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Newsline - December 17, 2007


RUSSIA WARNS THAT MISSILE DEFENSE COULD TRIGGER RETALIATORY ATTACK
General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the armed forces' General Staff, said in Moscow on December 15 that "the firing of an antimissile rocket from Poland [from the planned U.S. missile-defense system] could be seen by Russia's automated system as the launch of a ballistic missile, which could provoke an answering strike," ITAR-TASS reported. He added that the written proposals on missile defense recently submitted by Washington to Moscow are inadequate and that the two sides have reached a "stand-off" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10 and 14, 2007). Baluyevsky said that "the question of confrontation with Russia...including direct confrontation unfortunately has not been struck from the agenda by my colleagues at the Pentagon." He did not elaborate. The daily "Kommersant" reported on December 17 that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was shocked by Baluyevsky's statement on possible automatic retaliation. Tusk said that "when I heard the words of the Russian general on an automatic reaction, I was reminded of the worst period" in Polish-Russian relations. He added that "this kind of declaration is unacceptable. No declaration of this kind will influence Polish-American negotiations" on missile defense. Tusk has so far been cooler toward missile defense than his predecessor, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. In Prague on December 15, Czech Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zuzana Opletalova called Baluyevsky's warning "unacceptable, and even unimaginable in the democratic world," CTK reported. Under current U.S. plans, missile defense would involve stationing 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic. Speaking at the same press conference as Baluyevsky, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak said Russia has no plans for a major buildup of forces following its decision to suspend its compliance with the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 13, and 14, 2007). He added, however, that "at the same time, we will be carefully watching" developments close to Russia's borders. PM

RUSSIA TEST-FIRES, DEPLOYS ICBMS
The Russian Navy issued a statement on December 17 saying that it successfully conducted a test launch of an unidentified new intercontinental ballistic missile from the nuclear-powered submarine Tula in the Barents Sea, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19, 26, and 30 and December 10, 2007). The statement said the missile hit a target on the Kura testing ground on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Russian missile tests have become fairly common again in recent years. On December 16, the Russian Strategic Missile Forces said in a statement that three additional Topol-M, or SS-27, truck-mounted missile units were put into position near Teikovo in Ivanovo Oblast, Interfax reported. The first Topol-M unit stationed in that area was set up in December 2006. The missiles have a range of 10,000 kilometers and are expected to become the mainstay of the Strategic Missile Forces. Colonel General Nikolai Solovtsov said on October 26 that the Strategic Missile Forces, which he heads, "will take adequate measures...in order to avoid the erosion of Russia's strategic nuclear power following the deployment by the [planned] U.S. missile-defense elements in Europe." He added that the Topol-M mobile and stationary missile systems are up to the task of "overcoming missile-defense systems." PM

MINISTER SAYS BRITAIN VIOLATES RUSSIAN LAW
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on December 14 that the British Council must close its offices outside Moscow because they are in violation of Russian law, Russian news agencies reported. Lavrov recently admitted, however, that the Russian move against the British Council was "retaliation" for several moves by the British authorities in the continuing row over the 2006 London murder of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 13, and 14, 2007). Lavrov argued on December 14 that "ever since the British leadership demanded that we change our constitution," which would be required to permit the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, whom Britain considers the prime suspect in the Litvinenko case, "I'm not surprised by London's position regarding Russian law. In the case of the British Council, too, our British colleagues are trying to manipulate international law -- the law that they violate themselves just as they violate Russian law." Lavrov added that "in the summer [of 2007] Britain deliberately embarked on a systematic deterioration of our bilateral relations by expelling Russian diplomats, ceasing contacts with the FSB, which meant ceasing all counterterrorism cooperation, and declaring that the British side was freezing its work on an agreement to ease visa requirements [for Russian citizens], which is of utmost importance for the development of relations between our two nations." On December 14 in Brussels, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that at the bloc's summit he talked to many EU heads of government who agreed that the Russian decision is "not acceptable behavior." He added that "everybody I talked to recognizes that the British Council does a great job culturally in every part of the world and should not be excluded from the job it's doing...in Russia." Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that "I cannot conceive what benefit there is for the Russian government in closing down British Council offices.... The people who lose from these measures are Russian citizens who want to know more about British culture, and of course the Russian government." On December 14, British Ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton told the BBC that a European arrest warrant has been issued for Lugovoi. On December 17, Britain's "The Guardian" reported that Litvinenko associate Andrei Sidelnikov arrived in London and is seeking political asylum. He says that his life is in danger in Russia. PM

GREECE WANTS TO BUY OVER 400 RUSSIAN TANKS
Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis begins a three-day trip to Russia on December 17, which will include talks with President Vladimir Putin on energy and arms sales, AP reported. High on Karamanlis's agenda is the planned purchase of more than 400 BMP-3M infantry fighting vehicles for $1.7 billion. Karamanlis recently denied charges that the tank deal is linked to broader, energy-related issues in relations between Moscow and Athens. He cited cost factors as being important in the government's decision to buy Russian vehicles. The news agency quoted him as saying on December 14 that "there is no deal under the table, over the table, or on the side of the table. Our defense cooperation with Russia goes back many years.... We have broad energy cooperation with Russia, which is going very well." In an effort to diversify its arms sources, NATO member Greece has already installed Russian S-300 anti-aircraft defense systems. Putin has visited Greece three times since 2005. PM

SWEDISH LEGISLATORS OPPOSE RUSSIAN-GERMAN PIPELINE
A poll of members of the Swedish parliament suggests that 72 percent of respondents are opposed to the projected Russian-German Nord Stream gas pipeline, dpa reported on December 17. Some 10 percent are in favor of the project, while 17 percent are undecided. The opposition Social Democrats, Green Party, and Left Party announced in November that they want the parliament, rather than the government, to decide on the pipeline. Poland, Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic states all object to Nord Stream on political or ecological grounds or both (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 2 and 7 and December 6, 2007). PM

RUSSIA MAKES FIRST DELIVERY OF NUCLEAR FUEL TO IRAN
Atomstroieksport said in a statement on December 17 that it has begun delivering fuel for the first loading of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, newsru.com reported. The deliveries will take place in several stages over two months. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on December 16 that it has received written assurances from Tehran that the fuel will be used for no other purpose than the production of energy. The statement noted that the shipment creates "qualitatively new conditions" that should enable Tehran to halt its own uranium-enrichment project, because Russia is providing all the uranium Iran needs. The deliveries were scheduled to begin in March 2007, and the plant was slated to come on line in September 2007. Russia recently announced the resolution of a long-standing dispute over financing the plant, which held up construction. It is not clear how the matter was resolved. Many foreign observers regarded the dispute as an excuse by Moscow to hold up work on the plant in response to pressure from Western countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2007). PM

BANKER ARRESTED IN STORCHAK CASE...
Igor Kruglyakov, a member of the board of directors and a former director of the Interregional Investment Bank, has been arrested in connection with a criminal case involving Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, Russian media reported on December 17. A Moscow court upheld Kruglyakov's arrest on December 12. Storchak was arrested on November 15 in connection with an alleged attempt to steal $43.4 million from the federal budget (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007). The case has been widely interpreted as an attack on Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who was allowed to visit Storchak in jail on December 13. Kudrin has called for Storchak to be released pending his trial. RC

