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Newsline - November 8, 2006

The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Transparency International said in its annual "Corruption Perceptions Index" on November 6 that Russia placed in the group from 121st to 129th, alongside Benin, Gambia, Guiana, Honduras, Nepal, the Philippines, Rwanda, and Swaziland, the daily "Novye izvestia" reported on November 7. Yelena Panfilova of the NGO's Russian branch said that the administration of President Vladimir Putin talks tough about fighting corruption but does very little in practice. She argued that "the experience of other countries teaches us that corruption is lowest where there is political competition and independent media, where government is transparent, where the state doesn't interfere with free enterprise, and where there is civil society." She added that "in Russia, on the other hand, political competition is nonexistent, officials arrange business tenders to suit themselves, nobody wants to do investigative journalism since the [recent] murder of Anna Politkovskaya, while civil-society organizations have to spend all their time communicating with the Justice Ministry and have neither time nor strength to fight corruption." According to Panfilova, corruption scandals only come to light on the eve of elections "when clans within the establishment are at each other's throats." PM

The daily "Novye izvestia" wrote on November 7 that Russian experts agree with the conclusions drawn by Transparency International on levels of corruption in Russia. Georgy Satarov, head of the InDem Foundation, argued that "corruption levels in Russia are extreme, but the authorities do not care." Mikhail Grishankov, who heads the State Duma's Anticorruption Commission, agreed that corruption is indeed a problem and blamed the government. But he questioned some of the specifics cited in the Transparency International report, saying that it is " biased and based on emotions." The World Bank said in a report released on September 15 that Russia ranks 151st among 208 countries in terms of accountability, political stability, effectiveness of the government, the quality of regulatory bodies, the rule of law, and control over corruption, which places it on a level between Swaziland and Niger. Aleksandr Buksman, who is federal first deputy prosecutor-general, was quoted in the state-run daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" of November 7 as saying that corruption costs Russia about $240 billion per year, which is roughly equivalent to the revenues for the state budget (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, and November 7, 2006). PM

Andrei Nikiforov, who is a Russian diplomat at the UN in New York, said on November 7 that his delegation has introduced a draft resolution in the General Assembly condemning xenophobia and racism, and ITAR-TASS reported. He argued that the tendencies in some unnamed countries to "glorify" the Waffen SS and declare the anniversary dates of their liberation from Nazism to be national days of mourning instead are "absolutely incompatible with the obligations assumed" by those states as UN members. He also criticized unspecified recent moves to dismantle monuments to honor the Red Army as liberators of those countries at the end of World War II. Nikiforov declined to name any specific states against which the resolution might be directed, but Russian news agencies suggested that he had Estonia and Latvia in mind. He also criticized other unnamed countries "that had been members of the anti-Hitler coalition" for expressing reservations about Russia's latest UN resolution. Critics from the Baltic states charged that the resolution is self-serving and hypocritical, given the rise of nationalism and xenophobia within Russia itself (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2008). Those critics also suggested that the draft is the latest in a series of moves by Moscow to split the EU by indirectly calling on its older members to "discipline" the newer ones (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 29, and October 18, 20, and 23, 2006). PM

Polish President Lech Kaczynski said in London on November 7 that his country has much experience in dealing with Moscow and knows that Russia does not always "play straight," Britain's "The Independent" reported on November 8. He warned that upcoming EU energy talks with Russia could be difficult. Kaczynski argued that "finding a common set of values [with Russia] will not be simple, but we must proceed from the facts. One should talk to Russia [in a way] that is firm, resolved, and strong" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20, 23, 30, and 31, and November 3, 2006). PM

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was quoted in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of November 8 as saying that Latvia is not dependent on Russia because it is exercising its freedom of choice and is diversifying its sources of energy and raw materials. She argued that it would be "surely stupid" of the EU to let Russia have access to European energy markets while Moscow practices protectionism. She noted that "there is much Russian money" looking for investments in free foreign markets, but argued that other countries can nonetheless protect their interests by constantly seeking alternatives and not letting themselves be "blackmailed." Vike-Freiberga believes that, after the Ukrainian gas crisis of January 2006 and the recent Russian blockade of Georgia, "Europe has come to understand that it is vulnerable when it is completely dependent [on Russia] in energy matters." She also made it clear that Latvia still objects to the proposed Russo-German North European Gas Pipeline (NEPG) on the grounds that the project ignores the other six countries located on the Baltic Sea and their wishes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30 and November 3, 2006). Vike-Freiberga noted nonetheless that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in contrast to her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, believes in dialogue with Germany's Baltic neighbors and will keep them informed of Germany's intentions. Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and Lithuanian legislators have repeatedly warned that Russia uses its energy resources to pressure and "blackmail" its neighbors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2006). PM

