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Newsline - September 13, 2006

Sergei Prikhodko, who is President Vladimir Putin's foreign-policy aide, told reporters on September 12 that the Russian state bank Vneshtorgbank's recent purchase of a stake of more than 5 percent in the European aircraft maker EADS is likely to be the start of a greater Russian involvement in that company, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2006). It was the first public statement on the subject by a leading Kremlin official since the news of the purchase broke recently. Prikhodko added that "if one day we come to define our common interest [with EADS], we would insist on...having at least a blocking stake" in the company. He noted that "the role of the state can make itself felt" if Russia considers it good for its aviation industry to expand its role in EADS. Under Russian law, a blocking stake is usually 25 percent plus one share, although it is usually more than one-third in European countries. The daily "Kommersant" reported on September 12 that Putin will ask for Russian representation on the EADS board when he meets with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in France later in September. London's "The Times" suggested on September 13 that an alliance with EADS might be a good idea for Russia in order to modernize its aerospace industry, which the paper described as a "glorious junkyard." But the daily also warned that Moscow is entering a "political snakepit" in the process. PM

The state arms trader Rosoboroneksport has bought a 41 percent share in VSMPO-Avisma, "bringing it close to taking control of the world's largest titanium maker," "The Moscow Times" reported on September 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 14, 2006). Observers suggested that the purchase probably cost about $1 billion. Japan's international broadcaster NHK commented that the deal amounts to "tightening the grip" of the Russian state over a strategic commodity, which plays a key role in aircraft construction. Avisma's partners include Boeing, EADS, Pratt and Whitney, General Electric, Rolls Royce, and others. Rosoboroneksport is headed by Sergei Chemezov, who was a colleague of President Putin's in the KGB in the former East Germany in the 1980s. PM

Andrei Patrushev, the 25 year-old son of Federal Security Service (FSB) head Nikolai Patrushev, has been named aide to Igor Sechin, who is chairman of the state oil firm Rosneft, the daily "Kommersant" and reported on September 13. The younger Patrushev's last job was with the oil department of the FSB. Sechin is also President Putin's deputy chief of staff and widely considered a major player in Kremlin power circles. PM

Karelia's prosecutor's office announced on September 12 that four Chechens have been charged with murder and violent misconduct involving the use of arms in connection with the recent fatal violence in the paper-mill town Kondopoga, Interfax reported. Two other people have been charged with violent misconduct involving the use of arms. The violence has been variously described as hooligan, ethnic, criminal, a popular reaction against corruption, or the result of outside manipulation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 6, and 7, 2006, and "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," September 12, 2006). The authorities, including those in Moscow, have been criticized for not responding quickly or effectively to the developments in Karelia. But "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on September 13 that not even a parliamentary investigation into the Kondopoga events is likely. Instead, State Duma leaders promised the previous day only that the situation will simply be "monitored by the legislature." PM

President Putin's foreign policy aide Prikhodko said on September 12 that Poland should forget about its past grievances against Moscow if it wants better relations with it, Reuters reported. He argued that "the current state of Russian-Polish cooperation...lags behind the high standard of respect and trust [we have] with the majority of other countries. This atmosphere is not getting any better because of various slogans and a constant going back to events that are real and painful, but are a long way back in the past, and because of a constant search for someone to blame. This should be put aside in favor of positive engagement." His remarks are most likely aimed at those Germans and other West Europeans who often find Poland's conservative government a difficult partner that uncomfortably questions some accepted practices and attitudes within the EU. Moscow infuriates many Poles by what they regard as its continuing great-power chauvinist behavior toward them and its refusal to acknowledge Soviet crimes that led to the deaths of thousands of Poles in the years after the outbreak of World War II. PM

The Ossetian jamaat said on the website on September 13 that it shot down a Russian military helicopter near Vladikavkaz on September 11 with a shoulder-fired missile. There has been no independent confirmation of the claim. The organization recently said that it would shoot down a Russian military aircraft before the end of the year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2006). PM

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan, the leadership of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun reiterated on September 12 its intention to contest the May 2007 parliamentary elections on its own and threatened to withdraw from the ruling coalition if the election results are falsified, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. According to senior party leader Armen Rustamian, a recent party congress in Yerevan ruled out any electoral alliance, deciding instead to "participate in the parliamentary elections by means of a broad-based cooperation with other political forces," and to put forth its own candidate in the 2008 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 8, 2006). Rustamian further stated that the party will work closely with pro-democracy forces to prevent a repeat of the irregularities of past elections and warned that if the elections once again fail to meet democratic standards, the party "will become extremely resolute and move into opposition" to the current Armenian leadership. The party criticized the country's last parliamentary elections in May 2003 for a pattern of fraud and electoral irregularities but joined the governing coalition anyway, citing a need to maintain "political stability" in Armenia. RG