...AS PROSECUTOR'S OFFICE BEGINS PROBE OF ITS OWN INVESTIGATIVE AGENCY
The Prosecutor-General's Office has begun a major investigation of the Investigative Committee, Russian media reported on December 17. The Investigative Committee, which is formally part of the Prosecutor-General's Office but has broad independence, was created in September and is headed by Aleksandr Bastrykin (see "Powerful New Investigative Body Begins Work," rferl.org, September 10, 2007). The probe will reportedly focus on possible procedural violations in the registration of investigations, accusations that some suspects have been held illegally, and other charges. It will also examine the committee's personnel policies, including the appointment of Federal Security Service (FSB) officers to many senior posts, "Vremya novostei" reported on December 17. The probe has been seen as the latest phase in a complex conflict within the security community, a conflict that in recent months has also touched the Federal Antinarcotics Agency, the FSB, the Finance Ministry, and the Audit Chamber (see " Uncertainty Over Putin Succession Fuels 'Siloviki War,'" rferl.org, November 9, 2007). RC

COMMUNISTS BACK ZYUGANOV FOR PRESIDENT
The Communist Party on December 15 nominated party leader Gennady Zyuganov as its candidate in the March 2, 2008, presidential election, Russian media reported. Zyuganov told the gathering that he will force the election into a second round, from which he predicted he will emerge triumphant. He challenged First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is the likely candidate from Unified Russia and several other parties, to participate in election debates. Zyuganov said his campaign platform will be the same as the one the party ran on in the December 2 Duma elections. He added that he will withdraw from the race if his candidacy comes under illegal pressure from the Kremlin or Kremlin-friendly organizations, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on December 17. RC

BUKOVSKY LAUNCHES QUIXOTIC PRESIDENTIAL BID
About 800 supporters of Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky gathered on December 16 to nominate him for the March 2, 2008, presidential election, Russian media reported. The gathering was held at the Sakharov Museum after a larger venue canceled its agreement on short notice. Bukovsky charged that the cancellation came at the order of the FSB. As a non-party candidate, Bukovsky must now gather 2 million signatures in support of his candidacy before January 16. On December 15, the liberal Yabloko party decided not to nominate its own candidate, but to support Bukovsky. A party spokesman told gazeta.ru on December 15 that Yabloko will boycott the election if Bukovsky is not allowed to participate. The party reportedly did not consider supporting either Boris Nemtsov, whom the Union of Rightist Forces is expected to nominate, or former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Bukovsky said on December 17 that he will withdraw from the race if either Nemtsov or Kasyanov can demonstrate they enjoy greater support, Interfax reported. RC

PENSION FUND HEAD STEPS DOWN
Pension Fund head Gennady Batanov has resigned, gazeta.ru reported on December 14. RIA Novosti reported the same day that Batanov resigned because of a probe into the Pension Fund by the Prosecutor-General's Office and the Audit Chamber. Gazeta.ru reported that his resignation might be the result of a split between Batanov and former Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov. In September, the Audit Chamber reported on alleged irregularities with the Pension Fund, including about 1.6 billion rubles ($65 million) spent on uncompleted construction projects. RC

JOURNALIST BARRED FROM ENTERING RUSSIA
Journalist Natalya Morar, a Moldovan citizen who has lived in Moscow for many years, was refused entry into Russia after returning from a trip to Israel on December 16, Russian media reported on December 17. Morar is the author of many critical investigative reports, including one published recently in "Novoye vremya" that alleged that the presidential administration controls a "black fund" that it uses to finance and control Russia's political parties. Moldovan citizens do not need visas to travel to Russia. Border guards told Morar that she has been banned by the FSB for a period of between three and five years. Morar has also worked as a spokeswoman for the Other Russia opposition coalition and, before that, for the Yukos-funded NGO Open Russia. "The Moscow Times" reported on December 17 that some two dozen journalists have been refused entry into Russia since President Putin took office in 2000. The Kremlin and the FSB have declined to comment on the case. "Novoye vremya" has said it is considering filing a legal appeal of the ban. RC

TRIBUNE OF PERESTROIKA TO CEASE PUBLICATION
The weekly "Moskovskie novosti" will stop publishing as of January 1, "Gazeta" and other Russian media reported on December 16 and 17. Obyedinyonnye media, which owns the paper and its English-language sister publication "The Moscow News," declined to say if the closure is permanent, but said the company has no plans to sell the paper. "The Moscow News" will continue publishing, the company said. The closure was blamed on low readership and revenues. "Moskovskie novosti," which began publishing in 1980, was one of the leading Russian papers of the perestroika period. Since January 2006, it has been edited by former "Nezavisimaya gazeta" editor and "Rossiiskaya gazeta" political commentator Vitaly Tretyakov. RC

GOVERNMENT AGAIN UPS 2007 INFLATION PREDICTION
The Economic Development and Trade Ministry has once again revised upward, to 12 percent, its estimate of inflation in 2007, "Vremya novostei" reported on December 14. The government's original projection for the year was 7.5-8.5 percent, while on November 27 it projected an inflation rate of 11-11.5 percent, the daily reported. Economic Development and Trade Minister Elvira Nabiullina told a cabinet meeting on December 13 that the government will step up efforts to keep inflation at 6-7 percent per year, and that the long-term goal is a rate of about 3 percent. She said a major component of the government's anti-inflation effort involves reforms of the agricultural sector, adding that investment in that sector was up 40 percent over 2006. The daily reported that the country is due for some substantial increases in basic costs as of January 1: communal services will increase 20 percent, the price of electricity will rise 14 percent, and the cost of natural gas for individual households will rise 25 percent. Intercity rail transport will rise, on average, 14 percent, while rail cargo rates will rise 11 percent. RC

KHODORKOVSKY DENIED EARLY RELEASE
Former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is serving an eight-year prison term for tax evasion and other charges, will not be granted release on parole because of numerous violations of prison rules, Federal Corrections Service head Yury Kalinin has said, "Novaya gazeta" reported on December 17. RC

CHERKESS CONGRESS CALLS ON DUMA TO RECOGNIZE ABKHAZIA
The Kabardino-Balkaria branch of the Cherkess Congress political organization has appealed to the new State Duma formally to recognize Abkhazia as an independent state, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on December 16, quoting branch Chairman Ruslan Keshev. Keshev argued that Abkhazia has been de facto independent for the past 13 years, and that recognition of that independence would strengthen Russia's position both in the Caucasus and among the Circassian diaspora. Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the outgoing Duma, was quoted on December 3 as saying the new parliament in January will consider the formal requests submitted earlier by the legislatures of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to join the Russian Federation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). LF

SUSPECTED MILITANTS, GOVERNMENT TROOPS KILLED IN GROZNY
Four suspected resistance fighters and up to six Interior Ministry troops were killed during a gun battle in Grozny that lasted for most of the night of December 15-16, kavkaz-uzel.ru and the resistance website kavkazcenter.com reported on December 16. Three dead resistance fighters, one of them a woman, were subsequently identified. LF

SUSPECTED KILLERS OF FORMER LAWMAKER APPREHENDED IN DAGHESTAN
Up to 700 Russian and Daghestani Interior Ministry forces surrounded the village of Gimri in Untsukul Raion early on December 15 and conducted a "special operation" the following day to verify the identity of all residents, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Five suspects were apprehended, including two suspects in the killing of former lawmaker Gazimagomed Magomedov, who was shot dead leaving a friend's home in Gimri late on December 9 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10 and 11, 2007). LF

JAILED ARMENIAN OPPOSITION JOURNALIST AGAIN DENIED PAROLE
Arman Babadjanian, who is serving a 3 1/2 year prison sentence for avoiding military service, has been denied parole a second time, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 14. Babadjanian, the founder and editor of the opposition newspaper "Zhamanak Yerevan," was arrested in June 2006 and sentenced three months later (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27 and September 5 and 11, 2006). Prisoners who have served at least one-third of their sentence are eligible for parole, but Babadjanian's initial parole request was rejected in August 2007; the head of the state parole commission denied any "political motive" for that rejection (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 2007). Babadjanian went on a brief hunger strike to protest that refusal and is currently hospitalized in prison. LF

