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Newsline - September 19, 2007

Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton said in Washington on September 18 that, despite a promising start early in the first term of U.S. President George W. Bush, the respective perceptions of the threats the United States and Russia face -- and Russia's perception of the benefits of cooperating with the United States -- changed at some point during 2003-04, RFE/RL reported. He added that Moscow has subsequently had a pattern of noncooperation with the United States on strategic defense, strategic offense, and nonproliferation issues. As an example, Bolton noted that Russia is a member of the six-party talks on North Korea -- which he called a "fundamentally criminal regime" -- but said Russia's role has been "unhelpful" in resolving the question of whether the regime should be made to give up its nuclear-weapons program. Bolton stressed that Moscow has also emerged as Tehran's "principal defender and protector.... Simply put, Russia needs a higher class of friends in the world than North Korea, Iran, and Syria." He believes that the United States and other countries must address what he called "legitimate Russian concern" that it feels excluded from Western security structures, vulnerable to Islamic terrorism, and alone in the world with a shrinking and aging population. Bolton argued that Russia is returning to a "quasi-authoritarian, procommunist, quasi-tsarist -- call it whatever you want -- kind of political system and is not open to democratic change, freedom of the press, and individual liberty. It's going to be very hard for overcome that internal political fact to cooperate on broader efforts like common efforts in missile defense and the continuing global war against terrorism." PM

National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell told the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee in written testimony on September 18 that "China's and Russia's foreign intelligence services are among the most aggressive in collecting against sensitive and protected U.S. systems, facilities, and development projects," Reuters and reported. He added that "their efforts are approaching Cold War levels." He later declined to elaborate to reporters. On March 29, Joel Brenner, who heads the Bush administration's Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, told a meeting of the American Bar Association in Washington that Russian efforts to obtain secrets from top U.S. policy-making circles have reached levels not seen since the end of the Cold War. British intelligence officials have made similar observations about Russian spying (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30 and April 13, 2007). PM

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Henry Obering, who heads the Missile Defense Agency, said in Washington on September 18 that Azerbaijan's Qabala (Gabala) radar station, which Russia leases, "cannot take the place of what we are proposing for Poland and the Czech Republic," the "International Herald Tribune" reported on September 19. He added that U.S. assessments indicate that the Russian system is "not capable of performing the functions" of the U.S. radar site proposed for the Czech Republic to monitor possible missile attacks from Iran and other "rogue states" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29 and September 17, 2007). Russia considers the Qabala proposal a substitute for Washington's plans to station 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic, while the United States regards Qabala as at best a possible supplement to its firm plans to proceed with the Central European project. Obering spoke as U.S. technical experts were inspecting the Qabala site with their Russian and Azerbaijani colleagues. He called on Russia to link its system to the U.S. one. "I do not know if that will be acceptable to the Russians," Obering said. PM

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in Moscow on September 18 that a third round of UN sanctions is needed to pressure Iran to stop its program of uranium enrichment, Russian and international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17 and 18, 2007). He argued that "in order to avoid [a war] is necessary to work on precise sanctions that would show the seriousness...we attach to a peaceful solution." But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "if we agree to work collectively, and this agreement is embodied in a consensus decision by the UN Security Council, what is the purpose of unilateral sanctions? We are particularly concerned about increasingly frequent reports that military action against Iran is being seriously considered." Lavrov stressed that "we are convinced that there is no military solution to any problem today, and this applies to the Iranian nuclear program. I agree that there is a need for persistent and consistent negotiations. In this case, it means the earliest resumption of contacts between [EU foreign- and security-policy chief] Javier Solana and Iranian National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani." Lavrov was apparently referring to remarks Kouchner made on September 16 about the need to prepare for war in the face of a potential Iranian nuclear threat. The Russian minister added that "we believe that the Security Council should not be pressured to step outside the framework of support for the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA." Kouchner later said that "everything must be done to avoid war. It's necessary to negotiate...without respite." He told Ekho Moskvy radio that he never called for war with Iran and that his recent remarks were misunderstood. On September 19, the Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" commented that Washington and Paris might be seeking to put psychological pressure on Tehran by speaking of war. The paper added, however, that the Iranian leaders believe that such talk is a bluff and that the West has no intention of invading. The daily argued that "putting pressure on Iran is pointless; every effort should be made to reach agreement with it. That is Russia's position. Moscow has repeatedly 'rescued' Tehran in the UN Security Council, blocking overly harsh resolutions.... Measures should not be taken until there is proof that Iran's nuclear program really is of a military nature." PM

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak said in Moscow on September 19 that President Vladimir Putin's announcement in April of his decision to "suspend" participation in the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty was "a signal, a serious signal, to our Western partners that things cannot go on like this," news agencies reported. In April, Putin outlined several points regarding the treaty that he said are not in Russia's interest. Kislyak, who is also Russia's representative in bilateral talks with the United States on missile defense, stressed on September 19 that Moscow does not want confrontation. He added that "we are ready to work with [Western countries] to solve these problems, but if not, we will suspend our compliance with the treaty" as of December 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and September 13 and 17, 2007). On September 18, Foreign Minister Lavrov said that "developments involving the CFE Treaty and the creation of a third deployment area of [U.S. missile defense outside of the United States itself] should not hurt anyone's security," news agencies reported. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) recently called for an international conference to rescue the CFE agreement. It is not clear if he also intends to link the issue to U.S. missile defense, which Washington is likely to reject (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12 and 27, and July 12 and 16, 2007). PM

