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Newsline - July 3, 2006

In an interview published on June 30 in "Moskovskiye novosti," Valentina Matvienko argued that she considers it of "fundamental importance" that Vladimir Putin should be permitted to serve a third term as Russian president after his current term expires in 2008. Doing so, Matvienko reasoned, would enable Putin to complete what he has begun and to "make the most important processes irreversible." Speaking to journalists on July 1, Matvienko again said the economic, financial, social, and political changes Putin has effected "need to be consolidated and made irreversible," and that a third Putin term would help preserve stability both within Russia and abroad, Interfax and reported. She admitted, however, that it is for Putin himself to decide whether the current constitution and legislation should be amended to permit one person to serve three presidential terms. An opinion poll published on June 7 by the Levada Center in Moscow indicates that 59 percent of respondents would approve amending the constitution to enable President Putin to run for a third term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 2006). Speaking two weeks ago in Shanghai, however, Putin said he will not run for a third term, as doing so would require changing the constitution, which in turn would deprive him of the moral authority to govern (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 16, 2006). LF

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told a congress of his People's Democratic Union (NDS) in Moscow on July 1 that he intends to put forward his candidacy in the 2008 presidential ballot, Interfax reported. At the same time, he said he does not plan to head any political party. When the NDS was launched in April, commentators suggested it was formed specifically to back a Kasyanov presidential bid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, March 16, and April 10, 2006). LF

Echoing comments he made days earlier in Lipetsk, Sergei Mironov told Interfax on July 1 that he believes members of the upper chamber of the Russian parliament should be elected rather than centrally appointed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27, 2006). He suggested that regional governors or presidents and the regional or republican legislature should nominate two candidates each. Mironov pointed out that if the relevant legislation is enacted by the end of this year, such elections could be held concurrently with regional elections in March 2007. Mironov also recalled that the principles under which parliamentary elections are held are being reformed and as of 2007, Duma deputies will be elected only from party lists and not from single-mandate constituencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 12, 2005). Also on July 1, President Putin told journalists in Lesniye Dali, Moscow Oblast, that he supports the proposal by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party that 20 percent of the candidates on parties' election lists should be "young people," Interfax reported. It is not clear if either Putin or Unified Russia has stipulated an upper age limit. LF

Mironov also called in his July 1 interview with Interfax for greater state control over the media. At the same time, he argued that a Public Chamber comprised of "decent and respected people" should be established to ensure that the media conform to the state's information policy, as giving that responsibility to either the State Duma, the Federation Council, or the Press Ministry would be tantamount to a return to censorship. LF

According to a poll of 3,000 respondents conducted on June 17-18 in 63 Russian regions, 54 percent of voters considered it necessary to preserve the option of being able to vote "against all" candidates in elections, while only 28 percent favored abolishing it, reported on July 1. Some 63 percent could not name a single advantage in abolishing that option, as the State Duma voted to do in the final reading on June 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 30, 2006). Nearly one-third -- 31 percent -- of the poll respondents said they have voted "against all" on at least one occasion. LF

Kremlin adviser Modest Kolerov told Interfax on July 1 that more than 1 million Russians, most of them "professionals" currently living in unspecified countries that are undergoing "a socioeconomic crisis," plan to take advantage of the repatriation program announced by President Putin on June 26. That program guarantees benefits and support for persons who agree to settle in border regions in the Far East. Returnees will also be permitted to settle in regions where the population is declining rapidly, or where major investment programs are under way (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27, 2006). In Primorsky Krai, the authorities are already allocating land for repatriates to settle, while in Irkutsk, Governor Aleksandr Tishanin said on June 29 that the oblast is ready to house in 2007 up to 1.5 million ethnic Russians from former Soviet republics who wish to settle in the Russian Federation, reported. LF

Nikolai Fyodorov warned republican Prime Minister Sergei Gaplikov during a session of the republican government on June 30 that unless the inflation rate is brought down, he will demand the resignation of the entire government, reported. Chuvashia has until now experienced lower-than-average inflation, but experts have predicted that consumer prices will rise by almost 10 percent this year. LF

Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak signed a multilateral protocol on June 30 with the Paris Club of creditors under which Russia will repay in full by August 21, 2006, the approximately $22.3 billion it owes those countries, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2006). Storchak told journalists after the signing that Moscow hopes that international ratings agencies will upgrade Russia's country rating in the wake of that agreement. Speaking on July 1 on the Russian television program "Vesti-24," Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said that the early repayment of Russia's debt to the Paris Club puts it in a position to lay claim to assets abroad, including real estate, which other former Soviet republics ceded to Russia in return for a pledge to repay their share of the former Soviet foreign debt, Interfax reported. LF

