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Newsline - November 16, 2007

The Emergency Situations Ministry announced on November 15 that the oil slick in the Kerch Strait is expected to reach the Azov Sea by late on November 16, RIA-Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2007). The slick accounts for about 15 percent of the 2,000 tons of fuel oil spilled on November 11 when an unusually severe storm wrecked at least 12 ships, including a tanker not designed for use on stormy seas, in what several Russian officials called an "environmental catastrophe." Most of the rest of the oil is believed to have either washed ashore or sunk to the seabed in the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black and Azov Seas and forms part of the border between Russia and Ukraine. Oil continues to pour from the sunken tanker. Oleg Mitvol, who is deputy head of the Natural Resources Ministry's Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources Use (Rosprirodnadzor), told a news conference on November 15 that "not only fish are affected, but sea mammals as well -- we have documented cases of deaths of dolphins," Reuters reported from Moscow. He added that "the fact that dolphins and birds listed in Russia's Red Book [of endangered species] are dying is very sad indeed." Mitvol noted that environmental experts from Belgium, Brazil, and the United States are expected to arrive soon, and that "volunteers from all across Russia are heading [to the affected area], as well as groups from Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund [WWF]." Interfax reported on November 15 that experts at the State Fisheries Committee put the cost of the damage at $12.5 billion. The experts added that it will take 10 years to "deal with the aftermath" of the tragedy. Western media have centered their attention on the long-term ecological impact of the spill and the extent to which negligence was responsible for it. PM

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said on Germany's ARD television on November 15 that administrative reasons were behind the Russian authorities' recent decision to bar a German military Airbus plane from an overflight on November 14. Jung stressed that "this is not a political issue." The aircraft was carrying about 200 German soldiers to a base in Termez, Uzbekistan, en route to Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2007). The flight went ahead on November 15. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of that day suggested that the Russian authorities had previously given such overflight permission on a routine basis, even on short notice. Some German commentators questioned whether there is a link between the latest incident and Russian moves to force Lufthansa Cargo to move its Asian hub from Astana to Krasnoyarsk by withholding overflight permission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 31 and November 1, 2, 5, and 9, 2007). PM

French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas in Paris on November 15 that the EU should "remain strong in the face of present-day challenges, including strained relations with Russia," Interfax reported. Sarkozy also noted that energy security is one of his top priorities, and called for France and Lithuania to work together in that area. He welcomed Kirkilas's plans to hold an energy conference in Paris in the second half of 2008, during the French EU Presidency. Poland, the Baltic states, and several other of Russia's neighbors have repeatedly called for a joint EU policy toward Russia and have lamented the tendency of some of the older EU member states to try to cut bilateral deals with Moscow on energy and other issues. Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov arrived in Paris on November 15 for talks with Sarkozy and other top French officials on November 16, Interfax reported. PM

Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko said at a conference in Rome on November 15 that Russia expects to produce 10.4 million barrels of oil per day by 2010, up from the current 9.8 million barrels, "The Wall Street Journal in Europe" reported on November 16. He said that the increase will begin once new projects in eastern Siberia, the Arctic north, and near Sakhalin come on stream. The daily noted that Khristenko nonetheless warned that "there will be no return to the stellar production growth of earlier this decade, when output soared by more than 10 percent per year." Khristenko said that the government is considering some new tax incentives to promote the development of new resources and other aspects of the oil industry. The daily wrote that Russia is the world's second largest producer of crude oil after Saudi Arabia and that its production continues to rise, unlike that of some other areas, like the North Sea. Russia is not a member of OPEC. PM

The For Putin! movement on November 15 held a national congress in Tver and founded a national organization based on regional chapters in at least 79 regions of the country, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other Russian media reported on November 15 and 16. The congress unanimously adopted a resolution calling for President Putin to remain as the country's "national leader" following the expiry of his current term as president in March 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2007). Foreign and independent journalists were not allowed into the theater where the congress took place, but the event was widely covered on state-controlled national television. The delegates claim to have gathered 30 million signatures in support of their resolution, reported on November 15. "We must preserve all the positive achievements of recent years and not allow transient figures and populists to come to power, people trying to fritter away our accumulated resources and once again throw our country into an abyss of clan warfare and petty ambitions," the movement's resolution states. It describes Putin as "a reliable and true defender of the interests of all the citizens of Russia." For Putin! officials continue to maintain that the movement arose spontaneously, although evidence has emerged that it has been orchestrated by the presidential administration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2007). "Kommersant" reported on November 16 that many of the delegates at the congress are associated with Unified Russia and/or regional administrations. Political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko told "Kommersant" on November 14 that the rise of the For Putin! movement could signal a conflict between deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov (who is in charge of domestic politics) and Unified Russia head Boris Gryzlov. According to Minchenko, Surkov wants to make it clear that the president and not the party is playing the driving role in the current election campaign. RC

