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Newsline - August 22, 2007

General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian General Staff, said after meeting with Czech First Deputy Defense Minister Martin Bartak in Moscow on August 21 that the Czech Republic will be making a "big mistake" if it hosts a radar site that it part of a projected U.S. missile-defense system, Russian and Czech media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21, 2007). Baluyevsky added that "a decision will be made by the Czech side only after the evaluation of all conditions, technical and otherwise. My Russian colleagues and I simply ask that that process continue through to October-November of 2008.... I do not exclude that a new administration in the United States will reevaluate the current administration's decisions on missile defense." He added that U.S. and Russian officials will discuss missile defense in Moscow in September. In response, Bartak said that the Czech authorities are still considering the U.S. proposal and that their decision will be submitted to the parliament for approval at an unspecified time in 2008. He added that "we understand perfectly the importance of talks with Russia and are not refusing to discuss the matter with other partners.... We will hold debates and follow very carefully and closely the talks between Russia and the United States." Bartak stressed that missile defense should not affect other aspects of Prague-Moscow relations. The Russian Defense Ministry said later in a statement that Baluyevsky "expressed regret over the Czech government's decision and said that Russia views it as a step aimed at undermining today's system of security on the European continent and the world as a whole," Interfax reported. The statement added that "this negative factor will remain an irritant in Russian-Czech relations for many years to come, and Russia has already started to take various measures to prevent any damage to its security" (see below). In Washington, State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said on August 21 that the United States will continue to hold discussions with Russia on missile defense, dpa reported. He added that the United States is " provide a more secure and stable Europe not only for ourselves, but for our allies, and that includes our friends and neighbors in the region, including Russia." PM

Britain's "The Guardian" wrote on August 22 that "in a sign of heightened tension between Russia and NATO, it emerged last night that two RAF Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft were scrambled for the first time to intercept a long-range Russian [propeller-driven Tupolev Tu-95] "Bear" reconnaissance aircraft over the North Atlantic" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18, and August 16, 20, and 21, 2007). The alleged incident took place on August 17. The daily added that the "first indications that Russia was flexing its muscles in this way came in May, when...Bears...flew towards British airspace during an exercise off Scotland, to spy on Royal Navy warships. Two Tornado F-3 air-defense aircraft were scrambled to see the bombers off." The paper noted that "on three occasions [in July], as the row over Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, suspected of murdering exiled dissident [Aleksandr] Litvinenko, caused tit-for-tat expulsions, Tornados were scrambled to warn off...Bears." President Vladimir Putin said on August 17 during military exercises in the Ural Mountains that Russian strategic bombers resumed regular long-range flights after a hiatus of about 15 years. "The Guardian" reported on August 22 that "British intelligence officials are concerned that...Putin's ambitions are more serious than the mere rhetoric they initially hoped [it would be]." But in Moscow on August 22, a Russian Air Force spokesman said that there is nothing aggressive in Russia's actions, reported. He said that "there's no saber-rattling" and that Moscow informs other countries in advance of its flights. PM

The Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote on August 22 that Russia's recent decisions to resume strategic bomber flights and strengthen the security dimension of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan [SCO]) were not taken lightly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16 and 17, 2007). The paper argued that those moves are in response to the U.S. missile-defense program and NATO expansion. On August 20, the Russian weekly magazine "The New Times" commented that Moscow's attempt to form a military bloc with China through the SCO is detrimental to Russia's long-term interests. The magazine added that the recent SCO Peace Mission 2007 maneuvers, which took place primarily in the Ural Mountains, gave the Chinese military an excellent opportunity to study Russia's terrain and infrastructure. The weekly argued that continued Russian arms sales to China will help enable Beijing to "consolidate its dominance from the Pacific Ocean to the Urals" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26 and 27, 2007, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006). PM

Garry Kasparov, who heads Russia's opposition United Civic Front and is a former world chess champion, was quoted in Australian media on August 21 as warning that country not to sell uranium to Russia, as it plans to do, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 17, 2007). Kasparov stressed that Moscow cannot be trusted to use Australian uranium purely for domestic peaceful purposes, as Canberra demands. He argued that "should Australian uranium end up in the wrong hands -- and it's not too far-fetched to suggest that Russia under Putin is already in the wrong hands -- Australia will not be able to act innocent or to claim ignorance.... You can only be confident that the Kremlin will look out for itself, that they have zero obedience to the rule of law, and that all sales are final." PM

The Russian Finance Ministry said in a statement on August 22 that it has nominated former Czech central banker and caretaker Prime Minister Josef Tosovsky to head the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Interfax reported. The statement said that the ministry "held extensive consultations with our colleagues from other countries and [is] satisfied that the majority of them want to see the IMF chief elected on a competitive basis, on his professional merits. This was behind our decision to nominate an alternative candidate." The post has traditionally gone to the nominee of Western European countries, or most recently the EU. That bloc's candidate for the IMF vacancy is France's Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In Moscow on August 22, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the ministry made its choice purely on professional grounds, Reuters reported. He added that the decision "is in no way aimed against Strauss-Kahn." In Prague on August 22, Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Vondra was quoted by Reuters as saying that Tosovsky is not the Czech government's candidate for the IMF post. The news agency reported that the Czech government backs Strauss-Kahn. Tosovsky, who is based in Switzerland, accepted the Russian nomination. The news agency suggested that Moscow's move might have been at least in part designed to embarrass the Czech authorities as part of the ongoing dispute between Moscow and Prague over the projected U.S. missile-defense plan (see above). Tosovsky is no longer a prominent figure in Czech public life. PM

