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Newsline - January 24, 2007

President Vladimir Putin said in Sochi on January 23 at a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi that "Russia will determine her place in the world by herself, and will strive for a well-balanced and multipolar world," news agencies reported. He argued that "since the collapse of the bipolar world and the two confronting systems, an illusion has arisen among some people that the world had became monopolar and that all the world problems could be quite easily resolved from one center. It turned out that this was not the case. Such approaches have led to a growing number of crises, while the means to resolve them have become more limited." Putin stressed that "in these conditions, Russia's economic, military, and political abilities are clearly growing. A competitor that was nearly written off is emerging in the world -- even if this movement is not yet so noticeable at first sight. This seems to me the main reason [for unspecified foreign criticism of Russia's role] -- the unwillingness to consider Russia's legitimate interests, and the wish to put her in a place someone else has chosen for her." Addressing Prodi by his first name, Putin added that "Italians are mature partners who toughly defend their national interests, do not count on preference, and respect their partners. They are very comfortable and reliable partners for us." Prodi replied that he has "taken the new Russia into account. I am doing my best for her to express herself in the new world." Referring to Afghanistan, Prodi added that "maybe it is time to use political instruments or [Afghanistan could] become a kind of cancer in international relations." Prodi argued that energy could become the "lynchpin" of Russia's relations with the EU, adding that "the EU should be a trustworthy and most important partner for Russia." PM

The daily "Vedomosti" reported on January 23 that a new poll released by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) indicates that most Russian citizens do not think much of President Putin's assertive foreign policy and do not believe that energy-sector leadership will revive Russia's might. About 47 percent of respondents would be content to see Russia among the world's 10-15 most advanced economies and politically influential countries. Only 34 percent want Russia to become a world power. A further 12 percent maintain that Russia has never ceased to be one. Roughly 55 percent of respondents say that Russia needs an advanced and modern economy to be regarded by others as a world power. The strategy of making Russia a global leader in the energy sector is the least popular with respondents, with only 4 percent approval. Thirty-six percent of respondents favor higher living standards for citizens as the principal requirement for a position of prestige in the world, and 24 percent are in favor of having a powerful military. VTsIOM Director for Communications Igor Edelman concluded that "Russian citizens are mostly pragmatic. They associate the image of Russia as a great power with economic successes. Strength in the energy sector is viewed as [only] a component of economic might." Levada Center Deputy Director Aleksei Grazhdankin, another prominent pollster, said that "our opinion polls indicate that over half of Russian citizens would like to be living in a country where the needs of the population are recognized and treated as a priority. Imperial aspirations don't rate very high on their list of priorities." PM

Speaking in New Delhi on January 24, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov reiterated recent Russian criticism of U.S. plans to construct a radio-locating station in the Czech Republic and place missile-defense equipment in Poland as part of its new broader missile-defense system, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2007). He noted that "we are told that the creation of such a system or sites for its positioning is necessary for the interception of missiles that North Korea and Iran can launch against the United States and its allies. We reply, knowing the real state of affairs, that neither North Korean nor Iranian missiles can reach a designated target, because [such missiles] do not exist. And then a logical question arises: against whom is this missile-defense system being made?" He suggested that Poland and the Czech Republic have already decided to go ahead with the project, adding that the government-level discussions going on in those two countries about it are simply for show. Colonel General Vladimir Popovkin, who commands the Federal Space Forces, said in Moscow on January 22 that the "placing of a radio-locating station in the Czech Republic and antimissile equipment in Poland is a real threat to us." On January 23, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak said in Moscow that Russia wants "to discuss" the matter with the United States and "its European colleagues," reported. He added that "we do not understand why the United States wants to deploy an antimissile-defense system. These plans are not inspired by global security interests." PM

The daily "Kommersant" reported on January 23 that the state arms trader Rosoboroneksport said in a statement that the company delivered $5.3 billion worth of arms and military hardware to foreign clients in 2006. Aircraft accounted for 57 percent of all military hardware sold abroad, while naval equipment made up 39 percent of the total, the daily added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2007). Company spokesman Valery Kartavtsev said that "despite intense competition and U.S. sanctions [against Rosoboroneksport and to a lesser extent against the aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi], the company strengthened its positions in numerous segments of the global market. Aircraft and light-weapons contracts with Venezuela marked what was essentially a breakthrough year for Russian arms in Latin America" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 28 and August 8, 2006). The paper noted that "on January 19, Rosoboroneksport officially confirmed the signing of the decree by [President] Putin making it the sole exporter of arms and military hardware.... All other companies previously permitted to deal with foreign customers directly will only be able to deal in spare parts and components." The daily reported that several Russian experts question the accuracy of many official reports on arms sales, including those by Rosoboroneksport. One expert suggested that "this state of affairs only shows how secretive and nontransparent Russian arms exports are." Other experts pointed out that China, India, and several Middle Eastern countries are likely to remain Russia's main arms customers. The daily "Vedomosti" reported on January 23 that "the Russo-Indian military technology cooperation program for 2001-10 is estimated to be valued at $18 billion, of which $11 billion worth of military hardware has already been delivered." PM

