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Newsline - August 7, 2007

On August 6, military officials unveiled a new air-defense system for Moscow based on an updated version of the Soviet-designed S-400 surface-to-air missile unit, Russian and international media reported. The system is designed to stop aircraft and medium-range missiles, but not intercontinental ballistic missiles. The daily "Vremya novostei" noted that the S-400 is expected to be the basis for Russia's projected missile-defense system and that a mobile launching system is in the planning stage. Also on August 6, Colonel General Aleksandr Zelin, who heads the Russian Air Force, said that the new missile system being used to protect Moscow could also be used to protect the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. On February 27, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said that Russia needs to develop a "project of the fifth generation that will include not only air-defense systems, but also antiballistic-missile and space-defense systems." On March 13, Air Force Commander in Chief Colonel General Vladimir Mikhailov said that Russia is developing a "fifth-generation air-defense missile system based on the existing S-300 and S-400 systems" in response to the proposed U.S. missile-defense project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, March 14, May 31, and June 20, 2007). Critics charge that the Kremlin and the military establishment are using the U.S. plans for a missile-defense system, including 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic, as an excuse to embark upon a costly arms program that will necessitate diverting funds away from domestic spending projects. PM

On August 6, Mikhail Margelov, who is the chairman of the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, said that Russia's position on missile defense "influenced the [recent] decision of the U.S. Congress to cut financing under the draft bill on military expenditures by $139 million" because of doubts about the viability of the Polish and Czech projects, Interfax reported. PM

Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and his Afghan counterpart, Anwar al-Haq Ahadi, signed an agreement in Moscow on August 6 in which Russia agreed to write off over $11 billion of Kabul's Soviet-era debts to Moscow, Russian media reported. The debt stems mainly from credits for arms sales. The cancellation is part of a package deal on the Afghan debt recently agreed by the Paris Club of creditor countries, dpa reported. Kabul still owes Moscow about $730 million, which will be repaid over 23 years. PM

The Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruled on August 6 that Russia must return the Japanese fishing boat "No. 88 Hoshin Maru," which Russian border guards impounded on June 1 off the Kamchatka Peninsula, Radio Japan, which is the international service of the public broadcaster NHK, reported on August 7. Russia is also obliged to free the ship's crew under the ruling. The court called Russia's demand for a $1 million bond for the crew "excessive" and lowered the amount to $400,000. Relations between Moscow and Tokyo have been strained over the past year, primarily because of a fatal incident involving Japanese fishermen and Russian border police in August 2006 and Russia's behavior in the dispute over the Sakhalin-2 natural-gas project, which adversely affected Mitsui and Mitsubishi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2007). The Japanese fishing industry charges that Russian patrol ships have recently been harassing Japanese boats that fished in disputed waters without incident for years. PM

The nationalist "RBC Daily" on August 6 drew attention to recent remarks by navy commander Admiral Vladimir Masorin that the Russian fleet should have a "permanent presence" in the Mediterranean Sea, as it did in Syria during the Cold War (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11 and August 3, 2007). The paper noted that the Black Sea Fleet could relocate its main base from Sevastopol in Ukraine to Tartus in Syria when the Sevastopol lease runs out in 2017. The daily nonetheless quoted Aleksandr Khramchikhin, chief analyst at the Political and Military Analysis Institute, who argues that attempts to base a full-fledged fleet in the Mediterranean at this stage would weaken the Baltic Fleet and the Northern Fleet. In particular, he called unacceptable Masorin's suggestion that the aircraft carrier "Admiral Kuznetsov," which is the only one Russia has, could be transferred from Severomorsk to the Mediterranean. Khramchikhin stressed that one can "show the flag" in the Mediterranean without transferring a huge presence to that region. Also on August 6, the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" commented that Masorin's enthusiasm for the Mediterranean probably stems from the region's abundance of gas and oil supplies. The paper noted, however, that a fleet consists of "people as well as metal" and that the human factor should be taken into account before deciding on a large-scale deployment far from Russian shores. The daily noted that, in the Mediterranean, Russia's potential adversaries have much larger and more sophisticated navies than Russia does. PM

On August 6, a procession took place in Moscow to honor victims of Josef Stalin's purges and deliver a large wooden cross from northern Russia's Solovetsky Monastery, which served as a Soviet prison camp in the 1930s, Russian news agencies reported. The cross is scheduled to be set up on August 8 in the capital's Butovo district, where mass executions and burials of political prisoners took place. The August 6 procession is part of activities to mark the 70th anniversary of the beginning of Stalin's purges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007). PM

The regional duma of Novgorod Oblast voted on August 7 to elect Sergei Mitin as governor following the resignation under pressure of long-standing Governor Mikhail Prusak, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 2007). Ilya Klebanov, who is President Putin's envoy to the Northwest Federal District and whose public criticism of Prusak led to the governor's resignation, said on August 6 that he has offered Prusak an unspecified job in the Kremlin's presidential administration. Klebanov added that Prusak "liked" the suggestion and will announce his decision in a few days. On August 7, the daily "Novye izvestia" wondered where Klebanov got his information about rampant crime in the region, which constituted the basis for his criticism of Prusak's administration. RFE/RL's Russian Service noted that Prusak is one of Russia's most experienced governors, and suggested that Mitin is likely to prove an unimaginative administrator who is accustomed to working in hierarchical systems. PM

The Bush administration withdrew on August 4 its nominee for the post of U.S. ambassador to Armenia, AP and Arminfo reported. The nomination of career diplomat Richard Hoagland was held up by members of the U.S. Senate due to Hoagland's refusal to use the term "genocide" in reference to mass killing of Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Hoagland previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan. RG

