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Newsline - September 20, 2007

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso announced in Brussels on September 19 long-awaited legislation aimed at liberalizing the EU's internal energy market by breaking up, or "unbundling," utilities that control both the production and distribution of energy, RFE/RL reported. The moves met with stiff opposition from Germany, France, and some other member states, and the German government described the measures as "unacceptable," Deutsche Welle reported. The legislation also would bar foreign companies, such as Gazprom or Algeria's Sonatrach, from controlling energy networks unless their home states agree with the EU to open up their domestic markets in "reciprocal" fashion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, August 30, and September 5 and 18, 2007). Barroso said that "individuals and countries should not be able to acquire control over a [EU energy] transmission network unless there is an agreement between the community and the company's country of origin. This is simply to ensure that the unbundling rules will be respected. Once again, the aim is not to prevent these companies from playing a greater role on European Union markets.... It is to make sure that all follow the same rules.... We must not be naive." The EU has long sought to persuade Moscow to ratify the EU's Energy Charter Treaty, which Russia signed in 1994 but never ratified, and whose Transit Protocol would require Russia to open up access to its pipelines. Since at least 2006, Russia has classified much of its energy sector as "strategic" and off limits to much foreign investment. It has also sought to cancel or renegotiate existing contracts in which foreign firms have a large or majority stake. On September 20, the "International Herald Tribune" wrote that "after years of Russia's using energy as a political weapon, the EU sought to turn the tables...with a proposal to prevent...Gazprom from taking over power networks in Europe." The BBC noted on September 19 that Gazprom has allocated more money to buy assets in Europe than it has to develop the new Russian fields it needs to meet its commitments. Some experts pointed out that Gazprom has used joint ventures in which it is not a majority shareholder and could do so again. Poland's Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, who heads the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, called on the EU to be as firm with Gazprom as it is with Microsoft in enforcing anti-monopoly rules. PM

Gazprom said in a statement on September 19 that it wants to consult with the EU before commenting on the possible impact of the legislation on "the security of [energy] supply, the competitiveness of European energy markets, and, finally, the energy prices in Europe," Russian and international media reported. The statement added that "Gazprom has an important contribution to make...and feels certain that its voice will be heard." Company spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said that "Gazprom is a reliable gas supplier to the European Union and a major investor in the infrastructure that brings gas to Europe. We share the EU's core goal of ensuring long-term security of energy supply to the EU." State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov argued that if the EU blocks Russia from entering markets, then "we will have to limit access for our foreign partners to the corresponding strategic sectors of the Russian economy." The BBC noted, however, that it is difficult to see how Russia could further restrict foreign access to its "strategic" energy markets. The Russian daily "Kommersant" wrote on September 20 that the EU "has dropped the energy curtain...[with its] shockingly strict measures." The paper noted that "the initiative shocked Gazprom, [which nonetheless] declined to criticize the proposals, although earlier it commented on them negatively." Former Economy Minister Aleksandr Shokhin, who heads the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), said that the new rules are not constructive. RIA-Novosti argued on September 19 that the legislation "will drastically change the energy map of the Old World." The daily "Vedomosti" on September 20 quoted Acting First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov as saying in Khanty-Mansiisk the previous day that Russia's energy might plays a certain role in "carrying out the carefully crafted internal and foreign policy of the state." The paper noted that Ivanov thereby "openly confirmed fears in the EU" about Russia's use of an "energy weapon." PM

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said in New York on September 19 that "we are indeed against the practice of unilateral, national sanctions imposed in addition to those adopted by the UN Security Council," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 18, and 19, 2007). He added that "it is our belief that as long as we work collectively we must pursue our goal in a collective spirit." Churkin stressed that "an overwhelming majority of our interlocutors believe that military action against Iran would have catastrophic consequences for the region, which is already suffering from a large number of conflicts, and on a wider international scale. We should therefore make every effort to use political and diplomatic mechanisms for resolving this problem and there is no doubt that this opportunity still exists." PM

Ambassador Churkin abstained on September 19 in a UN Security Council vote to extend the authorization of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan (ISAF) for another 12 months, RIA-Novosti reported. Churkin said Russia abstained because the issue of interception at sea was not clarified, and the resolution "should not have given priority to domestic considerations." His latter point was a reference to a passage praising Japan's role, which was widely seen to be linked to a Japanese internal political dispute over whether to continue Japan's naval refueling operation for ISAF. All other 14 permanent members of the council, including China, approved the resolution. PM

Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov was quoted by the daily "Vremya novostei" of September 18 as saying that "the strengthening of U.S.-Australian-Japanese ties has got our attention," reported on September 19. He added that "narrow alliances, especially tight military-political unions, are a worry" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," End Note, September 12, 2007). Losyukov stressed that "we don't hide that concern and talk about it with the Australians and the Americans.... They explain [their approach] by what appear to be not entirely justified fears about North Korea. It's possible the [North] Koreans could cause some unpleasantness for the Japanese But they can't reach the Americans and won't likely be able to for years.'' PM

Vladimir Nikishin, a senior Defense Ministry official, told the State Duma on September 19 that Russia will not build up its reserves of armaments during its suspension of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, RIA-Novosti and ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007). He called any speculation to the contrary "science fiction." In Pskov on September 19, General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian General Staff, said that Moscow views the proposed U.S. missile-defense program in Central Europe as anti-Russian but has sufficient capability to counter it, RIA-Novosti reported. He argued that "the missile-defense system that is being deployed in Europe is clearly aimed against Russia. I am ready to prove that with facts and figures" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 22, 2007). On September 19 in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak said that U.S. and Russian experts recently held "two rounds of talks on the missile defense shield, but I cannot say we have managed to bring Russia's position any closer to that of the United States," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17 and 19, 2007). He added that the next round of talks will take place in October. Kislyak said that Moscow does not view NATO as a potential foe but considers it and the United States "very difficult partners." He argued that "what is unacceptable is that...our Western partners very rarely listen to what we say.... If our partners really want to build relations in the area of control over conventional armed forces in Europe, let's be honest." PM

