Wednesday, 21 March 2012

21 March 2012 News Digest

Published in News Digest

By Alima Bissenova (3/21/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)

OSCE urges tajiks to end shutdown of facebook, sites 8 March The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has urged Tajikistan to end a local shutdown of Facebook and several Russian-language sites that had published material critical of the nation's veteran leader. President Imomali Rakhmon, a former head of a Soviet state farm, has ruled this Muslim Central Asian nation of 7.5 million people with a firm hand since 1992.

OSCE urges tajiks to end shutdown of facebook, sites 8 March The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has urged Tajikistan to end a local shutdown of Facebook and several Russian-language sites that had published material critical of the nation's veteran leader. President Imomali Rakhmon, a former head of a Soviet state farm, has ruled this Muslim Central Asian nation of 7.5 million people with a firm hand since 1992. Although his government has shown a more liberal attitude to the press compared to repressive regional neighbours Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, criticism of Rakhmon is taboo for the local media. Local access to the websites was blocked on March 2. Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, said in an appeal to the Tajik government she hoped that the ban on Facebook and the other sites would not set a precedent."Internet should remain an open public forum for discussion and free expression of opinions, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," said the statement posted late on Wednesday on the site of the world's largest security body. She said she had sent a letter to Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi on March 5, and added: "I also expressed hope that access to Facebook and the four news websites would be restored without delay." The Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the OSCE statement. March 8 is a market and public holiday in Tajikistan. Facebook's popularity has soared in Tajikistan, with membership doubling last year to 26,000 people. Several Facebook groups openly discuss politics and some users have been critical of the authorities. (Reuters)

Tajikistan objects to sanctions against Iran 8 March Economic sanctions against Tehran cannot help resolve the Iran nuclear problem, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi said on Thursday. "We do not support any sanctions, especially economic ones. Sanctions are not a solution to the issue," Zarifi said at a news conference when asked about Dushanbe's opinion on sanctions imposed on Iran by a number of Western countries. "We adhere to the view that problems of this kind should be resolved diplomatically through political negotiations," he said. "The sanctions will not affect" Tajik-Iranian economic ties, Zarifi said. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi is paying an official visit to Dushanbe and has held talks with his Tajik counterpart. Salehi said at the news conference that the negotiations had passed "in a positive manner." The negotiators discussed the construction of a railroad from Kyrgyzstan to Iran through Tajik and Afghan territories and supplies of oil products from Iran to Tajikistan, he said. (Interfax)

Afghanistan, U.S. sign prison transfer deal 9 March The United States and Afghanistan signed a deal on Friday on the transfer of a major U.S.-run detention center to Afghan authorities, improving the prospects of a strategic partnership allowing long-term American involvement in the country. The Strategic Partnership Agreement, which Washington and Kabul have been discussing for over a year, will be the framework for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan beyond 2014, when the last foreign combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan. Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, who signed the deal to hand over the prison at Bagram airbase, said an Afghan commander would soon be appointed to take charge of the facility. The transfer would be completed in about six months. "The signing of this memorandum is an important step forward in our Strategic Partnership negotiations," said General John Allen, commander of the United States forces in Afghanistan, at the ceremony."It is yet another example of the progress of transition, and our efforts to ensure that Afghanistan can never again be a safe haven for terrorists." Ties between Washington and Kabul have been heavily strained for weeks after large numbers of copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, were burned at Bagram by U.S. soldiers in what NATO called a tragic blunder. Widespread protests erupted in which 30 people were killed. Afghan forces turned their weapons on U.S. soldiers, killing six. (Reuters)

