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Newsline - August 31, 2007

Russian media reported on August 30 that prosecutors released two of the 10 unnamed suspects being held in the killing of investigative journalist and outspoken Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27 and 28, 2007). Prosecutors refused to comment. A third suspect is reportedly no longer linked to the case. The daily "Kommersant" argued on August 30 that a fourth suspect could not have been involved in the murder because he was in prison when Politkovskaya was killed in Moscow on October 7, 2006. A Moscow District Military Court spokesman said a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer, who was named among the suspects, is still being held, but his arrest is not connected to Politkovskaya's killing. Lawyers for the officer, who identified their client as Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov, said they have filed an appeal against his arrest, Interfax reported. Aleksandr Kupryazhkin, the FSB internal security department chief, said earlier that officials of the Prosecutor-General's Office detained Ryaguzov on August 21 and that his arrest was later sanctioned by the court. Kupryazhkin added that "Ryaguzov was under surveillance by the FSB internal security department, which was checking out reports on his possible involvement in a criminal group, extortion, and abuse of office. The Prosecutor-General's Office suspects him of illegal activities related to the...Politkovskaya case." Several commentators suggested that the latest developments will fuel speculation that Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika's case was poorly prepared and might soon collapse. PM

About 500 people took part in a rally in memory of Politkovskaya in central Moscow on August 30, which would have been her 49th birthday, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Dmitry Muratov, who was her editor at "Novaya gazeta," told RFE/RL that the recent claim by Prosecutor-General Chaika that her killing was orchestrated by someone abroad was a cue to the suspects as to what they should say in court. "It is absolutely clear to me what this statement means -- the lawyers of the detained will tell their clients which version [of how the killing took place] they should stick to for their own benefit," Muratov said. "Their version will match that of the Prosecutor-General's Office, thus making a deal with justice possible." Also at the memorial gathering, Garry Kasparov, who heads the opposition United Civic Front and is a former world chess champion, said "people should understand that the statements of the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office [regarding the investigation into the murder] should be treated with caution. The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office makes a lot of statements, but most of them have a political subtext." "The last argument of a dictatorship is a bullet," Kasparov said. "They've used it against Politkovskaya, and it was a shot fired at press freedom." PM

Oksana Chelysheva, director of the Tolerance Support Foundation, said on August 30 that police had raided the offices of her nongovernmental organization (NGO) in the city of Nizhny Novgorod and seized four computers, Reuters reported. Officials of Human Rights Watch said the seizure was "part of a Kremlin campaign against civil society." The Tolerance Support Foundation was originally formed by members of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, which worked to fight abuses in Chechnya and was closed down in 2006 under a law on extremism. Critics charge that the law is aimed at intimidating or shutting down opposition groups. PM

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow late on August 29 that President Vladimir Putin will probably give his backing to a well-known person to succeed him in the March presidential election, news agencies reported. Peskov said: "the president has the right to say 'I think this guy is best' and give him a boost by sharing with him his considerable popularity. But this should indeed be a figure well-known to voters" and not a surprise. Peskov noted that either of the two first deputy prime ministers, Sergei Ivanov or Dmitry Medvedev, has the qualities to "be a successful candidate." But the spokesman also urged reporters "not to forget about party leaders, who are becoming increasingly popular." The two party leaders he might have in mind are Boris Gryzlov, who chairs the main pro-Kremlin party, Unified Russia, and Sergei Mironov, who leads A Just Russia, which targets its appeals to left-leaning voters. Gryzlov is speaker of the State Duma, while Mironov holds the same post in the Federation Council. Peskov predicted that at least those two parties and the Communists (KPRF) will clear the 7 percent hurdle needed to win representation in the Duma. He added that the country needs a strong opposition, but that the Kremlin is not to blame if one does not exist. Putin has said it is up to the people to decide on his successor, adding that he will abide by that choice. PM

Leonid Nevzlin, who is a former director of the once-mighty oil company Yukos, said in a statement on August 30 that at least part of the firm's $160 million in assets that were recently unfrozen in Swiss banks will help fund opposition groups in Russia, RIA Novosti reported. The move followed a ruling by Switzerland's high court that rejected cooperating with Russian authorities looking into the former oil giant's finances. Nevzlin has been wanted in Russia since 2004 and is living in Israel. On August 27, Prosecutor-General Chaika told journalists that Russia is seeking his extradition and hopes to have him in custody by the end of this year, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. PM

The Natural Resources Ministry said in a statement on August 29 that prosecutors in the Khanty-Mansy Autonomous Okrug have opened a case against Yuganskneftegaz for pollution caused by oil spillages, Interfax reported. The statement added that the move came at the request of Oleg Mitvol, who is deputy head of the Natural Resources Ministry's Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources Use (Rosprirodnadzor). The statement charged that "representatives of the company failed to report [a spillage] incident to the Rosprirodnadzor office in the Khanty-Mansy Autonomous Okrug in a timely manner. The oil spill purportedly polluted large areas of water and forest." The Kremlin has previously used environmentally based complaints by Mitvol and his agency as a means of putting pressure on businesses to modify or withdraw from existing contracts. PM

LUKoil head Vagit Alekperov said on August 30 that his company wants to sell crude oil directly to German refineries and not through distributors such as Sunimex, Interfax reported. He said he finds it "incomprehensible" that German refineries still work through a distributor. "We don't need distributors," he said. "I hope they see it the same way in Germany." He added that LUKoil is interested in buying refineries in Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 29, and 30, 2007). There has been speculation in the German media in recent days that the reason LUKoil has cut back its supplies of crude to Germany by one-third since June is that the company is trying to pressure Western firms into selling refineries to it. PM

