Accessibility links

Breaking News

Newsline - December 29, 2006

Russian prosecutors said on December 27 that Leonid Nevzlin, a former top manager of Yukos, might have ordered the poisoning of former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, Reuters and international news agencies reported the same day. "A version is being looked at that those who ordered these crimes could be the same people who are on an international wanted list for serious and very serious crimes, one of whom is...Leonid Nevzlin," Russia's Prosecutor-General's Office said in a statement on its website. Nevzlin lives in Israel, where he has citizenship. Nevzlin's spokesman dismissed the allegations: "Everyone knows the KGB's methods. These statements are ridiculous and do not warrant a response." Litvinenko, died in London on November 23. On his deathbed he accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of being behind his murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006). BW

In response to the Prosecutor-General's Office's allegations, Yukos's main shareholder accused Moscow of trying to cloud the issue and divert attention, Reuters reported on December 27. "This is a typical, predictable Russian government ploy," Tim Osborne, the head of the GML holding company, Yukos's main shareholder, told Reuters. "They are trying to blame Nevzlin but everyone else believes that either the Russian government or the FSB were behind the murder of Litvinenko. This is just a conjecture to throw the heat off them," he added. Litvinenko's friend Aleksandr Goldfarb called the allegations "sheer nonsense" and "a very clumsy effort to shift the blame for this murder, and it only adds to the suspicion that the Russian government is standing behind this murder." BW

Germany and the European Commission on December 28 urged Russia and Belarus to settle their dispute over gas prices to avoid disrupting deliveries to Europe (see End Note), Reuters reported the same day. Russia's state-controlled natural-gas monopoly Gazprom has threatened to cut off Belarus's supplies on January 1 if Minsk does not agree to a substantial price hike (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2006). "I urge all parties to agree as quickly as possible on a deal which can be implemented...and to prove their roles as reliable suppliers and transit countries, respectively," German Economy Minister Michael Glos said. His appeal echoed a similar a call from EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs. Belarus's contract to buy Russian gas at $46 per 1,000 cubic meters expires on December 31. Gazprom wants it to pay $105, $75 in cash and the remainder in shares of the Belarusian pipeline operator Beltranshaz. BW

Vladimir Putin said on December 26 that the ideological vacuum left by the fall of communism needs to be replaced by traditional cultural values, RIA Novosti reported. "The ideological vacuum that emerged after the collapse of communist ideology [in Russia] is being filled in with extremist tendencies, and they will not be defeated unless we take active measures to replace them with common human values," Putin said in a speech to the State Council. "Feelings of national pride and national identity have been revived in Russian people, and we should encourage these feelings," he said, adding that Russia is "getting back to its feet." National pride, he said, should be based on national unity and cultural diversity. "So far, the state's efforts to uphold the nation's heritage do not measure up to its importance for society," Putin said. "We should revise the federal programs Russia's Culture and Social Development of Rural Areas, and determine the mechanisms to increase co-financing of culture clubs." BW

Speaking on December 28, President Putin praised his government, saying that Russia's economy grew by 6.9 percent in 2006, RIA Novosti reported the same day. "Economic growth hit 6.9 percent on 6.4 percent last year. We are keeping to schedule in our long-term plans," Putin told a cabinet session. Putin said Russia's stock exchange rose 65 percent. "This is one of the highest indices in the world," he said, adding that household incomes grew by 11.5 percent and pensions were raised by 5.3 percent. "The government has played a central role in ensuring the sustainable development of the economy and the welfare sector," Putin said, adding that he hopes brisk growth will last into next year. BW

An Aeroflot passenger jet en route from Moscow to Geneva made an emergency landing in Prague on December 28 after a passenger became violent on board, RFE/RL and international news agencies reported the same day. "A drunk passenger...started a brawl and he was tied up by flight attendants with the help of four passengers," Aleksandr Pismenny, the press secretary for the Russian Embassy in the Czech Republic, told RFE/RL. "He was tied up, but because he made threats as he was being pacified, the crew captain made the decision to land the airplane before reaching Geneva," Pismenny added. Aeroflot spokeswoman Irina Danenberg added that the passenger "attempted to get into the cockpit demanding that the aircraft be diverted to Cairo. He was accompanied by a family of nine people, including women and children." Czech police detained the man after the aircraft landed in Prague. BW

Police and security forces stormed an apartment in Cherkessk on December 25 after a 10-hour siege, killing one suspected member of a militant formation and apprehending two others who have not been named, Russian media reported. Later on December 25, a second militant, subsequently identified as Akhmad Salpagarov, was killed when police stormed a second apartment in the city. It is not clear whether he took refuge there after escaping the first apartment siege. Initial reports that the militants belonged to the armed formation headed by Achimez Gochiyayev, the putative mastermind of the 1999 apartment building bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, have not been confirmed. A spokesman for the Karachayevo-Cherkessia headquarters of the FSB claimed that Salpagarov fought in Chechnya under field commanders Khattab, Abu Walid, and Shamil Basayev, and that he later headed a group of fighters in Karachayevo-Cherkessia that targeted FSB and Interior Ministry personnel. On December 26, presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak told journalists he doubts there is any connection between the December 25 operation to apprehend the presumed militants and the sentencing of 16 men by the republic's Supreme Court the same day in connection with the October 2004 murder of six prominent businessmen, according to RIA Novosti as reposted by (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2006). LF

