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Newsline - September 27, 2007

Economic Development and Trade Minister Elvira Nabiullina said in Moscow on September 26 that joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) remains a top priority for the government, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24 and September 5 and 7, 2007). Nabiullina, who will be in charge of the Russian team handling entry negotiations, said that "all agreements previously reached with WTO member states..., including on bringing Russian legislation in line with WTO rules, must be fulfilled." Russia's is the largest economy still outside the WTO, which Moscow hopes to join in 2008, after 14 years of negotiations. Georgia and some other states continue to oppose Russia's entry into that body. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and some nationalist writers have argued against joining the WTO. PM

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on September 25 in Tula Oblast, south of Moscow, that Russia is able to "minimize" the effects of the current international financial crisis triggered by the subprime mortgage imbroglio in the United States, Interfax and reported. He stressed that "Russia is not isolated from the global financial system. For the last 15 years, we have been striving to become an integral part of it. But that does not mean we must be hit by [all the] blows that strike the global economy." Medvedev noted that "the crisis from the United States that reached China and partially affected Europe has not hit Russia yet. We have every chance of minimizing its unpleasant side effects." He argued that Russia "should work out ways of protecting itself against such blows." PM

The head of the recent Russian Arctic-2007 expedition to the North Pole, Artur Chilingarov, who is a polar explorer, Hero of the Soviet Union, and deputy speaker of the State Duma, said on September 25 that Russia will file the necessary papers with the UN to have the Lomonosov and Mendeleyev ridges in the Arctic verified as being extensions of the Russian continental shelf and hence Russian territory, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8 and September 21, 2007). He added that Russia will carry out "boring" on the seabed below the North Pole in 2008 in order to verify the results of recent tests of small soil samples brought back by minisubmarines in August. On September 20, the Ministry of Natural Resources said in a statement that the samples provide scientific proof that the area is Russian. It said Russia will present the evidence to the UN under the terms of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. A UN commission rejected previous Russian claims to the area as lacking proof. Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States also have claims there. Those countries criticized as anachronistic the latest Russian mission, which also planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed. The area is believed to be rich in mineral, oil, and gas deposits. reported on September 25 that "hydrocarbon reserves are estimated at about 10 billion tons." PM

Transportation Minister Igor Levitin said in Nakhodka on September 25 that a new seaport will be built at Ilyinsky on Sakhalin Island to help develop offshore hydrocarbon deposits, the daily "Kommersant" reported on September 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 10 and September 21, 2007). He said transportation infrastructure must be improved for the projects Sakhalin-3 through Sakhalin-9. Levitin argued that the new port will have oil and gas pipelines that will make shipping up to 15 percent cheaper than is the case for Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2. The daily noted, however, that "at present, there is nothing to load at such a port, nor could experts consulted by 'Kommersant' suggest when it might be needed.... None of the experts consulted were aware of the Sakhalin-7, 8, or 9 projects." PM

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov on September 27 hosted the first meeting of the new government, reported. He stated that the newcomers to the cabinet -- Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak, Economic Development and Trade Minister Nabiullina, and Health and Social Development Minister Tatyana Golikova -- will accompany him on nearly all of his visits to the regions. He also rejected rumors that there will be further shake-ups in the cabinet or restructuring in the government, saying that the "main sore points in the government have been liquidated." During a visit to Penza on September 26, Zubkov criticized Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin for not doing more to help Russian businesses obtain loans from Russian banks. "They got a loan in the Czech Republic," Zubkov said after speaking to officials from one enterprise. "Shame! Shame!" He also asked Penza Oblast Governor Vasily Bochkaryov when a representative of the Culture and Mass Communications Ministry last visited the region, and was distressed to learn that it had been about three years ago. RC

Yury Sharandin, chairman of the Federation Council's Constitutional Law Committee, has proposed that the government's power to control which bills are considered by the legislature be restricted, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on September 27. Currently, most major bills are not considered by the Duma unless the relevant ministries have approved them. Sharandin, however, says this practice is a misreading of an article in the constitution that states bills in major policy areas may only be considered by the legislature if they have been evaluated -- not approved -- by the government. Shandarin has proposed an amendment to the law on the government that would require the government to issue an assessment of every bill it receives. RC

The Central Election Commission has begun the process of examining the party lists of candidates for the December 2 State Duma elections, RFE/RL and other media reported on September 26. All of the parties participating in the elections, except for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, have already held their national congresses and approved their lists. Unified Russia will hold its congress in Moscow on October 1-2. Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov told journalists the process will be completed by October 28. The commission on September 26 approved the party list of the Democratic Party of Russia. Churov told Interfax on September 26 that the commission intends to aggressively investigate any use of "dirty technologies" during the election campaign and has already received complaints. RC

President Putin has given his written permission to the Unified Russia party to use his image in its campaign materials, "Vedomosti" reported on September 27. According to the daily, the party has already prepared materials with Putin's image. The party's campaign platform is called "Putin's Plan" and Putin is expected to address the party's national congress, as he did during the 2003 Duma campaign. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on September 27 that the party has nearly completed plans for its October 1-2 national congress in Moscow. The party's national list will be headed by Duma Speaker and party leader Boris Gryzlov, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, and speed-skating champion Svetlana Zhurova. According to the daily, Zhurova's role will be to highlight the party's support of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The daily reported that Putin will address the congress on its second day and that First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov likely will speak on the opening day. Putin told leading Western Russia watchers on September 14 that "of course" he wants to see Unified Russia maintain its dominant role in the Duma. "In this regard I can't speak now, but I am thinking about how I can support them, of course," Putin said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2007). RC

