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Newsline - October 30, 2006

EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs told a Russia-EU energy conference in Moscow on October 30 that Russia should widen access to its natural gas pipeline and transportation system and observe greater transparency in its energy dealings, reported. The state-run monopoly Gazprom currently controls Russia's pipeline system and effectively blocks access to independent gas projects. Piebalgs stressed the need instead for a "level playing field." The EU has repeatedly called on Russia to ratify the Energy Charter, which Moscow signed with the EU in 1994 and which would require it to open up access to its pipelines. President Vladimir Putin has refused to do so without substantial changes to the document (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20 and 23, 2006). PM

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza was quoted by the "Financial Times" on October 30 as saying that the projected Russo-German North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) will increase European dependency on Russian gas supplies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, and October 20 and 24, 2006). He argued that "the project simply raises the question [as to] what diversification means when it comes to gas supply. If you live in Germany, you do not want to go through what happened last winter with Ukraine [when Russia cut off gas supplies]." He added that the NEGP weakens European solidarity by bringing Germany together with Russia without the participation of Poland and the Baltic states. Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski is scheduled to discuss energy and other issues with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on October 30, Deutsche Welle reported. Prior to his visit, Kaczynski told Germany's mass-circulation daily "Bild" that "Poland must not get into a situation in which neighboring states exert pressure on us with the lever of energy. We will not accept that." PM

A new U.S. congressional study shows that Russia in 2005 surpassed the United States as the world leader in arms sales to developing countries for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and "The New York Times" reported on October 29. Russia's total sales amounted to $7 billion, up from $5.4 billion in 2004. Russian and U.S. media alike drew attention to Russia's $700 million sale of surface-to-air missiles to Iran and eight aerial refueling tankers to China. In addition to its traditional arms markets in China, India, and the Middle East, Russia has been making inroads into Latin America, most recently Venezuela (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 28, 2006). PM

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Moscow on October 27 that he is not concerned about Iran's decision to start a second network of centrifuges, news agencies reported. He added: "I do not share concerns about this because I know what I am talking about. Iran has started a second network of centrifuges that are, and I draw your attention to this, under the total control of the [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)]. These are empty centrifuges, they are at the moment not processing anything with them, so to speak about enriching uranium is premature." PM

Defense Minister Ivanov met in Moscow on October 27 with visiting Argentine Defense Minister Nilda Garre, whose government is reportedly interested in buying Russian military helicopters and air defense missiles, among other things, news agencies reported. She told reporters that the extent of any possible deal with depend solely on the conditions that Russia offers. She added that "the purchase of armaments is an internal business of any country. That's why [such purchases] cannot cause any objections" from third countries. Argentine media suggested recently that Russia is interested in a barter deal for local beef, of which Russia is already the largest importer. Argentina's economic difficulties have prevented it from engaging in any major arms purchases in recent years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 9, 2006). PM

The Party of Life, Motherland (Rodina), and the Russian Party of Pensioners formally announced their long-planned merger into the A Just Russia party on October 28, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29 and 30, and October 12, 2006). Sergei Mironov, who heads the Party of Life and is also speaker of the Federation Council, said that "if [the pro-Kremlin] Unified Russia is the party of power, we will become the party of the people.... We will follow the course of President Putin and not allow anyone to veer from it after Putin leaves his post in 2008," when his current term expires. At the convention, Motherland, which is the only one of the merged parties that is currently represented in the State Duma, formally changed its own name to A Just Russia. Motherland's Aleksandr Babakov was elected secretary of the new party's presidium, while the Pensioners' Igor Zotov became head of A Just Russia's political council. It is widely assumed that the merger is a Kremlin-sponsored attempt to manufacture a loyal "two-party system" and also to lure voters away from the Communist Party (KPRF). PM

"The Moscow Times" commented on October 30 that the founding of the A Just Russia party means that "Russia...[has] become possibly the first country in history with a two-party system in which both parties share the same overriding principle, [namely] that the executive is always right." Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama think tank told the daily that A Just Russia is Putin's left foot, which compliments Unified Russia, which is his right foot. Pribylovsky added that A Just Russia is an opposition party in the sense that the master's maid is in opposition to the master's butler. Russia expert Lilia Shevtsova wrote in the November-December issue of the Washington-based journal "The American Interest" that Russia has "imitation democracy," in which parties, elections, and other democratic trappings are little more than "stage props" for what is really an authoritarian system. PM

