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Newsline - July 27, 2007

British Economic Counsel Andrew Levi is due to leave Russia on July 29 as part of the two countries' mutual expulsion of diplomats following Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the prime suspect in the 2006 London poisoning death of former Russian security-service officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, "The Moscow Times" reported on July 26, citing anonymous sources close to Levi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20 and 25, 2007). Britain's "Financial Times" reported on July 27 that the Foreign Office and Britain's Embassy in Moscow "refused to confirm or deny the report, saying it is standard policy not to identify expelled diplomats." The daily suggested that the expulsion of Levi, who is known as a seasoned negotiator, could foreshadow difficulties for Anglo-Russian trade relations, which many presumed would not be affected by the diplomatic row. Deutsche Welle noted on July 27 that such mutual expulsions usually involve lower-level personnel and not people of Levi's rank. PM

Russia's Foreign Ministry summoned British Ambassador Tony Brenton on July 26 for an explanation regarding the arrest in Britain in June of an unnamed man in connection with an alleged plot to kill self-exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who is a bitter rival of President Vladimir Putin, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 19, 2007). The ministry said it asked Brenton to explain media reports that said the man was of Russian origin and had been deported. It also asked why British authorities -- if they had any evidence of a plot -- failed to alert Russian authorities "or even tell them the person's name." On July 26 "Novaya gazeta" wrote that "the rest of Europe has lost interest in British-Russian polemics." The paper added that it is not likely that Britain will seek to use its bilateral dispute to block EU-Russian negotiations as Poland has allegedly done. "Novaya gazeta" added, however, that London will certainly seek to raise some points stemming from the Litvinenko case in the preparations for the Russia-EU summit on October 26. PM

Independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov of the Republican Party of Russia was quoted by the daily "Vedomosti" of July 26 as saying that the presidential administration wants to vet party lists for the December State Duma elections and has prepared a blacklist of undesirable candidates. "The Moscow Times" reported on July 27 that Ryzhkov declined to comment on the report, saying he does not have time. A Kremlin spokesman denied the allegations. Anatoly Baranov, whom "The Moscow Times" described as the recently fired editor of the Communist Party's (KPRF) website, said that "in the Kremlin, they've already begun to set out the composition of the next Duma." Ryzhkov reportedly said that the blacklist includes "himself; Duma Deputy Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of the Motherland (Rodina) party; Duma Deputy Sergei Glazyev, a Motherland co-founder; [declared presidential hopeful and] former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov; and former presidential candidate Irina Khakamada" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). PM

The Federal Registration Service declined on July 24 to register the Great Russia Party, whose informal leader is Rogozin, the daily "Kommersant" reported on July 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2007). Officials of the service said that they noted "inconsistencies" in the party's membership lists. Andrei Savelyev, who is a Duma deputy and the official head of Great Russia, said he will take the matter to court, arguing that the party's charter is "letter-for-letter" identical to that of the pro-Kremlin party A Just Russia, into which much of Motherland merged in 2006. Some observers argue that Rogozin was forced onto the political sidelines after he became a thorn in the side of the Kremlin. According to this view, Great Russia is his vehicle for a comeback. Other observers, however, believe that Great Russia is a creation of the Kremlin, with an eye to drawing votes on the left from A Just Russia. On July 26, Great Russia filed a complaint with Gagarinsky District Court, arguing that the registration denial was "illegal and unfounded," Interfax reported. PM

The daily "Gazeta" wrote on July 26 that President Putin intends to transform the National Security Council, as head of which Igor Ivanov recently resigned, into a vehicle for preserving his power after he leaves office in 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 19, 2007). The paper suggested Putin will transform it into a parallel cabinet with a new chairman armed with additional powers to control the "so-called 'power ministries' out a national political strategy." Pundits have long speculated as to whether Putin will seek a leading political or business post for himself after leaving the presidency, or whether he will attempt to rule from the sidelines by virtue of his own personal authority, as some former Chinese leaders did after leaving office. Other observers argue that he and his loyalists will automatically become vulnerable to possible legal charges pressed by a new presidential team as soon as he leaves office. According to this school of thought, a new team might seek to appropriate power and wealth for itself at the expense of Putin and his friends, just as he and his loyalists did at the cost of many people close to former President Boris Yeltsin in and after 2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007). PM

In two separate rulings on July 26, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay more than $350,000 in compensation for the deaths of civilians in Chechnya, RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service reported. In one ruling, the court awarded damages to relatives of 11 civilians killed in the Grozny suburb of Novye Aldy during a February 2000 Russian military operation that killed at least 60 people. The court also awarded damages to relatives of two civilians killed by Russian forces in the Chechen village of Gekhi in August 2000. PM

Kuramagomed Ramazanov, a deputy mufti of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan, was killed together with his brother late on July 26 by an explosive device that detonated in his car, reported on July 27, quoting Daghestan's prosecutor Igor Tkachev. The resistance website claimed on July 27 that Ramazanov was notorious for ordering the killing of numerous Muslims whom he believed to be Wahhabis, and for banning the import of suspect Islamic literature. LF