Journalists from 11 local newspapers in Saratov have appealed to President Putin to comment on a local case involving a newspaper's publication of a montage featuring his image, "Kommersant" reported on September 27. The newspaper "Saratovsky reporter" faces prosecution for superimposing Putin's face on that of a character in the well-known Soviet film "17 Moments Of Spring." The character, a Soviet spy named Shtirlits, is wearing a Nazi uniform in the clip. The open letter from the Saratov journalists asserts that the case is "fraught with very unpleasant and alarming events" arising from the alleged "systemic use of the law-enforcement and judicial organs in the interests of leading members of the Unified Russia party." A local court is expected to rule on October 2 as to whether "Saratovsky reporter" will lose its license over the case. Shtirlits is a widely revered character across the country and Putin, in his campaign autobiography "From The First Person," says that Shtirlits was an inspiration to him in choosing a career in the Soviet security organs. RC

According to a statement on the website of the Prosecutor-General's Office, there are no grounds for the political rehabilitation of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, or his family, Rosbalt reported on September 27. The statement says that rehabilitation is not possible because no criminal case was ever filed against them and no court ever convicted them. The statement came in response to an appeal from the Romanov family to have the royal family, which was summarily executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, rehabilitated. RC

Chechen mufti Sultan Mirzayev on September 26 condemned former world chess champion and opposition United Civic Front leader Garry Kasparov for publicly branding Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov "a bandit," reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2007). Mirzayev protested that Kasparov never described as a criminal radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, who Mirzayev claimed perpetrated "thousands" of terrorist attacks. Ismail Berdiyev, chairman of the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus, similarly argued that Kasparov should answer before the law for insulting both Kadyrov and Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov, whom Kasparov described as a total nonentity. In Magas, individual Ingush parliamentarians made clear on September 26 their disapproval of Kasparov's characterization of Zyazikov, but none called for legal action against him, reported. LF

In a September 26 statement posted on the resistance website, the Ingush jamaat claimed responsibility for the killing outside a roadside cafe on September 18 of Lieutenant Colonel Alikhan Kalimatov, a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer commandeered to Ingushetia from Moscow in August, reportedly to investigate the recent spate of abductions of Ingush men (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2007). The statement claimed that Kalimatov's true mission was to recruit resistance fighters for a special detachment, allegedly to protect Ingush in neighboring North Ossetia, but who would ultimately be deployed against their former resistance comrades in arms. It said those orders originated with President Putin personally. LF

Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev convened on September 26 a session of the presidential Council of Elders to discuss the new draft law on the implementation of a three-year program on nationality relations, reported. That program was the subject of a heated parliamentary debate on September 20 in which participants unanimously agreed that while such a program is needed, the draft law under discussion, which was authored by the Ministry for Nationality Policy, Information, and External Ties, is fundamentally flawed, reported. Addressing the September 26 session, Council of Elders Chairman Alipasha Umalatov acknowledged the need to develop and preserve the culture and languages of the republic's various ethnic groups, and to improve living conditions in the remote mountain villages where some such tiny ethnic groups live. At the same time, Umalatov advocated promoting a sense of "Daghestani" and, by extension, pan-Russian identity. Daghestan has 14 titular nationalities and 20 more smaller ethnic groups. LF

Six months after the contested mayoral election in the town of Karachayevsk, Sapar Laipanov, a close associate of Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) President Mustafa Batdyev, has been formally designated the winner, reported on September 26. Following a July ruling by the Russian Supreme Court overturning the KChR Supreme Court's validation of the ballot, the KChR Supreme Court annulled on August 17 the results of the March 11 vote, in which opposition candidate Magomet Botashev narrowly defeated incumbent Laipanov, and ordered a recount (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 18, July 12, and September 4, 2007). The number of votes each candidate received was not made public. LF

Businessman Tigran Arzakantsian, owner of one of Armenia's largest brandy distilleries and a member of the parliament faction of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), was hospitalized in Moscow early on September 26 after being shot and stabbed in the lobby of a luxury hotel, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov told RFE/RL that to judge by their appearance the attackers, both of whom escaped, were from somewhere in the Caucasus. Arzakantsian was beaten up and hospitalized in Moscow in March 2006, apparently following a gambling dispute. LF

On September 26, the Azerbaijani cabinet unveiled the draft budget for 2008, reported on September 27. The draft projects budget revenues of 7.38 billion manats ($8.674 billion), expenditure of 8.5 billion manats, and a 16 percent increase in gross domestic product to reach $32.7 billion. Defense spending is projected at 1.137 billion manats, a 25 percent increase over the figure for 2007, reported. CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha recently termed the constant rises in defense spending in both Azerbaijan and Georgia a threat to the entire region, an argument that Azerbaijani officials dismissed as unfounded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21 and 24, 2007). LF

Police in Baku intervened on September 26 to prevent a barefoot march by members of the Dalga (Wave) opposition youth movement to demand fundamental education reforms, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported. Police detained some 20 would-be participants but later released them without bringing charges. LF

Addressing the UN General Assembly on September 26, Mikheil Saakashvili criticized the UN for its failure to mediate a lasting settlement of the Abkhaz conflict that would permit Georgian displaced persons to return to their abandoned homes, reported. He said that that failure erodes the credibility of the UN, and he called for a "comprehensive review of all aspects of the peace process." Georgia's ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania told journalists he will head such consultations in New York, while Ambassador Jean Arnault, the special representative of the UN secretary-general for Georgia, will head the Tbilisi talks, Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili appealed to the UN to replace with "neutral troops that will support peace and not the current injustice" the Russian peacekeepers deployed since July 1994 under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone. He cited as an example of Russia's alleged interference the September 20 incident in which Georgian special forces reportedly shot dead two Russian officers serving on contract with the Abkhaz armed forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21 and 25, 2007). It remains unclear whether the shooting took place in Abkhazia's Tkvarcheli Raion or in the upper, Georgian-controlled reaches of the Kodori Gorge. Saakashvili also advocated a resumption of talks with Abkhaz representatives without preconditions, stressing that "we offer and recognize the right of full self-government for all those who live in Abkhazia and South Ossetia with our sovereignty, territorial borders, and international guarantees." LF