Georgy Petrov, who is vice president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told the founding meeting of the Russian-Slovak Business Council in Moscow on August 30 that the council will exchange ideas and plan "interstate trade and economic cooperation," Interfax reported. Atomstroieksport President Sergei Shmatko was elected the Russian co-chair. "Though we definitely expect that, via this council, Russia will be able to take part in renovating or building nuclear power facilities in Slovakia, it does not mean that the council will limit its activities to fuel and energy matters," Shmatko said. He added that Russia can learn from Slovakia's taxation system, which is "very interesting, even if one compares it with those of other Western countries." He also mentioned the Slovak tourist industry as a model. Russian-Slovak trade totaled $5.5 billion for 2006, compared with $3.9 billion for 2005, the meeting was told. PM

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy II was quoted by the Italian daily "Il Giornale" on August 29 as saying a meeting between him and Pope Benedict XVI would make sense only if the Roman Catholic Church gives up what he called missionary ambitions to spread Catholicism in Russia, Reuters reported. Aleksy stressed that "any meeting between the pope and the patriarch of Moscow must be well prepared and must run absolutely no risk of being reduced to an opportunity to take a few photographs or appear together before television cameras. It must be an encounter that really helps to consolidate relations between our two churches." "Even today, some Catholic bishops and missionaries consider Russia as missionary terrain," he said. "But Russia, holy Russia, is already illuminated by a faith that is centuries old and that, thank God, has been preserved and handed on by the Orthodox Church." Aleksy described the alleged Catholic proselytizing in his country as "the first point of the problems that need to be clarified and smoothed over regarding a meeting with the pope." The patriarch added that another problem is what he called the spreading of Catholicism's Eastern Rite to "areas where it never used to exist, such as eastern Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia itself" (see "Religion: Russian Orthodox Bishop Discusses Orthodox-Catholic Rapprochement,", November 30, 2006). These and similar issues were frequently cited by the Orthodox Church as reasons for denying a visit to Russia to the late Pope John Paul II, whose Polish origins made him particularly suspect as a proselytizer in the view of many Orthodox clergy and believers. Many Catholics hoped that a papal visit to Russia might finally take place under the German-born Benedict. PM

Vazgen Khachikian, the director of the Armenian state pension fund, announced on August 30 that the Armenian government approved a 60 percent increase surge in pensions, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The increase, to become effective on January 1, will raise the monthly pension payments for hundreds of thousands of elderly citizens to an average of about 20,000 drams ($60) per month. The move was widely expected after its inclusion in the five-year government program that was approved by parliament in June. Khachikian also said that the increase was part of a longer-term effort to bolster the country's weak social safety net, noting that the government plans to gradually raise the average pension to at least 36,000 drams ($105) by the year 2012. RG

A public school building in central Yerevan was evacuated on August 30 after a school administrator received a telephone call warning that "an explosive device was planted in the school," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Police and emergency responders searched the area but were unable to locate any explosives at the secondary school. Several dozen teachers and administrators were evacuated from the school, which is not due to open until the resumption of classes on September 3. A previous bomb threat led to the evacuation of a building housing a government office in Yerevan, although no bomb was found in that incident, which was later traced to an elderly man with a history of mental illness (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2007). RG

In a joint statement issued in Baku, officials from the Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office, the Interior Ministry, and the Emergency Situations Ministry announced on August 29 that the head of a local construction company and three others have been arrested on charges of criminal negligence in the collapse of a 16-story apartment building in Baku's Yasamal district, according to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. Commenting on the arrests, Prosecutor-General Zakir Qaralov further warned on August 30 that unnamed "top officials who issued illegal permission for the construction work might be arrested during the investigation," Trend reported. The multistory apartment building, which was undergoing unsanctioned construction, collapsed on August 28, killing at least eight people and injuring several more, in what state building inspectors said were gross violations of relevant safety codes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29 and 30, 2007). Police reported on August 30 that between 15 and 50 people remain trapped under the rubble of the collapsed building. As rescue workers continued to search for survivors, however, the death toll was raised on August 30 to 13 dead, according to Turan. RG

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev issued on August 30 a new state decree tightening state control over urban construction and ordering the Emergency Situations Ministry to carry out immediate inspections with the authority to suspend construction on the spot in cases of building code violations, Turan reported. The decree further instructed the Emergency Situations Ministry to prepare additional safety oversight proposals within three months for submission to the Azerbaijani cabinet, and ordered the Ministry of Labor and Social Security to "ensure the security and rights of construction workers." The announcement comes after the president toured the site of a tragic building collapse on August 29, accompanied by Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, Emergency Situations Minister Kyamaleddin Heydarov, and Prosecutor-General Qaralov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). It also follows an earlier statement by Deputy Prime Minister Abid Sharifov saying that all high-rise buildings under construction in Baku will be inspected, and work on all buildings without permission will be halted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 30, 2007). Construction of all high-rise buildings in the country's second-largest city, Hanja, has also been suspended pending a thorough reinspection of all construction projects to ensure they comply with technical requirements. RG

