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Newsline - October 11, 2007

President Vladimir Putin said in Moscow on October 10 after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy that today there is no evidence that Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9and 10, 2007, and "Russia: France's Sarkozy Takes Critical Stand On First Trip To Moscow,", October 8, 2007). The Russian leader stressed that "we have no evidence that Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons. We have no objective information to that effect. Our assumption, therefore, is that Iran does not have such plans. However, we share the desire of our partners that Iran should make all of its [nuclear] programs absolutely transparent." Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote on October 11 that Putin's remarks are not surprising because Russian technicians did much to develop Iran's nuclear program. The paper added that Putin is simply pursuing his own interests in a calculated fashion. London's "The Times" noted on October 11 that Putin foiled Sarkozy's "charm offensive" and "brushed off" the French leader's attempts to bring the two sides' positions on Iran closer together. The daily also wrote that "the super-salesman of French politics felt that he could win over...Putin, whom he admires as a pragmatist, with a couple of the high-intensity heart-to-heart sessions that are his forte.... Putin returned none of the voluble warmth that the French president showered on 'Dear Vladimir' at his Kremlin news conference. 'It's like he thinks he's dealing with a schoolboy,' said a diplomat who contrasted...Sarkozy's ebullient bonhomie with the cooler distance that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, strikes with the Russian leader." Russian and foreign media noted that Sarkozy publicly addressed his host as "Vladimir" and used the familiar pronoun "tu," while Putin did not refer to his guest by his first name in public and stuck to the formal pronoun "vy." Sarkozy criticized Russia's record on human rights in private with Putin but to journalists said that "France does not want to give lessons to anyone." He nonetheless told a group of Russian students that it is better to have a free press than not to. At his Kremlin press conference, Putin praised the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as necessary critics of those in power but made it clear that he was thinking of state-approved NGOs. PM

French President Sarkozy said at his Kremlin press conference with President Putin on October 10 that "French investors are ready to buy stakes in large Russian companies like Gazprom, for example," Russian and international media reported. Sarkozy added that "there will be no protectionism on the part of France. We simply wish for reciprocity." Putin said that "it is an absolutely honest, transparent, and mutually acceptable approach for our companies to buy into their European partners and for European partners to acquire stakes in Russian companies, which creates a situation of interdependence and mutual control." Britain's "Financial Times" noted on October 11 that "Germany's E.ON Ruhrgas has a 6.4 percent stake in Gazprom. The Russian state has just over 50 percent with the rest publicly quoted." Russia's state-run daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" wrote on October 11 that "Putin proposed to Sarkozy that they plan together the economic future of the two countries." Interfax quoted the French leader as saying that "Russia produces raw materials: oil and gas. Though it has a budget surplus, Russia must think about the future, when there will be no oil and little gas left. It will need international cooperation." Sarkozy also called for a Franco-Russian "strategic partnership" in aircraft engineering and energy. He said that "partnership" is better than competition for the two countries in the field of nuclear energy. PM

President Putin told members of the European Jewish Congress in the Kremlin on October 10 that both Israel and Russia are "concerned by the Iranian nuclear threat," reported, citing Israeli media. He also said that Estonia and Latvia "glorify" Nazism and the EU does nothing about it, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26 and October 3, 2007). He said that "the activities of the Latvian and Estonian authorities openly connive at the glorification of Nazis and their accomplices. But these facts remain unnoticed by the European Union." Putin also lashed out at Ukraine for allowing veterans of partisan groups that fought both the Nazis and the Soviet Army to hold war remembrances. Putin nonetheless admitted there are acts of anti-Semitism in Russia, as well as "chauvinistic, xenophobic, and nationalistic demonstrations." On October 2 in Brussels, Riina Kionka, who is personal representative on human rights to EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, said that Moscow's criticisms of Tallinn and Riga are an attempt to ward off criticism of Russia by taking the offensive against two small neighboring states. She noted that the Kremlin's charges are backed by the youth group Nashi (Ours), which has close ties to the Kremlin and recently launched a weeklong "antifascist marathon" protest outside the offices of the European Commission in Brussels. On October 11, Nashi announced a protest in front of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow for October 12, Interfax reported. Many Western commentators and members of the Russian opposition have compared Nashi and similar organizations to the Hitler Youth because of their dogged pro-regime loyalty, intolerance, and aggressive tactics. In May, Estonia was the victim of a massive cyberattack, which Tallinn believes was organized by the Kremlin. Russia denies the charges. PM

On October 10, EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said in a statement that Brussels welcomes the latest gas deal between Moscow and Kyiv, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9 and 10, 2007). He added that "the rapid solution of this bilateral commercial issue and the level of transparency shown by both parties during the affair strengthens the reputation of Russia and Ukraine as reliable supply and transit countries to EU markets." At a conference in Vilnius on October 10, officials of Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, and Poland agreed on a "deal for construction of an oil pipeline linking the Black and Baltic seas -- a project aimed at improving regional energy security and reducing dependence on Russian crude oil," "The Wall Street Journal" reported on October 11. The deal involves building a $700 million, 500-kilometer extension to a pipeline in western Ukraine northward to "Gdansk on the Baltic Sea, and securing supplies of Azerbaijan's crude from the Caspian Sea. Presidents of the countries involved praised the deal, saying it would help bring predictability and stability to oil supplies." Polish President Lech Kaczynski said that the deal is not aimed against any other country. He added that "this deal will have great impact not only for signatory countries, but for all of Europe." PM

