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Newsline - August 10, 2007

Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Li Hui, who is a specialist in Russian affairs, announced in Beijing on August 9 that President Hu Jintao will visit Russia on August 17-18, Xinhua news agency reported. The trip will also take Hu to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and include a summit in Bishkek of leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6 and 7, 2007, and "Central Asia: SCO To Hold Largest Military Exercises To Date,", August 8, 2007). Hu last visited Russia in March. He and President Vladimir Putin stress their common interests and "strategic partnership" in public statements, but in reality they have become what the Moscow daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" once described as "uncomfortable neighbors." China regards Russia primarily as a supplier of arms and natural resources, while Russia fears long-term implications of Chinese economic and demographic strength (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26 and 27, 2007, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006). PM

Major General Pavel Androsov, who commands Russia's long-range aircraft, told a press conference on August 9 that some of his Tupolev Tu-160 (White Swan) and Tu-95 (Bear) strategic bombers recently resumed the Cold War-era practice of flying runs to distant U.S. bases, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, July 18, and August 9, 2007). He said that "it has always been the tradition of our long-range aviation to fly far into the ocean, to meet [U.S.] aircraft carriers and greet [U.S. pilots] visually. Yesterday we revived this tradition, and two of our young crews paid a visit to the area of the [U.S.] base on Guam" and returned to their own base near Blagoveshchensk. He added that "the result was good. We met our colleagues, namely fighter-jet pilots from [U.S.] aircraft carriers [who scrambled to meet them]. We exchanged smiles and returned home." Lieutenant General Igor Khvorov, formerly the commander of long-range aviation and now head of the Main Staff, told reporters: "I don't see anything unusual, this is business as it is normal for the U.S. to fly from its continent to Guam or, say, the island of [Diego] Garcia" in the Indian Ocean, where the United States has a base. The generals suggested that Russia's long-range aviation is no longer starved for fuel and other necessities because President Putin once took part in a five-hour White Swan sortie "and learned about our pilots' work the hard way," Khvorov said. He added that "this one flight yielded an awful lot." PM

On August 9, Admiral Robert Willard, who is commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, that the Russian Bear bombers did not get within 500 kilometers of Guam and did not fly over U.S. territory, as the senior Russian officers suggested, AP reported. Willard added that the Bears did not get particularly close to ongoing U.S. exercises in the region and that the U.S. pilots saw no need to "intercept" them. The admiral noted that such "visits" have been rare in recent years but were common in the Soviet era. "We're very accustomed to this and it wasn't a particular surprise to us. It was standard operating procedure for those of us that have that experience," Willard added. PM

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was recently reelected chairman of the board of Gazprom, told the German weekly "Stern" that Gazprom could become the world's most valuable company, RIA Novosti reported on August 9. He stressed that "Gazprom has the largest natural-gas reserves in the world. When I joined the board of directors [in 2000], the concern was worth about $8 billion, but today it is more than $250 billion. One day it could become the world's most valuable company." He repeated the view of President Putin's government that enterprises that own strategic resources must be under state control. Medvedev noted that "the entire country, its population, depends on Gazprom. We do not want to risk an economic or political collapse that could occur should the enterprise be sold to a dozen or so private owners." He said that Gazprom has always met its contractual obligations with West European customers, reminding German readers that "German firms have a 6 percent share in Gazprom." PM

Journalist Larisa Arap is being held drugged at the closed Apatity psychiatric hospital in a remote part of the northern Murmansk Oblast, the "Chicago Tribune" reported on August 7. Arap recently published articles alleging child abuse at psychiatric institutions. She also spoke at a June 12 demonstration organized by the United Civic Front, which is led by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30 and 31, and August 1, 2007). The daily quoted Arap's daughter, Taisiya Arap, as saying that her mother is being held because of those articles. Taisiya Arap said that "one of the doctors asked whether I thought it was normal to write such things. She said: 'It's not possible to write such things. It's forbidden.'" Taisiya Arap added that she last saw her mother in Apatity on July 31, when Larisa Arap told her relatives, "I'm dying in there." The daily noted that "the Soviet Union routinely locked up dissidents in asylums, a practice that attracted worldwide condemnation because of the protests of Andrei Sakharov and other human-rights activists. Today, 16 years after the Soviet collapse, authorities are increasingly returning to psychiatry to suppress political opponents or punish activists, according to human-rights organizations and other watchdog groups." The paper quoted Yury Savenko, president of the Independent Psychiatric Association of Russia, as saying that "we're returning to this Soviet scenario when psychiatric institutions are used as punitive instruments. I call this not even punitive psychiatry but police psychiatry, when the main aim is to protect the state rather than to treat sick people." Vladimir Bukovsky, a writer and dissident who spent 12 years in Soviet labor camps and asylums and is now a candidate in the 2008 presidential race, told the daily that "as far as the current lot in power is concerned, using psychiatry for political purposes is a perfectly acceptable way of dealing with opponents." PM