In an announcement during a special briefing at the Georgian State Chancellory in Tbilisi, Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli announced on August 30 more changes in the recent cabinet reshuffle, including the shifting of Finance Minister Aleksi Aleksishvili to the post of president of the National Bank, replacing Roman Gotsiridze, and the naming of Energy Minister Nikoloz Gilauri as the new finance minister, replaced as energy minister by Aleksandre Khetaguri, the current president of the Georgian Oil and Gas Corporation and former deputy energy minister, Caucasus Press and Imedi TV reported. In addition, Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze will return to private law practice and will be replaced by current Tbilisi appeals court judge Ekaterina Tkeshelashvili. The latest announcement comes one day after President Mikheil Saakashvili initiated a cabinet reshuffle involving the naming of new ministers for health and social security and environmental protection and natural resources (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 30, 2007). The parliament is expected to approve the new cabinet in a session on September 7, according to the terms of the Georgian Constitution, which mandates parliamentary approval in cases of the appointment of one-third or more new cabinet ministers. RG

Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced on August 30 that the recently elected parliament will convene its inaugural joint session on September 2 and will immediately hold a formal vote of confidence in the Kazakh government, according to Asia-Plus and Interfax-Kazakhstan. Masimov added that the date was set according to the terms of a presidential decree issued by President Nursultan Nazarbaev. According to the country's recently amended constitution, the formerly 77-seat Mazhilis was expanded to include 107 deputies, with 98 of them elected on party slates and nine selected directly by the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan, or upper chamber of parliament. The amendments also endowed the Mazhilis with significantly more authority, including the selection of the prime minister. The election for the Mazhilis, or lower chamber of parliament, was moved up two years after Nazarbaev dissolved the legislature (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2007), but only after it adopted constitutional amendments that granted it more authority, including the power to appoint the prime minister, and abolished all presidential term limits (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). RG

Speaking during a ceremony in Astana marking Kazakhstan's August 30 national Constitution Day holiday, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, Igor Rogov, dismissed on August 29 concerns that the recent election of a Mazhilis with the ruling Nur Otan party holding all of the seats marks "an end to political pluralism," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Rogov said the sweeping election victory for the ruling party, with not one seat won by the opposition, is a result of "the voters' wish" and explained that the "situation should not be understood as a deviation from political and ideological pluralism." He added that "the opposition's defeat" in the August 18 elections "does not mean that its views will be disregarded by the government." The Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland) party, led by Nazarbaev, garnered 88 percent of the vote, winning all 98 contested seats in the Mazhilis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 20, 2007). RG

Marat Murzin, a defense attorney for one of five suspects arrested in connection with the attempted kidnapping of two Kazakh bank executives, announced on August 29 that prosecutors have dropped all criminal charges against the men, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Murzin represents Abilmazhen Gilimov, the former chairman of the board of directors of the Nurbank, who was charged along with several unnamed police officers in connection with an "attack" on the Nurbank offices, a bank controlled by Rakhat Aliyev, the former son-in-law of President Nazarbaev. The two Nurbank officials, Zholdas Timraliev and Aibar Khasenov, are still missing and are believed to have been killed. The "attack" on the bank and related kidnapping was reportedly intended to force the executives to sell their interests in a building in Almaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 6, and 13, 2007). Aliev, until recently the Kazakh ambassador to Austria, remains in Austria after a Kazakh extradition request was rejected by an Austrian court on the grounds that Aliev cannot expect to receive a fair trial in Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline" August 9, 2007). The criminal case has recently expanded even wider, with the recent issuing of an international arrest warrant for General Alnur Musaev, a former chairman of the National Security Committee (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2007), and by new links to the murder of a television reporter, Anastasiya Novikova (see "Kazakhstan: Criminal Scandal Widens Around Ex-Ambassador Aliev,", August 28, 2007). RG

An unnamed official of a counterterrorism body within Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) reported on August 28 that the presence of religious missionaries and "foreign sects" poses a threat to the country's national security, according to Khabar television. The KNB official said that although there are 41 "religious missionaries" operating in Astana, all of whom have registered with the authorities, there is a danger the missionaries may "strive to obtain Kazakh citizenship and acquire land," demonstrating "plans to set up a network of religious organizations" that would challenge "existing religious structures." RG

Meeting in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz cabinet approved on August 29 the government's draft 2008 budget, AKIpress reported. Presented by Finance Minister Akylbek Dzhaparov, the budget consists of three levels -- local, regional, and national -- and reflects the government's stated priorities of raising living standards and improving health care. The draft state budget is now to be presented to the Kyrgyz parliament for consideration. Based on projections of a 7 percent increase in GDP, or about 142 billion soms ($3.7 million), the budget includes recommended wage increases of 50 percent for state employees and "social workers," and sets aside an unspecified amount of reserve funds for later purchases of wheat and fuel. The budget further notes that the country's external-debt payments will reach 4 billion soms ($131.6 million) for 2008. Addressing the cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev instructed ministers to stop seeking additional funding for their agencies without formal approval, explaining that "there were cases when ministers went to the parliament" to seek funding directly. Atambaev went on to "demand that this stop," threatening that "if I learn this is happening again, you are not going to get as much additional money as you ask." RG

Presiding over a ceremony in the eastern Turkmen town of Bagtyarlyk, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov inaugurated on August 29 construction of a natural-gas pipeline to China, Turkmen Television reported. The 7,000-kilometer Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline is expected to transport natural gas from a nearby deposit that is estimated to hold some 3 trillion cubic meters of gas. The Turkmen president was joined by the head of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), Jiang Jiemin, which is in charge of developing the gas field. The launch of the construction phase of the pipeline project follows a November 2006 agreement that also granted the CNPC a three-year period to explore for natural gas in eastern Turkmenistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 22, 2006). The CNPC is China's largest producer and supplier of crude oil and natural gas, with major refining and petrochemical operations. RG