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov made a number of government appointments on October 10, "Gazeta" reported the next day. He named Andrei Krainy, formerly the head of the Agriculture Ministry's Fisheries Agency, to head the newly reformed State Fisheries Agency. Zubkov tapped Vasily Yakemenko, the head of the Nashi pro-Kremlin youth group, to run the State Youth Committee. He named Andrei Dutov, formerly a military-intelligence (GRU) officer and an official with Oneksim Bank, to head the Federal Industry Agency (Rosprom). Zubkov also named the former head of the northwest district of the Finance Ministry's Hard Currency Control Department, Aleksandr Sukhorukov, as his personal aide. Sukhorukhov is a career officer with the secret services and a graduate of the KGB's Higher School. He left active duty in 1996 with the rank of colonel, "Gazeta" reported. RC

Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky on October 10 gave an interview to RFE/RL's Russian Service in which he commented on recent reports of a "war" among the most powerful state-security agencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2007). Yavlinsky said "the secret services are the political party of [President] Vladimir Putin." "That is, that's where he gets his people from," Yavlinsky added. "He leans on them." Yavlinsky said the system of governance created by Putin cannot endure long and cannot be transformed. "It is an authoritarian system that is constructed so that the main authority must exist forever, because everything hangs on him like decorations on a Christmas tree," Yavlinsky said. "If something happens to this main authority, the whole system begins to come apart." RC

Forty-two percent of Russians agree that the state security organs play "a very important role" and that their power is commensurate with their responsibility, according to a new Levada Center poll reported in "Novyye izvestia" on October 10. The poll found that 35 percent feel the security services have too much power and too little oversight, and 23 percent had no opinion. Levada Center analyst Aleksei Grazhdankin told the daily that "the positive image" of the security organs from the Soviet era has been preserved and the public generally views them as "the least corrupt in comparison with the army, to say nothing of the police and the courts." He added that the state-controlled media have been presenting the Federal Security Service (FSB) and other security organs "from an exclusively positive point of view." Political analyst Aleksei Mukhin agreed that the poll reflects "the results of serious work by the special services" in the area of public relations. The survey also asked whether information about the budgets of the state-security organs should be publicly available and 50 percent agreed that it should. However, that figure is down from 62 percent in a similar survey taken in 2004. RC

RFE/RL and the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10 held a memorial to mark the first anniversary of the killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya (see "RFE/RL Remembers Anna Politkovskaya," Congressman Tom Lantos (Democrat, California) called Politkovskaya "one of the many victims of an increasingly authoritarian government." Opposition politician Garry Kasparov spoke at the rally and urged the West to put more pressure on Putin's Russia. "Today we have an awkward situation, when Putin acts like [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka or [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe, but is treated as one of the members of the exclusive democratic club," Kasparov said. He added that one must be very careful in speaking about the political process in Russia. "I ask you to be very cautious in using words [like] elections, running for office, and all other elements...," he said. "In Russia we are not fighting to win elections; we're fighting to have elections." RC

In an interview with "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on October 10, Presidential Property Fund manager Vladimir Kozhin suggested that the question of burying Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, whose body lies in state in a mausoleum on Moscow's Red Square, should be resolved by a national referendum. According to research by the Levada Center, in 2005, 36 percent of Russians favored Lenin's interment, while 40 percent opposed it. In 2006, 44 percent favored burial and 38 percent opposed it. Kozhin said he personally believes that having "a necropolis in the center of the country is nonsense." Political analyst Nikolai Petrov told RFE/RL's Russian Service on October 11 that it cannot be a coincidence that Kozhin is raising the issue, which hasn't been discussed much in recent months, at the start of the campaign for the December 2 Duma elections. He added that he believes the issue will be used by Unified Russia, which is seeking to define the Communist Party as its main opposition. RC

Presidential envoy to the Central Federal District Georgy Poltavchenko on October 10 presented two candidates for governor of Kostroma Oblast to President Putin, reported on October 11. The Kremlin's choices are Altai Krai representative in the Federation Council Igor Slyunyayev, who is also a senior Unified Russia functionary, and Nikola Maslov, who is backed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Slyunyayev has no real connection to the oblast, while Maslov is a protege of the local bishop, who is in turn a close friend of Poltavchenko's. Putin must make his selection by October 19 and that nomination must then be considered by the local legislature. The website reported a vote is expected on October 25. The oblast's previous leader, Viktor Shershunov, was killed in an automobile accident on September 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007). RC

Following a six-month investigation in cooperation with local officials, Russian police arrested on October 9 a group operating an illegal weapons factory in Daghestan, Regnum reported. Mark Tolchinsky, an official from Daghestan's Interior Ministry, said that the operation resulted in the closure of a small "underground weapons manufacturing" facility producing light weapons and the seizure of some 130,000 rubles ($5,200) worth of weapons. He said police arrested Rasul Gasangadzzhiev, the alleged leader of a criminal gang based in the republic, during a raid on the weapons plant located in the village of Sergokala. A number of related arrests were also carried out simultaneously in several neighboring villages. Most of the weapons seized in the raid were traditional firearms converted or upgraded for military use, with police also seizing a large amount of silencers, accessories, and equipment used to assemble the weapons. Investigators are also reportedly in possession of evidence linking many of the weapons to a series of high-profile crimes committed in 2006 in both Daghestan and Moscow. RG

