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Newsline - December 20, 2006

After a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told a joint Moscow press conference on December 19 that "our strategic dialogue with Russia is based on Russia playing a more effective role in the Middle East. Russia has begun playing a real role in the region," "The Moscow Times" and news agencies reported on December 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2006). He noted that "Russia could become the sponsor of the Middle East peace process and carry out this role effectively." Al-Assad added that he and Putin discussed bilateral relations only in general terms and will leave the details to specialists. He denied media reports that he came to Russia to buy arms. The daily "Kommersant" reported on December 19 that al-Assad wants to buy an unspecified number of MiG-29 fighter jets, Amur-1650 submarines, and Pantsir-S1 air-defense missile systems. At the joint press conference on December 19, al-Assad promised to do "everything that will lead to consensus" in Lebanon. Putin said that "Syria has always played and...will continue to play a very important role in the development of the situation in the [Middle East] region. Considering the dramatic events in the Palestinian territories in recent days, I would find it very interesting and useful to hear your opinion about the prospects of future developments." He added that in Iraq "the situation is not getting better. We should do everything that depends on us -- all together, despite different attitudes to the beginning and further development of events -- to improve the situation." Referring to the Middle East as a whole, Putin said that "we are seeing one conflict in the region developing after another, and that can only concern us." Asked whether Putin should seek to change the constitution to enable him to run for a third term when his current one expires in 2008, al-Assad replied that "that depends on the wishes of the Russian people." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently said that Putin should be allowed to run for a third term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 31 and November 3, 2006). PM

On December 20, the daily "Krasnaya zvezda" wrote that "America's Mideast policy is clearly bankrupt. The Arab world is turning to Russia again, seeking to make use of Russia's increased influence in the international arena.... Syria's foreign-policy potential clearly is not being used to the full when it comes to solving Middle East problems." But on December 19, the daily "Novye izvestia" suggested that President al-Assad came primarily to solicit President Putin's support in blocking moves within the UN to set up an international tribunal to investigate the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who opposed Syrian influence in Lebanon. The daily argued that such a tribunal would lead to an "international scandal" for al-Assad. PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Interfax in Moscow on December 19 that he "would like our [foreign] partners to treat a strong Russia, which has regained confidence in itself, as an opportunity for the broadest possible international cooperation, rather than a challenge." He stressed that "no prejudices or ideology guide our attitudes or burden our approaches to international affairs. We are building our foreign policy on facts and in the spirit of pragmatism. We consider no one as our enemies." Lavrov argued that "it should be clear [in light of the developments of 2006] that Russia [will] cooperate only on the basis of equality, mutual respect [for each other's] interests, and mutual benefit. The sovereignty we have reacquired is an absolute imperative. We have earned solid credentials in foreign affairs and we are not planning to [abandon] them." He noted that some unnamed countries "did not expect Russia to restore its prestige as one of the leading countries in the world so fast. We can wait [for them to accept it]. We have enough domestic problems [to keep us busy]. However, problems that cannot be solved without Russia's involvement can hardly wait. A turning point in the development of modern international relations is approaching." Lavrov believes that "Russia will always be on the side of forces that understand the necessity of collective security through joint efforts based on international law and clear 'rules of engagement' that apply to everybody. The most important task of Russia's diplomacy in the near future, or in the next year, is to reach a positive turning point in the development of the international situation. The international situation has 'crystallized' enough for everybody to be able to come to a common view of the contemporary historic situation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10 and 25, and September 27, 2006). PM

On December 20, Foreign Minister Lavrov said in Moscow that Western media coverage of the recent apparent murder in London of British citizen and former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Aleksandr Litvinenko shows the "bias" of the West against Russia, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2006). In an interview to mark the day of the intelligence services, Sergei Lebedev, who heads the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), was quoted by "Komsomolskaya pravda" on December 20 as saying that the Litvinenko affair amounts to a "political provocation against Russia." Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on December 15 that Litvinenko was a marginal person who knew little of importance, news agencies reported. Ivanov added that Putin sacked Litvinenko for "character flaws" in 1998 when Putin headed the FSB. PM

Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeyev and EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou reached an agreement in Moscow on December 19, according to which Russia will drop its threat to ban as of January 1 EU meat imports worth an estimated $2.5 billion annually, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on December 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13 and 15, 2006.) Denmark and Germany are by far the EU's largest suppliers of meat to Russia. Russia threatened the ban in connection with recent EU criticism of Russia's year-old prohibition on imports of Polish agricultural products, which Poland calls illegal and politically motivated. PM

