|Thursday, 12 December 2019|
RFE/RL Newsline, 08-01-23
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 FOREIGN MINISTRY CONDEMNS LATVIA'S EXPULSION OF ITS DIPLOMAT...Russia's Foreign Ministry has responded to Latvia's decision on January 21 to expel a Russian diplomat. "The decision of the Latvian authorities to declare one of the employees of the Russian Embassy in Riga persona non grata provokes bewilderment," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement posted January 22 on the ministry's website (http://www.mid.ru). "We are now analyzing the circumstances of this unfriendly step and reserve the right to take appropriate retaliatory measures." The acting state secretary of Latvia's Foreign Ministry, Edgars Skuja, summoned Russia's ambassador to Latvia, Viktor Kalyuzhny, on January 21 and handed him a note stating that a member of Russia's diplomatic staff was to be expelled, regnum.ru reported. According to the news agency, Latvia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it has determined that the Russian diplomat engaged in activities incompatible with his diplomatic status and that his presence in Latvia posed a threat to state security. Izvestia.ru on January 22 quoted Latvian authorities as saying that the diplomat declared persona non grata was a "mid-level" employee of Russia's Embassy in Riga. Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins, while not identifying the diplomat, indicated that he had been in Latvia for some time. The website said Riekstins did not comment on whether the diplomat in question was Anatoly Kogalov, first secretary of the Riga embassy, who, according to Latvian media, is on the "blacklist" of persons barred from entering the EU's Schengen border-free zone. JB
 ...WHILE REACTION IN DUMA IS MIXEDGennady Gudkov, deputy chairman of the State Duma's Security Committee, said the expulsion of the Russian diplomat will worsen already complicated Russian-Latvian relations and that Russia will take "identical measures in response," Interfax reported on January 22. However, the news agency quoted the deputy chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, Andrei Klimov, as saying the expulsion came as "a bit of a surprise" and adding, "I regret that this has occurred when difficult Russian-Latvian relations were just beginning to improve." In an interview with the "Financial Times" published on January 21, Latvian Foreign Minister Riekstins said Russia is interested in improving relations with Europe in a "pragmatic" way and that Latvia is a good example of this. "I tend to believe that the Russian leadership has come to the conclusion that they ought to be interested to develop these pragmatic relations with all European Union member countries," Riekstins told the British daily. JB
 PARLIAMENTARIANS DEFEND BALUYEVSKY'S COMMENTSRussian parliamentary deputies have defended controversial remarks made recently by General Yury Baluyevsky, chief of the Russian armed forces' General Staff. "The Moscow Times" on January 21 quoted Baluyevsky as saying during a military conference in Moscow on January 19 in remarks broadcast on state-run cable channel Vesti-24, "We do not intend to attack anyone, but we consider it necessary for all our partners in the world community to understand clearly...that to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia and its allies, military forces will be used, including preventively, including with the use of nuclear weapons." Igor Barinov, first deputy chairman of the State Duma's Defense Committee, said Baluyevsky's comments showed that "today we have begun to think more seriously about the protection of our national interests and realization of the Russian Federation's military doctrine, which, by the way, is strictly defensive in nature," regions.ru reported on January 21. Barinov added that Baluyevsky's comments were in no way a fomenting of nuclear war. According to regions.ru, State Duma Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska agreed that Baluyevsky's comments were not an attempt to foment nuclear war, and asked rhetorically, "why one great power is allowed to use weapons, to be occupiers on somebody else's territory, and everyone else must be observers in the auditorium of the theater of military operations." JB
 RUSSIA HINTS BRITISH COUNCIL OFFICES COULD REOPENAndrei Krivtsov, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's information and press department, indicated on January 21 that the British Council could reopen its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg if Britain restarts talks on counterterrorism and entry visas. "If all this returns to a normal state of affairs...then it will create the conditions for negotiations on the status of the offices," Reuters quoted Krivtsov as saying. "In such a way it will be a step towards reopening the [British Council] representative offices." The British Council suspended its operations in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg on January 17 after Russian security services summoned its local staff for interviews, a move that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband characterized as harassment "not worthy of a great country" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2008). JB
 LAVROV PRAISES POLAND'S WILLINGNESS TO DISCUSS MISSILE DEFENSESForeign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on January 21 that Russia appreciates Poland's willingness to discuss the missile-defense facility the United States wants to deploy on its territory, AP reported. As the news agency noted, Poland's new prime minister, Donald Tusk, has said he will resume talks with the United States on accepting a U.S. missile-defense base in Poland, but only after consulting with NATO and other neighboring countries, thereby "indicating a greater hesitancy over the plan than had the previous government, which firmly supported the U.S. move." After a meeting in Moscow on January 21 with Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, Lavrov said Russia "appreciates the new Polish government's willingness to conduct consultations on the issue" and added, "We aren't going to exert any pressure on Poland or others, we simply want our specific concerns to be heard and understood." Sikorski, for his part, said the missile-defense consultations do not herald any concessions to Russia. "The United States is our ally and this decision is to be made by the United States and Poland," AP quoted him as saying. JB
 CHURKIN SAYS PRIVATE SECURITY CONTRACTORS SHOULD LEAVE IRAQRussia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said on January 22 that Western private security companies should be withdrawn from Iraq because their activities contravene international law, newsru.com reported. "These structures act beyond the bounds of international humanitarian law," he said. "In addition, they do tremendous damage to inter-civilization relations. Again, we repeat: the strictest possible limits must be placed on the activities of these structures with the subsequent curtailment of their presence in the country as a matter of principle." The UN special envoy in Iraq, Staffan De Mistura, detailed the recent improvement both in the security and political situation in Iraq, saying it cannot be ignored but "needs to be sustained...by political activity and dialogue among the Iraqis," AFP reported on January 21. Churkin, for his part, said it would be "premature" to declare "victory" in Iraq. "There are no guarantees that the reduction in tensions noted in the report will continue in the future," he said. "The wave of violence that has swept the country recently confirms our fears." JB
