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Newsline - July 16, 2007

On July 14, the Kremlin announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree suspending Russia's participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which will take effect in 150 days, Russian and international media reported. On April 26, Putin announced a "moratorium" on Russian observance of the pact, which limits military deployments in specific regions. He then linked his decision primarily to what he called the failure of unnamed NATO signatories to ratify the document or respect its provisions, as well as to the proposed U.S. missile-defense system and to NATO's eastward enlargement, which took place in 1999 and 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 26, and 27, 2007). Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak said on July 14 that the latest move is connected to NATO's eastward expansion and what he said were violations of the CFE Treaty by the NATO alliance. He added nonetheless that "we are not closing the door to dialogue. We presented proposals to our partners to find a solution. And we are still waiting for a constructive response." The "International Herald Tribune" on July 16 quoted unnamed Western officials as saying that "the dispute is less about specific issues of compliance with the arcane tenets of the treaty. Instead, it is a broader attempt by Putin to reassert Russia's standing in the world, and the image of his own leadership circle ahead of next spring's presidential election." In Moscow, military analyst Aleksandr Golts said on July 15 that Putin's aim is to send a political rather than a military message to the West, news agencies reported. PM

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said in Brussels on July 15 that Russia's decision to suspend the CFE Treaty after 150 days is "disappointing...[and] a step backwards," international media reported. In Washington, the White House said it regrets Russia's decision. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe pointed out that the United States will nonetheless continue to have discussions with Russia on the issue. An unnamed "senior American official" told "The New York Times" of July 16 that "it is unfortunate that the Russians have taken this step [to suspend CFE], especially since we were preparing to engage with them once again [soon]. And we still plan to. We do not take this is as [Moscow's] final word." The paper noted that "the Kremlin's announcement [on July 14]...came just days before American officials were expecting fresh discussions aimed at resolving what the [U.S.] administration describes as narrow differences over the pact." In Vienna on July 15, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called on all signatories to the CFE Treaty to "swiftly and earnestly" examine the underlying causes of Russia's move. In Kyiv, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that Moscow's decision "does not add stability to regional security," RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. In Warsaw, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told Reuters on July 15 that "the CFE is one of the foundations of the situation which was created after the end of the Cold War." In Riga, Latvian Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks said on July 16 that Putin's decision amounts to a power play, RIA Novosti reported. PM

The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly on July 12 to back the proposed U.S. missile-defense system, which means that missile defense enjoys bipartisan support and is now a matter of "national policy," the Russian daily "Kommersant" noted on July 14. President Putin's decree suspending Russia's participation in the CFE Treaty was signed not long afterwards, and shortly before the departure for Washington on July 15 of Polish President Lech Kaczynski to discuss the missile-defense system, which will include 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic, international media reported. Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" commented on July 16 that one of Putin's aims in announcing the suspension of the CFE after an interval of 150 days is to split Western ranks, particularly in respect to missile defense. The daily noted that Ruprecht Polenz of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), who heads the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) for suggesting that the West should compromise with Putin on missile defense. Polenz charged that Putin is using missile defense to split the West and to divert attention from Russia's own failures in observing the CFE pact. PM

The Federal Registration Service announced on July 14 a list of 14 books as well as audio and visual material banned under antiextremism legislation for allegedly propagating nationalism, fascism, or religious or racial hatred, the daily "Kommersant" reported on July 16. Among the banned items are a CD by the Siberian band Order called "Whites' Music," as well as books by Islamic fundamentalists and a Nazi-era anti-Semitic film. The list will be updated every six months. The daily quoted Lev Ponomaryov, head of the For Human Rights movement, as saying that his group has long tried to get the listed works banned. He added, however, that the wording of current extremist legislation is so vague that it leaves the door open to "persecution for political views" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 2007). In Moscow on July 13, members of the Russian Congress of the Peoples of the Caucasus appealed to the Prosecutor-General's Office to take measures against xenophobia in the media and on the Internet, reported. PM

The formal celebrations to mark Ramzan Kadyrov's first 100 days as Chechen Republic head, originally scheduled for July 14, have been postponed until July 21 "for technical reasons," quoted Kadyrov's press spokesman Lyoma Gudayev as announcing on July 13. On July 14, suggested two possible reasons for the postponement: Kadyrov's 12-year-old nephew was seriously injured several days ago when he crashed a stolen car, and one of Kadyrov's close friends was killed during the night of July 6-7 in a shoot-out with resistance fighters in Grozny. In an extensive interview published in "Izvestia" on July 14, Kadyrov singled out as his top priorities preserving peace and stability and rebuilding living accommodation for those whose homes were destroyed during the fighting of the past 12 years. He argued again that the oil extracted in Chechnya should be refined there rather than exported, and that Chechnya should retain a shares of the profits. LF

Some 1,500 people attended a protest meeting in Nalchik on July 14 convened by the unofficial Council of Elders of the Balkar People established one year ago, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 26, 2006). As during a previous protest last fall (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 2, 2006), participants aired their objections to the policies of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic's government, including its failure to amend the republic's laws on administrative-territorial administration to give Balkar-populated districts a greater degree of self-government, and alleged plans to transfer land previously controlled by local councils to republican control, according to council Chairman Ismail Sabanchiyev. They further accused the republic's authorities of discrimination against the Balkars, who account for only some 11-12 percent of the total population. LF