Commenting on a newly approved government plan to boost the declining Armenian birthrate, Deputy Health Minister Hayk Darbinian explained on July 26 that the new state program is "aimed at boosting the birthrate in the country and creating favorable conditions for healthy childhood and maternity, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The nine-year, $8.6 million plan, which is to be completely financed by Western donors, was formally adopted on July 26 and vows to tackle the country's demographic crisis by specifically improving Armenians' access to health care and promoting a "healthy lifestyle." Although the overall decrease in the population has been triggered largely by a now stabilized outflow of people from Armenia in the last decade, the continued declining birthrate is seen by some to be linked to the necessity for informal payments for standard child delivery, making it more costly to have larger families despite the legal provision of free maternal care. But the economic argument was discounted by Darbinian, who countered that the core reason for the decline is due to the high rate of maternity diseases, which he said affects "over 46 percent of pregnant women," as well as from the impact of increasing rates of infertility and poor prenatal care, according to Arminfo. The national birthrate has declined significantly, from a 1990 level of 80,000 births annually to an estimated 40,000 currently, Arminfo reported. RG

President Ilham Aliyev met on July 26 in Baku with a visiting Russian delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak, according to Turan. The talks between senior Azerbaijani officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, and the Russian delegation focused on "bilateral security issues" and reportedly include the future of the Russian-leased Qabala early-warning radar station. The Azerbaijan-based Qabala military base was the subject of recent talks in Washington between Azimov and senior U.S. officials and comes in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal to use the facility jointly with the Americans as an alternative to the U.S. plan to deploy parts of an missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3, 2007). RG

Speaking in Baku during his first press conference, the newly elected chairman of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, Movsum Samadov, outlined on July 26 his party's goals, stressing that "there will be no drastic changes in the activities of the party" and vowing to "continue organizational" consolidation, according to the Azerbaijani news agency APA. The 42-year-old Samadov added that the party's senior leadership will hold a meeting next month to "examine the issue of appointing deputy chairmen" and to "expand the activities of the organization." He further pledged that the "party will carry out the necessary work to promote Islamic and national values in society." The Islamic Party of Azerbaijan assumed a much more assertive public profile in the summer of 2006, staging a series of demonstrations in the capital Baku and the town of Nardaran protesting Israeli military operations in Lebanon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2006). Those demonstrations also targeted the U.S. and Israeli embassies and UN offices in Baku (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 28, August 2, and 4, 2006) and included the burning of several Israeli and U.S. flags and demands for the Azerbaijani government to denounce Israel and support Lebanese Hizballah. Samadov recently replaced Haci Haciaga Nuriyev, who assumed the party leadership in the wake of the resignation of Alikram Aliyev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2004). RG

Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili met on July 26 in Tbilisi with visiting Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian to review bilateral relations and to discuss expanding cooperation in the political, economic, and cultural fields, Arminfo reported. They also spoke about the "problem related to the detention of Armenian citizens by Georgian border troops" after being accused of crossing the Armenian-Georgian border illegally. RG

In a statement circulated in Tbilisi, Georgian Conflict Resolution Minister Davit Bakradze criticized on July 26 a recent report by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the situation in Abkhazia, Civil Georgia reported. The report, which was officially submitted to the UN Security Council on July 23, called on Georgia and Abkhazia to take steps to avoid the resumption of hostilities and called on Georgia to remove a youth camp located in Ganmukhuri, near the conflict zone. Bakradze said that the report "diverts attention from the lack of dialogue on Abkhazia's final status and a lack of progress on the return of refugees." Bakradze, the head of the parliamentary committee on Euro-integration, was named to the post of Georgian minister for conflict resolution after Merab Antadze resigned on July 19 and returned to the position of deputy foreign minister that he held until his appointment as minister one year ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2007). Similar criticism of the report was recently articulated by several Georgian officials, including Kote Gabashvili, the chairman of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, who accused Ban of caving in to Russian pressure, and Foreign Minister Bezhuashvili, who argued that the UN should concentrate more on "major issues" such as the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 2007). The UN report also expressed concern at recent reports of the presence of unidentified armed men in the lower Kodori Gorge (see "Georgia: Is Armed Conflict Brewing?", July 2, 2007). RG

In an address to a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Permanent Council in Vienna, Kazakh Culture and Information Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbaev pledged on July 26 that his country is committed to media freedoms and promised that Kazakhstan will ratify international agreements on civil, political, cultural, and economic rights, according to the OSCE website and RFE/RL. Yertysbaev added that "we are united by the desire to make Kazakhstan even more democratic; our information sphere more open; and our media more free, contemporary, and independent." He also stressed that Kazakhstan has "embarked upon a firm course of constructing a modern information community, the fundamental elements of which will be the e-government; digital television with the corresponding expansion of the services granted; access to the Internet for the rural population, including the farthermost areas; and equal and general access to modern information services." Although welcoming the Kazakh statement, Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE representative on freedom of media, responded that it was also important for Kazakhstan to abolish so-called "insult provisions" of Kazakh laws that criminalizes any public criticism of Kazakh officials. RG