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov on September 18 met with President Putin at the presidential residence in Sochi, Russian media reported. Journalists were not allowed to attend the meeting, but after nearly four hours with the president, Zubkov held a brief press conference. Zubkov announced that he presented Putin with his plan for the structure of his government and that the president "is now working with the documents," RFE/RL reported. By law, Zubkov's proposals must be submitted to the Duma by September 21. Analysts and journalists have continued to speculate widely about the composition of the new government. "Izvestia" on September 19 published results of an Internet poll asking readers which ministers from the old cabinet they would exclude, not counting the almost universally unpopular acting Heath and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov. Acting Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref was most often mentioned, followed by acting Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, and Transportation Minister Igor Levitin. RC

Prime Minister Zubkov told reporters in Sochi on September 18 that acting Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has submitted his resignation, RFE/RL and other Russian media reported. Zubkov said he asked for Serdyukov's resignation in view of their close family relations. Serdyukov is married to Zubkov's only daughter. The resignation came as a surprise to many analysts, who had previously viewed Zubkov's elevation as a sign that Serdyukov's position was secure. Serdyukov, who was appointed in February (see "Russia: Putin's Cabinet Reshuffle Extends His Control,", February 16, 2007), was the first person with no state-security credentials to head the ministry in the entire Soviet and post-Soviet periods. On September 17, former Airborne Forces commander Colonel General Aleksandr Kolmakov was named deputy defense minister, the only official appointment Zubkov has made so far. "Izvestia" on September 19 speculated that Kolmakov might replace Serdyukov. The paper also mentioned acting Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov, a KGB and Federal Security Service (FSB) veteran with close ties to acting First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. speculated that Serdyukov might go on to head the Security Council. RC

Prime Minister Zubkov has asked the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Interior Ministry, and the FSB to assist the Central Election Commission in preparing for and conducting the December State Duma elections, "Izvestia" and Interfax reported on September 19. The Interior Ministry has been instructed to locate and confiscate illegal campaign materials and to identify those who financed, produced, and distributed such materials. The FSB, together with the Federal Mass Media Monitoring and Cultural Protection Service, has been instructed to prevent the distribution of campaign materials that incite social, racist, nationalist, or religious animosity. The Interior Ministry and the Justice Ministry have been instructed to assist the election commission in verifying the signatures that parties submit in support of their candidate lists. The Communications and Information Technologies Ministry has been asked to ensure the smooth functioning of the country's electronic vote-tabulation system. RC

Former Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader Irina Khakamada, who now works with former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's unregistered People's Democratic Union party, told RFE/RL's Russian Service on September 19 that she is inclined to think Prime Minister Zubkov is President Putin's choice to succeed him in March 2008. "It might not be, but it certainly seems so," she said. "We don't have elections; we don't have democracy," she said. "We use elections and democracy in order to maintain personal power and the power of one's comrades. But at the same time, we want to preserve the instruments of democracy and elections, just using them for different purposes. I call this 'the model of instrumental democracy' -- not values-oriented, not philosophical, not ideological, not political, but very, as they say now, user-oriented. We are all just users, users of democracy." (Read the entire interview on the site of RFE/RL's Russian Service: RC

The Democratic Party on September 18 held its national preelection congress and selected its list of candidates for the December 2 Duma elections, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The list will be headed by party leader Andrei Bogdanov and party officials Vyacheslav Smirnov and Oleg Gimazov. The congress was held in a resort owned by the presidential administration outside of Moscow and it was announced that the party has just spent 3.5 million rubles ($138,000) to send more than 100 delegates to a "traveling party conference" in Brussels. The Democratic Party recently suffered a split when former Prime Minister Kasyanov, who intends to run for the presidency in 2008, made a bid to become its leader. Bogdanov fought off the bid, but many pro-Kasyanov members defected to the unregistered People's Democratic Union. The party registers less than 1 percent support in most opinion polls. RC

Chechen Khasan Idigov, the last remaining suspect in the bombing last month of the Neva Express train that runs between Moscow and St. Petersburg, has been released from detention after giving a written undertaking not to leave Russia, reported on September 18 quoting Idigov's lawyer, Murat Yunusov. Two other suspects, both described as "anarchists" from St. Petersburg, were released last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 2007). LF

Speaking in an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Yerevan Appeals Court Judge Pargev Ohanian said on September 18 that he faces a formal sanction after he ruled to acquit two businessmen controversially imprisoned by the authorities. Ohanian explained that the presidentially appointed Council of Justice, an oversight body supervising the court system, is set to meet on September 26 to reportedly consider possible disciplinary action against Ohanian for "violations of Armenian law" that he allegedly committed. The Judicial Department, another government-controlled body monitoring the work of judges, has also asserted that Ohanian broke the law in his previous rulings in nearly two dozen criminal and civil cases. Ohanian further admitted that his possible sanction by one or both state bodies actually stems from his July 16 dismissal of all criminal fraud charges brought against Gagik Hakobian, the owner of the Royal Armenia coffee-packaging company, and its executive director, Aram Ghazarian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2007). Both men were arrested in October 2005 after publicly accusing customs officials of corruption and were put on trial late last year on charges of smuggling and tax fraud (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 14, 2005). The two men have consistently claimed that the charges were brought in retaliation for their refusal to engage in a fraudulent scheme with senior customs officials and because of their vocal, public denunciation of "widespread corruption" within the customs service. RG

