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Newsline - September 25, 2007


COMPOSITION OF NEW RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT REVEALED...
The Kremlin press office early on September 25 announced the composition of the new Russian government, Russian and international media reported. President Vladimir Putin accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov on September 12 and nominated Federal Financial Monitoring Service Director Viktor Zubkov to replace him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12 and 13, 2007). The new cabinet has fewer changes than many analysts expected. Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref has been replaced by his former deputy Elvira Nabiullina; Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov has been replaced by former Deputy Finance Minister Tatyana Golikova (who is the wife of Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko); and Regional Development Minister Vladimir Yakovlev has been replaced by presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak, a longtime Putin ally. The president declined to accept the resignation of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who offered to step down after Zubkov, his father-in-law, became premier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007). Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who remains in the cabinet, has been raised to the status of deputy prime minister. First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin -- all considered possible candidates to replace Putin as president in 2008 -- retained their positions. Putin's new order also creates a Federal Youth Agency and restores the Federal Fisheries Agency, which was abolished in 2004 as hopelessly corrupt. RC

...AS SIGNIFICANCE FOR ECONOMIC POLICY REMAINS UNCERTAIN
The changes in the government announced on September 25 sent mixed signals regarding the country's economic policy, Russian media reported. New Economic Development and Trade Minister Nabiullina is considered a market-oriented professional. Likewise, Kudrin's elevation to deputy prime minister was seen by some analysts as a sign that the Finance Ministry's policies will continue, and the appointment of his former deputy, Golikova, as health and social development minister, was noted by gzt.ru as a possible signal that the government intends to keep tight control over social spending in the coming months. Another figure from the Finance Ministry, Tatyana Kulkina, was named assistant to the prime minister in charge of his personal office. Others, however, noted that Zubkov was formerly Kudrin's subordinate and thought Kudrin's promotion might be a way of assuaging his feelings. Rusnovosti.ru reported that the presidential decree on the new government removes Zubkov's old agency, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, from the control of the Finance Ministry and places it directly under Zubkov. Moreover, the responsibilities of the other key economics ministry, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, have been considerably reduced under the new structure. Newsru.com wrote the ministry "has been changed into a consultant to the government without any control over financial flows." RC

PUTIN NAMES REPRESENTATIVE ON NATIONAL BANKING COUNCIL
In addition to naming women to head the Economic Development and Trade Ministry and the Health and Social Development Ministry, President Putin on September 25 named former Central Bank Deputy Chairwoman Tatyana Paramonova, who left the Central Bank on September 3, as one of his representatives on the National Banking Council, newsru.com reported. The 12-member National Banking Council -- which includes the head of the Central Bank, three representatives of the president, three representatives of the government, and five representatives of the State Duma -- makes policy decisions for the Central Bank. Paramonova was acting Central Bank head in the aftermath of the 1994 ruble crisis, in which the national currency lost 30 percent of its value in one day and Central Bank head Viktor Gerashchenko resigned. RC

ANALYSTS VIEW GOVERNMENT SHAKEUP AS PART OF ELECTION PROCESS
Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told RFE/RL's Russian Service on September 25 that the cabinet appointments can only be seen "in the election context." "Of course the government has to be a campaign headquarters and must scrupulously make sure that money gets out to the regions, to the voters. It was no coincidence that Putin began his announcement [of the new government] on Channel One by saying that pensions will be increased as of October 1," Oreshkin said. Analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told RFE/RL that the fact that Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov remains in the cabinet is a sign that the president supports A Just Russia. Sokolov heads that party's Moscow regional list in the upcoming Duma elections. "Putin made it clear that he supports A Just Russia, and that signal will definitely be heard within the bureaucracy," Pavlovsky said. RC

NEW GOVERNMENT REVIVES TOPIC OF NEPOTISM
President Putin's refusal to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Zubkov's son-in-law, Defense Minister Serdyukov, and his appointment of the wife of Energy and Industry Minister Khristenko as health and social development minister set off a wave of articles in the Russian media about nepotism in the political elite. Analysts noted that the laws on nepotism extend to ministers and their deputies but not to the prime minister and his or her ministers; there is also no law against spouses both serving in the cabinet since they do not report to one another. However, some analysts, including Belkovsky, expect Energy and Industry Minister Khristenko to submit his resignation in any case, although it will certainly be refused. "Kommersant-Vlast" on September 25 listed some prominent examples of relatives of leading Russian officials serving in state organs. Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov's son is married to the daughter of deputy presidential administration head Igor Sechin and works in the presidential administration. Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev's son Dmitry is a vice president at the state-controlled Vneshtorgbank and his other son, Andrei, is an adviser to the board of directors of Rosneft (Sechin is the chairman of that board). Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Ramzan Kadyrov named his cousin, Odes Baisultanov as the republic's prime minister. Two nephews of the wife of Voronzezh Oblast Governor Vladimir Kulako are serving as deputy speakers of the oblast legislature. RC

ST. PETERSBURG GOVERNOR TO HEAD UNIFIED RUSSIA'S LOCAL PARTY LIST
St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko has agreed to head the local Unified Russia party list for the December 2 Duma elections, Interfax reported on September 25, citing party leader and Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov. Gryzlov noted that Matvienko worked closely with the party in local legislative elections in St. Petersburg in March. Unified Russia won a dominant position in the city's Legislative Assembly after the opposition Yabloko party was disqualified in a questionable court decision (see "Pro-Kremlin Parties Dominate Regional Elections," rferl.org, March 12, 2007). RC