WILL ARMENIA WITHDRAW FROM CFE TREATY?
Armenian Defense Minister Mikael Harutiunian said in Yerevan on December 14 after a session of the parliament committee on defense and security that Armenia may withdraw from the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty if Azerbaijan continues to purchase "large quantities" of weaponry, allegedly in violation of that treaty, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Azerbaijan has consistently rejected Armenian allegations that it has more heavy weaponry in certain categories than permitted under the treaty. Azerbaijani media quoted a NATO official in March as affirming that both Armenia and Azerbaijan have exceeded their CFE quotas, but the Armenian Defense Ministry denied that Armenia has done so (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19 and December 3, 2007). Russia suspended its compliance with the CFE treaty last week on the grounds that the pact is obsolete. LF

AZERBAIJANI MINISTER CASTS DOUBT ON KARABAKH PEACE PROPOSALS
Elmar Mammadyarov told the Azerbaijan Press Agency on December 14 that the written version of the "Basic Principles" for resolving the Karabakh conflict presented to him and his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian in Madrid last month does not constitute a basis for a further meeting between the presidents of the two countries, zerkalo.az reported on December 15. The co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, which prepared the written draft, expressed hope that the two countries' presidents could endorse it at least partially before the presidential elections due in both countries next year. On December 12, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian told Reuters in Brussels that he believes a framework agreement could be signed prior to the Armenian presidential ballot on February 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30 and December 7 and 14, 2007). Mammadyarov again affirmed Azerbaijan's readiness to grant Nagorno-Karabakh "a high degree of autonomy." LF

GEORGIA PROTESTS STANDOFF BETWEEN JOURNALISTS, RUSSIAN PEACEKEEPERS
Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution David Bakradze issued a statement on December 14 demanding that members of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone be punished for manhandling Georgian journalists earlier that day, Caucasus Press reported. The incident reportedly took place at a bridge over the river Inguri that marks the border between the breakaway republic of Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Bakradze argued that the "outrageous" behavior of the Russian contingent only serves to underscore that it is incapable of acting impartially and neutrally. The Georgian journalists sought to enter Abkhazia to investigate allegations that the breakaway republic's leadership plans to prevent ethnic Georgians from voting in the pre-term Georgian presidential election on January 5. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT FAILS TO AGREE ON PLANNED PLEBISCITE
Pro-government and opposition parliament deputies failed on December 16 to reach agreement on the wording of the question in a planned plebiscite, to be held concurrently with the January 5 presidential ballot, on the timing of the next parliamentary elections, civil.ge reported. The pro-government majority wants the ballot to take place in the fall of 2008, while the opposition wants it held earlier, in the spring. Under the law on referenda, the question must be formulated in such a way that the answer is either "yes" or "no." LF

NEW GEORGIAN OPPOSITION PARTY HOLDS FOUNDING CONGRESS
The For A United Georgia party established three months ago by former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili held its constituent congress in Tbilisi on December 15, civil.ge reported. Lawmaker Gia Tortladze was elected acting chairman and Okruashvili was voted honorary chairman. Okruashvili is currently in custody in Germany, where the authorities have yet to rule on Tbilisi's demand for his extradition to stand trial on charges of extortion and abuse of his official position (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 29, 2007). LF

KAZAKH CABINET DISCUSSES NEED FOR FOOD SECURITY
After several months of sharply rising prices for basic commodities, the Kazakh cabinet met on December 13 in Astana to discuss the need to adopt greater measures to ensure food security and to more closely monitor prices for food supplies, Kazakh Television reported. Chairing the cabinet meeting, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov said that "strategic measures" are necessary to "stabilize the situation with food supplies." After Masimov explained that he examined local food prices during a recent visit to the western Aktobe region, he recommended that "middlemen should be excluded from the food trade," adding that the state must focus on supporting domestic producers, as world food prices are expected only to increase further next year. The ministers supported the prime minister's proposal, affirming the need to reduce the number of middlemen in the food market, and discussed a suggestion to lower customs duties for imported agricultural products. Kazakh Agriculture Minister Akmetzhan Yesimov also argued for increased aid to farmers, which he said would help stop price hikes. Kazakhstan earlier ordered law-enforcement bodies to address the alleged manipulation of prices by food companies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2007). Neighboring Uzbekistan has also moved to bolster measures aimed at stabilizing food prices (see below). RG

KAZAKH COMMISSION CLAIMS HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS BY LAWYERS AND DOCTORS
Speaking to reporters in Almaty, lawmaker Sagynbek Tursunov, the head of Kazakhstan's presidential human rights commission, reported on December 13 on the results of a monitoring campaign to investigate human rights violations, Kazakh Television reported. The commission announced that the study found a significant number of human rights violations in the legal and health care spheres, and cited reports that "lawyers themselves violate the law, while doctors do not render medical services they are obliged to render." The commission also said that laws on freedom of religion and children's rights "should be amended to do away with violations." Explaining that the human rights commission will take the report's findings into consideration during the formulation of a national action plan for 2008-2012, Tursunov added that "we are taking measures to correct" the violations and ensure greater conformity with "international conventions ratified by our country." RG

KAZAKH PREMIER ORDERS STATE ACQUISITION OF U.S.-OPERATED POWER PLANT
Kazakh Prime Minister Masimov announced on December 14 that he has ordered the state-owned Samruk company, which oversees state shares in energy and other key sectors, to speed up its acquisition of the U.S.-operated Ekibastuz-1 power plant, Kazakhstan Today reported. The power plant, located in the northern Pavlodar region, is operated by the U.S. energy company AES. Masimov stressed that the state's takeover of the plant is necessary for Kazakhstan to be able "to better regulate energy supplies within the country." Masimov recently announced that the Kazakh government intends to nationalize strategic energy assets through a coordinated effort, including such moves as the purchase of shares in the Bogatyr coal mine in the Pavlodar region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2007). RG

EXIT POLLS SHOW PRO-GOVERNMENT PARTY SWEEPS KYRGYZ ELECTION...
The Kyrgyz Central Election Commission announced on December 16 the official close of voting in the parliamentary election, reporting an initial estimate of at least a 61 percent voter turnout, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Kabar reported. After casting his own vote, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev hailed the election as "a historic day," noting that the contest is the first to be based solely on the party-list system. As expected, preliminary exit polls showed strong results for Bakiev's Ak-Jol Eldik Partiyasy (Best Path Popular Party), which secured an estimated 63.5 percent of the vote. All of the country's opposition parties trailed far behind, with estimated vote totals under 5 percent, according to ITAR-TASS. RG

...AS SIDES TRADE ACCUSATIONS OF VOTER FRAUD
Only hours after voting ended on December 16 in Kyrgyz parliamentary election, the opposition and the pro-government party traded accusations of serious voting fraud and irregularities, according to the 24.kg website. Members of the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party argued that its supporters were excluded from voters lists. Local activists from two main civic groups, the Interbilim Center and the Civil Committee for Protecting Voters' Rights, reported that they witnessed at least "nine types of violations of the election process" while observing the vote, including illegal interference in the election process by local officials and police, bribing voters, vote rigging, and provocations and threats directed against independent observers. For their part, members of the pro-presidential Ak-Jol party reported "mass violations by the [opposition] Ata-Meken, Asaba, and Turan parties" in all regions. The Ak-Jol party's press center said in a statement late on December 16 that its observers witnessed supporters of the Ata-Meken Party distributing money outside polling stations and activists of the Asaba party distributing vodka to residents in the southern Djalal-abad Region's Aksy district. The Ak-Jol party's statement also accused OSCE observers of interfering in the work of precinct commissions, AKIpress reported. RG

