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Newsline - August 9, 2007

A two-week religious procession from the Solovetsky Islands in northern Russia to Moscow's Butovo district concluded on August 8 with the dedication by Russian Orthodox priests of a 12-meter cross to honor the millions of victims of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26 and August 7, 2007). The Solovetsky Monastery served as a prison camp in the 1930s, and the NKVD, the KGB's precursor, shot 20,000 people at its Butovo firing range during the Great Terror of 1937-38 alone. The cross was brought via the Belomorkanal, a 227-kilometer-long canal built by political prisoners during 1931-33 to connect the White Sea with Lake Onega. The procession was part of events to mark the 70th anniversary of the Great Terror and honor Stalin's victims. Their total number is unclear but could have been about 27 million, which is more than the probable figure for those killed by German dictator Adolf Hitler, but smaller than that for those who died at the hands of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. No senior Russian government official went to any of the commemorative events of late July and early August, which were attended primarily by several hundred activists and relatives of the victims. President Vladimir Putin recently sought to play down the importance of the purges and other unsavory aspects of Russian and Soviet history, claiming that German Nazism and the U.S. use of nuclear weapons in 1945 were far worse (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22 and July 10, 2007). PM

At the Butovo ceremonies on August 8, Galina Pryakina, whose father Ivan Pryakin was executed at the firing range by the NKVD, said that the authorities were unhelpful to her in her efforts in recent years to find her father's grave, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. She noted that the state continues to "treat 'enemies of the people' and the children of 'enemies of the people' as nobodies. I found this place only three years ago." She added that her "grandfather was a priest, but my father was a simple carpenter at a factory in Moscow. He was [executed] because he was the son of a priest and was accused of spying for Romania. That is incomprehensible. They simply had a plan to shoot a certain number of people and [my father] happened to be among those people because he was different, he was a priest's son." Igor Garkavy, who is the director of the Butovo memorial center, said that "we believe a memorial here in the 21st century should not only include a church and a cross, but also a museum that should represent in its archives a complete cross-section of [Soviet] society in 1937." He noted that "last year we invited [to a conference] representatives of all faiths whose adherents are resting here in the ditches of the Butovo shooting range. I'm very grateful to representatives of the Muslim community and the head of ritual services at the Moscow Choral Synagogue who took part in our conference and contributed to examining old traditions and coordinating our efforts." The senior priest of the Butovo Orthodox church, Kirill Kaleda, told RFE/RL that "we, the people of the 21st century, should preserve the memory of those who suffered in the 20th century. And we should do that not only to keep our eyes on the past, but also for us [to look to the future]." Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, told AP that the absence of top officials at the commemorative events is "one of the most convincing pieces of evidence that Russian authorities sympathize with Stalin's regime." PM

General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian General Staff, said in Urumqi, China, on August 9 that the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) should develop a common military policy, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 2007, and "Central Asia: SCO To Hold Largest Military Exercises To Date,", August 8, 2007). He was speaking during "military-political consultations" that are part of the SCO's first joint military exercise, which is taking place primarily near Chelyabinsk in Russia. The SCO has been dubbed "a club of dictatorships" and "a rival to NATO," but Baluyevsky said on August 9 that "we do not want to counterbalance anyone. We also think that a military confrontation of states or military-political blocs would be inappropriate in the modern world." He stressed nonetheless that the SCO needs a "clear vision" if it is to plan and conduct joint military activities. He noted that Russia sent a proposal on SCO military cooperation to the member states in April but has not received a reply. Baluyevsky argued that the member states' economic development requires "stronger regional security" involving the members' respective military structures. Referring to the missile incident that triggered the ongoing imbroglio with Georgia (see Georgia below), he called it "a provocation on the part of Georgia.... It is a provocation against Russian peacekeepers and Russia as a whole," ITAR-TASS reported. In Tbilisi, Georgian First Deputy Defense Minister Levan Nikoleishvili called Baluyevsky's remarks "pure nonsense," AP reported. PM

Major General Pavel Androsov, who commands Russia's long-range aircraft, said on August 9 that his Tupolev Tu-160 and Tu-95 aircraft have recently completed unspecified bombing runs and flights to the North Pole and Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Interfax reported. He argued that Russia's "strategic aviation has passed its exam successfully. The flights were made by young crews. Bomber commanders carried out their first missile launches." Androsov noted that eight missiles were fired and that all hit their unspecified targets. He added that an upgraded version of the Tu-160 is being tested and will soon be assigned to the air force. PM

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, was quoted by "The Moscow Times" of August 9 as rejecting claims recently made by some leading Russian scientists that the Orthodox Church has acquired too much influence in public life (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, May 29, June 18, and July 24, 2007). Chaplin charged that the critics, who include two Nobel Prize winners, are trying to impose "an ideology of science" on Russia. He argued that a scientific-based outlook "never made anybody happy and has failed to answer fundamental questions about human existence." Chaplin called for the church to set moral standards for Russia's youth, adding that "we have to show them [the negative example of] an unhappy homosexual in his 40s and an aging prostitute. Otherwise, in 30 years our children will turn into animals influenced by the cult of glamour and debauchery." PM