Prosecutors recently warned the editors of the Oryol daily "Orlovskiye novosti" that they will face legal measures if they again publish a computer-made image "expressing disrespect toward the president of the Russian Federation," the British daily "The Guardian" reported on November 8. The offending image was submitted by a reader and shows the pro-Kremlin governor of the oblast, Yegor Stroyev, as looking askance at President Putin while holding two fingers up behind the president's head. Tatyana Kuzmina, who is acting editor of the Oryol daily and was summoned to the local prosecutor's office to receive the warning, said that the image was simply a "friendly jest." She argued that "this [case] shows you how the press in Russia is being steamrollered and strangled." A spokesman for Stroyev refused to comment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 22 and October 20, 2006). PM

The International Monetary Fund and the Control Risks Group have argued in two separate new studies that Russian economic growth has reached its limits under current conditions and is running on its own momentum, the daily "Kommersant" wrote on November 8. Current growth has been due largely to the modernization of older factories, but institutional reforms, as well as further investment, will be necessary for further growth. For this reason, the Control Risks Group concludes that Russia could now face up to four years of stagnation. PM

Speaking on November 7 at a roundtable discussion in Moscow convened by Institute for Political Research head Sergei Markov, Umar Dzhabrailov, who represents Chechnya on the Federation Council, argued that Alu Alkhanov should demonstrate the necessary "courage" and resign as pro-Moscow Chechen administration head to enable Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov to succeed him in that post, Interfax and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on November 7 and 8, respectively. Dzhabrailov noted that Kadyrov recently turned 30, the minimum age for the post, and he added that last week's Assembly of Peoples of Chechnya underscored the popular desire to see Kadyrov as republic head (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6 and November 1, 2006). "Nezavisimaya gazeta" commented that roundtable participants failed either to endorse or to take issue with Dzhabrailov's proposal. The paper failed to reach Alkhanov for comment, reporting that he, together with presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak, were airborne on November 7 en route for China to attend a Russian trade fair. LF

A session in late October of the Regional Operational Headquarters for the Antiterrorism Operation in Chechnya ruled that the Gorets (Mountaineer) detachment formerly headed by Movladi Baysarov should be disbanded and its members incorporated into various Interior Ministry units, according to as reposted on November 7 by Until February 2006, when Prime Minister Kadyrov first ordered its members to disband, Gorets was subordinate to the Federal Security Service (FSB). Its members refused to comply with Kadyrov's order, and have been under virtual siege for months in their base in the village of Tolstoi-Yurt on the northern outskirts of Grozny. The Chechen resistance website claimed on September 25 that Baysarov has aligned himself with Kadyrov's nominal superior and rival, Alkhanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2006). LF

Several Armenian opposition politicians who participated in a November 7 discussion in Yerevan convened by the National Press Club expressed concern at the anticipated impact of the transfer to Russian ownership of strategic economic facilities, including a stake in the natural-gas-distribution network and possibly also the gas pipeline from Iran, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. But Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told the Armenian parliament the same day that as Russia is Armenia's "strategic partner," Russian participation in the Armenian economy should not be hindered, Noyan Tapan reported on November 8. Oskanian said he does not foresee any danger from Russian engagement in the Armenian economy, at least over the next five years. LF

Speaking to journalists in Yerevan on November 7, Andranik Markarian ruled out the possibility that receipt of the first tranche of funds allocated under the U.S. Millennium Challenge program could be delayed, Noyan Tapan reported. The U.S. human rights watchdog Freedom House released a statement last week calling on the U.S. government to withhold funds allocated earlier this year for development projects in Armenia and six other countries within the framework of the Millennium Challenge Program. In a statement posted on its website (, Freedom House said the Armenian government has "failed in its improve its institutional commitment to democracy and tolerance of opposition" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 6, 2006). In March 2006, 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

Responding to an appeal by 27 opposition lawmakers, Armenia's Constitutional Court ruled on November 7 that an election law amendment enacted in 2005 that permits judges to serve on election commissions is unconstitutional, and could lead to conflicts of interest in cases where judges are called on to rule on the disputed decisions by such commissions, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The amendment empowered the Cassation Court to nominate two of the nine members of the Central Election Commission, and designated 84 of Armenia's 154 judges (not including those serving on the Economic Court) as eligible to serve on election commissions at all levels. LF

