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Newsline - November 6, 2007

President Vladimir Putin met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Moscow on November 5 to mark the close of the "Year of China" in Russia, Russian and Chinese media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," End Note, September 12, 2007). Putin congratulated Wen on the recent congress of the Chinese Communist Party, noting that the Beijing leadership "set out big plans for the development of the People's Republic of China." Both men praised the growing levels of mutual cooperation and bilateral trade, which is expected to reach $50 billion by the end of 2007. On November 6, Wen attended the Sino-Russian economic forum, where 10 contracts worth a total of $2 billion are scheduled to be signed. They involve fields ranging from nuclear power engineering to cooperation involving small- and medium-sized businesses. The signatories include Wen, Vice Premier Wu Yi, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, and Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov. China views Russia primarily as a source of energy and other raw materials for its booming economy, and as a market for its often inexpensive manufactured goods. Beijing also sees Moscow as a supplier of arms while seeking to develop its own, more advanced technology. China views the United States, Japan, and some European countries as its main competitors, but does not consider Russia to be in the same league. PM

An unnamed Kremlin source quoted by Reuters and Russian media said on November 5 that the Dutch firm Gasunie will soon finalize a deal to acquire a 9 percent stake in the controversial Russian-German Nord Stream pipeline project. Nord Stream will transport Russian gas along the floor of the Baltic Sea to Germany, bypassing Poland and the Baltic states and traversing an area of seabed that contains large quantities of chemical and military waste, including poisons and live explosives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 2, 11, and 12, and November 2, 2007). Reuters suggested that Gasunie will acquire a 4.5 percent interest in the project from each of two German firms, BASF and E.ON, which together have 49 percent of the project. For its part, Gazprom, which owns 51 percent of Nord Stream, would acquire a 9 percent stake in the Dutch BBL Company, which was set up to build and operate a pipeline carrying natural gas from the Netherlands to Britain. Reuters wrote that Gasunie might also have to pay additional money to Gazprom, since 9 percent of BBL is worth less than 9 percent of Nord Stream. If the deal is concluded, it is likely to be seen in Poland and the Baltic states as an example of economically-motivated collusion between Moscow and some older members of the EU at the expense of the bloc's newer members and an overall EU energy policy aimed at diversification of sources. PM

MI5 Director-General Jonathan Evans, Britain's chief domestic intelligence official, said on November 5 in a rare public speech at a conference in Manchester that his agency is being forced to divert needed resources from antiterrorism work "to defend the U.K. against unreconstructed attempts by Russia, China, and others to spy on us," the "International Herald Tribune" reported on November 6. He noted that at least 2,000 people in Britain pose a "direct threat to national security and public safety" because of their support for terrorism, an increase of 400 in the past year. Evans argued that MI5 must divert some of its energies from combating that threat because "a number of countries continue to devote considerable time and energy trying to steal our sensitive technology on civilian and military projects, and trying to obtain political and economic intelligence at our expense." The daily wrote that Evans was particularly pointed in criticizing Russia, whose relationship with Britain has cooled considerably in recent months. Evans said that "since the end of the Cold War, we have seen no decrease in the numbers of undeclared Russian intelligence officers in the U.K., [based] at the Russian Embassy and associated organizations conducting covert activity in this country." Britain's "Daily Mail" wrote on November 6 that Evans' " single out Russia and China is understood to have caused consternation at the Foreign Office." British and U.S. intelligence officials noted in recent months that Russian spying has reached levels not seen since the end of the Cold War. Nikolai Patrushev, who heads the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, was quoted in the October 10 issue of the weekly "Argumenty i fakty" as saying that Britain and the United States are spearheading an espionage campaign against Russia in which the intelligence services of Georgia, Poland, and the Baltic states also participate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, April 13, September 19, and October 10, 2007). PM

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Putin's aide and special envoy to the EU, said in an interview with the government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta," published on November 6, that Russia's proposed European center to monitor democracy and human rights in the EU could be based in Brussels, Berlin, or Paris (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29 and 30, 2007). At the Russia-EU summit in Mafra, Portugal, on October 26, Putin called for setting up a joint "Russian-European institute for freedom and democracy," in an apparent Soviet-style propaganda move aimed at upstaging European critics of Russia's domestic policies. Several Western human rights organizations and official agencies swiftly rejected Putin's proposal as politically motivated and "not serious." Yastrzhembsky said in his November 6 interview that "the activities of the institute will focus on EU election legislation, the rights of ethnic minorities and immigrants in the EU, xenophobia, racism, and media freedom." He made it clear that Russia's concern centers primarily on the Russian speakers of Estonia and Latvia; Moscow has criticized their treatment by Tallinn and Riga in international forums. Yastrzhembsky stressed that the proposed institute would be a joint Russian-European project and not subject to any governmental control. Much of the rest of the interview consisted of an uncompromising defense of Russian policies on Polish meat imports, energy relations with the EU, the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, missile defense, and Kosova, which he called the "most important topic" on today's international political agenda. He sought to portray European and U.S. interests in Kosova as conflicting. Yastrzhembsky also noted that the Kremlin is seeking to improve its image in the Western media. He nonetheless added that it has become "fashionable" in many western countries to portray Russia in a negative light. Yastrzhembsky suggested that there are no serious difficulties separating Putin and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but argued that the two men have not yet had enough time together to develop the "personal chemistry" that characterized Putin's relationships with former French President Jacques Chirac or Germany's ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. PM

More than 52 percent of Russians say the jump in consumer prices in October has affected their purchasing decisions, according to a poll by the Bashkirov and Partners research firm. Only 1.4 percent of respondents said the price increases have had no effect on them. Moreover, the same poll found that 69 percent of Russians feel the measures the government has taken to stem the increases will not be effective and 19.6 percent say they have begun to hoard foodstuffs "for a rainy day." All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) analyst Valery Fyodorov told "Vedomosti" on November 6 that the instinct toward hoarding is highly developed among people who lived through the economic dislocations of the late Soviet and the early post-Soviet periods. Analyst Yevgeny Nadorshin told the daily this instinct is magnified because the government has not been open about its plans to handle the situation. RC

The Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) has asked major oil and gasoline producers for information relating to decreased production and deliveries of gasoline on the domestic market in October, "Kommersant" reported on November 6. Gasoline prices across Russia have risen steadily, although producers say this occurred in connection with planned infrastructure repairs, especially to refineries supplying the Moscow region. RC

Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) Political Council Member Boris Nemtsov told on November 6 that the jump in inflation was caused by inept government policies. Nemtsov particularly criticized the government's agricultural program and its "mistakes in the monopolization of the economy." He also claimed the banking system "has been shaking to its foundations" all autumn, adding that Putin has ordered the government to divert budgetary and Central Bank funds into the banking sector. Nemtsov predicted the government will use stop-gap measures to hold back prices until the December 2 Duma elections, but added that afterward there will be a major spike in inflation. He added that such a spike could produce significant dissatisfaction among the public, which will be added to the public's dissatisfaction with the manipulated elections themselves. He warned that "the authorities, if necessary, are prepared for severe measures in response." RC

The Communist Party has stated it believes the government is preparing the grounds for disqualifying the party from the December 2 Duma elections, "Kommersant" reported on November 6. On November 3, police in Pskov detained Nikolai and Mikhail Romanov, two brothers who are heading the Communist Party's Pskov Oblast list and who are nephews of Communist Duma Deputy and senior party official Vladimir Nikitin, supposedly for placing on the Internet information about a planned "terrorist act" during a November 4 demonstration organized by local authorities. Nikitin, in an open letter to the Central Election Commission and other officials, said that the authorities -- "especially the [Federal Security Service] FSB" -- plan to accuse the Pskov party organization of extremism. "They could try to accuse us of extremism and by that means remove from the elections either the entire party or the Pskov list," party legal counsel Vadim Solovyov told the daily. He also said that officials in Oryol and Smolensk have asked for lists of party members "for official reasons." In Novosibirsk late last month, the FSB opened a probe into a party newspaper that published jokes about the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party and about President Putin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 1, 2007). RC

Mikhail Delyagin, who served as economic adviser under former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, told the "Itogi" newsweekly on November 6 that only President Putin is capable of maintaining the precarious balance of Russia's inherently unstable political structure. He said the current situation is evolving into a systemic economic and political crisis. "The entire political system of Russia today is a struggle of various clans and groups fighting to see that Putin stays in power according to their scenario and not according to the scenario of their competitors." Therefore, Delyagin said, the best option for the country in the current situation is for Putin to remain president until it is possible for him to transfer power to "more responsible people than the current successors and under more normal circumstances." RC

Masked gunmen shot dead three employees of a brick factory in Yandary, northeast of Nazran, during the night of November 4-5, and reported. Two of the victims were from elsewhere in the North Caucasus and the third from Belarus. Two Chechens arrested later on November 5 are not suspected of involvement in the killing, according to the Ingushetian Interior Ministry. In the evening of November 5, unidentified gunmen shot dead two Armenian railway workers in Nazran, reported. Over the past six months, gunmen in Ingushetia have systematically targeted Russians and other non-Ingush in a series of high-profile killings. LF

In a move reminiscent of the late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2004), Ramzan Kadyrov issued orders on November 3 for the removal of all "superfluous" portraits of himself from the facades of both public and privately owned buildings in Grozny, reported. Grozny Mayor Muslim Khuchiyev protested that residents "voluntarily" adorn their homes with photographs of Kadyrov and removing them would infringe on people's right to do so. An earlier order by Kadyrov to remove his portraits was simply ignored. LF

Republican Prosecutor's Office investigator Valery Ustov has suggested that the nine hunters found shot dead on November 4 near the village of Lechinkai may have been killed by Islamic militants whose hideout they discovered, reported on November 6. The nine men were found shot in the back of the head, with their hands tied (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 5, 2007). Their four dogs were also killed and their weapons and mobile telephones stolen. To date, militants in Kabardino-Balkaria have targeted only police and security officials but not civilians; the killers may, however, have mistaken the hunters for security personnel as they were wearing military-style clothing, suggested. LF

The National Assembly passed on November 5 in the first reading a bill amending 47 of the total 141 articles of the election law, Noyan Tapan reported. The bill, drafted by the majority Republican Party of Armenia and its partner in the coalition government, Bargavach Hayastan, abolishes the provision under which presidential candidates may be nominated by a bloc of political parties or by civic initiative, and doubles, from 5 million drams ($15,000) to 10 million drams, the fee for registering as a presidential candidate, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. It also doubles the maximum amount a candidate may spend on election campaigning, from 70 million to 140 million drams. Independent parliamentarian Viktor Dallakian, who authored Armenia's 1999 election law, said the restrictions have "political and psychological implications." On November 2, the opposition newspaper "Haykakan zhamanak" suggested that the abolition of the provision allowing the nomination of a presidential candidate by a civic initiative or a group of parties was aimed expressly against former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, whom up to two dozen parties plan to nominate for the presidential election due in early 2008. Speaking at an October 26 briefing, Hrayr Karapetian said the parliamentary faction of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun he heads opposes the proposed amendments and has put forward alternatives, Noyan Tapan reported. Also on November 5, Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis told journalists in Yerevan after talks with Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, and parliament speaker Tigran Torosian that his organization hopes, and is prepared to help ensure, that the presidential ballot proves free and fair, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Davis met separately for half an hour with Ter-Petrossian, Noyan Tapan reported on November 6. LF