In a statement released by the office of Armenian President Kocharian, it was announced late on September 17 that a new state commission has been formed specifically empowered to combat tax evasion and fraud, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The new interagency body, referred to in the statement as a mechanism to ensure that tax collection reaches the level of "civilized countries," is to be headed by Vahram Barseghian, the chief of the State Tax Service , and will also include members from the presidential administration and the State Customs Committee. Additionally, the commission is to be comprised of representatives from the police, the National Security Service, and the Prosecutor-General's Office. The announcement follows a stormy meeting only five days earlier in which Kocharian strongly criticized the performance of tax and customs officials, although tax collection actually increased by some 27 percent for the first half of the year, bringing in some 201 billion drams ($598 million) for state coffers, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on September 12. Nevertheless, with a tax-to-GDP ratio estimated at between 14 and 15 percent, Armenia is near the bottom of al former Soviet states in terms of overall tax collection. RG

President Kocharian convened on September 17 a meeting with Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Defense Minister Mikhail Harutiunian, and the chairmen of the parliamentary committees on Defense, National Security, and Internal Affairs, to review the status of defense reform, Armenpress and Armenian Public Television reported. Kocharian was briefed by Harutiunian on the implementation of "second-generation" reforms within the Armenian armed forces, including an emphasis on civilian control and oversight of the military, and measures intended to improve the planning, budget, and management processes. Participants also reviewed a new draft plan on alternative military service that is planned to be submitted as a draft law to parliament for its consideration later in the year. RG

A visiting delegation of U.S. military experts completed on September 18 an inspection of the Qabala (Gabala) radar station in Azerbaijan, which Russia has offered as an alternative to the U.S. plan to station missile-defense sites in Central Europe, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported. The U.S. military delegation, led by Brigadier General Patrick O'Reilly, told reporters following the inspection that a more thorough assessment will now need to be carried out to examine the feasibility of joint U.S.-Russian operations at the radar base. In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed the joint use of the Qabala facility, which is capable of monitoring possible missile launches from Iran, as an alternative to U.S. plans for developing a missile-defense system that would include stationing 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, July 3, and August 17, 2007). Russia rents the Qabala installation from Azerbaijan based on the terms of a January 2002 agreement that permits Russia to lease the facility for 10 years for an annual fee of $7 million (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28, 2002). RG

The Azerbaijani Supreme Court issued a ruling on September 18 overruling two 2004 verdicts by the Nasimi district court and the Court of Appeal that rejected lawsuits filed by opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA) leader Sardar Calaloglu, according to Turan. Calaloglu sought legal remedy by filing the suits against Interior Ministry officials alleging that they tortured him repeatedly during his four-month detention following his arrested in October 2003 in the wake of the unrest in Baku that followed the disputed presidential election. Calaloglu was later sentenced in October 2004 to a 4 1/2-year prison term, but was amnestied and released in the spring of 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2004, and March 21, 2005). After both the district court and the Court of Appeal dismissed his lawsuit, he successfully appealed to the European Court for Human Rights in January 2007, which imposed fine of 10,000 euros ($12,984 at that time) on the Azerbaijani authorities and ordered them to also pay 2,000 euros in compensation and "technical costs" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 2007). Although the ruling effectively nullified the earlier verdicts, the Supreme Court ruling only ordered a new investigation and did not address the legal standing or validity of Calaloglu's charges. RG

Georgian opposition deputy Koka Guntsadze announced on September 18 that fellow opposition parliamentarian Gia Tsagareishvili was assaulted and "beaten up" by a group of fellow lawmakers from the ruling pro-government National Movement party, Imedi TV and Civil Georgia reported. Guntsadze told reporters that two lawmakers from the ruling National Movement, Vakhtang Balavadze and Koba Dvalishvili, initiated the fight to "settle scores" with Tsagareishvili, allegedly in response to the victim's recent statements accusing them of being "dishonest." Guntsadze added that a third unidentified National Movement deputy also joined in the assault, which left Tsagareishvili hospitalized with head injuries. Both opposition deputies Guntsadze and Tsagareishvili are known as close associates of former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who recently started to launch his own opposition political party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 2007). RG

Kazakh Interior Ministry spokesman Bagdad Kozhakmetov confirmed on September 17 that two former bodyguards for Rakhat Aliev, the fugitive former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nazarbaev, returned to Kazakhstan the same day and "expressed their desire to voluntarily cooperate fully" in the criminal case against Aliev, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The two men, both wanted by the Kazakh police, voluntarily returned to the country and were promised immunity in exchange for agreeing to testify against Aliev. A former Kazakh ambassador to Austria, Aliev remains in self-imposed exile in Vienna after his release from an Austrian jail when a Kazakh extradition request was rejected by an Austrian court on the grounds that Aliev could not expect to receive a fair trial in Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline" August 9, 2007). Aliev is wanted in Kazakhstan on a number of criminal charges, including money laundering, corruption, extortion and a kidnapping attempt allegedly seeking to force bank executives to sell their interests in a building in Almaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 6, and 13, 2007). RG

Meeting in an emergency session, the Kyrgyz parliament voted on September 18 to adopt a measure expressing no confidence in the Constitutional Court after it ruled last week that constitutional amendments passed last year were illegal, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The parliamentary vote stated that the legality of the 2004 constitutional amendments was an issue beyond the "competence" of the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court overturned on September 14 a set of constitutional amendments that were adopted in November 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 2007). The ruling, by the country's highest court, came in response to an appeal challenging the amendments, and effectively nullified the new constitution and restored the February 2003 version. The constitutional amendments that were adopted in late 2006 imposed new limits on presidential authority in the wake of widespread demonstrations in Bishkek, but were later significantly modified and watered down by pro-government parliamentarians in December 2006, restoring much of the power to the presidency. The ruling further held that in both cases, the amendment process was conducted "in violation of the requirements of the constitution" and ignored the requirements that "changes or amendments to the constitution could be made only through a referendum." RG