Meeting in Luxembourg on June 30, shareholders of the steel company Arcelor SA voted to endorse the merger of Arcelor with Mittal Steel to form the world's largest steel company, rather than to go ahead with a previously agreed merger between Arcelor and the Russian Severstal, the "Financial Times" reported on July 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26 and 27, 2006). Arcelor will pay Severstal 140 million euros ($179 million) in compensation for backing out of the previous deal, under which Severstal would have invested 14 billion euros in assets in the merged company in exchange for 32 percent of the total shares. On July 3, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported that Severstal's owner Aleksei Mordashov plans an initial public offering of 3 billion euros on the London Stock Exchange in a bid to increase his company's capitalization prior to making a takeover bid for either the U.K.-based Corus Group or another European steel company. LF

Aleksei Miller, who is CEO of Russia's state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom, told a general shareholders' meeting in Moscow on June 30 that Gazprom intends to abide by the same conditions in its relations with CIS states as with Europe, presumably meaning that CIS countries will be required to pay the full market price for gas, reported. On July 1, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov warned that the revision of the January 2006 gas deal between Russia and Ukraine that the new Ukrainian government under Yuliya Tymoshenko is demanding "endangers the security and continuity" of Gazprom's supplies to Europe, Interfax reported. LF

Ahmet Necdet Sezer met with President Putin on June 29, the second day of his three-day official visit to Russia, according to a June 30 statement on the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry ( Speaking to journalists after their talks, the two presidents noted with satisfaction the boom in bilateral trade over the past 15 years, from $1.5 billion in 1991 to $15 billion today; Sezer predicted that the figure could reach $25 billion. Sezer noted in particular the positive impact on bilateral economic relations of the Blue Stream pipeline that carries Russian natural gas to Turkey. Putin noted the talks focused on the Middle East, Iraq, the Iranian nuclear standoff, regional developments in the Black Sea region, and coordinating efforts in the fight against terrorism. He said that the two countries' positions on all international issues discussed either coincide or "have become much closer." Writing on July 1 in the "Turkish Daily News," columnist Mehmet Ali Birand enthused that "Turkey's love for Russia is increasing every day." But "Novye izvestiya" on June 29 noted that Russia and Turkey are still in competition over the transport of Caspian hydrocarbons to world markets. LF

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Moscow on June 30 with his Italian counterpart Massimo D'Alema to discuss bilateral relations, preparations for the G8 summit in St. Petersburg on July 15-17, and various international issues, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry website. The two ministers agreed to maintain "close working contacts" with regard to the agenda for the upcoming summit. They also agreed that the international community should strictly abide by accepted principles of international law in order to prevent possible "destabilizing consequences" of the referendum whereby Montenegro won independence from its former joint state with Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2006), or of the ongoing Kosova status talks. Other issues discussed included the Middle East, Iraq, and Iran's nuclear agenda. D'Alema also met in Moscow on June 30 with Finance Minister Kudrin to discuss the possibility of Gazprom and Italy's state-owned ENI cooperating to extend the Blue Stream pipeline from Samsun to Ceyhan, Interfax and reported. Kudrin said an agreement on building that pipeline could be signed "very soon." LF

Russia should not spare either financial or other resources in its efforts to apprehend and bring to justice those responsible for the execution of a Russian diplomat and three embassy employees abducted in Baghdad, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov told Interfax in Moscow on July 1. Every terrorist organization should know that Russia will never leave any hostage-taking or murder of her compatriots without retaliation, Alkhanov said. The four men were abducted in early June by the Mujahedin Shura Council, an Iraqi-based group with links to Al-Qaeda. On June 28, President Putin ordered unspecified Russian "special services" to take "all measures to find and eliminate" the killers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27, 28, and 29, 2006). LF

Arman Babadjanian, editor of the independent daily "Zhamanak Yerevan," released a statement on June 30 claiming that his arrest four days earlier on charges of evading military service in 2002 was politically motivated, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27 and 28, 2006). Babadjanian said his detention was intended "to muzzle an independent and incorruptible media outlet that supports the removal of an illegal regime and the establishment of a legitimate government." Prosecutors said last week that Babadjanian, who has been remanded in pre-trial custody for two months, has confessed to the charge against him. Babadjanian's statement made no mention of any such confession. LF