In a statement posted on on December 26, Khazret Sovmen chronicled his achievements since being elected Republic of Adygeya president in January 2002. Recalling that at that time Adygeya relied on subsidies from Moscow for 80 percent of its budget and the economy was stagnating, he said that in 2005 and for the first 11 months of 2006 Adygeya had the highest GDP growth of any North Caucasus federation subject. Revenues have doubled over the past four years and some 4,000 new jobs have been created (for a population of 447,000). At the same time, Sovmen claimed that a large part of the funds he invested in a bid to kickstart the economy were embezzled. He acknowledged, too, that he was not able to overcome widespread corruption, "the system that barred my way like an unscaleable wall," and what he termed the stubborn resistance of powerful persons who are accustomed to "live off society." Earlier, on December 21, Ekho Moskvy quoted Sovmen's press secretary as saying Sovmen would not comply with the request by his successor-elect, former Maykop Technological University rector Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov, to step down before the end of 2006, (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006). Sovmen's term formally expires on January 13. LF

Meeting on December 28, the Armenian government ruled that a building erected by the opposition Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party on Yerevan's Teryan Street on land owned by the state was built without official permission, Noyan Tapan reported. The building in question and the ground on which it stands has therefore been transferred to the State Agrarian Academy. On June 10, the daily "Haykakan zhamanak" estimated the cost of Orinats Yerkir's new building at $1 million. LF

The United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) released a statement on December 28 condemning the killing on December 25 in a bomb explosion in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion of two Abkhaz policemen and the shooting of a third on December 26, and calling on both sides to cooperate in the fight against crime. A Georgian official in Gali blamed the December 25 deaths on a clash between Abkhaz police and an Abkhaz criminal group, and he denied that any Georgian residents of Gali were involved. Georgian media reported on December 28 that Abkhaz special forces detained 44 Georgians from the Gali village of Otobaia, Caucasus Press reported. Forty of those apprehended were released later that day after questioning. Paata Davitaya, one of the leaders of the Tbilisi-based movement Chven Tviton (We Ourselves), told journalists on December 28 that some 200 armed Abkhaz led by criminal kingpin Volmer Butba abducted seven Georgians from Otobaia, Caucasus Press reported. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze appealed to UNOMIG on December 28 to take action to halt what his ministry in a statement termed a punitive operation by Abkhaz counterterrorism forces against the Georgian civilian population, Caucasus Press reported. Antadze also slammed the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in Gali for allegedly failing to protect local Georgians. Also on December 28, Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, put the Abkhaz armed forces on combat alert in response to an appeal by the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government-in-exile to the Georgian authorities to take unspecified steps to protect Gali's Georgian population, and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba said that appeal recalled that by Abkhazia's Georgian population in 1992 that triggered the incursion of Georgian National Guard troops. culminating in a full-scale war. LF

Deputies approved a package of draft constitutional amendments on December 22 in the second and final reading by 186 votes in favor despite reservations expressed by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, Caucasus Press reported. The single-most-important change provides for the parliamentary elections due in 2008 and the presidential election due in early 2009 to be held simultaneously at some point during the last quarter of 2008. Doing so will prolong by up to eight months the term of the present legislature. The Venice Commission objected to that provision, reasoning that a convincing justification would be to enable both ballots to be held concurrently as a general rule, and not simply on this one occasion. The commission also termed "clearly excessive" the three-month period, from October 1 to December 31, 2008, during which the president may schedule the two ballots. The commission did, however, laud a further amendment lowering the 7 percent barrier for parliamentary representation under the proportional system and guaranteeing parliamentary representation for the party that polls the second-highest number of votes, Caucasus Press reported on December 22. LF

Iranian Ambassador to Kazakhstan Ramin Mekhmanparast praised on December 28 the expanding relationship between Iran and Kazakhstan and noted that bilateral trade will reach "$5 billion in the next three to four years," Interfax reported. In comments to journalists in Almaty, Mekhmanparast added that while energy remains the centerpiece of expanding bilateral relations, trade is expanding in several other sectors. The two countries are planning to open consulates in each country later this year and direct flights between the two capitals are to commence within three months. Total bilateral trade grew from some $900 million in 2005 to nearly $1.5 billion in 2006, and is expected to reach $2.5 billion next year. RG

Kazakh Interior Ministry official Boris Kolesnichenko said at a press conference in Astana on December 27 that of 11,078 migrants who have applied for legal work status in Kazakhstan in the past month, all but five have been accepted, Kazakhstan Today reported. According to Kolesnichenko, who works in the Interior Ministry's Migration Police Directorate, a total of some 155,000 illegal migrants have been granted legal status this year. Most of the migrants are from Uzbekistan, though they also hail from the other three Central Asian countries and Russia as well. They largely work in the booming construction sector. RG