Activists from the three leading civil-society groups in Armenia decried on October 10 the "lack of human-rights protection" in the country and warned that freedom of speech is under threat, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, Avetik Ishkhanian, said that over the past five years, Armenia was in fact moving backward in terms of respecting the freedom of speech, adding that the country continues to be plagued by deficiencies in "many spheres related to human rights and democracy." Amalia Kostanian, the head of the Armenian branch of the global corruption watchdog Transparency International, also warned that Armenia is only "a step away" from devolving into "an outright authoritarian regime." A third prominent activist, Artur Sakunts, the head of the Vanadzor-based regional branch of the Armenian Helsinki Citizens Assembly, also expressed concern over "crimes committed in the army," which he argued "cannot be detected" since the "armed forces are outside control and constitute the main guarantee for the regime to retain its political and economic power." RG

Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian and Defense Minister Mikael Harutiunian met on October 10 in Yerevan with a delegation led by Romanian Defense Minister Teodor Melescanu, Arminfo reported. During the meeting, the three ministers formally signed a new bilateral agreement on military cooperation calling for the expansion of military-education opportunities for Armenian officers to study in Romanian military academies. The Romanian delegation also briefed the Armenian officials on "issues related to security in the Black Sea region" and discussed "the most recent developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement," according to an Armenian Defense Ministry press release cited by the Mediamax news agency. RG

A district court in Baku rejected on October 10 an appeal by Azerbaijani journalist Eynulla Fatullayev of his conviction on charges of "terrorism" and "inciting racial hatred," RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported. Fatullayev, who was sentenced in April to 2 1/2 years in prison, argued during the court proceedings that he was "being prosecuted" solely due to his profession as an independent journalist. Prosecutors contended that Fatullayev posed a threat to national security and was a terrorist suspect after he printed the address of a building that could be targeted in a potential bombing during a possible future conflict with Iran.

Attending an energy summit in Vilnius, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili signed on October 10 a new agreement on the construction of an oil pipeline linking the Black and Baltic seas, AP reported. The presidents of Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania also signed the $700 million agreement, which calls for the construction of a 500-kilometer extension to the existing Odesa-Brody-Plozk-Gdansk pipeline, running from western Ukraine to the Polish port of Gdansk and transporting oil from Azerbaijan, according to Turan. RG

Arriving in Astana after concluding a visit to Turkmenistan, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana met on October 10 with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to promote EU cooperation with Kazakhstan, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and ITAR-TASS reported. In a statement to reporters upon his arrival, Solana said that the EU supports the construction of a Kazakh-backed natural-gas pipeline running along the Caspian Sea. During his meeting with Nazarbaev, Solana also discussed the situation in neighboring Afghanistan and Iran, as well as reviewing regional energy-development plans. Solana added that the in "a very fruitful meeting," he further "exchanged views on a new EU strategy for Central Asia, which was adopted at the beginning of this year," and noted that "Kazakhstan plays a huge role in implementing this strategy." In comments on Solana's arrival, Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin explained on October 10 that Solana's "crucial" visit to Kazakhstan "will serve to strengthen bilateral cooperation and will give a new impetus to it," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Tazhin also noted that the EU is "a major trading partner" of Kazakhstan, citing figures of an increase in trade from $22.7 billion for all of 2006 to more than $12 billion for only the first six months of 2007. RG

In an announcement in Astana, the leaders of the alliance of the Social Democratic Party and the Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) party declared on October 9 that the opposition bloc has split, with each side determined to "work independently," Kazakh television reported. Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov explained that although the formal alliance has ended, the parties remain united in their opposition to Kazakhstan's bid to assume the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009, adding that "Kazakhstan should bring into line its legislation, particularly concerning the rights and freedom of our citizens." The two main opposition parties first formed their alliance in preparation for the August parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 2007), although neither managed to clear the 7 percent barrier to enter the new Kazakh parliament. RG

Kurmanbek Bakiev on October 10 dismissed both a key economy minister and the mayor of the capital, Bishkek, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and the website reported. Bakiev dismissed Economic Development and Trade Minister Sabyrbek Moldokulov for failing to adequately address rising food prices. The day before, Bakiev sharply criticized Moldokulov during a cabinet meeting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2007). Bishkek Mayor Arstanbek Nogoev was also fired, although the president provided no explanation for that dismissal. Former First Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov was then appointed to replace him. There were also unconfirmed reports that a third official, the director of the State Procurement and Material Reserves Agency, Jumasarlyk Nurjanov, was also dismissed by the president. RG

Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev issued a decree on October 10 assuming control of a newly formed "food-security" body, according to the website. Formally known as the Food Security Council, the new state body is empowered to deal with a sharp rise in prices for basic foodstuffs and other essential commodities, and incorporates an undetermined number of representatives from various state ministries and agencies. The decree officially tasks the body with "providing the public with essential foodstuffs and stabilizing the situation on the food market." Although nominally headed by Atambaev, the Food Security Council will be run on a daily basis by the staff of the department for economy, trade, tourism, and entrepreneurship within the prime minister's office. On October 9, Atambaev announced to the parliament that the state will provide flour to some 300,000 low-income families at reduced prices, Kyrgyz television and AKIpress reported. The low-cost flour is to be distributed to eligible families based on a list prepared by the Labor and Social Development Ministry. RG

