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Newsline - December 27, 2006

Russia's state-controlled natural-gas monopoly Gazprom said on December 26 that Belarus has six days to accept a sharp price hike or face a cutoff, Reuters and Russian news agencies reported the same day. "The current contract on gas supplies to Belarus will expire in six days," Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said. "Belarus's negotiating position is irresponsible and puts the issue of the whole country's energy supplies under threat." Belarus currently pays $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas, RIA Novosti reported. Gazprom is seeking to raise the price to $200 per 1,000 cubic meters. Interfax quoted Kupriyanov as saying Belarus could pay $80 per 1,000 cubic meters in cash and the rest with a 50 percent share in the Belarusian pipeline operator Beltranshaz. "The price at which Gazprom sells gas to Belarus is not only subsidized, which is unacceptable for equal cooperation of two states, but is also loss making for Gazprom because it does not cover its production and transportation costs," Kupriyanov said. BW

Also on December 26, a Gazprom official said the company will continue to deliver Europe-bound natural gas via Belarus even if no contract is signed with Minsk, RIA Novosti reported the same day. "All volumes of gas on our export contracts will be delivered to the Belarusian border on January 1 even if we sign no contract with Belarus," said Aleksandr Medvedev, head of Gazeksport. "I do not want to forecast Belarus's behavior in this case." Medvedev added that the issues of gas transit via Belarus will not be linked to gas supplies to that country. "Transit and supplies issues are not and will not be linked," he said. Asked what the company would do if Belarus taps gas when no contract is signed, Medvedev said there are international organizations that Gazprom can turn to. BW

Russia's Supreme Court on December 26 upheld a life sentence for Nurpashi Kulayev, convicted for his part in the 2004 Beslan school siege, Interfax and RIA Novosti reported the same day. Kulayev's defense lawyer and a group of Beslan survivors and victims' relatives filed the appeals in May after a regional court found Kulayev guilty of terrorism, murder, and illegal arms possession (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1, 2006). Arguing for the case to be reopened, the Voice of Beslan advocacy group said security forces should be held responsible, along with Kulayev, for the loss of life. "We believe the security forces are to blame for the children's deaths, along with Kulayev, but they still go unpunished. The case file does not say a word about the flame throwers and the tanks used in storming the school, and all witness testimonies are being kept off the record," Voice of Beslan activist Ella Kesayeva said. BW

Prosecutors demanded life in prison for three suspects in two bomb explosions in the Moscow subway in 2004, RIA Novosti reported on December 26. The attacks, in February and August 2004, killed a total of 49 people and injured more than 300 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2004). Murat Shavayev, Tamby Khubiyev, and Maksim Panaryin, suspected of involvement in both attacks, are facing charges of terrorism, murder, affiliation with a criminal group, illegal arms possession, and the making of an explosive device. A prosecutor told the Moscow City Court that the crimes are punishable by death, but due to Russia's moratorium on the death penalty, the state will seek life imprisonment. BW

Anatoly Perminov, the head of Russia's Federal Space Agency, said on December 26 that Russia will not transfer sensitive technologies to China that would enable Beijing to become a rival power in space, AP reported the same day. Perminov said, however, that Russia will cooperate with China on space projects, including unmanned missions to the moon. "The Chinese are still some 30 years behind us, but their space program has been developing very fast. They are quickly catching up with us," Perminov said at a news conference. "We aren't transferring any technologies to China now. This issue has been under special control of the government." Perminov said that as China's economy has become stronger, space has become a more important priority. "They are spending much more on space compared to Russia...and their space industries employ many times more the number of scientists and workers than Russia's," he said. BW

Speaking at the same news conference on December 26, Federal Space Agency head Perminov said Russia was the world's leader in space launches in 2006, RIA Novosti reported the same day. "Russia's current share in the spacecraft launch market is about 40 percent, and counting joint Russian-Ukrainian launches from the Sea Launch platform, it totals about 45 percent of all launches conducted in the world," Perminov said. In 2006, Russia has thus far conducted 24 launches, and plans to launch a Soyuz-2-1B carrier rocket with a Fregat booster and a French Corot satellite on December 27, Perminov said. The United States is in second place with 18 launches in 2006, while Japan and China shared third place with six launches each. Perminov added that the number of launches for 2007 will be reduced to approximately 20. Russia plans to allocate 24 billion rubles ($910 million) for its space program in 2007, he said. BW

