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Newsline - January 16, 2007

President Vladimir Putin said on Russian television on January 15 that his country will continue to support Belarus's economy, but at a "significantly reduced" level following the conclusion of their recent tit-for-tat energy dispute, according to (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 9, 10, and 11, 2007, and Part II). Putin stressed that he "would like to point out that the main result of these negotiations is the transition to market relations with our Belarusian partners, first of all, in the energy sector." Putin argued that the deal amounts to a $5.8 billion subsidy by Moscow to Minsk and "is a payment by Russia for a calm and smooth...method of transition to a market relationship." He added that "it is fraternal support for the Belarusian people" and is equivalent to 41 percent of the Belarusian state budget for 2007. Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref said on January 13 that "the dispute has definitely damaged our reputation as a reliable supplier" of energy to Europe, Russian news agencies reported. Gref repeated the position taken by several other top Russian officials in recent days that Moscow must look for alternative means of shipping oil to Europe, rather than continue to rely on the pipeline routes across "transit countries." The weekly "Itogi" noted on January 15 that the dispute was not about oil but about politics. The weekly added that, in the future, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will have to make further concessions to his larger and stronger partner and cease insisting on Belarus being treated as Russia's equal "as if Russia were merging into Belarus, rather than tiny Belarus, with a population no greater than Moscow's, were merging into a union with Russia." PM

On January 12, Russian and Chinese diplomats both vetoed a U.S. resolution in the UN Security Council criticizing Myanmar (Burma) for human rights abuses, international media reported. The daily "Vremya novostei" commented on January 15 that "for the first time in 35 years, Moscow and Beijing have acted together to prevent the UN Security Council from passing a resolution." In 1972, the two countries jointly vetoed a resolution on the Middle East. The last time Russia cast a veto was in 2004 against a U.S.-U.K. resolution on Cyprus, the daily added. PM

Russian Middle East expert and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov said on January 14 that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was executed hurriedly recently in order to prevent him from revealing in any final declaration just before his hanging what he knew about U.S. involvement with his regime over the years, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2007). Primakov, who knew Hussein personally, believes that the former dictator did not expect the Americans to ever carry out a death sentence against him and hence did not make his knowledge public earlier. PM

Admiral Eduard Baltin, who is a former commander of the Black Sea Fleet, was quoted by on January 15 as saying that "the presence of U.S. nuclear submarines in the Persian Gulf region means that the Pentagon has not abandoned plans for surprise strikes against nuclear targets in Iran." He noted that there are "up to four" U.S. submarines in the Persian Gulf area at present. On January 12, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin criticized the recent raid by U.S. forces on an Iranian office that had applied for consular status in Irbil, Iraq, in which five people were arrested, reported (see Part III, "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 2007). Kamynin charged that "it is absolutely unacceptable for soldiers to storm a foreign country's consular institution on the territory of a different country." PM

Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted by Britain's "The Guardian" on January 13 as saying that she does not agree with her Social Democratic predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, that President Putin is "an impeccable democrat." Merkel noted: "I have not said that yet and I am not going to say it now. With Russia, I use the words strategic partnership" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3 and 9, 2007). On January 14, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is a former aide of Schroeder's, told a conference in Brussels that Russia lacks firm democratic traditions, which makes it difficult for the EU to develop close relations with it, Deutsche Welle reported. He added that one cannot call Russia an "impeccable democracy." Germany took over the rotating EU Presidency on January 1. On January 15, Schroeder and Igor Shuvalov, who is a top Kremlin aide and was Putin's chief planner for the July 2006 Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries' summit in St. Petersburg, sought at a conference in Berlin to rally support for a Russo-German partnership, RIA Novosti, which was one of the conference's sponsors, reported. On January 16, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" noted that Chancellor Merkel's government maintains a "critical distance" to Putin. Deutsche Welle reported on January 14 that following the recent energy dispute between Moscow and Minsk, there is almost complete unanimity in the German media that the time has come for the EU to reduce its dependence on Russian energy supplies because of Moscow's apparent willingness to use energy as a political tool. PM

Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika said on January 16 that British investigators probing the death of former Russian intelligence officer Aleksandr Litvinenko have asked to return to Moscow, news agencies reported. British detectives traveled to Moscow in December as part of their investigation into the killing of Litvinenko, who died from radioactive poisoning in London in late November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12 and 20, 2006). Russian prosecutors too are conducting an investigation of the case and want to send a team to London. They have also asked the British authorities to investigate the possibility that another member of Britain's Russian community, businessman Yury Golubev, who was a founder of the once-mighty oil major Yukos and whose death was announced recently, may have been murdered (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2007). PM