Vladimir Pronichev, who heads the Federal Border Guard Service of the Federal Security Service (FSB), told a session of the Federation Council on January 24 that terrorists might seek to take advantage of the "virtually unguarded" border with Belarus to enter Russia illegally, Interfax reported. He added that the porous border "could also be used to smuggle goods into Russia." PM

Sponsors of a bill before the State Duma that would ban public marches or gatherings for the two weeks preceding and following elections said on January 24 that they have withdrawn the measure rather than see it watered down any further, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22 and 23, 2007). State Duma Deputy Vladimir Semago of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party said that it is unlikely that he and the other sponsors will again resubmit the draft, which was first submitted on January 17. It was subsequently withdrawn and resubmitted after incurring massive criticism from some politicians and the media as being undemocratic and a violation of fundamental rights. PM

In a statement posted on its website ( on January 23, the Russian Foreign Ministry denied that the Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal investigation into the possible involvement of Chechen police in the October 2006 killing of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Earlier on January 23, Joel Simon, who is executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said he was informed by Russian Foreign Ministry officials that the Prosecutor-General's Office has opened such an investigation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2007). The ministry said that the Prosecutor-General's Office is following several lines of investigation with regard to the murder of Politkovskaya, who reported on human rights abuses committed by the Russian military and the pro-Moscow police in Chechnya. The Chechen Interior Ministry issued a similar statement affirming that its personnel were not in any way involved in the killing, according to on January 23 and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on January 24. LF

Russia's Supreme Court upheld on January 23 several successive rulings last year by the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast court calling for the liquidation of a Russian-Chechen friendship society on the grounds that its head, Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, promoted interethnic enmity by publishing an appeal to the Russian people by slain Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and his London-based Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev, the daily reported. Russian and international human rights organizations appealed without success to President Putin to reverse that court ruling, and European Parliament deputies issued a statement of support for the embattled NGO. LF

North Ossetian Interior Minister Lieutenant General Sergei Arenin on January 23 informed the ministry's Public Council, of which he is chairman, of its efforts over the past year to combat crime and terrorism, reported. Other speakers at the meeting focused on the repercussions of the September 2004 Beslan hostage-taking crisis and the ongoing dispute with neighboring Ingushetia over Prigorodny Raion. Council presidium member Elbrus Tedtov noted that Terek Cossacks participate alongside Ossetian border guards in manning the administrative border between North Ossetia and Ingushetia. It is not clear whether meeting participants also discussed the activities of the militant North Ossetian jamaat, which claimed responsibility for several attacks last year, including the crash on September 11 of a Russian Mi-8 helicopter in which 10 senior military officers died. Aslanbek Kelekhsayev, who is secretary of the North Ossetian Economic and Social Security Council, said on September 13 that the Ossetian jamaat is merely a "myth" created "for propaganda purposes" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 13, and 14, 2006). LF

Armen Aghayan, the temporary head of the Alliance of Armenian Volunteers (HKH) that Lebanese-born Karabakh war veteran Zhirayr Sefilian founded last year, told journalists in Yerevan on January 23 that Sefilian's arrest was initiated by Armenian Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian with the consent of President Robert Kocharian, reported. Sefilian has been charged with plotting to overthrow the Armenian leadership in the run-up to the parliamentary elections due in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 12, and 20, 2006, and January 3, 2007). Sarkisian has publicly denied any role in the arrest of Sefilian and another Karabakh war veteran, Vartan Malkhasian. LF

