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Newsline - September 25, 2006

The September 23 summit of Russian President Vladimir Putin, France's Jacques Chirac, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Compiegne, near Paris, lacked the "triumphalism" of meetings of the three countries' leaders under Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, Deutsche Welle reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2006). As Merkel had insisted, all three leaders carefully avoided referring to their relationship on September 23 as an "axis" and stressed that their meeting was an exchange of ideas and not directed against any third party. She has long made it clear that she intends to follow the policy of her mentor, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, of working closely with the smaller European countries, as well as with France and the other larger ones, and of strengthening the trans-Atlantic partnership. Putin, Chirac, and Merkel agreed on the importance of negotiations in dealing with Iran and on the role of international peacekeepers in helping get Lebanon back on its feet. Merkel added that it is equally important to ensure Israel's right to exist. At the final press conference, the attention of French journalists in particular was, however, centered not on the summit but on an alleged intelligence leak by French intelligence to a regional newspaper on the supposed death of Osama bin Laden. The German broadcaster noted that Chirac found the report and the ensuing discussion "more than unpleasant." PM

Speaking in Compiegne on September 23, President Putin sought to allay French and German fears over Russia's ambitions in the EADS aerospace company and its willingness to observe its agreements with foreign energy companies, specifically with France's Total regarding the Kharyaga oil field, Western and Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 15, 20, 21, and 22, 2006). He said that Russia was not displaying "aggressive" behavior regarding EADS or its corporate structure but was simply "playing on the stock market." He announced the creation of a working group to study Russia's possible role in the company, but Chirac and Merkel did not address the issue. Putin added that "rumors about taking away Total's license are greatly exaggerated." Russian commentators noted on September 25, however, that it is unclear how Putin intends to deal with EU demands that Russia ratify the Energy Charter, which Moscow signed in 1994 and which would require it to open up access to its pipelines, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17 and 18, and September 5, 2006). In Compiegne, Putin repeated earlier Russian calls for the document to be "amended." He also suggested that Europe is "afraid" of Russia because it is "big and rich." On the eve of the summit, he and Chirac announced France and Russia signed deals in the transport and aviation sectors worth $10 billion. PM

The Moscow dailies "Kommersant" and "Vremya novostei" noted on September 25 that perhaps the most important development at the September 23 Compiegne summit was Putin's offer to Chancellor Merkel of up to 45 billion cubic meters of gas from the Shtokman field over a period of 50-70 years. He asked rhetorically: "Can you imagine that volume and what it means for the economy of Europe...and Germany? It will create an absolutely stable situation in the European economy and for energy." Elsewhere, Gazprom officials declined to comment on Putin's offer, reported. Russian dailies pointed out that it has been widely assumed that most of the gas from Shtokman will be exported to North America in liquefied form and that Putin's offer is aimed at driving a wedge between the United States on the one hand and the EU, especially Germany, on the other. Russia has articulate lobbyists in Germany and offers German businesses big growth opportunities they lack at home. Putin, who is a German-speaking former KGB officer who once worked in Dresden, has used energy and other business opportunities to lock Germany into an ever closer relationship with Russia at the expense of trans-Atlantic ties, which was a long-standing Soviet policy goal. PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in New York on September 24 that Russia is a "long way off from backing out of agreements we have reached, no matter how difficult the conditions were when they were made," reported. He was referring to the controversy regarding Russia's recent blockage of the Sakhalin-2 gas production-sharing agreement (PSA) with Royal Dutch Shell and Japan's Mitsui and Mitsubishi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 20, 21, and 22, 2006). Agreements with Shell, Exxon, Total, and others were concluded in the 1990s when oil prices were low and Russia sought foreign capital. Now that Russia is awash in petrodollars, the government wants to ease the foreigners out in favor of domestic, state-run firms like Gazprom and Rosneft. The excuse given by the Russian Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources (Rosprirodnadzor) for blocking Sakhalin-2 is that the project has already led to damage to salmon-bearing rivers and "excessive logging" along the pipeline route. Referring to those issues, Lavrov said on September 24 that Russia's objections to the current state of Sakhalin-2 are based on environmental and not political considerations. On September 22, a U.S. State Department spokesman said that Washington is "very concerned" over Sakhalin-2 and called on Russia to "uphold [its] commitments on energy," including those it made at the July St. Petersburg summit of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized countries. PM