A decree regulating the numbers of migrant workers in the Russian Federation took effect on January 1 but came into practice only on January 15, when the extended holiday period ended, reported. The laws slap heavy fines on businesses that employ illegal workers and affect primarily the millions of people who come especially from the Caucasus and Central Asia to work in markets and bazaars. The legislation sets a quota for the number of non-Russians working at markets and kiosks at 40 percent of the total number of people employed in such jobs, with the percentage decreasing incrementally to zero between April 1 and December 31. Federal Migration Service Director Konstantin Romodanovsky was quoted by the state-run daily newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on January 16 as saying that the new laws amount to "the first steps toward a civilized migration [policy]." Some labor migrants told RFE/RL that the legislation clarifies and streamlines matters for them. They added, however, that it also tightens rules and leaves migrants vulnerable to pressure by the police. Disturbances in Kondopoga and elsewhere in 2006 appeared at least in part to be driven by resentment by ethnic Russians over the highly visible role of migrants at markets. The daily "Novye izvestia" reported on January 16 that the new laws could lead in practice to a sharp rise in prices at markets. On January 15, President Putin told the cabinet that a separate plan that came into effect on January 1, namely to help "repatriate" in the coming years 300,000 ethnic Russians now living abroad, is coming along well, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27, July 3 and 24, and October 25, 2006). PM

Police in St. Petersburg said on January 16 that Ivan Yelin, who is an antiracism activist, was repeatedly stabbed recently and is being hospitalized in serious condition, reported. The 21-year-old is a member of the Antifa movement, which has protested against the rise in racially motivated attacks in Russia's former imperial capital. PM

A judge at Moscow's Basmany Raion Court ruled on January 15 in favor of a request by the Prosecutor-General's Office for the formal arrest of banker Aleksei Frenkel in connection with the September murder of Central Bank official Andrei Kozlov, who led efforts against money laundering, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 2007). Frenkel, who has been in police detention since January 11, told reporters that he will appeal the judge's decision. PM

French investigators on January 12 released without charges Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, whom police in Lyon took into custody on January 9 in connection with an investigation into a suspected international prostitution racket, and reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 2007). PM

The amnesty adopted by the Russian State Duma in September following Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev's July appeal to militants in the North Caucasus to surrender their weapons expired on January 15, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17 and September 22, 2006). A spokesman for the pro-Moscow Chechen Interior Ministry told on January 15 that over 450 former Chechen resistance fighters have taken advantage of the amnesty. quoted pro-Moscow government spokesman Lema Gudayev as saying 30 militants have surrendered since the beginning of this year. But the Chechen resistance website on January 15 dismissed the amnesty as a Kremlin propaganda exercise, denying explicitly Russian claims that the most recent fighters to be amnestied included three relatives of former Chechen acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Forty militants surrendered in Daghestan, reported on January 15, but none at all in the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic. Seven fighters turned themselves in in Kabardino-Balkaria, according to as reposted by LF

Kazbek Botashev died on January 13 in a shoot-out in the village of Mirny with members of a police patrol who sought to check his identity, reported on January 16. Botashev was identified -- on the basis of what evidence remains unclear -- as one of the two men who shot dead Kislovodsk imam Abubekir Kurdjiev at the entrance to his home in September. Two men were arrested days later in connection with that shooting; their identity, current status, and possible connection with Botashev also remain unclear (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 27, and 29, 2006). LF

Former Maykop Technological University rector Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov was inaugurated on January 13 as president of the Republic of Adygeya in a ceremony attended by his fellow North Caucasus presidents; presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak; Aleksandr Tkachev, governor of neighboring Krasnodar Krai; and former Adygeya President Aslan Djarimov, but not by his immediate predecessor, Khazret Sovmen, Russian media reported. In his inauguration speech, Tkhakushinov pledged to focus on reviving the republic's economy. He also made clear his opposition to the proposal, now apparently shelved, to subsume Adygeya into the surrounding Krasnodar Krai, according to "Novye izvestiya" as cited on January 15 by (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 18, 2007). LF

Wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian denied on January 15 in a written statement to RFE/RL's Armenian Service that he established his Prosperous Armenia (BH) party, now one of the largest in the country, after learning that Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian had hired a hit man to assassinate him. Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan earlier on January 15, Artashes Geghamian, chairman of the opposition National Accord Party (MAK), implicated Sarkisian and his brother Aleksandr in the alleged plot, claiming that President Robert Kocharian intervened to thwart their plans, but Tsarukian nonetheless founded BH in a bid to boost his own influence and undercut that of Serzh Sarkisian. A spokesman for the Republican Party of Armenia, of which Serzh Sarkisian is a leading member, rejected Geghamian's allegations on January 15 as "absolutely ridiculous," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) Chairman Stepan Demirchian, who also heads the crumbling Artarutiun opposition alliance, denied on January 15 reports that a new broad-based opposition alliance could take shape soon to participate in the parliamentary elections due in May, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. "We do not rule out the formation of alliances, but at the moment there are no such negotiations," Demirchian said. MAK leader Geghamian and former Prime Minister and opposition Hanrapetutiun party leader Aram Sargsian implied separately last week that such talks on creating a new election bloc are under way (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 12, 2007). Demirchian explained that the HZhK is only discussing with other parties ways to preclude election fraud. At the same time, he expressed support for the idea of opposition parties agreeing to field a single joint candidate in each of the 41 single-mandate constituencies. LF

Armenia's Court of Appeals upheld on January 12 the guilty verdict handed down in September to opposition "Zhamanak Yerevan" editor Arman Babadjanian, but reduced by six months his four-year prison term, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Babadjanian was found guilty of obtaining forged documents in a bid to avoid compulsory military service in 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2006). One of Babadjanian's lawyers told RFE/RL that they will now take the case to the Court of Cassation, the Constitutional Court, and if necessary also the European Court of Human Rights. LF

