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Newsline - November 6, 2006

The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted cautiously on November 5 to the guilty verdict and death sentence handed down to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by an Iraqi court, reported. Spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said that "we proceed from the fact that the trial of a citizen of any the internal affair of that state and must be conducted and brought to an end without any prompting from outside. Under the complicated circumstances [prevalent] in today's Iraq, it is especially important to avoid any situation that might further divide Iraqi society and complicate the search for national accord through a broad inter-Iraqi dialogue with the participation of all political and ethno-religious forces." PM

Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said on November 5 that the handing down of a death sentence to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by an Iraqi court came as no surprise, reported. Kosachyov added, however, that he doubts that the sentence will be carried out because of "exceedingly complicated today's Iraq." He suggested that some legal means, such an as amnesty, will be found to avoid hanging Hussein. Kosachyov stressed that the timing of the sentencing was clearly set with an eye toward the November 7 mid-term elections in the United States. However, Vyacheslav Nikonov, who heads the pro-Kremlin Politika Foundation, said that the death sentence is the result of political "manipulation" by the current Iraqi leadership and will indeed be carried out, Interfax reported. Nikonov added that the timing is designed to show U.S. voters that the war in Iraq is not a "wasted effort and that the main culprit will be punished" by hanging. He warned that the verdict will further polarize Iraqi society along religious lines and make it "impossible" for the United States to engage in any dialogue with supporters of the former regime. Communist Party (KPRF) leader Gennady Zyuganov for his part called the sentencing an "act of political vandalism" carried out by the occupying forces, reported. PM

Rightists defied official bans and staged protests in Moscow and some other cities on November 4, which the administration of President Vladimir Putin last year declared People's Unity Day, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 3, 2006). The authorities permitted or tolerated some gatherings in places well away from potentially sensitive locations. Estimates of the number of participants and arrests varied, but between 2,000 and 4,500 people turned out in Moscow, while police put the number of those arrested there at 156. Turnout was lower than many had expected. First Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandr Chekalin said that 25,000 security personnel took part in crowd control in 136 cities across the Russian Federation, reported. In Moscow alone, security forces numbered 7,800. Chekalin added that "hooligan elements" will be brought to account. Speakers at the rallies stressed that Orthodox Russia is under threat from Jews and illegal immigrants, particularly from the Caucasus. One sign in Moscow read: "Don't confuse German fascists with Russian patriots." Some participants chanted: "Russia for the Russians, Moscow for the Muscovites," RFE/RL'S Russian Service reported. In Vladivostok, about 200 demonstrators rallied under banners such as "No integration, only deportation." PM

Several thousand people gathered in Moscow on November 4 to take part in a meeting for a "Russia without Fascism" as a protest against demonstrations by rightists, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Participant Yury Ryzhov said that "a brown-colored [fascist] wave has started to engulf our great fatherland, which conquered fascism [in World War II]. Like all of us, I am concerned about our future. But that does not mean that we have to raise our hands [in surrender] and wait until they kick us out of our [own] country." In St. Petersburg, police used tear gas to break up a confrontation between rightists and counterdemonstrators. PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a press conference in Brussels on November 3 that "the reports today [from Kyrgyzstan] are alarming," RFE/RL reported. He added: "I hope that both sides will show restraint and that, in its actions, the opposition will stay within the law. Everything must be decided within Kyrgyz law, there is no doubt about that. Any problems that arise can be discussed only within that framework." Referring to Georgia, Lavrov said that "first of all, [Georgia] needs -- as the UN Security Council demanded last month -- to stop the hostile rhetoric, stop the provocations, and implement all the Security Council decisions and all the agreements that were reached within the framework of the efforts to settle the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006). He repeated his objections to the UN Security Council resolution on Iran proposed by the EU, saying that the text "goes far beyond [our previous] agreements" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 2 and 3, 2006). PM

In a statement posted on November 4 on his ministry's website (, Vartan Oskanian expressed "amazement" at comments his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul made in Moscow two days earlier to an RFE/RL correspondent. Gul claimed that Armenian President Robert Kocharian rejected last year a proposal by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to establish a joint commission to address the issue of the killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in the early decades of the 20th century, and Gul again called for creating such a body (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," November 3, 2006). Oskanian for his part said that Kocharian in his response to Erdogan's offer "clearly" stressed the need to normalize relations between the two countries in order to "create the appropriate and conducive environment" for "useful dialogue." Oskanian added that invitations to dialogue cannot be taken seriously as long as discussion in Turkey of the 1915 genocide remains a criminal offense. Oskanian further rejected Gul's assertion that Turkey's borders with Armenia are open, as evidenced by flights between the two countries. LF