A district court in Homel on August 30 imposed a fine of 930,000 rubles ($430) on opposition activist Syarhey Syamyonau for his refusal to fill out a Russian-language customs declaration, Belapan reported. While crossing the border into Ukraine on August 20, Syamyonau asked Belarusian customs officers to either invite an interpreter to help him fill out the form or give him one in Belarusian. The officers refused to meet Syamyonau's request and complained to the district court over the incident. "I can barely read in Russian; that's why I was afraid that I might make errors while filling out the declaration for which I could face criminal charges. The customs officer said that he could translate what was written in the form into Belarusian, but I didn't trust him," Syamyonau reportedly said at the hearing. "Customs officers are biased against me. I travel to Ukraine very often because I work there, and I constantly have to fill out declaration forms, although no one else in the train car is required to do so. A friend of mine used to accompany me and translate the declaration for me, but I was traveling to Ukraine alone that day," Syamyonau said. Judge Maryna Damnenka dismissed his excuse and found him guilty of disobeying orders by a law-enforcement officer. JM

A district court in Drahichyn, southern Belarus, has ordered a 23-year-old graduate of the Minsk-based State Linguistic University to pay more than 18,000,000 rubles ($8,400) to the university over her failure to take an assigned job, Belapan reported on August 30. The young woman graduated from the university in 2006 with a degree in English and French. Under a practice that dates back to the Soviet era, she was assigned to a teaching job in Drahichyn Raion, but she never arrived at her assignment, choosing instead to work in Moscow. The rector of the State Linguistics University in December 2006 issued an order that the former student should reimburse the university for funds spent on her training. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko told journalists in Kharkiv on August 30 that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is exacerbating political tensions by supporting Verkhovna Rada speaker Oleksandr Moroz's push to open a legislative session on September 4, shortly before September 30 elections, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "The session that certain political players want to hold in the Verkhovna Rada building on September 4 is illegitimate, as is the [current] parliament," Yushchenko said. "I regret that the prime minister has agreed to and supported such a decision." Yanukovych said at a cabinet meeting the previous day that the session on September 4 could view a draft budget for 2008. "Parliament is actually nonfunctional; it has been blocked. If it convenes to work, it will be for one day or two days, no more. In such conditions we need to make an expert assessment of the [2008 draft] budget, with the participation of all branches of power," Yanukovych said. The "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( claimed on August 30 that the presidential administration is planning to switch off official telephones in the Verkhovna Rada until the inauguration of the new legislature elected on September 30 vote. JM

Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko told Interfax-Ukraine on August 30 that Ukrainian-Russian relations remain tense, and warned of a spike in Russian gas prices if an "orange team" of the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc comes to power after the September 30 elections. "Several weeks ago, I met with Russian leaders and I can say unambiguously -- if the 'orange' madmen come to power, then Ukraine will see an increase in the gas price to $300 per 1,000 cubic meters," Symonenko said. Ukraine currently pays $130 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas. The price is due to increase in 2008. JM

Political leaders from Serbia and Kosova gathered on August 30 amid low expectations that the meeting would lead to a breakthrough on the future of Kosova. One of the international community's three mediators at the talks, Russia's Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko, said it would be "wrong to expect that some revolutionary new ideas will emerge right away," the Serbian news agency Tanjug reported on August 30. Representatives of the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians met only with the talks' mediators. They are likely to start face-to-face talks only in late September, Serbian and Kosovar media reported, citing unnamed sources. Kosovar leaders arrived insisting that independence is "nonnegotiable" and threatening to walk out if compromise solutions -- such as partition -- are raised. In recent weeks, Serbian ministers have added to their consistent rejection of independence by accusing the United States of seeking to create a "puppet NATO state," but the Serbian team was more restrained going into the meeting. Reuters on August 30 quoted Serbian sources as saying Belgrade views the meeting as "consultative," and Serbia appeared to emphasize the preliminary nature of the talks by sending neither its president nor prime minister. Two ministers and their deputies attended, along with two government advisers and two Kosovar Serbs. Both Kosova's president and prime minister were at the talks, as were the speaker of its parliament and two opposition leaders. Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told Serbian media that Belgrade presented a detailed outline of its proposal for an autonomous Kosova under Serbian sovereignty, while Kosovar Albanian spokesman, Skender Hyseni, said the Kosovar team "were reassured that the partition of Kosova is ruled out." AG

In an opinion piece published by "The Wall Street Journal" on August 30, Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku said the talks should be used "to look to the first day after independence and elaborate a new vision of how Kosovo as a state will work to develop a constructive and neighborly relationship with Serbia." Ceku was uncompromising about independence but conciliatory about future relations with Serbia, calling for Serbs and Kosovars "to move beyond the legacy of conflict" to "reconciliation," to recognize their "common destiny" and "common aspirations," and accept that they should be "friends," "partners," and "equals." Ceku also called for "European commitment," and depicted the talks as an opportunity to "help the international community, especially the European Union, achieve the consensus needed to move forward to a successful conclusion this year." The only major power to come out explicitly against a solution on the basis of a plan drawn up by UN envoy Marrti Ahtisaari is Russia, but European leaders have become increasingly vocal in asserting that it is primarily Europe's responsibility to end the diplomatic impasse. European unity remains elusive, however: in an interview published by "Sudtirol Online" on August 30, Ahtisaari's deputy, Albert Rohan, said there are "three or four" EU states who "want to go their own way" on the issue of Kosova. In other comments made ahead of the talks and reported by international news agencies, Ceku said the two teams "shouldn't waste time talking about things which cannot be agreed upon" -- namely, independence for Kosova on the basis of the Ahtisaari plan -- and said the talks should "open a way for us to declare independence." If that doesn't happen, he said, "we have to declare and we are going to ask the international community to recognize us." AG