Meeting in Yerevan for fewer than 10 minutes, the recently reconfigured Armenian Central Election Commission formally selected on August 6 its new leadership, unanimously reelecting Garegin Azarian, the president's representative to the commission, to a third-consecutive term, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Armenpress reported. The eight-member commission also unanimously elected Harutiun Shahbazian of the Prosperous Armenia party and Abraham Bakhchagulian of the Republican Party as deputy chairman and secretary, respectively. The other members of the commission include Hamlet Abrahamian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), Sona Sargsian from the Orinats Yerkir party, and Zoya Tadevosian from the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party, and Ashot Abovyan and Karen Poladyan representing the commission's judicial department. Azarian has been widely criticized by the opposition for allegedly "mishandling" elections during his tenure as commission chairman, a position he has held since June 2003. RG

The trial of three Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans charged with plotting to overthrow the Armenian government concluded on August 6 with Judge Mnatsakan Martirosian acquitting the lead defendant, Lebanese citizen Zhirayr Sefilian, of the charge but finding him guilty of a lesser charge of illegal arms possession, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo reported. Sefilian's conviction on that count carries an 18-month prison term, while co-defendant Vartan Malkhasian was found guilty on the sole charge of "calling for a violent overthrow of government" and was sentenced to a two-year prison term. The third defendant in the case, Vahan Aroyan, who was charged only with illegally carrying weapons, was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian established in late 2006 a group named the Union of Armenian Volunteers that advocated "peaceful regime change" in Armenia and which stridently opposed any resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would entail territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. The two men were arrested in early December and Vahan Aroyan was arrested in late December after police allegedly found an arms cache near his home (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 12, and 20, 2006, and July 2, 2007). RG

Armenian Trade and Economic Development Minister Nerses Yeritsian met on August 6 in Yerevan with Sergei Vybomov, the head of the Russian Alrosa diamond group, and signed a new agreement on cooperation in the jewelry and gemstone-polishing spheres, according to Interfax. According to the terms of the new agreement announced during a subsequent press conference, the Russian firm pledged to supply Armenia with uncut and unpolished diamonds and said that the "next stage of cooperation" would entail the formation of joint ventures to further develop the domestic Russian market. Armenia stopped purchasing raw diamonds from Alrosa last year after a rise in prices. Armenian officials hope that the new agreement will reverse a sharp decline in the country's diamond-polishing sector, which decreased by some 22 percent in 2006. The Russian Alrosa group is the world's second-largest diamond producer and mines roughly one-quarter of the world's annual diamond supply. RG

A new "working group" formed to defend imprisoned Azerbaijani journalist Musfiq Huseynov met on August 6 in the Baku office of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, Turan reported. The group comprises a broad cross-section of journalists and civil-society representatives, including members of the League of Democratic Journalists, the Turan news agency, the Committee for Oilmen's Rights, and the Society for the Protection of Rights, among others. Participants at the meeting resolved to demand an independent investigation into the events surrounding the arrest of Huseynov, a journalist for the opposition daily "Bizim yol" (Our Path) newspaper, whose arrest was aired on television purportedly showing him accepting a $3,500 bribe from a person reported to be Rizvan Aliyev, an official of the Labor and Social Security Ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 2, 2007). Huseynov, a prominent critic of the Azerbaijani government, was arrested on July 24 by security personnel and admitted during his interrogation that he accepted the money from Aliyev "to give to a third person," but apparently did not explain to whom or for what purpose (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007). "Bizim yol" editor Bahaddin Haziyev said that pressure on the newspaper has intensified since the arrest and investigators seized all of the paper's financial documents. RG

The Baku office of the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed on August 6 that an Armenian soldier defected on August 4 to Azerbaijani forces along the conflict line separating Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, according to Turan. The spokesman for the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Ministry, Colonel Senor Hasratian, also confirmed on August 6 that 23-year-old Hambartsum Asaturian "left his military unit on his own in unclear circumstances, crossed the Nagorno-Karabakh state border, and went over" to the Azerbaijani side two days earlier, according to the Mediamax news agency. Asaturian reportedly served in the Nagorno-Karabakh army since May 2007. RG

A similar case, involving the defection of an Azerbaijani civilian to the Armenian side, was also confirmed on August 3 by unnamed Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Ministry officials, according to the Mediamax news agency. Anar Aliyev, an Azerbaijani citizen, was arrested by Nagorno-Karabakh troops on August 2 after he deliberately crossed into the northwestern section of the Armenian side of the contact line separating Karabakh and Azerbaijani positions. Although he could not explain his actions, he later admitted to be suffering from some form of depression. The local Karabakh officers informed their superiors of the incident and other officials contacted the OSCE and the Red Cross, who later met with the man and delivered letters to his family, the Trend news agency reported. RG

Speaking in a press conference in Tbilisi, Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze criticized on August 6 South Ossetian officials their "unwillingness to move forward in conflict resolution" and blamed them for failing to participate in planned talks in Tbilisi, according to Rustavi-2 television and the Civil Georgia website. A meeting of the Joint Control Commission (JCC), which comprises negotiators from the Georgian, South Ossetian, Russian, and Russia's North Ossetian sides, was scheduled to convene in the Georgian capital on August 9-10, but the South Ossetian side refused to participate, citing security concerns. Bakradze added that the JCC will fail to bring a major breakthrough in the conflict resolution process "without fundamental changes in the format," proposing instead to have Russian and South Ossetian participation in the Georgian state commission recently formed to "develop" the status of South Ossetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, 2007). He also criticized Russia, saying that the failure of talks in Tbilisi "has once again brought into question the effectiveness of the Russian Federation as a mediator." Bakradze, the former head of the parliamentary committee on Euro-integration, was named to the ministerial post following the resignation of Merab Antadze on July 19, who returned to the position of deputy foreign minister that he held until his appointment as minister one year ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2007). RG