Russian media reported that Georgian forces subjected the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, to mortar and artillery fire during the evening of September 26, damaging 15-20 residential buildings and injuring at least one and possibly four people. Mamuka Kurashvili, commander of the Georgian peacekeeping contingent in the conflict zone, claimed the artillery fire, which he termed "a provocation," was aimed at nearby Georgian villages, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili announced in Tbilisi on September 26 that the founding congress of his new movement For A United Georgia will take place in November, Caucasus Press reported. Up to 500 people of all ages and from all walks of life queued on September 26 outside the movement's office in Tbilisi to sign up as members, Caucasus Press reported. Okruashvili also said he cannot exclude the possibility that the Georgian authorities will engineer his assassination and blame it on Russia, "Rezonansi" reported on September 27. Other opposition politicians have predicted Okruashvili's imminent arrest, noting reports of unaccounted-for spending during his tenure as defense minister. Meanwhile, Georgian officials continued to cast doubt on the veracity of the allegations, including that of plotting at least one political killing, that Okruashvili leveled against President Saakashvili the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2007). LF

The Kazakh parliament adopted on September 26 a bill imposing new restrictions on foreign investors, while making it easier for the state to modify or nullify contracts with foreign companies, Reuters reported. The legislation weakens the rights of foreign investors by allowing the Kazakh government to force retrospective changes to contracts or to completely cancel the terms of the contracts with foreign companies if the agreement is found to be "a threat to the country's national economic interests." The bill requires the additional approval of the upper house of the Kazakh parliament and needs to be signed by President Nursultan Nazarbaev prior to becoming law, however. Kazakh Senator Gani Kasymov recently threatened to suspend the Caspian Sea offshore operations of an international consortium led by the U.S. energy company Chevron unless the company addresses environmental concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2007) and the Kazakh government decided last month to halt work at the Kashagan oil field for three months due to alleged violations of environmental-protection laws, as well as consistent delays and cost overruns by Eni, the Italian leader of the consortium in charge of operations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2007). Relations between the Kazakh government and the Eni-led consortium have been strained by Eni's decision to push back the start of production at the oil field from 2008 to late 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 22, 2007). RG

Kurmanbek Bakiev defended on September 26 his decision to call a national referendum on October 21 to consider a new package of constitutional amendments, arguing that the new constitution would resolve the problems of "tribalism, gender [in]equality, and [under]representation of ethnic minorities," AKIpress and the website reported. In comments during a meeting with officials from several districts of the Chuy region in the town of Kara Balta, Bakiev explained that the proposed constitutional amendments would result in a new parliament, "formed wholly on the basis of representation of political parties," which he argued would help "to get rid of regionalism and tribalism" and "expand the participation of women, young people, and representatives of different ethnic groups" in state bodies. He further stressed that a new Electoral Code would encourage political parties to "include in a list of candidates not more than 70 percent of people of one and the same sex, not less than 15 percent of people aged under 35, and not less than 15 percent of citizens belonging to various ethnic groups," in order to "encourage the involvement of an active part of citizens and groups of these categories in political life." Bakiev also said that "as the head of state," he "must treat equally all the political parties" adding that "I cannot and have no right to be the leader of any" political party. The statement seemingly contradicts his earlier announcement pledging to form "a new political force" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007). Bakiev also signed a decree on September 25 appointing Klara Kabilova as the chairwoman of the Central Election Commission, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Kabilova, who previously held a prominent role as a presidential adviser, said that her main priority in the new position will be to "prepare the country" for next month's national referendum. Parliament formally approved the appointment the same day. RG

Dinara Oshurahunova, a leader of a coalition of Kyrgyz civic groups known as For Democracy and Society, warned on September 25 that the country's Central Election Commission is "creating favorable conditions for the abuse of administrative power" and "corruption" during the October 21 national referendum on constitutional amendments, according to AKIpress. With the support of leading opposition deputies, other civil-society groups recently called on parliament to challenge the referendum in the Constitutional Court, criticizing the president's scheduling of the referendum as failing to provide adequate time for voters to fully understand the proposed changes to the constitution (see RFE/RL Newsline," September 24 and 25, 2007). Speaking at a press conference in Bishkek, the leader of the opposition United Front for a Worthy Future of Kyrgyzstan, former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, also criticized the referendum for granting greater power to the president compared to the current version of the constitution. He also noted several "contradictions in the wording of the president's [proposed draft] constitution" that he said "may result in conflicts in future." He also announced at the press conference that he intends to dissolve his United Front, saying that it "has accomplished its task" as "a temporary union," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. RG

Speaking at his party's annual congress in Dushanbe, the leader of the Tajik opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, Muhiddin Kabiri, said on September 25 that "religious extremism can be gradually replaced by secular extremism," and he condemned "religious extremists" for using "religious values as a cover" to destabilize the country, Asia-Plus reported. Kabiri added that "our society is able to repulse any kind of extremism," but also noted that an official ban on the wearing of Islamic head scarves would be counterproductive, criticizing it as "an example of the secular extremism" and stressing that in a "democratic, secular state," it is the "right of citizens themselves [to determine] what type of clothing to wear or not." The 41-year-old Kabiri, who was reelected as leader on September 24 by the party membership, promised to "attract more professionals who have a higher secular education, including economists, lawyers, and managers," and criticized the government's destruction of unregistered mosques as disrespectful of "religious values," RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. He was first elected as the party's leader last year after the death of Said Abdullah Nuri, the party's founder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 10, 2006). The party is the only legal Islamic party in the former Soviet Union and holds two seats in parliament. RG