Defense Minister Ivanov said in Moscow on December 19 that the Baltic Fleet will take part in constructing the projected Russo-German Nord Stream pipeline, formerly known as the North European Gas Pipeline, which will enable Russia to ship gas to Germany via the Baltic without transiting Poland, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, October 11, 20, 24, and 31, 2006). He added that the fleet has "begun exploring the route of the [pipeline and checking] safety issues related to its construction. There still are unexploded mines on the Baltic Sea bed, not only those dating back to World War II, but even to World War I." He noted that the "Baltic Fleet will be involved in the construction of the pipeline with its hydrographic auxiliary vessels. It will also use modern unmanned underwater vehicles to monitor the route and quality during the laying of the pipeline." Poland and the Baltic states have criticized Nord Stream as an effort to address energy issues without their participation. Swedish leaders believe that the project will lead to an ecological disaster, not least because of the unexploded military ordinance, including chemical weapons, on the seabed. Several countries have argued that the pipeline will increase German and other EU members' dependence on Russian energy supplies. But Nord Stream enjoys broad support within the German political class, and German business is generally very eager to expand contacts with Russia. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder heads the stockholders' oversight body for Nord Stream. Matthias Warnig, who heads Dresdner Bank's operations in Russia, is chief executive of Nord Stream. He worked for the former East Germany's Stasi secret police in Dresden at the same time in the 1980s that President Putin was a young KGB officer there, although Warnig denies having known Putin then. PM

The Prosecutor-General's Office has charged Sergei Tsivilev, who is first deputy general director of the MiG aircraft company, with large-scale fraud, the daily "Kommersant" and reported on December 20. The charge is based on reports by FSB investigators who accuse him of trying to sell Poland bootleg spare parts for MiG-29 fighter jets. A spokeswoman for MiG called the charges "groundless" and argued that Tsivilev cannot possibly monitor the activities of MiG's "over 2,000 supplier companies of various products." She said that the case appears to be an attempt at preventing him from becoming his company's new director general if his current boss, Aleksei Fedorov, move up to a top position with the new United Aircraft Company (OAK) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006). Fedorov has made it clear that he wants Tsivilev to succeed him at MiG. The two men have been close colleagues since the 1990s. Tsivilev's lawyer told "Kommersant" that the case was "initiated illegally" and fails to "specify what my client's [crime] is exactly." MiG officials did not say who might be behind any attempt to discredit Tsivilev. "Kommersant" suggested that the aircraft industry is dominated by rival "clans," some of which might be seeking to "stop the expansion of Fedorov's group." PM

Former CPSU Politburo member Yegor Ligachev and Gennady Zyuganov, who heads the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), led a commemorative meeting in the Moscow Electric Lamp Factory's House of Culture on December 19 to mark the 100th birthday of Leonid Brezhnev, who led the CPSU from 1964 until his death in 1982, Russian media reported. Recent polls suggest that a majority of Russians middle-aged and older have a positive view of the Brezhnev era as a stable time when one could live well and plan for the future. One poll conducted in 2005 indicated that 39 percent of respondents prefer life under President Putin, while 31 percent favor the Brezhnev era. Only 1 percent would like to return to the times of President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, according to that survey. In the late 1980s, the Brezhnev era was dubbed "the era of stagnation." ITAR-TASS wrote on December 19 that "during the last years of his rule, Brezhnev was the whole nation's laughingstock, and his senility angered many, intellectuals first and foremost. But in today's ocean of publications in the mass media and TV productions, he appears as a 'hero of our time' again." PM

Garnik Markarian, a former police officer who now heads the small opposition Fatherland and Honor party, told journalists in Yerevan on December 19 that his party's regional chapters will resort to armed resistance to prevent any further arrests by the authorities of hard-line nationalists opposed to major concessions to Azerbaijan within the framework of a settlement of the Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The opposition Anti-Criminal Movement of which Markarian's party is a member called on December 19 for the release of Lebanese-born Karabakh war veteran Zhirair Sefilian and Vartan Malkasian, who were arrested two weeks ago on charges of plotting the violent overthrow of the Armenian leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11 and 12, 2006). LF

Vartan Oskanian explained to journalists in Yerevan on December 19 that President Robert Kocharian's televised comments four days earlier do not mean that all negotiations on resolving the Karabakh conflict will be suspended until after the Armenian parliamentary elections due in the spring of 2007, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Kocharian said on December 15 that "there will be no active negotiating process" in the ongoing search for a peaceful solution to the Karabakh conflict, because unspecified Armenian political figures would "try to discredit even the best peace deal" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2006). Azerbaijani officials construed those remarks as backpeddling on the part of Armenia. Oskanian said that following their talks in Minsk last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 29, 2006), the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan need time to "think things over," but that he thinks the two sides "will try to resume negotiations" between their respective foreign ministers in late January or early February 2007, Noyan Tapan reported. Oskanian admitted that there may be fewer meetings in coming months, and they will take place with less publicity. LF

Vugar Aliyev, who heads the Azerbaijani prosecutor-general's press office, told Turan news agency on December 19 that media reports that the charges brought in late 2005 against former Health Minister Ali Insanov of plotting to overthrow the Azerbaijani government have been dropped are untrue, and reported on December 20. Some media reported on December 18 that the coup charges against Insanov have been dropped but that he still faced charges of abuse of office, bribe taking, and misappropriation of state property (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2006). LF