Following a meeting in Astana, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and visiting Armenian President Robert Kocharian signed a set of bilateral agreements on December 25, AKIpress reported on December 27. The new agreements included accords on bilateral transport, culture, and transport, as well as treaties to prevent double taxation and for legal safeguards for investment. According to figures from the Kazakh state statistics agency, bilateral trade declined to only $16.4 million for the first eight months of 2006, compared to $45.2 million for all of 2005. At a press conference following a signing ceremony with Kocharian, Nazarbaev noted that although "the trade level cannot satisfy either side," the new agreements "signed today create a legal base for closer cooperation between our countries." RG

The lower house of the Kazakh parliament voted on December 27 to adopt a draft law ratifying an additional protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Interfax reported. The protocol, relating to Kazakhstan's signing of an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in February 2004, will go to the Kazakh Senate for consideration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 10, 2004). RG

Speaking in Bishkek, Kyrgyz opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party leader Omurbek Tekebaev challenged President Kurmanbek Bakiev on December 28 to name a new head of the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Tekebaev added that he is calling on the president to submit a nominee because it is the parliament that holds the power to approve or reject the candidate. Commission spokeswoman Nina Mukhina responded by advocating that acting commission Chairwoman Aichurek Ishimova be retained. Although Kyrgyzstan is not scheduled to hold an election in the coming year, last month's adoption of a new constitution raises the possibility of early parliamentary elections in 2007. RG

A senior figure from the Kyrgyz opposition For Reforms movement threatened on December 27 to stage mass demonstrations against any attempt by pro-government deputies to amend the new constitution, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. A large group of pro-government parliamentarians have recently sought to introduce new amendments that would restore significant powers to the president that were scaled back when the new constitution was adopted in early November amid a massive demonstration in Bishkek. The Kyrgyz parliament voted on December 25 to reject a proposal to amend the new constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2006). Opposition deputy Muratbek Mukashev also threatened that demonstrations will be held early next year if deputies vote for Kyrgyzstan to join the World Bank-sponsored Heavily Indebted Poor Countries program. RG

In an interview with the Kyrgyz daily "Vecherniy Bishkek," U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Marie Yovanovitch said on December 26 that the recent shooting of a Kyrgyz citizen by a U.S. airman at the Manas Air Base should not impede overall relations between the United States and Kyrgyzstan, AKIpress reported. Yovanovitch was referring to the incident on December 6, when a sentry shot and killed 42-year-old local truck driver Aleksandr Ivanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2006). She also said that the family of the victim may be able to "demand compensation" if an ongoing U.S. investigation determines any wrongdoing by the American serviceman involved in the shooting. Yovanovitch said "we are facing some difficulties in bilateral relations," but stressed that "it is important to note that Kyrgyzstan and the U.S. have strong relations" in the political and economic fields and not just in terms of security. Yovanovitch further noted that the United States "was one of the first countries that recognized the independence of Kyrgyzstan and the first country" to establish an embassy in Bishkek. RG

In an announcement from Dushanbe, Rashid Gulov, an official with Tajikistan's state electricity company Barqi Tojik, announced on December 28 that a new agreement has been reached with Uzbekistan for the import of electricity to Tajikistan, according to Asia-Plus. The agreement was reached on December 27 after negotiations between a Tajik delegation -- led by Energy and Industry Minister Sherali Gulov (no relation to Rashid) -- and Uzbek officials in Tashkent that provides Tajikistan with 600 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity from Uzbekistan over a three-month period. In exchange, Tajikistan agreed to export 900 million kWh of electricity to Uzbekistan next summer. Rashid Gulov added that the agreement sets the price that the Uzbek authorities charge Tajikistan for electricity supplies at 1.5 cents ($0.015) for each kWh of electricity, while Tajikistan will charge Uzbekistan a summer rate of 1 cent per each kWh. An unnamed Tajik Energy and Industry Ministry official added that based on a preliminary agreement reached earlier this year, Kyrgyzstan is committed to supply Tajikistan with exports of roughly 1.8 billion kWh of electricity in the coming months. RG

Speaking in Dushanbe, Fathiddin Mukhsiddinov, the director-general of the Tojikgaz state gas concern, announced on December 27 that an agreement has been reached on the price structure for imports of natural-gas supplies from Uzbekistan next year, according to Asia-Plus. Under the terms of the deal, Uzbekistan will supply natural gas to Tajikistan at the rate of $100 per 1,000 cubic meters beginning on January 1. Tajikistan currently pays about $55 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas imported from Uzbekistan. Tajikistan is also committed to importing at least 750 million cubic meters of Uzbek gas next year and, according to Mukhsiddinov, Uzbekistan will remain the main supplier of natural gas to Tajikistan in the future. RG

Imomali Rakhmonov issued on December 26 a series of decrees dismissing the heads of three districts, Asia-Plus reported. Sijouddin Isroilov, the head of the Tojikobod district, was replaced by Makhsum Fozilov; the head of the Tavildara district, Mirali Olimov, was replaced by Himatsho Ghairatov; and Tojiddin Raufov replaced Sulton Valiyev as the head of the Khovaling district. All three officials are reportedly to be assigned other unspecified positions. RG

