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Newsline - September 6, 2007

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said on domestic radio on September 6 that he will not agree to the planned sale of uranium to Russia if there is any chance of the materials being resold to "hostile countries" for possible bomb production, reported. He stressed that "the conditions on our selling uranium is that we obtain the guarantees necessary to satisfy us that it won't go to Iran and Syria. We will be taking the Russians through the ropes in relation to any arrangement we have and we will be wanting to satisfy ourselves completely that won't occur." On September 5, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Australian televison that the projected sale "isn't an issue for us. The Russians have plenty of weapons, let's be realistic about it. The Cold War produced more than a surplus." Australia already sells uranium to Russia, but only for use by a third party. The new deal, which is expected to be signed by Howard and President Vladimir Putin in Sydney on September 7, is for uranium for domestic use in Russia's civilian reactors. Some Australian and Russian opposition leaders have warned Canberra against selling uranium to Moscow, which lacks transparency and democratic controls, even though it is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Australia has at least 30 percent of the world's known recoverable uranium reserves and is one of the world's leading uranium producers and exporters, along with Canada and Kazakhstan. Russia has ambitious plans for its nuclear power industry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, February 26, August 17 and 22, and September 4 and 5, 2007). PM

Several Russian and foreign critics of President Putin told the Sydney Summit on Russia on September 4 that it is unwise to sell uranium to Moscow, the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on September 5. Robert Amsterdam, who is a defense lawyer for imprisoned former Yukos oil major CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, said that if Prime Minister Howard wishes to do business with Putin, he needs to understand the kind of company he's keeping. Amsterdam also said that the proposed deal will enable Russia to free up some of its own uranium for sales to Iran. He added that Putin is setting up huge state corporations that will compete with Australian firms globally on many different levels. Another speaker at the conference was Russian journalist Grigory Pasko, who served a prison term on charges of espionage for giving Japanese television broadcasters information about problems with radiation safety in Russia's Pacific Fleet. Pasko, who was released in 2003, said that he does not "believe for a moment that the Australian uranium is going to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.... The Russian authorities have already so often deceived both the Russian people and the foreign community." Christine Milne of the Australian Greens party suggested that Australia link the sale to improvements in human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. A recent poll of Australian voters showed 66 percent of respondents opposed the sale. About 41 percent of respondents fear the uranium will wind up in the hands of terrorists or rogue states, while 20 percent are concerned that Moscow will divert the material for its own military purposes. The daily quoted Andrei Cherkasenko, chairman of the board at AtomPromResursy, as saying that the deal is important for Russia because of its ambitious nuclear energy program; he added that "possessing this raw material is a matter of strategic security." The daily noted that unnamed Kremlin officials describe Australia, which has a 200,000-strong Russian community, as a "remote but promising partner." PM

An unspecified number of ships of the Pacific Fleet began a four-day formal visit to the South Korean port of Pusan on September 5, just days before the opening of the two-day Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Sydney on September 8, Interfax reported. In Moscow on September 5, Chinese State Councilor Chen Zhili and Russian Federal Education Agency chief Gennady Balykhin opened the first Confucius Institute in Russia, which will promote study of the Chinese language and be part of the Russian State University for the Humanities, Interfax reported. Chinese Education Minister Zhou Ji said at the ceremony that now "Russians studying the Chinese language will have access to services of an even higher quality." University Director Yefim Pivovar hailed the institute as a vehicle to help young Russians learn Chinese. The Chinese government opened the first Confucius Institutes abroad in 2004 and hopes to have a total of about 100 by 2010. Critics charge that their effectiveness has been limited by an alleged tendency by Beijing not to coordinate its work with existing Chinese language programs and institutes in host countries. PM

The Federal Registration Service on September 5 issued a list of the 15 political parties that are eligible to participate in the December Duma elections, and the list was published in the government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" the same day. They are: the Democratic Party of Russia, Unified Russia, the Peace and Unity Party, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Yabloko, Patriots of Russia, the Green Party, the Agrarian Party of Russia, People's Union, Civil Force, the Social Justice Party, the Party of Russia's Rebirth, and A Just Russia. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on September 6 published a poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) that indicates 68 percent of voters intend to participate in the elections. According to the study, Unified Russia leads with 47.4 percent support, while the Communist Party polled 14.9 percent, A Just Russia polled 11.7 percent, and the LDPR, 8.8 percent. "Izvestia" on September 6 published a long analysis of the changes in election legislation since the 2003 vote, while "Rossiiskaya gazeta" the same day published a long explanation of why those changes will make these elections more "transparent" and "democratic." "The 'party of power' is constantly being accused of 'adapting the law to suit itself,'" the paper wrote. "But in the case of elections, just the opposite has happened. Today's election system, paradoxical as it may seem, is not advantageous for leading parties: they will receive fewer mandates, while places for oppositionists are better guaranteed than before." RC

The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party will hold its pre-election congress in Moscow on October 1-2, "Vedomosti" reported on September 6. The main work of the congress will be to approve the party's list of candidates for the election and to adopt a platform entitled "Putin's Plan." The daily said that President Putin is expected to address the congress personally, as he did in September 2003. It remains unclear whether either of the two leading pro-Kremlin candidates to replace Putin in 2008 -- First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev -- will be included on the Unified Russia list. On August 31, "Gazeta" reported that the other pro-Kremlin party, A Just Russia, will run a list headed by party leader and Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, party official Nikolai Levichev, and actress Rimma Markova. "Vedomosti" also reported that the SPS, which will hold its party congress on September 21, has determined who will head its party list. According to the report, the SPS list will likely be headed by party leader Nikita Belykh, followed by party founder Boris Nemtsov, and Irina Yasina, the former head of the Yukos-funded NGO Open Russia. Previously, the party had considered including activist Maria Gaidar, daughter of former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, but her candidacy was withdrawn following strenuous objections from Nemtsov and others. Political commentator Mikhail Vinogradov told the daily that the inclusion of the little-known Yasin is "a not very successful attempt" to find a replacement for the charismatic former party leader Irina Khakamada, who is now working with the unregistered People's Democratic Union party of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. RC

