|Tuesday, 26 May 2020|
RFE/RL Newsline, 06-11-28
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 OECD SAYS RUSSIA MUST FIGHT CORRUPTION AND LAUNCH REFORMSThe Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a survey on November 27, in which it argues that Russia must pursue urgent economic reforms if it wants to sustain its current petrodollar-driven boom, international media reported. The OECD report says Russia will be vulnerable to rapid inflation and declining competitiveness if it fails to enforce fiscal discipline in managing high oil revenues. The survey calls Russia's recent economic performance "impressive," with the country experiencing an average of 6.7 percent annual growth in gross domestic product between 1999 and 2005. But the OECD also warns that continued strong growth will depend on a sound macroeconomic environment and market-friendly structural reforms. The group urges better reforms to empower citizens and enhance transparency. It also calls the expansion of state ownership a "disturbing trend" that "bodes ill" for future growth. The study warns in particular about the "seemingly insatiable appetite" of Gazprom. The "Financial Times" noted on November 28 that the survey shows that "Russia's inefficient and corrupt state administration is a key impediment to investment -- both foreign and domestic -- as well as to the government's ability to implement any of its policies.... Measuring corruption may be difficult, but there is 'a widespread consensus that it has been growing in recent years.'" Recent studies by the World Bank and the nongovernmental organization Transparency International place corruption in Russia on a level with that in some African countries, such as Swaziland (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18 and 25, and November 8 and 22, 2006). PM
 DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS NATO SUMMIT NEAR ST. PETERSBURG MIGHT BE 'UNCOMFORTABLE'Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Moscow that the upcoming NATO Riga summit is not a matter of serious concern for Russia, the German weekly "Der Spiegel" reported on November 28. Ivanov added that "the Baltic countries are sovereign nations. They have the right to decide which military and political bloc they want to be a part of. Of course, some Russians feel uneasy about the fact that a NATO summit is taking place so close to St. Petersburg. But I take a more relaxed view. If NATO had staged a major military maneuver in Latvia, with tanks and aircraft, it would certainly have triggered concern within the Russian military. But that is not the case." He nonetheless added that "the Baltic states...are small countries in a region that is especially free of conflict and tension, militarily speaking. We do not understand why NATO needs its own military infrastructure in this region. Does it intend to wage war against terrorism or influence operations in Afghanistan from there?" Ivanov also said that the closure of a U.S. military base in Khanabad was Uzbekistan's own decision "because it suspected the government of the United States of trying to destabilize the situation in the country." Ivanov argued that some people call "the forces active there fighters for human rights, while the Uzbek people themselves call them terrorists who are killing people. I am aware of the real state of affairs...not propaganda. I have read reports describing how these so-called fighters for human rights received instructions from abroad to kill people." Asked about Russian sanctions against Georgia, Ivanov replied that "these are not sanctions. We no longer operate direct flights to Tbilisi because Georgian airlines owe us money. You were the ones who introduced us to the market economy in the 1990s. Now we are sticking to it and you come to us with accusations. We cannot accept the fact that Georgia continues to insult us. It is clear to us that the Georgian leadership is dragging NATO and the EU into its efforts to solve its internal problems." On November 28, Britain's "The Times" wrote to mark the opening of the Riga summit that "much of the corridor talk during this first NATO summit on former Soviet soil will be of the renewed threat from Russia. Moscow's aggressive use of energy as a political weapon is the most obvious cause for concern.... NATO leaders will be asked to look at possible action to avert potential threats to energy sources by patrolling key shipping lines, or resupplying a victim of an energy suspension." PM
 BRITISH LEADERS WARN AGAINST DRAWING CONCLUSIONS OVER DEFECTOR'S DEATHBritish Prime Minister Tony Blair said in London on November 27 that it would be unwise to draw conclusions regarding the unexplained death there on November 23 of former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, who had U.K. citizenship since 2001, British and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 21, 22, and 27, 2006). Blair stressed that "in terms of this particular case...we have to proceed carefully. There is a police investigation ongoing, and we have to await the outcome of that investigation. Therefore, I think it is premature to be drawing any conclusions at this stage." He also stressed that he and his ministers have repeatedly drawn attention to their "concerns about some aspects of human rights life in Russia." British Home Secretary John Reid said in Parliament on November 27 that he "would caution again everyone against assuming that the police have yet said even as much as that they believe that Mr. Litvinenko was killed. [The police] have not ruled in or ruled out anything at all, and therefore it would be premature to go ahead and speculate on any particular lines of investigation, including