Kazakh Oil workers’ lawyer released on probation 10 March The jailed lawyer of striking oil workers in western Kazakhstan has been unexpectedly released on probation. Natalya Sokolova, a lawyer for the Qarazhanbasmunai oil company's labor unions, has been freed on probation and is at home, her husband, Vasily Chepurnoy, confirmed to RFE/RL. Sokolova was sentenced to six years in prison in August 2011 on charges of "inciting social hatred" in connection with an oil-workers' strike in Kazakhstan's Manghystau region. She said the case against her was politically motivated. Though declining to be interviewed, Sokolova said that the Kazakh Supreme Court had reduced her sentence from six years in prison to three years' probation, with a ban on social work during that period. Sokolova was arrested in May 2011. In December 2011, at least 16 people were killed during clashes between police and striking workers who were, among other things, demanding Sokolova's release. Last month, the Kazakh authorities released jailed rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis on amnesty after 2 1/2 years in prison. Jailed journalist Tokhniyaz Kuchukov was freed the same day. (RFE/RL)

Tajikistan energy co to up electricity tariffs 22 % 11 March Barki Tojik, the state energy company of Tajikistan, will raise electricity tariffs 22% for the population on April 1 2012 and 25% for consumer categories, the company said in a press release. The tariff will go up from 0.213 somoni to 0.2663 somoni per kilowatt hour of electricity for industrial companies and entrepreneurs (4.7593 somoni/$1 on March 7). State aluminum company Talco, which previously paid an easy tariff for its electricity (0.0822 somoni per kilowatt hour) will pay the same as other commercial organizations. The tariff for the population will be 0.11 somoni per kilowatt hour, up from 0.09 somoni. "The tariffs are increasing due to demands from the World Bank and other donors to increase the profit margin in the electricity sector," the release says. Electricity tariffs were last raised in January 2010. Talco is a strategically important company for Tajikistan, accounting for 54.6% of the country's exports in 2011 (63.3% in 2010). Aluminum exports in value terms, according to the statistics agency, totaled $686.3 million in 2011, down 9.3% on 2010. The company has the capacity to produce 517,000 tonnes of primary aluminum annually. Talco produced 277,584 tonnes of primary aluminum in 2011, down 20.4% on 2010. (Interfax)

Economic sanctions unacceptable according to Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan 11 March The governments of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan have made a joint statement saying that economic sanctions against Belarus are unacceptable. "Pursuant to the common approach, agreed by the heads of the Republic of Belarus, the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation, taking into account the United States and the European Union's repeated statements that economic curbs could be imposed on a member of the Customs Union (Common Economic Space), the governments of the Republic of Belarus, the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation reaffirm their position that the use of economic pressure or compulsion is unacceptable," says the statement, posted on the Russian government's official website on Sunday. Such measures raise artificial barriers in trade and create unfounded obstacles in economic cooperation within the Customs Union/Common Economic Space, it says. The sanctions "impair the legitimate interests of the states' economic security, which may damage productive and mutually advantageous cooperation and intensive integration in Eurasia," the statement says. "This will entail negative consequences, primarily for ordinary citizens," it says. The governments of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia are convinced that only an equal and mutually respectful dialogue can facilitate the settlement of international disagreements, and they advocate renunciation of all moves that may hinder such a dialogue, the statement says. Reports said earlier that the European Union in late February extended its travel ban in relation to Belarus to 21 more Belarusian officials. The black list currently has 231 officials representing law enforcement agencies, elections commissions, judges and reporters of state-run media, whom the EU blames for putting pressure on the opposition, for arrests and for criminal prosecution. In response, Minsk recalled its ambassador from Poland and its permanent envoy with the European Union, and asked the Polish ambassador and the EU envoy to leave Belarus. (Interfax)

Saakashvili: For Putin Georgian Election is 'Decisive Battle' 12 March President Saakashvili said Russia’s “new old” leader Vladimir Putin’s remarks that “much will depend” on Georgia’s elections in terms of bilateral ties, amounted to setting “a new time and venue for a decisive battle”. “Several days ago, the new old head of the invader set a new venue and new time for a decisive battle – Georgia’s parliamentary elections in autumn... But like they failed to defeat us with blockade, like they failed to defeat us with the war, they will fail to defeat us in a democratic struggle, because democracy is always won by the people and the Georgian people will definitely win this battle too,” Saakashvili said on March 12. Saakashvili made the remarks during a televised outdoor speech in Telavi, the main town of eastern Georgian region of Kakheti, where he announced about the launch of rehabilitation project of the town. He said GEL 120 million was made available from the government, the World Bank and private sector to rehabilitate 140 buildings and for infrastructure development in Telavi. (Civil Georgia)