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan, Armenian parliament Chairman Tigran Torosian criticized on July 12 his coalition partners for failing to "respect" the agreement to support the Republican Party (HHK) after the junior partners, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun and the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), failed to fully support a controversial government bill that would have effectively banned RFE/RL broadcasts, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Torosian warned his partners that "we must draw serious conclusions" from the lack of support, adding that the "partnership can not be based on such behavior." The government-backed amendments to the state law on broadcasting failed after the ruling HHK was unable to garner a quorum in the 131-seat parliament for the final, second-reading vote on July 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3, 2007). The speakers' comments follow a meeting the day before between Prime Minister and HHK leader Serzh Sarkisian and Rudolf Perina, the newly appointed U.S. charge d'affaires in Armenia. In that meeting, Sarkisian assured the U.S. diplomat that his government is not intent on restricting or banning RFE/RL's Armenian-language broadcasts, Armenian Public Television reported. RG

Speaking in Baku, Azerbaijani National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council Chairman Nushirevan Magerramli said on July 13 that eight cable television companies in Azerbaijan have accepted the recent increased prices for operating licenses, Turan reported. According to the state body's report, the new price for the six-year cable-television license has been raised to 11,000 manats ($12,941 dollars). The state body also recently imposed new measures to curtail Russian and Turkish television broadcasts in Azerbaijan by stripping the Russian ORT and Turkish Samanyolu television channels of the use of a local frequency to rebroadcast programming in Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 2007). ORT's rebroadcasting contract expired in January and talks on its renewal recently broke down, while the Turkish channel, whose frequency will be offered for tender on July 17, will have to cease broadcasting by September 17. The move against "foreign TV channels" was defended by Magerramli, who added that it would have a positive impact on the development of domestic cable-television networks in Azerbaijan. RG

The Turkish state agency regulating the energy market announced on July 13 that it has endorsed the Azerbaijani State Oil Company (SOCAR) bid to proceed with a joint venture with the Turkish Turcas company to build an oil refinery near the Turkish port of Ceyhan, the Trend news agency reported. Azerbaijan will hold a 51 percent stake in the $4 billion oil refinery project, which is projected to have a processing capacity of some 10 million tons of oil annually. RG

In a statement issued in Baku, the radical Karabakh Liberation Organization (QAT) called on July 13 for the Azerbaijani authorities to withdraw from the "meaningless" peace talks with Armenia aimed at forging a negotiated settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turan reported. The militant group called on the Azerbaijani government to "stop the games of people's diplomacy," and demanded the "start of military actions to liberate Azerbaijan's territories from Armenian occupation." The statement further warned that "if the authorities can not do it, let them resign and do not prevent the coming to power of forces able to liberate Karabakh," closing with a pledge that "a government that is still unable to liberate the occupied territories does not have the moral right to stay in office." The statement follows the recent landmark visit to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh by a delegation of academic and cultural figures led by Azerbaijani Ambassador to Russia Polad Byulbyulogly, which was strongly denounced by QAT leader Akif Nagi as "an insult to the Azerbaijani people" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 29, 2007). RG

David Kezerashvili arrived in Baku on July 12 on an official two-day visit and met with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Safar Abiyev, according to Turan and Caucasus Press. Commenting on the meeting, Abiyev told reporters that the meeting focused on the "strategic nature" of Azerbaijani-Georgian military cooperation and noted the need for greater cooperation. For his part, Kezerashvili said that expanding cooperation in various areas between the Georgian and Azerbaijani Defense ministries will only serve the two countries' common interests. Abiyev also warned that the unresolved Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict threatens regional security, adding that "peace talks can not continue forever" and "Armenia should draw a conclusion from this, observe international legal norms, and withdraw from occupied Azerbaijani territories. Otherwise, Azerbaijan will liberate its lands from aggressors." RG

A final fact-finding report conducted by the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) probing an alleged attack in the Kodori Gorge in the separatist region of Abkhazia was released on July 13, Caucasus Press reported. The 25-page report failed to reach any firm conclusion, stating that it was unable to come to a conclusion due to "tactical inconsistencies" and because of an "extremely difficult operating environment." The probe was conducted by a quadripartite Joint Fact-Finding Group, headed by the UNOMIG, also involving representatives from Russian peacekeepers, as well as the Georgian and Abkhaz sides. The investigation was initiated by the UN in response to Georgian accusations that Russian Army helicopters were involved in a March 11 incident involving air strikes on positions in the Tbilisi-controlled upper Kodori Gorge that caused no injuries but damaged a local administrative building (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12 and 13, 2007). Although the report noted that the need for a consensus "made it difficult to agree on several matters, especially in those areas where there was no hard evidence," it did find that an antitank guided missile damaged the administrative building in the village of Chkhalta. The report further lessened the possibility that the attack was launched from the ground, finding that "the missile appears to have entered the building from a relatively high angle (likely precluding the use of an actual armored vehicle) and was seemingly very accurate (hitting an office space window in the administrative building)," adding that "it would be technically very difficult to accurately fire" a missile "from an improvised ground platform," a point confirmed by the Russian expert who stated that the missile "cannot be fired from a ground or improvised platform." The document also reported that both the Abkhaz and Russian sides alleged during the investigation that a Georgian helicopter, which crashed overnight on March 12 in central Georgia, could have been involved in the attack. Two Georgian MI-24 helicopters, in Tbilisi for repair, were ordered to fly back to Senaki base in western Georgia after the attack on Kodori Gorge but reportedly faced bad weather and poor visibility immediately after take-off, forcing the pilots to turn back. One of the helicopters actually crashed, due to pilot error, according to official Georgian accounts. RG

In an official statement released by the Georgian Economy Ministry in Tbilisi, Georgia announced on July 13 that it plans to lease its Black Sea port of Poti and 400 hectares of adjacent land as part of a new "free economic zone," Caucasus Press reported. The plan, which follows recent parliamentary approval of the free economic zone, offers a 49-year lease for the port in an international tender that is to close on September 14. The announcement follows the visit to Poti in February by a group of executives from the United Arab Emirates company Dubai World that conducted a preliminary feasibility study of the port. The same Dubai-based group has also announced plans to invest about $1.5 billion in various real-estate projects in the country. RG