Freedom House called on the U.S. government on November 2 to withhold funds allocated earlier this year for development projects in Armenia and six other countries within the framework of the Millennium Challenge Program, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported the following day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2006). In a statement posted on its website (, it said the Armenian government has "failed in its improve its institutional commitment to democracy and tolerance of opposition." The statement noted in particular the Armenian authorities' failure to investigate allegations of serious fraud during the November 2005 referendum on a package of constitutional amendments; lack of judicial independence; and restrictions on press freedom. Armenia was awarded a total of $235.6 million from the Millennium Challenge Account over a period of five years, with each successive tranche conditional on the Armenian government's performance in key areas of economic reform and democratization. LF

Arkady Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, issued a decree on November 3 confirming his earlier ruling setting December 10 as the date for a referendum on the republic's new draft constitution, Armenian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 2006). Some 127 proposed amendments were made during public discussion of the draft over the past two months, an unspecified number of which were incorporated into the text, DeFacto news agency quoted NKR parliament Chairman Ashot Ghulian as saying on November 3. The NKR parliament endorsed the draft in the second reading on November 1, according to Armenpress as cited by Groong. The constitution describes the NKR as a sovereign, democratic, law-based, social state. LF

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Energy Minister Nika Gilauri said separately on November 3 that Georgia will be able to secure alternative supplies of natural gas from Iran and Azerbaijan, thereby minimizing the negative impact of the proposal by Russia's Gazprom to raise from $110 to $230 per 1,000 cubic meters the price it will charge Georgia for gas in 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 2 and 3, 2006), Reuters and Caucasus Press reported. Georgian Finance Minister Aleksi Aleksishvili too said on November 3 that the price hike will not have "a devastating impact" on Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. In a November 3 statement, the EU urged Russia to open talks with Georgia on the proposed gas-price increase, saying that the need to charge market prices must be coordinated with the purchaser, Caucasus Press reported. U.S. State Department official Sean McCormack similarly called on Russia to behave as "a reliable partner" and seek a mutually acceptable agreement with Georgia on the optimum gas price. LF

Speaking on November 3 in Monaco, where he was attending an international security conference, President Saakashvili said Georgia will not attempt to veto Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) as doing so would be "insane," Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported. Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili hinted on November 2 that Georgia might seek to sabotage that bid in retaliation for the gas price increase. In an allusion to Tbilisi's ongoing campaign to force the closure of Russian banks suspected of engaging in money laundering in Abkhazia, Saakashvili added that unnamed Russian banks operate "illegally" on unspecified Georgian territories (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 20, June 3, and December 19, 2005, and February 28, 2006). LF

Ambassador Jean Arnault, who is the special representative of the UN secretary-general for Georgia, met in Sukhum(i) on November 3 with Sergei Bagapsh and Sergei Shamba, who are president and foreign minister, respectively, of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, Caucasus Press reported. After that meeting, Arnault called for a resumption of talks between the two sides on resolving the Abkhaz conflict; Abkhazia walked out of those talks following a Georgian military operation in late July in the Kodori Gorge (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 2, 2006). Shamba for his part again said a resumption of talks is contingent on the withdrawal of the Georgian forces deployed to Kodori in July. As during a September 10 meeting with Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze mediated by Arnault, Shamba stressed that the April 1994 UN-sponsored agreement designates Kodori a demilitarized zone. Saakashvili for his part said in Monaco on November 3 that Georgia is ready to resume talks with Abkhazia without any preconditions, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Speaking on November 4 in Tskhinvali, capital of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, Taymuraz Mamsurov defended the right to self-determination of that republic's population, reported. He slammed unnamed "irresponsible" international politicians and "experts" who, he alleged, argue that no "civilized nation" has the right to challenge such principles as the inviolability of existing frontiers, including those between the former Soviet republics. Mamsurov further described the November 12 referendum on independence for South Ossetia as a "serious step" towards uniting South and North Ossetia. On November 5, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity presented Mamsurov with a passport of the Republic of South Ossetia. Between mid-August and late October, a total of 65,000 such passports have been distributed to residents of South Ossetia and to former residents of that republic now living in North Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported on November 6, citing the South Ossetian Foreign Ministry. LF

