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Newsline - October 25, 2006

President Vladimir Putin said on a nationally televised question-and-answer session on October 25 that the North Korean decision to test a nuclear weapon was the result of failed diplomacy on the part of unnamed others. He argued that "one of the reasons [why North Korea conducted a nuclear weapon test] is that not all parties in the negotiation process were able to find the right tone for conducting these negotiations. You must never drive the situation into an impasse and never push one of the parties in a situation from which it can find no way out other than exacerbating the situation." He stressed nonetheless that the test was "inadmissible" and called for the resumption of six-party talks. Asked about Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Putin slammed what he called "the militarization of Georgia" and warned again against unspecified "bloodshed" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2006). He called instead for "concord...and compromise," stressing that "we are not striving to increase our territory." Putin noted the "contradictions" between respect for Georgia's territorial integrity and the right of others to self-determination, especially in light of the "precedent of Kosovo." He recalled that "the Georgian people have always been close to Russia." Turning to Ukraine, Putin said that Ukrainian independence is a reality but that Russia "cannot remain indifferent" to what goes on there. PM

President Putin said in his October 25 televised broadcast that "even though I like my job, the constitution does not allow me to run for a third term in a row" when the current one runs out in 2008. He added that "even having lost the authority and the levers of presidential power and not tailoring the basic law according to my personal interests, I will manage to retain the most important thing that a person involved in politics must cherish -- your trust -- and using it, you and I will be able to influence life in our country." He did not elaborate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 16, July 18, and September 11 and 27, 2006). In response to a question from Kondopoga, which was the site of primarily ethnically motivated violence in the summer, Putin said that he wants his ministers urgently to "bring order" to immigration and employment legislation to prevent future ethnic strife. He stressed the need for "order on the issues of food markets, of migration and labor...with the aim of providing jobs first of all for citizens of the Russian Federation." Many markets in Russian cities are controlled by migrants from the Caucasus, Central Asia, or even China, which has been a source of ethnic tensions. Asked about the growth of neo-fascist extremism in Russia, he said that Russia is not alone in witnessing such phenomena but that the courts are acting to combat it. PM

President Putin said in his October 25 televised broadcast that sexual harassment must always be punished. "These are considered grave crimes," he added. He was responding to a question about his recent unguarded comments to visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in which Putin appeared to make light of alleged serial rape in the case of Israeli President Moshe Katsav (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19 and 20, 2006). Putin said in the televised interview that "in the particular Israeli case," society "is not satisfied with its leadership." This, he argued, is at the root of the presidential sex scandal, accusations of corruption against Olmert, and criticism of the Israeli General Staff over the recent Lebanon conflict. Referring to his own comments to Olmert that appeared to praise Katsav's sexual prowess, Putin said that "with respect to the representatives of the press, I can say it the way we used to joke at the time I worked at a completely different organization: They were sent to watch but they eavesdropped instead." PM

President Putin said in his October 25 televised question-and-answer session that it is difficult to strike a balance between those who want more spending on the military and those who argue that too much money is being wasted on the Army at a time when Russia has good relations with the United States and other powers. He stressed that the military is "being reduced in size" and that he wants it to be more efficient and better equipped. Putin said that 2.6 percent of the GDP is being spent on the military and that Russia spends "25 times less" in this area than does the United States. He added that Russia's military expenditures also compare favorably with those of China and France. Putin also denied that Gazprom is keeping gas from the Russian market in order to export it to Europe and elsewhere. He called for the successful completion "to the end" of investigations into high-profile murders. He referred to unspecified murders in the economic sphere and of media personalities, adding that "unfortunately, political fighting among us has not become more genteel or civilized." PM

Turning to social issues in his October 25 marathon televised broadcast, President Putin said that "everything will be all right. Moreover, it is my deep conviction that Russia is entering an absolutely new stage of development -- a period of stable economic growth which is the basis for resolving social tasks, and the main such task to remove the imbalance between those people who live very well and have huge incomes, and those citizens who still live very poorly." Reflecting his penchant for micromanaging and commenting on a wide variety of topics in detail, Putin called for raising duties on log exports, "at least until 2009." He stressed his commitment to preserve Lake Baikal and spoke out against the privatization of forests, calling them and the lake "national treasures." He suggested that forests could be leased to business interests rather than sold to them. The president also discussed details of automobile production and sales. PM

