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Newsline - July 30, 2007

Yelena Vasilyeva, the head of the Murmansk branch of the opposition United Civic Front, said on Ekho Moskvy radio on July 28 that journalist Larisa Arap was detained on July 6 and is being held at a closed psychiatric hospital in a remote part of Murmansk Oblast. Arap recently published articles alleging child abuse at psychiatric institutions. She also spoke at a June 12 demonstration organized by the United Civic Front, which is led by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11 and 26, 2007). A spokesman for the regional governor's office, Nikolai Sigin, said he is unfamiliar with Arap's case but stressed that it is "impossible" that anyone could be hospitalized for their political convictions. On July 29, United Civic Front spokeswoman Marina Litvinovich was quoted by AP in Moscow as saying that Arap's detention "smacks of Soviet-era practice of locking dissenters in psychiatric clinics." Arap's daughter Taisiya was quoted by the news agency as saying that police took her mother away while she was collecting documents about her mental health from a doctor in keeping with legal requirements for obtaining a driver's license. Taisiya Arap said the doctor called in the police when she realized that her patient was the author of a newspaper article critical of a local psychiatric hospital. Taisiya Arap added that she has launched a legal appeal against her mother's detention. The news agency reported that a receptionist at the clinic where Larisa Arap is said to be held would not confirm that the journalist was there, saying she could provide the names of patients only to their relatives. RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on July 30 that Larisa Arap's family is still waiting for her release. On July 30, Interfax quoted Litvinovich as saying that Larisa Arap has stopped a hunger strike and is in weak condition. Litvinovich added that her organization will soon send formal letters demanding Larisa Arap's release to Russian Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin and to Ella Pamfilova, who heads President Vladimir Putin's Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights Council. PM

On July 30, Britain's "The Independent" quoted opposition leader Kasparov as saying that anyone can be forcibly detained "if you attack the interests of the local Gazprom, the local military base, or the local medical mafia. Attacking the interests of local bureaucrats is a terrible risk, because they don't stop at anything to get their own back." Oleg Panfilov, director of Moscow's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, argued that "when there are KGB officers in the government, they restore what there was during the Soviet era: propaganda, censorship, and repression." PM

Britain's "Financial Times" reported on July 30 that "RussNeft, one of Russia's fastest-growing private oil companies, is set to pass into state-friendly hands after months of investigation by the tax authorities, in a move analysts say has echoes of the Yukos case" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2007). The daily added that "Basic Element, the holding company of billionaire Oleg Deripaska, and Russia's Federal Antimonopoly Service confirmed late on [July 27] that entities linked to Basic Element had sought permission to buy the mid-sized oil group." The paper noted that "Deripaska, Russia's second-richest man and one of the tycoons most loyal to the Kremlin, is said to have ambitions to expand his oil interests, which form only a small part of his Basic Element conglomerate. However, some analysts forecast that...Deripaska's group will later sell on RussNeft to one of Russia's state-controlled energy giants, Rosneft or Gazprom." The daily added that "RussNeft was formed in 2002 by Mikhail Gutseriyev, a businessman who has built it into a vertically integrated group producing 300,000 barrels of oil a day." PM

The numbers of prisoners in the Russian Federation reached 890,000 in the first half of 2007, the highest level since 2002, when the number of prisoners declined from 980,000 to 877,000, and the daily "Vedomosti" reported on July 30. The daily quoted several experts as saying that the rise suggests that judiciary reforms launched five years ago have failed to achieve a lasting decline in the prison population. In 2004, the number of incarcerated reached a low of 763,000. The paper suggested that Russia might soon "once again" overtake the United States as the country with the largest prison population in relation to the size of the population as a whole. PM

Militants opened fire late on July 27 from the nearby village of Ali-Yurt with mortars and automatic weapons on a base on the outskirts of Magas of the Ingushetian branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB), killing at least one of the Russian servicemen guarding that facility and wounding two others, and reported on July 28. Ingushetia's prosecutor Yury Turygin denied reports that the militants also targeted the presidential administration building. President Murat Zyazikov's motorcade came under fire on July 21, but no one was injured (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). Police surrounded and combed the village of Ali-Yurt early on July 28, apprehending four of the estimated five suspected gunmen and beating up at least 30 villagers, including women and elderly men, the website reported. LF

In a statement posted on July 29 on the Chechen resistance websites and, Daghestan's Shariat jamaat claimed responsibility for the death late on July 26 of senior cleric Kuramagomed Ramazanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27, 2007). The daily "Kommersant" on July 29 calculated that Ramazanov was the 11th senior cleric murdered in Daghestan over the past nine years. The statement also claimed that militants have "taken prisoner" an official from the Buynaksk prosecutor's office identified only as Batdalov. LF