In an official address to the UN General Assembly in New York, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov vowed on September 26 to end his country's "self-imposed isolation," but also pledged to continue his predecessor's policy of neutrality, Reuters reported. He also promised to "broaden" and "invigorate" Turkmenistan's cooperation with other countries in the areas of energy, culture, transportation, and economic relations. He further noted that Turkmenistan will continue its support for stability and the security effort in neighboring Afghanistan. On the sidelines of his UN visit, Berdymukhammedov also met on September 25 with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, marking the highest-level U.S. contact with Berdymukhammedov since he assumed the presidency following the unexpected death of President Saparmurat Niyazov in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006). In the meeting with Rice, the Turkmen president discussed the course of political and economic reforms in the country, as well as "opportunities" in the energy sector, Turkmen Television reported. RG

A district court in Hrodna on September 26 jailed Yauhen Skrabutan, a member of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, for five days, finding him guilty of using foul language in a public place, Belapan reported. Skrabutan was arrested the previous day with leaflets promoting an opposition march planned in Minsk in October. Skrabutan pleaded not guilty to the charge, linking his arrest to the leaflets found on him. The same day, a district court in Brest jailed youth activist Andrey Sharenda to 15 days in jail, finding him guilty of participation in an unauthorized meeting. In August, Sharenda attended a meeting with opposition politician Pavel Sevyarynets, at which the latter read extracts from his books. Sevyarynets was jailed for 15 days for the meeting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). Five other people have already been fined and two have received warnings over the meeting. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko said at a meeting with Yulia Tymoshenko, the head of the bloc bearing her name, in Kyiv on September 27 that he expects the new legislature to create only a coalition of forces supporting the ideals of the 2004 Orange Revolution, UNIAN reported. "I would like to stress that we have only one scenario -- to form a democratic coalition. Full stop. There will be no other coalition," Yushchenko said. "I am convinced that the democratic forces will have a majority in parliament," Tymoshenko said at the meeting. Speaking on television on September 26, Yushchenko reiterated his stance that Tymoshenko could become prime minister once again. Meanwhile, Tymoshenko told journalists in Lutsk the same day that if after the September 30 elections the pro-presidential Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc forms a coalition with the Party of Regions, her bloc will nominate its own presidential candidate and start preparations for the presidential election campaign in 2009. JM

Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha said on September 26 that the Socialist Party has played its "last trump" in the election campaign by allowing its member, Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko, to publicly allege that he was poisoned in May, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Earlier the same day, Tsushko insinuated that officials from the Presidential Secretariat may have been involved or interested in his poisoning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2007). Baloha added that Tsushko's allegations are linked to the recent statement by Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz that the party will challenge the September 30 elections in court regardless of their results (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2007). "The Socialists want to kill two birds with one stone: to improve the rating of the party and produce an excuse for their inevitable election failure ahead of election day," Baloha said. "I will state categorically that the Secretariat of the President of Ukraine won't play the fool in this theatrical performance that stinks. One way or another, Vasyl Tsushko should answer for his illegal actions and prove that he has grounds for his sensational statements." JM

Serbian and Russian leaders have attacked the United States' explicit support for Kosovar independence, warning that such a public commitment reduces the chances of achieving a bilateral agreement in upcoming direct talks between Belgrade and Prishtina. The comments were a response to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's statement on September 24 that the United States is "dedicated" to an independent Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2007). While, unlike other U.S. officials, Rice fell short of saying Washington would back a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosova, the timing of Rice's comment -- just before direct talks begin -- was significant and has been warmly received in Kosova. This is also Rice's most explicit public statement in support of Kosovar independence since President George W. Bush said in Albania in June that "sooner rather than later, you've got to say enough's enough: Kosovo's independent" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 11, 2007). According to the Albanian news agency ATA, Bush reiterated the U.S. position on September 26, telling Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha in a private conversation in New York that he "totally supports" Kosova's case for sovereignty. Rice's unequivocal statement that "there's going to be an independent Kosovo" was condemned by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said on September 25 that "when certain countries... make public statements that, whatever the result of the negotiations, the independence of Kosovo is inevitable, it simply provokes one of the parties to reject compromise." Serbian President Boris Tadic, who is in New York for the talks between Belgrade and Prishtina, on September 25 warned in an interview with Serbian television that open support for independence would be "counterproductive," because "the Albanian delegation can just sit and wait for December 10." The three international diplomats mediating the talks are due to submit a report to the UN on December 10, a date that the United States and the EU argue should also mark the end of talks. Serbia and Russia insist talks should continue until a compromise solution is reached. AG

Radovan Jelasic should serve a second term as governor of the Serbian National Bank, the Serbian parliament decided on September 26. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor -- 132 votes to 19 -- but Jelasic has proved a controversial figure, and most of the 99 deputies who did not vote belong to parties that have been critical of him, including the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), the country's largest party, and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the party of the late Slobodan Milosevic. The divisions over his reappointment were most clearly visible on September 24, when the parliament's Finance Committee voted only eight to seven in favor of a second term, with members of the SRS, the SPS, and the Liberal Democratic Party voting against. Jelasic is himself a member of the G17 Plus, the smallest of the three governing parties, though he suspended his membership on becoming the bank's head. As governor, Jelasic has frequently been critical of government policies and spending. AG