President Putin told the Congress of Compatriots in St. Petersburg on October 24 that he is determined to protect the rights of "compatriots" living abroad as a "moral duty" and "national priority," Russian media reported. The congress, which first met in 2001, brought together 600 representatives of the diaspora from 80 countries. Putin called specifically on the Latvian and Estonian governments to uphold "European standards" with regard to the rights of Russian-speakers in their countries, whose number he put at about 600,000. He called them "noncitizens, who are permanent residents" of their respective Baltic homelands. Putin also appealed to all countries in the "Russian-speaking expanse" to retain the Russian language as a common bond. Some commentators noted that this remark is bound to irritate many in former Soviet republics, whose national emancipation was often closely linked to promoting use of their native languages at the expense of Russian. It is not clear if there is a link between Putin's remarks on the Baltic states and the announcement by the Federal Security Service (FSB) that same day that it has detained a Russian official in Kaliningrad Oblast for spying for Lithuania, reported. Earlier in October, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus said that an unnamed Russian was expelled for spying and that Lithuania expected Russia to retaliate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2006). But on October 24, Lithuanian intelligence agencies declined any comment on the case in the Kaliningrad Oblast. PM

Also on October 24, Federal Migration Service Director Konstantin Romodanovsky told the state-run daily newspaper "Rossyskaya gazeta" that the authorities plan to "repatriate" 300,000 ethnic Russians in the next three years in a plan that was unveiled in the summer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27, and July 3 and 24, 2006). He said again that a pilot project will be set up in at least 12 regions in 2007 to help determine the total costs involved. He noted that the Federal Migration Service will set up several bureaus abroad to implement the program. The plan is aimed at offsetting the ongoing decline in population, which President Putin has spoken out about repeatedly. He recently set up another interagency group to deal with the "repatriation" of ethnic Russian "compatriots" living abroad. Some nationalist critics have charged that repatriation will not do much to offset the decline and that Putin is undermining any possible Russian claim to or role in former Soviet republics by encouraging ethnic Russians there to leave. Other critics say that the government should do more for illegal immigrants already in Russia before it brings in additional people. The daily "Vedomosti" reported on October 24 that a recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) showed that immigration is 25th among concerns of Russian citizens, with housing costs, alcohol abuse, and medical care topping the list. PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in St. Petersburg on October 24 that Iraq could split up "if there is no sudden change [in the current situation] and if there is no start [to promote] efforts towards unity," news agencies reported. PM

Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak chaired a session in Moscow on October 23 of the government commission, which he heads, tasked with improving socioeconomic conditions in that region, the website and the daily "Kommersant" reported on October 23 and 24, respectively. President Putin created the commission one month ago. Kozak told participants, who included senior officials from all North Caucasus republics and also from the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that the body's primary task is to work out "uniform" mechanisms for financing those republics depending on the "effectiveness" of their respective governments. He also implied that he has abandoned his proposal of last year to introduce direct rule from Moscow in republics that depend on the federal center for 80 percent or more of their budget funds. Several North Caucasus leaders rejected that proposal outright at the time. Addressing the October 23 session, Kozak's deputy Aleksandr Pochinok said the first step in the proposed financial reform will be the introduction of per capita funding for the individual republics. Arsen Kanokov and Mustafa Batdyev, the presidents of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia, both expressed approval of that innovation. LF

Participants at a top-level Russian Interior Ministry meeting that evaluated the situation in the Volga region expressed concern that a total of 214 terrorist attacks took place there the first nine months of this year, and described the situation as "complex," according to the Chechen separatist website on October 24. Of that number, 51 reportedly occurred in Saratov Oblast, 36 in Perm Krai, 17 in Udmurtia, and 14 in Tatarstan. The so-called Volga Front, which is subordinate to Chechnya-Ichkeria President and resistance commander Doku Umarov, claimed responsibility for an explosion that damaged a gas pipeline in Volgograd Oblast last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 2, 2006). LF