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev removed acting Interior Minister Osmanali Guronov from office on November 6, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The head of the presidential administration, Myktybek Abdyldaev, appeared before protesters picketing government headquarters in Bishkek and read out a presidential decree putting Guronov's deputy, Omurbek Subanaliev, temporarily in charge of the ministry. The reasons for the reshuffle were not immediately clear. Addressing the demonstrators in turn, Subanaliev pledged that force will not be used against them. He also promised to sack Bishkek police chief Moldomusa Kongantiev, the brother of Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev. Moldomusa Kongantiev's removal was one of the demands of the opposition, who also want his brother removed. Also on November 6, Bakiev reportedly agreed to let his opponents broadcast their grievances live on state television. The opposition secured a similar pledge from the authorities last week, but the deal was not implemented, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. JCP

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported that at least 10,000 protesters have gathered on November 6 in front of the building that hosts the government and the presidential administration in Bishkek. They are demanding that President Bakiev implement long-awaited constitutional and other reforms, or step down. The demonstrators are calling upon police officers on guard near the building to join them. The number of protesters swelled after Bakiev earlier the same day submitted to parliament his own proposals to amend the constitution. Bakiev's aides say the proposals aim at giving the legislature more powers, but the opposition accused the head of state of "cheating." JCP

Feliks Kulov on November 3 made public some parts of a transcript from a recording of opposition leaders purportedly planning to seize strategic facilities in an apparent coup attempt, Kyrgyz television reported. Kulov appealed on November 3 to the Prosecutor-General's Office to provide a legal assessment of the tape but later withdrew his request, Kabar reported on November 5. Nevertheless, Prosecutor-General Kongantiev said on November 5 that a criminal case has been opened and transferred to the National Security Service (SNB) for investigation. Deputy SNB head Elmur Satybaldiev told a news conference on November 4 that an inquiry would be held to "clarify some issues," stressing that "the special services are not going to imprison anybody," Interfax reported. A full transcript of the recording presented by Kulov is available on at: . DK

Melis Eshimkanov, an opposition member of parliament and a leader in the For Reforms movement, provided apparent confirmation of the tape recording's authenticity in an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on November 3. "We don't disavow our words," he said. "We were discussing the situation today, what we're going to do today, what we're going to do tomorrow." Commenting on Kulov's decision to publicize the recording, Eshimkanov said that Kulov "has burnt his last bridges with us." Omurbek Tekebaev, former speaker of parliament and a leader in For Reforms, said that the opposition meeting featured in the recording took place in his office, Interfax reported. But Tekebaev said that "several words and actions, which had not in fact been said or discussed, had been inserted into the said audio recording." DK

During his visit to the Kyrgyz capital on November 4, Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for talks between Kyrgyz authorities and the opposition, ITAR-TASS reported. Steinmeier met with President Bakiev and Prime Minister Kulov; he also visited protesters' tents and met with opposition leader Tekebaev. Although the ongoing protests overshadowed Steinmeier's visit, he also discussed EU-Kyrgyz cooperation as well. Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov told reporters, "Kyrgyzstan attaches great importance to deepening and expanding cooperation with Germany, which is one of the main partners in Europe," Kabar reported. For his part, Steinmeier commented, "The necessity of an EU initiative for Central Asia has never been so clear to me as after this visit," Reuters reported. Bishkek was the last stop in Steinmeier's tour of all five Central Asian countries. DK

A small group of people representing the wing of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan led by the imprisoned Mahmadruzi Iskandarov attempted to gather outside the Justice Ministry in Dushanbe on November 4, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. The protesters condemned a Justice Ministry decision to recognize another wing of the party, led by Masud Sobirov. A source in the opposition wing of the Democratic Party later told Avesta that the organizers of the demonstration were detained, although it was not clear whether charges have been filed against them. DK

German Foreign Minister Steinmeier met with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on November 3 to discuss German-Tajik cooperation, Tajik television reported. Steinmeier praised Tajikistan's contribution to preserving regional security, while Rakhmonov urged increased economic cooperation in the energy and transportation spheres. After the meeting, Steinmeier told journalists that Germany and Tajikistan share views on a number of foreign-policy issues, Avesta reported. He said, "We are concerned about the situation with regard to Iran's nuclear program. Moreover, both we and you are trying together to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, and this is all in your and our interests." DK

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov dismissed Orazberdi Soltanov as head of the State Border Service on November 2 for excessive drinking, Turkmen television reported. Soltanov was transferred to an unspecified position in the Railroad Ministry, reported. Bairam Alovov was appointed to replace Soltanov. DK