The EU's envoy to the talks, Wolfgang Ischinger, indicated on August 30 that he currently views December 10 as the date when discussions should end. "We don't have a mandate beyond that," Reuters quoted him as saying. December 10 is the date when the mediators are due to submit a report to the UN secretary-general, but Serbia and Russia have insisted so far that that is not a cutoff date and that talks should continue until Serbia achieves a result that satisfies it. European leaders have, by contrast, repeatedly talked of 120 days of talks, which, including a preparatory round of shuttle diplomacy in early August, leads roughly to mid-December. However, the Kosovar Albanian daily "Koha ditore" wrote on August 24 that, according to an unnamed EU diplomat, an "informal request arrived from some European countries to have another 60 days of talks if nothing is achieved within the 120 days, because those countries do not want to take the burden of recognizing independence unilaterally upon themselves." Ahead of the Vienna talks, Kosovar Prime Minister Ceku said that, if he remains prime minister, "the only development that we are expecting to happen after December 10 is the declaration and the recognition of Kosova's independence," "Koha ditore" wrote on August 28. Kosova is due to hold elections before the end of the year, but no date has yet been set. AG

In an interview with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Service, Albania's greatest living writer, Ismail Kadare, has insisted that Kosovars should be granted a right to self-determination (see "Kosovo: Albanian Writer Says 'Every Nation Has A Right To Ask For Its Freedom',", August 29, 2007). In the interview, Kadare said that at issue in the talks is "the freedom or the slavery of a nation" and that "every nation has a right to ask for its freedom." The Yugoslavia of Slobodan Milosevic had, he said, "undermined in the most barbaric way possible" the freedom of Kosova through "ethnic cleansing." Now, Europe is feeling a "spoken or unspoken" sense of "remorse" at its intervention, which he described as an "incomprehensible absurdity" because "the bombardment of a barbarian regime" cannot be compared with Yugoslavia's "ethnic cleansing." "There should be no remorse, no turning back" by Europe, Kadare said. "On the contrary, it should force Serbia to apologize. Instead, Serbia is being coddled and, by coddling it, Europe is doing the greatest damage to Serbia itself," because "there will be no democracy in Serbia if its crimes are not acknowledged." The "crucial" need for Serbia to understand "who committed crimes and who suffered from them" underpinned Kadare's objection to partition, which, he said, would "not provide a conclusion" to the 1998-99 conflict but would start "a new and terrible conflict" and "be an open source of disputes." Kadare has generally steered clear of political statements, but has occasionally found himself on the political arena. In January, the Greek authorities took umbrage when he referred to "Macedonia" rather than "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" and Kadare was also mentioned as a possible presidential candidate early in discussions about the next Albanian president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29 and March 9, 2007). A party politician, Bamir Topi, was subsequently chosen. AG

Roland Kather, the head of the international force in Kosova (KFOR) steps down on August 31. Lieutenant General Kather, a German, will be replaced by a French general, Bout de Marnhac. Kather told reporters on August 28 that he believes the security situation in Kosova is stable, but warned of "increased nervousness" in Kosova and urged the international community to decide on the disputed region's future "as soon as possible." "We need [a decision] to help economic development, and by that, at the same time to provide for security," he said. Kather ruled out the possibility of another outbreak of violence in Kosova, saying, "the people in Kosovo understood the message that violence is a dead-end road." Kather said that, based on the Ahtisaari plan, he envisages KFOR will remain in Kosova "without any changes in 2007 and 2008." Kosova's political leaders praised the contribution made by Kather, saying that he has been a calming and reassuring influence, local media have reported in recent days. AG

Authorities in the southern region of Presevo have charged an alleged member of a militant ethnic-Albanian group in connection with a grenade attack on the mayor of one of the region's three towns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 2007). District prosecutors said the 22-year-old Feton Osmani is a member of the "terrorist organization of the Albanian National Army, which is directly led by Ljirim Jakupi," the Serbian broadcaster B92 reported on August 30. Jakupi is one of seven prisoners who recently escaped from a high-security prison in neighboring Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 22, 2007). The report gives no indication what Osmani's motive might have been for attacking the mayor of Bujanovac, Nagip Arifi. Osmani has been in custody since June 8. Jakupi remains a fugitive. AG

Within hours of receiving a new plan for reform of Bosnia-Herzegovina's police forces, two of the country's senior Bosnian Muslim leaders, Haris Silajdzic and Sulejman Tihic, on August 29 dismissed the proposal on the grounds that the police force of the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-dominated entity, would remain untouched. The author of the plan, High Representative Miroslav Lajcak, said on August 30 that he is "deeply disappointed" by their statements. "By rejecting the draft proposal on police reform before all the major political leaders have even received it, they have demonstrated a disdain for their colleagues and the political process," he said. The plan began to be circulated on August 29. Lajcak added that Silajdzic and Tihic broke an "agreement to provide me with comments on the proposal directly, instead of communicating them through the media." Details of the five-page draft remain private, but Tihic and Silajdzic said the plan ignores principles set down by the EU. The EU's three stipulations for police reform are: that the state, rather than Bosnia's two entities should control all laws and budgets relating to the police; the police operational regions should be based on policing rather than political criteria; and that politicians should have no influence over operational matters. Lajcak dismissed the claim, saying the plan is "in line with the three EU principles" and adding that "all my efforts are focused on helping the citizens [of Bosnia] get closer to the EU." Reform of the country's fragmented police forces has emerged as the key stumbling block as Bosnia starts the process of preparing to become a candidate member of the EU. Silajdzic represents Bosnia's Muslim community in the country's three-member Presidency and leads the Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina (SBiH), while Tihic heads the Party of Democratic Action (SDA). AG