Speaking in a televised interview, Dmitry Sanakoyev, the head of the provisional Tbilisi-backed administration in South Ossetia, announced on July 13 that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has issued a decree to form a commission tasked with "defining the status" of South Ossetia as an autonomous territorial unit within a united Georgia, Rustavi-2 television reported. According to Petre Mamradze, the head of the Georgian government staff, the new commission, which is to be headed by Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, will be inclusive in nature, with representatives invited from both the Sanakoyev administration and the de facto South Ossetian leadership. In April, the Georgian parliament approved the creation of the provisional pro-Georgian government led by Sanakoyev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2007), whom the minority Georgian population of the region elected in November 2006 as an alternative leader to South Ossetia's de facto president, Eduard Kokoity. That move was seen as an attempt to create an alternative leadership with which Tbilisi could then seek to negotiate a settlement of the South Ossetia conflict on its own terms, obviating the republic's Moscow-backed leadership (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 30, 2007). RG

Georgian police released on July 13 two Russian journalists arrested the day before along the South Ossetian border with Georgia proper, Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported. Journalist Andrei Chistiakov and cameraman Igor Sturit, both from RTR's "Vesti" news program, were turned over to the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi. Although there have been some similar cases involving the arrest of Russian citizens by Georgian police for "illegally crossing the Georgian border," most Russian citizens traveling to South Ossetia pass through the Roki Tunnel, which links the region with Russia's North Ossetia, thereby bypassing Georgian border posts. RG

Participants in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project have announced that they will consider Kazakhstan's application to join the $10 billion undertaking to construct a fusion power reactor in France, RIA Novosti reported on July 12. Following a meeting of the body in Tokyo, the head of the Russian Federal Agency for Science and Innovation, Sergei Mazurenko, added that the decision on the Kazakh application for full membership in the group will be announced at the next meeting of the council in late November, according to AKIpress. The project, which seeks to build a thermonuclear reactor in Cadarache near Marseilles in southern France by 2016, is designed to demonstrate the scientific and technological potential of nuclear fusion, amid mounting concern over energy security and the impact of fossil fuels on the environment. According to a November 2006 agreement, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States have each pledged to contribute 10 percent of the project's costs, while the EU has committed to covering some 40 percent of the costs, Asia-Plus reported. RG

Mukhtar Dzhakishev, the head of Kazatomprom, Kazakhstan's state nuclear-fuel company, announced on July 12 that Russia and Kazakhstan have agreed to spend up to $3 billion to set up an enrichment facility in Siberia to produce nuclear fuel, according to AKIpress. Dzhakishev said the facility, which is scheduled to start producing nuclear fuel in 2011, will be built alongside a planned UN-backed enrichment center. He also added that by 2013, the Russian-Kazakh center will be able to produce 5 million separative work units (SWUs) of fuel a year, equal to about 10 percent of the current global capacity. Kazakhstan, currently the biggest uranium supplier in the former Soviet Union, plans to overtake Canada and Australia in 2010 to become the world's biggest producer of uranium. Kazatomprom has also recently confirmed that it is currently engaged in negotiations with Japan's Toshiba Corporation on the purchase of a 10 percent stake in U.S. nuclear-reactor manufacturer Westinghouse, as part of a broader bilateral agreement on uranium-processing technology and trade cooperation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2 and July 10, 2007). RG

In an announcement in Astana on July 13, Kuandyk Turgankulov, the chairman of the Kazakh Central Election Commission, said the candidates from the party lists of seven political parties have been officially registered for next month's parliamentary election, AKIpress and Kazakh television reported. The approved candidates include all but one candidate from the 127-person party list submitted by the ruling Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland) party, and 114 and 80 candidates from the opposition Ak Zhol (Bright Path) and Social Democratic parties, respectively. Another 40 candidates were approved from the party list of the Auyl (Village) party, 22 from the People's Communist Party, 13 from the Party of Patriots, and another 11 from the pro-government Rukhaniyat party. The smaller Communist Party of Kazakhstan, led by Serikbolsyn Abdildin, failed to submit a party list of candidates and was not expected to surpass the 7 percent minimum required to gain seats in the lower house of parliament. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev recently pledged to "personally guarantee" that the election will be free and fair (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 2007). Nazarbaev recently dissolved the Mazhilis, the lower chamber of parliament, and set new elections for August 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2007). According to the recently amended constitution, the Mazhilis will have 107 deputies, with 98 seats elected from party lists and nine by a vote of the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan. RG

During a special enlarged cabinet meeting in Ashgabat on July 13, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov announced the dismissal of several ministers and officials, including Turkmen Supreme Court Chairman Yagsygeldi Esenov and Oil and Gas Minister Gurbanmurat Ataev, Turkmen television and Interfax reported. Esenov was dismissed as Supreme Court chairman for "failing to properly perform his duties and for numerous violations," and was replaced by Ashgabat Judge Chary Khodzhamyradov. Ataev was removed "in connection with his appointment to another job," and was replaced by Maimurat Khojamuhammedov for a six-month probationary term. Ataev, a former long-serving deputy minister before his appointment to the full cabinet post by the late President Saparmurat Niyazov in December 2005, is also a deputy prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2006). Further changes included the appointment of Maysa Yazmuhammedova as the new deputy prime minister in charge of culture, media, and health-care issues, and the replacement of Textile Industry Minister Yklymberdy Paromov with Jemal Goklenova, who held the same post before being fired by Niyazov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2002). Yazmuhammedova, a former deputy governor of the Ahal region, served as the head of the country's largest trade union prior to the appointment. RG

