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Newsline - November 20, 2006

Police in Britain have confirmed they are investigating whether Aleksandr Litvinenko, who is a former officer in the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, was poisoned in London recently, British media reported on November 20. Litvinenko, who defected to Britain in 2001, says he fell ill on November 1 while researching the recent killing of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16, 2006). Doctors have since found that he has been poisoned by thallium -- a tasteless toxin found in rat poison -- that he ingested under circumstances that remain unclear. Doctors say that Litvinenko is severely ill and has only a 50 percent chance of surviving. He is under constant police guard. British media reports suggest that he is one of the highest-profile FSB defectors and is reportedly on a wanted list in Moscow, where he has made powerful enemies with his tough criticism of President Vladimir Putin. In 2002 Litvinenko co-authored a book entitled "Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within," in which he alleged that the FSB coordinated some 1999 apartment building bombings in Russia. About 300 people died in the blasts, which the authorities blamed on Chechen rebels. PM

British media on November 20 drew comparisons between the apparent poisoning of FSB defector Litvinenko and the poisonings of others who have fallen out of favor with Russian or East European governments over the years. "The Times" recalled the 1978 "umbrella murder" in London of Bulgarian journalist Georgi Markov, who was killed with a rare poison implanted from the tip of an umbrella, and that paper's own role in investigating the case. Several British dailies recalled the apparent attempts in 2004 to poison journalist Politkovskaya, and also Ukraine's then-opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko during his presidential campaign. Litvinenko himself told "The New York Times" in 2004 that "the view inside [the FSB] was that poison is just another weapon, like a pistol." "The Independent" wrote on November 20 that "there is no evidence that President...Putin is personally complicit in the tragedies that sometimes befall his enemies, but vocal opponents of his policies do have a habit of being caught up in often extreme 'personal difficulties.'" The paper added that "Putin's critics tend always to see the dead hand of the Kremlin, while the Russian government writes such complaints off as anti-Russian conspiracy theories." On November 19, RIA Novosti reported basic facts about the Litvinenko incident on the basis of British newspaper articles, as did "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on November 20. PM

Oleg Gordiyevsky, who is the most senior KGB agent to defect to Britain, was quoted by "The Times" on November 20 as saying that the apparent attempt to kill FSB defector Litvinenko was "state-sponsored." Gordiyevsky argued that "of course it was state-sponsored. [Litvinenko] was such an obvious enemy. Only the KGB is able to do this. The poison was very sophisticated. They have done this before." The Chechen website on November 20 quoted London-based Chechen Republic Ichkeria Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev as having accused the FSB outright in an interview with Sky News television of poisoning Litvinenko. Zakayev termed the poisoning "a terrorist attack on a British subject on British soil," and attributed it to the West's collective disinclination to condemn the Putin regime's policies. PM/LF

On November 19, President Putin thanked his U.S. counterpart George W. Bush on margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hanoi for the conclusion of a bilateral trade deal, which will pave the way for Russian admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO), Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13 and 16, 2006). Putin added that the deal would not have been possible without Bush's political will. The pact was signed by German Gref, who is Russia's minister of economic development and trade, and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab. Russia is the world's only major economy still outside the WTO. Bush said the trade deal is good both for Russia and the United States. He said he also discussed with Putin how to resolve a number of international problems, such as the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. Referring to the trade pact, Gref said on November 18 that in WTO talks with the United States, his country "managed to obtain the level of tariffs [it wanted] on all positions that were of principle to us," RIA Novosti reported. The news agency noted that Russia still must sign bilateral trade deals with Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Moldova as further steps toward WTO membership. Russia must also renegotiate an earlier agreement with Georgia, which has withdrawn its signature in response to Russian sanctions, including a blockade, imposed on Georgia in early October. PM

Economic Development and Trade Minister Gref said in Hanoi on November 19 that subsidiaries of foreign banks will be barred from Russia, but "100 percent companies are permitted to operate on the Russian market with a 50 percent stake in combined banking capital," ITAR-TASS reported. He also said that Russia will open the market for subsidiaries of foreign insurance companies, but only after a nine-year transition period. In addition, Gref said Russia hopes to join the WTO by mid-2007. PM

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Hanoi on November 19 that President Bush told President Putin that the United States has lifted the sanctions it imposed on the Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi for alleged violations of the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 25 and 27, and October 17 and 18, 2006, and "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," August 11, 2006). Lavrov added that he hopes that similar sanctions against Russia's main arms exporter, Rosoboroneksport, will also be dropped. PM

The State Duma voted on November 17 to approve a measure in its third and final reading to eliminate the requirement for a minimum 20 percent voter turnout for an election to the State Duma and a 50 percent turnout for a presidential vote for an election to be valid, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14 and 15, 2006). President Putin must now sign the bill for it to become law. "The Moscow Times" wrote on November 20 that "the turnout bill passes [as] the opposition seethes." Several opposition leaders have argued that the bill will further marginalize their parties and deprive citizens of the opportunity to express their will by boycotting elections. Pro-Kremlin politicians say that the legislation brings Russian law into line with that of many established democracies. PM