FORMER KYRGYZ PREMIER WARNS OF 'BALLOT RIGGING'
Speaking at a news conference in Bishkek, former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev said on December 14 that he was certain that the authorities would resort to "ballot rigging" in the December 16 election, according to 24.kg website. Atambaev added that "the situation is out of control" in several parts of the country, and that civil servants in a number of regions are "competing against each other to get the highest percentage of votes in favor of pro-presidential" candidates. Atambaev heads the opposition Social Democratic Party, one of the most active challengers to President Bakiev's Ak-Jol party. Bakiev unexpectedly dismissed Atambaev late last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2007), and replaced him with Iskenderbek Aidaraliev, a former governor of the southern Jalal-abad region. Aidaraliev is well known for his call to abolish the post of prime minister and to "concentrate power in the hands of the president" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). On December 13, Bakiev, in a nationally broadcast address, promised a free and fair election, stressing that a total of 12 parties have registered for the ballot, including the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) and Ar-Namys (Dignity) parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2007). RG

KYRGYZ COURT BARS OPPOSITION CANDIDATE FROM RUNNING IN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION
A Kyrgyz district court in Bishkek on December 15 barred opposition candidate Omurbek Babanov from standing in the parliamentary election the following day, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. The court ruled that Babanov, of the opposition Social Democratic Party, was ineligible because of his alleged Kazakh citizenship. Although the Kyrgyz constitution grants Kyrgyz citizens the right to hold dual citizenship, but holders of dual citizenship may not run for public office. Babanov vowed to appeal the decision, and criticized the court ruling as "politically motivated." The candidacy of a second leading member of the opposition Social Democratic Party, Edil Baisalov, was also recently revoked (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2007). The Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office recently launched a criminal investigation against Baisalov for allegedly "obstructing elections and inflicting material damage on the state" after he posted pictures of a sample ballot to be used in the December 16 parliamentary elections on his personal website (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2007). RG

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS DETAINED BY POLICE
An unidentified Kyrgyz police official reported on December 14 that several opposition activists were detained by Bishkek police the night before for distributing leaflets calling on voters to boycott the December 16 parliamentary election, AKIpress reported. According to the police official, five female opposition activists between the ages of 17 and 19 were arrested for handing out the flyers in Bishkek's central Ala-Too Square. The opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party and several other opposition parties called for an election boycott to protest the authorities' alleged use of administrative resources in their campaigns against the opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 6, and 10, 2007). Also on December 14, an unnamed spokesman for the Kyrgyz National Security Committee reported that supporters of the outlawed Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir were arrested in the northern town of Naryn for handing out leaflets calling on people only to vote for candidates who are "real Muslims," according to the 24.kg website. The police seized several CDs with a recorded appeal for the establishment of Islamic Sharia law in the country. RG

STATE BODY REPORTS ON MEASURES TO STABILIZE FOOD PRICES IN UZBEKISTAN
The Uzbek State Committee for De-monopolization and Support of Competition and Entrepreneurship reported on December 14 that it has implemented measures aimed at stabilizing prices for basic consumer goods, including cotton-seed oil, flour, and other food staples, according to the UzReport.com website. The Uzbek state body explained that its price stabilization efforts include providing information, monitoring the retail prices of basic commodities, the establishment of a special telephone hotline for consumers to report alleged overpricing, and the tightening of restrictions on producers to prevent monopolies or cartel-based trade. The committee has recently investigated some 500 cases of alleged overpricing, resulting in 343 new criminal cases. A dramatic increase in food prices throughout Central Asia in recent months prompted Kyrgyz President Bakiev to warn in late October that Kyrgyzstan's socioeconomic situation is threatened by the surge in prices for foodstuffs and other staple goods. Bakiev in October dismissed Economic Development and Trade Minister Sabyrbek Moldokulov and Bishkek Mayor Arstanbek Nogoev for failing to adequately respond to rising food prices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11 and 30, 2007). RG

RUSSIA OFFERS BELARUS $1.5 BILLION STABILIZATION LOAN
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed in Minsk on December 14 a memorandum on bilateral economic relations and a joint statement on the results of their talks, Belapan reported. Both sides pledged to meet their obligations under earlier economic agreements and to honor a long-term deal signed on December 31, 2006, which provides for a gradual increase in the price of natural gas supplied to Belarus. Russia also pledged to provide Belarus with a $1.5 billion stabilization loan to ease the effects of the higher gas price. "There will be a rise in the [gas] price but only in the manner provided for by previous contracts, despite the fact that Russia itself will buy Turkmen gas at higher prices," Putin said. RIA Novosti later reported, quoting an unnamed source at Gazprom, that the Russian gas monopoly will supply natural gas to Belarus at $119 per 1,000 cubic meters in the first quarter of 2008. Under the long-term deal, the gas price for Belarus will gradually increase to the European market level by 2011, rising from 67 percent of the market level in 2008 to 80 percent in 2009, 90 percent in 2010, and 100 percent in 2011. AM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT HAILS BELARUSIAN-RUSSIAN RELATIONS AS 'ABOVE POLITICS'
President Lukashenka said on December 14 that no political trends will affect relations between Belarus and Russia, Belapan reported. "Relations between brotherly nations are above all political things," Lukashenka said during a session of the Supreme State Council of the Belarusian-Russian Union State, which was also attended by Russian President Putin. "I am absolutely sure that our relations, being of a strategic nature, will remain the same whoever is in power in Russia," Lukashenka said. Putin said that Belarusian-Russian relations are based on fundamental ties, "because very close relations at the human level formed between the peoples of Belarus and Russia for centuries," Putin added. Lukashenka also said that Belarus is ready to "play a part" in a future Russian response to U.S. plans to establish elements of a missile-defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland, Belapan reported. Lukashenka said that Minsk is ready to closely coordinate with Russia its activities regarding the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. Russia on December 12 suspended its participation in the CFE Treaty, stating that the pact is outdated and does correspond with Russia's interests. The treaty is widely considered a crucial component of European arms control. AM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT RULES OUT AGAIN DISSOLVING PARLIAMENT
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko told Channel 5 television on December 16 that he rules out the possibility of dissolving the Verkhovna Rada if it fails to form a government by the deadline for doing so. "Unfortunately, the constitution does not provide for this," he said. Yushchenko said that political forces should renew talks if parliament fails to elect its leadership and parliamentary committees and approve the prime minister and government within the next two or three days. Yushchenko said that the Party of Regions and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) bear most of the responsibility for the ongoing deadlock in forming a new Ukrainian government. The Verkhovna Rada on December 14 agreed to vote on approving the prime minister and new cabinet on December 18. AM

EU GIVES GO-AHEAD FOR KOSOVA MISSION...
EU leaders have given the green light for the biggest foreign mission ever undertaken by the EU, agreeing at a one-day summit on December 14 to send up to 1,800 administrators, police officers, and judges to Kosova. No date was set, but British Prime Minister Gordon Brown indicated the mission will probably be deployed in February. Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, who chaired the summit, said the decision to send a mission "is the clearest signal the EU could possibly give that Europe intends to lead on Kosovo and the future of the region." The EU leaders did not, however, issue any statement backing independence for Kosova. The idea of an EU mission is a core element of the UN plan drafted by Martti Ahtisaari but rejected by Serbia and Russia. Moscow and Belgrade opposed Ahtisaari's proposal that Kosova should be granted "supervised independence," and Belgrade insists that the EU can deploy a mission to Kosova only with the backing of the UN. The EU would take over responsibility in Kosova from the UN, which has been administering the contested Serbian province since 1999, and it believes that the UN Security Council resolution that mandated the creation of an international mission in Kosova in 1999 is sufficient legal basis for its own mission. Details of the mission must now be worked out by the EU's foreign ministers. Responsibility for security in the region would remain with NATO. The EU's fear of instability in the region was highlighted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who told reporters that "our goal is that Europe does not explode." AG