CIVIC FORCE, PATRIOTS OF RUSSIA HOLD PREELECTION CONGRESSES
The Civic Force party held its national preelection congress in Moscow on September 23, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The party's list of candidates for the December 2 Duma elections will be headed by party leader Mikhail Barshchevsky, party activist Aleksandr Ryabkin, and State Duma Deputy Viktor Pokhmelkin. The party's platform calls for protections for minorities; less government control over the economy; the liberalization of the oil and gas sectors; and the direct election of members of the Federation Council, governors, and mayors. The Patriots of Russia party held its congress on September 24 in Moscow. Its party list will be headed by party leader Gennady Semigin, Party of Russia's Rebirth leader Gennady Seleznyov, and actor Sergei Mokhovikov. Duma Deputies Viktor Cherepkov, Yury Savelev, and Aleksandr Krutov, RFE/RL reported. Popular Duma Deputies Sergei Glazev and Dmitry Rogozin do not appear on the list. Duma Deputy Andrei Savelev, who is also on the party's list, discussed Rogozin's exclusion with RFE/RL: "The reason is known to everyone -- we don't have free elections. Parties don't decide who to put on their lists and who not to -- the president's administration does. Dmitry Rogozin, a citizen of Russia, can use some of his rights, but not others. He couldn't appear on the Patriots of Russia list because that list would have been liquidated by some administrative means." Unified Russia is now the only party participating in the Duma vote that has not held its congress. The Unified Russia meeting, at which President Putin is expected to appear, will be October 1-2. RC

EU SAYS IT IS NOT BLOCKING GAZPROM
EU Ambassador to Russia Marc Franco said in Moscow that the bloc's new legislation aimed at liberalizing its internal energy market by breaking up utilities that control energy production and distribution is not anti-Russian, Reuters reported on September 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007). He stressed that Russia is welcome to invest in generating and supply assets. Franco noted that "the EU energy proposals aim first and foremost at strengthening the EU energy market [but] have been misinterpreted as an anti-Gazprom measure. Politicians and commentators need to read the text. As far as foreign investment in the energy sector is concerned, the text is very welcoming and open." He added that restrictions apply only to pipelines and power grids. Franco noted that "no country would allow foreign investors to control its energy transport systems. Would Russia allow foreign companies to control Transneft? The electricity grid? The Gazprom pipelines?" PM

RUSSIAN DIPLOMATS DISCUSS MISSILE DEFENSE, NEO-NAZISM, AFGHANISTAN AT UN
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on the margins of the UN General Assembly session in New York on September 24 that he hopes NATO member states will take part in Russia's long-standing initiative to set up a "non-strategic missile-defense system for Europe," RIA-Novosti reported. Lavrov noted that Russia proposes "forming a multilateral pool of interested states, primarily European ones. We want NATO member states to understand this and commit themselves." Also at the UN, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Yakovenko said in an interview published in the state-run daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on September 24 that "a strong UN is in Russia's interest," mid.ru reported. Asked about a Russian proposal on combating neo-Nazism throughout the world, Yakovenko replied that the matter becomes more timely with each passing year, and singled out Latvia and Estonia as requiring special attention. Yakovenko noted that the EU did not support a similar Russian initiative against neo-Nazism in 2006 out of solidarity with the Baltic states. He nonetheless expressed the hope that EU member states will back the Russian proposal this time and not exhibit "double standards" on the matter of neo-Nazism. Yakovenko also warned all countries against "any cooperation with...Taliban militants in Afghanistan" who have allegedly renounced extremism, kommersant.com reported on September 24. He said that although "quite a few" people believe that negotiating with at least some Taliban militants could help stabilize the region, such views are mistaken. He stressed that Moscow believes in "isolating extremist leaders" lest they attempt a gradual return to power. PM

NORWAY RAISES DOUBTS ABOUT NATO ROLE AGAINST RUSSIA
The Norwegian television station NRK on September 23 broadcast excerpts of a secret study prepared by General Sverre Diesen, Norway's chief of defense, in which Diesen and his associates question the ability of NATO to come to Norway's aid in the event of a "serious conflict" involving Russia, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on September 25. Diesen argued that NATO is too preoccupied with Afghanistan and terrorism in that part of the world to deal with problems in the Far North. He stressed that Norway is unlikely to face an outright Russian attack, but could be confronted with a type of conflict situation that Diesen dubbed a "gray zone." He noted that Russia and Norway have a tense relationship at times because of problems relating to fishing, gas, and oil resources in the Far North. Diesen wrote that the number of Russian military exercises in that region has increased considerably in recent months and that Norwegian fighter aircraft have scrambled to meet Russian bombers 18 times in the past five months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2007). The German daily noted that Russia's increasing military muscle-flexing in recent months has triggered a lively debate in Sweden and Finland on possiblly joining NATO. PM

MINISTER CALLS FOR FASTER WORK ON GLOBAL NAVIGATION SYSTEM
Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Nakhodka in the Far East on September 25 that work must be speeded up on Glonass, Russia's global navigation system, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). Ivanov stressed that the problem with Glonass is the "receiving infrastructure, not the satellites" that send the signals. He said it is a "shame" that the port of Vostochny in Nakhodka is the only place in the Far East where a Glonass center is currently located. PM