Turkmenistan's state newspapers published on December 28 the new law on presidential elections, which was adopted in a December 26 session of the People's Council, Turkmenistan's highest legislative body, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. According to the terms of the new law, a valid election must have more than half of the electorate casting ballots, with the winner being the candidate who receives more than half of the votes. It also stipulated that a candidate for the presidency must be between the ages of 40 and 70 years of age, must have been born in Turkmenistan, and lived there for the last 15 years, thereby automatically excluding members of the Turkmen opposition-in-exile from participating. Candidates are further required to be fluent in the state language, Turkmen, and must have served "in state bodies, public organizations or in sectors of the national economy" and have "gained high prestige." RG

The head of Turkmenistan's Central Election Commission, Murad Karryev, announced on December 28 that six candidates for the February 11 presidential election have been officially registered, ITAR-TASS reported. The six candidates include current acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Deputy Petroleum Industry and Mineral Resources Minister Ishanguly Nuryev, Abadan city head Orazmyrad Garajaev, Turkmenbashi city Governor Ashirniyaz Pomanov, parliamentarian and First Deputy Governor of the Dashoguz region Amanyaz Atajykov, and the head of the Karabekaul district, Mukhammetnazar Gurbanov. Karryev openly admitted that he will "do everything" to ensure that Berdymukhammedov wins the election, "because he is a worthy candidate." The commission also issued orders instructing officials in each of the 65 electoral districts to start preparing for the election. RG

In a statement released in Ashgabat, the Union of Democratic Forces of Turkmenistan announced on December 27 that their candidate for the February 11 presidential election "has gone missing" in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported. The opposition statement said that Nurberdy Nurmammedov, the chairman of the opposition Agzybirlik People's Democratic Movement, disappeared in Ashgabat on December 23 after leaving his home. The statement charged that Nurmammedov was arrested on orders from the Turkmen authorities and they demanded his immediate release. The Turkmen opposition has also earlier nominated Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former Central Bank chief living in exile in Sweden, as a presidential candidate. An unnamed opposition spokesman hailed Orazov, the leader of the Watan (Homeland) movement, as "a real patriot" and as a man capable of "reforming Turkmenistan into a modern democratic state with a developed economy." Orazov, who is wanted by the Turkmen Prosecutor-General's Office on charges of embezzlement, recently announced in a press conference in Kyiv that the opposition will seek democracy in Turkmenistan by all means, and that a revolution is not ruled out, Asia-Plus reported. RG

Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski said on December 28 that Belarus will cut short Russian gas transit via its territory if Gazprom fails to sign a gas-supply contract and a gas-transit accord for 2007 by January 1, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. According to Sidorski, Russian gas flowing to Europe across Belarus through Russia's Yamal-Europe pipeline and Belarus's Beltranshaz networks is supplied under a single transit contract. "The signing of a contract for gas supplies [to Belarus] is simultaneously a step toward [permitting] gas transit via Belarus's territory. Therefore, if the Russian monopolist continues to hold talks in an unconstructive way, gas transit will not be carried out as of January 1. If Gazprom fails to sign a transit contract, we will not be able to provide it with this service," Sidorski said. Gazprom wants Belarus to pay $75 in cash and $30 in Beltranshaz shares for 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas in 2007. Minsk agrees to pay just $75 per 1,000 cubic meters and wants $2.5 billion in cash for a 50 percent stake in Beltranshaz. JM

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov told journalists in Moscow on December 28 that his company will ensure uninterrupted gas supplies to Europe across Belarus after January 1, Russian media reported. "Gazprom will do everything that has to be done to ensure a reliable and full supply of gas to our European customers through Belarusian territory. We will find a way to deliver our gas through our pipeline without any obstacles," he said. Kupriyanov also said Gazprom will be able to immediately detect any potential stealing of gas from the Yamal-Europe pipeline by Belarus. "The Yamal-Europe gas pipeline is a pipeline intended exclusively for exports [to Europe]. Of course, it has technological joints with Beltranshaz networks, but they are locked and sealed, and any unsanctioned change in the conditions of use of these joints will be immediately detected here, at the [Gazprom] central control department," Kupriyanov said but did not elaborate on what would happen if Minsk started siphoning off gas from the Russian pipeline. JM

Jan Malicki from Warsaw University, who supervises Poland's educational program for Belarusian students expelled from Belarusian universities after the March presidential election, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on December 28 that there have been attempts to discredit this program and him personally. Malicki claimed to have received accidentally an e-mail describing such a discrediting plan. "[The plan consists of] seven points. The first one refers to the manager of this program, that is, to me, and speaks straightforwardly -- excuse the quote -- about 'hiring a prostitute for a sexual encounter with Malicki and gathering compromising material about him in this way,'" Malicki said. Malicki also said unidentified people tried to incite Belarusian students in hostels in Poland to protests against the management of their education program and their living conditions. Malicki stressed that informing the media about such discrediting attempts is part of his strategy to counteract them. "From the very beginning, all of us were aware that, given such an amount of students, there may be people among them whose aim is not to be educated and serve democracy but to serve Belarusian special services," Malicki added. Earlier this year, Poland offered 300 scholarships to Belarusian students who had been subject to political repressions in Belarus. JM

Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko declared in Kyiv on December 28 that Ukraine is ready to increase natural gas transit from Russia to Europe through its territory in the event of a break in Russian gas supplies through Belarus, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "We are capable of helping European consumers by increasing transit in amounts that could be necessary to ensure stable functioning of our neighbors in the European Union," Boyko said. But he also voiced the hope that Gazprom and Belarus will reach agreement in their current row about gas supplies and transit in 2007 to ensure stable gas transit through Belarus. JM