Members of the opposition Democratic Front parliament faction and the Imedi television channel have publicized in recent days several cases in which owners of businesses were allegedly pressured by the Prosecutor-General's Office under threat of criminal proceedings for imputed tax evasion to cede their property to the state, Caucasus Press reported on December 18 and 19. Democratic Faction leader Kakha Kukava alleged on December 18 that such cases have become "more frequent" since the appointment last month of Giorgi Arveladze as economic development minister. Kukava appealed to businessmen who have been subjected to such pressure to go public with the details. Imedi on December 17 claimed to have obtained copies of documentation under which owners signed away the rights to 10 properties worth some 6.35 million laris ($3.7 million), including restaurants and several historic bathhouses in the old quarter of Tbilisi. LF

At a brief session on December 19, Georgia's National Regulatory Commission for Communications resolved to postpone until early next year the adoption of a draft code of ethics for broadcasters, and reported. Some journalists and NGOs consider that the code imposes unacceptable restrictions on broadcasters. The Georgian Partriarchate issued a statement on December 18 condemning it for allegedly undermining ethical norms by not imposing restrictions on broadcasting scenes of violence, drug abuse, and homosexual acts. LF

The opposition New Conservatives (aka New Rightists) parliament faction has launched a campaign to have the Tax Code amended to preserve the tax exemption to which media outlets were entitled in 2005-06, according to Civil Georgia on December 16 and Caucasus Press on December 20. During those two years, media outlets were exempt from paying value-added, profit, or property taxes, paying only income taxes at a rate of 20 percent and a 20 percent social tax. Faction member Manana Nachkebia argued that Georgia has not experienced a rate of economic growth that would enable the media to pay far higher tax rates. LF

Talks in Baku on December 18 between the energy ministers of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey failed to yield an agreement on redistributing Turkey's share of the gas from the Caspian Shah Deniz field that has just come on-stream, reported on December 20. Turkey has reportedly agreed to cede 800 million cubic meters to Georgia and 1.3 billion cubic meters to Azerbaijan, but Azerbaijan's Energy Minister Natik Aliyev was quoted as saying Azerbaijan will pay $58 per 1,000 cubic meters for gas from Shah Deniz and Georgia hopes to pay the same price, but that there are "several difficulties" about how Georgia will recompense Turkey, according to on December 19. Georgian Energy Minister Nika Gilauri rejected on December 19 as "disinformation" Russian media reports that the talks have collapsed. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili arrived in Ankara on December 19 for talks with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Necdet Sezer on energy security and cooperation, including gas supplies, the Georgian television channel Imedi reported on December 19. LF

Nursultan Nazarbaev met in Beijing on December 19 with Chinese President Hu Jintao while on his state visit to China, ITAR-TASS reported. During the meeting, Nazarbaev signed a series of 10 bilateral agreements, including new accords on economic cooperation and an agreement on the proposed Atasu-Alashankou oil pipeline. Additional agreements were signed on the use and protection of cross-border water resources and the establishment of a railway link near the Khorgos border crossing. The Atasu-Alashankou pipeline, which has an initial annual capacity of 10 million tons, became operational in December 2005 and Kazakh officials announced in February 2006 that the pipeline will allow "full-scale oil exports" to China beginning in May, (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 16, 2005 and February 27, 2006). Nazarbaev is also scheduled to visit Hong Kong and Macao during his visit and is expected to finalize an agreement establishing flights between Kazakhstan and Hong Kong. Reflecting the deepening nature of bilateral ties, this meeting of the Kazakh and Chinese presidents is their 14th official meeting. RG

Kurmanbek Bakiev issued a presidential decree on December 19 replacing the head of the Central Election Commission, AKIpress reported. According to the terms of a second presidential decree, Aichurek Eshimova was appointed acting chairwoman of the commission, replacing Tuygunaaly Abdraimov. Prior to the appointment, Eshimova served as the deputy head of the Chuy regional election commission and also as a member of the Central Election Commission. RG

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Feliks Kulov signed an order on December 18 promoting Dzhusupdzhan Dzheyenbekov to the position of first deputy minister of ecology and emergencies, according to the website. Dzheyenbekov previously served as the governor of the northern Talas region. President Bakiev also dismissed the governor of the northern Issyk-Kul region's Tup district on December 19 and appointed Omurbek Sharshenaliyev as his acting replacement. The reshuffle follows the appointment of a new Security Council chairman and comes in the wake of the resignation of Kulov's cabinet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2006). RG

Some 380 workers at a Kyrgyz-Canadian gold mine went on strike on December 19 to demand better pay, AKIpress reported. According to the chairman of the company's trade union committee, Marat Asanaliyev, the strike has halted operations at the mine run by the Kumtor Company outside of Bishkek. RG