The Moscow mayor's office on September 4 issued an order restricting political demonstrations in the vicinity of cultural or historical landmarks, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other Russian media reported. Under the decree, the municipal Cultural Heritage Committee will have to power to accept or reject applications to hold demonstrations. An unnamed representative of the committee told that the order was drawn up by the mayor's office and that the committee merely reviewed the final version before it was signed. RFE/RL noted that there are more than 1,000 protected objects in Moscow's central administrative district. "This is monstrous arbitrariness," Sergei Shargunov, head of the NGO Ura, told RFE/RL, "because we believe citizens have the right to gather where they like and that the constitution contains a declared order for holding events." Ilya Yashin, head of Yabloko's youth wing, told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on September 5 that the Russian authorities are imitating the policies of authoritarian Belarus. "[In Minsk] there is only one place where the opposition is allowed to gather -- a square where people walk their dogs," Yashin said. Communist Party official Vadim Solovyov told the daily his party has already met with similar restrictions in Krasnodar. "The authorities are afraid of the street and want the elections to proceed quietly, under a blanket," Moscow Communist Party official Vladimir Uglas told the daily. RC

The Moscow Municipal Court on September 5 confirmed a prosecutorial request to freeze 100 percent of the shares of oil major Russneft pending a tax-evasion case against former Russneft Director Mikhail Gutseriyev, "Moskovsky komsomolets" and other Russian media reported on September 6. It remains uncertain, though, whether the move will block an effort by Oleg Deripaska's Basic Element to acquire a controlling stake in the company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). "Kommersant" reported on September 6 that the court's decision will not affect the deal since all the shares in question belong to offshore holding companies. An official from the Prosecutor-General's Office announced on September 5 that Gutseriyev is currently in Turkey and that Russia is seeking his extradition. However, "Moskovsky komsomolets" reported on September 6 that the Turkish Embassy in Moscow had rejected the report. The daily also speculated that the drive to freeze the Russneft shares may have been initiated by Gazprom in order to prevent Deripaska from completing the deal. RC

Rosoboroneksport, which controls AvtoVAZ, has named former Deputy Prime Minister and former Rosprom Director Boris Aleshin to head the automaker, "Vedomosti" and other Russian media reported on September 6. Aleshin replaces Vladimir Artyakov, who last month was appointed governor of Samara Oblast (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2007). Aleshin, 52, is considered an architect of plans to unify Russia's aviation sector and, in April 2006, he presented a plan for similar consolidation in Russia's automobile sector, the daily reported. The paper quoted a source in Russian Machines, a company controlled by Deripaska that in turn controls automaker GAZ, as saying the firm is "interested in synergy and ready for dialogue" on consolidation with Aleshin. Aleshin has served on AvtoVAZ's board of directors for two years, heading its strategy committee. "Kommersant" wrote on September 6 that the company suffers from aging infrastructure and is seeking investment. The daily said a strategic investor for the automaker could appear as early as 2008 and would likely be a Russian firm. RC

Gennady Burbulis, who represents the governor of Novgorod Oblast in the Federation Council, will resign from the upper chamber in the immediate future, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and other Russian media reported on September 6. Burbulis confirmed the move in an interview with Ekho Moskvy after oblast Governor Sergei Mitin told journalists earlier in the day that he would seek to replace Burbulis. Mitin replaced long-time oblast Governor Mikhail Prusak last month. Burbulis, who has held his Federation Council seat since 2001, headed Boris Yeltsin's 1991 presidential campaign, served as state secretary in 1991-92, was a Duma deputy in 1993-99, and was deputy governor of Novgorod Oblast in 2000-01. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" also reported on September 5 that Duma Deputy Aleksandr Fillipov (Unified Russia) has resigned his seat and accepted an appointed as Novgorod Oblast deputy governor. RC

Billionaire tycoon and Chukotka Oblast Governor Roman Abramovich has become the first person to own a private Airbus A380, Prime-TASS reported on September 5, citing the French daily "Le Figaro." Abramovich reportedly paid $300 million for the airliner, which can be configured to carry from 555 to 845 passengers. It will be delivered in 2011 after being fitted out by a company in Switzerland. Abramovich already owns a Boeing 737 and a Boeing 767. It is more than 9,000 kilometers from Chukotka to London, where Abramovich has his primary residence. RC

Two militants attempting to enter the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) from Georgia were killed in a shoot-out on September 5 with Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel, the website reported, citing One of the dead men was identified as Rustam Ionov, born in 1977 in the KChR village of Psyzh, allegedly the head of a religious-extremist formation responsible for unspecified acts on the territory of the KChR, and known by the nom de guerre Abubakar. LF