 ELECTION COMMISSION VERIFIES KASYANOV SIGNATURESEvidence is mounting that former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov will be disqualified from participating in the March 2 presidential election, Russian media reported on January 21 and 22. Having examined roughly half of a random sample of the 2.4 million signatures Kasyanov submitted in support of his candidacy (2 million valid signatures are required), the Central Election Commission rejected some 7.5 percent (15,000 of 200,000 signatures studied so far), gazeta.ru reported on January 21. On January 22, the commission will finish its first check of the signatures and make a decision whether a second check is needed. If so, the commission has until January 25 to complete it, and Kasyanov can be disqualified if a total of 15 percent of the signatures examined in both checks are found to be invalid. ITAR-TASS reported on January 22 that prosecutors in Mari El are investigating possible criminal charges in connection with purported "mass falsification" of signatures by Kasyanov campaign staff. Officials in Yaroslavl Oblast have made similar claims as well, the news agency reported. Kasyanov spokeswoman Yelena Dikun told Interfax that the accusations are nothing but "political pressure," and pledged that Kasyanov will contest any accusations in court. Democratic Party of Russia leader Andrei Bogdanov also submitted signatures and the commission so far has declared less than 3 percent of them invalid. Bogdanov's party is widely viewed as a Kremlin-sponsored pseudo-opposition party and many analysts believe Bogdanov will be allowed to participate in the March 2 election as a token opposition candidate. RC
 MEDVEDEV SUPPORTERS REFUSE TO COMMIT TO PARTICIPATE IN DEBATESThe Central Election Commission on January 21 officially registered First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as a presidential candidate, Russian media reported the same day. Earlier, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia head Vladimir Zhirinovsky were accepted. Following Medvedev's registration, commission member Andrei Klychkov, of the Communist Party, asked Medvedev supporters whether he will participate in campaign debates. Unified Russia official Vyacheslav Borodin refused to answer, saying only that the party is "in favor of honest and open elections." No post-Soviet Russian election has featured debates including the leading candidate from the party of power. RC
 RUSSIANS SEE SECURITY ORGANS AS A LEADING POLITICAL FORCEAccording to a new poll by the Levada Center, Russians regard the Federal Security Service (FSB) and other state-security organs as the second most influential force in politics after President Vladimir Putin, "Vedomosti" reported on January 21. Political parties and the Duma were rated as significantly less influential. The same poll found that 25 percent of respondents suspect the secret services were involved in the October 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, while 27 percent suspect similar involvement in the November 2006 killing of former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko. At the same time, the overall image of the FSB and its Soviet predecessor, the KGB, has improved in recent years, "Novye izvestia" reported on January 21, citing the same Levada Center study. Thirty percent of Russians associate the agencies with the protection of state secrets from foreign spies, while just 16 percent associate them with the repressions of the 1930s or the battle against domestic political dissent. Soviet-era dissident and human-rights activist Sergei Grigoryants told the daily that just 15 years ago, the KGB was widely viewed as "a criminal organization, but now that opinion is virtually absent." RC
 MIRONOV DESCRIBES HOW MEDVEDEV WAS CHOSENFederation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, who heads the A Just Russia party, gave "Moskovsky komsomolets" on January 21 his version of how First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev was chosen as President Putin's successor. Mironov said that he and Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, head of Unified Russia, discussed the topic before a Security Council meeting on December 8 and that both men "practically simultaneously" mentioned Medvedev. They presented the suggestion to Putin at a meeting on December 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10, 2007). Mironov said he "has known" since 2005 that Medvedev would be Putin's successor. Mironov also said that Medvedev's experience as the head of the presidential administration was a key qualification for his presidential bid. "As the head of the presidential administration, he worked on foreign policy, domestic policy, defense, security," Mironov said. "That is, all the issues that a president works on." Mironov also described for the daily his vision of the future of the Russian presidency. He said that Putin could return as president in 2012 and that, by then, the presidential term of office would have been extended to five or seven years. Therefore, Mironov said, Putin could serve two terms ending in 2026 and "in 2026, [Medvedev] will return to the presidency." RC
 RUSSIAN STOCKS TUMBLE AMID WORRIES ABOUT U.S. ECONOMYThe Russian stock market continued to fall on January 22, with the RTS index reaching 1,893 before midday, ITAR-TASS reported. It is the lowest the index has been since August 2007. On January 21, the index fell below the psychologically important figure 2,000, "The Moscow Times" reported on January 22. Renaissance Capital researcher Roland Nash told the daily "it's an all-out massacre," adding that "its not even being driven by anything to do with Russia." The Russian losses have been seen as prompted by declines in Asian markets due to fears of possible recession in the United States. James Fenkner, of Red Star Asset Management, told the daily that the falling markets show that Russia is not a "safe haven" in a possible global downturn. "Generally, Russia will do better than other emerging markets, but that doesn't mean they are not all going to be punished a bit," Fenkner said. RC
 GOVERNMENT FINDS WINDFALL TO FUND PENSION HIKEDeputy Prime Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who is also finance minister, told the cabinet on January 21 that his ministry has raised projected 2008 revenues by some $14 billion to reflect higher-than-expected economic growth in 2007, "The Moscow Times" reported the next day. Kudrin said the revenues will be used to implement President Putin's order to raise pensions and public-sector wages. According to the Health and Social Development Ministry, the average monthly pension is 3,292 rubles ($136), while the official minimum subsistence level is 3,809 rubles. RC
 GOVERNMENT PLANS NEW PRESS CENTERThe government intends to create a National Information Center that will be tasked with improving Russia's image abroad, "Kommersant" reported on January 21. The center will be headed by Duma Deputy Vasily Shestakov (A Just Russia), who is President Putin's longtime friend and judo coach, and will be located just down the street from the presidential-administration building in downtown Moscow. "The Moscow Times" reported on January 22 that the 1,000 square-meter press center is being funded by oligarchs Roman Abramovich, Aleksandr Abramov, and Boris Khait. "Kommersant" reported that the center will cultivate a special "pool" of journalists who will be given regular briefings and access to high-level government officials. It is expected to open within the next few days. RC
 NEW INITIATIVE MULLED FOR POLITICAL SOLUTION TO CHECHEN CONFLICTA group of European parliament deputies and international human-rights activists plans to establish an Association of European Parliamentarians for the Right of the Chechen People to Self-Determination, Akhmed Zakayev, the prime minister of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria government in exile, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on January 19 after talks in London with those involved. Zakayev explained that European politicians are concerned by the growing number of Chechens seeking asylum in various European states, and are increasingly aware that the conflict cannot be resolved by simply sending humanitarian aid, but that a political solution is needed. He said he has pointed out that the West contributed to the present crisis situation not only in Chechnya but elsewhere in the North Caucasus by failing to pressure Russia in the past for a negotiated solution to the conflict. LF