About 300 people demonstrated in St. Petersburg on October 29 to protest the rising number of xenophobic attacks in Russia, reported. Participants, who were mostly from liberal and leftist opposition organizations, carried portraits of Nikolai Girenko, an expert on skinheads who was killed in St. Petersburg in 2004. This is the third year the protest took place in his memory. Participants on October 29 also carried portraits of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in a contract-style killing earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9, 2006). On October 30, Moscow activists plan to mark the annual observance of the Day of Soviet Political Prisoners, reported. The organizers, who include the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Memorial rights center, and the small liberal Yabloko and Union of Right Forces (SPS) political parties, said in a statement that "once again freedoms are being [reduced], state propaganda is crowding out the free exchange of opinions, and criticism of the authorities is often perceived as...[amounting to] anti-government activity. Pressure against independent media and individual journalists has become the norm." PM

Six of the 69 young men apprehended last year on suspicion of participating in the October 13 raids on police and security facilities in Nalchik were released on October 27 under the terms of the amnesty adopted last month by the Russian State Duma, the daily "Kommersant" reported on October 28. (For photos of three of the six -- K. Atabiyev, A. Taov, and A. Tkhamokov -- see The six were reportedly members of a reserve battalion that did not take part in the fighting; seven more of its members have likewise been amnestied and will be released shortly, and criminal proceedings against an additional 13 young men have been dropped. "Kommersant" attributed the release of the young men to the fact that not a single militant in Kabardino-Balkaria has availed himself of the Duma's amnesty offer. But the Kabardino-Balkaria Interior Ministry informed ITAR-TASS on October 28 that 12 of the 39 men still wanted for their alleged participation in the Nalchik attacks have indeed turned themselves in, according to as reposted on October 29 by Meanwhile, the parents of some of the 92 young militants killed during the raids have released a statement demanding that criminal proceedings be brought against those officials who left the bodies of their sons to rot in the street for days, according to on October 27. LF

In an opinion poll conducted between October 19-24 in Maykop by the "Caucasus Times," the findings of which were posted on October 28 on, some 59 percent of the 400 respondents positively assessed President Khazret Sovmen's first term as a period of "order," "stability," and improved socio-economic conditions. Some 29 percent expressed a negative opinion of Sovmen, whose presidential term expires in January 2007. In accordance with recent amendments to Russian election legislation, Unified Russia, which polled the largest number of votes in the Adygeya elections earlier this year, proposed as its candidate to succeed Sovmen Maykop Technical University Rector Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 4, 16, 20 and 26, 2006). The Adygeya parliament has approved that nomination, which presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak has forwarded, along with that of two unidentified alternative candidates, to President Putin, who will take the final decision. LF

Responding to an October 12 appeal by the parliament of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, the North Ossetian parliament convened in emergency session on October 28 and called on the Russian State Duma to condemn the alleged "genocide" of Ossetians in Georgia in 1920 and 1989-1990, the daily "Kommersant" reported on October 30. The statement claimed that thousands of Ossetians were killed or expelled from Georgia in the 1920s and Ossetian villages razed to the ground. It further estimated the number of Ossetians killed during low-level hostilities between 1989-1992 at over 3,000, with 300 still missing without trace and over 40,000 forced to flee to Russia. Commenting on the North Ossetian parliament appeal, the independent Ingushetian website raised the question on October 29 why the Ingushetian legislature should not address an analogous appeal to the Duma to condemn as genocide the reprisals against and killing of hundreds of Ingush in North Ossetia in 1992. LF

On the eighth anniversary of the October 27, 1999 parliament massacre, relatives of the eight senior officials killed again accused the Armenian leadership of failing to identify and apprehend the masterminds behind the shootings, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The victims included parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and his two deputies, and Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian. The five gunmen headed by former journalist Nairi Hunanian were tried and sentenced in December 2003 to life imprisonment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2003). Demirchian's son Stepan, who is chairman of the opposition People's Party of Armenia, told journalists on October 27 that "the authorities have done everything not to establish the truth and to cover up the crime." Sargsian's brother Aram similarly alleged that the authorities have done "everything not to solve the crime." LF

Responding to questions from Western journalists accredited in Russia, Ilham Aliyev rejected on October 27 media speculation about deep divisions within the Azerbaijani leadership, reported on October 30 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," July 22, 2005). He said it is opposition media outlets that engage in such speculation, adding that over the past 13 years opposition parties have not come up with a single idea that found support among the population. In an October 25 interview with, Murad Sadaddinov, head of the Fund for the Defense of Democracy and Human Rights, suggested that Aliyev's failure to include prominent political prisoners in his recent amnesty to mark the end of Ramadan reflected a conflict within the country's leadership between reactionaries and reformists. A second respected human rights activist, Eldar Zeynalov, similarly suggested to on October 28 that a faction within the top leadership deliberately sought to compromise Aliyev in the eyes of the international community by failing to include those political prisoners on the list of amnesty beneficiaries. LF

