizen and one-time representative of former IMU leader Juma Namangani. Qalandarov said, "One of the militants from this group said during interrogation that their aim was to conduct destructive operations in the Sughd region." Defense lawyers for the convicted men said that rights violations marred the investigation and trial. One lawyer commented, "[The defendants] themselves said in court that they were not terrorists or members of any extremist group. They were forced under torture to admit to these crimes." Lawyers said that they plan to appeal the conviction to Tajikistan's Supreme Court. DK

The Minsk City Prosecutor's Office has warned opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich that he may face up to two years in prison if he continues to disseminate "false information discrediting Belarus," Belapan reported on May 22. The warning followed Milinkevich's interview with the Warsaw-based daily "Rzeczpospolita," in which, according to prosecutors, he alleged that Belarusian authorities were involved in the recent death of a Polish diplomat in Hrodna, northeastern Belarus. The prosecutor's office also demanded explanations from Milinkevich in connection with his interview with the BBC, in which he allegedly described the March presidential election in Belarus as a coup, noting that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka had no right to run for a third term. "If one obeys such warnings, he should lie low or emigrate from the country and quit politics. I am not going to do either the former or the latter. Neither am I going to limit myself in statements," Milinkevich commented on the warning to Belapan. JM

Yury Padabed, chief of Minsk's riot police, has rejected a complaint from Kanstantsin Usyonak that police officers beat and abused protesters in an opposition tent camp in downtown Minsk following the March 19 presidential election, Belapan reported on May 22. In his complaint to prosecutors in Minsk, Usyonak alleged that after his arrest in a police raid on the tent camp on March 24, officers forced him to chew his shirt and cut off locks of hair on his head. Padabed said in his written answer to the complaint claims that no proof of the allegations was found during an internal enquiry. "The actions of Minsk riot police were found legal," he added. "It is unclear why the reply was given by the chief of the abusers, not the prosecutor's office. In addition, Padabed's letter implies that such actions have become legal in our country," Usyonak told Belapan. JM

Lukashenka on May 23 delivered his annual report to the National Assembly (the Chamber of Representatives and the Council of the Republic), Belarusian Television reported. Lukashenka praised the government for achieving good economic results and seeking a union state with Russia. He noted that in the international arena Belarus has been affected by "unprecedented pressure" and "constant threat of sanctions" from the West. "The main priority of the Eastern vector [of Belarus's foreign policy] is China, which shares our points of view on many issues. We are for full-format cooperation with the United States and the European Union," Lukashenka added. JM

The presidents of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova (GUAM) -- Mikheil Saakashvili, Viktor Yushchenko, Ilham Aliyev, and Vladimir Voronin, respectively -- signed a declaration in Kyiv on May 23 to set up the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development -- GUAM, UNIAN reported. President Yushchenko said the objectives of the new organization are to promote democratic values, safeguard sustained economic development, strengthen international and regional security, and deepen European integration. JM

In an interview published in the May 23 issue of the "Financial Times," Ukrainian Economy Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk urged the United States and the EU to help secure Russian gas supplies to Ukraine at the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in St. Petersburg in July. "I hope the G-8 will raise this issue. It's very, very important to coordinate our concerns," he said. Yatsenyuk also noted that the January increase of the Russian gas price for Ukraine from $50 to $95 per 1,000 cubic meters will be felt by his country in slower economic growth and increased inflation. Referring to reports that Russia might seek a gas price increase to $230 per 1,000 cubic meters, Yatsenyuk said such a rise could lead to a 6-7 percent drop in gross domestic product and a leap in inflation to 25-30 percent. JM

Montenegro's electoral commission announced on May 23 that final preliminary referendum results indicate a vote in favor of independence, international news agencies reported. According to official figures, 55.5 percent supported independence, more than the 55 percent required by the European Union (EU). Voting against independence were 44.5 percent. Turnout was 86.49 percent of Montenegro's 480,000 voters. The EU-appointed head of the commission, Frantisek Lipka, said both sides have three days to submit any complaints about the election process before the result is certified, AP reported. Unionist leaders on May 22 called for a recount, citing unspecified irregularities, but Lipka said there were no specific complaints. Speaking on May 22, Montenegro's pro-independence Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic urged unionist forces to stop trying to "overturn what cannot be overturned," AP reported the next day. BW