Husayn Shokirov, the chairman of the regional committee for religious affairs in Tajikistan's Khatlon region, refuted on October 9 recent media reports alleging that the authorities in the southern region imposed a ban on minors attending local mosques, according to Asia-Plus. Shokirov explained that local officials merely adopted a new regulation preventing minors from attending Friday Prayers in mosques in order to compel them to attend their classes instead. He added that the move was in accordance with "an order by the Education Ministry that bans schoolchildren from participating in Friday Prayers because they are held during school hours." Initial media reports on the ban also alleged that the local authorities were conducting inspections of local mosques looking for minors (see "Tajik Region Bans Youths from Attending Prayers," October 10, 2007, RG

Viktar Ivashkevich, an organizer of the opposition European March for Freedom to be held in Minsk on October 14, told journalists on October 10 that the opposition has agreed to the march route proposed by the city authorities who officially authorized the event, Belapan reported. The organizers wanted the march to run along Minsk's main thoroughfare, Independence Avenue, from October Square to the National Library. The Minsk City Executive Committee rejected the route, suggesting that the march should start at the National Academy and proceed to Bangalore Square on the outskirts of the city. Ivashkevich explained that since the state media have not notified people about the city authorities' decision, some organizers will be staying on October Square in order to inform potential participants gathering there about the route change. "We hope that the authorities will not resort to any provocations and dirty tricks, and will not put riot police armed with shields and truncheons in people's way," Ivashkevich said. He called on his compatriots to take part to ensure a massive turnout. "The only thing that can prevent people from participating in the European March is idleness or a desire to live under dictatorship. The march has been permitted.... There can be no sanctions or punishment for participation. That is why every person who wants to live in Europe and supports European values should take part," Ivashkevich said. JM

A district court in Minsk on October 10 jailed opposition member Ales Atroshchankau for 10 days, finding him guilty of uttering obscenities in a public place, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Earlier the same day, a police officer broke into Atroshchankau's second-floor apartment through a window, allegedly looking for a corpse. A group of investigators, who turned up immediately after the break-in, explained that there was a "dead-body smell" in the building. After searching Atroshchankau's apartment and the hard drive of his computer and finding no corpse, police officers took Atroshchankau to a police station, when they charged him with publicly speaking obscenities and "behaving impudently" toward police. Atroshchankau said the charges were absurd and connected to the European March for Freedom scheduled by the opposition for October 14. "Against the backdrop of dialogue proposed by the opposition, such actions [as my arrest] show that there are groupings within the authorities that sabotage all [reconciliatory] proposals from both the opposition and the authorities," he told RFE/RL. Meanwhile on October 10, in Hrodna, police officers detained Anzhelika Borys and Ihar Bantser, two activists of the Union of Poles of Belarus, which is not recognized by the authorities. Mikola Lemyanouski, a local activist of the Belarusian Popular Front, was also detained. The three are reportedly scheduled to stand trial on October 11, but the nature of the charges against them has not been made public. JM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said at a cabinet meeting in Kyiv on October 10 that Ukraine needs to observe "continuity in government," Interfax-Ukraine reported. "We must implement such a system of executive authority that could work regardless of what political force is in power," Yanukovych said. According to him, such continuity should exist in both domestic and foreign policies. "Regardless of election results or elections winners, the state is living and developing, and it [should] not lose its prestige in both foreign and domestic policy, as well as before its citizens," Yanukovych noted, adding that such practice is characteristic of all developed democratic countries. JM

Oleksandr Turchynov, the first deputy head of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, told journalists on October 10 that keeping the cabinet of Prime Minister Yanukovych in power after the September 30 elections could pose a "threat to the country," Interfax-Ukraine reported. Turchynov charged that Yanukovych's government is responsible for a "shortfall of 12 million tons in grain crops," a decrease in both the real and nominal income of Ukrainians, "record" prices for some foodstuffs, and 12 percent inflation this year. "This is a serious danger that may affect this year's budget, and undoubtedly, the future budget," Turchynov added. Turchynov also said that the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc have confirmed their pre-election pledge to create a coalition of democratic forces and run a new government in Ukraine, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "We also said that the door to this coalition is open to another political force winning seats in parliament with a similar political program -- I mean the Lytvyn Bloc. We have yet to receive an answer from them," Turchynov noted. Speaking later the same day on Channel 5, Turchynov said the post of prime minister is the key to a new government in Ukraine. "Our opponents fear that Yulia Tymoshenko will take this job. They are aware that she will not allow them to steal and to abuse office. Therefore, the fiercest fight will be over this post. The moment it ends, the government will be formed in just a couple of hours," Turchynov predicted. JM