Relatives of the 331 victims of the hostage taking in September 2004 at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, released on July 26 new video footage corroborating the hypothesis that the explosions that impelled security forces to storm the school building were not detonated by the militants inside, and the daily "Kommersant" reported. The video footage, filmed by prosecutor's office staffers on September 3 and 4, 2004, shows Russian sappers telling an investigator that the explosions could not have originated within the building, as Russian officials claimed when explaining the rationale for storming the assault, during which most of the fatalities occurred. An independent investigation conducted by Russian State Duma Deputy Yury Savelyev concluded that the explosions that triggered the assault were from mortars fired from the roofs of neighboring buildings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2006). The Beslan Mothers organization has also appealed to FSB Chairman Nikolai Patrushev to make available his agency's archives relating to the hostage taking and storming of the school building, reported on July 27. LF

Leading members of the opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) announced on July 27 their respective strategies for the presidential ballot due in early 2008, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Zharangutiun Chairman and U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian confirmed that he will seek to register as a presidential candidate. Hovannisian was refused registration for the presidential ballot in 2003 on the grounds that he was granted Armenian citizenship only in 2001. The election law stipulates that candidates must have been citizens of, and permanently resident in, the Republic of Armenia for a minimum of 10 years prior to the ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2003). The HHD signed an agreement last month to cooperate with the coalition government formed by Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia and the Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia) party headed by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 2007), but on July 27, senior HHD member Armen Rustamian said the HHD will not back Sarkisian in the 2008 presidential ballot, but field its own candidate, who will be selected at a HHD congress this autumn. LF

Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian denied on July 27 that Armenia has purchased any armaments from Albania, Noyan Tapan reported. He said those reports are "fabrications" circulated by the Turkish and Azerbaijani media. Azerbaijani media on July 26 quoted Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha as stating that the Turkish authorities intercepted and turned back to the port of Durres a ship transporting weapons and ammunition to Armenia, according to the website on July 27. The incident was first reported by on July 18 and 19. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov has written to his Albanian counterpart Lulzim Basha expressing "serious concern" over the reports and arguing that any shipment of weaponry to Armenia constitutes a violation of Albania's commitments to the UN, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and OSCE member states, reported on July 28. Mammadyarov has sent analogous written complaints to the chairman and secretary-general of the OIC. LF

The newly created state commission to determine the future political status within Georgia of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia held its second session on July 28 in the South Ossetian village of Kurta, which is the headquarters of the pro-Georgian provisional administration headed by Dmitry Sanakoyev, Caucasus Press reported. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze said that the commission's five working groups are almost fully staffed, but that any residents of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, who wish to join may still do so. Following a July 27 meeting in Tbilisi with Ambassador Peter Semneby, who is the EU special representative for the South Caucasus, Bakradze told journalists that the final draft of the status definition will be submitted for approval to the EU and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission. On July 26, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili and Sanakoyev met in Tbilisi with Jose Borrell Fontelles, the special representative of the OSCE chairman in office, to discuss the situation in South Ossetia and to propose that the OSCE nominate a representative to the South Ossetia commission, Caucasus Press reported on July 27. According to a press release posted on the OSCE website (, Borrell expressed approval of both sides' stated commitment to peaceful dialogue, but noted that they have not yet implemented decisions on the demilitarization of the conflict zone and joint policing. Following a July 27 monitoring, the Joint Peacekeeping Force deployed in the conflict zone reported that South Ossetia held a training exercise using heavy equipment and weapons in violation of the agreement on the withdrawal of such materiel from the conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported on July 30. LF

In a press conference in Astana, the head of the Kazakh Central Election Commission, Kuandyk Turgankulov, announced on July 27 that it has revoked the registration of eight international election observers, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Turgankulov went on to report that "to date, 409 international observers have been registered" by the commission in order to monitor the August 18 election to the Mazhilis, or lower house of parliament. Another commission member, Tatyana Okhlopkova, added that the eight foreign observers in question included "three observers from the Czech Republic, three from Slovakia, and two from Ukraine." She further defended the move, citing "parliamentary discussions [on the upcoming elections] on August 14 in the Czech Republic" as the justification for "canceling the accreditation" of the Czech observers, and noting that the accreditation for the other observers was revoked for "personal reasons." The conduct of the election, which follows last month's move by President Nursultan Nazarbaev to dissolve the Mazhilis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2007), is seen as an essential prerequisite for the Kazakh bid to assume the OSCE chairmanship for 2009, with raised expectations for the election campaign, voting, and vote count to be certified as free, fair, and transparent. RG

In comments during a Dushanbe press conference to accompany the release of a six-month progress report, the head of the Tajik anticorruption agency, Sherkhon Salimov, hailed on July 27 significant progress in the agency's "recent work," according to Asia-Plus. The report detailed the formal investigation into some 62 corruption-related cases, of which 37 were classified as "serious and very serious crimes," and another 10 were related to "bribe taking" by unnamed "state officials." Salimov also said that the investigations uncovered more than 5.6 million somonis ($1.6 million) in criminal corruption, but noted that some 1.3 million somonis were effectively returned to state coffers. The anticorruption body, formally known as the Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption, was first established in January 2007 and incorporates anticorruption responsibilities previously held by the State Financial Control Committee, Main Tax Police Directorate, the Directorate for Combating Corruption, and other agencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2007). RG