The Azadliq opposition bloc, which comprises the progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (ADP), the Citizen and Development party headed by Ali Aliyev, and Lala-Shovket Gadjieva's National Unity movement, has rejected an invitation by the Musavat party to convene a joint protest demonstration in Baku against the recently announced steep increases in the price of gasoline and electricity, reported on January 12, quoting senior Musavat member Sulhaddin Akper (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 10, and 11, 2007). Azadliq and Musavat's Chairman Isa Qambar both vowed on January 9 to stage "mass protests." Azadliq will do so on January 26, although two senior ADP functionaries have publicly questioned the point of doing so, according to on January 16; Musavat will convene a protest on January 28. The small Umid party headed by Iqbal Agazade postponed a demonstration planned for January 13 following the publication of media reports implying that President Ilham Aliyev has expressed disapproval of the price hikes, and raising the possibility that they may therefore be repealed, reported. LF

Senior Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Turkish officials initialed a further protocol in Tbilisi on January 13 on construction of the planned railway linking the eastern Turkish city of Kars with Baku via Akhalkalaki and Tbilisi, Georgian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006). The U.S. Congress has condemned those plans and forbidden U.S. banks to provide funding for the project because the railway will bypass Armenia, contributing further to that country's isolation. The Armenian authorities argue that the new railway is unnecessary, and that the existing link between Kars and the northern Armenian town of Giumri should be renovated instead. ITAR-TASS on January 12 quoted Azerbaijan's Transport Minister Zia Mamedov as saying Baku will allocate $200 million towards the estimated $422 million cost of the Kars-Akhalkalaki-Baku link and Turkey the remaining $222 million. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili predicted in early December that construction will begin in 2007, Caucasus Press reported. LF

The Poti City Court on January 13 remanded the captains of one Russian and one Ukrainian fishing boat intercepted three days earlier off the coast of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia to two months' pretrial detention, refusing an offer by the captain of the Russian vessel to pay 10,000 laris ($5,800) in bail, RIA Novosti and Civil Georgia reported. The two crews face charges of violating Georgia's state borders and illegal fishing. The remaining eight Russian and 10 Ukrainian crew members were released on bail of $1,100 each. Prior to the January 13 court hearing, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said he hoped the Georgian authorities would "show restraint" and release both the Russian crew and captain, RIA Novosti reported. LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev has appointed Berik Imashev secretary of Kazakhstan's Security Council, Interfax reported on January 12. The presidential press service rebuked news outlets for erroneously reporting that Kanat Saudabaev, the country's ambassador to the United States, had been appointed to the post (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 2007). Imashev, who previously served as deputy presidential chief of staff, replaces Marat Tazhin, who was recently appointed foreign minister. DK

Kyrgyzstan's gross domestic product (GDP) grew 2.7 percent in 2006 to 113.2 billion soms ($2.97 billion), news agency reported on January 15, citing data from the Ministry of Economy and Finance. Not taking into account enterprises linked to the Kumtor gold mine, however, GDP declined 5.1 percent to 107.8 billion soms. Inflation in 2006 was 5.6 percent. Imports totaled $1.686 billion and exports $719 million. Kyrgyzstan had a negative trade balance of $966.1 million. DK

Renegade members of the political party Ar-Namys (Dignity), the power base of Kyrgyzstan's caretaker prime minister, Feliks Kulov, say they have set up a new political party, and news agency reported on January 15. Member Janybek Ismailbekov said the new party, called Beren, advocates a parliamentary form of government and supports the dissolution of the present legislature. He said that Beren, which was officially registered on December 30, has no single leader but is led by several co-chairs. Ar-Namys representatives asserted that Beren's founders split because Kulov failed to secure them government jobs, reported. Kulov and his government resigned on December 19, triggering a new political crisis in Kyrgyzstan. President Kurmanbek Bakiev has not yet nominated a successor to Kulov. DK

On January 15, President Bakiev signed into law Kyrgyzstan's new constitution in the version passed by the country's parliament in late December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2007), reported. Opposition lawmaker Azimbek Beknazarov suggested that the constitution Bakiev signed was a "fake" that contained more amendments than had been originally intended, news agency reported. The new constitution gives the president the authority to nominate a new prime minister. Member of parliament Alisher Sabirov said on January 15 that Bakiev is likely to nominate acting Prime Minister Kulov (see item above) on January 18 or 19. DK

Twenty-one Kyrgyz citizens were killed in a bus crash in Saudi Arabia on January 12, reported on January 15. Another 23 people were injured in the accident; the report did not say how many of those injured were Kyrgyz citizens. Prince Faisal bin Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz, head of the Saudi Red Crescent, ordered a concerted effort to aid the victims, who were making the pilgrimage to Mecca, official Saudi news agency SPA reported. DK

Visiting Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a friendship and cooperation treaty in Beijing on January 15, Xinhua reported. Rashid Alimov, Tajikistan's ambassador to China, commented, "The treaty creates additional favorable conditions for wide-ranging, mutually beneficial cooperation based on the confluence and closeness of our nations' strategic interests," "Vglyad" reported. Rakhmonov arrived in China on January 15 for a seven-day visit. DK