those that may become necessary with anyone outside of the country." Meanwhile, unconfirmed police reports on November 27 suggested that the authorities have found traces of the radioactive substance polonium-210, which is suspected in Litvinenko's death, at several London sites, including in a building owned by his friend and self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky. In Moscow, toxicologist Lev Fyodorov told Interfax on November 27 that "polonium was never used as an instrument of murder before.... It looks like a pretty exotic story, like some kind of public relations show. The history of forensic science tells us that, if one wants to get rid of somebody, one tries to do this without any ado or trace. And if they've put up such a gigantic show [with an easily detected substance], it means somebody needed [the show out of an ulterior motive]." In his interview published in "Der Spiegel" on November 28, Defense Minister Ivanov said that the FSB could not have been involved in Litvinenko's death because "it would not have made any sense" for it to do so. He argued that Litvinenko was not a prominent FSB officer and hence "was apparently of no interest to anyone as a source of information." PM
 RUSSIAN MEDIA SPECULATE ABOUT DEFECTOR'S DEATHThe daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on November 27 that "the chief consequence of Aleksandr Litvinenko's strange death is that it proves that Russian politics has turned into nothing but acts of provocation, entirely in the spirit of the FSB, which is former employer of both Litvinenko and [President Vladimir] Putin." The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on November 27 that Litvinenko's death came precisely at a moment to embarrass Putin at the Helsinki EU-Russia summit, just as the murder of critical journalist Anna Politkovskaya took place on the eve of Putin's October visit to Germany. Her newspaper, "Novaya gazeta," suggested on November 27 that those who stand to lose by Putin not seeking a third term in 2008 might be behind recent "active efforts to 'reheat' our society...with murders, poisonings, arrests, purges, and dismissals, after a lengthy period of 'stabilization and calm.'" The paper argues that such people are trying to discredit Putin in the eyes of the international community in order to somehow prompt him to seek a third term, which would require changing the constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2006). Among those behind such a possible plot might be individuals who could face prison without Putin's protection, and people "who would not be welcome in the West, like Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka." The daily "Izvestia" noted on November 27 that there are no video recordings of Litvinenko speaking from his hospital bed and that his alleged statements were conveyed through his friend Aleksandr Goldfarb. The paper believes that Litvinenko's friends waited until he was too sick to speak for himself to make their announcements, so they could "quote him as saying whatever they wanted." The daily concludes -- as do several others -- that the case poses more questions than it provides answers. "Izvestia" also suggested that it might be in the best interests of those who killed Litvinenko if the mystery is never resolved. Many Russian media outlets have suggested for days that self-exiled oligarch Berezovsky might have killed his friend in order to discredit Putin. But the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on November 27 quoted Lieutenant Colonel Aleksandr Gusak, a former FSB commander of Litvinenko's in Daghestan in 1996, as saying that his death might have been an act of revenge by unnamed Chechens for Litvinenko's allegedly having tortured to death a Chechen prisoner there. Gusak suggested that "special services" could have provided the Chechens with polonium-210. "Which country's special services? That's a different question," Gusak added. PM
 PUTIN PRAISES INDEPENDENT MEDIAPresident Putin said at a Kremlin ceremony on November 27 to mark the 75th anniversary of television broadcasting in Russia that television journalists "played a huge role in the success of the democratic changes at the start of the 1990s," news.ru reported. He added that "today it is impossible to imagine the development of society and the state without the independent media, without the possibility to listen to various points of view, and without television." Putin also presented medals and awards to some media representatives from several outlets, including state-run television, Radio Rossiya, and the state-run "Rossiiskaya gazeta." The French-based nongovernmental organization Reporters Without Borders recently noted the extent to which the state and state-run corporations have taken over virtually all of the most important electronic media in Russia and much of the print media as well, greatly limiting the amount of independent news and information available to the public (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 25 and 26, 2006). Some critics have also spoken of an increasing "Putinization" of the Russian media, meaning a tendency to depict the authorities in a favorable light and focus attention away from controversial domestic political issues and onto foreign affairs, sport, entertainment, or business. PM