Leaders from the former Yugoslavia on May 22 praised Montenegro's independence referendum, international news agencies reported. Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said the vote will "contribute to stability in this part of Europe." Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski said it marked "the end of the Yugoslav project, which was created a long time ago with good intentions." Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa praised the referendum and called on both sides to avoid "additional tensions." In Bosnia-Herzegovina, both Muslim and Serb leaders welcomed the result. Sulejman Tihic, the Muslim chairman of Bosnia's three-member collective presidency, called it "a victory for the Montenegrin people." Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic, who initially opposed the referendum, said he "welcomes the outcome of the vote in the neighboring country." Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik also said he backs "the will of the people of Montenegro" to live in an independent state. Kosova Prime Minister Agim Ceku called the result "the final act of the dissolution of Yugoslavia." He added that Kosova would likely join Montenegro as an independent state soon, and that both would add to "the stability of the whole region." BW

A former Serbian deputy prime minister, Miroljub Labus, on May 22 called on the government in Belgrade to be the first to recognize Montenegrin independence, B92 reported the same day. Labus resigned from the government on May 3 after the European Union broke off pre-membership talks with Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). "The Serbian government's policies towards Montenegro have taken a severe blow with the referendum, and therefore, its priority must be to change its policies toward Montenegro," Labus said. He added that the result "confirms the clear will of the majority of citizens" and called on Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to reach out to Podgorica once the results are declared official. BW

Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said on May 22 that Montenegro's vote in favor of independence gives Serbia a chance to restore a parliamentary monarchy, Beta and B92 reported the same day. "I believe that this is a historic moment for Serbia to return to its historical beginnings, which is cemented in history as a tried and winning pillar of the Serbian state, the pillars of a kingdom," Draskovic said. "This is a chance for Serbia to return to something that will shorten our road towards Europe, a constitutional, parliamentary monarchy, and the Serbian people should not let this opportunity slip away," Draskovic added. BW

The speaker of Transdniester's parliament said in May 22 that the breakaway region plans to follow in Montenegro's footsteps and hold an independence referendum, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "Montenegro was given the right and the opportunity to choose, in compliance with international principles and the observance of human rights," Yevgeny Shevchuk said. "Sooner or later we will achieve a situation in which it will be possible to settle the [Transdniester] conflict simply through political means, through a referendum," he added. "The people of [Transdniester] have the right to their own opinion, too, and that opinion must be respected by the international community. The international community must formulate standard principles and approaches to such conflict situations around the world," Shevchuk said. BW

The six months since President Nursultan Nazarbaev's reelection for a new seven-year term have not been easy for the Kazakh head of state. Speculation arose about the possible involvement of Nazarbaev family members in the February killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev. Darigha Nazarbaeva, the president's eldest daughter and a parliamentarian, launched a highly public attack on security services, while her husband, Rakhat Aliev, sued over allegations that he was involved in the assassination. The situation has led to suggestions that relations between Nazarbaev and his daughter -- long seen as a potential successor -- have soured.

The killing of Sarsenbaev, a leader of the opposition Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) party, came only three months after another opposition leader, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, was found shot dead. In both cases, the opposition claimed the murders were politically motivated and demanded independent investigations.

Authorities ruled that the chief of the Senate administration, Erzhan Utembaev, masterminded Sarsenbaev's killing. They cited "personal enmity" as the motive for the murder. Several officers of the National Security Committee (KNB) were arrested for carrying out the killing.

Meanwhile, media reports appeared concerning the possible involvement of Nazarbaev family members in Sarsenbaev's assassination. Darigha Nazarbaeva and Aliev -- a former KNB deputy chief -- were the primary targets of the allegations. A former intelligence officer, Arat Narmanbetov, alleged to journalists that Aliev had ordered the killing. Aliev, who is also a deputy foreign minister, sued the retired colonel for slander. With neither Aliev nor Nazarbaeva appearing in the courtroom, Narmanbetov was found guilty on May 11 and sentenced to one year in prison.

Controversy grew following Nazarbaeva's article "Deja vu" in the March 10 issue of the daily "Karavan." "In her article 'Deja vu,' Darigha disclosed family secrets that had been told at a family dinner," Rozlana Taukina, the head of the Journalists In Trouble public association, told RFE/RL: "She also made public information about an official's report to the president. The most important information was that her husband was one of the suspects."