The Sverdlovsk Oblast court in Yekaterinburg on November 15 ordered that former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Mikhail Trepashkin, who is serving a four-year sentence for divulging state secrets, be released on November 30, "The Moscow Times" reported on November 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2006). The court, however, upheld an earlier lower-court ruling that Trepashkin serve out his remaining two weeks in a normal prison camp, rather than the minimum-security camp where he has been being held. Trepashkin is reportedly in poor health and his supporters claim he has been denied medical treatment. Rights activist Michael Kriger told the daily that the authorities are trying "to get rid of Trepashkin." Trepashkin came to national attention in 1999 when he and fellow FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko held a press conference and charged that the FSB, when Putin was in charge of it, had organized death squads. Litvinenko was murdered by radiation poisoning in November 2006 in London, and Trepashkin is considered a key witness in the case. British investigators have been denied in their efforts to question him. RC

The current composition of the State Duma held its final legislative session on November 16, and other Russian media reported. Duma elections will be held on December 2 and the next Duma will hold a session later that month at which it will choose a speaker and other leaders before breaking for the New Year's holidays. RIA Novosti editorialized on November 16 that the current Duma will be remembered as the most "capable and disciplined" legislature Russia has had to date. According to the latest polls, only the Unified Russia party and the Communist Party seem likely to win seats in the next Duma. "Argumenty nedeli," No. 46, reported this week that some in the Communist Party are urging the leadership to refuse the party's mandates in the event that this happens. In that case, the Duma would not be legitimate, since the law requires at least two parties to be represented in the chamber, and new elections could be forced. The weekly argues that, in order to prevent this, the Kremlin will increase its efforts to make sure a third, Kremlin-friendly party such as the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia or A Just Russia receives 7 percent of the vote and gains seats in the new legislature. RC

Having turned the December 2 Duma elections into a national referendum on President Putin, the presidential administration is now concerned that voter turnout will not be high enough to signal overwhelming support for the Kremlin, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on November 16. As a result, Putin is meeting with social leaders in order to urge them to get their constituents to vote. He recently met in the Kremlin with leaders of Russia's Muslim community (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 12, 2007). On November 19, he is expected to meet with Russian Orthodox Church leaders. Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Aleksei Malashenko told the daily that the church's support is "an additional source of legitimacy for Putin's authority." A church official told the daily that "one of the goals of the church" is to help overcome the Soviet-era impulse toward political passivity. The official emphasized, however, that the November 19 meeting is not political in nature and that the church invited Putin to the meeting rather than the reverse. The church actively supported then President Boris Yeltsin in his 1996 reelection campaign, but has not played a significant role in elections since. However, church officials have supported many of the key elements of the Kremlin's doctrine of so-called sovereign democracy (see " The Soft-Power Foundations Of Putin's Russia,", November 9, 2007). RC

A little-known nongovernmental organization called Women of Vladivostok has issued a public statement calling on Lyudmila Putina, wife of President Putin, to run for president in 2008, Interfax reported on November 16. The group believes this scenario would offer a guarantee of continuity in the country's domestic and foreign policies. The statement describes Putina as "an authoritative politician and public figure," citing her work in creating the national Center for the Development of the Russian Language and her appearances at "international conferences." Women of Vladivostok also argue that "Russia is worthy of having a wise and responsible woman ruling it." RC

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov appointed on November 15 Shamsail Saraliyev as the acting minister for ethnic policy, information, and the press in the pro-Moscow Chechen government, the Russian-language Kavkazskiy Uzel website reported. The 34-year old Saraliyev, 34, was appointed to a "probationary" three-month term, replacing Movsar Ibragimov who resigned from the post on November 12. Saraliyev previously served as a "public relations adviser" to Kadyrov. RG

Gayane Davtian, a spokeswoman for the Armenian state Civil Aviation Department, reported on November 15 that Turkey has closed its airspace to Armenian civilian aircraft, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo. Davtian explained that Turkish aviation officials sent a letter to their Armenian counterparts, citing unspecified "technical reasons" for the denial of overflight rights, which affects regular Armenian flights by the Armavia national carrier to Syria and Lebanon. She also noted that the Turkish notification of the ban was only sent after Turkish air controllers denied permission to an Armavia flight to enter Turkish airspace en route to Beirut on November 13, forcing the plan to return to Yerevan. The ban does not apply to Armenia-bound flights by the Syrian Astrom airline, however, which continues to operate weekly flights to Yerevan from the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus. Davtian also added that Armenian airspace "remains open to all countries," including free passage for Turkish aircraft. Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Karapetian said that although Armenian officials "asked the Turkish authorities to clarify the situation," the Turkish authorities have yet to respond. Despite a refusal to establish full diplomatic relations or open its closed land border with Armenia, Turkey has kept its airspace open to passenger jets flying to and from Armenia for the past several years. RG

Narek Galstian, a young activist affiliated with the youth group of the small opposition Social Democrat Hnchankian Party (SDHK) was hospitalized after being assaulted on November 15 by a group of unknown assailants, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In an interview with reporters from his hospital bed, the 20-year-old activist accused the Armenian authorities of orchestrating the attack, adding that the attack was part of an ongoing campaign of government "repressions" against supporters of former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian. The attacks comes only two days after Galstian and another opposition youth activist were detained by police in the Armenian capital Yerevan while posting political leaflets critical of the candidacy of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian in the country's February 19, 2008 presidential election. Police later released the two youths after warning them to refrain from "anti-government propaganda." RG