 CHECHEN REPUBLIC HEAD RESHUFFLES CABINETPro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov announced at a cabinet session on January 19 the abolition of several government agencies, including the Council for Economic and Social Security established in August 2006 by his predecessor and bitter rival Alu Alkhanov, kavkaz-uzel.ru and the government website chechnya.gov.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," August 18, 2006). Council for Economic and Social Security Chairman Khalid Vaykhanov has been named a first deputy prime minister with responsibility for all the "power" agencies. Agriculture Minister Khasan Taymaskhanov, Education Minister Lyoma Dadayev, and Labor and Social Development Minister Akhmed Dikayev were all dismissed. Their respective successors are Ruslan Adilgireyev, Taymaskhanov's former first deputy, who was also named a deputy prime minister; former Grozny State University rector Anzor Muzayev; and Magomed Akhmadov. In addition, the government department responsible for external relations has been incorporated into the former Ministry for Nationality Policy, Press, and Information, which has been renamed the Ministry for External Relations, Nationality Policy, Press, and Information. Kadyrov said he hopes the appointment of a new education minister will result in raising standards to bring them closer to the all-Russian average. He also stressed the need for developing the agriculture and social sectors. LF
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 U.S. ABANDONS PLANS FOR EXIT POLLS DURING ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL BALLOTThe U.S. Embassy in Yerevan announced in a statement on January 18 that it will not after all conduct exit polls during the presidential ballot on February 19, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The statement noted concerns expressed by the opposition and the "limited preparation time remaining," together with the failure of the Lithuanian branch of the U.S. Gallup Organization, which contracted the Armenian Sociological Association (ASA) to conduct the polls, to resolve "all detailed procedural questions in a way that was fully satisfactory to all sides." Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, widely regarded as the frontrunner, hailed the proposed exit polls last month, but opposition representatives questioned the objectivity and reliability of previous opinion surveys conducted by the ASA. The exit polls conducted during the preterm Georgian presidential ballot on January 5 encouraged one Georgian government official and the presidents of Kazakhstan, Poland, and Estonia to congratulate Mikheil Saakashvili on his election victory before the Central Election Commission made public the preliminary results of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 7, 2008). Also on January 18, outgoing President Robert Kocharian predicted that Sarkisian will win the ballot in the first round, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Kocharian, who was elected in 1998 and 2003 only in a runoff ballot, said that a second round of voting invariably necessitates political horse-trading and compromises that are not in the interests of the people. The Central Election Commission formally endorsed on January 18 all nine candidates who sought registration for the election. On January 19, the opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party whose chairman Raffi Hovannisian was barred from participating in the ballot, issued a statement saying it will not at this stage endorse any of Sarkisian's four main challengers -- former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian, former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, and Vahan Hovannisian (no relation to Raffi) of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on January 21. The statement hinted that Zharangutiun could reverse that decision if one or more of those four opted out of the race and pledged support for another opposition candidate. LF
 JOURNALIST SENTENCED IN AZERBAIJANAzerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes on January 21 sentenced Musfiq Huseinov of the newspaper "Bizim yol" to six years' imprisonment on charges of bribery, and barred him from engaging in journalism for a further two years, day.az and zerkalo.az reported on January 21 and 22, respectively. Huseinov was detained in July 2007 by National Security Ministry personnel; pro-government television stations subsequently screened footage of him apparently accepting a $3,500 bribe from a senior Labor and Social Security Ministry official (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26 and August 2, 2007). LF
 AZERBAIJANI OFFICER KILLED IN SHOOT-OUT ON FRONTIER WITH IRANAn Azerbaijani Border Guard officer was fatally injured on January 17 in an exchange of fire with a group of unidentified armed men who sought to cross illegally from Iranian territory into Azerbaijan, day.az reported on January 19. The would-be intruders were forced to abandon the attempt. LF
 GEORGIAN PRESIDENT SWORN IN FOR SECOND TERMMikheil Saakashvili was sworn in for a second presidential term in ceremonies in Tbilisi on January 20 and Kutaisi on January 21, Georgian media reported. The Tbilisi ceremony encompassed a military parade on the city's main avenue and a fly-over by four combat helicopters and nine other assorted military planes. In his 40-minute address on January 20, Saakashvili pledged, as he has done countless times in the past, to reduce poverty, strengthen democratic institutions, seek improved ties with Russia, and steer Georgia towards membership of NATO and the EU; the following day, he swore on the Bible to restore Georgia's territorial integrity, Caucasus Press reported. At a protest meeting on the outskirts of Tbilisi on January 20 attended by up to 80,000 people, representatives of the nine-party opposition National Council denounced Saakashvili as an illegitimate president and said they will not cooperate with him, civil.ge reported. At the same time, defeated presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze pledged that "we shall not allow a civil confrontation to take place; we shall never let bloodshed occur." He said the opposition will continue to demand free access to the media and that the upcoming parliamentary elections, tentatively scheduled for May, be free and fair. Speaking in Tbilisi on January 21, however, Gachechiladze hinted that the opposition might boycott the parliamentary ballot "if the current level of violence persists," Caucasus Press reported. LF
 GEORGIAN AUTHORITIES TAKE ISSUE WITH OSCE INTERIM ELECTION REPORTThe Georgian government issued a statement on January 20 questioning the relevance of shortcomings registered by the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission during the January 5 preterm presidential ballot, Caucasus Press reported. The statement argued that the violations noted could not have affected the overall outcome of the election, which according to Central Election Commission data Saakashvili won with over 53 percent of the vote. The OSCE interim report noted that at 23 percent of the 180 polling stations where its observers witnessed the vote count, the procedure was "bad or very bad," while the tabulation process at district election commissions was "slow, not very well organized, and often chaotic." David Usupashvili, leader of the opposition Republican party, was quoted by civil.ge on January 19 as describing the OSCE interim assessment as "extremely negative;" he noted that it focused on the same violations the opposition has formally complained about. David Gamkrelidze of the New Rightists, who polled fifth with just over 4 percent of the vote, predicted that the final OSCE assessment "will be even more critical." LF