Viktor Yushchenko has imposed a veto on three bills recently adopted by the Verkhovna Rada, including on a list of state properties subject to privatization in 2007, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported on December 28. In rejecting the 2007 privatization list, Yushchenko said parliament overstepped its constitutional prerogatives, which allow lawmakers to compile a list of prohibited privatizations, not the opposite. Presidential Secretariat deputy head Arseniy Yatsenyuk told journalists on December 28 that Yushchenko is also going to veto a bill on the Cabinet of Ministers approved by the Verkhovna Rada last week. Yatsenyuk noted that parliamentarians failed to take into account 86 amendments to the bill submitted by the president. JM

According to a recent poll conducted by the Sofia Social Research Center, 27.7 percent of respondents said Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was "the politician of the year 2006," Interfax-Ukraine reported on December 28. Yuliya Tymoshenko, leader of the eponymous opposition bloc, was given this title by 22.2 percent of respondents, and President Yushchenko by 6 percent. In a similar poll, the Oleksandr Razumkov Center found that Yanukovych is seen as the most notable Ukrainian politician in 2006 by 26 percent of Ukrainians, Tymoshenko by 19.2 percent, and Yushchenko by 8.6 percent. JM

Police in Bosnia-Herzegovina announced on December 28 that they have arrested one man and indicted another suspected of committing crimes against civilians during the 1992-95 war, AFP reported the same day. Police said they arrested Pero Kovacevic in the northeastern town of Brcko. Kovacevic, a former member of a Bosnian Croat militia, is suspected of involvement in atrocities against Serbian civilians in the nearby village of Cerik in 1992. The Bosnian state attorney's office, meanwhile, said it has indicted Marinko Maric for war crimes against Muslim civilians who were prisoners of war in the Gabela detention camp in the southern town of Capljina. Prosecutors said Maric was involved in killings and torture at the camp. BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina's Defense Ministry announced on December 27 that it has signed a military cooperation deal with neighboring Croatia, AFP reported the same day. The deal includes military-technical cooperation, education and an exchange of experiences from NATO's Partnership for Peace program, which Bosnia joined this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15, 2006). The Croatian Defense Ministry will also provide assistance in the training of Bosnian troops. Bosnia signed a similar deal with Serbia last month. Earlier this week, Bosnia also signed a police cooperation agreement with Slovenia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2006). BW

A court in Montenegro has acquitted the only suspect standing trial for the 2004 murder of a prominent newspaper editor, AP and B92 reported on December 28. A court in Podgorica ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict Damir Mandic of involvement in the murder of Dusko Jovanovic, who was the editor of the opposition daily "Dan." In a separate case, however, Mandic was convicted on December 27 on charges of kidnapping a Montenegrin businessman in 2002 and sentenced to two years in prison. Jovanovic was shot dead in front of his Podgorica home in May 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 28, 2004). BW

Macedonian Defense Minister Lazar Elenovski said on December 27 that the military intelligence chief and two other senior officials have been fired for failing to prevent weapons smuggling from Bulgaria, AFP reported the same day. "Colonel Risto Georgiev, chief of military intelligence, and two of his closest aides were sacked," Elenovski said. He also called on President Branko Crvenkovski to "probe the activities within the Defense Ministry." The sackings came two weeks after police arrested four Bulgarian men and seized a large amount of weapons being transported in four trucks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2006). BW

Moldova and Russia signed a bilateral agreement on December 27 on Moscow's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), ITAR-TASS and international news agencies reported the same day. Russian Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref and his Moldovan counterpart Igor Dodon signed the document, removing one of the last hurdles to Russia joining the WTO. "We express gratitude to Moldova for its pragmatism in this issue and believe that this will give a fresh impetus to stronger and mutually advantageous trade and economic relations," Maksim Medvedev, the head of the Russian ministry's trade negotiations department, said. Russia still has to sign bilateral agreements with Guatemala, Georgia, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. BW

Gazprom and Minsk have managed to agree on one thing -- Belarus's asking price of $2.5 billion for a 50 percent stake in the state pipeline operator Beltranshaz.

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov has confirmed that concession to Belarus. "We have agreed to the most comfortable conditions for Belarus," he said on December 27. "We want to obtain 50 percent [of Beltranshaz], not control over it, and we are [offering] a price that is even higher than the market one."

But the two sides remain at loggerheads over how the Beltranshaz stake will be paid for. Belarus is demanding cash, while Gazprom is insisting that it be paid in the form of gas supplies as part of the deal it is trying to work out with Minsk for gas supplies in 2007 and beyond.

According to Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller, such a payment plan could be extended until 2011, when Gazprom intends to switch exclusively to cash payments for gas at market prices. Minsk, meanwhile, sees the possible Beltranshaz share sell-off and its contract with Gazprom for future gas supplies as separate issues.