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili on August 7 condemned Russia for "an act of aggression" involving the overflight of two Russian military aircraft that he said fired a missile at a Georgian village, the BBC and Reuters reported. Georgian officials say the missile hit the village of Tsitelubani, about 60 kilometers west of the capital Tbilisi, but failed to explode. Merabishvili added that the aircraft was tracked by Georgian radar, which showed that the aircraft originated from, and returned to, Russian airspace. In response to the Georgian minister's statement, Russian Air Force Colonel Aleksandr Drobyshevsky, denied the accusations, arguing that the Russian Air Force "neither on Monday nor Tuesday [August 7 or 8] flew flights over Georgia" and asserting that "Russia has not violated the borders of sovereign Georgia." RG

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights joined the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights in criticizing on August 6 the Kyrgyz police for the methods they used to disperse a human-rights rally held on July 30 in Bishkek, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Police forcibly confiscated banners and flags from demonstrators at the rally and briefly arrested Tursun Islam, one of the demonstration's organizers. Islam's son Alisher was also arrested and was detained for three days by police before being released. Participants at the rally, which was organized by the Kyrgyz civic group Democracy, called on Western countries to continue to promote human rights in the country. In a joint statement posted on the International Helsinki Federation's website (, the two human-rights groups denounced the police for mishandling the rally and noted that the incident was only the latest in a series of cases in Kyrgyzstan in which human-rights activists have been "subject to pressure and the threat of criminal prosecution." They further called on the authorities to ensure that legitimate and peaceful protests can take place freely and without repercussions for the participants. RG

Bermet Akaeva, the daughter of former President Askar Akaev, was formally charged on August 6 with obstructing justice and contempt of court, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Akaeva is accused of pressuring a regional court to overturn an April decision barring her from running in a special April 29 parliamentary by-election. She has also been implicated, along with two of her supporters, in a criminal case stemming from demonstrations and "mass public disorder" on April 23-24 to protest the decision to ban her from that election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and 30, 2007). If convicted, she could face up to two years in prison. Akaeva argued that the charges were politically motivated and recently petitioned a Kyrgyz court to dismiss all charges, citing "contradictory testimony" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3, 2007). RG

Speaking to reporters at a press conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev argued on August 6 that there is no "urgent need for union with Russia," AKIpress and Kyrgyz television reported. He noted that Kyrgyz-Russian relations are "already developing dynamically" with "neither economic nor political problems." He added that "Kyrgyzstan is a sovereign country" and will "develop in accordance with its aims and tasks," dismissing demands by the Kyrgyz opposition for such a union with Russia as "a publicity stunt." On August 5, former Prime Minister and opposition leader Feliks Kulov announced that criminal charges recently brought against him were "politically motivated" and aimed at preventing his effort to create "an interstate union with Russia and other CIS countries" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 2007). RG

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov convened on August 6 a cabinet meeting to review his government's reform goals and priorities for developing the country's energy sector, Turkmen television reported. Following reports by senior military and law-enforcement officials, Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov briefed the president on preparations for the upcoming state visit to Ashgabat by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Berdymukhammedov also instructed the cabinet to accelerate gas-export plans to China recently concluded during his recent state visit to Beijing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2007). During that visit, the Turkmen president 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). RG

Ala Karol, the coordinator of the Belarusian opposition's committee for support of political victims, told Belapan on August 6 that 44 students who were expelled from Belarusian universities will be provided with training under the Polish government's Kastus Kalinouski educational-assistance program for politically persecuted Belarusians this year. The Kastus Kalinouski program was instituted in March 2006 by the Polish prime minister and the rectors of several Polish universities for Belarusian students punished earlier that year for their participation in the campaigns of opposition presidential candidates or postelection protests. More than 200 young Belarusians were reportedly enrolled in Poland last year. This year's applicants -- who mostly opted for places on courses in economy, sociology, history, Belarusian studies, and arts -- will begin their studies in September after taking a course in the Polish and English languages. JM

Former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich has urged Terry Davis, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, to help save historic buildings in Hrodna, a city in northwestern Belarus, Belapan reported on August 6. Milinkevich wrote in his appeal that authorities have planned to demolish around 70 "valuable" buildings in Hrodna as part of a project to redevelop its historic center. "Construction work is being carried out in violation of Belarusian regulations governing the conservation of cultural heritage, with archeological fundamentals ignored. To attempts by representatives of the intelligentsia to begin dialogue about the most optimum way of preserving Hrodna's historic complex, authorities reply with police patrols, administrative sanctions, and the defamation by the official media of alternative projects," Milinkevich added. Last week, construction workers in Hrodna completed the demolition of a building that was part of the 18th-century palace of Hrodna's administrator. The demolition was condemned by local history enthusiasts as an act of vandalism. JM

Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha alleged on August 6 that the cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is going to use administrative levers -- or "administrative resources," as such levers are popularly called in Ukraine -- in promoting candidates of the ruling Party of Regions in the early parliamentary elections set for September 30, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "Following the will and the blessing of the head of government, the first hundred candidates on the election list of the Party of Regions, apart from himself, include some 20 deputy prime ministers, ministers, and deputy ministers. Nothing has been said about their going on leave, which prompts the conclusion that the party counts on an unlimited use of administrative resources [in the election campaign]," Baloha said. Baloha recalled that Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych demanded that the government of former Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov resign during last year's parliamentary election campaign. "Instead [of admonishing the cabinet of ministers], Mr. Baloha, for instance, could dissuade the president from participating in the convention of a particular political force, let alone from making a speech there, if the president is a democrat and a president of the entire country," Party of Regions lawmaker Hanna Herman replied to Baloha's allegation later the same day. The presidential press service reported on August 6 that President Viktor Yushchenko is to deliver a speech at the election convention of the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc scheduled for August 7. JM

The head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), Joachim Ruecker, on August 2 ordered a temporary halt to the return of 350 properties in the region. The UNMIK gave no specific reason for the decision, but UNMIK spokeswoman Myriam Dessables, reportedly stressed that "the validity of these decisions in these cases is not under question, but the suspension only affects their implementation." Although Dessables said the decision is not aimed at any ethnic community in Kosova, Vuko Antonijevic, a senior Kosovar Serb politician, said in an interview published on August 5 by the Serbian daily "Politika" that "this is a well-conceived move, because if there is no return of property, which is one of the inalienable human rights, then there is also no return" by refugees. A senior official in Serbia's ministry for Kosovar affairs, Dusan Prorokovic, on August 5 described Ruecker's decision as "one of the most scandalous in UNMIK's eight-year history," local media reported. The Serbian news agency Tanjug speculated on August 6 that Ruecker may have been responding to reports alleging that local authorities in the town in Klina had illegally seized property belonging to ethnic Serbs. Property rights and the plight of returnees are issues consistently highlighted by Serbian negotiators in talks about the future of Kosova, and a report issued in late July by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that "the fact that returns remain a priority eight years after the conflict reflects the reality that all mechanisms and strategies developed were not successful in providing adequate protection of the rights of returnees." It also stated that "more than 20,000 claims...are currently suspended and pending an adequate solution," and called for stronger safeguards for property rights and more extensive measures to protect returnees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 2, 2007). AG

The head of land-registry issues in Serbia's ministry for Kosovar affairs, Slavica Radomirovic, told the Serbian daily "Vecernje novosti" on August 5 that Serbia took the original documentation out of Kosova and continues to refuse to hand over the registry to the UNMIK "because, while the originals are with us, Serbia has proof what is its property.... What would happen if the originals were with them? Seizures would be legalized [and] what is Serbian would become Albanian." "Vecernje novosti" noted that the Serbian state, ethnic Serbs, and the Serbian Orthodox Church have legal title to 59 percent of Kosova's land. The late-July OSCE report also stressed the need for Serbia to "help ensure the return of cadastral and judicial records originating or pertaining to Kosovo which are currently located in Serbia proper." AG

Kosova's prime minister, Agim Ceku, has urged ethnic Albanians in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica to demonstrate "greater national consciousness" by not selling property. Ceku, who made his call on August 1, said via the local media that would-be sellers should hold off until Kosova's status is resolved. On July 31, members of the Kosovar parliament claimed that the Serbian authorities are buying Albanian properties at high prices and constructing high-rise apartment blocks on them. Mitrovica is one of the most combustible areas of Kosova, and two bomb blasts in Mitrovica in March occurred near or on a site where two residential apartment blocks are being built with funds from the Serbian government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2007). AG

Serbian police late on August 4 killed one man in a 20-minute exchange of fire with gunmen near the border with Kosova, Serbian Interior Minister Dragan Jocic said on August 5. Jocic told Serbian and international reporters that the police were called in after reports that a group of "at least" 10 gunmen was attacking cars on a road leading toward the border. Jocic said the motive for the attack appeared to be robbery, but noted that "their attack and defense was professional, conducted with almost military knowledge and experience." The men wore balaclavas and black uniforms and were armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, Jocic said. The Kosovar daily "Koha ditore" reported on August 6 that there are some indications that the gunmen were targeting the cars of ethnic Albanians heading to Kosova for holidays. It did not disclose the source of this information. The incident occurred in the Presevo Valley, a region of southern Serbia predominantly populated by ethnic Albanians and the site of an insurgency between 1999 and November 2001. This is the first such incident in the region this year, but there is concern that any violence prompted by the dispute over Kosova's status could spill over into the Presevo Valley. That unease has also been fueled by efforts by some local politicians to put the possibility of unification with Kosova back on the agenda (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 2007). One of those leading calls for secession, Jonuz Musliu, was among those attacked by the armed group, "Koha ditore" and Serbian national television reported. Musliu is a deputy mayor of one of the region's three towns, Bujanovac, and is a former political leader of the region's now-disbanded separatist militia. AG

Two grenades were fired at a government building in Skopje early on August 6 in what the Macedonian authorities described as a "terrorist attack," Macedonian media reported. Government spokesman Ivica Bocevski said the South African-made grenades were fired from a distance of 400 meters but landed 100 meters short of the building, the news agency Makfax reported. No one was injured. Bocevski did not say who the authorities believe might have launched the attack. There has been no similar attack n recent years, but the timing of the attack will add to concerns about violence in Kosova could reignite the separatist violence seen in Macedonia in 2001. Ethnic-Albanian veterans of that conflict recently vowed to fight alongside Kosovar Albanians if Kosova is denied independence. In the latest demonstration of support for Kosova, several thousand Albanian Macedonians rallied on August 3 in Tetovo, the epicenter of the 2001 conflict. AG