Former Armenian Prime Minister and opposition National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian reaffirmed at a Yerevan press conference on September 5 that he intends to participate in the presidential ballot due early next year, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He explained his decision in terms of the need to do away with a system in which "an elite within the state...has the right to engage in any form of business, both legal and illegal, and privileges, including the right to get away with murders," while "people have African wages, [but pay] European prices for food and other consumer goods." Having warned two months ago that the opposition risks a crushing defeat if it fails to close ranks behind a single presidential challenger (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 2007), Manukian defended his decision not to join the ongoing talks among opposition leaders on the possibility of aligning behind a single candidate (the way other opposition candidates withdrew to back him in the 1996 ballot). He reasoned that if it is not obvious who that single candidate should be, the choice will not become any clearer by "discussions over drinking coffee." He predicted that between 10-12 candidates will participate in the election, but that former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who is widely believed to be contemplating a political comeback, will not be among them. Manukian has participated in four previous presidential ballots (1991, 1996, 1998, and 2003), losing to Ter-Petrossian in 1996 only due to vote-rigging that cemented the latter's re-election (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," December 30, 1998). LF

Police in Baku detained for several hours on September several members of the Karabakh Liberation Organization (QAT), including its chairman, Akif Nagi, who planned to stage a protest in the city later that day against the arrival of Armenian Interior Minister Colonel General Haik Harutiunian to participate in a meeting of interior ministers of CIS members states, reported. Nagi and five other QAT members received prison sentences that were subsequently suspended for acts of "hooliganism" committed in an attempt to break up a NATO-sponsored conference in Baku three years ago attended by two Armenian army officers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 23, 24, and 25, August 30, and September 23, 2004). LF

Rescue workers retrieved another body -- the 18th --on September 5 from the ruins of the unfinished multistory building that collapsed in Baku eight days earlier, and reported. At least seven more bodies reportedly remain to be recovered. Also on September 5, several senior officials from the Baku municipal council, including Baku's chief architect, were summoned to the Prosecutor-General's Office for questioning. The city council said earlier no permit was issued for construction of the building. The preliminary enquiry into the disaster identified faulty construction of the foundations as the probable cause. The Council of Ministers on September 5 announced that the families of construction workers killed in the collapse will receive 10,000 manats ($11,705) in compensation. Those injured will receive 3,000 manats. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili met on September 5 with members of the majority National Movement-Democrats parliament faction to discuss complaints made the previous day by parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze that she was not consulted over last week's cabinet reshuffle, specifically the nomination of former Finance Minister Aleksi Aleksishvili to head the National Bank, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). Saakashvili also vowed during that meeting that he will continue to reverse the illegal privatization of land and buildings. Meeting the same day with new cabinet nominees, Saakashvili identified enhancing national security as a priority, and vowed that Georgia will be ready "soon" to repulse any military attack, Caucasus Press reported. He said that the number of trained reservists will shortly reach 100,000, and they will play a "particular role" in the country's defense. LF

Georgian media reported on September 5 that an unspecified number of Chechen servicemen have been sent to join the Russian peacekeeping troops deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone under the CIS aegis. "Conflict situations" are said to have arisen between individual Chechen and Russian servicemen, most recently on September 4. Ruslan Kishmaria, who is the representative in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion of de facto President Sergei Bagapsh, denied on September 5 that any clashes have taken place between Chechen "militants" and Russian servicemen, according to the official Abkhaz website Kishmaria failed, however, to clarify whether pro-Moscow Chechen servicemen are indeed serving with the CIS peacekeeping force. LF

At a September 4 press conference in Almaty, Rozlana Taukina, the head of the Journalists in Trouble Foundation, criticized the Kazakh authorities for lodging criminal charges against Nurlan Alimbekov, a self-described political scientist, over his allegedly offensive remarks in e-mails about Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Asia-Plus and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The criminal case includes charges of "inciting religious and ethnic hatred" through e-mail messages that Alimbekov sent and received. The Journalists in Trouble Foundation and other leading Kazakh human-rights groups have protested the charges, arguing that a person cannot be held responsible for the content of electronic information because the Criminal Code lacks any relevant prohibitions on e-mail communications. Taukina added that the authorities are wrong to "consider electronic mail and the Internet to be media outlets," and noted that according to the Kazakh media law, e-mail "is not part of the media." Defending the legitimacy of the case, Nurlan Balgimbaev of the National Security Committee (KNB), stressed that Alimbekov's e-mail messages constituted "actions" to incite ethnic or religious discord, considered to be a crime if the actions are committed in public or through the media, but he claimed that the security services "did not violate the privacy of correspondence." Balgimbaev added that the criminal case stemmed from the fact that "Alimbekov had his own website and sent letters constaining offensive remarks against the head of state to different addresses, including public and state-run organizations." He also said that a warrant was issued by the state prosecutor allowing authorities to access the e-mails. RG

In a meeting in Astana with local Defense Ministry officials, Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov on September 5 criticized local recruitment offices and military departments for their poor performance, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to a Defense Ministry press release, Akhmetov criticized "the results of the draft for compulsory military service and the selection of candidates for military service on a contract basis." He said the recruiters failed to meet "modern requirements," and hindered the development of "the armed forces and the pace of their reforms." Akhmetov further pointed to several fundamental shortcomings, including the "understaffing of units and an imbalance in the ethnic and social composition" of the armed forces. He noted that "corruption connected with military service has yet to be completely rooted out in local defense bodies." Akhmetov has previously pledged that Kazakhstan will become an "advanced military power" within five years. The focus on recruitment is part of a broader reform effort centered on the training and professional development of the Kazakh armed forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007). President Nazarbaev has also vowed to purchase "the world's best" weapons, strengthen the armed forces, and formulate a new military doctrine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24 and May 9, 2007). RG

At a September 5 press conference in Astana, Kazakh parliament speaker Aslan Musin defended a recently imposed ban on journalists attending sessions of the Mazhilis, or lower house of parliament, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The new restrictions bar photographers and television, radio, and print journalists, but Musin promised to consider a proposal to allow television cameras and photojournalists to enter the main conference hall of the Mazhilis. Musin, a former deputy prime minister, was unanimously elected as the new parliament speaker just two days before (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). RG