Also responding to questions from foreign journalists, President Aliyev said that Azerbaijan will not support the imposition by the UN of sanctions on Iran in retaliation for that country's refusal to abandon its program of uranium enrichment, Reuters and reported on October 27 and 30, respectively. Aliyev argued that such sanctions will prove ineffective, and that rather than help resolve the problem, they will only fuel regional tensions. He called for continued negotiations with Tehran, saying such talks constitute the only chance of preserving the existing "very fragile stability." Aliyev further stressed that his country enjoys "good relations" with Iran, with which it shares a more than 1,000-kilometer border. LF

The website has asked two experts to assess the possible threat to Azerbaijan's national security posed by the posting on of photographs of strategic buildings in Baku and other Azerbaijani cities, including the presidential palace and the Defense Ministry, and of fortifications close to the Line of Contact that separates Azerbaijani and Armenian forces. Independent military expert Uzeir Djafarov said those photos indubitably undermine national security and constitute "gross interference in Azerbaijan's internal affairs." He expressed concern that the Foreign, Defense, and National Security ministries have not responded to that perceived interference and demanded the removal of the photos in question. Alimamed Nuriyev, a former member of the parliamentary Committee on Security and Defense, pointed out that as Azerbaijan has not yet formally adopted a national-security concept (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 3, 2006), it is difficult to define precisely what constitutes a threat. At the same time, he noted that Azerbaijan is "at war," and that the publication of photographs of strategic facilities plays into the hands of the enemy, according to on October 28. LF

Boris Chochiyev, who is deputy prime minister of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, has told reporters that the Georgian ski resort of Bakuriani is not an acceptable venue for a proposed meeting between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, Caucasus Press reported on October 30. Addressing the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on October 27, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli announced that Saakashvili is prepared to meet at any time with Kokoity in Bakuriani, which he termed "the home of many Ossetians." Chochiyev rejected that description as "cynical," and alleged that at least 1,000 Ossetians were forced to flee Bakuriani in the late 1980s to escape reprisals at the hands of the Georgians. noted on October 30 that this is Saakashvili's first-ever invitation to meet with Kokoity. In Vladikavkaz, Murat Tkhosov, who is the North Ossetian co-chairman of the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring developments in the South Ossetian conflict zone, asked whether there is any point in a meeting between Saakashvili and Kokoity, Caucasus Press reported on October 30. Tkhosov said that if the two men focus only on Georgia's insistence that the Russian peacekeeping force currently deployed in the conflict zone be withdrawn, it will be impossible to make any progress towards resolving the conflict. LF

In response to pressure from President Saakashvili, parliament deputies passed in the second reading on October 25, and in the third and final reading on October 27, a bill on increasing the strength of the Georgian armed forces next year from 26,000 to 28,000 men, Caucasus Press reported. But Deputy Defense Minister Mamuka Kudava explained that the increase will raise the number of support personnel, not of servicemen. Western defense advisers and NATO have repeatedly stressed that Georgia should reduce the numerical strength of its armed forces (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," July 22, 2005 and June 2, 2006). LF

Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev told the Permanent Council of the OSCE in Vienna on October 27 that member states should support Kazakhstan's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009, the organization reported in a press released on its website. "We strongly believe that Kazakhstan deserves to be supported in its bid," RFE/RL quoted Toqaev as saying. "The leadership and the multiethnic people of my country made real progress in building democracy and civil society. We have been doing so, proceeding from the understanding that we need more freedoms, more liberal values, to back the economic progress based on the principles of the market economy." EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said on October 19 in Astana that Kazakhstan must implement further reforms in order to qualify for the OSCE chairmanship (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20, 2006). DK

Atameken, a new pro-presidential party, held its founding congress in Almaty on October 27, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Chairman Erzhan Dosmukhamedov told journalists that Atameken is a "middle-class, center-right party" that supports President Nursultan Nazarbaev's stated objectives of making Kazakhstan one of the world's 50 most competitive countries and gaining the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2009. Dosmukhamedov said that if Atameken is able to register officially, it will sign a cooperation agreement with Russia's Union of Right Forces. DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev told journalists in Bishkek on October 27 that the situation in Kyrgyzstan currently does not require the dissolution of parliament, Kabar reported. "Why should we dissolve the entire parliament because of a small group of deputies?" Bakiev asked. "The issue is not the dissolution of parliament, but rather its constructive work." Bakiev previously suggested that he would consider the dissolution of parliament if lawmakers failed to make progress on constitutional reform (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 26, 2006). Addressing a National Dialogue meeting on October 27 in Bishkek, Bakiev said that he is ready to support a draft constitution developed by the Constitutional Council but would like to wait for parliamentary hearings schedule for November 1, Kabar reported. "The process of constitutional reform has dragged on, I agree," Bakiev commented. "But there's a silver lining -- now everyone knows about the constitution." DK