 KAZAKH INTERIOR MINISTER URGES COMPULSORY DRUG TESTING FOR STUDENTSIn comments during a meeting of the senior leadership of the Interior Ministry in Astana, Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov on January 21 proposed a new program of mandatory drug testing for students in Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan. He argued that the concept of drug testing is "not about violating human rights," but should be viewed as early intervention, adding that "the sooner parents learn that their child uses drugs, the sooner we can return this young man or girl to a normal life." Addressing parliamentarians attending the meeting, Mukhamedzhanov said that his proposal is merely a logical follow-up to an earlier policy of drug testing carried out by "law enforcement agencies" at several schools and colleges in Astana "several years" earlier. In a separate report to the meeting, Maratkali Nukenov, the head of the ministry's counternarcotics department, called for more state funds to implement a "more effective" program to "fight against the drug trade" and combat drug addiction. He also noted that the state budget for the ministry's counternarcotics agency has declined by nearly 40 percent over the past two years. Nukenov said that his agency has succeeded in seizing over 23 tons of narcotics and disrupted a total of "196 drug-supply channels." Echoing the call for more funding, Deputy Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov added that a combination of internal reform and a high number of resignations has led to a shortage of at least 5,000 police officers. He explained that over 6,000 policemen either resigned or were dismissed in 2007. RG
 KYRGYZ OPPOSITION PARTY EVICTED FROM BISHKEK OFFICEThe chairman of the Kyrgyz opposition Ar-Namys (Dignity) party, Emil Aliev, confirmed on January 18 that tax inspectors have ordered the party to vacate its Bishkek offices, AKIpress reported. Aliev criticized the tax inspectors for issuing the order for "political reasons" and said that their order followed a tax audit of the party's financial records carried out on January 16. Ar-Namys, one of the most prominent opposition parties, is also led by former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov. RG
 HEAD OF KYRGYZ HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION REPORTS ON ACTIVITIESDuring a press conference in Bishkek, Tursunbek Akun, the head of Kyrgyzstan's presidential Human Rights Commission, on January 18 issued a report on the commission's activities for the past year, according to AKIpress. According to Akun, the commission received 670 written appeals through 2007, including 51 complaints related to "actions of governmental agencies" and another 33 complaints pertaining to the "abuse of power by officials." He added that the commission also investigated another 110 complaints complaining of unfair rulings and procedures by the courts and 51 complaints targeting the Interior Ministry. Akun released statistics showing that of the total 670 complaints, the commission acted on 259 cases, resolving almost all. RG
 KYRGYZ PREMIER CHAIRS FIRST CABINET MEETINGKyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov on January 19 chaired his first cabinet meeting in Bishkek, AKIpress reported. The cabinet approved the government's action plan for 2008, based on projected economic growth of 8 percent and with an inflation rate targeted at below 12 percent. Chudinov also approved a plan to privatize several state-owned companies, including the Bishkek thermal power plant, Bishkek's heating supply system, and the state-owned Kyrgyztelekom company, as well as the completion of the construction of the Kambarata hydroelectric power station. RG
 KYRGYZ PROSECUTOR TO REVIEW CHALLENGE TO BAN ON PUBLIC RALLIESProsecutor-General Elmurza Satybaldiev met on January 21 with a group of human rights activists and promised to review their challenge to a recently tightened law on public rallies, according to AKIpress. Led by Tolekan Ismailova, the director of the Bishkek-based Citizens Against Corruption organization, the activists seek to overturn the new restrictions on public rallies and demonstrations that were adopted by the Bishkek city council in late November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). Satybaldiev promised to issue an official ruling by January 24 but warned the activists that they must obey the current restrictions. RG
 TAJIK BRANCH OF RUSSIAN UNIVERSITY CLOSESOn January 18, the Tajik Economic Court issued a ruling ordering the closure of the Tajik branch of the Russian New University, saying that it is unable to meet Tajik educational standards due to a "shortage of [licensed] teachers," the Avesta website reported. An unnamed official of the Tajik Education Ministry confirmed that the closure decision followed a request by the ministry to take back the building housing the university in the city of Khujand, but added that the decision "does not mean that the university branch's students have stopped their studies or teachers have lost their jobs." The court ruling also ordered that the university's students be "divided up among higher educational establishments" in the Sughd region. The Tajik branch of Russia's New University was first established in 2001 and had a student body of more than 600. RG
 TAJIKISTAN INAUGURATES NEW RUSSIAN-BUILT POWER PLANTIn a ceremony in the Tajik city of Sangtuda, President Emomali Rahmon on January 20 presided over the opening of the first unit of the new Russian-built Sangtuda-1 hydroelectric power plant, Asia-Plus and Tajik Television reported. The ceremony was attended by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin and the head of Russia's Unified Energy Systems, Anatoly Chubais. The Sangtuda-1 plant was hailed as a first step in alleviating Tajikistan's mounting energy crisis, but the facility's daily production capacity of just 2.4 million kilowatt-hours of electricity is not enough to make any immediate impact, as the capital Dushanbe alone already consumes a minimum of 10 million kilowatt-hours a day. Once the additional three units of the Sangtuda-1 plant, located 200 kilometers to the south of Dushanbe, are operational in late 2008, Tajikistan plans to both meet its rising domestic demand for energy and to export it to neighboring countries, including Afghanistan. RG
 TURKMENISTAN CREATES NEW COUNTERNARCOTICS BODY, ENDS BAN ON OPERASTurkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on January 18 ordered the creation of a national counternarcotics body empowered to both combat drug trafficking and to "fulfill Turkmenistan's international commitments and obligations," Turkmen Television reported. He also issued a decree the same day naming Murat Islamov to head of the body, officially known as the State Service for Combating Drugs. At a recent meeting of the National Security Council, Berdymukhammedov identified the effort to combat drug trafficking as a priority in the broader effort to maintain "peace and security, law and order" in the country. On January 19, Berdymukhammedov revoked a ban by his predecessor, President Saparmurat Niyazov, "on operas and circuses," RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported. He argued that the "flourishing" development of the country necessitated the development of national arts and culture, according to Turkmen Television. Niyazov imposed the ban in 2001 on the grounds that opera was foreign to Turkmen culture. Berdymukhammedov also said that it is "time to reconstruct and to upgrade the building of the state circus in Ashgabat, and to resume circus shows, including national equestrian shows" in the capital. RG