Speaking to reporters in Baku, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibragim criticized on November 15 Armenian Prime Minister Sarkisian for embarking on a religious "crusade" over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, according to the website. The spokesman said that it was "very sad to see the incumbent authorities in Armenia sinking into the position to confront Islam with Christianity," adding that "this step seems to be a desperate gesture if not a provocation at a time of ongoing dialogue between cultures and religions." RG

The Georgian parliament voted on November 15 to formally lift the nationwide state of emergency, RFE/RL's Georgian Service and ITAR-TASS reported. In a 142-2 vote, the parliament resolved to end the state of emergence, effective at 7:00 p.m. local time on November 16, which was imposed by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on November 7 and that included severe restrictions on the media and imposed an outright ban on both independent and opposition media outlets (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2007). The move follows a televised announcement by parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze the previous day promising to lift the state of emergency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2007). Prior to the vote, Burjanadze told parliament that "the nation is no longer in danger, so there is no need to extend the state of emergency." The U.S. State Department welcomed the vote as a "positive" development, after officials from the U.S. State Department, the OSCE, and the EU have all called strongly for an end to the nationwide state of emergency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2007). RG

Following a vote to lift the nationwide state of emergency, the Georgian parliament unanimously adopted on November 15 a series of amendments to the country's electoral laws, the Caucasus Press reported. The changes to the electoral laws were the result of negotiations between the ruling pro-government parliamentary majority and leaders of the Georgian opposition. The amendments include a modification to the structure of district-level electoral commissions, introducing a new party-based composition, the formal replacement of the majoritarian with the proportional system for regional elections, and a reduction, from six to five years, of the terms of the members of the Central Election Commission. RG

In the wake of parliamentary votes lifting the sate of emergency and passing consensus-based amendments to the electoral laws, Georgian Parliamentary speaker Burjanadze continued on November 15 to hold talks with opposition leaders, Georgian Public Television reported. Commenting on the talks, Burjanadze told reporters that the opposition remains split, however, with the united National Council arguing that the electoral changes were insufficient, and the opposition New Right group and the Industrialists party welcoming the changes. Reflecting this split, one of the leaders of the opposition National Council, Kakha Kukava, demanded on November 15 that the international community must "continue putting pressure on Georgian authorities, adding that the "authorities failed to satisfy the key demand of the opposition in connection with the election code, the Caucasus Press reported. The opposition deputy also condemned the closure of Imedi TV, defining it as part of the Georgian government's "reign of terror in the country." RG

At a meeting of the Kazakh National Security Council in Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbaev on November 15 ordered senior officials of the country's defense and security agencies to accelerate and expand reform, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Nazarbaev instructed the officials to prepare proposals for the restructuring of their respective agencies and ministries, arguing that such a move is necessary to bolster his ongoing administrative reform campaign. Responding to reports on the president's plans, National Security Council Secretary Berik Imashev said that the defense and security agencies are "on the sidelines of the ongoing administrative reform" effort and have been ordered by the president to formulate ways to reform the institutional structures of the state bodies. Imashev also said that Economics and Budget Planning Minister Bakhyt Sultanov told the meeting that new amendments to the country's main law on state security and defense will be submitted to the parliament soon. RG

A Bishkek court on November 14 ordered opposition activist Aynur Kurmanov to be jailed for seven days in administrative detention for his part in a recent unsanctioned demonstration, Kazakh Television reported. Kurmanov, an activist with the Shanyrak civic group, led a demonstration on November 7 in Almaty protesting the low level of compensation offered by the state to local residents evicted from their homes. He also called for a review of all court decisions pertaining to the seizure of private homes and property by the Kazakh authorities on the grounds of "state need." Denis Alimbekov, a fellow member of the Shanyra group serving as Kurmanov's defense lawyer, criticized the punishment and vowed to appeal the court's decision. RG

The main computer network for the Kazakh police department in Almaty was disrupted for almost two days, beginning on November 13, by a sophisticated cyber attack, Kazakhstan Today reported. According to a formal statement issued by the police department's press service, the Almaty Internal Affairs Department's computer network was shut down after a flurry of cyberattacks using an advanced software virus overwhelmed the network. The cyberattack targeted the police department's transport information systems and disrupted the online registration databases for vehicles and drivers' licenses. Although the network was eventually restored when technicians found and eliminated the virus, specialists stepped up defensive measures on November 15 to safeguard the integrity of the police department's network. RG

Bermet Bukasheva, the editor of the opposition Litsa newspaper, resigned on November 15 to prepare for her candidacy in Kyrgyzstan's upcoming parliamentary election, AKIpress reported. Bukasheva, who is running as a candidate for the opposition Ata-Meken party, was replaced as editor by Aleksandr Kulinskiy. The Kyrgyz electoral code requires all individuals holding "government posts or working for the media" to resign before running for parliament. RG