Officials of the Interior Ministry said on August 21 that a video purporting to show the execution-style killing by neo-Nazis of one man from Tajikistan and one from Daghestan is probably a montage, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15, 2007). The officials added, however, that the investigation is continuing. PM

Daghestan Prime Minister Shamil Zainalov chaired a meeting in Makhachkala on August 21 to assess construction of a gas main to the Russian military base currently under construction in the mountain district of Botlikh, which borders on Chechnya, and reported. Adilkhan Abidinov, who is deputy director of the Gazprom subsidiary Kaspiigazprom, told the meeting that unspecified objections and protests by residents have halted work on the project. Visiting Botlikh on August 16 to review the construction process, Daghestan President Mukhu Aliyev was informed by the Russian construction engineer overseeing the work on the base that local residents have refused to free land earmarked for the construction of a helicopter landing pad, reported on August 17. Botlikh residents have staged several protests in recent years, blocking highways to protest construction of the base. LF

Russian State Duma Deputy Dmitry Rogozin, one of the leaders of the nationalist Great Russia party, has formally requested Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika to rule whether a passage in Ingush writer Issa Kodzoyev's recent novel "Obval" (Collapse) constitutes incitement to ethnic or national hatred, reported on August 21. Speaking on August 21 on the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, Kodzoyev, who is known and respected for his opposition views, rejected Rogozin's inference and explained that the message of the novel, which chronicles the activities of a multinational resistance group in the Caucasus in 1944-45, is the moral obligation to stand up to evil. LF

Accompanied by a large delegation, Mahmud Ahmadinejad traveled to Baku on August 21 on his first state visit to Azerbaijan, planned late last year, Azerbaijani media reported. Ahmadinejad met for approximately one hour one-on-one with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, after which Aliyev told journalists that relations between the two countries are "strong" and "very close," and that "our positions are identical on all points." Ahmadinejad for his part said their views coincide "on almost all issues," according to The two men signed a declaration in which Iran expressed support for Azerbaijan's position on resolving the Karabakh conflict and for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. Also signed in the course of the day were four intergovernmental agreements, including one on opening a regular bus route between Baku and the exclave of Nakhichevan via Iranian territory. Prior to Ahmadinejad's arrival, Azerbaijani commentators speculated that the prime topic of discussion between Aliyev and Ahmadinejad would be the proposal floated two months ago by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia and the United States should jointly use the over-the-horizon radar station at Qabala (Gabala) in central Azerbaijan that can monitor the launch of missiles in Iran, but published reports of the August 21 talks did not mention Qabala. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Daniel Fried told the Azerbaijani television channel Lider TV on August 11 that Washington will not make any decision on Qabala without consulting Baku. On August 22, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said Russian, U.S., and Azerbaijani experts will embark on "consultations" about Qabala in early September, reported. LF

A poll of 1,654 people across Azerbaijan conducted between July 2 and August 16 by the Institute for Legal and Democratic Reforms showed overwhelming support for President Aliyev, reported on August 22. Asked for whom they would vote if a presidential election was held now, 82.4 percent named Aliyev, and 82.2 percent expressed approval of holding a referendum on amending the constitution to remove enable a president to serve more than two consecutive terms. Asked which political party they consider most influential, 67.5 percent named the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, 7.6 percent the opposition Musavat party, 4.3 percent the Movement for National Unity, and 3.4 percent the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party. Only 53.7 percent of respondents positively assessed the current government's performance. LF

Azerbaijan's Supreme Court on August 21 upheld the 2 1/2-year jail term for libel handed down by a lower court in April to Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of the now defunct newspaper "Realny Azerbaijan," and reported on August 21 and 22, respectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23 and May 23, 2007). Fatullayev has filed an appeal, claiming his arrest and sentence were illegal. LF

A second group of international experts made public on August 21 its findings concerning the August 6 incident in which an unidentified aircraft entered Georgian airspace and fired an air-to-surface missile, Caucasus Press reported. Those findings confirm and augment in specific points those of a first group of experts made public one week earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2007). The second probe confirmed that the aircraft entered Georgian airspace from Russia; that Georgia does not possess aircraft capable of firing the type of missile used, which bore a manufacturer's date of October 1992; that the missile engine was burned out, indicating that it was fired, not jettisoned; and that its probable intended target was a radar facility close to where it landed. The experts recommended seeking "help" from the Russian manufacturer of the missile. Also on August 21, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said Tbilisi has formally asked the OSCE to convene a "thorough discussion" of the incident, for which Georgia holds Russia responsible, Caucasus Press reported. He added that the repercussions of the attack will not impact the planned meeting between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, preparations for which are continuing. LF

In a statement issued in Brussels on August 21, the current holder of the EU Presidency, Portugal, urged Kazakhstan to implement electoral reforms to conform more closely to international standards and norms, AP reported. The EU statement, which followed Kazakhstan's August 18 parliamentary elections that saw the main pro-government party taking all contested seats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 20 and 21, 2007), also promised to help the Kazakh leadership to "meet its commitments" to improve electoral practices but noted that international observers reported progress in the elections, despite a limited failure to meet several democratic standards. In a similar response to the elections in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos defined on August 21 the vote as marred by "serious shortcomings," but stressed that Kazakhstan has made progress toward democratic reform. Gallegos also noted that the elections fell short of international standards, citing the 7 percent barrier for parties to win seats as too high, and other election rules allowing the government the right to appoint some deputies. RG