At a meeting on November 17 with top officials of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, President Putin said that "there is no place for extremism on the Russian political scene," news agencies reported. He added that "otherwise we will simply not preserve the unity of our country. The use of any elements of extremism is absolutely unacceptable in legal political activity." Unified Russia leader and State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov argued that "we see that the programs of parties running in regional elections often contain what can be classified as extremist slogans, and so we would like all parties to come to the common conclusion and understanding that it is unacceptable to play with extremism." Putin signed legislation on July 28 aimed at combating extremism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8 and 26, and July 13 and 31, 2006). Supporters say that the new law is necessary to combat the racism and xenophobia that have contributed to a rise in hate crimes in recent years. Critics charge that it is part of a Kremlin campaign to stifle the opposition in the run-up to the 2007 elections for the State Duma and the presidential vote in 2008. PM

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov signed a decree on November 16 establishing a Public Council as a consultative body to deal with a wide variety of problems affecting the army and navy, ITAR-TASS reported. On November 19, he said that the measure is long overdue and promises to be effective, reported. Critics charge, however, that the social and other problems within the military require much more than the setting up of a new administrative body. The issue of hazing in the military has been in the forefront of media attention in 2006, following a particularly gruesome incident at the start of the year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, August 4, and October 13 and 24, 2006). PM

"The Moscow Times" reported on November 20 that the authorities are investigating a case in which an unnamed drunken air force major allegedly beat conscript Yevgeny Ovechkin near Yekaterinburg in March and ordered three other soldiers to bury him alive. An unnamed civilian allegedly witnessed the incident, dug Ovechkin out, and sheltered him for several weeks. The conscript then reportedly went home to Ufa, told his mother what had happened, and went into hiding. The air force is investigating the incident. Ovechkin has been officially listed as a deserter since March. PM

The Russian publishers of Soviet-era dissident writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn announced on November 16 that his complete works will be published for the first time in his native Russia, Russian media reported. Solzhenitsyn's wife, Natalia, presented the first of 30 volumes to reporters. The complete works are due to be published by 2010. The first edition of Solzhenitsyn's complete works, in 20 volumes, was published in the West in the 1980s and early 1990s. PM

Leading sociologist and pollster Yury Levada died in his office on November 16 aged 76 of an apparent heart attack, Russian media reported. Levada was one of the founders of the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) in 1987. He served as its general director until he clashed with the authorities in 2003, resigned, and founded the Levada Center with some colleagues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 27, 2006). PM

Nikolai Gerasimenko, who heads the Russian State Duma's Health and Sports Committee, said in Moscow on November 16 that people in the Russian Federation smoke 375 billion cigarettes annually, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 10 and March 23, 2006). He added that 60 percent of all men and 15 percent of women smoke, including 48 percent of pregnant women. PM

Jean Lemierre, who is president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, was quoted on November 17 by Caucasus Press as expressing concern at the possibility that Russia may use its energy resources to pressure neighboring states. Lemierre specifically referred to the recent announcement by Gazprom that as of 2007 it will more than double, from $110 to $230 per 1,000 cubic meters, the price it charges Georgia for natural gas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 2, 3, and 6, 2006). Speaking in Washington on November 16, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza condemned Gazprom's policy towards Georgia as "predatory and aggressive," Caucasus Press reported. On November 18, Caucasus Press quoted Finnish Finance Minister Eero Heinaluoma as warning that the EU, of which Finland is the current president, is closely monitoring Moscow's actions as it should not use energy resources as a "political weapon." LF

Movladi Baysarov, commander of the Gorets (Mountaineer) unit, most of whose personnel surrendered last week to the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26 and November 8, 13, and 16, 2006), was gunned down in the street in Moscow on November 18, Russian media reported. The circumstances of his killing, in particular whether the killers were Chechens loyal to Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov or Moscow Interior Ministry personnel, or both, remain unclear. Quoting unnamed eyewitnesses, the daily "Kommersant" on November 20 reported that a group of Chechens opened fire on Baysarov as he got out of his car on Lenin Prospekt; on November 19 reported that Chechen and Moscow Interior Ministry personnel killed Baysarov as he resisted arrest and tried to throw a hand grenade at a police officer. "Kommersant" further reported that Baysarov was carrying a "large sum" in cash and documentation identifying him as a lieutenant colonel in the Federal Security Service (FSB), and that some Gorets members did not surrender to the Chechen authorities and remain blockaded in their headquarters on the outskirts of Grozny. LF

In a statement released by his press service on November 17, Raamzan Kadyrov criticized the detention two days earlier of Sultan Isakov, head of the government agency tasked with allocating financial compensation to Chechens whose property was destroyed in the fighting of the past decade, reported. The daily "Kommersant" reported on November 16 that Isakov was detained on November 15 after having demanded a kickback of 140,000 rubles ($5,265) from a total of 350,000 rubles to which an unnamed Grozny resident was entitled. Kadyrov alleged that the man in question is a resident of Urus Martan and that he offered Isakov a bribe, which Isakov refused, in return for Isakov's assistance in obtaining compensation to which he was not entitled. Kadyrov, who has repeatedly called for a crackdown on irregularities in the payment of financial compensation, alleged that Isakov's detention in the absence of any preliminary investigation was specifically engineered in order to undermine the authority of the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership. LF