In "Deja vu," Nazarbaeva criticized the security services, quoting KNB citing Nartai Dutbaev's "raving" report to President Nazarbaev. Dutbaev, Nazarbaeva wrote, had told the president that "one of his family members -- either Rakhat Aliev, [another Nazarbaev son-in-law] Timur Kulibaev, or Kayrat Satybaldy, Nazarbaev's nephew -- was behind Sarsenbaev's murder."

The opposition immediately picked up on the story -- speculating that Dutbaev likely possessed evidence about the Nazarbaev family's involvement in the killing. Dosym Satpaev, head of the Almaty-based analytical center Risk Assessment Group, told RFE/RL that Nazarbaeva's article caused serious concerns. "Many said the article was the beginning of Darigha Nazarbaeva's new assault on the competing groupings within the ruling elite and could lead to yet another political crisis," Satpaev said.

Nazarbaeva has responded to questions about why she published her article by saying she was in a "negative psycho-emotional state" when she wrote it.

"This first-hand information from a presidential family member seriously undermined the president himself," Taukina said. "The fact that she rashly disclosed awkward information angered him."

Taukina said Nazarbaev responded to the controversy surrounding his eldest daughter and son-in-law in part by setting Information and Culture Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbaev on the media outlets owned by Darigha Nazarbaeva. In a May 3 speech in parliament, Yertysbaev said the state should take over Khabar, the country's leading television station, which is reportedly owned by Nazarbaeva. The minister also targeted Kazakhstan TV Channel and Commercial Television of Kazakhstan (KTK). The chief of the state-owned Kazakhstan TV Channel was sacked for reportedly unbalanced coverage of Islamic issues. Upset by that dismissal, dozens of employees resigned from the station after holding a strike. Yertysbaev accused KTK, also believed to be controlled by Nazarbaeva, of violating legislation on the state language and threatened to revoke the station's license. In response, Kazakhstan's Congress of Journalists, also headed by Nazarbaeva, demanded the minister's resignation.

Observers see the bickering between the minister and Nazarbaeva's media outlets as President Nazarbaev's way of punishing his daughter and her husband. Many have suggested the politically ambitious Nazarbaeva is attempting to become more independent.

But analyst Satpaev argued that Nazarbaeva is unlikely to move against her father. Nazarbaeva appears to have fallen from grace and, consequently, her political rivals seemed to have benefited. Satpaev said that Kulibaev, a long-time rival of the Nazarbaeva-Aliev grouping, has since been gaining financial power along with growing publicity. "In the future, especially when the time will come for a leadership change and for President Nazarbaev to step down, tension will rise primarily between Timur Kulibaev's group and the group led by Darigha Nazarbaeva and Rakhat Aliev," Satpaev said.

Analysts said recent developments demonstrate that Nazarbaev remains the strongest political figure in the country and, like a skillful puppeteer, he controls various political groupings to maintain a balance among them in order to ensure his own power.

Satpaev suggested that as the political system gets more complex and new players appear on the scene, it becomes more difficult for Nazarbaev to maintain power as family members become more independent.

Darigha Nazarbaeva, now seemingly distanced from her presidential father, might well regain her position as the favorite to succeed him. But Satpaev suggested that it is unlikely she will be Nazarbaev's choice.

Air strikes by U.S.-led coalition forces killed as many as 80 suspected neo-Taliban insurgents as the death toll from a surge in fighting climbed, AP reported on May 23. The latest casualties are from the Kandahar area, where fighting erupted on May 17. Recent battles between coalition forces and neo-Taliban fighters have claimed as many as 286 lives, with most of the losses believed to be among the insurgents. The violence is some of the worst Afghanistan has seen since the demise of the Taliban in 2001. Villagers in the area said the dead include civilians. Area resident Zurmina Bibi estimated that 10 people were killed in her home, including at least three children. "There were dead people everywhere," she told AP. Kandahar Governor Asadullah Khalid said that 16 civilians were killed in air strikes that also injured 16 others. "These sort of accidents happen during fighting, especially when the Taliban are hiding in homes," Khalid said. "I urge people not to give shelter to the Taliban." MR

