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Newsline - November 29, 2006

Speaking in Tallinn on November 28, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said that he and visiting U.S. President George W. Bush agree that "one of [their] main messages was the message of freedom to those states who, like us, have chosen the way to democracy and freedom, and not to bow to any pressure from their neighbors," international media reported. Ilves added that "by these states, we mean Georgia, Ukraine, and the Balkan states. We should not hesitate to support these states, we should not falter when any of our allies are losing hope and faith, and we will help them in every way we can." Referring to Georgia, Ilves said that "we sincerely hope that Russia will understand that a democratic state on its borders is not a danger to Russian security. And we hope that Russia will understand that authoritarian states at its borders will not guarantee its own stability." Bush praised Estonia's efforts in "sharing its democratic experience with other nations...from Georgia to Moldova to Ukraine." A few hours later in Riga, Bush said that "as members of NATO you [Baltic states] are a vital part of the most effective multilateral organization in the world and the most important military alliance in history. As NATO allies, you will never again stand alone in defense of your freedom and you will never be occupied by a foreign power." He added that "we're also working with Russia through the NATO-Russia Council. We recognize that Russia is a vital and important country, and that it's in our interest to increase our cooperation with Russia in areas such as countering terrorism and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction." PM

Speaking on the margins of the Riga NATO summit on November 28, U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that the Atlantic alliance should assist under its Article 5 mutual defense clause any member whose energy supplies are threatened, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on November 29. He argued that Article 5 was designed to thwart the "coercion" of any member state as well as a direct attack on one. He stressed that the alliance should determine what it will do "if Poland, Latvia, or another member state is threatened as Ukraine was" during its January 2006 gas crisis. At that time, Polish leaders called on consumers to form an "energy NATO" to protect their interests against pressure and "blackmail" by Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 6, 9, and 20, and October 31, 2006). Polish Ambassador to Germany Marek Prawda, however, spoke in Riga on November 28 against invoking Article 5 and called instead for setting up a European energy-security framework. Some Czech experts at that meeting said that NATO should play an increased role in energy-security matters but stressed that the practical implications should be carefully thought through. Like Ambassador Prawda, some Czech participants said that invoking Article 5 in an energy dispute could ultimately weaken NATO's effectiveness in military-security matters. Lugar replied that it is crucial to develop alternative energy supply routes and sources as soon as possible. Britain's "The Guardian" wrote on November 29 that Russia's "cutting off gas supplies to...Ukraine in the dead of winter [was] an illegitimate instrument of intimidation. Beyond Russia's 'near abroad,' [President Vladimir] Putin combines measures to increase Europe's dependency on Russian supplies with reminders that Asia provides an alternative outlet. The idea is that Europe should take the hint and avoid disagreement with Moscow -- a form of diplomatic self-policing known [in Cold War days] as 'Finlandization.'" The paper added that "European diplomacy should be aimed at [encouraging] Russian policy live up to their obligations under the Energy Charter treaty and end their pipeline monopoly by signing the transit protocol. Otherwise, Europe will single-mindedly pursue a policy of energy independence by diversifying its energy mix, improving efficiency, and building the supply infrastructure needed to access non-Russian sources.... It is not 'Russophobic' to oppose the hegemonic ambitions of the Kremlin." PM

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in London on November 28 that caution is in order regarding the unexplained death there on November 23 of former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, who had U.K. citizenship since 2001, British and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 21, 22, 27, and 28, 2006). Blair added that he has not "spoken to President Putin [about Litvinenko's death], but I will do so at any time that is appropriate. The police investigation will proceed, and I think people should know that there is no diplomatic or political barrier in the way of that investigation going wherever it needs to go." A postmortem is expected to be carried out on Litvinenko on December 1. Litvinenko's friend and self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky was quoted by the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" on November 29 as saying that "if you want comments on the Litvinenko case, you won't get any out of me. I told the media [on November 27] that I won't be commenting until Scotland Yard completes its official investigation." Many Russian media outlets continued on November 29 to speculate about the Litvinenko affair and its possible links to and impact on Russian domestic politics. Some media have centered their attention on the radioactive substance polonium-210 believed responsible for his death. The daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" argued that the substance is more widely available on international markets than previous media reports suggested and has allegedly attracted the attention of terrorists interested in making "dirty bombs." Also on November 29, Britain's "The Independent" quoted Italian security expert Mario Scaramella, who dined with Litvinenko on November 1, as saying that Litvinenko told him that he "organized the smuggling of nuclear material out of Russia" when he worked for the FSB in the 1990s. PM