TuranAlem Bank, which is one of Kazakhstan's three largest banks and the seventh largest in the CIS, has closed the office in Baku that it opened in August 2005, and reported on July 1 and 2, respectively. Although the office was registered with the Justice Ministry, the National Bank of Azerbaijan refused to grant it a license. TuranAlem hoped to acquire a controlling stake in an unnamed Azerbaijani bank. It has since made considerable investments in Georgia. LF

Seven Georgian opposition parties and movements -- the New Rightists, the Republican party, Tavisupleba (Liberty), the Conservative party, the Labor party, Industry Will Save Georgia, and the People's Forum -- signed a statement in Tbilisi on June 30 demanding that the election law be amended to provide for elections to the Tbilisi Municipal Council to be held according to the proportional system, Caucasus Press and reported. The council has 37 seats, of which 30 currently go to whichever party polls the largest number of votes (a minimum of 30 percent). Parliamentarian Giga Bokeria of the ruling United National Movement rejected that demand on June 30 as "blackmail" that "will lead nowhere," Caucasus Press reported. LF

Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili told the independent television station Rustavi-2 on July 2 that the Georgian parliament should demand the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping troops currently deployed in the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflict zones, Interfax and reported on July 3. "We must reunite the country, and I don't care" that "skeptics" in Europe are concerned that a demand for the peacekeepers' withdrawal may negatively affect Georgian-Russian relations, Okruashvili was quoted as saying. Also on July 3, Mikhail Mindzayev, interior minister of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, accused Georgia of preparing to launch a military offensive against South Ossetia immediately after the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, Caucasus Press reported. On July 1, the Georgian Defense Ministry accused South Ossetia of "illegally" constructing fortifications during the third week in June; Mindzayev was quoted on July 3 by as saying that those fortifications were undertaken in direct response to Georgia's actions. Meanwhile, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity told residents of Djava Raion on July 1 that he will not instigate a referendum with the aim of amending the constitution to enable him to run for a further term after his second presidential term expires later this year, reported. LF

The UN-sponsored Coordinating Council working group on security issues convened on June 30 in Gali for its first session in five years, Caucasus Press and reported. Participants focused on the security situation in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion and in the Kodori Gorge. Ivo Petrov, who is deputy special representative of the UN Secretary-General for the Abkhaz conflict, stressed the need for both sides to observe the cease-fire agreement signed in Moscow in May 1994 and to draft and submit to the Coordinating Council proposals for averting a resumption of hostilities. LF

Representatives of various Abkhaz political parties and movements, including the opposition Forum of National Unity established last year (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 11, 2005) issued two statements last week criticizing the Abkhaz authorities for endorsing an agreement concluded among the governments of Russia, Armenia ,and Georgia to establish a consortium to renovate the railway line from Sochi via Abkhazia to Tbilisi and thence to Armenia, reported on June 30. That agreement reportedly designates the stretch of railway through Abkhazia as the property of the consortium, a concession that the signatories branded contrary to Abkhaz national interests and a threat to the unrecognized republic's sovereignty. Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh brushed off that criticism during comments to journalists on June 29, saying it testifies to the fact that "we are building a democratic law-based state where anyone can express his opinion," reported. Bagapsh argued that the renovation of the rail link and the resumption of rail traffic is "strategically vital" to Russia and essential for reviving Abkhazia's economy. He pledged that the Abkhaz leadership will "defend its position" vis-a-vis the Russian-Georgian-Armenian consortium. LF

In an appeal published on June 30 by and Navigator, Rustam Ibragimov, a defendant charged with the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev, asked Judge Lukmat Merekenov to take measures to protect him and his family. Ibragimov said that Erzhan Utembaev, who is charged with paying for Sarsenbaev's killing, told him on February 15 that a high-ranking official met with Sarsenbaev on February 11, the day the authorities have said the murder was committed. Ibragimov also stated in the appeal that the official's picture was shown to him by FBI agents and the official's name was mentioned to him by the Interior Ministry and prosecutor-general. Ibragimov did not identify the official, but said that now that he has made it clear in his testimony that he knows the official's identity, he believes that "I, my relatives, and my lawyers are threatened by a real risk -- up to physical liquidation." A former law enforcement officer, Ibragimov has pled innocent to the murder charge. DK

Lyubov Ten, head of the macroeconomic policy department in Kyrgyzstan's Economy and Finance Ministry, told in an interview on June 29 that remittances from migrant workers totaled an estimated $750 million in 2005. Ten said that the International Organization for Migration puts the number of Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia at 300,000-500,000 and in Kazakhstan at 50,000. Ten noted that the Bishkek Consensus Institute for Economic Policy (IEP) estimates the total number of Kyrgyz migrant workers at 400,000, including 50,000 outside the CIS. The IEP put annual remittance averages of individual migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan in 2004-05 at $1,165 (Russia), $1,361 (Kazakhstan), and $2,050 (other countries). DK