In comments during a telephone call-in interview, President Bakiev said on December 18 that there are "obstacles" in the investigation of a shooting incident at the U.S. military base near Bishkek that resulted in the death of a Kyrgyz citizen, Kyrgyz television reported. The incident involved the shooting of a local ethnic Russian by a U.S. airman at the U.S. part of the Manas Air Base on December 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2006). Bakiev explained that although "the investigation is under way," it has proceeded "with specific obstacles for our law-enforcement agencies." He also said that the incident may complicate bilateral relations and suggested that "the U.S. side should also assume responsibility," but said that "we will try to resolve the issue." RG

Imomali Rakhmonov issued a presidential decree on December 19 firing First Deputy Interior Minister Lieutenant General Abdurahim Qahhorov, Tajik television reported. A second presidential decree also removed Deputy Interior Minister Alikhon Rahmonov from his post, although the move was cited as "due to his transfer" to another unspecified position. Rakhmonov also recently initiated a series of dismissals of municipal and provincial officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2006). RG

Belarus has barred a German diplomat from entering the country, dpa reported on December 19. Officials at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry reportedly declined to explain why they refused a visa to Holger Kraemer, who is currently employed at the German Foreign Ministry. Kraemer worked at the German Embassy in Minsk from 2000 to 2004. JM

Canada has imposed trade sanctions on Belarus in a bid to pressure the country's rulers to respect human rights and democracy, Reuters reported on December 19. Under the sanctions, Canadian exports to Belarus will now require an official export permit, and officials say these permits will generally be denied except for humanitarian exports of food, clothing, and medicine. In a written statement, Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay cited flawed elections and the continued imprisonment of democracy supporters as examples of the flagrant abuse of human rights and the rule of law on the part of Belarusian authorities. Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou said the Canadian sanctions are a short-sighted move, Belapan reported. According to Papou, more than 60 Canadian exporters to Belarus petitioned the government against the restrictions. "But their interests, as well as the interests of the Belarusian people, were ignored," Papou added. JM

Yuriy Lutsenko, who was dismissed from his post of interior minister earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006), announced the creation of a new public movement called the People's Self-Defense in Kyiv on December 20, Ukrainian media reported. Lutsenko said the basic goal of the movement will be to counter a comeback of "Kuchmism" in Ukraine, that is, the authoritarian system of power that was characteristic of the era of President Leonid Kuchma (1994-04). "[We see] a massive comeback of the [power] system and comrades-in-arms of Mr. Kuchma," Lutsenko said, accusing the ruling coalition and the cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych of the "usurpation of power." "The usurper is not an individual, as Kuchma was, but a collective -- the anti-crisis coalition," Lutsenko said. Lutsenko, who was an iconic leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution, is widely seen as a staunch supporter of President Viktor Yushchenko. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on December 19 amended the 2007 budget bill that was vetoed by President Viktor Yushchenko last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2006), Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko refused to sign the budget bill, demanding increases in minimum monthly wages and pensions. The amended bill reportedly does not take into account most suggestions made by Yushchenko. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, first deputy head of the Presidential Secretariat and the presidential representative in the government, said the president could veto the amended budget again. "If the budget today exceeds 160 billion hryvnyas ($32 billion) and we cannot find 800 million [hryvnyas] by redistributing expenditures from other programs that are not socially oriented at all, then the question is, what does the country work for and what does the economy work for? The president's proposals to help the least protected strata of the population were not considered. This budget should not be signed," Yatsenyuk told journalists. JM

Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Moldova, and Kosova signed the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) at a ceremony in Bucharest, Romania, on December 19, dpa and Makfax reported the same day. The UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) signed on behalf of Kosova. Prior to the enlargement, the CEFTA comprised Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Macedonia. Romania and Bulgaria will leave in January to join the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5 and 18, 2006). CEFTA, widely seen as a training ground for EU membership, harmonizes trade rules among its members. "We are opening a new chapter in the history of our region," Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu said at the ceremony. "The European Commission supports the new accord on free trade, which is in line with the European integration process," he added. BW

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on December 19 that Belgrade will benefit economically from signing the CEFTA, B92 and FoNet reported the same day. Kostunica said Serbia should see its exports rise and economy strengthen as a result of membership. Kostunica also said the CEFTA "is good preparation for EU membership," citing the success of Bulgaria and Romania. Among the current members of the EU, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia were also once CEFTA members. The secretary-general of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Aleksandar Vucic, criticized the move, saying it will destroy Serbia's economy, B92 reported. "Signing the CEFTA agreement in not about regional cooperation, it is about completing the political agenda of breaking apart the Serbian economy completely," he said. BW

NATO opened a liaison office in Belgrade on December 18 in order to assist Serbia's efforts to reform its armed forces and to help facilitate the movement of alliance troops, UPI reported the same day. French General Yanick Asset, the former military attache in Belgrade, will head the office. Speaking after a signing ceremony in Belgrade, NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alessandro Minuto Rizzo said the new office gives Serbia a chance to contribute to peace and stability in the Balkans and in the world. U.S. Admiral Harry Ulrich, the commander of NATO's Allied Joint Force Command Naples, called the opening a historic moment for Serbia. Serbia joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program last week, and Belgrade announced this week that the first NATO troop movements through the country will take place in January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15 and 19, 2006). BW