 BELARUSIAN VENDORS PROTEST RESTRICTIONS IN ACTIVITIESNearly 2,000 people on January 21 demonstrated in central Minsk against the government's policy restricting the activities of small-business owners in Belarus, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Protesters demanded a moratorium on the presidential decree that, starting on January 1, bans certain small-business owners from hiring employees other than three family members. Small-business activist Ihar Lednik told the gathering that advocates of entrepreneurs' rights have drawn up petitions calling on international organizations to assess conditions for entrepreneurs and condemn the jailing of activists following the January 10 demonstration in Minsk. Belarusian authorities have jailed at least 40 small-business and opposition activists since that protest. Also on January 21, several hundred people demonstrated in Babruysk and Mahilyou. Riot police, led personally by Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau, dispersed demonstrators in Minsk as they marched toward government headquarters demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski. At least 20 participants were reportedly detained. AM
 UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION BLOCKS PARLIAMENT OVER NATO MEMBERSHIPOpposition parliament deputies from the Party of Regions and the Communist Party on January 18 blocked the rostrum of the Verkhovna Rada, demanding speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk withdraw his signature from Ukraine's request for a NATO's Membership Action Plan, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and Yatsenyuk recently sent a letter to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, formally requesting to take the step toward NATO membership at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April. "This letter initiates the actual procedure of Ukraine's accession to NATO," Nestor Shufrych of the Party of Regions said, adding that "Ukraine never made any specific decision on this matter." The Party of Regions also issued a statement, describing the request by Ukraine's leaders as "political speculations in the context of future presidential elections." According to the Party of Regions, the prime minister alone should sign such letters, as well as take responsibility for doing so. AM
 UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT WARNS AGAINST REVISION OF GAS MARKETPresident Yushchenko has warned the government against raising prices for the transit of Russian natural gas across Ukraine, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on January 21, as it will only result in Ukrainians paying more for gas. "Ukraine's policy toward gas transit should remain specific" as long as Ukraine receives Turkmen gas through Russia, Yushchenko said. He said the price Ukraine pays Russia to bring 55 billion cubic meters of gas the 2,500 kilometers from Turkmenistan corresponds approximately to the price for transit of 127 billion cubic meters of Russian gas across 1,100 kilometers of Ukrainian territory. He argued that it is "illogical" to raise the price at one side and have it raised at the other. Yushchenko said that Ukraine "every year faces...new prices" for gas delivery, but at the same time it receives gas from Central Asia at the lowest possible price. AM
 UKRAINIAN INTERIOR MINISTER, KYIV MAYOR SCUFFLE OVER LAND QUESTIONSInterior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko and Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetskyy on January 18 exchanged blows at a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council dedicated to the discussion of land issues, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Chernovetskyy said that Lutsenko "barbarously attacked" him because of a "loss of control" and "the lack of arguments in a dispute." Lutsenko, who at the meeting accused Kyiv's city council of the "unlawful distribution" of land, said he "gave Chernovetskyy a slap" for slander. According to Lutsenko, Chernovetskyy said at the meeting that Lutsenko threatened to arrest his son unless he allocated plots of land for police officers. Kyiv's prosecutor is currently investigating the incident. AM
 NATIONALIST WINS FIRST ROUND OF SERBIA'S PRESIDENTIAL BATTLE...Tomislav Nikolic, leader of the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), won the first round of Serbia's presidential election, defeating his chief rival, President Boris Tadic, by four percentage points. Nikolic's tally in the January 20 vote was a substantial 39 percent, well above his figures in pre-election polls, but despite his success in attracting late deciders he may struggle to secure the 50 percent needed to become president. With the difference between Tadic and Nikolic so tight and with relatively few votes to be gained from supporters of the other seven presidential candidates, Serbia faces two weeks of tough campaigning, intense political calculation, and substantial soul-searching before the second and final round, which will be held on February 3. The challenge for Nikolic is to avoid his fate in the runoff of the June 2004 elections, when the supporters of candidates defeated in the first round overwhelmingly threw their support behind Tadic, enabling him to come from four points behind to win by eight points. Key to the outcome of the runoff could be the turnout of liberals -- whose support secured Cedomir Jovanovic fifth place, with 5.6 percent of the vote -- and winning over the 7.6 percent who supported Velimir Ilic, a government minister who, controversially, decided to run against the candidate of the government's largest party, Tadic of the Democratic Party (DS). Zoran Lucic, the head of the think tank and occasional pollster, the Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID), said that his institution's research indicates that three in four of Ilic's supporters will back Tadic. Nikolic can count on the support of the 6 percent who voted for Milutin Mrkonjic, the candidate of the party founded by the late Slobodan Milosevic, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). AG
 ...DESPITE OPPOSITION OF BOSNIAN SERB LEADER...Among those who championed President Tadic's cause was Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-dominated autonomous region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dodik said on December 6 that it is important for Serbia to be led by a man who "does not have to carry the burden of previous events, as Tomislav Nikolic would certainly bear." As president, Nikolic would, Dodik predicted, "spend his entire mandate proving he is not what people abroad think he is": an extreme nationalist in the mold of Milosevic. Dodik reiterated that message on December 17 while on the campaign trail for Tadic. The founder of the SRS, Vojislav Seselj, remains the party's leader despite currently being on trial in The Hague, where he is accused of inciting murder and ethnic cleansing during the 1990s; recruiting, indoctrinating, and supporting paramilitaries; and helping ethnic cleansing. Nikolic, whose time as the head of a municipal cemetery has earned him the sobriquet "the gravedigger," is Seselj's longtime deputy, and when the SRS and Milosevic's SPS joined forces in the late 1900s he became first the vice president of Serbia and then the vice president of Yugoslavia. Since Milosevic's ouster, Nikolic has not sought to reform his party in the manner seen in Croatia, where the party of late President Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), has recast itself and remained in power. AG
 ...AS VOTERS TURN OUT IN LARGE NUMBERSWith turnout shaping up to be a key factor in who emerges as Serbia's next president, one of the key figures to emerge from the first round was that 61 percent of the Serbian electorate went to the polling stations. The relatively high percentage of the 6.7 million voters who cast votes suggests that a repeat of the 2002 election fiasco, when apathy resulted in fewer than 50 percent of voters voting and obliged the Central Election Commission to hold fresh elections, is unlikely. The heightened interest may in part be thanks to unseasonably benign weather on January 20, but it is also being attributed to voters' concern at the probability that Kosova will soon declare independence and to the strength of opinions about whether Serbia should strengthen its relationship with the EU. The relatively high turnout is generally thought to have particularly helped President Tadic, whose support base is less disciplined than Nikolic's. The importance of the elections, which Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said could delay Serbia's membership of the EU by a "generation or more," may also have boosted the turnout of moderates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008). However, Nikolic was boosted by heavy turnout in northern Serbia and the suburbs of Belgrade. With much riding on convincing the supporters of unsuccessful candidates to vote again, Nikolic may benefit from the strength of nationalist sentiment, given hard-line nationalists' record of turning up to vote. AG