Yegor Gaidar, a former acting prime minister of Russia and the architect of economic reforms in the early 1990s, is being treated in a Moscow hospital after falling violently ill in Ireland, reported on November 29. His daughter, Maria Gaidar, was quoted in the daily "Kommersant" of November 29 as saying that he began vomiting and fainted during a conference in Dublin on November 24. She added that doctors have so far been unable to determine the causes of his illness, which she suggested could be the result of poisoning. Anatoly Chubais, a longtime associate of Gaidar and the head of Russia's national electricity monopoly, Unified Energy Systems (EES), said in Moscow on November 29 that he suspects a connection between Gaidar's illness, Litvinenko's poisoning, and the October killing of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, Interfax reported. Chubais argued that unspecified people seeking what he called an "unconstitutional and forceful change of power in Russia" could have been behind the three incidents. PM

German Gref, who is Russia's minister of economic development and trade, said in Moscow on November 28 that the authorities plan to double the price of natural gas for domestic consumers to $100 for 1,000 cubic meters by 2011, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006). He added that the hike will be gradual. Gref noted that the price for Russian gas sold abroad is about $260 and that the "ideal" domestic rate should be about $125, or around half the export figure. PM

On November 28, President Putin formally submitted to the parliament of Sakha (formerly known as Yakutia) the nomination of Vyacheslav Shtyrov for a second term as president of that republic, reported. Shtyrov was previously a construction engineer, vice president of Sakha, and head of the diamond company Alrosa. He attracted national attention in 2004, when he paid a costly trip to the Athens Olympics, and in 2005, when he attended the unveiling of a monument to Stalin in Mirnyi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 22, 2004, and May 9, 2005). Kamil Iskhakov, who is Putin's envoy for the Far East Federal District, also brought the name of Sergei Kirillin, who heads the Federal Inspectorate's Sakha branch, for the legislators' consideration on November 28. The inspectorate coordinates monitoring and control functions for ecological, technological, and nuclear matters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2004). The parliament must make its choice within two weeks. Sakha comprises nearly one-fifth the territory of the Russian Federation, is about the size of India, and includes three time zones. Its population, however, is only about 1 million, which is at least partly due to the harsh Siberian climatic conditions there. According to the 2002 census, Sakha people, or Yakuts, make up about 45 percent of the population. Ethnic Russians, who previously were the largest single ethnic group, comprise only 41 percent after a decade of outward migration following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sakha is rich in natural resources, including diamonds, gold, gas, oil, and coal. PM

A delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe led by rapporteur Andreas Gross has visited Chechnya after a one-year interval, meeting on November 26 with Prime Minster Ramzan Kadyrov and the following day with pro-Moscow administration head Alu Alkhanov, according to the Chechen government website They also met with representatives of human rights organizations. Alkhanov admitted that human rights violations still take place n Chechnya, and added that the prosecutor's and military prosecutor's offices are currently investigating several such cases. Kadyrov stressed the progress that has been achieved in the past 11 months in terms of reconstruction. Polish parliamentarian Tadeusz Iwinski described as the major difference since the last visit to Grozny by a PACE delegation the fact that the city's inhabitants are no longer afraid to leave their homes after dark. Iwinski requested to be allowed to travel to the mountainous south of Chechnya, according to on November 26, but it is not clear whether he managed to do so. Gross repeated his earlier proposal to convene in Grozny a roundtable discussion to which critics of the current Chechen leadership outside Chechnya would be invited. LF

The South Moscow regional prosecutor's office has closed its investigation into the slaying in Moscow on November 18 of Movladi Baysarov, commander of the Gorets (Mountain) battalion, the daily "Kommersant" reported on November 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2006). The prosecutor's office ruled that Lieutenant Sultan Rashayev, deputy commander of the Chechen special guard regiment and chief bodyguard for Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Adam Delimkhanov, acted appropriately in opening fire on Baysarov. On November 21, "Kommersant" reported that Baysarov was shot 11 times at close range. Seven bullets were fired from Rashayev's gun; it did not prove possible to determine who fired the remaining shots, including one from point-blank range in the head. "Kommersant" quoted Rashayev as saying Baysarov threatened to explode a grenade and that he was forced to open fire to stop him, but that he did not fire directly at Baysarov. LF

In line with agreements reached last week during visits to Yerevan and Baku by two of the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 22, 2006), Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev met in Minsk on November 28 on the sidelines of a CIS summit to discuss approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The Minsk Group co-chairs, OSCE Chairman in Office and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were also present at the initial stage of the talks, together with the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers. The two presidents did not release any statement after their meeting, but on November 29 Aliyev told Azerbaijani State Television that the talks have reached "the final stage," RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told RFE/RL on November 15 that during talks in Brussels the previous day, he and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov made "a small step forward" in terms of coming closer to reaching "general points of agreement" with regard to "complementary" proposals by the Minsk Group co-chairs that the ministers discussed during their talks in Moscow and Paris last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10 and 24, 2006). LF

The Milli Mejlis approved the draft budget for 2007 in the second and final reading on November 28 by a vote of 95 in favor and three against, and reported on November 28 and 29, respectively. Speaker Oktay Asadov incurred the wrath of opposition deputies by precluding any further debate on individual items of expenditure. The budget envisages a 39.1 percent increase in revenues (to $6.13 billion) and a 42 percent increase in expenditures (to $6.6 billion): the resulting projected budget deficit is equal to 1.7 percent of projected GDP, which is set to increase by 26.3 percent to 22 billion manats (some $25.2 billion.) Those figures are predicated on an average oil price of $50 per barrel. Defense spending in 2007 will increase by 27.9 percent to 907 million manats ($1.1 billion), according to on November 4. LF

