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DEFENSE MINISTER DENIES REPORTS OF MILITARY OVERHAUL. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Moscow on 14 December that there are no plans to radically reform the command of the armed forces, Russian news agencies reported. The previous day, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" daily quoted unidentified Defense Ministry officials as saying the top military leadership is planning a radical reorganization of the army command. The newspaper report claimed that the reform envisioned replacing the current four fleets and six military districts with three large regional command centers -- Far Eastern, Central Asian, and West European. It said the changes are planned to start in 2006 and are expected to take several years to implement. Ivanov, while denying plans to scrap military districts, said he is not against setting up regional command centers, but only after careful evaluation. In other remarks, Ivanov denied reports that Ukraine has demanded an increase in rent payments for the presence of Russia's Black Sea Fleet on Ukrainian territory. PM

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS GAS DEAL WITH UKRAINE COULD COME SOON... Sergei Lavrov said on 14 December that negotiations with Ukraine over gas prices are "at an advanced stage" and an agreement could come soon, ITAR-TASS reported. "The negotiations on how to bring this about are at an advanced stage. Negotiators believe there are certain chances of achieving an agreement," Lavrov said. Gazprom is seeking to raise the price to $220-230 per 1,000 cubic meters, which is roughly the market price in Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 8, 13, and 14 December 2005). BW

...AS RUSSIAN FINANCE MINISTER DEFENDS PRICE HIKE. Aleksei Kudrin said on 14 December that raising the price Ukraine pays for Russian natural gas is a long overdue step, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. "I believe this is the right measure. It would have had to be taken sooner or later," Kudrin said. "The time when Russia pursued a policy of semi-subsidizing neighboring economies is gradually coming to an end. We must focus on our own interests," he said, adding that Ukraine could implement energy-saving measures to offset the increase. Kudrin said the higher gas price would increase federal budget revenues because Gazprom would subsequently be making larger tax contribution. BW

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SAYS INDUSTRY SHOULD TAKE THE BRUNT OF GAS PRICE HIKE. President Viktor Yushchenko said on Ukrainian Television on 14 December that the Russian gas that is to be supplied at a new price outside a barter scheme next year should be sold primarily in the country's industrial sector, while gas prices for Ukrainian private and municipal consumers should be increased gradually. "This is a concept envisioning that liberalized prices will be met by the industrial sector, while private and municipal consumers will be given the possibility to conclude the heating season with traditional prices, as they are today, or with a small increase in them during the second quarter [of 2006]," Yushchenko said. Yushchenko explained that with new gas prices and transit tariffs in 2006, Ukraine will be able to receive a somewhat lesser volume of Russian gas under the barter scheme than it does now. Yushchenko did not say what new Russian gas price could be acceptable to Ukraine or what gas transit tariff Ukraine would levy on Gazprom in 2006. Gazprom deputy chief Aleksandr Medvedev said on 14 December that Russia is going to sell gas to Ukraine for $220-$230 per 1,000 cubic meter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2006). Ukraine now pays $50 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas received as payment for transit of Russian gas to Europe, and $80 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas supplied by Gazprom outside this barter scheme. JM

UKRAINE PARLIAMENT REJECTS TWO WTO-RELATED BILLS. The Verkhovna Rada on 14 December rejected two bills required for Ukraine's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), Interfax-Ukraine reported. The bills proposed lowering export tariffs on ferrous scrap metal, live cattle, and leather materials. Meanwhile, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman told journalists in Hong Kong on 14 December, on the sidelines of an ongoing WTO ministerial conference, that Russia and Ukraine should join the World Trade Organization together, Interfax reported. "I hope Ukraine and Russia come into the WTO and they come in together," Portman said, adding that the accession negotiations for the two countries will be completed "soon." JM

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his chief of staff to draft amendments to a controversial bill on nongovernmental organizations after the Council of Europe expressed reservations about its content. The bill, which last month passed its first reading in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, has been criticized by civil-rights activists. Foreign NGOs have warned that they might have to close their offices if the legislation is enacted. Although President Putin said the concerns of the Council of Europe should be taken into account, he defended the bill as necessary to the fight against terrorism.

President Putin appears to have taken a step back from a bill on nongovernmental organizations that has been severely criticized both inside and outside Russia.

The Russian president told cabinet ministers on 5 December that the government should take into account the concerns expressed by the Council of Europe and Russia's own Public Chamber. Accordingly, he said he was asking his chief of staff, Sergei Sobyanin, to draft amendments to the bill by the end of the week.

At the same time, however, Putin defended the bill as necessary to ensure the country's security.

"This bill is needed only to safeguard our political system against external interference and to protect our society and citizens from any terrorist or misanthropic ideology that could be spreading under this or that sign," Putin said.