. Speaking at a Yerevan press conference, Arshak Sadoyan, the leader of the small Armenian opposition Union of National Democrats party, unveiled on August 8 a proposal for a new television channel to promote "democratic values" and deepen democrat reform in the country by "broadcasting the sessions of the National Assembly and events connected with the government and political parties," according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Sadoyan argued that international organizations and Western embassies in Armenia should persuade the Armenian authorities to support this plan, noting its enhanced significance prior to Armenia's presidential election set for February 2008. As an acceptable alternative, Sadoyan suggested that international organizations could finance a minimum one-hour of national television "advocate democratic values before the presidential elections and enable opposition politicians to present their views." He also argued that the Armenian government would likely agree to such a proposal if international organizations become directly involved "officially and financially." Sadoyan announced a similar plan in August 2006 that centered on a $2.5 million program of measures that he argued would prevent electoral fraud, including electronic control over the voting process, expanded training for 25,000 local election observers, and nationwide election-related broadcasts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, 2006). RG

The leader of the Armenian opposition Union of Constitutional Rights (SIM) party, Hrant Khachatrian, suggested on August 8 that the country's normally fractured opposition adopt a new technique aimed at selecting a common presidential candidate, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo reported. Khachatrian explained that the opposition should look to Western political experience and institute a new system of political primaries in order to vote for a single opposition candidate. He added that such a method would foster greater unity among the opposition and argued that primaries, which he defended as widely used in some Western democracies, will ensure that the "worthiest candidate" from the opposition is chosen to run in Armenia's 2008 presidential election. He also freely admitted that the process will necessitate additional time and effort, as well as financial resources. RG

The Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office ordered on August 8 that a previously dismissed criminal case against "Khural" newspaper editor Avaz Zeynalli be reopened, Turan reported. The case stems from charges initially brought against Zeynalli in 2004 for "inciting religious, national, and racial conflict" after he published translated portions of Adolf Hitler's book "Mein Kampf" in his newspaper. The charges were formally dismissed in early 2005 on the grounds that the evidence against him was insufficient to warrant the charges. Zeynalli argued that the case was resumed only after he published articles critical of the Prosecutor-General's Office. RG

In an interview with a local newspaper during his state visit to Kazakhstan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev commented on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process on August 7 by asserting that the only solution to the unresolved conflict is "the restoration of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and the refugees' returning to their native land," warning that "there can not be any other alternative," according to the Trend news agency. Aliyev explained that he is "prepared to provide high autonomy status to Nagorno-Karabakh," but stressed that such an offer is predicated on the "immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from the occupied territories" of Azerbaijan. He then added that although his recent summit meeting with Armenian President Robert Kocharian in St. Petersburg in June failed to make any substantial progress, Azerbaijan remains committed to the peace process. He also claimed that Armenia's "position is weakening, but our position is becoming stronger." The statements follow a recent announcement in Baku by U.S. Assistant Deputy State Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza that the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents may meet for a follow-up round of talks on the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict sometime in October or November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 2007). Bryza also serves as the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group empowered to mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Baku, Kamran Ramazanli, the leader of the Azerbaijani Sabah youth group complained on August 8 of the discrimination and unresolved problems facing ethnic Azeris living in Georgia, according to Turan. Ramazanli claimed that although 32 ethnic Azeris were killed and kidnapped in Georgia over the past two years, no one "has been punished for these crimes." Joining Ramazanli at the press conference, Alibala Askerov, the head of the Heyrat organization that represents Georgia's estimated 500,000-strong Azeri minority, added that Azeri villages "remain without gas" despite regular supplies of natural gas form Azerbaijan to Georgian and ethnic-Armenian villages in southern Georgia. Both speakers also criticized the Georgian government for its economic discrimination against the ethnic-Azeri community, arguing that the high unemployment rate has forced between "80 and 85 percent" of young ethnic Azeris to leave their villages. Last September, Askerov made a similar case against what he said were Georgian state policies that discriminate against local Azeris, pointing to the failure of land reform in the ethnic-Azeri region of southern Georgia and education policies that discriminate against Azeri-language instruction as elements of a concerted campaign "aimed at forcing" ethnic Azeris from the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2006). In recent years, the issue of the large ethnic-Azeri population of Georgia has garnered significant attention in Azerbaijan and has prompted the Azerbaijani government to consistently raise the issue in talks with Georgian leaders. RG

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Daniel Fried stated on August 8 that Washington has reviewed evidence presented by the Georgian government and has concluded that it supports the Georgian claim that its airspace was recently violated by foreign aircraft, according to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. Adding that the United States is "very concerned" and noting that it has "condemned" the August 6 missile attack on a small Georgian village, which Tbilisi claims was an act of "Russian aggression" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7 and 8, 2007), Fried stopped short of explicitly blaming Russia. But he did add that there is "absolutely no evidence" suggesting that the incident was a "Georgian provocation," and called on both Tbilisi and Moscow to cooperate in investigating the incident. Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili announced on August 8 in Tbilisi that Georgia will request an emergency session of the UN Security Council to address the incident, Prime News reported. Russian officials have consistently denied any involvement, dismissing any allegation of responsibility for the incursion as an attempt to strain relations between Georgia and Russia and destabilize the region, according to Interfax. RG