A nephew of Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnian Muslims' representative in the country's three-member Presidency, was shot dead early on August 5, Bosnian media reported. Police have arrested one man suspected of murder and another six for complicity. The police statement did not indicate a possible motive, but Bosnia-Herzegovina TV1 (BH TV1) reported that, according to police sources, Tarik Silajdzic had "repeatedly been linked to violent incidents in Sarajevo." BH TV1 quoted neighbors as saying that most of those arrested were members of the family in whose house the 19-year-old Silajdzic was killed. AG

Croatia's political leaders on August 5 joined thousands of Croats at a ceremony to celebrate what Croats know as Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day, a day that marks the defeat of ethnic-Serbian separatists in 1995. The focal point of the nationwide celebrations were a procession, a mass, a flag-hoisting ceremony, and concerts in the southern city of Knin, which was recaptured on August 5, 1995, at the start of what proved to be the decisive campaign of the war, Operation Storm. Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said August 5 is a date written in gold letters into Croatia's history, the Croatian news agency Hina reported. The event, which was attended by President Stjepan Mesic, also attracted roughly 30 nationalist protesters, who wore T-shirts with the slogans "Down with NATO!" and "Down with EU!" AG

Croatian President Mesic on August 5 criticized a statement issued by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to coincide with Croatia's celebrations. In his statement, Kostunica emphasized the "horrendous scenes" of ethnic Serbs fleeing Croatia, calling their exodus a "crime" and "ethnic cleansing." "The longest column of refugees that Europe has seen since World War II will forever remain testimony to the defeat of all those who committed this crime and who are responsible for this," Kostunica said, adding, according to an August 4 report by the Serbian news agency FoNet, that it is "our duty as a people to pay our respects to the innocent Serbs killed in Storm." Mesic urged Serbia to accept that its former president, the late Slobodan Milosevic, forced Croatia into war, and said that acknowledgment that those who supported Milosevic should answer for the consequences would be cathartic. Hina also quoted Croatian Prime Minister Sanader as saying that in Belgrade "they still haven't realized that they committed the aggression and until they do so and face the past, it won't be good." Mesic and Sanader acknowledged that "impermissible things" happened during Operation Storm, but Sanader added that "there is no collective guilt, and those single crimes cannot stain Storm" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, April 16 and 30, and May 2, 2007). Croatia has promised to support the individual generals accused by UN prosecutors of war crimes committed during Operation Storm (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 31, 2007). AG

Croatia's Agriculture Ministry on August 3 repeated its demand that Serbia return a herd of prized horses following reports by animal-rights groups in both Serbia and Croatia that the Serbian stables in which they are housed is guilty of neglect. Nearly 90 Lipizzaner horses, prized since the 16th century as dressage horses and made famous by the Austro-Hungarian Empire's Spanish Riding School, were moved at the start of the war in Croatia from Lipik in Croatia. Their journey took them to Bosnia and then to the Croatian-Serbian border until eventually, in 1998, they were stabled at a farm near Novi Sad in Serbia. Media reports on the number of remaining horses vary substantially, but at least 30 have died since arriving in Novi Sad. The stable owner has reportedly said that he would be prepared to return the horses to Croatia but is demanding that Croatia pay 300,000 euros ($414,000) for the care provided over the past nine years. Serbian Agriculture Minister Slobodan Milosavljevic visited the stables on August 3 and said, "I am no expert to judge their condition, but they seem in a decent state." Animal-rights groups believe pictures of the horses show that the horses are unfed and neglected, and they say that some are sick or close to death. Milosavljevic said he will soon meet his Croatian counterpart, Petar Cobankovic, "to determine how [the horses] came here, how they were kept, what their present condition is, and what should be done to solve the problem." AG

Around 150 ethnic Serbs, many of them relatives of Serbs who disappeared or were killed during Operation Storm, marked the anniversary of the campaign by demonstrating outside the Croatian Embassy in Belgrade on August 4. Prior to the meeting, the organizer of the rally, the head of the Union of Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Branislav Svonja, asserted that "only under international pressure will Croatia do something about Serbian refugees and displaced persons." However, Svonja was also critical of Serbian politicians in Croatia and the Serbian government itself. "Legitimate Serbian representatives, Milorad Pupovac in particular, are doing great damage to the Serbian people in Croatia, because they support the Croatian government and are doing nothing, and they are not informing the public about what is going on there," Svonja said at a news conference on July 31. Pupovac is a veteran leader of the Serbian community in Croatia. The chief failing on Belgrade's part, Svonja said, is that it is not doing enough to protect the rights of Serbs in Croatia, particularly relating to property, tenancy rights, and pensions. Protesters at the rally also urged Croatia to speed up efforts to exhume and identify the remains of the roughly 1,000 ethnic Serbs still missing from the conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 18, 2007). Harsher criticisms of Serbia were made on August 3 by another group representing Serbian refugees, the Justice Communication Center, whose head, Dragan Sekulovic, said that some refugees plan to sue Serbia for participation in ethnic cleansing and betrayal of the Serbian people during Operation Storm. According to the Serbian broadcaster B92, Sekulovic said that several days prior to the attack Yugoslav People's Army forces dismantled a missile-defense system, replaced the wartime commander, and appointed a specialist for evacuation of population. A recent survey for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated that 120,000 registered refugees have officially returned to Croatia since the end of the war (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 18, 2007). AG