An unnamed official of the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission (CEC) announced on November 15 that three political parties have withdrawn their candidates from running for the country's December 16 parliamentary election, according to AKIpress and the website. The three parties are Kyrgyzstan Ayaldary (Women of Kyrgyzstan), El Yntymagy (People's Unity), and the Economic Rebirth of the Kyrgyz Republic party, the official said. With their withdrawal, there are now 47 political parties and groups fielding candidates for the parliamentary election. RG

Two local television and radio broadcasters operating in the southern Kyrgyz region of Osh have been accused of violating the law on the state language, the website reported on November 15. The Osh and Mezon TV and radio broadcasters were accused of violating the law by broadcasting over 90 percent of their content in Uzbek. Almagul Telekmanova, a local official of a state development fund in Osh, said that the law requires at least fifty percent of all programming to be in the Kyrgyz language. Last month, executives of Osh TV were ordered by the prosecutor's office in the town of Osh to "immediately eliminate" their "violations of the law." In response, the directors of Osh TV and Mezon TV sent a letter to Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev saying that the accusations are unfounded, arguing that "national and regional bodies put pressure on the TV and radio companies." RG

Tajik police in Dushanbe on November 15 discovered a "suspicious" package near the Tajik presidential palace, Asia-Plus reported, just one day after an early morning bombing killed one person near a government building in central Dushanbe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2007). Police immediately cordoned off the area and called for a special bomb disposal unit. After inspecting the package, explosives experts declared the item safe and police canceled their alert, ITAR-TASS reported. RG

Speaking to reporters at an international energy conference in Ashgabat on November 15, EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs welcomed what he called Turkmenistan's openness to foreign investment in its energy sector, ITAR-TASS reported. Piebalgs said the EU is "ready to work with Turkmenistan" as one of the major exporters of energy to Europe. He added that Turkmenistan is "positive" about selling gas directly to the EU, bypassing Russia and obtaining higher prices than it currently receives from Moscow, AFP reported. After a meeting with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov earlier that day, Piebalgs also said that Turkmenistan's "current political openness" promises to "bring the country prosperity." He further noted that cooperation between Turkmenistan and the EU need not be limited to the energy sphere, and pledged that the EU is "ready to work in the spheres of education, environmental protection, human rights, and trade." RG

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on November 15 that he does not intend to revise the country's overall economic policies, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. Lukashenka said that in spite of claims by the Belarusian opposition and Russian media "that Lukashenka cannot admit that he has made a mistake regarding the strategy of our country's development," Belarus does "not intend to change the chosen course." He continued: "There is absolutely not a critical situation in the country, despite the fact that there was an objective reason for it: we have actually had to spent $2.5 billion for energy, oil, and gas this year." He described Russian gas giant Gazprom's move to raise the gas price paid by Belarus as an "unfriendly step by our Russian brothers," but said that nevertheless, "we have survived the year and not fallen." AM

Alyaksandr Sychou, Belarus's permanent representative to the OSCE, has protested against the new economic sanctions imposed by Washington on Belarus's largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim, Belapan reported on November 15. Sychou made the comments at a meeting of the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna. The same day, Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktar Haysyonak handed a diplomatic note of protest concerning the financial sanctions to U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart. The U.S. Treasury Department recently froze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction belonging to Belnaftakhim and its representatives, and forbids Americans from doing business with the company, which it says is controlled by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2007). AM

Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, the head of the political council of the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS), said on November 15 that his grouping and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) will on November 23 sign a formal agreement on the creation of a coalition in the Ukrainian parliament, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Kyrylenko said that after the NUNS and BYuT conclude their agreements, they will make every effort to elect the leadership of the parliament and parliamentary committees as soon as possible, and to quickly approve a new cabinet. First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, one of the leaders of the Party of Regions, announced the same day that his party is also working on the creation of a coalition in the newly elected parliament. "You like the words 'broad' and 'democratic?'" he asked. "I like the term 'effective coalition' -- one that is able to create a government and carry out the reforms required by the country. The Party of Regions is seriously working on the creation of such a coalition," Azarov said. AM

The committee preparing for the first session of the newly elected Verkhovna Rada announced on November 15 that the parliament will convene on November 23, Ukrainian media reported. The committee also elected Raisa Bohatyryova of the Party of Regions as its head, Roman Zvarych of the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense Bloc as its deputy head, and Ihor Sharov of the Lytvyn Bloc as its secretary. The group scheduled its next meeting for November 20. The committee has been unable to gather a quorum and carry out its work on several occasions in the last week due to some parties' failure to attend. AM