As tension mounts between Georgia and Russia over allegations of an August 6 incursion and firing of a missile by a Russian military aircraft on Georgian territory, unnamed officials in the Georgian Interior Ministry revealed on August 8 new details casting doubts on the initial reports of the incident, according to the Civil Georgia website. According to the unnamed officials, the investigation has shifted and is now considering whether the attack aircraft, which violated Georgian airspace on August 6, jettisoned, rather than fired a missile after it came under fire from South Ossetian militias. That theory contends that the pilot of the intruding aircraft reacted to the firing of a Strela shoulder-launched antiaircraft missile by South Ossetian forces by "inadvertently" jettisoning a guided missile, but thereby preventing it from arming or subsequently exploding upon impact. This scenario also conforms to a report by the Russian commander of peacekeeping forces deployed in the area, Marat Kulakhmetov, who said on August 7 that the aircraft came under fire from South Ossetian forces. But Georgian Defense Ministry spokesman Georgi Tatishvili argued on August 8 that it was more likely that the missile, which he identified as a Raduga Kh-58, intended to strike a Georgian military radar installation in the Gori district, arguing that Raduga air-to-surface missiles are better suited for that specific targeting package, Interfax reported. RG

In an announcement during a press conference in Tskhinvali, Eduard Kokoity, the president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, said on August 8 that he was ready to meet with Georgian President Saakashvili to sign a treaty on "the nonuse of force," Caucasus Press reported. Georgia has steadfastly refused to sign such a treaty, arguing that it does not want Russia to be the only guarantor of the agreement and holding that it would sign such an agreement only after the internationalization of the currently Russian-led peacekeeping operation in South Ossetia. Kokoity also added that the South Ossetian side would participate in a session of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) in Tbilisi in September as long as they are provided with "international security guarantees" for their negotiators, Civil Georgia reported. The JCC is set to meet in Tbilisi on August 9 but has been hindered by South Ossetian reluctance, citing security concerns. That promoted Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze to criticize South Ossetian officials for their "unwillingness to move forward in conflict resolution" and to blame them for failing to commit to the talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). The apparent overture to Tbilisi is not the first for Kokoity, whose 2005 proposal for Georgia and South Ossetia to draft a joint plan for "resolving their decade-old differences" was heartedly welcomed by Georgian officials in the past (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13 and 14, 2005). RG

An Austrian court in Vienna ruled on August 8 against Kazakhstan's extradition request seeking the return of Rakhat Aliev, the former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, ITAR-TASS reported. Aliev, who until recently served as the Kazakh ambassador to Austria, was arrested in June by Austrian police and is wanted in Kazakhstan where he faces criminal charges of corruption, money laundering, and kidnapping (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 6, 13, and 19, 2007). Commenting on the ruling, which effectively sets Aliev free from Austrian detention, court spokesman Gerhard Jarosch said that the court voted against extraditing Aliev because it determined that if he was returned to Kazakhstan it was unlikely that he would receive a fair trial, dpa reported. RG

Three leading opposition deputies of the Tajik parliament issued on August 8 an open letter to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon protesting the state's closure of mosques in the country, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The deputies were responding to a decision by the Tajik authorities to reregister mosques, a policy that has forced the closure of a number of unregistered places of worship. The letter, signed by Muhiddin Kabiri, Mohammad Sherif Himmatzoda, and Khodzhi Akbar Turadzhonzoda, argued that many of the mosques found to be in violation of the state registration regulations should remain open until they can resolve their "bureaucratic problems" and be allowed to reapply for formal certification. In a similar letter to Rahmon, the leader of the Islamic Rebirth Party and member of the lower house of parliament, Muhiddin Kabiri, denounced the move on August 7 as "anticonstitutional and anti-Islamic," according to Asia-Plus. The reregistration policy is part of a broader campaign by the Tajik authorities that includes the imposition of new requirements for the licensing of Islamic leaders, or imams, with local mosques required to undergo a new review process overseen by the Council of Ulemas (Islamic scholars), an advisory body for the state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3, 2007). RG

The Iranian Embassy in Dushanbe issued on August 8 a formal statement clarifying the case of two Iranian asylum seekers currently imprisoned in Tajikistan, Asia-Plus reported. According to the embassy's statement, there has been no official request for their extradition or deportation to Iran, and that even if they did return to Iran, there conversion to another religion would not be a problem, as "nobody is persecuted for religious beliefs and even expression of them." The two men, Mehdi Musavi and Asad Haidari, were arrested while illegally crossing the Afghan-Tajik border in 2006 and have recently appealed for political asylum, arguing that their conversion to Christianity and past political activity in Iran would put them in danger if they were repatriated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 2, 2007). RG

Former Turkmen Agriculture Minister Paizygeldy Meredov was arrested on August 8 in Ashgabat, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported. The arrest of the 64-year-old Meredov, who was dismissed as minister in 1994 and has since risen to become one of the country's wealthiest businessmen, was followed by the filing of criminal charges related to corruption and financial fraud in the cotton industry. His son Batyr, who was reportedly running the family's business interests from the United Arab Emirates, was also arrested by Turkmen police a few days earlier. Despite his long absence from Turkmenistan's political elite, he remained a close associate of late President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died suddenly in December 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006). The arrest is also seen as part of a larger effort by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov against Niyazov's inner circle of advisers and associates. RG

