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Newsline - September 26, 2007

Rene van der Linden, who heads the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), said at the University of Vilnius on September 25 that it is easier for Lithuania to adapt to Russia than for Russia to adapt to Lithuania, dpa reported. He noted that "it is easier to reform your country than to reform Russia.... If Europe speaks about human rights in Russia, it means [to Moscow that Brussels is] meddling in its domestic politics." He said he regrets that the EU has lost unspecified opportunities to help Russia reform its institutions. Van der Linden was concluding a trip to the Baltic states, during which he stressed issues related to their treatment of their respective Russian-speaking minorities and their relations with Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). PM

The pro-Kremlin youth organization Nashi (Ours) announced in a press release on September 25 that four of its members will soon launch a weeklong "antifascist marathon" protest outside the offices of the European Commission in Brussels, Interfax reported. The statement said that "the protesters will attempt to draw the attention of members of the...commission to the criminal cases against former Latvian and Estonian presidents accused of supporting and spreading fascism, inciting racial intolerance, and [carrying out] crimes against humanity." The protest will also include banners and posters calling attention to an alleged "brown fever" in Estonia and Latvia. Nashi members have previously harassed British and Estonian diplomats in Russia. Many Western commentators and members of the Russian opposition have compared Nashi and similar organizations to the Hitler Youth because of their dogged pro-regime loyalty, intolerance, and aggressive tactics. PM

Members of the State Duma's and Federation Council's interparty caucus on foreign policy announced on September 26 that they would like to hold an interparliamentary conference in Moscow to discuss missile defense, Interfax reported. Other participants would come from the United States, Poland, and the Czech Republic. The Russian caucus said in a statement that "we ask the parliamentary parties of [those countries] to soberly assess the inevitable negative consequences of the planned deployment of elements of the U.S. missile-defense system in Europe and to prevent irreversible moves. The U.S. plans, if implemented, would open a way toward dangerous violations of strategic stability and would create a threat to security in the world. Our parties will spare no efforts to avoid such a turn of events and make this issue the subject of a serious discussion at reputable international forums." The caucus includes members of the respective International Affairs Committees of both houses of the parliament. Similar "peace appeals" were a typical propaganda device employed by the USSR Supreme Soviet and some other Soviet institutions. The U.S., Polish, and Czech governments regard the missile-defense issue as their own affair and have rejected repeated attempts by Moscow and some other countries to interfere with their plans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). On September 26 in Moscow, Interfax quoted an unnamed "diplomatic source" as saying that the next meeting of Russian and U.S. foreign and defense ministers to discuss missile defense will take place in Moscow on October 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007). Preliminary talks will take place on October 9-10. PM

Prior to leaving for six-party talks in Beijing, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov said in Moscow on September 25 that Russia will provide 50,000 tons of fuel oil to North Korea in November as part of the efforts by his country, China, the United States, Japan, and South Korea to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, Interfax reported. He noted each of the five countries negotiating with North Korea will provide an identical quantity of fuel oil to that country under an agreement reached in February. Losyukov added that "our turn to do this is in November." PM

President Vladimir Putin on September 25 confirmed the appointment of Colonel General Aleksandr Kolmakov as first deputy defense minister and relieved him of his duties as commander of the Airborne Forces, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 2007). PM

On September 26, the aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi unveiled the Superjet 100 in Komsomolsk-na-Amure, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, August 21, and September 18, 2007). The plane was developed with assistance from Boeing and is Russia's first all-new airliner since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Superjet 100 is designed to seat 78 to 98 passengers. First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told the spectators that "the Superjet is more than a plane, it is a priority project." In June, Ivanov said that Russia's civilian and transport aircraft producers should aspire to become the third-largest in the world by 2025, with a 10-12 percent market share, up from their current 1 percent (see "Russia: Glimpsing The Future Through Rose-Colored Glasses,", June 20, 2007). On the sidelines of the ceremony on September 26, Aeroflot General Director Valery Okulov said that his airline will use its first Superjets on domestic routes. He added that Aeroflot is considering a joint venture with unnamed Cuban carriers to use Superjets on unspecified Caribbean routes, Interfax reported. Okulov said that details will be finalized once Aeroflot has acquired a sufficient number of the new planes. PM

Analysts and politicians continue commenting on the makeup of the new cabinet that was announced on September 25, with most of the speculation centering on the return to Moscow of Dmitry Kozak (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 25, 2007). Kozak, formerly the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, has been named regional development minister. A presidential decree issued on September 25 transferred control of the state Investment Fund and the funding for federal development projects from the Economic Development and Trade Ministry to the Regional Development Ministry, "Vedomosti" reported on September 26. The move gives Kozak, a longtime Putin ally, control of some 2 trillion rubles ($80 billion). The daily noted that only some 300 people work in Kozak's ministry, about one-10th as many as are employed in the Economic Development and Trade Ministry. Analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told RFE/RL on September 25 that the purpose of the new cabinet is to "scrupulously make sure that money gets out to the regions, to the voters." RC

Pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov on September 25 designated President Putin's appointment of presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak to the post of minister of regional development in the new cabinet headed by Viktor Zubkov a move aimed at strengthening the ties between the center and the regions, reported citing Rosbalt. Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) President Arsen Kanokov termed Kozak's appointment "tactically correct," reported on September 24. Kanokov characterized Kozak as "an extremely professional and extremely decent person" who did a "brilliant job" in overseeing some of the most conflict-ridden regions at a difficult time, and he noted that it was largely thanks to Kozak that the KBR has emerged from a protracted economic crisis. Republic of Adygeya President Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov similarly expressed approval of Kozak's new post and credited him with creating conditions that have expedited economic development and raised living standards in Adygeya. LF