At a press conference in Bishkek, Finance Minister Akylbek Japarov on September 5 threatened to open an investigation into a deal involving a Canadian mining company's sale of a majority stake in the state-owned Kumtor gold mine, according to the website. Japarov said the terms of the deal were unfavorable to Kyrgyzstan, and he accused former Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev and ousted President Askar Akaev of improperly granting unfair benefits to the Cameco company. The Canadian company recently announced its intention to sell its shares in the gold mine in order to move away from gold-mining operations and focus on uranium mining in Kyrgyzstan. The Cameco firm is currently responsible for mining one-fifth of the world's uranium. RG

The head of the Kyrgyz state human-rights commission, Tursunbek Akun, on September 5 apologized to human rights activists during a trial in the Sverdlov district court, according to the website. The civil trial was initiated by the Kyrgyz nongovernmental organization Adilet, which charged Akun with damaging its "reputation." Akun publicly declared that he "prefers dialogue and a peaceful resolution to the conflict rather than facing a full-blown court trial," and admitted that he regretted making "off-the-cuff statements about human-rights activists." The presiding judge, Elvira Jarkeeva, closed the trial by ruling to start mediation to reach an "amicable settlement," and ordered journalists to leave the courtroom so settlement talks could begin. RG

Belarus on September 5 signed a contract to engage in oil exploration in Iran, Belarusian and international news agencies reported. The contract, inked in Tehran, grants Belarus access to the Jofeir oil field near the border with Iraq, which could yield up to 30,000 barrels of oil per day once it becomes operational. Alyaksandr Lyakhau, the chief executive of the Belarusian oil company Belarusnafta, was quoted as saying that funds for the exploration project will come from the Vietnamese energy company Petrovietnam, with personnel and equipment supplied by Belarusnafta and the Iranian Oil Ministry. JM

A court in Salihorsk on September 5 handed down jail sentences and fines to seven opposition youth activists who demonstrated in front of the city's courthouse the previous day during a trial of their associate, Ivan Shyla, Belapan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). Ales Kalita and Lyudmila Atakulava were jailed for seven days each, while Viktar Dzenisevich, Kasya Halitskaya, Dzmitry Fedaruk, Dzmitry Karnou, and Franak Vyachorka received fines between $60 and $70. Shyla was in court on charges of acting on behalf of an unregistered organization. As a minor, he faced a maximum sentence of six months in jail, but was released with a warning. JM

Borys Kolesnykov, the head of the Party of Regions' election headquarters, told journalists in Kyiv on September 5 that his party has started preparations to organize a nationwide referendum, Ukrainian media reported. The Party of Regions wants the referendum to address whether Russian should have official-language status; whether Ukraine should avoid participating in any military block; and direct elections of the oblast and raion administration heads. Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) deputy head Oleksandr Turchynov said that the referendum bid shows that "the Party of Regions is losing ground, and it has therefore decided to shift the attention of voters to the issues of the Russian language and NATO. They don't have any [worthy] results of their work to show to the public, so they have resorted to their old policy of 'divide et impera,' and put on the daily agenda the speculative issues that split the nation and the country." Referendums on constitutional issues have previously been suggested by the BYuT and President Viktor Yushchenko, who in particular wants to cancel parliamentary immunity, reduce the number of lawmakers, and introduce a bicameral legislature. JM

A former Kosovar prime minister currently on trial for war crimes, Ramush Haradinaj, can run in Kosova's parliamentary elections, the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) said on September 5. An UNMIK spokesman, Aleksandar Ivanko, said Haradinaj "has the right to take part" because he "voluntarily surrendered and cooperated" with war-crimes prosecutors and has not been sentenced. The UNMIK said that Kosova's constitution prohibits someone from running for parliament "if sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal or indicted and refusing to cooperate." The news service Balkan Insight reported on September 5 that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is overseeing the elections, reached the same conclusion. UNMIK's statement was a response to a September 4 statement by Haradinaj's party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK), that it will place Haradinaj at the head of its list of candidates for parliamentary elections to be held on November 17. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has charged Haradinaj and two co-defendants with "the forcible, violent suppression of any real or perceived form of collaboration with the Serbs by Albanian or Romany civilians," including rape, torture, and 40 cases of murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2007). Haradinaj gave himself up after the ICTY announced its indictment in March 2005. There have been persistent and increasingly well-sourced allegations that UNMIK and some in the international community wanted the ICTY not to prosecute Haradinaj as he was seen as an asset in efforts to achieve a reconciliation between Kosova's Albanian and Serbian communities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2007). The ICTY allowed Haradinaj to remain in Kosova until March 2007, where he continued to play a high-profile role in local politics and to appear in public (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2007). The AAK is a member of the governing coalition. The ICTY, which has been highly critical of UNMIK's treatment of Haradinaj, has yet to comment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2007). AG

Several thousand Kosovars marched through central Prishtina on September 4 to protest against the killing of a policeman and against organized crime. In a statement issued the same day, UNMIK head Joachim Ruecker said that "his death has united Kosovo's people against crime like no other event that I have witnessed here." "Never in my police career have I seen something like this," Kosovar dailies quoted Police Commissioner Richard Monk as saying. "In the faces of police officers around me I could see that they were surprised and inspired." Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku and UNMIK officials also took part in the march. The victim, Triumf Riza, was a member of an elite police unit tasked with protecting political leaders and visiting dignitaries. The rally, which was organized by friends of Riza, was billed as a march against crime and corruption in the region, and demonstrators called for greater government commitment to fighting organized crime. Riza, whom Ruecker described as an "exemplary" police officer, was gunned down on August 30 and the widespread perception, shared by Ceku, is that he was killed by an organized-crime gang. Police have arrested one person and are holding a number of others in custody. Riza was the third police officer to be killed this year in Kosova. An opposition leader, Hashim Thaci of the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK), told reporters on September 4 that he believes organized crime is the greatest threat to security in Kosova, and he called on KFOR, the international force mandated to maintain stability in the contested region, to expand its operations to include the fight against organized crime. AG