The Yerevan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced on September 12 that it is "deeply concerned over recent incidents of violence and intimidation against local journalists that have obstructed their professional duties and infringed upon the freedom of expression" in Armenia, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The OSCE statement added that it "considers it extremely important for these cases to be properly investigated" and called for "the perpetrators to be punished in full accordance with the law," urging law enforcement bodies "to undertake prompt measures to ensure the safety of media professionals in order to promote freedom of expression in the country." The OSCE statement follows a series of attacks against journalists, with the most recent incident occurring on September 6 when the editor of an independent newspaper was attacked outside his Yerevan home (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, 2006). RG

In comments following two days of meetings with OSCE Minsk Group mediators in Paris, Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian said on September 12 that the international mediators remain hopeful for a possible breakthrough in reaching a negotiated resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the coming months, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo reported. Oskanian explained that the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, the primary mediating body for the Karabakh conflict, "believe that it is still possible to make some additional progress before the end of this year or before our parliamentary elections" set for May 2007. Referring to the talks with the U.S.-, French-, and Russian-led Minsk Group, Oskanian added that they were "very good and effective," but said only that the talks are now focused on restarting the stalled peace talks, with mediators preparing to meet with the Azerbaijani side in London. RG

Concluding a two-day state visit to Armenia, Iranian parliament speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel reiterated on September 12 Iran's interest in expanding bilateral relations and expressed his support for a proposal to build a second pipeline to supply Armenia with natural gas from Iran, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Haddad-Adel added that although the construction of the $220 million gas pipeline is ongoing, the construction of a second pipeline would allow Armenia to export Iranian gas to third countries. The current pipeline, which will have an initial capacity of 1.7 billion cubic meters of gas, is much smaller in diameter than the original specifications, thereby preventing any transshipment of Iranian gas beyond the Armenian market. Bilateral relations have improved considerably since the July visit of Armenian President Robert Kocharian to Tehran and is most evident in the energy sector, with the construction of a pipeline that is due to start pumping Iranian natural gas to Armenia in 2007 and agreements to build a third high-voltage transmission line to connect the Armenian and Iranian power grids, and a major hydroelectric plant on the Arax River marking the Armenian-Iranian border. RG

In an address to the Armenian parliament, opposition deputy Grigor Harutiunian urged the government on September 12 to contribute troops to the peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, Arminfo reported. The deputy, a member of opposition Artarutiun (Justice) bloc, added that the government's inaction is "incomprehensible" and argued that unlike the deployment to Iraq, which he said posed "a threat to the safety of the Armenian community" in Iraq, "the Armenian community in Lebanon asks to send the Armenian peacekeepers." RG

Azerbaijani police arrested dozens of local residents on September 12 ahead of President Ilham Aliyev's visit to the Abseron district, Turan reported. Police detained about 60 people in an attempt to preempt any protests or complaints during the presidential visit to the district. In a telephone interview with a journalist conducted by mobile phone, one of those arrested confirmed that the detainees intended to submit a petition of grievances to the president but stressed that the group was not planning to stage any demonstration or confrontation during the president's visit. RG

In a statement released in Baku, the Azerbaijani Karabakh Liberation Organization called on September 12 for the expulsion of Armenia from the Council of Europe, the Trend news agency reported. The group argued that the Council of Europe must take action against the "Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory" and called on the Azerbaijani government to "liberate its occupied lands." The statement further criticized the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) for its "biased position that promotes Armenia's policy of annexation." RG

An opposition Azerbaijani newspaper criticized on September 12 the country's role in the U.S.-led war on terror, arguing that Azerbaijan has received little in return, Zerkalo reported. The newspaper added that despite the deployment of Azerbaijani peacekeepers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, which it defined as "Azerbaijan's major problem," still "remains unresolved" and argued that the United States is "exerting more pressure on Azerbaijan in order to get Baku to make an undue compromise" on the Karabakh conflict. The article further stressed that because the United States "has the right to strike preventive blows" against countries that "pose a threat to U.S. national security, "by the same logic, Azerbaijan now has the full right to resume military operations in Karabakh." RG