Kosova's prime minister, Agim Ceku, said on October 9 that Kosova will declare independence within days of the assumed end of talks on the region's status on December 10. Speaking to reporters in London after meeting his British counterpart, David Miliand, Ceku said that "the declaration [of independence] can only be unilateral. What we are doing is...seeking as much support as we can." He added: "We would like to have support of all members of the European Union, but we have made this very clear: We would like to have this support but we are not ready to wait until they all agree to [an] independent Kosova." Prishtina's official position so far has been that any declaration of independence would be "coordinated" with the international community. Ceku did not clarify whether his statement entailed any substantive change in position. The United States and a number of European states have described Kosova's independence as "inevitable," but the EU has warned Kosova off any unilateral move, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said Washington does not think a unilateral declaration of independence is "a very good idea" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2007). Kosova, the United States, and the EU all argue that talks should end on December 10. Serbia and Russia contend that any time limits would merely encourage the Kosovar Albanians not to negotiate. That argument was reiterated on October 10 by Serbia's minister for Kosovar affairs, Slobodan Samardzic, who, according to AP, said on October 10 that the United States is "obstructing" talks on Kosova by promising independence to the breakaway province. In an interview published by the German paper "Der Spiegel" on October 10, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner put the chances of an agreement by December 10 at "10 percent." AG

Police in Kosova on October 10 succeeded in disabling a bomb placed under a vehicle belonging to the UN's police force. The size of the potential explosion remains unclear, but the vehicle was parked on Prishtina's main street and in front of the headquarters of the UN's mission, and the discovery was made during a busy period of the afternoon. The UN building was immediately evacuated. Police have yet to provide further details about the incident. Long-standing fears of violence in Kosova have been stoked in the past week by threats by three Serbian groups and a little-known ethnic-Albanian militia, the Albanian National Army (AKSh) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2007). AG

The discovery of the bomb was made shortly after several hundred students marched through central Prishtina calling for immediate independence for Kosova and for the UN to leave the region. They also declared their opposition to any partition of Kosova, a position officially shared by both Serbian and Kosovar Albanian negotiators at talks on the region's future. "Kosova is not a little Palestine" was one of the protesters' chief refrains. Organizers claimed that students from Albania and Macedonia were among the protesters. The protest also enjoyed the support of veterans of the 1998-99 conflict and the most vocal of Kosova's radical groups, the Self-Determination (Vetevendosje) movement. Meanwhile, according to local media, the Kosovar government on October 10 called for the police to ban a proposed rally in northern Kosova by the St. Tsar Lazar Guard, the most prominent of the Serbian militias that have vowed to fight to prevent Kosova from gaining independence. AG

Serbian leaders and Russia's state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom on October 9 discussed an investment package that would see Gazprom gain a stake in Serbia's state-owned oil company and route a planned pipeline through Serbia rather than Romania. According to local and international reports, Serbian President Boris Tadic said "special attention" was given to the question of the pipeline. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica described "strategic cooperation" with Gazprom as being in Serbia's interest. The pipeline would terminate in southern Europe. Gazprom's chairman, Aleksei Miller, said the "complex project" would include the construction of an underground gas storage facility in the north of the country as well as the acquisition of a stake in the oil company NIS. The size of the stake in question is not clear, but Gazprom is reportedly interested in gaining a majority interest. When it came to power this May, the Serbian government said that it wanted to privatize NIS this year, but the timing, the size of the tender, and its terms remain undecided. Russia's strong support for Serbia's position on the future of Kosova has prompted widespread speculation that Russia could be rewarded economically. But in an October 9 interview with the daily "Blic," Serbia's energy minister, Aleksandar Popovic, denied any political linkage. AG

Forces from six NATO member states and 16 members of NATO's Partnership for Peace program on October 9 began three weeks of exercises in Albania. The exercises will continue until October 30. "In their broadest sense, these exercises are linked to the stability of the Balkan region. They are also a way for us to oversee Albania's bid to join NATO," the commander of the exercises, General Roland Kather, told local media. Albania is currently a member of the Partnership for Peace but hopes to be invited in April 2008 to join NATO, along with Croatia and neighboring Macedonia. These are not the first exercises held by NATO in Albania, but they are the largest. AG

Transdniester's leadership has dismissed a proposal by Moldova to hold direct talks on the status of the breakaway region. The leader of the self-declared republic, Igor Smirnov, called the initiative "insincere," the news agency Olvia Pres reported on October 9, while, according to the news agency IPN, its foreign minister, Valery Litskai, described it as "uninteresting, unachievable, and inappropriate." There are currently no talks -- direct or indirect -- between Chisinau and Tiraspol. The Transdniestrian leadership in February 2006 withdrew from the traditional format of talks, involving the two parties, three mediators (Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and two observers (the EU and the United States) -- commonly referred to as the 5+2 format. Moldova and Russia then held direct talks. Reports of an impending deal between the two were swiftly followed by a renewed effort to reactivate negotiations in the 5+2 format (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23 and 27, and May 7 and 25, 2007). New talks in the 5+2 format are scheduled to be held on October 11 in Vienna. Moldova's suggestion of direct talks, which was made on October 8, was accompanied by a proposal to ease travel restrictions and to work together on issues such as infrastructure and the alleviation of the effects of the current drought. AG

The number of Moldovans aged between 10 and 12 infected with HIV quintupled between 2002 and 2006, the deputy executive director of UNICEF, Hilde F. Johnson, told reporters in Moldova on October 10. The reports did not state the specific number of children affected. In the Commonwealth of Independent States, only Russia and Ukraine have higher rates of infection than Moldova across the whole population. Johnson urged more public debate about HIV/AIDS throughout society, arguing that "keeping quiet may kill." AG