Also during the CIS summit in Minsk on November 28, Mikheil Saakashvili held a brief and cordial exchange with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev told journalists later on November 28, Russian media reported. Saakashvili for his part described the conversation as "useful." The two did not, however, meet one-on-one to discuss the tensions that continue to hamper bilateral relations. Saakashvili told journalists in London on November 29 that a further deterioration in Georgian-Russian relations is not in the interests of either side, and that Georgia is ready to propose initiatives in order to ensure "sustainable dialogue" with Russia, Caucasus Press reported. LF

President Saakashvili and Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze hailed on November 28 qualified statements of support by U.S. President George W. Bush and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer for Georgia's bid to join NATO, Georgian media reported. Bush said during a speech in Riga on the eve of the NATO summit that "as it continues on the path of reform, we will continue to support Georgia's desire to become a NATO ally." De Hoop Scheffer, while again stressing that no formal invitations to join NATO can be expected before its next summit in 2008, said the Riga summit will reaffirm support for Georgia's territorial integrity and for ongoing reforms within the framework of the recently launched Intensified Dialogue, and will stress the need for a peaceful solution to the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Burdjanadze said Georgia is hoping for assistance from current NATO members in resolving the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Caucasus Press quoted her as describing Georgia as among the front-runners to join NATO "in the nearest future." LF

Speaking to reporters in Almaty, Mariam Khasnova, the head of the Almaty-based Republican Center for the Prevention of AIDS, reported on November 28 that there has been a sharp rise in the number of HIV and AIDS cases in Kazakhstan, "Kazakhstan Today" and Interfax reported. She said nearly 1,290 cases of HIV/AIDS were diagnosed in the first nine months of 2006, compared with 680 cases for the same period last year. While the statistics suggest a nearly twofold increase, a UNICEF official in Kazakhstan, Aleksandr Zuyev, cautioned that the actual number of people living with HIV in the country could be actually "two or three times higher than official figures." Khasanova noted that the situation is particularly grave in several southern Kazakh regions, where eight children recently died of AIDS, most likely after receiving transfusions of HIV-infected blood. RG

In a report to a cabinet meeting in Astana, Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov announced on November 28 that Kazakhstan intends to join the Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass) by 2008, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. Akhmetov said Kazakhstan plans to build seven satellites in the coming months for integration with the Russian military-operated system, an equivalent to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) and the European Union's Galileo system. RG

An unnamed Kazakh conscript died on November 26 from injuries sustained in a recent shooting incident with fellow border guards, Interfax and "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The soldier, who was in a coma for four days, was seriously injured during a clash on November 22 between Kazakh troops garrisoned in the Sariaghash administrative district and a group of conscripts deployed to reinforce the Kazakh-Uzbek border. RG

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Feliks Kulov on November 27 ordered a formal inquiry by a government commission into the implementation of safety rules in the country's mines, Kabar and the news agency reported. Kulov also warned that all mines that do not meet safety standards will be closed. Five miners recently died from gas poisoning at a mine in the southern town of Suluktu in Kyrgystan's Batken region. In a statement following a visit to that mine, Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov reported that preliminary findings revealed that the miners may have failed to follow "elementary safety rules," and he attributed the accident to "a lack of discipline at the mine." Nikolai Sologub, the head of the department in charge of monitoring Kyrgyzstan's mining sector at the Emergency Situations Ministry, claimed that safety rules are routinely flouted at nearly all of the country's mines and said his department has just 33 inspectors to monitor all private and state-owned mines in Kyrgyzstan. RG

A Kyrgyz government official in charge of regional affairs, Salamat Alamanov, announced in Bishkek on November 27 that recent border talks with neighboring Uzbekistan have made progress as topographical engineers from both countries have agreed on the delineation of an additional section of the disputed border, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Alamanov explained that "as a result of consultations conducted at the level of experts, about 2 1/2 kilometers of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border have been defined," and he noted that some 300 kilometers of the 1,375-kilometer Kyrgyz-Uzbek border now remain subject to further negotiations. RG

The Tajik government imposed drastic cuts in electricity supplies on November 27 for the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and the country's second largest city, Khojan, after severe gas and electricity shortages mounted, according to RFE/RL's Tajik Service. The imposition of reduced supplies of electricity included an eight-hour rationing of electricity for most households scheduled to last until April, with only central areas hosting administrative buildings and main hospitals received normal power supplies in those two cities. The sudden and severe energy crisis has been attributed to a sharp decrease in the water level of the Vahsh River after its damming to allow the construction of the Sangtuda-1 hydroelectric power plant, AKIpress reported. Although Tajik hydroelectric power plants produce about 43 million kilowatt/hours daily, production is expected to decrease to some 25 million-26 million kilowatt/hours daily during the construction period. RG