Speaking to the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Europe, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns reaffirmed on November 14 that the United States considers supervised independence the best option for Kosova if the ongoing talks between Belgrade and Prishtina fail to produce an agreement, international media reported. Burns spoke after a meeting with the U.S. and EU envoys to the Kosova talks, Frank Wisner and Wolfgang Ischinger. Burns said the international community has to step up to its responsibility for Kosova if no agreement can be reached. He also warned both sides to refrain from any use of force. "We have 17,000 NATO military personnel in Kosovo, including about 1,500 American troops," Burns said. "Those troops are there to maintain law and order. They will put down any attempt by any party to take the law into their own hands, or to seek a partition, or to seek instability." TV

In Washington, the EU's envoy to the Kosova talks, German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, presented ideas for a neutral Kosova to the Atlantic Council of the United States. "The agreement on neutral status will be an offer to both sides to form relations independently of any decision today or tomorrow on Kosovo's status," AFP quoted Ischinger as saying. Both sides promptly rejected the notion, according to international media. "Any neutral status does not solve the matter as is necessary," Kosova President Fatmir Sejdiu told reporters. "Kosova's destiny is independence and entering the European Union.... We won't accept any solution that in this or in that way derogates or excludes the independence of Kosova." Serbia's minister for Kosova, Slobodan Samardzic, also rejected the idea. "Kosovo cannot have a 'neutral status' with regards to Serbia," he told radio B92, "because the province of Kosovo is an integral and inalienable part of Serbia's territory." The two sides will meet for another round of talks in Brussels on November 20, and talks are scheduled to be concluded by December 10. The Albanian service of Voice of America quoted Ischinger as saying there is no hope of an agreement on a final status for Kosova by that date, and that Serbs and Kosovar Albanians should therefore sign a deal that "won't contain a single word about status." Writing in the "Wall Street Journal" on November 15, outgoing Kosova Prime Minister Agim Ceku also said the status talks are "a dead end." "Serbia can't accept that independence is inevitable; we know that independence is nothing but inevitable, and can't be compromised on or delayed," Ceku wrote. TV

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa told the "Financial Times" of November 16 that the European Union is preparing to take a leading role in the Kosova status process, as the current talks between Prishtina and Belgrade will "most probably" not result in agreement. "And because there is no solution that can be completely agreeable to both sides, I'm afraid there is no possibility of the UN Security Council taking a decision," he said. "This creates a situation which is complicated, in which the European Union has to take a lead, because this is the EU's neighbourhood. This is a household question in Europe, not in the Russian Federation or America," he added. Slovenia will assume the EU's rotating presidency for the first half of 2008. Jansa said that the EU is currently drafting an "upgrade" to a plan presented earlier this year by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26 and February 2, 2007) and that the changes will likely put tighter limits on Kosova's independence. He said the EU is ready to take the necessary steps at its December 14 summit, which comes just days after a deadline for international negotiators on Kosova to report back to the United Nations. "I believe that the proposal will be so complete that the EU Council will be able to develop a common decision, or at least that the main European powers will be united on it," Jansa said, referring to the EU's highest decision-making body. Past reports have indicated that the EU is split on the question of whether to recognize an independent Kosova without a UN Security Council resolution, but a majority of EU member states now appear set to extend recognition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2007). TV

After a meeting with the speaker of the Bosnian Serb National Assembly, Igor Radojicic, Serbian President Boris Tadic said his country unequivocally supports the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina and its constitutional order as laid out in the 1995 Dayton peace accords, local media reported on November 15. Tadic also said that the Dayton principles can only be changed with a consensus of Bosnia's three constituent peoples -- Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs, and Croats. "This is especially important because of the fact that Serbia is a guarantor of implementing this agreement, which brought so much desired peace to Bosnia-Herzegovina," Tadic said, according to a statement from his office. The Bosnian Serbs are opposed to any further centralization of the country that goes beyond what the Dayton accords provide for, and insist above all on maintaining control over their own police force. The abolition of a non-centralized Bosnian Serb police force is a condition for closer links with the European Union. TV

In his testimony to the House Subcommittee on Europe, Undersecretary of State Burns said that Macedonia's membership application to NATO can only be rejected if the country fails to meet membership conditions, and not simply because of Greece's objections to its name, international and local media reported on November 15. "Macedonia should not be denied an invitation to NATO for any reason other than failure to meet the substantive qualifications for entry," Burns said. "While the United States agrees on the importance of resolving the name issue, we do not think that disagreement on the name alone is reason to block Macedonia's membership in international organizations." Macedonia is hoping to be invited to join the defense alliance, alongside Croatia and Albania, at a NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 6, 2007). Greece says that Macedonia's name implies a territorial claim on the Greek province of the same name, and most foreign governments recognized the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia when it became independent in 1991. UN-brokered talks on the matter have so far not yielded any results. TV

Russian voters are approaching upcoming parliamentary elections with a mixture of cynicism and hope.

According to an RFE/RL poll, nearly two-thirds of voting-age Russians do not believe that December's elections to the State Duma will be conducted honestly. Even more striking is the fact that fewer than one in five believe that the results of the vote will reflect the true will of the electorate.

So what will determine the results of an election that such an overwhelming majority believes will be fixed? Nearly half of the respondents said either President Vladimir Putin or his Kremlin administration will be the main factor in determining which parties win Duma seats on December 2.