Nursultan Nazarbaev made an unscheduled visit to Tashkent on November 3 to meet with Uzbek President Islam Karimov for talks on bilateral cooperation and the situation in the region, news agencies reported. Karimov told a news conference that the meeting indicated heightened cooperation, Kazinform reported. Nazarbaev commented, "I must say that today there are no unresolved issues or problems between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan," Uzbek radio reported. The independent Uzbek site reported on November 3 that the actual purpose of Nazarbaev's visit to Uzbekistan was to coordinate policy with his Uzbek colleague in the event of any destabilization in Kyrgyzstan. DK

Russian Ambassador to Belarus Aleksandr Surikov told journalists in Minsk on November 3 that Russia may rise its gas price for Belarus fourfold in 2007 unless it obtains some degree of control of Beltranshaz, Belarus's gas-pipeline operator, Russian and international news agencies reported. "Russia has reached a decision on mutually beneficial cooperation between countries, including CIS countries, and has designated the price of gas for its partners. This is $200 [for 1,000 cubic meters] for Belarus, $217 for Lithuania, and a little more for Western Europe due to transit," Surikov said. "I'm not ruling out that the price for Belarus will be not $200 but $140, taking customs duties into consideration," he added. Surikov hinted that the gas price for Belarus could be reduced if Minsk decided to sell a 50 percent stake in Beltranshaz to Gazprom. The Netherlands' ABN AMRO bank is reportedly to conclude appraising Beltransgaz's assets later this month. Belarus currently pays $47 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas. JM

Ambassador Surikov also told journalists in Minsk on November 3 that Russia may cut oil supplies to Belarus if the two sides fail to agree to unify duties on oil products refined at Belarusian refineries from Russian crude oil, Russian and international news agencies reported. Surikov said Russia wants Belarus to raise the duties for refined oil exports to the Russian level of $180 per ton from the current $57. Moscow also wants Belarus to transfer up to 85 percent of the amount raised from the new oil products duties to the Russian state budget. Belarus contracted 19.75 million tons of Russian crude oil for 2006 and wants to receive 21.5 million tons in 2007. JM

Volodymyr Shcherban, former governor of Sumy Oblast, was deported from the United States to Ukraine on November 4, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Ukrainian prosecutors issued an international arrest warrant for Shcherban in 2005, charging him with vote fraud, extortion, and abuse of office. Scherban was detained in Florida in October 2005 on charges of being in the United States illegally. Scherban was not taken into custody after returning to Kyiv because several deputies from the ruling coalition signed a pledge that he will show for interrogation whenever prosecutors summon him. Shcherban has vowed to return to politics. "I think I will not disappear because my colleagues and friends are in power now. Therefore I think that they will find a place for me as well," he said in a television interview on November 4. Among his friends Shcherban named Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and financial mogul Rynat Akhmetov from the ruling Party of Regions. JM

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica criticized Montenegro on November 4 for what he called Podgorica's failure to honor Serbia's sovereignty after Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku visited Montenegro on November 3, B92 and Beta reported. Kostunica objected specifically to Montenegrin comments made to Ceku that referred to Kosova as Montenegro's neighbor. He said those comments damaged Serbia's sovereignty and territorial integrity "in a most direct way." "In her entire history, Montenegro was never Serbia's enemy. And since it came into existence, Serbia has never done any wrong to Montenegro," he said. BW

Responding to Kostunica's comments, Kosovar government spokeswoman Ulpiana Lama said Belgrade has no right to interfere in neighboring countries' policies toward the breakaway province, B92 reported on November 5. The Prishtina daily "Koha ditore" quoted Lama as saying that Serbia's policies need to change. "Serbia must change its policies and accept the new reality in the Balkans, as other states have done," she said. BW

In an interview with the Croatian daily "Vjesnik," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that a decision on Kosova's final status could be delayed until next year, B92 reported on November 5. "A proposal on Kosovo must be presented at the right time, that's the key. So we may not stick to the deadlines we had originally planned," Annan said. "Considering the referendum, and the fact that they want elections in Serbia, we have to be cautious." Annan also said UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari "has to be cautious so that the issue of the final status of Kosovo is not used for preelectoral purposes." Serbia is expected to hold elections in December and has urged a delay in the Kosova status decision until after the vote. BW