Putin emphasized that the democratic process and the achievements of Russian civil society were the country's main asset. He said that in protecting itself against harmful influences, Russia should be careful not "to throw the baby out with the bath water."

The reaction from local nongovernmental organizations has been skeptical. Aleksandr Petrov, head of Human Rights Watch Russia, said he's seen it all before.

"This is a favorite tactic of the government: two steps forward, one step back," Petrov said. "This has happened several times with other bills, when the government tables completely Draconian bills and then Putin comes along and says it should be amended. That's what's happened again and again, and this is just one more episode."

The State Duma passed the bill on its first reading on 23 November by the overwhelming margin of 370 to 18 -- despite concerns raised by the United States and the European Union.

If passed in its current form, the new legislation would prevent international organizations from having representatives or branch offices in Russia. To operate in Russia, they would have to register as Russian NGOs and be financially independent of their head offices. It would also make them ineligible for most sources of foreign funding.

Among those threatened with closure by the bill are international human rights organizations, think tanks, foundations, and social-welfare and humanitarian-aid organizations.

Petrov of Human Rights Watch Russia sees the bill as an attempt to destroy the NGO community.

"That goes well in line with all recent developments in Russia," Petrov said. "After all, TV stations were taken under control by the state and the political opposition was largely marginalized. The last independent sector of Russian society remains the noncommercial and general public organizations, and it seems it doesn't go in line with Putin's perception of how the state should be controlled."

Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations is another who believes Putin's invocation of the security threat is a smoke screen to hide other intentions.

"Any attempts by Putin or any other government official to say that extremist or terrorist organizations are operating under the guise of NGOs -- well, excuse me, but laws already exist for this," Panfilov said. "There's the Criminal Code and there's the Law on the Fight against Terrorism. If an NGO really does propagandize extremism or terrorism, then ways exist to pursue it by legal means."

Russia's human-rights organizations see the bill as the latest stage in a long campaign by the government to emasculate civil society. Panfilov said it's not security but politics that really lie at the heart of the bill. Like Petrov of Human Rights Watch, he argued that Putin fears the independence of civil society.

"Most of all, the authorities are alarmed by what happened in Georgia and Ukraine, where it's clear nongovernmental organizations played a major role in the revolutions there," Panfilov said. "So the Russian authorities are trying, two years ahead of the parliamentary elections, to in some way clean up the nongovernmental space, in order to protect themselves."

Putin's claims to the contrary notwithstanding, Russia's human-rights organizations see the bill as the latest stage in a long campaign by the government to emasculate civil society.

They point out the elimination of most independent media, the subordination of regional elites to the center, and the weakness of parliament and the judiciary. Nongovernmental organizations, rights watchers say, are almost all that is left of the checks and balances to presidential power in Russia.

This week may show how the Russian president really regards what he himself describes as the "achievements of our civil society."

The Forum of Migrants Organizations, a leading umbrella NGO that promotes the rights of migrants across Russia, has announced it is suspending its operations. The organization says its foreign sponsors have retracted after a controversial bill that would place NGOs under strict state control passed its first reading on 23 November. The bill's authors say the changes would help the government curtail the financing of terrorist groups in Russia, but NGOs have cautioned that the bill may be used by the government to crack down on organizations its deems unwelcome.

When the draft law was introduced into the State Duma in early November, many NGOs warned the proposed restrictions would force them to close down. And although the bill still has a long way to go before being signed into law, it seems to be already taking its toll on NGOs.

Lydia Grafova, the head of the Forum of Migrants' Organizations executive committee, says the draft law has scared off the group's foreign sponsors. As a result, she tells RFE/RL her organization will have to close down as soon as 1 January 2006.

"From the beginning of next year, we have no funding whatsoever -- we don't have a single kopeck, for example, to pay the rent. When we started discussing this law on nongovernmental organizations, and when doubt fell on absolutely all sponsors working in Russia, our potential sponsors fell mysteriously silent. We have indeed been forced to close down, we have no other option," Grafova said.

The Forum of Migrants' Organizations was founded in 1996 and supervises almost 200 migrant rights groups in 47 Russian regions. It was instrumental in lobbying for a softer immigration policy, including the government's recent decision to amnesty large numbers of migrants working illegally in Russia.

Grafova says growing xenophobic sentiments in Russia make the forum's closure particularly tragic.

"The Federal Migration Service, which consists largely of people in epaulettes, will not be able to implement this migration amnesty without the participation of civil organizations. It is very tragic that we have to leave, when the phobia of migrants is being used by the darkest of forces of our society. It is very, very worrying," Grafova said.