Speaking in a nationally televised address, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov ordered on November 27 that grain production in Turkmenistan be increased by 20 percent annually, Turkmen television and the website reported. Niyazov argued that "the annual growth of our GDP is 20 percent, therefore, the grain harvest should also increase by 20 percent annually." The same day, Niyazov also dismissed the governors of the Dashhowuz and Lepab regions and the head of Turkmenistan's state grain agency, Turkmengallaonumleri, for "serious shortcomings" after he publicly criticized them for allegedly falsifying winter grain-planting statistics and raw cotton-harvest figures. Niyazov appointed Agriculture Minister Esenmyrat Orazgeldyyev to replace Begmyrad Tajiev at the head of Turkmengallaonumleri, and appointed Saparmurat Ashyrov and Tagaimurat Mammedov as governors of the Dashhowuz and Lebap regions for a six-month probationary period. Recent reports suggest that bread is in short supply and grain reserves are scant in Turkmenistan, resulting in a dramatic rise in bread prices, with a loaf of bread that cost 400 manats (about $.08 at the official exchange rate and $.016 at the black-market rate) in May now costing 1,000 manats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2006). RG

A group of six Uzbek human rights activists were detained on November 27 in Tashkent as they prepared to stage a picket in front of the Uzbek Foreign Ministry building to demand that the government launch an official dialogue with human rights campaigners, the website and RFE/RL reported. The activists -- Yelena Urlaeva, Viktoria Vinogradova, Rasul Tojiboev, Valentina Talipova, Jahongir Shosalimov, and Abdullo Tojiboi -- were reportedly seeking a meeting with Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov. The group had rallied in front of the ministry on November 25 to demand that the authorities follow through on a pledge made to EU officials in Brussels on November 8 to engage in talks with human rights campaigners and organizations. RG

An Uzbek appeals court in the Jizzakh region ruled on November 24 to uphold the prison sentence handed down to the son of human rights campaigner Bakhtiyor Khamroev, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on November 28. On September 25, the Jizzakh city court sentenced Khamroev's 21-year-old son, Ikhtiyor, to three years' imprisonment for allegedly initiating a street fight. Ikhtiyor Khamroev is currently serving his sentence in a farming prison colony in Chimqorghan, north of Jizzakh, and relatives report that he is complaining of health problems. RG

Eleven presidents participated in a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Minsk on November 28, Belarusian and international media reported. Turkmenistan, whose President Saparmurat Niyazov routinely ignores such gatherings, was represented in Minsk by a deputy prime minister. "The main achievement of the organization is that it promotes cooperation," Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said while opening the meeting. But he also admitted that "actions often lag behind decisions" within the CIS. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev told journalists after the summit that CIS leaders discussed a report on reforming the CIS and ordered their foreign ministers to submit specific reform proposals by June 1, 2007. CIS Executive Secretary Vladimir Rushailo said at the same news conference that a "lack of consensus" prevented CIS leaders from issuing a declaration to precede an accord on the definitive demarcation of borders between CIS member states. JM

President Lukashenka discussed cooperation in the energy sphere with his Ukrainian and Azerbaijani counterparts, Viktor Yushchenko and Ilham Aliyev, on the sidelines of the CIS summit in Minsk on November 28, Belapan and Interfax reported. Yushchenko reportedly said that oil-rich Azerbaijan could use Ukraine's pipelines to supply Belarusian oil refineries with crude oil, whereas Belarus and Ukraine could agree on rates for the transit of Russian gas through their territories. Aliyev noted that Azerbaijan and Belarus have a big potential in energy cooperation, adding that the two countries should continue talks about Belarus's possible participation in oil extraction in Azerbaijan. JM

Russian President Vladimir Putin told journalists after a meeting with President Lukashenka on the sidelines of the CIS summit in Minsk on November 28 that Russia will switch to market relations with all its partners with no exception, Belapan reported. Asked about the establishment of a Belarusian-Russian joint venture to run Beltranshaz, Belarus's gas-pipeline network, and the price of Russian gas for Belarus in 2007, Putin noted that relevant decisions will be of a market nature. "Independent appraisers have in fact finished their work to appraise Beltranshaz. There is an agreement at the expert level on methods of reaching a final decision," Putin said. He explained that the gas price will be partly capitalized into the value of Beltranshaz, and that Gazprom and Beltranshaz would establish the joint enterprise on a 50-50 basis. The Dutch ABN AMRO bank reportedly concluded an appraisal of Beltranshaz's assets and informed Minsk and Moscow about its results last week, but no figure has thus far been made public. "A seller always see a price as low, whereas a buyer always thinks that it is high," Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Kabyakou said of the Dutch appraisal on November 28, adding that talks with Gazprom on the sale of a 50 percent stake in Beltranshaz "do not proceed smoothly." JM