Tajikistan's Supreme Court has banned 10 organizations as extremist on the basis of a suit filed by the Prosecutor-General's Office, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on January 15. Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov told a news conference in Dushanbe on January 15 that the list includes the Islamic Party of Turkestan, Harakati Tablighot, Jamiyati Tablighot, Al-Qaeda, Sozmoni Tabligh, and Tojikistoni Ozod (Free Tajikistan), Asia Plus-Blitz and RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Bobokhonov described Tojikistoni Ozod as an organization set up by "antigovernment forces" in Uzbekistan in 1998. Asia Plus-Blitz noted that Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Bayat have been banned in Tajikistan since 2000. DK

Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov led a cabinet meeting on January 12 to discuss the reform of Turkmenistan's agricultural sector, reported on January 14. A number of regional governors spoke at the meeting, reporting delays in the sowing of winter wheat and a slow start to plowing in preparation for the planting of cotton. Berdymukhammedov, who is favored to win the country's February 11 presidential election, has stated that a priority area is reform in the country's agricultural sector, where official and unofficial reports have pointed to serious difficulties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2007 and November 28 and 29, 2006). DK

Belarus on January 14 held local elections, intended to fill 22,500 seats in local governing bodies, Belapan reported. Reuters reported on January 15 that opposition candidates won only a handful of seats. Mikalay Lazavik, the secretary of the Central Election Commission, said on January 15 that during the early voting and on the main election day 79 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. Commission head Lidziya Yarmoshyna said the same day that only 21 seats in Belarus's 1,581 local councils were not filled. Yarmoshyna also said that the commission received a total of 143 official complaints regarding the elections. "All complaints regarding access to polling stations for observers from the opposition were settled before or on polling day.... I can say that the opposition failed to report its observers until the last day of early voting," Yarmoshyna said.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU external relations commissioner, said on January 15 that Belarus's local elections failed to meet democratic standards, Belapan reported. Ferrero-Waldner said that there was "a blatant lack of democratic pluralism" in the elections, adding that, according to opposition leaders, the elections took place under tight official control. "These elections therefore failed to give Belarusian voters a genuine choice," Ferrero-Waldner said. AM

Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on January 14 that Belarus will retaliate if Moscow imposes import duties on Belarusian-made goods, Belapan reported. "If Russia introduces duties on key Belarusian goods, Belarus will impose duties or some other charges on the Russian Federation's key goods," Lukashenka said. "You are well aware of what key goods the Russian Federation delivers to and through Belarus. That's why it seems to me that many [people], both in Russia and our country, have realized that the deterioration of relations between the two countries would be a huge loss in terms of the image and trade and economic relations, let alone politics," he said. He also said he hopes that both sides are "reasonable people" and will draw a lesson from last week's oil row. AM

President Lukashenka denied on January 14 that Minsk was to blame for the "escalation of tension" over disruptions in oil supplies to Europe via Belarus last week, Belapan reported. "We did not push anyone to tighten the screws and turn off the tap. We were performing our functions very properly and that is why the question should not be addressed to us," Lukashenka said, adding that he hopes that the "critical period" in Belarusian-Russian relations is over. Lukashenka also welcomed the oil agreement between Belarus and Russia reached on January 12. Under that agreement, Russia lowered the duty on oil exported to Belarus from $180 to $53 per ton. Lukashenka said that it will allow the two countries to "work in absolute market conditions." AM

President Lukashenka said on January 14 that the imposition by Russia of a duty on crude oil exported to Belarus is tantamount to the "demolition" of a bilateral agreement on the establishment of a customs union, Belapan reported. "There are agreements, our legal framework, that have been signed by the presidents and have become law in our states," he said, adding that "we [Belarus and Russia] have duty-free trade. We do not impose duties on our goods. And the Russian Federation had long been doing so as well. Today they have introduced a duty. They did it because they are acting from the position of strength." Lukashenka recalled that Belarus allowed Russia to build a stretch of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline on the Belarusian territory on preferential terms. "We supported you, lifted all taxes, and lost about $1 billion," he said. AM

President Lukashenka said on January 14 that Belarus will agree to any cooperation with Europe for ensuring its national security regarding oil supplies, Belapan reported. "It doesn't matter to us with whom we cooperate just so that our people can live calmly and no longer encounter such crises," Lukashenka said. During the recent Belarusian-Russian oil row, he continued, the United States and Europe "behaved decently" and "offered us assistance and support if the Belarusian state and people needed that." Lukashenka stressed that Belarus will now have to think about diversifying the import of energy. "This is the most important task that our government is working on now," he added. AM

Viktor Yanukovych has asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to take measures against Borys Tarasyuk, whom parliament has dismissed as foreign minister but whom President Viktor Yushchenko has left in office, Interfax reported on January 15. The Verkhovna Rada passed on December 1 a resolution to fire Tarasyuk, but Yushchenko signed on December 5 the decree bringing Tarasyuk back in office. On January 15, Tarasyuk arrived in the Czech Republic for a two-day visit. The Ukrainian cabinet released a statement the same day saying that "Tarasyuk cannot be considered an official who is authorized by the state to conduct an official visit abroad." AM