Bagaudin Tsoloyev submitted his resignation on November 4 to Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov to protest widespread official corruption and incompetence, the independent website reported on November 18. Two days later, the same website reported that Tsoloyev's duties were systematically reduced after he delivered a report in March at a meeting in Rostov-na-Donu convened by presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak. In that report, which reposted, Tsoloyev criticized the failure of Ingushetia's law-enforcement agencies to apprehend the perpetrators of several high-profile killings. He further noted that 76 of more than 200 residents of Ingushetia abducted over the past few years have still not been found and released. In the same report, Tsoloyev also slammed what he implied is the deliberate sabotage by the North Ossetian authorities of a program unveiled by Kozak last year intended to expedite the return to their homes of some 18,000 Ingush forced to flee North Ossetia's Prigorodny Raion during the interethnic violence of October-November 1992. In retaliation for those criticisms, Tsoloyev was stripped of responsibility for coordinating with North Ossetia the return of the Ingush displaced persons, 73 of whom signed an appeal to Zyazikov in July (reproduced by on November 18) asking that he be reinstated in that capacity. LF

Galust Sahakian, who heads the parliamentary faction of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia, told journalists on November 17 that it is time the Armenian government took "serious steps" in response to the ongoing wave of killings of Armenians in the Russian Federation, Noyan Tapan reported. A 15-year-old Armenian boy was beaten and stabbed to death in Moscow Oblast on November 11, the most recent of some 3,000 Armenians killed in Russia over the past decade, RFE/RL's Armenian Service quoted human rights activist Izabela Sarkisian as saying on November 17. Heghine Bisharian of the opposition Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party argued on November 17 that the Armenian authorities are partly to blame for the wave of killings insofar as they have not created favorable economic conditions in Armenia that would persuade Armenians who emigrated to Russia in search of employment to return, Noyan Tapan reported. Also on November 17, a group of young Armenians picketed the Armenian Foreign Ministry in Yerevan to denounce what they termed the Armenian leadership's failure to pressure the Russian authorities over the killings, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

Irakli Okruashvili submitted to Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli on November 17 his resignation from the post of economy minister to which he was named one week earlier, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2006). Noghaideli told journalists Okruashvili's resignation was "unexpected," but did not give any explanation for it. But former Conflict Resolution Minister Giorgi Khaindrava commented on November 18 that Okruashvili disagreed with President Mikheil Saakashvili over unspecified policy issues. Khaindrava predicted that Okruashvili may join the opposition to Saakashvili, as did the daily "Khronika" on November 20, noting that Okruashvili's high popularity rating makes him a prime candidate for opposition leader. Opposition Republican party leader David Berdzenishvili for his part was quoted by "Khronika" as pointing out that Okruashvili's resignation demolished the impression that the Georgian leadership constitutes a unified and cohesive team. LF

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza traveled on November 18 from Tbilisi to Sukhum (Sukhumi), where he met with Sergei Shamba, foreign minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, and Stanislav Lakoba, who heads the Abkhaz Security Council, reported on November 19. Referring to Shamba as "my friend," Bryza told journalists after the talks that he hopes for a resumption of official talks between Abkhaz and Georgian officials, and he stressed that "there are leaders in Georgia who would like to make contact with the Abkhaz leadership." Abkhazia suspended its participation in those talks following an incursion by Georgian forces into the Kodori Gorge in late July, and on November 17, Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh named in Moscow as preconditions for further talks an expression by Georgia of its willingness to sign a formal pledge of nonaggression and the withdrawal from Kodori of the so-called Abkhaz government in exile, which comprises former Georgian residents of Abkhazia. Lakoba told journalists that he and Shamba discussed with Bryza unspecified ways of reaching a compromise that would be acceptable to both Tbilisi and Sukhum. Lakoba also said he told Bryza in response to the latter's question that it is too early to say whether the replacement of Okruashvili -- whom the Abkhaz suspected of planning a new war -- as defense minister is merely a tactical move or reflects a "serious change" in the Georgian position. LF

The presidents of Azerbaijan (Ilham Aliyev), Kazakhstan (Nursultan Nazarbaev), and Kyrgyzstan (Kurmanbek Bakiev) attended the eighth summit of Turkic-speaking states, which took place in Antalya on November 17 and was hosted by Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, reported. Uzbekistan did not send a representative to the summit, while Turkmenistan was represented by its ambassador to Turkey, Nurberdi Amanmuradov. Analyst Iskandar Khudoyberganov told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that Uzbek President Islam Karimov decided to skip the summit to protest Turkey's support for democratic development and closer ties with Europe, the service reported on November 19. An analytical comment on by Uktam Boshmirzoev suggested, however, that the Uzbek cold shoulder was a response to Turkey's sheltering of the opposition Erk Party, which is banned in Uzbekistan. Nazarbaev noted at the summit that there are no "insoluble problems" among Turkic countries, but he stressed the need to expand economic cooperation, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Aliyev expressed support for Turkey's aspirations to join the EU and "concern" at the pressure being exerted on Turkey in that regard, reported. He also termed "estimable" Kazakhstan's intention to join the Kars-Akhalkalaki Tbilisi-Baku railway project that will provide a direct link between Turkey and Azerbaijan. DK/LF

Kazakh President Nazarbaev met with Liu Qi, secretary of the Beijing Party Committee, in Astana on November 16 to discuss bilateral relations as Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Karim Masimov began a two-day visit to China, Xinhua and Khabar reported. Liu, who arrived at the invitation of Kazakhstan's pro-presidential Otan Party, commented, "It's very nice for me to visit your beautiful country at Otan's invitation," Khabar reported. "The goal of the visit is to deepen cooperation and mutual understanding between our countries." In Beijing, Masimov headed a Kazakh delegation that included Finance Minister Natalya Korzhova, Transport and Communications Minister Serik Akhmetov, and Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Baktykozha Izmukhambetov, Kazinform reported. DK

Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Masimov and Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi chaired the third meeting of the China-Kazakhstan Cooperation Committee in Beijing on November 17, Xinhua reported. Participants signed a number of interagency cooperation accords and hailed the fruitful development of cooperation between the two countries, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. DK

Kazakh Energy Minister Izmukhambetov said in televised remarks on November 17 that China must not be allowed to acquire a Canadian-registered company that owns oil assets in Kazakhstan, AP reported. "We must take extreme measures to stop the agreement on the Karazhanbas [oil field]," Izmukhambetov said. China's International Trust & Investment Corporation (Citic) recently announced plans to acquire Nations Energy for nearly $2 billion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 27, 2006). According to the company's website, Nations Energy acquired the rights to Karazhanbas in 1997, and the field has proven reserves of more than 340 million barrels, according to AP. DK

Police in the Kazakh city of Stepnogorsk have arrested 11 people suspected of membership in a terrorist group, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on November 16, quoting Stepnogorsk prosecutor Sergei Kim. Kim told the news agency that a man in Akmola province, where Stepnogorsk is located, "formed a terrorist group of Wahhabi radicals with the goal of forming an Islamic caliphate on the territory of Kazakhstan and subverting the territorial integrity and security of this country." The report did not specify whether the detained persons were linked to any known terrorist groups. DK

The Kyrgyz rights group Citizens Against Corruption has appealed to prosecutors to halt the prosecution of members of the For Reforms opposition movement, reported on November 16. The appeal mentioned, among others, Edil Baisalov, head of the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society; Almaz Atambaev, head of the Social Democratic Party; and former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva. A criminal case was opened after Prime Minister Feliks Kulov read excerpts from the transcript of a tape recording that allegedly implied that For Reforms members were plotting to seize power (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 6 and 7, 2006). The appeal asked prosecutors to close the case in light of a recent compromise between the opposition and President Bakiev that allowed the passage of a new constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 9 and 10, 2006). DK

Kumtor Gold Company, which operates Kyrgyzstan's Kumtor gold mine, has released a statement disputing allegations by Kyrgyz Economy and Finance Minister Akilbek Japarov that it has stopped paying taxes, reported on November 16. The news agency noted that Japarov told a cabinet meeting on November 15 that "in the last two or three months, [Kumtor] has entirely stopped paying taxes." The company noted that its November 10 statement covering the first three quarters of 2006 indicated tax payments of 979 million soms ($25 million) to the Kyrgyz budget. The company also pointed out that its October payments to fund social services, pensions, and other programs came to more than 75 million soms. Kumtor is a wholly owned subsidiary of Canadian-registered Centerra Gold. DK

Recently reelected President Imomali Rakhmonov delivered his inauguration address to a joint session of Tajikistan's parliament on November 18, Tajik television's First Channel reported. Rakhmonov pledged to make Tajikistan one of the "key exporters of electricity in Asia, cooperation with developed countries and major international financial institutions will be stepped up, and a series of small and big hydroelectric power stations and high-voltage lines for transmitting power abroad will be built." Rakhmonov said that in foreign policy "we will continue beneficial cooperation contacts with the Russian Federation within the framework of our strategic partnership" while developing relations with China and expanding cooperation with the United States. DK

Inflation in consumer prices totaled 9.8 percent in Tajikistan for the first nine months of 2006, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on November 16. Prices for food products rose 10.1 percent, nonfood products 4.2 percent, and services to the population 19 percent. Inflation in 2005 came to 7.1 percent, the report noted. DK

The press service of Tajikistan's Border Protection Committee announced on November 17 that an Uzbek border guard was shot and killed by Tajik border guards when a detachment of Uzbek servicemen allegedly crossed over into Tajikistan and ignored warning shots, Avesta reported. The statement said that the Tajik side expressed its regrets and offered condolences to the Uzbek border guard's family. A report in Uzbekistan's on November 18 identified the dead border guard as Asadullo Ergashev and suggested that his death resulted from unjustified actions by Tajik border guards and unidentified "ill-wishers on the other side of the border." DK

An Uzbek court has sentenced five people to prison terms ranging from 15 to 20 years for spying on behalf of neighboring Tajikistan, RIA Novosti reported on November 17. The defendants, three women and two men, were found guilty of collecting information about Uzbek military forces deployed near the country's border. "One of the convicted women had a particular interest in opposition activists, and in the work of religious and extremist groups in the country," the report quoted a court spokesman as saying. Tit-for-tat spying allegations and prosecutions have marred Tajik-Uzbek relations in recent months. DK

A criminal court in Tashkent has sentenced Komiljon Usmonov to a 10-year prison term for his role as the alleged leader of the Tashkent branch of the banned extremist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on November 16. Human rights activist Surat Ikromov, who took part in the trial, told RFE/RL that the judge refused to act on statements by Usmonov and witnesses that their testimony was obtained under torture. Usmonov was earlier sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempting to undermine Uzbekistan's constitutional order, but he was released under an amnesty. Usmonov's lawyers said that they plan to appeal his latest sentence. DK