Kazakh State Secretary Kanat Saudabaev on August 20 hailed the August 18 parliamentary elections as boosting the country's bid for assuming the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009, Kazakhstan Today reported. Saudabaev said that the election results and "high assessment by international observers" give Kazakhstan "more chances of chairing the OSCE" and provide "very important arguments to convince doubtful countries" of the validity of the Kazakh OSCE bid. RG

Speaking in Astana, Burikhan Nurmukhamedov, one of the leaders of the Kazakh opposition Ak Zhol (Bright Path) party, and Ualikhan Kaisarov, the opposition Social Democratic Party's representative to the Kazakh Central Election Commission, announced on August 20 that they refused to recognize the results of the August 18 elections for a new Mazhilis, AKIpress reported. They added that the election results "do not reflect the actual alignment of political forces" in Kazakhstan and criticized the ballot as "neither a step forward, nor even remaining at a standstill." Amirzhan Kosanov, a leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, which officially received 4.6 percent of the vote, recently condemned the outcome for resembling "the Soviet Union, with a one-party system just like the Communist Party," and vowed that "the fight will go on" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 20, 2007). Not all opposition figures were as adamant in refusing to recognize the election, however, as Ak Zhol regional leader Maksut Narikbaev said on August 21 that the opposition should "acknowledge that we were not able to convey the main ideas of our program to the majority of the population," which he defined as "the main cause of failure in the recent election," Regnum reported. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Kazakhstan's Karaganda region, Sattar Anarbayuly, an official in the local prosecutor's office, announced on August 21 the arrest of a group of suspected "terrorists" armed with firearms and found in possession of "terrorist propaganda," Interfax reported. The four men, charged with "the organization of violent assaults," were allegedly plotting "a series of exceptionally serious crimes," including "armed assaults on bank cash collectors and prominent businessmen." One of the suspects was reportedly convicted in Russia in the past for his participation in the Chechen separatist movement, while another was said to be facing criminal charges stemming form an attempt to illegally enter Afghanistan. On August 15, a similar case involved the arrest of members of the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamist group who were said to have planned to carry out a series a terrorist attacks to coincide with a visit by President Nursultan Nazarbaev to the southern Kazakh region of Shymkent in April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2007). An unspecified number of suspects were also detained in Karaganda in those arrests as well. RG

In an announcement at a press conference in Astana, Kazakh Environmental Protection Minister Nurlan Iskakov warned on August 21 that drilling operations at the offshore Kashagan oil field in the Kazakh sector of the Caspian Sea may be suspended due to violations of environmental-protection laws committed by the project operator, Interfax reported. Iskakov added that his ministry is "conducting a planned audit" during which it determined that "we already have reasons to believe that the operator is not meeting the requirements of Kazakhstan's environmental-protection legislation" and said that the findings were turned over to the Prosecutor-General's Office. Iskakov also defended the suspension of operations in the major oil field as necessary because of the danger that further work by the operator, Italy's Eni, may cause "irreparable environmental damage." Joining the press conference, Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced that he has issued orders to Energy Minister Baktykozha Izmukhambetov "to clarify" the suspicions and take appropriate action "in compliance with the laws of Kazakhstan." Masimov further threatened to revoke the license for Agip, expressing frustration with the project's constant delays, most recently moving the target date for the start of production from 2008 to late 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, 2007). The agreement to develop the Kashagan oil field was first granted in early 2004 to an international consortium led by Agip, but including British Gas, ExxonMobil, Shell, Total, ConocoPhillips, and Inpeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2004). The Kashagan field holds between 7 billion-9 billion tons of proven reserves, making it the single largest oil field discovered in the last three decades and the fourth- or fifth-largest in the world (see "Factbox: Caspian Sea Hydrocarbons,", October 25, 2005). RG

An unnamed official from the Kyrgyz National Security Committee announced on August 21 that the investigation into the poisoning of Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev is ongoing but "without progress," according to AKIpress. The official added that "everyone who might have been involved in the case has already been questioned," but offered no new hope for a breakthrough in the investigation. After a series of medical tests conducted in a Turkish medical facility in June, Turkish doctors confirmed earlier findings by Kyrgyz doctors that determined that Atambaev was poisoned, but were unable to specifically identify the poison found in his system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 2, 2007). Atambaev said in early May that he drank a glass of water and soon after lost consciousness for nearly two days. RG

The press office of Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman confirmed on August 21 that Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu has been specifically asked to mediate negotiations over the release of a group of South Koreans being held hostage in Afghanistan, AKIpress reported. The request for Bakir-uulu's personal intervention is said to stem from his prior role in securing the release of several Kyrgyz policemen and Japanese geologists who were held hostage in southern Kyrgyzstan by the Taliban in 1999. Two of the South Koreans, who are reportedly being held by militants linked to the Taliban, have already been killed. The ombudsman's press service declined to reveal who made the request, but explained that Bakir-uulu is awaiting approval from Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev to join in the mediation talks. RG