On August 7, President Putin accepted the resignation of Ivan Malakhov as governor of Sakhalin Oblast, thereby making Malakhov the second governor to leave office "voluntarily" in recent days, after Novgorod Oblast's Mikhail Prusak, the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on August 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6 and 7, 2007). Putin recently criticized Malakhov in public for the Sakhalin authorities' alleged mishandling of earthquake-relief measures in Nevelsk. On August 9, Sakhalin Oblast's legislature voted to approve Putin's nomination of Aleksandr Khoroshavin as governor, RIA Novosti reported. He as served since 2001 as mayor of Okha in northern Sakhalin. Following the legislative vote, Khoroshavin said that his first priority will be to rebuild Nevelsk and provide housing for the approximately 2,000 people left homeless by the quake. The daily "Novye izvestia" wrote on August 9 that "many regional leaders have found themselves in trouble this summer. Experts maintain that the Kremlin has launched a political purge in the regions as part of preparations for the forthcoming Duma and presidential elections." PM

In comments to reporters during a press conference in Washington, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Daniel Fried commented on August 9 on the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, warning that "war will become a catastrophe for Azerbaijan's future," ANS-TV reported. Fried also said that until the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is resolved, "Azerbaijan's future is vague," and he stressed that a "peaceful solution" to the conflict is the only way forward. Those comments seem to be in response to statement by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev the day before claiming that Armenia's "position is weakening, but our position is becoming stronger" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 9, 2007). Referring to the latest stage of mediation efforts seeking a negotiated resolution of the conflict, Fried said that "I do not want to criticize, but I think we all are disappointed" by the lack of progress, adding that although "the last meeting of [the Armenian and Azerbaijani] presidents did not produce any results" the meeting featured "a good dialogue." He expressed the hope that at "a certain stage the presidents would find a common way to move forward." Fried's comments come in the wake of a recent announcement in Baku by his deputy and OSCE Minsk Group co-chairman, Matthew Bryza, that the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents may meet for a follow-up round of talks on the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict sometime in October or November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 2007). RG

Defense Ministry press spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Eldar Safarov announced on August 9 that the ministry will provide new apartments in the capital, Baku, for some 165 officers by the end of the year, according to the APA news agency. Safarov added that a smaller group of 25 officers already received new apartments last month and noted that "new buildings are being constructed for servicemen in Shamkir, Goytapa, Jalilabad, and several other towns." The housing allowance is an essential part of a larger plan to improve social conditions and benefits for the Azerbaijan armed forces. RG

Azerbaijani Interior Ministry spokesman Ehsan Zahidov announced on August 9 that a two-day preparatory meeting of CIS Interior Ministry experts opened in Baku earlier in the day, the APA news agency reported. The preparatory meeting, aimed at formulating key agreements for consideration at a later CIS Interior Ministerial summit meeting set for early next month in Baku, was organized by Azerbaijani Deputy Interior Minister Lieutenant General Asgar Alakbarov and includes a dozen representatives from staff of interior ministries of CIS states. The meeting also featured a small delegation from the Armenian Interior Ministry. RG

An Azerbaijani district court issued on August 9 a two-year prison sentence for Zaur Balaev, a Baptist pastor, after he was convicted of "illegal religious activities without state registration" and "the use of force against government representatives," Turan reported. The latter charge stems from the authorities' allegation that the 44-year-old pastor "assaulted" as many as five police men. He was also initially accused of setting dogs on policemen, although that charge was later dropped after an affidavit signed by 50 local residents from the pastor's home village of Aliabad disputed the official version of events. The national head of the Baptist community, Ilya Zenchenko, rejected on August 9 the charges against the pastor and vowed to appeal the court's sentence. The Baptist Church in Azerbaijan has been specifically targeted by the authorities in the past and has repeatedly faced obstacles in its attempts to import and distribute its religious materials (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," November 15, 2002). RG

Agriculture Minister Ismat Abasov announced on August 9 that Azerbaijan needs to increase the level of grain imports to meet rising demand, ANS-TV reported. Abasov explained that Azerbaijan plans to import 100,000 more tons of grain from Kazakhstan, as per a verbal commitment made by Azerbaijani President Aliyev during his recent state visit to Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8, 2007). Abasov was careful to stress, however, that the increased imports does not mean that the country faces any serious grain shortage. RG

Speaking at a Baku press conference, Chingiz Huseynzade, vice president of Azerbaijan's National Olympic Committee, announced on August 9 that the country would need "billions" of dollars to organize the 2016 Summer Olympics, the APA news agency reported. Huseynzade said that the recent selection of the southern Russian city of Sochi to host the 2014 Winter Olympics bolstered Azerbaijan's chances. But he added that any potential host country, including Azerbaijan, would need to spend at least $20 billion to organize such games. He suggested that the country could use the reserves of the Azerbaijani National Bank and the State Oil Fund, but should also turn to the "private sector" to help with the financing. President Aliyev formally announced his country's bid to host the 2016 Olympics in May during the opening ceremony of a massive sports complex in the town of Masalli, south of Baku, attended by European Olympic Committee President Patrick Hickey. Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and Prague have already announced plans to bid for the 2016 games and the International Olympic Committee is not expected to announce its selection for the host city until October 2009. RG