...AND OFFERS SERBIA PROSPECT OF FAST-TRACK MEMBERSHIP...
EU leaders stated on December 14 that they are confident that Serbia's "progress on the road toward the EU, including candidate status, can be accelerated," and held out the prospect of taking the first step -- formally approving a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) -- when they next meet, on January 28. EU leaders said they want to assure Serbia that its future lies with Europe and to encourage stability there. The date falls between the first and second rounds of Serbia's presidential elections, and could conceivably boost the most moderate serious candidate, the incumbent Boris Tadic, against his extreme nationalist rival, Tomislav Nikolic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2007). The EU has been urging Kosova to delay any move toward independence until after the Serbian elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11 and 14, 2007). The EU leaders made no formal connection between the possibility of "accelerated" membership and the issue of Kosova's status, nor did they say they are prepared to drop their precondition for the formal adoption of an SAA: Serbia's obligation to capture the Bosnian Serb wartime commander Ratko Mladic. Serbia has previously said that it hopes to capture Mladic by January 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2007). However, the outgoing chief prosecutor of the ICTY, Carla Del Ponte, warned that some states are seeking to drop that requirement. Del Ponte has repeatedly urged the EU to continue its insistence on Mladic's capture, because it alone has the power to force Serbia to bring the architects of the Bosnian war to justice. She said in an interview on December 14 with Belgium's "Le Soir" that France, Germany, and Italy "want to soften their position." She declared herself "stupefied" by that attitude, and said that "as decisions must be taken by unanimity, I am counting on Belgium and the Netherlands to remain tough." It normally takes two years from the signing of an SAA for an applicant country to formally become a candidate for EU membership. Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said on December 14 that "I want Mladic on a plane to The Hague before I will sign the SAA." AG

...BUT ANGERS SERBIA
Though EU leaders on December 14 stated only that the situation in Kosova is "unsustainable," and did not make an official statement backing independence, Serbian ministers, headed by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, lined up to reject the idea of accelerated EU membership, arguing that the EU is trying to offer membership in exchange for territory. "The government of the Republic of Serbia simply does not see the issues of the future of the status of Kosovo and the European Union as things that might be swapped in any way and that one of them can be used as compensation," Kostunica said. "Such a trade-off is out of the question. We cannot exchange our territory for our European future." Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic made similar comments. Before the summit, Jeremic told reporters that an offer of membership in exchange for recognition of Kosova would be an "an indecent proposal, and European leaders are decent people." In the statement released by his office on December 14, Kostunica also said "it is especially insulting to offer a crippled Serbia the reward of a fast track to the EU in exchange for its consent to violence," which is how Kostunica describes independence granted to Kosova without Serbia's consent. In addition, Kostunica said that an independent Kosova would be a "puppet state" of the EU. He has previously accused NATO of seeking to make Kosova a "puppet state" at the United States' urging (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 20, 21, and 24, 2007). The EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, said on December 14 that there is no direct linkage between most EU states' support for Kosova's independence and the possibility of fast-track membership for Serbia. AG

EU SUMMIT REVEALS CONTINUING RIFT OVER KOSOVA
The EU summit confirmed that the signs of "virtual unity" noted by some EU foreign ministers on December 10 were premature. Cyprus has declared outright that it opposes sovereignty for Kosova, and that stance was reiterated on December 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2007). "I want to make clear we are not supporting the declaration of Kosovo's independence," Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos said. "Any agreement on Kosovo must be done with the blessing of the Serbs." Romania and Slovakia were forthright, but their comments focused on a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosova. "We have serious doubts about how such a status of independence should be granted, also related to the possible consequences for the entire western Balkan region," Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu said on December 14. Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico similarly indicated that Slovakia would have a problem recognizing Kosova should it unilaterally declare its independence. The substance of their comments does not distinguish their position substantially from that of most EU states, who also oppose a unilateral move by Kosova. However, neither premier said he would back a declaration of independence coordinated with the EU, which is the strategy being pursued by the EU's major powers and most of the bloc. Moreover, Fico appeared to indicate that Slovakia still differs from other EU states on some issues, saying that differences within the EU remain but are fading. Romania's public position differs more clearly. It has said it believes Belgrade and Prishtina should continue direct talks, and Romanian President Basescu reportedly said after the summit that Romania requires UN backing to lend its support to any declaration of independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2007). Serbian media on December 14 reported that Poland's new government is very reserved in its position on Kosova's future. However, the reports provided no details and there are no indications in other media that the new government, which is generally friendlier to the EU than its predecessor, is deviating from the general EU line. AG

CZECH MINISTER CITES JIHADISM IN KOSOVA AS CONCERN
The deputy prime minister of the Czech Republic, Alexandr Vondra, raised radical Islam as an issue that the EU must face in Kosova, Reuters reported. Vondra said that the EU faces twin challenges. "We need to keep Kosovo under our influence and away from the jihadi influence," he said, and "we also need to keep Serbia under European influence or we give it to Russia." Serbia has in the past warned that political Islam could become a threat in Kosova, but there has been little indication of any Islamist activity in the region, which, like Muslim-majority Albania, is passionately pro-American in sentiment, in large part because of NATO's intervention in the region in 1999. In September, local media described as a "Wahhabi" a Kosovar Albanian man arrested in Kosova that month for smuggling guns into southern Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19 and September 24, 2007). The notion that there is a radical Islamist threat in Kosova was dismissed by the head of the Islamic Community in Kosovo, Naim Ternava, in a December 15 interview with the daily "Koha ditore." "In Kosovo there are no elements of jihadism or fundamentalism...and if something like this appears, the Islamic Community, in cooperation with all those that contribute to it, will fight against what is damaging for Kosova. We will fight it steadfastly and we will not allow anything that is against our values," Ternava said. AG

MOST SERBS FAVOR EU MEMBERSHIP, OPPOSE NATO
An opinion poll published on December 13 found that 69 percent of Serbs would like to see Serbia become a member of the EU, compared with 16 percent who are firmly opposed. However, a majority -- 55 percent -- oppose the idea of joining NATO, the news agency FoNet reported. The poll found that 48 percent are happy with Serbia's current level of limited military cooperation with NATO under the Partnership for Peace program. Only 28 percent would like Serbia to be a member of both organizations, the pollster Medium Gallup found, but the percentage of those who object to any form of relationship with the EU or with NATO is smaller, at 11 percent. AG

ICTY TEMPORARILY RELEASES KOSOVAR LEADER
Ramush Haradinaj, the former Kosovar prime minister currently arraigned by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), has been granted provisional leave for a short period around New Year. The ICTY decided on December 14 that Haradinaj and his codefendant, his uncle Lahi Brahimaj, can stay in Kosova between December 21 and January 4 provided they do not speak to the media or approach witnesses (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2007). In October, Haradinaj was given leave to return to attend a family funeral, a visit that passed off without event (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1, 2007). However, the ICTY has been struggling to find witnesses against Haradinaj, largely because, according to outgoing chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, they are "under dire threat" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 28 and October 17, 2007). Del Ponte has also said that Haradinaj's allegedly close relations with senior members of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has compounded those fears by creating a sense of impunity around him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, March 2, June 28, and October 1, 2007). Despite the indictment against him, Haradinaj remains a powerful figure in Kosovar politics, both symbolically and in practice. The ICTY in November allowed Haradinaj to be listed as a candidate in parliamentary elections because he has yet to be convicted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 6, November 19, and December 4, 2007). Haradinaj headed the list of candidates for his party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK), which won 10 seats in the election. AG