A group of Russian journalists left the National Library of Belarus, the site of the CIS summit in Minsk on November 28, without waiting for the final news conference on the summit results, Belapan reported. The move was reportedly made in protest against the denial of press accreditation for three reporters from "Moskovsky komsomolets" and "Kommersant." Both Russian newspapers published articles on November 27 and 28 that were critical of President Lukashenka's policies. Pavel Lyohki, head of the Belarusian president's press office, said the accreditation denials were made on valid grounds since, he explained, the articles "carried information and photographs that were of an openly insulting nature to us." Meanwhile, President Putin told journalists before his departure from Minsk to Moscow that President Lukashenka described the failure to admit some Russian journalists to the CIS summit as a "technical misunderstanding." "We did not discuss this situation with the president of Belarus in detail," he said. "This can be sorted out routinely." JM

Following a heated debate, 233 deputies of the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada on November 28 voted to declare the man-made famine in Ukraine in 1932-33 (Holodomor) as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people, Ukrainian media reported. A relevant bill submitted by President Viktor Yushchenko and somewhat reworded by parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Moroz was supported by lawmakers of Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Socialist Party, and two legislators from the ruling Party of Regions. In order to make the bill passable, Moroz proposed the removal of a provision that would have made it a crime to deny the Holodomor took place. Moroz also proposed that the bill's original formulation "genocide of the Ukrainian nation" be replaced with "genocide of the Ukrainian people," thus blunting the implication that the Holodomor singled out ethnic Ukrainians as the principal victims. Lawmakers from the Party of Regions and the Communist Party opposed the bill during the debate and most of them did not take part in the voting, arguing that the bill would worsen relations between Ukraine and Russia by suggesting that through the Holodomor Moscow intended to wipe out the Ukrainians as a nation. As many as 10 million Ukrainians may have died in the famine provoked by the Soviet leadership under Josef Stalin in a bid to force peasants to give up their land and join collective farms. JM

UN police fired tear gas to disperse ethnic Albanian protesters in Kosova on November 28, B92 and Reuters reported the same day. Thousands demonstrated at the headquarters of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) to protest negotiations with Serbia over Kosova's final status. Some of the protesters hurled stones at the UNMIK headquarters. Others smashed windows and threw red paint on the Kosovar parliament and government building during a march through Prishtina. "Prishtina is the center and source of all the bad things that are happening to Kosova," protest leader Albin Kurti, a former political prisoner in Serbia, told the crowd. Kurti and his supporters say Kosova should have the right to vote for its independence, rather than negotiate with Serbia. Riot police tried to disperse the crowd by firing tear gas at the protesters from inside the UN compound. UNMIK and the KFOR peacekeeping force earlier increased security fearing violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2006). BW

Ethnic Albanians in Presevo removed the Serbian flag from municipal buildings and replaced them with three Albanian flags on November 28, B92 reported the same day. This effort to mark the Albanian national holiday Flag Day went ahead despite protests from Serbian officials (see RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2006). Approximately 2,000 people, mostly high-school and elementary-school students, participated in the ceremony. Presevo municipal head Ragmi Mustafa said the display of Albanian flags should "not be viewed as an incident," adding that "Albanians in Serbia have the right to their own symbols." In Bujanovac, ethnic Albanians placed the Albanian flag alongside the Serbian on the city's municipal building. In socialist Yugoslavia, the Albanian flag was used by Kosova and by members of the ethnic Albanian population throughout Yugoslavia. Flag Day is marked by ethnic Albanians throughout the world. BW

The International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on November 28 reduced the sentence of former Bosnian Serb politician Blagoje Simic by two years after throwing out one of his war crimes convictions, Reuters reported the same day. Simic was convicted in 2003 together with two other Bosnian Serbs of detaining, deporting, torturing, and killing Muslims and Croats in the Bosanski Samac area of northern Bosnia. He was originally sentenced to 17 years in prison. On November 28, the ICTY's appeals chamber ruled that the trial was unfair because Simic was not informed that he was accused of participating in a joint criminal enterprise until the prosecution had finished presenting its case. The court reversed Simic's conviction for persecution. It upheld, however, his conviction for aiding persecution through unlawful arrests, confinement of prisoners in inhumane conditions, forced labor, and forced displacement. BW

Bosnian Serb leaders have protested an alleged clandestine meeting between two members of Bosnia-Herzegovina's tripartite Presidency and Croatian President Stipe Mesic, AKI reported in November 28, citing local press reports. According to the reports, Muslim presidency member Haris Silajdzic and Croatian member Zeljko Komsic held a secret meeting with Mesic in Zagreb on the night of November 26. The meeting allegedly took place without the knowledge of the Serbian member of Bosnia's collective presidency, Nebojsa Radmanovic. The Foreign Ministry was also not informed. "This act of two Bosnian Presidency members clearly shows that Komsic and Silajdzic are not interested in confidence, equality, consensus, and the survival of Bosnia-Herzegovina," the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), the leading Bosnia Serb party, said in a statement. Mesic, who is to pay an official visit to Sarajevo on November 30, said the meeting took place at a private dinner and there was no secrecy. BW