Vartan Oskanian and Elmar Mammadyarov met in Moscow on the evening of January 22 for a working dinner prior to resuming on January 23 negotiations within the framework of the OSCE-sponsored Prague process on approaches to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Azerbaijani daily reported on January 24. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin participated in the talks together with the French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosted a working lunch after the talks. Oskanian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on January 23 that the talks were "productive" and "proceeded in a positive atmosphere." He said he and Mammadyarov "tried to discuss the second layer" of unspecified principles on which the two countries' presidents reached agreement during their meeting in November 2006 on the sidelines of a CIS summit in Minsk (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," December 1, 2006). But Oskanian conceded that "I can't say there were serious movements [forward] in addition to what we had before." Mammadyarov was quoted by as describing the talks as "quite difficult." The same daily further quoted Tahir Tagizade, head of the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry press service, as saying that "the Azerbaijani side positively assesses the increased activity of the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, and of the Russian side in the first instance." The three co-chairmen flew to Baku late on January 23 and will proceed to Yerevan on January 24. Whether or not the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents will meet to resume their Karabakh talks before the Armenian elections in May will depend on the outcome of their respective meetings with the Minsk Group co-chairmen, according to Mammadyarov. LF

Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze told a government session in Tbilisi on January 24 that Georgia has complied fully with the requirements of the October 11 UN Security Council resolution on the situation in the Kodori Gorge, Caucasus Press reported. That resolution called for the strict observance of the terms of a cease-fire agreement signed in Moscow in May 1994, in particular with regard to the demilitarization of Kodori (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006). In his January 11 follow-up letter to the Security Council, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that "some progress has been achieved toward implementation" of the October Security Council resolution. At the same time, he wrote that ongoing efforts to resolve the conflict "are still burdened by the fundamental differences between the two sides," and he called for a resumption of dialogue between the Georgian authorities and the leadership of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia. Also on January 24, a Georgian delegation left for New York in order to present at an upcoming Security Council session additional documentation demonstrating Georgia's full compliance with the October 11 resolution, Caucasus Press reported. LF

The trial of eight coal-mine workers opened on January 23 in a court in Kazakhstan's central town of Shakhtinsk, "Kazakhstan Today" and Interfax reported. The miners are charged with criminal negligence in an underground methane blast that killed 41 people and injured 12 in September 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2006). An official investigation by Kazakh mining officials concluded that the deaths of the miners in the tragic explosion was at least exacerbated by a number of serious violations of safety regulations in the Lenin coal mine. The Lenin mine is located in Kazakhstan's central region of Qaraghanda and is owned by a subsidiary of the world's largest steel producer, Mittal Steel. The Mittal Steel company was also criticized at that time by a local nongovernmental organization, the Network of Independent Observers, for failing to ensure miners' safety. RG

In a report to the Kazakh cabinet in Astana, Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin said on January 23 that Kazakhstan "should pay special attention" to Central Asia in 2007, according to AKIpress. Tazhin explained that Kazakhstan defines the Central Asian region as a "sphere of vital interests" and added that "it is [in] our national interest to assist by all means a growth of competitiveness in the region, which will allow us to achieve our strategic purposes." He further noted that Kazakhstan will also place greater emphasis on national security, including "sustainable democratic development." RG

A group of Kazakh women staged a demonstration on January 23 outside a police facility in Almaty to protest the continued detention of a number of suspected Islamist members of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir group, Kazakh state television reported. The demonstration, which was organized by women married or related to the detainees, demanded the right to visit the suspects and reportedly expressed support for Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Kazakh police arrested more than 70 suspected members and activists of the outlawed group about six weeks ago. The Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office renewed the ban on the Hizb ut-Tahrir group in October, citing a court ruling in Astana that defined the group as an extremist, terrorist organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 13, 2006). RG

Deputies of the Kyrgyz parliament decided on January 23 to postpone until January 25 a vote on a draft resolution that calls upon President Bakiev to abandon plans to reappoint outgoing Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. According to the terms of the revamped constitution, the president has the right to dissolve the legislature if it rejects his nomination three times (check). Kulov and his cabinet resigned on December 19, triggering a political crisis that led to the adoption of a revised constitution in late December that granted the president enhanced powers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2007).