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT PASSES BILL ON APPROPRIATION OF PRIVATE PROPERTYThe Armenian parliament adopted on November 27 in the third and final reading by a vote of 70 in favor a controversial bill that legalizes the confiscation of private property when dictated by "state and public need," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The bill was drafted in response to an April ruling by Armenia's Constitutional Court designating unconstitutional the expropriation and demolition of private homes in Yerevan to make way for private development schemes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 29, September 12, and October 13, 2005, and February 28 and March 3, 2006). Victims of those forced evictions who complain they were not granted adequate financial compensation for the loss of their homes demonstrated outside the parliament building on November 27 but were unable to prevent passage of the bill. LF
 AZERBAIJANI INTELLECTUALS APPEAL ON BEHALF OF EMBATTLED TV STATIONSome two dozen respected Azerbaijani writers and other representatives of the intelligentsia have addressed an open letter to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev asking him to permit the independent television channel ANS TV to resume broadcasting, day.az and zerkalo.az reported on November 27 and 28, respectively. They acknowledge that the channel may "have made certain mistakes," but stress its role in instilling a feeling of "patriotism" in the younger generation. They also recall that Aliyev's deceased father and predecessor, Heydar Aliyev, intervened in 1994 to curtail an earlier attempt to muzzle ANS TV. Meanwhile, ANS personnel filed suit with Azerbaijan's Economic Court on November 27 against the National Council for Television and Radio, which on November 23 ordered the suspension of ANS broadcasting, day.az reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006). The three cofounders of ANS, Vaxid Mustafayev, his brother Seyfulla Mustafayev, and Mirshhain Agayev have appealed personally to the council's chairman, Nushiravan Maggeramli, reminding him that he has repeatedly praised ANS for its "cooperation," day.az reported on November 27. Also on November 27, Agayev was summoned to the Prosecutor-General's Office in connection with a criminal case opened several years ago on the basis of a complaint by members of the Academy of Sciences that ANS violated their authorship rights, day.az reported. That case was subsequently shelved for lack of evidence. LF
 AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PLANS CLOSER COORDINATION OF ACTIVITIESMehman Aliyev, director of the information agency Turan (and no relation to President Aliyev), told journalists on November 27 following a behind closed-door meeting of opposition party leaders that the opposition has no intention of suspending its activities in the wake of the most recent official reprisals, day.az and echo-az.com reported on November 27 and 28, respectively. Turan, together with the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party and the editorial staffs of the newspapers "Azadliq" and "Bizim yol," was evicted on November 24 from the premises they occupied in central Baku (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006). Aliyev added, however, that the opposition is considering the creation of a broad resistance movement uniting different parties. On November 25, day.az quoted opposition National Unity Movement leader Lala-Sovket Hacjiyeva as saying that the leaders of the opposition bloc Azadliq, with which her movement is aligned, have decided to suspend their activity as there no longer exists even any semblance of democracy in Azerbaijan. LF
 GEORGIAN OPPOSITION LAMBASTES U.S. AMBASSADOR OVER IRAN COMMENTSThe opposition Democratic Front Georgian parliament faction took issue on November 27 with comments by U.S. Ambassador John Tefft in an interview published in the weekly "Kviris palitra," Caucasus Press reported on November 27. Tefft was quoted as saying that Washington considers unacceptable any long-term strategic cooperation between Georgia and Iran, including the import by Georgia of Iranian natural gas. On November 23, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli said Tbilisi is negotiating with four separate potential gas suppliers -- Azerbaijan, Russia, Iran, and Turkey -- and will choose "the best option," Caucasus Press reported. He said the picture with regard to gas imports from Iran should become clear in December. Speaking on November 27 in Riga, where she will attend the NATO summit, Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze said Georgia will not buy gas from Russia for $230 per 1,000 cubic meters, the price Gazprom said last month it plans to charge beginning as of 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21 and November 3 and 21, 2006). Azerbaijan has not yet responded to Georgian requests for additional gas from the Shah Deniz field, the export of which is scheduled to begin before the end of this year . LF
 SOUTH OSSETIAN LEADER DENIES INVOLVEMENT COUNTERFEITINGEduard Kokoity, the newly reelected president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, released a formal denial in Tskhinvali on November 27 of a report published the previous day in the "Washington Post" giving details of the discovery by Georgian police and the U.S. Secret Service of an international operation to produce high-quality counterfeit $100 bills, Caucasus Press reported. The paper claimed the counterfeiters operate from the territory of South Ossetia, and that more than $20 million in such fake bills has been illegally transported to Israel and the U.S. since 1999. Georgian police arrested an Ossetian suspect in the case six months ago and confiscated from him some $100,000 in fake U.S. bills (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12, 2006). LF