Kosova is planning to open diplomatic missions in Brussels and Washington, dpa reported on November 4, citing a report in the Prishtina daily "Koha ditore." According to that report, the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) has given approval for the province to open the missions. The UNMIK's approval, however, is unrelated to a decision on Kosova's final status, "Koha ditore" reported. In addition to a mission to the EU in Brussels, Kosova is also seeking to open diplomatic missions in several European countries, including Germany and Austria, dpa reported. BW

In separate trials on November 3, a court in Sarajevo sentenced two Bosnian Serbs to a total of 38 years in prison for war crimes, UPI reported the same day. The court sentenced Marko Samardzija to 26 years in prison for crimes against humanity, including the torture and killing of Bosnian Muslims in 1992. Samardzija, who was the commander of a Bosnian Serb unit in the 1992-95 war, was charged with participating in crimes in the area of the western Bosnian town of Kljuc. The court also sentenced Nikola Kovacevic, a member of Bosnian Serb forces operating in western Bosnia during the war, to 12 years in prison for transporting non-Serbs to concentration camps in the Sanski Most area, west of Banja Luka. He was also convicted of torturing prisoners in 1992. BW

Police in Bosnia-Herzegovina announced on November 4 that they have detained a suspect in an attack last month on a mosque near Mostar, dpa reported the same day. On October 10, a 60-millimeter grenade struck a mosque in Jesenice, a western suburb of Mostar. The attack coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2006). The suspect, arrested with the cooperation of Croatian police, is Bosnian Croat Josip Grbesic, dpa reported, citing unidentified police sources. He has confessed to the crime. BW

In a report released on November 3, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said that Albania still needs to make improvements in its judicial system, AP reported the same day. Specifically, the report said Albania must improve access to lawyers for criminal suspects and encourage a robust appeals process. The 246-page OSCE report said legal guidelines are often violated in Albania, creating the "impression of a justice system that is neither fair, nor independent." Describing corruption as a major problem, the report said employees of the criminal justice system need to receive fair salaries and benefits to "immunize" them against corruption. "Few concrete measures have as of yet been taken to tackle corruption within the justice system," the report said. It also said suspects are not informed of their rights, are regularly abused by police, and do not have timely access to lawyers. BW

Igor Smirnov, the president of the breakaway province of Transdniester, announced on November 3 that he will seek a fourth term, AP reported the same day. Smirnov has ruled Transdniester since 1991, when it declared independence from Moldova. He said he "trusts the people's will." AP quoted Piotr Denisenko, the head of Transdniester's Central Election Commission, as saying that Smirnov's candidacy met all the legal requirements, and that his name will be on the ballot for the December 10 election. Smirnov was elected president in 1991, 1996, and 2001. Transdniester has no presidential-term limit. BW

In the new book by nationalist writer Aleksandr Prokhanov, a dynamic Russian leader known as the "Emperor of the Polar Star" comes to power after winning a war against proud mountain-dwellers in the Caucasus.

The book is a collection of essays calling on Russia's elite, liberals, and patriots alike, to unite to construct a new Eurasian empire -- a successor to the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia. Prokhanov's book, which he says is the most important in his life, has reportedly been translated into English, Chinese, Hebrew, Ukrainian, and Latvian.

"One can see signs of emerging empire almost everywhere," Prokhanov writes. "In events such as the building of new types of ships and submarines...launching the new 'Bulova' missile...or the construction of the North European Gas Pipeline."

The author is ebullient about Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom: "It gathers together Russia, by merging companies, connecting pipelines, extending its steel tentacles to the terminals of St. Petersburg and Nakhodka, laying [new pipeline] tracks at the bottom of the Baltic Sea and to China and stitching together the tissue of the former Soviet republics."

The book is likely to sell well. Prokhanov's previous best-selling novel, "Mr. Gexogen" (2002), was a thinly fictionalized account that maintains that the 1999 apartment-block explosions in Moscow and other cities, the renewal of fighting in Chechnya, and the election of Vladimir Putin as president were all the result of a conspiracy led by veterans of the KGB.

"Mr. Gexogen" won the prestigious National Bestseller Prize and Prokhanov, who had previously been a fringe nationalist figure largely ignored by the mainstream media, became a pundit on a number of national television channels and the Ekho Moskvy radio station.

Nikita Mikhalkov, an Oscar-winning filmmaker known for his pro-imperial and monarchist views, presided over the launch of Prokhanov's new book, "Symphony Of The Fifth Empire," on October 24. While the event was largely unreported by the mainstream media, it received prime-time coverage on the state-controlled Channel One and RTR television networks and in the semi-official "Rossiskaya gazeta."