Activists from a number of Kyrgyz youth groups and nongovernmental organizations staged a demonstration on January 23 in front of the parliament building in Bishkek to protest Kyrgyzstan's possible participation in the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt-reduction initiative, which is sponsored by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Kabar news agency reported. The activists staged a similar rally the day before and a larger demonstration against the debt-reduction program was organized by Kyrgyz student groups in December 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2006). The HIPC has sparked widespread debate in Kyrgyzstan, with proponents arguing that the program would help write off part of Kyrgyzstan's $2 billion external debt and critics, including many parliamentarians, warning that it would grant the World Bank and the IMF too much influence over the Kyrgyz economy. RG

In a meeting with foreign ambassadors in Bishkek, President Bakiev identified on January 23 the country's relations with Russia as a priority in Kyrgyz foreign policy, ITAR-TASS reported. Bakiev said that he intends to expand Kyrgyzstan's "strategic partnership" with Russia and will seek to increase bilateral trade and investment. According to official statistics, trade and economic cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and Russia has increased sharply in recent years, with a doubling in the volume of bilateral trade last year to more than $500 million. RG

According to a private survey of media in Kyrgyzstan, the Russian-language Channel One television program is the most popular in the capital Bishkek, the news agency reported on January 23. The media survey, conducted by the "Expert" consultancy group, reported that some 98 percent of homes in Bishkek have at least one television and roughly 18 percent of Bishkek residents regularly watch cable or satellite television programs. The survey also identified the most popular individual programs and found that eight of the 10 most popular programs in Bishkek belong to Channel One, followed by Independent Bishkek Television's (NBT) private channel and Russian MTV. A mere one-third of Bishkek residents listen to daily radio programming and only 11 percent regularly buy daily newspapers in Bishkek, although some 40 percent of those surveyed indicated that they purchase newspapers at least once a week. RG

Speaking at a news conference in Dushanbe, Tajik Labor Minister Shukurjon Zuhurov and Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov announced on January 22 that they have dispatched a formal request to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov seeking the relaxation of restrictions imposed by Russia on migrant workers from Tajikistan, Asia-Plus reported. The Tajik government is seeking an increase in the number of work permits for Tajik nationals, and has requested that Russia allow some 200,000 additional Tajik laborers beyond the current limit of 600,000 Tajiks allowed to work in Russia each year. Russia imposed far stricter immigration regulations earlier this month and has announced plans to gradually reduce and to remove all foreign workers at Russia's retail markets by the end of 2007, Regnum and Avesta reported. RG

A new agreement on technical cooperation was reached between the Japanese Isuzu Motors Corporation and Uzbek officials for the use of an Uzbek assembling plant in the central town of Samarkand, Uzbek TV reported on 22 January. According to the agreement, the plant will assemble two types of buses and make new modifications on trucks under a license from the Japanese company. The plan, which also sets an annual production target of 1,500 buses, includes a Japanese commitment to modernize the Uzbek plant. RG

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said at a government conference in Navapolatsk, Vitsebsk Oblast, on January 23 that Belarus should charge Russia for using the land under its gas pipeline crossing the Belarusian territory, Belapan reported. "We should propose to Russia that it also should pay us for the land under the pipeline, for oil transportation, and other services under the principles of international law," Lukashenka said. According to Lukashenka, Belarus stands to lose $3.5 billion in 2007 as a result of Russia more than doubling the price it charges Belarus for natural gas and due to its imposition of a duty on oil exported to Belarus. "Belarus should use its geopolitical location more efficiently," Lukashenka said. "Russia has a unique resource -- hydrocarbons. Our strategic resource is our geopolitical location. We should use it in the same way Russia uses its resources." JM

President Lukashenka also told the government in Navapolatsk on January 23 that it should develop a number of energy-saving measures to offset new, unfavorable prices for oil and natural gas, Belapan reported. "We have a good deal of work outstanding in this area. There is no time to waste," Lukashenka said. He also suggested that Belarus should abandon the use of hydrocarbons for heating small production facilities such as farms. "We'll not subsidize them. There is firewood, take it and burn it," he added. JM

First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka said at a government conference in Navapolatsk on January 23 that it is promising to consider a project for pumping crude oil from Latvian port Ventspils to the Naftan oil refinery in Navapolatsk, Belapan reported. Syamashka reportedly told President Lukashenka that such a project, including the modernization of the pipeline linking Navapolatsk and Ventspils, might cost from $15 million to $30 million and its implementation could take 2 1/2 years. Lukashenka stressed in Navapolatsk that Naftan should play a key role in ensuring the country's energy security. "Why are we betting on Naftan? Because it has fairly good experience in the modernization of manufacturing facilities and certain prospects for further development," Lukashenka noted. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko has dismissed Ukrainian Ambassador to Austria Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukrainian media reported on January 23, quoting Presidential Secretarial deputy head Oleksandr Chalyy. Chalyy said the dismissal was caused by Yelchenko's decision to issue entry visas for two Turkmen opposition leaders, Khudaiberdy Orazov and Nurmukhammed Khanamov. Chalyy noted that the two Turkmen politicians visited Kyiv in December, following an invitation from Ukrainian Transport Minister Mykola Rudkovskyy. According to Chalyy, Yushchenko has asked Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to consider the possibility of dismissing Rudkovskyy, charging that the latter "grossly interfered with the activity of Ukraine's missions abroad and incited diplomats to actions that violate internal instructions and Ukraine's legislation." "[Rudkovskyy's action] endangered Ukraine's coordinated course in foreign policy," Chalyy added. Rudkovskyy said during a news conference in Kyiv on January 22 that linking him to the visit of the two Turkmen opposition leaders in December is part of a "planned" effort to discredit him. JM

UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari will present a proposal for Kosova's future that will "advocate independence for Kosova, but with limits on its sovereignty," Reuters reported on January 23, quoting German Foreign Ministry State Secretary Gernot Erler. Ahtisaari is scheduled to present the plan to the contact group -- which comprises Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United States -- on January 26. Reuters quoted unidentified diplomatic and political officials as saying the proposal states that Kosova should be granted "the right to seek membership of international organizations and institutions." Such institutions could include the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank although none were identified in the text of the document, according to a diplomat cited by Reuters. BW

The pro-Western Democratic Party's (DS) candidate for prime minister, Bozidar Djelic, appealed to UN envoy Ahtisaari on January 23 to delay publication of his Kosova proposal, Reuters reported the same day. "Some speedy move on Kosovo could make formation of a democratic government more difficult, and that is not in anyone's interest," Djelic said. "These are delicate issues and we have to have full control over things such as the armed forces." Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, whose Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) is central to any coalition deal, said it does not matter when Ahtisaari goes public with his proposal. "It is absolutely irrelevant when [Ahtisaari] will give his proposal, before or after the government is formed," Kostunica said, adding that most Serbs oppose Kosova's independence and Russia supports Belgrade's position. BW

High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling has said it is too early to leave Bosnia-Herzegovina without international supervision, AP reported on January 23. The situation in the region and in Bosnia-Herzegovina is such that an international administrator with powers to impose laws and fire obstructive local politicians is still necessary, Schwarz-Schilling said. He added, however, that he does not plan seek to remain in the position past June. The Peace Implementation Council, the body that oversees Bosnia's peace process, is scheduled to decide at the end of February whether it is time to end international oversight. The council originally planned to close the Office of the High Representative, which Schwarz-Schilling now heads, and replace it with an EU office that would mainly work in an advisory capacity. Schwarz-Schilling said he now believes it would be a mistake to weaken the international community's mandate in Bosnia. "I am confident that my arguments will prevail," he said. BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina's tripartite Presidency congratulated Serbia on January 23 for holding successful general elections and expressed hope that a new democratic government will be formed soon, dpa reported the same day. "I hope these elections will give a new impulse to stability and peace in the region, based on respect for the independence and sovereignty of the states of the western Balkans, their mutual cooperation, and good-neighborly relations," the chairman of the Presidency, Bosnian Serb Nebojsa Radmanovic, said. In a separate statement, however, the Muslim member of the Presidency, Haris Silajdzic, expressed concern about the strong showing of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS). "Regardless of which coalition of parties forms the new Serbian government, it is deeply alarming that the radical factions won the strongest support from the Serbian voters," he said. BW

In the same statement on January 23, Haris Silajdzic called on the international community to remain engaged in the region to prevent a nationalist revival, dpa reported the same day. "The international community has to continue to play an extremely important role in the democratization of the entire region," Silajdzic said. He added that the international community must "re-examine its approach to the Serbian nationalist legacy that is clearly not waning" and work to "finally remove the danger of a renewed materialization of nationalist visions that dominated the election campaign in Serbia." "Only such an approach can take the entire region towards a full stabilization and Euro-Atlantic integration, which are the strongest guarantees for the prosperity of all of Southeastern Europe," Silajdzic added. BW

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has repeated past claims that those responsible for price volatility in Iran are speculating based on privileged connections to previous governments. But the reaction this time to his remarks suggests his critics want government action, not finger-pointing.

Lawmakers in the conservative-dominated parliament assailed Ahmadinejad on January 21 over signs of runaway inflation. One lawmaker cited a threefold increase in the price of tomatoes, prompting the president to tell him to "come and do your shopping in my neighborhood" rather than patronize "expensive places."