The Supreme Court of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) passed sentence on December 27, two months after the trial ended, on 16 men accused of shooting parliament deputy and local businessman Rasul Bogatyryov and six of his friends during the night of October 10-11, 2004, and burning their bodies, Interfax and RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 10 and 12, 2004, and August 24, September 20, and December 12, 2006). Eight of the 16 defendants, including Ali Kaitov, KChR President Mustafa Batdyev's former son-in-law, faced charges of premeditated murder, and the others of concealing the crime. The prosecution on September 20 demanded a 20-year sentence for Kaitov, life imprisonment for his friends Temirlan Bostanov and Azamat Akbayev, and 17 years' imprisonment for German Ismailov. The court sentenced Kaitov to 17 years' imprisonment, Bostanov and Akbayev to life in prison, and Ismailov to 16 years. The other defendants received jail terms ranging from 8 1/2 to 14 years. LF/AD

During a press conference in Yerevan, Armenian Economic Development and Trade Minister Karen Chshmaritian reported on December 26 that official statistics project at least a 13.5 percent increase in gross domestic product (GDP), the sixth consecutive year of double-digit economic growth, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo. According to the government's data, GDP grew by 13.2 percent in the first 11 months of 2006. Although Chshmaritian said that the Armenian economy is "becoming more diversified," he noted that both local manufacturing and overall industrial growth decreased during the same period, citing a continuing downturn in the global trade in processed diamonds, one of the country's main export items. He also stressed that small and medium-sized firms now account for more than 40 percent of total GDP. The statistics also indicated an increase of between 20-25 percent in the level of foreign investment, driven by large-scale investments in the telecommunications and mining sectors, and the development of the main Armenian airport. RG

The Armenian parliament voted on December 25 to reinstate the post-Soviet national anthem, which controversially lost its official status earlier this month, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The country was left without a national anthem after the parliament failed to meet a constitutional deadline of December 6 for reaffirming it or approving a new state anthem. "Mer Hayrenik" (Our Fatherland) was the official anthem of the independent Armenian republic of 1918-20, before being officially reinstated by Armenia's first postcommunist government in 1990. RG

The Armenian Court of Cassation overturned on December 22 the conviction of three army conscripts serving life sentences imposed by military prosecutors for killing two fellow soldiers while deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The acquittal by a five-judge panel of Armenia's top appeals court led to the immediate release of Razmik Sargsian, Musa Serobian, and Araik Zalian from Yerevan's Nubarashen prison. In a rare challenge to military prosecutors, the court's ruling declared their conviction "null and void" and ordered prosecutors to reinvestigate the case. The case stems from the December 2003 killing of two soldiers, allegedly after a fight with the three defendants over a food parcel that was delivered to one of the servicemen. The three soldiers were sentenced to 15-year prison terms after their conviction by a Karabakh court in April 2005. After lodging an appeal of the verdict, a higher court imposed life sentences in May 2006. RG

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met on December 26 in Baku with visiting Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to discuss bilateral energy cooperation, Turan reported. Yanukovych briefed Aliyev on the details of his negotiations with Azerbaijani Prime Minister Artur Rasizade over the formation of a proposed international consortium to implement the Odesa-Brody oil-pipeline project involving both Russia and Kazakhstan, ITAR-TASS reported. RG

Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Yagub Eyubov concluded talks on December 26 with Iranian officials on increasing imports of natural gas from Iran, Turan reported. Although an agreement was reached for Iran to provide Azerbaijan with 1.8 billion cubic meters of natural gas for the coming year, Eyubov was unable to finalize the price for the gas. Baku is seeking a price of $110 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas from Iran. Azerbaijan is actively courting alternative gas suppliers and, in talks with Russian officials, recently rejected Moscow's new price demand of $235 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas, Caucasus Press reported. RG

After a series of talks in Baku, a Georgian delegation led by Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli concluded on December 26 an agreement with Azerbaijani President Aliyev for the export of Azerbaijani gas to Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. The new agreement calls on Azerbaijan to export over 1 million cubic meters of natural gas per day to Georgia at a price of $120 per 1,000 cubic meters, according to Imedi television. Georgian and Azerbaijani experts are also engaged in talks over possible energy swaps involving the barter exchange of electricity supplies. According to the terms of the swap, Azerbaijan will export electricity to Georgia in the winter in exchange for Georgian electricity in the summer. RG

A journalist working for a major Azerbaijani opposition newspaper was attacked on December 25 by unknown assailants outside his home in Baku, Turan reported. The journalist, Nicat Huseynov of "Azadliq," was rushed to the hospital after the attack with knife wounds and head injuries. The attack followed a similar assault the day before on Ali Orucov, press secretary for the opposition National Independence Party of Azerbaijan. In a statement responding to the attacks, presidential adviser Ali Hasanov said that the police are actively investigating the attacks and vowed that "the authorities consider any illegal action against journalists as an attack on themselves and on the principles of statehood, freedom of speech, and the press." RG