Switzerland has said it would withdraw its contingent of troops in the international force in Kosova, KFOR, if Kosova were to declare independence without the support of the UN. "Switzerland's soldiers can take part in peacekeeping actions abroad only on the basis of UN or [OSCE] mandates," local media quoted Samuel Schmid, the head of the Swiss Federal Department of Defense, Civil Protection, and Sports, as saying on September 4. Switzerland has had up to 220 troops in Kosova since 1999. Efforts to achieve a consensus on Kosova's future within the UN Security Council foundered in July, prompting the resumption of bilateral talks. Serbia and Russia insist that any result must be approved by the UN. AG

Romania's president, Traian Basescu, has given his unequivocal backing for Serbia's position on Kosova, telling a gathering of Romanian ambassadors on September 3 that "Serbia is an independent, sovereign state whose territorial integrity must not be affected." According to the news agency Rompres, Basescu based his argument on international law, arguing that "there is no legal foundation for the creation of a Kosovo state." "Some invoke the moral right of the [Kosovar] Albanians, but there is no moral right in international law, just the guarantee of borders' inviolability," Basescu said before stressing that "nobody can easily contravene the norms of international law." He made no mention of Romanian concerns about its Hungarian minority, a factor that some commentators see as one explanation for Romania's opposition and Slovakia's ambivalence about independence for Kosova. Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told Serbian television on September 4, during a visit to Romania, that Bucharest's position on Kosova is "absolutely identical" to Belgrade's. Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Cioroianu said after meeting Jeremic that "Serbs should be convinced that Romania is with them." In their talks, Jeremic warned Romanian officials, including President Basescu and Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, that the fate of Kosova would determine the future of the western Balkans; that Kosovar independence would set a precedent that would provide legitimacy for the forcible division of internationally recognized states; and, according to the Serbian news agency FoNet, that "there is a real danger of the whole region returning to the period before 1990." AG

The statement in support of Serbia by one of the EU's youngest members, Romania, flies in the face of recent calls by a range of European leaders for the EU to adopt a unified position on the status of Kosova. Brussels and the overwhelming majority of states argue that the best solution for Kosova is conditional independence based on a plan drawn up by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland. The potential significance of Romania's stance was underscored on September 4 when French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner met with Romanian Foreign Minister Cioroianu, after which Kouchner said, "European unity on the difficult issue of Kosovo is the only solution" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17 and August 31, 2007). Kouchner did not comment specifically on Romania's position. Cioroianu said on September 3 that Romania's position on Serbia does not endanger the EU's unity. "EU unity on such a complex and sensitive file is steadily being built," Rompres quoted him as saying. "A solution accepted by all the parties involved, that should be neither imposed, nor unilateral: that's what we believe will defuse tensions in the region." Kouchner and Serbian Foreign Minister Jeremic -- as well as British Foreign Minister David Miliband -- were in Bucharest to attend the annual meeting of Romania's diplomatic corps. AG

During his visit to Romania, Serbian Foreign Minister Jeremic agreed with his Romanian counterpart, Adrian Cioroianu, that the two countries should begin to cooperate to support the Vlachs, a minority community in eastern Serbia. Cioroianu said the move was taken "as [the Vlachs] are seen here as ethnic Romanians." Serbia recognized the Vlachs as an ethnic minority only in August. The move gives Vlach children the right to instruction in their mother tongue in primary school. The Vlachs numbered only 40,054 in Serbia's last census, in 2002, but they constitute a significant minority in the area of eastern Serbia where Serbia borders Romania and Bulgaria. Some Vlachs maintain they are ethnically distinct from Romanians, despite their shared language. Vlachs account for between one-fifth and one-quarter of the population in three towns: Kucevo, Boljevac, and Zagubica. AG

A court in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, on September 4 refused to register a movement representing Bulgaria's Macedonian minority as a political party, fanning longstanding Macedonian criticism of Bulgaria's respect for minorities and potentially risking a confrontation with European institutions. According to Bulgarian and Macedonian media, the court based its decision on its conclusion that the United Macedonian Organization Ilinden-Party of Economic Development and Integration of the Population (OMO Ilinden-PIRIN) is not a party but rather a nongovernmental organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). The OMO Ilinden-PIRIN has been hoping to run in local elections to be held on October 28. The European Court of Human Rights in November 2005 ruled that the Bulgarian Constitutional Court's ban on the party violated provisions guaranteeing freedom of association (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). AG

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke to students and faculty of the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) on September 3 in an address that revealed much continuity with Soviet-era thinking.

He stressed that Moscow is the diplomatic equal of Washington and sought to highlight differences between the United States and Western Europe, while paying lip service to the importance of some other countries and regional groupings in a "multipolar world."

Lavrov selectively quoted several prominent Western political figures -- mainly Americans and Germans -- as well as President Vladimir Putin in support of his points. In classical Soviet style, he suggested that Russia is an aggrieved party whose trust others must seek to win.

He stressed that Russia embraces the values of "democracy and the market" but did not mention the rule of law. He said that Russia has learned many lessons from its history and abandoned the "hostility and ideology" of the Cold War era. It is others who continue to view international affairs as a "zero-sum game," he maintained.