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on November 17 that Belarus should buy natural gas at Russia's domestic price, Belapan and Reuters reported. "The essence of our policy is that both Belarusians and Russians are one people and that means that conditions also should be equal," Lukashenka said while visiting the Belshyna tire factory in Babruysk. Lukashenka said Minsk will demand compensation from Moscow for transit rights and the use of military facilities in Belarus if gas prices go up sharply in 2007. "We must propose a compensation table and propose that Russia compensate us for losses. Let them pay for what once might have been free," he added. Meanwhile, Russian lawmaker Valery Yazov, head of the State Duma's Committee on Energy, Transport, and Communications, said the same day that Gazprom intends to increase the gas price for Belarus from $47 to $230 per 1,000 cubic meters, that is, to the level currently charged by RosUkrEnergo, which supplies a mix of Russian-Turkmen gas to Ukraine. JM

Belposhta, Belarus's state postal service that holds a monopoly over the distribution of subscription periodicals, has denied distribution in the first six months of 2007 to major nationwide independent newspapers and many local independent newspapers, Belapan reported on November 17, quoting Zoya Mardas from the Belarusian Association of Journalists. In particular, Belposhta rejected the nationwide newspapers "Narodnya volya," "Nasha Niva," "Tovarishch," and "Svobodnye novosti plus," as well as the local newspapers "Brestsky kurer," "Vitebsky kurer," "Borisovskie novosti," "Gazeta slonimskaya," "Volnaye Hlybokaye," "Hantsavitski chas," and "Myastsovy chas." "To requests by the publications to enter them in the Belposhta subscription catalogue, the Belposhta management's stereotyped answer was: 'Since the law does not oblige the organization to include a periodical in its catalogue, it is the right of Belposhta to choose publications for the catalogue,'" Mardas said. JM

Viktor Yushchenko said on November 17 that UkrGazEnergo, a company created by RusUkrEnergo and Naftohaz Ukrayiny to sell imported gas to consumers in Ukraine, has posed a "threat to national security" by refusing to supply gas to 16 major industrial enterprises in the country, Interfax-Ukraine reported, quoting the presidential press service. Yushchenko ordered that the Antimonopoly Committee investigate the case and to find out if UkrGazEnergo has violated antimonopoly legislation. The "Financial Times" on November 18 quoted Ukrainian energy analyst Volodymyr Saprykin as saying that UkrGazEnergo is being used as an instrument to put pressure on Ukrainian industrial giants in order to compel them "to fall under the ownership of Russian companies, possibly even Gazprom affiliates." JM

President Yushchenko said at a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council (RNBO) in Kyiv on November 17 that the housing and utilities sector in Ukraine is in a profound crisis and this poses a threat to national security, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "The technical state of major assets of housing companies is critical; the efficiency of technological processes in the sector is still low; it is traditionally unprofitable and the process to liberalize utility tariffs is very politicized," Yushchenko said. "In fact, the state is a monopolistic owner of the services. It limits options that business people can offer more efficiently," he added. According to the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz quit the RNBO meeting to protest what they reportedly saw as the president's meddling with the cabinet's prerogatives. JM

President Yushchenko told journalists in Kyiv on November 17 that he will veto the bill on the Cabinet of Ministers that was passed in the first reading by the Verkhovna Rada the previous day, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The endorsed bill was drafted by experts from the Cabinet of Ministers. Two other bills on the Cabinet of Ministers, one authored by the president and the other by a group of lawmakers, have also been submitted to parliament. "When we are speaking about the discussion and passing of the bill on the Cabinet of Ministers, both the government and the Verkhovna Rada went about it the wrong way, I believe," Yushchenko said, adding that the issue should be agreed by the government, the president, and the legislature within a working group consisting of representatives of each branch of power. Yushchenko added that any attempt to pass this bill "unilaterally" has no prospects. JM

Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and New Serbia (NS) announced on November 19 that they will form an electoral coalition, B92 and Beta reported the same day. The coalition will be listed on the ballot for the January 21 elections as "DSS-NS- Vojislav Kostunica." Among the NS candidates on the electoral list will be members of United Serbia and the Serbian Democratic Renewal Movement. Kostunica said the coalition will run a positive campaign. "Our program for the years to come is not a collection of wishful thinking and empty promises," he said. "We make no promises, we make announcements about what we're going to do." Kostunica concluded his address by saying, "Long live Serbia," and added that the phrase will be repeated at every campaign rally. BW

Also on November 19, Prime Minister Kostunica defended the outgoing DSS-led government's performance. "When it comes to state and national problems, we always sought to reach a consensus," he said. "We tried to appreciate the opposition's position on issues and to never come across as an arrogant or intolerant government. We consistently chose to stay away from heavy words and unfounded accusations in our political struggle," he added. BW

Joachim Ruecker, the head of the United Nations Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), said on November 19 that the UNMIK should be out of Kosova by the end of next year, B92 reported the same day. "I think the UNMIK will stay here for one more year. I don't think that we will be here in November 2007," he said. The UNMIK is to be replaced by an enlarged EU mission after Kosova's status is decided. Calling a status solution for Kosova the "last piece of the Balkan puzzle," Ruecker said the final solution should be "something that should be acceptable to both sides." He added, however, that there is a need to maintain momentum in reaching a settlement. "It's like riding a bike. You have to keep peddling. If you stop peddling, you're in danger of falling," he said. "If hope turns into disappointment, it is hard to control the margin of society, in all the world, not just in Kosovo." BW