A debate among members of Serbia's parliamentary commission for Kosova collapsed on September 25 after one member accused another of seeking to "provoke others with his Romany and gypsy mentality." The statement was made by Marko Jaksic, a Kosovar Serb representative of one of Serbia's three governing parties, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), after former Justice Minister Vladan Batic persisted in questions about how federal funds earmarked for Kosova are being allocated, the news agency Beta reported. Jaksic apologized to Serbia's Romany community on September 26 after being reprimanded by the speaker of parliament, Oliver Dulic. The DSS has also distanced itself from Jaksic's comment. Batic served as minister of justice following the overthrow of Milosevic's regime in 2000 until 2003. He also ran for the presidency in 2004 representing the Christian Democratic Party of Serbia (DHSS), which has since joined forces with the Liberals. Two explicitly Romany parties each have one seat in the 250-member parliament. A 2002 census found that there are 108,000 Roma in Serbia (excluding Kosova). Batic, who is well-known for his efforts to track money siphoned offshore by the Milosevic regime, was following up on allegations made by Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic that Serbian funds are being misused in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2007). AG

Serbian prosecutors on September 25 named five men they are investigating for alleged links to "Wahhabi" groupings, a term generically applied to radical Islamist groups. Four come from the ethnically mixed southern Serbian region of Sandzak and the other from Mitrovica in Kosova. According to the Serbian broadcaster B92, investigators believe the five may be linked to another group of 15 "Wahhabis" indicted on September 15. Sandzak has been the site of a series of counterterrorism operations this year, and a joint police operation by Kosovar and Serbian police resulted in the capture on September 19 of a Kosovar Albanian suspected of smuggling arms into Sandzak (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, April 20 and 24, and September 24, 2007). AG

A fight between members of parliament representing rival ethnic-Albanian parties in Macedonia on September 25 escalated into a blockade of parliament, eventually resulting in a violent intervention by an elite police unit. The brawl within parliament reportedly began when members of the Democratic Union of Integration (BDI), the largest ethnic-Albanian party and a leading opposition party, hit a member of the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD), a small member of the governing coalition, who had spoken in favor of legislation on electoral reform that would guarantee seats for a range of other, non-Albanian minorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). Ethnic Albanians' own position in the political system has been addressed within the framework of the Ohrid agreement, which ended a six-month conflict in 2001 between ethnic-Albanian separatists. A later meeting between the two parties ended in further violence, with the head of the PDP, Menduh Thaci, reportedly attacking and slightly injuring the BDI's deputy leader, Teuta Arifi. The BDI, which took part in the armed separatist movement, and the PDP were once partners, but parted ways in May when the PPD abandoned a joint boycott of parliament and joined the government. The BDI arguably emerged as the most influential ethnic-Albanian party when, after the PPD joined the government, it reached a separate and far-ranging agreement to end its boycott (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22 and 29, 2007). AG

The fracas within the Macedonian parliament spilled out onto surrounding streets late on September 25 when 10 or 11 cars blocked the entrance to parliament. An elite police unit then broke the blockade in an overnight operation, arresting nine of the several dozen ethnic Albanians involved in the roadblock. A police spokesman, Ivo Kotevski, quoted by Reuters said that some of the men were harassing passersby, while others had appeared intent on entering the parliament building when police intervened. Reports suggest four Albanians and five police officers were injured. A range of weapons -- including a submachine gun, a Kalashnikov rifle, and a number of pistols -- were found in the cars. It remains unclear how many were found. Why the men descended on parliament remains obscure, but one explanation suggests it followed a decision by the police to tow away a number of vehicles outside the parliament after the brawl inside the building. A BDI deputy quoted by the news service Balkan Insight, Xhevad Ademi, said the cars belonged to BDI deputies, a move that, he said, forced them to stay within the building. Media reports say that the ethnic Albanians who mounted the roadblock of the building said they wanted to protect their deputies when leaving the parliament. While media reports describe the group as supporters of the BDI, Ademi called them "random bystanders, BDI activists, and voters that spontaneously came in front of the parliament to see what was happening to their deputies." In response to the alleged police violence, the BDI said on September 26 that it will boycott upcoming sessions of parliament. It also called on "all citizens of Albanian ethnic origin and [on] all democrats to take part in a protest gathering against the violence of the state" on September 28, and demanded a parliamentary investigation. It is not clear whether the boycott is time-limited or open-ended. AG

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has condemned the incident, saying it could be "detrimental" to Macedonia's bid to join the EU and NATO. Gruevski has also postponed a scheduled trip to Austria in response. Macedonia hopes NATO will in April 2008 issue an invitation to join, and it could conceivably become a candidate member of the EU in the first half of 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). Those concerns were strengthened on September 25 when the U.S. ambassador in Skopje, Gillian Milovanovic, said that "today's shocking incidents of violence, threats, and intimidation in Macedonia's assembly are a disgraceful betrayal of the democratic process." Similarly, NATO issued a statement on September 25 "strongly" condemning the episode. Gruevski met with ambassadors from the United States, the EU, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on September 26 to brief them on the situation. AG

Journalists have been caught up in the violence on three separate instances, with the worst incident resulting in a journalist allegedly suffering two broken ribs. According to Alsat TV, that happened when one of its journalists, Igor Ljubovcevski, was stopped at a checkpoint on September 26 while he was traveling with one of the BDI deputies involved in the original brawl, Sadula Duraku. Alsat Editor in Chief Muhamed Zeqiri told the news agency Makfax that members of the elite Alpha police unit set upon the cameraman after he refused to hand over his camera and recorded material. The incident occurred while Duraku was en route to Tetovo, a major center in an Albanian-dominated area of northwestern Macedonia. Makfax quoted "unofficial sources" as saying the police stopped the car with the aim of searching Duraku after a report that he had previously threatened another ethnic-Albanian deputy with a gun. Alsat was also involved in two incidents on September 25 inside and outside parliament. During the first, one of its journalists was hit by a member of the BDI's security detail. During the second, two of its cameramen were briefly detained -- without violence -- by police after they filmed members of the Alpha unit being deployed. AG