Participants in an international forum in Baku focusing on the national movement of ethnic Azeris in Iran issued a statement on September 12 calling on ethnic Azeri officials in Iran to "demand that the Iranian government ensure the rights and freedoms of ethnic Azeris in Iran," according to the Trend news agency. A related appeal was also adopted calling on Azeris to "mobilize" in support of "the national movement in southern Azerbaijan." The forum also issued a statement on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, declaring that "no concessions and steps damaging Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and sovereignty can be made in the settlement of the Karabakh conflict" and stressing that "the resolution of this problem depends on national unity and solidarity." The forum was attended by representatives of nongovernmental organizations, civic groups, and officials of several political parties. RG

Georgian police arrested opposition activist Giorgi Odzeli on September 12 in an early-morning raid on his home in Tbilisi, Rustavi-2 televition reported. Odzeli, an official working the Republican-Conservative parties' opposition coalition was subsequently freed after five hours of questioning by Interior Ministry investigators. The arrest and interrogation centered on Odzeli's previous tenure as a local government official and was reportedly focused on local crime figure Shakro Kalasov, who was arrested in Dubai and extradited to Spain in June. RG

A delegation of more than a dozen senior U.S. military officials and officers arrived in Tbilisi on September 12 to discuss bilateral military cooperation with Georgian officials, according to Rustavi-2. The U.S. delegation is in Georgia for three days of meetings to discuss the planned expansion of U.S.-Georgian military cooperation in 2007 and is to tour military facilities in Batumi, naval headquarters in Poti, and the Georgian mountain-warfare training school in Sachkhere. The U.S. delegation is led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Eurasia James MacDougall and will also review the Georgian NATO Individual Partnership Action Plan and discuss the country's strategic defense strategy, Georgian Public Television reported. RG

The Kazakh Defense Ministry released a statement on September 12 reporting details of an international military exercise on counterterrorism hosted by Kazakhstan at a base northwest of Almaty, Interfax reported. The 10-day exercises, formally known as Steppe Eagle 2006, have been held annually since 2003 and feature drills and operations involving over 500 troops, including British and U.S. forces, aimed at improving interoperability between the Kazakh armed forces and NATO. Kazakh Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Bolat Sembinov reported that "the level and scale of these exercises" have expanded and noted that "the fact that U.S. troops are for the first time ever taking part in them along with British armed forces confirms the importance of these exercises." In addition to the participants, military observers from the Turkish, Ukrainian, and Kyrgyz defense ministries and the NATO secretary-general's special representative to the Caucasus and Central Asia, Robert Simmons, were also invited. RG

A two-day forum on religious freedom and tolerance opened on September 12 in the Kazakh capital Astana, with delegations from more than 40 countries and several leading religious officials in attendance, Interfax reported. In an opening address, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev suggested that the United Nations institute a "year of cultural and religious tolerance," and noted Kazakhstan's serious commitment to religious tolerance and freedom. Participants represent a wide range of religious faiths and include spiritual leaders representing Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Shinto, as well as officials from international religious organizations such as the World Conference of Religions for Peace, the World Zarathustra Cultural Foundation, and the World Council of Churches. Several political leaders and officials are also attending, including former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, and UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura. An earlier interfaith conference on religious tolerance was held in Kazakhstan in 2003. RG

Kyrgyz opposition leader and former parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebaev returned to Bishkek on September 12 after his arrest and subsequent release in Poland after drugs were found in his luggage, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. Tekebaev was arrested on September 6 by Polish police and held for 24 hours on drugs charges that were later dismissed by a Polish court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 8, 11, and 12, 2006). RG

The Kyrgyz parliament convened a special session on September 12 to examine a possible conspiracy by state officials to discredit Tekebaev, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress. The parliamentary session is to also look into charges that President Kurmanbek Bakiev's brother, Janysh, ordered the narcotics to be placed in Tekebaev's baggage when he left Bishkek as part of a plot by the National Security Service (SNB) targeting the opposition leader (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2006). The incident forced President Bakiev to dismiss his brother as SNB first deputy chairman and prompted SNB Chairman Busurmankul Tabaldiev to offer his resignation, which was accepted. Several deputies demanded the resignation of President Bakiev as several hundred Tekebaev supporters demonstrated outside the parliament building demanding that the authorities find and punish those responsible for the scandal, according to the Kyrgyz website. Opposition leader and Tekebaev ally Melis Eshimkanov also announced plans on September 12 to stage a mass rally in the southern town of Aksy on September 17. RG