Moscow's Basmanny Raion Court on September 25 began hearing the case against political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, who is charged with inciting extremism in his recent book "Unloved Country," RFE/RL's Russian Service and other media reported. Piontkovsky is also an activist with the opposition Yabloko party. The case was suspended the same day pending further expert analysis of Piontkovsky's book, which is a collection of articles that have already been published in the periodical press. Piontkovsky, who faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted, is the first person to be tried under new antiextremism legislation that has been widely criticized as an effort to silence the political opposition. Yabloko party officials have said they fear that if Piontkovsky is convicted, officials will revoke the party's registration, since the party has been distributing the book nationally and has posted excerpts from it on its website. reported in May that the case began when the Krasnodar Krai branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) asked local prosecutors to warn Yabloko against distributing the book. RC

President Putin on September 25 fired Nikolai Pershutkin, head of the Interior Ministry's division for maintaining public order, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on September 26. Putin also dismissed the regional heads of this department in St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast. The Interior Ministry section in question is in charge of maintaining public order during political demonstrations and other public events, and the move could be part of the government's preparations for the upcoming election season (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007). RC

The European Court of Human Rights on September 25 decided to accelerate hearing the case of former Tomsk Mayor Aleksandr Makarov, who has been in pretrial detention on corruption charges since December, RFE/RL reported. The court has decided that it will likely rule in the case by the end of this year, taking into consideration "the state of [Makarov's] health," a spokeswoman for Makarov told RFE/RL. Makarov is accused of bribe taking, abuse of office, and possession of narcotics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2006). Makarov, who dismisses the charges as politically motivated, has been a vocal critic of efforts by the central government to restrict the powers of elected local leaders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 2, 2006, and "Mayors In The Crosshairs As 'Power Vertical' Gains Force,", June 21, 2007). RC

Ulyanovsk Oblast Governor Sergei Morozov has announced plans to compel bureaucrats to treat citizens more politely by placing eavesdropping devices in the offices of regional officials, "Novye izvestia" reported on September 26. Local officials told the daily that Morozov's concerns about politeness do not extend to his own treatment of subordinates, saying that he recently told participants of a meeting that they were "pigs and roosters on a perch." A member of the local Public Chamber told the daily that complaints about the conduct of officials are "flooding in." Lawyer Igor Ivanov said that Morozov's plan may well prove to be illegal and officials would be able to sue for violations of their human rights. RC

The Federal Tax Service has announced plans to create a special inspections unit to carry out audits of "major taxpayers," RIA Novosti reported on September 25. An unnamed official within the Tax Service told the agency the order will be signed within days and that "this inspectorate is being created to control the oligarchs." Financial analyst Agvan Mikayelyan told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on September 26 that the purpose of the move is to ensure the oligarchs toe the line during the election season. He said the service will likely focus on the 2,000 or 3,000 richest Russians. RC

Meeting in emergency session on September 25, the pro-Moscow Chechen Republic parliament voted to initiate legal action against former world chess champion and leader of the opposition United Civic Front Garry Kasparov for disparaging comments he made about Chechen Republic head Kadyrov, reported quoting Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, speaker of the parliament's lower chamber. Speaking on September 23, Kasparov branded Kadyrov "a bandit" and described Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov as "a total nonentity," kavkaz-uzel.ruu reported. On September 25, Kasparov affirmed that he is ready to repeat his characterization of Kadyrov, and recalled the latter's boast that he began killing Russian troops at the age of 15 (during the 1994-96 Chechen war). A second leading United Civic Group member pointed out that only Kadyrov himself, but not the Chechen parliament, is legally empowered to bring a slander suit against Kasparov. On September 26, Kasparov appealed to the Prosecutor General's Office to investigate "threats" against him by Abdurakhmanov and by Chechen human-rights commissioner Nurdi Nukhadjiyev, Interfax reported. LF

Russia's Supreme Court has annulled the sentences handed down by the Chechen Supreme Court to three men found guilty of the July 2005 car bombing in the northern town of Znamenskoye that killed 14 people and ordered a retrial, reported on September 25 citing RIA Novosti (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2005). The Prosecutor-General's Office branded too lenient the 18-year prison terms handed down to Aslanbek Vitrigov, Anzor Agamerzayev, and Ayub Tuntyev on charges of banditry, terrorism, murder and seeking to kill members of the law-enforcement agencies; lawyers for the three men said the case was unsubstantiated and the prosecution produced no evidence of the men's guilt. A hitherto unknown group that called itself Ibadullakh and claimed to be subordinate to radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the Znamenskoye bombing four days after it took place (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 2005). LF

Robert Kocharian took issue on September 25 with criticism of his policies expressed by his predecessor, Levon Ter-Petrossian, at an Independence Day gathering in Yerevan on September 21, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Pointing to double-digit economic growth over the past five years and to a huge increase in government spending, Kocharian rejected as unfounded Ter-Petrossian's allegation that his administration has reduced Armenia to the status of a third-world country. Kocharian further said that he has refrained until now out of respect from publicly attacking Ter-Petrossian, but that if Ter-Petrossian decides to run in the presidential election due early next year, the present leadership will play up the material and economic hardships Armenians suffered during Ter-Petrossian's presidency. Also on September 25, former Prime Minister and opposition National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian, Ter-Petrossian's main challenger in the controversial 1996 presidential ballot, expressed disappointment that Ter-Petrossian did not acknowledge his responsibility for the economic and social problems that Kocharian inherited, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