 DEMOCRACY GROUP CALLS ON OSCE TO REJECT KAZAKH CHAIR BIDU.S.-based Freedom House issued a press release on November 27 calling on the OSCE to reject Kazakhstan's bid to assume the organization's chairmanship in 2009. Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor said, "Kazakhstan is simply not ready to chair an organization that represents European democratic ideals." Windsor noted that the Kazakh government "systematically underperforms across all of the sectors that are indispensable building blocks for democratic systems, including press freedoms, judicial independence, and the election process." The statement stressed that Freedom House's annual Freedom in the World survey ranked Kazakhstan "not free." The OSCE's Ministerial Council is to discuss on December 4-5 Kazakhstan's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009. DK
 REPORT SAYS MUSLIMS IN KYRGYZ SOUTH WANT NEW MUFTIMuslims in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh are demanding the removal of Marataly-ajy Jumanov from his post as the nation's chief mufti, fergana.ru reported on November 27. A group of local clergy who say they are supported by the attendees at seven local mosques held a news conference in Osh on November 24 to publicize their demand. Latibjan Kochkarov, who heads the initiative group seeking Jumanov's removal, said that Jumanov is poorly versed in Islamic law and charged that the leadership of Kyrgyzstan's Spiritual Administration of Muslims disburses money in a nontransparent fashion. For his part, Jumanov has claimed that his opponents are extremists and adherents of the banned Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir, Fergana.ru reported. DK
 TAJIKISTAN SEIZES MORE THAN TWO TONS OF DRUGS IN 2006Tajik law-enforcement authorities have seized some 2,047 kilos of narcotics in the first 10 months of 2006, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on November 27, citing Interior Ministry statistics. About half of it was heroin. During the same period, security forces arrested 639 people on drug charges, including 22 Afghans. The report did not detail the outcome of the cases. DK
 REPORT SAYS GRAIN, BREAD SCARCE IN TURKMENISTANUnconfirmed reports from Turkmenistan indicate that bread is in short supply and grain reserves are scant, Deutsche Welle reported on November 24. The report said bread prices are rising, with a loaf of black bread that cost 400 manats (about $.08 at the official exchange rate and $.016 at the black market rate) in May now costing 1,000 manats ($.20/$.04). Similarly, a loaf of white bread made from Kazakh flour that cost 800 manats in May now costs 2,500 manats, and a 50-kilogram bag of flour has increased in price from 120,000 manats six months ago to 250,000 manats. Official news agency TDH reported on November 27 that President Saparmurat Niyazov chaired a cabinet meeting the same day to discuss "serious violations in the planting of winter grains." The official report noted that local officials have provided inaccurate data to higher authorities about the actual acreage of land sown, with the true amount of land sown being significantly less than what central authorities are reporting. DK
 BELARUS SAID TO BE READY FOR 'CONSULTATIONS' WITH EUNatallya Pyatkevich, deputy head of the Belarusian presidential administration, said on television on November 26 that Belarus is ready to begin "consultations" with the European Union, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on November 27. However, Pyatkevich, who is on an EU travel-ban list, said that the EU's offers last week to promote democracy in Belarus in exchange for some economic benefits (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2006) are "purely ideological" and "abstract." "Our message is that as soon as the country indicates a willingness to move toward true democracy, human rights, and rule of law, we will be ready to enter into a full partnership with Belarus within the framework of the ENP [European Neighborhood Policy]. That would mean a significant increase in assistance -- to bring a host of improvements to Belarusians' quality of life," Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU commissioner for external relations and European Neighborhood Policy, said in Brussels on November 21 during the official presentation of the offer for Belarus. "We have not sought a quarrel or an altercation with anybody," Pyatkevich said on November 26. "Belarus is certainly interested in and ready for dialogue with both the European Union and the United States of America and any other country in the world, but on the basis of equality and mutual respect," she added. JM
 CIS FOREIGN MINISTERS MEET IN MINSKThe Council of Foreign Ministers of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) held a session in Minsk on November 27, on the eve of a meeting of CIS presidents in the Belarusian capital, Belapan reported. Representatives of all 12 CIS member countries set up an interstate commission at the level of deputy foreign ministers to continue studying the CIS's operation and generate proposals for its reform. CIS Executive Secretary Vladimir Rushailo told journalists in Minsk that the CIS summit on November 28 will have more than 20 issues on its agenda. According to Rushailo, a major agenda item will be the discussion of a report on measures to increase the efficiency of the CIS. JM
 BELARUSIAN ARRESTED IN LITHUANIA ON SUSPICION OF ESPIONAGE AGAINST POLANDA Belarusian man was arrested in Vilnius on November 25 on suspicion of espionage against Poland, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on November 27, quoting Lithuanian Prosecutor-General Algimantas Valantinas. At a news conference held at the Lithuanian Prosecutor-General's Office on November 27, the arrested man was identified as Syarhey Monich. A court in Vilnius is to decide on Monich's possible extradition to Poland after examining materials from the Lithuanian Prosecutor-General's Office. Polish media quoted Polish Prosecutor-General Janusz Kaczmarek as saying last week that the arrested man had acted against Poland's economic and defense interests "for some time." JM