Although Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov was virtually unknown to the Russian public just six days ago, a new poll has found that 39 percent of Russians now believe he will succeed President Vladimir Putin in March 2008, reported on September 19. The poll by the Levada Center found that 34 percent do not believe Putin has chosen Zubkov to follow him as president. The poll was conducted between September 14 and September 18, beginning just two days after Putin nominated Zubkov as prime minister. Forty-six percent of respondents said they expect Zubkov to be "an obedient executor of the will of Vladimir Putin." RC

The ruble on September 19 reached an eight-year high against the U.S. dollar, "The Moscow Times" reported on September 20. The ruble hit 25.2, a level last reached in October 1999. Analysts expect demand for rubles to continue to run high as businesses prepare to pay their taxes. RC

Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) campaign chairman Anton Bakov told RFE/RL's Russian Service on September 19 that literature professor Marietta Chudakova will occupy the No. 3 spot on the party's list of candidates for the December 2 Duma elections. The first two spots will be held by party leader Nikita Belykh and party Political Council member Boris Nemtsov. The list and the party's platform will be confirmed at the SPS preelection congress on September 21. Chukdakova told RFE/RL that her main task will be to persuade voters to come to the polls and vote. There had been considerable controversy over who would take the No. 3 spot on the SPS list, with widespread media reports that the Kremlin had vetoed proposals to include activist Maria Gaidar, the daughter of former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar; Irina Yasina, the former head of the Yukos-funded NGO Open Russia; and Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, an outspoken critic of the Kremlin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). RC

Fifty-four percent of Russians say they consider it their duty to participate in the December 2 Duma elections, according to poll by the Public Opinion foundation, "Gazeta" reported on September 19. Twenty-seven percent of respondents said they intend to vote largely so that their ballots cannot be used to falsify election results, while another 20 percent said they will vote as an act of protest. Thirty-eight percent said they will vote because they hope the elections will lead to improvements in Russia. Another poll by the same agency found that only Unified Russia has a reliable chance of entering the next Duma, polling 36 percent support among all respondents and 48 percent among respondents who said they "definitely" intend to vote. The Communist Party polled just 9 percent among confirmed voters, barely above the 7 percent barrier required to gain seats in the Duma. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) polled third with 7 percent, and the left-leaning pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party came in with 6 percent. All other parties polled less than 1 percent. RC

A high voter turnout for the December 2 Duma elections is likely to reduce the advantage of Unified Russia, RBK reported on September 19. Turnout for legislative elections has been falling steadily in the post-Soviet period from a high of 65 percent in 1995 to a low of 52 percent in 2003. Polls indicate about 55 percent of voters will turn out this year, although the law has been changed and there is no minimum turnout required to validate the polls. Analysts surveyed by RBK agreed that most voters about the 55 percent margin would likely cast their ballots for the Communist Party or the LDPR. Political consultant Mikhail Omsky predicted that if the turnout is higher than 60 percent, four or five parties could cross the 7 percent threshold and gain seats in the Duma. Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov has said he expects the turnout to be 60 percent. RC

Kostroma Oblast Governor Viktor Shershunov and his driver were killed early on September 20 in an automobile accident in Moscow Oblast, Russian media reported. Shershunov, one of the last Communist governors in Russia, was heading to Moscow for a meeting at the Federal Atomic Energy Agency when his Mercedes collided head-on with another vehicle. Preliminary police reports indicate that the driver of the other vehicle was at fault, although both vehicles were traveling at high speed in a place of poor visibility. Shershunov was first elected in 1996 and won a second term in 2000. After President Putin came to power, Shershunov ended his association with the Communist Party and Unified Russia became the strongest party in the oblast, reported. Putin nominated Shershunov for a third term in April 2005. Shershunov, who was 56, will be buried in Kostroma on September 22. RC

Sociologist and philosopher Boris Grushin died in Moscow on September 18 after a long illness, reported. Grushin, 78, was a founder of the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) and had been involved in public-opinion monitoring since 1960. In all, he carried out more than 700 major studies and published dozens of books. His last work is a four-volume study called "Four Lives Of Russia In The Mirror Of Public Opinion," which has one volume each for the Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin eras. RC

One of the major changes to the election law under which the next Duma elections will be held, compared to the 2003 law, is that all deputies will be elected from party lists and none from single-mandate districts. To compensate for this change, the law also allows non-party members to apply for inclusion on a party list, ostensibly to allow all Russians the theoretical possibility of being elected to the Duma. "Vedomosti" reported on September 19, citing Central Election Commission data, that only 42 Russians applied to parties under this provision of the law and only 25 of them have actually been given places on party lists for the elections. The liberal Yabloko party accepted all five citizens who applied, while Unified Russia took just three of nine and the Communist Party welcomed five of eight. The election law does not lay out the formal procedures under which non-party members may apply for inclusion on the candidates' list and does not require parties to accept them. RC