Prosecutor-General Rashid Tusupbekov met on July 26 in Astana with Lubomir Kopaj, the head of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election-observer mission, to discuss preparations for the August 18 parliamentary elections, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Kopaj expressed his interest in establishing "regular working contacts" with representatives from the Prosecutor-General's Office and bodies and requested "information about the course and outcomes of the consideration of appeals related to the forthcoming election." Tusupbekov also assured Kopaj that his office is taking steps to ensure that the election monitors would be provided with maximum flexibility throughout the course of their duties. The ODIHR election-monitoring mission includes 36 long-term observers based in Almaty and Astana and more than 400 short-term observers deployed throughout Kazakhstan. The CIS, meanwhile is sending its own mission composed of about 400 observers led by Vladimir Rushailo, the CIS executive secretary and former head of the Russian National Security Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18, 2007). Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev last month dissolved the Mazhilis, the lower chamber of parliament, and scheduled new elections for August 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2007). According to the terms of the recently amended constitution, the Mazhilis is to consist of 107 deputies, with 98 of them elected from party lists and nine elected by the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan. RG

In an announcement in Astana, Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Baktykozha Izmukhambetov officially joined on July 25 the pro-government party led by President Nazarbaev, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Baktykozha is the latest of a number of senior Kazakh officials who have flocked to the ruling Nur Otan party since Nazarbaev assumed leadership of the party, replacing his daughter Darigha Nazarbaeva, a member of parliament since 2004, who was also removed from the party's list of candidates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 2007). Nur Otan, which was formally renamed late last year after several smaller parties merged with its precursor, the Otan party, has an official membership of more than 700,000. RG

In a meeting in Bishkek with Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev, International Monetary Fund (IMF) official James McHugh praised on July 26 Kyrgyzstan's economic reforms and said that "the political situation in the country is stabilizing," Kabar reported. McHugh added that the Kyrgyz economy is "growing at a great pace compared with last year," and noted an improvement in tax collection. He also hailed the fact that the government was "able to achieve a state budget surplus in the first six months of this year." McHugh also announced that the IMF "will consider any opportunity to find alternative ways of reducing Kyrgyzstan's foreign debt" and promised to support Kyrgyzstan's bid for eligibility for the U.S. Millennium Challenge Account aid program. For his part, Atambaev pledged to tackle corruption within the energy sector and vowed to work closely with the IMF in implementing further reforms. The meeting precedes a planned visit to Bishkek by an official IMF delegation tasked with formulating the next stage of the IMF's formal cooperation program with Kyrgyzstan. RG

In an announcement released in Dushanbe by the presidential press service, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon replaced on July 25 several senior members of his staff, according to the Avesta website. The changes include the appointment of Anvar Asadov, a presidential adviser, to head the president's secretariat and the transfer of Sharofiddin Imomov, who was relieved of the post of senior presidential adviser on foreign policy to assume the duties in another unspecified position. Asadov replaces Saymurod Fattoev, who was shifted to the post of state adviser on social development and public relations, replacing the retiring Karamatullo Olimov. The head of the presidential secretariat is seen as the most powerful position within the presidential administration. RG

Following his arrival on an official visit to Tashkent, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov met on July 26 with Uzbek President Islam Karimov to discuss bilateral relations, Interfax reported. Karimov expressed concern that "the level of relations" between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan does not correspond to their "potential" and called for the speedy implementation of joint projects between the two countries. Bilateral trade also slightly declined for the first six months of the year, totaling slightly more than $583 million. In comments to reporters following the meeting, Masimov added that a "common stance on water and energy problems in the region" was reached and noted that he discussed issues related to the development of the region's infrastructure during his meeting with Karimov, Uzbek television reported. He also noted that Kazakhstan is particularly interested in the development of Uzbekistan's automobile industry. RG

Stsyapan Sukharenka, the former chairman of the State Security Committee (KGB) who was dismissed from the post by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2007), said in a press interview on July 26 that he remains loyal to the president, Belapan reported. "I've always been the president's ally because I don't see any alternative to him today," Sukharenka said. He denied rumors that a rift between the KGB and the Interior Ministry might serve as a reason for his dismissal. "I did not have a war with them and do not today," he said. When asked whether the KGB had really discovered a person who had been trained to use dead rats to contaminate urban water supplies ahead of the 2006 presidential elections, an allegation that was ridiculed by the opposition, Sukharenka stuck to the story. "One shouldn't mock this, it did happen. And the news conference that we held then helped prevent that situation to a great degree," he said. During a televised news conference held shortly before the vote on March 19, 2006, Sukharenka played a videotaped interview with a man who had allegedly confessed that the plan to contaminate water supplies with dead rats was part of a Western-funded plot to destabilize the situation in Belarus and bring an opposition politician to power. JM

President Lukashenka said in a televised government conference on July 26 that he is concerned about the pace of the country's grain harvest, Belapan reported. Lukashenka ordered the government to complete the harvest by mid-August. Government officials reported to Lukashenka at the conference that they expect to harvest at least 7 million tons of grain this year. Last year's yield reportedly totaled 5.9 million tons, short of the 6.9 million tons projected. JM