After reshuffling his personnel, President Berdymukhammedov also announced during the July 13 cabinet meeting the abolition of all domestic travel restrictions, according to Turkmen television and Interfax. The change means that Turkmen can now travel freely within the country, including to the border regions. An economic summary of the first half of the year presented to the meeting also reported gross domestic product growth of more than 20 percent, a 40 percent increase in foreign trade, and a 12 percent increase in capital investment. In a report on his upcoming July 17-18 visit to China, Berdymukhammedov said that the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation has agreed to sign a new deal to develop a gas field in Turkmenistan. RG

Belarusian Television reported on July 15 that the State Security Committee (KGB) has charged four Belarusian citizens and one Russian with spying for Poland. "It was the first time that a spy ring consisting of five agents -- four citizens of the Republic of Belarus and one citizen of the Russian Federation, now former servicemen -- has been detected and fully unmasked," KGB Deputy Chairman Viktar Vyahera told journalists. "The crime of spying has been fully proven and I want to particularly underscore that timely counterintelligence action has foiled an attempt to damage the defense capabilities of the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation," Vyahera added. According to Vyahera, the five gathered information about the unified air-defense system of Belarus and Russia. The Belarusians accused of spying were identified as Uladzimir Ruskin, Viktar Bohdan, Karnelyuk, and Pyatkevich, while the Russian was identified as Yurenya. JM

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told journalists in Ashgabat on July 14 that Russia's recent suspension of its participation in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty "is not conducive to regional security and is not the best decision Russia could have made," Interfax-Ukraine reported. Yatsenyuk was visiting Ashgabat before returning to Kyiv after a trip to Kabul. Answering a question about the potential threat to Ukraine from Russia's suspension of the treaty, Yatsenyuk said Russia could "in theory" move its armed forces closer to the Russian-Ukrainian border. "But we hope Russia will not do that," Yatsenyuk added. JM

Ukraine's State Statistics Committee on July 13 reported that the country's population fell by some 27,000 people in May to 46.5 million. Of the total population, 31.7 million live in urban areas and 14.8 million in the countryside, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Ukraine's population stood at 52.2 million in 1992. JM

The United States and European members of the UN Security Council on July 13 presented a fourth draft resolution intended to lead to a decision on Kosova's status, international and local media reported. Serbia immediately rejected the proposal, insisting on a resumption of open-ended bilateral talks with Prishtina, local and international media reported on July 13. "The creation of another Albanian state in the region would endanger peace and stability in the Balkans," Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in a statement. The same day, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic met with NATO's secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who visited Belgrade for talks focused on Kosova. De Hoop Scheffer repeated a view shared by most Western powers that the status quo in Kosova is "untenable" and that a resolution based on the plan drafted by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari is "probably the last chance" for a controlled political solution in Kosova. De Hoop Scheffer urged all sides to show "flexibility and restraint so we don't go from controlled to an uncontrolled" situation in Kosova. AG

Even before the UN Security Council resolution was completed, Russia had rejected the draft resolution on the grounds that it was too similar to previous proposals and failed to reflect the concerns of Moscow and Belgrade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 2007). The key change was a decision to drop a clause stating that failure to reach an agreement in fresh bilateral talks would trigger a UN Security Council vote in favor of supervised independence for Kosova. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on July 13 that "if one side...cannot accept these proposals, it's necessary to continue negotiations," news agencies reported. He added that "it's probably necessary to have an impartial international mediator foster these negotiations," reiterating Russia's view that the author of the UN proposal on which the draft resolutions are based, Martti Ahtisaari, should no longer serve as the UN's envoy in the region, and repeating its implication that Ahtisaari is biased. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov on July 13 told the Russian news agency Interfax that "without changes on aspects of fundamental importance to us...we see no need to participate in cosmetic editing," a statement that raises the possibility that Russia may not even attend the debate on the resolution, which is scheduled for July 16. AG

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, on July 13 urged Russia to back the resolution, suggesting, according to AP, that the Security Council would be left without a role in deciding Kosova's future if it failed to adopt a resolution, and hinting that the ethnic-Albanian majority might then declare independence. "The ball is in Russia's court," Khalilzad said in what AP described as a conference call with several reporters. This is the latest in a series of remarks seemingly aimed at attempting to break Russia's lock on finding a solution. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on July 6 told Serbia that "the future of Serbia is not with Russia or the United States but with the European Union, to be blunt." A few days earlier, a spokeswoman for the EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, said that "the EU will make the decision [on Kosova's future] if necessary" because "the future of the Balkans depends on Europe and not on Russia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 2007). On July 12, UN Kosova envoy Ahtisaari said that Russia's opposition to statehood for Kosova may damage Russia's interests more than it advances them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 2007). A leading member of the Kosovar Albanian team negotiating on the Serbian province's future, Veton Surroi, in an interview with AP on July 13 urged the EU not to bend to Russian pressure, saying that Russia "cannot veto Europe's unification." He rejected the notion of additional talks, saying the result would either "make Kosova dysfunctional or lead it toward partition." Like other Kosovar leaders, he hinted that Kosova could take matters into its own hands, stating that "it's not as if we will sit by and wait until the West delivers" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12 and 13, 2007). "We have delivered on our obligations. We are now waiting for the West to fulfill its obligations," Surroi said. AG

A police patrol in northwestern Kosova came under fire on July 14 when they went to investigate reports by villagers that a group of uniformed armed men was in the area, local media reported. No one was injured, and none of the gunmen were captured, leaving doubts about the identity of the armed group. According to Reuters, villagers said the men were wearing blue camouflage uniforms typically worn by the Serbian police. The incident occurred close to Mitrovica, an ethnically divided town that has been a flashpoint for ethnic tensions. In recent months, security forces in Kosova and in neighboring Macedonia, the scene of six months of fighting with ethnic-Albanian separatists in 2001, have consistently described the security situation as stable. However, there have been allegations of infiltration by members of Serbian forces, and ethnic-Albanian veterans of separatist struggles in both Kosova and Macedonia last week said they are prepared once again to fight for independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 2007). AG