 CONTACT GROUP MEMBERS DISCUSS BALKANSThe foreign ministers of the four European members of the Contact Group, the six-member group leading attempts to resolve Kosova's status, met in Slovenia on January 19 to discuss the future of Kosova and the geopolitical situation in the Balkans. No details of the meeting were given and no statement was issued, but Cristina Gallach, the spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, told AFP beforehand that "the meeting was planned as an exchange of views on the Balkans." The informal meeting of the British, French, German, and Italian ministers came on the eve of Serbia's presidential election, which could have a significant bearing on Brussels' relations with Belgrade, and a week before a summit of EU leaders at which the EU's relationship with Serbia will be discussed, as well as details of the EU's plan to deploy a mission to Kosova. The three-hour meeting was chaired by Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, and was also attended by Solana and EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn. The other two members of the Contact Group are Russia and the United States. AG
 SERBIAN CRIMINAL GANG SENTENCED TO NEARLY 500 YEARS IN PRISONTwenty-five members of Serbia's most notorious criminal gang, the Zemun clan, were sentenced on January 18 to a total of 465 years in prison for 18 murders, three kidnappings, and two acts of terrorism, AP and local media reported. The group's leader, Milorad "Legija" Lukovic-Ulemek, was given the maximum term, 40 years. One man was cleared of the charges against him. These crimes are separate from the most infamous crime in which the group was involved, the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003. Lukovic-Ulemek was also sentenced to 40 years for his role in Djindjic's murder. The 11 others sentenced for Djindjic's assassination included members of the Zemun gang and members of a paramilitary group founded by the late President Milosevic, the Red Berets, which was also led by Lukovic-Ulemek (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, and June 22, 2007). Lukovic-Ulemek has also been sentenced to 40 years for the murder of former President Ivan Stambolic in May 2000, and to 15 years for a 1999 attempt on the life of Vuk Draskovic, an opposition leader during the Milosevic era who was subsequently Serbia's foreign minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). The Zemun clan's continued links with figures within the Serbian establishment came under the spotlight again in mid-2007 when the police arrested a former Belgrade district prosecutor, Rade Terzic, on July 20 on suspicion of belonging to the group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). The Serbian authorities said that eight members of the gang remain on the run, AP reported. AG
 BOMB INJURES FOUR IN KOSOVAA bomb planted in a diplomatic neighborhood of the Kosovar capital, Prishtina, injured four people on January 20. None of the victims were seriously injured, and none appear to have been diplomats or members of their families. The target and reason for the attack remains unclear, and reports of gunfire in the same district, Dragodan, remain unexplained. However, police spokesman Agron Borovci told AFP that he believes the attack was not politically motivated. On January 14, four Kosovar Albanian officials in the UN Mission to Kosova (UNMIK) were injured in an attack near the southern town of Suhareka and on January 12 another UNMIK official was beaten up (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15 and 16, 2008). There have been a series of attacks on UNMIK targets in the past year, as well as a number of attacks in Prishtina itself, some of them seemingly connected to criminal activity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, April 13, September 9 and 25, and October 3, 2007). AG
 EU RAISES MACEDONIA'S HOPESMacedonia's hopes of starting membership talks with the EU, which had been dimmed by political disputes and a lack of reform in 2007, were given a fillip on January 17, when EU Enlargement Commissioner Rehn said that he hopes the EU will feel able to agree "as early as during 2008"on a starting date, local media reported. Macedonia started 2007 facing strong criticism from the EU of its lack of progress in reforms and it ended the year with another poor report from the EU, prompting President Branko Crvenkovski to castigate the government and Macedonia's other political parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2007). Rehn, who was speaking on the Macedonian television station Kanal 5, said that he expects that "sometime in the first part of March" the EU will establish new benchmarks for "priority" reforms, including reforms of the judiciary, the civil service, and efforts to counter corruption. Macedonia officially became a candidate in December 2005. AG
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 AFGHANISTAN CALLS FOR MULTINATIONAL AID CONFERENCEAfghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Bahin said on January 21 that the Afghan and French leaders agreed in Paris last month to launch a new multinational conference to garner additional aid for Afghanistan, Afghan and international media reported. The last donor conference was held in London in 2006 and its key objectives will be met by the end of this year. Like the London conference, the Paris meeting will address key economic and security issues, such as combating militancy and poppy cultivation, reconstruction, and the development of state institutions. "We will put forward our assessment and plans for assurance of sustained aid and new assistance," Bahin said, adding that only 25 percent of the $18 billion allocated in the past was spent through the Afghan government. International financial aid to Afghanistan has suffered from waste due to poor coordination among donors, NGOs, and the government, resulting in minimal improvement on the ground for the people. MM
 TERRORISM BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN AFGHANISTAN, PRESIDENT TELLS PARLIAMENTOpening the third working year of the Afghan parliament on January 21, President Hamid Karzai said that "terrorism is still our main challenge", the Bakhtar news agency reported. Addressing 300 members of both houses of parliament, he asserted that the threat of terrorism stems from both inside and outside of the country and argued that a broad strategy of "targeting its original sources, drying up its financial sources, and stopping the expansion of extremism must be included as the key points in the fight on terrorism." Karzai's remark that terrorism must be tackled at its "original source" was widely interpreted as a reference to Pakistan, where Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders and bases are presumably located. He also focused on the threat of the drug trade to Afghanistan's stability and governance, saying that the "cultivation, production, and smuggling" of drugs, as well as links between the drug smugglers and terrorists are "another major challenge." MM
 PRESIDENT CALLS FOR SOLIDARITY AMONG MUSLIM STATESDuring ceremonies commemorating Ashura at a mosque in Kabul on January 19, President Karzai said Muslim countries must consolidate their efforts to safeguard Islam against the image and tactics propagated by extremists, Bakhtar reported. Ashura marks the killing of Imam Husayn, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in the seventh century. "Our duty, the duty of Islamic nations and particular the people of this region, is that we must join hands against those tyrants who, by killing themselves, kill...Muslims under the cover and name of Islam," Karzai said. MM