In comments during an interview with a Moscow radio station, Azerbaijani President Aliyev criticized on December 25 the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a "useless organization that does not give anything to Azerbaijan from a practical point of view," ITAR-TASS and Asia-Plus reported. Aliyev added that although the CIS represents a forum for leaders to meet, "one should not expect too much from it," while noting that the GUAM regional group is a "rather efficient organization." RG

Azerbaijani police prevented on December 24 a conference of Jehovah's Witnesses from being held in Baku, according to Azerbaijani Public Television. An unnamed municipal police officer explained that police prevented organizers from opening the conference because the group's activities are "illegal" and banned by Azerbaijan's state law on religion. He said the group was preparing for "provocative and sabotage acts" and alleged that police seized unspecified "equipment" used by the group to keep in contact with "foreign states and foreign intelligence services." Jehovah's Witnesses, who first came to Azerbaijan in 1995, have been operating in the country without official registration and members are routinely targeted by police and security forces. RG

Speaking during a Tbilisi press conference, Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili commented on December 26 on Georgia's strategic priorities for the coming year, saying that its commitment to greater NATO integration will require greater efforts "in the fields of defense, security, economy, and democracy," Caucasus Press reported. Bezhuashvili explained that a priority for Georgian foreign policy remains the "consolidation of international support for restoration of the territorial integrity of the country." He stressed that although integration with NATO and the resolution of the country's internal conflicts are "two independent processes" they are "parallel issues," adding that "we work on resolution of the conflicts not because we want to join NATO, but because this is our main political goal." He also said that a "direct dialogue" with the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sides under the aegis of the UN and OSCE and "through balanced international involvement" should become the cornerstone of the peace process next year. RG

Foreign Minister Bezhuashvili announced on December 26 that Georgia is ready to discuss Russia's efforts to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and promised that "Georgia is interested in Russia's admission to the WTO, as we need to have a reliable and civilized trade partner," according to Caucasus Press. However, he stressed that there are "problems" regarding Russia's bid and pointed out that "it is illogical that Georgia, a full-fledged member of WTO, is blockaded by a country that is a candidate for admission in this organization," as well as "the illegal customs checkpoints in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sections of the Georgian-Russian border." He then pledged that "we are ready to discuss solutions to these problems with Russia in order to support its admission to WTO in the future." To put its membership bid to a vote before all WTO members, Russia needs to reach just a handful of bilateral agreements with member states that are part of the working group on Russia's accession, of which Georgia is one. RG

In a speech to students at Tbilisi State University, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili laid out on December 26 his vision of a new, professional Georgian military, Caucasus Press and Rustavi-2 television reported. He noted that although Georgia has the smallest military in the region, it is "the most flexible" and is closest to NATO standards. He stressed that the country needs "a strong army" and called on the students to join the professional army, promising that in the future "Georgia will be able to defeat its enemies" with modern armed forces. Saakashvili also offered the students the option of signing new, four-year contracts as reserve soldiers. He explained that under new laws, "all Georgian citizens are subject to conscription," with a mandatory training course. The president is seeking to fill "between 1,000 and 1,500 openings for young officers in the Georgian armed forces" and is targeting university graduates in the first stage of a new selection process. The speech was also attended by Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, Chief of the General Staff Zaza Gogava, and Air Force commander Alan Lakoyev. RG

Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Levan Nikoleishvili announced on December 23 that the Russian withdrawal of troops from Tbilisi was completed ahead of schedule, Caucasus Press reported. Nikoleishvili hailed the pullout as "a historic day for us and an important victory for Georgia" as the departing Russian officers handed over the building in Tbilisi housing the headquarters of the Russian forces in the region. The withdrawal of Russian forces from the Tbilisi facility housed some 387 Russian servicemen and 484 civilians. A group of 15 Russian officers from the Tbilisi headquarters are to be deployed to the Russian military base in Batumi in order to organize the withdrawal from that base. RG

Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced on December 22 that the Russian state-owned Gazprom monopoly has concluded a deal with Georgia to supply natural gas at the price of $235 per 1,000 cubic meters beginning on January 1, 2007, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. According to the terms of the agreement, Gazprom has offered to supply Georgia with a volume of 1.1 billion cubic meters, an amount that falls short of Georgia's domestic needs by about 700 million cubic meters. Despite the new agreement, Georgia is seeking alternative supplies from Azerbaijan (see above). RG

Speaking at a press conference in Astana, opposition Ak Zhol party leader Alikhan Baymenov announced on December 26 a new agreement to cooperate with the Adilet (Justice) party, Kazakhstan Today reported. Baymenov stated that "we now intend to join our efforts" in order to "promote, above all, the democratization of the political system, as well as the resolution of socioeconomic problems." The agreement also envisages joint activities, campaigning, and the forming of joint political platforms on various issues. Earlier attempts to unite opposition parties have also centered on using the Ak Zhol party as the leading element of a broad coalition, but all attempts have failed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 15, 2004). RG