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed a memorandum in Brussels on November 7 on energy cooperation between Azerbaijan and the EU, reported on November 8. Details of that memorandum were not divulged, but Aliyev told journalists that his country seeks alternative export routes for its oil and gas. He specifically expressed support for the proposal to extend the existing Odesa-Brody pipeline to Plock in order to transport Azerbaijani crude to Poland for refining. The Ukrainian leadership is undecided whether to extend the pipeline to Plock or to continue to use it in reverse mode to import crude from Russia. Aliyev also held talks in Brussels with European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso and with EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, both of whom raised concerns about Azerbaijan's less than stellar record on democratization and human rights. LF

Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry summoned four opposition journalists on November 7 and questioned them for some six hours about their encounter in Tbilisi last week with Teymuraz Aliyev, a Georgian citizen of Azerbaijani descent who is suspected of the murder in March 2005 of Elmar Huseynov, editor of the outspoken Azerbaijani weekly "Monitor," reported on November 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3 and 30, 2006). The four journalists, who include "Zerkalo" editor Kenan Guluzade, were quoted on November 5 by as saying that they met Aliyev by chance while attending an OSCE-sponsored conference on the media in Tbilisi on November 1-4. Also on November 7, President Aliyev said at his press conference in Brussels with European Commission President Barroso that Huseynov's murder was "a serious blow" to Azerbaijan's international prestige and showed that unnamed forces within Azerbaijan seek to undermine political security. LF

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli rejected on November 8 as "political blackmail" the proposal made the previous day by Gazprom head Aleksandr Medvedev that Georgia sell Gazprom a stake in its energy sector in return for a lower gas price than the $230 per 1,000 cubic meters that Gazprom named last week, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 3, 2006). Georgia currently pays $110 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas, and Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili condemned the proposed price hike last week as politically, rather than economically, motivated. Also on November 8, Georgian opposition Democratic Front parliamentary faction leader Zviad Dzidziguri warned that the opposition will seek to impeach Noghaideli in the event of an energy crisis brought about by a disruption in gas supplies, Caucasus Press reported. Dzidziguri pointed out that the Georgian leadership has had almost one year since the gas crisis in January 2006 to secure alternative supplies. LF

Emzar Kvitsiani, the former governor of the Kodori gorge whom Georgian forces failed to apprehend in a large-scale operation there in late July (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," August 3, 2006) pledged in a letter delivered on November 7 to the independent Georgian television channel Mze that he will avenge himself on the Georgian authorities for that operation, which he termed an insult to the Georgian people, Caucasus Press reported on November 8. Kvitsiani branded the Georgian leadership "fascists" and compared the July incursion into Kodori with Nazi Germany's attack on the USSR in June 1941. Georgian parliament deputies construed Kvitsiani's statement as further corroboration that he was, and still is, acting on orders from Moscow. Kvitsiani last week assumed responsibility for a rocket attack on a Georgian-populated village in Kodori during a visit there by Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 26, 2006). LF

Lieutenant General Anatoly Zaitsev, who is chief of general staff of the armed forces of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, told journalists in Sukhum(i) on November 7 that ongoing air force maneuvers do not pose a threat to civil aircraft, reported. Earlier on November 7, the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) released a statement expressing concern over the joint air force and air defense exercises and calling on the Abkhaz leadership "to desist from actions that could directly or indirectly pose any risk to the normal operation of civilian aircraft" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2006). LF

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Astana on November 7 to discuss bilateral relations, news agencies reported. Mubarak noted that Egypt is interested in importing grain from Kazakhstan but needs to resolve transportation issues, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Nazarbaev told a news conference that the two countries plan to create a commission to study the issue, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Mubarak said that Egypt and Kazakhstan agree on the need to revive the sputtering Middle East peace process, MENA reported. DK

Marat Sultanov, the speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, told a news conference in Bishkek on November 7 that opposition and pro-presidential lawmakers have agreed to vote on November 8 on a compromise constitution, news agency reported. The draft constitution envisions a 90-member parliament, with half of the deputies elected on party slates and half in single-mandate constituencies, reported. The current legislature has 75 deputies, all elected in single-mandate constituencies. Sultanov noted that the president's powers will be "curtailed" under the new constitution, adding that even a draft constitution proposed by the opposition For Reforms movement had given the president more power. The compromise appeared to end a standoff during which opposition lawmakers formed a constituent assembly on the night of November 6 in order to pass a new constitution, a move that was condemned by the government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2006). "If we adopt the new constitution in its entirety tomorrow [November 8], then, I suppose all of the demonstrations will end," opposition leader Azimbek Beknazarov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. DK

