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Newsline - August 13, 2007

On August 11, President Vladimir Putin and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov visited the Voronezh-type antimissile radar station in Lekhtusi, about 50 kilometers north of St. Petersburg, which went into operation in December 2006 and can monitor the territory between the North Pole and Africa, Russian and international media reported. Putin said that "this is the first step in the overall [missile-defense] program that will be carried out by 2015. It is good to know that it was completed on schedule and with the products of Russian research and technology." He hailed the project as an "innovative development...[which] is considerably less expensive, more effective, and more reliable" than its predecessors. Putin praised Ivanov's role in his former capacity as defense minister in modernizing the military, adding that he, Putin, hopes the new military leadership will "do all it can" to do likewise. Britain's "Financial Times" wrote on August 13 that "Putin's...comments are the latest in a series of statements that have heightened tension between Moscow and Washington, despite the Bush administration's attempts to clear the air" regarding its missile-defense program. PM

Memorial services were held in several Russian cities and on naval bases on August 12 to mark the seventh anniversary of the "Kursk" submarine disaster, Russian and international media reported. The nuclear-powered submarine "Kursk" sank in the Barents Sea during naval maneuvers and all 118 crewmembers aboard died (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 14, 16, 17, 18 and 21, 2000). The navy says it has improved its safety and rescue techniques since 2000, but many questions about the disaster remain. Criticism centers on what many victims' families and some other Russians regard as an obsession with secrecy on the part of the authorities that kept the public less than fully informed from the very start of the crisis. Such observers note that the Kremlin was reluctant to accept foreign offers of help and, when it did, failed to share all its information with British and Norwegian rescuers. As a result, critics claim, time was lost in which it might have been possible to save at least some of the crew. In an effort to deflect criticism from Moscow, some state-run Russian media continue to suggest that the "Kursk" was sunk by a U.S. submarine rather than by an explosion on board. Some critics argue that the Kremlin also displayed a callous attitude toward the sailors and their families. Those critics note that Putin waited several days before breaking off his vacation in Sochi to deal with the crisis and once answered a question from a television interviewer about what happened to the "Kursk" with the words: "it sank." RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on August 12 that the authorities' decision in 2002 to end a criminal investigation into the sinking amounted to a declaration that nobody is responsible for the disaster. PM

Just days after Russian explorers staked out a claim to the North Pole by planting a titanium flag on the seabed there, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in Toronto on August 10 that his government plans to build a deep-water port and military training center in the Arctic, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26 and August 3, 6, and 8, 2007, and "Russia: Heroes' Return For North Pole Explorers,", August 7, 2007). Harper has long been on record as defending Ottawa's claims in the Arctic. His government recently ridiculed the Russian mission as a throwback to "the 15th century," when claims could be staked out by planting flags. Denmark, which has claims in the Arctic through Greenland, also lost little time in responding to the Russian mission. Danish Radio reported on August 12 that the icebreaker "Oden" left the Norwegian port of Tromsoe for the North Pole in an effort to collect data to back Copenhagen's claims in the region. Denmark argues that the North Pole's continental base is linked to Greenland. PM

The daily "Vedomosti" reported on August 10 that the Kremlin has begun asserting pressure on many regional governors or ousting some outright in the run-up to the December parliamentary elections. The paper argued that "regional leaders live by phone calls" that "remind them who's boss." Some governors have already been pressured into resigning as part of what the daily called "Operation Make Regional Leaders See The Light" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 7, and 10, 2007). The paper wrote that "criminal charges are instituted whenever unexpected resistance is encountered. Criminal cases multiply like rabbits, assume the scope of a governor's worst nightmare, and eventually force the maverick to his knees. It was so with Leonid Korotkov of Amur Oblast. Oleg Chirkunov in Perm Krai is about to bow to the pressure." The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on August 10 that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party has already begun preparing election lists that do not include the names of some regional governors who are still in office but, in at least some cases, probably not for long. "The Moscow Times" reported on August 13 that Unified Russia would like to see the ouster of some unpopular governors before the elections. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied, however, that there is a list of governors slated for replacement. The daily quoted several experts as saying that Unified Russia expects those governors who remain in office to deliver the vote in December. PM

Isa Merzhoyev, acting deputy police chief in Sunzha Raion, was seriously injured in a drive-by shooting at his home in the village of Troitskaya late on August 10, reported. An Ingushetian Interior Ministry spokesman attributed the attack to Merzhoyev's involvement in investigating several recent high-profile crimes, including his identification of suspects in the killing last month of a Russian teacher and her two children (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 19, 2007). On August 12, Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov met with Mukhammed Gadziyev and assured him that he will personally monitor the search for Gadziyev's son Ibragim, who was dragged from his car and abducted by uniformed and masked armed men in broad daylight outside the municipal offices in Karabulak on August 8. Also on August 8, Ingushetia's chief prosecutor, Yury Turygin, met with the local International Committee of the Red Cross representative to discuss the human-rights situation in the republic, in particular the recent wave of abductions, reported. LF

Accompanied by senior members of the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), the opposition Hanrapetutiun party, and the Impeachment alliance, former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian has held meetings over the past several weeks in the towns of Giumri, Vanadzor, Aparan, and Ijevan, the independent daily "Aravot" reported on August 1 and 9. Leading HHSh member Andranik Hovakimian downplayed the importance of those meetings, but Smbat Ayvazian of Hanrapetutiun was quoted by "Aravot" on August 10 as saying that Ter-Petrossian "seems to be trying to get a better idea of the situation in the country. He listens to people in different regions to learn their viewpoint. Those who accompany him to the regions see that people demand his return to big-time politics," meaning that he should run in the presidential elections due in early 2008. Since resigning under pressure in February 1998, Ter-Petrossian has avoided politics, devoting himself to his academic studies, and recently completed a book on Armenia and the Crusades, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on July 3. Speaking in Yerevan last week, Armenian Social Democratic Party leader Lyudmila Sarkisian said her party might back a presidential bid by Ter-Petrossian if he "shows his will for victory" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8, 2007). To date, Ter-Petrossian, 62, has given no indication that he is mulling a political comeback. LF