The deputy commander of Russian peacekeepers deployed along the line of contact separating South and Ossetia and Georgia proper, Colonel Yury Vereshchak, announced on August 9 that shooting broke out from "an illegal Georgian checkpoint," Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. Vereshchak added that the incident, allegedly involving automatic weapons and grenade launchers, initiated from Georgian fire on an area near the Muguti checkpoint, emanating from the village of Dvani. He also criticized the Georgian side for destabilizing the area after it erected an illegal police position in May 2007, which he defined as of "an openly provocative nature." RG

The Russian military withdrawal from Georgia continued on August 9 with the departure of a train transporting military equipment from the former Russian military base in Batumi, ITAR-TASS reported. According to an unnamed spokesman for the Russian Army, the convoy included "10 vehicles, 17 trailers, and other property" weighing "over 200 tons" that will be deployed to the Russian military base in northern Armenia. The spokesman added that "the next train with hardware is scheduled to leave the [Batumi] base in mid-August" and noted that another "four more trains and a car convoy are expected to withdraw military property from Georgia" by the "end of the year." The Russian withdrawal from its bases in Georgia remains ahead of schedule and it formally handed over its military facility at Akhalkalaki to the Georgian Defense Ministry almost a year before the October 2007 deadline (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2006). The Russian base at Batumi is the last of four Russian facilities in Georgia and full withdrawal is to be completed by January 1, 2008. RG

Following a meeting in Astana, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev announced on August 9 that a new agreement on expanding counterterrorism cooperation with Jordan was signed with visiting Jordanian King Abdallah II, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The new agreement calls for specific cooperation between the two countries' security services and for measures to "fight extremism and international crime." Lesser agreements were also concluded, including a contract for the Jordanian import of 300,000 tons of Kazakh wheat, the construction of a pharmaceutical plant in Jordan, and an accord providing Kazakh technical assistance in uranium exploration in Jordan, according to Kazakh television. In a separate meeting with Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov the same day, the Jordanian monarch expressed hope that bilateral ties will deepen further, citing a new agreement on air transport that names Royal Jordanian Airlines as the official carrier from Jordan to Kazakhstan and Air Astana as the official air carrier from Kazakhstan to Jordan. The Jordanian minister of education, higher education, and scientific research, Khalid Tuqan, also approved on August 9 a memorandum of understanding between the two countries' Education Ministries. Heading a delegation of senior Jordanian officials and businessmen, Abdallah arrived in Astana on August 8 on the start of an official three-day visit to Kazakhstan. RG

Kyrgyz Interior Minister Bolotbek Nogoibaev met on August 9 in the town of Osh with delegation of senior Uzbek security officials led by Interior Minister Bahodir Matlubov to conclude a new agreement on "cooperation and enhancing collaboration" between police in border areas, according to AKIpress and the website. Nogoibaev and his staff also reviewed measures with the Uzbek delegation aimed at "countering terrorism, extremism, separatism, organized crime, drugs trafficking, and illegal migration." The two sides agreed to form a new bilateral committee comprising senior police officers tasked with improving operational cooperation, facilitating joint training programs, and information sharing with a focus on border areas. RG

Kyrgyz Interior Minister Nogoibaev announced on August 9 that security is to be significantly tightened in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, ahead of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit set for August 16, AKIpress reported. In a statement during a press conference following a meting with his Uzbek counterpart in Osh, Nogoibaev reported that the heightened security includes "measures being taken to ensure law and order and to maintain social and political stability in Kyrgyzstan" and explained that "some restrictions will be imposed on the entry into Bishkek for people from other regions and neighboring states." He added that there will not be any serious restrictions imposed on "the entry into Bishkek for guests, tourists, and local people heading for holiday centers." Nogoibaev also urged Kyrgyz citizens to "support and help" Kyrgyz police and security forces and to "prevent any attempts to break law and order or to undermine public security." An unknown number of special security forces and more than 5,000 regular police officers are to be deployed in Bishkek throughout the course of the summit. The police are also planning to "temporarily ban" all arms and weapons from local residents as a "precaution" in preparation for the SCO summit, according to RG

A new group called Taza Shayloo (Clean Elections) has been formed in Bishkek to monitor elections in Kyrgyzstan, reported on August 9. Comprised of some 25 nongovernmental organizations from each of the regions of Kyrgyzstan, the new group seeks "to improve the quality of elections in Kyrgyzstan by involving all the interested parties in monitoring" elections, aims to improve electoral transparency, and strives at "ensuring equality for citizens regarding their electoral rights." The group plans to monitor the upcoming parliamentary by-elections in three constituencies as its first activity. RG

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered on August 9 the removal of his picture from all school textbooks, saying that they should be replaced with images of late President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmen Television reported. Speaking during a cabinet meeting in Ashgabat that was broadcast on Turkmen Television, Berdymukhammedov explained that "portraits of Niyazov must be everywhere as a man who went down in history as the country's founder," and issued a call to "let portraits of our esteemed leader be everywhere." Niyazov, who unexpectedly died in late December 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006), was widely seen as consciously constructing a cult of personality that featured the renaming of cities and even the months of the year after himself and his family members. RG