Young opposition activist Alyaksey Shydlouski, who was about to complete his 15-day jail term on August 8, received a new five-day sentence the same day, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. A judge found Shydlouski guilty of petty hooliganism for allegedly "behaving with insolence in a public place" and shouting obscenities at police officers on July 24. On that date, Shydlouski and another opposition youth, Pavel Baranouski, were caught by KGB officers while pasting up opposition leaflets in Minsk. They spent the night in a detention center and were taken to a court the following morning, but their trial was postponed to August 8 because witnesses for the prosecution failed to appear. Shydlouski and Baranouski were allowed to go but Shydlouski was arrested once again on July 25 on another charge of petty hooliganism, for which he received his 15-day jail sentence. The five-day sentence relates to the first charge of petty hooliganism that was allegedly committed by Shydlouski on July 24. Also on August 8, a three-day jail sentence was handed down to Baranouski. Meanwhile, investigators on August 7 brought a formal charge of acting on behalf of an unregistered opposition organization called the Youth Front against 18-year-old Anastasiya Azarka. Her colleagues, Yaraslau Hryshchenya and Ivan Shyla, are also facing the same charge. If found guilty, the three may be sentenced to a fine or a prison term of up to two years. JM

First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told journalists in Kyiv on August 8 that placing National Bank of Ukraine head Volodymyr Stelmakh on the election list of the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc was "immoral and absurd," Interfax-Ukraine reported. "I think it was an irresponsible step by leaders of the Our Ukraine election team to involve the head of the National Bank of Ukraine in the political campaign," Azarov said. "This is further evidence that our opponents are ready to do anything to win the elections," he added. Stelmakh is 28th on the ticket of the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc, whose election campaign is managed by Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha. JM

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is undergoing "unconventional" medical treatment in Russia's Altai Krai after a knee operation, Reuters reported on August 8, quoting Deputy Prime Minister Azarov. "Viktor Fedorovych [Yanukovych] told me several times he intended to resort to unconventional medicine. There are doctors in Altai who skillfully use these methods for recovery after difficult operations," Azarov told journalists, adding that Yanukovych is expected back in Kyiv on August 13. Yanukovych underwent knee surgery in Spain in May for a longstanding sports injury. JM

Kosova's prime minister, Agim Ceku, warned on August 8 that Kosovar Albanian leaders could abandon upcoming negotiations on the future of the UN-administered regions if the possibility of partitioning the region is raised, the news agency KosovaLive reported. Both Prishtina and Belgrade have ruled out partition as a solution to the impasse about Kosova's status, but the concentration of Kosovar Serbs in the north of the nominally Serbian province has prompted speculation that Kosovar leaders might be willing to sacrifice land for independence or that Serbian leaders might accept partition. However, Skender Hyseni, a spokesman for the Kosovar Albanian negotiating team, on August 7 told AFP that "we believe it is extremely dangerous if you touch any borders.... If you do that you set a very dangerous precedent that will trigger changes of borders elsewhere in the Balkans, and that is a very dangerous game with far-reaching consequences." Opposition to the notion of partition was also expressed on August 6 by the deputy leader of Kosova's second-largest party, the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK), Fatmir Limaj, who said, according to Kosovar broadcasters, that discussion about "separation or the creation of new artificial creatures is harmful and all those who try to do so should consider the region's map." A new phase of talks is due to begin on August 9, when the talks' mediators -- diplomats from the EU, Russia, and the United States -- will meet in London. Expectations of success are low, though one member of Serbia's negotiating team, Slobodan Samardzic, said on August 3 that Belgrade is now willing to consider greater compromises than it has envisaged in the past (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 2007). However, Belgrade continues to rule out independence for Kosova, while Kosovar leaders rule out anything but independence. One of Prishtina's five negotiators, Veton Surroi, told the Kosovar daily "Express" on August 8 that "no room remains for compromise." AG

An ethnic-Albanian party in the southern Serbian region of Presevo on August 6 urged others in the Albanian community to join forces to convince the international community to consider the possibility of the Presevo Valley becoming part of Kosova, the Kosovar Albanian news service Kosovapress reported. The National Democratic Party (PDK) said the refusal to consider the status of the Presevo Valley is turning the area -- which it referred to as "Eastern Kosova" -- into a "crisis hotspot." The PDK also indicated that, if the international community fails to grant Kosova independence, it "will support the initiative for the declaration of the autonomy of eastern Kosova in accordance with the will of the people expressed in the referendum of March 1 and 2, 1992." The chief architect of that referendum, which was not recognized by Belgrade, Riza Halimi, has since entered the Serbian parliament and rejects secessionist efforts, but his influence has waned in recent years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, April 24, and June 8, 2007). A number of commentaries published in recent days in Serbian papers have suggested that a clash with an unknown armed group in the Presevo Valley on August 4 was designed to send a signal of support to Kosovar Albanians and of intimidation to Serbs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). AG

Three ethnic Albanians were killed on August 7 in two separate incidents in the Presevo Valley, Serbia's Interior Ministry announced on August 8, local media reported. Two of the victims were killed late in the day in the town of Presevo. "We believe that the suspect has already fled to Kosovo, but the reasons for the killings are not political but related with unresolved personal affairs," a police official in Presevo was quoted by the news service Balkan Insight as saying. The news agency FoNet reported on August 7 that the victims, two brothers, were attacked by three gunmen. Earlier in the day, another man was killed in an exchange of gunfire in a neighboring town, Bujanovac. "This killing also has nothing to do with politics," Balkan Insight quoted a police official as saying. The police have arrested one man. FoNet reported that the suspect and victim were business partners. AG