Yuriy Lutsenko, former interior minister and a leader of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense election bloc, has denied allegations in the press that he lobbied the interests of a mobile-telephone operator when he was interior minister in 2006, UNIAN reported on July 26. "This is an absolutely false piece of information, unreliable, subjective, and biased as regards the alleged wrongdoings by Lutsenko in the Interior Ministry," Lutsenko told journalists in Ternopil on July 26. In an article published on July 25, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( charged that in 2006 Lutsenko ordered that the Interior Ministry's employees become mobile-telephone subscribers to the Ukrainian New Telecommunications company, in which his wife Iryna works as a financial director. Lutsenko said he cancelled a formal instruction signed by then-Deputy Interior Minister Oleksandr Novikov to choose Ukrainian New Telecommunications as the provider of mobile telephone services for the Interior Ministry as soon as he had learned about the instruction from the press. JM

Maryna Stavniychuk, a deputy head of the Presidential Secretariat and President Viktor Yushchenko's representative in the Central Election Commission, told journalists on July 26 that she does not rule out the possibility that Yushchenko may issue another decree on holding preterm parliamentary elections on September 30, UNIAN reported. "Under a normal, favorable legal situation, there would be no need for another decree," Stavniychuk said. "But since today certain political forces and individuals -- particularly members of the Central Election Commission, which and who would like to bring the situation to a boiling point -- insist on enacting various scenarios to annul the elections, I do not rule out [another presidential decree]. Everything is possible," she added. In April, Yushchenko set snap elections twice, for May 27 and June 24, but subsequently canceled the decisions. A third decree scheduling early polls for September 30 was issued on June 5. Yushchenko's opponents charged that the third decree is illegal, arguing that in accordance with Ukraine's legislation the president may schedule preterm elections no later than 60 days after the issue of a relevant decree. Earlier this week, the Constitutional Court received a petition from 46 lawmakers questioning the legality of Yushchenko's third decree on snap elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2007). JM

Montenegro has made "amazing" progress in boosting and reforming its economy, the World Bank's director in Montenegro, Orsalia Kalantzopoulos, told Reuters in an interview published on July 24. "Progress has been indeed amazing, and it shows on the growth rate and investment activities," Kalantzopoulos said. The economy expanded by 8.2 percent in 2006, and figures for the first quarter of 2007 showed that foreign direct investment was, at 195.4 million euros ($268.5 million), three times higher year-on-year. Kalantzopoulos praised the private sector's growth and the banking system's "good shape." However, she said the World Bank is concerned about water and electricity shortages and fears the rapid growth of tourism could ruin the country's environment. The particular popularity of Montenegro's coastline among Russians has won it the moniker "Moscow-on-Sea," but, while it is becoming a luxury destination, waste and environmental services remain poor and the influx of real-estate developers is becoming an increasingly significant concern among locals. "Mass tourism does not really supplement environmental preservation very much," Kalantzopoulos told Reuters. She added that the World Bank is advocating and supporting the development of renewable energy as a potentially valuable industry for the sun-baked country. Kalantzopoulos said Montenegro, which began working independently with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) before gaining independence in 2006, now has little need for external financing, but should continue reforming its tax and pension systems, its labor market, and its land registry. Montenegro in June refused to sign an agreement with the IMF in a move prompted, commentators believed, by the IMF's opposition to Montenegro's plans to take on more debt for infrastructure projects, which the IMF believed could overheat the economy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 6, 2007). AG

Almost 40 percent of Montenegrins believe that they should be allowed to vote on a new constitution in a referendum, the news agency Mina reported on July 25. Fewer than 28 percent believe that, as at present, the constitution should be decided on by parliament. Montenegrins voted in a referendum to declare independence from Serbia in mid-2006, triggering demands for the current constitution, which was adopted in 1992, to be replaced. A vote in parliament is currently pending. Failure to win a two-thirds majority would result in the constitution being put to a referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30 and June 4, 2007). One of the key controversies in the debate has been whether the state language should be known as Montenegrin, Serbian, Serbian-Montenegrin, or some other compromise reference. The opinion poll, which was conducted by the Agency for Local Democracy, found that 41.6 percent want the official language to be called Montenegrin, while 37.7 percent want Serbian to be given that status. According to a 2003 census, 41 percent of Montenegro's population define themselves as ethnic Montenegrins and 30 percent as ethnic Serbs. Another proposal that has been opposed by ethnic-Serbian parties -- that Montenegro should be a civic republic rather than a republic of nations -- is backed by a decisive majority, 58 percent compared to 28 percent. AG

An opinion poll conducted in mid-June reveals that Bosnian Serbs are increasingly tolerant of Bosnia-Herzegovina's two other ethnic groups, Croats and Bosnian Muslims, the daily "Nezavisne novine" reported on July 24. The poll found overwhelming acceptance of life in a state shared with other ethnic communities (89 percent said they would live in the same country as Croats and 83 with Bosnian Muslims), and a willingness to live with them in the same town (87 percent in the case of Croats, 82 percent for Muslims) and on the same street (85 percent for Croats, 80 percent for Muslims). Their willingness to be friends with other communities was similar, albeit somewhat weaker (79 percent with Croats, 74 percent with Muslims). Tolerance of intermarriage is substantially lower, but is nonetheless acceptable to a narrow majority in the case of Croats (54 percent) and a sizable minority in the case of Muslims (42 percent). A majority of Serbs felt their relations are positive with Croats (61 percent) and with Muslims (58 percent). These findings are among those made in a comprehensive survey of current attitudes in the Republika Srpska by the research agency Strategic Marketing. Another finding is that the overwhelming majority of ethnic Serbs want their wartime leaders to give themselves up for trial by the UN (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007). AG