During the same one-hour televised cabinet meeting, President Berdymukhammedov announced on August 9 that he is preparing to issue a pardon for "a group of convicts currently serving long prison terms," and said that he will issue such amnesties on a more regular basis "several times a year," Turkmen Television reported. He then abruptly fired three ministers for "grave shortcomings" in their work, replacing Energy and Industry Minister Yusup Davodov with Gurbannur Annaveliev, naming Asyr Sarybaev to replace Transport and Roads Minister Asyrgeldi Zamanov, and Samuhammet Durdylyev as the new construction minister, replacing Jumadurdy Kakalyev. Davodov was formally reprimanded by the president last March for "insufficient attention to the work of electricity facilities" after being named as minister of energy and industry for only a little more than a week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22 and March 2, 2007). A similar cabinet shakeup was announced in February, when Berdymukhammedov made a similarly abrupt and unexpected series of dismissals and appointments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). RG

Belarusian Minister of Construction and Architecture Alyaksandr Selyaznyou told journalists on August 9 that the Belarusian capital will launch a construction project called Minsk City in 2009 or 2010, Belapan reported. Selyaznyou revealed that Russia's Itera oil and gas company, which discussed the project with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in July, has offered to invest some $30 billion in the construction. Minsk City will be built at the site of the current Minsk-1 Airport and Minsk Aircraft Repair Plant. The project envisages the removal of the airport and the plant and the subsequent construction of apartment buildings for up to 40,000 people together with a business center crowned by an 80-story tower. A new five-station subway line will be built to connect the planned business center to downtown Minsk. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko said in a televised address to Ukrainians on August 9 that he would like to strip lawmakers of immunity from prosecution, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "Ukraine needs a parliament of professionals who will make fair laws. Now those who hide from laws are also vying for seats in it," he noted. Yushchenko also said he is in favor of reducing the privileges of legislators, adding that the extent of those privileges "is impossible to imagine in any European country." "Each year, the taxpayers spend almost 500 million hryvnyas [$100 million] on privileges such as apartments, cars, sanatoriums, medical and social bonuses [for lawmakers]. This money could be used to pay off Ukraine's salary debt or build 250 new schools or five new coal mines, or raise pensions by 20 percent," Yushchenko said. JM

Talks on the future of Kosova resumed on August 9 with the negotiations' three mediators meeting in London before heading off to Belgrade and Prishtina for separate discussions with Serbian and Kosovar leaders. According to an unnamed British diplomat quoted by AFP on August 9, the meeting was "an introductory establish a framework for how they are going to proceed, and to discuss travel plans." Ahead of the meeting, Russian envoy Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko reiterated Russia's long-standing view that a proposal made by the UN's mediator in 15 months of previous talks, Martti Ahtisaari, must not serve as the basis of discussions. Both the EU and the United States believe a solution should develop on Ahtisaari's plan, which concluded that Kosova should be allowed to seek independence. Serbian Education Minister Zoran Loncar urged the U.S. government to show its "impartiality" by abandoning the Ahtisaari plan, which he argued is already dead. Loncar argued that "if Ahtisaari's plan were alive, it is clear that Ahtisaari himself would still be the mediator in the negotiating process" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007), the Serbian news agency Tanjug reported on August 8. Doubts also surround the length of the negotiations, which Serbia and Russia believe should be open-ended and Western diplomats want to be wound up after a report is submitted to the UN secretary-general on December 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 2007). The EU's envoy, Wolfgang Ischinger, struck an ambiguous note on August 9 about the duration of talks, telling the BBC that "we...are offering Belgrade and Pristina another opportunity -- maybe the last opportunity -- to work out a negotiated solution." It is also unclear whether the results of the talks will be voted on by the UN Security Council. Russia insists they should be. In July, Russia used the threat of a veto to forestall a UN vote on a series of draft resolutions based on the Ahtisaari plan. AG

Unnamed Serbian officials quoted by the Serbian daily "Politika" on August 9 warned that there is a "real threat" that Serbs could turn their back on the EU if the EU helps Kosova gain independence. A recent poll commissioned by the Serbian government suggests that would require a major change in public attitudes: the poll found Serbs have little liking for the EU, but 69 percent of them are nonetheless convinced Serbia should seek membership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 2007). In an editorial to mark the resumption of talks on Kosova's future, "Politika" predicted that an EU decision to support a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosova "would make it impossible for Belgrade to seek EU membership, because that would clash with the constitution." "Politika" quoted unnamed sources close to President Boris Tadic as saying the EU is unlikely to "yield to U.S. pressure" and recognize Kosova as a state without the backing of the UN Security Council. One of the U.S. State Department's most senior officials said in April that Washington would back a unilateral move by Kosova, but other U.S. officials have subsequently emphasized the value of an international consensus and the undesirability of a unilateral move (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18 and 30, May 17, and June 22, 2007). AG

Hundreds of former reservists in the Serbian armed forces on August 9 blocked an arterial road between Nis and Kosova in an effort to force the Serbian government to pay them for services rendered in the 1998-99 conflict in Kosova. The men, who Serbian and international media said blocked the road for nearly an hour with trucks and tractors, warned that they might take more "radical" measures unless their demands are heeded. The blockade followed up on a threat issued in April, when more than 2,000 former reservists sued the army and the state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007). AG

