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Newsline - October 12, 2007

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates met President Vladimir Putin on October 12 at his residence at Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow before beginning two days of "2+2" talks with their respective Russian counterparts, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9, 2007). The discussions are expected to focus on the planned U.S. missile-defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as on the Russian moratorium on the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Differing views surrounding the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is up for renewal in 2009, will also be on the agenda, as will be discussions about the Iranian nuclear program and Kosova. Putin told his guests that "the one thing on which I would like to focus attention is that, in the process of these difficult negotiations, we hope that you will not force through previous agreements with East European countries.... Both of us, one day, may decide that an antimissile defense system can be deployed on the moon. But before we get there, the possibility of reaching an agreement may be lost because you will have implemented your own plans. But our American partners' constructive disposition on continuing the dialogue is, of course, a very positive signal." PM

Secretary of State Rice responded to President Putin's remarks at Novo-Ogaryovo on October 12 by saying that she hopes the two days of talks will narrow differences, Russian and international media reported. She said that "that which unites us, in trying to deal with the threats of terrorism, of proliferation, is much greater than the issues that divide us.... [U.S. President George W. Bush previously] promised, and we are here to act upon the promise, that we would try and find ways to cooperate for the common good." On October 11, however, she noted that "we've been very clear that we need the Czech and Polish sites." When reporters asked her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on October 12 if he expected any breakthroughs in the next two days, he replied: "breaks, definitely. Through or down, I don't know." Besides their meetings with Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, Rice and Gates have scheduled a dinner with First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, whose brief includes national security issues. On October 11, the Russian daily "Vedomosti" warned that no European missile-defense system will be effective without Russian participation. The paper suggested that Washington's real aim in pursuing its current missile-defense strategy "is to weaken Russia's nuclear arsenals and gain a strategic advantage." The daily "Gazeta" wrote that "the Rice-Gates visit will be the last attempt to salvage the idea of U.S.-Russian missile-defense cooperation." The daily "Kommersant" noted on October 10 that Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana), who is the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee's senior Republican, believes that the talks are a "last chance for progress in Russian-American relations" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9, 2007). Meanwhile in Washington on October 11, the U.S. Army commander in Europe, General David McKiernan, called on the Defense Department to keep U.S. troop levels on the continent at some 40,000 soldiers, news agencies reported. He spoke of a "resurgent Russia" and warned against plans to cut the number of U.S. troops in Europe to 28,000. He said the United States needs four combat brigades, or about 40,000 troops, in Europe to train allies and be ready to rapidly deploy to Afghanistan, Iraq, or other zones of conflict. PM

Leaders or envoys from 10 East European countries concluded a two-day energy conference in Vilnius on October 11 by expressing concern over Russia's use of energy supplies as a political weapon, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10 and 11, 2007). Czech Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra said that "unjust manipulation or interruption of energy supplies is as much a security threat as is military action.... Post-Soviet countries have been experiencing that on a daily basis, as Russia's appetite for using energy as a political weapon is growing." He warned against a split between those EU member states that are concluding separate deals with Russia and those that seek alternative energy sources. The conference participants called for "reliable and diverse energy flows into the European Union" by promoting cooperation between Europe, the United States, and the countries of the Caspian and Black Sea regions to bring energy from Central Asia and the South Caucasus to Europe." Polish President Lech Kaczynski said in criticizing the Russian-German Nord Stream pipeline project under the Baltic Sea that "neither Lithuania nor Poland has ever tried to use the energy transit 'weapon.' Today Russia is a country which uses energy for its personal gains." At the conference, Poland and Lithuania failed to agree on a project linking their respective power grids, but Kaczynski said he expects a deal within days. On October 11 in Warsaw, Intelligence Services Coordinator Zbigniew Wassermann told a news conference that "Russia is taking steps to rebuild its imperial position using energy resources to achieve this goal. The Polish government is trying to prevent this on various levels." Such measures include protecting Polish refineries from a possible "hostile" Russian takeover. PM

A delegation of the Myanmar Air Force headed by Lieutenant General Myint Hlaing arrived in Russia on October 11, Interfax reported. A Russian Air Force spokesman said that "the delegation will meet with representatives of the Russian Air Forces Command and high-ranking representatives of military and industrial organizations. It will visit the Air and Space Defense Academy in Tver and the Sokol research and development institute in Kazan." At the UN in New York on October 11, Russia and especially China for the first time ended their opposition to any Security Council moves against Myanmar and voted for a nonbinding statement criticizing the military-run government's recent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2007). The statement also called for a "genuine dialogue" between the regime and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the release of "all political prisoners and remaining detainees." PM