The Kosovar Serbs' political leaders once again appear divided about whether to participate in elections scheduled for November, according to Kosovar and Serbian media. A moderate leader, Oliver Ivanovic, told the Kosovar Albanian newspaper "Express" on August 5 that "we should take part in this year's elections because the boycott of 2004 did us no good. Such a move only isolates us." However, the Serbian daily "Politika" on August 4 quoted the leader of more hard-line members of the community, Milan Ivanovic, as saying that "Serbs have already given the [Kosovar] Albanian assembly legitimacy in two terms of office. Such a mistake must not be repeated again this time." Oliver Ivanovic predicted that "the level of Serbian participation will greatly depend on messages sent by Belgrade." So far, though, Serbia's governing coalition appears divided. "Politika" on August 4 quoted Dusan Prorokovic, an official in Serbia's ministry for Kosovar affairs and a member of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), as saying a decision to participate is more a question for Kosovar Serb parties than for Belgrade. However, Jelena Markovic, a spokeswoman for the Democrats, the coalition's largest party, told "Politika" that a decision should be made within the broader context of Kosova's status talks and should be made by Serbia's president, government, and negotiating team. Fewer than 1 percent of the ethnic-Serbian electorate voted in the last elections, in October 2004, despite calls by Serbia's president and senior ministers to participate. The local and parliamentary elections were originally due to be held in November 2006 but they were postponed amid concern that they could disrupt negotiations about Kosova's final status. Joachim Ruecker, who oversees the region on behalf of the UN, has made the elections subject to a review of their possible impact on security and the continuing status talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, 2007). Oliver Ivanovic argued that the elections should be held. "The status talks will go on for years," he predicted, "so I do no see that they will interfere with regular elections." AG

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on August 7 issued a damning condemnation of a Kosovar Albanian newspaper, "Infopress," for a series of articles in which the paper named Kosovar Serbs allegedly involved in war crimes during the separatist conflict in 1998-99. In articles published in March and May, the paper published lists of ethnic Serbs purportedly guilty of crimes in the town of Gracanica, "Serbian massacres in the Mitrovica region," and "the organization of Serbian forces" in Istok. "These lists have caused significant concern among the minority population and within the Press Council of Kosovo, which paid a visit to the media outlet to draw its attention to the potentially dangerous consequences such irresponsible reporting might have," the OSCE said. Despite the warnings, the paper published further lists of Serbs in late July and early August. "Infopress" reportedly defended the articles as "an attempt to support the judiciary," a justification dismissed by the OSCE. A survey conducted in June by a local polling agency, GIMEK, found that "Infopress" was the fifth-most-popular daily, with 5.6 percent of the population saying it was their paper of choice. The most popular was "Koha ditore" (21.6 percent), followed by "Kosova sot" (12.2 percent), "Zeri" (8.1 percent), and "Bota sot" (6.3 percent). AG

A court in Mostar on August 8 sentenced three Bosnian Muslims each to 13 years in prison for the murder of three members of a Bosnian Croat family during the 1991-95 war, according to the news agency FENA. At the time of the murder, September 1993, the three men -- Nihad Vlahovljak, Haris Rajkic, and Sead Karagic -- were all serving in the Bosnian Muslim army. Another man, Enes Sakarak, has already been sentenced by a Sarajevo court to 10 years for the murder of two other members of the Zadro family, FENA reported. In all, 33 ethnic-Croatian civilians were killed in the attack on the village of Grabovica (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2003). A Bosnian Muslim commander charged with responsibility for the attack on Grabovica and a subsequent operation in the village Uzdol, where 29 Croatian civilians were killed and an ethnic-Croatian soldier executed, was subsequently acquitted in The Hague (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 9, 2005). AG

It was the summer of 1999. Boris Yeltsin's boozy and tumultuous presidency was drawing to a close. Prosecutors were investigating Yeltsin's cronies -- and even members of his immediate family -- for graft. Russia was reeling from an economic crisis. Voters were in an angry and surly mood. And elections were looming.

Such was the atmosphere when Yeltsin went on television eight years ago, on the morning of August 9, 1999, to tell the country that he was firing his government -- for the third time in less than a year.

Yeltsin replaced his prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, with Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Vladimir Putin. The president then shocked Russians -- and much of the world -- by anointing the dour and obscure former KGB officer Putin as his chosen heir.

Putin's unlikely ascent followed months of chaos, turmoil, and uncertainty as rival clans ruthlessly battled to control Russia's first post-Soviet transition of power. And the events surrounding his meteoric rise in 1999 proved decisive. It was at this time when Russia's clumsy, fleeting, halting, and tentative experiment with Western-style liberal democracy ended.

It was also when the new rules of the game -- the ones Russia's political elite plays by today -- were established: outgoing presidents name their successors, the bureaucracy is expected to march in lockstep to support the heir to the throne, and the Kremlin will use any and all means necessary, no matter how brutal, to get its way.

The Yeltsin-Putin succession and its aftermath also provides a lesson that is haunting Russia's current political elite. Once they are embedded in the Kremlin, Russian presidents become virtually all-powerful and are impossible to control -- even by the patrons who orchestrated their rise to power.