Federal Migration Service Director Konstantin Romodanovsky told journalists on September 17 that his agency is cooperating with the nationalist, pro-Kremlin youth group Mestnye (Locals) to identify illegal aliens, "Kommersant" reported the next day. "On Saturday [September 15] we conducted work together with Mestnye members at [Moscow's] Yaroslavsky Market," Romodanovsky said. "They helped us a lot and 72 citizens who were illegally trying to work in Russia were detained. Of course, Mestnye members are complicated kids and many of them are militantly oriented. But if you use them sensibly, you can get benefits from them." Mestnye activists led protests against the Estonian Embassy in May when Moscow and Tallinn were locked in a dispute over Estonia's removal of a Soviet war memorial from central Tallinn (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 3 and 4, 2007). RC

Speaking to reporters in Yerevan, Grigor Harutiunian, a senior leader of the opposition People's Party of Armenia (HZhK), announced on September 19 that his party's top leader, Stepan Demirchian, was ready to withdraw from the upcoming presidential election in favor of another opposition candidate capable of challenging the Armenian government, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Harutiunian explained that Demirchian is "strongly committed" to the proposal to select one candidate to run for president representing the country's usually divided opposition parties. Demirchian was the main challenger to President Robert Kocharian in the last presidential election held in 2003, but he has steadily lost popular support since that election and was even unable to retain his parliamentary seat in the May 2007 election. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan, Vazgen Khachikian, a senior member of the ruling Republican Party (HHK), argued on September 19 that their party leader, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, will win the approaching presidential election in the first round of voting, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Khachikian, who also serves as the manager of the state pension fund, said that Sarkisian's "landslide victory" was already "predetermined by the weakness of Armenia's fragmented opposition." Armen Rustamian, a senior leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), the HHK's junior partner in the ruling pro-government coalition, warned on September 19 that his party intends to nominate its own presidential candidate and argued that "we do not think that the outcome of the presidential election is predetermined." Rustamian, the chairman of a committee of parliament, is himself a leading potential candidate from the ARF in the February presidential election. He also noted that President Robert Kocharian's recent decision to support Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian as his unofficial successor in the forthcoming presidential election was "natural," citing the fact that "the two men have long worked together and are much closer to each other," even if it would be "bad for the country." RG

Speaking to reporters in Baku, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov warned on September 19 that the possible joint use of Azerbaijan's Qabala (Gabala) radar station by the United States and Russia would pose a threat to Azerbaijan, Turan and AP reported. The Azerbaijani official added that any such joint operations between Moscow and Washington would make "the issue of security guarantees for Azerbaijan" significantly "more important." The comments follow a recent inspection of the radar facility by a delegation of U.S. military experts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007). Last June, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed the joint use of the Qabala facility, which claims to be capable of monitoring possible missile launches from Iran, as an alternative to U.S. plans for developing a missile-defense system that would include deploying interceptors in Poland and establishing a radar base in the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, July 3, and August 17, 2007). Russia currently leases the Qabala installation from Azerbaijan based on the terms of a January 2002 agreement that permits Russia to use the facility for 10 years for an annual fee of $7 million (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28, 2002). RG

Commenting on the latest round of mediation efforts by the OSCE, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov said on September 19 that there should be no expectations of any change in the Armenian position on the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict prior to Armenia's presidential election, according to Turan. Azimov's remarks came one day after meeting in Baku with the French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict. During the Minsk Group's recent tour of the region, French co-Chairman Ambassador Bernard Fassier revealed that the mediators are considering the possibility of formally including Karabakh representatives in the mediation process (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007). In contrast to earlier criticism of the OSCE by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Azimov welcomed "the continuation of the OSCE Minsk Group's diplomatic efforts" as meeting "Azerbaijan's interests." He also praised the idea of mutual visits of representatives of the Azerbaijani and Armenian "intelligentsia" to Nagorno-Karabakh, and even went so far as to stress the "importance of such a visit for Azerbaijan." RG

A special joint U.S.-Georgian working group concluded on September 19 a three-day round of bilateral defense talks in Atlanta, the Caucasus Press reported. The working group completed a review of the results from the implementation of military cooperation efforts initially agreed upon during an official round of "Bilateral Defense Consultation" talks held in 2006. The working group also defined Georgia's defense priorities, discussed ongoing defense reforms, and studied the Georgian process toward NATO integration and its implementation of an Intensified Dialogue (ID) with the NATO alliance. The talks were somewhat tempered by a recent move by the Georgian leadership to increase the size of its armed forces and to raise defense spending significantly for another year (see "Georgia: What Is Behind Expansion Of Armed Forces?," September 19, 2007, RG

In an interview with Georgian television, Georgian Minister of State for Settlement of Conflicts Davit Bakradze criticized on September 19 Russian peacekeepers deployed in the Georgian-Ossetian "conflict zone" as "inefficient" and "incapable of curbing the excesses" of their own forces, Rustavi-2 TV reported. Bakradze pointed to an incident on September 15 involving an alleged attack by "illegal armed formations" from South Ossetia that resulted in the harming of a civilian near the village of Knoveli. Tension has also been rising last month between Moscow and Tbilisi over the detention by Georgian police of two members of the Ossetian peacekeeping force deployed in the area (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14 and 17, 2007). RG

Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov on September 19 discussed plans to bolster Kazakhstan's naval force in the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan Today reported. The planned buildup, laid out in a new strategic planning document outlining the development of the Kazakh navy through 2015, includes the planned procurement of several large naval vessels. Akhmetov explained that the buildup reflects the recognition that "the Caspian region is of great significance for the economy of Kazakhstan," and the "need to create a modern navy to ensure" security in the Caspian Sea. Akhmetov also said that the country intends to modernize and expand the Zenit ship-building facility in Uralsk in order to "produce ships jointly with a foreign company." He further cited the need to train naval specialists, adding that "unfortunately, today Kazakhstan has no educational basis for training navy specialists," and that the "construction and purchasing of modern ships is impossible without developing necessary coast-based infrastructure and repair facilities." The naval buildup is part of a broader effort to expand, train, and develop the Kazakh armed forces, and conforms to Akhmetov's earlier pledge that Kazakhstan will become an "advanced military power" within five years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007). Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has also vowed to purchase "the world's best" weapons and increase the armed forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24 and May 9, 2007). RG