NEW DAGHESTANI AGRICULTURE MINISTER NAMED DEPUTY PREMIER
President Mukhu Aliyev on September 24 dismissed Djaparbeg Shamkhalov from the post of deputy prime minister he held since October 2006 and named to replace him Murat Shikhsaidov, whom Aliyev appointed agriculture minister last month, kavkaz-uzel.ru and riadagestan.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). Aliyev also stressed on September 24 that outgoing Security Council Secretary Akhmednabi Magdigadjiyev, widely perceived as having proved powerless to stem the wave of killings of senior officials in recent years, was relieved of that post, which he held for nine years, at his own request (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 1998 and February 7, 2007). LF

ARMENIAN JUSTICE MINISTER COMMENTS ON JUDGE'S DISMISSAL
Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on September 24 that the disciplinary action brought against Yerevan district court judge Pargev Ohanian is not the consequence of Ohanian's acquittal two months ago of two Armenian businessmen charged with fraud after they rejected to engage in a scam proposed by customs officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2007). Danielian said that months before that acquittal, the Judicial Department began assessing the validity of almost two dozen earlier verdicts handed down by Ohanian. But a group of lawyers who convened a press conference in Yerevan on September 24 said they fear Ohanian has been targeted for his courage in refusing to hand down the guilty verdict on the two businessmen demanded by the National Security Service, which has asked Armenia's Appeals Court to annul that acquittal. LF

AZERBAIJANI PRISONERS END HUNGER STRIKE
The prisoners at Azerbaijan's Gobustan jail who began a hunger strike earlier this month to demand that their life sentences be commuted to 15 years' imprisonment have ended that protest at the request of their relatives, day.az reported on September 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2007). The men nonetheless intend to continue to lobby to have their sentences reduced to the maximum term currently envisaged by the Azerbaijani Penal Code. LF

UN DEPLORES ABKHAZ KILLINGS
The UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) released on September 24 a three-sentence statement (http://unomig.org/data/file/935/PR_2007_88_eng.pdf) expressing the UN secretary-general's concern over the death of two Abkhaz servicemen in a standoff four days earlier with Georgian Interior Ministry troops (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21 and 24, 2007). The statement repeats previous calls by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to both sides to "exercise maximum restraint and prevent any further escalation." It also says UNOMIG is still engaged in evaluating the circumstances of the incident. Major General Sergei Chaban, who commands the Russian peacekeepers deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone, was quoted by Russian media on September 23 as saying a joint inspection of the site on September 22 by CIS peacekeepers and UNOMIG personnel established that the incident took place not in the upper Kodori Gorge, as Georgian officials have consistently claimed, but in Abkhazia's Tkvarcheli Raion. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze said in Tbilisi on September 24 that Chaban was not empowered to issue any such statement, Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile, Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh and Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab attended the funeral in Sukhum(i) on September 24 of the two men killed on September 20, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Bagapsh said the Abkhaz leadership is engaged in talks with various international officials, including Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg, on securing the release of seven Abkhaz taken prisoner by the Georgians after the death of their colleagues. The daily "Kommersant," however, claimed on September 25 that the two men killed were Russian officers contracted to train recruits to the Abkhaz armed forces, and named them as Artur Dvorkin and Igor Muzovatkin. It said Muzovatkin's body will be taken to Maikop for burial there. The paper further quoted an army officer in Adygeya as denying that Muzovatkin could have headed a group of saboteurs, which is how Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili on September 21 characterized the men the Georgians attacked. That officer pointed out that Muzovatkin graduated from a mainstream military college, whereas the training of saboteurs is the exclusive preserve of military intelligence. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY DETAINED
Dmitri Kitoshvili, who was named President Mikheil Saakashvili's parliamentary secretary in April 2007, has been detained on suspicion of extorting $11 million from a businessman in his previous post as National Communications Committee chairman, Deputy Prosecutor General Nika Gvaramia told journalists in Tbilisi on September 25, Caucasus Press reported. LF

KAZAKH PRESIDENT APPOINTS NEW HUMAN-RIGHTS OMBUDSMAN
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev on September 24 appointed Askar Shakirov as the country's new human rights ombudsman after parliament approved his nomination, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Shakirov, who is 51, served as the chairman of the Kazakh Finance Ministry's customs committee from February 2006 to June 2007. He replaces Bolat Baykadamov, who was appointed in September 2002 when the position was initially created by the president, and whose five-year term as ombudsman recently expired (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 23, 2002). According to the terms of the decree establishing the position, the ombudsman is empowered to monitor the observance of human rights nationwide but is officially barred from any "interference with the work of either the police or the judicial system" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2002). RG

SUSPECT IN KAZAKH KIDNAPPING CASE PLACED UNDER HOUSE ARREST
At a press conference in Almaty on September 24, Kazakh Interior Ministry spokesman Bagdat Kozhakhmetov announced that Sergey Koshlay, a suspect in the high-profile kidnapping case of two Nurbank executives, has been placed under house arrest, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Koshlay, who allegedly acted as the driver for the other suspects in the kidnapping case, recently turned himself in to the authorities along with another suspect, Aydar Bektybaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007). The case centers on the alleged kidnapping of senior Nurbank executives apparently intended to force them to sell their interests in a building in Almaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 6, and 13, 2007). Nurbank is controlled by the former son-in-law of President Nazarbaev, Rakhat Aliev. Two Nurbank officials, Zholdas Timraliev and Aibar Khasenov, are still missing and are believed to have been killed. Aliev, who until recently served as the Kazakh ambassador to Austria, remains in Austria after a Kazakh extradition request was rejected by an Austrian court on the grounds that he would not receive a fair trial if deported to Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 9, 2007). RG