The Orinats Yerkir (OY, Law-Based State) party headed by former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian called on October 24 for an official investigation into advertisements recently broadcast by regional television stations that OY claims denigrated Baghdasarian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Baghdasarian, who stepped down in May as parliament speaker after a public dispute over policy with President Robert Kocharian, claimed earlier this month that local government officials are hindering OY local activists in their attempts to hire premises to hold meetings with voters in the run-up to the parliamentary elections due in spring 2007. LF

Editors of opposition and independent publications adopted a joint statement on October 24 in support of the opposition daily "Azadlyg," reported. On October 19, the paper's commercial director, Azer Akhmedov, told that agency that the State Committee for the Management of State Property has begun legal proceedings to have the paper evicted from the offices it currently occupies on the grounds that it allegedly owes $35,000 in back rent. The October 24 editors' statement branded that legal action an attempt to curb media freedom. On October 20, opposition parliament deputies raised the issue of official pressure on both "Azadlyg" and the independent television company ANS, reported. Parliament speaker Oktay Asadov pledged to look into the issue and reportedly advised "Azadlyg" to file a counter suit. LF

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told REN-TV on October 23 that Georgia is ready to reopen talks with Russia at any time, Caucasus Press reported. Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili similarly said in an October 24 statement that Georgia is always ready for "constructive dialogue" with Russia "at all levels," Caucasus Press reported. Bezhuashvili attributed his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov's statement early of October 23 that Moscow is not currently considering reopening air-transport links with Georgia to "a previously mapped out political course with far-reaching goals." On October 24, Lavrov's deputy Grigory Karasin was quoted by Interfax as saying that the restoration of political contacts between Russia and Georgia is contingent on unspecified "tangible steps" by Georgia to demonstrate its willingness for "normal relations." LF

The Tbilisi City Court rejected on October an appeal by the lawyer of Nora Kvitsiani to release her from pretrial detention, instead extending that detention for a further month, Caucasus Press reported. Kvitsiani was arrested in late July after her brother Emzar challenged Georgian jurisdiction over Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge. She faces charges of illegal possession of arms and embezzlement of humanitarian aid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 27, 28, and 31, and August 21, 2006). On October 24, residents of the Kodori Gorge denounced the charges brought against Nora Kvitsiani as fabricated and demanded "a fair investigation," Caucasus Press reported. The previous day, Caucasus Press quoted unnamed sources close to the Kodori-based Abkhaz government in exile as claiming that Emzar Kvitsiani is currently hiding at an undisclosed location in Abkhazia's Gulripsh Raion. On October 22, the Tbilisi City Court also extended the pretrial detention of opposition leader and former security chief Irakli Batiashvili, who is charged with abetting Emzar Kvitsiani in his imputed bid to overthrow the Georgian leadership, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Meeting on October 24, the Georgian parliament bureau decided to establish a commission on amending the Georgian Constitution in light of President Saakashvili's recent proposal that the presidential election due in April 2009 be brought forward by several months and held concurrently with parliamentary elections due in 2008, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2006). Opposition parliamentarians again denounced that proposal on October 23; Kakha Kukava (Democratic Front) proposed soliciting a ruling from the Council of Europe's Venice Commission on whether it is constitutional. Opposition Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili told journalists on October 24 without revealing his sources that both elections will take place on December 31, 2008. LF

The European Commission recommended on October 24 that EU governments conclude a 10-year, $500-million agreement for Kazakhstan to supply Europe's nuclear industry with uranium, AP reported. "Given the foreseen development of the EU nuclear industry and Kazakhstan's ambition to become the world's top uranium producer by 2010, it is in the mutual interest of both parties to expand their relations in this field," the commission said, according to Reuters. Reuters noted that a nuclear agreement between Kazakhstan and the EU would require the approval of EU member states. DK

President Nursultan Nazarbaev told a session of the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan in Astana on October 24 that the country should consider switching the alphabet for the Kazakh language from Cyrillic to Latin, Interfax reported. Noting that "Latin print dominates today in the communications area," Nazarbaev said, "I think we should return to the issue of rendering the Kazakh alphabet into Latin." Nazarbaev gave experts six months to produce specific proposals on the issue. He also expressed the hope that the next generation of Kazakh citizens will be trilingual. Nazarbaev said that "they should fluently speak the Kazakh, Russian, and English languages. Multilingualism has become commonplace in Europe, and we likewise must adopt this." He stressed, however, that "knowledge of the state language [Kazakh] should be a must for Kazakhs." DK