"The Russian presidency is so strong according to our archaic constitution that it is impossible to trust anybody with it," Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky says. "It is dangerous. It turns a person practically into a tsar. This is dangerous even for a short term."

Putin said at the time that he hadn't planned to run for president, but added that he was accustomed to following the president's orders -- and would obey this one as well. "Sergei Vadimovich [Stepashin] and I are military men. The president has made a decision, and we will carry it out," Putin said at the time.

Months later, on March 26, 2000, Russian voters would make Putin their president in an election that looked more like a coronation.

Putin is widely expected to be able to anoint any successor he so chooses. According to recent polls, a startling 40 percent of Russian voters are prepared to cast ballots for Putin's chosen candidate in next March's election -- regardless of who that person is.

When the deeply unpopular Yeltsin anointed Putin his heir eight years ago, however, it looked like the longest of long shots.

In August 1999, the most popular Russian politician was a steely former spymaster who talked about cleaning up graft, punishing the corrupt, and restoring Russia's lost pride. That savior's name, however, wasn't Putin. It was Yevgeny Primakov, who served as Yeltsin's prime minister from September 1998 until he was fired in May 1999.

Primakov had teamed up with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and other regional leaders under the banner of the newly formed political party Fatherland-All Russia. The alliance appeared to have all the elements for political success -- a popular leader and a nationwide political machine that could deliver votes on election day.

The thought of a Primakov presidency terrified Yeltsin's inner circle. Primakov made it clear that he had Yeltsin cronies like oil tycoon Boris Berezovsky and electricity monopoly chief Anatoly Chubais squarely in his sights. He pledged to wage a war on economic crime, and proposed an amnesty for petty criminals to save jail space for corrupt officials and oligarchs.

"Yeltsin, Berezovsky, Chubais, didn't want to lose power -- and maybe not just power but possibly their lives or freedom -- when Primakov and Luzhkov came to power," Pribylovsky says.

In order to stop the Primakov juggernaut, Yeltsin's team frantically searched for a marketable candidate. Several names were floated, including retired General Aleksandr Lebed, then the governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai, and Stepashin, a former interior minister who preceded Putin as prime minister.

According to media reports at the time, Yeltsin removed Stepashin in favor of Putin because Kremlin insiders didn't think he was tough -- or unscrupulous -- enough to take the extreme measures that many felt might be necessary to win and hold power.

When Yeltsin and his inner circle settled on Putin, very few political observers gave the stern former spymaster much of a chance. Pribylovsky says Yeltsin's endorsement looked like "a brick tied to Putin's legs," adding that the president's endorsement "was a minus and not a plus."

But the game was about to change dramatically. Days before Putin's appointment, Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev invaded Daghestan. Weeks later, a series of mysterious bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow and other cities terrified the country and killed more than 300 people.

Without presenting any evidence, Russian authorities immediately blamed the bombings on Basayev's rebels and a wave of anti-Chechen hysteria gripped the country. Putin spoke like a gangster, vowing to hunt down and kill what he called "terrorists," memorably saying, "if we catch them in the toilet, we will wipe them out in the outhouse too." Russian forces then bombed and invaded Chechnya, which had enjoyed de facto autonomy.

Putin's tough-guy stance touched a nerve among Russians. His popularity soared. Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, says he began to take Putin seriously as a candidate in mid-October 1999, when his popularity surpassed Primakov's. "He adequately met society's demands and aspirations. He rode the wave. And therefore part of the elite was prepared to support him seriously," Ryabov says.

There is no doubt that Putin benefited from the wave of terror that swept Russia following the apartment bombings. But many analysts say that autumn's dramatic events were no coincidence.

David Satter, author of "Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State," is one of those who believes that Russian authorities orchestrated the apartment bombings. "I think that the evidence is sufficient to conclude that the FSB blew up the apartment buildings and organized a pretext for the beginning of the second Chechen war in order to create that miracle of electing somebody chosen by Yeltsin," Satter says.

With Putin wildly popular, such extreme measures will probably not be needed this time around. But nevertheless, Satter says the precedent has been set and such options are now on the table. "We have a terrible precedent, because in the minds of everyone is the idea that power changes hands with the help of such methods," he says. "So it is not excluded that there could be further provocations, maybe not on that scale, in the run-up to the 2008 elections."

Putin also benefited from a barrage of nonstop propaganda promoting him on media controlled by the Kremlin and its allies.

Satter says the bureaucracy got the message loud and clear that it was time to march in lockstep behind the new leader. "What happened in 1999 was that those who were behind Luzhkov and Primakov, they didn't have any great affection for those two figures. They knew who they were and what they represented. But they saw power moving in that direction," Satter says.

"And as soon as they saw power moving in the other direction as a result of the apartment bombings and the second Chechen war...of course their loyalty to Luzhkov and Primakov evaporated," Satter adds.

Yeltsin sealed the deal by resigning on New Year's Eve and abdicating power to Putin.

The main legacy of 1999 is a pliant electorate and a unified obedient bureaucracy -- both of whom are waiting for Putin to give the order about whom to support.

The problem this time is that there is no potential successor that everybody in Putin's inner circle trusts -- including the two purported front-runners, First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev.

"They [Putin's team] have problems among themselves," Pribylovsky says. "They are afraid of each other. They are seeking somebody they can trust with the throne. Everybody trusts Putin. They don't know what will happen with his successor."