Milan Jelic, the president of the Republika Srpska, has criticized Croatia for celebrating the anniversary of Operation Storm as a national holiday. In comments relayed by the news agency SRNA, Jelic has said that the 12th anniversary of the campaign should instead be viewed as a reminder that those guilty of crimes against Croatia's Serbian population should face justice. "Only by establishing full responsibility and by punishing all those who committed war crimes during the conflicts in the region can there be a true reconciliation, interethnic tolerance, and further strengthening of regional stability," Jelic said in an official statement. Jelic added that the Croatian authorities, "if they truly want Serbs to return," must "do much more with regard to the return and reconstruction of Serbian property, just solutions to the problem of tenancy rights being taken away, employment possibilities, guarantees on personal and property security, as well as on human and civic rights, in line with European and international standards." Jelic made similar criticisms of Croatia on April 30, when Croatia marked the 12th anniversary of another key campaign, Operation Flash, launched in the final stages of Croatia's war with ethnic Serbs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 18, 2007). AG

Perhaps one of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's most remarkable traits since taking power two years ago today has been a fondness for bombastic remarks. Such comments have given him an international profile not unlike that held by the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1980s.

The fiery discourse may also have given Ahmadinejad some of his power in Iranian domestic politics. But while this may have strengthened his political position against some institutional opponents and critics, it may not assure either his reelection or win his radical supporters too many seats in next year's parliamentary elections.

The impact of Ahmadinejad's rhetoric on the political scene can also be compared to the popularity enjoyed by his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.

The rhetoric and the popularity constituted a less tangible component of the two presidents' power, allowing them -- at least for a short time -- to take the initiative.

In Khatami's case, his popularity and electoral support seemed to give him the upper hand against conservative opponents for many months or even the early years of his eight-year presidency.

But this popularity -- along with his mild-mannered approach -- did not allow Khatami and a reformist-majority parliament to impose a reforming and liberalizing agenda.

The system and mechanics that disperse power in Iran and put key areas of foreign and nuclear policy-making into the hands of an oligarchy headed by the country's supreme leader have proved too inflexible to allow a reforming or a radical president to impose their agendas upon certain essential state objectives.

Whether radical like Ahmadinejad or reformist like Khatami -- there is a middle policy-making ground with which Iran's presidents must seemingly conform.

But Ahmadinejad's rhetoric has proved a powerful instrument of political leverage inside Iran. With the support of some powerful clerical allies -- such as Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati and prominent conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi -- the president has once more brought the radical and revolutionary discourse into prominence.

Ahmadinejad has allowed Iran's more hard-line political elements to renew their pressure on the press, civil bodies, and labor activists, and to recreate something akin to the fear-filled environment of the first decade following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Talk is once again about enemies, treachery, and "creeping coups" by foreigners who are plotting with the help of domestic agents. In the economy it's about corruption and of the thieving rich living the high life in contrast with "the people" whom Ahmadinejad ostensibly champions.

Observers have seen this Manichean rhetoric as fuelling an increasingly polarized atmosphere: the media may speak of radicals and moderates, but in the discourse of the president and his allies, the picture is of friends and enemies, the pious and the impious, revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries.

The reformist daily "Aftab-i Yazd" asked in a July 30 editorial if there could be a government of moderation in the country when opponents and critics are demonized; or any peaceful cohabitation of groups essentially loyal to the religious polity.

Part of the president's "stunning" rhetoric has been focused on moderate hard-liners -- those perceived to be most threatening to his radical current among extreme hard-liners.

These moderate hard-liners are pragmatic elements that have effectively absorbed the "institutional" reformists of the Khatami era to form a front representing a less revolutionary and more rational and "expedient" model of government.

The main elements of this front seem to be Khatami and former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the technocratic-style Executives of Construction Party, and former officials associated with the Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations such as Hasan Rohani or even the less politicized judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi.

It seems both sides have their strengths and weaknesses. Both have their share of state offices, their influence, and sway over a little army of clients and friends.

In addition, the hard-liners use bombast and verbal attacks as an instrument of intimidation and -- many would argue -- sometimes the courts, too. The moderate hard-liners use -- as best that they can -- the counterrhetoric of moderation, consensus, and expediency.

This might be a weakness for the "moderates." Who in Iran could forcefully assert that expediency is now the slogan of a regime born of a revolution? Which public official or press editor would dare state that the revolution is over -- that people are tired of it -- and that the state must now pay less attention to "cancerous" Israel and more to interest rates, public transportation, or privatization? It would be akin to a negation of Iran's postrevolutionary ideals and history.

Ahmadinejad has also brought his rhetoric to economics. His decisions in this area suggest a streamlining of economic policy-making bodies and a shortening of the economic link between the executive branch and the public than any decision to privatize in line with state and constitutional projects.

His move to transfer the shares from state-owned companies to workers in the form of "justice shares" seems a reluctant version of privatization, and more like a boost to the cooperative sector.

Where is the privatization, some observers have asked, when state-appointed managers continue to make the decisions in these firms? Meanwhile, the intermittent denunciations of corruption -- or threats to reveal officials who have their hands in the public purse -- are the economic complement to Ahmadinejad's tirades against the enemy within or his verbal desecration of Israel.

But while this may intimidate even his most powerful critics, it may not be enough to keep the presidential party in power. Not one faction has all the power in Iran, and political groups seem to work in shifting alliances. The Ahmadinejad discourse is not attractive to all members of the conservative family in Iran. His populist style has intermittently alienated the clergy in Qom, which could have an impact on the preferences of some voters.

Additionally, voters are not necessarily intimidated by the threatening discourse, as shown by the results of two elections last December which -- in spite of government assertions to the contrary -- were perceived by many observers to have signified a public rejection of Ahmadinejad's presidency.