Fatos Nano, a three-time prime minister of Albania, was expelled on July 25 by the party he once led, the Socialist Party. Local media reported on April 25 and 26 that the party's current leader, Edi Rama, made the decision after Nano acknowledged that he had urged a handful of Socialist members of parliament to break ranks with their party and abandon a boycott of the presidential elections. Their rebellion proved decisive in ensuring that the deputy leader of the Socialists' chief rival, the Democrat Party, became Albania's president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). Bamir Topi needed 84 votes to secure election; with the support of the Socialist rebels, he won 85 votes. The Socialist Party had already expelled the other rebels. Nano himself ran for president in an earlier round despite the opposition of his own party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, May 14, and June 20, 2007). He won just three votes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 2007). Nano has now reportedly said that he will form a new political party. The presidential vote has prompted a crisis within the Socialist Party, which emerged victorious from local elections held in February and had been preparing for general elections in the expectation that the presidential election would produce no victor (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 11, 2007). AG

Albania's Socialist Party on July 24 boycotted the inauguration of Topi as the country's president. According to local media, the first people whose hands Topi shook after his swearing-in was those of Nano and other Socialist Party rebels whose decision to back Topi proved decisive to Topi's election. In his inaugural speech, Topi called for political unity in order to meet the "historic challenge" on its "irreversible path toward the Euro-Atlantic family" and membership of the EU. Topi underlined his call by making his speech under an EU flag. Topi also underscored Albania's support for the independence of neighboring Kosova, 90 percent of whose population is ethnic Albanian. "I am convinced that Kosovo's independence is a guarantee of peace and stability in the region," Topi said. Topi addressed "special thanks" to the United States, which he said "was the first to hail" his election. Reports immediately after Topi's election on July 20 indicated that the first foreign politician to congratulate Topi was Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu. Topi reached out to the opposition, saying: "I guarantee them that they will be given the necessary room to take part in reforms to consolidate and balance independent and constitutional institutions" and "I am inclined to believe and encourage the ruling political parties to...offer the opposition the democratic space necessary to implement reforms of our institutions, economy, and our social life." Topi said the focus of reform should be the judiciary. AG

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin said in a televised speech on July 20 that Moldova will not accept new Russian statements that it will allow only a certain number of wine producers to export wine to Russia, the news agency Infotag reported on July 23. "I don't care what Moscow bureaucrats, big or small, think about all this," Voronin said. He added that he has reached a "firm agreement" with Russian President Vladimir Putin that "there shall be no enterprises 'selected' to trade in Moldovan wines." "Either all winemakers can export, or none of them can," the news agency IPN quoted Voronin as saying. Voronin noted that the European Union makes no such demands. Voronin's comments come on the backdrop of a Russian ban on Moldovan wine imposed in March 2006 and in the immediate wake of a July statement by Russia's consumer-goods inspectorate, RosPotrebNadzor, that it would allow only five or six producers to sell their wine in Russia. Putin stated in June that Moldovan wine should be allowed to return to the Russian market (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 25, 2007). Recent reports in the Russian media have indicated that Moldovan wine is not expected to return to the Russian market before September. Voronin urged Moldovan wine companies to look for new markets, saying, "We cannot depend on the Russian market alone, even if we fully restore trade with Russia." AG

When the Tajik parliament introduced recent legislation criminalizing libel and other forms of defamation on the Internet, some media rights groups criticized the bill as an effort to hinder the free flow of information.

Article 19, a London-based group that campaigns for freedom of speech worldwide, argued that no other country in the world includes such a specific provision for Internet postings.

Nuriddin Qarshiboev, who heads the National Association for Independent Media in Tajikistan, accuses the Tajik government -- which has a history of strictures on independent media -- of trying to extend its grip over online media.

"Since the Tajik governmental authorities are unable to close down an Internet website, they are now trying to restrict Internet freedom through technical means -- and they want Internet [service] providers to help them in dealing with the issue," Qarshiboev says.

Tajik authorities have blocked a number of antigovernment news websites in the past.

Tajikistan and other post-Soviet governments in Central Asia -- particularly Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- employ a range of methods to restrict public access to the Internet.

In Uzbekistan, most Internet-service providers (ISPs) operate under government control. They have blocked opposition and rights groups' websites, as well as regional and international news sources that cover events in Uzbekistan. Websites like,, and RFE/RL and BBC news sites have been "filtered" to prevent Uzbeks from seeing them.

An Internet cafe owner in Tashkent, who did not want to give his name, tells RFE/RL that officials regularly come to his cafe to monitor what websites customers are using. "Yes, they check us regularly," he says. "Inspections take place here. There is an information inspection body that operates under Uzbektelecom [the national telecommunications operator]. They usually come in and check us."