KAZAKH MAYOR ORDERS MUNICIPAL OFFICIALS TO USE PUBLIC TRANSPORT
Askar Mamim, the mayor of the Kazakh capital, Astana, on September 24 issued an order compelling all senior municipal government officials to use public transport, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Mamim explained that the directive applies to "the heads of all municipal departments, mayors of two districts in Astana, [and] all my deputies," and requires them to "use public transport [at least] once every three days." He added that the measure also orders the head of the Astana municipal interior department, General Serimzhan Dosumov, "change his military uniform to civilian dress and travel by public transport" at least twice a week. RG

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION LEADER CRITICIZES NEW DRAFT CONSTITUTION
At a public forum in Bishkek on September 24, the leader of the Kyrgyz opposition party Ar-Namys [Dignity], Emil Aliyev, criticized the new draft constitution recently proposed by the Kyrgyz government, the 24.kg website reported. Aliev characterized the draft constitution as "defective" and having "too many discrepancies," warning that "if this version is adopted, six months later one can appeal to the Constitutional Court again asking to cancel it." The draft constitution is to be put to a national referendum set for October 21. After the referendum was announced, a coalition of several leading public organizations and civic groups demanded a delay to ensure that "citizens familiarize themselves with the new constitution and make a conscientious choice," and to allow "a full debate by civil society and political forces" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24, 2007). Kyrgyz State Secretary Adaham Madumarov defended the draft constitution, arguing that "we are trying to create a balance between the branches of power and build a relationship between these branches of power into the constitution," Kabar reported. Madumarov also added that the proposed draft constitution fully takes into consideration "the opinions of the public, NGOs, and all political sides." President Kurmanbek Bakiev plans to use the referendum to end a conflict between the Kyrgyz Constitutional Court and parliament over the court's recent decision overturning 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, argued that the constitutional amendment process was conducted illegally and in violation of legal procedures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007). RG

PROMINENT HUMAN-RIGHTS ACTIVIST FLEES UZBEKISTAN
A prominent Uzbek human-rights activist has fled the country after being registered as an asylum seeker with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on September 24. The 70-year-old activist, Yodgor Turlibekov, from the southern Uzbekistan's region of Qashqadaryo, was jailed in July 2006 on what human-rights groups said were fabricated charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2006). A former regional director for the Uzbek Human Rights Society, he continued his independent rights campaigning after his pardon and release in December 2006. Citing fears of arrest and what he said was "increasing harassment" by Uzbek security officials in recent months, Turlibekov stated that he was forced to seek asylum after Uzbek police "openly told me that I would be arrested" and "threatened me, saying that if I were imprisoned a second time, I would die in prison." RG

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITIONIST JAILED ON OBSCENITY CHARGES
A district court in Minsk on September 24 sentenced opposition activist Leanid Navitski to 10 days in jail after finding him guilty of "petty hooliganism," Belapan reported. Navitski was arrested on September 21 by plainclothesmen who called themselves State Security Committee (KGB) officers. The KGB men entered his apartment under the pretext of looking for illegal migrants. They confiscated 100 EU flags and printed materials advertising the opposition's European March for Freedom, which is scheduled for October 14 in Minsk. Navitski was convicted on charges that he shouted obscenities after he was brought to a police station. He may reportedly face another trial on a charge of calling for participation in an unsanctioned demonstration. JM

MINISTRY WANTS UKRAINIAN MIGRANT WORKERS REMOVED FROM VOTER ROLLS
Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko revealed on September 24 that his ministry has submitted a list of 3.5 million Ukrainians currently working abroad to the Central Election Commission (TsVK) with a request to strike them off the voter lists, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. According to Tsushko, these people are staying abroad but their identity documents are regularly used by family members to cast votes during Ukrainian elections. Tsushko claimed that this number of permanent migrant workers includes 2.5 million people from western Ukraine and 1 million from eastern Ukraine. TsVK Deputy Chairman Andriy Mahera told RFE/RL that the commission refused to comply with the Interior Ministry's request. "The Central Election Commission has already adopted a resolution on this issue. It happened on September 21. The Interior Ministry should act within its own powers. No law allows them to visit houses and interview people about who went abroad for work and who returned from abroad. The information they submitted is not attributed to any persons. This information is not supported by anything," Mahera said. JM

UKRAINIAN RULING PARTY PITCHES TENTS ON MAYDAN AHEAD OF VOTING DAY
Activists of the Party of Regions have began erecting a tent camp on Kyiv's Maydan, or Independence Square, ahead of the September 30 parliamentary elections, Ukrainian media reported on September 24. Party of Regions lawmaker Lyudmyla Kyrychenko told journalists that the purpose of the tent camp is to ensure honest elections in Ukraine. "I think it is the most efficient way to attract the attention of world community to what is going on right now in Ukraine.... What is taking place in the election campaign shows that there is an overt plan under way to falsify the elections," Kyrychenko claimed. Meanwhile, Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, a leader of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc, said the measures being taken by Party of Regions on Independence Square testifies to the intention of the party to question the upcoming elections' results. In November and December 2004, Kyiv's Independence Square, with a stage built by supporters of President Viktor Yushchenko, was the central venue of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. JM

UKRAINIAN PREMIER ACCUSES OPPONENTS OF BRIBING VOTERS
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who is also the leader of the Party of Regions, told an election meeting in Kremenchuk, Poltava Oblast, on September 25 that opponents of his party are bribing voters ahead of the September 30 polls, Interfax-Ukraine and UNIAN reported. "I want to warn the people [who accept such bribes] that they are being bought jointly with their children and their future. They are selling their souls to the devil," Yanukovych noted. Meanwhile, Deputy Interior Minister Vasyl Fatkhutdinov told journalists in Kyiv the same day that his ministry has not officially documented any cases of bribing voters by participants in the election campaign. JM