The Verkohovna Rada on January 12 overrode with 366 votes the president's veto on the bill on the Ukrainian cabinet, Interfax reported. The bill was backed by the "anticrisis coalition" and the Yuliya Tymoshenko opposition caucus in the parliament. President Yushchenko recently vetoed the bill on the cabinet and put forward 42 amendments, none of which have been approved by the Verkhovna Rada. Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, the leader of the propresidential Our Ukraine caucus, said that the bill on the cabinet was written "at the dictate of the Party of Regions" and gives to Viktor Yanukovych's government an opportunity "to usurp power." Former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko similarly said that the endorsement of the law on the cabinet indicates the final usurpation of power by the government. AM

Ukraine's former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, the leader of the eponymous bloc in the Verkhovna Rada, denied on January 12 the possibility of cooperation with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych or his Party of Regions, Interfax reported. "We cannot have any fundamental, consistent, systemic cooperation with the Party of Regions or with Viktor Yanukovych," Tymoshenko told reporters, commenting on the vote overriding the presidential veto. Tymoshenko said her parliamentary supporters supported the bill on the cabinet in order to break the government deadlock. AM

Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku has urged Albanians in southern Serbia to participate in the January 21 general elections, AP and B92 reported on January 13. Meeting on January 12 with local leaders in Serbia's Presevo Valley near the Kosova border, Ceku urged them to "use all democratic means to improve the situation and implement all the rights that belong to ethnic Albanians" in the region. BW

Vojislav Kostunica told reporters on January 15 that Russian President Vladimir Putin has assured him that Moscow will insist that any solution for Kosova must preserve Serbia's territorial integrity, B92 reported the same day. "President Putin told me in a telephone conversation that, should [UN envoy Martti] Ahtisaari's proposal be unacceptable to Belgrade, such a proposal cannot be supported by the [UN] Security Council either," Kostunica said. "By the same token, the solution must be based on clear and universal principles and must preserve our territorial integrity. Anything else would lead to unnecessary conflicts," he added. Kostunica said he and Putin spoke by telephone on January 15. BW

In an effort to improve Belgrade's relations with the European Union, Serbian leaders met on January 15 with the foreign ministers of Sweden and Slovakia, AP reported the same day. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Slovakia's Jan Kubis met separately with Serbian President Boris Tadic, Prime Minister Kostunica, and Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic to discuss Kosova and EU integration. "We support all steps that will lead to Serbian membership of the European Union," Kubis said after meeting Tadic. He added that Slovakia will offer "unreserved" support for Serbia's bid to join the EU, and he called for "more dynamic" development of economic cooperation. Kubis and Bildt both said they will express their views on Kosova only after Ahtisaari presents his status proposal in late January or early February. BW

Also on January 15, Bildt said the EU will adjust its policy toward Belgrade according to the results of Serbia's general elections, B92 and Beta reported the same day. "Serbian voters should make a choice," Bildt said. "Parties in Serbia are European-oriented to a varied extent. We will see their willingness to carry out reforms, which could bring Serbia nearer to entering the EU, but respect the will of Serbian voters." But Brussels "will adjust [its] policy accordingly" if anti-European parties win the January 21 elections, Bildt said. BW

The War Crimes Chamber of Bosnia-Herzegovina's State Court announced on January 12 it will continue scheduled trials despite a mass hunger strike by defendants, dpa reported the same day. The hunger strike was started on January 8 by 16 defendants who are being tried or are awaiting trial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2007). It has since spread to include 40 imprisoned war crimes suspects, dpa reported. The hunger strikers say they do not want to be tried under Bosnia's 2003 Criminal Code, which provides for a maximum prison term of 40 years. Instead, they said they should be tried under the old Yugoslav code, which provides a maximum 15-year sentence, and which was in force when the alleged offenses took place. The Sarajevo-based court said it has continued with hearings in two war crimes cases despite the defendants' refusal to appear. BW

The Chisinau-based company Accept Insurance announced on January 15 that it will pay $1,000 for each Turkish passenger killed in the crash of a charter airplane in Iraq, dpa and Infotag reported the same day. Twenty-eight Turkish citizens, one U.S. citizen, and five Moldovan crew members died on January 9 when the aircraft, operated by Moldova's Aeriantur Airways, crashed near the Iraqi town of Al-Bakr (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10, 2007). Accept Insurance spokeswoman Kristina Dolgikh said the firm is obliged to compensate next of kin $1,000 per passenger and $10,000 per crew member. Aeriantur Airways will receive $200,000 for the lost aircraft, she said. Accept Insurance, a regional affiliate of the international Donaris Group, is only responsible for a small portion of the flight's insurance coverage. A group of Russian insurance companies are responsible for 72 percent of the flight's coverage. BW

Iran's conservatives regularly maintain that they are united in the broad principles they espouse; just as regularly, reformists argue that there is a persistent division on the right. But the right's electoral defeat in December may have led to the division of the conservatives once and for all.

Iranian conservatives frequently rally around principles that include the "fundamental" values of Iran's polity, its Islamic credentials, and the paramount position of the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This is one of the reasons why they rarely refer to themselves as "conservatives," but rather "fundamentalists" or sometimes "principled" or "value-oriented" (arzesh-gara) politicians -- to highlight their concern for certain principles, not just power.

Reformists contend that there is a persistent division between more radical right-wing forces associated with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his allies, on one hand, and pragmatists or traditionalists associated with senior clerics like Expediency Council Chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, on the other. Signs of that division include the failure to field a joint presidential candidate in 2005, and more recently, the existence of two conservative lists in the December 15 municipal elections.