On October 11, the State Duma approved a bill on its first reading to set up a state nuclear corporation named Rosatom, which will be based on the current Federal Nuclear Power Agency, which is also known as Rosatom, and RIA Novosti reported. President Putin introduced the bill on October 4. The new firm will include the current Atomenergoprom company and all civilian and military nuclear facilities and installations. Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the current Rosatom, said that the new firm will place great weight on security and safety matters and help prevent nuclear waste from being brought into Russia from abroad. The move is in keeping with Putin's policy of consolidating "strategic" industries into state-run conglomerates, or "verticals," which some critics dub a "corporate state." PM

The State Duma on October 11 passed in their first reading amendments to the law on referendums that were put forward by three Unified Russia deputies, "Kommersant" and other Russian media reported on October 12. Under the amendments, referendums relating to issues that "come under the exclusive competence of organs of state authority" would be banned, meaning that the public would not be able to express its opinions about issues such as the budget, taxation, the protection of civil rights, war and peace, or foreign affairs. The law comes in response to a demand from the Constitutional Court that the law be clarified. In 2005, the Communist Party tried to initiate a referendum and 15 of the 17 questions they proposed were rejected by the Central Election Commission on the grounds that they touched on the budget in one way or another. Experts see the amendments as a codification of the Central Election Commission's interpretation of the law. Legal expert Vadim Prokhorov told RBK that "it is very difficult to come up with a question that does not touch on an area of competence of the state organs, particularly since the organs of state authority are being granted greater and greater authority." RC

The independent NGO Legal Team has issued a statement saying that Russians have virtually lost their right to hold public protests, "Kommersant" reported on October 12. The statement studied all the main public protest actions across the country during 2007 and concluded that virtually all of them were either banned or dispersed by the authorities. The government has managed to associate protest in the public mind with violence and arrests, the statement says. Legal Team analyst Dmitry Makarov told the daily that Russia's law on demonstrations is "one of the most liberal in Europe," but its implementation is "far from European standards." The statement also found that the penalties for participating in demonstrations are going up. Last year, most of those detained were given administrative fines, while this year, a growing number are receiving sentences of up to 15 days in jail. RC

The State Duma on October 11 accepted the resignation of former Chechen Prime Minister Sergei Abramov from his post as an auditor with the Audit Chamber, "Izvestia" reported on October 12. Abramov submitted his resignation after several of his subordinates were arrested last month on corruption charges. Communist Duma Deputy Anatoly Lokot said accepting the resignation amounted to "removing the official without holding him accountable," while Unified Russia Deputy Nikolai Gonchar said the move "should be an example for all bureaucrats." Abramov said that he hopes to return to work "in the conflict zones." RC

Russia's political parties have been quick to try to reap political advantage from recent State Statistics Agency figures showing that inflation has risen faster than expected, Russian media reported. The Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) has scheduled for October 12 a demonstration in a Moscow supermarket that is part of a chain owned by Unified Russia supporter Vladimir Gruzdev, reported on October 11. "Since demonstrations and pickets have been banned, the SPS has developed a new technology of civic protest," SPS campaign chief Anton Bakov told the website. "We are moving to protest actions in stores and on public transport." Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky on October 10 gave a press conference in Moscow on the theme of rising prices, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Yavlinsky presented the results of research by the party in several Russian regions that indicate that prices for basic goods have increased even more than official figures indicate. Yavlinsky attributed the increases "not to collusion among individual sellers, but between political monopolists and economic monopolists." He added that inflation has been exacerbated by deteriorating relations between Russia and neighbors such as Poland, Georgia, and Ukraine. Furthermore, Yavlinsky said the increases are partially driven by increased corruption and bribe taking, which are driving up costs of business. He said bribe taking is on the rise because politicians are uncertain of their future as the election season proceeds and are trying to get maximum benefits while they can. RC

President Putin on October 11 held a meeting of the State Council in the Bashkortostan capital Ufa that was attended by every one of Russia's regional leaders, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and other Russian media reported. Putin noted the official statistics indicating that prices are rising and ordered that pensions be increased by 300 rubles beginning December 1, one day before the State Duma elections. Putin said the during the ceremony marking his arrival in Ufa, one of the performers managed to complain to him "several times" that pensions are too low. Putin attributed the price rises for foodstuffs to the effects on the agricultural sector of Russia's increasing integration into the global economy. In an interview with Radio Mayak the same day, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said the president's order is difficult but will be obeyed. RC