TWO KILLED IN EXPLOSION IN KOSOVA
An explosion on September 24 left two dead and 11 wounded in the Kosovar capital, Prishtina. The explosion occurred in the middle of the night -- 2:10 a.m. -- but its central location, on Bill Clinton Boulevard, ensured that a relatively large number of people were in the vicinity. The blast reportedly also damaged dozens of buildings in the area, which, while predominantly a business quarter, also has many restaurants and bars. The police have yet to announce any preliminary conclusions of their investigations, but Veton Elshani, a police spokesman, said investigators are currently working on the assumption that the blast "was caused by a strong explosive device planted in front of a night club." Elshani also said the victims are believed to have been sitting in a nearby cafe. One café-bar close to the site of the blast is the Sekiraqa, whose owners are popularly suspected of -- but not charged with -- involvement in the killing of a member of an elite police unit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 6, 2007). Kosova's government said there is no indication as yet that the explosion may have been a bomb attack aimed at destabilizing talks about the future of Kosova. Direct talks between Belgrade and Prishtina about Kosova's status are due to begin in New York on September 28. AG

SERBIA SHEDS LIGHT ON KOSOVA OFFER...
The right to collect its own taxes, manage its economy, and run a parallel, self-governing political system are among the powers that the Serbian government is willing to cede to Kosova, Serbia's minister for Kosovar affairs, Slobodan Samardzic, told reporters on September 24. Serbian and Kosovar leaders are due to sit down together on September 28 for the first time since early February to discuss the future of Kosova. Samardzic told Reuters on September 20 that Serbia will propose "the highest level of autonomy on offer anywhere in Europe, maybe even in the world," a comment that echoed statements by other Serbian ministers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 2007). Samardzic said Serbia's plan offers Kosova "loose integration" for 10-20 years, under the label "substantial autonomy," with Serbs and ethnic Albanians living "parallel lives" and with no role for Kosovars in Serbia's government unless they so choose. Serbia's foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, has previously said Kosova would be allowed to establish direct relations with international financial institutions and to establish "some kind of representation abroad" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 2007). AG

...AND ON ROLE OF EU
In his September 20 interview with Reuters, Serbian Minister for Kosovo-Metohija (Kosova) Samardzic said Belgrade's proposal for Kosova would require the EU to act as an international guarantor "in the form of a civilian and military mission for some period, to keep the peace." "The EU is ready to pay," Samardzic said, adding that "maybe it's cheaper than 30 years of clashes." He also argued that the EU, which believes it should be the key international player in resolving the dispute, should insist on a compromise. "The European experience is to resolve these issues through compromise solutions, which are all different, like South Tyrol and the Basque country," he told Reuters. In April, Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer reportedly floated the idea that the position of German-speakers in the Italian region of South Tyrol -- or Alto Adige, as Italians know it -- could serve as a model for Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). In another recent interview, published in the Serbian daily "Vecernje novosti" on September 19, Samardzic said that "more and more European countries, including even EU member states, are defying" the U.S. position of support for Kosova's independence, but he nonetheless said it would require a "miracle" to ensure that the state of negotiations in December will not be the same as they were in June. International mediators are due to submit a progress report to the UN on December 10. AG

KOSOVA RULES OUT HONG KONG MODEL
Kosova's president, Fatmir Sejdiu, has ruled out the possibility that Hong Kong's relationship with China could serve as a model for relations between Kosova and Serbia. "Kosova is a sui generis case and, as such, the solution cannot be based on any model," he told reporters on September 22. Sejdiu was responding to a September 21 report in the Serbian daily "Blic" that "diplomats from the international community" believe Hong Kong could serve as a model for a transitional, time-limited solution to the question of Kosova's status. It provided little indication as to how this would work in practice. Britain transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to China in 1997 on the basis of an agreement that the former colony should retain substantial economic and political autonomy, a solution popularized as "one country, two systems." AG

ALBANIAN DEMOCRATS RETAIN SEAT IN BY-ELECTION
Albania's largest governing party, the Democrats (PD), won a September 23 by-election triggered by the election of Bamir Topi, a Democrat, to the presidency on July 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23 and 27, 2007). Only 33 percent of the 41,000 voters registered in the voting district of the capital, Tirana, took part in the poll, local media reported. The victor, Edi Paloka, defeated four other candidates, chief among them Luan Zhegu of the leading opposition party, the Socialists. The campaign and polling day were marred by none of the problems seen in local elections held in February, the final results of which were published only 16 weeks later (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 11, 2007). Paloka, who has sat in parliament before, heads Albania's largest news agency, ATA. Zhegu is both a city councilor in Tirana and a popular singer. AG

WHO'S IN AND WHO'S OUT IN THE NEW RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT?
Russian President Vladimir Putin named a new government on September 24, ending days of speculation about the cabinet that will lead Russia into parliamentary and presidential elections. The reshuffle, which was largely cosmetic, followed the unexpected appointment of Viktor Zubkov as prime minister on September 12.

"It is my great hope that the Russian government, under the leadership of the new chairman, Viktor Zubkov, will strive in the most decisive way to achieve the objectives that we, together with members of parliament, have formulated as the strategic goals for the country's development," Putin said in a televised meeting with the new cabinet on Monday night in Moscow.

Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, two first deputy prime ministers many view as front-runners to succeed Putin as president, have retained their posts in Zubkov's cabinet. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin will also keep his job and has been promoted to deputy prime minister. Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Naryshkin and Aleksandr Zhukov also kept their jobs.