Two candidates for the Albanian presidency will face off in two final rounds of voting after the latest vote on July 14, but neither appears likely to gain the support needed to become president unless the opposition's leading party, the Socialists, radically changes its position, local media reported. Although the ruling coalition commands 80 votes in parliament, Bamir Topi, the candidate of the ruling coalition's largest party, the Democrats, saw his vote count slump from 75 to 50 after the entry of Neritan Ceka, leader of the Democratic Alliance, an opposition grouping with three seats in parliament. Ceka won the backing of 32 members of parliament, substantially less than the 60 votes that a united opposition would be able to garner. Ceka's relatively low support reflected the decision of most of the 42 parliament members of the Socialists, the largest opposition party, to continue their boycott of the election. Three Socialists again broke ranks to vote for a former Socialist leader, Fatos Nano, who will now be unable to run for election. Under the constitution, if neither Topi nor Ceka secures 84 votes or is elected by July 24, Albania will face early parliamentary elections. The Socialists' leader, Edi Rama, on July 13 reiterated that his party is preparing for that possibility. The Socialists and the Democrats appeared close to a consensus in early July when they agreed that an official instrumental in advancing Albania's bid for NATO membership was a suitable candidate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 2007). However, the deal collapsed after the Democrats demanded the opposition's support for a number of constitutional amendments, particularly relating to the position of the chief prosecutor. A poll published on July 12, reported by the Balkan Insight news service on July 13, indicates that 61 percent of Albanians oppose the prospect of early elections, with only 22 percent in favor. The survey by the Democratic Institute for International Issues and the research company Agenda found that Topi would be the president preferred by 40 percent of Albanians, while 27 percent believe the serving president, Alfred Moisiu, should stay in office for a second term. AG

Albania is the first country "completely and verifiably" to have destroyed its entire stockpile of chemical weapons, international media quoted the UN's Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) as saying on July 13. Albania is one of 182 countries to have signed a 1997 treaty giving signatories 15 years to destroy their stockpiles. Albania had 16,678 kilograms of banned chemical weapons, chiefly mustard gas. OPCW said that, in all, one-third of the world's declared stockpiles of 71,000 metric tons of chemical agents have been destroyed in the decade since the treaty. The signatories are due to destroy the remaining two-thirds by 2012, but the two countries with the largest stockpiles -- the United States and Russia -- are reportedly behind schedule. The United States funded and assisted the destruction of Albania's chemical weapons, which dated from the communist era. AG

The Moldovan parliament on July 13 passed a bill that, if it becomes law, will delay the liberalization of the electricity industry by eight years, to 2015. The vote came almost two weeks after the date, July 1, on which the electricity market was due to be opened up. According to the BASA news agency on July 13, Industry and Infrastructure Minister Vladimir Antosii said the conditions for liberalization are not yet ready. He highlighted an incomplete metering system and a lack of infrastructure connecting Moldova to neighboring countries as key problems. AG

Industry and Infrastructure Minister Antosii on July 12 raised the possibility that Moldova will increase transit charges on electricity produced in Ukraine, BASA reported. As part of a current dispute over the price of electricity supplied by Ukraine to Moldova, Kyiv is insisting on an immediate price hike of about 40 percent, while Moldova is willing to accept an increase phased in over two years. Ukrainian officials have accused Moldova of "stealing" power, a suggestion that Antosii dismissed as "groundless." The imposition of transit fees by Moldova would affect supplies of electricity to the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa that pass through Moldova from a Ukrainian generator to the north. Antosii said that Moldova has never charged transit fees for electricity to Odesa. In the first quarter of 2007, Ukraine met 62 percent of Moldova's power needs, Moldova's energy regulator reported in early May. AG

Once again the Western powers have attempted to find the right formula for compromise on Kosova, and once again Russia has rejected it. On July 12, Russia turned down a third draft resolution on Kosova based on a plan submitted by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari that provides a framework for independent statehood under the supervision of the European Union.

The latest version, taking into account Russian objections to the previous proposals, extends to four months the amount of time allocated for talks between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians on the future status of the province. The proposal, circulated at the UN by French and British delegates, also reportedly contained a condition under which the Ahtisaari plan would no longer automatically go into effect if the two sides failed to reach an agreement.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, addressing journalists on July 12, said the last document differed little from the previous versions aside from its wording. "Behind the rather intricate diplomatic language of the draft resolution, there is a conclusion that after 120 days, whether or not the sides reach an agreement, the Ahtisaari plan will come into effect," he said. "And as you know we can only support a draft resolution that is acceptable to both sides, Pristina and Belgrade. So far we see no such agreement."

Essentially, Lavrov made clear that there is little room for compromise on Russia's part, unless Serbia agrees to independence for Kosova, a development most pundits consider unrealistic.

In Belgrade, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica quickly rejected the new draft proposal, and back in Moscow, Konstantin Kosachyov, the chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said the "situation in Kosovo does not require an immediate solution."

Nevertheless, Lavrov assured journalists, "the problem of a decision on the independence of Kosovo has not been taken off the agenda." Regardless, the latest Russian rejection has already led UN envoy Ahtisaari and Lavrov to engage in a new round of polemics. Speaking in Helsinki, Ahtisaari said Moscow's reluctance to work out a compromise could further harm Russia image abroad. "Rather than strengthening its international position, Russia only weakens it," he said.