The head of Tajikistan's Barqi Tojik state electricity company, Sharifkhon Samiev, reported on July 27 during a press conference in Dushanbe on the recent deal with Turkmenistan to import electricity supplies, according to the Avesta website and Turkmen television. According to Samiev, a Tajik government delegation led by Energy and Industry Minister Sherali Gulov met with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat the day before and negotiated an agreement for the import of nearly 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity from Turkmenistan to compensate for the anticipated shortfall this winter in supplies from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where reservoirs are so low that the output of hydroelectric power stations has been seriously affected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 2007). He added that, as part of the new agreement, Turkmen specialists are to repair a section of the power-transmission line through Uzbekistan that delivers electricity from Turkmenistan. RG

In a report to the Turkmen cabinet in Ashgabat, President Berdymukhammedov ordered on July 26 the "speedy" implementation of gas-export plans to China, Turkmen television reported. He also demanded "regular progress reports" on the course of new bilateral agreements reached during his recent state visit to China (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2007). During that visit, he signed an agreement with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao for the export to China of 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas annually for a period of 30 years, beginning in 2009 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2007). Meeting with Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov during a visit to Ashgabat, Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov confirmed on July 26 Uzbekistan's support for a proposed Turkmenistan-China gas-pipeline project, according to Turkmen television. The planned route of the gas pipeline runs from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and on to China. Norov, in Ashgabat to prepare for the Uzbek president's planned visit to Turkmenistan in October, told reporters after the meeting that bilateral relations are set to expand significantly, with specific potential in the tourism and agriculture sectors. For his part, Berdymukhammedov welcomed Uzbek support for the pipeline project and praised Uzbekistan as a "good neighbor, reliable friend and partner." RG

Police prevented opposition activists from staging an unauthorized rally on Independence Square in Minsk on July 27, intended to mark the 17th anniversary of Belarus's Declaration of State Independence, Belapan reported. Police officers blocked the rally by cordoning off the square and detaining a dozen activists, including United Civic Party Chairman Anatol Lyabedzka and Belarusian Popular Front Deputy Chairman Viktar Ivashkevich. Most of the detainees were released after several hours, but two of them, Franak Vyachorka and Yaraslau Hryshchenya, are to stand trial on July 30 on as yet unspecified charges, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Meanwhile, Dzmitry Fedaruk, a leader of the unregistered opposition Youth Front, was sentenced on July 27 to 10 days in jail. Police officers detained Fedaruk earlier the same day and accused him of using obscene language in public, a charge frequently used by the authorities to jail opposition activists. JM

The Russian government has given preliminary approval to Belarus's request for a loan, which will be partially spent on paying off the country's debt to Russia's Gazprom gas monopoly, Belapan reported on July 27, quoting Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin. Earlier this year Belarus asked Moscow for a $1.5 billion stabilization loan, following an increase in gas prices in January. "This is preliminary approval, and the final decision will be taken by the government in the form of amendments to the budget," Kudrin told journalists on July 27. He added that Moscow is now considering the amount and terms of the loan. JM

Parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz on July 27 called an emergency session on July 31, Ukrainian media reported, quoting the parliamentary press service. Moroz reportedly wants lawmakers to discuss regulations governing the early parliamentary polls scheduled by President Viktor Yushchenko for September 30. Yushchenko and the two opposition parliamentary groups, Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, claim that the Verkhovna Rada ceased to be legitimate in early June, when 169 lawmakers from those groups gave up their parliamentary seats, bringing the number of deputies in parliament below the required 300. Yushchenko refused to sign any legislation adopted by the Verkhovna Rada after June 5, when he issued a decree scheduling early polls for September 30. It is not clear if the Party of Regions, which has the largest caucus in the Verkhovna Rada, will participate in the emergency session on July 31. Party of Regions leader Mikhail Chechetov told Interfax-Ukraine on July 28 that his party does not see the need for the session. But on July 30, Chechetov told journalists that party leaders may discuss participating in the emergency session. JM

After meeting on July 27 with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told Serbian journalists that the two countries "have big differences when it comes to the future status of Kosovo" but have now reestablished a constructive dialogue. On July 23, Kosovar leaders met with Rice in Washington, during which, according to unconfirmed reports, Rice reiterated the United States' strong public support for Kosovar statehood (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2007). Shortly before his meeting with Rice, Jeremic told Serbian and international media that talks with a number of leading members of the U.S. Congress convinced him that understanding for Serbia's position has increased. The day before the meeting, Jeremic told AP that he believes a growing number of European states "realize that the cost of imposing a solution outside the [UN] Security Council is high, and [are] therefore starting to think about whether there could be a more optimal solution." Jeremic, Serbia's government, and its presidency earlier all hailed a decision to abandon negotiations about Kosova in the UN as a victory for Serbia, but they insist that any decision on Kosova's future must be acceptable both to Serbia and the UN Security Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). AG