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin told Channel One television on September 24 that "we want to create a system that would be equal in strength to the economies and financial systems of the United States or Germany. I have to say that this distance can be covered in 10 years if the country conducts a very skilled financial policy." He noted that Russia has made much progress in that respect in recent years but still has some way to go to catch up with the United States or Germany. Looking at a broader index, the World Bank said in a report released on September 15 that Russia ranks 151st among 208 countries in terms of accountability, political stability, effectiveness of the government, the quality of regulatory bodies, the rule of law, and control over corruption, which places it on a level between Swaziland and Niger (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2006). PM

The State Duma voted overwhelmingly on September 22 to approve on first reading the 2007 state budget, which will probably ultimately be 25 percent larger than that of the current year, "Kommersant" and "The Moscow Times" reported on September 25. The 2006 budget, which was pumped up by oil and gas revenues, itself amounts to a 40 percent hike over 2005, all of which has increased worries about overspending and higher inflation in the run-up to the 2007 legislative and 2008 presidential elections. Finance Minister Kudrin told the Duma that the draft budget will help the country regain economic ground and meet its "industrial potential." The budget may have invited comparisons with Soviet-era megalomania, and the audience laughed when he misspoke and said: "the strategic priorities of the budget are aimed at improving the well-being of the Soviet people." Apparently unaware of his slip of the tongue, he went on to say that in 2007 Russia will have its highest-ever per capita income, including during the Soviet period. Deputies must submit any amendments by September 27. The budget's second reading is slated for October 11. PM

Russia's Council of Muftis said in a statement on September 24 that unidentified people threw Molotov cocktails at a mosque in Yaroslavl, RIA Novosti reported. Nobody was injured, even though a prayer service was taking place at the time, just one day after the start of Ramadan. Council Chairman Ravil Gainutdin said that he believes "that the hooligans will meet with appropriate punishment." He called the attack a "deplorable and cruel assault by destructive forces." Yaroslavl police did not confirm the report of the attack. PM

Cultural events took place across Russia on September 25 marking the centenary of the birth of one of its greatest composers, Dmitry Shostakovich, Russian media reported. There will be several concerts to mark the occasion, including a performance of Shostakovich's "Leningrad Symphony" in his home city of St. Petersburg, conducted by his son, Maksim. The work, composed during World War II, became a symbol of the city's resistance to the Nazi blockade and was also played over loudspeakers to the attackers. In recent days, several commentators have discussed the complex nature of Shostakovich's politics, namely the extent to which he collaborated with the Stalinist system and the extent to which he subtly expressed opposition to it. PM

Sultan Khadisov, aka Amir Musa, commander of the Eastern Front, has died of serious wounds sustained during fighting in southern Chechnya, reported on September 24. The date and circumstances of Khadisov's death remain unclear, but on September 19 Chechen Republic Ichkeria President and resistance commander Doku Umarov issued a decree promoting him to the rank of brigadier general. A new commander of the Eastern Front has been appointed, but his name has not been made public. Khadisov is the second senior commander to be killed within the past week; Isa Muskiyev, commander of the Kurchaloi, Shali, and Argun fronts, was killed in an ambush on the outskirts of Tsotsan-Yurt during the night of September 17-18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2006). LF

The State Duma endorsed on September 22 by 350 votes in favor and 80 against with one abstention President Putin's draft amnesty for fighters in the North Caucasus who lay down their weapons, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2006). The amnesty covers crimes committed between December 13, 1999, and January 14, 2007, and extends to resistance fighters in the North Caucasus who surrender their arms, with the notable exception of those fighters who engaged in particularly serious crimes or terrorism. Deputy Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Vladimir Bulavin and Pavel Krasheninnikov, who heads the Duma's Legislation Committee, both rejected proposals by the Communist and Motherland factions to delay approval of the amnesty and amend it to preclude the recruitment of amnestied fighters into government service, in particular the police. Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Katrenko argued that the amnesty will contribute to stabilizing the situation in the North Caucasus, while pro-Moscow Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov said it shows Duma deputies' "understanding" of the situation in Chechnya and provides an opportunity for former militants to join in the peace process. LF