Lavrov warned outsiders against seeking to change Russian policies. He said that "with the end of the Cold War, we have acquired full freedom in dealing with our internal affairs...and strengthening our position in the world.... We act in a European way, from a position of a pluralistic political culture, which must by definition be tolerant of debates. Attempts at 'containing' and 'harassing' Russia hardly correspond to this culture."

He stressed that it is important instead "to build trust" and quoted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the effect that trust takes a long time to develop but can be quickly destroyed. Lavrov noted that "we track the foreign media reaction to the swift revival of our country as a leading state in the world. We understand that certain political circles in the West were unprepared for such a course of events" and do not know how to respond.

But Russia, he argued, has "emancipated itself" from old doctrines. He quoted Egon Bahr, the leading foreign-policy thinker in Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), as saying that "Europeans" are now seeking to define their own interests and act on their analysis of what those interests are. Lavrov might have added that Bahr has suggested for years that "German interests" are distinct from and often in conflict with those of the United States.

It is, in fact, Russian-U.S. relations that concern Lavrov most. He cites "our common responsibility for the maintenance of strategic stability" and adds that "globalization makes it necessary to create relations of positive interdependence."

He also offers some consolation to Washington, saying that "Russia can understand from its own experience what geopolitical solitude is and what it means [to a country] when, despite the best intentions in wanting to change the world, others either do not understand you or do not accept your methods." Lavrov stressed that "we are not adversaries with the United States anymore, so there are no grounds for a new Cold War."

Lavrov criticized Britain for making a "propaganda show" of its demands for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, the prime suspect in the 2006 London poisoning death of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko.

But in general, he had warm words for Europe, by which he seemed to mean some major countries of Western Europe. He suggested that "there are matters on which Europe is closer to the United States, but on a number of strategic issues it has more in common with Russia. Take the theme of use of force and other forms of coercion, and also its attitude toward international law."

It is precisely because of EU concerns over international law and rules of behavior, however, that Putin's Russia has raised doubts in Europe about its reliability. European critics point to Russia's use of energy as a political weapon against several of its neighbors, its refusal to ratify the EU's Energy Charter treaty that it signed in 1994, its recent dispatch of a mission to plant a titanium Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole, its recent resumption of strategic bomber flights, and the unexplained "cyberwar" against Estonia in April and May.

Nor does Lavrov mention that when the SPD-led German Foreign Ministry sought to draw Russia into a closely intertwined set of relationships with the EU during the German EU Presidency in the first half of 2007, Berlin found that Moscow was interested only in bilateral deals and asserting itself ever more strongly on the international stage.

Lavrov nonetheless cited Putin's February 10 speech in Munich as an example of evidence of Russia's interest in "concerted actions" with its foreign partners. But this was a speech that left Merkel and many of Putin's German hosts visibly displeased and prompted several Western observers to describe it as "a declaration of a new Cold War."

Lavrov suggested that "the part of the world customarily known as the Euro-Atlantic region [should] have a triple understanding, between the United States, Russia, and the European Union.... Such a 'troika' could 'steer the global boat into untroubled waters.'" He added that "perhaps it is time to think of a new definition of Atlanticism that does not exclude Russia," but did not elaborate.

He referred to a "common humanitarian space" among CIS countries. He also hailed the international roles of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Lavrov mentioned the possibility of a "concert of the powers of the 21st century...[to provide] leadership by the key states of the world," as well as "new, flexible forms of collective leadership" that include at least China, India, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa.

He stressed nonetheless that there are "some red lines" in Russia's foreign policy. He said that Moscow is firmly opposed to U.S. plans to deploy parts of a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic and to any proposal on the final status of Kosova that does not meet with Serbia's approval. He argued that "Russia does not bargain [on matters involving its vital interest], and our international partners must understand this."

Some Czech and Polish critics have pointed out, however, that Russia's position on missile defense is not aimed at cooperation but on sending notice to Prague and Warsaw that their relations with Washington are subject to Moscow's approval.

Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" has repeatedly made the point that Russia is using the missile-defense issue to try to split both the EU and NATO. As to Kosova, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" argued on September 4 that Russian diplomacy has not offered any clear or constructive proposal to replace that of UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, which Russia and Serbia reject.

Afghanistan's Interior Ministry on September 3 attributed the rising rate of opium-poppy cultivation to the presence of foreign troops, claiming that opium production has increased in the provinces where foreign troops are stationed, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Ministry spokesman Zemari Bashary said 13 provinces under the full control of the Afghan government have been declared poppy-free, while Helmand and Kandahar Provinces, where foreign troops are stationed, have seen record-breaking levels of poppy cultivation. According to a recent United Nations report, 193,000 hectares of land in Afghanistan are used for growing opium poppies, 102,000 hectares of which are in Helmand Province. He further suggested that NATO should launch a military operation in poppy-growing districts in order to completely eliminate the threat. Bashary mentioned that the Afghan government cannot eradicate poppy cultivation without the help of foreign partners, and noted that local police forces in particular lack modern equipment and the law-enforcement resources to deal with the drug trade. JC

The head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on September 5 urged NATO troops to play a larger role in fighting opium production in Afghanistan, AP reported. Antonio Maria Costa, the UNODC's executive director, expressed hope that NATO will recognize the threat the growing drug trade poses to its mission in Afghanistan, and increase counternarcotics efforts, including taking a more direct role in eliminating illicit labs and intercepting drug traffickers in the south. Costa downplayed the impact of restrictions on NATO's mandate in Afghanistan, which only allows the alliance to play a supporting role to Afghan authorities in counternarcotics operations. More can be done within those rules, he added, including air support and logistics support for Afghan forces and intelligence-sharing. NATO commanders have attempted to push for a larger role for their troops under the current mandate, but officers on the ground have complained that they lack the resources necessary to take on further counternarcotics operations. According to a UNODC report released on August 28, Afghan poppy cultivation has reached a second record high for the second consecutive year, generating funds used by the Taliban to finance their insurgency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2007). JC