The European Union on July 29 appointed a German diplomat, Wolfgang Ischinger, to represent it in negotiations on the future status of Kosova, international media reported. Ischinger, currently Germany's ambassador to Britain, will be one of three diplomats leading efforts to broker an agreement between Belgrade and Prishtina on Kosova's future. Ischinger was active in German diplomacy during the 1998-99 conflict in Kosova and within the Contact Group, a grouping of six states that is now assuming responsibility for resolving Kosova's status. Ischinger will speak for the four European members of the Contact Group: Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. Another German diplomat, Joachim Ruecker, currently heads the UN Mission in Kosova. Ischinger's appointment confirms reports in the Kosovar media. The same reports have suggested that Russia will be represented by its ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, and the United States by its envoy to Kosova, Frank Wisner. AG

A booby trap placed in a Serbian-dominated area of Kosova on July 27 damaged a bus but injured none of its 10 passengers, all of whom were ethnic Albanians. Local and international media reported that the trap triggered a hand grenade. Few details have been released, but the bus was traveling between three relatively isolated ethnic-Albanian villages: Koshtove, Bistrice, and Ceraje. There have been a number of bomb and grenade attacks in Kosova in recent months: the apartment of a policeman in Prishtina was firebombed in May; international forces in April defused a bomb placed under a bridge; a hand grenade exploded in March in a factory in another ethnic-Albanian village in the north; a spate of attacks occurred in the town of Mitrovica in March; a grenade was thrown at a Serbian Orthodox monastery in March; a student dormitory in Prishtina was attacked in February; and vehicles belonging to the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have been attacked on several occasions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 27, and 28, and March 28, 2007). However, commanders of the international forces in the region have consistently described the overall security situation in the contested region as "stable." AG

The head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), Joachim Ruecker, decided on July 26 that the UN-administered region should hold local and parliamentary elections in November. Local media reported that Ruecker reached the decision after fresh talks with Kosovar politicians. November had long been chalked in as a date, but questions were asked about the advisability of holding the elections as scheduled given the ongoing uncertainty about the final status of Kosova. Similar concerns prompted Ruecker's predecessor, Soeren Jessen-Petersen, to abandon plans for the elections to be held last November. Ruecker indicated that a further postponement is possible, saying his decision might be reviewed if holding elections could impede negotiations on Kosova's future. The OSCE has said that more than four months are needed for the elections to be "good," and Kosovar law stipulates a six-month preparatory period for elections. Kosovar media reported that Ruecker intends to amend that law in August. AG

The Serbian Supreme Court on July 27 rejected an appeal by two men jailed to 40 years each for the murder in 2000 of Serbian President Ivan Stambolic. This is the second time that the sentence has been upheld; no further appeals are allowed. Both men, Milorad "Legija" Lukovic-Ulemek and Branko Bercek, served in a police unit established by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the Red Berets, and have also been sentenced for the attempted murder of Vuk Draskovic, then an opposition leader and subsequently a foreign minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15, 2006, and February 20, 2007). Lukovic-Ulemek was subsequently sentenced this May for the murder in 2003 of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2007). AG

Police in the Bosnian Serb-dominated region of Republika Srpska on July 26 questioned the wife of the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader, Radovan Karadzic, but a police spokesman, Gojko Vasic, told Bosnian media that Ljiljana Karadzic provided no fresh information about her husband's whereabouts. Members of Karadzic's family in neighboring Montenegro have also been interrogated in recent months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and 20, March 8 and 19, and May 10 and 18, 2007). However, the UN prosecutor leading the hunt for Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, recently said that the UN has no idea where Karadzic may be hiding (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19 and 28, 2007). Vasic also said that another of the four alleged war criminals still wanted by the UN, Stojan Zupljanin, lived in Serbia and in Russia until the end of 2006. The UN tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), said in May that it believes Zupljanin, a former police commander, is still in Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 18, 2007). A recent poll found that most Bosnian Serbs believe Karadzic and Mladic should be tried by the ICTY even though they dislike the ICTY and believe it is biased against ethnic Serbs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). AG

The Bosnian Commission on Missing Persons told reporters on July 27 that its forensic experts have exhumed the remains of another 131 victims of the Srebrenica massacre. The bodies were all found in a mass grave near Potocari, a suburb of Srebrenica that is also home to the key memorial to the slaughter. So far, the remains of some 3,000 of the roughly 8,000 victims have been identified. Most of the bodies were incomplete, suggesting that the remains had originally been buried elsewhere. In all, nearly 60 mass graves have been found in Bosnia, yielding the remains of thousands of victims who have yet to be identified. The remains of those victims who have been identified are each year reburied at the Potocari memorial on the anniversary of the massacre, July 12. On the latest anniversary, 465 victims were laid to rest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 2007). AG