Kyrgyz police detained nine suspected members of the banned extremist party Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bishkek on October 24, news agency reported. According to a police spokesperson, the individuals were distributing food to mark the end of Ramadan and conducting political agitation at the same time. The report noted that a number of the detainees were released but that police have opened a criminal case against an individual identified only as "Nurlan S." reported that Bishkek police arrested three members of an organization called the Bishkek Jamaat [Community] of Muslims, which is allegedly affiliated with Hizb ut-Tahrir. DK

Tajikistan has received the bodies of 292 of its citizens from Russia in 2006, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on October 23, citing information from the Tajik Interior Ministry. The listed causes of death were murder (138), disease (115), accident (55), suicide (19), and unknown (12). The report noted that 200 coffins bearing Tajik citizens returned to Tajikistan from Russia in the same period last year. DK

A book detailing the genealogy of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyzov to the eighth generation has been published in Turkmenistan, Interfax reported on October 24. The book, which was published in a printrun of 5,000 copies, was prepared by Turkmen archivists working under the cabinet and the presidential archive. DK

Heinrich von Pierer, chairman of German-based Siemens, met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat on October 23, reported the next day. Niyazov proposed that Siemens consider participating in the development of hydrocarbon reserves in the Turkmen sector of the Caspian Sea and in the production of liquefied natural gas under a production separation agreement. According to the Turkmen report, Siemens representatives expressed interest in the proposals and noted that they might be discussed during an upcoming visit to Turkmenistan by Germany's foreign minister. DK

An EU delegation led by Pierre Morel, EU special representative for Central Asia, visited Uzbekistan on October 24 for closed-door talks, Reuters reported. Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry confirmed that talks took place but provided no details. The meeting comes amid signs that the EU might be considering a review of the sanctions it imposed on Tashkent after the bloody quelling of unrest in Andijon in May 2005. Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia department at the Institute of CIS Countries, told that EU overtures to Uzbekistan are likely linked to the EU's desire to diversify its energy policy. "Uzbekistan, as a nation that occupies key positions in Central Asia, could become the EU's main partner if various transportation projects are implemented," Grozin commented. He noted the possibility of a trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline as an example of a project that would be difficult to implement without Uzbekistan's participation. DK

Opposition politicians Alyaksandr Kazulin and Syarhey Skrabets, both inmates at a correctional facility near Vitsebsk, continued their hunger strike on October 24, Belapan reported. "They continue working according to the institution's internal rules and still stay with other inmates, visit the canteen but don't eat. The administration of the institution asserts that their condition gives no reason for fears," Kazulin's wife, Iryna, told the agency. Kazulin began his fasting on October 20, wanting to draw international attention to the political situation in Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2006). On October 23, Kazulin's protest was joined by Skrabets, a member of the Chamber of Representatives in 2000-04. Skrabets was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2006). JM

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on October 24 accepted credentials from the ambassador of the United States, Karen Stewart, Belapan reported, quoting official information sources. Lukashenka reportedly said that Belarus is interested in an open and constructive dialogue with the United States on the basis of equality and mutual respect for each other's interests. "Different views on a number of problems should not impede an increase in joint efforts where our interests coincide," he added. JM

Viktor Yanukovych said at a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Fradkov, in Kyiv on October 24 that Ukraine in 2007 will receive at least 55 billion cubic meters of imported gas for no more than $130 per 1,000 cubic meters, Ukrainian and international media reported. "Negotiations are concluding in Russia.... As soon as the executives arrive in Ukraine, they will show these contracts," Interfax-Ukraine quoted Yanukovych as saying. This 55 billion cubic meters of Central Asian gas, along with 20 billion cubic meters of gas extracted domestically, will reportedly be sufficient to meet Ukraine's needs in 2007. All of the gas imported by Ukraine is supplied through the Swiss-based RosUkrEnergo intermediary and is bought by UkrGasEnergo, RosUkrEnergo's joint venture with Naftohaz Ukrayiny. Now Ukraine pays $95 per 1,000 cubic meters of a Turkmen-Russian gas mix supplied by RosUkrEnergo. JM