Authorities in southern Afghanistan found on May 22 the body of former Paktika Province Governor Mohammad Ali Jalali, who was abducted and reported killed one day earlier, AFP reported. Unidentified gunmen abducted Jalali and Paktika's former police chief as they attended prayers in nearby Ghazni Province. "[Jalali] was killed and his body was left in a deserted area," said Ghazni police chief Abdul Rehman Sarjang. "The ex-police chief and their host were released." MR

The lower house of the Afghan National Assembly, the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), rejected the government's budget proposal because it failed to raise teachers' salaries, "The New York Times" reported on May 22. Afghan Finance Minister Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi said that international donors did not approve raises for teachers or other government workers in their aid, on which the Afghan government depends heavily. The draft budget now goes back to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration. ''Afghan people are expecting their representatives to do something for them, but the government did not accept our legitimate proposals and that is why we rejected the budget today,'' said Mir Ahmad Joyenda, a legislator from Kabul Province. Teachers and other civil servants currently earn the equivalent of $40 per month in Afghanistan. MR

Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), has voiced concern about rising tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, saying representatives of those two countries should hold a dialogue over mutual accusations over cross-border infiltration, Xinhua news agency reported on May 22. "Afghanistan's future is the region's future," Edwards said, according to Xinhua, adding that "the problems to be addressed" include insurgency, trade and economic ties, refugees, collaborative cooperation, "and dialogue will clearly be needed." Afghan President Karzai has publicly accused Pakistan of support for militants conducting guerrilla operations in Afghanistan. Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Shirpao has called Karzai's accusation baseless. Shirpao also said Afghanistan should do more to secure its border with Pakistan. MR

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said in Baghdad on May 21 that the United States is interested in discussing Iraqi affairs with Iran, AP reported. Washington reportedly first suggested such talks in October, and Tehran indicated its willingness in mid-March. Khalilzad told AP that the talks have not taken place yet in order to avoid any impression that Tehran and Washington "got together to decide the government in Iraq." "We have a lot of issues to discuss with them with regard to our concerns and what we envision for Iraq, and [are] prepared to listen to their concerns," he added. Khalilzad expressed unhappiness with the Iranian provision of arms and money to Iraqi militias, as well as "other negative actions that do take place by the Iranian regime in Iraq." Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Hassan Kazemi-Qomi said on May 14 that the U.S.-Iran talks on Iraqi affairs are canceled, IRNA reported. He explained that such talks are pointless because Iran-Iraq issues can be resolved bilaterally. Kazemi-Qomi also expressed skepticism about Washington's motives, saying, "We seek neither conflict nor compromise from the talks with the U.S. while Washington has had unspecific objectives." BS

An Iranian Foreign Ministry statement following a May 22 meeting in Tehran between Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari announced that Tehran is willing to host a meeting of foreign ministers from the countries neighboring Iraq, Fars News Agency reported. The previous day in Baghdad, Zebari met with Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi and expressed an interest in the expansion of bilateral relations, IRNA reported. Meanwhile, a May 21 report in "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" suggested that representatives of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad are trying to influence the composition of Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet. The Iranians reportedly wanted Interior Minister Bayan Jabr to retain his position, and, barring this, they wanted Ahmad Chalabi to serve as interior minister. The appointment of any Iraqi who participated in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War also has met with opposition from Tehran, according to the anonymous Iranian source quoted by "Al-Sharq al-Awsat." A source close to the Iranian military said Tehran does not want former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to have any position with security responsibilities, whereas allies of Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani want to invite Allawi to Tehran for discussions. Allawi reportedly rejected the invitation. BS

Three-day war games in the northern Persian Gulf began on May 21, IRNA reported. Codenamed "851," the exercises mark the 24th anniversary of the liberation of Khorramshahr during the Iran-Iraq War. Iranian naval official Mohammad-Taqi Hejazi noted the exercises will include amphibious operations. "Noble Prophet" -- the early-April war games in the Persian Gulf, Straits of Hormuz, and Sea of Oman -- caused international consternation because they featured Iran's testing of new types of missiles (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 10 April 2006). BS

Deputy parliamentary speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar asserted that the publication of an article offensive to the Azeri minority in the official state newspaper represents an attempt to inflame ethnic tensions against the central government, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on May 22. Azeri-Iranians were particularly offended by the cartoon, which depicts a boy variously repeating "cockroach" in Persian before a giant bug in front of him asks "What?" in Azeri. The cartoon appeared in the Islamic Republic News Agency's "Iran" on May 12. Davud Khoda Karami, secretary of the Islamic Society of Students at the University of Zanjan, said in the April 21 issue of "Aftab-i Yazd" that a student sit-in over the cartoon led to the university's closure. He added that campus protests took place in Ardabil and Hamedan, as well as Tabriz, Tehran, Urumieh, and Zanjan. BS