The Chechen resistance website posted on September 23 a seven-page statement by Musa Mukozhev, formerly a charismatic preacher and one of the leaders of the Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat, and now aligned with the Caucasus Front. Mukozhev's whereabouts have remained unknown since before the October 2005 attacks by members of the jamaat on police and security facilities in Nalchik (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 13 and 14, 2005 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," November 14, 2005). Mukozhev argued in some detail, citing the Koran, that jihad against nonbelievers is the personal duty of every individual Muslim, and as such, it does not require orders from one's government, or securing one's parents' permission. Mukozhev rejected what he terms some believers' inaccurate assumption that their obligation to wage jihad extends only to fighting for their own country and people. He branded "a grievous sin" the jamaat's desire to focus primarily on "resurrecting" Islam in Kabardino-Balkaria and its decision, based on the erroneous assumption that jihad is a collective responsibility, to tolerate the nonparticipation of some fellow Muslims. Mukozhev affirmed that the Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat in its previous form no longer exists, and that its members are now engaged in a jihad. In those circumstances, he concluded, Muslims should take up arms, rather than engage in building mosques, as there is no justification for "sitting at home and waiting, and hoping the unbelievers will show clemency." LF

After meeting with a Russian delegation in Yerevan, Armenian Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian signed an agreement on September 22 on legal cooperation with Russia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Noyan Tapan reported. Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chayka explained at a Yerevan press conference that the new bilateral agreement calls for greater cooperation in criminal investigations, including money laundering and corruption-related cases, and provides detailed measures governing the extradition of suspects from each country. According to official figures released after the meeting, some 99 suspects were arrested in Armenia on the basis of outstanding Russian arrest warrants in the first eight months of 2006 and another 34 suspects wanted by the Armenian authorities were returned to Armenia by Russian police during the same period. RG

Russian Prosecutor-General Chayka also said on September 22 that Russian law-enforcement authorities have recently bolstered efforts to combat and avert racist attacks on Armenians and other non-Slavic immigrants, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He added that his office has recently assumed primary jurisdiction in criminal investigations into racially motivated murders of Armenians, and noted that he has also formed a new special unit empowered to monitor the enforcement of laws on "federal security and interethnic relations." Russian officials have recently been criticized for failing to adequately respond to a wave of attacks on immigrants from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Africa over the past several months in many of Russia's largest cities blamed on extremist groups. Russian human rights organizations have reported the killings of at least six Armenians and ethnic Armenian citizens of Russia in 2006 alone, with the most recent killing prompting Armenian President Robert Kocharian to demand tougher action against the perpetrators of hate crimes at a June meeting with Russian leaders. RG

Speaking at a Yerevan press conference, prominent businessman and parliamentarian Khachatur Sukiasian said on September 22 that senior customs officials hold extensive business interests, which preclude free enterprise and fair competition in the country, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Sukiasian criticized an unnamed deputy chief of the State Customs Committee, who he claimed owns 11 lucrative businesses, for exerting pressure on potential competitors. There is no Armenian legislation governing official ethics and regulating such conflicts of interest, and the customs service is widely seen as one of the more corrupt state bodies. President Kocharian specifically criticized officials of the customs agency in January 2005 for failing to act in a "civilized and lawful" manner and highlighting allegations of seeking bribes in exchange for customs tax evasion by importers. RG

In a speech at an international conference in Germany, President Ilham Aliyev defined on September 23 "integration with the West" as one of the main elements of Azerbaijan's foreign policy, Trend reported. He added that Azerbaijan is vital for European energy security and promised that Azerbaijan is a "reliable partner" for Europe. But Aliyev warned that the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict hinders relations with Europe and urged a greater European role in the mediation of the conflict. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was scheduled to meet with Aliyev to discuss bilateral trade and European investment in the Azerbaijani energy sector, but the meeting was canceled following a train crash in Germany. RG

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili met on September 23 with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, according to Civil Georgia. The talks between the foreign ministers follow a September 22 meeting of representatives of the UN secretary-general's Group of Friends on Georgia at the UN General Assembly, which included a discussion of the situation in the Kodori Gorge and a review of a planned UN discussion of the Abkhaz conflict set for October. That UN group consists of France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. RG

In an address to the UN General Assembly in New York, Mikheil Saakashvili warned on September 22 that the South Caucasus will be plunged into "darkness and conflict" unless the international community acts, Civil Georgia reported. Saakashvili said that the current Russian-led peacekeeping operations in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflict zones must be altered and proposed "a fresh road map" to resolve the conflicts. He explained that "the essential elements of this package must include the demilitarization of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, backed by the active engagement of the United Nations, the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] OSCE, the EU, and other international organizations." In a response the following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected Saakashvili's contention that Russia "wants to prolong" the unresolved conflicts, calling him "too emotional" and reiterating Russia's readiness to act as guarantor in the peace process, Caucasus Press reported. RG