Putin also refused to accept the resignation of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who offered to step down because his relationship with Zubkov, who is his father-in-law, might represent a conflict of interest.

Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that the fact that most key ministers remained in their posts is a sign that Putin wants to preserve stability as Russia heads toward parliamentary elections in December 2007 and a presidential vote in March 2008. "We see that the government has not undergone any major changes in terms of structure or composition," Belkovsky says. "This means that the logic of not making waves or causing tremors that could disturb Putin's trademark stability remain dominant." he adds.

Just three ministers lost their jobs in the shake-up: Trade and Economic Development Minister German Gref, Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov, and Regional Development Minister Vladimir Yakovlev.

All are widely unpopular among leftist lawmakers and large sections of Russians -- Gref for his pro-Western, free-market economic reforms, Zurabov for changes in how social benefits were paid out, and Yakovlev for the poor state of housing services.

Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin tells RFE/RL's Russian Service the three dismissals are clearly related to the elections: "All of them were responsible for something close to the electorate. Housing maintenance, health care and medicine, and the economy. It is hard to call this anything other than a pre-election sacrifice," Oreshkin says.

Gref was replaced at the Trade and Economic Development Ministry by his own deputy, Elvira Nabiulina. Tatyana Golikova, previously deputy finance minister, will take over the Health and Social Development Ministry. That appointment is viewed as increasing Finance Minister Kudrin's clout in the cabinet.

Golikova is the wife of Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko. Dmitry Kozak, Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District and an influential official in the North Caucasus republics, will replace Yakovlev as regional development minister. A replacement for Kozak has yet to be named.

TWO SPANISH SOLDIERS KILLED, TWO INJURED IN EXPLOSION IN WESTERN AFGHANISTAN
Two Spanish soldiers were killed and two others seriously injured on September 24 when a blast struck their military convoy in western Afghanistan, AFP reported. A Spanish Defense Ministry statement said an Iranian interpreter working with the troops may also have been killed in the explosion. It is unclear what caused the blast, which occurred near Shewan in western Farah Province, a Defense Ministry spokesman said. While most insurgency-linked violence is centered in southern Afghanistan, Farah Province has experienced a steady increase in Taliban activity in recent months. A Spanish military commander stationed in Afghanistan called for reinforcements in May to help control the growing conflict there. Spain has some 700 troops in western Afghanistan participating in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). JC

AFGHAN OFFICIALS SAY POLIO VACCINATION CAMPAIGN SUCCESSFUL WITH TALIBAN SUPPORT
Afghan Public Health Ministry officials on September 23 said ministry workers and staff from two United Nations agencies successfully implemented a three-day polio vaccination campaign, and won the support of the Taliban for the program, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Around 1,000 volunteers helped vaccinate over 3 million children under the age of five in 30 districts of southern Kandahar, Helmand and Oruzgan Provinces during the drive, which was launched on September 19. The campaign, implemented by the Public Health Ministry, the UN children's agency (UNICEF), and the World Health Organization (WHO), was the first of its kind in Afghanistan's volatile south. Previous attempts to vaccinate children in the region were thwarted by persistent violence, but Health Minister Syed Muhammad Amin Fatemi said Taliban militants promised to support the campaign in response to official requests for their cooperation. Despite the reported successes, two teams sent to the Maiwand district of Kandahar Province were unable to complete the vaccinations due to security problems, provincial health director Qayum Pukhla said. The health director for Helmand Province, Ahmad Bark, and the central head of provincial relations, Ahmad Shah Shokohmand, both acknowledged that the Taliban's support contributed to the success of the initiative. According to Public Health Ministry statistics, the number of polio cases detected in Afghanistan this year is down to nine from 32 in 2006. Most new polio cases are reported in Afghanistan's restive south, the main stronghold of the Taliban insurgency. JC

THREE PRIVATE GUARDS DEAD, 10 MISSING IN TALIBAN AMBUSH
Three Afghan security guards employed with a U.S. private security firm were killed and 10 others went missing on September 23 when Taliban insurgents ambushed their convoy in Afghanistan's western Farah Province, Reuters reported. Guards clashed with the attackers during the ambush, Farah police chief Abdul Rhaman Sarjang said the next day. Another Farah police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters 13 guards were killed in the attack. Sarjang said 21 Taliban militants were killed in the clash, although the count has not been confirmed by a Taliban spokesman. Also on September 23, unidentified gunmen fired on a vehicle transporting police and government officials in northeastern Badakhshan Province, killing seven police officers and five other people, including three government employees, a provincial official said. Pajhwak Afghan News reported that seven government officials were killed in the incident, including the Raghestan district crimes branch chief, his deputy, a local elder, and the driver. Escalating violence has spread to even relatively calm regions of Afghanistan over the past 19 months, marking the bloodiest period since the U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban government in 2001. JC

FOUR BODIES RECOVERED FROM MASS GRAVE IN CENTRAL AFGHANISTAN
Construction workers digging the foundation for a new office building in Kapisa Province on September 23 discovered four bodies in what appears to be a mass grave dating from Afghanistan's communist era, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Sultan Muhammad, the administrative chief of the Najrab district where the bodies were recovered, said the construction work was halted in order to search for more bodies. The unidentifiable bodies were clothed in undamaged garments, Muhammad said. A Najrab resident, Masood, said more than 600 people from the area were killed during the years of Soviet occupation between 1979 and 1989. Mass graves have previously been discovered in Paktika, Badakhshan, and Kabul Provinces, as well as the Chamtala desert of Kabul, where over 1000 bodies have been recovered (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 2007). JC