Two Croatian editors accused of publishing confidential information on war crimes were interrogated on October 9 by prosecutors from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Mladen Plese, editor of the local "Slobodna Dalmacija" daily, and Vladimir Roncevic, a former senior editor at Croatian Television, have been charged with contempt of court for publishing details of indictments against three former Croatian generals -- Ante Gotovina, Ivan Cermak, and Mladen Markac --- that were secret at the time of publication in May. The publication was particularly sensitive as it revealed that the ICTY was planning to indict another seven officials -- political as well as military -- for their role in Operation Storm, one of the two decisive campaigns in the 1991-95 war in Croatia against Serbian separatists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 31, 2007). AG

Turkmenistan was regarded as the most authoritarian of the region's five post-Soviet republics under the late President Saparmurat Niyazov. New President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has taken limited steps to liberalize specific areas, and while some believe the changes are genuine and aimed at gradual democratization, most warn they could prove to be merely symbolic, and liken them to window dressing.

Berdymukhammedov has sacked some Niyazov-era officials in what could be regarded as tentative moves toward a "new guard." The most recent change came on October 8, when the national security minister, Geldimukhammet Ashirmukhammedov, and interior minister, Khojamyrat Annagurbanov, were fired. An opposition website (Gundogar) says criminal cases have been opened against both men.

"Recently, the work of the Interior Ministry has worsened," Berdymukhammedov said in a televised speech about his decision. "As I mentioned before, bribery among police has been increasing again. The Interior Ministry's departments and staff began to abuse power."

May brought what was perceived as the most daring and bold step of Berdymukhammedov against "the old guard." General Akmurad Rejepov, the influential head of the presidential guard and a trusted Niyazov adviser, was fired and arrested. An associate, Murad Agaev, who was thought to have run shadowy businesses for Niyazov and to have managed the presidential assets, was also arrested and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.

But if reform of the political system was his goal, could Berdymukhammedov hope to force meaningful change?

"As long as that basic structure [of authoritarianism] exists in Turkmenistan -- and I think it will exist for a long time -- it's difficult to see reforms and improvements, because that kind of system does not produce reforms and changes by its very nature," says John MacLeod, a senior editor for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

Berdymukhammedov might genuinely seek reform, but he's unlikely to change the administrative machine because so many insiders benefit from the status quo and therefore want to maintain it, MacLeod warns.

Many foundations of Central Asian life are rooted in clans -- or groupings formed on principles of kinship and shared regional origin -- although clan influence tends to wane as authoritarianism grows stronger. Niyazov represented the "Teke" clan whose members still hold many posts under fellow "Teke" Berdymukhammedov. And the new president appears to be continuing Niyazov's practice of preference and privilege for his kin.

Arkadiy Dubnov is a Central Asia correspondent for the Russian daily "Vremya novostei" and a longtime observer of Turkmen politics. He notes several recent security and other appointees who hail from Berymukhammedov's native village of Goektepe. Dubnov cites the tight circle of powerful elite in Russia, and tells RFE/RL that Berdymukhammedov is likely to continue naming confidants and his kin to key official posts in order to strengthen his own position.

"All this resembles one [power] matrix," Dubnov says. "The Russian matrix is a clan of St. Petersburg -- there is no kinship there, but there is a corporate style, meaning those from the KGB and natives of Petersburg with whom [President Vladimir] Putin worked are trusted. Here [in Turkmenistan], it will be a clan -- close and distant relatives and landsmen."

Presidential offspring and relatives enjoy privileged status among all Central Asian countries.

In Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov's eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, is dubbed the "Uzbek princess" and is thought to control lucrative businesses in the energy, telecommunications, and entertainment sectors. She has never publicly expressed political ambitions, but rumors inevitably circulate about her inheriting "the throne."

In Kyrgyzstan, former President Askar Akaev's son Aidar was thought to control many businesses, and his daughter Bermet was elected to parliament before Akaev was ousted in March 2005. The new administration is not immune to accusations of nepotism. There have been complaints suggesting that President Kurmanbek Bakiev's son Maksim has filled the younger Akaev's shoes while two brothers held influential posts.

In Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon's nine children and other relatives are believed to control many companies, the stock exchange, banks, and broadcasters. One daughter, Tahmina, owns a supermarket, and her uncle runs Orienbank.

Kazakhstan has had its own "big family" system, although the presidential family has been wracked by recent turbulence. President Nursultan Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha, was virtually once her father's shadow. She was a member of parliament, was said to control major media, and even performed opera at Russia's Bolshoi Theater. Her ex-husband, Rakhat Aliev, is a former security-service chief, and was among Kazakhstan's most influential executives and a high-level diplomat until he fell out of favor -- and now faces criminal charges if he returns to Kazakhstan. Another Nazarbaev son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, was dismissed in August from a senior position at a major state agency, Samruk, that oversees state shares in energy and other key sectors.

In Turkmenistan, Murat, Niyazov's son, was believed to be profiting from his status and controlled the country's alcohol and tobacco trade.

Little is known about the new Turkmen president's children.

Bairam Shikhmuradov is a son of former Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who is now considered a political prisoner by rights groups. Shikhmuradov tells RFE/RL that -- so far -- there does not appear to be any "first-family" system under Berdymukhammedov.

"I am not personally acquainted with Berdymukhammedov's children," he says. "As far as I know, they live abroad, not in Turkmenistan. I understand why the president did that -- [he wants] to avoid rumors and excessive pressure on his relatives."