In an August 11 interview with, Azerbaijani Ambassador to Russia Polad Byulbyulogly laughed off reports that several small opposition parties have asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to open a criminal case against him in connection with his visit in late June to the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 29, 2007). Byulbyulogly recalled that the U.S. State Department, the Russian Foreign Ministry, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe all expressed approval of that trip. He reaffirmed his readiness to "take up arms to defend Azerbaijan's territorial integrity," but added that he considers a new war the worst way to resolve the Karabakh conflict. LF

Yana Amelina of the RosBalt information agency has been deported to Russia after being detained in the southern town of Lenkoran, reported on August 12. No reason was given for her expulsion from Azerbaijan, where she was gathering material on prominent political figures. LF

The UN Security Council decided on August 9 against discussing the August 6 incident in which a missile jettisoned or fired by an as-yet-unidentified aircraft landed in the Georgian village of Tsitelubani until the investigation into what happened is completed, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 8, and 9, 2007). Georgian officials earlier identified the aircraft as a Russian SU-24 fighter and asked the Security Council on convene an emergency session to discuss the incident, which elicited statements of concern from the United States, the EU Presidency, and the OSCE. On August 11, Russian Air Force commander Colonel General Aleksandr Zelin said Russia is ready to participate in the investigation of the incident if Tbilisi provides "the required information," Caucasus Press reported. Also on August 11, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov accused Georgia of "staging" the alleged missile attack in order to thwart the Joint Control Commission meeting, scheduled for August 9-10, to discuss the worsening situation in South Ossetia, Russian media reported. But Caucasus Press reported on August 4 -- two days before the incident-- the announcement by the South Ossetian contingent that it would not attend those talks, due to security considerations. LF

Meeting late on August 10 with Georgian students, President Mikheil Saakashvili said Georgia is negotiating the purchase of fighter aircraft and bombers to protect its air borders, Caucasus Press reported on August 11. At the same time, he stressed that "we are not at war with Russia," and that "we will do everything possible not to become involved in large-scale military operations." He said he hopes for a "productive meeting" with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, without specifying any time frame. Saakashvili also said qualified experts from several countries, including the United States, Poland, Sweden, and the Baltic states, will participate in the investigation of the August 6 missile incident. LF

Government delegations from North Ossetia and Georgia's unrecognized republic of South Ossetia met on August 10 in Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital, to discuss and formally endorse a program outlining cooperation for the period 2007-08, reported. The program encompasses social and economic cooperation, construction, agriculture, and foreign policy and economic ties. Meeting on August 11 with South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, North Ossetian President Taymuraz Mamsurov stressed the importance of continuing and intensifying the integration of the two regions. LF

Three well-known Kazakh journalists were seriously injured on August 10 in a traffic accident in Almaty when the van in which they were traveling was struck by a car, according to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. The journalists, Bakhytzhan Mukushev, Dzhanibek Suleev, and Kenzhe Tatilla were each taken to a nearby hospital and Mukushev, the editor of the website, was reported to be in serious condition, Kazakh television reported. Another prominent journalist, Saken Tauzhanov, was reportedly killed in a similar traffic accident on August 2, leading some to question the official version of events (see "Kazakhstan: Journalist's Traffic Death Recalls Past Tragedies,", August 7, 2007). Rozlana Taukina, the head of the Kazakh nongovernmental organization Journalists in Trouble, noted that seven other reporters have died under similar circumstances since 2002. RG

Bulat Abilov, one of the leaders of the Kazakh opposition National Social Democratic Party, accused Culture and Information Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev on August 10 of censoring a television debate in which the two participated ahead of the August 18 parliamentary elections, AFP reported. Abilov said that a video segment covering about five minutes of the debate, including his remarks about corruption in the state-owned KazMunaiGaz energy company, was censored from the broadcast. He added that Ertysbaev actually seized the tape immediately following the debate. Ertysbaev is also well-known for his brazen treatment of journalists and was forced to issue a formal apology to a Kazakh television journalist for ejecting her from a press conference (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6 and 19, 2007) in an incident that led to pressure on the minister from Prime Minister Karim Masimov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). RG

Kazakh Minister of Economy and Budget Planning Aslan Musin was replaced on August 10 by President Nursultan Nazarbaev, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan and ITAR-TASS. Musin, who was allowed to retain his post as deputy prime minister, was replaced by his 35-year-old deputy, Bakhyt Sultanov, a former head of the State Statistics Agency, after only seven months in the job (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2007). Prime Minister Masimov introduced the new minister at a cabinet meeting on August 10 in Astana and welcomed the move as confirmation of the president's desire to bolster the country's economic reforms. RG

In a statement released in Astana, the Prosecutor-General's Office said on August 11 that Kazakh "law-enforcement agencies will not allow any violations of law and order" and warned against any unsanctioned rallies or protests following the August 18 elections, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The statement added that the police and security forces will "ensure public security and stability" and warned of the consequences of "mass disturbances, unsanctioned meetings, rallies, marches and demonstrations, unlawful pickets and strikes," which it defined as "a threat to national security." The statement also promised to "ensure the legality and openness of the conduct" of the elections for the lower house of the Kazakh parliament or Mazhilis. Both the conduct of the Kazakh vote and the authorities' response to any postelection incidents are seen as important tests for the country, as well as essential prerequisites for Kazakhstan's bid to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for 2009. RG