Pro-government and opposition demonstrators clashed in Bishkek on November 7, with at least three people suffering pellet wounds, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said that 17 police officers received injuries in the course of the clashes, reported. Varying reports put the number of opposition demonstrators at several thousand, with small numbers expressing support for President Kurmanbek Bakiev. More demonstrations are planned for November 8, with reporting that several thousand Bakiev supporters were heading for Bishkek from the country's south. DK

The websites news agencies and were once again accessible to Internet users outside of Kyrgyzstan on November 7, reported. The sites had been inaccessible since November 2 amid reports of intense attacks on their servers. DK

Observer missions from the OSCE and CIS Executive Committee offered sharply differing assessments of Tajikistan's November 6 presidential election on November 7, news agencies reported. In a November 7 press release, Kimmo Kiljunen, special coordinator of the OSCE short-term observer mission, said, "The lack of any serious campaign and credible alternatives undermined this election to a degree that it did not provide an adequate test of Tajikistan's commitment for democratic elections." Onno van der Wind, head of the OSCE long-term observer mission, commented, "While this election marks some progress, there was an insufficient framework for genuine democratic elections, which Tajikistan, as an OSCE participating state, is committed to do." The election saw incumbent President Imomali Rakhmonov reelected with over 75 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2006). DK

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has announced that Turkmenistan's Iolotan gas field contains reserves of 7 trillion cubic meters, or nearly twice as much as Russia's Shtokman field, AP reported on November 6. Aleksandr Ryazanov, deputy chairman of Russia's Gazprom, told "Kommersant" that Niyazov discussed the gas field with him. "We need to look at the documents proving [the reserves]," Ryazanov said. Niyazov previously said that Russia will be the first country to take part in gas production not on the Caspian shelf, but within Turkmenistan itself. But a source inside Gazprom told the newspaper that Turkmenistan has not yet presented any convincing audits of the supposed discovery. DK

"Kommersant" also noted on November 7 that during a recent meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 3, 2006), Niyazov proposed the construction of a gas pipeline along the shore of the Caspian Sea up through Kazakhstan with an annual throughput capacity of 30-40 billion cubic meters. The newspaper quoted Steinmeier as expressing support for the idea and vouching for the willingness of German companies to take part in its construction. DK

An appellate court in the Uzbek city of Jizzakh ruled on November 7 to release independent journalist Ulughbek Haydarov, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Elke Schafter, a representative of Reporters Without Borders, said that Haydarov's name was on a list of imprisoned Uzbek journalists whose cases German Foreign Minister Steinmeier had promised to raise during his November 1 visit to Uzbekistan, reported. Haydarov received a six-year sentence for extortion in early October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6, 2006). DK

Artur Finkevich, who was sentenced in May to two years of enforced labor for writing antipresidential graffiti (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2006), has been accepted as a student of the faculty of international relations at the Kyiv-based Institute of Slavic Studies, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on November 7, quoting Oleh Yatsenko, leader of the Ukrainian youth organization Student Brotherhood. Yatsenko told RFE/RL that the rector of the institute made an exception for Finkevich by allowing him to study under a special distance-learning program. "In connection with repressions in Belarus, activists of the Student Brotherhood decided to help the Belarusian students, who were expelled from universities or repressed in Belarus, in enrollment for free-of-charge studies in Ukraine. In this way we will uphold the democratic movement in the neighboring country," Yatsenko said. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko told journalists in Rivne on November 7 that the constitutional commission he created last month does not aim at reversing the constitutional reform adopted by the Ukrainian parliament in December 2004, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. Yushchenko was commenting on the announcement by lawmaker Petro Poroshenko the previous day that the pro-presidential Our Ukraine party will most likely initiate a reversal of the constitutional reform at its congress later this week. Lawmaker Yuriy Klochkovskyy, Yushchenko's representative in the Verkhovna Rada, said on November 8 that the need to annull the constitutional reform is the direct result of "authoritarian tendencies" manifested by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. "For a long time, the president thought that there is no sense in moving backward -- it is necessary to go forward and improve the constitution," Klochkovskyy said. "But let us be frank -- under the current political lineup no constructive change in the constitution will be supported. This means that there is only one way to salvage the situation -- to acknowledge that the changes to the constitution were made [in December 2004] unconstitutionally." JM