Sergei Ivanov dismissed on September 22 recent concerns raised over the Georgian bid to join the NATO alliance, Interfax reported. He explained that the question "to enter or not to enter NATO is Georgia's affair" and noted that "Russia has nothing to do with it." He further stressed that Georgian "integration" with NATO "poses no threat" to Russian security. Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Mamuka Kudava announced on September 22 that Georgia has entered "a new area" as a result of NATO's decision to launch an intensified dialogue with Georgia, Civil Georgia reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 22, 2006). RG

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Astana on September 22 for talks focused on economic cooperation, Kazinform reported. Medvedev told journalists after the meeting that the discussion encompassed "cooperation in the commercial and transportation arenas," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Medvedev added that talks also covered Kazakhstan's experience in "realizing large projects, including projects that are analogous to the priority national projects being implemented in Russia today." DK

Nazarbaev also met with South Korean Prime Minister Han Myung-sook in Astana on September 22, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Han told journalists that the two agreed to raise economic cooperation "to a new level" by expanding it beyond energy and mineral resources to "various nonenergy areas." A joint statement issued after a meeting between Han and Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov expressed South Korea's support for Kazakhstan's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the country's bid for the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2009. Akhmetov said that the two countries will soon sign an agreement to develop the Zhambyl oil field in the Kazakh sector of the Caspian Sea with a South Korean company. DK

Kyrgyzstan's parliament passed a resolution on September 22 declaring the "tandem" arrangement between President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2006) unconstitutional, reported. Lawmakers also asked Bakiev to form a coalition government; conduct rapid constitutional reforms; place the National Security Service (SNB) under governmental, rather than presidential, control; replace the director of Manas Airport; remove the head of the state broadcasting corporation; open a criminal case against Janysh Bakiev, the president's brother and former deputy head of the SNB, in connection with the recent arrest of former parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2006); and give the parliamentary commission on the Tekebaev affair (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 22, 2006) more powers. Items in the resolution asking for the removal of a number of other high-ranking officials failed to gain the necessary votes. Tekebaev told journalists that he was pleased with the resolution, which declared his recent drug arrest in Warsaw a provocation intended to discredit the opposition, news agency reported. DK

A congress of Tajikistan's ruling People's Democratic Party in Dushanbe on September 23 unanimously nominated incumbent Imomali Rakhmonov to run for president in the November 6 election, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Also on September 23, the Communist Party nominated Ismoil Talbakov as its candidate, Avesta reported. The leaders of the Agrarian and Socialist parties, as well as the leader of the Party of Economic Reforms, are also running. DK

The opposition Democratic Party and Social Democratic Party announced at separate conferences in Dushanbe on September 24 that they will boycott the presidential election, AP reported. Rahmatullo Zoirov, head of the Social Democratic Party, called the nomination of Rakhmonov "unconstitutional," adding that his party "will not take part in the presidential election, since it considers it illegal and illegitimate," RIA Novosti reported. Democratic Party head Jumaboy Niyozov commented, "Our participation would be pointless," AP reported. DK

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a September 22 statement that it is "extremely alarmed" at threats against the families of Turkmen journalists Ogulsapar Muradova, Annakurban Amanklychev, and Sapardurdy Khajiyev. Muradova, an RFE/RL correspondent, died in custody in a case that has drawn widespread condemnation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2006); Amanklychev and Khajiyev are serving six-year prison terms. The organization said it has received information that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has ordered the journalists' families moved to an undisclosed location by mid-October. "We fear that Muradova's children could suffer the same fate as she did, or could be deported to a location that is unknown to anyone but the police," the organization stated. "We call on the international community to put pressure on the Turkmen government." DK

A spokesman for Uzbekistan's National Security Service (SNB) told Interfax on September 22 that Uzbek police have detained an armed Tajik border guard on Uzbek territory. Also on September 22, the SNB's Border Guard Committee issued a statement describing the September 19 detention of two Uzbek citizens in Tajikistan as a provocation, Interfax reported. In remarks on September 22, Safarali Sayfulloyev, first deputy chairman of Tajikistan's Border Protection Committee, told Avesta that the incidents are minor. "These sort of border incidents happen very often," Sayfulloyev said. "They are usually resolved and do not affect collaboration between the border services of the two states." DK