An unnamed official of the Kyrgyz Health Ministry announced on August 10 that the ministry has confirmed two news cases of HIV infection in the southern Osh region, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and the website. In response to the announcement, the head of the AIDS Center in Kyrgyzstan, Sagynaly Mamatov, reported on August 10 that a thorough examination of all children hospitalized in the Osh city hospital since January 2005 will be carried out, AKIpress reported. The two new cases, involving a mother and her child reportedly infected in the Osh hospital, follow a recent presidential directive ordering a probe into whether doctors' negligence led to an outbreak of HIV among residents of the southern Noorkat district (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, 2007). That outbreak involved some 11 people, including nine children and a medical worker, who were infected with HIV due to "irresponsible medical care." RG

Kyrgyz parliament deputy and leader of the opposition Atameken party Omorbek Tekebaev denounced on August 11 the recent arrest of Green Party leader Erkin Bulekbaev as "illegal" and "a crude use of force" by the authorities, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Bulekbaev was arrested by police on August 10 in Bishkek as he was filming outside the Issyk-Kul Invest Bank, which is at the center of a widening scandal. The chairman of the bank's board of directors, Bolot Baikojoev, is also the leader of the opposition People's Will party and accused the government of attempting to "oust him" from the bank after special police raided the bank overnight on August 10. Tekebaev, a former speaker of parliament, noted that Bulekbaev was at the bank only "as a human-rights activist and politician" and that the arrest was "surely political persecution." Nearly three dozen demonstrators staged a rally on August 11 in front of a Bishkek district court demanding Bulekbaev's release, AKIpress reported. Bulekbaev, who is also a member of the opposition United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan led by former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, has been charged with "petty hooliganism." RG

Tajik media-rights groups and journalists, led by the National Association of Independent Media in Tajikistan, criticized Tajik prosecutors on August 10 for opening criminal cases against three journalists, according to RFE/RL's Tajik Service. In an appeal released in Dushanbe the same day, the groups called on the Prosecutor-General's Office and the presidential administration to "stop prosecuting journalists for their professional activity," the Avesta website reported. The Dushanbe prosecutor's office formally initiated criminal libel cases against three female reporters -- Farangis Nabieva, Muhayo Nozimov, and Saida Qurgonova -- after they jointly authored an article critical of a Tajik singer in the "Ovoza" tabloid newspaper published on June 21. Qurgonova is the editor of "Ovoza" and both Nabieva and Nozimov are journalists with the Investigative Journalism Center. The appeal was signed by Journalists' Union of Tajikistan Chairman Akbarali Sattarov, National Association of Independent Media Chairman Nuriddi Qarshiboev, and Media Alliance of Tajikistan Secretary-General Vera Kulakova, along with the heads of several leading media outlets in Tajikistan. RG

Several leading media-rights groups in Tajikistan on August 12 urged President Emomali Rahmon not to sign a new media law that would allow courts to jail journalists for up to two years if they are found guilty of libel or insults in their reporting, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The National Association of Independent Journalists and the Moscow-based Center for Journalists in Extreme Situations both sent open letters to Rahmon warning that the legislation, which also covers Internet-based publications, would be in violation of international media standards and norms. RG

More than 300 members of the Movement for Freedom, a recently established opposition organization led by former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, took part in what was described as a "barbecue" a few dozen kilometers outside Minsk on August 11, Belapan reported. "There was an exchange of information and ideas. The movement's founders held a conference to reapply for its registration. Sports events were organized," Yury Hubarevich, deputy chairman of the movement, told the agency. Police officers arrived at the scene in the evening. "Upon hearing their conversation, we understood that they had known about the gathering in advance but had been unable to find us," Hubarevich said. The police ordered the opposition activists to disperse at 10:30 p.m., and seized their sound-amplifying equipment. JM

The Central Election Commission (TsVK) on August 11 refused to register candidates of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) for the early parliamentary elections due on September 30, Ukrainian media reported. With seven votes in favor, the list was one vote short of the eight votes required for registration. Seven TsVK members nominated by the ruling coalition refused to endorse the list on the grounds that the BYuT had failed to provide the exact addresses of the candidates, a requirement not clearly set by election legislation. "This is a blatant and rather desperate attempt to undermine the electoral process by eliminating a political party that represents one-third of the country's population," Yulia Tymoshenko told journalists, vowing to challenge the registration refusal in court. BYuT supporters on August 12 pitched some 100 tents in front of the TsVK offices in Kyiv to protest the decision. It is widely expected in Kyiv that the BYuT list will be registered following a court ruling. JM

The three diplomats mandated to mediate talks on the future of Kosova visited Belgrade and Prishtina on August 10-12 for the first time in this latest phase of diplomacy, international media reported. A period of shuttle diplomacy is likely before Kosovar and Serbian leaders sit down for face-to-face negotiations. In public statements issued after the meetings, Kosovar and Serbian officials reiterated their long-standing positions. Prishtina maintains that independence is the only option for the UN-administered Serbian province, while Belgrade rules out sovereignty for Kosova but is willing to offer what its foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, has described as "all the autonomy in the world" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3, 2007). Both sides have ruled out a partition of the province, whose minority Serbian population is concentrated in the north (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 9, 2007). The three mediators -- who represent the EU, Russia, and the United States -- are due to submit a report to the UN on December 10, but Russia and Serbia insist there can be no deadline on efforts to find a solution. AG