A majority of Bosnians believe a decision to grant Kosova independence would not affect the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to a poll conducted by the Strategic Marketing agency and published on July 25 in the daily "Nezavisne novine." That view was held particularly strongly in the Muslim-Croat Federation (70 percent), but almost half (47 percent) of those who live in the Republika Srpska also shared that conviction. However, a sizable minority believe that independence for Kosova would prompt the Republika Srpska to call for secession: 34 percent took that view in the Republika Srpska and 20 percent in the Muslim-Croat Federation. Opinions on the best solution for Kosova are diametrically opposed: 66 percent in the Republika Srpska are convinced that continued Serbian sovereignty is the best solution, while 61 percent in the Muslim-Croat Federation argue that statehood for Kosova is the best resolution of the crisis. However, the poll also found that the difference between hopes and expectations is particularly large in the Serbian community: more respondents in the Republika Srpska believe Kosova will remain part of Serbia (36 percent) than that it will gain independence (29 percent), while a majority in the federation expect Kosova to become a state (53 percent), with only a smaller minority believing Serbia can retain sovereignty. The Republika Srpska's leadership has vowed to prevent violence, whatever happens in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5 and 26, and April 12, 2007). AG

The same survey by Strategic Marketing also found that the vast majority of people in the Bosnian Serb-dominated entity (71 percent) oppose the integration of the Republika Srpska into a unitary state, preferring "to preserve and strengthen [the] statehood" of the Republika Srpska rather than to dissolve its political structures. A majority of Bosnian Muslims and Croats (59 percent) believe the Republika Srpska should be integrated. Bosnian Serbs, though, were not entirely confident that the Republika Srpska would continue to exist: only 51 percent believe it will remain an autonomous part of the country. The argument that Bosnia's two autonomous regions -- the Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation -- might be dissolved has been put with increased force since February, when the UN's top court concluded that the massacre at Srebrenica was an "act of genocide," a ruling that some Bosnian Muslim leaders used to reinforce their argument that the Republika Srpska was itself the product of genocide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, 2007). The international community's high representative in Bosnia, Miroslav Lajcak, has ruled out the possibility of changing the country's constitution to merge the Republika Srpska out of existence. AG

A separate survey, conducted recently by the Oxford Research International for the UN Development Program, found that "optimism is relatively weak" in Bosnia-Herzegovina, "social trust is virtually nonexistent," and a sense that the country is standing still is pervasive. The report, which was released on July 7, found that while Bosnia compares "favorably with other transformation countries" in some respects -- Bosnians are content and feel in control of their lives -- Bosnians hold "very negative" views about politicians and public institutions, and show little interest in politics. Many of the issues that dominate Bosnian politics -- such as war crimes and police reform -- are of little interest to ordinary Bosnians; they are, instead, primarily interested in better living standards, a reduction in corruption, and a unified country. AG

Fewer than half of Moldovans have assured access to quality drinking water, a study by Moldova's Health Ministry has found. The news agency IPN on July 25 quoted the deputy health minister, Ion Bahnarel, as saying that 30 percent of water samples failed to meet the ministry's basic microbiological standards and 86 percent failed to meet its recommendations. AG

The announcement on July 19 by the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc, that it was ending its five-week boycott of the Iraqi parliament was seen as a boost to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who desperately needed to show that he is still a leader capable of forming a broad-based coalition.

However, the situation again turned grim when the front announced on July 25 that it had immediately suspended all participation with the government and gave al-Maliki one week to meet its package of demands or it would completely pull out of the government.

Among the bloc's demands were a government pardon for all security detainees not charged with crimes, disbanding all Shi'ite militias, an opportunity for the front to have real participation in the decision-making process, and the strict adherence to the International Declaration of Human Rights.

A complete pullout would not only be a major blow to al-Maliki's leadership, but it threatens to undercut months of back-room negotiations to form a new "moderates' bloc" to push the legislative process forward.

The so-called moderates' front was seen as a possible breakthrough out of the political paralysis that has gripped Iraq's government for months. The aim of the new bloc is to form a broad-based political coalition in support of al-Maliki's increasingly beleaguered leadership, whose 14-month tenure has been fraught with protests and withdrawals.

The core elements of the bloc so far include two of the main Shi'ite parties -- al-Maliki's Al-Da'wah Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC, formerly SCIRI) -- and the Kurdish Alliance, comprising the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Leaders of the Shi'ite and Kurdish groups have been aggressively courting Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party, the most moderate of the three major components of the Iraqi Accordance Front. The addition of the party would give the moderates' bloc 125 seats in parliament, 13 short of an absolute majority.

In theory, these seats could be filled by minor parties and independent figures, which in essence would give the moderates' bloc enough political space to operate comfortably. But the inclusion of the Islamic Party would also ensure the bloc has enough Sunni representation to avoid accusations of being sectarian in nature.

The decision by the Islamic Party to stay with the Accordance Front may have more to do with enhancing its position politically than displaying unity with the Sunni bloc. With U.S. pressure growing on Prime Minister al-Maliki's government to push through important legislation and move the national-reconciliation process forward, another broad Sunni withdrawal would be seen as a huge setback.