Moscow Slams Saakashvili's Baku Speech 12 March The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Monday it was “truly regrettable” that Azerbaijan provided its parliamentary tribune to President Saakashvili’s “delirium” when he addressed the legislative body in Baku on March 7. The Russian Foreign Ministry addressed the issue in its statement on March 12 in which it expressed “disappointment” about Tbilisi’s refusal to restore diplomatic ties with Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that Tbilisi’s refusal demonstrated that Georgia’s declarations about its readiness to improve ties with Russia were “a mere propaganda”, which “cannot be taken seriously.” “[Georgian leadership’s] genuine stance towards our country and its citizens was explicitly expressed in recent speech of Mr. Saakashvili in Baku,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. “[Saakashvili’s] paranoid hostility combined with the Georgian President’s megalomania has prompted him to call on all the nations of post-Soviet space (plus on some ‘Russian patriots’) to ‘join hands’ to fight against Russia.” “It is truly regrettable, that a parliamentary tribune of our friendly state was provided to this loosely connected delirium,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. (Civil Georgia)

NATO couldn't make Afghan farmers grow wheat instead of opium poppy - Federal Drug Control Service director 13 March The attempts made by Western countries to launch projects to give wheat to farmers in Afghanistan to stop them growing opium poppy have failed, Russian Federal Drug Control Service Director Viktor Ivanov said. "A standard example is the distribution of bags full of wheat by U.S. and NATO troops in exchange for promises not to grow opium poppy. However, in most cases Afghan farmers gladly take the wheat and continue cultivating opium poppy, which brings them superprofits," Ivanov told the 55th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic drugs in Vienna on Monday. "This means that alternative development status has failed," Ivanov said. Ivanov has recently said that the heroin flow from Afghanistan has increased. "We have to say that the production of hard drugs such as heroin, opium, and hashish in Afghanistan remains at a high level. Opium production in Afghanistan went up 61% in 2011," Ivanov said at the meeting of the State Anti-Narcotic Committee held in Moscow. "The areas under opium poppy [in Afghanistan] have increased by some 7%. This indicates that the narcotic production infrastructure continues to grow stronger in Afghanistan, which leads to drug transit, including in the direction of Russia," he said. (Interfax) Kyrgyzstan ready to continue transit cooperation with U.S. after 2014 - official 13 March Kyrgyzstan is set to cooperate with the United States on cargo transit via Manas Airport after 2014 but insists that the U.S. Transit Center should withdraw from the republic. "We express our willingness to continue to work [with the U.S.] in sending cargo after 2014 as well," Kyrgyz Defense Council Secretary Busurmankul Tabaldiyev said at a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday. "At the same time, there should be no military assets at Manas Airport starting from June 2014, as per the current agreement," he said. "It is a civilian asset, and after 2014 we are ready to help the U.S. government, but with due regard for our country's interests and the opinion of our people," the Kyrgyz Defense Council secretary said. It is very important to find a solution before the end of 2012, he also said. "We want to know the opinion of senior U.S. officials on the post-2014 Transit Center. The Kyrgyz opinion consists of Manas Airport becoming a civilian hub, and work is already being carried out in this direction," Tabaldiyev said. "The U.S. position on the post-2014 is still unclear to us," he said. The meeting between the U.S. defense secretary and the Kyrgyz defense council secretary is being held behind closed doors. (Interfax)