After arriving in Bishkek for a brief two-day state visit, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon met on September 18 with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev for a wide-ranging set of talks, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Kabar. The two leaders discussed trade and economic matters, hydroelectric energy issues, and reviewed the status of border security and demarcation talks. They then signed a bilateral agreement clarifying the legal status of former Tajik refugees who have settled in Kyrgyzstan. RG

The official Turkmen state commission on human rights convened on September 17 in Ashgabat to hold its inaugural session, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported. The commission formally adopted a new draft national program on human rights and approved a human-rights project in planned in conjunction with the European Union and with the UN refugee and development agencies. The commission also reviewed existing Turkmen human-rights-related law in an effort to ensure greater conformity with international human-rights standards and norms. RG

Mirzoulugbek Abdusalomov, the head of the Uzbek Central Election Commission, announced in Tashkent on September 18 that the date for the next presidential election has been set, according to Reuters and RIA Novosti. Abdusalomov said that the election will be held on December 23 and that the official election campaign will open on September 21. The announcement ends months of speculation, as incumbent President Islam Karimov is constitutionally prevented from running for another term as president, although many suspect that, as Uzbek president since 1989, he may attempt to enter the race. Under the terms of Uzbekistan's electoral laws, an Uzbek citizen can be nominated for president either by a political party or an initiative group of 300 people, but they also need to collect the signatures of 700,000 eligible voters and submit an application to the Central Election Commission. RG

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told a group of Belarusian journalists in Brussels on September 18 that negotiations between the EU and Belarus on energy security are only possible if the human-rights situation in the country improves, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. She noted that EU and Belarusian experts met in June to talk about energy issues. Their second meeting was scheduled for October, but the EU decided to postpone it indefinitely, following a recent wave of arrests of youth activists in Belarus. "We feel there is a lack of political will [on the Belarusian side] to establish cooperation. We cannot work with the last dictatorial regime in Europe," Ferrero-Waldner said. Earlier this month, at a European Neighborhood Policy conference in Brussels, Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Varanetski called on the EU to cooperate in the field of energy transit. JM

The Ministry of Statistics and Analysis has revealed that Belarus's foreign-trade deficit in the first seven months of 2007 amounted to $2 billion, Belapan reported. In the same period of 2006, the foreign-trade deficit stood at $990 million. The ministry explained that the deficit was primarily due to increased imports of "intermediate products," such as energy, raw materials, and components. Following the rise in Russian gas prices and oil-export duties as of January, Belarus also registered a deficit of $790 million in trade in energy in the first seven months of 2007, compared with a surplus of $226 million in the same period of 2006. JM

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who heads the Party of Regions, told an election meeting in Vynnytsya on September 18 that Yulia Tymoshenko in the post of prime minister in 2006 resembled a "cow on ice" to him, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. "She knows how to skate on ice or to mold pots out of clay, but she does not know how to work with economy.... [The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc's] social initiatives are sheer populism. They are not worried about political and economic stability. Populists should be prevented from coming to power," Yanukovych said. "We are not surprised by the overtly loutish behavior of the leader of the Party of Regions," the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc press service stated later the same day. "Nobody expected anything else from him. Incidentally, the entire country knows that Yanukovych's prison nickname was 'Lout.' This explains everything." Yanukovych served two prison terms, convicted in 1967 to three years on charges pertaining to theft and robbery, and in 1970 to two years on charges pertaining to "infliction of bodily injuries of medium seriousness." He maintains that he was acquitted in 1978. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko told journalists in Cherkasy on September 18 that the parliamentary session planned by the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party for September 20 is illegitimate, UNIAN reported. "It is just free publicity for the Socialists and the Communists, at the expense of the state budget," Yushchenko said. "I am surprised by the position of such a serious force as the Party of Regions, which takes part in such amusements...and orchestrated shows. I would not like to see the Party of Regions participating in them, because it is the party responsible for what is going on in the country," he added. The government is planning to present a 2008 budget draft in the Verkhovna Rada on September 20. JM

The EU's mediator at talks on the future of Kosova, Wolfgang Ischinger, has indicated that talks on Kosova's status will not focus on "labels" such as independence, but on the type of "internationally supervised status" that Kosova should enjoy. Ischinger, Germany's ambassador to Britain, told the British daily "The Independent" on September 18 that "I would leave open independence. I would rather talk about strong supervised status." Ischinger dismissed Kosovar insistence on independence -- "The label [independence] is worth nothing. Where are they going to get their income from? They would continue to rely on foreign aid" -- and indicated that Serbia's offer of autonomy would lead nowhere. "Independence versus autonomy is a gap which cannot be bridged if you look at the fine print," he said. "International supervision is accepted," he continued, adding that in the talks "we will try to reach a status solution which will provide for an internationally supervised status for Kosovo." International supervision is part of the plan for Kosova drawn up in March by the UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, but Ischinger indicated that Ahtisaari's proposal -- which would pave the way for Kosova to become an independent state -- is no longer the basis of discussions. "I would not insist on the Ahtisaari package, but it's not off the table," he told "The Independent." EU leaders and the United States have so far argued that the Ahtisaari plan should serve as the starting point for talks, while saying they would accept any agreement reached between Belgrade and Prishtina. AG