Politicians from across the political spectrum attended the bash, including Leonid Gozman and Boris Nadezhdin from the liberal Union of Rightist Forces; former Deputy Prosecutor-General Aleksandr Kolesnikov from the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party; Vladimir Zhirnovsky, a co-leader of the national-patriotic Liberal Democratic Party of Russia; and Sergei Glazyev from the nationalist Motherland party.

Speaking at the event, Prokhanov, who also publishes the savage anti-Western weekly "Zavtra," said that he sees Russia's future as a new superstate, which he refers to as the "fifth empire." Russia's revival has already begun, he says, under Putin. "The first Russian empire was Kyivan Rus, the second was the Moscow Kingdom, the third was the St. Petersburg Empire of Romanovs, and now we are witnessing the emergence of the 'fifth empire.' It is still invisible but its inauguration has taken place," he said.

Prokhanov's ideas -- a combination of nostalgia, nationalism, and revanchism -- are nothing particularly new. Anatoly Chubais, then the leader of the Union of Rightist Forces, spoke in 2004 of a "liberal empire" based on energy resources.

In 2005, leftist writer Maxim Kalashnikov published his book "Forward To The USSR-2," in which he popularized an unrealized scenario for the reform of the Soviet Union that dates back to the early 1980s and which was attributed to then KGB Chairman Yury Andropov. According to this scenario, the Soviet Union should be transformed from a country with a clumsy socialist economy into a smart, aggressive, and strong-willed imperial state -- a kind of Red Star Inc.

And in 2006, a group of Russian monarchists linked to the state-security community anonymously published a widely circulated book, "Russian Project," in which they called for the restoration of the monarchy and the Russian imperial order.

But such ideas, which years ago might have seemed outlandish, are now gaining more currency among Russian elites.

Russia has accumulated a number of black marks in recent years for its dubious democratic credentials -- dubbed "sovereign democracy" by Kremlin ideologists. The suppression of mass media, restriction of NGO activities, and the abolition of gubernatorial elections have all alarmed critics in Russia and abroad.

But, of late, "sovereign democracy" has acquired more chauvinist overtones.

While the Kremlin cannot be accused of supporting Russia's growing neonationalism, Putin has certainly set the tone. The wave of anti-Georgian violence following a spy scandal in September was fuelled by the Kremlin's rhetoric. In October, the Russian president called on regional authorities to clean up markets and give more quotas to ethnic Russians instead of migrants.

Moreover, controversies around the unsolved killing of critical journalist Anna Politkovskaya took place in what art critic Aleksandr Panov told U.S.-based "Newsweek" is a "new climate of barbarism."

Add to that Russia's more confrontational foreign policy, driven by both a new sense of entitlement based on oil wealth and an old sense of historical injustice. In recent weeks, this has manifested in questionable behavior over the Sakhalin-2 gas production-sharing agreement, barring foreign investors from the Shtokman project in the Barents Sea, and refusing to ratify the European Union's Energy Charter.

At Prokhanov's book launch, journalists asked film director Mikhalkov, who is also the president of the Russian Cultural Foundation, whether Russia's political elite subscribes to an imperial ideology. With "the problems we are confronting today and those that may arise tomorrow, politicians will be forced to accept it," he said. "In the last 15 years we've been experimenting with the free market and other things and have decided that Russia is a crossroads, where political power is vertical and the economy is horizontal."

A fact-finding delegation comprising members of Afghanistan's parliament, the National Assembly, has determined that 66 civilians were killed and an undetermined number were injured during bombing campaigns by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kandahar Province in late October, Kabul-based Ariana Television reported on November 3. NATO has acknowledged the death of 12 civilians in bombings that it says left more than 50 militants dead. NATO's top military leader, U.S. General James Jones, has publicly apologized for the civilians' deaths (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30 and 31, 2006). Abdul Jabar Sholgari, the head of the delegation from the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council, the lower chamber of parliament), acknowledged that while "government opponents" were in the area when ISAF forces bombed targets in the Panjwai and Zaray districts, the preliminary results of his team's probe shows that "some 66 people, including women and children," were killed in the attacks. AT