A mosque in the Kosovar town of Shkabaj was damaged in an apparent arson attack on August 7, local media reported. The previous day, two graves at a mosque in the town of Gazimestan were desecrated. No one has yet been arrested. The Gazimestan Mosque, which dates from the 17th century, is a national heritage site. It has reportedly been damaged once before. In a separate incident, a Serbian house in the village of Svinjare, near the ethnically mixed town of Mitrovica, was set on fire on August 8, local media reported. No one was in the house at the time. Police spokesman Veton Elshani on August 9 told reporters that there have been 52 attacks on cultural heritage sites so far this year. Eighteen cases have been solved and 25 people have been arrested. Elshani said that 19 of the properties attacked belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church, but did not say how many of the attacks were on Muslim religious sites. Under the contested UN proposal on Kosova's future status, around 40 religious sites, most of them Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries, would be given special protection. Scores of Serbian cultural and religious sites were destroyed or badly damaged in riots in March 2004. AG

The UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) on August 8 resumed the processing of 350 property claims submitted by ethnic Serbs and Albanians dispossessed in the 1998-99 conflict, six days after suspending work because of "a lack of consensus and differing opinions" on the "enforcement" of decisions made in those cases (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). The UNMIK's deputy head, Steven Schook, said that the "required unity" has now been achieved. Knut Rosandhaug, the head of the Kosova Property Agency, said that the 350 cases were the last of 29,160 claims filed with the region's Housing and Property Claims Commission, and that most of the outstanding cases (251) relate to compensation rather than the physical return of property. Rosandhaug added that, of the 99 remaining cases involving the return of property, 49 relate to properties claimed by ethnic Albanians and the other 50 are claimed by "non-Albanians." UNMIK's suspension of the restitution process was roundly criticized by Serbian officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). Schook on August 8 praised the authorities in Kosova, saying that "the 29 000 decisions" on restitution already made "quite frankly set a standard worldwide in any postconflict environment" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 2, 2007). AG

The international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Miroslav Lajcak, said on August 7 that efforts to reform the country's various police forces will not entail the abolition of the police force in the Bosnian Serb-dominated entity, the Republika Srpska. Local media said he described reform as a technical matter that has been unnecessarily complicated by politics and speculation. The EU has conditioned Bosnia's progress toward membership on reform of the police. The perception that reform would entail the dismantling of the police force has fueled Bosnian Serb anxiety about the future of the Republika Srpska, which some Bosnian Muslim and Croatian leaders would like to see abolished in a new constitutional arrangement for the country. In comments aired by Republika Srpska television on August 8, the autonomous region's prime minister, Milorad Dodik, hailed Lajcak's statement as "the best way to regain confidence in the negotiating process." Dodik reiterated the Bosnian Serb position that there should be "a Republika Srpska police force on the territory of the Republika Srpska, with clear powers, with appointments made by the Republika Srpska Assembly and government" and, he added, "of course, with significant coordination with the other police bodies in Bosnia-Herzegovina." AG

Albania's Embassy in Belgrade said on August 7 that Serbian passport-holders are now free to enter Albania without a visa. According to reports in the Serbian media on August 7 and 8, the embassy said the decision was made a month ago. Albania previously required Serbs to apply for eight months of the year, with visas waived for the holiday period between June and September. Bosnian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Montenegrin citizens are among those who can visit Albania without a visa. AG

Leaders of Albania's Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic communities on August 8 urged the country's new president, Bamir Topi, to help them in their efforts to reclaim properties appropriated by the communist regime. The news agency ATA reported that the communities' complaints, presented in private meetings, met with Topi's "full understanding." Since mid-2004, religious communities have enjoyed the same legal rights to restitution and compensation as individuals, but the amount of land they can reclaim is limited to 60 hectares in each instance. The communities are also trying to recover archives and religious artifacts, including icons. The Catholic Church has been less active in pressing its case for the return of property, but is seeking compensation. One of the communities is seeking redress is the Bektashi community, a group in the mystical Sufi branch of Islam that has historically played a significant role in Albania. AG

Ukraine has become the first postcommunist country to offer to house Balkan war criminals in its prisons, the UN-mandated International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) said in a statement issued on August 7. The only other countries to have signed such an agreement with the ICTY are West European: Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, and Sweden. The ICTY keeps indicted war criminals in detention cells in The Hague until their trials are over, after which those convicted are moved to serve out their sentences in prisons in the countries with which the ICTY has agreements. The ICTY's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, in July backed the idea of allowing convicted war criminals to serve out their terms in the Balkans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 2007). AG

On August 2, Ukraine officially entered its campaign for early parliamentary elections to be held on September 30. The major political parties have already held conventions to approve their manifestos and candidates for the polls.

However, those hoping for a new political opening in Ukraine in the fall may be deeply disappointed. There are hardly any new ideas in election programs and hardly any new names on election lists compared with those during the 2006 elections. And public-opinion surveys in Ukraine suggest that the alignment of forces in a future legislature may be very similar to that in the current one.

The main contenders in this year's preterm elections are the same as those in the regular parliamentary elections in March 2006: the Party of Regions, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party. The only difference is that the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc was just Our Ukraine last year, without the People's Self-Defense component later created by former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko.