Speaking in an annual televised address to the nation, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev called on September 19 for a referendum on a new constitution, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Bakiev set October 21 as the date for the referendum, in a move seeking to end the political deadlock between the Kyrgyz Constitutional Court and parliament over the court's recent overturning of a set of constitutional amendments that were adopted in November 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 2007). That ruling, which prompted parliament to adopt a vote of no confidence in the court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007), held that the constitutional amendment process illegally violated the requirement that "changes or amendments to the constitution can be made only through a referendum," effectively nullifying the present constitution and restoring the February 2003 version. The constitutional amendments that were adopted in late 2006 imposed new limits on presidential authority following widespread demonstrations, but were later significantly modified and watered down by pro-government parliamentarians in December 2006, restoring much of the power to the presidency. The president also recognized the Constitutional Court's ruling and explained that "we have no choice but to accept the rule of law." He revealed that the referendum would consider a new constitution containing "changes to the way parliament is elected" and "providing for the formation of the parliament on the basis of party lists." That change was already part of the 2006 amendments that did away with single-mandate districts. RG

In additional comments during his televised national speech, Kyrgyz President Bakiev outlined his main political and economic aims in the coming years, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Bakiev also said he intends to form a new political party, according to Kyrgyz TV. That move would presumably take advantage of the new party-list-based parliamentary election, most likely to be called for early 2008 after the planned October referendum on a new constitution. Bakiev explained that his decision to set up a "new political force," or a "party of creation, responsibility, and action," is aimed at "helping to fulfill tasks outlined in the development strategy of the country." He also said that "the existing political parties are not taking responsibility" for policies, and "only criticize the authorities." RG

Former National Bank head Stanislau Bahdankevich told journalists in Minsk on September 19 that Belarus is on the verge of a serious financial crisis, Belapan reported. Bahdankevich said the country's deficit in foreign trade amounted to some $1.5 billion in the first six months of this year, compared with some $2 billion in all of 2006. The expert warned that the government's foreign debt might soar to more than 50 percent of its budget by 2011 if the trends continue. "The authorities do not see or prefer not to see the bomb that they are sitting on. They do not tackle their financial problems, but only make them worse," Bahdankevich noted. JM

The European Commission intends to launch two projects supporting Belarus's independent media outlets at the end of 2007 or the beginning of 2008, Belapan reported on September 19, quoting Armin Wisdorff, an official from the commission's EuropeAid Cooperation Office. The first project, with a budget of 500,000 euros ($700,000), will be aimed at helping independent media outlets develop electronic content covering the European Union and events in Belarus. The second project will be carried out as part of the EU's media-support program targeting EU neighbors. The overall program will be supported by a budget of 7 million euros. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on September 20 gathered for a session to discuss a 2008 draft budget prepared by the cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainian media reported. The session, which is considered illegitimate by President Viktor Yushchenko and the opposition Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine, was attended by 260 lawmakers from the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party. The budget draft was presented by First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. The previous day, Yushchenko condemned the parliamentary gathering as "free publicity" for pro-government forces "at the expense of the state budget" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007). JM

Ukraine has rejected a Russian proposal on how to determine the origin of the dioxin used to poison President Yushchenko when he was a presidential candidate in 2004, AP reported on September 19. Three other countries that produce the type of dioxin used-- Great Britain, Canada, and the United States -- have reportedly submitted samples to Ukraine for testing, but Russia has refused. This month Russia offered to test samples of its dioxin in Russia and report the results to Ukraine. The Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office rejected this offer. "Under Ukrainian law, the tests will only be valid if they are conducted on Ukrainian territory," Prosecutor-General's Office spokesman Yuriy Boychenko said on September 19. Last week, Yushchenko accused Russia of hampering the poisoning investigation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2007). He did not name any suspects, but said that they are hiding in Russia. On September 19, Yushchenko expressed hope that the suspects will be deported from Russia to Ukraine. JM

Former Security Service head Ihor Smeshko told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on September 19 that investigators working on the poisoning case have already missed their chance to prove that President Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin during a supper at the dacha of former Security Service deputy head Volodymyr Satsyuk. According to Ukrainian media, that version of the poisoning case is the most plausible for investigation, but Smeshko said the investigation into that scenario is now "deadlocked". "Since February 2005 all the resources of the law-enforcement system have been oriented toward bringing this version to a logical end. But after a year, during which there were no legally authorized examinations of the dioxin, it is impossible to determine the time" when Yushchenko was initially poisoned, Smeshko said. JM

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic called on September 18 for the EU to immediately give "candidate status to all western Balkan countries," the news service Balkan Insight reported on September 19. Jeremic argued that such a "clear road map of membership of the EU" would reinvigorate the EU's sense of purpose and ensure that "hope will take the place of fear" across the Balkans. Jeremic made his comments while in London to discuss preparations for direct talks on the status of Kosova with international mediators. Romano Prodi, Italy's prime minister and the former president of the European Commission, suggested on September 10 that the EU come up with a special deal for Serbia, including economic incentives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2007). Prodi justified a deal in part as a means to facilitate talks on the future of Kosova, but EU and Serbian officials have regularly insisted there can be no linkage between the issues of Kosova's future and Serbia's future in the EU. Jeremic made no connection between the two issues. Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are the only two states in the Balkans not to have taken the first step toward becoming EU members, the signing of a Stabilization and Accession Agreement (SAA). Serbia's hopes of concluding an SAA now rest chiefly on its ability and willingness to capture Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' military commander during the 1992-95 war, whom the UN wants to try for war crimes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13 and 17, 2007). AG