Newly appointed Culture Minister As'ad Kamal al-Hashimi resigned from his post on May 23, KUNA reported. The news agency said al-Hashimi, a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, cited his already busy schedule as head of a humanitarian organization as the reason for stepping down. KUNA reported that the front has nominated parliamentarian Salman al-Jumayli to replace al-Hashimi. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on May 23 that members of the front have denied that al-Hashimi has tendered his resignation. A number of artists and intellectuals in Baghdad criticized the appointment of al-Hashimi, saying he is not qualified to hold the position of culture minister, RFI reported. KR

Hamid Majid Musa, a leading member of the Iraqi National List, denied on May 22 that there is a split within the coalition, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on the same day. "Our Iraqi National List is an expanded political coalition that brings together political parties, organizations, and figures. It is democratic in its nature and liberal in its composition. Hence, different viewpoints are freely expressed within this list...What we have is a difference in individual judgment, ideas, and visions on the political performance. In our view this is not a rift, but a healthy phenomenon that helps us remain on track and enhances the performance of the list," Musa told the news channel. Musa heads the Communist Party. KR

A member of the Iraqi National List, Izzat al-Shabandar, told the London-based newspaper "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on May 21 that rumors of a split within the list surfaced because the list held out on its decision to participate in the government until minutes before the announcement of the cabinet, the daily reported on May 22. He said the list agreed to join the government when it was offered a fifth portfolio. Al-Shabandar maintained that the list should have been awarded more cabinet posts, telling "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance was more concerned during negotiations about satisfying the demands of parties within its own alliance than it was in forming a national unity government. The Alliance and the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front "have not abandoned their sectarian-based culture," he added. Al-Shabandar claimed that the new government has "no aspect of a national unity government...except for the participation of the Iraqi National List." KR

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi told Baghdad TV on May 22 that Iraqis have a legitimate right to resist foreign forces, AP reported on the same day. "Resistance is a legitimate right until America, Britain, and other allied countries leave Iraqi and bring back to Iraqis sovereignty, which is incomplete at the present time. The government should achieve all these things," said al-Hashimi, who is a Sunni Arab and head of the Iraqi Islamic Party. The vice president also called on resistance groups to follow through with talks with the United States and the Iraqi government, saying: "When the U.S. administration says that it wants an honorable way to exit from the crisis, whether it was telling the truth or not, then [the resistance] should study and sense the situation in Iraq after the withdrawal of foreign troops." Al-Hashimi also called for the disarming of all militias, saying the government should be the only party holding weapons in Iraq. He also rejected the idea of integrating members of the militias into the Iraqi security forces, saying militiamen should take up civilian jobs, AP reported. KR

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a May 22 statement that it continues to lobby for the winding up of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). The statement said that the ministry wants UNMOVIC to end its mission "as the reasons that had led to its establishment have ceased to exist." The ministry said it is willing to allow UNMOVIC to resume its work for a "definite period of as to confirm the fact that Iraq is free from weapons of mass destruction and their components and programs." The ministry said it has succeeded in winning the transfer to the Iraq Development Fund of some $200 million held in UNMOVIC's account. Another $20 million has gone to settle Iraq's arrears to the UN for the years 1991-2005, while $2.2 million and 266,000 euros ($341,975) has been paid in arrears to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). KR

UNMOVIC gave no indication in its 24th quarterly report to the UN Security Council on February 28 that it has any intention of disbanding. The report said the commission is busy "preparing to respond to any request for assistance" by Iraq in meeting its intention to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, an arms-control agreement that outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. The commission added that Iraq still has work to do to meet safety and security standards at the Al-Muthanna industrial complex, which served as a chemical weapons production plant under Saddam Hussein's regime. UNMOVIC has also initiated a review of its records to "identify issues that will need to be addressed should those records eventually be transferred to the United Nations archives," the report stated. The commission maintains a staff of seven Iraqi nationals in Baghdad, with backup support from its regional office in Cyprus, the report added. KR