The Party of Regions led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych -- which held its showy, Western-style election convention in Kyiv on August 4 -- declared that it will focus on economic and social issues in the ongoing campaign, thus hushing up its former concerns about giving the Russian language official status and fostering the electorate's anti-NATO sentiments in Ukraine.

Yanukovych has apparently decided to capitalize on a fairly strong economic performance of his two cabinets, the current one and that in 2002-04. Warding off President Viktor Yushchenko's recent criticism of the economic situation, Yanukovych's press service reminded Ukrainians that the economy grew by 9.6 percent in 2003 and by 12 percent in 2004, adding that in 2005, when the Orange Revolution government took over, economic growth fell to 2.7 percent. Since August 2006, when Yanukovych became prime minister for the second time, average economic growth has stood at 8 percent, the press service stressed.

Moreover, Yanukovych has outstripped Yushchenko in pledges to overcome Ukraine's protracted demographic crisis, in which the number of Ukrainians shrank from 52 million in 1992 to 46.5 million in 2007. In June, Yushchenko promised to increase a state allowance for the second and every subsequent child born to families from the current 8,000 hryvnyas ($1,600) to 15,000 hryvnyas. Yanukovych promised at the August 4 convention that if he wins the elections, his government will increase this payment to 25,000 hryvnyas for the second child and to 50,000 hryvnyas for every additional child.

Yanukovych surprised his adherents and opponents with two more election devices. He used a teleprompter to read his speech at the election convention, a hitherto unheard-of practice in Ukrainian politics. And he referred to God in his concluding words, which was also a first for him: "We are heading straight for the victory with firm steps! The Lord God help us!"

The top 10 candidates of the Party of Regions are exclusively former lawmakers. The Party of Regions election ticket includes five current deputy prime ministers and 11 ministers.

A convention of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc on August 5, even if less pompous and less technologically advanced than that of the Party of Regions, was also eye-catching. The bloc's leader, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, had all delegates to the convention put on white T-shirts with a red heart and the inscription "Yulya" on them. In general, the initial letter of her first name -- the Cyrillic "Yu" -- has seemingly become a new graphic symbol of the bloc, since it was utilized in many slogans and inscriptions visible at the convention, including the phrase "I love Yu." Tymoshenko, who in the past frequently appeared in trendy and costly outfits from Europe's top fashion designers, this time donned a Ukrainian folk-style dress.

The convention adopted an election manifesto called "Ukrainian Breakthrough," which has so far not been revealed to the public, including the bloc's ordinary members and supporters. But Tymoshenko provided a glimpse into the program at the convention when she proposed that corrupt officials be punished with imprisonment for life and that judges be elected by popular vote.

The top 10 candidates of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc are exclusively former legislators.

The Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc held its election convention on August 7. The forum was attended by President Yushchenko, who blessed what he described as the unification of Ukrainian democratic forces into a single bloc for the early polls. And he seemed to indicate a spiritual direction for the bloc when he stated that, "Our ideal is a powerful state, a single people, a single official language, a single Christian Orthodox Church, and a single nation."

The pro-presidential bloc adopted an election manifest titled "For People, Not For Politicians," which calls for abolishing parliamentary immunity, canceling privileges for lawmakers, setting up a national anticorruption bureau, and forming an independent body to vet all judges.

Yuriy Lutsenko, one of the leaders of the bloc, claimed in a passionate speech at the August 7 convention that the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense election list does not include people who "went whoring" in the past or betrayed the 2004 Orange Revolution. He specifically mentioned Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs leader Anatoliy Kinakh and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz in this regard, branding them "Judases" for their alliance with the Party of Regions.

The top 10 candidates of the bloc include only one new name, that of television journalist Volodymyr Aryev. The remaining nine are either former lawmakers or people already known in politics, such as Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko.

The least conspicuous of recent election gatherings in Ukraine was that of the Socialist Party on August 4. According to all opinion surveys, the Socialist Party will be fighting for survival in this election. Its popularity rating is currently well below the 3 percent threshold that qualifies for parliamentary representation.

Moroz on August 4 condemned the upcoming elections as an "adventurous" and "illegitimate" event, claiming that their main objectives are to remove the Socialists from parliament, "draw" Ukraine into NATO, and "cause a quarrel" between Ukraine and Russia.

Public-opinion polls conducted in Ukraine in June and July suggest that the elections will be won by the Party of Regions with 30-33 percent of the vote, while second place will be contested by the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (14-17 percent) and Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense (13-15 percent). The Communist Party should gain 3-5 percent of the vote.

The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc has definitely ruled out any postelection coalition with the Party of Regions. Yanukovych at the August 4 convention expressed his preference for a "grand" coalition, but mentioned no specific forces. Lutsenko on August 7 admitted that it is possible for his bloc to cooperate with Yanukovych's people in parliament but excluded any governing alliance with them. In short, the starting political preferences of Ukraine's key political players before the September 2007 elections are almost the same as those before the March 2006 polls.