Ahmadinejad, who was presenting his second annual budget plan to the parliament, countered that his government has successfully controlled inflation. He reportedly told his ministers on January 9 that their government inherited inflation from its predecessors. He claimed that "certain elements" with ties to previous governments were using "illegitimate fortunes" to "create upheaval in the market and play with prices," the dailies "Etemad-i Melli" and "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 11. He accused those people of creating "a psychological atmosphere" that has led to price fluctuations.

Ahmadinejad has in the past criticized previous policies -- particularly the economic adjustments of the 1990s under the liberalizing governments of Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.

Allegations of corruption that enriches villains at the expense of the public purse is a recurring theme of conservative rhetoric. A past variant claimed the existence of an oil mafia that was helping itself to millions of petrodollars, in the absence of close supervision. But the government might find the latest criticism -- which has come from conservatives as well as reformists -- tough to deflect.

On January 6, the conservative deputy speaker of parliament, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, warned that "the general level of prices seems to have gotten out of control," ISNA reported. He conceded that some of the responsibility might lie with previous governments. But he went on to blame more recent government spending, which he said parliament wishes to curb, and said low-cost government loans have forced up housing prices.

Another legislator, Ahmad Khas-Ahmadi, has challenged the government to hand corrupt cronies of previous governments over to prosecutors, according to ISNA on January 10. He blamed a "problem" system that leaves the economy vulnerable to speculation or market perceptions. But Khas-Ahmadi also questioned whether the economy is managed in such a way as to encourage people to invest in production, rather than to hoard their assets.

Another legislator, Ismail Jabbarzadeh, demanded that Ahmadinejad "state clearly" any information he has of financial wrongdoing, Aftab news agency reported on January 10.

The head of a special economic department at the judiciary, Elias Mahmudi, weighed in the same day to say that his investigators "are waiting for the president to identify...those [people] with illegitimate fortunes, and God willing, he will," according to ISNA on January 10. Mahmudi vowed that public trials of the culprits would follow.

Rasul Sadiqi-Bonab, a member of the parliamentary Planning and Budget Committee, called the president's sweeping indictment an insult to all hard-working state officials, according to Aftab on January 12.

Another legislator, Tehrani Mehdi Kuchakzadeh, argued that "some of the problems" arise from "the methods and executive decisions...[of] today," adding that "the government, parliament, and judiciary...participate in" those decisions, ISNA reported. He then accused the judiciary of discreetly reassuring corrupt individuals that "nothing will happen" to them if they are caught. Kuchakzadeh said these factors combine to cause inflation.

Lawmaker Mohammad Reza Mirtajeddini did not excuse past governments, but he focused on the Ahmadinejad government's boasts that it is well-equipped to resolve bread-and-butter issues. He said the "economy is sick," and he urged the president to take "essential measures" to make it better.

Lawmakers have argued for a range of measures to curb inflation -- in several cases urging a crackdown on speculators -- but their overriding message appears to have been that enforcement and policy-making are powerful tools in the government arsenal to combat abuses and price volatility.

Right-wing legislator Hasan Seidabadi noted that influential people from the previous administration can, on the basis of their connections, simply borrow from banks if they intend to speculate, "so the matter [has nothing] to do with judicial officials." He said the government should simply prevent such "agents" from abusing "banking resources and ailing-economy opportunities."

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president under Ahmadinejad's reform-minded predecessor, President Khatami, utterly rejected the president's defense. Abtahi argued that "high prices that began a year and a half after" Ahmadinejad became president in 2005 "cannot be rooted in previous governments," according to Mehr on January 13. He challenged Ahmadinejad to tell voters what his administration has done to curb inflation.

But Ahmadinejad's own rhetoric could provide opponents with their most powerful weapon over his handling of economic pressures. Hadi Baluki, a member of the reformist National Trust Party, noted in mid-January that "Ahmadinejad claimed he would bring oil money onto people's tables," but people are instead being deprived of bread, ILNA reported on January 14.

Cleric Hussein Musavi-Tabrizi alleged the same day that the government is simply paying too little attention to Iranians' material problems, according to ILNA.

A former deputy finance minister, Said Shirakvand, conceded that systemic problems contribute to inflation, according to ISNA on January 17. But he stressed that he thinks "day-to-day" economic management, stagnant production, and large pockets of cash are to blame for the current inflationary dilemma.