Kazakh Economy and Budget Planning Minister Aslan Musin announced on December 25 that the Kazakh economy continued to expand in 2006, with GDP surpassing $76 billion and reaching $5,100 per capita, Asia-Plus and Interfax reported. Musin, speaking at a press conference in Astana after a meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, also pointed out significant increases in the construction and service industries, while saying that unemployment has declined. The Kazakh government has specifically identified the goals of raising per capita GDP to $6,543 by the end of 2009 and to achieve an average double-digit growth rate to sustain longer-term development. RG

President Nazarbaev signed a new law on December 25 introducing amendments to the constitutional law on elections, Interfax reported. The law amends restrictions on "public events during elections" and ends the ban on holding peaceful gatherings and marches in the postelectoral period until the Central Election Commission announces the official results of an election. The ban was first introduced in the runup to the 2004 parliamentary election. RG

In comments to journalists in Bishkek, two leading Kyrgyz pro-presidential deputies announced on December 26 that a group of 30 deputies have urged President Kurmanbek Bakiev to dissolve parliament, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The two deputies -- Akmatbek Keldibekov and Kamchy Tashiev -- criticized parliament for opposing constitutional amendments that would strengthen the president's power. The leader of Kyrgyzstan's Social Democratic Party, Almaz Atambaev, argued that the parliament should not be dissolved before the adoption of new laws required by the constitution that was adopted in November, adding that "it is impossible for this parliament to be dissolved at least until May 2007, and it has to adopt all the laws." Addressing a meeting of the For Reforms movement, which consists of opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations, Atambaev also warned that "otherwise there will be a war in Kyrgyzstan, because even if parliament adopts" the proposed changes to the constitution, "I will tell you openly, we will not accept it. It would be a constitution adopted illegally." RG

The Kyrgyz parliament voted on December 25 to reject a proposal to amend the new constitution that was adopted in early November amid a massive opposition demonstration in Bishkek, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports. Most prominent of the amendments were articles reinstating the president's right to appoint a prime minister, government, and governors. Opposition lawmaker Omurbek Tekebaev accused President Kurmanbek Bakiev of reneging on the deal he made when the government agreed to adopt a new constitution and of trying to restore the system of government in place under former President Askar Akaev, saying that the president "wants revenge, a restoration of the old system" and "wants even more power" than that of former President Akaev." With only 46 deputies voting for the proposal to amend the constitution and three voting against, the measure failed to garner the 51 votes needed for the constitutional amendments to be adopted, according to Asia-Plus. RG

A new agreement was signed between officials of Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency and security officials from China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to expand cooperation in counternarcotics efforts, Asia-Plus reported on December 26. The agreement was signed during the visit of the Tajik agency officials to Xinjiang from December 18-21. During their stay in China, Tajik drug-control officials met with their Chinese counterparts and reviewed bilateral measures in combating drug smuggling and eradicating local drug production. The agreement also formally adopted a protocol on the exchange of information on drug-related crimes and for joint search and seizure operations targeting drug trafficking routes and transnational organized criminal groups. RG

Meeting in Dushanbe, the senior leaders of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan removed Masud Sobirov as party leader on December 24 and named his first deputy, Saidjaffar Ismonov, as acting chairman of the party, Asia-Plus reported. Speaking to journalists the next day, party official Saidahmad Nabizoda explained that "the main reason" for the move was Sobirov's recent statement "about possible unification with the Democratic Party led by Mahmadruzi Iskandarov," which was reportedly made without the consent or authorization of the party's leadership. RG

Turkmenistan's highest legislative body, the many-thousand-member People's Assembly, approved on December 26 the candidacy of acting Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov for president in an election planned for February 11, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and Turkmen state television reported. The move was crucial for the acting president, as the Turkmen Constitution formally barred an interim leader from running, although the approval of the People's Assembly amended the constitution to clear his candidacy. Another five candidates were also approved, including a deputy energy minister, two city mayors, one deputy regional governor, and one district head. Confirming the date of the election, Turkmen Election Commission Chairman Murat Garriev vowed that the contest will be "of the highest standards." Berdymukhammedov also pledged that "the election will be held "on a democratic basis." Berdymukhammedov, who worked as a dentist before becoming a deputy prime minister and health minister, was appointed interim president on December 21 and has officially become a potential successor to Niyazov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 22, 2006). RG