Young activists of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) held a conference in Minsk on September 24, where they set up a youth wing of the party under the name of the BNF Youth, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The conference, attended by 68 delegates, elected lawyer Ales Kalita as head of the BNF Youth. JM

Leaders of Belarusian opposition parties and nongovernmental organization as well as representatives of the European Union and electronic media outlets broadcasting from Germany, Poland, and Lithuania to Belarus, held a roundtable in Vilnius on September 23 to discuss the prospects for the organization of foreign broadcasting to Belarus, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. "Participants agreed that electronic media, especially satellite television and radio stations, are now major means to deliver truth to people in Belarus," Pavel Sheremet of Russia's Channel One told Belapan. Poland is now working to launch a satellite television channel broadcasting to Belarus next year. JM

Former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who is head of the eponymous opposition bloc, announced on September 22 that her bloc will form the core of an interfactional opposition in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. So far, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc has been joined in opposition by two lawmakers elected from the Socialist Party list -- Yosyp Vinskyy and Halyna Harmash. Tymoshenko expressed hope that the parliamentary opposition will soon be expanded with lawmakers from Our Ukraine but she did not specify any number. Tymoshenko took the helm of the interfactional parliamentary opposition. Her deputies are Oleksandr Turchynov and Mykola Tomenko from her bloc and Vinskyy. JM

Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko told journalists after Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's return from Moscow to Kyiv on September 22 that the two sides agreed on an annual volume of gas supplies to Ukraine of 62 billion cubic meters from 2007-09. "The [gas] balance for the next three years is closed due to gas from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and partially Russia," Boyko noted but said nothing about the price. Boyko did not reveal which company would supply the Russian and Central Asian gas to Ukraine over the next three years. Yanukovych said in televised comments later the same day that new gas prices for the fourth quarter of 2006 will be decided within the next few days. A January deal set the price of gas imported by Ukraine at $95 per 1,000 cubic meters for January-June 2006. In June, Gazprom extended this price for three more months. JM

UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari said on September 22 that granting independence to Kosova will not set a precedent for other breakaway regions, B92 and Beta reported on September 24. "We would be paralyzed if people continued to say, do not do this because it could have consequences on something else," Ahtisaari said following a meeting of the UN Security Council. Ahtisaari's remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Serbian officials. Serbian Public Administration and Local Self-Government Minister Zoran Loncar called his remarks "unfathomable claims in a legal sense" and not supported by international law. "Since Ahtisaari already has prejudices against us, and thinks that the Serbs are responsible as a people, and does not wish to heed our warnings, he will have to hear the clear voice of Russia that Kosovo cannot be considered a unique case, and it is good that Ahtisaari is hearing this voice better and better every day," he said. BW

Ahtisaari also said on September 22 that time is running out to reach a settlement for Kosova, AP reported the same day. "We have a lot of work to do, and there's not that much time," he told reporters after giving a closed briefing to the UN Security Council. "I would be very hesitant to say your exact dates," he added. Ahtisaari said he is still working on a draft proposal for Kosova, which he will present to the Security Council. "There's nothing specific that I could put to anybody at the moment. We will have to discuss with the parties still," he said. He added that it is unlikely that either party will pull out of the talks. "Both sides have assured me that they will come. I don't expect them to pull out of the talks." BW

Serbian President Boris Tadic has warned the UN Security Council that Kosova's independence would trigger ethnic unrest, Focus reported on September 24, citing the Serbian newspaper "Politika." "It would contradict international law, which excludes any kind of separation of a sovereign territory; it would be extremely unjust toward Serbia; and thirdly, it could lead to an ethnic conflict with unforeseeable consequences," he said. Tadic added that the resulting instability could jeopardize the chances of countries in the region joining the European Union. BW

The commander of NATO forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina said on September 22 that the remaining 150 U.S. troops in the country will leave by December, Reuters and AP reported the same day. "The assessment was that we don't need U.S. forces on a permanent basis, but that doesn't imply we couldn't bring forces in if we would need to," NATO headquarters commander U.S. Brigadier General Louis Weber said. "Leaving is a reflection of the conditions here, and the conditions are good." The remaining 150 U.S. soldiers are deployed at a base in Tuzla in northeast Bosnia. U.S. staff serving at the NATO headquarters in Sarajevo will, however, remain, Weber said. The post of NATO commander in Bosnia will also continue to be held by a U.S. general. BW