The EU's representative in the Kosova talks, Wolfgang Ischinger, on August 12 warned Serbia and Kosova that both could jeapordize the prospect of membership if they fail to reach an agreement on the contested region's future. "Coming closer to the EU, associating themselves with the values and the constitutional beliefs of the European Union depends on their ability to reach an agreement here," Ischinger was quoted by AP as saying. "In the absence of such agreement, the European door will not be as open as I'm sure everyone here in this region would hope it to be," he said. Ischinger also did not rule out the possibility of partition, saying that "all options" are open and that "if [Kosova and Serbia] want to pursue any option, that is fine with us." In a subsequent statement quoted by Kosova's public broadcaster, RTK TV, on August 12, Ischinger said "I...neither suggested [partition] nor do I support partition." AG

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic announced on August 10 that Serbia plans to stop servicing Kosova's communist-era debt. According to the broadcaster B92, Djelic justified the decision on the grounds that Serbia has been unable to collect taxes, excises, and customs revenue since 1999, when NATO intervened to halt the conflict between Serbian forces and Kosovar Albanian separatists. Djelic did not explain why the decision is being made now. Serbia said in February that it is paying $100,000 a day in interest on $1.2 billion in loans for communist-era projects in Kosova. Kosova says it would be willing to pay off the debt if it becomes an independent state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2007). AG

Kosova's government is demanding the suspension of the police commander in the town of Grabanica and of four others officers after the arrest of a minister, Branislav Grbic, on August 7. It is also calling for an investigation into the incident, which began when Grbic confronted police officers after they had given his daughter a speeding ticket. According to the daily "Koha ditore" on August 9, one officer involved said that Grbic became verbally aggressive, struck an officer while being arrested, and threatened to ensure they would be fired. Grbic's daughter and son were also arrested, but were then released on orders from Grabanica's senior police commander. Grbic, whose portfolio covers local government and the return of refugees, is an ethnic Serb; he was arrested on the orders of an ethnic Albanian, but the three other officers involved were Serbs. At a press conference on August 8, government spokeswoman Ulpiana Lama said police ignored Grbic's immunity as a minister, violated standard procedures, and used excessive force. A police spokesman, Veton Elshani, said on August 9 that Grbic was taken to a hospital after the incident, but refused to say whether he was injured. Initial reports stated that Grbic was beaten up. AG

A church being built by the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro was badly damaged on August 10 in what church leaders say was "terrorism of the worst kind," local media reported. A statement by the Serbian Orthodox Church said "the huge amount of explosives" used threw stone slabs several hundred meters from the site in Montenegro's capital, Podgorica. The Serbian Orthodox Church appeared to imply that the attack on the Church of New Holy Martyrs may have originated in a property dispute between it and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, a dispute in part rooted in the decision of other churches in the Orthodox communion not to recognize the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13 and 16, 2007). "For some time now, irresponsible politicians and officials in Montenegro have been creating and stoking up an environment for unpunished attacks on Orthodox churches and monasteries, as well as on church prelates and clergy," it said in a statement carried by the news agency Mina. Its implicit accusations were echoed by one of Montenegro's largest ethnic-Serbian parties, the People's Party (NS), which, according to Mina, warned on August 10 that the "terrorist" attack could have "far-reaching consequences for peace in Montenegro." "We recall the fact that a certain committee for promoting the interests of the so-called and unrecognized Montenegrin Orthodox Church has on a number of occasions announced violent measures, without any response by the state, even though this involved incitement to religious and national hatred," NS said in a statement. AG

In its statement condemning the apparent attack on the Church of New Holy Martyrs, the Serbian Orthodox Church's leadership cited Montenegro's ban on a Orthodox bishop, Filaret, entering the country as an example of how the Montenegrin authorities have stoked animosity toward its clergy. Bishop Filaret was barred in early July -- according to the Montenegrin government, at the request of the EU -- because his name featured on a list of people accused by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) of helping war criminals evade capture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, 2007). The ban on August 9 prompted Serbia's minister for religious affairs, Radomir Naumov, to send a letter of complaint to the Montenegrin government, in which he said the ban "evidently violated" Filaret's rights. He also objected to the infringement of the "religious rights and freedoms of a certain number" of unnamed Orthodox priests. According to the Serbian news agency FoNet, Naumov said Belgrade is "saddened and disappointed" that "brotherly and friendly Montenegro" has become "the first and only" state to have "obstructed the work of any Christian Orthodox bishop in discharging his eparchial duties." AG

The U.S. ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Douglas McElhaney, called on August 9 for the creation of a coherent "unitary state," local media reported. McElhaney reportedly said that the creation of a true unitary state should be the basis for the current talks on a new constitution. The Dayton accords that ended the 1991-95 war created two entities with distinct ethnic characteristics: the Serbian-dominated Republika Srpska, and the Muslim-Croat Federation. McElhaney, who was speaking at a meeting with the main Bosnian Croatian parties in Mostar, was responding to calls by some Croats for the creation of a third, specifically Croatian entity. In the following days, Bosnian Serb leaders rejected McElhaney's call. Bosnian Serb television quoted Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik as saying on August 9 that "there is no possibility of a unitary Bosnia-Herzegovina and all discussion has ended about a possible unitary state." "That there is the need for a unitary state is something that can be said either by someone who does not understand us, which is unlikely in this case, or by someone who wants to destabilize this region further," Nebojsa Radmanovic, the Bosnian Serb member of the tripartite Bosnian Presidency, told television reporters on August 9. In other comments, McElhaney reportedly said he expects an agreement on police reform by September. The international community's envoy, Miroslav Lajcak, said on August 7 that "nobody is talking about abolishing either the Republika Srpska police or the Republika Srpska" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 10, 2007). AG