Serbian police detained 17 customs officials and businessmen in a series of raids targeting fraud and tax evasion on November 28, Makfax and B92 reported the same day. In a series of simultaneous raids in Belgrade, Nis, Kraljevo, Novi Pazar, Raska, and Turin, police arrested members of what they called a long-running smuggling ring. Among those arrested were nine entrepreneurs who filled out false export declarations and eight employees of the Customs Administration who assisted them. Instead of being exported, the contraband goods were instead stored in illegal warehouses in Serbia and sold tax-free to companies, police said. BW

The names of vetted candidates for upcoming municipal council elections in Iran will be announced in the final days of November, some two weeks before the actual voting takes place. Preliminary reports from around the country suggest mass disqualifications of reformists in the provinces, in contrast with official reports of inclusiveness.

Behind the scenes, factional disputes and competition are preventing the formation of election coalitions, a development that will hinder the reformist challengers.

Heshmatollah Falahat-Pisheh, a parliamentarian and spokesman for Iran's Central Committee for Monitoring Council Elections, said on November 25 that a final figure on the number of qualified candidates is not available yet, ILNA reported. He added that 700 candidates who were previously disqualified were reinstated.

Six days earlier, Falahat-Pisheh said, "According to the figures we received from some 28 provinces, the average disqualification rate in executive committees was 11 percent in cities and 5 percent in villages; and supervisory committee reviews have reduced these numbers by 50 percent."

Tehran is considered the bellwether of national politics, even though Iran is an enormous country of roughly 70 million people. Falahat-Pisheh claimed on November 19 that all the reformists in Tehran were approved as candidates.

According to Ahmad Karimi-Isfahani, a member of the executive committee for council elections in Tehran Province, "All the inquisitions and qualification assessments for the candidates of Tehran have been finalized and it must be mentioned that 1,243 people were qualified, 191 disqualified, and seven resigned from running."

Although reformists may have won approval in Tehran, there are reports of widespread disqualifications of them in other parts of the country. Referring to Shiraz, the capital of Fars Province, the Islamic Labor Party's Abdullah Amiri said all the reformists were rejected. Approving reformists in Tehran, he continued, is meant to hide the disqualifications elsewhere. Moreover, Amiri said, the reformists are unlikely to win in Tehran.

Also referring to the provincial disqualifications, Hussein Kashefi, deputy secretary-general of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, charged that there is opposition to the holding of legitimate elections. "They only wish to have some show elections," he added.

Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri-Isfahani, a member of the Assembly of Experts, said on November 25 that all the prospective reformist candidates in Isfahan were rejected.

In late October and early November the focus was more on coalitions and rivalries than it was on individual candidates. With the conservatives, there was talk of a competition between the allies of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who had run against Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential race.

Qalibaf allegedly annoyed Ahmadinejad, his predecessor as Tehran mayor, when he appointed Mohsen Hashemi as head of the Tehran subway system. Hashemi is the son of Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the former president and Ahmadinejad rival who, for the fundamentalists, symbolizes corruption and a retreat on Islamist ideology. The president reacted by not allowing Qalibaf to attend cabinet meetings and by showing reluctance in releasing funds for the subway's budget.

Around this time, there was talk of pro-Ahmadinejad and pro-Qalibaf factions, and also of a more traditional conservative faction associated with the Islamic Coalition Party. The entities carried names such as the Council of Elders, the Council of Trustees, Front for Followers of the Line of the Imam and the Leader, and the Association of the Loyal Supporters of the Islamic Revolution. Despite the different names, their memberships were sometimes identical, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on November 11.

The Islamic Coalition Party tried to put itself above these conflicts and rivalries. Secretary-General Mohammad Nabi Habibi said the party wants to serve as a link between the fundamentalist groups.

By late November, it appeared that the quest for a unified list of conservative candidates remained unfulfilled. Hassan Ghafurifard, former secretary-general of the Society of the Loyalists of the Islamic Revolution, said, "with only three weeks to go to the elections, there are still no clear prospects of attaining a single list for the [fundamentalists]." He said the Qalibaf and Ahmadinejad backers have their own lists.

Like the conservatives, the reformists are finding it difficult to achieve unity. Fatemeh Karrubi of the Islamic Association of Women said that her group shares many of the reformists' views, but it will have its own list. She added that there is no complete reformist list yet, but one will be announced at the end of the week.

The December 15 elections for municipal councils may seem unimportant in terms of national politics. Although called for in the constitution, council elections did not take place until 1999. Former President Mohammad Khatami and other reformists promoted the councils as an important step in the development of civil-society institutions in Iran, and voter participation in the 1999 elections was noteworthy.

The councils did not live up to practical expectations, however, not least because they do not have any significant powers or responsibilities. They deal with construction permits, fire departments, garbage collection, parks, public transportation, roads, and street cleaning. The central government is responsible for everything else, such as education, electricity, and the provision of water.