Bakiev told a National Dialogue meeting in Bishkek on October 27 that the authorities will use force if needed to prevent disorder at a planned November 2 opposition rally in the capital, Kabar reported. "If the rally goes off peacefully, within the law, no one will use force," Bakiev said. "If someone tries to carry out riots and looting, force will be used as permitted by the country's laws." Bakiev's remarks echoed comments made by acting Interior Minister Osmonali Guronov to the newspaper "Apta Janyryk" on October 26. "If disorders begin, we will be bound to use legal force," Guronov said. "I am not saying that we will shoot people. As a civilized country we will use special equipment. Our services will conduct operations. We have no other duties but these." DK

President Imomali Rakhmonov told an electrical-power conference in Varzob on October 27 that Tajikistan will finish the construction of the Roghun hydropower plant in 2007 on its own, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Rakhmonov said that $804 million has already been invested in Roghun, although an additional $2 billion is needed to complete construction. Rakhmonov did not mention the Russian aluminum giant Rusal, which agreed in October 2004 to invest over $1 billion to finish the construction of Roghun. Tension has emerged recently between the Tajik government and the Russian company over the project. In a statement on October 27, Rusal said that a Russian-Tajik intergovernmental commission will resolve disputes over the construction of Roghun, Avesta reported. Noting that a German company will soon complete a study of the project, Rusal stated that "in the next session of the Russian-Tajik intergovernmental commission, the sides will make a final decision on the technical parameters of the hydro system as well as the costs of the unfinished facilities and determine the two sides' shares." DK

The European Parliament passed a resolution on October 26 rejecting calls to renew existing sanctions against Uzbekistan for another 12 months and to include Uzbek President Islam Karimov in an EU visa ban, the parliament's press service reported. Mariann Fischer Boel, EU commissioner for agriculture and rural development standing in for External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, told the parliament that a Cooperation Council will be held in early November "to obtain a full and comprehensive picture of the situation in Uzbekistan," RFE/RL reported. Fischer Boel said the EU will decide by November 14 whether to extend the sanctions. She noted that while the situation in Uzbekistan shows scant improvement, new sanctions are unlikely. "Despite this bleak picture, nothing is to be gained by cutting off all channels of communication to Uzbekistan," Fischer Boel commented. DK

Several hundred people marched on October 30 from central Minsk to the Kurapaty site of Stalin-era mass executions on the city's outskirts to commemorate Dzyady (Ancestors' Remembrance Day), Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Although the march was officially authorized, police briefly detained several participants. Some demonstrators carried banners reading: "No To Union With Russia!" and "Union With Russia Means Hunger and Killings!" JM

Education Minister Alyaksandr Radzkou said in the Chamber of Representatives, Belarus's lower house, on October 27 that not a single student has been expelled from the country's institutions of higher learning for political reasons, Belapan reported. Radzkou noted that the main reason for the expulsion of students is usually their academic failure. Speaking in the Chamber of Representatives a year ago, Radzkou admitted that he had issued a political directive authorizing the rectors of state-run universities to expel students who participate in political demonstrations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 4, 2005). Some 300 Belarusian students are now reportedly studying abroad, mainly in Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine, because of their expulsion following the March presidential election and opposition protests against the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. JM

Stsyapan Sukharenka, chief of the State Security Committee (KGB), has denounced as biased the European Parliament's decision to award Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 27, 2006), Belapan and Reuters reported on October 27. "It is a biased situation and it cannot be described in any other way. As a citizen, not a government official, I am surprised at it. If there are no other people to be awarded the Sakharov prize, Europe has become depleted," Sukharenka told journalists. "The West's interest in Belarus is constant -- they never stop interfering in Belarus's domestic affairs as well as financing the Belarusian opposition," Sukharenka added. Milinkevich reportedly promised to spend the money linked to the prize ($63,000) on assistance to victims of political persecution in Belarus. JM

Special police forces in Dnipropetrovsk on October 30 arrested some 90 people out of the 150 who, armed with firecrackers and pneumatic weapons, unsuccessfully attempted to seize the city's central marketplace called Ozerka earlier the same day, UNIAN reported. In 2004, control over Ozerka was taken over by a private firm in a tender that many potential local buyers decried as dishonest. In September 2006, the tender was cancelled by a court decision. The identity of the attackers has not yet been established. JM

Viktor Yushchenko said at an EU summit in Helsinki on October 27 that Ukraine aims at enhancing its current level of cooperation with the EU to a "level of political association and economic integration," Reuters reported. Yushchenko was speaking at a news conference following talks with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, who represented the EU Presidency. However, Barroso responded that a free-trade accord between the EU and Ukraine is the primary goal and ruled out talks of EU membership. "Ukraine still has reforms to do, let's be honest about it, and today in the European Union we are not ready, our member states are not ready, to assume new membership obligations," Barroso said. The two sides initialed a deal to make it easier for Ukrainian journalists, students, and businessmen to obtain EU visas, and another on readmission of illegal migrants. Yushchenko reportedly assured the EU that the supplies of Russian gas to Europe via Ukraine will be uninterrupted this coming winter. Barroso welcomed a gas deal reached between Ukraine and Russia last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2006), saying that Brussels does not anticipate "any problems, at least for this year." JM