Millionaire businessman and independent parliament deputy Khachatur Sukiasian accused the Tax Police on November 5 of launching repeated inspections of businesses he owns in retaliation for his continued support for ex-President Ter-Petrossian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Sukiasian, who is one of Armenia's major taxpayers, alleged that the tax authorities selectively target those businessmen whose political views are considered suspect, while creating preferential conditions for those considered loyal to the authorities. LF

Speaking at a press conference in Baku on November 5 at the end of a three-day visit to Azerbaijan, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried stressed that Washington wants to see Azerbaijan a strong and successful country, Azerbaijani media reported. Fried said that a peaceful solution to the Karabakh conflict would contribute to that outcome. He also said the freer and more democratic the presidential elections due in the fall of 2008 are perceived to be, the greater the prestige of the next president in the international arena. Fried rejected as a misperception the suggestion that Washington is prepared to turn a blind eye to undemocratic practices in Azerbaijan rather than risk fuelling political instability, reported. He praised Azerbaijan's energy diplomacy as "successful," but noted that the government has an obligation to ensure that revenues from oil transit are spent for the benefit of the population. Fried also said that despite Russia's offer of the use of the Qabala (Gabala) radar facility in Azerbaijan, Washington will not abandon its plans to establish a an air-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29 and November 1, 2007). LF

Traders from Bazar-57, the largest private market in the Naxicevan Autonomous Republic, staged a demonstration on November 5 to protest plans by the republican authorities to demolish the market on the grounds that it constitutes an eyesore, and reported on November 5 and 6, respectively. The market employs some 5,000 people in a region where unemployment is extremely high; estimates of the number of protest participants ranged from several hundred to several thousand. LF

Kakha Kukava of the opposition Democratic Front parliament faction walked out of talks with Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze on November 5 after she again declared that the Georgian authorities will not make any concessions with regard to the opposition's demand that parliamentary elections be held in the spring, not the fall of 2008, Caucasus Press reported. Burjanadze explicitly rejected the proposal made earlier that day by the opposition New Rightists parliament faction to hold a referendum on the date for the parliamentary ballot, Caucasus Press reported. The New Rightists (aka New Conservatives) are not represented on the National Council. Meeting with representatives of the cultural intelligentsia on November 5, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili similarly said the opposition's demands will not be met, but at the same time he reaffirmed his readiness for dialogue. Two members of the majority United National Movement parliament faction, former Communist Party of Georgia First Secretary Jumber Patiashvili and former Economy Minister Vladimir Papava, expressed support on November 5 for the opposition demand that the parliamentary elections be held next spring. Papava has since resigned as deputy chairman of the parliament's Budget and Finance Committee, Caucasus Press reported on November 6. Meanwhile, thousands of people continued to protest outside the parliament building for the fourth consecutive day in support of the four demands put forward by the 10-party opposition National Council (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," November 5, 2007). Addressing the demonstrators, Republican Party leader David Usupashvili argued that Saakashvili has forfeited the right to remain president by his refusal to meet with the demonstrators, and there is therefore no longer any need to demand his resignation, Caucasus Press reported. LF

In a live broadcast late on November 5 on the independent Imedi television channel, former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili branded President Saakashvili a "latter-day Adolf Hitler" whose days "are numbered," and argued that "we should jointly get rid of this plague," Caucasus Press and reported. Okruashvili affirmed that the accusations of corruption and other crimes that he made against Saakashvili in late September but subsequently retracted are true, but they he would not be able to prove that in a Georgian court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2007). He apologized for "disappointing" his supporters by that retraction. Okruashvili further said he is in contact with the opposition National Council and plans to return to Georgia from Munich, having been "forcibly" taken to Tbilisi airport and forced to leave the country late last month. On November 6, the Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office rejected as untrue Okrashvili's claim that neither he personally nor any of his associates posted the 10 million laris ($6 million) bail on the basis of which he was released from pretrial detention on October 8, reported. Deputy Prosecutor-General Nika Gvaramia said the sum was paid in part by the International Building Company owned by Okruashvili's friend Kibar Khalvashi and partly by a second friend and business partner, Tamaz Nizharadze. LF

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev arrived in Damascus on November 5 at the start of a three-day official state visit to Syria, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Nazarbaev met that day with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to discuss possible measures to expand bilateral cooperation and trade. The two leaders signed a set of new agreements on cooperation in science, education, and agriculture, as well as an accord calling for an exchange of information between the Kazakh and Syrian foreign ministries, Kazinform reported. Nazarbaev also plans to officially preside over the opening of an inaugural meeting of the Kazakh-Syrian Business Council. The visit to Syria follows an agreement signed in July by the Kazakh and Syrian industry ministries on "cooperation in the fields of trade, industry, agriculture, and transportation." That agreement set targets for increased trade, and focuses on developing joint ventures in the medical, textile, railway, and aviation sectors. Nazarbaev is scheduled to visit the United Arab Emirates on November 7-8. RG

Kazakh Deputy Defense Minister General Bolat Sembinov met on November 5 in Astana with visiting French General Emmanuel Beth, the director of the French Foreign Ministry's Military and Defense Cooperation Directorate, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Following a review of the state of bilateral military relations, Beth was briefed on the course of Kazakhstan's defense reforms. Beth then endorsed the preparation of a three-year strategic blueprint for the development of the Kazakh navy, and pledged French assistance in "equipping the Kazakh naval forces with modern machinery and equipment, as well as training Kazakh specialists and supporting initiatives under the Kazakh-NATO Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP)," according to a press release by the Kazakh Defense Ministry. The development of the Kazakh Navy is a new strategic priority for Kazakhstan's defense planners. During a recent visit to Kazakhstan by Robert Simmons, the special representative of the NATO secretary-general for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, NATO also pledged to assist in the creation of a Kazakh naval fleet in the Caspian Sea (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 2, 2007). Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov recently announced the creation of a new "directorate for naval forces" within the Defense Ministry, and reported that the country is "working with Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and French companies" for the purchase and production of several large naval vessels and a "coast-based infrastructure" to service the new navy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20 and October 31, 2007). The development of a larger Kazakh naval force in the Caspian Sea is specifically intended to guard and patrol Kazakhstan's vast offshore oil fields, and supplements efforts to fulfill President Nazarbaev's goal of expanding and modernizing the armed forces to become an "advanced military power" within five years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22 and October 25, 2007). RG

Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov met in Bishkek on November 5 with the head of the U.S. Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, to discuss bilateral military cooperation, according to AKIpress. U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Marie Yovanovitch also attended the meeting. Fallon reassured his Kyrgyz hosts that although the United States seeks to expand and deepen the level of bilateral cooperation due to the need to support operations in nearby Afghanistan, he "does not see reasons for increasing the NATO troop contingent at the Manas air base" outside of Bishkek, according to the website. Fallon's comments were apparently meant to alleviate Kyrgyz concerns over a possible increased Western military presence. In a separate meeting with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabaev, Fallon promised to do his best to provide continued military, technical, and humanitarian assistance to Kyrgyzstan. For his part, Karabaev expressed his "satisfaction with the level of bilateral cooperation" and stressed that the expansion of the Kyrgyz partnership with the United States is "a priority in Kyrgyzstan's foreign policy." Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Tokon Mamytov also met with Fallon and briefed him on the "current political situation," including the recent adoption of a new Kyrgyz constitution and the upcoming December 16 parliamentary elections. Mamytov also reaffirmed Kyrgyzstan's commitment to the fight against terrorism, stressing that "Kyrgyzstan will make every effort to ensure that the operation in Afghanistan ends successfully." But Mamytov noted that international terrorism, religious extremism, and drug trafficking continue to pose major threats to Kyrgyz security. Fallon is also set to visit Tajikistan on November 6 following his meetings in Bishkek, Asia-Plus reported. RG

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov arrived on November 5 in Brussels at the start of a two-day official visit for talks with senior EU and NATO officials, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported. Although Berdymukhammedov is eager to focus on cooperation in the energy, agriculture, and education sectors during his first visit to Brussels, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner stressed during their meeting on November 6 that "greater openness" on human rights is necessary to speed up a planned trade agreement, and would help to expand cooperation with the EU. A draft EU-Turkmenistan trade agreement was virtually suspended in 2006 after the European Parliament imposed new preconditions for human rights progress in Turkmenistan before the agreement could be ratified. Ferrero-Waldner welcomed the recent Turkmen decision to establish a special human rights commission, but said "more needs to be done" in Turkmenistan. Berdymukhammedov also met on November 5 with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, and EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson. He is also scheduled to meet with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana during his visit. RG

Viktar Ivashkevich, the deputy chairman of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front (BNF), said on November 5 that after the so-called "Social March" on November 4, the Belarusian authorities might shift their tactics in dealing with opposition demonstrations from simple crackdowns to "provocations," Belapan reported. The "Social March," held to protest the abolition of some state social benefits, was disrupted by a scuffle between two youth groups, who then dispersed as police appeared. The clash was later shown on Belarusian television and described as proof that the opposition is divided. Ivashkevich suggested that the event was orchestrated by the authorities. "These youth groups have no clear ideology, and engage in no public political activities," Ivashkevich said. "We know that they are under particular attention from the Belarusian secret services. And such people can be used to create provocations," he added. AM

Opposition deputy leader Ivashkevich said on November 5 that he has written an open letter to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, which he left with the president's administration that day, Belapan reported. Ivashkevich wrote that he would like to help put into action Lukashenka's professed readiness to cooperate with Europe. "Police no longer beat demonstrators with sticks. Very good," Ivashkevich said. "Now take the next step and release all the political prisoners, stop the arrests of activists of prodemocratic forces, and the entire world will believe that you can change for the better. You will be surprised at how renouncing the policy of confrontation with the entire world will put your mind at ease." Ivashkevich stressed that the Belarusian government depends on Europe for loans. "That's why we should continue with the tactics of dialogue, and fight for this dialogue," he added. AM

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao met with Belarusian First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka on November 5 in Minsk, Belapan reported. Their talks resulted in an intergovernmental agreements stipulating that China will provide Belarus with a $500 million loan for the construction of three cement plants, along with another $27 million low-interest loan. Belarus earlier this year asked Moscow for a $1.5 billion stabilization loan to help offset the price hike for natural gas imports from Russia, but Moscow has delayed making a decision on that request. President Lukashenka has said that Belarus should be able to obtain loans from other countries without trouble. AM

U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor said on November 5 that Ukraine's possible accession to NATO depends exclusively on a decision by the Ukrainian public, and that no NATO members will push Ukraine toward joining the alliance, Ukrainian media reported. If Ukraine wants to join NATO, Taylor continued, the alliance's doors will be open, but the first step will be for Ukraine to embark on a NATO Membership Action Plan. Taylor also said that accession to NATO does not automatically entail the deployment of foreign military bases or nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory. Taylor added that NATO allies share the values of democracy, a market economy, and mutual security. Ukraine's prime minister and president believe that the public should offer their opinions on NATO entry in a referendum. But President Viktor Yushchenko recently said that the Ukrainian people are not well-enough informed about NATO, and that such a referendum therefore should not be held within the next few years. AM

A survey conducted by the Public Opinion-Ukraine foundation shows that 45 percent of Ukrainians support the coalition between the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) in the new Verkhovna Rada, while 42 percent are against it, Interfax reported on November 5. The same coalition with the addition of the Lytvyn Bloc received the support of 41 percent of respondents. The survey, answered by 2,000 Ukrainians between October 18 and 28, also found that other possible coalitions, between the Party of Regions and the NUNS, or between the Party of Regions and the BYuT, are approved by 25 percent and 14 percent of Ukrainians, respectively. AM