The Afghan government on September 4 reiterated its position against aerial chemical spraying to eradicate poppy crops in the country, amid renewed calls for action from the international community, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada, addressing a news conference in Kabul, rejected proposals to use chemical spraying to control poppy cultivation, arguing it is not an effective remedy. Hamidzada said Afghanistan supports a comprehensive solution to the drug problem, involving alternative income programs for poppy farmers, construction of farm-to-market roads, stronger counternarcotics police forces, and better prevention of cross-border drug smuggling. The "menace" of poppy cultivation and drug smuggling in Afghanistan affects the international community, and all must work together to find a feasible response to the drug crisis, Hamidzada added. President Hamid Karzai and former Interior Minister Habibullah Qaderi have previously spoken out against chemical spraying, citing the potential harmful side affects to residents' health and to other viable crops (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 2007). JC

New outbreaks of violence in Afghanistan on September 5 left two British soldiers and dozens of insurgents dead, AFP reported. The two soldiers were killed when a bomb blast struck their vehicle in southern Helmand Province, according to a British Ministry of Defense statement. Another soldier and an Afghan interpreter were injured in the explosion. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters and international troops clashed for a second night in two districts of restive Ghazni Province, where less than a week ago Taliban rebels released 19 South Korean aid workers they had kidnapped six weeks earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2007). Approximately 30 Taliban fighters were killed in the fighting, according to Ghazni police chief Ali Shah Ahmadzai, and a U.S. military statement said several militants were killed. The death toll could not be independently verified. A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yusof Ahmadi confirmed the battles, but claimed the dead were civilians. Two other clashes erupted in Kandahar Province on September 4 after rebels ambushed separate military patrols, coalition spokesman Major Chris Belcher said. More than two dozen rebel fighters were killed in the fighting, he added. JC

Some 1596 families in Afghanistan's central Logar Province are now due to see the benefits from four development projects finalized on September 4 by the National Solidarity Program (NSP), including the construction of critical energy-generating infrastructure, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The projects, which cost approximately 7.5 million afghanis ($152,000), including a 10 percent contribution from local residents, were completed in the provincial capital, Pul-e Alam, and in the villages of Baharam, Mullah Abdullah, Sabir Qala, and Mir Hussain. Provincial NSP head Abdul Rahman said the efforts helped build 291 cubic meters of walls, eight bridges, 12 wells, and a solar energy network capable of producing over 14 megawatts of power. Sixteen women also received sewing machines to help them generate a sustainable income. Haji Babrak, a resident of Sabir Qala, told Pajhwak that he and his neighbors previously were forced to go by donkey to get water from polluted streams, but "now we have access to clean drinking water." Over the last three years, 500 local councils have been established and 250 projects completed in Logar Province, according to Rahman. JC

Iran hanged 21 people convicted on drug-trafficking and banditry charges on September 5 in two provinces, Radio Farda reported, citing state television. A police colonel named Alipur said that 17 traffickers were hanged in the northeastern Khorasan-i Razavi Province early on September 5 "after the completion of all legal procedures," Radio Farda reported. Another four were hanged south of Shiraz in the southern Fars Province the same day, after being convicted on charges including banditry, drug trafficking, and carrying firearms, Radio Farda reported, citing Fars news agency. Reports indicated that large crowds watched the executions in both provinces. A deputy head of the judiciary in Fars Province, Abdulnabi Najibi, told ISNA on September 5 that the province has hanged "on average one or two murderers or bandits every week" since the Persian year began on March 21. "These executions show the [judiciary's] efforts to assure sustained social security and its resolve to confront the corrupt," Najibi said. Iran is a major transit route for narcotics from Afghanistan. VS

Tahmasb Mazaheri was formally named as Iran's Central Bank chief on September 4 or 5, and replaces Ibrahim Sheibani, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2007). First Vice President Parviz Davudi announced the appointment on September 4, Fars reported. Sheibani's resignation is apparently due to his opposition to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's planned changes to the banking system, and follows other recent ministerial dismissals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 13, 2007) Radio Farda noted. Mazaheri, 54, was a finance minister in the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami, but resigned after differences with then-Central Bank chief Mohsen Nurbakhsh, and was briefly a deputy finance minister from 2005, following Ahmadinejad's election. He is the 18th Central Bank governor since its foundation in 1960. Mazaheri has in the past been a proponent of boosting private-sector activity and government downsizing. VS

Radio Farda reporter Parnaz Azima, who had been prevented from leaving Iran since January and is accused of engaging in propaganda against Iran's government through her reporting, confirmed on September 4 that she has been given back her passport and will leave Iran at the first opportunity, Radio Farda reported. She said she met with Intelligence Ministry officials on September 3 and was told she could recuperate her passport, though the bail her family has posted -- worth some $440,000, including her mother's house -- would remain in place and her case remains open. "My lawyer has to go and they have to set a time for a trial," she told Radio Farda. She said that "the only thing on my mind now is to take the first flight" out of Iran, and return to Prague, where she works. VS