Reformists say that municipal voting and balloting for the influential Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that oversees the supreme leader's office, marked a repudiation of government radicalism and support for moderation.

Azar Mansuri, a deputy head of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, was quoted by ISNA on January 6 saying that "moderate conservatives clarified their divide with radical conservatives." She added that a "third current" of pragmatic conservatism is taking shape, and said recent elections allowed them to "clarify their frameworks". Mansuri said that when the Ahmadinejad government came to power in 2005, "this divide in the fundamentalist faction became clearer [with] every day." She predicted that the rift would "continue in the future" if some "singular" conduct by radicals persisted -- the latter a presumed reference to presidential tirades and confrontational discourse, as well as a purported bid by radicals to take control of all state institutions.

Mohammad Salamati, the secretary-general of the left-leaning, reformist Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization, said according to ISNA just a few days later that such a "third current" exists and began to take shape around the 2005 presidential election.

Commentators tend to leave references to such a "current" general, rather than identify its personalities or boundaries. But Salamati speculated that the "third current" would have to form its own political party -- thus formalizing divisions within the conservative camp. "Contradictions" in the conservative camp are "essential," he said, "and cannot be resolved easily." Salamati went on to claim that "the faction known as 'fundamentalist' is not united...and [that] there are at least three political groups in that current," with each "going its own way" with its own "material and organizational interests."

Right-wing journalist Masud Dehnamaki warned in statements quoted by ISNA on January 9 that four broad "currents" could emerge if the political right fails to unite. He described them as a reformist front; traditionalist conservatives; what he called a "new fundamentalist current" associated with Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and the secretary of the Expediency Council, Mohsen Rezai; and, finally, supporters of President Ahmadinejad and his government. He predicted that Ahmadinejad supporters would suffer if they moved away from the conservative mainstream.

Conservatives tried a unified approach in their bid to nominate a single presidential candidate in 2005 -- bringing elders together to find a consensual candidate. That effort failed amid a flurry of reports on the existence, nonexistence, or dissolution of various formal and informal councils of "fundamentalist" elders.

The situation could repeat itself as conservatives face the next set of parliamentary elections. Mujtaba Shakeri, a supporter of the Great Coalition of Fundamentalists (Etelaf-i bozorg-i Osulgarayan), which was one of the more successful lists in the recent municipal elections, has suggested that a conservative list for the parliamentary elections be formed around that of his group. Predictably, another prominent conservative, Mariam Behruzi, was quoted by ILNA on January 8 as cautioning that negotiations on that topic would have to include all members of a key coalition of more traditional conservatives: the Front of Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership. Behruzi added that she knows nothing of any "group called Fundamentalist Trustees" (Motamedin-i Osulgara) seemingly trying to unite conservatives.

Mohammad Hashemi, the brother of ex-President Hashemi-Rafsanjani and a member of the centrist Executives of Construction, muddied the waters further. He conceded that there are conservative divisions, but added that such differences are so abundant that political life is now characterized by the proliferation of groups -- reformist and conservative -- that must inevitably form electoral coalitions, ISNA reported on January 8. Hashemi warned that voters are no longer paying attention to factions or groups, but instead are voting for familiar personalities. He said it is unclear whether conservative divisions are "fundamental" or "strategic."

A newly elected member of parliament for Tehran, Hasan Ghafurifard, claimed that several groups -- supporters of Tehran Mayor Qalibaf, the Front of the Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership, and government supporters -- are broadly "convergent" but merely disagree on "specifics," ISNA reported on January 6. Ghafurifard warned against overstating those differences. He went on to argue that phrases like "traditionalist right," "leftist," and "traditionalist" are "Western labels" that are "not in keeping with the realities" of Iranian politics. He said the labels "fundamentalist and reformist" are simply "the...most suitable names these factions have chosen for themselves."

Divisions within the conservative camp may be due to a larger malaise over how conservatives can reconcile their vision of Iran with what Iranian voters want. Reformers sometimes argue that the electorate has changed since the 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency. The effort to attract voter support might have contributed to a conservative split: Some conservatives appear to seek the legitimacy that votes confer, and might regard radicalism and revolutionary rhetoric as deterring voters. Reformers claim that one of their ploys is to hide behind appealing titles that blur their conservative identity -- such as "Developers" in the last parliamentary elections, and more recently the Sweet Scent of Service, the list associated with Ahmadinejad.

Publicly, there is unity -- as stated by Mohammad Nabi Habibi's Islamic Coalition Society, which is a member of the Front of Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership. On January 3, according to ISNA, Habibi denied that younger "fundamentalists" and "the traditionalist right" are divided. He said that "fundamentalism, as the Supreme Leader has explained in this respect, has specific definitions," and went on to claim that he does not know a single "person or formation that wishes to act outside that framework."