Hong Kong's relationship with China could serve as a model for relations between Serbia and Kosova, Serbia's president and prime minister said on November 5. According to international media, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said no one is thinking of "transplanting the case of Hong Kong to Serbia," but the Hong Kong model has proved "realistic," "successful," "sustainable," "stable," and "functional" and "deserves to be considered thoroughly" in talks on Kosova's future. Serbia's initiative was the chief feature of the latest round of direct talks between Kosova and Serbia, held in Vienna on November 5. Hong Kong is part of China, but Beijing allows it to retain many of the systems established under British rule, an arrangement referred to as "two systems, one state." Serbia has long offered "95 percent autonomy" to Kosova, but insists that Serbia should retain sovereignty and that international borders should remain unchanged. A Hong Kong model would keep those essential elements in place. Serbia's suggestion was rejected by Kosova's negotiating team. Its spokesman, Skender Hyseni, called the proposal "entirely inappropriate because the historical background of Kosovo and Hong Kong differ so much." He did not elaborate. In September, Kosova's leaders ruled out the idea of using Hong Kong as a model (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 25, 2007). More broadly, Hyseni said the meeting brought no progress, for which he blamed Belgrade. The next talks will be held on November 20 in Brussels. AG

Serbia's prime minister and president sent a signal that Belgrade's involvement in talks on Kosova's future is changing gear by both attending the meeting in Vienna. This is only the second time they have attended since the latest round of negotiations began in August. Serbian President Boris Tadic said that now that the negotiations are in their "last phase," "we are trying to offer new ideas, although that is not easy." The basis of the discussion was, once again, 14 preliminary conclusions reached by the international mediators. The conclusions were criticized by both sides, which the EU's mediator, Wolfgang Ischinger, said, "was to be expected." Serbia, which responded point by point to the 14-point document at a previous meeting in October, stressed two particular concerns: Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said that "what's really essential is to explicitly refer to the fact that [UN Security Council] Resolution 1244 is the framework for our work," and to explicitly rule out unilateral action. Resolution 1244 set the framework for the UN's Mission in Kosova following NATO's intervention in 1999, but Serbia insists that one of its clauses -- that Serbia retained sovereignty over Kosova -- should feature in any solution to Kosova's status. The mediators' 14 points -- and the discussions on November 5 -- did not touch on the issue of sovereignty. Serbia is also concerned that Kosova may unilaterally declare independence. Several members of the Kosovar team reiterated during the day that Kosova intends to push for statehood after December 10, when the talks' mediators are due to submit a report to the UN's secretary-general. However, it is still unclear whether Kosova would act unilaterally. Sali Berisha, the prime minister of Kosova's closest ally, Albania, repeated on November 2 that Kosova should act only in concert with other states, the news agency ATA reported. Serbia has repeatedly warned that a unilateral move could destabilize the region. That message was returned to on November 5 by Tadic, who also told the broadcaster B92 that "some believe that the stability of 2 million Albanians in Kosovo is more important than the instability of 10 million Serbs." AG

Macedonia is prepared to forgo membership in NATO rather than agree to use a different name, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski said on November 5. "If Macedonia has to choose between its constitutional name and NATO accession, we say in advance that we choose the first," Crvenkovski said in a statement quoted by local and international media. Crvenkovski's statement follows a UN proposal made on November 1 that Macedonia resolve its long-standing dispute with Greece by agreeing to be known by one name at home and another abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2007). Greece, which is a member of both NATO and the EU, has threatened to veto Macedonia's accession to the two organizations unless it drop the word "Macedonia," which it says misappropriates the name of one of its provinces. The proposal made by the UN's envoy, Matthew Nimetz, does not suggest an alternative to Macedonia's constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia. In many international forums, Macedonia is currently referred to as "the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (FYROM), a compromise that enabled it to join the UN. However, the use of the term FYROM was always understood to be provisional, pending a final agreement. Crvenkovski said in June that "if a solution to the dispute is not possible by the time we are admitted to NATO, then we are prepared to be admitted under the reference which is currently used in the UN [the FYROM]" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 6, 2007). Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki noted on November 3 that 120 UN members have recognized Macedonia under its constitutional name. That figure includes three members of the Security Council: China, Russia, and the United States. Crvenkovski's stance has won cross-party support, including the backing of ethnic-Albanian parties. AG

Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis on November 5 underscored Greece's willingness to scupper Macedonia's bid for EU and NATO membership over the name dispute. According to AP, she underlined Greece's ties to the term "Macedonia," saying that "geographically, Macedonia is a broad region, more than half of which belongs to Greece. Today, more than 2.5 million Greeks consider themselves proud Macedonians." The historical existence of a Macedonia across the region fuels some Greeks' belief that, despite its denials, Macedonia might lay claim to other parts of historical Macedonia. There are, though, Greeks who believe Macedonia should be part of Greece. That position was stated publicly on November 5, AP reported, by a senior cleric in the Greek Orthodox Church, the bishop of Thessaloniki, who said that "Macedonia is Greek...and parts of it that are missing should be returned." AG

Albania's chief prosecutor, Theodhori Sollaku, appears to be on the verge of dismissal after the Albanian parliament passed a resolution calling for his removal, local and international media reported. The main grounds are that Sollaku has done too little to combat corruption and organized crime at home and failed to cooperate with foreign law-enforcement agencies on issues that included extradition. He was also criticized for releasing 22 prisoners without due cause. Parliament based its resolution on the findings of a parliamentary commission. The commission, which was established only on October 25, reached its conclusions well within the allotted month and was boycotted by members of the opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 2007). Sollaku's dismissal now needs to be ratified by President Bamir Topi, who has long called for Sollaku to step down. The opposition believes that the governing parties' support for Sollaku's impeachment is politically motivated, an attempt to seize control of the judiciary, and an attempt to abort Sollaku's investigations into alleged government corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2007). Once an adviser to Prime Minister Berisha, Sollaku has been at loggerheads with Berisha and his Democratic Party for much of the past five years. Sollaku called the parliamentary vote, which was carried by 77 votes to 37, "an institutional coup." AG