 IRANIAN INTERIOR MINISTRY COULD DISQUALIFY THOUSANDS OF CANDIDATES BEFORE POLLS...The head of the Iranian Interior Ministry's election headquarters, Deputy Interior Minister Alireza Afshar, has said in Tehran that about 3,000 registered hopefuls for the parliamentary elections scheduled for mid-March have criminal or legal records, and they may be disqualified from the elections, Radio Farda reported on January 21, citing Iranian media. Parliament has 290 seats and just over 7,000 people have registered as candidates. Reformists have in recent weeks expressed concern that Interior Ministry officials and election supervisors from the Guardians Council -- mostly suspected of having right-wing sympathies -- will seek to disqualify many or most reformist or independent hopefuls to ensure another conservative majority in parliament. Afshar said there will be no "mass disqualifications" and that disqualified hopefuls will be given written explanations and evidence why they were disqualified, if they ask for it. The Interior Ministry first checks the backgrounds of potential candidates with bodies such as the judiciary, police, and Intelligence Ministry. They are then checked by the Guardians Council, a powerful body of jurists, and its supervisory boards to ensure they are practicing Muslims and "actively" loyal to Iran's political system. Reformists habitually complain that the council is far too strict. On January 20, the Guardians Council warned that 80 percent of registration cases are "flawed," which seems to presage extensive disqualifications, as in previous elections, Radio Farda observed. VS
 ...AS BASIS FOR CANDIDATES' REJECTION DISCUSSEDThe director-general of supervision and provincial affairs at the Guardians Council, Nosratollah Lotfi, has told the semi-official ISNA news agency that the Interior Ministry is to complete its examination of candidates on January 21 and the Guardians Council will begin its own examination process on January 22, Radio Farda reported on January 21. The ministry checks for documented offenses by aspiring candidates, while the Guardians Council looks into reputed or suspected political and religious tendencies; its position in recent years has been that candidates are not fit for public office unless they are actually proven to be pious and loyal to the Islamic republic. The council has argued that an absence of proof of disloyalty is not enough to allow hopefuls to run for office. Lotfi said the council will announce a final list of "eligible" candidates after February 22, and disqualified aspirants can appeal against their disqualification from February 23-25. Some reformists discussed their concerns over disqualifications in a January 17 meeting with former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 20. Khatami referred at the meeting to "public rumors" and to other, unspecified reports he has received about moves to disqualify numerous hopefuls. The daily reported that reformist campaign coordinators Abdollah Naseri and Safdar Hosseini urged senior officials not to stand back, but to interfere if necessary to ensure fairness in the vetting process. VS
 DETAINEE RELEASED FOR TREATMENT IN IRANThe detained head of the Association in Defense of Prisoners' Rights, Emadeddin Baqi, was released from Tehran's Evin prison for a month on January 17 for medical treatment, following a recent deterioration of his health, ISNA reported on January 19. Baqi's lawyer Saleh Nikbakht told the agency that Baqi has had two unspecified heart problems in prison in the past fortnight. The Association in Defense of Prisoners' Rights has thanked the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, for allowing Baqi's release, Nikbakht said. Separately, Iranian authorities have allowed documentary filmmaker Mehrnush Soluki to leave Iran, which she did on January 18, AP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2007) She was detained, then prevented from leaving the country for about a year, and accused of engaging in antigovernment propaganda through her filmmaking activities. VS
 IRAN'S GOVERNMENT OPPOSES PARLIAMENTARY BILLAt a legislative session on January 21, Iran's parliament speaker, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, expressed surprise at what he said is an unprecedented government declaration opposing a ratified bill, apparently violating its own and legislative prerogatives, Iranian media reported on January 21 and 22. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad wrote to parliament stating his opposition to a bill passed to finance gas supplies for certain districts, describing it as unconstitutional. The Guardians Council is tasked with assessing the constitutionality of bills. Haddad-Adel informed parliamentarians he had to ask for the disputed bill to be published in the official state gazette -- to inform state agencies it is now in force -- following the government's failure to instruct them to implement the bill, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 22. He said that "a government might at some point be unable to carry out a bill, but it is...unprecedented for the [president] to simply write...and declare a parliamentary bill unconstitutional, instead of the Guardians Council." "Aftab-i Yazd" observed on January 22 that this is an unusual reaction by Haddad-Adel, as he has usually sought to reconcile parliamentary and government interests instead of defending parliamentary prerogatives. Haddad-Adel told lawmakers that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wrote to parliament on January 20 in response to an inquiry about the disagreement, firmly stating that bills that have gone through due legislative stages must be implemented "by all branches of government," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. VS
 IRAQI PARLIAMENT TAKES UP AMNESTY LAWThe Iraqi parliament held its first reading of a draft law on a general amnesty on January 21, Iraqi media reported. The law will reportedly offer amnesty to convicted minors and senior citizens, except to those facing a death sentence and those convicted of carrying out terrorism-related crimes. Al-Sharqiyah television quoted a source from within the parliament as saying the Council of Ministers will hold a second reading in four days before holding a vote on the draft law. The parliament also held the second reading on a draft law that would provide compensation to the victims of the 1991 Al-Sha'baniyah uprising that followed the Gulf War. KR
 IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT SAYS SUNNIS CLOSER TO REJOINING GOVERNMENTVice President Tariq al-Hashimi said that dialogue between his party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, and the Shi'ite-led Islamic Al-Da'wah Party is progressing, and may pave the way for Sunni politicians from the Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq) to return to work (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2008). Al-Hashimi, whose party belongs to the front, praised the proposed amnesty law in a statement posted to the Islamic Party's website on January 21. He said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's recent approval of a power-sharing scheme, which calls for decision making through a three-plus-one mechanism (the three-member Presidency Council plus the prime minister), will help alleviate tensions among the parties in the government. Al-Hashimi added that "good progress" has been made on other Sunni demands as well. "We are still waiting for more progress in this regard, because these demands are legitimate and are related to national affairs," he said. "Therefore, it is in the interest of the government to attempt to fulfill these demands." Al-Hashimi also praised the newly ratified Accountability and Justice Law, saying it will allow for a broad spectrum of Sunni Arabs to rejoin the workforce (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," January 18, 2008). KR