The daily "Etemad-i Melli" on January 11 called Habibi's Islamic Coalition the "backbone" of the traditionalist Front of Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership. And the paper noted that the Front of Followers did not support the pro-Ahmadinejad list in December's elections. It speculated that the recent announcement of unspecified changes in tactics by the party might even herald the party moving away from the government.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Afghanistan on January 15 for his first official visit since taking office to discuss the growing threat from the Taliban, Reuters reported the same day. Gates was expected to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, U.S. Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, and British General David Richards, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). At NATO headquarters in Brussels on January 15, Gates met with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to discuss the increased violence in Afghanistan. "Success in Afghanistan is our top priority," Gates said. Gates was expected to discuss ways of responding to the Taliban revival in southern Afghanistan during his Kabul visit. Gates also planned to question U.S. and NATO commanders on whether they have sufficient troops to counter the increased violence in light of U.S. President George W. Bush's recent announcement to send more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq. Eikenberry was quoted on January 16 as saying more troops are required to counter the rise in Taliban attacks, and he warned that militants are using Pakistani territory to organize operations in Afghanistan. JC

U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (Democrat, New York) led a three-member Senate delegation to Afghanistan on January 14 to meet with President Karzai, Reuters reported the same day. According to a presidential press release, Karzai informed Clinton, Senator Evan Bay (Democrat, Indiana), and Senator John McHugh (Republican, New York) of the government's reforms in police and judicial administration, as well as improved efforts to tackle the roots of corruption, Bakhtar News Agency reported. The delegation also visited the eastern Pakstani city of Lahore to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan-U.S. relations, AFP reported. During the meeting, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf reportedly reiterated Pakistan's commitment to fighting terrorism and to ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan. JC

Approximately 250 Afghans are scheduled to join an equal number of their Pakistani counterparts at the first Joint Pakistani-Afghan council, in February, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on January 14. The jirga is intended to address the cross-border issues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006) plaguing both Pakistan and Afghanistan and contributing to increased political tensions. Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Farouq Wardak told Pajhwak that the process of nominating the jirga members is near completion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 2007). The commission asked 11 groups to submit nominees for representatives. Wardak said the council will still be held despite tense relations over Pakistan's recent plan to mine and fence stretches of the border (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2006). JC

Officials in Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold, claimed that 30 Taliban militants were killed in a joint Afghan-NATO operation in the Kajaki district on January 13, Pajhwak Afghan News reported the next day. Nabi Jan Mulahkhel, Helmand's provincial police chief, told Pajhwak that local Taliban commander Haji Hafiz was among the militants killed during the ground and air operation that lasted most of the day. Mulahkhel said one NATO soldier was injured in the attack. Pajhwak said a spokesperson for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) confirmed the operation in the Kajaki and Grishk districts but would not comment on the number of casualties. Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousaf Ahmadi claimed the militant group killed 16 Afghan and NATO soldiers and destroyed three military vehicles in a five-hour battle with the troops. Ahmadi also asserted that only three Taliban fighters were killed and seven wounded in the fight. JC

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a gathering of Shi'ite and Sunni theologians in Tehran on January 15 that they must work to ensure unity between the two branches of Islam, through their "vigilance" and by "guiding" the people, ISNA reported. Khamenei said Islamic unity will ensure that Islamic states "will no longer be forced through fear or weakness to turn to Great Britain or America for help." The Western powers are trying to sow discord among Muslims, he said, and Britain is particularly "skilled" at this. "The intelligence agencies of America and Israel have an essential role in creating insecurity in Iraq by provoking divisions and inciting radical elements, and the most insecure areas in Iraq are those where American forces are present," Khamenei said. He added that Iran's revolution is not a Shi'ite one, as its enemies have claimed, but a religious one that has raised "the flag of Islamic values" and monotheism. Khamenei said "the enemies" are hostile to Iran because its revolution has defended and backed Muslims in Palestine, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and elsewhere, ISNA reported. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad reiterated his universal vision during a speech in Quito, Ecuador, on January 15, near the end of a tour of Latin American states that also took him to Venezuela, IRNA reported. He said Iran's success against the "imperialist system" is a victory for all "independent nations and countries against the excessive demands of arrogant powers." He stated in a meeting with Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage that Iran has put together "preventive measures to nullify the effects of America's illegal sanctions," referring to UN Security Council Resolution 1737, directed at Iran's nuclear program. Lage and Ahmadinejad were in Quito to attend the inauguration of Ecuador's new president, Rafael Correa. Ahmadinejad said the United States is doing all it can to weaken Iraq's government and maintain its dominance in Iraq, although he said Iraq's is "an elected and legal government." Lage expressed Cuban support for Iran's nuclear program, IRNA reported. On January 13, Ahmadinejad signed 11 cooperation documents with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, news agencies reported. The agreements include the creation of a $2 billion fund to invest in unspecified countries supporting Iran's and Venezuela's anti-American positions in international affairs, and the formation of a joint hydrocarbons exploration and production firm by Iran's Petropars and Petroleos de Venezuela, DPA and reported on January and 13 and 15. Ahmadinejad and Chavez agreed on the need for maintaining higher crude oil prices by cutting output from OPEC, the oil-producers' cartel, DPA reported. VS

EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana has told Radio Farda that Iran was not invited to a recent meeting in Madrid on the Middle East peace process because it has never been directly involved in the process. His remarks were published on January 15, following the Madrid Plus 15 conference, which commemorated the 1991 Madrid Conference and took place in Spain's capital on January 12 and 13. Solana said Iran's involvement in the peace process had been through Lebanon's Hizballah or Palestinian Hamas; he added that, judging by the comments of Iranian officials and especially President Ahmadinejad on the peace process in recent months, it seems unlikely that Iranian officials consider Middle Eastern peace a primary concern, Radio Farda reported. Solana said Iran should take a more active and constructive role in the peace process, specifying "constructive" as supporting peacemakers, not playing a damaging role by backing groups opposed to peace. In Tehran on January 15, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Yahya Rahim Safavi said that "America, Britain, and Israel form the axis of mischief against the Islamic world, and even all humanity," ILNA reported. He told the visiting Sudanese defense minister that "we are not worried by the threats from America and [Israel]," and have "the ability to resist" any foreign aggression. VS

The Iraqi government announced on January 15 that it executed Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and Awad al-Bandar, two top officials in the government of former President Saddam Hussein, international media reported the same day. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh stressed that the executions were conducted in a lawful and dignified manner. "Those present signed documents pledging not to violate the rules or otherwise face legal penalties. All the people present abided by the government's rule and there were no violations," he said. Al-Dabbagh's statements were seen as an attempt by the government to avoid the controversy that surrounded Hussein's execution when an unauthorized video showed guards and witnesses taunting the former Iraqi leader moments before he was hanged (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2007). Barzan and al-Bandar were convicted of the killings of 148 Shi'a in the town of Al-Dujayl in 1982. Barzan was Hussein's half-brother and former intelligence chief, and al-Bandar was the chief judge of the Iraqi Revolutionary Court. SS

Soon after the execution of Barzan and al-Bandar on January 15, the Iraqi government admitted that Barzan was decapitated during the hanging, bringing widespread condemnation from the Sunni Arab community, international media reported the same day. The secretary-general of the Sunni-led Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, Khalaf al-Ulayan, called the executions an "inhuman act," and accused the government of mutilating Barzan's body, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on January 15. "Since the creation of the universe, human beings have never witnessed head detachments during executions. This definitely shows that the body was mutilated and major violations were committed against Saddam and others," al-Ulayan said. "If this is true, let them air the execution on television so that the entire world sees what they did, and I do not believe they can do this." Commenting on the decapitation, Iraqi government adviser Basam al-Husayni called it "an act of God", Reuters reported on January 15. SS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on January 13 issued a statement in support of U.S. President George W. Bush's new Iraq strategy. The plan "represents the common vision and mutual understanding between the Iraqi government and the U.S. administration," the statement said. "It is supportive of the Iraqi government's strategy to acquire command and control, as is clear in the Baghdad security plan, which will be commanded by Iraqis with support of multinational forces." It was al-Maliki's first official comments since Bush unveiled his new Iraq strategy on January 10, in which he announced plans to send an additional 21,000 U.S. forces to Iraq in an effort to secure Baghdad. However, al-Maliki's statement did not refer to any of the political benchmarks that Bush said the Iraqi government must meet. On January 11, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a harshly worded statement saying that al-Maliki's government was on "borrowed time" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 2007). SS

President Jalal Talabani arrived in Damascus on January 14 to begin talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which are expected to culminate in the signing of security and economic-cooperation agreements, the London-based "Al-Hayat" reported on January 15. "We return to Syria with hearts full of love for Syria and with appreciation for Your Excellency [al-Assad] and your brothers. We are determined to establish the best kinds of political, commercial, and economic relations with you," Talabani said, Syrian Arab television reported on January 14. "Beloved Syria helped the Iraqis at the darkest of times. We are heavily indebted to it." Talabani's office said the delegation included Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani, Trade Minister Abd al-Falah al-Sudani, Water Resources Minister Abd al-Latif Rashid, and national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i. Talabani's trip to Damascus is the first by an Iraqi president since 1979. Meanwhile, Kurdish lawmaker Mahmud Uthman said Talabani's visit was not a challenge to U.S. President Bush, MENA reported on January 14. During Bush's announcement concerning his new Iraq strategy, he vowed cut off Iranian and Syrian support to "terrorists" in Iraq. SS

A suicide car bombing on January 15, targeting the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Mosul, killed seven and wounded more than 28, international media reported the same day. Ninawa police chief Brigadier Abd al-Karim al-Jaburi said that a suicide car bomber attacked an Iraqi Army patrol parked in front of the KDP offices in the Al-Arabi neighborhood of Mosul. Meanwhile, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced on January 15 that a freelance Iraqi journalist was killed in Mosul on January 12. RSF said that Khidr Yunis al-Ubaydi, who worked as a stringer for the local "Al-Diwan" newspaper, was shot outside his home. The death of al-Ubaydi brings to 141 the number of journalists and media assistants killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. "We have unfortunately reason to fear that in the context of war and complete impunity, Iraq will remain the world's most dangerous country for the press in the months to come," RSF said in a statement. SS

Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i, a member of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, on January 14, accused an Iraqi soldier of killing eight civilians execution-style, dpa reported the same day. During a press conference in Baghdad, al-Samarra'i said an Iraqi Army soldier "executed eight people after blindfolding them in front of bystanders and members of the U.S. military forces." Al-Samarra'i indicated that the incident occurred during the joint Iraqi-U.S. operation last week against insurgents along the Haifa Street area of central Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10, 2007). The Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on January 10 accusing the Iraqi government of using its newly announced security initiative in Baghdad as a cover to massacre Sunni Arabs in the Iraqi capital (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2007). SS