Vladimir Gelman, a political scientist at the European University of St. Petersburg, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that with neither the elites nor the public expecting a fair election, the process is beginning to resemble a rigged sporting event.

"You can compare the situation to a football match in which the result is known in advance, the referee completely favors one team that is the preordained victor, and the spectators are not even interested in watching or in supporting one team or another," says Gelman.

The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party holds an overwhelming lead in all public opinion polls.

Past elections have been marred by widespread accusations of various forms of intimidation and falsification to achieve scripted results. Lev Gudkov, the director of the Moscow-based Levada Analytical Center, which conducted the poll, says voters expect massive falsification will be used to ensure a big Unified Russia win.

"People are suggesting, based on their experience, that violations, falsifications, and pressure on voters are possible," says Gudkov. "All the research shows a contrast between what people think should happen and what they see in reality."

But despite such palpable pessimism about the process, a majority of likely voters nevertheless say they expect their lives will improve as a result of the elections.

The apparent contradiction -- skepticism about the elections on the one hand, hope for the future on the other -- actually makes sense in Russia's current political climate, according to some observers.

"Over the past seven years, the belief that tomorrow will be better than today has increased," says Maria Marskevich of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology. "Approximately half the population, with some variations, believe that tomorrow will be better than today. And after the elections, that is the future."

Marskevich says that much of that optimism is tied in voters' minds to Putin's rule, which the majority of Russians believe brought stability to the country. Putin, whose second presidential term expires next year, is constitutionally barred from seeking a third, but is widely expected to hold onto power in some form.

The president is heading the candidate list for Unified Russia, and the Kremlin is clearly trying to turn the election into a referendum on whether Putin should remain in power. Marskevich says the majority of the public is prepared to give it to him, regardless of democratic niceties.

"The society is legitimately prepared to give him not only a third term, but also an unlimited number of terms," she says. "And in this sense, whether the process is democratic does not concern [most of] the population. Whether this is done constitutionally is not on the minds of [most of] the population."

Marskevich adds, however, that while Putin's popularity has soared during his time in office, public trust in other institutions -- including elections -- has plummeted.

Levada director Gudkov says the trends indicate Russia is a country heading toward authoritarian rule.

"Authoritarianism is growing, as is hope in the great national leader," he says. "This is a very dangerous tendency. Every political party has been discredited. Unified Russia is only influential as a result of its connection to the president. We are heading toward a one-party system."

A major factor in the voter optimism about the future, analysts say, is the high energy prices that have led to better living standards for many Russians.

"They hope that the flow of oil that is filling up Russia will continue," says Leonid Kesselman, the head of the Center for Sociological Studies. "And they hope that the people who are profiting from this will not be too selfish and will share. This is a realistic assessment of the situation."

Indeed, when likely voters were asked to identify what they expected after the elections, more than half (52.1 percent) said improved living standards; more than two-fifths (42.7 percent) said higher salaries and pensions. Just 5 percent, by contrast, said greater democracy.

Despite the conspicuous cynicism about the democratic process, however, more than two-thirds of the voters surveyed said that democratic elections were at least somewhat important for Russia -- although fewer than one in 10 said they were "essential."

Nearly 40 percent of likely voters said their motivation in going to the polls would be a sense of duty, rather than a belief that their actions would bring about change, or a desire to support a particular party or candidate.

Kesselman says some voters do sincerely yearn for Western-style democracy, but most are simply repeating the rhetoric of an elite that, in word if not in deed, still professes support for a democratic system despite an overwhelming drive at centralized power.

"They are speaking honestly. They are following the example of the head of our 'power vertical' [Putin]," he says. "He also says he is interested in democratic values. He is always talking about his trust in the constitution, democracy, and all these beautiful things. So I don't see any particular contradiction here."

But Levada head Gudkov says that, despite optimism about the future and tacit acceptance of what voters see as a corrupt electoral process, many people are growing increasingly estranged from politics.

"The mood is one of disappointment and alienation from politics," he says. "The impression is that elections are a formality that is necessary for the authorities but are not connected to people's lives and problems. People do not believe in the significance of elections here as they do in democratic countries."

The Levada Center conducted the survey -- a nationally representative sample of 4,319 respondents -- for RFE/RL from October 2-23. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.49 percent.