 IRAQI INTERIOR MINISTRY SAYS 140 MEMBERS OF MESSIANIC CULT ARRESTEDInterior Ministry Undersecretary for Intelligence Hasan Kamal announced on January 21 that 140 members of the Soldiers of Heaven messianic cult have been arrested in Al-Basrah, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. More than 100 members of the cult were also arrested in Dhi Qar Governorate. The cult, which is apparently trying to force the reappearance of the Shi'ite Imam al-Mahdi, battled the Iraqi government in Al-Basrah and Al-Nasiriyah on January 18. Shi'a believe al-Mahdi is in hiding until Judgment Day. More than 60 people were killed in the January 18 fighting. Kamal said the ministry has set up a joint operations room to coordinate the tracking of cult members in the southern governorates. KR
 UN CALLS ON INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY TO ASSIST IRAQThe UN's special representative to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, told the Security Council on January 21 that the international community should build on the recent security and political developments in Iraq by offering economic development assistance. "This is the time, if any, to be proactive, where positive momentum has been gained," de Mistura said in presenting the secretary-general's quarterly report on the activities of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq. De Mistura cited four "surge" areas where progress has been made: security, economic development, politics, and what he termed the "UN surge." He said the International Monetary Fund expects Iraq's economy to grow by 7 percent in 2008, with an additional 200,000 barrels of oil produced per day. De Mistura praised the parliament's passing of a law on de-Ba'athification, and said serious discussions are under way to bring the Sunnis back into government. Regarding the UN surge, he said, "We are with a strong mandate, we are in Irbil, Baghdad, Al-Basrah, we are currently having a mission in Kirkuk, and we are seriously, actively involved in many areas we were not before." The UN drastically reduced its presence in Iraq following the 2003 bombing of its Baghdad office. In 2007, the world body made a concerted effort to rebuild its presence throughout the country. De Mistura said the next 12 months should be "well utilized" in order to build on the current achievements of the Iraqi government. KR
 CHILD-LABOR ACTIVISTS TARGET UZBEK COTTON INDUSTRYBy Gulnoza Saidazimova
In an open letter on January 17, some 100 Uzbek dissidents and activists abroad and 40 in the country argued that the forced use of child labor in the Uzbek cotton industry has become a "deliberate state policy" aimed at "acquiring extra profits."
Child labor has existed since the Soviet era in Uzbekistan, the world's third-largest cotton exporter. But the letter, the second such appeal by Uzbek activists in as many months, says that in recent years forced child labor has spread on a "mass scale," and that working conditions for thousands of minors who toil in Uzbek fields have worsened.
One of the letter's signatories is Nadejda Atayeva, who heads the Paris-based Association on Human Rights in Central Asia. "As you know, child labor has been used to pick and proceed cotton for many years [in Uzbekistan], and the time came when we decided to raise this problem," says Atayeva, whose group is behind the campaign to boycott Uzbek cotton. "We wrote the petition to the international community in order to start debate and address the issue properly because efforts to solve the problem inside the country did not bring any success so far."
Concerns over the use of forced child labor in Uzbekistan began attracting more international attention in October, after the BBC aired a documentary that showed Uzbek children picking cotton for clothing sold in Britain.
The BBC's "Newsnight" program filmed an Uzbek cotton field full of schoolchildren, some as young as 9, hard at work. The documentary showed how children were accompanied by a police escort, which cleared the road for buses and trucks loaded with mattresses to take the kids to cotton fields or back to the barracks. One boy said he was paid just two pence ($.04) per kilogram -- 40 percent less than officials in the capital, Tashkent, said pickers were paid.
Following the expose, several international companies said they would stop buying Uzbek cotton. Swedish retail giant H&M, Finland's Marimekko, and Estonia's Krenholm were the first. This week, they were joined by Britain's Tesco, the world's third-largest retailer, and by Marks and Spencer, Britain's largest retailer.
"We are really thrilled Marks and Spencer have just announced they will no longer be buying cotton from Uzbekistan," says Juliette Williams, who leads the Uzbek boycott campaign for the Environmental Justice Foundation, a British-based NGO. "And they are telling all their suppliers the same message -- that they need to make sure that there is no Uzbek cotton in the production process to make clothes that will be sold in Marks and Spencer stores. We are really thrilled at that. It's quite a victory."
Williams says the decisions by Britain's major retailers have the potential to change a multibillion-dollar industry and stop abuses such as forced child labor. The boycott could also spread beyond Europe, a major buyer of Uzbek cotton and where one in every four garments contains it.
In Bangladesh, textile and yarn producers tell RFE/RL's Uzbek Service they might look for alternative sources for cotton if Uzbekistan, which supplies most of cotton used in Bangladesh, does not stop its child-labor practices.
Not everyone has embraced the boycott. The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), a U.S.-based group that promotes the world cotton trade, called the allegations by Uzbek activists "exaggerated" and "absurd." The ICAC's statement came after the Uzbek activists issued an initial appeal on November 16 to boycott Uzbek cotton.
ICAC Executive Director Terry Townsend has ruled out what he called "factual errors" on the use of defoliants and pesticides in cotton fields that activists claim Uzbek children are inhaling, as well as information on the level of pay for child workers and other issues. Writing on November 30, he concluded that a boycott of Uzbek cotton in international markets would be "highly impractical."
Nevertheless, Townsend says his committee's panel will "gather "objective information" pertaining to the allegations. The panel will present its findings during the ICAC plenary meeting in Burkina Faso in November 2008, he wrote.
Atayeva said this week's statement was partly in response to the ICAC's reaction to the original call for a boycott. The activists' November appeal was sent to the European Union and the governments of the United States, Russia, and China, as well as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank, the UN's Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the International Labor Organization.
Cotton revenues are a major source of hard currency for Uzbekistan, with around $1 billion in annual exports. But activists say it's especially lucrative for the ruling elite, such as President Islam Karimov's family and cronies. They say the boycott will not affect ordinary Uzbeks.
Officials in Tashkent have not publicly reacted to recent international outcry. However, in the past they have denied the use of forced child labor in the country's agricultural sector, saying Tashkent adheres to international conventions on child labor and "forbids any form of child labor in cotton fields and other agricultural sectors."
Atayeva, a former schoolteacher, was fired from her job in Uzbekistan for refusing to send sick schoolchildren to the cotton fields. She says the letter's signatories are all Uzbeks with firsthand experience of conditions in Uzbek cotton fields, and that foreigners who deny their accusations appear to have been deceived by the Uzbek government.
"Our appeal is based on our concern over the fate of Uzbekistan's children, who are deprived of a proper education at the expense of collecting 'white gold,'" Atayeva says.
(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)