Talks between Belarusian authorities and Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom on 2007 gas supplies ended without agreement in Moscow on December 26, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Gazprom proposed the establishment of a joint enterprise that would control Belarus's Beltranshaz gas-pipeline network on a 50-50 basis. Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller said Belarus could pay $110 for 1,000 cubic meters of gas in 2007, including $75 in cash and the remainder in Beltranshaz assets. According to Miller, such a payment scheme could be maintained until 2011, when Gazprom is planning to switch to exclusively cash payments under market rates. "Time flies fast, and we think that full responsibility for the situation now, at the end of the year, where we still haven't signed a contract [for Russian gas supplies to Belarus], of course, lies with the Belarusian side, because Gazprom and the Russian Federation have come forward and offered the most preferential conditions [to Belarus], and we believe that these conditions are more than acceptable," Miller told journalists. The Belarusian government reportedly rejected the offer, reiterating that it would buy gas at prices not higher than those in Russia's Smolensk Oblast. "We still have time until December 31. I think we have a chance to reach agreement," said Belarusian First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka, who represented Minsk at the talks with Gazprom. Belarus currently pays $47 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas. JM

Election monitor Tsimafey Dranchuk was released on parole on December 26 from a correctional facility in Minsk, where he was serving a one-year sentence, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Dranchuk was sentenced along with Mikalay Astreyka, Alyaksandr Shalayka, and Enira Branitskaya in August on a charge of running the unregistered Partnyorstva (Partnership) organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2006), which gained prominence for its observation effort during Belarus's parliamentary elections and referendum in October 2004. Astreyka's two-year sentence was unexpectedly replaced with one of community service in November. The community sentence requires Astreyka to stay at home from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., report to the local police department on a regular basis, and give 15 percent of his earnings to the government. Shalayka and Branitskaya, who were sentenced to six months in prison each, were released in August. JM

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yushchenko pledged in Kyiv on December 22 to consult more closely on outstanding issues and work together to ensure energy supplies to Europe, international and Ukrainian news agencies reported. "Russia and Ukraine are united by the common goal of building a united Europe without dividing lines -- a Europe in which the people of our countries would enjoy good living conditions and the right to communicate and travel freely, without restrictive measures," Yushchenko said at a joint news conference. "Both countries fully understand the practical advantage and strategic importance of joint action," Putin said at the same news conference. "It is important that we are putting our cooperation in the fuel and energy field firmly on the market economy track. Our energy sectors are reaching final agreements. Only by doing that can we ensure the energy security of our two countries and also Europe," Putin added. JM

Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, the head of Serbia's Council for Kosovo, said on December 25 that talks on the breakaway province should continue after UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari presents his proposal, B92 and Beta reported the same day. Raskovic-Ivic claimed that 12 of the 15 UN Security Council members view Ahtisaari's proposal as just the starting point for new negotiations. "That is why we should not be making deadlines, at least not in Serbia, saying that the solution will be announced in March or June, because I am sure that it will not be," she said. "I am not going to say that the disagreements will last for the next 30 years, but it is a fact that within the international community, there have been changes on the stance regarding deadlines." BW

An official close to Ahtisaari was quoted on December 26 as saying that all negotiations will end once the UN envoy presents his proposal, B92 and Beta reported the same day, citing the daily "Koha ditore." "The moment the proposal is presented, the discussions will be over," the official said, adding that Belgrade and Prishtina will have one month to comment on the proposal. "This period can be called consultation, not negotiations," the official added. According to the unidentified official, the UN Security Council will discuss the proposal in March, after Serbia and Kosova have had a month to make comments. Ahtisaari is scheduled to present his status proposal for Kosova shortly after Serbia's January 21 elections. BW

In the latest moves in a government campaign against customs fraud, police in Serbia arrested three owners of a motor-vehicle-registration agency and top officials from the city of Zrenjanin, B92 and Beta reported the same day. Since late November, Serbian police have arrested more than 40 people suspected of belonging to a "customs mafia" responsible for widespread fraud. In a high-profile series of raids on November 28, police detained 17 customs officials and businessmen suspected of fraud and tax evasion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 29, 2006). BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina has signed an agreement on police cooperation with Slovenia, B92 reported on December 25. The agreement, which specifies the areas of police cooperation between the two countries, focuses mainly on the rules governing the exchange of information. It also focuses on the protection of personal information along Council of Europe guidelines. Slovenian Interior Minister Dragutin Mate said that the agreement will enable "cooperation between police forces and exchange of information." Bosnian Security Minister Barisa Colak said the agreement will make law-enforcement cooperation between Sarajevo and Ljubljana more effective. BW

The price Moldova pays Russia's Gazprom for natural gas will gradually rise to $250 per 1,000 cubic meters by 2011, RIA Novosti reported on December 26. Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin announced on December 20 that Moldova will buy gas from Gazprom for $170 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2007, slightly higher than the $160 Chisinau paid in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006). Gazprom announced on December 26 that the price will rise gradually each year beginning in 2008, before reaching the average European rate in 2011. Moldova and Gazprom will sign a contract outlining the deal by the end of the year. BW

Following his talks in Kyiv with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 22, Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych announced that they had discussed the possibility of their countries jointly producing Russian and Caspian gas and oil.