During a visit to Sarajevo on November 7, British Minister for Europe Geoff Hoon urged Bosnia-Herzegovina's leaders to speed up reforms to bring the country closer to NATO and the European Union, Reuters and dpa reported the same day. "We believe that this is now a matter of urgency," Hoon said, adding that the reform process was held up in 2006 by the long campaign for October's general elections. "Now we need to make up the lost time," he said. Hoon said Bosnia needs to strengthen the central government, which has been weakened by ethnic power-sharing provisions. "I hope that the package of constitutional reform agreed in March of this year will be adopted as soon as possible, forming a basis for further phases of reform," Hoon said, referring to an agreement by Bosnia's parties to strengthen the central government, but which later failed to be approved by parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006). BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina has ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, bringing to 136 the number of countries that have done so, AP reported on November 7, citing a statement the same day from the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization. According to the organization, Bosnia ratified the treaty on October 26. The treaty bans all nuclear explosions. It will not go into effect until it has been ratified by all 44 states that participated in a 1996 disarmament conference and have nuclear power or research reactors. So far, only 34 of the 44 countries have ratified the pact. Among the holdouts are the United States, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. BW

Serbian Defense Minister Zoran Stankovic said on November 7 that Belgrade expects to receive an invitation to join NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) program during the alliance's upcoming summit in Riga, Makfax and B92 reported the same day. Speaking at the seventh meeting of the Serbia-NATO Defense Reform Group in Belgrade, Stankovic stressed Serbia's commitment to integration into the Euro-Atlantic community. Frank Boland, NATO's director of force planning, said the alliance has not yet made a decision on whether to invite Serbia during the November 28-29 summit. One of the main obstacles, he said, is Serbia's inadequate cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY). "At this moment, Serbia is not doing enough in its cooperation with The Hague. However, the decision to call Serbia to join the PfP has still not been made and I do not know whether it will change by the time of the summit in Riga," Boland said, according to B92. BW

A Serbian students association has appealed to prosecutors to invoke an obscure law and declare war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic dead, B92 reported on November 7, citing the daily "Vecernje novosti." The Independent Association of Law University Students from Belgrade said that according to Serbia's extrajudicial-process law, it is possible to begin the procedure for declaring Mladic deceased. Article 57 of the law says a person can be proclaimed dead if he or she is at least 70 years old and no information about the individual has been available for at least five years. Critics, however, have pointed out that Mladic is only 64 years old and that information about him has in fact been available in the past five years. BW

In a report prepared for the European Commission, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn criticized Serbia's lack of cooperation with the ICTY and its obstructionism in Kosova, B92 and Beta reported on November 7. In the report, which is scheduled to be discussed on November 8, Rehn says Belgrade should be urged to stop discouraging Serbs from participating in Kosova's temporary political institutions. It is important, the report says, for "Serbia to take a constructive approach in accordance with the key priorities of European partnerships," noting that "Belgrade is discouraging the participation of the Kosovo Serbs in the temporary self-administrations" in the province. The report also welcomes Serbia's new constitution, but notes that "there is concern regarding several fields, especially regarding the independence of the courts." BW

Macedonia's opposition Social Democratic Union (SDSM) on November 6 elected former Deputy Prime Minister Radmila Sekerinska as the party's new leader, AP reported the same day. Sekerinkska was the only candidate put forward at an emergency SDSM conference to replace former party leader and Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski. "We are turning a new page," Sekerinska said after her election. The SDSM lost the July 5 parliamentary elections to current Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's conservative Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) by a landslide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7, 2006). After the election, Buckovski stepped down as SDSM head. BW

The anticorruption watchdog Transparency International has ranked Moldova the least corrupt country in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Mediapuls reported on November 7. According to the organization's 2006 "Corruption Perception Index," Moldova is ranked 79th out of 163 countries surveyed worldwide. In the CIS, Moldova is followed by Armenia in 93rd place; Georgia and Ukraine in 99th place; Kazakhstan in 111th; Russia in 121st; Azerbaijan in 130th; Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan in 142nd; and Belarus and Uzbekistan in 151st place. Moldova climbed 14 places from Transparency International's 2005 survey. Lilia Carsciuc, executive director of Transparency International in Moldova, attributed the rise to "improved measures taken against corruption." In October, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked Moldova's press as the most free in the CIS, although it ranked 89th worldwide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 26, 2006). BW

Iran's executive branch is undergoing a major shakeup in what could be an effort by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration to realign its economic policy. The president has replaced two cabinet ministers, others are facing parliamentary scrutiny, and a score of top officials have quit. But the tremors could also reflect officials' dissatisfaction with policy or presidential frustration over unmet goals.

Iranian lawmakers gave a vote of confidence on November 5 to Ahmadinejad's nominee for new cooperatives minister. Mohammad Abbasi, a legislator from Gorgan, is a former university chancellor (of a branch of the Islamic Azad University) and deputy governor-general for planning affairs in the northern Mazandaran Province. He holds a doctorate in strategic management, a degree often given to military personnel.