They may have cause to worry. Putin kept the promise he allegedly made to Yeltsin to make sure he and his family were spared prosecution. But soon after coming to power, Putin did turn on some of those who put him in power -- most notably Boris Berezovsky, who fled to London where he now lives in exile. And that inherent mistrust that is now built into the system may be the most enduring and consequential legacy from that fateful year of 1999.

(Brian Whitmore is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf on August 8 backed out of a three-day tribal meeting, or jirga, opening on August 9 in Kabul due to "engagements in the capital," AFP reported. Musharraf telephoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai to inform him that Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz would attend in his stead, a Pakistani Foreign Ministry statement said. Musharraf agreed in September 2006 in Washington to attend the meeting when it was first orchestrated by U.S. President George W. Bush. The jirga aims to bring together leaders from both countries to develop an antiterrorism strategy to address the threat of Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives in the region. Karzai's office expressed disappointment in Musharraf's decision not to attend, although the Foreign Ministry said his absence will have "no effect" on the meeting. "This sudden development only goes to show how things have got worse between the allies in the war on terror," said Talat Masood, a Pakistan-based defense analyst quoted by AFP. JC

The Afghan Counternarcotics Ministry on August 7 set aside $8 million for projects aimed at curbing illicit poppy cultivation and reducing dependence on opium production, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The funds, earmarked as part of Afghanistan's Counternarcotics Trust Fund and the Good Performance Initiative, will go to support seven projects, including the development of a drug unit in the Pul-e Charkhi prison and vocational training centers for farmers who abandon their poppy harvests, the ministry said in a statement. Other projects include the purchase of road repair machinery and tractors for 25 farmers' cooperatives, and the construction of two secondary girls' schools, the statement continued. In an effort to reduce student drug use, funds will also be used to create a "drug-free and healthy educational environment," and approximately 14 million textbooks with antidrug messages will be distributed to 8,400 schools. JC

Said Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, on August 7 said that Kabul objects to a new U.S. strategy to fight Afghanistan's drug industry, which is believed to be funding the Taliban and other militants there, Bloomberg reported the next day. The strategy, unveiled by President Bush's administration on August 6, centers on destroying poppy plants, whereas Afghanistan believes it is better to emphasize long-term crop substitution in an effort to prevent cultivation. Jawad said in an interview that rather than "extensively punishing the farmers, we have to go after traffickers." A recent assessment of the U.S. counternarcotics program in Afghanistan showed that despite more than $420 million in program spending in 2006, income generated by Afghanistan's narcotics industry equalled about 60 percent of all income from legal activities. Afghanistan is the largest opium producer in the world (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2007). JC

In an August 7 statement, 78 civic and religious groups in South Korea called on the United States to intervene in the hostage crisis involving 21 South Korean aid workers taken captive in Afghanistan, "The New York Times" reported on August 8. The statement asked the United States to help its ally, blaming the kidnappings on the U.S. war on terrorism and a "vicious cycle of violence." According to a recent survey conducted by The Opinion, a majority of South Koreans believe the U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorists is "irresponsible." Seo Jeong-bae, the father of two hostages, said he believes the United States "holds the key to resolving the crisis." During their recent meeting at Camp David, President Bush and President Karzai again ruled out making concessions to Taliban demands for a prisoner exchange (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6 and 7, 2007). JC

Intelligence Minister Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei told officials from western districts of Tehran Province on August 7 that the government has identified three plots or subversive projects designed to harm or topple Iran's political system, Iranian media reported on August 7-8. He said the first one, allegedly headed by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, is intended to sow discord among Iranian politicians, with "the collaboration of [members of] the opposition inside and outside the country," "Etemad" reported on August 8. He said the second plan is to "provoke and physically harm or discredit revolutionary forces," and the third one consists in depicting the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and the present, conservative-dominated parliament as incompetent. "The enemies of the system, especially Great Britain and America, are using the media they support and certain dependent domestic elements" to "try and convey to society that the...government and parliament are ineffective, so they can prepare for the entry of their own elements into the government and parliament," he said. Mohseni-Ejei said the "enemies" have sought to sow disorder and insecurity in Iran and on its frontiers since the 1979 revolution. VS

Intelligence Minister Mohseni-Ejei revealed at the same gathering that ministry operatives have "in their most recent operations prevented the terrorist actions of a counterrevolutionary group" in the southwestern Khuzestan Province, "Iran" reported on August 8. An unspecified number of members of a "terrorist" group were identified and arrested before they could implement their plan, he said, without elaborating. Mohseni-Ejei said the enemy is trying to turn various "dissatisfactions" in Iran into a larger public dissatisfaction and "a social movement" to topple the Islamic republic. Israel's attack on Lebanon's Hizballah in 2006, pressures on Syria, and Iran's "frontier encirclement" are moves that he said are preliminaries to a military attack on Iran, though he said these moves have so far failed in their objectives. VS

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki told a gathering in Tehran on August 8 that the United States has "started a mission of war and terror" and decided "to march its armies toward Islamic countries" since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, IRNA reported. He was speaking at an event to mark the 1998 killing of Iranian diplomats by the Taliban inside Iran's consulate in Mazar-e Sharif; Mottaki said the diplomats were killed "by international terrorism and global arrogance." He asked, "has the world become a safer place" since the United States launched its war on terror? He claimed that "all the people of Afghanistan" are convinced 2006 was a safer year for them than 2007; "the Americans are busy fighting people they themselves nurtured," he added in an apparent reference to the Taliban. He expressed skepticism about the claims of Western states to be fighting international terrorism: Great Britain, he said, "must explain the 30-fold increase in drug production and trafficking in Afghanistan." VS