The leaders of Kosova's ethnic-Albanian majority will present a draft of a friendship treaty with Serbia when they meet with international mediators on September 19. The proposed treaty includes a clause forgiving Serbia for all crimes committed in Kosova. Kosovar Albanian leaders signaled prior to the last major meeting, on August 30 in Vienna, that the issue for them is no longer independence, but how to manage relations with Serbia after independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 30 and 31, 2007). The same message was sent by Prime Minister Agim Ceku on September 17. "Independence is considered a closed issue," local and international media quoted him as saying. "We are going there [to London] to represent a state" and "to discuss technical issues between two sovereign and independent states." The purpose of the meeting in London is to prepare the ground for the first direct talks between Serbian and Kosovar negotiators, which will probably be held in New York on September 28 on the sidelines of a meeting of the UN General Assembly. Kosova's five-member team has signaled in the past week that Kosova should declare independence shortly after December 10, when they, the EU, and the United States believe talks should end. However, they have acknowledged differences between them about the timing and method of a declaration. Like Serbian officials, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on September 18 that independence for Kosova would likely "start a chain reaction in different parts and continents of the world," Russian and international media reported. AG

The London talks began on September 18 with a meeting between Serbia's negotiators and the international mediators. In comments carried by Serbian television on September 17, Serbia's minister for Kosovar affairs, Slobodan Samardzic, described the meeting as preparation for direct talks on September 28 and "real talks," which he said will begin in October. Serbia's other chief representative at the talks, Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, indicated the same on September 17, but also added that at present Serbia is concentrating its efforts and hopes less on direct talks than on bilateral talks with the EU's member states. "The key place where political and diplomatic support should be sought at this moment is the EU," Jeremic told Serbian television. The EU argues that it should have the decisive say on Kosova's status if Belgrade and Prishtina fail to reach an agreement, but a handful of the EU's 27 members are opposed to the consensus that Kosova can no longer be a part of Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). According to Voice of America, Kosova was one of the key issues in talks held in Washington on September 17 between U.S. President George W. Bush and Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates. AG

A leader of moderates in Kosova's Serbian community, Oliver Ivanovic, has attacked a suggestion for Kosovar Serbs to hold separate elections at the same time as local and general elections are held in Kosova, calling it a violation of a UN resolution and a tactical move aimed at shoring up support for Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's party. He also warned that the call for parallel elections, made on September 17 by Serbia's minister for Kosovar affairs, Slobodan Samardzic, could undermine Serbia's effort to retain sovereignty over Kosova, the Serbian news agency FoNet reported on September 18. "I am convinced that this cannot be implemented without causing big and difficult consequences regarding the negotiating process and Serbia's position in the very difficult negotiations on the status of Kosovo-Metohija," he said. "The statement is a flagrant violation of UN Resolution 1244 and I am certain that [ethnic] Albanians will use that fact," Ivanovic said, referring to the resolution that mandated international forces to assume responsibility for security in Kosova in 1999. "I hope that that is not the position of the government, that that is the position of a single minister and the policy of a single party," the news agency Beta quoted Ivanovic as saying on September 18. Ivanovic previously advocated for Kosovar Serbs to participate in Kosova's local and parliamentary elections on November 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, August 9 and 20, and September 4, 2007). However, Serbian President Boris Tadic called on September 13 for Serbs to boycott the elections, a decision that Ivanovic has since said he will respect (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 2007). The notion of parallel elections was first floated by Ivanovic's namesake and hard-line rival, Milan Ivanovic. AG

Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the Republika Srpska, has expanded the Bosnian Serb-dominated region's links with Russia by signing a series of economic and cultural agreements with the city of St. Petersburg. The agenda for the high-level delegation -- which included the region's finance and economy ministers -- included a meeting with the bosses of a number of Russian electricity companies, the news agency SRNA reported at the start of the two-day trip on September 17. The key link forged recently with Russia was a deal that gives control of the region's oil industry to NeftegazInKor, a subsidiary of the Russian oil company Zarubezhneft, the financial details of which were signed in August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5 and March 21, 2007). On an unrelated note, in a September 13 interview with the daily "Dnevni list," Russia's ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Konstantin Shuvalov, urged the EU to accelerate talks with Bosnia-Herzegovina and to loosen its preconditions. "Quicker accession to the EU, not conditioned by requirements as strict as those currently being made, would help solve many problems that are not being resolved now." Dodik has repeatedly accused the EU of demanding more from Bosnia than it does from its member states (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). AG

A deputy minister of transportation in the Albanian government, Nikolin Jaka, and two senior officials from his ministry were arrested on September 17 on corruption charges. Another four people, including two other officials, were arrested in the operation, which, according to the daily "Gazeta Shqiptare," was prompted by suspicions about 15 road-building contracts signed in the past two months. The operation was carried out in the midst of a controversy about Albania's largest building project of recent years, to create a highway to link the port of Durres with Kukes, a town on Albania's border with Kosova. That contract was signed in 2006. Prosecutors have already questioned a former deputy transportation minister and are hoping to interview a former transportation minister, Lulzim Basha, who is now Albania's foreign minister. Basha has refused so far to cooperate, arguing that the investigation is politically motivated. Corruption was also in focus on September 17 for other reasons, with President Bamir Topi urging the government and other political forces to join forces to reform the judiciary. "We have a series of problems related to professionalism, corruption, and interference from various political forces in the judiciary," the news service Balkan Insight quoted Topi as saying. AG

Georgia's parliament voted overwhelmingly on September 14 to adopt a bill aimed at enlarging the country's armed forces by forming an additional fifth brigade numbering 2,500 men. That move would raise the total manpower of the Georgian armed forces to 32,000, which is more than twice the optimum figure of 13,000-15,000 initially recommended in the 2005 assessment conducted by the U.S. State Department's International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) at the request of the Georgian government.

Meanwhile, the parliament's Defense and Security Committee also approved an increase in defense spending, which the full Georgian parliament is widely expected to adopt in a vote set for September 25. The proposed rise in Georgian defense spending, the latest in several such increases over the last few years, calls for a 315 million-lari ($190.4 million) increase in funding for the military in 2007, making defense spending the largest category of state budgetary expenditures.