The Swiss-based RosUkrEnergo, which holds a monopoly on gas supplies to Ukraine, will deliver up to 62 billion cubic meters of gas to Ukraine in 2007 under a contract made public last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 26, and 27, 2006), Interfax-Ukraine reported on October 27, quoting Ihor Voronin, head of UkrGazEnergo, a joint venture created by RosUkrEnergo and Ukraine's Naftohaz. "The key provisions in the addendum to the contract envision the supply of up to 62 billion cubic meters of gas in 2007 at a price of $130 [per 1,000 cubic meters] with a minimum guaranteed amount of 55 billion cubic meters. These supplies will not be accompanied by any other additional conditions," Voronin said. According to Voronin, the addendum stipulates that the price of $130 with regard to the minimum contracted amount of 55 billion cubic meters will remain unchanged irrespective of "what happens in the Central Asian gas market" from where Ukraine is to receive imported gas in 2007. "We managed to avoid the mistakes that were made, for example, in 2006, when Turkmengaz unilaterally stopped fulfilling its contract and Naftohaz Ukrayiny was left without 40 billion cubic meters of gas that was stipulated in the contract," Voronin added. JM

Independent election observers said on October 29 that voters have approved Serbia's new constitution, international news agencies reported the same day. The Belgrade-based Center for Free Elections and Democracy said that according to their figures, some 96 percent of those who cast ballots supported the draft charter, AP reported. The group also said 53.3 percent of Serbia's 6.6 million voters participated, more than the 50 percent required for the referendum to be valid. Final results are expected on October 30. "This is a great moment for Serbia," Serbian President Vojislav Kostunica said in televised comments. "This is a historic moment, a beginning of a new era for Serbia," he added. BW

Ragmi Mustafa, the president of the municipality of Presevo, said ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia boycotted the referendum because they were not consulted when the document was drafted, B92 reported on October 29. The constitution also defines Kosova as an integral part of Serbia, which is unacceptable to ethnic Albanians, he said. "In the preamble of the constitution, there is a piece of territory that is a UN protectorate -- Kosova," Mustafa said. "Negotiations between Belgrade and Prishtina over this territory are still in progress. For us Albanians it is unacceptable for a territory under UN protectorate to be included into the constitutional preamble." Dragan Velickovic, the head of the Municipal Referendum Commission in Bujanovac, said the boycott made the work of election officials difficult. "Since the Albanians are boycotting the referendum and because all the levers of local government were in the hands of Albanian parties, we have been confronted with difficulties, the solution of which required great efforts," Velickovic said. BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina's State Investigation and Protection Agency has arrested war crimes suspect Jadranko Palija, B92 reported on October 27. Palija is suspected of committing atrocities against Bosnian Muslims in the area of Sanski Most during the 1992-95 war. Bosnian Serb troops killed 20 people by firing squad on a bridge on the Sanica River in May 1992. According to surviving witnesses, Palija participated in the execution-style killings. He was arrested in the northern Bosnian district of Brock on October 26. B92 also quoted unidentified officials as saying that Palija is wanted by Croatian authorities for war crimes. BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina's State Court on October 27 sentenced Momcilo Mandic, who served in the wartime government of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, to nine years in prison for abuse of office and forgery, Reuters reported the same day. Mandic, the former director of Privredna Banka Srpsko Sarajevo, was indicted together with three other top Bosnian Serb officials for transferring depositors' funds to the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) accounts, causing the bank to go bankrupt (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2005). Mandic was also ordered to pay 4.5 million convertible marks ($2.98 million) in compensation to the bank's depositors. BW

Russian and Moldovan officials are planning to hold discussions on an action plan aimed at ending Moscow's boycott of Moldovan wines, RBC reported on October 27. According to officials from the Moldovan Embassy in Moscow, Moldova's First Deputy Prime Minister Zinaida Greciani and Russia's Chief Sanitary Inspector Gennady Onishchenko met recently in Moscow to discuss ways of ending Russia's ban on wine imports from Moldova. In a move widely seen as politically motivated retribution for Chisinau's pro-Western orientation, Russia banned the import of Moldovan wines in March, citing health and safety concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). Greciani and Onishchenko have agreed that experts from Russia's consumer rights watchdog Rospotrebnadzor and Moldovan agribusiness agency Moldova-vin will meet in Moscow in the near future to work on the technical requirements of lifting the ban. BW

It kills some 40,000 people every year in Russia -- almost five per hour. Russia's Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev has called it a "national tragedy." And President Vladimir Putin sounded the alarm during a three-hour televised appearance on October 25.