Srgjan Kerim, who gave his first speech as president of the UN General Assembly only on September 18, has caused an immediate diplomatic furor by referring to Branko Crvenkovski as president of the "Republic of Macedonia" in a speech given on September 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007). Greece immediately protested, saying that Crvenkovski should be known as the president of "the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)." In international settings, Macedonia has been widely referred to as the FYROM since 1992, as Greece insists that the name Macedonia should only be applied to its province of the same name. In related news, international media reported that U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns on September 25 called for Greece and Macedonia to speed up negotiations to settle their dispute over Macedonia's name. The Greek government has threatened to veto Macedonia's entry into NATO unless it backs down in the dispute. It has also struggled to maintain a unified diplomatic front, in July recalling its ambassador to Macedonia after she told the "Financial Times" that "Greece has to face the new reality, as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been recognized under its constitutional name by more than half of the members of the United Nations" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2007). AG

The killing of 11 Iraqis in Al-Nusur Square in western Baghdad on September 16, allegedly by Blackwater USA security contractors, has enraged Iraqis for more than a week. Details of the incident remain unclear, but Iraqi officials and witnesses at the scene contend that the contractors opened fire on unarmed civilians without provocation. This contradicts claims by the company and U.S. officials that a State Department convoy guarded by Blackwater contractors came under fire, and the contractors reacted in a defensive manner by returning fire.

The incident has touched a nerve and has angered Iraqis on several fronts. Blackwater contractors have long been accused of engaging in aggressive tactics without regard for the well-being of Iraqis. In the aftermath of the Al-Nusur killings, the Iraqi Interior Ministry noted that Blackwater contractors have been linked to six other violent incidents, including the killing of three Iraqi security guards at a television station in Baghdad on February 7.

However, it is the issue of not holding Blackwater and other private security firms accountable for their actions that has truly roiled Iraqis and created the impression that Iraq's sovereignty is being undermined.

The initial reaction by the Iraqi government after the Al-Nusur Square incident was to revoke Blackwater's license, expel the company from Iraq, and have the contractors involved in the shootings brought to justice in Iraq. However, it seems that none of this may actually occur.

Even as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki described the incident as a "crime" and many Iraqi lawmakers called for Blackwater to suspend all activities, the company continued to operate after a brief hiatus. While officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad indicated that Blackwater was carrying out only vital missions, this underscores the frustration expressed by many Iraqis that they do not have control over what goes on in their own country.

Moreover, according to Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Order No. 17, private contractors "shall be immune from the Iraqi legal process," essentially meaning there is no chance of the contractors allegedly involved in the Al-Nusur incident being prosecuted under Iraqi law. Iraqi officials have indicated that the recent shootings may prompt them to revoke CPA Order 17 and create new guidelines for dealing with foreign contractors.

Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on September 23 that prior to the Al-Nusur incident, Iraqi officials had repeatedly complained to U.S. officials about Blackwater's overly aggressive methods and how they were operating without regulation. Deputy Interior Minister Husayn Kamal said, "Our complaints went nowhere."

Furthermore, the issue of Iraq's sovereignty continues to be raised after the arrest of an Iranian national, Mahmud Farhadi, by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi city of Al-Sulaymaniyah on September 20. The United States accused Farhadi of being an officer of the Al-Quds Force, a secret military wing of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, who was trying to smuggle weapons into Iraq.

However, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani insisted Farhadi was a member of an Iranian trade delegation that was in the region "with the knowledge of the federal government in Baghdad and the government of Kurdistan." Both Talabani and al-Maliki condemned the arrest and demanded Farhadi's immediate release. The arrest prompted Iran to close its border with Iraq's Kurdish region in protest, and Kurdish officials have warned that the local economy would suffer as a result of the United States' unilateral actions.

As the Blackwater incident continues to play out, it remains to be seen how it will impact al-Maliki's political standing. The country is still in the midst of a political crisis, with the major Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, continuing to boycott the government by refusing to allow its ministers to rejoin al-Maliki's cabinet. The absence of Sunni lawmakers has been a blow to al-Maliki's efforts at fostering national reconciliation.

Even within his Shi'ite-dominated coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), al-Maliki is facing defections and withdrawals that threaten his government. On September 15, the political bloc of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, with 32 seats in parliament, withdrew from the UIA, claiming that it was being sidelined from the political process.

Abd al-Karim al-Anzi, the head of the Al-Da'wah Party-Iraq Organization, later announced that his party too might consider pulling out of the UIA if the Shi'ite rift was not healed. This fueled speculation that opponents of al-Maliki were trying to bring a no-confidence vote against him and bring down the government.

There have been also rumors in the Iraqi media that former Prime Minister and Islamic Al-Da'wah Party member Ibrahim al-Ja'fari is set to announce the formation of a new political coalition, the National Reform Grouping, that would counter the moderates' front established by the UIA and the Kurdish Alliance in mid-August. If it is formed, the new coalition is expected to be the largest in parliament and al-Ja'fari may seek to replace al-Maliki as prime minister.

Based on the current political landscape, those who oppose al-Maliki may use the Blackwater incident to further erode his already tenuous political position. If the joint U.S.-Iraqi commission set up to investigate the Al-Nusur incident finds that some of the Blackwater contractors opened fire without provocation, but they are not punished or do not end up standing trial in Iraq, then al-Maliki could be seen as a U.S. puppet and lose any political credibility.