Kosova's ethnic-Albanian leadership used a September 19 meeting with international mediators to try to place post-independence relations with Serbia at the center of attention, rather than the still unresolved issue of Kosova's status, by presenting a draft "friendship" treaty. The offer was immediately rejected by Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who said "we do not see future relations between Serbia and Kosovo as a relationship between two independent states," Serbian media reported. Kosovar Albanian leaders argue that independence is "non-negotiable." According to the office of Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu, the treaty would have committed Kosova and Serbia to settle disputes without violence; to protect human rights, ethnic minorities, and important sites in Kosova; to locate and identify the remains of people missing since the 1998-99 conflict; and to cooperate in efforts to join the EU as part of "a joint vision of further integration within Europe." The mediators' talks in London, which spanned two days, focused on preparing for direct talks, which are expected to begin on September 28. Serbia's minister for Kosova, Slobodan Samardzic, said on September 17 that "real talks" will begin in October. AG

The Serbian Orthodox Church has filed criminal charges against its rival, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, for fomenting national, racial, and religious hatred, Montenegrin newspapers reported on September 15. The charges are directed at the head of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, Miras Dedeic, whom the Serbian Orthodox Church described as a "defrocked priest condemned to damnation," and also against Stevo Vucinic, a senior official in the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. The Serbian Orthodox Church is the only patriarchate recognized as having jurisdiction in Montenegro by the world's Orthodox community. However, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church claims it is Montenegro's legitimate church and accuses the Serbian Orthodox Church of seizing church buildings from it in the early 20th century. The longstanding dispute has escalated this year into open confrontations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13 and 16, 2007). A court in the town of Bar in June imposed restrictions on Dedeic after he entered a Serbian Orthodox Church, one of a number of incidents in which members of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church have sought to interrupt their rival's services or enter its buildings. Tensions were then heightened by an explosion at the site of a new Serbian Orthodox Church in Podgorica (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 13, 2007). The Serbian Orthodox Church has also been angered by the Montenegrin government, which first barred and then imposed tight restrictions on an Orthodox bishop thought by the UN to have helped war-crimes indictees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, August 13, and September 7 and 10, 2007). AG

Serbia's Union of Jewish Communities is urging the Serbian government to prevent a rally of neo-Nazis in the northern city of Novi Sad, the news service Balkan Insight reported on September 18. The decision to give the go-ahead to the rally, which is due to be held on October 7, has also prompted criticism from human-rights groups and some politicians. The rally is potentially all the more combustible because Novi Sad is the capital of Vojvodina, a province with a very mixed population. A court in Novi Sad in November 2006 convicted 18 members of the group behind the rally, Nacionalni Stroj, for inciting hatred. Nacionalni Stroj was also responsible for death threats issued against a prominent local journalist, Dinko Gruhonjic, in April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16 and May 4, 2007). The last anti-Semitic incident in Novi Sad to come to national prominence was in March 2007, when a swastika was daubed onto the walls of the city's synagogue. AG

A Bosnian Croat, Kreso Lucic, was sentenced on September 19 to six years in jail for crimes against humanity committed between April and September 1993 during the war in Bosnia. Lucic was found guilty of imprisoning and torturing Bosnian Muslim civilians in the central Bosnian towns of Kresevo, Kiseljak, Busovaca, and Vitez, areas where he headed a Bosnian Croat military police unit. The prisoners were subjected to forced labor and deprived of food, water, and medical help. Also on September 19, Bosnia's secret service arrested a Bosnian Muslim, Suad Kapic, who is accused of war crimes against Bosnian Serbs in September 1995. AG

The EU on September 18 signed agreements to reduce the paperwork required for government officials, students and academics, businesspeople, and a number of other groups from five Balkan countries to gain visas to enter the EU. The changes, which should also substantially cut the cost and the processing time of a visa, will come into effect on January 2008. The five countries -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia -- have in turn agreed to conditions for the repatriation of their citizens, to bolster anticrime measures, and to tighten border security. Montenegrin Foreign Minister Milan Rocen described the agreement as his country's "first step in our [formal] responsibilities in relations with the EU," Montenegrin media reported. Montenegro took its first step towards membership in March by signing a Stabilization and Accession Agreement (SAA), and hopes to apply to become a candidate for membership in mid-2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). Albania has signed an SAA, and Slovenia's foreign minister, Dimitrij Rupel, told the Austrian newspaper "Wiener Zeitung" on September 14 that he hopes Macedonia will move beyond the SAA to start EU accession talks during Slovenia's presidency of the EU, in the first half of 2008. Neither Bosnia nor Serbia has yet signed an SAA. AG

Srgjan Kerim on September 18 became the first Macedonian diplomat to head the UN General Assembly. Kerim used his first speech to the assembly as president to urge the UN to focus on five issues: climate change, poverty, terrorism, internal reforms, and boosting funding for UN development programs. Kerim, who was Macedonia's foreign minister in 2000-01 and has served as an ambassador to Germany, Switzerland, and the UN, was selected for the post in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 2007). He is the fourth diplomat from a postcommunist country to head the assembly since 1989. AG

The European Commission has taken its first steps to forge a unified energy policy across the 27-nation bloc and lessen its dependence on foreign firms such as Russia's Gazprom. The EU's executive branch said Europe's energy markets must be liberalized, yet remain closed to ownership by foreign companies whose countries of origin do not respect EU competition rules. Some are calling the proposals among the most controversial decisions to come out of Brussels in years.