The Court of Appeal on September 25 upheld the prison terms passed last month on two prominent Karabakh war veterans, Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The two men were arrested in December 2006 and charged with publicly calling for the violent overthrow of the Armenian leadership. Only Malkhasian, however, was found guilty of that charge, for which he received a two year prison sentence. Sefilian was jailed for 18 months on the lesser charge of illegal possession of a firearm (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). The Court of Appeal also extended from 18 months to two years the sentence passed on a third defendant, Vahan Aroyan, also for illegal possession of arms. LF

Irakli Okruashvili convened a press conference in Tbilisi on September 25 at which he announced the creation of a new opposition force intended to unify Georgia, Georgian media reported. Okruashvili, whose return to politics has been anticipated for several months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2007), accused President Mikheil Saakashvili (who is currently in New York to attend the UN General Assembly session) of adopting the mantle of a crusader against corruption and injustice while selectively permitting members of his entourage and close family to amass huge fortunes illegally. "Saakashvili's ruling style...has turned immorality, injustice, oppression, reprisals, the demolition of homes and churches, and...murder...into norms of everyday life," he said. He claimed that three years ago, as interior minister, he arrested Saakashvili's uncle for accepting a $200,000 bribe, but at Saakashvili's request subsequently released him. Okruashvili criticized Saakashvili for failing to give the green light as commander in chief of the armed forces for an operation that would have brought back under Tbilisi's control one of the two breakaway republics. In a live interview later on September 25 with the independent Imedi television station, Okruashvili accused Saakashvili of proposing to kill oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili in a car bombing similar to that which killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Caucasus Press reported. He said he passed that information to U.S. intelligence, which, he assumes, dissuaded Saakashvili from going ahead with the murder. Okruashvili said he knows for certain that former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, whose body was found in a rented apartment in Tbilisi in February 2005, was killed elsewhere, but that he does not know all the details of what happened. Okruashvili further accused Saakashvili of resenting, and trying to sow dissent within, the Georgian Orthodox Church, and of rewriting Georgian history to understate everything achieved before his advent to power. Parliamentarian Gia Bokeria, a leading member of Saakashvili's United National Movement, dismissed Okruashvili's accusations later on September 25 as "utter nonsense [and] hysterical and groundless slander," and as too "absurd" to merit a response, Caucasus Press reported. He suggested Okruashvili was motivated by spite in the wake of the recent arrest on corruption charges of his close associate, former Shida Kartli governor Mikheil Kareli (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24, 2007). LF

The Georgian Foreign Ministry on September 24 posted on its website ( what was billed as a response to a journalist's question regarding the Russian Foreign Ministry's criticism of the September 22 international conference held in Tamarasheni, South Ossetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24, 2007). The Georgian statement argued that the purpose of the conference was to overcome the "isolation" of the local population and enable them to "engage in direct dialogue" with representatives of the Georgian authorities. It argued that the pro-Tbilisi South Ossetian Provisional Administration established in May is legal, in contrast to the de facto leadership of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia. It further accused the Russian peacekeepers deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone, who briefly intercepted international diplomats en route for Tamarasheni to attend the conference, of seeking "artificially to create hotbeds of tension," and it reaffirmed Georgia's readiness to "cooperate with all parties, including Russia," to achieve a peaceful solution to the conflict that would preserve Georgia's territorial integrity. LF

The opposition Ak Zhol, Auyl, and Rukhaniyat parties and the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan released a statement at a press conference in Astana on September 26 calling on the government to intervene to prevent any further rise in bread prices, the website reported. They argued that the price of one quality loaf should not exceed 30 tenges ($.024). On September 24, Interfax-Kazakhstan quoted Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeev as saying the price of a small bread roll in Almaty is now 60 tenges. Communist leader Vladislav Kosarev said his party has collected over 120,000 signatures to a formal protest, and he warned that "if the government does not take measures to reduce bread prices, we shall call for its resignation." LF

The opposition Social Democratic, Socialist and Democratic parties issued a joint statement on September 25 expressing concern at the rise in the price of flour and wheat and calling for immediate intervention to prevent any further price rise, reported. They pointed out that the minimum wage of 20 somonis ($5.7) is not enough to purchase a single sack of flour. LF

Human-rights activists in Kyrgyzstan have appealed to the country's citizens to sign an appeal calling for the release of their colleague Maksim Kuleshov, who was detained on September 24 in Tokmok during a public discussion of the proposed new draft constitution and sentenced to 10 days' detention, reported on September 26. Kuleshov has repeatedly sought to bring legal action against local bureaucrats who ignore his requests for routine information. His activist colleagues argue that his arrest proves that senior government officials are behind the ongoing harassment of human rights activists. LF

Speaking on September 24 in New York with Columbia University students, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said that former Foreign Ministers Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdyev, jailed in December 2002 and January 2003, respectively, for allegedly plotting the death of then President Saparmurat Niyazov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 16 and 19, 2002, and January 3, 2003), are still alive, reported on September 26. Berdymukhammedov hinted that the two men could be freed during the Night of Forgiveness on October 9. LF

Police detained Viktar Ivashkevich, deputy head of the Belarusian Popular Front, and Valery Ukhnalyou, deputy head of the Belarusian Party of Communists, in Minsk on September 25, Belapan reported. The arrest took place after the two opposition leaders left a cafe in which they were celebrating the birthday of Ivashkevich, who turned 48 last week. Ivashkevich heads the organizing committee for the European March for Freedom, which is planned by the opposition for October 14 in Minsk. Ukhnalyou was released on September 26, after police officers drafted a protocol on his intoxication and filmed his examination at a sobering-up station. "I think Viktar will get a term that will keep him in jail until October 14," Ukhnalyou told the agency. "The purpose [of the police's action] is evident -- to discredit the opposition on the eve of protest actions and to present its leaders as alcoholics. They apparently expected to film staggering guys with incoherent speech. They did not succeed, we had celebrated the birthday in a purely symbolic manner." JM