MOLDOVA EXPELS TWO ROMANIAN DIPLOMATS...
Moldova compounded its fraught relations with Romania on December 12 by expelling two senior Romanian diplomats for activities "incompatible with their diplomatic status." Chisinau gave no other details. However, the leader of the parliamentary caucus of the governing Communist party, Victor Stepaniuc, has said the diplomats funneled money to three newspapers that he said advocated Moldova's becoming part of Romania, the news agencies IPN and Infotag reported. All three publications -- "Literatura i Arta," "Timpul," and "Jurnal de Chiinu" -- have small print runs. IPN also quoted Stepaniuc as saying the expulsions were linked to statements made by the Romanian ambassador, Filip Teodorescu, two months ago suggesting that Romania should not recognize Moldova as a state, according to Stepaniuc. There has also been speculation that the expulsion was simply a symbolic move against Romania, which Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin accused of "constant aggression" during a visit to Brussels on December 8. During the visit, Voronin told Britain's "Financial Times" that "we understand that Romania is a European Union and NATO member, and we cannot afford to make political attacks on Romania," but said that he has voiced his criticisms of Romania to European Commission officials. Relations between the two countries have been strained ever since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, and some politicians have called for the two states to unite, provoking anxiety in some circles. Between the wars, much of Moldova was part of Romania. Since this January, the relationship has sunk to a new low, with a large but contested number of Moldovans applying for Romanian citizenship and the associated rights conferred by EU membership. Underscoring the sensitivity of the citizenship issue, the Moldovan parliament on December 7 passed legislation banning public servants from having a second passport. AG

...AND CALLS FOR TREATY WITH ROMANIA
Two days after ordering the two Romanian diplomats to leave the country within 24 hours, Moldova renewed calls for Romania to sign a bilateral treaty, accusing it of deliberately trying to stall recognition of Moldova as an independent state. Chisinau did not link the diplomats' expulsions to its renewed call for the signing of the agreement, which has remained at the draft stage since the early 1990s. The agreement would fix the countries' shared border and recognize the Moldovan variant of Romanian as a distinct language, as well as addressing other aspects of their relationship. In a statement quoted by Infotag, the Moldovan Foreign Ministry said it is "surprised to hear statements by representatives of Romanian official institutions about an alleged linguistic reason for Romania's unwillingness to sign the basic political agreement and the state border agreement with Moldova." Chisinau said that the question of how to designate Moldovan "has never been insurmountable," and without clarifying, that "it has come forward with a diplomatic formula acceptable for both parties." The dispute has come to Brussels' attention several times in recent months. In October, the EU's commissioner for multilingualism, Leonard Orban, a Romanian, ordered EU officials to avoid references to the "Moldovan language" following a protest from Bucharest. In early December, Moldovan President Voronin protested to Brussels about Romania's refusal to "recognize a Moldovan ethnicity or Moldovan language," as he said in a December 8 interview with the "Financial Times" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2007). Critics maintain that "Moldovan" is merely a dialect of Romanian, and that some of the differences were the product of deliberate Russification starting in the czarist era and continuing through the Soviet period. In the communist era, Moldova adopted the Cyrillic alphabet, but it remains in use only in the breakaway, pro-Russian region of Transdniester. In his interview with the "Financial Times," Voronin complained that Romania is granting Moldovans citizenship "on easy terms." AG

ROMANIA 'SURPRISED' AT DIPLOMATS' EXPULSION...
The Moldovan government's decision late on December 12 to expel the two Romanian diplomats has yet to elicit a full response from the Romanian government. In a statement issued on December 13, Bucharest condemned Romania's move as "surprising," "unjustified," and "unfriendly," but said it is mulling its next steps. President Traian Basescu on December 14 said the move will not change Romania's attitude towards Moldova, the Moldovan news agency IPN reported. Basescu said Romania's aim is "to support Romanians from Moldova, all those that speak Romanian," a comment that touches on two of Chisinau's raw nerves -- language and the number of Moldovans who have acquired Romanian citizenship. Despite the tensions in its relations with Chisinau, Bucharest supports Moldova's bid for EU membership and its position in talks over the future of the breakaway region of Transdniester. Even before the expulsion of the diplomats, Romania's parliamentary foreign-affairs committee urged the government to adopt a "resolute attitude" to Voronin's accusations that Romania is acting aggressively. In past references to the differences and similarities between Moldovans and Romanians, Basescu has said that no one can "divide a nation indefinitely." AG

...WHILE MOLDOVAN OPPOSITION VOICES ANGER
The expulsion of the two diplomats has angered many in the Moldovan opposition. Serafim Urecheanu, the leader of the Our Moldova alliance, the country's largest opposition party, characterized the move as damaging, counterproductive, and un-European. Vitalia Pavlicenco, the chairwoman of the Moldovan parliament's Committee for Foreign Policy and European Integration, called the expulsions part of a broader anti-Romanian policy pursued at the request of Russia. Moldovan President Voronin and his Communist Party were overtly pro-Russian until 2003, when Voronin adopted a pro-European line. As he made clear in an interview on Moldovan public television in early December, he believes membership in the EU would resolve the questions related to Moldova's identity and statehood. "No country has united with another one after joining the EU," he said. "It can't be done. Moldova has existed for 650 years and will exist for at least another 6,500." AG

KOSOVA PRESIDENT: 'WE WON'T BE HOSTAGE TO ANY COUNTRY'
In Kosova, the question is no longer if the province will declare independence, but when. In an interview with RFE/RL, Kosova President Fatmir Sejdiu said no date has been fixed. But, he insists, "the process needs to come to an end as soon as possible."

Sejdiu, attending a ceremonial tree-lighting ceremony last week in the provincial capital, said Kosova was "only a few days away" from a declaration of independence. The Kosova leader has refused to pinpoint a date, and says he will only proceed in coordination with Western supporters.

On other matters, however, he has been crystal clear. No more negotiations -- regardless of the consequences. The December 10 deadline set by the United Nations for resolving Kosova's status has come and gone, and Prishtina has firmly rejected any further dialogue on the issue with Serbia.

"Kosova won't accept additional talks," Sejdiu told RFE/RL shortly after the December 10 deadline. Belgrade and its supporters in Moscow and some EU capitals may balk, he added, but for Kosova, "the process is over."

"We won't be hostage to any country with a different view on this issue," Sejdiu said. "Let's take Greek Cyprus, for example, which has claimed it won't support Kosova's independence. I think it will come to a rational resolution; Cyprus will remember that it is acting as just one part of an important group of countries that serves as the motor behind all developments in Europe. But if it [Cyprus] insists on maintaining its current position, we can't be hampered by it."

Cyprus, which has failed to resolve a dispute between its own dominant Greek majority and Turkish minority, is believed to be the last EU member to be openly skeptical of independence for Kosova. EU diplomats, however, believe Cyprus will limit its dissent.

Kosova officials have strongly hinted that an independence declaration will come in the first few months of 2008.

The 56-year-old Sejdiu, who has served as Kosova's president since early 2006, says the declaration will come once the ethnic-Albanian majority province has fully prepared its legislation and governing structures for the change.

He is also waiting for the results of the December 19 meeting of the United Nations Security Council, which is due to discuss a report on the status issue by negotiators from the EU, Russia, and the United States.

"All the preparations we're making now are connected to the tasks Kosova has to accomplish related to its constitutional and legal infrastructure," Sejdiu said. "The issue, of course, is also connected to the general will of the international community to quickly and positively recognize Kosova's independence. We think there will be more dynamic developments, in terms of Security Council recommendations, after it meets on December 19th."

Kosova has been under UN administration since 1999, when NATO bombed Serb forces in order to end a campaign against separatist ethnic Albanians. Ninety percent of Kosova's 2 million residents are ethnic Albanians; their drive for independence has prompted warnings from minority Serbs -- who live mainly in northern Kosova -- that they themselves will attempt to secede.