NATO Deputy Secretary-General Rizzo said that he is confident that Serbia will fulfill its obligations to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and arrest war crimes fugitives, B92 and FoNet reported on December 19. "I have no doubt that public opinion in Serbia will know what a war crime is," he said. In response to a reporter's question about whether inadequate cooperation with the ICTY could affect Serbia's membership of the Partnership for Peace, Rizzo said that Serbia is a full and unconditional member of the program. He also said he expects Serbia to act responsibly regarding the upcoming decision on the final status of Kosova. "I believe that complete Euro-Atlantic integrations are the only solution for the further democratization and political and economic progress of this region," Rizzo said. BW

The ICTY has announced that SRS leader and war crimes indictee Vojislav Seselj has been released from the hospital and returned to his cell, dpa reported on December 19. Seselj's health is improving each day, the ICTY said. Seselj was on hunger strike from November 11 until December 8, when the ICTY acceded to his demand to defend himself in court and to be allowed conjugal visits (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13 and December 5, 6, 7, 8, and 11, 2006). BW

Migrant workers from Moldova sent home a record $1 billion in 2006, dpa and Infotag reported on December 19. Martin Wyss, a regional director for the International Organization of Migration (IOM), said an IOM survey indicated that the average Moldovan migrant worker sent home $1,333 in 2006. Those working in the European Union sent back $1,546. Close to one-third of Moldova's working-age population is employed abroad and cash remittances account for 30 percent of the country's gross domestic product, dpa reported. The Moldovan government has estimated that 65 percent of Moldovans who work abroad do so illegally. Moldovan men work mostly in Ukraine or Russia in the construction industry or agriculture. The single largest city employing Moldovan migrant workers is Moscow, where an estimated 136,000 work. Moldovan women tend to work in Western Europe, Turkey, and Israel. They work most commonly in households, agriculture, and the sex industry. BW

Over the past 12 years, Azerbaijan's various fractious opposition parties have failed time and again to join forces to pose a strong, united, and cohesive alternative to the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party.

Partly as a result of individual opposition party leaders' reluctance to subordinate their personal ambitions to the greater opposition cause, but also partly due to ballot stuffing and other blatant procedural violations, the opposition suffered three successive crushing defeats in the parliamentary elections of 1995, 2000, and 2005.

In 2000, official returns gave opposition candidates only 15 of the 125 parliament mandates, and in 2005, 21. By contrast, the unofficial Center for Election Monitoring reportedly calculated on the basis of its own data that the opposition Azadliq bloc alone won 40 seats.

In the wake of the disputed 2005 ballot, some opposition deputies demonstratively refused to take up their mandates in protest at perceived massive falsification. Several other nominally opposition deputies who do participate in the work of the legislature are widely regarded as in cahoots with the authorities.

Nor have opposition candidates fared any better in successive presidential ballots. Several opposition leaders boycotted the 1998 presidential election, in which official returns gave incumbent President Heydar Aliyev 76.11 percent of the vote compared to 11.6 percent for his closest challenger, Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) Chairman Etibar Mammadov.

Failing health prevented Aliyev from running for a third term, but his son Ilham won the October 2003 presidential ballot, again with 76 percent of the vote. Musavat Party Chairman Isa Qambar finished a distant second with 13.97 percent, followed by independent candidate Lale Sovket-Haciyeva (3.62 percent), and AMIP's Mammadov (2.92 percent). Four other candidates polled 1 percent or less.

As with previous ballots, international observers dubbed the vote as failing to meet international standards for free and fair elections. Police in Baku used violence against Musavat supporters who gathered to protest Qambar's apparent defeat, claiming that he was, in fact, the victor.

Following the 2003 presidential election, observers in Baku predicted the emergence of a new political force that they anticipated would replace an "old" opposition widely perceived to be a spent force.

One of the opposition figures touted as a possible rallying figure -- former presidential adviser Eldar Namazov -- aligned in 2005 with other opposition leaders of disparate political views, including Mammadov and exiled former President Ayaz Mutallibov, to form the Yeni Siyaset (New Politics, aka YeS) bloc. However, YeS won only two parliament mandates in the November parliamentary election, and suspended its activities in the summer of 2006.

A second election bloc, Azadliq, which united the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA), and the Musavat Party, effectively collapsed in February 2006, when Musavat defied its partners' proclaimed boycott and decided to participate in the work of the new legislature.

The collapse of Azadliq and subsequent acrimonious infighting within both Musavat and the Democratic Party was met with undisguised schadenfreude on the part of the Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP). Senior members of that party have dwelt at length in interviews in recent months on what they consider the opposition's weaknesses and failures.