More than 200 people a year are dying in Albania each year due to illnesses that can be attributed to air pollution, a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) has found. The report, which was published on November 1, said that the poor quality of air also means that many others, "above all children," are at risk of respiratory diseases. Deaths are particularly common in the capital, Tirana, where "pollution levels are very high," it found, while, according to AFP, Albanian Health Minister Nard Ndoka said air pollution lowers life expectancy in Tirana by "at least two years." Pollution in Albania is far higher than the European norm. The main causes highlighted in the report are old cars and low-quality fuel. AG

Much of the world's attention on Afghanistan is now focused on the country's Pashtun-dominated south and east, where Taliban fighters are battling NATO troops and U.S.-led coalition forces. But there is a different kind of tension in northern Afghanistan.

Illegal ethnic-Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara militias in the north appear to be using the threat of a resurgent Taliban as an excuse to hoard weapons and more forcefully protect their interests, such as ruling over land they have controlled since the Taliban's collapse or defending drug export routes that are a major source of income.

Experts say the entrenchment of the militias, who once fought together against the Taliban, reflects divisions and mistrust among regional commanders of different ethnicities which -- if left unchecked -- could exacerbate tensions in the country at a time when its security situation is already on a razor's edge.

"Obviously, what is happening in the north is really the growing Balkanization of the country," said Sam Zia-Zarifi, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch and field researcher in Afghanistan who has monitored programs by the United Nations and Afghan government to disarm the militias.

"It's been an ongoing trend in Afghanistan for warlords who are ostensibly allied with the government to entrench themselves even more fully," Zia-Zarifi told RFE/RL. "A lot of them are now swollen with the narcotics trade -- profits from the sale of poppy and heroin. They have a lot of political clout because many of them have allies in the parliament, if they are not directly members of the parliament. And the next step is to openly flex their military muscle."

Attempts to demobilize the patchwork of rival militias across Afghanistan were once trumpeted as a necessary step toward peace and the creation of a functioning democracy. But UN officials have acknowledged that their initial voluntary disarmament program failed to reach its targets.

Militia leaders in the north still command the loyalty of thousands of fighters who can be mobilized quickly in the event of a local dispute or crisis.

Brigadier General Abdulmanan Abed, an Afghan Defense Ministry official involved the country's ongoing disarmament program, says there is an "environment of mistrust" in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif about the Kabul government's ability to prevent Taliban infiltrations.

The commander who holds sway in Mazar-e Sharif is Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful general whom Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed as chief of staff for the Afghan National Army.

Dostum is enormously popular among his fellow ethnic Uzbeks in the north. According to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Dostum also is one of several regional commanders who appear to be exploiting Kabul's preoccupation with the violence-ridden south and east in order to stake claims on their old fiefdoms.

In May, when Dostum's supporters staged protests against a controversial governor of the northern province of Jowzjan, the demonstrations turned violent -- leaving at least 10 people dead and more than 40 injured.

Armed supporters of Dostum also clashed with authorities in Faryab Province in May, forcing Kabul to send in troops to quell the violence.

Provincial authorities in Jowzjan accuse Dostum's political faction, Junbish-e Melli, of rearming its supporters in the north. But Junbish representatives have repeatedly denied those accusations, telling RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that they are only a political group and have no weapons.

Another powerful commander accused not fully disarming and demobilizing his factional militia fighters is Mohammad Qasim Fahim.

Fahim commanded ethnic-Tajik fighters from the Panjshir Valley in the former United Front -- also known as the former Northern Alliance. The U.S.-backed alliance also had included Dostum's fighters. But the former United Front disintegrated as the rival militias raced to stake out territory after the collapse of the Taliban regime.

It was Fahim's fighters who, against the pleas of the international community, seized control of Kabul when the Taliban fled Kabul in late 2001. And Fahim's Islamist political faction -- Jam'iat-e Islami-yi -- used its de facto control of Kabul as a negotiating position at the Bonn Conference in December of 2001.

That initially gave Jam'iat-e Islami-yi commanders control of some of the most powerful posts in Karzai's post-Taliban transitional administration -- heading the ministries of Defense, the Interior, and Foreign Affairs as well as the Afghan intelligence services.

Fahim himself was defense minister from late 2001 through most of 2004. But he was removed from the post in December 2004 after being accused of illegally occupying land in Kabul.

Commanders of other factional militia also have accused Fahim of hoarding weapons for his own militia fighters at a time when, as defense minister, he was in charge of the government demobilization efforts.

Christopher Langton, an expert on conflict and defense diplomacy at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says that amid a perceived spread of the Taliban-led insurgency during the last two years, as well as disturbances further north and heavy fighting in the south, some former United Front commanders have decided unilaterally that they may need weapons in the future.

"Some are quite senior, some close to the government and in politics," Langton says. "And they don't see why they should have to disarm whereas groups in the south remain armed -- and some of the groups in the south have actually been armed by international forces in order to fight on the side of the [Afghan] government."

Other independent experts say the lack of detailed information about local militia command structures has compromised the effectiveness of disarmament efforts.

The International Crisis Group says it is not formal militia structures, but rather the informal structures that must be understood in order to identify commanders at the village level responsible for calling into action the militia fighters who have stashed away their weapons.

Langton describes Afghanistan after decades of war as "a country based around armed groups." He says it is naive for anybody to think such a situation could be changed by a voluntary program to disarm and disband militia.