Ljubco Georgievski, who headed the Macedonian government between 1998 and 2002, is set to become involved in local politics in Bulgaria, local media reported on August 8 and 9. Georgievski, who remains a member of the Macedonian parliament, has joined a committee backing Kyril Pandev, a former head of Balkan Bank Skopje, in his bid to become mayor of Blagoevgrad, which has a large Macedonian population. Relations between Macedonia and Bulgaria are strained by a range of minority issues and historical disputes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). A1 TV reported that Georgievski, who has been a Bulgarian passport holder for the past two years with his address listed in Blagoevgrad, is also considering running for the city council himself, though that has not been corroborated by Georgievski. Instead, Georgievski has portrayed himself as playing a supporting role, saying, "When general or local elections are scheduled in a state, parties start running around to involve as many reputable foreign politicians in their campaigns as possible," A1 TV reported. As prime minister, Georgievski represented the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE). However, he then left to set up his own party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-People's Party (VMRO-NP). He no longer heads the party, which is now losing members to the VMRO-DPMNE. There have been calls for Georgievski to surrender his parliamentary mandate. His party, whose honorary chairman he remains, has so far refused to comment on Georgievski's decision. AG

The Catholic archbishop of Zadar, Ivan Prendja, has backed calls for an indicted war criminal, General Ante Gotovina, to be allowed to return to Croatia ahead of his trial. In a statement carried by the Croatian news agency Hina on August 9, Archbishop Prendja said he has offered the ICTY "human and moral guarantees" that Gotovina would honor the terms of any restrictions imposed on him if placed under house arrest, but he did not disclose what those guarantees could be. In an interview on national radio on August 10, President Stjepan Mesic said that the only guarantees that would matter would be government assurances. "What does the church's guarantee mean? What consequences would the church bear if Gotovina were to fail to appear before the tribunal?" Mesic asked. He added that "although personally I would like [Gotovina]to be released pending trial, it's difficult to imagine this to be feasible." Gotovina's lawyers on August 8 submitted a request that he be released until his trial is held. Gotovina is the highest-profile Croat to be indicated by the ICTY. Croatia's reluctance to arrest and transfer Gotovina to The Hague set back the country's bid for EU membership by years, and the state still maintains its public support for generals accused by the ICTY (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, April 16 and 30, and May 2 and 31, 2007). The Catholic Church's stance during the years in which Gotovina was on the run was heavily criticized by the ICTY, with, for example, its chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, in September 2005 accusing the Catholic Church of harboring Gotovina in a monastery. "The Vatican refuses totally to cooperate with us," Del Ponte said at the time. Gotovina faces charges for "acts or omissions" relating to murder, the forced displacement of ethnic Serbs, crimes against humanity, and crimes against property. Gotovina was arrested in Spain in December 2005 and his trial was originally expected to begin in May 2007. AG

With the eclipse of the political opposition in Azerbaijan, Islam is increasingly poised to fill the ideological vacuum. Most government officials, however, deny that the increased interest in Islam poses a serious threat to either political stability or national security.

Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, many Azerbaijanis rejected communist ideology in the wake of the reprisals in Baku in January 1990 by Soviet troops that left at least 130 people dead.

But the pro-Turkish Azerbaijan Popular Front that took power in May 1992 failed to impose order on political chaos or reverse economic decline, and many people sighed with relief when a failed insurrection in June 1993 ended with the self exile of President Abulfaz Elchibey and the return to power of former Communist Party of Azerbaijan First Secretary Heidar Aliyev.

Aliyev restored order, signed a string of contracts with international oil companies, muzzled the media, and suppressed or co-opted the opposition. But he failed to offer a vision of a new Azerbaijan that would appeal to the majority of a population demoralized by defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

In search of a sense of identity, or in some cases out of sheer intellectual curiosity, Azerbaijanis, especially the younger generation, are increasingly turning to Islam. Thousands of people flock every week to Friday Prayers at Baku's Abu-Bakr mosque.

Mushviq Shukyurov, who is 40 and teaches at a pedagogical institute in Sumqait, the industrial satellite north of Baku, told RFE/RL that he developed an interest in Islam after reading the works of 19th century Azerbaijani philosophers. He said that reading the Koran for the first time last year changed his life, and made him want "to seek for and serve the truth." Shukyurov said that "many" of his students likewise show an interest in Islam, but that he fears some of them, lured by "false promises" made by either Saudi or Turkish missionaries, are following "a false path."

Shukyurov's misgivings highlight two parallel trends that partly account for the ongoing revival of interest in Islam: widespread ignorance resulting from the lack of any formal instruction in schools on the rudiments of religion, and the influx over the past 15 years of missionaries representing a multiplicity of Islamic, Christian, and other religious denominations.

Rafik Aliyev, who headed the State Committee for Religious Affairs from its founding in 2001 until the summer of 2006, says that interest in Islam is growing because there is no religious education. Adil Hadjiev, another former official of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, says that for that reason, people are likely "to open their doors to the first missionary who knocks."

And there is no shortage of such hopeful proselytizers. Traditionally, most Azerbaijanis are Shi'a, while a minority are Sunnis. The ratio is approximately 65 percent Shi'a and 35 percent Sunni, with Sunnis predominate in the northern regions of the country bordering on Daghestan, and Shi'a more numerous in the south, especially districts bordering on Iran.

But the Sunni share is gradually increasing, a trend that reflects, on the one hand, disillusion with and suspicion of Azerbaijan's "official" clergy who function under the Muslim Board of the Caucasus. That institution was first established in 1944 and its current head, Sheikh ul-Islam Allakhshukur Pasha-zade, has held his post since before the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, representatives of three distinct currents within Islam are actively recruiting new converts.