GENERAL SAYS IRAN WATCHING U.S. TROOPS IN REGION...
Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a general of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and a senior military adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has warned that satellite and radar technology are being used to monitor U.S. troops in the region, Reuters and Iranian media reported on September 24. Rahim-Safavi said foreign forces entering Iranian territory or waters would receive a fitting response, though he said an attack by U.S. forces is unlikely given its engagements in Iraq, Reuters reported. He told the Mehr news agency that U.S. officials should know that Iran will "never submit to pressure," and counseled the United States to "rationally" accept a "powerful Iran," "Resalat" reported. Rahim-Safavi said Iran's ballistic capabilities are in a "good state" and cannot be destroyed by a U.S. attack, as Iran has taken the necessary precautions to safeguard its missile arsenal against threats. "America is not able to withstand Iran's barrage of missiles," he said, adding that Iran has amended its strategies in anticipation of "supraregional" conflicts, resalat-news.com reported. VS

...AS MINISTER WARNS OF CRUSHING RESPONSE TO ATTACKS
Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar says Iran will "intelligently give a crushing response to any threat...to the country's territorial integrity and independence," the website of the "Jam-i Jam" daily reported on September 23. Speaking in Tehran, Mohammad-Najjar said economic pressures from the United States are not affecting Iran's defense sector, which, he added, meets the requirements of its armies. Any threat of attack from the United States, he said, amounts to "psychological warfare," given Washington's "great problems" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Speaking to the press at a military factory on September 24, he said Iran must be strong, as "a strong neighbor is better for the region than a weak neighbor, as large countries will not dare attack the region," ISNA reported. He said "we extend the hand of friendship" to regional states. Mohammad-Najjar said Iran has "no problems" with countries in the region purchasing Western arms, but he said these are sold to them at very high prices to finance the electoral campaigns of unspecified Western politicians. Mohammad-Najjar was speaking at the factory at the start of production or testing of "flexible" fuel tanks for helicopters and "three-dimensional sonar" designed by the Malik-i Ashtar University, a ministry-affiliated institution the minister said is helping "defeat" high-tech sanctions on Iran. ISNA did not give many details of the defense products mentioned, but Mohammad-Najjar said the three-dimensional sonar has a "defensive and military" function for use underwater. He said the university is researching possibilities for manufacturing a "national helicopter." VS

ACTIVISTS CALL FOR IRANIAN CLERIC'S RELEASE
More than 580 political activists and academics have called for the release of reformist cleric Hadi Qabel, a member of the Islamic Iran Participation Front who was arrested in Tehran on September 12, and another cleric, Mahmud Dardkeshan, Radio Farda reported on September 24. The signatories wrote in a statement that the arrests are part of the authorities' efforts to create a "suffocating" political environment and influence the results of parliamentary elections set for March 2008. Dardkeshan was apparently arrested around the same time or just before Qabel, Radio Farda reported, adding that he has been sent to the Langarud prison in Qom Province or the provincial capital. Qabel's son, Ruhollah Qabel, cited "disruption of national order and security" as the likely charge against his father, Radio Farda and ISNA reported. He told ISNA on September 23 that the charge may be connected with "my father's speeches over the past year. We have had no news of my father's state since his arrest and we are concerned for his well-being." No formal charges have been reported yet for Dardkeshan, Radio Farda reported. The signatories deplored the arrests as unconstitutional, and noted that such arrests are not "unprecedented" in Iran. VS

WRITER IS SUMMONED TO COURT AGAIN
Emadeddin Baqi, a liberal activist and president of the Association in Defense of Prisoners' Rights in Iran, has appeared in court again over charges relating to articles and a book he wrote between 1998 and 2000, even though his lawyer Saleh Nikbakht claims he has already been tried and served his sentence on similar charges, ISNA reported on September 24. It was not immediately clear when Baqi went to court, but Nikbakht suggested he may have to go again, as the court has not formally indicted him. Nikbakht told ISNA that the new accusations against Baqi are connected with the contents of his book "The Tragedy of Democracy in Iran," a broad compilation of critical newspaper articles for which he has already been jailed. The lawyer said there are no legitimate grounds for further prosecution, ISNA reported. VS

IRAN'S PARLIAMENT REJECTS DEBATE ON ELECTRONIC MEDIA PROPOSAL
Iran's parliament on September 23 rejected a motion to debate as a priority item government proposals to bring Iranian websites and news agencies under the provisions of the country's press laws, newspapers reported on September 24. Opponents argued that the proposed News Agencies Law overlooks some of the rights of news outlets, and they noted ambiguities in the proposals, such as the failure to exactly define the "electronic media." The proposals also fail to specify the make-up of a supervisory board the government wants to create to supervise the work of the electronic media. Lawmaker Bijan Shahbazkhani told the chamber that by failing to precisely define electronic news outlets, the government gives itself a free hand to supervise or restrict millions of websites and limit citizens' freedoms. He described a scenario in which any website citing "figures on inflation, prices, and unemployment against the government's wishes would be blocked" on charges of slander or carrying false reports, noting that the publisher or writer could then be prosecuted, "Etemad" reported on September 24. The parliamentary vote means the proposed bill will be debated later, after its examination in the parliamentary cultural affairs committee, the newspaper added. VS