Ten Afghans were killed and 15 others wounded in a suicide attack in Khost Province on January 23, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. The attack occurred at one of the gates to an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forward operating base. The dead victims were "poor laborers working inside the ISAF base," Khost Governor Arsala Jamal told AIP. An ISAF press release on January 23 reported that two Afghan National Police officers were among those killed. The statement said the bomber attempted to enter the base wearing a vest packed with explosives but detonated his explosives when he reached the search point. AT

Qari Mohammad Yusof, speaking for the Taliban on January 23, claimed responsibility for the deadly suicide attack in Khost the same day, AIP reported. Speaking by telephone with AIP, Mohammad Yusof said a Taliban fighter named Mohammad Hanif, a resident of Khost, "carried out a suicide attack...killing or wounding eight foreign and Afghan soldiers and destroying two of their vehicles." A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- claimed on January 23 that a suicide attack carried out by a Taliban fighter in Khost killed six U.S. soldiers and "four of their spies." Taliban sources regularly exaggerate or otherwise misrepresent the nature of incidents of violence that they carry out. AT

Representatives from Afghanistan, India, and the UN Development Program (UNDP) signed a tripartite agreement in Kabul on January 23 that should usher in Indian expertise to advise Afghan government officials on financial management and administrative and organizational practices, state-run Afghanistan National Television reported. The agreement coincided with a visit by Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee. At a joint news conference with Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Mukherjee said that New Delhi remains "committed to helping Afghanistan in reconstruction and development," according to a statement from the Afghan Foreign Ministry. Mukherjee reportedly said that his country will contribute more than $1 million -- with UNDP providing a matching amount -- toward the training program for Afghan government officials. AT

President Hamid Karzai has appointed Afghanistan's current ambassador to Iran, Mohammad Omar Daudzai, to head his presidential office, Mashhad-based Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on January 23. Daudzai will replace Jawed Ludin, who has been appointed Afghan ambassador to Norway. AT

Iran's parliament voted on January 23 to hold the next presidential and parliamentary polls concurrently despite claims that the move is unconstitutional, Radio Farda reported the same day. The bill must be approved by the Guardian Council, the body of jurists that vets bills on constitutional and religious grounds. Council member Mohsen Ismaili told ISNA on January 23 that the bill will probably be rejected as unconstitutional, saying the constitution has set presidential and parliamentary terms at four years and "ordinary laws" cannot change that. Radio Farda also quoted a vice president identified as Musapur -- it was unclear whether the speaker might be Mohammad Hussein Musapur, the deputy interior minister for parliamentary affairs (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," October 9, 2006) -- as saying that there are "dangers" to voters selecting a parliament and president simultaneously. The bill's supporters claim it would save the country time and money, and say December's simultaneous elections for local councils, a clerical assembly, and some parliamentary seats were successful. If approved, the bill would allow parliament to extend its present four-year term for a year, and presidential and parliamentary elections would be held in 2009. Musapur said the government does not oppose simultaneous elections in principle but that this bill "contradicts at least five constitutional articles," Radio Farda reported. VS

One day after Iran said it was preventing some UN inspectors from checking nuclear installations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2007), Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham told reporters on January 23 that Iran will continue cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN inspectorate, news agencies reported. Elham said it is normal for governments to "have their say" on inspectors entering their territory, and that this is "standard and legal" procedure in dealing with the IAEA, Radio Farda reported, citing Mehr. "We have no problem with the [IAEA] and will continue all our nuclear activities under [IAEA] supervision," Elham said. The same day, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani discussed the ban on the phone with IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei, ISNA reported. On January 22, EU foreign ministers agreed to halt trade in nuclear-related goods with Iran, freeze the assets of officials working on Iran's program, and impose some travel bans, AFP reported. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said the same day in Brussels that the EU will seek to implement UN sanctions imposed on December 23 "as speedily and...effectively as we can," AFP reported. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim in Tehran on January 23 that Western powers have suffered repeated defeats in the Middle East and now "Muslim and Arab states" must work together to assure regional stability and to strengthen "independent and popular" regimes in the region, ISNA reported. Ahmadinejad contended that the United States intends to foment "insecurity and conflict" and "weaken independent and popular governments" in the region to prolong its own presence and pursue "colonial" aims, ISNA reported. He said all Islamic states should support Lebanon's Hizballah and seek to unite "the various Palestinian groups" in order to hasten what he said is Israel's decline. Both officials stressed the solidity of ties between Iran and Syria, ISNA reported. VS