Alyaksandr Haliyeu, who is a lawyer for imprisoned opposition Youth Front leader Zmitser Dashkevich, told Belapan on September 25 that Dashkevich may have his prison sentence extended because of a new charge brought against him. In October 2006, Dashkevich was sentenced to 18 months in a correctional institution on a charge of heading an unregistered organization. Now Dashkevich is reportedly facing a charge of refusing to give testimony, which carries a prison sentence of up to three years. The charge stems from his refusal to testify in a case against Youth Front member Ivan Shyla (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). JM

Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko told a news conference in Kyiv on September 26 that he possesses medical evidence that his heart attack in May was due to the appearance in his blood of theophylline, a substance used for treating asthma, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Tsushko said two laboratories in Germany confirmed that samples of his blood taken immediately after his heart attack included a dose of theophylline that is lethal for most people. Tsushko said that while hospitalized in Kyiv, he was "urgently" asked for a meeting by acting Security Service head Vadym Nalyvaychenko. "I think Nalyvaychenko has nothing to do with what happened to me, but I believe he was sent to see whether I was already dead or not," Tsushko noted. Asked by journalists who sent Nalyvaychenko to him, Tsushko said, "I think Nalyvaychenko was sent to me by the Presidential Secretariat." Tsushko found himself in the epicenter of a political crisis in May, when he broke into the Prosecutor-General's Office with a group of riot police, shortly after President Viktor Yushchenko sacked Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun and sent guards to lock the office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 2007). Following that incident, Yushchenko resubordinated the Interior Ministry's riot police to himself and concluded a deal with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz on holding early elections in September (see RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). JM

President Yushchenko said on a regional television channel on September 25 that he does not rule out the possibility of nominating Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister after the September 30 parliamentary elections, Ukrainian news agencies reported. "Anything is possible. The democratic forces have a chance [to form the government], but one would like them not to waste this chance as happened 1 1/2 years ago," Yushchenko said. Tymoshenko was prime minister from February to September 2005. JM

Parliament speaker Moroz, who is also the leader of the Socialist Party, said at an election meeting in Kyiv Oblast on September 25 that his party will question the validity of the September 30 preterm elections in court regardless of their results, the "Kommersant-Ukraine" daily reported on September 26. "We will appeal to the courts. This is necessary in connection with the number of violations that occurred during the previous elections and that are committed now," Moroz said. "No matter what results our party obtains in the elections, all violations will be reported to the courts.... Our society is not ready for an election campaign that, in our opinion, will only aggravate the crisis in society," Socialist Party lawmaker Vasyl Silchenko confirmed Moroz's words the same day. JM

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ratcheted up the pressure on Serbia and the EU prior to direct talks between Belgrade and Prishtina on the future of Kosova, telling Reuters on September 24, that "there's going to be an independent Kosovo." "We're dedicated to that," she added. Rice did not indicate whether Washington would back a unilateral move by Kosova, but said, "we've told the Kosovars that we don't think a unilateral declaration of independence is a very good idea." U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said in April that the United States would do so, a position articulated again in September by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Volker (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, and September 10 and 12, 2007). Asked how she expects Kosova's final status will be determined, Rice said, "I think it will take the United States and Europe together on this." She continued, "The Europeans...know the Balkans is ultimately much closer to Europe than to the United States, and if they need a stable Balkans, they're going to have to take the tough decisions and do the right thing." AG

"The New York Times" reported on September 24 that many EU states have agreed how the EU should respond should Serbia and Kosova fail to reach an agreement, and it quoted an unnamed senior EU diplomat as saying, "the game plan is set." The EU and the United States insist that the talks should end on December 10, when mediators will submit a report to the UN. "If there is no sense then that Serbia and Kosovo can agree on the province's future, then Kosovo will make a unilateral declaration of independence," the diplomat said, adding that "the U.S. will recognize that independence and the Europeans, as far as they can remain united, will follow too." A number of EU leaders have, like the United States, said that it is inevitable that Kosova will gain independence, a stance attacked by Serbia as giving the Kosovar Albanians no incentive to negotiate. However, Serbia has found support from EU member states such as Cyprus, Greece, and Romania for its position that no solution should be imposed on Serbia, and EU foreign ministers have repeatedly stressed the importance of unity. An EU move to recognize Kosova as an independent state would also be opposed by Russia. AG

The Serbian parliament on September 24 ratified Serbia's membership of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA). The agreement, which supersedes dozens of bilateral arrangements around the region, has been ratified smoothly by seven of eight parliaments in Southeastern Europe. The exception was Bosnia-Herzegovina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8 and September 5, 2007). The other signatories to the agreement are Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, and the UN Mission in Kosova. The Serbian parliament also confirmed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, an important demand that the EU makes of would-be members. AG

Serbian police have arrested two members of the Zemun clan, a criminal gang involved in the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2007). The two men, Luka Bojovic and Veljko Banovic, are described by the Serbian media as key members of the gang. The two were arrested on September 22 after returning to Serbia from Italy and face drugs and firearms charges. As part of the operation, police raided five apartments in Belgrade and Novi Sad, seizing a large number of weapons as well as forged documents. "If one takes into account the fact that this quantity and type of arms is not regularly used, we can surmise the purpose they were intended to serve -- a silent execution," Interior Minister Dragan Jocic told reporters on September 24. The news agency Beta reported that police also want to question Bojovic and Banovic about their role in Djindjic's killing; they are thought to have helped hide the assassins. There has been speculation in the Serbian media that Banovic and Bojovic were set to kill a prominent businessman. The Zemun clan has also been active abroad -- a member of the group, Jovica Lukic, died on September 10 after an apparent intraclan shoot-out in mid-July in Bulgaria -- and uncorroborated media reports say Bojovic and Banovic may have been involved in a killing in the Netherlands. The group's influence is also thought to have extended into Serbia's judiciary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). AG