Montenegro will have prepared its roadmap for EU accession by January, Deputy Prime Minister Gordana Djurovic said on August 29. The plan will center on changes needed to be made to the country's laws and institutions. According to local media, Djurovic said "the first institutional agreement between Montenegro and the EU on the road toward the final integration" will be the completion of talks of Montenegro's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Montenegro hopes WTO trade rules will come into force on January 1, 2008. Montenegro is aiming to join the EU by 2012. AG

Russians will be able to celebrate the New Year with a glass of Moldovan wine in their hands, Russian Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref told reporters on August 29. Gref's statement, made during a visit to Moldova, appears to raise the prospect that wine, Moldova's chief export product, will soon be able to return to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin first signaled an end to a ban on the import of Moldovan wine last November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). Russia said it imposed the ban because of health concerns. Asked after a tasting of Moldovan wine whether he was worried about his health, Gref said he has nothing to worry about, particularly after seeing how healthy his Moldovan counterpart, Igor Dodon, is. Neither Gref nor Dodon commented on the number of Moldovan wine companies that would be allowed to sell their goods in Russia. Russia's consumer-protection agency, Rospotrebnadzor, has said it will limit the number, a statement that prompted Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin to say Moldova would prefer no access to the Russian market than such limitations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27, 2007). Representatives of Moldova's wine business said on August 29 that a vast swathe of the Moldovan wine-making industry faces ruin unless exports to Russia resume soon, the news agency Info-Prim Neo reported. Only about 20 of the 300 companies that previously exported wine to Russia have managed to compensate for the loss of trade, they said. In comments quoted by the news agency IPN, Gref also said he hopes most of the problems in Russia's relations with Moldova will be resolved within the next 18 months. He did not elaborate. Russia has already lifted bans on Moldovan meat, vegetables, and fruit. The two most publicized outstanding problems in bilateral relations are the wine ban and the status of the breakaway region of Transdniester, where, to Chisinau's anger, Russia maintains an armed presence. AG

Three journalists from the Republic of Mordovia recently addressed an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin protesting a campaign undertaken by the republic's prosecutor to close down "Erzyan mastor," the last non-state-controlled publication in Erzya, one of two closely related Mordvin languages.

In the letter (available at, the journalists categorically reject the prosecutor's argument that "Erzyan mastor" publishes "extremist" materials, and they stress that the Erzya feel no enmity toward the Russian people.

They suggest that the move to force the paper's closure was taken in retaliation for articles it printed criticizing the local authorities for their reluctance to take any measures to prevent the Erzya language, which is designated a state language in the republic's constitution together with Russian, from dying out.

Noting Putin's responsibility as head to state to "conduct a dialogue between representatives of different ethnic groups and religions," the signatories appeal to him to intervene.

Once the largest Uralic people within the Russian Federation, the Mordvins' numbers have reportedly fallen from 1,262,670 in 1970 to 1,153,516 in 1989, and by a further 300,000 over the past decade. At the time of the Russian Federation census of 2002, they accounted for just 31.9 percent of Mordovia's population of 888,766, while Russians accounted for 60.8 percent.

The Mordvins comprise two closely related ethnic groups, the Erzya and the Moksha, with the former outnumbering the latter by approximately two to one. The Erzya and Moksha languages, although related, are so different that speakers of one frequently have difficulty in understanding the other; Russian has become the lingua franca.

The Mordvins have for years been campaigning to reverse the steady erosion of their languages. At the Third Congress of the Mordvin People, which took place in Saransk, the Mordovian capital, in 1999, delegates were formally tasked by the republic's parliament with drafting legislation to promote the study of Mordvin in the republic's schools.

But either such legislation was never drafted and passed, or it has not been successfully implemented: six years later, the Erzya addressed an appeal to the 10th World Finno-Ugric Congress in Yoshkar-Ola in which they said neither Erzya nor Moksha is taught any longer in urban schools, while rural schools are being closed down. The recent appeal by the three journalists to Putin claimed that Erzya is "practically no longer taught," neither is there any textbook of the history of the Erzya people.

In those conditions, the forced closure of "Erzyan mastor," which has been published fortnightly since 1994 by the Mordovia Public Fund to Save the Erzya Language, could deal a death blow to the embattled Erzya language and thus, as the open letter signatories warn, to the Erzya's sense of national identity.

Following the release of the last South Korean hostages on August 30, Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi vowed to kidnap more foreigners, reinforcing fears that Seoul's decision to negotiate directly with the militant group will empower the insurgents, AP reported. The hostages were released to an Afghan tribal elder, Haji Zahir Kharoti, in two separate exchanges and subsequently handed over to the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in Ghazni Province near where the group of 23 aid workers was first abducted in July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 21, 2007). "We will do the same thing with the other allies in Afghanistan, because we found this way to be successful," Ahmadi told AP via telephone from an undisclosed location. Armed men handed over the final three captives, two women and a man, along with an unsigned note accusing the South Koreans of coming to the strictly Islamic country on an evangelistic mission. Seoul has repeatedly insisted that the group was in Afghanistan doing aid work and was not involved with any missionary efforts. In exchange for the hostages' release, the South Korean government agreed on August 28 to a deal in which it will withdraw its 200 noncombat troops in Afghanistan by the end of the year, as already planned, and pledged to prevent missionaries from traveling to the country in the future (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey welcomed the hostages' release, but declined to comment on whether or not Seoul has set a precarious precedent by talking with the rebel group. "I'd simply reiterate that the long-standing U.S. policy is...not to make concessions to terrorists," he added. The South Korean government has rebuffed the inference to any wrongdoing throughout the hostage crisis, saying it is normal practice to negotiate with hostage takers. JC