Abbasi told reporters that strengthening the cooperative-run business sector is an important step in the realization of the country's fifth five-year plan, which began in 2005.

Abbasi succeeds Mohammad Nazemi-Ardakani, who, the president said, will serve in another position. Nazemi-Ardakani was given the portfolio when the president's initial nominee failed to win approval. Nepotism may have a part in Nazemi-Ardakani's job security. He is related by marriage to Masud Zaribafan, secretary of the presidential cabinet and a Tehran municipal council member.

The same day that Abbasi was introduced to the legislature, October 29, lawmakers approved Abdul Reza Mesri as the new minister of welfare and social security. A parliamentary representative from the western Kermanshah Province, Mesri succeeded Parviz Kazemi.Ahmadinejad's first nominee for the Welfare Ministry portfolio failed to win approval when he came to power in 2005, and lawmakers criticized Kazemi's inexperience during the parliamentary debate preceeding his appointment. Kazemi had reportedly suggested in his curriculum vitae that he was "reluctant" to discuss his accomplishments, "Mardom Salari" reported on November 5, 2005.

An anonymous ministry official reportedly said when Kazemi resigned on September 25 that he was being replaced because he allowed subordinates to simultaneously hold leadership positions in businesses, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA). The source claimed Kazemi hired incompetent people and the ministry did not report on its activities satisfactorily.

There also were reports that Kazemi's resignation was connected with his failure to exercise sufficient control over the Social Security Organization. Indeed, that organization's chief, Davud Madadi, resigned some two weeks after Kazemi did. He blamed "present circumstances," and said "it is not possible for me to cooperate with the government," IRNA reported on October 8.

At the top tier of government, the appointments of Cooperatives Minister Abbasi and Welfare and Social Security Minister Mesri are only the most conspicuous changes.

Aftab news agency quoted an anonymous source on September 26 as saying the president has reviewed the performance over the past year of each cabinet member. The source claimed Ahmadinejad has warned Roads and Transport Minister Mohammad Rahmati and Commerce Minister Parviz Mir-Kazemi that they are in danger of being replaced. Aftab reported that the ministers facing dismissal have reformist tendencies or have failed to fulfill their promises to the president.

Other personnel changes have taken place below the cabinet level. About 20 mid-level officials, including deputy ministers, have either been forced to resign or have been dismissed, "Ayandeh-yi No" reported on October 17. These changes mostly affect the economy.

In the Management and Planning Organization, three deputy chiefs quit in mid-October -- Deputy Chief of Production Affairs Farhad Dezhpasand, Deputy Chief of Economic Affairs Ali Tayebnia, and Deputy Chief for Fundamental Affairs Mehdi Rahmati. Two other managers -- identified as Yarmand and Daryani -- were dismissed. There were other personnel changes within the Economy and Finance Ministry, the Petroleum Ministry, the Commerce Ministry, and at the central bank.

The president is not the only one who is unhappy with cabinet members' efforts. Parliamentarians have voiced dissatisfaction about some ministers, and acted accordingly. Lawmakers will question Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi, Energy Minister Seyyed Parviz Fattah, and Transport Minister Mohammad Rahmati in the coming week, Fars News Agency reported on October 28.

When Iranian media reported in mid-September that assessments of the ministers' performance had been prepared, legislator Said Abutaleb argued that those "evaluations must certainly lead to some changes in the cabinet," "Mardom Salari" reported on September 16. Abutaleb referred to the Welfare and Commerce ministries specifically, saying the legislature would like to dissolve the Commerce Ministry. He warned that if the president did not implement changes, then the parliament was ready to step in by questioning and giving no-confidence motions to the ministers.

But another legislator, Hussein Afarideh from Shirvan, called the prospective replacements worse than the sitting ministers, "Mardom Salari" reported on September 16.

Meanwhile, in early October, more than 50 legislators signed a petition for the interpellation of Agriculture Jihad Minister Mohammad Reza Eskandari.

One legislator, Dariush Qanbari, charged that Iranian "agriculture is on the verge of collapse," Mehr News Agency reported on October 9. He said "farmers' crops [were] piling up in storehouses" while the country imports fruit from Pakistan. Qanbari also questioned the announcement of self-sufficiency in wheat production when "at the same time we are importing 2 million tons of wheat every year." He described the Agriculture Jihad Ministry as the most inefficient and uncooperative of ministries.

But fundamentalist legislators blocked the interpellation motion.

In mid-October, signatures were being gathered for the interpellation of Education Minister Qodratullah. One legislator said there was "no doubt that the education minister has had a weak performance," but added that other cabinet members have also performed poorly and should face questioning, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on October 16.