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said in Kyiv on October 24 that the issue of gas supplies to Ukraine was not discussed at his meeting with Yanukovych, adding that these talks are being handled by companies, primarily Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "Considering the advanced character of Russia's relations with the [World Trade Organization] and the desire to build a strategic bilateral economic [Russian-Ukrainian] relationship, we should certainly consult with each other more often and synchronize our countries' WTO negotiation processes," Fradkov said. The Russian prime minister noted that "strategic cooperation" between Russia and Ukraine means "having a special relationship of trust [and] sharing mutual priorities both in foreign and domestic policies as well as at the bilateral level." Fradkov also stressed that Ukraine's NATO bid "must not harm Russia." JM

Volodymyr Saprykin, an energy expert from the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center, suggested to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on October 24 that the price Ukraine will have to pay for imported gas in 2007 may be higher than $130 per 1,000 cubic meters. According to Saprykin, out of the 42.5 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas contracted for Ukraine, RosUkrEnergo will take some 16 billion cubic meters as payment for its transit service, thus leaving Kyiv with a resulting gas shortage. "As of today, we lack the knowledge of the price and the volume of Russian gas that has to be supplied to Ukraine next year. Without Russian gas, [Ukraine] will not hold its balance [between gas needs and gas imports]," Saprykin said. "Therefore, 130 is not the final and the highest price point. In other words, I think it is necessary to expect an [additional] accord between Gazprom, RosUkrEnergo, and Naftohaz Ukrayiny," Saprykin asserted. JM

Ukrainian First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov on October 24 denied media reports claiming last week that the Ukrainian government was ready to make political concessions in gas negotiations with Russia, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "This is all nonsense. Normal talks are in progress. They primarily focus on economic issues," Azarov said. Russia's "Kommersant" suggested on October 25 that Moscow had set a number of political conditions for Kyiv in exchange for the gas price of $130 per 1,000 cubic meters. According to the Russian daily, Moscow pushed for holding a referendum by Ukraine on the country's accession to NATO, which could apparently put the idea of Ukraine's NATO bid on the back burner for an indefinite time. "Kommersant" also alleged that Moscow demanded that Kyiv should promise to continue importing Turkmen gas exclusively via Russia and to keep its tariffs for Russian gas transit unchanged. JM

Vojislav Kostunica warned voters on October 24 that rejecting the country's new constitution would have "grave" consequences, AP reported the same day. "I am convinced that Serbia will make the right decision, as it always has throughout history," Kostunica said, adding that if the new basic law were rejected "the consequences...would be truly grave and unforeseeable." Kostunica added that the constitution, which defines Kosova as part of Serbia, is vital in defining the country's identity and protecting its territorial unity. "Only a determined show of national will, expressed freely at the referendum, has the strength to...confirm Serbia's territorial integrity," Kostunica said. "But, we must first finish our part of the job. We cannot expect others to respect us if we ourselves do not jointly approve the constitution and confirm Kosovo as part of Serbia." Serbia's constitutional referendum is scheduled for October 28-29. BW

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights has expressed concerns that Serbia's new constitution does not meet democratic norms, B92 and Beta reported on October 24. "The Serbs deserve a constitution that is in accordance with the highest international standards. We are most concerned about that fact that many problems exist with the constitution that the international community has not reacted to," the federation's Executive Director Aaron Rhodes said. "The constitution does not promote the idea of a civil society...The courts are put under the control of the government and parliament...and it will be hard to integrate international agreements into law," he added. "The constitution is full of contradictions regarding minority rights and religious freedoms. Rights are guaranteed, but parliament can take them away if it wants to. The constitution is a recipe for the centralization of the system, and international experience has shown that things get solved with decentralization," Rhodes said. BW

An official from the liberal Serbian party G17 Plus said on October 24 that she opposes holding parliamentary and presidential elections simultaneously, B92 and Beta reported the same day. Snezana Plavsic-Stojanovic said parliamentary elections should be held first, in December, so a new government can be formed, a budget adopted, and parliamentary work continue. Presidential elections should be held shortly thereafter, she said, without offering specifics. "The deadlines are short for holding the presidential elections as well," she said. On October 5, President Boris Tadic called for both presidential and parliamentary elections to be held by the end of the year, adding that he plans to seek reelection (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6, 2006). Plavsic-Stojanovic also urged liberal parties to nominate just one presidential candidate. BW