Another factor in the life of the president is the role of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Like all senior officials, he must have the system's survival as his primary concern. And he may feel revolutionary speeches by the president are a less solid ground for the Islamic republic's long-term survival than the "expediency" so dear to some members of the Shi'ite clergy.

In a hypothetical confrontation between the radical hard-liners and the "pragmatists," Khamenei may well choose expediency over populism -- a political firecracker that could explode in his face. Moderation and expediency may -- in such a case -- prove to be the decisive strengths.

U.S. President George W. Bush on August 6 pledged to help rebuild Afghanistan and praised the leadership of his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, Asia Pulse reported on August 7. Bush has been working to bolster Karzai, who is struggling to handle a resurgent Taliban, record-breaking opium production, and an unchecked Al-Qaeda threat, which remains a sore spot for the U.S. president, "The New York Times" reported. Bush welcomed the upcoming Pakistani-Afghan peace jirga, or leaders' assembly, in Kabul this week where Karzai and Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf are expected to discuss strategy to fight terrorism in the region. On the issue of civilian casualties, Bush blamed the Taliban for using innocent citizens as human shields. The two leaders disagreed on the issue of Iran, which Karzai characterized as "a helper." Bush, however, expressed his suspicions, saying that "the burden of proof" is on Tehran "to show they're a positive force." JC

A statement from the Taliban leadership council on August 5 denounced the upcoming peace jirga between Afghanistan and Pakistan, asking elders from both countries not to attend the meeting, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The jirga is an initiative of U.S. President Bush and will deny Afghans in attendance the right to express their views openly, the statement said. The three-day leaders' assembly, aimed at discussing cooperative efforts to combat terrorism and insurgency in the region, is scheduled to begin on August 9 in Kabul. An estimated 700 representatives, including parliament members, religious scholars, tribal elders, and members of civil society from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, are expected to attend. JC

Local consultations as part of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) kicked off on August 5 in two northern provinces, Pajhwak Afghan News reported the same day. In the opening ceremony, Samangan Province Governor Abdul Haq Shafaq praised the ANDS process, in which the central government consults local citizens on provincial-development issues and provides them with an opportunity to prioritize their needs. Governor Sayyed Iqbal Munib at the inauguration in Sar-e Pol Province echoed Shafaq's comments, declaring that the province has "the pleasure" and opportunity to identify their own requirements and priorities "for the first time." During the consultation meetings, participants separated into working groups to establish the "urgent" priorities among development programs in their provinces. A senior economic adviser to President Karzai said that approximately 220 people, over half of them women, earlier attended each of ANDS local consultations in 22 provinces. JC

An overlooked success in post-Taliban Afghanistan is the liberation of the Hazara minority, who suffered discrimination and ethnic cleansing under the Islamist militants' rule, the "Christian Science Monitor" reported on August 6. "The interim administration [in 2001] was the start of a golden period for Hazaras," said Abdul Ahad Farzam, a human-rights activist. Centuries of abuse dissolved into opportunities; now Hazaras are members of President Karzai's cabinet, provincial governors, and accessing higher education. The rise of the Hazaras community, as one of the most liberal Muslim sects in Afghanistan, is viewed as a positive change in Afghan society from a Western perspective. Years of abuse by the Taliban ensure that the Hazaras will never reconcile with the militant group, Herat University professor Mohammed Rafiq Shahir said. Hazaras, roughly translated as "The Thousands," are descendents of Mongol who stayed behind after Genghis Khan invaded Bamiyan in 1221. JC

The Taliban has taken its Islamist campaign to the airwaves in southern Afghanistan in a new effort to spread its insurgency message, U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) reported on August 6. The militants operate the station, called "Voice of Shariat," or Islamic law, out of the back of a pick-up truck. While it is unavailable in Kabul, the Pashto-language broadcast dominates the airwaves on most evenings in several southern provinces such as Paktia, Logar, and Ghazni, where U.S. troops maintain a prominent presence. Despite efforts by the Afghan government to shut down the station, it has garnered a steady following with its programs addressing people's frustrations with the government, while avoiding references to suicide attacks, according to NPR. JC

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad arrived in Algiers on August 6 for a two-day visit, IRNA and ISNA reported. He was greeted at the Algerian capital's airport by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, with whom he held talks for over an hour. Ahmadinejad later discussed bilateral ties with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem and the speakers of the Algerian upper and lower parliamentary chambers, Abdelaziz Ziari and Abdelkader Bensalah, IRNA reported. Ahmadinejad is expected to help with the implementation of over 30 bilateral accords or memoranda signed earlier. The agencies described the visit -- Ahmadinejad's first trip to Algeria, and the second by an Iranian president -- as a turning point in relations between Tehran and Algiers. VS

Mohsen Rezai, the secretary of the Expediency Council, said unity and a single electoral list should be the priority for "fundamentalist" or conservative forces in Iran in parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2008, Fars reported on August 6. Rezai said he is trying to form a coalition of "fundamentalist" forces, and "for the fundamentalists to take part in the eighth parliamentary elections with a single list," adding that two other prominent conservatives, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, support those goals. He said there are some flaws in communications between the various right-wing groups, but a five-member committee is working on coordinating communication. Rezai warned that a lack of unity within the right wing might discourage voters from backing the conservative candidates or from voting in general, Fars reported. Separately, Hadi Qabel, a member of the reformist Participation Front, told Fars that reformists are also working on a single electoral list, but he said that reports that the list might be headed by prominent cleric and moderate conservative Hojjatoleslam Hasan Rohani are only speculation. Rohani was previously Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, and is now a member of the Assembly of Experts, a body of senior clerics. VS