The much anticipated three-day Pakistan-Afghanistan peace jirga, or tribal council, commenced on August 9 without Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf, ANI reported. Afghan President Hamid Karzai opened the meeting of "brother nations," saying that he has no doubt that the jirga will be successful. The assembly, which attracted nearly 700 tribal elders, clerics, and leaders, is intended to bring about joint strategy agreements between the neighbors on terrorism and insurgency in the border region. Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, who attended on Musharraf's behalf, assured his "full support" in reaching bilateral cooperative agreements, even as Kabul expressed disappointment in Musharraf's last-minute decision not to attend (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8, 2007). In his opening remarks, Karzai said Pakistan and Afghanistan want to remove mutual distrust and misgivings to promote peace and stability, characterizing terrorists involved in heinous acts in Pakistan and Afghanistan as enemies of both countries. JC

Provincial health officials said on August 9 that the number of patients and persons in medical need in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province has tripled in the last three years, despite facilities' lack of resources and vulnerability to attack, the Integrated Regional Information Network reported. Nearly one-quarter of hospital patients in Helmand are victims of fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan and coalition forces, health workers say. Worse yet, Taliban insurgents frequently attack health-care workers individually and in clinics who are suspected of collaborating with the central government. Twenty-one of the 49 health clinics that registered in the volatile province in 2002 are now closed due to attacks on health workers. There are only two functioning hospitals for an estimated 700,000 residents. Officials say the lack of technical and professional resources contribute to the limited service available at Helmand health facilities. JC

South Korean Ambassador to Afghanistan Kang Sung-zu on August 8 said that Korean aid groups will leave Afghanistan in one month in an effort to help free 21 hostages being held by the Taliban, AP reported on August 9. Kang told Pashtun tribal elders from Nangarhar Province that Korea will not permit its citizens or aid organizations to travel to Afghanistan, and ordered all aid organizations currently in the country to leave within a month, the Afghan television station Tolo reported. Ghazni Province Governor Mirajjudin Pattan said Seoul officials and the Taliban are nearing an agreement on a meeting location, following indications by the rebels that they are ready for face-to-face talks in government-controlled territory, provided that the United Nations guarantees their safety (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 2007). Pattan indicated that while a prisoner swap is a "dead issue," a ransom payment may still be up for negotiation. JC

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband wrote in the August 9 issue of "Spectator" magazine that defeat of Taliban forces will not come "quick and easy," Bloomberg reported the same day. In the article, Miliband said that if Western forces "allow Afghanistan to become a failed state, it will always be a target for terrorist activity." He added that Britain must send a "clear signal" to both its allies and enemies that it will live up to its international commitments. Britain currently has approximately 7,100 troops in Afghanistan operating with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Miliband's remarks imply that new Prime Minister Gordon Brown intends to keep troops in the war-torn country. Defense Secretary Des Browne also paid a visit to the troops stationed in southern Afghanistan on August 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8, 2007). JC

Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and currently foreign-policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in Tehran on August 8 that Iran's recently renewed dialogue and cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does not signify a retreat from its positions, and that its firm stand on its "nuclear rights" would "slowly yield its results," Fars news agency reported. Velayati was speaking at a gathering in Tajikistan's Embassy in Tehran. He said that "as a private citizen," he did not interpret Iran's recent cooperation to be a retreat from "principled positions" Iran has defended for the past three years -- including "the right to make peaceful use of nuclear technology." He attributed a less confrontational approach to the issue of Iran's nuclear program by "certain international parties" to their "increasing realism" and a realization that numerous IAEA inspections have revealed no violation by Iran of nonproliferation rules or commitments. He said separately that Iran has much in common, through history, culture, and religion, with the people of Iraq, and this gives it influence it can use to help restore peace in Iraq. "You will not see these commonalities between [Iraqis] and any other country in the region," he said. Iran, he added, has agreed to talk to U.S. representatives to help the Iraqis, not the United States. VS

Iranian government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham said in Tehran on August 8 that press courts -- court sessions held with a special jury to deal with violations by papers of Iran's press regulations -- may soon deal with similar offenses committed by Iranian news agencies, ISNA reported. Press tribunals in theory consist of public court sessions with a press jury consisting of politicians, jurists, or persons thought to have knowledge of press work. Elham said on a visit to IRNA's offices that the decision would be drafted as a bill and presented to parliament. He said this would effectively subject the work of Iranian news agencies "to the protection provided by the press law, which means the offenses and violations of agencies will be dealt with in the press court in the presence of a press jury." VS

Habibollah Asgaroladi, a press-court jury member and member of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, said in Tehran on August 8 that the press jury believes the recently banned daily "Ham Mihan," edited by former Tehran Mayor Gholamhussein Karbaschi, did not commit the offenses it was accused of, so "it is very much possible the ban on 'Ham Mihan' will soon be removed," the "Etemad" daily reported on August 9. Karbaschi is to go to a fourth court session in Tehran on August 13, to defend his daily against charges including "publishing false reports to incite public opinion," ISNA reported on August 8, citing his lawyer, Mahmud Alizadeh-Tabatabai. Alizadeh-Tabatabai added separately that the press supervisory board, affiliated with the Culture Ministry, was obligated to refer the case of another banned daily, "Sharq," to court within a week of its decision to impose the ban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). VS