Kyrgyz prosecutors have asked for the death penalty in the trial of Aziz Batukaev and Rustam Abdulin, who are being tried in connection with the murders of four people, including parliamentary deputy Tynychbek Akmatbaev, during prison unrest on October 20, 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 21, 2005), reported. Batukaev, Abdulin, and 37 other defendants are on trial in the killings, which triggered a series of demonstrations in Bishkek last October (see "Restive Days In Bishkek,", October 30, 2005). DK

Kurmanbek Bakiev announced on July 1 that he will sign a decree raising the salaries of teachers, doctors, and social-sector workers by 20 percent, Kabar reported. Bakiev noted that salaries for these workers increased by 15 percent last year, news agency reported. The raises will be effective July 1. DK

Talks between a Ukrainian delegation headed by acting Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov and Turkmenistan's Oil and Gas Ministry ended on June 30 in Ashgabat without an agreement on gas shipments for the second half of 2006, reported. The two sides did reach an agreement on Ukrainian arrears of $64 million for previous shipments, which the Ukrainian side said it will pay by September. Turkmenistan offered to sell gas to Ukraine for $100 per 1,000 cubic meters in the fourth quarter of 2006 if Ukraine can arrange transport of the gas through Russia, an offer the Ukrainian delegation did not accept. DK

The report noted that Turkmenistan considers a late 2005 Turkmen-Ukrainian contract on 2006 shipments "invalid" after Russia's Gazprom declined to provide a transit license for the gas. Shipments under a different arrangement brokered with Gazprom on January 4 will be completed by September, the Turkmen side said. Under the current agreement, Ukraine pays $95 per 1,000 meters to Rosukrenergo, a Swiss-registered gas trader that sells Ukraine a mixture of Russian and Central Asian gas. The Ukrainian delegation has returned to Kyiv for consultations. The failure to reach agreement came a day after Russia's Gazprom and Turkmenistan broke off talks on a gas deal for the remainder of 2006 after failing to reach an agreement on price (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 30, 2006). DK

Uzbekistan's Justice Ministry has found the Dutch NGO AIDS Foundation East-West in violation of Uzbek law, Interfax reported on June 30. The report said that the NGO is "expected" to resolve the violations, but it noted that the Justice Ministry would not say whether the organization could be closed. Over the past two years, Uzbek authorities have shut down most of the Western NGOs in Uzbekistan. DK

Alyaksandr Lukashenka said at a solemn gathering in Minsk on July 1 devoted to the country's Independence Day that present-day Belarus is "a worthy successor of Soviet Belarus, its best traditions and historical achievements," Belapan reported. "The breakup of such a great country as the Soviet Union could not take place without leaving any trace in all post-Soviet republics," Lukashenka said. "Their peoples have paid, and will continue to pay for a long time, their price for this historic tragedy. Our price was the least compared to those paid by other peoples. We have not suffered bloodshed or such poverty and disorganization as [people] in neighboring countries.... We have created a society in which possibilities for developing democratic forms of government and self-government are no fewer, or even greater, than in developed democracies of the West." In 1996, following a deeply flawed constitutional referendum, Lukashenka shifted Independence Day from July 27 (the day of the declaration of Belarus's sovereignty in 1990) to July 3 (the day of the liberation of Minsk from the Nazis in 1944). JM

Viktor Yushchenko said in a radio address to the nation on July 1 that he is not going to dissolve the Verkhovna Rada over its protracted inability to elect parliamentary leadership and appoint a new cabinet, Ukrainian media reported. "There will be no repeat elections! It is a too expensive pleasure for the country and an inadequate price for the ambitions of some politicians," Yushchenko noted. He said Ukraine recently marked the 10th anniversary of the promulgation of its constitution without a Constitutional Court, a functioning parliament, and a new cabinet. "The responsibility for this lies exclusively with deputies of the new Verkhovna Rada and the leaders of parties and blocs, whose short-sighted position has led to a blockade of the parliament's work," Yushchenko added. Yushchenko urged the newly created ruling coalition of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party to discuss the current parliamentary impasse with the opposition -- the Party of Regions led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and the Communist Party. A planned round of such talks misfired in Kyiv on July 3 after Yanukovych failed to show up and the ruling coalition refused to discuss the parliamentary crisis without him. Party of Regions deputies have been blocking the parliamentary session hall for the past week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 30, 2006). JM

Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said at a cabinet meeting on June 30 that the price of gas imported by Ukraine will remain unchanged in the third quarter of 2006, Ukrainian and Russian media reported. "Our industry can operate in a calm fashion. As for the fourth quarter, we will work further," Yekhanurov said, noting that a deal to this effect has been reached in talks between UkrgazEnergo and RosUkrEnergo, firms acting as intermediaries to supply Russian and Central Asian gas to Ukraine. In January, Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayiny signed a 2006 gas-supply contract whereby Ukraine undertook to pay $95 per 1,000 cubic meters of a Russian-Central Asian gas mix. The price set in that contract was valid only for the first six months of 2006. Meanwhile, gas prices for Ukrainian individual consumers have gone up by some 85 percent as of July 1. JM

Former Bosnian Muslim military commander Naser Oric was convicted at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague on June 30 of failing to prevent the torture and killing of Serbian prisoners in Srebrenica in 1992-93, AP reported. The tribunal ruled that Oric was not personally involved, however, and sentenced him to two years in prison. As he had already spent over three years in custody (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 7, 2004), Oric was released immediately for time served. Oric was cleared on charges of "wanton destruction and plunder" during raids carried out on Serbian villages in the area around Srebrenica, where Oric led the defense until its capture in July 1995. Prosecutors, who requested an 18-year sentence, expressed "surprise" at the verdict, while Oric's lawyer announced plans to appeal it, saying Oric is "guilty of none of the crimes he is blamed for." DW

Politicians and media in Serbia reacted with outrage at what is seen as an extremely lenient sentence for Oric, AP reported on July 1. "The verdict brings into question the credibility of the [Hague] court," Aleksandar Simic, an adviser to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, said. Justice Minister Zoran Stojkovic expressed "disgust" at the sentence, saying it makes no sense "from a human, moral, or legal point of view." Serbs accuse Muslim forces in Srebrenica under Oric's command of massacring hundreds of Serbian civilians during raids on nearby villages. "There is obviously no end to injustice from The Hague toward the Serbian people and their victims. The already poor rating of the Hague tribunal is now only being further demolished," Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia said in a statement. President Boris Tadic, meanwhile, said in a statement that "People who steal at supermarkets are given two-year prison sentences, and it is absolutely scandalous that someone who committed a war crime be punished so lightly." DW

Serbian Defense Minister Zoran Stankovic has confirmed that U.S. and British agents have joined in the hunt for Bosnian Serb wartime commander Ratko Mladic, AP reported on July 1, citing the daily "Glas." Confirming earlier reports that Western intelligence officers are assisting Serbian intelligence in the search (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26 and 30, 2006), Stankovic said that "undoubtedly, some of their [U.S., British intelligence] members are included" in the search for Mladic. He did not reveal any details about the agents' role. Stankovic also admitted that some officers in military security were in contact with Mladic until late 2005, but insisted that his current whereabouts remain unknown. DW

Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski's Social Democratic Union (SDSM) is trailing in opinion polls as Macedonia prepares to hold parliamentary elections on July 5, AFP reported on July 3. The nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), which is promising to liberalize the economy, has risen in popularity as the country struggles with severe economic problems and unemployment of more than 36 percent. The VMRO-DPMNE is expected to garner 17.3 percent of the vote compared to the SDSM's 12.8 percent, according to the independent Institute for Democracy. Among the country's minority Albanian parties, the Union for Democratic Integration (BDI) is expected to fare the best, with 9,6 percent support, while the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSH) is polling 5.8 percent. The run-up to the elections -- the country's fourth since gaining independence in 1991 -- has been marred by violence and ethnic tensions since the election campaign opened on June 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27 and 28, 2006). MES

Prime Minister Buckovski, whose SDSM is running on a platform of European integration and eventual EU and NATO membership, has touted the country's "miraculous" recovery since nearly descending into civil war in 2001, AP reported on July 3. He was quoted by the news agency as urging a rally in the capital Skopje to "give us the chance to continue this miracle and bring Macedonia within NATO and EU. This country does not need divisions or radicalism any more." NATO last week warned that the country's efforts to join the military alliance could be hampered if the violence that has marred the election campaign is not curtailed. About 2,700 candidates from 33 parties or coalitions are running for seats in the 120-member parliament. MES

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has been called outlandish, eccentric, insane, ruthless, and described as a tyrannical dictator. But the international media's comic portrayals of Niyazov distract attention from many of the very serious problems the country is facing, observers say.

Turkmen citizens have no chance to enjoy ballet, opera, a philharmonic orchestra, or a circus because Niyazov -- also known as Turkmenbashi the Great or the "Father of All Turkmen" -- has banned them, saying they contradict Turkmen national values.