He says many Internet cafe owners are required to put up signs warning that "access to pornographic and political websites is prohibited."

Apart from what are officially regarded as "pornographic and political" sites -- a catchall that is used to block non-state news outlets -- the Internet is expanding in Uzbekistan.

The number of Uzbek ISPs has grown from 25 in 1999 to 539, according to the latest available figures. Still, official Uzbek statistics suggest that just 1.2 million of the country's 27 million people has access to the Internet.

There is an increasing number of Internet cafes offering inexpensive connections to the net. The Tashkent Internet cafe owner quoted earlier said the going rate -- equivalent to about $0.50 per hour -- is affordable for many Uzbeks.

In Turkmenistan, it's a different story. The late strongman president, Saparmurat Niyazov, kept his impoverished public as hermetically sealed as possible. Internet connections were generally not allowed at homes, and even the handful of people who received official permission for such connections in the 1990s were later banned from using the web.

The new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, famously vowed to open the Internet up to his people. But even under his tentative reforms, the cost of using the Internet is prohibitively high. In a country with an average salary of about $70 per month, the several Internet cafes that have opened charge around $4 per hour.

When he officially succeeded Niyazov in February, Berdymukhammedov pledged an immediate improvement in access to the Internet. "Starting from today, Internet cafes will be opened in Ashgabat and other cities," Berdymukhammedov said. "We are working on a program that gives every school and university access to the Internet."

Six months on, there appear to be few changes. All opposition, human rights, and independent news websites are still blocked by the authorities. All ISPs are said to be closely controlled by the government. And getting authorization for a household Internet connection is out of reach for most, with thorough checks by the National Security Ministry.

In Tajikistan, officials put the number of active Internet users at an improbably high 500,000, which would represent one in 12 citizens.

Tajikistan's unreliable electricity supplies represent a major curb on web usage, with power available in many places limited to a few early-morning and late-evening hours. The same problem exists in many provinces of neighboring Uzbekistan.

While there is Internet growth all over Central Asia, access remains low relative to more developed places. Only a tiny minority of people in Central Asia -- mostly urbanites -- have home computers. Where possible, those others access the Internet in offices or cafes, schools, or universities. Some international organizations, like the Organizations for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have opened special press centers in the region where journalists get free Internet access. In several Turkmen cities, U.S. cultural centers offer free web connections.

More recently, the Internet is reaching some remote areas, too. But in the most Central Asian villages, the Internet is practically nonexistent.

Internet cafes are gaining popularity primarily in cities and on the outskirts of capitals. Owners say that Internet-cafe customers are mostly teenagers, usually playing online games or chatting on the web. Some come to use e-mail.

Mahina, a 21-year-old student in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, says she goes to Internet cafes to read up on the news that is otherwise unavailable. "Mostly, I read Radio Ozodi [RFE/RL's Tajik Service] and BBC news websites in Tajik, as well as Asia Plus, Varorud, and news agencies," Mahina says. "I look for news that we can't find on Tajik television."

Mahina said she must surf through those web pages "as quickly as possible" because of the high price of the connection for students like her.

(Farangis Najibullah is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague. RFE/RL's Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report)

A deadline set by Taliban hostage takers who are holding 22 South Koreans captive and demanding the release of fellow militants passed on July 27 without word on the captives' fate. A day after the kidnappers killed one hostage, a top Seoul official traveled to Afghanistan on July 26 to try to negotiate the release of the other Christian aid workers, AP reported. Qarabagh district police chief Khwaja Mohammad Sidiqi said talks have been hindered by the Taliban's inconsistent demands, adding that they "have problems among themselves." Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi claimed Afghan authorities have prevented Seoul officials from negotiating directly with the group. The captors demanded the release of eight Taliban prisoners in exchange for eight hostages, according to Marajudin Pathan, the governor of Ghazni Province. An Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the militants will receive a ransom instead of a prisoner exchange, but that offer was not confirmed by other officials. The body of the slain hostage, 42-year-old Bae Hyung-kyu, was found on July 25 in Ghazni Province. He was killed on his birthday, church officials said. JC

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) on July 26 appealed for more humanitarian aid to Afghanistan to alleviate the devastating effects of natural disasters, diseases, and armed conflict in 2007, the Integrated Regional Information Network reported that day. In its donor update report, titled "Humanitarian Action, Afghanistan," UNICEF requested an additional $7 million to provide assistance through an emergency program aiding women and children who have been badly affected by persistent violence and underdevelopment in their communities. Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of child and maternal mortality in the world, and 54 percent of Afghan children are chronically malnourished, the report said. The funds will help make available medical supplies, tents, sanitations services, and education for approximately two million Afghan children. Canada, Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands, among others, have contributed over $9 million to meet UNICEF's aid requests this year, but the sum falls short of the agency's goals. JC

U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan troops on July 25 killed over 60 suspected Taliban militants in two separate clashes in Afghanistan's volatile south, while a NATO soldier died in another incident, AP reported on July 26. Coalition aircraft dropped two bombs on a cluster of buildings in Helmand Province used by militants to launch attacks, producing "significant secondary explosions," which suggested the presence of explosives at the compound, a coalition statement said. The attack sparked a 12-hour gun battle during which over 50 Taliban were killed, the statement said. In Kandahar Province, 10 insurgents and one policeman were killed in a three-hour clash between Afghan troops and Taliban militants, provincial police chief Sayed Afghan Saqib said. A NATO soldier was also killed in a confrontation with militants in southern Afghanistan, the alliance said in a statement. The soldier's nationality and the location of the clash were not reported. JC