Feliks Kulov met on September 12 in Bishkek with Robert Simmons, the special representative of the NATO secretary-general for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, according to Kulov reiterated his country's commitment to continue cooperation with NATO and stressed Kyrgyz cooperation in efforts to combat drugs trafficking, proliferation, and other transnational security threats. Simmons praised the Kyrgyz government for its willingness "to step up the fight against drug trafficking, illegal slave trade, and religious extremism," but noted that "it is also necessary to step up the work in such areas as organizing special training courses on these issues for the staff of state bodies." RG

Uzbek Interior Ministry spokesman Alisher Sharipov confirmed on September 12 that police detained a group of 25 mostly Uzbek Pentecostal Christians last month in the country's southern Surkhandarya region, RFE/RL and the pro-government website reported. Sharipov added that all women and children in the group were released shortly after their arrest at a summer camp near Termez, but said that four men were sentenced to up to five days in jail and another two people were sent to a rehabilitation center for 10 days after they were unable to produce residence permits. The Oslo-based Forum 18 rights group first reported the incident on September 6, although it is only the latest in a series of arrests targeting nontraditional religious groups in Uzbekistan. RG

Statistics Minister Uladzimir Zinouski reported to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on September 12 that Belarusian collective and private farms gathered some 6.5 million tons of grain crops in the country during this year's harvesting campaign, Belapan reported. Zinouski assured the president that the harvest is enough to satisfy the domestic demand and ensure the country's "economic security." Zinouski also reported that in the first eight months of 2006 the country's gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 9.8 percent, industrial output by 12.7 percent, and investments by 35 percent year-on-year. JM

The Supreme Court has refused to consider a petition filed last month by nearly 6,000 people demanding the nonrecognition of the official results of the March 19 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21, 2006), Belapan reported on September 12. According to Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, an independent trade union leader who headed a group that sent the petition, the court explained its decision by saying that the matter does not fall within its jurisdiction. "I must admit there was little hope that the court would consider our complaint. We did this in order to have an opportunity to appeal to international organizations. A petition to the UN Human Rights Council will be the next link in this chain," Bukhvostau said. JM

Police officers arrested opposition activist Vyacheslav Siuchyk in a cafeteria in Minsk on September 12, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Siwchyk was severely beaten by police on March 23, during opposition protests in downtown Minsk against the official results of the March 19 presidential election, and had to check into a hospital to undergo treatment for a head injury. Plainclothes police officers attempted to detain him as he was leaving the hospital on March 29. Siwchyk escaped the detention and left for Ukraine shortly afterward. He was given a 10-day jail term in absentia in June. JM

Anatol Aurutsin, deputy chairman of the Union of Writers of Belarus (SPB), an organization established in 2005 and widely believed to be politically loyal to the government, said on September 12 that financial support from the state makes literature "a state business," Belapan reported. President Lukashenka recently issued a decree allocating state subsidies for the SPB (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2006). On the other hand, the Union of Belarusian Writers, which is portrayed by state-run media as hostile to Lukashenka, was evicted from its longtime office in Minsk last month (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," September 1, 2006). Aurutsin told Belapan that the SPB has some 300 members, of whom "roughly 60-65 percent" write in Belarusian, and the remainder in Russian. JM

Sixteen Belarusian rock acts played a live show at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Raubichy, a village some 15 kilometers north of Minsk, on September 12, Belapan reported. "I came to Belarus not long ago, that's why I'm only getting acquainted with Belarusian history and culture," Jonathan Moore, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Belarus, said in his speech delivered in Belarusian at the concert. Rock music is generally disliked by the Belarusian authorities and many rock musicians are banned from appearing on state radio and television channels and often face obstacles in organizing concerts. The largest Belarusian rock music festival -- named Basovishcha -- takes place every year in July in the town of Grodek in Poland, where it is organized by an association of Polish students of Belarusian ethnic origin. Incidentally, the concert at Raubichy was called Ambasovishcha -- a word blend of "ambasada" ("embassy") and Basovishcha. JM

Parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz said during a parliamentary session on September 13 that three deputies from the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc -- Maksym Lutskyy, Inesa Vershynina, and Dmytro Kryuchkov -- have joined the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party, UNIAN reported. Oleksandr Turchynov from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc parliamentary caucus called these deputies "traitors" and announced that the caucus will seek to strip them of their parliamentary mandates via court. According to the election law under which the current Verkhovna Rada was elected on March 26, lawmakers are barred from quitting the caucus of the party from which they were elected. JM

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has described Montenegro's September 10 election as "largely in line" with international standards, dpa and B92 reported on September 12. The OSCE added, however, that despite the fact that the vote was well-administered overall, Podgorica still needs to address some outstanding issues in its electoral system. "This is simply a question of getting rid of bad habits," Jorgen Grunnet, who heads the long-term mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said. The OSCE noted, for example, that contrary to international standards, Montenegro's election law was amended after the vote was scheduled. BW