IRAQI PARLIAMENT TO REVISE LAW ON STATUS OF FOREIGN CONTRACTORS
Abd al-Karim Khalaf, the director of the National Command Center at the Interior Ministry, told reporters at a September 25 press briefing in Baghdad that the government will submit a draft law to parliament that will place private security firms operating in Iraq under the supervision of the Interior Ministry, changing their current status under Coalition Provisional Order Number 17, which makes them immune from prosecution, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. In recent comments to the press over the Blackwater USA incident, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki suggested that the law might be amended (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007). Security contractors from Blackwater allegedly shot and killed some 11 civilians in Baghdad while escorting a U.S. diplomatic convoy on September 16. "The [new] legislation will cover all aspects of these companies' operations and bring them all under Iraqi law and the mechanisms of the Interior Ministry," Khalaf said. "They will be held strictly accountable for all actions committed on the streets" of Iraq. KR

SUICIDE BOMBER ATTACKS IRAQI RECONCILIATION MEETING
A suicide bomber blew himself up at a reconciliation meeting for tribal leaders and government officials in the village of Shifta, outside Ba'qubah, on September 24, Iraqi media reported. Initial reports indicated at least 20 people were killed in the attack, and scores wounded. The attack occurred as officials gathered for Iftar, the traditional breaking of the fast, which occurs at sundown during the month of Ramadan. State-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported that police chief Colonel Ali Dulayyan al-Jurani was among those killed in the attack. Diyala Governorate operations chief Brigadier General Najib al-Ta'i was also killed, according to media reports. Diyala Governor Ra'd Rashid al-Tamimi and his brother Mazin were wounded in the attack, while the governor's bodyguard was among those killed, AP reported. KR

IRAQI HEALTH MINISTRY RELEASES CHOLERA FIGURES
In a September 24 interview with Al-Sharqiyah television, Ministry of Health Inspector-General Muhsin Adil announced the number of confirmed cases of cholera. Adil said there have been 1,426 confirmed cases in Kirkuk, 618 cases in Al-Sulaymaniyah, 85 in Irbil, one case in Mosul, two in Tikrit, one in Bayji, and one in Al-Dujayl. There are three confirmed cases in Diyala Governorate, as well as one in Al-Basrah. Diyala Health Department official Hum Suhayl said that nine others are under observation for cholera in the governorate, which lies just north of Baghdad. The World Health Organization said in its latest update, issued on September 14, that it has confirmed 392 cases of cholera in Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate, 33 in Irbil Governorate, and one in Kirkuk Governorate. KR

KURDISH OFFICIAL SAYS REGION WILL BE HURT BY CLOSING OF IRAN-IRAQ BORDER
Kurdistan regional government spokesman Jamal Abdallah told the Kurdish media website Awene on September 24 that Iran's decision to close its borders with the Kurdistan region will adversely affect local residents. The Iranian government closed the Hajj Umran and Bashmakh border crossings on September 24 to protest the arrest of an alleged Iranian businessman by multinational forces on September 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24, 2007). The United States contends the man is a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who supports terrorism in Iraq. Abdallah said the region's representatives in Iran will try to convince the Iranian government to reopen the border. Regarding the Iranian's arrest, Abdallah said, "We have neither arrested him nor do we know where the Americans have taken him," adding, "What happened is related to the Americans, and the [Kurdish] government and its population should not pay for the U.S. action." Iraqi media also reported that President Jalal Talabani told reporters in Al-Sulaymaniyah on September 24 that the U.S. arrest of the Iranian was "illegal." Talabani said: "The arrest is illegal because the Kurdistan regional government has the responsibility for security in Kurdistan. No matter what charges are brought against him, he should not have been arrested. This has inflicted economic and commercial damage on Kurdistan," the Hawlati website reported on September 25. KR

IRAQI OIL MINISTER SAYS KRG OIL DEALS ILLEGAL...
Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani has reportedly said that all oil and gas contracts signed by the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) since February are considered illegal by Baghdad, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on September 24. Meanwhile, al-Shahristani told Reuters in an interview published on September 24 that Iraq intends to sign oil deals with international firms by the end of the year, with or without the parliament's ratification of the draft oil and gas law. "As a responsible ministry, we cannot keep waiting. There is no legislative vacuum. The current laws allow the Oil Ministry to negotiate with firms and to sign contracts," al-Shahristani said, referring to a Saddam Hussein-era law. "We are going to commit ourselves to the draft [law] in signing contracts by having free competition and total transparency and announce contracts that achieve the best interests for Iraq." The Oil Ministry has also established a new office of oil contracts and licenses, which will oversee the contracting process and plan the development of fields, he added. Iraq currently exports an average of 1.9 million barrels per day, the highest level since the 2003 war. KR

...AS 'HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS' OF BARRELS OF OIL REPORTEDLY SMUGGLED IN SOUTH
The London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on September 22 that "hundreds of thousands" of barrels of oil are being smuggled daily from Al-Basrah, mainly to Iran, by organized criminal gangs. The head of the Iraqi Coast Guard, Brigadier General Abd al-Hakim Jasim, told the daily the coast guard is ill-equipped to go after smugglers who have fast, armored boats equipped with rocket launchers and long-range machine guns. The daily reported the smuggling takes place over a 120-kilometer stretch of coast with 64 small illegal ports. Abd al-Rasul Nima Khalf, local council head in the village of Abu Khasib, said 30 houses in the village were converted into storage facilities to house the oil before it is smuggled out. "This fact is known to all," he added, and that local officials are complicit in the smuggling. Meanwhile, a veteran customs official told the daily, "Those who smuggle oil belong to the centers of power, both presently and formerly during the old regime, and they are capable of filling the mouths of anyone who opposes them with bullets." KR

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