Indeed, al-Hashimi and the rest of the party leadership may be holding out for a better deal from the Shi'a and Kurds. The Islamic Party, with 27 seats in parliament, would form a considerable component of any coalition. Moreover, since it is the largest single Sunni party, its inclusion in a Shi'ite-Kurdish-based bloc would certainly enhance the legitimacy of a broad-based coalition.

However, the party's refusal to abandon the Accordance Front may be a clear indication that it is sticking to its principles of advocating broader guarantees for the Sunni community from any political coalition. From the perspective of the Islamic Party, or the Sunni Arabs in general, there is no reason to believe that a moderates' bloc will be any different from the makeup of the current governing coalition.

While there has been an emphasis on creating a "moderate" front, there has been little discussion among the Shi'a and Kurds regarding the issues the Sunni Arab community says marginalizes them. The reversal of the de-Ba'athification process to reinstate former regime officials has been stalled because of Shi'ite suspicions, and the committee responsible for amending the Iraqi Constitution has yet to present its recommendations. These setbacks leave many Sunni Arabs with the impression that the current government has a clear sectarian agenda.

In fact, the Iraqi Islamic Party issued a statement on July 22 outlining its suspicions about joining "an alliance with parties that are making things hard for us and our people -- twisting our intentions, inciting others against us, turning our people against us, and waiting for the right chance to terminate us."

Furthermore, the notion of a moderates' bloc may be somewhat problematic. Mahmud Uthman, a prominent member of the Kurdish Alliance, told RFE/RL on July 24 that the bloc would be open to all political parties; however, the mere idea of a moderates' bloc is meant to bar hard-line elements such as radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political movement and Sunni Arab groups with ties to insurgents.

Excluding hard-line Sunni groups may complicate any attempts to coerce members of the Sunni-led insurgency to surrender their weapons and join the political process, a potentially devastating setback for the national-reconciliation endeavor.

The latest threat by the Iraqi Accordance Front could be another indication of al-Maliki's tenuous political position, as well as a further blow to his credibility as a leader. The boycott underscores how deep the sectarian fault lines still are, four years after the overthrow of the former regime, and al-Maliki's efforts to bridge them continue to fall short.

While the boycott would not affect the government's day-to-day affairs, if the Sunni bloc completely withdraws from the government, more than one-quarter of the places in al-Maliki's 38-member cabinet would be vacant due to protests. The Accordance Front has six ministers, and five ministers loyal to al-Sadr resigned in April after al-Maliki refused to set a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal. So many withdrawals suggest that the current coalition government is still far from becoming the unity government that al-Maliki has pursued.

This also comes at a crucial time, with the United States increasing pressure on al-Maliki's government to show tangible progress. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, are scheduled to present a highly anticipated progress report on Iraq to Congress on September 15. The new boycott, if it continues, virtually guarantees that no significant progress will be made before that report is released.

Afghanistan's top leaders on July 29 cited Islamic and Afghan traditions in an effort to persuade the Taliban to release 22 South Korean hostages, AP reported. A statement from the office of President Hamid Karzai called the abduction on July 19 of 23 Christian aid workers, most of them women, a "heinous act" that is "in total contempt" of Islamic and Afghan values. Afghanistan's national council of clerics endorsed Karzai's statement, declaring that the Prophet Muhammad cautioned against killing women and therefore the Taliban "shouldn't do it." Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi said that Western forces have detained Afghan women, and thus the Taliban could do the same, citing the principle of "an eye for an eye." Meanwhile, Pope Benedict on July 29 also condemned the kidnapping, calling the act an "exploitation of innocent people...[that] gravely offends divine law," Reuters reported. JC

The Taliban said on July 29 they would kill the remaining 22 South Korean hostages by a morning deadline on July 30 if their demands were not met, amid conflicting reports over the state of ongoing negotiations, Reuters reported. Taliban spokesman Ahmadi told Reuters by telephone from an unknown location that talks between government officials and the militant group "have reached a deadlock" and are "not honest," leading the Taliban to set a new deadline. quoted Afghan Deputy Interior Minister Munir Mangal as saying the government will "certainly" resort to force if the dialogue fails, adding that officials have ruled out the Taliban's demands for the release of eight insurgent prisoners. However, the governor of Ghazni Province, Mirajuddin Pattan, rejected the use of military action in an interview with Pajhwak Afghan News on July 28. Meanwhile, lawmaker Khyal Mohammad Husseini, who is taking part in the negotiations, said the delegation will discuss exchanging prisoners, a possibility that President Karzai previously ruled out. JC

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on July 29 said NATO will begin using smaller bombs to fight Taliban rebels in Afghanistan in an effort to minimize civilian casualties, AFP reported. In an interview with the "Financial Times," de Hoop Scheffer said NATO is "working with weapons load on aircraft to reduce collateral damage," acknowledging the troubling number of civilian deaths from NATO operations and their negative effects on the alliance's reputation. De Hoop Scheffer acknowledged, however, that it is impossible to eliminate civilian casualties entirely. The alliance has faced widespread criticism over the past month for the growing number of civilians killed during NATO air strikes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3, 2007). The NATO chief added that General Dan McNeill, the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, has told ISAF troops to postpone attacking insurgents in instances where civilians would be put at risk. JC