For example, YAP Deputy Executive Secretary Mubariz Gurbanli said in a November 17 interview with the website that the opposition is incapable of putting forward any convincing and palatable alternative to the policies currently being implemented by the Azerbaijani leadership, and is therefore losing popular support.

He accused unnamed opposition politicians of resorting to "populist slogans and baseless slander" in a fruitless attempt to blacken the authorities and in a competition among themselves to be acknowledged as "the most radical opposition party." But even though a political opposition is a "normal attribute" of a democratic society, Gurbanli continued, "we shall not create an opposition artificially."

Opposition politicians were dismayed and embittered by the international community's lukewarm condemnation of the rigging of the 2005 parliamentary ballot. (The OSCE Monitoring Mission noted that election officials blatantly juggled figures in favor of YAP in 43 percent of precincts where their monitors were present for the vote count.)

That Western failure to express support for the Azerbaijani opposition was all the more painful when contrasted with the West's enthusiastic support of the Rose Revolution in Georgia in November 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in late 2004. Democratic Party First Deputy Secretary Serdar Jalaloglu, for example, accused the West of "betraying democracy" in Azerbaijan.

That collective sense of impotence and frustration among opposition party leaders was compounded by restrictions throughout the year on the holding of opposition rallies, and most recently by the eviction on November 24, 2006, of the AHCP progressive wing and the editorial staff of the newspaper "Azadliq" (which began publication 17 years ago as the AHCP organ) from the premises in central Baku that they had occupied for the past decade.

The following day, AHCP progressive wing Chairman Ali Kerimli and Liberal Party leader Haciyeva proposed drawing international attention to the absence of normal conditions for the functioning of either opposition parties or opposition media by suspending indefinitely the activities of both, reported on December 5. Democratic Party First Deputy Chairman Jalaloglu expressed support for that proposal, but Musavat and AMIP reportedly rejected it.

Mehman Aliyev (no relation to the president), director of the news agency Turan that was evicted from the same building that housed "Azadliq" and the AHCP, argued that despite the constraints on opposition activity, the opposition should not adopt the "emotional decision" to suspend its activities.

Both Aliyev and Musavat argued that the opposition should instead align in a broad-based "resistance movement" that would coordinate its activities more closely, and reported on November 27 and 28, respectively. But opposition parliament deputy Panah Huseynov was quoted on December 5 by the daily "Ayna/Zerkalo" as saying mutual distrust, insincerity, and fundamental disagreements continue to preclude closer cooperation between the various opposition forces.

In early December, Jalaloglu addressed an open letter to President Aliyev, again raising the possibility, which the opposition had floated earlier, of establishing a National Forum in which political parties, NGOs, the media, trade unions, and possibly also leading government figures would participate.

Azerbaijani media construed that proposal as a direct call for dialogue between the opposition and the ruling authorities. So too did the president, who responded on December 7 that "I have said many times that we are ready for political dialogue," which would serve the country's interests.

At the same time, Aliyev slammed the opposition for acting in what he termed a "destructive" and "uncivilized" fashion and for resorting to "threats, illegal actions, and attempts to destabilize the situation," reported on December 8.

Jalaloglu then explained to journalists on December 12 that his proposal was to convene a forum that would be capable of proposing solutions to unspecified "national problems." At the same time, he stressed that the opposition is not against dialogue with the authorities and is ready to participate in such an exchange at any time. Jalaloglu went on to identify as the main obstacle to such a dialogue unnamed pro-Russian politicians in both the opposition and the government camps who, he claimed, wish not merely to prevent a rapprochement between the two sides, but to provoke a major political and economic crisis.

Whether Jalaloglu seriously believed the authorities would agree to his proposal -- or whether he counted on a refusal that the opposition could subsequently adduce to substantiate their argument that the leadership has no interest in promoting democratization -- is unclear.

Previous initiatives, such as the OSCE-mediated roundtable discussions between YAP and several opposition parties in the early summer of 2005, collapsed due to bickering over what issues should be addressed and Azadliq's failure to send representatives.

The Afghan government dismissed on December 18 the governor of Helmand Province, the largest opium-producing province in Afghanistan, AP reported on December 19. Governor Mohammad Daud was replaced by Asadullah Wafa to help increase security in the region, which has become a center of neo-Taliban resistance, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary. Although Helmand accounts for up 42 percent of Afghanistan's total poppy crop and more than one-third of the world's opium -- according to UN figures -- Bashary insisted the increase in poppy cultivation has nothing to do with Daud being sacked. A Western official in Kabul, who requested anonymity, dispelled media reports claiming the United States wanted Daud replaced and said Daud is a "high-integrity guy." Opium production in Afghanistan this year rose 49 percent to 6,700 tons -- enough to make about 670 tons of heroin. JC