Former reformist officials and parliamentarians met at a party office in Tehran on January 22 to discuss Iran's present domestic and international situation, ISNA reported. The meeting was convened at the offices of the reformist National Trust Party led by former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi. He told participants that "presently we are creating crises and making ourselves enemies in a manner unprecedented" since the 1979 revolution, and "certain officials [with] heavy responsibilities...say and do things" that have "everyone worried." One participant, Mohammad Sadr, the deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs in the government of President Mohammad Khatami, said he wrote a letter to President Ahmadinejad about Iraq in 2005, although "perhaps it was never read," ISNA reported. Sadr said he thinks that in President George W. Bush's new strategy in Iraq, "America has decided to firmly confront Iran inside Iraq." He warned that diplomatic isolation and sanctions might threaten the existence of Iran's government. Other participants included Hossein Musavian, a former nuclear-dossier negotiator, and Mohammad Baqer Nobakht, an Expediency Council member who said Iran must now consider how it will use its resources to defend national interests should the UN impose sanctions on it, ISNA reported. VS

The Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Hussein Khazemi, met with Kurdish leaders in Irbil on January 23 to discuss the issue of the five Iranian citizens arrested by U.S. forces during a raid on an Iranian consular office on January 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 2007), "Al-Sabah al-Jadid" reported the same day. Kurdish regional President Mas'ud Barzani issued a statement saying the arrests "were inappropriate" and "unexpected," stressing that Kurdish sovereignty must not be violated. Furthermore, Barzani said the Kurdish region should not be caught up in the current hostilities between Iran and the United States. SS

U.S. forces announced on January 23 that they have arrested more than 600 alleged fighters from Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam al-Mahdi Army, including 16 commanders, international media reported the same day. U.S. forces accuse the militia of involvement in sectarian violence and of carrying out attacks against multinational and Iraqi government forces. "Criminal activities by these individuals propagated instability within Iraq and their removal from the social structure is a critical start to providing the Iraqi populace with a safe and stable environment," a U.S. military statement said. In addition, Iraqi and U.S. forces have carried out 52 operations in the past 45 days targeting the Imam al-Mahdi Army and 42 operations in that same period targeting Sunni extremists. The military said operations against Sunni extremists resulted in the capture of 33 alleged cell leaders. SS

During testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on January 23, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General David Petraeus, said the situation in Iraq is not hopeless, but he warned of difficult times ahead, international media reported the same day. "The situation in Iraq is dire. The stakes are high. There are no easy choices. The way ahead will be very hard. But hard is not hopeless," Petraeus said. As part of U.S. President George W. Bush's new Iraq strategy, more than 21,000 additional U.S. troops will be sent to Iraq in effort to stabilize Baghdad. Asked by Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) how soon he thought he would know whether the new strategy was working, Petraeus responded, "We would have indicators at the least during the late summer." SS

Al-Baghdad satellite television reported on January 23 that a U.S. helicopter crashed in the Al-Fadl area of central Baghdad, killing five U.S. citizens. A U.S. security firm on January 24 confirmed the crash but did not reveal the cause. Al-Jazeera satellite television quoted local residents as saying they saw a helicopter being shot down over the center of the city. A U.S. military spokesman told AFP that "coalition forces are investigating what appears to be a crashed civilian aircraft in the Iraqi capital." This was the second reported downing of a U.S. helicopter in three days. On January 20, a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter crashed northeast of Baghdad, killing all 12 on board (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2007). Subsequently, CNN reported on January 22 that the helicopter might have been shot down by a shoulder-fired missile, and later that day an Al-Qaeda-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2007). SS

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which is headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, has reportedly provided safe haven to former Iraqi Vice President Taha Muhi al-Din Ma'ruf since the overthrow of the former regime in 2003, the Kurdish paper "Awene" reported on January 23. Ma'ruf, an ethnic Kurd originally from Al-Sulaymaniyah, held a number of posts in the regime of former President Saddam Hussein beginning in 1974, including vice president. He reportedly owns a considerable amount of farmland near Al-Sulaymaniyah's industrial area and is residing in the town of Dukan, near one of Talabani's residences. The paper also cited rumors that Ma'ruf might be given a retirement package as a former minister. SS

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on January 23 that armed men wearing police uniforms abducted 17 Palestinian men from a house in Baghdad, Reuters reported the same day. "The UNHCR is very concerned and is seeking information about their whereabouts," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva. The agency said that the estimated 15,000 Palestinian refugees in Iraq have increasingly become the target of kidnappings and killings. Opponents of the former Iraqi regime resented the refugees because they viewed the Palestinians as being given preferential treatment. SS