After a resounding victory in Montenegro's first election since independence, Milo Djukanovic said on September 11 that he might consider stepping down as prime minister, AP reported the same day. "I'm a bit tired and fed up with this job," he said in an interview with AP. "In the next few weeks, I'll think about stepping down." Djukanovic added that his government has "finished some main jobs in the development of Montenegro, reestablished its independence and stability." He added that "as somebody who has carried much of that responsibility," it may be time for him to resign. Djukanovic has served as either Montenegro's prime minister or president since 1991. Preliminary results in the September 10 elections showed the ruling coalition of Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) won a solid majority in parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2006). BW

In response to the fatal shooting of a local assembly candidate in Novi Pazar, a nongovernmental organization is asking that Bosniak, or Bosnian Muslim, parties be banned from operating in Serbia, B92 reported on September 12. Ramiz Crnisanin, co-chairman of the Sandzak Intellectual Circle, said his group plans to ask Serbian President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to enact the ban. "Bosniak parties have developed an unheard of level of internal Muslim intolerance," Crnisanin said. "Instead of competing in a fair and civilized manner, securing the citizens their right to freely choose their representatives, they are behaving in a populist fashion. And this tragedy is where the extreme partisan passion has lead us." Gunmen opened fire on a polling station from a passing car on September 10, killing assembly candidate Ruzdija Durovic and wounding his nephew Sulejman Durovic and two bystanders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11 and 12, 2006). The shooting reportedly was a result of rivalries between two Muslim groups vying for power. BW

Boris Tadic said on September 12 that Serbia is not willing to surrender to the inevitability of Kosova's independence and will fight to win a favorable solution on the province's status, B92 reported the same day. He noted, however, that Belgrade is engaged in an uphill struggle. "Serbia has not done away with the danger of a forced solution and I have openly told this to the Serbian citizens," Tadic said. "The public is certainly well-acquainted with the fact we are leading a difficult campaign to defend our interests in Kosovo, as well as the country's integrity and sovereignty," he added. "There is still a chance to secure an outcome favorable for Serbia, but we need to put in extra effort, since we are entering the process's final stages." The Serbian government has recommended that the country's new constitution refer to Kosova as a constituent province enjoying broad autonomy. BW

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on September 11 on Moldova's law enforcement bodies to make public evidence against a recently arrested employee of a television station that has been critical of the government. According to a statement on CPJ's website, Interior Ministry officials arrested Ghenadie Braghis, sales director at the Chisinau branch of the Romanian television station Pro-TV, on September 7 and accused him of soliciting a $1,000 bribe from a prospective client. A Chisinau court ruled in closed session on September 10 that Braghis must remain in jail for 10 days pending an investigation. He has been denied access to lawyers. The arrest followed recent criticism by Pro-TV of Interior Minister Gheorghe Papuc and the treatment of detainees in Interior Ministry custody. "We are concerned that the arrest of Ghenadie Braghis and the searches of Pro-TV Chisinau could be linked to the station's recent critical reporting," CPJ Director Joel Simon said. "We call on Moldovan authorities to make all evidence against Braghis public and to allow him access to legal counsel." BW

With only months to go before the election of a new parliament, Armenia's traditionally murky politics have become even more difficult to decipher. Several crucial shock realignments in recent months, involving both parties and individual politicians, mirror not only a natural jockeying for position, but also a deeper pattern of change that is far from cosmetic.

The most recent of those changes was the defection of parliamentarian Tatul Manaserian from the embattled Justice (Artarutiun) bloc to a burgeoning pro-government party. That defection, the second from Artarutiun within a period of weeks, reflects the rapid weakening of Armenia's hitherto largest opposition force and the parallel ascension of the country's newest party, Prosperous Armenia (Bargavach Hayastan) of Gagik Tsarukian, a millionaire businessman-parliamentarian closely linked to President Robert Kocharian.

Founded in early 2006, Prosperous Armenia serves as a new instrument for Armenia's most senior political elite, capable of both checking the power of existing parties and creating a new vehicle for the small circle around President Kocharian. The promotion of Prosperous Armenia also seeks to prevent the emergence of a new class of contenders, ranging from Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian to Justice Minister David Harutiunian.