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov welcomed on August 20 a visiting delegation of officials from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom after they arrived in Ashgabat on the start of a five-day visit to Turkmenistan, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported. During the meeting, U.S. officials praised Berdymukhammedov for recently pardoning a group of prisoners that included Turkmenistan's former chief mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who was serving a 22-year prison sentence for treason (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 10 and 14, 2007). Commission Chairman Michael Cromartie said that the U.S. group intends to "visit various facilities, various cities and settlements" in order to "learn about the situation related to religious minorities" during their stay in the country, Turkmen Television reported. In a report released earlier this year, however, the commission accused Turkmenistan of engaging in continued "systematic and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief." RG

The financial services company Standard and Poor's has assigned a B+ foreign-currency long-term sovereign credit rating, a BB local-currency rating, and a B short-term sovereign rating to Belarus, Belapan reported on August 21. Standard and Poor's said the ratings reflect the state's domination of the Belarusian economy, the country's weak external liquidity, and the uniquely centralized nature of the Belarusian political system, which reduces the predictability of policy choices. On the other hand, the company noted that the ratings are supported by comparatively high wealth and development levels, low general government debt, a relatively strong external balance sheet, and significant economic potential due to substantial industrial capital stock and a highly educated workforce. A country's sovereign credit rating is a reflection of confidence in its ability to honor its hard-currency borrowing commitments. Belarus's Finance Ministry welcomed the ratings in a statement on August 21, saying they will lead to a significant increase in foreign investment inflows to Belarus. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on August 21 sent a telegram to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, requesting that he dismiss Emergency Situation Minister Nestor Shufrych, Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko charges that Shufrych misled him and the public by reporting earlier the same day that firefighters have localized a forest fire that started in Kherson Oblast on August 20. According to Yushchenko, the fire is spreading and the firefighting operation is being conducted incompetently and inefficiently. Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk said on August 22 that he sees no grounds for sacking Shufrych. "I have no doubts that [Shufrych] will manage the situation; I've seen him at work," Kuzmuk told journalists. JM

The committee of the contest "Seven Wonders of Ukraine," which was set up and headed by Verkhovna Rada deputy speaker Mykola Tomenko nine months ago, announced on August 21 a list of seven most attractive places and objects for sightseeing in Ukraine, Ukrainian media reported. The list was reportedly compiled based on an Internet poll that involved 75,000 Ukrainians and a "poll among experts." The list comprises the Kamyanets Fortress in Kamyanets-Podilskyy (Khmelnytskyy Oblast), the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv, St. Sofia Cathedral in Kyiv, the Sofiyivka Park in Uman (Cherkasy Oblast), the Khersones Tavriyskyy archeological site in Sevastopol (Crimea), the Khotyn Fortress in Khotyn (Chernivtsi Oblast), and Khortytsya -- an erstwhile Cossack base on the Khortytsya Island on the Dnipro River (Zaporizhzhya Oblast). JM

The seven prisoners who escaped from a jail in Kosova on August 18 include an international terrorism suspect and two leaders of the Albanian National Army, a militant group fighting for the creation of a Greater Albania, according to Kosovar and international media. "The Times" of London reported on August 21 that the suspected terrorist, Ramadan Shiti, was expelled from his homeland in Saudi Arabia for plotting an attack on senior public figures and was jailed in Kosova under an international arrest warrant after escaping from a Macedonian prison, where he was serving a sentence for murdering a taxi driver. The two senior figures in the Albanian National Army were identified as Lirim Jakupi and Xhavid Morina. They and the other escapees have been convicted of crimes including murder, kidnapping, and robbery, local media reported. One of the fugitives, Faton Hajrizi, is said to have escaped from prisons in Kosova on five previous occasions, though a report by the Serbian broadcaster B92 puts that number at three. Kosovar papers say police have now arrested four or five guards at Dubrava prison, near the western town of Istok, and the daily "Zeri" quoted police sources as saying they suspect many more guards were involved in the escape from the high-security prison. The men vaulted over a fence and a wall on August 18 after accomplices fired rockets and bullets at security guards from outside the prison. NATO-led troops and helicopters are helping local police in the hunt for the prisoners, who are thought to be heading southeast toward Kosova's border with Macedonia. The UN Mission in Kosova on August 21 offered a reward of 5,000 euros ($6,750) for information leading to the fugitives' capture. AG

Albanian Foreign Minister Lulzim Basha has stated that Albania might recognize Kosova as an independent state if Kosova decides to declare independence unilaterally, the Albanian daily "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported on August 21. Basha dismissed talk of a partition of Kosova and said he expects some of Kosova's other neighbors to back a unilateral move by Prishtina, but gave no names. Basha indicated that Kosova might declare independence 120 days after the beginning of the current round of talks on Kosova's future. That roughly coincides with the December 10 date when the international diplomats mediating talks between Belgrade and Prishtina are due to submit a report to the UN. Russia and Serbia have rejected suggestions that December 10 should mark the end of talks and have said that any solution must be voted on by the UN Security Council. In the latest sign of pressure by the EU for an early resolution, Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik on August 20 told Austrian reporters that the current round of talks would be the "last." Plassnik also said Russia had undermined the role of the UN by blocking EU and U.S. attempts to pass a vote on Kosova's future and is forcing the international community to find a solution outside the UN. AG