Montenegro's political parties agreed on September 25 to postpone the start of a parliamentary debate and vote on the country's draft constitution by two weeks, from October 1 to October 15. The reason is to give more time for the government and the coalition to reach an agreement. The opposition agreed on a joint platform on September 17, a move that brought together parties representing Montenegro's ethnic-Serbian, Bosnian Muslim, and Albanian communities. The opposition and the governing coalition then met for five hours of talks on September 21, and struck a positive note in a subsequent statement quoted by the news agency Mina, saying, "a basic agreement on a very large number of the issues considered was established." The talks continued on September 24 and 25, meetings that produced "further progress toward reaching a final proposed solution," according to a statement reported by the news agency Mina. The draft requires a two-thirds majority in parliament to be accepted. A national referendum will be held if parliamentary support fails to reach this threshold. There is also an ongoing debate about whether failure to achieve the necessary consensus in parliament should trigger early elections, with the opposition's platform stipulating that parliamentary elections be held within 12 months of the constitution being adopted. Discussions about the constitution began in September 2006. AG

The international community's top official in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Miroslav Lajcak, warned on September 24 that he is prepared to use his extraordinary powers to end the impasse over reform of the police forces. "If the politicians of this country fail the police-reform test, we cannot go on pretending that nothing happened," Lajcak said, adding that "we in the international community are holding very serious consultations on this." According to public television on September 24, Lajcak said, "not a single domestic politician has come up with a concrete proposal" about how to reform the police. "What have they done apart from teaching us what European principles are? The leaders of this country have to stop lecturing the international community," Lajcak said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2007). Lajcak, who took up his post in July, has been hoping to broker an agreement between the country's politicians by the end of September, but there has so far been no indication that a breakthrough is near (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31 and September 4 and 10, 2007). Lajcak has the power to sack uncooperative officials, impose sanctions on political parties, and force through laws. Asked whether he would remove Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Bosnian Serb-dominated region, the Republika Srpska, and Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnian Muslims' most senior politician, Lajcak said, "there must be consequences, serious consequences." AG

U.S. diplomat Raffi Gregorian, the second-most-senior international official in Bosnia-Herzegovina, has underscored the importance that the United States attaches to the country, saying in a September 23 interview with the daily "Dnevni avaz" that "the United States is ready to do anything necessary to save Bosnia-Herzegovina." He also appeared to throw Washington's support behind the use of extraordinary powers by the international community's High Representative Lajcak to break the current impasse over efforts to reform Bosnia's police forces. "If there is no agreement on police reform, and if the political situation continues to deteriorate, the international community will react," Gregorian warned, adding that "the United States will support unreservedly anything that the high representative might decide to do." Gregorian singled out for criticism Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik and Bosnian Muslim leader Silajdzic. "It seems to me that they have an interest in preserving the status quo," he said. AG

The head of one of Bosnia-Herzegovina's major ethnic-Croatian parties, Dragan Covic, has expressed "outrage" at a decision to dismiss three ethnic-Croatian ambassadors. The decision was made by Bosnia's three-member presidency on September 20 at, according to the daily "Dnevni avaz," the instigation of its ethnic-Croatian member, Zeljko Komsic. Komsic's spokeswoman, Irena Kljajic, has refused to comment. The three ambassadors -- who were posted to the EU, Austria, and the Vatican -- were appointed by Covic and Ivo Miro Jovic, both former members of the presidency and both members of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). Komsic represents the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Covic said the unexplained dismissal of the ambassadors, two of whom he described as career diplomats, risks dissuading Croats from entering the foreign service, while Bozo Ljubic, leader of the Croatian Democratic Community-1990 (HDZ-1990), expressed his concern that Komsic could choose members of his own party as replacements. "The diplomatic service cannot belong to a party; it has to belong to the state," Ljubic said. "If we are committed to the principles of professionalism, the dismissal of an ambassador prior to the expiration of his term has to be explained with sound arguments." AG

Macedonia's government and president have agreed that the country's ambassadors should be career diplomats. President Branko Crvenkovski initiated the move in part in response to delays in appointing ambassadors caused by political disputes. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said on September 24 that he accepted Crvenkovski's call, but in a letter sent to Crvenkovski the same day, Gruevski expressed disappointment at Crvenkovski's rejection of a number of professors and "eminent individuals...with great professional and international experience." Gruevski and Crvenkovski, who represent the two largest -- and opposed -- parties, met on September 20 in an attempt to address a range of differences and to ease their strained relations. AG

The foreign ministers of the six-member international Contact Group -- the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, France, and Russia -- are slated to discuss Kosova when they meet at the UN General Assembly on September 27. Kosovar and Serbian representatives will hold direct talks in New York the following day. Neither session is likely to produce a breakthrough because Prishtina and Belgrade hold fundamentally irreconcilable positions, while the foreigners are divided.

In the run-up to the talks, the main protagonists have been staking out their positions, albeit with differing tactics. Kosovar Albanian political leaders, who represent about 90 percent of Kosova's population, stress calmly, but firmly, that they expect to declare independence, which is the only solution their voters will accept, on or after December 10. That is the day when the members of the so-called international troika, which consists of the United States, the European Union, and Russia, will submit their report on Kosova to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. On September 19 in London, Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku said of independence that "in the end, we will do it. We will make it happen."