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani addressed the Assembly of Experts on September 4, informing the body of senior clerics about the country's recent initiatives to open up its nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), "Kayhan" reported the next day. He said Iran's recent agreements with the IAEA are an opportunity for the IAEA and the 5+1 powers, the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, to take a "positive step for their part" and open a "rational" path to a solution to Iran's case. He said Iran and the IAEA have set out a framework for resolving the IAEA's questions, and a "preliminary proposal" for a political accord on the program between Iran and the EU is also at hand. He deplored U.S. President George W. Bush's recent remarks on Iran's program threatening the Middle East with a "nuclear holocaust" and noted that the United States, not Iran, has nuclear weapons. He said if "America likes the dialogue of the deaf, then all sides can come to lose their hearing." Those, he added, who accuse Iran of seeking to impose a regional hegemony "do not properly understand the awakening in the region." Iran, he suggested, is winning converts in the Middle East by the force of its ideas. He added that Iran is ready to use its "political capabilities" to help pacify the region. Larijani said the Assembly of Experts -- which he called Iran's "highest democratic authority" -- plays a key role in decision making in Iran, "especially in present conditions when, with Americans talking a lot, they will be giving serious attention to the assembly's decisions." VS

Alaeddin Borujerdi, the head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told Mehr news agency on September 4 that parliament will "definitely" oblige the government to reconsider its cooperation with the IAEA, if the UN Security Council approves another sanctions resolution against Iran. He said a recent IAEA report on Iran's activities was positive, and the reported displeasure of France, Great Britain, and the United States "is further evidence that the report is realistic." He said he hopes the IAEA governing board will recommend that Iran's case be returned from the Security Council to the IAEA, and stressed that Iran would give any sanctions resolution "a suitable response." VS

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki traveled to the holy city of Al-Najaf on September 5 to discuss the security and political situation with Shi'ite religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraqi media reported. After his meeting with al-Sistani, al-Maliki said he sought advice from the cleric on forming a new government and filling empty cabinet positions with technocrats. "I discussed with him the situation of the government. I asked his help in forming a government and nominating new ministers, or if there is the possibility to form a new government based on technocrats," al-Maliki said. He did not say how the cleric responded, and al-Sistani's office declined to comment. The Iraqi government has been in a state of crisis since the largest Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, withdrew from the cabinet, accusing al-Maliki's government of having a sectarian agenda (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007). The front has five cabinet members and 44 seats in the 275-seat parliament. SS

After his meeting with top Shi'ite cleric al-Sistani, Prime Minister al-Maliki said he will move to make all Shi'ite holy sites demilitarized zones, state-run Al-Iraqiyah reported. His proposal was seen as an attempt to avoid a repeat of the violent clashes during a Shi'ite pilgrimage in Karbala on August 28 that left 52 people dead and more than 200 injured (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). "These cities must be secure because of their holiness.... In my opinion, the holy shrines and holy cities must turn into secure demilitarized zones, and the army alone should assume the responsibility of their protection," al-Maliki said. Before al-Maliki's comments, locals in Al-Najaf noted that the city has recently witnessed a large deployment of Iraqi security forces. SS

General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, hinted on September 5 that he may recommend a reduction in the number of U.S. forces in Iraq by next March to avoid overtaxing the U.S. military, ABC News reported. "The surge will run its course. There are limits to what our military can provide, so my recommendations have to be informed by...the strain we have put on our military services," Petraeus said. "That has to be a key factor in what I will recommend." In addition, he indicated that the troop surge strategy has led to a reduction in the number of attacks. "Eight of the past 11 weeks have seen the number of incidents, the number of attacks, come down, and to the point that they reached a level that's about the lowest in well over a year, I think," Petraeus said. He and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker are to present a progress report to Congress shortly assessing the success of the current strategy in Iraq. That report, along with a progress report the White House must hand to U.S. lawmakers by September 15, is expected to determine the next phase of U.S. military involvement in Iraq. SS

Tariq al-Hashimi, an Iraqi vice president and leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, has urged the Iraqi government to launch real reforms to persuade the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front to return to the political process. He made the appeal in a statement posted on the Iraqi Islamic Party's website on September 5. The front, to which the Iraqi Islamic Party belongs, withdrew from the government on July 25 after accusing it of having an sectarian agenda. Sunni leaders have long accused the Shi'ite-led government of blocking legislation important to the Sunni community, such as reversing the de-Ba'athification process. "If we find that the government is serious about reforming the current situation in all domains -- namely, the political, economic, security, and human rights situations; Iraq's relations with neighboring countries; and integrity-related issues -- then the front might reconsider its stand," al-Hashimi said. "We said that our refusal is based on objective reasons. One of those objective reasons is refusing [to accept] the current situation, which should be changed," he added. SS

Lieutenant Colonel Dilir Farzanda Zibari, a high-ranking official of the border guards in Dahuk Governorate, said on September 5 that 55 Iraqis were arrested the previous day for trying to enter Turkey illegally, the independent Voice of Iraq reported. "Those arrested were local residents of Dahuk, Sinjar, and Irbil," Zibari said. "Their ages range from 17 to 25, and each one of them paid between $300-$600 to smugglers to reach Turkey," he added. Zibari also said that border guards have arrested 420 people trying to enter Turkey in the past six months along different parts of the Iraqi-Turkish border. Turkey has long accused the Iraqi government of not doing enough to prevent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels based in northern Iraq from crossing into Turkey to carry out attacks. SS

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office announced on September 5 that Swedish-Italian national Staffan de Mistura has been appointed as the new UN special envoy to Iraq, KUNA reported. De Mistura succeeds Ashraf Qazi, whom Ban appointed the same day as special representative for Sudan. De Mistura has already served in Baghdad as the deputy special representative in 2005 and 2006 under Qazi. Prior to that, he was then Secretary-General Kofi Annan's personal representative for Southern Lebanon for four years. SS