Sejdiu concedes mending ties with Kosova Serbs "won't be easy." "Time will be needed to encourage them. This will be the responsibility of the Albanian majority, as well as of institutions and international mechanisms," he said.

"Coordinated steps are necessary for [Kosova Serbs] to be able to live their own lives, to come out from that feeling of self-isolation and nonintegration that is a direct consequence of pressure coming from Belgrade. The north is a part of Kosova, a part of its complete territorial integrity; and as such, it is untouchable in the sense of legislative and international protection," Sejdiu said.

EU leaders have attempted to soften Belgrade's resistance to an independent Kosova by indicating they are prepared, for the first time, to formally offer Serbia the prospect of candidate membership.

It's unclear if Belgrade will be mollified by such a sweetener. The EU, eager to maintain stability in the Balkans, is also offering Kosova a "clear European perspective" -- meaning Prishtina, too, will eventually be brought into membership talks.

Authorities in Belgrade have threatened to respond to a Kosova declaration of independence with everything from economic sanctions and energy cutoffs to armed conflict.

Asked about the possible consequences for Kosova, Sejdiu said a combination of public determination and NATO backing means Kosova is prepared for anything.

"Kosova can live without the economic links it currently has with Serbia," he said. "Serbia is trying to test our sustainability; whether we'll have the alternative channels and internal forces needed to resist whatever blockade Serbia imposes. We're ready."

Sejdiu continued, "The citizens of Kosova know that you can't put a price on independence. And if Serbia tries to use violence in Kosova, through military or intelligence pressure, who will it have to confront? NATO forces in Kosova have given strong guarantees that they will not allow any use of violence."

Many countries outside the Balkans are looking anxiously to the Kosova case as a template for how their own separatist conflicts may ultimately be resolved -- or dissolve into chaos. (The EU insists Kosova is a "sui generis" case that sets no precedent for other breakaway regions.)

Sejdiu says he is certain that rumors of violence will not mar Kosova's final steps toward Western-backed independence -- and says Kosova citizens play a "special role" in this.

"I think all this is a part of the propaganda used by those who oppose Kosova's independence," he said. "This is done firstly to frighten Kosova; and secondly to frighten international players that the worst will happen. For us, it is important to maintain the current calmness, and the maturity of our citizens and institutions as well."

(Arbana Vidishiqi is RFE/RL's Prishtina bureau chief.)

AFGHAN CIVILIANS RETURN TO MUSA QALA
Pajhwak Afghan News and international media reported on December 16 that residents who fled from Musa Qala, in the southwestern province of Helmand, are beginning to return to the town despite occasional clashes continuing there. A joint operation of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan Army ousted Taliban insurgents from the strategic district after a four-day offensive culminating on December 10. Jalal Khan, a local tribal leader, was quoted as saying the government should appoint powerful and honest officials and police for Musa Qala. "If they build roads and clinics and provide jobs, then it will be easy to win the sympathies of the people," Khan said. Despite the Taliban retreat, keeping the militants out and providing public services remain daunting challenges for the Afghan government and international security forces. In a separate development, the U.S.-led coalition said in a statement on December 16 that two Taliban commanders were killed during continuing anti-insurgent operations in southern Afghanistan. The statement said that Mullah Faizullah, a Taliban commander and the Taliban's deputy shadow governor for Helmand Province, was killed on December 9, and Mullah Tor Jan, a mid-level Taliban commander, died in an earlier air strike. MM

NATO TO STRENGTHEN PRESENCE IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
Afghan and international security chiefs meeting on December 15 announced that a new forward operating base will be built in Arghandab, a strategic district north of Kandahar city and the site of fierce fighting between Canadian forces and the Taliban this autumn, the CanWest News Service reported. The meeting in Arghandab included ISAF Commander General Dan McNeill, Afghan Defense Ministry Chief of Staff General Bismillah Khan, and Arghandab district head Kareemullah Naqibi. Known for its fertile farmland, Arghandab district has long been viewed as a key location for maintaining stability in Kandahar city. It borders the volatile Zhari and Panjawi districts, which Canadian soldiers have been defending against Taliban insurgents for years. General McNeill reportedly told tribal elders that NATO allies have a keen interest in using the base to improve security in the region. MM

AFGHAN-AMERICAN GROUPS HOLD RECONSTRUCTION CONFERENCE
More than 20 Afghan-American grassroots organizations attended the fifth annual Rebuild Afghanistan Summit on December 15 in Fremont, California, the "San Francisco Chronicle" reported. Many of the groups focus on children's welfare, health care, infrastructure, and financial development, The event coincided with the release of the movie "The Kite Runner," set in Afghanistan and based on the best-selling 2003 novel by Khalid Hosseini. Participants in the conference said they hope the film will draw even more attention to a country devastated by years of war. Mo Qayoumi, the president of California State University, East Bay, and the summit's keynote speaker, praised the organizations' "audacity of imagination" regarding Afghanistan's future, and spoke optimistically about the prospects for the country's reconstruction. Organizers expressed hope that the summit will help grassroots groups to learn from each other and consolidate their efforts. MM

AFGHAN UN AMBASSADOR URGES ADDITIONAL AID FOR AFGHAN CHILDREN
In an address to the UN General Assembly on December 13, Afghan Ambassador to the UN Zahir Tanin urged the international community to provide more aid to Afghan children, Bakhtar Afghan News reported on December 16. Tanin acknowledged improved conditions for Afghan children over the last six years, but reminded the audience that a long road lies ahead. "Poverty remains the biggest obstacle in Afghanistan to achieving the Millennium Development Goals," he said. "We would like to stress the need for full partnership and expanded cooperation with the international community in our mutual commitment to attain the MDGs and create an Afghanistan fit for Children." In his remarks, Tanin pointed out that children are the most vulnerable and the worst-affected victims of terrorism and other violence in Afghanistan, and that despite some progress, "Afghan children continue to face insurmountable challenges." MM

IRAN WANTS TO DISCUSS 'TERRORIST GROUP' IN IRAQ IN TALKS WITH U.S.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told the press in Tehran on December 16 that when Iranian and U.S. delegations meet in Iraq in early January, the subject of "terrorist groups" will be on the agenda, Radio Farda reported. He was apparently referring to the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), a militant left-wing group opposed to the Tehran government, and considered a terrorist organization by Iran, the United States, and the EU. Some of its members are currently staying at a camp north east of Baghdad with the permission of coalition forces. Iran wants them expelled. The MKO collaborated with late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and 90s and briefly fought Iran in 1988 at the close of the Iran-Iraq war. Hosseini did not give a specific date for the next round of talks in Baghdad, which will be the fourth round of Iran-U.S. talks on Iraqi security. He said talks between mid-ranking Iranian and U.S. security officials previously scheduled for December 18 have been postponed. Hosseini also rejected a statement made by the EU on December 14 threatening more sanctions on Iran if it refuses to halt its uranium enrichment activities. He said the EU must respect states' right to a peaceful nuclear program, Radio Farda reported. VS

BRITAIN SEEKS TO KEEP IRAN MILITANTS ON TERRORIST LIST
Britain's Home Office has failed so far to reverse a London court ruling removing the MKO and affiliated groups from the country's list of terrorist organizations, Radio Farda reported on December 16, citing agency reports. In a November 30 ruling, the Proscribed Organizations Appeal Commission found that there was no evidence the MKO since 2003 "sought to re-create any form of structure...capable of carrying out or supporting terrorist acts," Reuters reported. The MKO, which claims it renounced armed activity in 2001, welcomed the ruling. British Home Office Minister Tony MacNulty said on December 14 that the British government failed that day to persuade the commission to reverse its ruling, and may take the issue to an appeals court, AFP reported. Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili deplored the initial ruling in London on November 30, but said he appreciates that it does not reflect the British government's position, Reuters reported. VS