Lavrov, however, dismissed Ahtisaari's remark. "If he really said this, I consider his statement to be inappropriate. Maybe such a statement could reduce another country's international status, but not Russia's," Lavrov said on July 13. "If, in the course of considerations, one of the parties cannot accept these proposals [by Ahtisaari], negotiations should continue and they should be assisted by an impartial international mediator."

Lavrov's comments are in keeping with the position Russia has long held on the issue, one that has led it to hint that it might veto the plan if it reaches the UN Security Council.

As recently as July 9, Lavrov said that any solution not agreeable to both Serbia and Kosova "cannot make it through the Security Council." Prior to that, responding to recent comments by U.S. officials, Lavrov said in a June 26 interview with RTR that "statements that that independence for Kosovo is inevitable do not convince us."

Although most pundits agree that Moscow's veto threats are no bluff, they differ in their interpretations of the Kremlin's hard-line stance. When considering Moscow's motivation for its position, most cite Moscow's desire to extract concessions on other issues, to prevent a separatist trend within the Russian Federation, and to defend the inviolability of countries' territorial integrity.

Other analysts believe that Russia seeks to use the possibility of an independent Kosova as leverage against neighboring states that seek closer ties with the West. President Vladimir Putin, for instance, has repeatedly said that an independent Kosova could serve as a precedent for the frozen conflicts in Georgia, whose pro-Moscow regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia seek independence, and in Moldova, whose pro-Moscow Transdniester region also wants statehood.

In reality, however, Moscow is currently less fearful of seeing independence movements sparked within its ethnic republics, such as Chechnya, and does not really want to alter the status of breakaway republics in CIS states either.

If, for example, the independence of Kosova were declared (a development that many consider inevitable) Russia would logically have to keep promises it has already made to the leaders of the breakaway republics and recognize their independent status. But in doing so, for example, regarding Abkhazia, Russia would also be forced to define its position on the hotly contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the source of a bitter armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan from 1988-94.

But whatever decision Moscow makes on Karabakh, whether it be recognition or ignorance of its independent status, it can be assured of angering either Armenia or Azerbaijan.

Russia understandably would like to avoid such a political headache, and will seek to preserve the status quo rather than risk taking a stance on the principle of self-determination as opposed to territorial integrity.

There is also another factor in Moscow's persistence on the Kosova issue. It relates to Russia's role in the Balkans in 1990s, when the country, under President Boris Yeltsin, cooperated with NATO and the United States in trying to resolve the Yugoslav crisis.

At that time, then-Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin flew to Belgrade to convince late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to deal with the West. But in hindsight, Moscow now looks upon its decision as an embarrassing example of weakness and concession and would like to make amends.

As Sergei Karaganov, the head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy and a political adviser to Putin's administration, noted in a commentary on on 16 June, "Many in Moscow now want American and European colleagues to pay the full price for their games in Kosovo, although they do not want to admit it publicly."

In seeking to make up for its retreat from the Balkans in the past decade, Moscow has located the "weak link" in the West's position on Kosova. Russia realizes that any unilateral declaration of independence for Kosova that does not follow UN procedure will not be recognized by all members of the European Union, and could cause a rift within the bloc. Russia designed its strategy on Kosova based on this calculation.

A good way of describing this strategy can be found in a recent comment by Aleksei Pushkov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst for NTV, who said on his show "Postkriptum" on 7 July that Russia should not "help the U.S. and EU escape from the difficult situation in Kosovo." He also listed reasons for testing the West's mettle on Kosova.

First, he said, Russia has previously tried to cooperate with the United States and NATO -- particularly in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001 -- and has come away disappointed. He said that if Russia does not get the concessions it seeks on Kosova, it "will not see reciprocal steps toward us neither on the issue of U.S. missile-defense elements in Europe, nor on other issues on which we differ."

Second, the situation over Kosova belongs to a category of "who will overplay whom." The Western media writes about it in terms of the EU being hostage to the Russia position and that Russia should be not allowed to define EU foreign policy, Pushkov said, but this is the language of competition, not cooperation. Therefore, if Russia were to alter its position on Kosova toward compromise "it would be perceived [by the West] not as act of partnership, but as the defeat of a competitor who surrendered to pressure."

Pushkov's third point was that Russia's confrontation with the West on Kosova is a matter of principle. The main criteria, according to Pushkov, is whether Russia will return to the international arena as an independent player. "Putin wants to turn the Kosovo [issue] into a demonstration that Russia has regained its clout. If we retreat, we will once again we be considered to be feeble," Pushkov wrote. "If we stand, our claims to a role of significance will be justified."

In the end, even a brief analysis of Moscow public-opinion leaders' statements on Kosova shows that the Kremlin -- due to its interpretations of the country's ambitions and national interests -- is not interested in a quick resolution of the Kosova problem.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on July 15 pardoned a 14-year-old boy who was trained in a Pakistani madrasah to be a suicide bomber, AP reported. Rafiqullah, who was arrested in early June by Afghan intelligence agents, told AP that he was shown videos of suicide bombers and taught how drive in preparation for his mission to kill an Afghan governor. A militant known as Abdul Aziz threatened to kill Rafiqullah when the boy expressed his fear of dying after being given an explosives-laden suicide vest. At least two other teenage boys were recruited to carry out suicide attacks, Rafiqullah said. JC

Afghanistan's Ministry of Information and Culture announced on July 14 that the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will be registering locations in the western Herat Province as historical sites, Pajhwok Afghan News reported on July 16. In a press release, the ministry said the Afghan government has requested the UN agency add ancient Herat city, which holds several historical relics, to the World Heritage list. The ministry has been working with UNESCO on preserving cultural locations in Afghanistan since 2004, a task expected to be completed within one month. Nearly 30 years of relentless conflict in Afghanistan has taken a serious toll on the country's cultural heritage, despite UNESCO's efforts to protect it. In January 2002, Afghanistan's interim administration mandated that UNESCO coordinate all international activities aimed at preserving its cultural heritage, encouraging the agency to set up the International Coordination Committee for the Safeguarding of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage. JC