"The profusion of poor-quality and counterfeit products on our alcohol market is a huge problem," Putin said. "And even today we have examples of poisoning of people through poor-quality alcohol. Besides inflicting huge damages on people's health, which is the No. 1 problem, it also has a very negative impact on the state of public finances."

Poisoning from tainted alcohol is not a new problem in Russia. But lately, the country's hospitals have been struggling to cope with the flow of alcohol-poisoning victims. Toxic hepatitis, a disease brought on by the consumption of poor-quality alcohol, has killed scores of Russians over the past few weeks. Hundreds of people are currently hospitalized, many in severe condition. Doctors say toxic hepatitis, which can cause severe liver damage, is difficult to treat and often fatal.

Like many observers, Oleg Zykov, the director of the No To Alcoholism And Drug Abuse foundation in Moscow, is already talking about a nationwide epidemic. "It is obvious that a tragedy is taking place," he says. "We have seen this tragedy double, triple lately. Today, it clearly has the characteristic of a sudden epidemic, and this was to be expected. Half a year ago, when the process of changing excise stamps started, I said that the number of poisonings from surrogates would definitely grow. We will have an epidemic of poisoning from substitutes."

Under a new law introduced this year to combat bootlegging, all alcoholic beverages in Russia must now carry a new excise stamp and a barcode. But delays and glitches during the implementation of the new rules resulted in alcoholic beverages disappearing from shelves for many weeks.

Aleksandr Nikishin, a vodka historian and director of a vodka museum in Moscow, says the spate of poisonings is a direct result of the alcohol reform. "It all started when factories were stalled, when there were no excise stamps, when shelves and shops were empty," he says. "Some clearly saw the possibility of filling the niche of illegal manufacturer. But someone has produced a very low-quality surrogate. Usually people don't get poisoned and die like that with substitutes. This is an extraordinary case."

The figures indeed look like a frontline casualty report. In Chelyabinsk Oblast, in the Urals, poisonous alcohol has killed 70 people, and more than 1,200 have sought medical assistance over the past two months.

In Perm Krai, nine people have died and 15 are in critical condition; 30 have died in Irkutsk Oblast; 21 in Kirov Oblast; and 45 in the western Belgorod Oblast. In Pskov Oblast, where alcohol poisoning has killed 16 people and affected almost 450, local authorities have introduced a state of emergency.

For years, fake vodka producers used products containing industrial spirits such as detergents, antifreeze, and window-cleaning solutions. The authorities hoped that the alcohol reform, by slapping a tax on industrial spirits, would curb bootleg vodka production and bring down the number of alcohol-poisoning deaths. But the new legislation seems to have had the opposite effect.

Pavel Shapkin, the chairman of the National Alcohol Association, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the alcohol shortage caused by the reform has prompted counterfeiters to resort to other, untaxed, spirits -- usually alcohol-based medicine and antiseptics sold in pharmacies. He says these substances are even more toxic than industrial spirits.

"Those who produced fake vodka with antifreeze -- and this is a whole industry -- started looking for new raw material," Shapkin says. "Surrogate producers got hold of liquids that, in addition to ethyl alcohol, contain highly toxic substances. The alcohol contained in antiseptics must cost as much as much as alcohol in vodka bottles. Then nobody will dream of using this alcohol to produce substitute alcohol."

Compounding the problem is the cheap price tag carried by a bottle of fake liquor. With the introduction of the more expense excise stamps, which has pushed up the price of vodka and other spirits, many are seeking a cheaper substitute.

Nikishin says the only way of reducing the number of poisoning deaths is teaching the population that cheap vodka is bad vodka. "People simply need to be informed and explained that vodka can't be cheap, because excises are expensive," he says. "From a bottle that costs 100 rubles [$3.74], the excise represents 70 rubles, the bottle with the label costs 10 rubles, the alcohol costs a little bit, the workforce also, and the rest represents a small benefit. If a bottle costs 50 or 40 rubles, you'd better run away from it."

A half-liter bottle of bootleg vodka costs as little as 20 rubles ($0.75). By contrast, the cheapest bottle of officially approved vodka now costs 95 rubles ($3.5). The same bottle cost 65 rubles ($2.4) before the labeling reform was ushered in on January 1.