Niyazov has also ordered the dismissal of several thousand health-care workers and replaced them with military conscripts, while also closing down many rural hospitals. Turkmen children only go to school until the ninth grade ever since the government reduced public education -- making it impossible for them to study at foreign universities

Only adherents to Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy are free to worship in Turkmenistan, as those who follow any other religion or religious sect usually face harsh repression, with some churches having been bulldozed. And Turkmens are constantly forced to better their knowledge of the nation's history and present by learning phrases from "Rukhnama," Niyazov's book on spirituality and proper behavior, which is compulsory study in schools.

Many Turkmen citizens live in poverty since Niyazov cancelled or cut payments to a large portion of the country's pensioners and cancelled maternity and sick-leave payments for others in February.

If Turkmens criticize the government or work for foreign media outlets, they are likely to be persecuted and can be internally exiled, evicted from their homes, or forcibly put in psychiatric hospitals while their personal property is confiscated.

This is the dire but realistic picture of Turkmenistan, according to exiled Turkmen dissidents and international human rights groups. Many of them say the Western media, however, does not give an adequate picture of the country because they are too busy reporting about Niyazov's cult of personality or his strange behavior and comments, such as his criticism of gold-capped teeth, long hair and beards, and female TV anchors' use of make-up -- or his decision to ban the use of tobacco.

But focusing on such things creates a distorted picture of life in Turkmenistan and takes attention away from the truly difficult issues that Turkmens are facing, says Eric Freedman of the journalism school at Michigan State University. "It's obvious that he does a lot of strange things. Some of them [are] building an ice palace in the desert, renaming the days of the weeks and the months of the year, building the world's largest mosque [or] his putting up giant posters [of himself] all over the country," Freedman says.

"Those kinds of things draw attention to him as a person and they obviously have a public-policy implication," Freedman continues. "But the press doesn't tend to look at those kinds of public-policy issues. It's easier to put attention on things that are a little strange. There are some problems with that, I think, because you as a reader in the West get a distorted picture."

Farid Tukhbatullin, an exiled human rights activist and head of the Vienna-based nongovernmental group Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, says that the media portrays Niyazov as a "clown dictator" and his decrees as whims and eccentricity. He says foreign media seem to forget that nearly 5 million people have to live a "tragic life" under Niyazov's rule.

Tukhbatullin believes it is because ordinary people in the West are not interested in finding out more about Turkmenistan, noting that since he arrived in Europe, "I learned that people know practically nothing -- not only about Turkmenistan -- but also about other former Soviet republics.

"Unfortunately, the foreign press only portrays Turkmenistan as a country with a president who has a screw loose," he adds. "Journalists and perhaps their readers are not interested in having an in-depth knowledge about Turkmenistan. They are probably satisfied with reading about [Niyazov's] odd remarks and behavior over coffee, at their leisure."

Michigan University's Freedman recently conducted research on several Western media outlets' coverage of Turkmenistan, and noted that personality-driven media coverage of other leaders is very rare. "If the situation were reversed and it were foreign media covering events in the U.S. when Bill Clinton was president, it would be as if most stories about U.S. trade or military included references that Bill Clinton was not faithful to his wife, or had smoked marijuana...or had this 'Slick Willie' kind of image," he says. "And if you put it that way, you realize how ridiculous it would be for the foreign press to do that about the United States. So why wouldn't it be equally ridiculous for the Western press to do that about another country?"

Freedman says Western media coverage becomes more serious when prominent international groups, like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or the World Health Organization take interest in certain events in the country.

Allison Gill, head of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that the media should stop making fun of Turkmenbashi and pay more attention to his regime's disastrous human rights record. "There is absolutely not enough attention to the human rights situation in Turkmenistan," Gill says. "Many people have forgotten about Turkmenistan or consider that the president is somewhat funny in his building of [his own] statues and his creating a cult of personality to himself. But there is nothing funny about what is happening in Turkmenistan. It is an incredibly serious and dire human rights situation that demands the attention of the world community."