Kazakhstan to decide on NPP construction this year 13 March Kazakhstan will decide whether to go ahead with the construction of a nuclear power plant this year, Industry and New Technologies Minister Aset Isekeshev told reporters."In general we're not saying no to nuclear power. We have large uranium reserves for the long term. As for the construction of a plant, there'll be a decision this year. So far we are planning that [nuclear power] will account for 4% of total electricity by 2030. But what sort of plant, where, the type of reactor - there are still a lot of opinions to come, taking safety into consideration," Isekeshev said. Plans for the construction of a nuclear power plant near Lake Balkhash in central Kazakhstan were announced for the first time in 1998. But following angry public protests the project was cancelled. In November 2006, the government adopted a plan to build a nuclear power plant in the Mangistau region, ten kilometers from Aktau, on the premises of the former fast-neutron power generation plant (MAEK). Power generation has been halted there now, the fuel is being recycled and the plant itself has been attached to the national nuclear company Kazatomprom. The decision was made to use medium VBER-300 Russian and foreign-made reactors. Russian specialists pledged to finalize a feasibility study and draw up a financial estimate of the nuclear power plant project in 2009. But in February 2009, the government of Kazakhstan suspended the project pending rifts with Russia over the transfer of intellectual property rights. A Russian-Kazakh joint venture, Nuclear Power Plants, set up in 2008, is developing the new VBER-300 reactor with new-type energy units, and is promoting the new reactor on the markets of Russia, Kazakhstan and third countries. Kazatomprom Vice President Sergei Yashin said earlier that the feasibility study for the project to build a nuclear power plant in Aktau is undergoing an appraisal by state experts. The first power generating unit is expected to be launched in 2016. The reactor facility selected is a 300-megawatt water lumped reactor. Two reactors will be installed. A Kazakh-Russian joint venture has been set up to carry out a feasibility study and to build the station. (Interfax) EBRD recommends Kazakhstan scale down state involvement in economy 13 March The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has recommended that Kazakhstan should reduce the level of bad debt and state participation in the economy, said the EBRD's Managing Director for Turkey, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia Olivier Descamps. "The health of the banking sector should be improved. The patient is still very weak and needs medication," Descamps said delivering an EBRD report on Central Asian economies in Astana on Tuesday. According to the report, Kazakhstan's banking sector needs to reduce the level of bad debt and improve risk management mechanisms."The excessive state involvement in the economy should be scaled down. This can be achieved through several methods. The first symbolic step, which has already been announced, is the People's IPO. The second step is to try and preserve the equity value of the banks subject to restructuring," Descamps noted. "The EBRD views Kazakhstan as a success story. The country has excellent potential, but also a few crossroads ahead where it will have to choose the way its business will develop. Maybe even a revolution will be needed to accelerate this country's development," he emphasized. (Interfax) Azerbaijan suspends gas exports to Russia due to pipeline maintenance 13 March The State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR) has suspended gas exports to Russia due to pipeline maintenance, the company told Interfax. "Export of Azerbaijani gas to Russia was suspended on March 7 due to trunk pipeline maintenance. The work is being carried out at the section close to the border with Russia, and has not caused problems with gas supply to northern regions of Azerbaijan," SOCAR said. Gas exports to Russia will resume once he maintenance has ended, the company said, without specifying when this might happen. Planned exports of Azerbaijani gas to Russia are 3 billion cubic meters in 2012. Russia has been importing Azerbaijani gas since 2010. (Interfax) Azerbaijan arrests 22 alleged Iran spies 14 March Azerbaijani authorities have detained 22 individuals suspected of spying for Iran and other crimes, government officials said Wednesday. The National Security Ministry said the suspects had been secretly cooperating with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in "collecting and passing information that could harm Azerbaijan's security" and recruiting people for Iranian intelligence services, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported. The suspects have been charged with high treason and illegal acquisition and storage of firearms and ammunition, the news agency said. It wasn't clear when the arrests took place. Azerbaijan said Feb. 22 it had uncovered a terrorist organization with links to Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Lebanon's Hezbollah. In January, the Azerbaijani government said it had broken up a terrorist plot against Israel's envoy in Baku that also allegedly had ties to Iran's intelligence services. Iran, in turn, has charged Azerbaijan with supporting those responsible for killing an Iranian nuclear scientist. (UPI) Nazarbaev Wants More 'Patriotic' Films 15 March Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev on March 14 called on the country's filmmakers to produce more "patriotic movies." Too many domestic and foreign films, the country's only post-Soviet president said, center on an individual's problems and "we wish" they would show more about society. Nazarbaev had just completed a screening of the film "For the Sake of the Future," a story reportedly based on the lives of several members of the pro-government youth group Bolashak. Nazarbaev said foreign films "seldom show the quest for knowledge, genuine friendship, true love, supporting one another, or simply the desire to work for the country, for the homeland." Bolashak members in Almaty meanwhile focused their activities on March 14 on targeting films they consider offensive, holding a public burning of pornographic DVDs they said were available at local bazaars. The group said it took matters into its own hands after previously alerting the country's prime minister and prosecutor general about the sale of "Kazakh pornography" and seeing that no action was taken. Bolashak said vendors at bazaars now recognize them and quickly pack up their wares if they are selling such DVDs. Bolashak said they intend to continue to carry out raids to stop the sale of such films. (RFE/RL)