Both the planned expansion of the Georgian armed forces and the continued increase in defense spending are justified by some Georgian officials as a necessity in light of a broader military buildup in the region. That argument points to the meager size of the Georgian Army in contrast to its neighbors, a comparison that, at least on paper, is borne out by the fact that Azerbaijan's Army is nearly three times larger and even small Armenia has an army roughly double the size of the Georgian force. The dramatic increases in defense spending in the region in the past few years, most notably in the case of Azerbaijan's current $1 billion defense budget, are also cited as an important factor driving Georgian military planning.

On the other hand, Georgia is not at risk of attack from either Armenia or Azerbaijan. Moreover, many experts argue that the trend toward a significantly larger Georgian military is neither particularly prudent nor beneficial for the country's unique security needs. For example, in conformity with the expert advice of the ISAB, the Georgian leadership agreed in the late 1990s to slash the armed forces' manpower and to move instead to create a smaller, more mobile army that would conform more closely to NATO standards.

The army was duly downsized from approximately 38,000 men to some 20,000 in early 2004, primarily by reducing ancillary, noncombat personnel. But the team of young politicians headed by Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power in the wake of the November 2003 Rose Revolution, set about reversing that trend.

Visiting Washington in June 2005, then-Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili first suggested that it may be "necessary" to increase the number of active-duty personnel substantially, by adding an additional infantry brigade to the army's existing four. In its report for 2005 (issued on March 14), the ISAB noted that plans for a four-brigade structure plus an increased reserve force "represent an increase of 25-30 percent on earlier planning figures" as laid out in the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) agreed with NATO in 2004, and thus "raise questions of affordability."

Rather than proceed immediately to create a new fifth brigade, Tbilisi focused in 2005-06 on an ambitious program, launched in the fall of 2004, to train thousands of reservists who could be mobilized in an emergency. Initially, it was planned to train 15,000-20,000 reservists by the end of 2005, Saakashvili was quoted as saying in January of that year; by August 2006, he said 50,000 men (and women) had already undergone training, and that the total number of reservists should be doubled to at least 100,000.

But some military experts derided that proposal as unworkable and unnecessary. For example, Kakha Katsitadze, a former head of the strategic planning department of the armed forces General Staff, predicted that it would prove impossible to train that many reservists; he also said the three-week training period they are required to undergo is painfully inadequate, according to Caucasus Press on August 12, 2006.

However, the Georgian parliament went ahead and enacted legislation in December 2006 that required all men between the ages of 27-40 to perform 18 days compulsory military training every second year. That legislation went into effect in March 2007. At the same time, National Guard commander Colonel Nika Djandjgava, extended the time frame for completing the training of a 100,000-strong reservist force until 2012, training 20,000 annually, according to Civil Georgia on March 9.

It remains unclear why Georgia has moved at this juncture to increase its armed forces, especially in light of hopes to progress at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2009 from Intensified Dialogue with NATO to a Membership Action Plan (MAP). The MAP is regarded as the final phase before a formal invitation to join the alliance is forthcoming, although it is not a watertight guarantee that such an invitation will be issued within a specific time frame: Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia embarked on MAPs prior to the 2004 NATO summit.

In 2005, then-Georgian Defense Minister Okruashvili explained the decision to increase the strength of the armed forces in terms of the presence of some 1,000 Georgian troops in Iraq as part of the international peacekeeping force there. But on September 14 -- the same day that the parliament signed off on the increase -- Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili announced that Georgia will begin reducing its contingent in Iraq in 2008, Imedi TV reported.

As for the additional 315 million laris in funding for the armed forces, Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli told parliament it will be used to bring the Georgian Army into compliance with NATO standards. Deputy Defense Minister Vera Dzneladze was more explicit: Caucasus Press on September 8 quoted her as saying that it will be used to build a new military base in Khoni, western Georgia, which will house the planned fifth brigade; to set up a blood bank at the Gori military hospital; for the purchase of munitions, communications systems, and military aircraft; and on the reconstruction of the airfield at Kopitnari, west of Kutaisi.

Thus, taken together, Georgia's decision to increase both army manpower and defense spending raises the question whether Georgia is really interested in complying with NATO standards. Some commentators have suggested that, instead, Georgia's military buildup could be connected to plans to launch a military campaign to regain its breakaway regions of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, or even both.

Only 19 out of 1,700 Afghan refugee families returning from Iran and Pakistan have resettled on land in Afghanistan's western Herat Province allocated to them a year ago, due to a lack of basic services and community infrastructure, the UN's Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) reported on September 18. The majority of repatriated families are forced to live in rented houses or with relatives, since the properties provided have no available drinking water, electricity, schools, hospitals, or established security. The Afghan government began a land-distribution plan in 2005 to provide returnees with plots of land to build homes, but several of the allocated land sites are situated over 20 kilometers from major cities, where there are no jobs and no local market. With high transportation costs, it is difficult, if not impossible, for families to live in the designated areas, IRIN reported. "We cannot build a house on a piece of land given to us in an arid desert," said former refugee Mohammad Ashraf, who has rented a house in Herat city with his family. Salvatore Lombardo, a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Afghanistan, said approximately 1 million returnees have received assistance through the organization's shelter program, but he called on the Afghan government to ensure access to secure housing for returnees through loans and support programs. In addition to the problematic housing situation, Lombardo said security remains the main concern of the approximately 3 million Afghan refugees still in Pakistan and Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). JC