But with most observers reserving judgment on the new administration, it is unclear whether Berdymukhammedov's children will avoid the trappings of first-family status -- or continue what has arguably become a Central Asian tradition.

(Gulnoza Saidazimova is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

Taliban militants on October 10 freed a German engineer and five Afghans held captive for more than two months, Reuters reported. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement that the government is "happy and relieved" at the release of Rudolf Blechschmidt, who was one of two German engineers kidnapped in July along with five Afghan colleagues. The Taliban captors shot dead the second German, whose body was discovered in Wardak Province near where the group was captured (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3, 2007). Pajhwak reported that Mullah Nizamuddin, a local Taliban leader and the mastermind of the kidnapping, handed over the six men in exchange for the release of his father and three Taliban supporters who were arrested following the kidnapping. The rebels had originally demanded the withdrawal of all German troops from Afghanistan, which Berlin explicitly ruled out. Blechschmidt was taken to the German Embassy in Kabul, where he is undergoing a medical examination, an embassy spokeswoman said. Blechschmidt and his Afghan colleagues were freed less than a day after Taliban militants released a video showing him pleading to Berlin and the Afghan government for help in securing their release before the onset of winter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2007). JC

Afghanistan will continue executing criminals in spite of strong criticism from international organizations including the United Nations, according to a presidential spokesman, United Press International reported on October 10. Officials at the Pul-i-Charkhi prison south of Kabul, Afghanistan's largest prison, on October 7 executed 15 prisoners by firing squad, in the first use of the death penalty in Afghanistan since the country imposed a moratorium on the practice in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9, 2007). The 15 prisoners had been convicted of crimes including murder, rape, kidnapping, and adultery. In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour urged the Afghan government to reinstate the moratorium, adding that the circumstances surrounding the executions may represent a violation of Afghanistan's obligations under international law, Adnkronos International (AKI) reported. Presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said the government is bound only by its own laws, and that "there was no understanding between the United Nations and the Afghan government about execution," the BBC reported. Hamidzada argued that the executions would deter others from committing similar crimes, and that while his government respects the perspective of the international community, capital punishment is still carried out in several other countries. Tom Koenigs, the top UN envoy in Afghanistan, also expressed his concern over the use of executions there, and called on Afghanistan to "continue working toward attaining the highest human rights standards and ensuring that due process of law and the rights of all citizens are respected." JC

Unidentified men armed with machine guns opened fire during prayers at a mosque in central Afghanistan on October 9, killing two people and wounding at least 10 others, AP reported the next day. Aiwa Khan Mazllum, the provincial police chief of Wardak Province, said at least five assailants entered the mosque in the Syed Abad district and began shooting. The incident does not appear to be associated with any local or tribal disputes, although police are still investigating the motive. No group has claimed responsibility, but Taliban militants, who have been waging a violent insurgency since coalition forces ousted the group from power in 2001, are suspected in the attack. Meanwhile, the Afghan Interior Ministry on October 9 said a mullah in neighboring Logar Province was abducted on his way home from prayers and shot dead. JC

Security officials in Afghanistan's western Farah Province clashed with Taliban militants who had attacked a police station, killing 10 insurgents and injuring 10, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Colonel Juma Khan, a senior police official in Farah Province, said the militants packed into 20 cars after the attack on the Bakwa district police headquarters to escape retaliatory fire from police. No police officers were killed or hurt in the attack, although local Taliban leader Mula Feroaz claimed three policemen were killed. Meanwhile, in the Ajristan district of Ghazni Province, police arrested four men with arms and ammunition after receiving a tip-off on the presence of gunmen in the area. JC

Olli Heinonen, a deputy head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), met with Iranian Supreme National Security Council deputy head Javad Vaidi in Tehran on October 10 for a second day of discussions about Iran's atomic program, agencies reported. The talks focused on Iran's past interest in and use of P1 and P2 centrifuges, used in uranium enrichment, a key part of the atomic fuel-making process. P2 centrifuges are used to make highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium, and the IAEA has sought to find out why Iran is interested in them (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," September 6, 2004, and March 8, 2006). Iran agreed in late August to answer a number of IAEA questions on its nuclear program. IRNA reported on October 10 that the two sides discussed centrifuges on September 24-25, and cited "informed sources" as saying that Iran would this time provide written responses to IAEA questions on P1 and P2 centrifuges. IRNA added that once the IAEA's questions regarding centrifuges are resolved, the parties will discuss the source of traces of highly enriched uranium found at certain Iranian facilities. The IAEA is to present its board of governors with a report on Iran's responses in November. That report will contribute to Western powers' assessments of whether or not Iran has fully clarified the nature of its nuclear program. VS

Iranian authorities on October 9 released Ali Farahbakhsh, a financial journalist jailed for 11 months on espionage charges, Radio Farda reported on October 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 2007). It was not immediately clear if he was released on bail or freed without conditions. Radio Farda reported that he spent some or all of his jail term in Section 209 of Tehran's Evin prison, reserved for detainees facing security or political charges. Radio Farda, citing ISNA, separately reported on October 9 that a Tehran court has sentenced Mohammad Reza Rezai-Gorkani and Rasul Badaqi, two teachers involved in protests earlier in the year, to two-year and three-year suspended sentences respectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17 and October 9, 2007). Their lawyer, Hushang Purbabai, told ISNA on October 9 that both were convicted of acting against national security. Purbabai said he would appeal against the sentences. VS