On the issue of gas rates, regardless of the Beltranshaz stake, the two sides do not see eye to eye. Gazprom is asking $105 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas next year, up from the $46.68 Belarus is currently paying. With the Beltranshaz stake thrown in, at a rate of $30 a share, Belarus would end up paying $75 per 1,000 cubic meters. Minsk is willing to pay $75 in cash per 1,000 cubic meters -- period.

Belarus's chief negotiator in gas talks with Gazprom, First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka, went so far on December 26 as to characterize Gazprom's negotiating position as a "provocation." He claimed Gazprom the day before agreed to sell gas to Belarus in 2007 for $75 per 1,000 cubic meters without linking the transaction to Beltranshaz.

Anything greater than that amount, Syamashka said, is simply not feasible. "We cannot put our signature under a collapse of our economy," he said. "In this case our situation is sort of desperate because we are tied to the Russian pipeline, to the Russian gas-distribution network."

It is debatable whether this gas-price hike would have such a disastrous impact on Belarus's economy. What is obvious is Minsk's general reluctance to share Beltranshaz with Gazprom. Minsk has managed to defer this issue for nearly five years. A protocol with Gazprom on the establishment of a joint venture to run Beltranshaz was signed by the Belarusian government as far back as April 2002.

In light of of Moscow's increased assertiveness in using gas supplies as a tool for political and economic extortion, Belarus appears to treat Beltranshaz as a strategic asset directly linked to the country's sovereignty and security.

Currently, 44 billion cubic meters of Russian gas, or some 24 percent of Russian gas exports in the European direction, transits Belarus annually. Gas pipelines in Belarus fork into six routes: Lithuania-Kaliningrad Oblast, Poland-Germany, Poland-Czech Republic, Poland-Slovakia, Poland-Slovakia-Hungary, and Ukraine.

Therefore, Minsk seemed to be fairly unmoved by Miller's threat on December 27 that Gazprom could interrupt gas supplies to Belarus unless a valid supply contract for 2007 is signed by January 1. "If the contract for gas deliveries for next year is not signed," he said, "Gazprom does not have any basis for gas deliveries to Belarus as of January 1, 2007, as of 10 [a.m.] Moscow time."

Syamashka promptly responded that Gazprom has no gas transit contract with Belarus for 2007. "We are interconnected. I do not have a contract with Mr. Miller for gas deliveries to Belarus, while Miller does not have a contract with me for gas transit through Belarus," Syamashka said. "And I should say that 44 billion cubic meters of gas transits through Belarus."

Syamashka appears to be confident that while Gazprom might lower the volume of gas flowing across Belarus in January to only the amount intended for Europe, it would never dare to turn off the gas tap completely. If it did, the economic and political damage incurred by Gazprom would surely be greater than that caused to Belarus.

Therefore, Syamashka's apparent composure in the face of Miller's threat just might mean that Minsk is prepared to siphon off Russian gas intended for Europe in order to make it through the winter. In the absence of a valid transit contract, Minsk would theoretically be justified in considering Russian gas flowing across its territory on its way to Europe as "contraband."

On the other hand, Miller on December 27 stopped short of announcing the possibility of a total shutoff of gas flowing across Belarus. "Gazprom will supply gas to its European consumers on the Belarusian border at full volume and in accordance with [current] contracts. Gazprom today shipped gas to its partners in Lithuania, Poland, and Germany and sent them a letter about the supply situation regarding Belarus," Miller said.

And this means that the gas talks between Minsk and Gazprom -- even if they now seem deadlocked considering the frosty rhetoric from both sides -- will be resumed sooner or later, and a compromise solution will be found, as was the case during the short gas-supply crisis involving Ukraine in January 2006.

As for Europe, which pays some $250 for 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas, it is hardly imaginable that it could publicly sympathize with Belarus's desire to pay just $75. But one also should not expect any harsh public condemnation from Europe over Minsk's attempts to bargain for the best possible gas deal with Moscow.

It would seem that an obvious solution would be for all of Russia's neighbors to pay a set market price plus transportation costs. But Ukraine will pay $130 in 2007, Moldova $170, and Georgia $235.

For the past 12 years, Moscow has made every effort to make everybody believe that Belarusians under the rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka deserve to pay significantly less than other states. Persuading everybody -- and especially Belarusians -- to drop that notion may take longer than the last four days of 2006.

Addressing a news conference in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai on December 28 strongly rejected Pakistan's decision to partially mine and fence the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. "Planting land mines or putting up barbed wire will not stop terrorism, but it will bring about the separation of people, and Afghanistan is very much against it," Karzai said. Islamabad on December 26 announced plans to build a fence and lay land mines to hamper cross-border activities by the neo-Taliban and its allies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7 and December 27, 2006). "Thousands and thousands of people have been maimed and killed by mines, and we are strongly against this idea," Karzai told the news conference, "The New York Times" reported on December 28. "If we want to prevent terrorism as a whole...then you must remove their sanctuaries," he said, "then you must remove the places they are being trained, their sources of finance, equipment, and training." Kabul has accused Islamabad of aiding the neo-Taliban, but Afghanistan is also against any formal demarcation of the border between the two countries since Afghanistan does not formally accept the boundary. AT