Governmental obscurity and a censored media ensure that it will be some time before the real reasons for the ministerial resignations and dismissals emerge. But it appears that the presidential administration's grappling with difficult economic issues will continue to cause turmoil in the state apparatus -- particularly if the populist president persists in efforts to fulfill his campaign promises.

The possible imposition of economic sanctions by the UN Security Council stemming from the nuclear controversy could only add to Ahmadinejad's problems.

The Afghan government announced on November 6 that it is ready to hold talks with opposition groups, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported the following day. Government spokesman Mohammad Karim Rahimi told a news conference that the offer to hold talks with insurgent groups includes neither preconditions nor concessions to those groups. "If they join the government for the sake of peace and improving security in the region, we are ready to prepare the possible ground for them," Rahimi said. His remarks follow political talk on possible dialogue between the government and armed opposition groups, including Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Afghan President Hamid Karzai had previously invited Hekmatyar and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar to renounce violence and work together with his government in its reconstruction efforts. JC

Thousands of ethnic Pashtuns rallied against the Pakistani government in a northern Pakistani town near the Afghan border on November 7, Reuters reported. The protesters, both Pakistani Pashtuns and Afghan Pashtun refugees, accused the government of Pakistan of meddling in Afghan affairs by providing refuge to Taliban militants who continue to carry out attacks within Afghanistan, particularly in the southern regions near the Pakistani border. Afghan-Pakistani relations have endured serious strain over complaints that Taliban insurgents are operating from safe havens within Pakistan. In October, President Karzai asked two Pashtun Pakistani politicians, including the head of an Islamist group, for help to curtail the Taliban insurgency. Pakistan denies aiding the Taliban but accuses its rival India, which has close relations with Karzai, of stirring ethnic unrest in Pakistani areas on the Afghan border. JC

U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan troops captured a man they described as a "known Al-Qaeda terrorist" along with five other alleged extremists in an early morning raid on November 6, according to a coalition statement cited by AFP. The suspects reportedly included Saudi and Pakistani nationals. The raid, on a compound in the eastern city of Khost, also uncovered a stash of armor-piercing ammunition, grenades, AK-47 assault rifles, and camera equipment containing surveillance footage of nearby military installations. Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters are known to operate throughout Khost Province, which borders Pakistan. Counterterrorism operations launched by U.S. forces targeting Al-Qaeda compounds in Khost and other provinces have been stepped up since August, netting and killing dozens of suspected Al-Qaeda militants. JC

A coalition serviceman and an Afghan soldier have been killed in separate attacks blamed on neo-Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan, AFP reported on November 7. The coalition soldier, whose nationality has not been disclosed, was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his military convoy in Kandahar Province's restive Panjwayi district on November 6, according to NATO spokesman Captain Andre Salloum. The same day, an Afghan soldier was killed in a similar attack when an improvised explosive device (IED) struck his military patrol in the Gereshk area of neighboring Helmand Province, Salloum said. In both attacks, the vehicles were destroyed but there was no heavy fighting. More than 115 foreign troops have been killed in combat this year, about half of them U.S. soldiers. JC

Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), arrived in Tehran on November 7 and will stay until November 9, IRNA reported. Costa is scheduled to confer with Drug Control Headquarters chief Fada Hussein Maliki, police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi, Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, and Health Minister Kamran Baqeri-Lankarani, as well as judicial officials. He also will meet the Italian ambassador, envoys from Mini-Dublin Group countries (representatives from the missions of Dublin Group members -- the European Union, Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, and the United States), and the heads of other UN entities in Iran. In addition to signing some agreements, Costa is scheduled to visit eastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province, which is bedeviled by smugglers and insurgents. BS

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka headed home on November 7 after a two-day visit to Iran, IRNA reported. RFE/RL reported that the two sides signed eight agreements, some of which involved the oil sector and the car and tractor industries. IRNA described only a memorandum of understanding regarding expanded bilateral cooperation. Lukashenka also visited the tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic Revolution. BS

Members of the Norwegian legislature, the Storting, met on November 7 with the leader of an Iranian opposition group that the United States, Canada, and the EU regard as a terrorist organization, dpa reported. Mujahedin Khalq Organization leader Maryam Rajavi, the self-styled president-elect of Iran, told the Norwegians that the Iranian regime is a threat to "all humanity." The Norwegian Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to Iranian Ambassador Abdul Reza Faraji-Rad's threat on November 3 that a meeting with Rajavi would hurt Oslo-Tehran relations, "Aftenposten" reported on November 4. Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Raymond Johansen described the ambassador's action as "unacceptable." Johansen added: "The threat is that this meeting could be significant for our relations. Our present relations with Iran are not warm and friendly.... I cannot see that this has any significance at all." BS