A recent commentary in a reformist daily -- "Mardom Salari" on November 22 -- claimed that an Interior Ministry poll found that less than 20 percent of residents of the country's medium and large cities are satisfied with the councils. The councils were criticized for their failure to consult with experts on urban management and, on those rare occasions when they did, only individuals who confirmed pre-existing views were chosen. The councils' lack of long-term planning was criticized, too.

There also are accusations of corruption. Friday Prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati referred to this problem in his November 3 sermon in Tehran. Some of the councils, he said, "are governed by bribery," state television reported. "If you bribe them your business will be sorted out immediately and if you do not give in to bribery you will be running [around] for a year [trying] to sort out a trivial business," he said. "If you do not want to pay bribes you will be left behind doors for four to five years."

Despite these criticisms of the councils, there is stiff competition for a place on them. Reformist parties see victory in the council elections as an important step in regaining the elected offices lost to fundamentalists in the parliamentary race of 2004 and presidential race of 2005. The fundamentalists see the elections as an important stage in continuing their winning streak and cementing their hold on power.

The state-owned daily "Hewad" noted in an editorial on November 28 that "without a doubt, the global war against terrorism and NATO's military and political role" in the Afghan war would top the agenda of NATO's Riga summit on November 28-29. "The issue of ensuring security and stability in Afghanistan will also be the top priority" at the summit, the editorial added. If NATO fails in its Afghan mission, "Hewad" warned, global "stability will face a serious threat." The daily advocated three steps to ensure NATO's success for its mission in Afghanistan: first, increasing the number of troops serving with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF); second, equipping ISAF forces with "modern military equipment"; and third, focusing "its entire attention on the roots of terrorism," which "Hewad" claimed are based "outside Afghanistan." While the editorial did not specify where the "roots of terrorism" in Afghanistan might lie, Kabul has frequently indentified Pakistan as the main base of support for those forces of instability. AT

In an open letter addressed to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer dated November 28, New York-based Human Rights Watch's Asia division director, Brad Adams, suggests five measures with respect to Afghanistan that NATO should adopt at the Riga summit. The ISAF's "mandate is to protect the people of Afghanistan and facilitate the reconstruction necessary to for improving their lives," Adams says, adding that his organization is concerned that "NATO's mission, particularly in southern Afghanistan, has increasingly focused solely on defeating the Taliban...and ignoring the other sources of insecurity bedeviling millions of Afghans, such as illegal armed groups and regional warlords." Adams says NATO should use the Riga summit to take steps to: focus NATO's security operations on protecting Afghan civilians; ensure maximum protection for civilians from the effects of combat operations, [and] aerial assaults; ensure that detainees are treated in accordance with international standards; compensate civilians harmed by ISAF operations; and address insecurity caused by warlords and illegal armed groups throughout the entire country. AT

Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Bahin said foreign troops will remain in his country for as long as they are needed, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported on November 28. Bahin was reacting to recent remarks by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who suggested that Afghanistan and other Iranian neighbors should be assisted in their efforts to remove foreign forces from their soil. Bahin said that foreign forces stationed in Afghanistan are not occupiers, but are there based on a UN Security Council resolution. Bahin reiterated Kabul's long-standing official position that Afghanistan will never become a base for military action against any other country, including Iran. AT

In a press release dated November 28, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders condemned "Taliban reprisals against the press in North Waziristan" in response to an "inaccurate report" carried by some Pakistani and international media. Pakistani Taliban earlier the same day stormed the office of Haji Pazir, a journalist working in Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan, kidnapping his son and interrogating him in an attempt to determine who was responsible for a misleading report about the death of several militants in the area. Pazir's son was later released. AT

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pledged his country's assistance in Iraq to visiting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani at a meeting on November 28 that was also attended by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Iranian state radio reported. "If the Iraqi government calls for our help, Iran will spare no efforts in helping Iraq restore its stability and security," Khamenei said. He added that U.S. policies, which he described as being executed by its intermediaries, are behind insecurity in Iraq. Khamenei also dismissed suggestions of a Shi'a-Sunni conflict. Khamenei said Washington has bitten off more than it can chew in Iraq. The key to resolving insecurity, Khamenei continued, is the occupiers' departure. BS

Gregory Schulte, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the audience at a November 27 event sponsored by the Austrian Institute for International Affairs that Iran could build a nuclear bomb by 2010, AP reported. "Our assessment...the assessment from our intelligence community, is that the soonest they could produce a nuclear weapon would be the beginning of next decade, 2010 to 2015," he said. BS