Speaking at a news conference in Peshawar on December 27, the "Provincial Amir" of Pakistan's Jamaat-e-Islami party, Sirajul Haq, condemned his country's decision to fence and mine its border with Afghanistan, Lahore's "Daily Times" reported on December 28. "A fenced and mined border does not serve the interests of NWFP [Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province] and tribal areas. We will not let anyone divide the [Pashtuns] living on both sides of the border," Sirajul Haq said. If the plan of the Pakistani government is implemented, it would "help accomplish the goals of India and United States, which want to engage Pakistan and Afghanistan in a war," he asserted. Echoing Karzai's comments, Sirajul Haq said that mines would claim innocent victims. Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party leader Zahid Khan on December 27 criticized Pakistan's plan to fence and mine the Afghan border, saying numerous supporters of the extremists are still part of the Pakistani "establishment and [are] assisting terrorists." At a weekly media briefing in Islamabad on December 26, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said that the army has been "tasked to work out modalities for selectively fencing and mining the Pakistan-Afghanistan border," and this measure will "naturally" take "into account the need for having designated crossing points." AT

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki arrived in Kabul on December 28 for an official visit that included meetings with his Afghan counterpart Rangin Dadfar Spanta and President Karzai, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported. Speaking at a news conference in Kabul alongside Mottaki, Spanta said that "Iran's nuclear activities do not pose a threat to Afghanistan. Iran is not a threat to us in any way. Iran is our friend. Iran is our ally in the fight against terrorism and the fight against drugs." According to Mottaki, Iran has been a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty "for the past 36 years...and will remain committed" to it. During his meeting with Karzai, Mottaki said that Tehran's policy is to support the Afghan government, IRNA reported on December 28. While Afghan-Pakistani relations have been deteriorating, Kabul's relations with Tehran have gradually been improving. AT

In commemorating the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on December 27, 1979, President Karzai said in a message on December 27 that on "this day, the army of the then superpower invaded our country," official Afghanistan National Television reported. The Soviets brought to power "their puppet government" and ushered the "start of bad times for the people of Afghanistan." According to Karzai, negative aspects of the Soviet invasion can still be seen in Afghanistan. The Soviets, "a neighbor of Afghanistan," wished to impose their will on Afghanistan, Karzai said, but "the world saw that a poor but brave nation defeated a military power and foiled all their dreams." Turning to current events, Karzai said that at a time when Afghanistan is "moving toward peace and prosperity, it is for our neighboring countries to live in peace" with his country. While Karzai did not name Pakistan, he has increasingly expressed his displeasure at what he sees as Islamabad's desire to dominate Afghanistan by supporting the neo-Taliban and other militants. AT

Yahya Rahim Safavi, the commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), said in Tehran on December 28 that Iran intends to "access new scientific technologies" to become the Middle East's principal "pole in the economic, political, and security spheres," and the West fears that, IRNA reported. The "enemies of Iran," he said, are doing everything to prevent Iran turning into a "superior" regional power. Iran has respected its nuclear nonproliferation commitments, he said, but the West has made Tehran's nuclear dossier a pretext "to prevent Iran's progress," and "Iran's growth and progress is essentially the problem for the superpowers," IRNA reported. But he said "the enemies" could not inflict much harm on Iranians, who "are the founders of a universal civilization." Safavi was speaking to a gathering at the Baqiatullah Medical Science University, which may be affiliated with the armed forces. He cited some of the programs the university should work on in coming years, including the formation of research centers to "meet the needs of the" IRGC, a "military research center on the basis of" the IRGC's "strategic programs," and coordinating efforts to develop antidotes or protective medicines relating to biological warfare. VS

Former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, currently a foreign affairs adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told IRNA on December 28 that Iran is not surprised by the December 23 Security Council resolution targeting its nuclear program, and that it will not affect "the forward process of peaceful research in nuclear energy." He said Iran "has not tied the fate of its nuclear energy on this resolution being issued or not," nor does it intend to "halt research, investigation, and development work in this important technology, and work will continue on the present basis." Velayati said the resolution was issued "under the influence of Western powers, especially America and Great Britain," and indicates the Security Council's double standards on nonproliferation. The resolution targets Iran, "when...Israel is announcing its nuclear capability," he said. He added that the "instrumental use of international bodies" -- such as the UN -- by Western powers will not deter Iranians from their "legitimate goals," and that "the importance of our goals" regarding "nuclear technology" is "too great" for Iran to "submit to...threats." VS

Mohammad Hashemi -- a centrist politician from the Executives of Construction Party and a brother of Expediency Council chief Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- has criticized the nuclear policies of the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on December 28. He said it was because of those policies that Iran's nuclear dossier has beeb taken to the UN Security Council. Radio Farda observed that this is one of an increasing number of criticisms veteran politicians are making of the present government's foreign policy. Hashemi headed state television and radio for a while during his brother's presidency. "This government has been in office one year and the Security Council has imposed sanctions on Iran," Hashemi told reporters in Tehran. He said that some state officials "thought a resolution would not be issued against Iran," referring to the hopes of some officials that Russia and China would block a resolution, "but we saw, unfortunately, that America realized all its wishes, step by step." Hashemi said Russia and China "do not have transparent positions" as they "respect Iran's right to military technology on the one hand, and stand with America on the other." He criticized domestic media for not informing Iranians of the support Russia and China give to the United States, Radio Farda reported. VS

Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi told a gathering of senior judicial officials in Tehran on December 28 that the judiciary should consider supporting economic policies as its priority, and said "reorganizing the economy" is the best way to resist the "plots of world arrogance" and the recent UN resolution against Iran, ISNA reported. He called for government downsizing and the implementation by state agencies of Article 44 of the constitution, which envisages large-scale privatization (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," August 10 and October 17, 2006). He also urged "economic security" for businesses and the abolition of excessive regulations and formalities that he said hinder private enterprise. The country needs "large-scale domestic and foreign investment" from the private sector, he said. "Unfortunately the way the market is now, anyone who wishes to engage in economic activity must have connections with particular people, and this is the source of corruption, bribery, and cronyism," he said. The successful economy, he said, is not one that turns natural resources "into cash and uses them," but one "that earns its income from work and production by its human resources," ISNA reported. VS

In a letter addressed to the Iraqi people released on December 27, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein offered himself up as a "sacrifice to the homeland," Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. "Here I am offering my soul as a sacrifice. If the Merciful wants it, he will raise it up whenever. He commands it to be with the companions and the martyrs, and if He sees that He wants to postpone His decision, He will, because He is the Merciful and the Compassionate," Hussein said in the letter. He also called on Iraqis "not to hate the people of the other countries that attacked us," but urged them instead to "distinguish between the decision-makers and the peoples." However, he expressed support for the resistance, saying: "Long live jihad and the mujahedin. God is great. And the wretched aggressors shall be repelled." One of Hussein's lawyers, Issam Ghazzawi, confirmed the authenticity of the letter, and said it was written on November 5, the day the Iraqi Special Tribunal sentenced Hussein to death for ordering the killings of 148 Shi'a in the town of Al-Dujayl in 1982. SS

The lead lawyer for former Iraqi President Hussein, Khalil al-Dulaymi, on December 28 called on the international community to prevent U.S. authorities from handing Hussein over to Iraqi officials for execution, AFP reported the same day. "I ask all international organizations, the United Nations, the Arab League, and world leaders, to intervene urgently" to prevent the handover. Hussein "is a prisoner of war and according to international law he should not be handed to his enemies," al-Dulaymi said. Hussein is being held in a special detention facility run by the U.S. military outside of Baghdad, and even though he is in the custody of U.S. forces, Hussein is under the legal authority of the Iraqi Special Tribunal. Meanwhile, the Ba'ath Party issued a statement on December 27 vowing to attack U.S. interests if Hussein is executed, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. "The Ba'ath Party and the resistance are determined to retaliate, with all means and everywhere, to harm America and its interests if it commits this crime," the statement said. SS

Abd al-Razzaq al-Mahdawi, a leading member of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political movement, accused U.S. forces of killing Sahib al-Amiri, an al-Sadr ally, at his home in the holy city of Al-Najaf on December 27, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported the same day. Al-Amiri was the secretary-general of the Shahidallah Foundation, a religious organization affiliated with the Al-Sadr movement. Al-Mahdawi said U.S. forces accompanied by Iraqi troops broke into al-Amiri's home and shot him in front of his wife and children. "We believe that he [al-Amiri] was not targeted personally, but they were targeting the [Al-Sadr] trend with all its symbols and leaders," al-Mahdawi said. He said that al-Amiri was the director of a civil society foundation and had no links with the Imam Al-Mahdi Army or any military force. U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell told reporters on December 28 that a U.S. soldier killed al-Amiri in a raid planned and carried out by Iraqi forces, Reuters reported the same day. Ahmad al-Diabil, a spokesman for the governor of Al-Najaf, said the killing violated the security agreement between the United States and the Iraqi government. On December 20, the U.S. military formally handed over security responsibilities for the Al-Najaf Governorate to Iraqi forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006). SS

Iraqi special forces captured an Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader during a security operation in Al-Yusufiyah, south of Baghdad, on December 26, the U.S. military announced in a statement on December 28. The statement declined to name the Al-Qaeda leader, but indicated that he is believed to be responsible for the kidnapping of two U.S. soldiers from a checkpoint in Al-Yusufiyah in June. The soldiers were later found dead and their bodies showed signs of torture. The statement added that a video obtained by U.S. forces reportedly showed the terrorist leader commenting on the kidnapping, as well as footage of the U.S. soldiers being abducted. "The terrorist is also suspected of perpetrating numerous kidnappings, murders, and other violent crimes within the [Al-Yusufiyah] area," the statement said. No casualties were reported in the operation. SS

Iraqi Deputy Migration Minister Hamdiya Ahmad said on December 28 that approximately 432,000 Iraqis have fled their homes and registered for government aid since the February attack on the Shi'ite shrine in Samarra (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006), Reuters reported. Some Iraqi officials acknowledge that the figure could be even higher, since many people have not registered with the ministry or have fled abroad. In addition, he said more than 108,000 displaced Iraqis have registered for government help in the last month alone, indicating a sharp increase in internally displaced people as a result of soaring sectarian violence. "The main reason behind the rise of displaced families is the deterioration of the security situation and the death threats that people have received to flee their houses, in addition to the bombing of safe areas," she said. SS