The Moldovan delegation to the 50th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has expressed concern about the alleged illicit trafficking of radioactive materials from Transdniester, Moldpres reported on September 22. Gheorghe Duca, chairman of the Moldovan Academy of Sciences, expressed the concerns in a speech to the conference. He also said the IAEA is considering sending experts to Moldova to assess all potential sources of radioactive materials on the country's territory, including Transdniester. BW

Earlier this month, the Transcarpathian Oblast Council appealed to Ukraine's president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker to grant Rusyns in the region an official status of ethnic minority (nationality).

Rusyns, who live in a more or less compact territory in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Poland, are officially recognized as a minority by Bratislava and Warsaw, while Kyiv considers them to be a Ukrainian subgroup. Their struggle for official recognition in Ukraine has continued for more than 15 years now.

Similar appeals to grant official recognition to Rusyns in Ukraine were already issued by the Transcarpathian Oblast Council in 1992 and 2002. But official Kyiv ignored them.

Will the situation repeat itself this time too? Activists of the People's Council of Transcarpathian Rusyns (NRRZ), an umbrella organization claiming to represent the interests of all Rusyns in the oblast, believe that it will not.

There are at least two reasons for their optimism. First, after President Viktor Yushchenko came to power and political life in Ukraine became more democratic, Rusyns in Transcarpathia managed to organize several cultural events with official support and to present their cause on local television, where they were allowed to speak in their mother tongue. This year, Rusyns also opened 26 Sunday schools instructing in the Rusyn language and culture.

Second, the Rusyn movement now seems to have an advocate with meaningful political leverage in Kyiv: Viktor Baloha, a former Transcarpathian governor and a former emergency situations minister. Baloha, a councilor of the Transcarpathian Oblast Council, who backed the recent appeal for the official recognition of Rusyns, was recently appointed by President Yushchenko as head of the presidential staff.

NRRZ deputy head Fedir Shandor told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that nationality status for Ukraine's Rusyns would considerably boost their efforts toward developing their linguistic and cultural heritage, which they see as distinct from Ukrainian. "According to the census in December 2001, 10,069 people [in Transcarpathian Oblast] declared themselves to be Rusyn. Thus, even despite the fact that such a nationality is not in the [official] register, there are people considering themselves to be of Rusyn nationality," Shandor says.

According to Shandor, the most urgent tasks for Transcarpathian Rusyns include launching a regular television program in the Rusyn vernacular, establishing a chair of Rusyn studies at a university in Uzhhorod, the capital of Transcarpathian Oblast, and working out a standardized version of the written Rusyn language.

Some estimates say there may be as many as 1.5 million people of Rusyn origin, first of all in Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, the United States, and Canada. But their Rusyn identity is generally weak, primarily because Rusyns have never had their own state or political independence.

The history of Rusyns, Eastern Slavic inhabitants of the Carpathian Mountains, is quite convoluted and subject to many scholarly controversies.

Throughout the 19th century and until World War I, when overwhelmingly rural and agricultural Rusyns produced their own intelligentsia and articulated the idea of their ethnic distinctiveness, their fatherland, Transcarpathia (Carpathian Rus), belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

After World War I and the breakup of the Austro-Hungary, most of Transcarpathia found itself within the borders of Czechoslovakia, where Rusyns enjoyed a sort of self-rule with their own governor, schools, a national anthem, and a national theater.

After World War II, most of Transcarpathia was annexed by the Soviet Union, which did away with the idea of Rusyn distinctiveness and declared all Rusyns to be Ukrainians. The communist regimes in post-World War II Czechoslovakia and Poland adopted the Soviet line and also decreed that Rusyns within their borders were Ukrainians.

Rusyns reemerged after the collapse of the communist system in Poland and Slovakia and the breakup of the Soviet Union. A census in Slovakia in 2001 registered 24,000 Rusyns, up from 17,000 Rusyns registered in a census 10 years earlier. A census in Poland in 2002 found that there were 6,000 Lemkos (local name for Rusyns) in the country.

The officially established numerical strength of Rusyns is not particularly impressive but the general trend seems to be propitious for them -- having started from nil, Rusyns continue to gain in number.