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said in Paris on November 28 that France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have transmitted a draft UN resolution regarding Iran to China, Russia, and the United States, AFP reported. The draft reportedly outlines sanctions against Iran for its nuclear activities. "The general rationale of the text remains the same, that is, to target Iran's nuclear and missile programs as well as the institutions running them and the individuals in charge of them," Mattei explained. In Tehran the same day, Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, who is Supreme Leader Khamenei's representative to the Supreme National Security Council and who was the council's secretary for 16 years, said that referring the Iranian nuclear case to the UN Security Council was a mistake, and furthermore, "has no logical or legal basis," ISNA reported. Rohani said the IAEA is the proper entity to deal with the issue. BS

Justice Minister Jamal Karimi-Rad said on November 28 that a lawsuit relating to the crash of an Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) aircraft in which almost 40 people were killed the previous day will be filed soon, IRNA reported. Filing a lawsuit, he explained, is necessary for an investigation to take place. Mohammad-Kazem Bahrami, head of the armed-forces judicial organization, said on November 28 that there will be no ruling on whether the crash was the result of criminal activity until a technical report is ready, IRNA reported. Bahrami called for patience while the matter is being investigated. Meanwhile, four members of parliament issued a written notice to the minister of defense and armed-forces logistics and to the minister of roads and transport on November 28 reminding them that they must investigate the previous day's airplane crash, IRNA reported. Legislators Mohammad-Reza Mir-Tajedini, Eshrat Shayeq, Reza Talai-Nik, and Jalal Yahya-Zadeh also advised Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad Najjar and Transport Minister Mohammad Rahmati that they are obliged to keep the public informed about the case. Alaedin Borujerdi, the head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said on November 28 that his committee will investigate the crash thoroughly, IRNA reported. BS

A high-ranking member of the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hizballah told Al-Jazeera satellite television on November 28 that accusations by U.S. officials that the group provided training to Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army are baseless. "We are accustomed to the U.S. accusations," Hizballah's director of media relations, Husayn Rahal, said. "It seems that the disastrous situation of the U.S. Army in Iraq has forced them [the Americans] to blame others for their own problems." On November 28, "The New York Times" quoted a senior U.S. intelligence official as saying that Hizballah trained 1,000-2,000 fighters of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army and other Iraqi Shi'ite militias in Lebanon. In addition, the unnamed official said that a small cadre of Hizballah fighters also visited Iraq to help with training. U.S. officials have long believed that Iran provides arms and training to Iraqi Shi'ite militias. SS

A secret U.S. Marine Corps intelligence report circulated in August said that the United States has been unable to crush the insurgency in Iraq's western Al-Anbar Governorate or to counter the rising popularity of Al-Qaeda in the area, "The Washington Post" reported on November 28. The five-page report written by Colonel Peter Devlin, a senior military intelligence officer with the Marine Expeditionary Force in Al-Anbar, said, "the social and political situation has deteriorated to a point" that U.S. and Iraqi forces "are no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency in Al-Anbar." The report goes on to say that the Sunni Arab population in the governorate has become increasingly dependent upon Al-Qaeda to counter the growing fear of massacres perpetrated by Iranian-supported Iraqi Shi'ite militias. "From the Sunni perspective, their greatest fears have been realized: Iran controls Baghdad and Al-Anbaris have been marginalized," the report added. SS

The Iraqi parliament voted unanimously on November 28 to extend the country's state of emergency for an additional 30 days, international media reported. The emergency laws allow the government to impose nighttime curfews and give Iraqi security services extra powers to make arrests without warrants and launch police and military operations. However, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi said he wants to see an end to what he believes are "double standards" in the emergency laws with respect to human rights. "I will not agree to a state of emergency next time if the situation stays as it is," he said. The laws, in place everywhere except for the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, have been renewed every month since they were first authorized in November 2004. SS

Two Kurdish villagers testifying at the November 27 session of the Anfal trial described to the court in testimony carried on state-run Al-Iraqiyah television how they witnessed mass killings and the torture of Kurds in 1988. One witness, Taymur Abdallah Ahmad, who now lives in the United States, described how Iraqi forces rounded up residents from the village of Kulajuh, who were then taken into the desert, lined up in front of a trench, and shot. He added that he felt the soldiers were forced to do so, noting that he saw that many had tears in their eyes as they were firing. Ahmad said he only managed to survive after falling into the pit and playing dead. Another witness, Yunis Haji, said he was tortured for three days by Iraqi soldiers. "We were made to walk barefoot on broken glass. We were tied on a table and they used to drop cold water, drop by drop on our forehead," he said. During the November 28 session, an American forensic expert gave testimony about his investigation into a mass grave of Kurds discovered near the village of Kormiya, and showed a slide presentation of 27 bodies his team exhumed from two graves outside the village. SS

Kirkuk Governor Abd al-Rahman Mustafa escaped an assassination attempt on November 28 when a suicide bomber blew himself up next to his convoy, killing a bystander and wounding 12 people, Reuters reported the same day. Al-Sharqiyah television quoted local Iraqi police sources as saying that the perpetrator was wearing an explosive vest and detonated it as he ran toward the governor's motorcade. This was the third attempt on Mustafa's life and he later insisted that it will "not stop me [from] doing my job." SS