A new neighborhood currently under construction in Kabul was named after the former Afghan King Mohammad Zahir Shah on July 28 in appreciation of his service to Afghanistan, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. A senior official of the Kabul municipality inaugurated the Marjan township project, now known as Mohammad Zahir Mina, as city officials formally began allotting some 2,000 plots comprising the development. About 600 plots have been allotted thus far, according to Deputy Mayor Gharzai Khwakhogay, who added that the development covers 350 acres and is based on a design by the Kabul Municipality. The township is expected to have paved roads, plumbing, markets, schools, and mosques. Zahir Shah, who was regarded as having provided peace and stability to Afghanistan during his 40-year reign, died on July 23 at the age of 92 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). JC

The Italian ambassador to Afghanistan, Ettore Francesco Sequi, and Afghan Public Health Minister Mohammad Amin Fatemi signed a contract on July 28 committing the Italian government to provide more than 3 million euros ($4.1 million) to support hospitals and clinics in Kabul and the northern province of Baghlan over two years, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Fatemi and Sequi told reporters at the signing in Kabul that the grant will be used primarily to improve the Istiqlal Hospital, including establishing a burn unit, and three clinics in Kabul, while two other district hospitals and clinics in at least seven districts of Baghlan Province will receive support from the funds. The funds will also help train health workers and provide medicines and equipment to Afghan facilities, according to Sequi, who noted that Rome has granted over $15 million to Afghanistan since 2001. JC

Inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are scheduled to visit Iran on August 6 to discuss the regulatory framework for future inspections of Iranian nuclear installations, agencies reported on July 28. Iran has recently renewed dialogue with the IAEA and promised to cooperate and open its nuclear facilities in order to show that its program is strictly civilian in nature. It is currently subject to two sets of UN Security Council sanctions intended to curb its contested nuclear program. Iranian and IAEA officials held talks on July 12 and 24 to discuss a framework for renewed inspections, AFP reported.The August 6 visit will reportedly focus on inspections of the Natanz uranium-enrichment plant and a uranium-ore conversion plant near Isfahan. The two plants conduct separate stages of the nuclear fuel-making process, which Iran is determined to carry out despite Western opposition. Inspectors are also set to visit the heavy-water production plant near Arak, central Iran, on July 30 and 31, Radio Farda reported on July 28, citing Iranian agencies. VS

Employees of the Pars Hasas and Gama companies have been on strike in recent days over unpaid wages in the Assaluyeh Free Zone on Iran's southern Persian Gulf coast, Radio Farda reported on July 28, quoting labor activist Javanmir Moradi. Moradi said some 600 workers at Gama, a company involved in gas refining and processing, went on strike on July 17 over three months of unpaid wages, although the strike was apparently called off after management agreed to pay at least one month of the wages owed. Some 120 employees of Pars Hasas, which makes cables, separately went on strike on July 25 over three months of unpaid wages, Moradi told Radio Farda. A management spokesman threatened to dismiss them, Moradi said, adding that the workers immediately agreed to quit, provided they received severance pay. That prompted management to reconsider its threat and promise to pay the money owed, he added. Moradi said strikes occur intermittently in Assaluyeh, and described working conditions for ordinary workers as "hellish." He said some 70,000-100,000 workers are currently working in "several large projects," presumably in the gas processing and petrochemicals industries. Assaluyeh is about 100 kilometers from the offshore South Pars gas field, according to VS

Iranian businessmen and officials are a growing presence in Caracas as they arrive to help implement 34 economic deals signed between Iran and Venezuela, the Catalan daily "La Vanguardia" observed on July 27. Iran has forged increasingly cordial ties with the leftist government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, especially under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The daily cited joint deals being implemented in Venezuela, including the Cerro Azul cement plant in the northeastern state of Monagas, which is due to begin working in late 2007 with a capacity to produce an annual million tons of cement; the construction of 7,000 housing units and a milk processing plant in Zulia, eastern Venezuela; and an automotive plant in Maracay, close to the northern Caribbean coast, which has begun to produce or assemble a planned annual 25,000 units of the Iranian "Samand" limousine. It also mentioned the Veniran tractor plant in Ciudad Bolivar, eastern Venezuela, which has started producing its planned 5,000 tractors a year. The daily reported that most of its production has been given away to Bolivia, whose leftist government has close ties with Venezuela. "La Vanguardia" noted that direct Tehran-Caracas flights, which began on March 2, are fully booked until October 13, though it did not report the frequency of the flights. It added that Iranians visiting on business do not wait for appointments outside ministers' offices, as President Chavez has isssued orders for them to be received immediately. VS