Under the hard-fought proposals, the EU's executive body says it seeks to boost competition by breaking up utilities that control both the production as well as the delivery of energy. In practice, that means firms that produce power, such as Italy's ENI or E.ON of Germany, would have to sell off the supply side of their business -- their gas pipelines or electric grids -- or else hand them over to an independent operator.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso says the proposals are meant to open up Europe's gas and electricity market to more competition. But not everyone's being invited in.

The rules would bar foreign companies, such as Russia's Gazprom or Algeria's Sonatrach, from controlling energy networks -- unless their home nations agree with the EU to open up their home markets in "reciprocal" fashion.

Addressing a news conference in Brussels on September 19, Barroso did not cite Gazprom, which supplies 25 percent of Europe's gas. But the state-controlled energy giant -- accused of using energy policy as a political weapon for the Kremlin in countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia -- was clearly on Barroso's mind.

"Individuals and countries should not be able to acquire control over a [European] community [energy] transmission network unless there is an agreement between the community and the company's country of origin," he said. "This is simply to ensure that the unbundling rules will be respected. Once again, the aim is not to prevent these companies from playing a greater role on European Union markets. On the contrary, it is to make sure that all follow the same rules."

The EU has long frowned on Russia's refusal to open its energy sector to foreign investors while state-controlled Gazprom has easy access to the EU market. But Joerg Himmelreich, a Berlin-based energy security analyst, says Russia is unlikely to change its position despite the new European approach.

For Russia, "it will be unacceptable in the near-future that foreign companies will get access to the downstream, to the transport, to the transmission part," Himmelreich says, "because if you have the transmission part, you say what price you charge the customer. And this is used as a political instrument in the region, and so from Russia, Putin and his potential successor will never allow this."

Recently, Gazprom has exploited the lack of a unified EU energy policy to cut major bilateral deals with nations across Europe. Gazprom now boasts a presence in 17 EU countries through joint ventures, subsidiaries, or stakes. And the Russian behemoth, which still has to sell its gas at the EU border, has gained control of some distribution networks -- such as in Italy this year -- to pair with its formidable supply capacity.

In a statement, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said his company was a reliable gas supplier and a major investor in the infrastructure that brings gas to Europe. "We share the EU's core goal of ensuring long-term security of energy supply to the EU," he said.

But in its report, the European Commission bluntly noted that all non-EU companies will have to "comply with the same unbundling requirements as EU companies."

In Europe, Gazprom's most notable distribution deal is perhaps Wingas, its joint venture with Wintershall, Germany's largest producer of crude oil and natural gas. Fifty percent of Wingas is owned by Gazprom, and the firm controls 2,000 kilometers of pipelines in Germany, as well as Europe's largest underground gas depot.

But now, Gazprom faces the breakup of that deal -- and many others. So do the proposals reflect a new confrontational attitude in Europe toward Russia?

Himmelreich, who studies energy security at the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, doesn't think so. Instead, he says that after Gazprom in recent years cut or limited supplies to Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia, the EU is realizing that it needs to safeguard against similar potential backlashes by Moscow.

"You may call it to some extent confrontation," he says, "but I would say more it's a kind of defense. It's defending the private competition in Europe against external interference by state-owned political vehicles like Gazprom."

To be sure, opposition to "unbundling" is high among European energy firms as well, particularly in Germany and France. But they do have some time on their side. The proposals must still be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers. Analysts expect the debate to remain fierce, but that the proposals will end up being implemented, even if the process takes more than two years.(Jeffrey Donovan is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

The United Nations Security Council on September 19 authorized NATO-led troops to remain in Afghanistan for one more year, while adding new language to the resolution providing support to Japan's minority government to resolve its domestic debate over extending its mission, Reuters reported. The UN resolution includes a new sentence acknowledging the contribution of many countries to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, specifically referencing Japan's "maritime interdiction component." The vote on the resolution was 14-0, with Russia abstaining and China criticizing the resolution, yet voting in favor. Commenting on the new language to support Japan's government, Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that "a decision was made to give priority to domestic considerations of some members of the United Nations." He noted that "our main responsibility is to the Security Council," adding that the council members should have "exerted every effort to get unanimity" on the resolution, as the ISAF mandate does not expire until November 1. Members of Afghanistan's Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament, have publicly called on Japan to extend the mission, warning that rejecting an extended mandate would weaken Japan's ties with those countries still involved in the war (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007). In Japan, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, Ichiro Ozawa, has opposed extending Japan's mission to refuel American and other ships in the Indian Ocean because he believes the activities lack direct UN permission and relevance, and has called the war in Afghanistan "an American fight" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). JC

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on September 18 asked Canada not to withdraw its 2,500 troops in early 2009, warning that to do so would allow Afghanistan to "fall back" into the hands of Taliban militants, Reuters reported. Addressing a meeting of Canadian reporters in Afghanistan, Karzai argued that Canada's presence is needed in Afghanistan until the country is able to maintain its own security, "and that day is not going to be in 2009," "The Globe" quoted him as saying. Karzai said that "anarchy will bring back safe havens to terrorists...and terrorists will then hurt you back there in Canada and the United States." Opposition parties in Canada have said the country's troops have spent too much time battling the Taliban-led insurgency at the cost of reconstruction and development efforts, a sentiment previously voiced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 19, 2007). Canada's minority conservative government says it will withdraw troops unless Parliament approves the mission extension, despite pledges by Harper to continue support for the mission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). JC