State Audit Agency Fines Ivanishvili's Firm with USD 1.5m 15 March The state audit agency, Chamber of Control, said on March 15, that it had fined billionaire opposition politician Bidzina Ivanishvili’s one of the companies with USD 1.5 million for a transaction, which the agency said, amounted to donating Ivanishvili’s public movement Georgian Dream promotional t-shirts worth USD 150,000. Corporate funding, whether monetary or services provided free of charge or under discount prices, is banned by the party funding legislation. The state audit agency said in a statement, that Elita Burji, a construction firm affiliated with Cartu Group which is a holding incorporating firms and organizations owned by Bidzina Ivanishvili, had been contracted by Georgian Dream to provide the movement with 200,000 t-shirts with the movement’s logo worth of USD 500,000. Elita Burji, the agency said, ordered t-shirts to a Turkish company and transferred the latter USD 150,000. The state audit agency said that after studying the transaction it found that the Georgian Dream had no expenses at all in the deal and ordering t-shirts on behalf of the public movement by Elita Burji was “qualified as donation of USD 150,000 in favor of the Georgian Dream”. The agency said that the move constituted violation of the law and was “subject of penalty ten times the amount of the illegal donation.” On March 12 the state audit agency accused Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank of violating party funding regulations and fined it with GEL 822,040 (about USD 497,000). In late February Ivanishvili’s movement Georgia Dream, one of its donors and the latter’s employer firm, affiliated with Ivanishvili, have been fined with GEL 200,000 (about USD 120,000) each for donation which the state audit agency said was a sham transaction aimed at bypassing restrictions set by the political funding legislature. With the most recent fine, ruled on March 15 by the state audit agency, total financial penalty imposed on Ivanishvili’s movement or other entities and individuals affiliated with the billionaire opposition politician for alleged violation of party funding regulations now reached in total about USD 2.4 million. (Civil Georgia) Man arrested in U.S. for allegedly supporting uzbek militants 16 March A man has been arrested in the United States for allegedly being a member of an Islamic militant group seeking to overthrow the government in Uzbekistan. Authorities say Bakhtiyor Jumaev was arrested in Philadelphia on charges of supporting the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), branded a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department. U.S. authorities say Jumaev was a close friend of Jamshid Muhtorov, who was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on a similar charge in January. U.S. prosecutors said Muhtorov was attempting to fly overseas to fight on behalf of the IJU. Jumaev faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. (RFE/RL)