After meeting in Tirana, parliamentary delegations from Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia issued a joint statement on October 24 urging NATO to accept their membership bids, AP reported the same day. A NATO summit is scheduled for next month in Riga, Latvia. Although the alliance is not formally slated to discuss enlargement, the three countries hope it will send a signal to candidates that invitations will come in the future. Expansion is widely expected to be on the agenda for the 2008 NATO summit in Washington. Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia have also signed the Adriatic 3 Charter, a U.S.-backed initiative outlining a common military strategy and promoting regional cooperation. According to a joint statement, the three countries believe that the "Riga summit will seriously consider the efforts and accomplishment of A3 countries to get fully integrated into NATO, and will decide to extend an invitation to Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia to join the [Western alliance] at the next NATO summit, in 2008." BW

Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha said that his country will pay any price to join NATO, Makfax reported on October 24. Speaking at the meeting of parliamentarians from Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia, Berisha said his government is willing to contribute peacekeeping troops for an international mission in Lebanon and will consider sending extra peacekeepers in Afghanistan. "We are ready to pay any price and we are committed to pursuing the reforms necessary to ensure than Albania deserves NATO membership after the alliance's summit in 2008," he said, adding that joining the alliance is at the top of Tirana's foreign policy agenda. BW

According to Reporters Without Borders, Moldova enjoys the most press freedom in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Mediapuls reported on October 24. No CIS country, however, ranked in the top half of the organization's survey. Moldova placed 85th out of 168 countries in Reporters Without Borders' International Press Freedom Index. Georgia was the CIS country with the second-highest ranking, at 89th worldwide. Armenia placed 101st, Ukraine 105th, Tajikistan 117th, Kyrgyzstan 123rd, Kazakhstan 128th, Azerbaijan 135th, Russia 147th, Belarus 151st, and Uzbekistan 158th. Turkmenistan came in 167th, finishing ahead of only North Korea. BW

Of all the sectors hit by the repressive backlash of autocratic regimes in the former Soviet Union, news media have suffered most.

Two recent murders of journalists on the territory of the former Soviet Union (FSU) have brought into sharp relief the grave danger that confronts news professionals who dare to report independently.

In Russia, Anna Politkovskaya, an outspoken critic of the Kremlin's activity in Chechnya as well as a thorn in the side of President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead by an assassin on October 6 in an elevator in her apartment building in Moscow's city center.

In Turkmenistan, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova died in September at the hands of Turkmenistan's repressive security apparatus. According to local human rights observers, Muradova suffered head and neck injuries while in detention. Turkmen authorities refused the family's request for an autopsy and did not make known the cause or date of Muradova's death.

The deaths of these two journalists represent the most recent in a pattern of escalating abuse that spans most of the FSU countries. While virtually none of these countries has been friendly to independent media since the Soviet Union's collapse, the sharp downward spiral for press freedom dates to the first of three "colored revolutions."

The response from the autocrats since that time has been unambiguous. Since Georgia's Rose Revolution in November 2003 -- which was followed by Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 -- autocratic regimes have implemented an increasingly brutal response to home-grown and foreign journalists who take an independent line.

This trend is borne out in the last three years' data in "Freedom of the Press," Freedom House's annual global survey of media independence. In this period nine of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet states' press-freedom ratings have deteriorated. Uzbekistan, Russia, and Belarus registered the steepest declines. Overall, 10 of the 12 post-Soviet states are ranked "Not Free," indicating that these countries do not provide basic guarantees and protections to enable open and independent journalism.

Attacks on journalists, heavy handed takeovers of independent news outlets and use of pliant prosecutors and courts to harass journalists and news organizations are increasingly prominent features of autocratic FSU politics.

In Belarus, the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka put into effect a virtual information blackout in advance of that country's presidential election in March of this year. The regime disabled Internet and cell-phone access in the days leading up to election day. Ordinary Belarusians who sought independent news sources online related how dial-up Internet connections were inaccessible due to "technical difficulties." Belarusian journalists are routinely subjected to physical abuse, including beatings and, sometimes, death. In October 2004, Veranika Cherkasava, who reported for the opposition weekly "Solidarnost" and wrote on sensitive issues, was killed in her Minsk apartment.