Belgrade's approach has been increasingly to mix its customary themes of legalistic complaints and self-pity with tough talk and threats. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has long argued that independence for Kosova would harm the cause of democracy in his country by playing into the hands of extremists. He has also repeated his long-standing assertion that independence for Kosova would automatically destabilize the Balkans, a view that Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has also reiterated in recent days

In a new twist, Kostunica said on September 15 that Serbia does not want anything to do with NATO if Kosova becomes independent with the support of the United States and the Atlantic alliance. This threat was presumably intended to put pressure on those Europeans who want to see Serbia integrated into all Euro-Atlantic structures and not just the EU. But some German and other politicians and commentators took Kostunica's words as evidence of his own political immaturity and called for Serbia to be dropped from NATO's Partnership for Peace program as long as he is prime minister.

Meanwhile, Belgrade turned down a Kosovar offer in mid-September of a postindependence bilateral friendship treaty. Serbian officials stressed that they will never accept statehood for the province, even though Belgrade has not controlled it since June 1999. Kosova's Serbian minority is subordinated in the negotiating process to a Belgrade-sponsored delegation.

For their part, the Kosovar Albanians continue to reject Serbia's long-standing offers of "the widest possible autonomy." Kosovar leaders stress that the province's future must be based on self-determination and majority rule as the final episode in the disintegration of former Yugoslavia and the latest installment of the worldwide decolonization process that followed World War II. They also argue that the Albanians want nothing to do with Serbia following Belgrade's brutal crackdown and ethnic-cleansing campaign of 1998-99, which forced tens of thousands of Kosovars to flee their homes.

Two of the international actors have also taken predictable positions. Russia remains firm in its stance that it will not agree to any solution that is not acceptable to both Belgrade and Prishtina. Moscow has thereby given Serbia a veto in status talks and ensured that no pro-independence plan will get past its own veto in the UN Security Council. This includes the plan put forward by UN envoy for Kosova Martti Ahtisaari, which calls for carefully supervised independence and which Moscow and Belgrade reject. Russian officials also repeat the Serbian argument that independence for Kosova will destabilize the Balkans. The Russians stress that independence would create a "dangerous precedent" for resolving "frozen" and other conflicts in the former Soviet space and elsewhere in the world.

The United States, like Ahtisaari and UN diplomat Kai Eide before him, argues that independence is the best way to bring stability to the region. According to this view, insecurity and a lack of clarity regarding the province's political status led to unrest in March 2004 and could lead to violence again. Those who hold this position add that the status issue must be clarified in order to attract investments necessary to create jobs and get unemployed young men in particular off the streets. On September 24, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that independence for Kosova "is the only solution that is potentially stabilizing for the Balkans rather than destabilizing.... If the [Europeans] need a stable Balkans, they're going to have to take tough decisions and do the right thing."

Some U.S. and other western Balkan experts also argue that independence for Kosova would be a boon for democracy in Serbia because it would force Kostunica and other politicians to turn their attention away from nationalist rhetoric and toward Serbia's real problems, which are poverty, crime, unemployment, corruption, a democracy deficit, and a lack of transparency in public life.

If Moscow and Washington are taking predictable positions, the internally divided, 27-member EU is another matter. Some members favor independence for Kosova, while some others do not, either because they fear it could inspire their own ethnic minorities to break away or because of their own special ties to Serbia. Britain, France, and Italy, which belong to the Contact Group, agreed to be represented in the troika by a representative of Germany, which is the fourth member of that body. He is Wolfgang Ischinger, who is currently ambassador to Britain. He was an important figure at the 1995 Dayton peace conference that brought a formal end to the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina and later represented the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Washington during the Iraq-related crisis in bilateral relations that began with Schroeder's reelection campaign in 2002.

Ischinger's position has been less easy to ascertain than those of most of the other protagonists. In August, he suggested that partition of Kosova might be a possible option as part of a settlement, only to claim later that he had been misquoted. He has repeatedly made it clear that Serbia's and Kosova's future relations with the EU will depend on the outcome of the current talks. He also echoes the Brussels line that Kosova "must be primarily a matter for the EU," as Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of that body, recently put it.

But Ischinger has distanced himself from the Ahtisaari plan, which is unusual for a German or EU diplomat in dealing with recommendations from the UN. Instead, he told the British daily "The Independent" of September 18 that "I would leave open independence. I would rather talk about strong supervised status.... The label [independence] is worth nothing. Where are [the Kosovars] going to get their income from? They would continue to rely on foreign aid." He called instead for an unspecified "status solution which will provide for an internationally supervised status for Kosovo." The implication was that the Kosovars must do as Brussels wants because Brussels will control their purse strings.

These remarks set off alarm bells in Kosova. Many Kosovars suspect that the EU is about to impose some sort of hybrid or quasi-colonial political solution on Kosova and deny the majority self-determination. Such an approach would also enable Serbia to buy time and nurse hopes of eventually retaking the province -- and settling scores. Moreover, in recent months, some West European think tanks have reportedly renewed efforts to devise creative formulas for a status that might resemble the Dayton system for Bosnia or the 2003 "Solania" formula for Serbia and Montenegro, which was designed by EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana. Most observers have come to regard the Dayton system as a stop-gap solution that has since become dysfunctional, while the state of Serbia and Montenegro barely lasted three years, despite heavy pressure from Brussels to preserve it.