Yanukovych told the press that discussions about joint energy production with Russia have been under way for some time now, saying that "a 50-50 arrangement is better than a concession."

Many analysts, however, believe that Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Ukraine's state-owned oil and gas monopoly, does not have the funds needed to enter the Russian or Caspian gas- or oil-production market. The general thinking is that the most Ukraine could provide would be expertise and skilled workers.

Furthermore, Ukraine, which has its own modest gas reserves, has not been able to develop them sufficiently and continues to rely largely on imported Turkmen gas and Russian gas and oil. This situation has opened the door to Ukraine's fuel-production market to a number of Western companies.

Yanukovych also pitched his joint-venture proposal during a December 22 meeting with Ukrainian energy officials and managers and owners of RosUkrEnergo, the Swiss-based middleman company that has monopoly rights to deliver Turkmen gas to Ukraine.

The Ukrayinski novyny news agency reported that "Yanukovych called on the participants in the meeting to assist Ukraine in the extraction of natural gas on the territory of Russia as well as in countries in the Caspian region."

In addition, according to the agency, Yanukovych praised RosUkrEnergo's activities in Ukraine and "thanked the leadership of Gazprom and [RosUkrEnergo part owner Dmytro] Firtash for the work that ensured steady delivery of natural gas to Ukraine during the first half of 2006.... We have learned to work in difficult conditions and adapt to very difficult issues."

RosUkrEnergo is 50 percent-owned by Gazprom and 50 percent by two Ukrainian businessmen: Firtash, who owns 45 percent, and Ivan Fursyn, who holds 5 percent. On December 22, "The Wall Street Journal Europe" reported that a number of Western law enforcement agencies are currently investigating Firtash for his alleged connections to organized crime. Firtash has denied any such links.

By inviting cash-rich RosUkrEnergo into this project, Yanukovych is apparently attempting to expand the obscure company's role from that of a middleman to a full-scale oil and gas company. Last year, Firtash applied for a license to drill for gas in Russia but his application was rejected.

In the past, Ukraine has offered to work with various countries to help develop their energy resources. A few weeks ago, Deputy Prime Minister Andriy Klyuev announced that Ukraine is seeking to help Egypt develop its gas resources. Ukrainian delegations have visited Libya on numerous occasions over the past five years and offered the country's services in helping develop Libyan gas fields. These offers have yet to yield any results, but the Ukrainian government continues to persist.

One private Ukrainian company, the Industrial Union of the Donbas (ISD), has been successful in working to develop Uzbekistan's gas infrastructure in return for gas. However, in 2006 RosUkrEnergo warned the ISD that it is the only company allowed to deliver Central Asian gas to Ukraine, requiring that the ISD work with RosUkrEnergo if it wants to continue its work in Uzbekistan.

Yanukovych may be hoping that renewed good relations with Gazprom will make his offer acceptable. He failed to mention what exactly he expects in return, but it is widely believed that Ukraine will insist on a percentage of the gas produced by such a joint effort.

But it is also worth noting the possibility that, in return for allowing Ukrainian participation in Russia, Gazprom might insist on a quid pro quo and demand to be allowed to drill for gas in Ukraine, thus gaining a larger role for its already substantial presence in the Ukrainian gas market.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry on December 26 announced plans to build a fence and lay land mines along its border with Afghanistan in response to criticism that Pakistan does little to prevent cross-border intrusions by Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants, AP reported the same day. Afghan officials immediately rejected the plan. "We must confront terrorists in a real manner," government spokesman Khaliq Ahmad said. "Fencing or mining the border is neither helpful nor practical." Pakistani Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan said his country will be acting on its own territory and does not need Afghan consent. Pakistan will also add to the 80,000 troops already deployed on its side of the border. Afghanistan has rejected previous fence proposals by Pakistan, saying it would unfairly divide ethnic Pashtun communities close to the border. JC

A key Taliban leader and associate of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed on December 19 by an air strike in southern Afghanistan, AP reported on December 24. U.S. military spokesman Colonel Tom Collins said Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani was killed when his vehicle was hit by a precision air strike in Helmand Province. Forensic analysis, not including DNA tests, and other information helped the U.S. military to identify Osmani, whose body was reportedly "obliterated" in the attack. Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yusef Ahmadi denied Osmani was killed. Al-Jazeera satellite television reported that sources close to the Taliban said that Osmani was killed, along with a companion and a third unidentified person. Osmani, who is described as the highest-ranking Taliban member to be killed by the U.S.-led coalition since 2001, was previously captured by U.S. Special Forces in Kandahar, but was mistakenly released. JC