Indeed, al-Maliki's vociferous condemnation of the shootings and calls for those accused to face justice, despite his understanding that CPA Order 17 will make it virtually impossible to do so, is arguably an attempt to assuage public anger and shore up his political standing.

However, the reality of the situation is that nothing substantial may actually change regarding the Blackwater incident. The Iraqi government has already quickly backtracked from suspending the company's activities in Iraq outright, claiming it may actually lead to greater problems in the long run.

Tashin al-Shiekhly, a spokesman for the Iraqi security forces, said at a September 24 news conference that forcing Blackwater to freeze its operations would create a security vacuum in Baghdad that may have to be filled by redeploying U.S. forces from other parts of Iraq. Those redeployments could make less secure areas even more vulnerable, an apparent acknowledgement that the presence of Blackwater needs to be tolerated for the benefit of Iraq's overall security.

U.S. President George W. Bush on September 26 praised the efforts of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, saying the country is "becoming a safer, more stable country," AP reported. Bush and Karzai met for approximately an hour in New York, where they discussed Afghanistan's successes in democratic development. "Mr. President, you've got strong friends here," Bush told Karzai, thanking him for the report and reiterating their shared desire for progress. Bush took the opportunity to reiterate why U.S. troops are still fighting in Afghanistan, declaring that it is in the interest of the United States for democracy to take hold there. "If freedom takes place in Afghanistan, it will set an example of what's possible in other parts of the broader Middle East," Bush said. He and Karzai also discussed the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Afghanistan's energy policy, and drug-fighting operations, while avoiding mention of the country's flourishing drug trade. Karzai reaffirmed Bush's remarks on Afghanistan's progress, citing improvements in basic services such as transportation infrastructure and education. Both presidents were in New York for the 62nd annual gathering of the UN General Assembly, which Bush addressed on September 25. JC

U.S.-led coalition forces on September 26 killed more than 165 Taliban insurgents in two major battles in southern Afghanistan, AP reported. Fighting began on September 25 after scores of rebels attacked a combined coalition-Afghan patrol with machine guns, grenades, and mortars near Musa Qala, a Taliban-controlled town in Helmand Province, a coalition statement said. Taliban reinforcements continued to arrive on the scene as coalition troops responded with artillery fire and called in air strikes, which killed over 100 militants. One coalition soldier was killed and four others wounded. There were no reports of civilian casualties, the statement said. A separate yet similar six-hour battle broke out the same night in neighboring Oruzgan Province when more than 80 Taliban fighters attacked another joint patrol, the coalition said. Coalition and Afghan troops there also used artillery and called in air strikes on the militants, who were attacking primarily from bunkers situated near the village of Kakrak. More than 65 insurgents were killed, and no Afghan or coalition forces were injured in the clash. JC

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said on September 24 that Spain will not send any more troops to Afghanistan to fight as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Pajhwak Afghan News reported the next day. Zapatero informed Afghan President Karzai of his government's decision as Spain mourned the death of two soldiers killed recently in western Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 25, 2007). The two deaths bring to 85 the number of Spanish troops killed in Afghanistan, while some 690 troops are still stationed there. Zapatero is reported to have renewed his country's pledge of nonmilitary support to Karzai during a private meeting at the United Nations in New York. After offering his condolences for the two soldiers' deaths, Karzai thanked Spain for its continued support, adding that the country's troops have been instrumental in helping to stabilize Afghanistan. JC

Iran's Foreign Ministry denounced as "irresponsible" and "illegal" on September 26 a vote the previous day by the U.S. House of Representatives effectively labeling Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a terrorist group, Radio Farda reported, citing news agencies. The House of Representatives urged the State Department to list the IRGC, a key component of Iran's armed forces, as a "foreign terrorist organization," AFP reported, adding that this would be the first national military corps to be included on the U.S. list of terrorist groups. The bill is not yet law, and Radio Farda cited reports on the possibility of its rejection by the Senate or the president. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini "strongly" condemned the "strange and unprecedented" move in a statement, and said it would not contribute to peace and security in the world. He said it would pave the way for other countries designating official agencies or bodies of sovereign states as terrorist groups on the back of "illusory and imaginary accusations." Hosseini said that confronting a "popular" force like the IRGC is like confronting all Iranians, ISNA reported. VS

Iran's former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, told the media in Tehran on September 26 that such votes will not help remove "misunderstandings" between Iran and the United States, but exacerbate problems and mutual "bad feelings," ISNA and Fars reported. He said the vote "should alert us that we may be threatened." He also expressed surprise at what he termed the "ugly" and "unseemly" introduction the president of Columbia University gave Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on September 24 when he went to speak to students there. He said the introduction was an "insult to the Iranian people" given the fact that Ahmadinejad is their elected president. But he added, "we should behave in such a way as to prevent the conditions for such actions," ISNA reported. VS

Some 150 workers of the Karun Shushtar paper-making factory were dispersed by police with batons and tear gas in the southwestern city of Ahvaz on September 25. The workers had gathered outside the Khuzestan governor's office demanding "dialogue" and seven months of unpaid wages, among other things, Radio Farda reported on September 26, citing local journalist Abolfazl Abedini. He told Radio Farda that Karun Shushtar employees have repeatedly asked the governor for over a year to take measures to reopen the factory and pay their unpaid wages, to little avail. He said the workers have also gathered three times since March outside the president's office in Tehran, and were violently dispersed by police. Abedini said the firm has 230 employees, and financial problems for many of them over the past seven months have led to divorces, the inability to send their children to school in some cases, or mental problems requiring hospital treatment. "When Mr. Ahmadinejad said on [September 25] that the people of Iran are not afraid of sanctions, he should first take a look at workers' problems before talking," Abedini told Radio Farda. VS