Authorities released on bail on August 8 several student and graduate rights activists arrested earlier, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian agencies and the deputy chief prosecutor of Tehran for security affairs, Hasan Haddad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10 and 31, and August 3, 2007). Haddad said Bahareh Hedayat, Ali Vaqfi, Abdullah Momeni, Mohammad Hashemi, Bahram Fayyazi, and Morteza Eslahchi were released, and that Mojtaba Bayat and Ali Nikunesbati will be released once bail is posted. They were detained following the publication in late March of allegedly indecent student journals in Amir Kabir University in Tehran, or for later protests objecting to those arrests, Radio Farda reported. It added that three student activists arrested some three months ago -- Ahmad Qassaban, Majid Tavakkoli, and Ehsan Mansuri -- remain in jail. Their families have written to judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi about their plight (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 2007). VS

Nuri al-Maliki was in Tehran on August 8 and 9, discussing bilateral ties and agreements with Iranian officials, Radio Farda reported, citing news agency reports. He held a press conference with Iranian Vice President Parviz Davudi on August 9 before leaving, wherein Davudi reiterated Iran's support for the Iraqi government and calls for a timed departure of coalition forces, IRNA reported. He said Iran and Iraq condemn the "enemy's plot" to divide Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, and said security in Iraq depends on the departure of "occupiers" and "their noninterference in Iraq," IRNA reported. He said al-Maliki discussed economic cooperation and moves to facilitate trade and private business in both countries. The two sides discussed measures to allow Iranian contractors to bid for public projects in Iraq, and the construction by Iran of a refinery in Karbala, southern Iraq, intended to assure winter fuel provisions. Davudi suggested that Iran could also participate in rebuilding electricity networks in Karbala and Al-Najaf. The Iraqi oil minister is to visit Iran "in coming days" to discuss a pipeline from Abadan to Al-Basrah and a wider deal for the export of Iraqi crude oil to Iran and import of Iranian petrochemicals or gasoline, Davudi said. VS

A new UN Security Council resolution that seeks to broaden the world body's role in Iraq will require that the UN double its staff in Baghdad, Reuters reported on August 10 (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," August 3, 2007). U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad said this week that the expanded UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) staff will work to facilitate reconciliation between nationalist insurgent groups and the Iraqi government. Khalilzad said some major players in the Iraq crisis, including Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have said they are willing to hold dialogue with the UN but not with the United States. Security improvements to the UN mission should allow for the current staff of 50 expatriate employees to be increased to 95, UN officials told Reuters. The UN pulled its expatriate staff from Baghdad in September 2003 following the bombing of UN headquarters a month earlier. Since that time, the UN mission has operated at a limited capacity. The UN Staff Union this week called on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon not to expand UN staff in Iraq and to withdraw those now posted there, citing security risks. The Security Council is expected to vote on the new mandate, proposed by Britain, on August 10, the date the current mandate expires. KR

UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe said this week that there is a strong consensus among UN Security Council member states in support of an expanded UN role in Iraq, the UN News Center reported on August 7. "There was really quite a unanimous agreement in the council itself on what the role of the UN should be," Pascoe said after briefing council members on the proposed mandate. "Everyone seemed to feel quite comfortable with the role as laid out in this resolution," he added. Pascoe pointed out that the current UN mandate on Iraq is three years old. The new resolution seeks to bring the mandate in line with the UN's goals on the ground. "We're talking in terms of reconciliation, in terms of some of the other issues that we had been working on," he noted. KR

President Jalal Talabani told a delegation from the Islamic Grouping for Reform and Islam on August 9 that the Iraqi government is working to release those detainees not charged with crimes, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Talabani said that special committees have been set up in coordination with the Justice Ministry to examine the files of thousands of detainees currently being held but not charged. Talabani has also reportedly asked multinational forces to review the files of detainees in custody who have not been linked to any crimes. Sunni Arab politicians who withdrew from the Iraqi government last week have called for detainees held without charge to be released as one of their demands to return (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," August 3, 2007). KR

Participants at the Security Cooperation and Coordination Committee of Iraq's neighboring states concluded a two-day meeting in Damascus on August 9 with a promise to work to support Iraqi security, international media reported. The conference's final statement cited border control as the joint responsibility of Iraq and its neighbors, and condemned all acts of violence in Iraq. Participants also vowed to cooperate with the Iraqi government to restore law and order and to help rebuild the Iraqi military. Participants agreed to submit a list of recommendations and proposals to the foreign ministers' meeting of Iraq's neighboring states, due to take place in Istanbul in the coming weeks. The same proposals will also be sent to the meeting of interior ministers of Iraq's neighboring states, slated to be held in Kuwait in October. Deputy Interior Minister Husayn Kamal told the London-based "Al-Hayat" that the Iraqi government sought commitments from its neighbors to cut off the infiltration of some 80 foreign fighters to Iraq each month, the daily reported on August 9. Iraq is also interested in repatriating foreign detainees to their home countries. Sources told "Al-Hayat" that the Iraqi government also sought the extradition of wanted Iraqis from the deposed Ba'ath regime from Syria to Iraq. KR