The recent defections from Artarutiun also signified the overall decline of the opposition, however. That decline is visible both the erosion of its position in parliament, with a meager 12 seats, and in its marginal role in Armenian politics. Years of pursuing an appeal based on personality over platform has left the opposition with a paucity of both. While such an outcome may be natural, the lack of a unified or coherent opposition has done little to contribute to a healthy and vibrant democracy in Armenia.

The most sweeping change in Armenian politics, however, was a reconfiguration of the country's three-party coalition sparked by the political demise in May of parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and the subsequent defection of several leading ministers and deputies from his Orinats Yerkir party. In the wake of that move, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) quickly consolidated its position as the dominant political party.

Yet Baghdasarian's downfall stemmed more from his rather open presidential ambitions than from any internal conflict within the coalition, seemingly confirmed by his very public emergence as an outspoken opposition figure. Thus, although the coalition initially appeared shaken by the expulsion of a sometimes disruptive influence, this change was neither wholly unexpected nor particularly unwelcome to its other members.

Those two developments are overshadowed in magnitude by a third -- Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian's decision in July to join the HHK. It underscored the fact that the May 2007 parliamentary elections are a key determinant for the presidential contest a year later. And it confirmed long-held speculation that the powerful defense minister will eventually put himself forward as the natural successor to President Kocharian.

Sarkisian's alignment with the HHK was a logical step given his election in the last parliamentary elections on that party's ticket, and his ascension to a key leadership position within the party endows well-entrenched resources for his candidacy. It also offers him the option of assuming the prime-ministerial position as a launching pad to the presidency.

While these changes constitute a serious shift in the political landscape in the run-up to a looming electoral cycle, there are also two broader considerations affecting Armenian politics. First, each of the coming elections will be largely confined within the rigid parameters of Armenia's closed political system, with a decreasing level of discourse or debate and with an absence of any real opposition. As with previous elections, the electorate will again be offered a meager contest between competing elements of the same political elite, offering the voter little voice and even less choice.

Secondly, in light of the procedural violations that marred every election over the past decade and also the November 2005 constitutional referendum, the coming elections will be held to a higher standard than ever before. The authorities have already come very close to the limits of international tolerance and indifference, so that anything short of real, demonstrable progress in the 2007 elections will be treated as a major black mark against the country's new leadership. This is particularly important given the European Union's greater engagement in the region and interest in the country. Moreover, the new, incoming U.S. ambassador will feel compelled to adopt an even greater focus on Armenia's illusive democratic credentials.

These two considerations will exert contradictory influences on the trajectory of Armenian politics, however, as a contest between rival elites does not offer much hope for improved elections and may even mark a step backward. Moreover, the authorities have not shown much appreciation for the raised expectations of the international community, opting instead for a predictable arrogance based on the muted expectations of the public. The Armenian elite also remains dangerously fixated on ensuring planned election results rather than on assuring progress in the country's electoral performance -- Sarkisian's July pledge that the 2007 ballot will be "the best" in Armenia's history notwithstanding.

Speaking before the European Parliament in Brussels on September 12, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf warned of a "national war" by the Pashtuns against foreign forces stationed in Afghanistan, Geo News television reported the same day. Musharraf told the deputies that the "center of gravity for terrorism has shifted from Al-Qaeda to Taliban," a phenomenon which he described as "more dangerous" because of the Taliban having "roots in the people." Musharraf said the Taliban are led by Mullah Mohammad Omar who is "certainly in southern Afghanistan." According to Musharraf, Mullah Omar has not "visited Pakistan since 1995." While Afghan officials firmly believe that Mullah Omar and the rest of the neo-Taliban leadership are in Pakistan, Musharraf said Afghans know that Mullah Omar is in their country. Musharraf -- who recently visited Kabul -- asked the Afghan side to stop blaming Pakistan for the continuation of the insurgency in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and 8, 2006). Remarks regarding Mullah Omar's whereabouts could damage some of the goodwill that may have been achieved between Kabul and Islamabad after Musharraf's visit. AT

UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said in Brussels on September 12 that robust military action by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is needed to destroy the opium industry in southern Afghanistan, according to a UNODC press release. In southern Afghanistan, where the insurgency has been on the increase, "counterinsurgency and counternarcotics efforts must reinforce each other," Costa said. Calling the relationship between drug traffickers and terrorists "a vicious circle," Costa called on NATO to "destroy the heroin labs, disband the open opium convoys, and bring to justice the big traders." UNODC's most recent "Annual Opium Survey for Afghanistan" concluded that opium cultivation accounts for a record 165,000 hectares, versus 104,000 hectares in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2006). In the restive southern Helmand Province, opium cultivation has soared 162 percent -- to 69,324 hectares -- over the same period. Costa told the news conference in Brussels that revenue from the 2006 harvest in Afghanistan would amount to over $3 billion, "making a handful of criminals and corrupt officials extremely rich." AT