One day after General Khair Mohammad was arrested for alleged espionage, Afghan security forces arrested a Pakistani intelligence officer in Konar Province on December 18, AFP reported. Mohammad Karim Rahimi, spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, said the man is a current officer for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistani secret service, and "was arrested with convincing documents." Another government official at the presidential palace said the man arrested is Sayed Akbar. He added that the man acknowledges having contacts with other "high-ranking" ISI officers in nearby Nuristan Province. According to the official (who spoke under anonymity), Akbar had been in Konar since 2004, acting as an assistant to a local Afghan doctor. One week before Akbar's arrest, Karzai publicly accused the Pakistani government of supporting Taliban insurgents; Pakistan firmly denies aiding the Taliban. JC

Police in the Afghan capital said they have apprehended a man suspected of planning to assassinate a member of the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, on December 17, the Pajhwak Afghan News agency reported the next day. Bacha Khan Zadran was arrested while trying to escape during a police raid on his house in central Kabul, according to police General Alishah Paktiawal. Police recovered documents from Zadran's home outlining his connections to Maulvi Siraj-ud-Din Haqqani, a commander of the neo-Taliban operating in the southeastern Paktia Province, Paktiawal said. Initial investigations show that Haqqani originally was assigned to the attempted assassination of Zadran. Paktiawal told reporters that he was informed of the assassination plot by the Interior Ministry and Kabul police. Zadran's nationality was not specified. Kabul police have arrested more than 30 suspected terrorists over the last four months. JC

NATO jets attacked and killed a number of insurgents in a bombing raid on a Taliban command post in southern Afghanistan on December 18, AFP reported the next day. A statement released by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) announced the overnight air strikes in the Panjwayi district as part of a new anti-insurgent offensive launched this week known as Operation Baaz Tsuka. While the statement gave no details of casualties, an ISAF official said on condition of anonymity that "a number of Taliban were killed in the air raid," although he did not give an exact figure. Prior to the offensive, ISAF dropped leaflets on insurgent positions warning fighters to leave the area. Despite being ousted in late 2001 by U.S.-led forces, remnants of the Taliban are still active and continue to carry out violent attacks. Nearly 4,000 people, including 1,000 civilians, have died in that period. JC

Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a gathering in the town of Kermanshah, western Iran, on December 19 that "oppressive powers" that have distanced themselves from justice and God-worship will thwart and violate Iran's rights if allowed to, ISNA reported. "Without standing up to oppressive powers the country cannot be built," he said, praising the "culture" of "selflessness" and martyrdom in Iran. Iranians have to stand up to these powers, he said, and not "let them enter the Iranian people's closed circle to obstruct the construction of Islamic Iran." If "our enemies have presently taken positions behind the Security Council, then [the council] will certainly not have legitimacy" for Iranians, he said. He added that Iranians recognize their enemies, even if they hide in such bodies as the UN nuclear inspectorate or "behind the mask of human rights and defense of democracy." He said the world did not react when "artificial" Israel insinuated that it has nuclear weapons because Israel is "their trained servant." He asked, "Are you not worried by your own arsenals, full of destructive weapons, when you say you are worried by Iran's peaceful activities?" Iran, he said, is but a "small step" from reaching the "pinnacle" of its nuclear path, ISNA reported. VS

The Interior Ministry on December 19 released more voting results for the December 15 municipal polls in Tehran, as officials dismissed suspicions by some parties of fraud and demands for greater clarity in the vote-counting process, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported. With more than 1.13 million votes having been counted in Tehran, Mehdi Chamran, Morteza Talai, Rasul Khadem, Hadi Sai, Abbas Sheibani, Hamzeh Shakib, Alireza Dabir, Masumeh Ebtekar, Parvin Ahmadinejad, and Ahmad Masjed-Jamei were the top 10 vote-getters on the 15-seat council, ISNA reported. Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr said in Tehran on December 18 that "some people" are being provocative, and he denied there were any irregularities in the vote counting. Reformists wrote to the parliament speaker on December 17 urging him to act on various irregularities noted by observers, the daily "Etemad" reported on December 18. These included disagreements between election officials and parliamentarians supervising the election process on whether to count ballots by hand or with machines; the inexplicable transfer of ballot boxes from certain designated counting sites to others by unidentified people; and ballot boxes left unattended for hours. VS

Mohammad Khosh-chehreh, a member of parliament's Economy Committee, told ILNA on December 18 that rumors of Transport Minister Mohammad Rahmati's removal "have even been heard inside parliament, but nothing definite has been announced by the cabinet. But then no reason was given for the removal" of Management and Planning Organization chief Farhad Rahbar (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," November 21, 2006). Vali Azarvash of the parliamentary Construction Committee said he heard rumors of Rahmati's removal, and also that of Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on December 19. Rahmati became transport minister in the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami and remained minister under President Ahmadinejad. Tabriz representative Akbar Alami said on December 18 that parliament will soon question Rahmati on delays in completing a highway between Tabriz and Zanjan in northwestern Iran. He said the road should have been finished by late September 2006, and delays are hurting the economy, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day. VS