(Brian Whitmore is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

Afghanistan's Shura-e Ulama, the national council of religious scholars, issued a declaration on November 15 in Kabul calling for moderation in exercising freedom of the press and expression, and condemning some media for vilifying the tenets of Islam, Bakhtar News Agency reported. The declaration implores the Afghan public to avoid conduct that may be perceived as insulting to Afghan traditions and religious values, describing such behavior as endangering homeland security, violating Afghan laws, and aiding the enemies of Afghanistan. "We all know that our country is an Islamic state. Safeguarding our national honors and Islamic values is the obligation of every citizen," the declaration states. The Shura declaration concludes by appealing to the Afghan people to show restraint and respect societal norms and beliefs. MM

The German lower house of the parliament, the Bundestag, passed a measure on November 15 to extend Germany's participation in NATO-led operations in Afghanistan until November 15, 2008, the Pakistan-based "Frontier Post" newspaper reported. The ruling coalition led by Chancellor Angela Merkel backed the measure in spite of falling support from the German public. Andreas Schockenhoff, a deputy parliamentary spokesman on foreign affairs for Merkel's Christian Democrats, told lawmakers that "we agree that we need to fight the danger where it occurs before it spills over to us." German public support for continued military operations in Afghanistan has diminished following several kidnappings of German citizens and mounting civilian casualties there. MM

A delegation of Afghan lawmakers reported on November 14 that conditions endured by female prisoners are worse than had been previously reported in studies by international monitoring groups such as Amnesty International, the Afghanistan Information Network reported. The lawmakers, who recently visited Pul-e-Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul, accused some prison officials of rape and other serious abuses. Citing interviews with prisoners, the lawmakers noted that many children stay with their mothers in Afghan prisons, and warned of overcrowding and the potential for child abuse. The lawmakers expressed deep concerns over prison conditions and warned that violations of prisoners' rights may be pervasive throughout Afghanistan. MM

Suspected Taliban insurgents on November 15 attacked a school in the Sayed Karam district of Paktia Province in eastern Afghanistan and murdered a 16-year-old student, Ariana Television Network reported. "Taliban militants took the boy out and killed him outside the school just because he was teaching English to his classmates," said Paktia police chief General Esmatullah Alizai. A gun battle broke out after the killing, leaving two Afghan policemen and two suspected insurgents dead. Violence against "soft targets" such as teachers and schoolchildren has risen recently, as some Taliban militants defy the traditional Afghan norms of not attacking civilians, especially women and children. Al-Qaeda-linked Taliban militants frequently target schools that they accuse of teaching un-Islamic topics. MM

The United States, Great Britain, and France have drawn up a list of questions they believe Iran must answer to prove its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, as it claims, AP reported. The western powers made the move as UN inspectors submitted a report on November 15 assessing Iranian cooperation with inspectors, suggesting that the three governments may not be satisfied with Iran's answers to the UN, and that the questions may be a prelude to further punitive sanctions on Iran. The three countries provided their 10-page list of questions to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei and the IAEA governing board, as well as news agencies. El-Baradei reported on November 15 that Iran has generally cooperated in revealing its nuclear activities in recent months, but has not halted uranium enrichment and related fuel-making activities as the UN has demanded. He added that the IAEA's knowledge of Iran's activities is diminishing, AP reported. Iran, however, says it is answering the IAEA's questions. Unnamed diplomats told the BBC on November 15 that Iran gave the IAEA a document on November 13 with design information possibly related to nuclear weapons, which the IAEA has been requesting since 2005. The Chinese government, a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, said on November 15 that Iran has a right to use civilian nuclear technology. The Chinese Foreign Ministry urged Iran to cooperate with the IAEA and strengthen its contacts with the EU, Reuters reported. VS

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili said in Tehran on November 15 that Iran has "fulfilled its duties" under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and opened up its nuclear program as asked, IRNA reported. He said "Iran voluntarily implemented the additional protocol [to the NPT], allowed [the IAEA] to carry out inspections," and suspended uranium enrichment for two years, adding that IAEA reports have confirmed the civilian nature of Iran's nuclear program. He told the press shortly after the IAEA report on November 15 that no country has been as transparent as Iran on its nuclear program. The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aqazadeh, said in Tehran the same day that the report removed all "legal basis" for the UN Security Council to handle negotiations over Iran's program, IRNA reported. VS

Three students of Tehran's Amir Kabir University, currently jailed for alleged sacrilege and "insulting the president," were tried in a closed court session on November 14, with their families barred from the courtroom, Radio Farda reported, citing their lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah. Dadkhah told Radio Farda that the judiciary earlier promised an open trial for the students -- Majid Tavakkoli, Ehsan Mansuri, and Ahmad Qassaban -- who have rejected their charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 18, and 26, 2007). Dadkhah said he told the court that Iran's most senior clerics have issued religious edicts specifying that students cannot be prosecuted on such charges, and expressed hope that the charges might be dropped. When asked if the students were beaten or mistreated before going to court, as reported in some media, Dadkhah did not confirm the allegations, but said they were handcuffed like common criminals, which he said is not in keeping with their alleged offences. He said he has not been able to see his clients regularly during their detention. VS

Students at several Iranian universities have staged sit-ins or other demonstrations in recent days to protest against campus restrictions and penalties, the daily "Etemad" reported on November 15. It reported unrest at universities in Shahrud, Ahwaz, Isfahan, and at Tehran's Amir Kabir and Allameh Tabatabai universities. Students were reportedly protesting against increasing restrictions on student groups and publications, suspensions, expulsions, and one suspected detention. In Shahrud, in Semnan Province east of Tehran, hundreds of students have held four sit-ins in the past month, most recently on November 12, the daily reported. The same day, about 100 Amir Kabir University students staged a sit-in to protest over the possible detention of a female student. Her department head has written to university chief Alireza Rahai to express concern at her absence from her classes for almost three weeks, and the fact that enquiries on her condition or whereabouts have not been answered, "Etemad" reported. VS