Those three competing schools are the Salafi/Wahhabi school as practiced in Saudi Arabia; Iran's brand of radical Shi'ite Islam; and the moderate Hanafi school of Islam promoted by the Turkish NGO Nur (Light). But it is extremely difficult to estimate how many Azerbaijanis practice which form of Islam. Writing in the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" in April 2006, one Azerbaijani journalist estimated the number of followers of Wahhabi/Salafi Islam in Azerbaijan at approximately 25,000. The total number of mosques in Azerbaijan today is between 1,400-1,700 for a population of 8.5 million, compared with only 40 in late 1991.

Other factors too, both political and socioeconomic, drive many Azerbaijanis to seek in religion either consolation or a new meaning to their lives. One factor is the eclipse of Azerbaijan's numerous opposition parties. Over the past 14 years, since the return to power of Heidar Aliyev, opposition parties have been constantly harassed by the authorities, evicted from their offices, denied access to state-controlled media, and refused permission to stage demonstrations in downtown Baku.

The pressure to which they are routinely subjected is so intense that there is less risk involved in attending prayers at a mosque than in joining a political party. In addition, opposition parties' constant rivalry and feuding and the reluctance of prominent opposition party leaders to set aside personal ambitions and join forces to create a united front have discredited them in the eyes of many people. The Azerbaijani authorities for their part have resorted to blatant rigging of all successive national elections, beginning in 1995.

A second, related factor is anger and resentment at the country's leadership, which has permitted a handful of close associates to monopolize virtually all spheres of economic activity. And a large share of the multi-million dollar profits that President Aliyev promised from Azerbaijan's Caspian oil revenues is being plowed into grandiose but useless projects, such as Olympic-standard sports stadiums in remote areas of the country, reserved for the use of a chosen few and off-limits to the rest of the population. Moreover, Azerbaijan is showing the first symptoms of "Dutch disease." Economists predict that inflation this year will reach 16 percent; steep rises in the price of gas, electricity, and gasoline earlier this year were met with widespread popular anger.

Historian Altai Goyushov is one of those who attribute the growing popularity of Islam to growing injustice, corruption, and economic problems. Goyushov believes that voters can no longer find within the opposition camp a force they can trust to represent their interests.

And it is not just the Azerbaijani leadership that people feel betrayed by, but also the West, in particular the United States. Many Azerbaijanis, both ordinary citizens and some government officials, accuse the West of double standards. They point out that while the West proclaims its commitment to spreading democracy, it is guided more by mercantile interests, such as profiting from the exploitation of Azerbaijan's hydrocarbon wealth. For that reason, many people think, the West supported the Rose Revolution in Georgia in November 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in December 2004, but turned a blind eye to widespread falsification during the Azerbaijani presidential election in 2003 and the parliamentary ballot in 2005.

Former State Committee for Religious Affairs Chairman Aliyev argues that people have lost trust not only in pro-Western Azerbaijani politicians, but in the West in general. "The West in its dealings with other countries takes into consideration first and foremost its own national, political, and economic interests, and it does not give people correct information. It would not be wrong to say that Western democracy has failed totally," Aliyev says.

Finally, Azerbaijani police and security forces sometimes indiscriminately target men who by their clothing and long beards can be identified as followers of Salafi/Wahhabi Islam. Hadji Gamet Suleymanov, imam of the popular Salafi/Wahhabi Abu-Bakr Mosque, says that such brutal treatment can prove counterproductive. "You know this serves only to fuel radicalization, and some radical forces can use this to win more supporters. We are also against crime, if someone has committed a crime we are against that, but if you are prosecuted only because you are a believer, this is not right," Suleymanov says.

In a recent interview with the online daily, Muslim Spiritual Board head Pasha-zade denied that there have been any "serious cases causing concern" in the religious sphere. At the same time, he claimed that the political opposition seeks to play the religious card, and he expressed clear dissatisfaction that the government authorities do not take a tougher stances against "Wahhabis." He said that the "Wahhabis," especially the congregation of the Abu Bakr Mosque in Baku, enjoy special privileges that are not extended to any other religious group.

Hidayat Orujev of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations said at a press conference in Baku on June 29 that "there are small groups in the country representing radical religious forces that think they can come to power. But the very idea is ridiculous." In contrast to Pasha-zade, Orujev said he considers the situation at the Abu-Bakr Mosque "normal."

But the Azerbaijani authorities nonetheless keep a close watch over religious groups. Djeyhun Mamedov, who heads the Information and Analysis department of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, admits that the activities of religious groups are monitored to determine whether any of them break the law. And Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry has in recent years announced the arrest of several "Wahhabi" groups suspected of planning terrorist acts.

Islam Izmayil, a former National Security Ministry official who now heads the Security Studies Center, believes that the government still controls the activities of various religious groups to a greater or lesser degree. He told RFE/RL he thinks the Azerbaijani government is portraying the upsurge of popular interest in religion to the West as a potential threat in order to justify its ongoing crackdown on both opposition activists and believers.(Babek Bakir is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service based in Prague.)