Mullah Sayyed Mohammad, a member of the Afghan National Assembly's Meshrano Jirga (Council of Elders), has voiced his opposition to the possible withdrawal of ISAF forces from the Panjwai and Zaray districts of Kandahar, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported on November 5. Sayyed Mohammad said a number of residents in those districts have told a visiting parliamentary delegation that security would improve if ISAF forces left the districts. However, the delegation had "talks with elders and provincial-council members" in Kandahar who said the plan calling for ISAF to withdraw from Panjwai and Zaray has been "developed by the enemies of Afghanistan and the Taliban," Sayyed Mohammad said. British forces serving with ISAF pulled out of the Musa Qala district in neighboring Helmand Province last month in an arrangement with locals, a move that the neo-Taliban has hailed as a victory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2006). AT

The governor of Kapisa Province, Abdul Satar Morad, told a news conference on November 4 that the Nejrab and Tagab districts in his province have been cleared of terrorists, the official Afghanistan National Television reported. The districts, which have been the scene of heavy violence and destruction, were reportedly cleared of the Taliban after a joint military operation by Afghan and coalition forces that began on November 2 and ended two days later. "We did not want civilians to be harmed, and fortunately the [number of] casualties among innocent people is very low," Morad said, although he did not provide any numbers. According to the report, 70 insurgents are said to have been arrested in the operation and dozens of others killed, including three Taliban commanders: Mawlawi Mohammadullah, known as Hajji Mawlawi; Khairullah Nezami; and Qari Zemarai. Kapisa is not usually associated with neo-Taliban activity. AT

Italian Justice Under Secretary Alberto Maritati said on November 4 that no ransom was paid for the release of Italian photojournalist Gabriele Torsello but "something was paid to the local population," Milan's "Corriere della Sera" reported on November 5. Torsello was kidnapped in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan on October 15 and released on November 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16 and 25, 2006). Maritati said that the population in Helmand "really do need" charity contributions. It remains unclear who abducted Torsello. The neo-Taliban denied any involvement in his abduction and called for his release. AT

Akbar Karami, a political analyst in Qom, told Radio Farda on November 5 that the Guardians Council interprets its power of approbatory supervision as a political filter that allow only clerics who are compatible with it to compete in elections. Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai announced on November 4 that 204 of the almost 500 prospective candidates for the December 15 Assembly of Experts election have been invited for examinations on their ability to interpret religious law, state radio reported. Thirty-seven people refused to be examined, and two women took the exam. Kadkhodai said incumbent Majid Ansari's qualifications could not be confirmed, but Ansari refused to participate in the exam. An anonymous "informed source" told Fars News Agency on November 5 that Ansari's candidacy will be approved nevertheless. Fars added that several incumbents -- including Urumiyeh's Gholam Reza Hassani; the reformist Hadi Khamenei, who is the supreme leader's brother; and several highly experienced seminarians who were invited for the exam -- withdrew their candidacies. Exam results will be announced on November 13, and Assembly of Experts candidates will have three days to appeal. The Guardians Council will assess the appeals over a 20-day period. BS

Mohammad Abbasi won parliamentary approval as the new cooperatives minister on November 5, news agencies reported. Officially, 245 of the 251 legislators at the session voted; there were 155 votes in Abbasi's favor, 70 against him, and 20 abstentions. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad nominated Abbasi, a parliamentarian, on October 29. BS

Inspectors from the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited Iranian nuclear facilities at Natanz and Isfahan on November 5, IRNA reported. On the same day in Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said the next secretary-general of the UN, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, should resolve the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, IRNA reported. Ban should head off some countries' interference in the process, Husseini added. Russia and China are interfering by trying to remove references to military action from the UN Security Council resolution that is being discussed in New York, "The Washington Post" reported on November 5. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom reportedly back China and Russia. Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said elimination of the military option greatly reduces the resolution's credibility. Ban takes office at the UN on January 1. BS

The anniversary of the November 4, 1979, seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by militants and their holding of U.S. diplomats as hostages for 444 days was commemorated in Iran over the weekend. Reflecting on the incident, Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization Secretary-General Mohammad Salamati said on November 5 that the action was appropriate at the time because the revolution's survival was at stake, "Aftab" reported. Circumstances have changed, he continued, and in the interest of regional stability and security, and in light of the controversy over Iran's nuclear program, now it is possible to hold talks with the United States. A former hostage taker, Massumeh Ebtekar, said her colleagues thought the incident would end quickly because the revolutionary government would oppose it, "Etemad" reported on November 4. Popular support and the backing of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led to the incident's duration. Another student leader, Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, said current President Mahmud Ahmadinejad preferred attacking the Soviet Embassy at the time, "The New York Times" reported on November 5. Asgharzadeh said he is willing to meet now with former President Jimmy Carter and apologize for the hostage crisis if that would reduce Iran-U.S. tensions. BS