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer formally rejected the call by the UN drug chief to involve NATO-led ISAF troops in counternarcotics activity, AFP reported on September 12. NATO has neither a leading role in counternarcotics in Afghanistan nor does the organization "seek to play" such a role, de Hoop Scheffer said. "I think it is the wrong approach," he said in regard to Costa's plan, adding that it was "too easy to expect NATO" to accomplish UNODC's recommendations. From the outset of NATO's involvement in ISAF, most members of the alliance have been reluctant to engage in counternarcotics operations and there are no indications that those attitudes have changed despite the fact that Costa has warned that Afghan heroin will also have a devastating effect on European users. AT

The neo-Taliban have taken control of the Delaram township in Nimroz Province, Pajhwak News Agency reported on September 12. The deputy governor of Nimroz, Wahidullah Khairzad, told Pajhwak that government forces left Delaram "three days ago without offering any resistance or engaging in a shoot-out with the Taliban fighters," avoiding bloodshed and casualties. Khairzad added that a joint Afghan and coalition forces operation is aiming to recapture Delaram. The plan calls for the establishment of an Afghan National Army base in the township once it is recovered, Khairzad added. Nimroz is one of the most dissolute Afghan provinces, where few Afghan or foreign military assets are present. Delaram's significance is its strategic location on the main highway connecting Herat to Kandahar. AT

Nuri al-Maliki arrived in Tehran on September 12, where he held an initial round of talks with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, ISNA and IRNA reported. Ahmadinejad said at a press conference that Iran is ready to help with Iraqi reconstruction and development, and specifically water-resources management, ISNA reported. Ahmadinejad said a secure and independent Iraq will benefit all regional states, and Iran will stand by its neighbor "to the end...we support the popular government derived from the people's vote and the Iraqi Constitution," IRNA reported. The same day, Iranian Trade Minister Masud Mirkazemi met in Tehran with trade and banking officials, the governors of four provinces bordering Iraq, and Iran's trade attache in Baghdad to discuss ways of boosting exports to Iraq, IRNA reported. Mirkazemi urged "cohesive, precise, and clear" policies to increase imports, a coordinated trading policy for frontier provinces, and closer controls over frontier markets, IRNA reported. VS

"Sharq," one of Iran's prominent reformist dailies, was ordered temporarily closed by the Press Supervisory Board for an allegedly insulting cartoon and editorial discrepancies, RFE/RL's Radio Farda and local media reported on September 12. The board ordered the closure because the license holder failed to name a new editor who would have "greater supervision" of the daily's contents, as the board had earlier asked. But it also deplored an offensive cartoon published on September 7, interpreted as a reference to President Ahmadinejad. The cartoon reportedly depicted a donkey surrounded by a halo; Ahmadinejad has claimed that light surrounded him when he spoke once to the UN General Assembly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 2006). Exiled cartoonist Nikahang Kosar told Radio Farda on September 12 that the system in Iran effectively obliges "legal mechanisms" to take action whenever any "small group" of people which he said are regime insiders find an article or cartoon offensive. Journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin told Radio Farda on September 11 that the government and Press Supervisory Board are violating press laws, and there is no legal basis for banning the daily. VS

Hossein Namazi, a former left-wing finance minister may replace Ibrahim Sheibani as the next Central Bank governor, Fars reported on September 12, citing "the latest consultations" but without giving a date for the change. Fars speculated that the change may be over differences between the bank and the government on how to curb inflation, with the government determined to use interest-rate cuts to reduce it, and the bank urging cuts once inflation is controlled. Namazi reputedly favors greater state involvement in the economy. He was minister of finance in the 1980-86 and 1997-2002 periods in cabinets headed by Mir Hossein Musavi and Mohammad Khatami, respectively, Fars reported. It added that he holds a doctorate in economics from Innsbruck University. Separately, judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi appointed Naser Saraj as a deputy to the prosecutor-general, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on September 11, citing Fars. Saraj has held senior positions in the Tehran Province judiciary since 2003, including heading the criminal and "special" courts at Tehran's airport, Fars reported. VS