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on July 14 that Ukraine will open up an embassy in Kabul by the end of 2006, Pajhwak Afghan News reported the next day. In a joint press conference with his Afghan counterpart, Ragin Dadfar Spanta, Yatsenyuk said Ukraine will open an embassy by the end of the year and expressed his hope that relations between the two countries will improve. He pledged support for the war-torn country in its energy, reconstruction and education sectors, adding that his country will help Afghanistan in the formation of its military. According to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, Yatsenyuk and Spanta also discussed the participation of Ukrainian companies in the development of gas fields of Afghanistan during their meetings, which primarily centered on energy cooperation, RFE/RL reported on July 14. JC

Officials said on July 15 that at least eight people, mostly civilians, have been killed in a series of attacks in Paktika Province over the last two days, AFP reported. Five construction workers were killed and two others wounded after a remote-control bomb exploded underneath their vehicle, according to local police chief Sardar Mohammad Zazi. Paktika Governor Akram Akhpelwak put the death toll at 10 security guards, AP reported on July 15. In a separate incident, a rocket fired at a NATO base from Pakistani territory instead struck a group of homes in the Bermal district, killing at least one civilian and wounding three others. Finally, a gunfire attack on the chief of the Showak district late on July 14 by unknown assailants left two of his bodyguards dead, deputy provincial police chief Ghulam Dastgir told AFP. JC

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on July 15 that Iran will have to closely consider proposals reportedly made by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei on direct talks between Iran and the United States over Iran's nuclear program, Radio Farda reported, citing news agencies. He said Iran will have to see exactly what el-Baradei meant in proposing that the two countries hold talks. Iran, he added, pursues its nuclear program in a set framework, and there is "no question of a break" in the course of its activities. During recent talks in Tehran, Iran and the IAEA agreed to resolve outstanding questions on Iran's nuclear program within 60 days, Radio Farda reported. Iran agreed to reverse its earlier ban on IAEA inspections of a nuclear installation in Arak, central Iran, the broadcaster stated. VS

Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told Iranian radio that the decision to allow inspectors into the Arak nuclear facility is intended to strengthen the IAEA's role in dealing with Iran's nuclear program, and "weaken the moves initiated by the Security Council," ISNA reported on July 15. Iran insists that the issues surrounding its nuclear program are technical ones, and has rejected what it calls "political" moves by UN Security Council powers to impose sanctions over its contested program. Soltanieh said any measures taken in the Security Council would "infect" the atmosphere of cooperation over its program. He urged the 5+1 powers, the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, to "avoid any negative measure in this process" in order to help peacefully resolve the standoff. He referred to some of the issues that Iran intends to help the IAEA resolve in coming weeks. He added, however, that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and IAEA regulations do not impose limits on uranium enrichment for signatories, or create terms for the "suspension" of uranium enrichment and related activities. Iran insists it has the right to make nuclear fuel, but Western powers fear that its fuel-making activities, including uranium enrichment, could be applied to produce nuclear weapons. VS

A Kurdish teenager was killed during recent scuffles between police and residents in the town of Mahabad, in northwestern Iran, Radio Farda reported on July 15. Iranian Kurds in several towns in the area demonstrated and closed their shops startingon July 13 to commemorate the 1989 assassination of Kurdish rebel leader Abdulrahman Qasemlu in Vienna, Radio Farda quoted local journalist Masud Kordpur as saying. He said "opposition" Kurdish groups invited people to shut their shops at 10 p.m. on July 13, a suggestion that met with support in several towns. He added that police responded aggressively to the shutdown and to informal gatherings, and scuffles broke out. In Mahabad, 17-year-old Abdulsamad Safari died from a brain hemorrhage after he was struck on the head with a police baton. VS

Iran hanged three men and a woman convicted of murder in the southern city of Shiraz and in Tabriz, in the northwestern province of East Azerbaijan, AFP and Iranian media reported on July 14 and 15. In Tabriz, a 29-year-old woman named Hurieh and two accomplices, named as Farhad and Reza, aged 23 and 24 respectively, were hanged for murdering Hurieh's husband, his brother, and his parents in April 2007, AFP and "Etemad" reported. A 22-year-old convict, Navid Parham, was hanged in Shiraz for murder and robbery, AFP reported on July 14, citing the daily "Kayhan." The news agency added that 114 people have been executed in Iran since the beginning of this year. VS

Prominent trade-union leader Mansur Osanlu, who was detained in Tehran on July 10, has been sent to Tehran's Evin prison, though authorities have not yet announced charges against him, Radio Farda reported on July 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12 and 13, 2007). Osanlu's wife met with judicial and prison authorities on July 14 to inform them that Osanlu was scheduled to have an urgent eye operation on July 15, Radio Farda reported, citing Ibrahim Madadi, a member of the Tehran bus drivers' union led by Osanlu. He said authorities have not revealed the charges against Osanlu, but said Tehran's chief prosecutor, Said Mortazavi, has said that the security department at the Tehran Prosecutor's Office ordered Osanlu's detention. His wife and mother were allowed to meet with him on July 15, Madadi told Radio Farda. VS