Unidentified gunmen on July 25 abducted two Paktika Province court officials in southern Afghanistan, Pajhwak Afghan News reported that day. The two were abducted in the Andar district of Ghazni Province while they were on their way home, Paktika Governor Akram Akhpelwak said, adding that Ghazni security officials are doing everything in their power to secure their release. However, Andar district police chief Abdul Rahim Desiwal told Pajhwak that the officials were taken captive in Paktika Province. An unidentified Taliban commander claimed the group abducted four judges, including the province's chief justice. Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi also confirmed the kidnapping of court officials, but did not provide details. Taliban militants hold sway in much of Afghanistan's volatile south, including the Andar district in Ghazni. JC

An Afghan newspaper, cited by the Reuters news agency, reported on July 26 that two U.S. soldiers have converted to Islam and got married in Afghanistan. The "Hewad Daily" reported that the two soldiers are stationed at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, the center of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan. An unidentified U.S. military spokesman said he is working to verify the account, but added that freedom of religion is a protected right under the U.S. Constitution. An Afghan cleric, referred to only as Hamidullah, praised the soldiers' alleged conversion, stating that "if anybody embraces Islam...his sins committed in this world will be forgiven and Allah praises him and his family, and will bless him in the coming world too." If the report is confirmed, the two soldiers' conversion to Islam will be the first such cases among U.S. soldiers since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. JC

Iran's former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, told a gathering in Yazd, central Iran, that "we live in a system where we have accepted freedom, but there are people" who equate liberty with "loose living" and immorality, ISNA reported. The Islamic republic, Khatami said, "belongs to everyone, not to particular groups," adding that a republic respecting liberties and run on technocratic bases is close to the polity envisaged by the early Islamic rulers, whom Muslims respect today. He was speaking at a ceremony to mark the coming birth anniversaries of Ali, the fourth Muslim caliph who died in 661, and his descendent, the 9th-century Imam Muhammad al-Jawad, both revered by Shi'ite Muslims, ISNA reported. He chided unnamed politicians -- presumably conservatives -- who he said claim the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did not really want a republic in Iran after the 1979 revolution, but a clerical oligarchy or theocratic regime. Khatami said Khomeini was not lying when he called for an Islamic republic; he "never lied, and this republic has emerged from the heart of a perspective guided by" him, Khatami stated. VS

Hojjatoleslam Hasan Rohani, Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, apparently dismissed reports on July 26 that he will involve himself in electoral activities for parliamentary elections set for next March, and said he feels there is "no need" for his presence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007), ISNA reported. He told the press on the sidelines of a meeting in Tehran of the centrist Moderation and Progress Party that "I have not talked to any faction on taking part in the elections," and dismissed related reports as press rumors. Rohani presently heads the Expediency Council's Strategic Research Center and is a member of the presidium of the Assembly of Experts, a body of clerics that elects and supervises Iran's supreme leader. He said he was uninformed of reports that he is helping forge a front of moderates for the elections, though he said he would be "delighted" if moderates run for parliamentary seats. VS

Rohani said on July 26 that it seems "political problems," rather than financial or technical problems, are behind the repeated postponement by Russian contractors of the termination date for the Bushehr nuclear power plant on the Persian Gulf, ISNA reported. The Russian firm working on the plant recently said it may not be ready before 2008, and the two sides have several times disagreed on the project's finances. Rohani said the Russians were first "due to start [operating] this power plant in 2005," and he was later promised by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow that it would be ready by 2006, a termination date again deferred to 2007. He added the project might have been finished if Iran's nuclear dossier had not been transferred from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the UN Security Council. He urged Russia to take note of its "differences" with Western powers, which want Iran's program curbed, and work as a partner with Iran. He said it is not Iran that has been causing problems with Bushehr. The "problem is on the Russian side," and "the Russians are not doing their work," he observed. VS

Yahya Rahim Safavi, the head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), told a gathering of Basijis, a militia affiliated to the IRGC, in Mashhad, northeastern Iran, that "global arrogance led by America" is trying to destroy "the culture of Islamic countries," and Muslims should watch out for its "divisive ploys" in the region and around the world, IRNA reported on July 26. Rahim Safavi said that "they want to use their information, communications, and military technology" to change the "structures and values" of Islamic societies. He cited the decisive events that will shape history in coming decades as Iran's 1979 revolution, the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S.-British attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, and innovations in telecommunications. He described Iran's revolution as the "greatest popular revolution" of the past 200 years. He observed that Great Britain and the United States have spent a fortune but failed to attain any of their objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan. "America wanted to turn Iraq into an arena for forming the Greater Middle East, but failed to reach this goal in spite of" spending "$400 billion" and "3,400 deaths." Iraq, he said, "will gradually turn into another Vietnam for America." VS