In Uzbekistan, independent journalists have been in the crosshairs of the repressive regime of Islam Karimov, who has sought to crush all alternative voices in that country. The authorities have forced foreign news organizations, including RFE/RL and the BBC, out of the country. Local journalists, within reach of the regime's security apparatus, face far graver dangers.

Russia has applied a "full-court press" against independent journalists and news organizations in the past three years. In the months leading up to Anna Politkovskaya's death, the Kremlin lowered the boom on remaining independent news organizations.

The acquisition of "Kommersant" last month by Alisher Usmanov, a Kremlin-friendly businessman, punctuated a series of Kremlin-backed media takeovers and represented a devastating blow to the country's already enfeebled independent media. More ominously, numerous journalists have been assaulted - 13 killed - during President Putin's tenure. Among them Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of "Forbes," who was shot nine times with a semiautomatic weapon on the street outside his Moscow office in July 2004.

The Soviet-style leaders who govern these unreformed countries understand well the importance of controlling information, access to it and its content.

This assault on media freedom does not occur in a vacuum, however. The treatment of the independent press is a barometer of broader adherence to democratic principles and human rights standards, which these regimes now defy routinely and seemingly with ever-greater confidence.

Perhaps the most chilling indicator of the depths to which press freedom has fallen is the impunity with which this behavior is undertaken. In Russia, none of the contract killings of journalists has been solved in Putin's nearly six years in office.

The popular democratic movements in Georgia and in other reform-starved countries served as a wake-up call to the region's autocrats, who responded by asserting complete dominance over the news media, among other things to minimize the spotlight a free press shines on government activity and performance.

In a telephone conversation with George W. Bush after Politkovskaya's murder, Putin reportedly told the U.S. president that "all necessary efforts will be made for an objective investigation into the tragic death." The increasingly corrupt and unaccountable systems that Putin and other autocrats in the region have enabled make the prospect of such an investigation all but impossible.(Jennifer Windsor is Executive Director at Freedom House. Christopher Walker is Director of Studies at Freedom House.)

Sky News broadcast a report from the Pakistani border region on October 23 in which a Taliban commander identified as Mullah Mohammed Amin suggested that militants will target "ordinary people" in Europe and said that suicide bombings and remote-controlled explosives "are our best tactic." Sky News reported that he vowed militants are "for the first time plotting to attack Westerners in Britain and the rest of Europe" and said they have stockpiles of weapons with which to wage their fight. "It's acceptable to kill ordinary people in Europe because these are the people who have voted in [their] government[s]," Mullah Amin said, adding, "The ordinary people of these countries are behind this, so we will not spare them." Sky News described Mullah Amin as a Taliban official at the time of the U.S.-led invasion to oust that regime in 2001. AH

The United States has urged Germany to extend its mandate to allow German troops to move to southern Afghanistan, where other NATO members have faced a wave of suicide attacks, Reuters reported on October 23. "Wouldn't it be better if Germany and France...could be willing to have those troops sent sometimes on a periodic, temporary basis to help the Dutch, British, U.S., and Canadians that are undertaking the major share of the fighting?" U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said at a conference in Berlin on October 22. Washington's call for increased German involvement coincided with a video released by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in which he warns that fighting will intensify, Deutsche Welle reported on October 24. In September, Germany agreed to keep troops in northern Afghanistan for another 12 months but has said it will not join NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, where violence continues to escalate. JC

Afghan security officials reported their recent seizure in an eastern province near Kabul of two trucks laden with materials they said were likely intended to produce explosives, AFP reported on October 24, citing a statement the same day from NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The cache reportedly included more than 150 34-kilogram bags of ammonium nitrate and more than 150 cans of suspected magnesium paste; both materials are common to bomb-making. Afghan security officials are investigating, and ISAF explosive experts are expected to dispose of the materials. The discovery comes as Afghanistan, and Kabul in particular, has suffered a surge in suicide and other bomb attacks in recent months. JC