 UKRAINIAN CHIEF PROSECUTOR WANTS MORE INFORMATION REGARDING POSSIBLE GONGADZE CORPSEProsecutor-General Oleksandr Medvedko told journalists on November 28 that his office has asked Slovak prosecutors to provide more information on the 2001 discovery of a body that resembled that of Heorhiy Gongadze, the Ukrainian journalist kidnapped and killed in September 2000, UNIAN reported. Medvedko explained that earlier this month his office received documents from Ukraine's Interpol branch -- which were sent to Ukraine at an unspecified time from Slovakia's Interpol branch -- stating that on April 17, 2001, a body resembling Gongadze's was found in Slovakia. Medvedko said that Ukrainian authorities continue to work from the assumption that "Gongadze's body is in Kyiv." Meanwhile, Lesya Gongadze, the slain journalist's mother, refuses to bury the headless body that is officially believed to be her son's. She said the authorities have yet to provide sufficient proof of the authenticity of that body, which is stored in a Kyiv morgue. JM
 UN, KFOR INCREASE SECURITY IN KOSOVA...The United Nations Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) announced on November 27 that it will increase security measures after what officials described as a credible threat, B92 and AP reported the same day. UN police officials did not specify the nature of the threat. "This current threat is being taken seriously by authorities, and citizens will see an increase in police activity and presence," the UNMIK announced in a statement. The NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force also said its troops will be more visible on the streets. The UNMIK statement added that attacks against UN personnel or property would be "destructive and counterproductive" and would be a setback for Kosova at a critical stage in final-status negotiations with Serbia. A demonstration by the group Self-Determination, which opposes negotiations with Serbia and whose protests have on occasion turned violent in the past, is planned for November 28. The UN statement did not link the threat to the planned demonstration. BW
 ...ELICITING PRAISE FROM KOSOVAR SERB LEADERSerbian List for Kosovo leader Oliver Ivanovic praised UNMIK and KFOR for increasing security in the province, saying that it makes the Serbian minority feel safer, B92 reported on November 27. "It is anyhow part of the earlier proclaimed policy to have KFOR react to any attempt to disturb the peace, regardless of the perpetrators' ethnic background," Ivanovic said. "I think what this means is that those units that deployed recently, and those expected to deploy, will represent a threat to all those who intend to use violence. In any case, we will need increased security from this day on." BW
 ETHNIC ALBANIANS TO DEFY SERBIAN AUTHORITIES AND CELEBRATE HOLIDAYEthnic Albanians in southern Serbia said on November 27 that they plan to mark the Albanian holiday Flag Day in defiance of the Serbian government, B92 and Beta reported the same day. Flag Day, an important Albanian national holiday, is celebrated on November 28. Serbian Human and Ethnic Rights Service Director Petar Ladjevic said the ethnic Albanian minority has no right to mark national holidays or to display national insignia as they have not formed a national council. Rasim Ljajic, chairman of the Southern Serbia Coordinating Council, urged the authorities to react calmly. "The law provides for minorities [the] right to use their own symbols, however [they may] not [be] identical to the official symbols of another state," he said. "Unfortunately, in this country, laws are one thing, and reality another." BW
 SERBIAN RADICAL PARTY LEADER BOYCOTTS HAGUE TRIALSerbian Radical Party (SRS) leader Vojislav Seselj refused to attend the start of his trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on November 27, B92 and AP reported the same day. After he failed to appear in court, ICTY judges stripped Seselj of the right to defend himself. Seselj has been on hunger strike for more than two weeks, demanding a free choice of legal advisers, unrestricted conjugal visits, and an unconditional right to conduct his own defense. BW
 SUSPECT IN SERBIAN PREMIER'S KILLING INTERROGATEDAfter two days in custody, a suspect in the 2003 assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic is being interrogated by investigating judges but has not entered a plea to the charges against him, B92 reported on November 27. Aleksandar Simovic, who was on the run since the March 12, 2003, assassination, was arrested in Belgrade on November 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006). The charges against Simovic include the murder of Zoran Vukojevic, a key witness in the Djindjic case (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 5, 2006). "At this moment, the interrogation is ongoing," said Tomo Zoric, an official with the prosecutor's office. "He appeared before the investigative judge, who will decide on the request for an investigation and other procedural questions tied to the court's jurisdiction," he added. BW