Amnesty International has welcomed the September 24 release on bail of Ali Shakeri, an Iranian-American detained for months in Tehran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2007), but has asked why he was detained. Shakeri was one of four Iranian-Americans pressured or detained by Iran's government in recent months for allegedly subversive activities. Amnesty spokeswoman and Middle East and North Africa press officer Nicole Choueiry told Radio Farda on September 26 that the group wants Iran to explain why Shakeri was detained and charged, and for it to stop the practice of solitary confinement of detainees. She said Shakeri was held in solitary confinement and did not have access to a lawyer, though it was not immediately clear from her comments if this applied to the whole period of his detention. Choueiry said Shakeri may have been released specifically during President Ahmadinejad's trip to New York, for positive publicity, but said Iran should respect human rights without "political considerations." Judiciary spokesman Mohammad Shadabi has told AP that Shakeri can leave the country, Radio Farda reported. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki stressed during his address to the UN General Assembly on September 26 that Iraq has come a long way since emerging from the dictatorship of the former regime, international media reported the same day. "Today in Iraq, there are hundreds of political parties that are active within 20 political alliances. There are more than 6,000 civil organizations, hundreds of newspapers and magazines, 40 local and satellite TV stations, as well as foreign-media-correspondent offices from all over the world working under no preconditions," al-Maliki said. He indicated that although Iraq was still a nascent democracy, Iraqis, who have come to appreciate the taste of freedom, will strive "toward building a state of institutions, reinforcing the authority of the law, respecting human rights, and [encouraging the] active participation of women in all areas." SS

During his UN General Assembly speech, Prime Minister al-Maliki urged the international community to support Iraq's efforts to fight terrorism and achieve national reconciliation, international media reported on September 26. "National reconciliation is stronger than the weapons of terrorism. Today we feel optimistic that countries of the region realize the danger of the terrorist attacks against Iraq, that it is not in their interest for Iraq to be weak," al-Maliki said. "Terrorism kills civilians, journalists, actors, thinkers, and professionals. It attacks universities, marketplaces, and libraries. It blows up mosques and churches and destroys the infrastructure of state institutions," he added. Al-Maliki also warned that unless Iraq's neighbors increase their efforts to stop the influx of weapons, funding, and fighters into Iraq, there will be "disastrous consequences" for the region and the international community. Al-Maliki urged the UN to increase its role in Iraq to help it rebuild. "We are hopeful that the United Nations will mobilize its activities in Iraq. That will contribute to encourage the international community's openness towards intensifying their role in the areas of building, construction, development, supporting national reconciliation, and the democratic experience." SS

During his address to the UN General Assembly on September 26,the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, stressed that Iraq cannot be the sole responsibility of one country, and he called for a greater UN role there, the "Gulf Times" reported the same day. "It has been proved that it [Iraq] cannot possibly remain in the hands of one state or an alliance of a number of countries of similar interests," al-Thani said. "The major conflicts in the world have become too big to be handled by a single power," he added. He referred to UN Security Council Resolution 1770, which expands the international organization's mandate in Iraq, as an important step. However, al-Thani noted that while the international community needs to assume greater responsibility for the situation in Iraq, ultimate responsibility lies with Iraq's leaders. "They [Iraq's leaders] are the ones mainly responsible for finding a formula of national reconciliation that guarantees justice, peace, and security and safeguards the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq," he said. SS

Iraq and Turkey agreed on a counterterrorism pact on September 26 aimed at cracking down on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels based in northern Iraq, international media reported the same day. Iraqi Deputy Interior Minister Aydin Khalid said the text of the pact has been agreed upon by Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani and his Turkish counterpart Besir Atalay, and translated versions of the pact in Turkish, Arabic, and English will be ready to be signed on September 27. Khalid added that the pact addresses the issue of cross-border operations by Turkish forces into northern Iraq to pursue PKK fighters. According to NTV, Turkey will have to seek Iraqi authorization to cross into Iraq to conduct small-scale operations to pursue PKK fighters. Turkish officials have long accused PKK fighters in Iraq of conducting cross-border attacks into Turkey and have called on Iraqi and U.S. forces to rein in the PKK. SS

During a joint press conference in Cairo with Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi on September 26, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif said his country will continue to support Iraq's ambition to achieve security and stability, KUNA reported the same day. Nazif also said that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry is considering again sending an ambassador to Baghdad. Egypt's former ambassador to Iraq, Ihab al-Sharif, was kidnapped and later killed by Al-Qaeda in Iraq in July 2005. For his part, al-Mahdi praised Egypt's role in supporting Iraq, saying the two countries share identical views on all regional issues. Shortly after, al-Mahdi met with Al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Muhammad Sayid Tantawi, who expressed support for the Iraqi people and rejected acts of terror against the holy sites important to both Sunnis and Shi'a. Tantawi indicated that he is ready to visit Iraq once the security situation improves. SS

A suicide car bomber attacked the home of Sunni tribal leader Kana'an al-Shimari on September 26 in the northwestern town of Sinjar, killing five people and wounding nine, international media reported the same day. A local police official said al-Shimari was injured in the attack, but gave no further details of his condition or who was responsible for the bombing. On September 13, Sheikh Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah, leader of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, was killed by a roadside bomb in Al-Ramadi by Al-Qaeda in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 2007). The council is a coalition of tribes in the western Al-Anbar Governorate that strives to rid the region of groups linked with Al-Qaeda. Sinjar was also the location of multiple truck bombings on August 15 that mostly targeted the Yezidi community and killed more than 500 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2007). SS