The U.S. ambassador in Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli, told reporters in Managua on July 28 that Iran "can be a dangerous partner." Trivelli made the statement as Nicaragua's leftist president, Daniel Ortega, began distributing tractors produced under a joint Iranian-Venezuelan deal to farmers' cooperatives in the north of the country, AP reported. Trivelli did not mention the tractors, and stressed that Americans and Nicaraguans enjoy "good relations." AP did not name the tractor company, which may be Veniran (see above), but stated it was 51 percent Iranian-owned. It was not immediately clear if the tractors were sold on favorable terms or donated. VS

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh on July 27 sharply criticized the Iraqi Accordance Front's threat to withdraw from the government unless its demands are met, state-run Al-Iraqiyah reported. On July 25, the front gave the government a week to meet its package of 11 demands, including the disbanding of all Shi'ite militias, a firm government commitment to human rights, and an opportunity for the bloc to participate fully in the decision-making process (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007). Al-Dabbagh said the Sunni bloc's threats are deliberate lies that are part of its policy to stifle the political process. "The policy of threats, pressure, and blackmail is useless, and blocking the work of the government and the National Assembly, as well as the political process, will not [succeed in returning] Iraq to the era of dictatorship and slavery," al-Dabbagh said. Meanwhile, Talabani indicated that although the bloc has some legitimate grievances, its threat to quit the government is "unacceptable." "The members of the Al-Tawafuq [Accordance] Front should have taken into consideration their role, duties, and rights in the government before making this decision," Talabani said. SS

During a July 27 interview with Al-Sharqiyah television, Khalaf al-Ulayyan, a leading member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, described government spokesman al-Dabbagh's recent criticisms of the Sunni bloc as baseless. "This talk is false and fabricated. The Iraqi government, through its official spokesman Dr. Ali al-Dabbagh, is trying to level accusations against anyone attempting to confront the wrong policies of the government," al-Ulayyan said. He also accused the government of carrying out "heinous" acts not only against Sunnis, but against all Iraqis who question the government's policies. "Our demands are not only restricted to the Sunnis, but also to the Shi'a and all Iraqis and sects that have been subjected to injustice and torture. This is the way we work and we are not sectarian or trading on the sentiments of citizens," al-Ulayyan said. Al-Ulayyan told Al-Sharqiyah television on July 28 that al-Dabbagh's criticism of the front was influenced by Iran. "The Iranian Embassy [in Baghdad] gave the instructions to issue the statement and instructed Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to the prime minister, to prepare this statement by himself. None of the ministers knew about this except the prime minister, Sadiq al-Rikabi, and the Iranian Embassy," al-Ulayyan said. He also accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of not consulting members of his own party before allowing al-Dabbagh to issue the statement. Al-Ulayyan said that factor, combined with what he said was Iranian influence on the prime minister, show that al-Maliki will not be able to bring about any type of national reconciliation or incorporate all groups into the political process. SS

Iraqis celebrated in the streets after their national soccer team defeated Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the Asia Cup final on July 29, international media reported. Despite a government-imposed curfew in Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk, Iraqis poured into the streets and fired celebratory gunshots into the air. The authorities had also imposed a ban on all vehicles and bicycles in the three cities in order to avoid a repeat of the July 25 suicide bombings that killed 50 people and wounded more than 130 during mass celebrations of the team's semifinal victory over South Korea (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007). Prime Minister al-Maliki's office issued a statement announcing that each player on the team will be awarded $10,000. Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said the victory was an important morale boost for all Iraqis. "While politics wreak havoc on the country, the patriotic footballers played their role to strengthen national unity," al-Hashimi said. "We stick to our hopes for a united, peaceful, and independent Iraq where all citizens coexist harmoniously." SS

Government spokesman al-Dabbagh announced at a July 28 press conference that Prime Minister al-Maliki will visit Turkey in the second week of August, international media reported. Al-Dabbagh said al-Maliki's visit will address multiple issues, including the presence of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels in Iraq. He said the talks will focus on security and political issues, "as there are many important issues between the two neighboring countries like the presence of the PKK in northern Iraq." "The Iraqi government is keen to develop bilateral relations after the [Turkish parliamentary] elections and is looking forward to having Turkey as an important partner to Iraq," he added. Prior to the Justice and Development (AK) party's landslide victory in recent Turkish elections, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and Turkish military officials threatened that Ankara might carry out military incursions into northern Iraq to pursue PKK fighters based there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 2, 2007). Turkey has repeatedly warned that it will conduct unilateral military operations in northern Iraq if the United States and Iraq fail to take action against the PKK. SS

Iraq's two main Kurdish parties -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by President Talabani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party headed by Mas'ud Barzani -- have agreed on a security accord, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on July 28. Talabani said details of the arrangement will be released soon, and stressed that the agreement will not marginalize other, smaller Kurdish parties. He said the agreement will instead help foster stronger relations between various Kurdish forces and parties. Regarding the possibility of a Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq, Barzani said, "We hope that the Turkish Justice and Development party's victory in the latest parliamentary elections will assist in bolstering friendship and good neighborly relations between us and Turkey, and end tensions in the area." SS