Shandor believes that the official unwillingness to grant recognition to Rusyns tarnishes Ukraine's international image. "It is very important for Ukraine to register this nationality, in order to avoid various manipulations at the level of the European Union," Shandor says. "There is a league of unrepresented peoples [the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization], which creates a negative image for Ukraine in connection with the fact that the Rusyn nationality is not recognized."

According to a final document of the meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Copenhagen in 1990, "to belong to a national minority is a matter of a person's individual choice." Moreover, the document says that "persons belonging to national minorities can exercise and enjoy their rights individually as well as in community with other members of their group."

But many Ukrainians, including intellectuals and academics, would argue whether European standards could be applied to Rusyns in Ukraine. One of them is Mykola Zhulynskyy, director of the Institute of Literature in Ukraine's National Sciences Academy. "I think that in this case the European experience is of no use. This is simply a big problem that arose in connection with the fact that Ukraine had not been united, that she had been torn apart by different empires. [The Rusyns constitute] the indivisible Ukrainian body," Zhulynskyy says.

However, historical arguments can also be used to question Zhulynskyy's reasoning, if not to discard it altogether. As little as a century ago, many Russians used to argue in almost the same way, asserting that Ukrainians ("Little Russians") and Belarusians ("White Russians") constituted "the indivisible Russian body."

Now that Ukrainians have an independent state, do they really need to behave toward their own "younger brothers" -- Transcarpathian Rusyns -- like their erstwhile oppressor, tsarist Russia, behaved toward them?

(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service correspondent Nadiya Petriv contributed to this report.)

A bus carrying Afghan construction workers hit a roadside bomb before being fired on by insurgents on September 22 in Kandahar Province, resulting in 19 fatalities, AFP reported. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zamarai Bashari told AFP that "only three wounded workers managed to escape the Taliban ambush." Afghan President Hamid Karzai on September 23 "strongly condemned" the killings in a statement released by his office. "The enemies of Afghanistan can never hinder the reconstruction process of Afghanistan," Karzai said. The term "enemies of Afghanistan" is the term used by some in the Afghan government to identify the neo-Taliban. AT

Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said in Warsaw on September 24 that his country is taking seriously the threats made by the Taliban against the planned Polish military deployment, PAP reported on September 24. Earlier in September, when Poland announced its intention to send an additional 1,000 troops to Afghanistan, a purported neo-Taliban spokesman warned Warsaw that there would be consequences to its decision (see "RFE/RL Newsline" September 15, 2006). Kaczynski said that Polish special services have looked into the warnings but "nothing serious has [happened.]" Earlier, a Polish Defense Ministry spokesman told PAP that while the warnings by the Taliban were taken into consideration, they had no influence on the planned deployment of troops to Afghanistan, which is scheduled for February. AT

Afghanistan's Endowments and Islamic Affairs Ministry has made the necessary arrangements for women to be able to perform the five daily prayers during Ramadan in 18 mosques throughout the Afghan capital, the official Radio Afghanistan reported on September 24. Listing the mosques, Mohammad Sharif Rabati, head of the publications department at the ministry, said that he hopes that religious "sisters" will perform their prayers in these mosques. In Afghanistan, women generally do not go to mosques. AT

The Lemar ("Sun") television station expanded its operations in Kandahar, Lashkargah (the capital of Helmand Province), and in Qalat (the capital of Zabul Province), according to a September 24 press release. Lemar began broadcasting in Kabul in August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21, 2006). Lemar is planning to broadcast programs in Dari, Pashto, Urdu, and English. AT

According to anonymous German diplomats, Britain, France, and Germany are willing to resume talks with Iran even if it does not suspend uranium-enrichment activities, the weekly "Der Spiegel" reported, as cited by Reuters on September 23. An international proposal submitted to Iran in June offered several incentives in exchange for a suspension and improved cooperation with international inspectors, and UN Security Council Resolution 1696 of July 31 made a similar demand regarding enrichment. Tehran has rejected this demand. "Der Spiegel" added that Washington will not participate in such talks until enrichment activities are suspended. Speaking to reporters in New York on September 21, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States rejects any conditions Iran might put forward regarding its nuclear program, according to the State Department website. "Iran has been told by the international community through a Security Council resolution that they should suspend and if they suspend the negotiations can begin," she said. An anonymous "senior [U.S.] administration official" has said that Washington has agreed to a new, early October, deadline for a suspension of enrichment, "The Washington Post" reported. BS