An Afghan girl was killed and two other children were injured on October 23 when a NATO mortar test missed its target and struck a home in the Pech district of the eastern Konar Province, international news agencies reported the next day. Initial reports on the number of dead and wounded conflicted, but the Afghan Interior Ministry confirmed that one child died. NATO-led ISAF troops set up mortars to fire into areas like the Pech district, where they had previously come under attack from guerrillas. One of five mortars fired during a test reportedly fell short of the target for technical reasons, according to ISAF spokesman Major Luke Knittig. The two wounded children, both 7-year-old girls, were being treated at the main U.S. base near Kabul, Knittig said. "We extend our sympathies, and we are taking every effort to ensure [the] children involved get the best care," he added. JC

Purported neo-Taliban spokesman Qari Yousaf Ahmadi on October 24 called for the release of Italian photojournalist Gabriele Torsello, saying it is unfair to seek revenge against Italy by killing the innocent reporter. Yousaf Ahmadi told Pajhwok from an undisclosed location via telephone that his movement attempted to contact the kidnappers without success. He claimed the Taliban had guarded Torsello during an earlier stay in Afghanistan and said the kidnappers want to "defame" the Taliban with such an act. According to a VoA report the same day, Torsello's abductors said he was healthy after the deadline for their demands for Italian troops to withdraw from Afghanistan expired on October 22. Torsello, a 36-year-old Muslim convert, was kidnapped around October 12 while traveling near Lashkar Gah. JC

Publication of the "Iran" newspaper is scheduled to resume on October 28, Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Hussein Safar-Harandi told state television on October 23. "Iran," which is published by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), was shut down in May after its publication of a cartoon led to riots in the northwest and demonstrations by ethnic Azeris elsewhere. Safar-Harandi described the changes: "The way the work is done has been reviewed so that the newspaper would look more pleasing to readers." BS

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad outlined the new U.S. strategic plan for Iraq during an October 24 press briefing in Baghdad. The strategy has three key elements: encouraging Iraq's political and religious leaders to end sectarian violence; finalizing plans for a national compact; and persuading Sunni insurgents to lay down their arms and accept national reconciliation. As part of the plan, the United States will work to forge a consensus among Iraqi leaders on the enactment of an oil law, and reform of the de-Ba'athification commission "to transform it into an accountability and reconciliation program." The plan also calls for the elimination of militias and the holding of provincial elections. Khalilzad said Iraqi leaders have agreed to a timeline to resolve outstanding issues facing their country, agreeing, for example, on the necessity of reforming the security ministry (an apparent reference to the Interior Ministry) by the end of this year, he said. KR

U.S. General George W. Casey, commander of the multinational force in Iraq, told reporters at the same October 24 press briefing that the conflict in Iraq has undergone a dramatic shift over the past year. "Since the elections in December, we've seen the nature of the conflict evolving from what was an insurgency against us to a struggle for the division of political and economic power among the Iraqis. The bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in February heightened this," said Casey (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). Casey identified several groups trying to disrupt the political process in Iraq, including Al-Qaeda, death squads, and "more militant illegal armed groups," the resistance, whom he identified as "the insurgents that primarily fight us and who claim to be the honorable resistance to foreign occupation," and two external actors, Iran and Syria. Casey made no specific reference to the defunct Ba'ath Party. He added that the United States is working with the Iraqi government to resolve the militia issue and commended the role of Iraqi security forces, saying they "are in the fight." During the month of Ramadan, some 300 Iraqi security forces lost their lives in defense of Iraq, he added. KR

Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zawba'i told Al-Jazeera television in an October 24 interview from Cairo that he agreed with the U.S. assessment that Iraqi security forces will be able to take over the country in one year's time. "If there were good intentions and seriousness [among Iraqis] in dealing clearly, frankly, and transparently," then Iraqi forces could assume full control over the country before then, he added. KR

During a sermon on October 24 to mark the Eid Al-Fitr festival, Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced a ban on infighting, both among Iraq's Shi'a and between Sunnis and Shi'a, Al-Arabiyah television reported the same day. "You should know that this infighting is in the interest of the ominous trinity," said al-Sadr in an apparent reference to the United States, Britain, and Israel. "Do not be of any help to them," he advised his followers. The cleric said all Iraqis should follow the instructions of their local religious leaders. KR