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said on November 5 that Iran is willing to consider direct talks with the United States regarding Iraqi affairs, "If we receive an official request," state television reported. Washington made this request in October 2005, and Tehran agreed to hold such talks in March 2006. Tehran subsequently ruled out taking part in such talks. BS

The death sentence announced on November 5 for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been welcomed in Iran. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini described this as the minimum penalty, IRNA reported. Speaking at his weekly press briefing, Husseini said the Iraqi dictator's other crimes, including the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, should not be forgotten. Iranian state radio interviewed members of the public in Tehran, and one woman said she felt "happiness" about the death sentence. She added: "He should not be killed only once. They should really torture him." A man said, "I hope they will drag the leaders of America and Britain to the same court." A third man said, "The interesting point is that he is being executed by the very people who once supported him against the Iranian people." BS

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and two of his co-defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging on November 5 for their roles in the killing of 148 Shi'a from the town of Al-Dujayl in 1982, international media reported the same day. As presiding Judge Ra'uf Rashid Abd al-Rahman handed down the judgment, Hussein, dressed in a dark suit and holding a Koran, shouted "Allahu Akbar!" (God is Great) and "Long live Iraq! Long live the Iraqi people! Down with the traitors!" Also sentenced to death were Hussein's half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikrit, and Awad Hamad al-Bandar, the chief judge of the Revolutionary Court under Hussein. Former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan was sentenced to life in prison. Three other senior Ba'ath Party officials were sentenced to 15 years in prison, and one former party official was acquitted for lack of evidence. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hailed the sentence, saying in a televised address, "The verdict issued against the head of the defunct regime does not represent a verdict against an individual but against a dark era unparallel in the history of Iraq." Security in Baghdad and central Iraq was heightened, and all military leave for Iraqi forces was cancelled in anticipation of any violence that the sentencing might generate. SS

Iraqi Shi'a hailed the death sentence handed down to former President Hussein. Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), congratulated Iraqis on the sentence, Al-Furat television reported on November 5. "The day that all of us have long awaited has come with the passing of the sentence on criminal tyrant Saddam and his followers for the heinous crimes they committed against the Iraqis." Khalid al-Atiyah, the Shi'ite deputy parliament speaker, welcomed the sentence and also said it was a long time coming, the BBC reported. "We expected the maximum penalty against the criminal Saddam Hussein and his henchmen because they committed horrible crimes against the Iraqi people, the Arabs, Muslims, and the entire international community," he said. Iraqis burned pictures of Hussein and celebratory gunfire erupted in the predominantly Shi'ite south, AP reported. SS

Moments before the sentence was read, the leader of the Sunni Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, Salih al-Mutlaq, told Al-Jazeera satellite television that the trial was politicized and should be scrapped. "It is clear to the whole world, to the Iraqi people, and to the political forces that this court is 100 percent politicized," he said. The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political party, said that there is little difference between the Hussein regime and the current Iraqi government, Baghdad satellite television reported on November 5. "Iraqis have the right to wonder if the new regime has shown a better example than the old one. Are the crimes committed by the former regime not committed today?" the party said in a statement. In Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, dozens of men carried his portrait and chanted "Saddam, Saddam! I give my life and blood for you, Saddam!" Reuters reported. SS

The Iraqi Interior Ministry announced on November 5 that it has ordered the closure of the Al-Zawra and Salah al-Din satellite television stations for broadcasting programs suspected of inciting violence after Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Khalaf told Reuters that the stations were giving a platform to people who were making threats of violence. "They are hosting people who are talking about something that is completely distinct from politics, calling for violence and killing," he said. Khalaf indicated that Iraqi security forces were sent to impose the closure orders, but both stations continued to broadcast. The Baghdad-based Al-Zawra was airing music videos at 5:30 p.m. and Salah al-Din, based in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, was showing historical programs. SS

The Iraqi Interior Ministry announced on November 4 that police killed 53 Al-Qaeda militants in a violent gun battle in the Baghdad suburb of Al-Tuwaythah, AFP reported the same day. Interior Ministry spokesman Khalaf said that intelligence reports indicated that Al-Qaeda elements were endangering the security of the region. "The national police had a severe fight with them [Al-Qaeda] and as a result of these clashes, they killed 53 terrorists, arrested 16, burned 40 cars, and seized many weapons," he said. SS