(Claire Bigg is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

A spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said that 70 suspected insurgents were killed on October 28 during an attack on an ISAF military base north of Tarin Kowt in Oruzgan Province, AP reported the next day. One Afghan soldier was also reported wounded. NATO and Afghan troops used small-arms fire and helicopters to repel the 100-150 militants involved in the attack, according to ISAF spokesman Major Luke Knittig. The new death toll represents an increase from an earlier estimate of 55 suspected insurgents, although AP reported that it was impossible to independently verify the total number killed. CJ

A roadside bomb in the Oruzgan Province of southern Afghanistan on October 28 killed one ISAF soldier and injured eight other soldiers and three civilians, AP reported. The nationalities of those killed and wounded have not been disclosed. Pahjwak Afghan News reported that a similar roadside bomb attack killed 14 people and wounded three more in Oruzgan's provincial capital of Trin Kot on October 27. The use of roadside-bomb attacks in the southern part of the country is on the rise (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 12, 2006). CJ

U.S. General James L. Jones publicly apologized on October 28 for the death of civilians in recent fighting between NATO-led forces and Taliban insurgents, according to AP. Jones, NATO's supreme commander, accused Taliban militants of using civilians as human shields and said it can be difficult in the heat of battle to distinguish between the two. The apology came just a day after the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized NATO operations for causing the deaths of dozens of civilians. AP reports that Afghan officials say recent battles between NATO-led troops and insurgents killed between 30 and 80 civilians, although NATO's initial investigation conceded just 12 civilian deaths. A civilian death, Jones stated, "is something that causes anybody in uniform to lose a lot of sleep." HRW issued a statement on October 30 charging that "while NATO forces try to minimize harm to civilians, they obviously are not doing enough" and adding, "NATO should reconsider the use of highly destructive but hard-to-target weaponry in areas where there is clear risk of considerable civilian casualties." HRW noted that "Taliban and other opposition forces have in the past placed civilians at risk by using populated areas to launch attacks on NATO and Afghan government forces." CJ

A statement from purported Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif asserted that the movement's leadership will not consider talks with President Hamid Karzai's government as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan, AP reported on October 28. The statement, e-mailed to AP by Mohammad Hanif, came one day after Karzai reiterated his willingness to negotiate with Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. AP noted that the statement cannot be authentically verified, and Mohammad Hanif's relationship to the Taliban leadership is unclear. The message referred to Karzai's administration as a "puppet government" and said, "We say even today that there is no possibility of any talks when the country is under occupation." Reuters reported on October 28 that a rebel spokesman delivered a similar message by satellite phone. Pahjwak Afghan News reported that Mohammad Hanif made similar statements to them during an exclusive interview the same day. CJ

Mohammad Qanad, deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced on October 27 that Iran has started its second 164-centrifuge cascade at the Natanz nuclear facility, the Persian-language daily "Iran," which is published by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), reported the next day. Gas was injected into the centrifuge, he said, and the enriched uranium is being stored. He said the uranium is enriched to a level of 3-5 percent. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov sought to minimize worries about this development, Radio Farda reported. He said on October 27, "I do not share concerns about this because I know what I am talking about. Iran has started a second network of centrifuges that are, and I draw your attention to this, are under the total control of the IAEA." Seeming to contradict Iranian claims, Ivanov said, "These are empty centrifuges, they are at the moment not processing anything with them so to speak about enriching uranium is premature." BS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's nominee for welfare and social security minister, Abdul Reza Mesri, was overwhelmingly approved by the parliament on October 29, IRNA reported. Ahmadinejad had urged the legislature to give Mesri a vote of confidence. Ahmadinejad said that ministry's work is especially important now, as the government began distributing so-called justice (edalat) shares the previous day in an effort to eliminate wealth inequality. Mesri is a legislative representative from Kermanshah and, out of 259 legislators present, 191 voted for Mesri, with 42 against and 11 undecided. BS

President Ahmadinejad on October 29 introduced Mohammad Abbasi as his nominee for the position of cooperatives minister, IRNA reported. Abbasi, who represents Gorgan in the legislature, would succeed Mohammad Nazemi Ardekani, who, the president said, will serve in another position. Abbasi holds a doctorate in strategic management, a degree often given to military personnel, and he also has served as chancellor of a branch of the Islamic Azad University and deputy governor-general for planning affairs in Mazandaran Province. Abbasi told reporters that strengthening the cooperatives sector is an important step in the realization of the fifth five-year plan, which began in 2005. BS

Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi, Energy Minister Seyyed Parviz Fattah, and Transport Minister Mohammad Rahmati will visit the legislature in the coming week to answer parliamentarians' questions, Fars News Agency reported on October 28. On the same day, the reformist representative from Bojnurd, Ismail Gerami-Moqaddam, said the cabinet reshuffle is due to the ministers' inexperience, lack of skills, and conflicts with the president, Aftab News reported. Gerami-Moqaddam said these shortcomings resulted in "rising prices, a decline in the production of the industrial and agricultural sectors, and inefficiency in some educational organizations," and he predicted more resignations. BS