A Tehran court acquitted eight people charged over a 2005 military plane crash in Tehran that killed up to 108 people, and ordered the air force to pay blood money or compensation to survivors of the crash, Radio Farda reported on July 25, citing an Iranian judiciary press release. The crash victims included dozens of reporters due to fly to report on military maneuvers in southern Iran (see RFE/RL Iran Report," December 14, 2005) The survivors receiving compensation are four workers of the Mehrabad military air base and four workers of the Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, where the plane took off. The court statement declared that the plane crashed when returning toward Mehrabad following an engine failure, Radio Farda reported. The plane was reportedly ordered to fly in spite of a technical glitch that caused a six-hour delay that day. VS

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) and leader of the United Iraqi Alliance, on July 26 called for an urgent meeting with the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front after it threatened to leave the government unless its demands are met within a week, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Al-Hakim's office said the call was made after the Shi'ite leader met with Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the main component of the Accordance Front, earlier in the day. On July 25, the front outlined a package of 11 demands, including the disbanding of all Shi'ite militias, the pardoning of detainees who have not been charged with any crimes, a firm commitment by the government to human rights, and an opportunity for the front to have real participation in the decision-making process (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007). The Accordance Front has 44 seats in the 275-member parliament, as well as six ministers in the cabinet. SS

In a statement on July 26, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) condemned Turkey for forcibly repatriating 135 Iraqis earlier this week. The agency said that some of the Iraqis were in the process of applying for asylum in Turkey. If true, it would be a clear violation of the principle of nonrefoulement, outlined in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Under the convention, no asylum seeker whose case has not yet been properly assessed can be forcibly returned to a country where their life or liberty may be at risk. "In addition to seeking urgent clarification from Turkey on the events surrounding the deportation, and further information on the fate of the deportees, UNHCR has also sought assurances that in the future, persons in need of international protection will be treated in full respect of Turkey's international and national legal obligations," the statement said. In December 18, 2006, the UNHCR issued an "advisory on the international protection needs of Iraqis outside Iraq," which was shared with Turkey. The advisory recommended that Iraqis from southern or central Iraq, who have fled to other countries, not be deported until there are substantial improvements in the security and human-rights situation in Iraq. SS

Lieutenant General Ray Odierno noted during a July 26 press conference that the aim of insurgents firing rockets and mortars into the Green Zone has improved significantly, primarily due to training in Iran, international media reported the same day. "We have seen in the last three months a significant improvement in the capability of mortar men and rocketeers to provide accurate fires into the Green Zone and other places, and we think this is directly related to training that is conducted in Iran," Odierno said. "So we continue to go after these networks with the Iraqi security forces," he added. On July 23, the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq held a second round of talks in Baghdad on Iraq's security situation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2007). Tehran has repeatedly denied U.S. accusations that it is involved in fomenting violence in Iraq. Attacks on the Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government, have increased in recent months. On July 10, dozens of mortar rounds fell on the heavily fortified area, killing three people and wounding 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2007). SS

During an interview with "Al-Hayat" on July 26, Sheikh Salah al-Ubaydi, a top aide to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, urged UN intervention to stop U.S. forces from committing crimes against the residents of the Sunni Baghdad district of Al-Husayniyah. He claimed that occupation forces are scheming to commit mass murder against the people of Al-Husayniyah, and called on the United Nations to pressure the United States to stop. "The lives of dozens of civilians, among them more than 25 were killed by artillery and helicopter bombardment. Four of them died from loss of blood because the occupation forces prevented the ambulances and medical teams from entering. Two entire families of 13 were killed since the start of the operations a week ago," al-Ubaydi said. He also accused members of the Iraqi Interior Ministry of participating in the bombardment by providing U.S. forces with false or misleading information. SS

Ziyad Tariq Aziz, son of former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, told Al-Arabiyah satellite television from Amman on July 26 that his father and 14 other detainees will begin a hunger strike sometime next week to protest their treatment at a U.S.-run detention facility. "The main reason for the strike is that he has been deprived for five months from meeting his lawyer, Badi Arif Izzat, who is forcibly living in Amman and cannot return to Baghdad for fear of being arrested," the younger Aziz said. Tariq Aziz is being held at a U.S. military base outside Baghdad on suspicion of crimes against humanity. He recently suffered a fall, but U.S. medical personnel said Aziz has fully recovered from his injuries. However, his son disagreed. "I would like to stress to the entire world via the Al-Arabiyah channel that my father's health is deteriorating, and any reports contradicting this, be they from the so-called Iraqi government or the occupation forces, are not true," Aziz's son said. SS

Unknown gunmen on July 26 killed the general director of the Housing and Construction Ministry in central Baghdad, the independent Voices of Iraq news agency reported the same day. An Interior Ministry source said gunmen shot Abd al-Satar Abd al-Jabbar in his car in the Al-Tahrirat region of central Baghdad and quickly fled. The source did not give any additional information. Meanwhile, police discovered 20 unidentified bodies in different sections of Baghdad the same day, Voices of Iraq reported. According to a security source, most of the bodies bore signs of gunshot wounds, mainly to the head. U.S. and Iraqi officials have previously said that unidentified bodies were usually the work of Shi'ite militias. SS