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced on November 7 that Iran is among what it describes as enemies of the Internet. RSF said Internet filtering in Iran has increased over the last year, although repression of bloggers appears to have decreased, and Iran now claims to filter 10 million sites. Pornography, politics, and religion are the traditional targets, and women's rights is getting attention lately, RSF claimed. A recent ban on broadband connections could reflect a desire to prevent downloading of Western movies and music, RSF speculated. BS

Mohammad Ali Delaram, director-general of Khuzestan Province's Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, announced on November 7 that the border crossing with Iraq is open to those who would like to see the holy sites there, Ahvaz television reported. He said 114 people left the province that day to visit Karbala. The same day, Iranian Border Guards Commander Behnam Shariati-Far announced that Iraq has closed the Mehran border crossing for three days, Fars News Agency reported. He referred to a state of alert in Iraq following the death sentence passed on former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein the previous day. Shariati-Far said the Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization will be advised accordingly, and he speculated that the border will reopen next week. In related news, families of Iranians killed in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War have asked for representation at Hussein's hanging, ISNA reported. They said representatives of Iranian, Iraqi, Kurdish, and Kuwaiti families should put the rope around the ex-president's neck together. BS

Ali Faysal al-Lami, the director-general of the Iraqi De-Ba'athification Commission, on November 7 said plans have been drawn up to allow many ex-Ba'athists to return to their jobs, international media reported the same day. Al-Lami said the draft law will be presented to the Iraqi parliament and will allow for all but the top 1,500 former Ba'ath Party officials to return to work and obtain their pensions. "The law will allow Ba'athists to return to their offices, but not allow them the ideology of the banned Ba'ath Party. We consider those who insist on remaining in the Ba'ath Party to be terrorist elements," al-Lami was quoted by AFP as saying. Nusir al-Ani, a spokesman for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, said anyone without blood on their hands will be considered, the BBC reported. The announcement meets a long-standing demand by Sunni Arab leaders and comes days after the Iraqi Special Tribunal sentenced former President Saddam Hussein to death for crimes against humanity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 6, 2006). SS

The Iraqi Interior Ministry announced on November 7 that it has charged 57 members of the police force with torturing hundreds of detainees, international media reported the same day. The ministry said those charged include 19 officers, 20 noncommissioned officers, and 17 patrolmen or civilian employees. The alleged torture took place at a prison in eastern Baghdad called Site No. 4 and all those accused have been suspended from duty. Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Khalaf declined to give details about specific abuses and said the names of the accused are being withheld until after their trials. "All of these people will stand trial and the court will decide their fate," he said. Khalaf also said that this is the first time police officers in the post-Hussein era have been charged with torture. Accusations that death squads have infiltrated the Iraqi police forces have been widespread. In November 2005, U.S. and Iraqi forces found several secret detention centers run by the Interior Ministry that held hundreds of prisoners, many of them showing visible signs of abuse and torture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16, 2005). SS

Saddam Hussein appeared in court on November 7 in the ongoing Anfal trial and urged Iraqis to forgive each other, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported the same day. "I call on all Iraqis, Arabs and Kurds, to forgive, reconcile, and shake hands," he said. Two days earlier, Hussein was sentenced to death in a separate case after being found guilty of ordering the killing of 148 Shi'a in the town of Al-Dujayl in 1982. Meanwhile, a Kurdish witness told the court how dozens of Iraqi Kurds were executed in the village of Quromai in northern Iraq in 1988. Qahar Khalil Muhammad said he and other villagers surrendered to Iraqi forces after they were assured that Hussein had granted them amnesty and that no harm would come to them. Instead, the men were separated from the women and children, and later shot. "When they fired in our direction, we all fell to the ground," he said. Muhammad said he was wounded, but managed to survive, as he showed the court the bullet scar on his forehead. Hussein later challenged his testimony by saying: "There is nobody to check his testimony. Who supports his claim? Nobody." SS

Ja'far al-Musawi, the chief prosecutor for the court that sentenced Saddam Hussein to death, said on November 6 that a ruling on Hussein's appeal of his sentence can be expected by January or February 2007, AFP reported the same day. "My expectation is that after the appeal period, let's give one or two months to the chamber to deliberate on the appeals. Considering that the appeal period ends on December 5, I expect the chamber's decision to come in one or two months," al-Musawi said. A U.S. official with knowledge of the appeals process said the sentence, if upheld by the appeals chamber, would then be passed to the Presidency Council for approval. SS