The religious leader of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslims, Reis-ul-Ulema Mustafa Ceric, met on August 21 with Raffi Gregorian, the second-most-senior international official in the country, in an effort to clarify an assertion Gregorian made on August 18 that members of Al-Qaeda are finding practical support in Bosnia. According to a press statement issued by the Office of the High Representative, "Gregorian reassured the Reis that members of Al-Qaeda were not receiving shelter in [Bosnia]; instead his comments about terrorist connections were confined to a small number of former foreign fighters" and added that "because [Bosnia's] security and law enforcement agencies are capable of dealing with these people, there is no need to fear them" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 20, 2007). "The challenge for Bosnia and Herzegovina has been to counter alien elements and ideologies which have sought to exploit the situation that existed in Bosnia during and after the war," the statement quoted Gregorian as saying. Ceric earlier responded sharply to Gregorian's assertion, describing it as "incorrect and malicious" and, according to the daily "Dnevni avaz" on August 19, warning that Gregorian would be guilty of "Islamophobia" if his statement proved unfounded. "If there are Al-Qaeda sympathizers in Bosnia-Herzegovina, tell us where they are. Otherwise just shut up, because you are thus inciting those who do not like us here to commit another genocide," Ceric said in the same speech, adding that "statements such as Gregorian's...send ugly signals of the kind that had been sent to Jews before the Holocaust, or like the signals we heard in 1992 as genocide was being plotted against us." Aner Hadzimahmutovic, the head of the counterterrorism unit of Bosnia's State Agency for Investigation and Protection (SIPA), told "Dnevni avaz" on August 19 that Bosnia cannot rule out the presence of people connected with Al-Qaeda, but that Bosnia's security services have no information to support Gregorian's claim. Hadzimahmutovic did not question the quality of Gregorian's intelligence, but said he expects the international community to pass on intelligence to Bosnia's security agencies rather than the media. According to the Croatian news agency Hina on August 19, Gregorian said he believes there are "more than 10 and less than a 100" people with Al-Qaeda links. The Bosnian government decided in April to revoke the citizenship of 367 foreign-born Bosnians, many of whom fought as volunteers in the Bosnian Muslim army during the 1992-95 war (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, April 12, and June 28, 2007). AG

Bosnia-Herzegovina's Presidency on August 20 ratified a treaty governing relations with the Catholic Church and adopted an agreement on relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, local media reported. Both address the status, rights, and property claims of the two churches. All three members of the Presidency approved the treaty with the Vatican, but the Bosnian Muslim representative, Haris Siljadzic, refused to sign the agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church. Siljadzic released a press statement saying, "it is unacceptable to regulate relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church in the same fashion as with the Vatican, since the Holy See is a sovereign state and the Serbian Orthodox Church has neither its own state nor the same status." Siljadzic said the agreement effectively elevates churches and other nongovernmental organizations to the status of state actors. AG

Serbian Justice Minister Dusan Petrovic on August 21 refused to transfer a war-crimes case against a Bosnian from a Serbian to a Bosnian court because of the gravity of the charges against the defendant, Ilija Jurisic. Bosnian public radio reported that Petrovic told his Bosnian counterpart, Barisa Colak, that Serbia cannot extradite anyone who could be jailed for over 10 years. Jurisic, whom Serbian authorities arrested in May, is accused of being involved in an ambush of retreating Yugoslav forces in 1992, in which up to 200 Yugoslav soldiers were killed as they made a negotiated withdrawal from the town of Tuzla. The case has proved highly controversial in Bosnia, with the Justice Ministry arguing that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia transferred responsibility for the investigation of the "Tuzla Column" slaughter to Bosnian war-crimes prosecutors. Colak, who instigated the meeting with Petrovic, did not indicate whether the Bosnian government plans to exert further pressure to transfer the Jurisic case to Bosnia. In one recent sign of the sensitivities roused by the case, the Tuzla branch of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) on August 16 threatened to call a boycott on all Serbian products and services, the news agency FENA reported. AG

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- whose full members are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- grabbed headlines last week with its annual summit in Bishkek and impressive military exercises in the Russian Urals Mountains. The exercises, dubbed Peace Mission 2007, brought together 6,000 mostly Russian and Chinese troops in an impressive display of firepower.

With Russian relations with the West rapidly deteriorating and Chinese power on the rise, some are beginning to fear that the SCO is developing into a modern-day version of the Warsaw Pact. Indeed, Russia has ambitious plans for the SCO. Moscow has been interested in expanding the scope of the organization's military cooperation to include formal security guarantees, and has also been working behind the scenes to expand the membership of the organization to include India, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Iran, which currently only have observer status.

Strengthening the SCO is part of the Kremlin's broader global strategy of counterbalancing U.S. hegemony and promoting the transition to what it sees as a more equitable multipolar global order. Russian political elites increasingly see unrestrained U.S. power as the primary threat to peace and stability in the international system. They argue that stability is best maintained through a balance of power among states. They are prepared to do this even at the risk of empowering rogue states like Iran. In Eurasia, the Kremlin wants to use the SCO to roll back the U.S. presence in the region and reestablish its influence. Moscow also hopes to use the SCO to restrain growing Chinese influence in the region. According to Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College, "Moscow no longer feels it can keep China out on its own, and therefore prefers to tie it down with a formal structure."