Iran's Culture Ministry has temporarily closed down the daily "Sharq," months after allowing it to resume publication after a previous ban, Radio Farda reported on August 6, citing Iranian news agencies. The ban was apparently imposed because of the newspaper's interview with an exiled female writer, Saqi Qahreman, who reportedly supports gay rights in her writings. Iran's Islamic laws forbid homosexuality. The daily's editor, Mehdi Rahmanian, told ISNA on August 6 that "we did not find anything particular" in the interview, but "they said publishing this interview was the reason why the daily was closed." An unnamed source at the Culture Ministry separately told the Fars news agency that an interview from August 4, titled "The Feminine Language," prompted the ban, Radio Farda reported. The official said that Qahreman has written articles on homosexuality, and the "interview was in line with this." "Sharq" apparently published an apology on August 5 after some readers wrote or phoned to point out the "background" of the writer, and the interview was deleted from paper's website, Radio Farda reported. Editors have said they did not know about the "personal characteristics" of Qahreman, Radio Farda reported. VS

Hussein Amirabdullahian, the head of the Iraqi affairs headquarters at the Iranian Foreign Ministry and a member of a team that discussed Iraqi security with U.S. diplomats in Baghdad on August 6, told the press in Baghdad that "the three-party specialist conversations were frank and serious." Iranian and U.S. representatives met for a third round of conversations on Iraqi security, which lasted two hours. Amirabdullahian said the envoys discussed the "roots and reasons" for terrorism in Iraq, and the need to bring "stability and security" to the country. He said the Iranian side told U.S. negotiators that no state should have a "selective" response to terrorism. He said Iran has observed "the sometimes ambiguous and suspect" conduct of U.S. occupying forces as a cause of "developing terrorism" in Iraq, and referred to "America's calculated move to allow the conduct of certain destructive and terrorist groups." It was not clear if he was referring to Sunni insurgents -- who have targeted Shi'ite shrines and Shi'a in Iraq -- or the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, a militant group opposed to Iran's government and currently using a base in Iraq. Amirabdullahian dismissed U.S. accusations that Iran is interfering in Iraqi affairs or aiding some insurgents, and said these accusations are mainly for the media, and unrelated to "what is being pursued inside the talks," ISNA reported. The talks ended with an agreement to hold another round of talks between specialists or mid-ranking diplomats at an unspecified date, ISNA reported. VS

Cabinet ministers representing Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List have suspended their attendance at cabinet meetings, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on August 7. List member Alia Nusayyif Jasim told RFE/RL that the boycott applies only to cabinet meetings. The ministers will continue to carry out their other duties. Jasim added that the list will wait to see what Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's reaction is to their demands before deciding on whether to completely pull out of the government. The list has five representatives in al-Maliki's cabinet. The list submitted several demands to al-Maliki in February, some of which coincide with the demands of the Iraqi Accordance Front, including the demand for a greater role in decision making (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). KR

Sunni Arab parliamentarian Salman al-Jumayli told Al-Sharqiyah television in an August 6 interview that Prime Minister al-Maliki's advisers are controlling the ministries and hold more power than the ministers themselves. Al-Jumayli, who is a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, criticized al-Maliki for allegedly practicing a "policy of exclusion." "We found that there is a trend [within the prime ministry] of taking revenge," he added. "This trend is represented by allowing the criminal militias, in cooperation with some state agencies, to take revenge on specific groups of people [a reference to Sunni Arabs].... There is a class of advisers [to al-Maliki]. Only a very few are qualified. The others, however, were appointed due to party [affiliations]. They control the ministries." Al-Jumayli also contended that the office of the commander in chief of the armed forces is controlled by a woman who often overrides operations already approved by al-Maliki, presumably operations planned by the Sunni-led Defense Ministry. The woman was not identified, but may be a reference to al-Maliki's outspoken adviser, Maryam al-Rayyis. She has been criticized repeatedly in the press for making public statements that do not represent al-Maliki's personal views, and for negatively commenting on the powers of the Presidency Council. KR

Nuri al-Maliki arrived in Ankara on August 7 for meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. According to Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, security will be high on the agenda. The Anatolia news agency reported on August 6 that the two countries are expected to draft a security agreement that will pave the way for joint cooperation against terrorism. Turkey has been pressuring the Iraqi government for several months to take action against Turkish-Kurdish fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) holed up on Qandil Mountain. "The Iraqi government will not allow Iraqi territories to act as a launching pad for operations that harm [its neighbors]. Likewise, we will not allow Iraq to become a haven for illegitimate or terrorist organizations acting against any neighboring state," al-Maliki told reporters on August 6, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. He added that the talks will also focus on proposed economic cooperation with Turkey, adding that Iraq's northern neighbor is anxious to invest in reconstruction projects in central and southern Iraq. Al-Maliki is accompanied by Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, as well as Iraq's interior, oil, youth and sports, and science and technology ministers, Anatolia reported. KR

A bomb targeted an office affiliated with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Al-Hillah on August 6, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. The office, identified as the Al-Mustafa Cultural Institution, was severely damaged in the bombing. Al-Sistani's offices and representatives have been targeted in several incidents in recent weeks by unknown perpetrators. Gunmen shot and killed al-Sistani aide Fadil al-Aqil in Al-Najaf on August 2. Following that attack, Interior Ministry spokesman Abd al-Karim Khalaf announced the dispatch of a security committee to Al-Najaf to investigate attacks against al-Sistani aides. Khalaf said four representatives or aides to the ayatollah have been killed in the holy city the past two months. Al-Sistani aide Sheikh Abdallah Falak was found stabbed to death in his Al-Najaf office in late July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). KR