Iran's parliament voted on August 7 to renew the Islamic Penalties Law, which has been implemented on a temporary basis for 16 years, "Etemad" reported on August 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 2, 2007). It earlier rejected the renewal, citing the need for the judiciary to complete amendments observers say the law needs. Justice Minister Gholamhussein Elham urged legislators at the August 7 session to renew the law for a year, to avoid a legal vacuum that he said would harm the public, and promised that amendments to the present code will be ready in three months. Some legislators objected during the session that the issue had been put to a vote three times in 10 days, which deputy speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar admitted was "unusual." He urged members to vote for the public's sake. Mashhad representative Ali Sarafraz-Yazdi said the government was "weakening" parliament by pressuring it this way to vote for a renewal in spite of parliament's earlier rejection, "Etemad" reported. VS

Parliament also voted on August 7 for Ibrahim Azizi to remain a member of the Guardians Council, a body of senior clerics and jurists that checks the legality of parliamentary bills and confirms election results (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 16 and 23, 2007). Azizi is to serve for six years; he was one of four jurists proposed to parliament by judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on August 8. VS

Iranian workers recently sentenced to be imprisoned and whipped for holding a seemingly peaceful gathering on May Day have voiced anger at the sentence, Radio Farda reported on August 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8, 2007). Taib Molai, an activist in Sanandaj, western Iran, where the workers were sentenced, told Radio Farda the same day that the gathering on May 1 outside the Sanandaj Labor Office, a department of the Labor Ministry, was "very peaceful" and it is the demonstrators who should be prosecuting the police for their "savage" intervention. He rejected the public-disorder charges leveled against those convicted. "All the charges made against us on the basis of police reports are entirely false, and we should be the ones lodging a complaint against this force for its attack," Molai said. VS

A ban on vehicular traffic did not stop tens of thousands of Shi'ite pilgrims from converging on the Imam Musa Mosque in the Al-Kadhimiyah district of Baghdad to commemorate the eighth-century imam's death, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on August 9. The Iraqi government has posted more than 1,800 security troops at the mosque complex, including 625 troops inside the shrine, AP quoted officials as saying. Insurgents attacked Shi'ite pilgrims at the festival the past two years. In 2006, some 20 people were gunned down by snipers and more than 300 injured in the panic that ensued (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21, 2006). In 2005, mortar attacks caused a stampede over the Al-A'imma Bridge across the Tigris River, causing nearly 1,000 deaths (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31 and September 1, 2005). The citywide ban on vehicular traffic will remain in effect until August 11. KR

Representatives from Iraq's neighboring states said they are committed to help improve Iraq's security at the opening of a two-day conference of Iraq neighbors in Damascus on August 8, international media reported. Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi told reporters in Baghdad that the Iraqi delegation said all sides need to work together to develop practical mechanisms for securing Iraq's borders and to resolve internal sectarian divisions, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on August 9. The Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry's director of Arab world affairs, Jasim al-Mubarki, told KUNA that insurgents are not crossing Kuwait's border into Iraq, but he said Kuwait is willing to conclude agreements with Iraq on border control and monitoring. "We are optimistic, however optimism does not belittle the difficulty of the sophisticated and intermingled situation in Iraq," al-Mubarki added. He said all issues will be followed up during a meeting of Iraq's slated to take place in Kuwait in October. Arab League representative Hisham Yousif said in an August 8 statement that securing Iraq's border with Syria is a task that all neighboring states should contribute to, SANA reported. Western media reported on August 8 that Saudi Arabia withdrew its participation in the conference at the last minute. KR

As many as 2,760 foreigners are currently being held in Iraqi detention centers, the Iraqi delegation to the Damascus meeting announced on August 8, KUNA reported. Eight hundred of those detained are Iranians. The rest are Afghans, Arabs from outside Iraq, and other foreigners. According to the news agency, the numbers were released during a closed session focusing on enhancing security collaboration among Iraq's neighbors. "Among the detainees are Arabs and others from Afghanistan and Iran. The latter's citizens entered Iraq claiming they would visit religious shrines," an unidentified source who attended the session told KUNA. The source suggested that the number does not include foreigners currently held in U.S.-run detention centers. Representatives from neighboring states have been pressing the Iraqi government to release the names of those in custody. KR

Mizkin Amad, a deputy political officer of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has called on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to renege on an agreement reached with Turkey earlier this week to crack down on PKK fighters hiding in northern Iraq, Al-Jazeera television reported on August 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8, 2007). "Turkey continues to deny the Kurdish people's rights and tries to involve international powers in its conspiracies against us. Nonetheless, it has not succeeded in breaking our will or our movement," Amad contended. She added that Turkey "wants to drag neighboring countries into its hostile activities toward the Kurdish people." Amad called on the Iraqi government "to not get caught up in Turkish policies targeting [the PKK]...and withdraw from this agreement and avoid being the cause of a war between the people of the region." Iraq's Kurdistan regional government has not made any public statements regarding the Iraqi-Turkish agreement. KR