However, the Bishkek summit yielded little in the way of concrete results. The SCO conducted its largest military exercise to date, but it did not adopt any formal defense commitments or plans to coordinate military commands or infrastructure. Nor were any new members admitted to the organization. The most notable new initiatives were cultural and student-exchange programs and a rather long-winded and vague declaration on "Continued Cooperation, Friendship, and Good-Neighborliness" that reiterated many points contained in earlier summit declarations.

This year's conference was also surprisingly short on anti-American rhetoric. The joint declaration affirmed that member countries have the right to pursue their own "unique" historical paths of social and political development. Most leaders, however, avoided the subject of U.S. foreign policy entirely in their speeches. The notable exception was Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who denounced U.S. plans to deploy missile-defense elements in Europe as a threat to all of Eurasia. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has not minced words in criticizing the United States of late, chose a low-key approach, stating only that "attempts to solve global and regional problems unilaterally have no future" -- a thinly veiled jab at Washington.

Unfortunately for Moscow, the other SCO members do not share its strategic vision. China opposes Russian efforts to bring Iran into the organization and is hesitant about strengthening the SCO's security and military ties. For Beijing, relations with the West and economic and security interests in East Asia take precedence over relations with Russia and Central Asia. China's policy in the region is primarily aimed at maintaining the status quo -- combating separatism and extremism while securing energy supplies and promoting trade. For Beijing, the SCO in its current form fulfills these goals, and it therefore sees no reason to expand its commitments.

Russia and China are also likely to clash on energy issues in the region. Central Asia's energy infrastructure dates back to the Soviet era, and energy resources have to be transported through Russian territory to make it to market. China wants to diversify supply routes and is seeking to build pipelines that will open up direct access to the region's resources. Russia, for its part, wants to maintain its dominant position by signing bilateral agreements with the region's producers that commit them to using existing supply routes.

The smaller Central Asian states prefer to pursue a more independent foreign-policy strategy that seeks to balance Russian and Chinese power by cultivating ties with the West. Oil-rich Kazakhstan has successfully pursued this kind of foreign policy for years, maintaining good relations with Washington, as well as Beijing and Moscow, and earning Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev a trip to the White House. Other countries in the region are also following suit. Contrary to expectations, Kyrgyzstan has not demanded that the United States close its air base on its territory, accepting a $16 million aid package from Washington just shortly before the summit. Although observers anticipated that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov would use the occasion of the summit to apply for SCO membership, he chose instead to continue his predecessor's policy of strict neutrality.

While their foreign-policy interests in many areas diverge, the SCO member countries do have similar domestic political regimes, and this binds them together. None of them is a genuine democracy. Ruling elites limit political competition, stifling opposition and engineering political processes to keep a tight grip on power. All of these regimes are extremely wary of outside influences that could upset this balance, as happened with the so-called colored revolutions in 2003-05 in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine.

They have an interest in precluding any further regime change and in keeping likeminded incumbents in power. Though Peace Mission 2007 was billed as an antiterrorism operation, military observers believe the exercise looked more like an invasion to shore up a regime that is in danger of being overthrown by a popular revolt, along the lines of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 or the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Does this mean that the SCO is turning into a modern-day version of the Warsaw Pact? A more apposite comparison may be the Holy Alliance, established by the monarchies of Austria, Prussia, and Russia at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 to protect existing autocratic regimes against the liberal and democratic ideas unleashed by the French Revolution. The alliance enjoyed some success, banding together to suppress the wave of liberal democratic revolutions that swept Europe in 1848, including a Russian invasion of hapless Hungary in 1849. But its significance faded as the revolutionary threat in Europe waned and the three powers began to pursue their own interests.

The SCO's development may follow the same pattern. The organization engaged in its strongest display of muscle-flexing in 2005-06, shortly after colored revolutions shook the ruling elites in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and a popular insurrection was brutally repressed in Uzbekistan. But with the threat of such revolutions subsiding, there is less to hold the SCO countries together. Member countries will not be as ready to sacrifice their own interests or to assume new responsibilities and commitments. As a result, Russia's ambitious plans for the SCO are unlikely to be realized and the organization will have little chance of developing into a strong counterweight to the United States and NATO.

(Andrej Krickovic is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California at Berkeley and is currently in Moscow on a Fulbright Fellowship.)

Afghan women deserted by their husbands are left trapped and disadvantaged both socially and economically, as cultural stigmas surrounding family disputes make women reluctant to seek divorce and other redress through the legal system, the Integrated Regional Information Network reported on August 21. Women are legally entitled to seek a divorce if their husbands are absent for over four years, but they rarely act on their rights due to the precedence of conservative customs over Afghan law, said Qazi Mohammad Akbar, the head of Faryab Province's secondary court. Children of abandoned marriages are also stigmatized due to the patriarchal nature of Afghanistan's society, say officials at the Women's Affairs Ministry, which assists women who apply for divorce. On the other hand, Islamic tradition allows that a man can either verbally express his desire to end a marriage to a judge or simply send divorce papers, said Suraya Subhrang, the women's rights commissioner at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Such an act essentially ruins the prospective future of his wife, who due to the frequency of arranged marriages in Afghanistan, is probably young and uneducated. In rural areas where traditions prevail and legal justice is secondary, the hardships experienced by women left by their husbands, including at the hands of abusive in-laws, have driven many desperate actions. According to the AIHRC, more than 250 Afghan women have committed suicide in the last six months. JC