Citing unidentified diplomatic sources, Reuters reported on November 16 that Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina will not receive invitations to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program this year. The three countries hoped to secure invitations at the NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, on November 28-29. "I don't think Riga will be the occasion for a decision," one unidentified NATO ambassador said. "There won't be any new moves." The delay is the result of concerns about war crimes fugitives still at large and uncertainty about Serbia's political future. Officials quoted by Reuters also said there is not sufficient time to forge a consensus among NATO members before the summit, which will take place before Serbia holds crucial elections on January 21. "There are two weeks of drafting still, but the debate is quite lively in a number of capitals and it would be surprising if a consensus emerged in time for Riga," a NATO official said. "It's the question of conditionality, and it's the question of timing in the context of the Serb elections." BW

A court in Montenegro on November 17 awarded compensation to the family of a Bosnian Muslim who was deported to Bosnian Serb custody during the 1992-95 war and later killed, B92 and AP reported the same day. The wife and four children of Izet Tufekcic, from the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad, were awarded a total of 120,000 euros ($150,000) for the "death of a close family member," the family's lawyer, Dragan Prelevic, said. It was the latest verdict awarded in a series of cases related to the 1992 deportation of 34 Bosnian Muslims. After being forced back across the border into Serbian-held territory in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 28 of them were executed. BW

International mediators have urged Moldova and the separatist Transdniester region to restart direct talks, RIA Novosti reported on November 17, citing the Russian Foreign Ministry. The mediators in the dispute -- the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States -- met in Brussels on November 16 in an attempt to revive negotiations. "Representatives of the mediators and observers expressed a shared opinion that specific steps need to be taken to revive direct contacts between Chisinau and Tiraspol, which would help find practical solutions to the unresolved problems hindering their relations," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The talks were suspended earlier this year when Moldova and Ukraine implemented a new customs regime on the Transdniester section of their border. Transdniestrian officials called the new rules an economic blockade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 25, and February 3, 2006). BW

Following a heated debate, the Verkhovna Rada on November 15 opted to postpone a decision on the fates of Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk and Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko.

The two presidential appointees were grilled during the parliamentary session by lawmakers from the ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions. They were accused of poor performance and negligence in office, but were spared the indignity of a vote on their dismissal -- at least for two weeks.

In the meantime, observers are left to debate whether parliament has the right to dismiss ministers nominated to the cabinet by the president. Foreign Minister Tarasyuk, for one, believes that it cannot, since the constitution does not say anything about such a situation.

"The constitution, which was amended hastily [in 2004], does not stipulate how these ministers [appointed by the president] can be dismissed," he said. "There is a legal collision here, whether the Verkhovna Rada can dismiss the two ministers without a presidential request. I don't think it can, because there is the notion of analogy in law: if the dismissal procedure is not defined while the appointment procedure is, legal analogy must apply and the same procedure should be used."

The debate on the two presidential ministers was just the latest clash in the short but uneasy cohabitation of Yanukovych and President Viktor Yushchenko -- two longtime political rivals who have reinvented their relationship since Yanukovych became prime minister in early August.

Cracks began to show in September, when Yanukovych said in Brussels that Ukraine would slow its pace toward NATO membership due to public opposition. Yushchenko rebuked Yanukovych for impinging on the president's constitutional right to shape the country's foreign policy. Simultaneously, Yushchenko reminded Yanukovych that just one month earlier both of them signed the so-called declaration of national unity, in which they pledged to seek NATO membership as one of Ukraine's key foreign-policy priorities.

Yanukovych, however, continued to assert his constitutionally reinforced position by claiming more executive prerogatives. In particular, he refused to implement several presidential decrees, arguing that he did not co-sign them. Yanukovych also questioned in the Constitutional Court the president's right to appoint regional governors without consulting the government.

In October, the pro-presidential Our Ukraine party switched to the opposition, constraining its four ministers in Yanukovych's cabinet to tender their resignations. Then, at a congress last week, the pro-presidential Our Ukraine party adopted a resolution obliging its lawmakers to contest the validity of the 2004 constitutional reform. The decision to question the reform before the Constitutional Court has the potential to spark a serious constitutional crisis.

Ukrainian political analyst Oles Doniy, the head of the Kyiv-based Center for Studies of Political Values, believes that Our Ukraine's move was dictated by the party's intention to save itself from political demise following its withdrawal from the government.

"I think this is a graphic example of how Our Ukraine is putting its narrow, party interests above those of national and state ones," Doniy says. "It considers a change of Ukraine's political system depending on whether it is in power or not, thus threatening Ukraine's future in general."

According to Doniy, the potential reversal of the constitutional reform could have a disastrous impact on the stability of the political system as a whole. Since the constitutional reform was adopted as a political compromise to end a presidential-election standoff between Yushchenko and Yanukovych, Doniy argues that questioning the constitutional reform is tantamount to questioning Yushchenko's legitimacy as president.

"If we question the amendments to the constitution made in that period, we will analogically have to question all the other things that took place at that time," Doniy says. "No Ukrainian law provides for the third round of a presidential election, but it did take place."

But Ihor Zhdanov, deputy head of Our Ukraine's Executive Committee, says his party does not see any link between the constitutional reform and Yushchenko's election. "The vote for the political reform and the presidential vote in December 2004 were in no way interconnected, since [the third presidential-election round] was legitimized by a ruling of the Supreme Court of Ukraine, which passed it proceeding from the evidence of a mass election fraud in the second round," he says.

Zhdanov argues that in adopting the constitutional reform, the Verkhovna Rada grossly violated the procedure for constitutional amendments by approving a version of the reform bill that was essentially different from the one reviewed and endorsed by the Constitutional Court.