Following a week of intense fighting by the Taliban insurgency, 29 people were killed between August 11 and August 12, including three U.S. soldiers, AFP reported on August 12. Three coalition soldiers and their Afghan interpreter were killed by a bomb in Nangarhar Province on August 11, according to a coalition statement. A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack. In Helmand Province, insurgents attacked a British patrol on August 11, killing a British soldier and wounding five others, the British Defense Ministry said. In Wardak Province, four militants were killed on August 12 during five hours of fighting sparked by a rebel attempt to seize district police headquarters, the police said. Meanwhile, militants attacked the coalition's Firebase Anaconda on August 11 for the second time in a week, in what officials warned may be a possible "rehearsal for a much bigger attack," AP reported. JC

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf on August 12 addressed the closing session of a four-day tribal council meeting in Kabul, pledging together with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai to work together to eradicate terrorism in the region, Reuters reported. Terrorism is a "common threat to both countries," said Musharraf, who told the gathering, or jirga, of politicians and tribal elders that the war on terror must be a centerpiece to both countries' national-security strategies. "Peace and unity, trust and cooperation" between the two neighbors are the only option, he added. Musharraf acknowledged that rebels have been operating in Afghanistan from inside Pakistan, while maintaining that his government has not provided sanctuary to Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants, a frequent accusation by Afghan officials. Musharraf originally backed out of attending the jirga on August 9, garnering disappointed responses from elders and officials, including President Karzai (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 10, 2007). JC

In a rare news conference on August 11, the Taliban excluded any hostage deal outside of a prisoner exchange with South Korean authorities or the Afghan government over 21 Korean hostages being held captive by the rebels, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Speaking at the Afghan Red Crescent Society, Taliban representative Mullah Bashir said the militants will not release the hostages as long as their demands remain unfulfilled. Bashir reiterated that the group will release eight hostages in exchange for as many Taliban prisoners. The remaining captives will be swapped for 16 men and other imprisoned rebels, he added. Taliban spokesmen claimed on August 12 to have released two sick female hostages, but doubts remain as to the women's fate, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. JC

Taliban militants on August 11 torched the office of Radio Yawali Ghag (Voice of Unity) during a four-hour clash with police in the Sayed Abad district of Afghanistan's central Wardak Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Rebels attacked the district center at approximately 11:30 p.m., initiating a clash with police that lasted until 4 a.m., during which four attackers were killed, police chief Mohammad Hussain told Pajhwak. No police personnel were killed or injured in the attack, he added. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed the militants seized control of district offices during the battle with police, but relinquished control "later." The rebels took away arms and ammunition, as well as official documents, destroyed an arms depot, and set the radio station ablaze before retreating, he added. The Afghanistan Independent Journalist Association condemned the arson attack on the station and said it is investigating the incident. JC

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a gathering of Iranian officials and foreign ambassadors in Tehran on August 11 that the "most corrupt people" are promising to "reform" the world, while "America's satanic and arrogant power" is intent on "imposing its absolute rule on all human societies," the "Etemad" daily reported the next day. Khamenei said the United States accuses "Islam of terrorism and backwardness," when it is the "source of...murder, corruption, war, and bloodshed." He urged Muslim unity and a return to the "Islamic identity" in response to this purported hostility. He added that the Islamic world is "injured" today and the "corrupt" are trying to divide it along the lines of Shi'a and Sunnis and Arabs and Persians. Unity, he said, would help Muslims fight "God's enemies," "Etemad" reported. VS

On August 10, Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told a prayer congregation in Tehran that Iran and the United States should sit and talk "at any level" and without "degrading preconditions," ISNA reported. He said unconditional negotiations would help find solutions for regional issues and the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. The nuclear issue, he said, is a "pretext" against Iran, and "one day these pretexts will finish [without any] benefits for those who stoked the fire." Hashemi-Rafsanjani said Iran could, through talks, help prevent the exacerbation of regional tensions. Instability in the Middle East, he said, would send "smoke" into the "eyes" of other states, "especially colonial and industrial states." He asked how the United States could accuse Iran of "meddling" in Iraqi affairs, when it has 150,000 troops there. "They have the right to insult Iran this way, but we have no right to object to their occupation of Iraq?" he asked. He urged the great powers to "state and clarify where Iran has deviated" in its nuclear program. He observed that it is not Iran but the United States that is in trouble, because U.S. forces "have sunk in a bog" in Iraq and Afghanistan, ISNA reported. VS

Authorities on August 9 released Hanif Yazdani and Mehdi Arabshahi, two members of the national student grouping Office to Consolidate Unity, after they posted bail of some $54,000, ISNA reported. They were apparently among the students or graduate activists arrested in July for protesting against a clampdown and earlier arrests of students related to the publication in March of allegedly impious pamphlets in Tehran's Amir Kabir University (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10 and 31, and August 3, 2007). VS

Seven trade unionists and activists associated with the Tehran bus drivers' union were arrested in Tehran on August 9 when they went to visit the family of arrested union chief Mansur Osanlu (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, July 26, and August 3, 2007), Radio Farda reported on August 11, citing reports from Tehran. Those arrested were the deputy head of the Tehran bus drivers' union, Ibrahim Madadi, as well as union members or activists Yaqub Salimi, Davud Razavi, Homayun Jaberi, Ibrahim Gohari, Parvaneh Hajilu, and Taher Sadeqi, Radio Farda reported, citing "sources close to" the union. The broadcaster cited unconfirmed reports of the arrest of another unidentified person, whom it described as a friend of union member Homayun Jaberi. The visit took place in response to the call by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the International Transport Workers Federation to mark on August 9 the arrests of Osanlu and Mahmud Salehi, another arrested unionist from Saqqez, western Iran. Spokesmen for the two groups condemned the arrests in comments to Radio Farda on August 10. VS

Yaqub Yadali is to be tried on August 23 on charges of "publishing false reports" and proffering insults, apparently in his books, against an unspecified ethnic group, Radio Farda reported on August 12, quoting comments made to ISNA by his lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht. Yadali is to be tried by the provincial court of Kohgiluyeh va Boyrahmad in southwestern Iran, where he lives. Yadali has pointed out that his books were published with the permission of the Culture Ministry, Nikbakht said, adding that Yadali belongs to the ethnic group he allegedly insulted. He was arrested on March 15, and released on bail on April 24, Radio Farda reported. VS