Female members of the lower house of parliament, or Wolesi Jirga, on August 20 accused their male counterparts of denying women's rights and staged a walkout from a parliamentary session, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. "There are scores of men in this house who don't want women to get their rights," said Safia Sidiqi, one of the protesting parliamentarians. Shafiqa Nuri, another member, protested the inequality between men and women in earning promotions. Sidiqi demanded the establishment of a special department within the Finance Ministry comprised of women working to end gender bias. Mohammad Sarwar Jawadi, the head of the parliamentary committee charged with drafting laws, called the deputies' boycott of parliamentary session "irrational." Jawadi said the commission deemed Sidiqi's proposal invalid and the proposed entity unrealistic, arguing that gender issues are a matter for the Women's Affairs Ministry and therefore should be addressed by that ministry. JC

A German aid worker rescued in a police raid after being held by kidnappers for 36 hours has been flown outside of Afghanistan, claiming that her captors treated her well, AFP reported. Christina Meier, who was volunteering in Afghanistan with the Christian aid organization ORA-International, was joined by her husband on a flight "to a safe location outside Afghanistan," said Joop Teeuwen, the organization's country director. Meier is said to be five months' pregnant and medical checks following her rescue show she is in "perfect health," confirming that she had been treated well during the ordeal. Teeuwen said that Meier "loved with the Afghan people." She willingly remained in Afghanistan despite being pregnant and having the opportunity to return to Germany on maternity leave, Teeuwen said. Meier is the third German to be abducted in the past two months in a recent spate of kidnappings of foreigners, the most notable of which is the ongoing hostage crisis involving 19 South Korean volunteers being held by the Taliban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21, 2007). JC

Battles between security forces and Taliban insurgents broke out across Afghanistan on August 20, leaving at least 24 people dead, AFP reported the next day. Two police officers and eight militants were killed in southern Ghazni Province, police chief Alishah Ahmadzai told AFP. Two Afghan civilians were also killed in Ghazni after a land mine exploded under their vehicle on August 21. Security forces in the Taliban stronghold of Sangin district in Helmand Province clashed with militants on August 20, killing seven, said a Defense Ministry statement. Four Taliban were also killed later in the day in Farah Province, according to police chief Abdul Rahman Sarjang. In eastern Khost Province, assailants threw a grenade into the tent of a nomadic family, killing one woman and wounding three of her relatives, said police spokesman Wazir Padshah. It is not clear if the Taliban was behind the attack. JC

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said in Tehran on August 20 that Iran will again reduce its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) if the UN Security Council imposes another round of sanctions over Iran's nuclear program, Radio Farda reported on August 21. Iran is currently negotiating with the IAEA on how to answer outstanding questions on aspects of its nuclear activities. Larijani said Iran has set out a "path" in the three rounds of talks he has had with the chief EU negotiator Javier Solana on how it can cooperate with the IAEA and work toward a "political agreement." He said progress might stop if Western states "puncture" the "Solana-Larijani work in progress." Larijani's deputy, Javad Vaidi, held a second round of talks on the mechanics of IAEA inspections of Iranian nuclear sites with the IAEA Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen in Tehran on August 21, AFP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21, 2007). VS

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a gathering of Iranian Foreign Ministry personnel in Tehran on August 21 that the "the great Satan, America, is trying to create a global dictatorship" and has "rebelled" against human society by "trampling on" the rights of nations, the Fars news agency reported. Khamenei said the "index" of Iranian foreign policy is to reject "dominance" in interstate relations and resist "intelligently the system of global domination." He said the Foreign Ministry must fulfill Iran's 20-year development plans and serve the "long-term goals of the Islamic revolution." Iran's history over the past three decades, he said, has shown it is possible to resist domineering powers, and Iran has grown stronger in many fields in spite of pressures and threats. He observed that the 2006 "victory" of Hizballah in Lebanon against Israeli air strikes and "America's defeat in all its regional plans including in Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan" show that Iran can "attain victory" against the "challenge of world dominance" through faith and resilience, Fars reported. VS

Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told a gathering in Tehran on August 21 that "world arrogance" will take its bid to isolate Iran "to its grave, and their efforts to increase pressures on Iran will prove useless," IRNA reported. He said Iran's Islamic polity is now a model for other states, and Iran has undertaken an "immense task" in "tackling" the United States. Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi said the previous day in Tehran that increasing pressure on and hostility toward the Islamic republic illustrate a fear of Iran's growing power and of the spread of "pure and Shi'ite Islamic ideas" across the Middle East, "Kayhan" reported on August 21. He said the Shi'ite school of Islam suits the needs of modern society, because it combines reason with religion and resists "ignorant fundamentalism." Purmohammadi said the Lebanese Hizballah is now a "concept and an ideal" that has come to "rule the hearts" of Lebanese and Arab Christians and Muslims. VS

Intelligence Minister Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei said in Tehran on August 21 that kidnappers who briefly took 21 Iranians hostage in southeastern Iran on August 19 were "bandits" unrelated to the Sunni Jundullah, which is led by a man called Abdulmalik Rigi and which Iranian officials link with Al-Qaeda, IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 20 and 21, 2007). Mohseni-Ejei said, "bandits may at times be in contact with each other," but these bandits did not have "systematic links with Rigi." Iran's judiciary chief, Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, separately told a gathering of judiciary officials in Tehran on August 20 that the "Sistan va Baluchistan bandits should know they cannot escape the claws of justice, and will certainly be punished for their disgraceful acts," "Kayhan" reported the next day. He said the bandits had been "duped by and agents and supporters of world arrogance," and that they will encounter the "people's wrath." He described the work of police and security troops in Sistan va Baluchistan as "excellent." VS