Relatives have expressed concern about the condition of two detainees, former legislator Ali Akbar Musavi-Khoeini and former student Ahmad Batebi, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on September 12, citing Iranian agencies. Tehran Province prison chief Sohrab Soleimani told ISNA on September 11 that Batebi enjoys a "suitable physical state" and is currently in Evin prison. Batebi's father says he has not seen him on a list of Evin prisoners. Soleimani added that another detainee, Valiollah Feyz Mahdavi, died in prison recently "after hanging himself in the prison bathroom" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, 2006). In spite of "security elements, sometimes there are suicides in prison," Soleimani said, "and we do everything to minimize cases of such deaths," ISNA reported. The suicide version of his death is disputed. Separately, Zohreh Islami, Musavi-Khoeini's wife, told ILNA on September 11 that she spoke by phone to her husband once in the last seven days, but has been prevented from visiting. She said he has been under arrest "for 92 days" and the judiciary has rejected his lawyer's request for a meeting with Musavi-Khoeini or his release on bail, ILNA reported. VS

Police in Baghdad said that some 60 bodies were found dumped overnight around the capital, international media reported on September 13. Forty-five bodies were found in the western areas of Baghdad, which are largely populated by Sunni Arabs, while the rest were found in the Shi'ite-dominated areas of eastern Baghdad, AP reported. Two early-morning car bombings killed another 22 people and wounded 76 others, Reuters reported. The first bomb detonated outside the headquarters of the traffic police, while the second bomb detonated outside an electricity station in eastern Baghdad. KR

Iraqi parliamentarians failed to pass a resolution calling for a timetable to be set for the withdrawal of foreign forces during its September 12 session, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day. One hundred and four out of 275 parliamentarians signed on to the resolution before fighting broke out between supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and members of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front. Al-Sadr supporters reportedly accused some parties (i.e. the Accordance Front) of changing their previous political stances and ignoring the demands of the Iraqi people. Parliament speaker and Accordance Front member Mahmud al-Mashhadani challenged al-Sadr's supporters to offer evidence of their claims, to which no one responded. The fight progressed outside the parliament session until tensions were calmed, RFI reported. Accordance Front spokesman Zafir al-Ani later told reporters that the proposal by al-Sadr supporters is a national project and a demand recognized by several parties. Al-Sadr spokesman Falah Hasan Shanshal said parliament will work on a resolution that calls for the withdrawal of multinational forces alongside the rebuilding of Iraqi security forces. A review committee will now take up work on the resolution, he added. KR

Iraq's Ministry of Migration and Displacement announced on September 10 that 40,000 internally displaced Iraqis have returned to their homes over the past month, IRIN reported on September 12. The ministry said improved security prompted many families to return. Some 170,000 Iraqis fled their homes out of fear or threat of violence in the months following the February 22 Samarra bombing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2006). The Health Ministry announced on September 8 that 1,536 bodies passed through the capital's morgue in August, compared to some 2,000 in July. "The advantage that the reconciliation plan is offering locals is to make them feel more secure to return to their homes and in the meantime show that security is improving countrywide, and that soon sectarian violence will be a thing of the past," ministry spokesman Mahdi al-Haydari said, referring to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's initiative to bring stability to the country. KR

Major General Richard Zilmer issued a statement on September 12 commenting on media reports concerning a classified intelligence report on the stability of the Al-Anbar Governorate. Saying that media reports have failed "to accurately capture the entirety and complexity of the current situation" in the governorate, Zilmer contended that progress is being made "in the accomplishment of our primary mission to train and develop the Iraqi security forces to defeat the insurgency." Such progress can be seen in the transfer of authority to Iraqi units, he added. "Despite the consistent advances in the security environment, we have found making the same progress politically and economically, throughout all of Anbar to be much more challenging," Zilmer said. Areas of the governorate where local councils coordinate alongside Iraqi forces have seen greater advances in security in comparison to areas lacking social order, public services and economic initiatives. KR

Former President Saddam Hussein demanded the court not allow the word "peshmerga" to be used for Kurdish resistance fighters at the September 12 session of the Anfal trial, Iraqi media reported the same day. "Throughout Iraqi history from 1961 until 2003, [the peshmerga took part in] a rebellion, without doubt. Try to find one nation in the world, only one, whether old or new, where a rebellion was waged and was not confronted by the army," Hussein said told the court in defense of his regime's attacks on Kurdish villages. "When your loyalty is to Iran and Zionism, we must crush your heads," he added, addressing the Kurds. Meanwhile, prosecutors at the trial demanded the court not allow defense lawyers to use the word "rebels" when referring to peshmerga forces; the chief judge reportedly agreed and advised the defense to not use the word. Four witnesses testified at the session, including a Kurd who accused the Hussein regime of killing 70 of his family members. KR