Tehran Province police chief Alireza Zarei reported on November 15 that police arrested some 200 suspected drug dealers in the province's Karaj, Islamshahr, and Shahriar districts, apparently all in operations that day, Fars reported. Police also confiscated 35 kilograms of drugs, including a kilogram of crack and another of methamphetamines; 5,000 liters of unspecified alcoholic drinks, which are banned in Iran; knives or machetes; and 9,000 "vulgar" CDs, Fars reported. Zarei told a press conference in Karaj that police have detained 16,000-17,000 people, including 14,000 drug addicts, for suspected drug-related offences in the province since late March, and confiscated 8,000 kilograms of drugs. He said police will in the coming days launch operations against "louts" -- the term used in Iran for various offenders including violent thieves and gang members. VS

Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani warned on November 15 that any foreign firm that has signed deals with the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) might be barred from doing business with the Iraqi federal government, international media reported. Al-Shahristani spoke on the sidelines of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "Our position is very clear. Any company that signs contracts with the Kurdish Regional Government without the approval of the central government...will compromise their chances of getting future opportunities in Iraq," al-Shahristani warned. The KRG announced on November 12 that it had signed five new production sharing contracts (PSCs) with TNK-BP affiliate Norbest Limited; HKN Energy; Sterling Energy LLC; Denver-based Aspect Energy LLC; and a Korean consortium headed by Korean state-owned oil company KNOC. In the past, al-Shahristani has described all PSCs between the KRG and foreign firms as illegal. When asked about the consequences if firms go ahead and sign deals with the KRG, he replied: "Iraq will not allow its oil to be exported without federal government approval. We have informed and warned the firms of the consequences. They will not be able to take oil out of the country." SS

Adnan al-Dulaymi, the head of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, in a November 15 statement expressed regret at the decision by the Sunni Waqf (Endowments) Office to shut down the Baghdad headquarters of the Muslim Scholars Association, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Al-Dulaymi urged the Waqf to reverse its decision, and called on the two parties to bridge their differences. "We are extremely sorry for what happened between the Waqf and the association," al-Dulaymi said. "We have to work day and night to heal the rift and unite against our enemies, who seek to destroy us and our religious institutions," he added. On November 14, Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i, the head of the Sunni Waqf Office, said the association's offices and radio station were closed because the group supported Al-Qaeda in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2007). In response, the association said the move was politically motivated. SS

Iraqi Finance Minister Baqir Jabr al-Zubaydi announced on November 15 that Iraq and Kuwait have signed a deal to help develop Iraq's infrastructure, Iraqi media reported. "A memorandum of understanding was signed. Under this memorandum, [Kuwait] will offer Iraq a $60 million grant to be used in the areas of education, healthcare, sanitation, and drinking water," al-Zubaydi said. In addition, he indicated that the two countries are discussing reducing the percentage of oil-export revenues Iraq pays to Kuwait as part of Iraq's reparations for the 1991 Gulf War, which currently stands at 5 percent. Al-Zubaydi said he hopes that figure can be lowered to 1-2 percent. SS

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), arrived in Baghdad on November 15 after undergoing successful cancer treatment in Tehran, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Al-Hakim was greeted by dozens of Iraqi leaders, including Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi. He delivered a brief statement vowing to help Iraq move forward. "I am very happy to be able to be with my great people once again. God willing, I will spend a great deal of time with the good people and faithful brothers so that we can continue to work and march on," al-Hakim said. During al-Hakim's medical treatment, SIIC was led by his son Ammar al-Hakim. SS

Seven people were killed and 20 wounded on November 15 in an apparent assassination attempt against Brigadier General Khattab Arif Abdallah, the chief of the Kirkuk Emergency Police, who survived the suicide car bombing with slight injuries, Iraqi media reported. Kirkuk police chief Brigadier General Burhan Habib Tayib said the attack took place in the Tis'in neighborhood in southern Kirkuk as Abdallah was on his way to work in his motorcade. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but Abdallah's police unit is responsible for spearheading the fight against Al-Qaeda in Iraq within the Kirkuk Governorate. SS

The U.S. military issued a statement on November 15 announcing that its forces killed 25 suspected Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters and detained an additional 21 suspects in a two-day operation in central Iraq. The military said the operations were conducted west of Tarmiyah, where U.S. forces also seized several caches of weapons including anti-aircraft machine guns, surface-to-surface missiles, rifles, pistols, grenades, mortar rounds, artillery shells, and components used to manufacture improvised explosive devices. U.S. military spokesman Major Winfield Danielson said the operations were a significant blow to the Al-Qaeda in Iraq network. "Al-Qaeda is being hit continually by Iraqi and coalition forces, so their networks are disrupted and their manpower pool diminishing, thus limiting their ability to strike innocent Iraqis," Danielson said. SS