So, if now the Constitutional Court heeds Our Ukraine's arguments and rules that the constitutional reform was adopted unlawfully, would this signal that Yushchenko will enjoy the same extensive powers as his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma?

Doniy says that might not necessarily be the case. "There is a collision here. Even if the authorities managed to pressure the Constitutional Court into canceling the political reform, the Constitutional Court's ruling would not automatically mean a change of the constitution," he says. "It would be necessary to vote on constitutional amendments again. At least, this is the opinion of those lawyers who are not prone to official pressure."

But it also seems that apart from a headache for lawyers, the controversy over the constitutional reform, if continued, might provoke a major and protracted political upheaval in Ukraine.

Yanukovych said earlier last week that a reversal of the reform would be illegal. Lawmaker Raisa Bohatyryova of the ruling Party of Regions warned Our Ukraine against pursuing its intention of reversing the reform, saying, "Do not stir bees in the hive if you don't know how to gather honey."

It is telling that Yushchenko, who in 2005 repeatedly vowed to seek a referendum to reverse the constitutional reform, has recently refrained from asking for more powers and now talks about "improving" the constitutional reform rather than annulling it.

Perhaps Yushchenko has realized that revoking the reform, which in theory made Ukraine's political system more balanced and similar to European-type democracies, would eliminate the only long-term achievement of the Orange Revolution, on which millions of Ukrainians pinned so many hopes and which they became disillusioned with so soon afterward.

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

U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged on November 19 to keep British troops in Afghanistan to battle Taliban insurgents as part of the ongoing war on terror, AP reported. "This terrorism that we are facing, of which one manifestation is what has happened in Afghanistan, has been a long time going and will take a long time to defeat," Blair said. He warned that the battle against extremism will fail without additional support from moderate political and religious influences against the forces of terrorism. Blair was speaking at a joint press conference with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Lahore, Pakistan, during his third trip to that country. The two men issued a joint statement pledging to work together to diminish the violence in Afghanistan through military force, economic reconstruction and the elimination of drug trafficking. RR

President Musharraf called during his meeting with Prime Minister Blair on November 19 for a multibillion-dollar economic-aid effort in Afghanistan to help provide stability and defeat the Taliban insurgency, AP reported. Musharraf focused on the need to provide economic support to southeastern Afghanistan, a stronghold of Taliban militancy. "I believe there is a requirement for a massive inflow of development funds there -- some kind of Marshall Plan for billions of dollars to be put in," Musharraf said. U.K. officials noted that their country pledged $10.5 billion in Afghan aid at a donors' conference in January, but the lack of infrastructure in Afghanistan has hindered the ability to spend the money. RR

The Afghan National Army (ANA) is planning to increase its offensive operations against the Taliban this winter, according to Douglas Pritt, the U.S. general responsible for the U.S.-led effort to train the Afghan military, AP reported on November 19. Pritt said the Afghan army has tripled its number of forward bases to 60 and expects them to spend the winter harassing the Taliban insurgents and engaging in intelligence-gathering operations. This could lead to heavy fighting during a time of year that is traditionally used by Afghan soldiers to return home to their families, hunker down, and resupply themselves. Pritt believes the Afghan army, supported by U.S. and NATO airlifts, is better suited to dealing with harsh winter conditions than the Taliban. "I'm hoping for a lot of snow this winter," Pritt said. RR

Mansur Osanlu, head of the Tehran bus drivers syndicate, was detained by plainclothes security personnel on November 19, ISNA and ILNA reported. Ebrahim Madadi, deputy head of the syndicate, told Radio Farda that he was with Osanlu when they stopped to buy a newspaper at around 9 a.m. Intelligence and Security Ministry personnel detained Osanlu, according to Madadi, and one of them pulled out a handgun when Osanlu's companions objected. Madadi said the security officer fired his weapon into the air to get the crowd to disperse. Madadi added that Osanlu had received a summons the previous day to appear in court on November 20. Osanlu was arrested in December 2005 and held for approximately eight months (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," January 9, 2006). BS

Jalal Jalalizadeh, who represented the predominantly Kurdish city of Sanandaj in the Iranian parliament from 2000 to 2004, said on November 19 that Sunni Muslims in Tehran have not been allowed to hold congregational prayers for two weeks, ILNA reported. Jalalizadeh noted the absence of a Sunni mosque in Tehran and explained that Sunnis therefore gathered at the Pakistani Embassy's school. "But, as of two weeks ago, as a result of the pressures exerted on the embassy, they closed the school and moved it elsewhere, where it is not possible to hold the prayers," Jalalizadeh said. Given the lack of options, Sunnis gathered in Mellat Park to pray on November 17. Police and plainclothes agents broke up the crowd. Some 9 percent of Iran's population is Sunni, while 89 percent is Shi'a. Shi'ism is the state religion. BS

Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, spokesman of the Guardians Council, announced on November 18 it has approved 145 of the 493 people who registered as candidates for the December 15 Assembly of Experts elections, state television reported. The final list of candidates will be announced in 10 days, Kadkhodai continued, after the disqualified individuals have had the opportunity to appeal. Some 133 people withdrew their candidacies, he said, and 217 failed to meet the standards for theocratic knowledge. The reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front on November 19 condemned the Guardians Council's actions as being factionally biased, ILNA reported, referring specifically to the disqualification of Najafqoli Habibi from the parliamentary by-election. BS