A British soldier was killed on September 18 in Afghanistan's Helmand Province when an explosion struck a truck in a logistics convoy, AFP reported. A second soldier was injured in the blast near Gereskh district, the British Defense Ministry said. The death brings to 79 the number of British troops killed in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Elsewhere in Helmand, at least 16 militants were killed in two separate military operations, according to a statement by the Afghan Defense Ministry, dpa reported. Coalition troops killed at least seven Taliban fighters in Garmsir district after the rebels ambushed a convoy of Afghan and coalition troops, while nine other militants were killed in separate clashes in Kajaki district, the statement said. No Afghan or coalition troops or civilians were injured in the clashes, although there was no independent confirmation of casualties. JC

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said on September 18 that foreign forces alone can not restore security in Afghanistan, and repeated the importance of training Afghan security forces, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Addressing a news conference in Kabul, ISAF spokesman Nicholas Lunt described the existing level of foreign troops in the country as "insufficient" and stressed the importance of training the Afghan National Army and police to maintain security in the long term. Lunt called on Afghan citizens to support their security forces and focus on preparing them to take over the primary role of sustaining security, rather than relying on foreign troops for protection. Approximately 50,000 foreign troops under the command of NATO and the U.S.-led coalition are stationed in Afghanistan. JC

Several members of Afghanistan's lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, are calling on Japan to extend the country's antiterror law to allow Japan to continue assisting coalition troops in Afghanistan, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on September 17. A mandate allowing Japanese ships to refuel U.S.-led coalition vessels in the Indian Ocean expires on November 1, and the party that holds the majority in Japan's parliament is expected to vote against the extension. The first secretary of the Wolesi Jirga, Mohammad Arif Nurzai, described Japan as a close partner of the international community in the fight against terrorism, but warned that letting the mandate lapse would call into question Japan's ties with other countries still involved with the war. Another lawmaker, Moin Mrastiyal, said denying the mandate would create a negative perspective on Japan's earlier assistance on the security and reconstruction fronts. Kenshiro Matsunami, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, reiterated the importance of extending the mandate, saying any move that withdraws Japan's support from the U.S. mission in Afghanistan would prove counterproductive for Japan's ties with Afghanistan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stepped down on September 12 amid the fiery debate taking place in Japan's parliament over the country's continued participation in operations in Afghanistan. JC

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in Moscow on September 18 that "everything must be done to avoid war," and that governments must negotiate "relentlessly, without fear of rejection" to persuade Iran to meet Western demands that it curb its contested atomic program, and AFP reported. Kouchner made the statement after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, apparently in response to the furor his earlier remarks on the possibility of war with Iran have caused in Tehran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17 and 18, 2007). Lavrov expressed concern over the possibility of war with Iran, which Kouchner earlier said would be the worst-case scenario if sanctions fail to make Tehran halt its uranium-enrichment activities. "There is no threat of war, at least not from France. I even said war would be the worst," Kouchner said. Lavrov said, "it would be difficult to foresee the...consequences" for the region of any military strike on Iran. But he also asked why some Western states are contemplating enhanced sanctions on Iran outside the UN framework, "when we have agreed to work together." Kouchner said new sanctions are necessary to show "the seriousness and the interest we have in peacefully resolving" the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, reported. VS

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on September 17 that Iran is now in "a situation of very great tension" in its regional relations, but he echoed Foreign Minister Kouchner's statement that everything must be done to avoid war, AP reported. Speaking at a local infantry base in Angouleme, western France, Fillon said France's role is to lead the way toward a "peaceful solution" of the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, adding that no politician would want to reach the point of war. "I think the Iranians must understand tensions have reached an extreme point, Iran's relations with its neighbors and Iran's relations with Israel," he said. Iran does not recognize Israel, and some of its leaders have called for Israel's abolition as a state. Fillon said France favors the "harshest possible sanctions" on Iran if it continues its nuclear activities, and that the full potential of sanctions has not been used yet. He added that international opinion should consider the views of Iranians who are not "necessarily unanimous in valuing the policies" of the Iranian government, AP reported. VS

Former reformist legislator Ahmad Shirzad has told the Spanish daily "El Pais" in Tehran that Iran's nuclear program is too costly if it entails putting aside all other national projects for a decade or so, reported on September 18. Shirzad, a physicist, now works at a mathematics and physics research center in Tehran headed by Mohammad Javad Larijani, a scientist by training, former deputy foreign minister, and brother of Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani. Shirzad said Iran's nuclear program costs $4 billion-$5 billion and that this sum might have been invested in building gas or gas-and-oil power stations, although he did not identify the time frame in which those billions were spent. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is intended to generate electricity. Shirzad said Iran does not have sufficient uranium deposits to fuel an entire nuclear electricity program, and that its deposits are deep underground and costly to extract. Larijani also questioned Iranian officials' claim that Iran's program is entirely domestic, saying that much of the technology for the program has come from outside, and that this might create dependence on other states, including Russia. He asserted that "many physicists" share his reservations about Iran's nuclear program, but are disinclined to speak out for fear of possible reprisals. Larijani said the only people who have objected to Iran's nuclear program are an unnamed reformist party and some students, reported. VS

The head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in Iran's western regions, Mohammad Hossein Kusechi, has said U.S. troops in the Middle East are within range of Iranian missiles or firepower, Lebanon's "L'Orient-le Jour" reported on September 18, citing IRNA. He said U.S. officials "say they have identified 2,000 targets in Iran. What we can say for sure is that the Americans surrounding Iran are also our targets." Kusechi said Iran is encircling the United States as much as it is encircling Iran. He added that Iran's present regional strength can prevent any attack, citing the 2,000-kilometer range of Iran's missiles. The former head of the IRGC, Yahya Rahim Safavi, separately told a gathering of Basiji militiamen in Tehran on September 18 that "the enemies should know that if they wish to attack Iran...they will be crushed in the shortest possible time," Fars reported. He said the hatred Muslims states feel for the United States is a "reality," and due to the "bad and unsuitable actions of the Americans across the world." VS