Bangladesh on September 19 requested assistance from U.S. authorities in securing the release of an abducted aid worker employed by a leading Bangladeshi nongovernmental organization, ANI reported. Six gunmen raided the Pul-i-Alam office of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) in Logar Province on September 16 and kidnapped 40-year old Noor Islam, just three days after a BRAC executive was shot nearby (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 2007). Foreign affairs adviser Iftekhar Ahmed on September 19 sought U.S. assistance during official talks with visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs John Gastrait. The Bangladeshi government has appealed to Islam's captors and called for his immediately release, calling the aid worker's mission "purely humanitarian" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2007). Meanwhile, another BRAC employee who was fatally shot in Afghanistan was buried at home in Dhaka, Bangladesh. BRAC has been operating in Afghanistan since 2002 to provide humanitarian assistance and facilitate micro-credit programs aimed at empowering the poor. JC

The European Union announced on September 18 that it has chosen a new head for its police mission in Afghanistan, following the unexpected departure of the previous leader, Deutsche Welle reported the next day. German General Jurgen Scholz will replace outgoing General Friedrich Eichele, who left the post on September 10 amid conflicting reports over the reason for his departure. While German officials claimed Eichele's removal from the post was part of "reorganization," reports arose that the German military leader was at odds with NATO, EU, and Afghan officials over the lack of priority given to training Afghan security forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2007). German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble made the appointment public following discussions with his EU counterparts, and proposed at the same time deeper cooperation with American forces on police training in Afghanistan. He added that he intends to raise the issue during an upcoming visit to Washington. JC

Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar said in Tehran on September 19 that "we too have...various responses" to threats from the United States, apparently responding to remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that "all options are on the table" to force Iran to abandon its contested atomic program. Mohammad-Najjar said Iran is planning demonstration flights on September 22 of two domestically made fighters jets, called Saeqeh, which he said are the new generation of the Azarakhsh (Lightning) fighter jet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2007). The flights will be part of a parade marking Holy Defense Week, which commemorates the 1980 invasion of Iran by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's armies and the subsequent eight-year war. Mohammad-Najjar said the Saeqeh has been jointly developed by Defense Ministry industries and the regular army's air force. He said the Defense Ministry-affiliated Malek-i Ashtar University is developing "flexible fuel tanks" for helicopters, which he described as a first in the Middle East, although he did not give details. He said the armed forces this year will display only armaments and hardware made in Iran, Fars reported. VS

Mohammad Alavi, the deputy-commander for operations of the regular army's air force, said in Tehran on September 19 that Iran has "designed a plan that allows its bombers to carry out a counter-attack on Israeli territory in case of that regime's stupidity" in attacking Iran, Fars agency reported. He said Israeli threats to strike Iran are mere publicity, and that it lacks "the real capability" for such an attack. "In addition, our missiles can reach all of that state's territory. We can attack their soil with our fighter jets," he said. Iran's retaliation plan, he said, "is not just an empty threat" but well-planned, and he advised Israel to expel "any stupidity from its head." Alavi expressed satisfaction with Iran's developing armaments industry, particularly Iranian-made items such as intelligent bombs and ammunition and "a variety of long-range missiles" or rockets. He said Iran is now training its own pilots, and has recuperated skills -- such as night time bombardments or air-to-air firing -- lost for a while when "foreign advisers left," presumably following the fall of the Shah in 1979. Alavi said Iran's radar systems are set up to ensure the surveillance of "most blind spots," and that "all flying objects" crossing into Iran's airspace "from the ground level to a very high altitude are under our control." He said Iran's borders are subject to round-the-clock surveillance and "enemy forces can see this with their own equipment." Iran, he said, can spot and respond to any movement on its border, and can intercept cruise missiles, contrary to unspecified Western reports he cited. Alavi added that Iran would not idly endure strikes on its installations, and said that at least 30 percent of enemy aircraft would be shot down on its territory, Fars reported. VS

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking in Paris on September 19, called for diplomatic action "with teeth" in response to Iran's contested nuclear program, and echoed the recent calls by French officials for tougher sanctions against Iran, AFP reported. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on September 18 in Washington that the United States will discuss "elements of a resolution" against Iran with envoys of the 5+1 powers, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, which are due to meet in Washington on September 21. He said the 5+1 foreign ministers are also set to meet in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on September 28, and expressed hope that these and other meetings "will move the ball forward" with punitive measures against Iran. Iran has so far refused to halt nuclear fuel-making activities in line with UN Security Council demands. VS

An unspecified number of Iranian technicians are thought to have died in June when a secret chemicals plant or chemical weapons base exploded in the Aleppo district in northern Syria, Radio Farda reported on September 19, citing the military intelligence group Jane's. Jane's reported that chemical weapons were being produced at the site where the explosion apparently took place on June 26, killing 15 Syrian employees. Iranian and Syrian officials have not reacted to the report, Radio Farda added. Jane's Defense Weekly recently reported that the explosion ruined plans undertaken by Iran and Syria to arm Syrian Scud B, Scud C, and Scud D short-range ballistic missiles with chemical warheads. Radio Farda quoted an unnamed Syrian source as telling Jane's that the missiles would have delivered mustard gas. Such experiments violate international laws, Radio Farda added. The broadcaster observed that the report follows an apparent Israeli air raid on Syria on September 6, and recent North Korean denials on the alleged delivery of nuclear-related equipment to Syria. VS

Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Hossan Zaki said in Cairo on September 18 that Iran and Egypt are due to hold talks on their relations, frozen since 1980, at the level of "senior officials and then foreign ministers," AFP reported. Zaki's comments followed a meeting in Cairo that day between Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araqchi and Hussein Dirar, an Egyptian assistant foreign minister. Zaki told AFP by phone that both sides are willing to develop relations and advance toward removing obstacles to ties. The agency reported that there was no immediate comment from Tehran. It quoted Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's statement last May that he is ready to reopen the Iranian embassy "the very day" Egypt agrees. The two states have interests sections in each other's capitals. Their relations deteriorated following Iran's 1979 revolution, and after Egypt recognized Israel and gave asylum to the exiled Shah of Iran and his family. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told reporters at a September 19 press briefing in Baghdad that a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee is continuing to investigate the alleged killing of Iraqi civilians by contractors working for the U.S. security firm Blackwater USA, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007). Al-Maliki contended that the September 16 incident "is not the first time in which [Blackwater] has committed such a crime," saying the government knows of seven such incidents. "The company must be held accountable for its actions. We will never allow Iraqi citizens to be killed in cold blood," al-Maliki said. RFI asked al-Maliki whether the government should amend Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 17, which states that multinational forces, their personnel, and all international consultants, which includes private security contractors, "shall be immune from the Iraqi legal process." Al-Maliki replied: "The joint investigation committee has included in its program revising this decree or amending or rectifying it in a manner that prevents the recurrence of such incidents." Asked about the status of the draft Accountability and Justice Law and the draft Governorate Councils Law, al-Maliki told RFI: "As far as we in the cabinet are concerned, we have already referred [the draft laws] to the Council of Representatives for discussion." KR

Two high-profile lawmakers have pulled out of former prime minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqis List after Allawi admitted publicly that he has strong relations with Saddam Hussein-era Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri's wing of the Ba'ath Party. Allawi is also a former Ba'athist. Al-Duri fled Iraq in 2003, and his wing is believed to be funding insurgents inside Iraq. Safia al-Suhayl and Hajim al-Hasani, a former industry minister and a parliament speaker in the interim and transitional governments, announced their resignations at a September 19 press briefing in Baghdad. Al-Suhayl's father was assassinated by Saddam Hussein's regime. Al-Hasani told reporters at the briefing that those leaving the list "seek to build a parliamentary coalition that adopts the principles and values of the list, and agrees on clear democratic decision-making mechanisms and clearer policies pertaining to the political process," adding, "our withdrawal embodies the principle of freedom and democracy." KR

Prime Minister al-Maliki commented on Iyad Allawi's recent revelations on his relations with the Ba'ath Party, telling reporters on September 19: "I am surprised by the behavior of brother Iyad, even on the level of his political interests and political future. How can he go and meet with Izzat al-Duri, who still declares his dependence on the Ba'ath Party and the return of Ba'athist rule to Iraq? What does brother Iyad want? Does he want to return the Ba'ath Party to Iraq?" Al-Maliki noted that the Ba'ath Party is "proscribed under the constitution," and "accused of terrorism," while Allawi "is a member of the Council of Representatives and leader of a list and a bloc." Al-Maliki added that meeting with the Ba'ath Party so openly may bring problems for Allawi, "because meeting someone from the Ba'ath Party is a terrorist act." KR

An aide to Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani escaped an assassination attempt in Al-Basrah, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on September 19. Armed men traveling in a civilian car opened fire on Imad Abd al-Karim as he left the Al-Kazim Mosque in Basrah following evening prayers. His bodyguard was killed in the attack, while Abd al-Karim sustained unspecified injuries. Three aides to al-Sistani have been attacked in as many weeks in Al-Basrah. Muslim al-Battat, imam of the al-Urwah Mosque, and Husyan al-Husayni, imam of the Al-Mahattah Mosque, were killed in those attacks. The attacks appear to be part of an organized campaign currently underway in central and southern Iraq targeting representatives of al-Sistani (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," August 17, 2007). KR

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns in Ankara on September 19 to discuss several issues including the Turkish-Kurdish separatist group Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Burns told reporters after the meeting that the United States stands alongside Turkey in its fight against the PKK, which both states have deemed a terrorist group. "We share the same notion that attacks perpetrated by the PKK must end," the Anatolia news agency quoted Burns as saying. "We are on Turkey's side in its struggle against terror. We are against the PKK and have not provided arms to his terrorist organization," Burns said, in an apparent reference to recent press reports that the United States may be arming the PKK to fight Iran. The "PKK is a ruthless terrorist organization and cannot receive support from the U.S. administration," he added. Anatolia reported that Burns said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will attend the upcoming meeting of foreign ministers of Iraq's neighboring states, slated to be held in Istanbul in October. KR

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari agreed in Moscow on September 19 that regional problems can be solved only by peaceful means and "dialogue," Interfax and reported. The two men specifically mentioned the situation in Lebanon, the Iranian nuclear program issue, and the broader Arab-Israeli dispute, including the situation in the Palestinian territories. Zebari noted the interest of Russian companies "with significant experience of working in Iraq in the reconstruction of economic facilities in that country." He added that he discussed the matter with LUKoil CEO Vagit Alekperov. Zebari said that LUKoil will have to take part in the new tender for the West Qurna II field (for which it once had a contract under the previous regime) but will have an advantage compared to companies from other countries because it already accomplished much there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 25, 2004, and April 25, 2007). The Iraqi minister also noted that his country's authorities have arrested a man in conjunction with the 2006 abduction and killing of four Russian Embassy employees. Zebari described the man as linked to Al-Qaeda. PM