The daily "Iran" resumed publication on October 28. The newspaper was suspended in late May after it published a cartoon of an Azeri-speaking cockroach that led to unrest and protests among the Azeri minority in Iran. The newspaper's leadership changed in late September and the former news director at the conservative Mehr News Agency, Kaveh Eshtehardi, is the new chief. IRNA, which publishes "Iran," also has new leadership. Seyyed Jalal Fayazi took over on the same day that Eshtehardi was named as caretaker at "Iran." Fayazi previously served as editor in chief of the daily "Qods" and was a leading member of the fundamentalist Islamic Revolution Devotees' Society, of which President Ahmadinejad is a founder. Fayazi is now associated with the Young Developers (Abadgaran-i Javan), another hard-line political organization created earlier this year. Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Hussein Safar-Harandi wrote in the inaugural issue of "Iran" that the closure came at a bad time, and it "aggravated the overall scarcity of media organs which are affiliated to the government." BS

Law lecturer and press law specialist Kambiz Noruzi has criticized the most recent high-profile press closure in Iran, "Etemad" reported on October 28. "Ruzegar," the daily newspaper that succeeded the banned reformist "Sharq," began publication on October 16, and Deputy Culture Minister for Press Affairs Alireza Mokhtarpur said on October 23 that the Press Supervisory Board has decided to ban it because the new daily resembled a banned one, Fars News Agency reported. Lecturer Noruzi, however, said he sees no physical similarities between "Sharq" and "Ruzegar." Journalists Club Secretary Badrossadat Mofidi added that the closure shows a reduced level of official tolerance on the part of the government, "Etemad" reported. BS

Attorney Morteza Beheshti announced on October 28 that his client, Ardeshir Qassemlu, has been exonerated of fraud charges, Fars News Agency reported. Qassemlu was the chancellor of the Iranian branch of the American University of Hawaii, which is headquartered in the United States. Iranian legal officials began investigating this insitution in 2004 on the grounds that it was a diploma mill issuing degrees that the government did not recognize in exchange for the payment of fees and without attendance requirements (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 September 2004 and 27 September 2005). Earlier in 2006, Qassemlu received a three-year prison sentence, "Kayhan" reported on March 6. Firuz Aslani, general director for legal affairs at the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology, said at the time that his organization will appeal this verdict as being too lenient because it "does not mention anything about revoking the degrees that this university issued to different individuals, some of whom are now using their degrees in various positions." Aslani was referring to several government officials that were discovered to have been awarded diplomas by the bogus university. BS

Great Britain is moving its consular staff from the Al-Basrah Palace compound to the Al-Basrah Airport, according to an October 30 Foreign Office statement. The move comes amid safety concerns over the threat of mortar attack, the statement said. The consul-general and some senior and support staff will remain in the palace compound while the bulk of the staff will be relocated. The move was prompted by a private security assessment of the compound, which also houses U.K. troops, that cited a rise in mortar attacks over the past two months, Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" reported on October 30. U.K. and Iraqi troops are currently carrying out Operation Sinbad, aimed at wresting control over Al-Basrah from insurgents and rogue police and reestablishing security there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 29, 2006). KR

President Jalal Talabani told London-based "Al-Hayat" in an interview published on October 29 that the United States should hold talks with Damascus and Tehran to help ease violence in Iraq. Talabani said that talks with Iran could easily be held, since Tehran has already agreed to a proposed secret meeting between Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad. He added that comments by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice revealing the possibility of the meeting annoyed Iran. Damascus may be less enthusiastic about taking part in such talks, he said. Talabani also discussed the possibility of a general amnesty for armed Iraqis, including members of the resistance, telling the daily that Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who has rejected such proposals in the past, "is ready to accept such a general amnesty." He added that he believes the U.S. will also accept an amnesty, even one that applies to Iraqis who killed Americans, "provided this law is part of an understanding and a comprehensive popular solution to the current situation." KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and U.S. President George W. Bush agreed during an October 28 video conference to the establishment of a high-level working group to address the security situation in Iraq, Al-Arabiyah television reported the same day. The working group will include Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir al-Ubaydi, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani, National Security Adviser Wafiq al-Samarra'i, U.S. commander in Iraq General George W. Casey, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Khalilzad, according to a White House press release. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told Al-Arabiyah that there is no rift between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, saying, "We have a common goal -- namely to speed up the pace of training Iraqi security forces." KR

Khalil al-Dulaymi, a defense attorney for Saddam Hussein, warned of an all-out civil war in Iraq should Hussein be found guilty and sentenced to death, international media reported on October 30. Al-Dulaymi said he issued the warning in a letter to U.S. President Bush delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan. A verdict in the case is expected on November 5. The chief prosecutor in the trial, Ja'far al-Musawi, said the verdict may be delayed to give judges more time to review testimony, Reuters reported on October 29. KR