The European Court of Human Rights on October 11 awarded damages of 3,000 euros ($4,250) to Yevgenia Krasyuchenko, a pensioner from Voronezh who did not receive her pension in 1998-99, reported on October 12. The court also awarded the state to pay her $140 in pension arrears and $40 in legal fees. The payments must be made within three months. Krasyuchenko won a similar verdict in a Russian court in 2005, but the court's order for payment has been ignored. According to Russia's representative at the Strasbourg court, about half of the approximately 12,000 Russian cases that have been filed with the court involve similar claims of nonpayment of pensions. RC

SPS political council member Boris Nemtsov on October 11 arrived in Rostov-na-Donu for a book presentation and a meeting with voters, reported the next day. According to the website, the book presentation was overwhelmed by a large number of Unified Russia youth activists carrying placards and chanting. One protester was dressed as Uncle Sam, handing out "dollars" from Nemtsov's "overseas protectors." The website also reported that the venue for Nemtsov's meeting with voters, a local theater, was locked when he arrived and the owner refused to open it. Nemtsov was forced to talk to local residents on the street. RC

Citing the authority of a recent decree issued by separatist Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Doku Umarov, parliament Chairman Zhalauddin Saralyapov asserted on October 10 that the Chechen parliament would no longer be subordinate to the Chechen rebel "State Defense Committee," according to the Russian-language Chechenpress website. The presidential decree, issued on October 3, effectively said that the "parliament's subordination to the committee impeded (the) fulfillment of its duties." The decision also removes the speaker as a participating member of the State Defense Committee." RG

After meeting with senior Armenian officials, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg concluded on October 11 a five-day fact-finding mission in Armenia focused on a preliminary assessment of the human-rights situation in the country, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo reported. In comments following a meeting with Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Hammarberg said that he saw some shortcomings in Armenian legislation and called on the Armenian authorities to ensure that the implementation of the country's amended constitution and new judicial reforms would help "to promote an effective and fair judiciary." The fact-finding visit to Armenia was in preparation for the drafting of a report on the human-rights situation that the commissioner is to submit to the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers early next year. The commissioner also met with several high-profile prisoners, including two prominent Karabakh war veterans, Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian, arrested in December 2006 and charged with publicly calling for the violent overthrow of the Armenian leadership, and opposition newspaper editor Arman Babadjanian, who was found guilty of evading compulsory two-year military service and was sentenced in September 2006 to a four-year prison term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27 and September 5 and 11, 2006). RG

In the latest sign of new-found activity, former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian on October 11 reportedly visited Nagorno-Karabakh and met with the recently elected Karabakh leaders, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. According to opposition activist Nikol Pashinian, one of the leaders of the Aylentrank (Alternative) public-political initiative, the "main goal" of the former president's visit to Nagorno-Karabakh was "to congratulate" Bako Sahakian, the recently-elected president of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20 and September 10, 2007). The visit is the latest in a series of regional meetings throughout the country and represents a dramatically new activism by the formerly reclusive 62-year-old Ter-Petrossian, who only last month made his first pubic speech in almost a decade (see "Armenia: Former President Lambastes 'Criminal Regime,'" September 24, 2007, The former president is widely believed to be at least considering a return to politics, with his supporters urging him to stand as an opposition candidate in the country's February 2008 presidential election. RG

In an address at the opening of a session of the Armenian parliament, speaker Tigran Torosian hailed on October 11 the recent passage of a resolution commemorating the "Armenian Genocide" by a key committee of the U.S. Congress, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The measure is now likely to be sent on to a vote in the House of Representatives, where a majority has already signed on to the resolution. A parallel measure is in the Senate pipeline. Torosian expressed gratitude to the American congressmen for showing "high moral qualities" and withstanding "various pressures," referring to an intense lobbying effort by both Turkey and the Bush Administration opposing the measure. Former justice minister and current parliamentarian Davit Harutiunian also welcomed the vote but said that the resolution was unlikely to bring about any "essential change" to Armenian-Turkish relations, adding that it was his "conviction" that "Turkey would itself recognize the genocide in the next 10 or 15 years." After the vote was welcomed by President Kocharian on October 10 during an official visit to Brussels, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that he thinks both Turkey and Armenia should now "make real steps toward reconciliation," Mediamax reported. Kocharian stressed that "the recognition of historical injustice can not harm bilateral relations" and referring to a possible reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey, explained that "the simplest formula would be the start of a dialogue without preconditions." The resolution, adopted on October 10 by the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, formally defined the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide. RG