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 TWO CANADIANS AND AN AFGHAN KILLED IN SUICIDE ATTACK IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTANA suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into a convoy of NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces in Kandahar Province on November 27, killing two Canadian soldiers and one Afghan civilian, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- claimed on November 27 that a "mujahid of the Islamic Emirate" and resident of Kandahar named Abdul Rahman carried out a "sacrificing attack" on a convoy of "invader" forces, killing six soldiers and destroying a main battle tank. The website carries a photograph of the alleged suicide bomber holding what looks like the Koran. An identical photograph (do you mean of the same person or just that the photo was similarly done?) was released on the website on October 18 purporting that the person shown was Tareq, a resident of Khost Province who carried out a suicide mission against Afghan forces in that province in October. AT
 AFGHAN PRESIDENT SENDS MESSAGE TO COMMISSION FOR AFGHAN-PAKISTANI 'PEACE JIRGA'Hamid Karzai has sent a message to commemorate the beginning of the work of a commission tasked with holding a peace assembly involving representatives from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported on November 27. The assembly (jirga) -- officially known as the Jirga for Regional Peace and Prosperity -- hopes to rely on tribes from both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border to stop terrorism and militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In his message, Karzai said that special care has been given to include Afghanistan's most outstanding personalities in this "great national and Islamic" endeavor. Karzai expressed his confidence that the proposed jirga would be a good beginning for Afghans and Pakistanis to jointly destroy the terrorist centers and work for the prosperity of both peoples. The precise agenda of the proposed jirga and the date of its convening still remain vague. Pakistan has already held jirgas among its Pashtun population in an effort to curb terrorist activities in regions bordering Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," November 7, 2006). AT
 PRESIDENT'S CHOICE FOR FINAL MEMBER OF AFGHAN SUPREME COURT REJECTEDA session of the Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) on November 27 rejected Karzai's choice for the last remaining Supreme Court justice, Bakhtar News Agency reported. By a vote of 88 in favor, 88 against, and three abstentions the (just double checking, was it really 88 to 88?) Wolesi Jirga rejected Habibullah Ghaleb as the ninth member of the Supreme Court (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," August 23, 2006). AT
 AFGHAN LEADER INTENDS TO FORM POLITICAL PARTYPresident Karzai intends to launch a political party to contest the next presidential election, scheduled for 2009, Xinhua reported on November 27. The new party will reportedly be called the Afghanistan Democratic Party. Karzai, who thus far has expressed a distaste for political parties, also hinted that he will not seek reelection. AT
 IRANIAN MILITARY AIRCRAFT CRASHES IN TEHRANAn Antonov-74 airplane being used by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran's Mehrabad Airport on November 27, killing 36 people, news agencies reported. There are two survivors. Eleven people lost their lives when a military aircraft crashed in January (where?), and in December an Iranian C-130 hit a building (where?), killing its 94 passengers and more than 20 people on the ground. Mir-Ali Akbari, deputy commander of the IRGC's Qadr air base, told state television the aircraft was flying to Bandar Abbas via Shiraz, and the cause of the crash is under investigation. An IRGC commander, General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, discounted the possibility of sabotage and said one engine fell off after take off, Fars News Agency reported. This caused the plane to lose its balance and a wing hit the ground. BS
 RUSSIA DEFENDS ARMS SALES TO IRANRussian Defense Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a November 27 interview in the German magazine "Der Spiegel" that his country's delivery of the Tor-M1 air-defense system to Iran is under way, Radio Farda reported. He described this as a defensive weapons system that will not adversely affect the regional balance of power, Radio Farda reported. Lavrov added, according to Radio Farda, that he is certain Iran does not want to build a nuclear weapon. Russia is building the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, and Lavrov said this facility cannot be used for a weapons program. Lavrov explained that Russia is providing the enriched uranium for use there, and the depleted fuel will be returned to Russia. Lavrov also advised against the imposition of stringent sanctions by the UN Security Council, warning that this could push Iran to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. BS
 IRANIAN WEIGHTLIFTERS MAY RESUME COMPETINGInternational Weightlifting Federation (IWF) President Tamas Ajan said on November 27 that Iran has agreed to pay a $400,000 fine incurred for its athletes' abuse of performance-enhancing drugs, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," October 9, 2006). Ajan said Iran will pay $100,000 up front and the rest in installments. The Iranian squad was not allowed to participate in the September world championships, when nine of 11 athletes tested positive, and the IWF statement means Iran can participate in the Asian Games in Doha, which begin on December 1. BS
 IRAQI PRESIDENT BEGINS TEHRAN VISITJalal Talabani, whose trip to Iran was delayed a few days due to the closure of the Baghdad airport, arrived in Tehran on November 27, Radio Farda reported. At a press conference in the Iranian capital, Talabani said the main topic of his discussions will be security and counterterrorism in Iraq. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad pledged Iran's assistance in this effort, saying that the violence in Iraq upsets all Iranians. In a meeting with Singaporean Ambassador to Iran Gopinath Pillai on the same day, Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said Iraq's occupiers need other countries' help to extract them from the "Iraqi quagmire," IRNA reported. He also criticized Israel and advised Arab states to sever their diplomatic ties with it. BS