"If, at the beginning, there wasn't the threat of Taliban coming back [to the north], there were other reasons for retaining weapons," Langton says. "Self-protection in a place like Afghanistan is one reason. The possibility of having to guard opium convoys or heroin consignments going abroad is another reason. And the other reason is commercial -- selling armed guards to local authorities to guard their properties. What I think the so-called resurgent Taliban does is to give some perceived legitimacy to" the hoarding of weapons.

Langton says fears among non-Pashtun commanders in the north have been heightened by recent overtures in Kabul about bringing moderate Taliban into the government -- an issue he says is closer to reality now than ever before.

"It does strengthen the belief amongst the former Northern [Alliance] groups that they may have to be prepared to stand up to some kind of Pashtun-dominated government," Langton says. "The United Afghan National Front opposition group, which was given birth last year, came together as a political opposition to the government largely because the people in the party feared that there might be a need to be united once again. And, of course, these are the former Northern Alliance commanders.

"The formation of this political group is an indication that there is a retention of weapons because there is a fear of increasing Taliban involvement both, possibly, in legitimate government and as a force which is encroaching further north illegally," Langton says.

Still, Langton and other experts conclude that the Afghan government is not about to face an armed insurrection by commanders from the former United Front. They say such a development would require a degree of unity among northern militia that doesn't appear to exist. And they say the political coalition formed last year by northern commanders does not translate into an armed alliance -- except at local levels where militia commanders are trying to protect their personal and vested interests.

(Ron Synovitz is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

Local Afghan authorities said on November 4 that military operations led by NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan forces dislodged Taliban insurgents from Arghandab district in Kandahar Province, and that civilians are returning to their homes, the "Christian Science Monitor" reported on November 5. The Taliban entered the district after a political vacuum was created in the area by the death of Mullah Naqib, an influential pro-government tribal leader and the head of the Alokozai tribe, who dominated the strategic district near Kandahar city, the spiritual capital of the Taliban movement. Lieutenant Commander Pierre Babinsky, a spokesman for ISAF in Kandahar Province, praised the performance of the Afghan National Army and police forces in expelling the Taliban, "This was one of the first truly joint operations between Canadian and Afghan forces operating together as equal partners," he said. Afghan army and police units are receiving intensive training to enable them to battle the Taliban insurgency without the backing of international security forces. MM

Four policemen were killed on November 4 as they were driving in the southeastern province of Ghazni when a bomb exploded under their vehicle, provincial police commander Alishah Ahmadzai said, the "Times of India" reported. A spokesman for the Taliban took responsibility for the attack. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry announced that police working with international soldiers killed 25 Taliban on November 3 in an operation in the restive province of Oruzgan, which has suffered from frequent insurgency activities. The U.S.-led coalition announced separately that its troops, teamed with Afghan forces, repelled an attack on November 2 on a military base in Oruzgan. The British forces operating under NATO command in Helmand Province also announced that they killed several insurgents on November 3. In other insurgent violence, a bomb exploded near the border with Pakistan on November 3, killing a school principal, police said. MM

Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed a ceremony in Kabul on November 4 to mark the success of an internationally backed campaign to help Afghanistan provide adequate health care to children, though he also acknowledged that there is "still a long way to go," AFP reported. The health-care system in Afghanistan is a relative success story since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, prior to which the country had virtually no health-care system. Addressing an audience of more than 700 people, including doctors, nurses, government officials, and international organizations, Karzai reminded them that "we are still losing 250,000 children from diseases that are curable in other countries." A Health Ministry statement distributed at the ceremony cited a survey by U.S. John Hopkins University showing the annual mortality rate of children under the age of five has dropped from 257 per 1,000 live births in 2001 to about 191 in 2006. "Despite many challenges, there are clear signs of health-sector recovery and progress throughout the country," Health Minister Mohammad Amin Fatimi said, adding that "today, 85 percent of the people of our country have access to health services." MM

The political and security developments in neighboring Pakistan topped the agenda of the meeting of the Afghan cabinet on November 4 at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Bakhtar News Agency reported, citing a press release by the Presidential Press Office. President Karzai began by deliberating on the state of emergency in Pakistan and said that "the current developments in Pakistan are of grave concern to us." He stated that Afghanistan will follow the situation closely and that he hopes the instability and state of emergency in Pakistan will not adversely affect the security situation in Afghanistan and the region. He also expressed the hope that Afghan and Pakistani government forces will remain focused on fighting terrorism and extremism in the region. He emphasized that the Afghan government and people aim to pursue peace, stability, and friendly relations with Pakistan, and that they support the restoration of democracy and the return of peace and stability in Pakistan. MM

Speaking in Tehran on November 5, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini again outlined a plan, first proposed by Iran at a November 3 conference in Istanbul, intended to help restore security to Iraq and aid reconstruction there, ISNA reported. The proposals include a timetable for the withdrawal of coalition troops, a program for the withdrawal of private security firms, a "serious response" to terrorist activities, and measures to assure the security of Iraq's borders. The plan also calls on regional states to reopen their embassies in Baghdad as a gesture of support for the Iraqi government, and for Iraqi ethnic and regional groups to suspend for two years any disagreements over contentious issues like the division of resources. News agencies reported that the Iranian proposals were not well received by some participants at the Istanbul conference, including Saudi Arabia and the United States. Hosseini said the proposals are now part of a "comprehensive plan," although he noted that the Istanbul conference was not the first time the ideas had been floated. He said if the "Iraqi government is insistent and the American government asks through official channels," Iran will consider holding more talks with U.S. diplomats on Iraqi security, ISNA reported. VS