A demonstration in Tehran on September 24 organized by the families of four women facing the death penalty was dispersed by security personnel before it could begin, Radio Farda and ILNA reported. The demonstrators gathered in front of the UN office in Tehran to protest the pending execution of Kobra Rahmanpur, who was convicted of killing her mother-in-law in 2000. She pled self-defense and there was an alleged history of domestic abuse, but the victim's son -- Rahmanpur's husband -- requested the carrying out of the death sentence. Human rights expert Mohammad Majidi told Radio Farda that security personnel actually outnumbered the demonstrators, and many of the demonstrators were arrested. BS

A recent survey found that in the March 21, 2005-March 20, 2006 year, there were more than 800 protests and other demonstrations in Iran, Alborz News Agency reported on September 24. Some 71 percent of these events were labor-related, slightly more than 10 percent involved unspecified social issues, nearly 10 percent were student demonstrations, some 7 percent were political, and about the rest involved cultural issues. BS

Hussein Nushabadi said in Tehran on September 24 that the people expect the country's chief executive to apprise them of his administration's performance, ISNA reported. Their demands should be met and they should know how cabinet members have performed. Therefore, Nushabadi said, the government must produce a performance report and submit it to the press. In this way the public can see for itself that "the president is bravely present on all scenes and acts firmly when public organizations need reshaping or refocusing." The president should change cabinet members if there are shortcomings, he said, because if he does not do so the legislature would be forced to act. Nushabadi said the administration has done well in its first year, although it raised expectations unreasonably by promising to solve problems quickly. In some areas, he said, the government has not reached 10 percent of its objectives. BS

Saddam Hussein was thrown out of the courtroom during the September 25 session of the Anfal trial in Iraq, international media reported. The former Iraqi president was thrown out of the trial's last session after refusing to abide by a judge's order to sit down (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2006). Hussein's attorneys, who stormed out of the same session last week, boycotted the September 25 session, and were replaced by eight court-appointed attorneys. Meanwhile, a Kurdish witness, Muhammad Rasul Mustafa, testified that he saw Iraqi military planes bomb his village near Al-Sulaymaniyah with chemical weapons. He and others taken to a hospital were arrested and later deported to a prison camp in Samawa. Mustafa said as many as 500 people died in the camp, including his wife and five children. KR

Parliament agreed on September 24 to open discussions on federalism, including the reading of a draft law on regions, while postponing implementation of any mechanisms for forming regions for 18 months, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. The agreement also calls for parliament to establish a committee to consider amending the constitution within a year's time. Members of the committee are expected to be appointed on September 26, Reuters reported on September 24. Sunni political groups lent their support to the constitution last year after Kurdish and Shi'ite parties agreed that the constitution could be reexamined during the government's first four months. However, Sunni calls to set up a committee have gone largely ignored until now. The constitution also requires parliament to pass legislation on the mechanisms for forming regional governments within six months of taking office, which puts the deadline at October 22. KR

Jalal Talabani said in a September 20 interview that U.S. military bases would be welcome in Iraq's Kurdish region, "The Washington Post" reported on September 25. "Kurdistan wants the Americans to stay. In some places, Sunnis want the Americans to stay -- Sunnis think the main danger is coming from Iran now. There is a change in the mind of the Sunnis. The Sunnis are for having good relations with America. The [Shi'a] have started to think that," he said. Talabani said he envisions two air bases with some 10,000 U.S. soldiers in the Kurdish region, which would help prevent foreign interference. "This will be in the interest of the Iraqi people and of peace in the Middle East," he added. KR

A criminal inquiry by the Royal Military Police has alleged that British soldiers have smuggled stolen guns out of Iraq in exchange for cocaine and cash, London's "The Sunday Times" reported on September 24. One soldier was caught after allegedly trading Glock pistols smuggled into Germany for drugs on at least six occasions. The drugs were then allegedly sold to British soldiers in Iraq. A security source told the newspaper it was unclear whether the weapons were army issue or seized from insurgents. The British Army is suffering an epidemic of drug abuse, according to the newspaper. Some 1,020 army personnel tested positive for drugs in 2005, including 520 cases of using Class A drugs, such as cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin; this a 50 percent rise in the past five years. KR