Freedman, however, says that the odd and the bizarre about Turkmenbashi are likely to continue dominating media coverage as they attract a greater audience.(Gulnoza Saidazimova is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

Former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani (1992-96) said in an interview with Mashhad-based Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran on July 2 that only Afghans may be saviors of security in their country. Rabbani who leads the Jami'at-e Islami-ye Afghanistan party and is also a member of the Afghan National Assembly, told the Iranian broadcaster that the "many factors" behind the worsening security situation in Afghanistan include interference by foreigners, "people's dissatisfaction with the policies of" the Karzai administration, and "willful decisions of the foreign troops" in Afghanistan. Rabbani blamed the post-Taliban Afghan administrations for trying to "get rid" of the mujahedin. "The government could use [the] mujahedin as an asset for defending the country or bringing security and peace," added Rabbani, whose party played a prominent role in resisting the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. In a separate interview with Tehran-based Arabic-language Al-Alam Television, Rabbani said that unnamed parties are responsible for the deterioration of security in Afghanistan because they excluded mujahedin leaders from the country's decision-making process. The exclusion of these leaders created a political vacuum, claimed Rabbani, whose own government was ousted from power by the Taliban in September 1996. AT

One crewmember was killed and another sustained injuries when their AH-64 Apache helicopter crashed shortly after takeoff from Kandahar Air Field on July 2, international news agencies reported. Officials said that enemy action has been ruled out as a cause, American Forces Press Service (AFPS) reported on July 2. Qari Mohammad Yusof, purporting to speak for the Taliban, claimed that his militia shot down "an aircraft which was taking off from Kandahar Air Field," Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on July 2. "At lease one rocket hit Kandahar Air Field," Mohammad Yusof told AIP, adding that he had "no further details." According to AFPS, the helicopter was responding to a "reported rocket" attack when it crashed. AT

Two British soldiers were killed in a battle in the Sangin district of Helmand Province on July 2, the "Sunday Express" reported. Major Malcolm Innis, a spokesman for the coalition forces in neighboring Kandahar Province, said a Taliban attack killed the two men, AIP reported. Innis said a dozen Taliban fighters were also killed in the battle. More than 3,000 British troops have been deployed in Helmand since April as part of the expansion of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to southern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 20 December, 20 2005 and May 29, 2006). AT

A minor explosion on July 1 apparently targeted the office of BRAC, a Bangladeshi nongovernmental organization in the Baghlan Province capital of Pol-e Khomri, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The blast did not cause any casualties. Mohammad Kamin, a security official, blamed the attack on "enemies of the country." An unidentified man purporting to speak for a group called the Secret Army of the Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast in a telephone interview with the news agency. A group calling itself the Mujahedin Secret Army made threats against Afghan parliamentarians in September, but it is unclear whether that group and the Secret Army of the Taliban are one and the same (see "RFE/RL Newsline, September 25, 2005). AT

An Iranian army spokesman announced on July 1 that Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) forces sustained heavy losses when Iranians attacked their positions in the northern Iraqi town of Sidikan, Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam television reported. The spokesman said the attack was in response to PKK activities near the Iranian city of Salmas. The next day, a statement from the PKK-affiliated People's Defense Forces (HPG) said Iranian and Turkish armed forces suffered great losses during clashes with the HPG, Roj Television reported. The HPG statement claimed that 18 Iranian soldiers and two local militiamen were killed near the Iranian towns of Marivan and Baneh on June 28. Turkish personnel reportedly were killed on June 29. Two HPG members lost their lives as well, it claimed. BS

Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei said on July 2 in Tehran that his agency has countered many conspiracies by Iran's enemies over the last 10 months, state television reported. He said the United States has the greatest motivation to act against Iran, Mehr News Agency reported, and he indicated that the U.S. intervention is motivated by Iran's gains in military power. Mohseni-Ejei also mentioned the funds for democracy legislation requested by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in February, and added that, in fact, much more money than that has been spent by Washington to destabilize Iran. Mohseni-Ejei claimed that the United States has dispatched many spies to Iran since the election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in June 2005. Referring to the continuing ethnic disturbances in the northwest, southwest, and southeastern parts of Iran, Mohseni-Ejei said ethnic groups in these areas deserve more attention because the United States is trying to exploit them. On July 1, in Mahabad, legislator Alaedin Borujerdi said government investigations show that the United States and Britain are behind unrest in the Khuzestan and Sistan va Baluchistan provinces, IRNA reported. BS

Minister of Intelligence and Security Mohseni-Ejei also discussed the cases of jailed intellectual Ramin Jahanbegloo and former Tehran parliamentary representative and student activist Ali Akbar Musavi-Khoeni on July 2, Radio Farda reported. Mohseni-Ejei said Jahanbegloo was trying, at U.S. instigation, to bring about a nonviolent, Velvet-type revolution in Iran. The investigation into Jahanbegloo's case is continuing, Mohseni-Ejei added, and he claimed that the United States is training members of NGOs at overseas locations. Turning to Musavi-Khoeni, Mohseni-Ejei said the former legislator's participation in a women's rights rally on June 12 was illegal and that is why he was arrested, Radio Farda reported. Most other people arrested then have been released, but Mohseni-Ejei did not explain this inconsistency. BS