Kazem Jalali, a lawmaker from Shahrud and a spokesman for the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said in Tehran on November 6 that the 5+1 powers, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, are divided in their responses to Iran's nuclear program, ISNA reported. Jalali said Russia, China, and Germany are satisfied with Iran's cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), while the United States is trying its hardest to prevent reaching any agreement in the nuclear dispute. Speaking to a gathering of a conservative business grouping, the Society of Islamic Guilds and Market Associations, Jalali said there should not be a third UN resolution against Iran in November if IAEA head Muhammad el-Baradei reports that "there is progress" in Iran's clarification of its nuclear activities. "This is what is happening now," he said, adding that even as Iran cooperates with the IAEA, "immediately the Americans try and sow discord," showing that they are not seeking a resolution. He said "the Americans started to become confrontational as soon as they felt the word progress would appear" at the next IAEA governing board meeting. Jalali said Russia, China, and Germany believe Iran's talks with the IAEA benefit the international community, but the United States wants "el-Baradei's report to contain what they dictate." VS

Hundreds of Iranians gathered on November 4 outside the compound of the former U.S. Embassy in downtown Tehran to commemorate the 1979 assault on the embassy by Iranian revolutionaries and the ensuing hostage crisis, Radio Farda reported, citing agency reports. The crowd included schoolchildren, apparently brought to the gathering as part of a school program. Iranians mark the anniversary every year. Addressing the gathering, Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi denounced the current U.S. pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, and said additional sanctions would have no impact on Iran's determined pursuit of its nuclear program. He did, however, ask Iranians to cut their energy consumption, saying a 10 percent cut in energy use would help them weather sanctions, in spite of the hardships they might endure. Purmohammadi said Iran has managed to "bring down America's hegemony," Radio Farda reported. VS

Members of the Islamic Iran Graduates Organization, which unites former members of the nationwide student grouping Office to Consolidate Unity, met with prominent dissident theologian Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, on November 5. At the meeting -- presumably held in Qom, northcentral Iran, where Ayatollah Montazeri is based -- the activists discussed with him the increasing pressures faced by students and liberal activists in Iran, the organization's website,, reported. Organization spokesman Abdullah Momemi told Ayatollah Montazeri that many students have been arrested and beaten in recent months. He said that when security forces shut the offices of the Graduates Organization on July 9, they beat group members and used the "most indecent and ugly" insults against them, then locked them up in solitary confinement. "Unfortunately, all these actions have been taken in the name of religion and Islam, which may turn some youngsters against religion," Momeni said. He said Iran's government is not acting rationally in suppressing liberal and democratic aspirations at a time of foreign pressure and threats. Montazeri told the students that as parliamentary elections, scheduled for March, approach, the government wishes to ensure that liberal candidates are excluded from the next parliament through increased pressure and the usual vetting of aspirants. He said the harsh court rulings against students are unjustified in religious terms, and urged the government to talk to foreign powers and prevent the possibility of any conflict over disputed issues. VS

In a November 5 report, the Iraqi Red Crescent Society said that 2.3 million Iraqis have left their homes for safe havens elsewhere in the country. According to the Red Crescent, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) grew by 16 percent in September to 2,299,425. Less than half a million were listed as internally displaced at the start of 2007. Eighty-three percent of those displaced are women or children under the age of 12, the organization reported. More than 60 percent of the displaced hail from Baghdad Governorate. The report did not say whether the number of displaced from Baghdad has risen or fallen in recent months. The figures were compiled by the Red Crescent's 5,000 staffers working in 365 offices throughout Iraq's 18 governorates, with the help of a volunteer staff of 95,000 people. Somewhat at variance with the report, the Iraqi government announced on November 3 that more than 3,000 families displaced by violence in Baghdad have returned to their homes in the capital over the past three months. Meanwhile, Al-Basrah Deputy Governor Luay al-Battat said last week that his governorate cannot cope with the influx of IDPs. "This unorganized migration is leading to higher crime rates, aggravating the security situation and exerting immense pressure on the already rickety public-service infrastructure," "Al-Zaman" quoted al-Battat as saying on November 2. KR

Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported on November 2 that the situation of IDPs in Iraq's northern governorates continues to deteriorate. The IOM noted an increase in forced prostitution among IDPs "desperate to survive." Tensions with Turkey have resulted in small-scale displacement; rent prices in the northern city of Irbil continue to rise, forcing some IDPs unable to pay rent onto the streets. "Security in various governorates is either stable or partially improving such as in Anbar, although here the number of displaced families fleeing from Baghdad is increasing," the IOM reported. Also, IRIN reported on November 5 that 120 families have been forced from their homes close to the Turkish border by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). That number is in addition to some 7,000 people who have fled their homes near the border since mid-October, according to Kalif Dirar, a senior official in the Kurdistan regional government. PKK commander Sergevaz Lafaw told IRIN, "Some families have been forced out of their homes because their residences are of strategic importance and also for their own safety as shells could fall on their homes and hurt their loved ones." KR

Iraqi security officials at Baghdad International Airport reportedly prevented an Interior Ministry official suspected of graft from boarding a flight abroad, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on November 5. Ala Abbud al-Kilani, a Facilities Protection Services officer accused of stealing 1 billion dinars (approximately $812,000) in wages of fictitious ministry employees per month over a several-month period, attempted to board a flight to Amman, Jordan, on November 3. The report did not say whether al-Kilani was detained by security services at the time of the incident. KR

The British military announced on November 5 that the government will begin accepting asylum applications from Iraqi translators and others who have worked for British forces in Iraq, Reuters reported. Staffers must have worked with Britain's military or civilian mission for at least 12 months and have been in their jobs between January 1, 2005, and August 8, 2007, the announcement said. About 90 Iraqi interpreters were reportedly working with British forces in Iraq earlier this year. Britain intends to halve its number of troops in Iraq by spring 2008. KR

The body of a U.S. soldier abducted by insurgents earlier this year has been found, Iraqi media reported on November 5. Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Muhammad al-Askari said U.S. and Iraqi forces found the body north of Al-Hillah, "Al-Mada" reported. The soldier was one of three abducted on May 12 in an attack on a U.S. patrol south of Baghdad allegedly carried out by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2007). KR