GERMANY EXPELS IRANIAN DIPLOMAT
Germany has expelled an Iranian diplomat for allegedly trying to procure material or equipment to be used in uranium enrichment, Radio Farda reported on December 16, quoting the German weekly "Der Spiegel." The report identified the diplomat as a consular official, whose name was given only as Mahramali D., Radio Farda stated. The official reportedly contacted a firm in Bavaria to procure equipment, though Radio Farda added it was not immediately clear if the equipment was to be used for low-grade enrichment, intended for energy production, or high-grade enrichment, with potential applications in weapons production. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said in Tehran on December 16 that Germany has illegally detained an Iranian consular official, and asked Berlin to reconsider the move, Radio Farda reported, citing IRNA. VS

IRAN SUMMONS AZERBAIJANI ENVOY
The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned Azerbaijan's ambassador in Tehran on December 16 to protest over a court ruling in Baku implicating Iran in an alleged plot to topple Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev, agencies reported. The head of the Commonwealth of Independent States and Caucasus department at the Foreign Ministry, Morteza Saffari, told envoy Abbasali Hassanov that the claims made in Baku are baseless and that Azerbaijan should apologize to Iran, Radio Farda reported, citing IRNA. A Baku court on December 10 convicted more than a dozen Azeris of plotting a coup with the help of Iranian intelligence agents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3 and 11, 2007). Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini rejected the charges on December 16, and urged Azerbaijan to share the evidence used in the case, AFP reported. The two countries officially have friendly relations, but nationalists in Iran and Azerbaijan both claim territory in the other country. VS

IRANIAN SUFIS ASK FOR JUSTICE
Members of the Gonabadi order of Sufis have written to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asking for the punishment of militants suspected of mounting an attack last month against the order in the western town of Borujerd, the "Etemad" daily reported on December 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2007). The attack led to dozens of injuries and the destruction of the Sufis' prayer hall, though right-wing reports in Iran have accused the Sufis of instigating the violence. Iran's more conservative clerics disapprove of mystic orders for what they consider to be unorthodox religious practices. The Sufis sent copies of their letter to Iran's president, parliamentary speaker, and judiciary chief. "Etemad" reported the same day that eight students of the Bu Ali Sina University in Hamedan, western Iran, have been summoned to the university disciplinary board for their roles in several student gatherings at the university in recent weeks. VS

U.K. TRANSFERS AL-BASRAH SECURITY TO IRAQI GOVERNMENT
The Iraqi government formally assumed control over security in Al-Basrah on December 16, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. The U.K. transferred authority during a ceremony that day at Al-Basrah Airport attended by Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i and Al-Basrah Governor Muhammad al-Wa'ili. U.K. Major General Graham Binns, commander of Multinational Division Southeast, said at the ceremony: "The Iraqi authorities have shown they can maintain stability in their own right, and that is why it is now time to hand over control. We will continue to offer support, training and mentoring to the Iraqi security forces as we support the government in their efforts on economic regeneration and reconstruction." Al-Rubay'i told attendees that the transfer places security in the hands of the governor, the governorate's commander of the security forces, the governorate council, and the citizens. He added that Baghdad intends to launch a construction and economic development campaign in 2008. Al-Wa'ili said the local government is determined to enforce the law and protect the governorate, adding: "We will extend a hand to all good, patriotic, and honorable citizens who are willing to reconstruct and protect their city," referring to the governorate capital of Al-Basrah. Al-Wa'ili called on citizens to support the security forces and help end the prevalence of militias. He also vowed that the governorate will be a "weapons-free zone." KR

TURKEY, IRAN BOMB IRAQI KURDISTAN
Turkish warplanes launched a "wide-scale" attack on December 16 targeting Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, international media reported. The Turkish General Staff said in a same-day press release posted to its website that the air assault was followed by a ground assault. "The operations, which were carried out within the framework of the authority given to Turkish Armed forces [by the Turkish government], will continue in determination according to the requirements of military necessity," the statement said, noting that the operations only targeted the PKK and not civilians. The statement asked the press to stay out of the area of operations. Turkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit stressed on December 16 that no civilian areas were hit, adding: "We know the PKK's geography as well as we know our hands....The possibility of an accidental bombing [targeting civilians] is out of the question," Anatolia news agency reported. Buyukanit said the U.S. supported the bombing raid. "What is important is that the United States opened the air space over northern Iraq to Turkish jets. By opening the air space, the U.S. gave support to our operation," he contended. Meanwhile, Iranian artillery shelled border villages in Iraqi Kurdistan on December 15 and 16, Kurdistan Satellite Television reported on December 16. The shelling lasted five hours and reportedly coincided with the Turkish bombing. The report did not say which villages were targeted. KR

KURDISH SPOKESMAN CONDEMNS TURKISH RAID
Fu'ad Husayn, head of the presidency office of the Kurdistan regional government (KRG), condemned the Turkish assault, telling Al-Sharqiyah television in a December 16 interview that the "attack is a violation of Iraq's sovereignty...because Turkish military planes bombarded areas deep in Kurdistan territory as well as several Kurdish villages." Husayn said "thousands of residents in these villages have been displaced," adding: "This operation was condemned by the presidency of the Kurdistan region." Husayn called on Baghdad to "declare its stand on this operation." Meanwhile, the PKK-aligned Furat news agency cited an unidentified KRG official as confirming that the KRG and the U.S. military were warned in advance about the Turkish raid. The official said the KRG ordered Iraqi peshmerga to withdraw from the Qandil Mountain area ahead of the attack. KR

IRAQI TRIBAL LEADER DEMANDS GOVERNMENT MERGE AWAKENING COUNCIL MEMBERS INTO SECURITY FORCES
Sheikh Ahmad Abu Rishah, head of the Al-Anbar Awakening Council, told Al-Sharqiyah television in an interview broadcast on December 16 that the government must move to incorporate security men from the council into the Iraqi security forces. The awakening council security forces' salaries are now being paid by U.S. forces. "The awakening council members are Iraqis, and they are entitled to serve their country, which should pay them salaries. If they are paid by U.S. troops, then media outlets would say they are hirelings and mercenaries," Abu Rishah said. The awakening council members "have proven their competence by showing they belong to their homeland and not to any party. The security that they have achieved makes them worthy of being merged into the police force and army," he continued, adding that council members should be properly vetted before joining government security forces to ensure that terrorist elements do not infiltrate the system posing as council members. KR

IRAQI DEPUTY PREMIER HEADS DELEGATION TO SYRIA
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih headed a delegation to Syria on December 15 to discuss political, economic, and security issues. The delegation includes Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani and Trade Minister Abd al-Falah al-Sudani, and comes just days after Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari concluded his visit to Damascus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2007). Syrian Premier Muhammad Naji Itri reportedly told Salih on December 16 that Syria is eager to see security and stability achieved in Iraq, and that Syrian companies are eager to invest in rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Meanwhile, Syrian state-run news agency SANA reported that the Syrian trade and transport ministers proposed areas of cooperation in the economic, trade, investment and transport fields in a December 16 meeting with al-Sudani. KR

TELEVISION REPORT CLAIMS IRAQI GOVERNMENT RENEGED ON AMNESTY OFFER
Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 15 that a meeting of the so-called four-way alliance has reneged on a promise to declare a general amnesty for detainees being held without charge in Iraqi prisons. The amnesty was allegedly going to be declared on the start of Eid Al-Adha, which begins around December 20. The news channel reported that the alliance, which comprises the two leading Kurdish parties and the two leading Shi'ite parties in the United Iraqi Alliance, decided at its December 13 meeting not to release 50,000 detainees. The alliance also refused to merge security elements of the awakening councils into government security forces. A December 15 statement posted to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council website made no mention of either issue being discussed at the meeting. KR

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