UN special rapporteur Miloon Kothari released a report on housing on June 29, and part of that document focused on Iran. According to the report, Kothari visited neighborhoods in and around Tehran, as well as the Boyerahmad va Kohkiluyeh, Fars, Kerman, Kermanshah, and Khuzestan provinces, and he heard testimony relating to Ilam and Sistan va Baluchistan provinces. Rural land is being expropriated and its inhabitants evacuated to make way for agricultural and petrochemical projects, the report notes. "In some regions, these expropriations seem to have targeted disproportionately property and land of religious and ethnic minorities, such as Baha'i cemeteries, but also houses" -- some 640 Baha'i properties, including cemeteries and shrines, have been confiscated since 1980. People are not fairly compensated. There are "allegations of procedural irregularities and bias against ethnic and religious minorities" in cases of expropriation. Minorities face "disproportionately poor living conditions" -- for example, Arabs, Kurds, and Muslim Sufis have "extremely unsatisfactory" living conditions in Kermanshah and Khuzestan. Laws relating to inheritance are harmful to minorities, according to the report, and favor Muslims. BS

On July 2, Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i read to reporters the government's most-wanted list, which includes former Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, Saddam Hussein's eldest daughter Raghad, and his wife Sajida Khayrallah Telfah, international media reported the same day. The list of 41 names also includes the new leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, aka Abu Ayyub al-Masri. "We have contacted all the neighboring countries and they know what we want.... We will chase them inside and outside Iraq. We will chase them one after the other," AP quoted al-Rubay'i as saying. Raghad has been living in Jordan since the fall of her father's regime in March 2003. Jordanian Prime Minister Maruf al-Bakhit said that his government has not received any official request from Iraqi regarding Raghad's deportation. Distinguishing it from the U.S. most-wanted list, al-Rubay'i said that his list is the outcome of nine months of investigation carried out by Iraqi security forces, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on June 2. The "Peyamner" news website reported on July 2 that al-Duri is in Yemen, where he is receiving medical treatment for leukemia. BAW

In an audio message posted on the Internet on July 1, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden endorsed the new leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, AFP reported the same day. "I pray God Almighty that [al-Masri] will be the best successor to the best predecessor...and I recommend to him to focus his fight on the Americans and those who support them," the voice believed to be bin Laden says on the recording. Bin Laden made no reference to al-Masri in an audio recording posted on June 29 lamenting the death of previous leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 30, 2006). Bin Laden also warns Iraq's Shi'a on the recording, saying that "The unarmed Muslims in [Iraq] are subjected to a campaign of genocide at the hands of the gangs of grudge and treachery...[ who were] deployed in all key posts in the former government of [Ibrahim] al-Ja'fari and are present today in the incumbent [Nuri] al-Maliki government." He also says that the Shi'ite majority in the south who have joined Americans in attacking Sunni areas should not expect that "their regions to be spared a reaction and harm." BAW

Iraqi National Security Adviser al-Rubay'i told AP on July 2 that Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi has been buried in a secret grave in Baghdad. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. air strike on June 7. U.S. military spokesman Major William Wilhoite said on July 2 that al-Zarqawi's "remains...were turned over to the appropriate government of Iraq officials and buried in accordance with Muslim customs and traditions," AFP reported the same day. BAW

A car bomb early on July 1 killed at least 66 people and wounded 114 in Baghdad's poor Shi'ite Al-Sadr City district, Reuters reported the same day. In a statement posted on the Internet, a previously unknown group calling itself the "Supporters of the Sunni People" claimed responsibility for the attack. Elsewhere the same day, legislator Taysir al-Mashhadani and seven of her bodyguards were kidnapped at a checkpoint, AP reported the same day. Adnan al-Dulaymi, the head of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, announced on July 2 that his bloc will suspend its participation in parliament sessions until al-Mashhadani is freed. Al-Dulaymi, who blamed the incident on the Interior and Defense ministries, also called on other parties and blocs to join the boycott. BAW

Nuri Al-Maliki began a regional tour to win support for his government and his national-reconciliation plan in Saudi Arabia on July 1, AP reported the same day. He met with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz and Crown Prince Sultan, who expressed their support for his government. Al-Maliki told the Kuwaiti newspaper "Al-Qabas" that winning the fight against terrorism is vital for Iraq's survival as a state. "Terrorists are infiltrating from Afghanistan to Iraq through Iran," the paper quoted him as saying. He added that he is "not blaming the Iranian government for that, [but] we call on it to control its borders." BAW