The head of the office for HIV/AIDS at the Iranian Health Ministry told the Fars news agency on October 9 that there has been a slight rise in the number of Iranians diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, between late June and late September. The official, named as Sedaqat, said there were 16,090 known HIV cases in Iran as of September 23, up from 15,557 three months earlier. Of the latest diagnosed group, the official said, 15,150 were men. Sedaqat said 1,122 patients now have AIDS-related symptoms or are suffering from the more advanced stage of the disease, and that 2,121 people have died of AIDS in Iran since the first HIV diagnosis in 1986. Among Iranians with HIV, 66.7 percent were reported to have caught the virus from infected needles; 7.5 percent through sexual intercourse; 1.5 percent through blood transfusions; and 0.5 percent through mother-to-infant transmission. Sedaqat cited the 25-34 age group as the most seriously affected, representing 5,131 of the country's HIV patients. VS

Tehran provincial police chief Reza Zarei told the press in Tehran on October 10 that police found 60,000 liters of "smuggled" gasoline around Tehran in the previous three days, and arrested 26 people allegedly involved in the apparent theft. Since late June, Iranians have been entitled to buy a set amount of car fuel at subsidized prices every month, using smart cards, following a national initiative to cut gasoline use and fuel imports. The fuel found by police was presumably bought illegally and stored to be later exported or resold at higher prices. Zarei also informed the press that police found 8,247 kilograms of various drugs, including 285 kilos of heroin and 7,500 kilos of opium, in Tehran Province in the past six months. Separately, Mehr reported on October 9 that police in the southeastern province of Kerman have confiscated three tons of drugs in the past week, and arrested scores of suspects connected with drug trafficking. Police colonel Hossein Chenarian said the week-long operation called "Unity Four" (Ettehad chahar) has led to the arrests of 50 "louts" or "thugs," 58 drug dealers, five "armed bandits" and four armed robbers, Mehr reported. It was not immediately clear if some of the arrested were in more than one category. Police have also seized 115 "illegal military weapons," Chenarian said. VS

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may seek approval from parliament on October 11 for a military incursion into Iraq to fight Turkish-Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Reuters reported the same day. Erdogan told reporters on October 10 that his government will send a formal request for parliamentary approval the following day, seeking authorization to attack PKK targets inside Iraqi territory for one year. U.S., Iraqi, and international officials have urged Turkey to refrain from attacking sites within Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2007). According to Turkish, Iraqi, and Western media, Turkey has already begun shelling operations in northern Iraq. Istanbul-based "Sabah" reported on October 10 that Turkish security forces have identified 12 routes used by the PKK to infiltrate Turkey from Iraq. KR

The European Commission on October 10 called on Turkey to respect Iraq's territorial integrity and seek a diplomatic resolution. Krisztina Nagy, a spokeswoman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, told reporters in Brussels that "the EU and Turkey have regularly reiterated that they remain committed to the independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Iraq." She added, "We hope that Turkey will continue to play a constructive role in order to reach these objectives and promote regional cooperation." Nagy said that while the EU understands Turkey's concerns about the PKK, "it is crucial that Turkey continue to tackle this problem through cooperation between the relevant authorities." KR

Turkish companies doing business in northern Iraq have begun to pull out of the Kurdistan region in anticipation of a Turkish military incursion, the Iraqi newspaper "Al-Zaman" reported on October 10. Ahmad Ajar, head of an association of Turkish businessmen based in Irbil, said many Turkish companies have ended their contracts and are pulling Turkish staff from the region. "Al-Zaman" reports that Turkish investments in Iraqi Kurdistan are valued at $5 billion. Meanwhile, the Kurdistan regional government has said that it is mobilizing its peshmerga forces to confront any military incursion, which they view as a violation of Iraq's sovereignty. If the Turkish military launches a wide-scale incursion into northern Iraq, it would likely do so after the three-day Eid Al-Fitr holiday, which runs from October 14-16, marking the end of Ramadan. KR

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), met with leading members of his party on October 10, following his return from cancer treatment in Tehran, the party's website reported on October 11. Al-Hakim reportedly addressed a number of issues at the meeting, including the latest political and security developments and the need to consolidate national unity. The report said those in attendance expressed their happiness over their leader's return after making a "full recovery" from cancer. KR

Mullah Krekar, the founder of the terrorist group Ansar Al-Islam, the precursor to the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, told the Norwegian Supreme Court on October 10 that he fears he will be killed if he is deported to Iraq, "Aftenposten" reported on October 10. Krekar has been fighting extradition for two years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 30, 2005). Norwegian officials claim Krekar is a threat to the country's security, and say that he violated immigration laws by returning to Iraq several years ago after being granted asylum in Norway. Krekar has denied being a threat to Norway, and claims he is no longer a leader of his group. "In recent years I have been in court over 35 times, been questioned 10 times by the FBI and other services, and they have not found a thing," the daily quoted Krekar as saying. Testifying before the court in Persian, Krekar said: "I go to the mosque once a week and have no other contact with the outside world... If [the authorities] hadn't taken away my passport I would have gone out and taken part in some war or other and been killed by the Americans." According to "Aftenposten," the court is expected to rule on the case by October 12. KR