Industries and Mines Minister Alireza Tahmasebi and Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh have resigned, though the official reasons for their resignations have not been given, Iranian media reported on August 12 and 13. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has appointed Ali Akbar Mehrabian -- an official so far charged with the implementation of the government's gasoline-restrictions plan -- as the acting industry minister, and Gholamhussein Nozari, a deputy oil minister, as the acting oil minister, "Hamshahri" reported on August 13. Ahmadinejad also appointed Vaziri-Hamaneh as his adviser on oil affairs, but merely wished Tahmasebi well in a farewell message apparently issued late on August 12, "Hamshahri" reported. VS

Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) troops recently gunned down four "well-known bandits" near the town of Zahedan in Sistan va Baluchistan Province, which borders on Pakistan, Fars quoted a regional IRGC commander named Mohammadzadeh as saying on August 11. He named two of the bandits as Nasrullah Shahbakhsh and Abdulghani Shahbakhsh, and said the four had contributed to "the recent insecurity" in the province. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told reporters at an August 12 press briefing in Baghdad that he will convene a meeting of leading political parties sometime this week in an effort to resolve the political crisis, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. "We must search for solutions to these political problems that we are suffering from. I have called the main political leaders in the country for a meeting to discuss the main issues in the political process," al-Maliki said. "The first meeting may happen [on August 13 or 14] with these parties to look first of all at the political process and at the important strategic problems facing the government and the rebuilding of the country. We will then go on to look at the questions relating to the implementation of what was agreed on in the government program, and by looking into some issues [certain parties] are complaining about or demanding," he added. Al-Maliki said that if the demands fall "within the limits of the constitution," the Iraqi government will respond positively and actively "toward finding solutions." But if the demands are illegitimate or impossible to meet, al-Maliki said, "we will certainly apologize for not fulfilling them because we do not want to violate the law, the constitution, and legitimacy when we take steps." KR

Prime Minister al-Maliki told reporters at the August 12 press briefing that he will consider an offer by the Al-Anbar Awakening Council to fill the vacant ministerial posts relinquished by Sunni Arab politicians if the Sunnis fail to return to work. Asked about the council's offer, al-Maliki said: "Some have offered to cooperate [with the government] and act as substitutes, but this issue remains open. This offer, for which we thank [the council], expresses a national feeling and a desire to promote the political process." Al-Maliki said his first preference is that the ministers from the Iraqi Accordance Front, who announced their withdrawal from the government on August 1, return to their posts. If the ministers refuse, al-Maliki said, "We will certainly ask [the council] to replace them. We will then choose substitute ministers" from among the council's nominees. KR

Salim al-Juburi, a spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front, told Al-Arabiyah television in an August 12 interview that leaders from the front will likely attend the meeting convened by Prime Minister al-Maliki. Al-Juburi said a number of preparatory meetings have already been held in order to set the agenda for the political summit. "We feel the meeting is important and it is a step for political reform," al-Juburi said. He added that even if some of its demands are met, that doesn't necessarily mean the front's members will return to their cabinet posts. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi will not attend the political summit, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on August 12. The news channel quoted Allawi as saying he will not be able to accept an invitation to attend. It also quoted an unidentified member of Allawi's media office as saying Allawi never received an invitation to attend the meeting. Meanwhile, Iraqi media reported on August 12 that Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani has arrived in Baghdad to attend the political summit. Barzani reportedly met on August 12 with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and aides to al-Maliki. KR

Lawmakers affiliated with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr denied reports that they intend to withdraw from the Iraqi government, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on August 12. Some confusion over the lawmakers' stance arose after an aide to al-Sadr, Ahmad al-Sharifi, called a press conference on August 11 claiming that politicians affiliated with al-Sadr decided to boycott the political process. Al-Sharifi also said that the members of parliament loyal to al-Sadr are illegitimate representatives of the al-Sadr movement. He then announced the formation of a political council that he claimed would represent the al-Sadr movement. Later the same day, several of the al-Sadr lawmakers called a press conference in Baghdad to deny al-Sharifi's claims. Lawmaker Falah Hasan Shanshal told reporters that al-Sadr continues to support the original political council, adding that the cleric did not give al-Sharifi the go-ahead to form a new council. Political council member Abd al-Mahdi al-Mutayri told reporters that the lawmakers are the sole representatives of the al-Sadr movement in the Iraqi political arena, and that they have no intention of withdrawing their participation in the government. Six al-Sadr loyalists resigned from cabinet positions earlier this year. Aides to the Shi'ite cleric have said they plan to attend the political summit in Baghdad this week. KR

Saddam Hussein's cousin Ali Hasan al-Majid and 14 other defendants will stand trial on August 21 for their alleged role in crushing an intifada, or uprising, against Hussein following the 1991 Gulf War, international media reported on August 13. Iraqi High Tribunal prosecutor Ja'far al-Musawi made the announcement in Baghdad, saying former Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai and Husayn Rashid Muhammad, a former deputy director of operations for the Iraqi armed forces, will also stand trial. During the 1991 uprising, Iraqi Kurds in the north and Shi'a in the south together seized control of 14 of Iraq's 18 governorates. Hussein's forces crushed the Shi'ite uprising, allegedly killing tens of thousands. The men will face charges of genocide, mass murder, and crimes against humanity, al-Musawi said. The chief judge in the trial will be Muhammad al-Uraybi al-Khalifah and the chief prosecutor in the case will be Mahdi Abd al-Amir, AP reported. KR