British Defense Secretary Des Browne said on September 24 that the Taliban militia must be involved in Afghanistan's peace process, AFP reported the next day. Browne told delegates at the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, England, that the Taliban must be included because "they are not going away," comparing the militant group to Hamas in Palestine, which won the 2006 general legislative elections there. He added the caveat that "those who convene that [peace] process" are entitled to set parameters for the talks. Browne admitted he does not believe a legal system rooted in Judeo-Christian or Roman traditions could be established in Afghanistan, but rather it is likely "some solution that has its roots in Islamic law" will emerge. He added that Western countries may need to accept that "some route through an Islamic-based legal system" is necessary "to get to where we want to be in Afghanistan." On the expected commitments of troops in Afghanistan, Browne said Britain's involvement will last "for decades" and in some cases "generations," though not necessarily in a military role. JC

Escalating numbers of armed robberies and abductions in Herat Province are harming small businesses and raising local prices, causing widespread concern among residents there, the UN's Integrated Regional Information Network reported on September 25. Over 600 workers employed at the Aria Flour Company in Herat lost their jobs this month after the company owner was abducted, forcing the operation to shut down. Local residents said the closure of the flour mill, which supplied approximately 400 bakeries in the city of Herat, caused a spike in flour prices and subsequently disrupted the supply of the bread shops. Ziaullah Sakha, head of Herat's customs department, said the province has been hit by a $14 million reduction in income in the first four months of 2007 compared to 2006, due to the disruption in production and commerce in the area. Herat attracts thousands of Afghan returnees from Iran, the majority of whom are single men with few opportunities and are therefore susceptible to crime, says the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The provincial governor, Sayyed Hosayn Anwari, said the perpetrators are either armed thieves involved in the majority of security incidents, factions of the Taliban working to destabilize the region, or politically motivated people attempting to aggravate the security situation. Anwari cited deficient public resources -- there are only 2,700 police for over 2 million residents -- and lack of professionalism as the main obstacles to combating crime in the region. Endemic corruption also allows for criminal gangs to easily escape legal consequence, provincial officials added. JC

Intelligence operatives on September 24 seized a car packed with explosives in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar Province near the Pakistani border, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Colonel Abdul Ghafoor, the provincial police spokesman, said intelligence personnel chased the vehicle for hours just east of Jalalabad before intercepting it. Ghafoor specified that the car did not have a license plate, although he did not provide any details on the origin or make of the explosives. The explosives were intended for use in suicide attacks, presumed Ghafoor, adding that the vehicle and its contents were safely destroyed by the local provincial reconstruction team. JC

The Iranian authorities released on bail on September 24 Ali Shakeri, the last of a group of Iranian-Americans detained or prevented from leaving Iran in recent months for ill-defined but allegedly subversive activities, Radio Farda reported on September 25, citing news agency reports. Shakeri was held for 138 days, and he called his son and wife to inform them of his release on September 24. Radio Farda quoted his son Kaveh Shakeri as saying in New York that Shakeri is in Tehran with family members, though he said he did not know why his father was released or when he would leave Iran. Shakeri's family remained quiet about Shakeri's arrest until mid-September, hoping his case would be peacefully resolved, Radio Farda noted, but publicly called for his release when they concluded their discretion had not helped. Kaveh Shakeri told reporters that his father sounded weak and depressed on the phone. His family had earlier deposited bail worth around $110,000, though it remains unclear whether Ali Shakeri is allowed to leave Iran. Shakeri is a board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, which studies civic peace-building initiatives in divided societies, RFE/RL reported on September 25. He helped mobilize the votes of some Iranian residents in California for the reformist candidate, Mohammad Khatami, during the 1997 presidential election, Radio Farda added. VS

Akbar Alami, the representative for Tabriz in East Azerbaijan Province in northwestern Iran, has asked Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi to explain why the district governor of Tabriz has made the "illegal" move of banning the local Azeri language from shop windows and product labels, Radio Farda reported on September 25, citing Iranian media reports. It was not immediately clear if the ban applied merely to Tabriz or the entire province. Alami apparently asked this on September 24, though it was not clear from reports if the minister was in parliament, or if this was a parliamentary observation made in the chamber and requiring the minister's response at some point. Azeri is the language used by Iran's second-largest ethnic minority after Persians. The Tabriz district governor has reportedly issued the order in a letter to the East Azerbaijan Trade Organization. Local journalist Alireza Javanbakht told Radio Farda this is not the first directive intent on restricting the public use of Azeri. He said he saw a notice two years ago forbidding funerals to be publicized in Azeri, and added that such moves foment distrust of the central government among the ethnic-Azeri population. Legislator Alami said the directive violates the constitutional rights of Iranians, and contradicts official calls for national unity. VS

Speaking to Iranian media on September 24, Hojatoleslam Hasan Rohani defended his record as Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, and commented on his recently cancelled meeting with the EU's senior foreign-policy official, Javier Solana (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21 and 24, 2007). He said he spoke by phone to Solana on September 19 and that Solana expressed regret over the cancellation at what he termed a sensitive time for Iran's nuclear program. "You are the reason why the atmosphere has become like this," Rohani said he told Solana, presumably referring to Western powers, ISNA reported. Solana asked to be informed ahead of Rohani's next trip to Europe, Rohani said. Rohani also rejected the label of the "suspension diplomat" that some in Iran have apparently given him for his alleged readiness to submit to Western demands that Iran suspend uranium enrichment. Enrichment is a key fuel-making activity with potential military applications. Rohani said he insisted in 2003 that Iran's enrichment suspension be voluntary and temporary. He said he told German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a September 19 meeting in Berlin that if the West wants to improve the situation concerning Iran's nuclear program, it should abandon abandon threats and sanctions. He said the two discussed unspecified "solutions" to the impasse on the program. Rohani also told Steinmeier that another UN sanctions resolution would "disrupt" Iran's current collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency concerning inspections of its installations. Rohani is currently the head of the Expediency Council Strategic Research Center and the Iranian supreme leader's representative on the Supreme National Security Council. VS