Kazakhstan frees jailed editor, dozens await trial 16 March A Kazakh newspaper editor critical of strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been pardoned and released from jail, while dozens of other people were awaiting trial after Kazakhstan's worst violence in decades. Igor Vinyavsky, editor of the opposition newspaper Vzglyad, was jailed in January. The KNB, successor of the Soviet-era KGB secret police, said at the time Vinyavsky had been charged with calling for the forcible overthrow of constitutional order. A group of prominent opposition activists, including Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party, was arrested at the same time on charges that also included fomenting social hatred. The arrests, which triggered an angry outcry from Western human rights bodies and protest rallies in Kazakhstan, followed deadly clashes between sacked oil workers and police in western Kazakhstan in December, in which at least 16 people were killed. "My client was released yesterday," Vinyavsky's lawyer Gennady Nam told Reuters. "They (prosecutors) could not prove he had acted as part of an organised criminal group -- which is a less grave crime -- and his plea for amnesty was satisfied." Vinyavsky is among some 16,000 prison inmates being released under an amnesty marking the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan's independence from the Soviet Union. (Reuters)

BP ‘pleased’ with scaled-down Nabucco 16 March British energy company BP said a scaled-down version of the planned Nabucco pipeline was a positive step for the natural gas project. A smaller version of the planned 2,400-mile pipeline, dubbed Nabucco West, wouldn't carry the volume of natural gas planned for the entire project. The $10.4 billion project has faced difficulties in securing firm commitments from potential suppliers and its viability is the frequent target of critics. Al Cook, a vice president at BP working at the Shah Deniz natural gas field in Azerbaijan, told the Financial Times that Nabucco West was "a big step forward" for the broader project. "If a car wants to drive from point A to point B and there's only one car, you need to build a road before you build a highway," he was quoted as saying. Nabucco West would travel from the Turkish border to Austria, about half of what's expected for the entire project. It could carry only a fraction of the estimated 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas planned for the Nabucco pipeline. "We believe Nabucco West is a much improved offer," said Cook. "We're really pleased." The project could get some of its natural gas from Azerbaijan. A decision is expected by June. (UPI)

U.S. mulls concessions on flashpoint Afghan night raids 20 March Afghan President Hamid Karzai may have won a major concession from the United States following a deadly shooting spree by a U.S. soldier, with the Obama administration considering curbs on contentious night raids. With Karzai demanding a stop to night raids hated by Afghans, but seen by NATO as one of their most effective anti-insurgent tactics, a U.S. official said the United States was looking at modifying them and giving Afghans more oversight. That would help seal agreement on a strategic pact with Karzai's government for a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan beyond a 2014 deadline for most NATO combat forces to withdraw, allowing advisers and possibly some special forces to stay on. The Obama government was discussing options with the Afghans including a warrant-based approach or possibly allowing Afghan judges to review raids before they took place, the U.S. official said on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. From the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim said on Tuesday the strategic partnership deal with the United States must be "based on the national interest of Afghanistan" and in accordance with Afghan law. Karzai this month said not only must night raids by foreign forces halt, but Afghan security forces training to take over their conduct would "not be allowed to enter private homes unless their operations were according to the state law". That would mean applying for a warrant, he said. But after the killing last week of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier in Kandahar province, Karzai said he was at "the end of the rope" on the issue of civilian casualties, calling for NATO troops to leave villages and withdraw to major bases. The two countries earlier signed an agreement on the transfer of a major U.S.-run prison to Afghan authority, leaving military raids on Afghan homes conducted at night as the final sticking point for reaching a deal. (Reuters) ‘No proof’ in Afghan massacre suspect Sgt Bales case 20 March The lawyer representing a US soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in their homes has said there is little proof of his client's guilt. John Henry Browne said there was "no forensic evidence" against Staff Sgt Robert Bales and "no confession". He also dismissed reports suggesting Sgt Bales, 38, was having financial troubles as irrelevant to the case. After meeting with Sgt Bales at a US army base in Kansas, Mr Browne told reporters: "We've all heard the allegations. I don't know that the government has proved much." Sgt Bales is the only known suspect in the killings - despite repeated Afghan assertions that more than one American was involved. Mr Browne said he now plans to travel to Afghanistan to gather his own evidence. The lawyer also responded to questions about Sgt Bales' financial history. He and his wife had reportedly struggled to make the payments on two properties they had bought. It has now also emerged that - along with another man and his company - Sgt Bales owed a reported $1.5m from an arbitration ruling nearly a decade ago which found him guilty of securities fraud while he was working as a stockbroker. Mr Browne told Associated Press "that doesn't mean anything". "Sure, there are financial problems. I have financial problems. Ninety-nine percent of America has financial problems," he said. "You don't go kill women and children because you have financial problems." The Pentagon has previously said that Sgt Bales could face charges that carry a possible death penalty. Such a trial could take years, contrasting with Afghan demands for swift and decisive justice. (BBC)