Iranian authorities released on bail Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American detainee accused of engaging in antistate activities, Radio Farda reported on August 21, citing her lawyer, Shirin Ebadi. Esfandiari was reportedly released on $320,000 bail, news agencies reported. Esfandiari is one of several Iranian-Americans charged in recent months with engaging in a variety of subversive actions. It was not immediately clear if Esfandiari can leave Iran. A source in the Tehran prosecutor's office told ISNA separately that the situation of another detainee, Kian Tajbakhsh, might "change in the next few days," AFP reported on August 21. VS

The Intelligence Ministry announced on August 21 that it has arrested six people suspected of being "the main agents" in the killing of Sheikh Hisham Samiri, the congregational prayers leader of the Ku-yi Alawi Mosque in Ahwaz, in the southwestern Khuzestan Province, ISNA reported. It was not immediately clear when the preacher was killed. A ministry communique stated that the suspects were "members of a separatist, terrorist group" with "sect-like ideas," and were working to assassinate clerics and preachers in the region in a bid to "create insecurity...and fuel the plot of ethnic separatism." The ministry statement also reported that its agents have arrested eight people in the West Azerbaijan Province in northwestern Iran. The detainees are suspected of belonging to an "international drug-trafficking gang," ISNA reported. Ministry personnel reportedly seized 352 kilograms of the drug "crystal" and 391 kilograms of morphine during the arrests. VS

Al-Sharqiyah television reported on August 21 that U.S. President George W. Bush has withdrawn his support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Bush told reporters at an August 21 press briefing in Canada that, among Iraqis, there is "a certain level of frustration with the [Iraqi] leadership in general." "There's bottom-up reconciliation taking place," Bush said. "It's noticeable and tangible and real, where people at the grassroots level are sick and tired of the violence, sick and tired of the radicalism...and they want a better life.... And the fundamental question is, will the government respond to the demands of the people? And if the government doesn't...respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government. That's up to the Iraqis to make that decision, not American politicians. The Iraqis will decide." KR

Prime Minister al-Maliki met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on August 21 in Damascus. The prime minister told reporters following the talks that the discussion was "positive," adding, "We are optimistic that the two countries will develop the best ties and be able to reach a common mutual agreement and understanding on certain files," state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Al-Maliki said al-Assad "expressed willingness to discuss this issue and to work out appropriate mechanisms to control the borders and prevent infiltration and smuggling operations." Meanwhile, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani told Al-Arabiyah television that Syria handed over 13 fugitives to the Iraqi authorities. Al-Bulani said the Iraqi government is in the process of preparing additional lists of wanted persons believed to be hiding in Syria. KR

Al-Sharqiyah television reported on August 21 that Kurdish Iraqis have begun a mass exodus from their homes in villages that fall within the Hajj Umran district in the Kurdish region following several days of shelling by Iranian security forces. Scores of Iraqi Kurds have been wounded in the shelling, according to media reports. Al-Sulaymaniyah-based "Chawder" reported on August 21 that Iranian forces dropped leaflets warning villagers that a major military operation will be launched in the "coming few days." The leaflets reportedly stressed Iran's good relations with Iraqi Kurds and claimed "U.S. colonialism is trying to put security under its feet by sending some servants and spies to the Qandil and Khnera areas. Not only do they harm the people [across the border] but also on U.S. orders they are planning a conspiracy." The leaflet continued: "To counter such plans, and in order to restore security and stability to the area, the Islamic Republic of Iran will be chasing them and shelling their bases." The Iraqi government has not commented publicly on the shelling operations, which, according to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, began last week. London's "The Guardian" newspaper reported on August 18 that six villages have been abandoned due to the shelling, which is presumably targeting Kurdish-Turkish separatists from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Ilnur Cevik, editor of "The New Anatolian" newspaper in Ankara, told the "The Guardian" that Iran has involved itself in the issue "to show Turkey that it was taking action against its shared enemy [Kurdish separatists], while the U.S., Turkey's ally, has done nothing". KR

Ahmad al-Shaybani, a spokesman for Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, denied that al-Sadr recently gave interviews to the London-based daily "The Independent," Iraqi media reported on August 21. On August 20, the daily reported on two recent interviews with al-Sadr in which the cleric allegedly said the British have been defeated in southern Iraq. The daily also reported that al-Sadr called Prime Minister al-Maliki a "tool" of the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21, 2007). Al-Shaybani said al-Sadr will sue any newspaper or satellite channel carrying fabricated reports about him, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. KR

Parliamentarian Falah Shanshal has said that representatives aligned with al-Sadr have presented a plan to the Political Council for National Security that calls for the formation of a "collective leadership" to overcome the current political crisis, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on August 21. Shanshal said that under the plan, a consultative committee comprised of 15 people representing all shades of the political spectrum, would make binding recommendations to the Iraqi government. Shanshal claimed the Political Council for National Security was briefed on the proposal on August 20, and it was welcomed by most of the representatives of the political blocs in government. KR