 CURFEW LIFTED IN IRAQI CAPITALIraqi authorities announced on November 27 that they have lifted the curfew imposed on Baghdad after several car bombs in the Shi'ite district of Al-Sadr City killed over 200 people on November 23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006), international media reported. Baghdad International Airport was also reopened, enabling President Jalal Talabani to fly to Tehran to meet with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. However, tensions remained high as the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party claimed that dozens of Sunni Arabs were killed during the curfew by men wearing police uniforms. Meanwhile, a leading official from Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc, Nasar al-Rubay'i, on November 27 repeated the bloc's threat to pull out of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition government if he goes ahead with his meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Jordan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006), Al-Sharqiyah television reported. SS
 UN SECRETARY-GENERAL SAYS IRAQ NEAR CIVIL WARKofi Annan told reporters during a November 27 press conference at UN headquarters in New York that Iraq is perilously close to civil war, international media reported the same day. "Given the developments on the ground, unless something is done drastically and urgently to arrest the deteriorating situation, we could be there. In fact, we are almost there," Annan said, responding to a question as to whether Iraq is in a civil war. Meanwhile, the White House denied that the recent upsurge in violence amounts to a civil war; instead, officials said that the sectarian violence in Iraq has "entered a new phase." "We're clearly in a new phase, characterized by this increasing sectarian violence that requires us obviously to adapt to that new phase and these two leaders need to be talking about how to do that," U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley said on November 27. Hadley was referring to the meeting between U.S. President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki in Amman scheduled for November 29-30. The two are expected to discuss ways to halt the violence in Iraq. SS
 BRITAIN TO WITHDRAW THOUSANDS OF TROOPS FROM IRAQ IN 2007U.K. Defense Secretary Des Browne said on November 27 that Britain will withdraw thousands of troops from Iraq sometime next year, international media reported the same day. "I can tell you that by the end of next year, I expect numbers of British forces in Iraq to be significantly lower, by a matter of thousands," Browne said during a policy speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. He said British forces will focus on training Iraqi troops and gradually transfer security responsibilities to them. However, he insisted that the reduction in troop levels is not an indication that Britain is preparing for a full-scale withdrawal from Iraq. Instead, he stressed that British forces will continue to support their Iraqi counterparts. "Even when all of the [Iraqi] provinces are handed over, we will still be providing a force to mentor and back up the Iraqi Army and police and to protect coalition supply routes," he said. Britain currently has about 7,000 troops deployed in southern Iraq, mostly in Al-Basrah. SS
 U.S. FIGHTER JET CRASHES IN WESTERN IRAQA U.S. F-16 fighter jet crashed in the western Iraqi city of Al-Fallujah, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on November 27. The station also showed footage of what it said was the wreckage of the plane, but not images of the dead pilot's body. In a statement, the U.S. military acknowledged the crash, saying the jet was "engaged in support of coalition ground combat operations" and crashed about 30 kilometers northwest of Baghdad on November 27. It is not known whether the plane was downed by enemy fire or if it crashed due to mechanical problems. However, Iraqi journalist Muthanna Shakir told Al-Jazeera that local residents saw the plane being shot down. "We got credible news saying...the warplane was downed over arable lands. Witnesses confirmed that the plane was fired on by gunmen's rockets when it was flying at low altitude," he said. SS
 IRAQI KURDS WANT U.S. TO BUILD BASE IN NORTHERN IRAQThe deputy commander of the Kurdish peshmerga, Mustafa Sayyid Qadir, said on November 27 that the Kurdish regional government wants the U.S. military to establish a permanent base in northern Iraq, the Kurdish monthly "Levin" reported in its November issue. However, he stressed that the base would not be used to confront Iran, as many people have alleged, but would "give more insurance to the protection of democracy in Iraq" and protect the Kurdish region "from any intervention that we might face" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2006). Qadir said a final decision has not been made nor has a location for the base been identified. SS
 DEBATE SHARPENS OVER GENDER SEGREGATION IN IRANBy Golnaz Esfandiari
A new park for women is due to open in the capital, Tehran, and reports say plans are under way for single-sex hospitals and women-only public transport. Supporters claim the effect will be a more moral and Islamic society, but activists warn that the moves are aimed at curbing women's participation in public life.