The head of the Iranian armed forces joint headquarters, Hasan Firuzabadi, said in Tehran on September 25 that the armed forces are ready to respond to any attack on Iran "until full destruction," and that "our capacity for a firm military response goes 2,000 kilometers beyond our borders," Mehr news agency reported. Firuzabadi said that "our enemies are not so crazy" as to attack Iran, but should they "miscalculate and turn to mischief, they will have no escape from our shattering response." He said the country is supplying its own armaments, and "the military equipment...built in our country is so considerable and varied that it has" made it impossible for "global arrogance" to make military decisions regarding Iran. Separately, Iran's regular army chief, Ataollah Salehi, said in Tehran the same day that the militaries around the world understand Iran's deterrent capabilities, which is why Iran's enemies have not attacked it so far, Fars news agency reported. He dismissed an early September air raid by Israeli jets on Syrian targets, and said this was merely designed to make up for Israel's "humiliating defeat" in a month of strikes against the Hizballah militia in Lebanon in July 2006. VS

U.S. President George W. Bush held a brief meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on September 25 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and urged him to move forward on the national reconciliation process, international media reported the same day. At a joint press conference with al-Maliki, Bush said that passing legislation aimed at healing the bitter sectarian divide, such as an oil-revenue-sharing law and legislation reversing the de-Ba'athification process, is vitally important to Iraq's future. "The political parties in Iraq must understand the importance of getting these laws passed," Bush said. "Some politicians may be trying to block the law to gain special advantage. And these parties have got to understand that it's in the interests of Iraq to get good law passed," he added. For his part, al-Maliki confirmed that he will make every effort to foster national reconciliation. "We have made it very clear and emphasized that the future of Iraq goes through the gates of national reconciliations, of political agreements," al-Maliki said. SS

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly that Prime Minister al-Maliki raised the issue of the need to respect Iraq's sovereignty with U.S. President Bush, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on September 25. "The prime minister said that the troops operating in Iraq, together with all other forces affiliated with these troops such as [private] security firms, must respect Iraq's sovereignty and the dignity of Iraqis so that we can move toward a strategic relationship that encompasses various economic, political, and security dimensions," al-Dabbagh said. His comments were in reference to the September 16 incident when security contractors from Blackwater USA allegedly shot and killed some 11 civilians in Baghdad while escorting a U.S. diplomatic convoy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2007). The incident enraged Iraqis, many of whom contend that the contractors opened fire without any provocation. Officials from Blackwater and the United States said that the convoy came under hostile fire and the contractors returned fire in self-defense. Iraqis have long complained of Blackwater's aggressive and sometimes hostile tactics, but its contractors are not subject to Iraqi laws since Coalition Provisional Authority Order No. 17 makes them immune from prosecution. Some Iraqi officials have complained that allowing private security contractors to operate with impunity undermines Iraq's sovereignty. SS

Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani began a two-day visit to Ankara on September 25 to discuss an antiterrorism agreement with Turkish officials, KUNA reported the same day. Al-Bulani indicated that Iraq will not allow any group to use Iraqi territory to conduct attacks against Turkey, a reference to Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels based in northern Iraq. Turkish officials have long accused PKK fighters in Iraq of conducting cross-border attacks into Turkey and have called on Iraqi and U.S. forces to rein in the PKK. In addition, Ankara is expected to request an agreement with Baghdad allowing its forces to enter northern Iraq to pursue PKK fighters. It has also handed the Iraqi government a list of 150 PKK rebels that it wants Baghdad to hand over immediately. During an August 7 visit to Turkey, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki vowed to work with Ankara to end attacks on Turkey from PKK rebels in northern Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8, 2007). SS

The French Foreign Ministry has decided to open a diplomatic mission in the Kurdish regional government's (KRG) capital of Irbil, the KRG website announced on September 25. The announcement came during a three-day visit to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region by French Ambassador to Iraq Jean-Francois Girault. "We are happy to be opening this office in Irbil to strengthen our ties with the Kurdistan region of Iraq and support the KRG's ongoing development efforts," Girault said. Falah Mustafah Bakir, the head of the KRG's Foreign Relations Department, welcomed the announcement as a positive step. "The KRG is excited at the prospect of increased political, economic, and cultural ties with the French Republic. We view France's new and enhanced interaction with our country, and the Middle East more generally, as a positive step forward," Bakir said. SS

KRG Trade Minister Ra'uf Muhammad said on September 25 that the recent closure of Iranian border crossings with northern Iraq will cost the region $1 million per day in lost trade, the Kurdish daily "Aso" reported the same day. The Iranian government closed the border crossings on September 24 to protest the arrest of Iranian businessman Mahmud Farhadi by U.S. forces on September 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24, 2007). The U.S. military accused Farhadi of being an officer in the Al-Quds Force, a secretive wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who supports terrorism in Iraq. Kurdish officials contend that he is a member of an Iranian trade delegation that was in the region with the prior knowledge of both the KRG and the federal government in Baghdad. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani described the arrest as "illegal" and demanded Farhadi's release (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 25, 2007). Meanwhile, KRG spokesman Jamal Abdallah said the border closings will "be damaging for both countries." "It is not fair that we have become the victim of a decision we did not make," Abdallah said. SS

Husayn Ali Salah, chairman of the Al-Hawija municipal council, survived the fifth attempt on his life when a suicide car bomber attacked his convoy in southwestern Kirkuk on September 25, the independent Voices of Iraq news agency reported the same day. A local police official said no one was killed, but the bombing injured Salah, one of his bodyguards, and a civilian who was at the scene. The official said all the injured were immediately rushed to a nearby hospital. SS