A top Taliban military commander, Mullah Berader, was killed in an air strike on August 30 by U.S.-led coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. The air strike occurred in the early morning around Sarwan Qala, an area between the Sangin and Musa Qala districts in Helmand Province. Berader served as a senior military commander for the Taliban government until it was deposed in 2001, and was a member of the Taliban's leadership council led by spiritual leader and fugitive Mullah Mohammad Omar. Berader is considered the second major commander of the militant group following Mullah Dadullah, who was killed in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). Meanwhile, the British Defense Ministry said a soldier and a civilian interpreter were killed while on a routine patrol in Kandahar Province. Two other soldiers were wounded and treated at a nearby NATO medical post, "The Guardian" reported. JC

The Mine Detection Center (MDC) announced on August 29 that it will not resume demining efforts in Afghanistan's restive southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand without security guarantees from both the Afghan government and the Taliban, the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) reported. According to Mohammad Shohab Hakimi, director of the MDC, security concerns have halted 80 percent of the organization's activities in the two volatile provinces, where less than a month ago three deminers in Kandahar were fatally shot by unidentified gunmen. Haider Reza, head of the UN Mine Action Center for Afghanistan (UNMACA), told IRIN that despite mine clearers' neutrality, there are no established safety measures to protect the workers from war hazards. UNMACA said 19 deminers have been killed in Afghanistan in the last year alone, and demining organizations suffered $500,000 in damage and material losses after two separate attacks on their offices in Kandahar Province. Rural communities have recently expressed concerns over the presence of land mines on roads and villages believed to be planted by the Taliban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2007). Hundreds of thousands of mines are have been placed throughout Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979. JC

Five people died on August 28 and 20 others are comatose from an unknown disease that has broken out in the Warmami district of southeastern Paktika Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Public-health officials and doctors are working to detect the cause of the mysterious illness, which exhibits symptoms similar to stomach viruses, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Paktika Governor Mohammad Akram Khepelwak said two children, two men, and a woman have died thus far from the illness. The local government has requested the local provincial reconstruction team to send in doctors and medicine, as the Warmami district lies 200 kilometers southeast of Kabul and lacks a reliable health clinic, he added. Dr. Abdullah Fahim, a spokesman for the Public Health Ministry, confirmed the spread of the disease and said the ministry has arranged for medicine to be dispatched to the area with the assistance of NATO. JC

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a report for members of its governing board on August 30 detailing some of its findings on Iran's contested nuclear program and the contents of a recent cooperation accord, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29 and 30, 2007). The IAEA noted that Iran continues to defy two UN Security Council resolutions demanding that it halt uranium enrichment -- part of the nuclear-fuel production process -- but it observed that Iran's enrichment work is moving slower than expected. The report prepared by IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei noted that Iran has yet to reach its stated goal of operating 3,000 centrifuges to produce a significant amount of enriched uranium, which Western powers fear could be used for nuclear weapons. The report described Iran's decision to cooperate with the IAEA on answering outstanding questions about its nuclear program as a "significant step forward," AFP reported. The IAEA added that once Iran answers the current set of questions, it should maintain international confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program by implementing the additional protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This would include allowing inspections of currently restricted sites in Iran. Under an agreement made in July, Iran must clarify by the end of 2007 certain questions on its nuclear activities. Tehran says some of those questions have already been resolved. The IAEA can then close its four-year investigation, an unnamed UN official told AP on August 30. VS

The deputy head for international affairs of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Saidi, told IRNA in Tehran that the IAEA report confirms Iran's own statements. He said it refutes "baseless American accusations regarding plutonium separation and reprocessing activities," referring to the report's findings on Iranian experiments with plutonium, a potential component in nuclear weapons. Saidi said the United States deceived the world with its accusations against Iran, while the IAEA helped clarify the issues. He said other outstanding discrepancies in Iran's dossier will be resolved "in a rational time-frame and direction, which will be the return to the negotiating table and resolution of problems through talks." He said the agreement on the "modalities" of finding answers to IAEA questions and the definition of duties for both sides would "help find solutions" for both Iran and the agency. Saidi said the report's references to the Natanz enrichment plant and the Arak heavy-water installation show that activities there have been under IAEA supervision "and inspectors are proceeding with standard inspections." Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, on August 30 called the report a "historic document" illustrating Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activities, IRNA reported. VS

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki has rejected recent allegations that Iran backs terrorism, and said that comments by U.S. President George W. Bush showed a "lack of decisiveness, an absence of reason, and political desperation," IRNA reported. Bush on August 28 called Iran "the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism," and said its actions threaten the security of Middle East states. Bush said Iran's pursuit of technology "that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put [an unstable region] under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust," AFP reported. Mottaki said the remarks were baseless and intended for domestic public consumption. He urged the U.S. government to rectify its "series of mistakes" in the Middle East by ending its "militaristic" policies, using "democratic processes" to resolve problems, and withdrawing military forces from the region, IRNA reported. VS