Ayatollah Mohammad Hashemi-Shahrudi ordered the Tehran chief justice not to arrest former legislator Mohammad Dadfar, who was to go to court on December 19 to begin serving a jail sentence given him five years ago, Radio Farda reported on December 19. It was not clear if the sentence was rescinded. Dadfar's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, told ISNA on December 18 that the sentence should have been cancelled for the time that has passed since it was issued. Dadfar was initially sentenced to seven months in prison and given a fine when -- as a parliamentarian and member of the last parliament's Article 90 Committee -- he had written a newspaper article alleging that the judiciary was demonstrating relative laxity in dealing with a 1999 attack by police and right-wing vigilantes on the Tehran University campus, Radio Farda reported. The Article 90 Committee deals with public complaints against state agencies. Many protested the sentence, arguing that Dadfar enjoyed parliamentary immunity and therefore had the right to express himself freely, Radio Farda stated. Dadfar represented Bushehr in the parliament. VS

A leading Kurdish politician, Mahmud Uthman, on December 19 accused the Iraqi government of being detached from the Iraqi people, the "Al-Sabah" newspaper reported the same day. "The Iraqi government is based in the protected Green Zone, plus disputes between politicians have led to a deterioration and have triggered more rage in the street," Uthman said. "The Iraqi street is now left to the militias, terrorists, and gangsters. This is unacceptable." A quarterly report issued by the Pentagon on December 18 indicated that attacks in Iraq have reached record highs. The report, entitled "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq," found that there were 959 attacks per week between August 12 and November 10, a 22 percent increase on the previous three months. Sixty-eight percent of the attacks were directed at U.S. forces, but the vast majority of the casualties were Iraqi civilians. The report also said that Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army "has replaced Al-Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq." SS

The International Crisis Group released a report on December 19 warning that Iraq will most probably "collapse into a failed and fragmented state" unless a radical new strategy is adopted. The Brussels-based think tank outlined three steps for success in Iraq: sustained multilateral diplomacy to put pressure on all Iraqi parties to make compromises; a conference bringing together all Iraqi and international stakeholders, including militia elements and insurgent groups, to forge a new political compact; and a new U.S. regional strategy, including engagement with Syria and Iran. "Polite engagement of Iraq's neighbors will not do; rather, a clear redefinition of Washington's objectives in the region will be required to enlist regional, but especially Iranian and Syrian help. The goal is not to bargain with them, but to seek agreement on an end-state for Iraq and the region that is no one's first choice, but with which everyone can live," the report said. SS

Masked gunmen wearing police uniforms on December 19 seized money from Industry Ministry employees who were withdrawing their salaries from the Al-Zuwiyah Bank in Baghdad's Al-Karradah district, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Police sources said at least 1.25 billion dinars ($875,000) in cash was stolen, while an Interior Ministry source said the gunmen stormed the bank itself and seized 2 billion dinars ($1.4 million). This is the second bank heist in Baghdad in a little over a week. On December 11, armed gunmen stole $1 million after ambushing a security vehicle transporting money to the Iraqi Central Bank in Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2006). SS

Prosecutors in the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for genocide against ethnic Kurds showed graphic video footage on December 19 of what they claimed were chemical attacks on Kurdish villages, international media reported. Grainy footage shot between April 1987 and May 1988 showed helicopters flying low over the mountains, villagers frantically fleeing in trucks, refugees on foot, white smoke, and women gathered near tents, crying. It also showed images of dead civilians, including infants, allegedly killed after a chemical attack on their villages. "These were different shots of what was called 'population centers' of the victims of chemical bombing," said chief prosecutor Munqith al-Farun. Al-Farun also presented the court with an internal government memo, dated 1992, that praised the role of Dutch businessman Frans van Anraat in providing the former regime with chemical weapons. "He provided great services to the country by providing the country's institutions and the military industry with chemical and rare materials," the memo read. The Hussein regime rewarded van Anraat with Iraqi citizenship, but he fled Iraq after the regime fell in March 2003. On December 23, 2005, he was convicted by a Dutch court and sentenced to 15 years in prison after being found guilty of complicity in war crimes. SS

Kurdish regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said on December 18 that his recent meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki concerning an oil law were promising, "Irbil Peyamner" reported the same day. "Regarding the issue of fuel, our views were similar and I am positive that we will reach an agreement. As for the law on oil, it will be announced in the next few days. According to the constitution, oil is the property of all Iraqis," he said. Barzani also said both sides agreed to allocate 17 percent of the national budget to the Kurdish region. Barzani expects the agreement to be formally endorsed on December 21. SS

Abbas al-Bayati, a Shi'ite lawmaker from the United Iraqi Alliance, said on December 19 that a new political coalition will be announced within a month, the "Al-Sabah" newspaper reported the same day. Sources indicated that the coalition could be forged between the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Kurdish Alliance, the Sunni-led Islamic Party, as well as the Iraqi National Accord movement, and Prime Minister al-Maliki's Al-Da'wah Party. Al-Bayati said that the aim of the new coalition is to form a moderate nonsectarian bloc to support al-Maliki. SS