A mass grave believed to contain approximately 2,000 bodies was uncovered by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul on December 20, the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks reported the next day. The grave is located near Poli Charkhi, a notorious communist-era prison in which tens of thousands of Afghans were killed between 1978 and 1992 for their alleged ties to mujahedin groups resisting the Russian occupation. According to Dr. Mohammad Halim Tanwir of the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, officials believe the massacre occurred between 1978 and 1986. "The recovered bodies show that many of them had been shot in the head and then buried," Tanwir said. JC

Belgian Defense Minister Andre Flahaut said during a recent visit to Afghanistan that his country will not send more troops there, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on December 24. While visiting Belgian troops stationed in the northern Konduz Province under ISAF command, Flahaut said that Belgium is ready to continue its role in bringing peace and stability to the region but can't afford to send more troops due to limited resources. "In addition to our help to enhance the capacity of Afghan police and army, we will continue to assist in improving lives of people living in remote areas of Afghanistan," he added. JC

Iranian officials have rejected a December 23 UN Security Council resolution imposing limited sanctions on Iran until it curbs its uranium-enrichment program and fully reveals its activities to UN inspectors, news agencies reported. The resolution's provisions include obliging states not to provide Iran with material or parts that could aid its nuclear program or related military purposes, and freezing the foreign-held assets of certain agencies and persons working on Iran's program. But Iran confirmed it is pressing ahead toward industrial-scale uranium enrichment -- which would bring it closer to the type of fuel-production activities that have bomb-making applications -- and it may review the scope of its cooperation with UN inspectors. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Mostafavi said in Saudi Arabia on December 26 that Iran will announce a major step toward large-scale enrichment in February, AFP reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Iran's parliament, in turn, passed a bill on December 27 that obliges the government to examine its level of cooperation with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), AFP reported. VS

Mohammad Saidi, the deputy head for international affairs at Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told ISNA on December 26 that parliament will no doubt make a "rational" decision on how to react to the UN resolution, but he said most legislators are not envisaging Iran's departure from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). He said that so far, Iran's government is also not thinking of leaving the treaty. "In the nuclear issue we have no need for Western countries," he said, and the latest sanctions "effectively have no effect" on Iran's program. Defense Minister Mostafa Muhammad Najjar told defense industry "elites" in Tehran on December 25 that UN sanctions applicable to missile production in Iran "have no credibility or importance" and will prompt "another wave of self-sufficiency," IRNA reported. He said Iran's "defense industries and especially missile industries" enjoy "the highest level of independence," and defense is now "an entirely native and self-reliant industry," IRNA reported. The resolution, he said, is illegal, and Iran will not "submit to force, discrimination, and a nuclear apartheid." Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said separately in Tehran on December 26 that Iran "has become nuclear and we shall hold our country's great nuclear celebration in coming months," Mehr news agency reported. VS

A group of 542 activists issued a statement on December 26 denouncing "suppression and pressure in the university" by the government and the Science, Research and Technology Ministry, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," October 9, 2006). The statement included a litany of problems students and academics have reportedly faced since the 2005 election of conservative President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Among them, the statement said university management has deteriorated; students have been banned from pursuing their studies; academics have been dismissed; independent student journals have been banned; and disciplinary committees have been extra strict with students. University academic boards, it added, have been forbidden to appoint senior university authorities who have increasingly been nominated by the higher-education ministry. The statement said that recent student heckling during a presidential speech was a response to increasing restrictions, Radio Farda reported. The statement highlighted the case of "starred" students: students who have passed examinations for postgraduate courses but been refused admission, apparently for their antigovernment views or past activism. The signatories stressed that Article 30 of Iran's Constitution gives people the right to pursue an education. VS

Shahriar Moshiri, a member of the parliamentary Education and Research Committee, told ILNA on December 23 that Science and Research Minister Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi has not only unjustly prevented certain "starred" students from pursuing their studies, but resorted to false accusations to justify the move. Zahedi has reportedly said that certain students who were prevented from registering in universities at the start of this academic year had criminal records, including convictions for indecent conduct or sexual assault, the daily "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on December 24. Moshiri said he checked with the Intelligence Ministry -- after students complained to him -- and found no such convictions. "Mr. Zahedi may have created imaginary students...and leveled these accusations" by forming "nonexistent dossiers," he said. The matter may be openly debated in parliament if the minister does not reverse the ban, he warned. Authorities have differentiated between postgraduate candidates with one, two, or three stars placed by their names -- these apparently measuring the gravity of their alleged offenses. Morteza Nurbakhsh, a Science Ministry official dealing with university admissions, told ISNA on December 23 that "three-star" students had been disqualified by the Intelligence Ministry, unlike those with one or two stars, whose cases had been cleared up. VS

Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i said on December 26 that an Iraqi appeals court has upheld the death sentence for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and two co-defendants, international media reported the same day. According to Iraqi law, the execution order must be carried out within 30 days. President Jalal Talabani and his two vice presidents must ratify the court's decision, but Talabani has voiced his opposition to the death penalty. However, as in the past, he has deputized a vice president to sign the execution order on his behalf -- a procedure that is legally acceptable. Najib al-Nu'aymi, a former Qatari justice minister and a member of Hussein's defense team, said he was not surprised by the appeal court's decision, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on December 26. "I have previously said on several occasions that the court would uphold the verdict. I have also said that this is a travesty and a political trial, whose outcome is known from the beginning," he said. On November 20, Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling Hussein's trial "flawed and unsound," and for the death sentence to be overturned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2006). Hussein and his co-defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death on November 5 for the 1982 killings of 148 Shi'a in the town of Al-Dujayl. SS

Hiwa Uthman, a spokesman for Iraqi President Talabani, confirmed on December 25 that two Iranian officials were detained by U.S. forces in Iraq, and said Talabani was "dismayed" at their arrests, Al-Diyar television reported the same day. "Two people who were invited by the president to Iraq have now been apprehended by the Americans, and the president is unhappy with the arrests," AFP quoted Uthman as saying. "The invitation was within the framework of an agreement between Iran and Iraq to improve the security situation," he added. "The New York Times" reported on December 24 that U.S. forces are currently holding at least four Iranians in Iraq, who were seized during two separate raids. According to the report, U.S. officials suspect the men of being members of the Al-Quds Force, a group affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, which is believed to be involved in training members of the Lebanese militia Hizballah as well as planning attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. Iraqi national security adviser al-Rubay'i refused to comment on the arrests, which "The New York Times" reported had "deeply upset Iraqi government officials." SS

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said on December 24 that he will move to organize a regional conference to seek a way out of Iraq's current security and political crisis, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. During a meeting in Cairo with a group of prominent Egyptian analysts and intellectuals, Allawi said his proposed conference must include Iraqi parties, concerned neighboring states, as well as influential world powers, provided that the conference is held under the auspices of the UN. He described the current political process as "defunct" and stressed that the conference must result in initiating a new political process in Iraq, including the participation of the Ba'athists and resistance groups, that would bring about national reconciliation. Allawi did not offer any details concerning his planned conference, but said he will discuss them with Arab leaders. SS

The U.S. military captured a senior Al-Qaeda in Iraq weapons dealer during a December 24 raid in the town of Bayji, the military said in a statement on December 26. The military also said it killed a suspected terrorist and captured two others, as well as seizing a small cache of weapons. "The capture of this terrorist responsible for anti-Iraqi and anticoalition activity will disrupt Al-Qaeda in Iraq operations, slow the facilitation of foreign fighters, and assist in the stabilization of Iraq," the statement said. Meanwhile, U.S. forces on December 26 discovered three large weapons caches south of Samarra. The caches included more than 20,000 rounds of small arms and antiaircraft ammunition, more than 200 mortar shells, antitank and antipersonnel mines, eight rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, three heavy machine guns, one automatic grenade launcher, one antiaircraft machine gun, and one claymore mine. "Along with other recent operations, we have had real success in discovering caches and denying terrorists access to these deadly weapons," said Lieutenant Colonel Viet Luong, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which discovered the caches. SS

A triple car bombing in Baghdad on December 26 killed 14 people and wounded more than 60, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Police sources said that the coordinated bombings took place in the predominantly Shi'ite district of Al-Bayya in western Baghdad. The Iraqi Interior Ministry said three vehicles packed with explosives were detonated within minutes of each other in order to achieve maximum damage. In a separate incident on December 26, a roadside bomb killed five people and injured 15 at the busy Bab al-Sharji market in central Baghdad, Al-Jazeera reported the same day. Meanwhile, the Trade Ministry said on December 26 that a senior ministry official was kidnapped in western Baghdad, Reuters reported. Armed gunmen abducted Muhanad Ahmad Salah, director of the Baghdad international fair, as he left his home in the Sunni neighborhood of Al-Amiriyah. SS

Two detainees on December 24 escaped from a U.S.-run detention facility in southern Iraq, the U.S. military announced on December 26, AFP reported the same day. "What we're looking at is two detainees who escaped at Camp Bucca on December 24," Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Curry said. He declined to provide any further details, but he described the escape as an "isolated incident" and added that "all other detainees have been accounted for." Camp Bucca holds approximately 10,000 prisoners and is located outside Umm Qasr, near the Kuwaiti border. SS