Reza Talai-Nik, a member of Iran's parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told IRNA in Tehran on August 30 that intelligence agencies of unnamed Middle East states believe the United States has secret dealings with terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda. He said U.S. officials blame their failures on other parties, including Iran, in response to pressures from domestic opinion. Talai-Nik said the role of the United States, Israel, and other Western states in "forming and strengthening" terrorist networks like Al-Qaeda is intended to pave the way for military interventions in other states. Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari, a member of the Expediency Council, a state political arbitration body, also told IRNA on August 30 that Al-Qaeda was "trained by America," adding that U.S. accusations of terrorism against Iran are designed to "justify America's defeat in Iraq." He said President Bush's recent charges are part of moves to intensify economic sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. Iran, he added, has always played a peaceful role in the Middle East. VS

Iran dissident and former detainee Akbar Ganji has written a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon detailing what he called the systematic violation of human rights in Iran, Radio Farda reported on August 29. Ganji told Radio Farda that the UN has neglected human rights in Iran since the dissolution of the UN Commission on Human Rights and its replacement with the Human Rights Council. He said he has urged Ban to form a special rights-inspection body for Iran comparable to the IAEA. Ganji told Radio Farda that the current Human Rights Council cannot adequately oversee violations in Iran, as its members, he said, are themselves states that violate rights. He has also urged Ban to intervene directly with Iran for the release of political prisoners. Ganji said the rights issue in Iran now has secondary importance, after Western concerns over Iran's nuclear program. VS

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters at an August 30 press briefing in Baghdad that noticeable progress has been made on the security front, and Iraq anxiously awaits two upcoming U.S. reports on Iraq security, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. "These reports will certainly be very important, especially since they will assess in detail the security, political, economic, and regional situation, but I do not personally expect these reports to present any magical or instant solutions" to the problems and challenges facing Iraq, Zebari said. "There is no doubt that noticeable progress has been made in the security situation. A change has also taken place in the allegiance of people in Al-Anbar, Diyala, and other areas.... However, this alone is not enough. It must be accompanied by political activity," he added. Zebari told reporters that he also thought General David Petraeus's report on the surge will "highlight the dangers and also the consequences" of a drawdown of multinational forces from Iraq. KR

Zebari also said Iraq will propose a review of the UN mandate on Iraq by year-end and request an extension of the mandate, but with a clause that links the presence of multinational forces in Iraq to a long-term security partnership. "This means we will work in 2008 to completely remove Iraq from under Chapter 7 [and] we will have greater freedom to move." Chapter 7 of the UN Charter pertains to "action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression." "This will also help our friends because they will then not be held captive to negotiations over the extension or renewal of their forces' [mandate] annually," Zebari noted. He told reporters he does not think a long-term security agreement with the United States will worry Iraq's neighbors. "Several countries in the region have security arrangements organized by laws within known contexts," he said. "I believe that this partnership will help the Iraqi government and better stabilize the region." He added: "One of the reasons why we are calling for these forces to stay until we are fully capable of taking over [security] is that we do not want...a [security] vacuum to develop. I think this process will be transparent and public." KR

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry summoned the Iranian ambassador to Iraq on August 28 and handed him a note demanding Iran stop shelling Iraqi Kurdish villages along the Iraq-Iran border, Foreign Minister Zebari told reporters at the August 30 press briefing. "Information received today regrettably indicates that the indiscriminate shelling of specific areas in Irbil Governorate is continuing. We once again demand the Iranian government immediately halt these military operations," Zebari said. He told reporters that Iran's bombing of Iraqi Kurdish villages in both the Irbil and Al-Sulaymaniyah governorates has "forced hundreds of families to leave their villages." Asked how Iraq will respond should the shelling continue, Zebari said Iraq will first pursue a diplomatic solution. "But there is no doubt that any country or government would think of alternatives," he added. "There are a number of things we can do within official political and diplomatic frameworks. We have still not exhausted all options." KR

The office of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in an August 30 press statement that it welcomes Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's decision to suspend the activities of his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). "This initiative is an encouraging step to achieve security and stability all over the country, and an appropriate opportunity to freeze the activities of other militias irrespective of their various political and ideological affiliations," the statement continued. It added that the government has no intention of pursuing "the Al-Sadr trend, as it is a political component," in its investigation into this week's incident in Karbala. "However, the pursuit will be restricted to the elements that committed crimes, violated sacred places, and caused damage to public property on the basis of justice and the rule of law," he added. Al-Sharqiyah television reported on August 30 that al-Maliki has handed over responsibility for security at Karbala's two holy shrines to Interior Ministry forces. The news channel reported that more than 70 gunmen were arrested in security sweeps following the Karbala incident, including three wanted individuals. KR

Tribal leaders from the Al-Durah and Al-Madinah districts south of Baghdad including the Arab Jubur, Al-Bu'aythah, Hur Rajab, and Al-Falahat neighborhoods have formed an awakening council similar to the councils formed in Al-Anbar and Diyala governorates, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on August 30. Mustafa al-Jubur, president of the Southern Baghdad Awakening Council, told al-Iraqiyah that the tribal leaders will work to expel Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents from their areas and nearby orchards. KR

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are providing emergency aid to thousands of victims of a cholera outbreak in northern Iraq, the UN said in an August 30 press release. The WHO reported on August 29 that there have been 5,000 cases of cholera since August 10, with 10 deaths reported, as well as 51 confirmed cases in nearby Kirkuk, which lies outside the Kurdistan region. Two hospitals in the governorate are also treating 2,000 cases of diarrhea. UNICEF has delivered 4,000 safe-water kits and 15,000 sachets of oral rehydration salts, which are critical to preventing death from dehydration, the UN said. Kurdish regional Health Minister Ziryan Uthman told Reuters on August 30 that samples taken from a water-treatment plant showed the presence of the bacterium that causes cholera. KR