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on July 15 reappointed three members of the Guardians Council, an influential body of civilian jurists and clerics, to remain on the council after their terms expire on July 17, IRNA reported. The three members, all of whom are clerics, are Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a former judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mohammad Momen, and Hojjatoleslam Sadeq Larijani. Larijani is the brother of Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and Mohammad Javad Larijani, a prominent conservative and former deputy foreign minister. The Guardians Council determines the constitutionality of all parliamentary bills and supervises elections and verifies their results; jurists on the council are appointed by Iran's supreme leader and serve for six years. Three clerics on the council are ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati and Gholamreza Rezvani, and Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Reza Modarresi-Yazdi, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on July 15. Their six-year terms run out in three years. Three members are also to be appointed to the council in the coming weeks, from candidates to be nominated by judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi and approved by parliament. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced on July 14 that Iraqi forces are ready to take over security responsibilities for the country if coalition forces withdraw, international media reported. "We say in full confidence that we are able, God willing, to take responsibility completely in running the security [operations] if the international forces withdraw at any time they want," al-Maliki said. However, he stressed that Iraqi forces are "still in need of more weapons and training" to be ready in case of a withdrawal. Al-Maliki's comments were seen as a response to the growing call by some U.S. lawmakers for a pullout of U.S. forces by mid-2008. Al-Maliki also responded to a July 12 White House report that indicated the Iraqi government showed "mixed progress" toward meeting the so-called 18 benchmarks. "We are not talking about a government in a stable political environment, but one in the shadow of huge challenges,"' al-Maliki said. "So when we talk about the presence of some negative points in the political process, that's fairly natural," he added. He stressed that his government needs "time and effort" to enact necessary political reforms because the Iraqi political process is "facing security, economic, and services pressures as well as regional and international interference." SS

Hasan al-Sunayd, a top adviser to Prime Minister al-Maliki, told AP on July 14 that U.S. forces are committing human rights abuses in Iraq and arming "gangs of killers." He said U.S. troops' heavy use of arms against suspected insurgents violates human rights because it endangers innocent civilians. "American warplanes bomb areas where terrorists are suspected to be, and as you know, bombing is not a good method in detention operations because it leads to civilian casualties among innocent people," al-Sunayd said. He also denounced the strategy employed by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, which he described as arming "whoever is against Al-Qaeda at a time when there are gangs against Al-Qaeda that kill. These are gangs of killers." He was referring to the U.S. tactic of arming Sunni groups in Al-Anbar and Diyala governorates in order to combat Al-Qaeda elements. Al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials, many of them Shi'a, warned that the strategy in the long run will make Iraq more dangerous and less stable. "There are [arguments] that the strategy that Petraeus is following might succeed in confronting Al-Qaeda in the early period, but it will leave Iraq an armed nation, an armed society [with] militias," al-Sunayd warned. SS

Mahmud Uthman, a prominent member of the Kurdish Alliance, has voiced anger and frustration at what he described as unwarranted U.S. pressure on the Iraqi government to pass a draft oil and gas law, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on July 14. "We hope that the U.S. pressure on Iraq to ratify the law will stop, because this pressure is increasing and will backfire," Uthman said. He continued, "We hope that all parliamentary blocs will be represented in the parliament, including the Al-Tawafuq [Accordance] Front and the Al-Sadr bloc." The Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament, and the Al-Sadr bloc are currently boycotting parliament and the Iraqi government. There have been reports that the two blocs may end their boycott in order to vote against the draft law. In addition, Uthman said the Kurds have several reservations concerning the oil and gas draft because of amendments added to it. He did not mention what those reservations are, but he said he doubts that the draft will be ratified by the end of July, before the Iraqi government begins its monthlong recess. SS

The U.S. military announced on July 14 that Sa'id Jaf'ar, a rogue commander in radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, was killed during a joint U.S.-Iraqi security operation in Baghdad on July 11. The military described Jaf'ar as having a "history of terrorizing the New Baghdad area by extorting money, kidnapping, and carrying out extrajudicial killings on innocent citizens." "As a commander of more than 120 fighters, his cell is responsible for engaging military and police forces with small-arms fire and emplacing explosively formed projectiles along travel routes," the U.S. military said in a statement. The military also accused Jaf'ar of being a commander of a "special unit" with links to Iran. "Intelligence shows a clear link to his group partnering with outside Persian extremists, whose goal is to destroy the legitimate government of Iraq and create instability in the region," the statement said. The United States has repeatedly accused Tehran of training and arming Shi'ite militias in Iraq. On July 12, the U.S. military reported that its forces clashed with an "Iranian-backed militia" in the Baghdad neighborhood of Al-Amin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 2007). SS

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salah said on July 14 that Ali Hasan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali", will be executed in the northern town of Halabjah, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's website reported. Salah made the remarks during a meeting with families of the Halabjah Victims Society in Al-Sulaymaniyah. On June 24, the Iraqi High Tribunal sentenced al-Majid and two co-defendants to death for their role in the 1987-88 Anfal campaign that prosecutors said killed up to 180,000 Kurds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 25, 2007). An appeals court is currently reviewing the sentence, and if it certifies the ruling, under Iraqi law, al-Majid will have to be executed within 30 days. However, the Anfal trial did not cover the gas attack that killed an estimated 5,000 people in the town of Halabjah. Those killings are to be the focus of a separate trial to be held at an unspecified date. Many residents of Halabjah fear that they may never see justice carried out. SS

Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i announced on July 15 that Iraq and Saudi Arabia have reached an agreement on coordinating antiterrorism operations, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. "We are happy with the positive and constructive results which our talks and negotiations with our brothers in Saudi Arabia yielded," al-Rubay'i said. "The heads of Iraqi agencies had several rounds of discussions and reached detailed agreements on security cooperation with their Saudi counterparts. We signed agreements on security and intelligence coordination and information exchange," he added. The Saudi daily "Okaz" also quoted al-Rubay'i as saying that Iraq's security is inseparable from regional security, and "whatever threatens neighboring countries, namely Saudi Arabia, constitutes a direct threat against Iraq." SS