The separation of men and women has arguably been part of Iranian culture for longer than its Islamic-based government. But gender-based segregation in public life was institutionalized following the establishment of the Islamic republic in 1979.
Some fundamentalists consider it a solution to prevent social interaction that they regard as a potential source of evil.
Iran's schools are already segregated to some extent. Young men and women sit in separate rows in university classes. All metro trains in the capital have distinct compartments for women, and women and men must sit in separate sections on public buses.
In the past 27 years, there have been attempts to introduce segregation in other pubic places -- including health institutions and parks. So far, those attempts have failed in part due to impracticality, but also because of efforts by vociferous opponents.
Since former hard-line Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad assumed the presidency in June 2005, the segregation efforts appear to have gained momentum. As mayor, Ahmadinejad reportedly imposed a system of segregated elevators.
The recent moves to further separate the sexes are backed by some senior clerics and legislators. Former reformist legislator Fatemeh Rakei tells RFE/RL that she thinks the new push for segregation is unlikely to succeed.
"In the early years of the revolution, some people wanted to do the same in the universities and, as far as I know, the late Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] opposed it," Rakei says. "But currently there are some strange radical views, which also exist in the Islamic world -- unfortunately -- but I don't think they can implement these views."
Despite such criticism, advocates of segregation appear determined to enforce gender segregation in public arenas. In one of the latest initiatives, a senior official within Iran's Social Welfare Organization, Abbas Maleki, ordered that gender segregation be implemented in that organization's offices as soon as possible.
In mid-November, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's representative to universities, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohamadian, called for segregated classes and said boys and girls can currently mingle more easily in universities than in parks.
Conservatives say such measures would lead to a healthy Islamic society. But critics reject it and say gender segregation has neither a religious basis nor scientific support.
Former lawmaker Rakei says clerics and open-minded Islamic scholars should speak out against the push. "I speak as someone who is deeply religious -- the segregation of men and women is not essential to a moral life," Rakei says. "Instead of such physical measures, they should explain teachings by different religions on issues such as morality and spirituality."
Azadeh Kian, a lecturer in political science and an Iran researcher at France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), says she thinks it is difficult to enforce segregation laws beyond some government offices.
"How do they want to apply segregation, for example, on all public transportation?" Kian asks. "How do they want to segregate parks, hospitals, and streets? Women would have to walk on this side of the street and men on the other side. Currently women who are close to the government are on the city councils -- what do they want to do about that? For example, how would they have meetings of Tehran's city council? They would have to put women in one room and men in another."
Some backers of segregation have conceded that it is impossible to implement such a policy in all public places. But they have said men and women should be separated where possible if it does not hinder the workflow.
A member of the parliament's Education Committee, Mussalreza Servati, recently told the semi-official ILNA news agency that it would be good -- if possible -- to implement segregation in universities like that in schools.
Servati also expressed support for segregation in workplaces and said it would liberate workers from certain obligations. He cited as an example the danger of women in mixed workplaces falling in love with colleagues and leaving their husbands.
One female legislator, Efat Shariati, was quoted as saying recently that segregation in the office would lead to increased efficiency and commitment.
Former legislator Rakei warns that the new push for gender segregation could prompt a backlash. "Those who have such views and do such things should know that by stepping up such measures, they will have negative results," Rakei says. "People will escape from the religion [that those people] advocate."
There have been conspicuous public calls for women to return to their traditional roles as housewives in recent months. Kian tells RFE/RL that support for gender segregation is the result of the patriarchal view that women should be confined to the home, housework, and satisfying the desires of their husbands.
"Instead of bringing up the issue of gender segregation, I think the current government should express the depth of its view -- and that is that women should not be active in public spheres, with the exception of those who hold the same view as the government," Kian says.
Ahmadinejad said in October that women should devote more time to their main mission of raising children. He suggested that women can work part-time on full-time salaries. The comments were denounced by activists as an attempt to isolate women.
One senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, recently described mountain hiking by women as shameful, and said there is no honor in women being elected to city councils. He instead praised housekeeping as a "holy" job.
Kian says the new measures will meet resistance from women who now compose about two-thirds of new university students. "These attempts will fail, because today women in Iran have a very high level of knowledge," Kian says. "They are very active in public spheres, and they can't -- through public segregation -- force women to return and stay in their homes."
(Golnaz Esfandiari is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)