Afghanistan security firm ban stirs Western fears 20 March Afghanistan's interior ministry has set a fresh deadline - this Wednesday - for private security firms to end operations in the country. The government has extended this deadline several times in the past. But international aid workers and diplomatic missions view the ministry's announcement with scepticism and concern. Although the Afghan government has promised to provide security to international aid groups active in the country, not many in these agencies are taking this offer too seriously. "The Afghan government is simply not ready or capable of carrying out this huge task," said a US aid worker. With most of the country's armed forces and police busy fighting the insurgency, the interior ministry is raising a special branch of the police - the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) - to take over the duties of private security firms. But officials working with international missions said they do not think that the force is ready to assume its responsibilities. "The government has not been able to tackle Taliban infiltration, the problem of rogue soldiers and drug addiction in the Afghan National Army and police," one western diplomat said. "Can it assure us that the APPF will not suffer from these ills? I would like to know what the interior ministry is doing to stop drug addicts from getting into APPF? What about Taliban infiltrators?" she asked. The issue of private security firms has become a source of friction between Kabul and its western allies, especially Washington. Western diplomats say the move will not come without a price tag. "Since the Afghan government announced its decision to dissolve private security firms, developmental projects worth $2bn (£1.25bn) have been put on a hold by foreign governments," one official said. (BBC)

British Watchdog group urges scrutiny on aid to Afghanistan 22 March Britain's Independent Commission for Aid Impact is calling on the British government to tighten oversight of its aid program for Afghanistan. The watchdog organization said there were insufficient monitoring systems in place to prevent "the loss or diversion of aid monies away from the intended beneficiaries as a result of theft, fraud or corruption." The commission said Britain's Department for International Development that handles distribution of aid to Afghanistan needs to strengthen its grip and reduce risk by deploying people with more financial and procurement skills. The British government created the Independent Commission for Aid Impact in 2011 to ensure foreign aid money is spent as intended. (RFE/RL)

Nabucco group expecting key decisions 22 March A decision to link the broader Nabucco natural gas pipeline to a Turkish counterpart is expected by next year, a managing director said from Ankara. Reinhard Mitschek, managing director of Nabucco Gas Pipeline International, said from Turkey his company expects to make a decision on linking up to the Trans-Anatolia Pipeline by 2013. "The point of no return is a final investment decision … that will most likely be next year," Mitschek told Bloomberg News. "That is something we're working on in a very concentrated and focused form within the Nabucco group, with Shah Deniz partners and others." The Trans-Anatolia Pipeline, known also as TANAP, is a project envisioned by Turkish energy company Botas and the State Oil Co. of Azerbaijan Republic to transport natural gas to southern Europe. Nabucco could carry gas from suppliers in the Caspian region, notably those in the Shah Deniz field in Azerbaijan, to southern Europe by 2017. Ankara had said TANAP is backed by a supply guarantee. Nabucco has faced questions over its $10.5 billion price and the lack of firm supplier commitments. A smaller version of the planned 2,400-mile pipeline, dubbed Nabucco West, would travel from the Turkish border to Austria, about half of what's expected for the entire project. (UPI)

 Dr. Alexei Tikhomirov is acting head, United Nations Project Office on Governance, UN DESA, Seoul, Republic of Korea.

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