Mustafa Tajzadeh, a reformist activist, former deputy interior minister, and former member of the Tehran city council, was fined about $320 (3 million rials) and banned from public service for 3 1/2 months for insulting and slandering the Guardians Council, a key body of clerics and jurists, IRNA reported on September 18, citing a Tehran judge named as Husseinian. The penalties were given in place of a short prison term, and Tajzadeh was acquitted of certain other slander charges. The allegedly defamatory claims may have been made in interviews in late 2006, when Tajzadeh presumably criticized certain actions of the Guardians Council. VS

Radio Farda reported on September 17 that the conditions of Iranian political prisoners or dissidents are made more difficult by the fact that Iran does not recognize political dissidence as a legal offense, and arrests dissidents on charges related to security or slander. Typical charges for which students, dissidents, or protesters are arrested include acting against national security, making false allegations to incite public opinion, or sacrilege. The broadcaster stated that there is confusion in Iran over the number of political prisoners in the country. Hadi Qaemi of New York-based Human Rights Watch told Radio Farda that "this organization has no figures on the number of political prisoners in Iran, as the Iranian government claims there are no political prisoners, while...political offenses are not defined in Iran." The previous, reformist-majority parliament passed a bill to define political offenses, but this was rejected by the Guardians Council, the body of constitutional jurists that must approve all bills. The status of that legislation at the Expediency Council, a body charged with resolving legislative and constitutional disputes, is currently uncertain. The bill effectively defined political offenses as peaceful initiatives by legal political groups against Iran's policies, and stressed that political dissidents do not act in their own, but in the public interest, Radio Farda quoted Tehran jurist Mohammad Seifzadeh as saying on September 17. Seifzadeh said the bill requires dissidents to be tried in public tribunals with a jury, "something that has not happened so far" in Iran. VS

Ali al-Dabbagh announced on September 19 that a join Iraqi-U.S. committee has been formed to investigate the September 16 killing of 10 Iraqi civilians by contractors working for the U.S.-based security firm Blackwater USA, Iraqi media reported. On September 19, the United States banned diplomats and civilians from leaving Baghdad's Green Zone due to a lack of protection forces. The Iraqi government announced on September 18 that it has revoked Blackwater's license (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2007). Adil Barwari, a member of the Council of Representatives' Security and Defense Committee, told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on September 18 that the committee should seek legal action against the contractors should the investigation warrant prosecution. Meanwhile, Major General Abd al-Karim Khalaf, the director of the National Command Center at the Interior Ministry, said on September 18 that a preliminary report showed that Blackwater security guards were not ambushed, as they claimed, but rather fired on a car that did not heed a policeman's call to stop, resulting in the death of a couple and their infant, international media reported. He added that the ministry's investigation into the incident includes eyewitness testimonies, including the testimonies of people wounded in the incident. KR

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told Al-Arabiyah television in a September 18 interview that the United States regrets the Blackwater incident. "We expressed our deep regret over the incident the day before yesterday," Crocker said, adding that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to discuss the incident. "There is agreement between us to conduct an in-depth and serious investigation. Of course, we cannot say who is responsible or what the reasons of the incident are until we see the results of this investigation," Crocker noted. KR

Prime Minister al-Maliki told his Jordanian counterpart Ma'ruf Bakhit that Iraqi oil is on its way to Jordan following an agreement last month to sell oil to the Hashemite kingdom at preferential prices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, 2007). Iraq agreed to initially ship 10,000 barrels a day to Jordan, with an eventual target of 100,000 barrels per day. The latter amount accounts for up to 30 percent of Jordan's daily needs. The first shipment was reportedly delayed due to security concerns. Prior to his ouster, Saddam Hussein provided Jordan with nearly all its imported oil at subsidized prices. Following the 2003 war, Jordan's oil imports were subsidized by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq. Those subsidies ended in 2005, dpa reported on September 18, resulting in an oil crisis in the kingdom. KR

The Council of Representatives cancelled its September 18 session after the majority of representatives failed to appear for the session, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Only 115 out of 275 parliamentarians appeared for the session. Meanwhile, a committee formed by the United Iraqi Alliance has failed to lure parliamentarians loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr back to work, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on September 18. The news channel also reported that "some members" of the so-called moderates' front in the parliament asked two members of the Iraqis List to leave the list and join the front in exchange for government posts and other privileges. KR

The U.S.-led coalition announced the end of Operation Marne Husky in a September 18 press release. The operation, which began on August 15, included soldiers and airmen, who flew some 420 hours dropping parachuters into combat areas. Some 80 suspected insurgents were detained in the operation, and another 43 killed. "We were able to use our combined-arms capability to insert forces into areas that the enemy previously thought were safe havens," said Lieutenant Colonel Robert Wilson, the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade's executive officer. KR

The U.S. Marine Corps has dropped charges against the captain of a unit that killed 24 civilians in Al-Hadithah in 2005, international media reported on September 19. Captain Lucas McConnell was initially charged with two counts of dereliction of duty for his failure to investigate the incident and for not reporting it up his chain of command. He was not present when the killings took place, and maintained that he believed the shootings were part of an appropriate response to a complex insurgent attack. Several soldiers involved in the incident gunned down a group of Iraqis traveling in a vehicle following the killing of a member of their unit by a roadside bomb. The soldiers then raided nearby homes, killing civilians, including three women and seven children. McConnell was one of four officers charged in the incident. Charges have already been dropped against a second captain, as well two enlisted Marines, while two officers still face charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 22, 2006). KR