Students gathered outside the Teachers Training College in the city of Sabzevar on November 19 to protest the reported killing of a student the previous day, ILNA reported. Tohid Ghafarzadeh, a student at the city's Islamic Azad University, was stabbed to death by a member of the student Basij at the Teachers Training College on November 18, Radio Farda reported. Mustafa Sedaqatju, a former member of the student union, told Radio Farda that this was not a political incident. Ghafarzadeh was standing in front of the Teachers Training College talking to his fiancee when the Basij member inquired about their relationship. The two argued and Ghafarzadeh was killed. Sedaqatju noted that the authorities have done nothing about this incident and have remained silent, but they have been very critical about an event at the University of California-Los Angeles earlier in the week. In that incident, 23-year-old Iranian-American Mustafa Tabatabainejad was tasered by police when he refused to provide his identification or leave the library, the "Daily Bruin" reported on November 15. A bystander videotaped Tabatabainejad accusing the police of abusing their authority while he resisted them. BS

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim arrived on November 19 on a historic visit to Baghdad and pledged Damascus's full support for the elected Iraqi government, international media reported the same day. During a meeting with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari, al-Muallim condemned terrorism and said that Iraq's security is linked to Syria's own security. "We are making every possible effort in line with our understanding that Iraq's security is part of Syria's security and we shall cooperate. We have specific ideas to propose to our brothers in Iraq to achieve cooperation, including security cooperation and cross-border cooperation," he said. Al-Muallim also expressed support for the territorial integrity of Iraq and for the unity of the Iraqi people, and stressed that "a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq will help reduce violence in Iraq and maintain security." Al-Muallim's visit is the first by a Syrian minister since the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003. SS

According to Iraqi police sources, several gunmen in military uniforms kidnapped Deputy Health Minister Ammar al-Saffar from his home on November 19, international media reported the same day. Al-Saffar, who belongs to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Al-Da'wah Party, was abducted by six uniformed guards and several men wearing suits from his home in Baghdad's Al-Amadiyah neighborhood. Dozens of officials, staff, and visitors in the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research were kidnapped in central Baghdad on November 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2006). Jasim Ali, the head of the Health Ministry's Medical Operations Department, told Al-Iraqiyah television on November 19 that he blames al-Saffar's abduction on the inability of the Interior and Defense ministries to secure the area. SS

Iraqi and coalition forces continued on November 19 to search for five Westerners kidnapped three days earlier near the Kuwaiti border, international media reported. Four U.S. citizens and an Austrian national, working as security guards for the Kuwaiti Crescent Security Group, were abducted on November 16 while escorting a 49-truck convoy near the southern Iraqi town of Safwan, 60 kilometers south of Al-Basrah. Muhammad Ali al-Musawi, the chief of operations for the Al-Basrah police, said the abductions appear to be the work of "criminal gangs", AFP reported on November 19. Al-Musawi also rejected earlier statements made by an Al-Basrah Governorate official that one of the American hostages has been killed and two other Americans have been freed by Iraqi police. "If someone says he knows about the hostages, it is a lie. Nobody knows anything about them at the moment," he said. Nine Iraqis were also abducted in the same incident, but according to the Crescent Security Group, all of them have been released. SS

An arrest warrant was issued by the Iraqi Interior Ministry on November 16 for Muslim Scholars Association leader Dr. Harith al-Dari for "inciting terrorism," international media reported on November 17. Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani issued the arrest order after al-Dari described insurgent attacks on U.S. forces as "legitimate resistance." Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on November 18 that demonstrations against the arrest order broke out across Iraq and several Sunni leaders criticized it. The Iraqi Islamic Party, Iraq's largest Sunni Arab party, condemned the warrant, saying the move was the "mercy bullet" that would finish off Prime Minister al-Maliki's reconciliation plan, which seeks to bring disaffected Sunnis into the political process. In an interview with Al-Jazeera on November 19, al-Dari described the arrest warrant as a fabrication and illegitimate, and said it was issued because the government needs to blame somebody for its failure to carry out its responsibilities. "They have not found a scapegoat or a cover for their criminal deeds and for their failure in performing their official and government duties, except to fabricate these minor political battles," he said. SS

Iraqi police said gunmen killed prominent Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) member Ali al-Adhadh and his wife on November 18 while they were driving in Baghdad, international media reported on November 19. Police sources said al-Adhadh's killing appears to have been a sectarian assassination. Sunni Arabs have accused SCIRI and its armed wing, the Badr Organization, of operating death squads, as well as being involved in killing members of former President Saddam Hussein's defense team. Police Colonel and SCIRI representative Adnan al-Obaidi said that al-Adhadh was a member of the organization's Shura Council, the central decision-making body of the party. SS

Sheikh Sattar Abu Rishah, the head of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, said on November 17 that several groups linked to Al-Qaeda have been driven out of Al-Anbar Governorate, the London-based "Al-Hayat" reported the same day. According to Abu Rishah, forces loyal to the council have driven out numerous Al-Qaeda-linked groups in several cities in the governorate, who have in turn fled to Samarra and cities south of Baghdad. He also said that approximately 100 Iraqis belonging to Al-Qaeda in Iraq have been captured along with more than 35 Arab fighters, most of them Syrian. The Al-Anbar Salvation Council is a coalition of several tribes set up to cleanse the governorate of Al-Qaeda elements. SS