The bill follows a series of declarations by top-ranking officials that foreign-funded NGOs had allegedly played a key role in the popular protests that overthrew the governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in July said he would not allow foreign-funded NGOs to carry out what he said were "political activities."

If passed into law, the bill would force all NGOs in Russia to re-register with a state commission and would allow authorities to closely scrutinize their finances.

The initiative, however, has drawn stinging criticism both in Russia and abroad, leading Putin on 5 December to order his administration to work out amendments.

So far, the Forum of Migrants' Organizations is the first leading NGO to announce its closure since the new bill passed its first reading. Grafova predicts many more NGOs will meet the same fate as her organization.

        But not all other rights activists are as pessimistic. 
        Tatyana Kasatkina, the executive director of Russia's

prominent human rights group Memorial, says the controversial bill has so far failed to dent her group's funding.

Kasatkina is even hopeful that the outrage caused by the bill will compel authorities to ditch it.

"In fact, Putin has now introduced a few changes. It is clear that the draft will not be considered right now because precise amendments have not yet been introduced into this law, and it will probably be a little postponed," Kasatkina said. "It will probably be considered next year, and, as many hope, they may even forget about this project for good, because it has had great repercussions both abroad and in Russia."

White House officials said U.S. President George W. Bush had expressed concern over the bill during a meeting with Putin in South Korea on 18 November.

On 22 November, NGO leaders called on parliament to reject the bill in a collective appeal signed by some 1,300 people, branding it "the most odious decision in the past 15 years."

INTERNATIONAL HELSINKI FEDERATION FOR HUMAN RIGHTS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AARON RHODES. A meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ended on 6 December without a final document, following Russian objections to a passage concerning its troops in a breakaway province of Moldova. The two-day conference took place amid Russian concerns about the organization's election-monitoring activities in former Soviet countries. RFE/RL spoke on 7 December with Aaron Rhodes, the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, about Russia's allegations that the OSCE holds double standards in its election monitoring.

RFE/RL: Mr. Rhodes, Russia has alleged that the OSCE has double standards in monitoring elections. Why would somebody say that the OSCE needs clear rules for election monitoring after so many years of operations?

Aaron Rhodes: I would be careful to assign any motives for these statements, but the fact is that they do have clear rules. What's rather frustrating about these charges against the election monitoring system of the OSCE is that they never present a shred of evidence or cite any concrete examples of where or how any double standards have been applied. These charges [against the OSCE] aren't very credible, because they are never associated with any evidence whatsoever. So one gets the impression that, maybe, the reason that the charges are made is that they don't like the results -- so they attack the process.

RFE/RL: Let's speak about the rules a little bit. You said that there are clear rules, but speaking in Ljubljana, Russian Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov actually cited two examples of the kind of double standards, and I quote, "The organization's lack of clear rules led it to declare that fraud occurred at several polls, including those in Georgia and Ukraine." So what are the rules?

Rhodes: I would not consider myself an authoritative spokesman for what these rules are. I think you should ask the head of the ODIHR office, the [OSCE's] Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Ambassador [[Christian] Strohal, to comment on these rules. I personally know that, for example, the individuals that undertake these election-monitoring operations are from all over the OSCE. They're from post-Soviet countries, Eastern European countries, from Europe, from Western Europe, from the Balkans, from North America. I find it hard to believe that the individuals charged with overseeing this process have some sort of political agenda, as they are professionals.

RFE/RL: This dispute resulted in the fact that there was no document adopted in Ljubljana. Some diplomats in Ljubljana were afraid, because it is the third time that the OSCE comes without any final documents, so they feel that the OSCE -- the top European human rights body -- is under threat of being ineffective. Do you have this feeling?

Rhodes: I'm not so sure if it makes any difference if there's a document or not. At the same time, I think that the lack of consensus in the OSCE about the usefulness of these objectives -- human rights monitoring and election monitoring processes -- is a serious problem. It's a challenge to convince all the members of the OSCE that this [election monitoring] is something good for people in the region, this is something good for the citizens, and this is something good for the stability of regimes in the region, who would submit themselves to this kind of scrutiny and therefore gain credibility. Regimes that are put in place by fraudulent elections are not stable regimes.

RFE/RL: But it really looks as if bodies like the Council of Europe, for example, and even now the European Union, are trying to be more active in establishing human rights standards and democratic standards that roused the OSCE recently.

Rhodes: But at the same time those organizations are operating on different principles. Also, I might add that in the Council of Europe they have some of the same problems.... The Council of Europe, as containing as it does Russia, and a number of other post-Soviet states they also are blocked from doing anything about serious problems like Chechnya. A lot of the same paradoxes apply.

RFE/RL: Is it because Russia is blocking both organizations from being effective?

Rhodes: Yes.