Reacting to the vote on a resolution recognizing the "Armenian Genocide" by a committee in the U.S. Congress, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Hazar Ibragim criticized on October 11 the move as a result of "personal interests of [the] Armenian lobby, instead of U.S. national interests," Turan reported. The head of Azerbaijan's state-affiliated Caucasian Muslim Religious Department, Allakhshukur Pashazade, called the decision a "mistake" and warned that it "will negatively affect [the] U.S. image not only in Turkey, but also in the whole Islamic world." He added that Turkey "could take serious measures against the U.S." and urged "all Muslim countries to voice protest" over the vote. RG

Meeting in Almaty, the leaders of four Kazakh opposition parties on October 11 called for the resignation of the government over its failure to resolve the recent prices increase for bread and other basic foodstuffs, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The opposition leaders, representing the National Social Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, the Auyl (Village) party, and the two separate Kazakh communist parties, were joined by members of the unregistered Alga (Forward) party and the Pokoleniye pensioners' group. National Social Democratic Party leader Bulat Abilov explained that the call for the government to resign stems from the difficulties caused by the rising prices, but added that "all problems are directly connected with the political system." He said the fact that the price rise has "not been resolved over a long period of time" demonstrates that the government is incompetent and "not professional." Abilov also demanded "the dissolution of this parliament, which cannot propose anything" to solve the problem. The leaders of the communist parties also proposed an increase in wages and "financial aid for the needy." The leader of the National Social Democratic Party, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, recently called for demonstrations in protest against the price increases, while the country's largest trade union also recently threatened to demand the government's resignation if it fails to alleviate the crisis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1 and 10, 2007). RG

Speaking to a cabinet session in Astana on October 11, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev strongly asserted that the country's "economy is on a firm footing and there are no crises or dangerous phenomena in the country," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The president also dismissed opposition calls for the government's resignation and the dissolution of parliament, arguing that the economy continues to expand and his government is capable of overcoming any challenges. RG

The Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB) has announced the conclusion of a large counterterrorism exercise on October 10 in Almaty, Kazakhstan Today reported. The exercise included over 1,500 participants from the KNB, special police units, and emergency-service rapid-response personnel, and involved several simulated terrorism drills, including a hostage-taking scenario. The drill also featured an extensive rehearsal of specific counterterrorism tactics and operational measures. One part of the exercise was staged on a local university campus with a group of students taking part. RG

Over 500 participants at a party conference of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces on October 10 resolved to broaden the party's campaign against the government's proposed constitutional amendments by calling on people to vote against the upcoming constitutional referendum, AKIpress reported. At the meeting in the town of Karabalta in the northern Kyrgyz region of Chuy, party leaders Temir Sariev and Kubatbek Baibolov urged citizens to show their "civil engagement" by participating in the October 21 referendum, but urged them to vote against the amendments, asserting that "the version of the constitution proposed by the president contains huge shortcomings and gross legal violations." Sariev, a lawmaker, recently warned that Kyrgyzstan faces a shortage of wheat over the next two months, and that "if the government does not take any decisive measures, the situation will become extremely difficult" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 2, 2007). Conference delegates on October 10 adopted a resolution stating that the country is facing "a very difficult sociopolitical and socioeconomic situation," and argued that "the mistaken policy of the current authorities has caused all the negative processes taking place in our country." The statement went on to cite rising inflation and increasing poverty, adding that these trends are only likely to worsen. RG

A court in the Soghd region of Tajikistan on October 11 handed down prison sentences ranging between 13 and 29 years for 14 men convicted of terrorism and membership in the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Avesta and AP reported. After a five-month trial that ended on October 10, the men were convicted for their role in attacks on guard posts along the Tajik-Kyrgyz border in 2006. Three female members of the IMU were also convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison each. The convicts were arrested in November 2006 in northern Tajikistan, near the Uzbek border. RG

Belarusian police on October 11 arrested more opposition activists ahead of the opposition European March for Freedom, scheduled to take place in Minsk on October 14, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Police apprehended Pavel Nazdra in Mazyr, Yury Bakur and Inha Abramava in Brest, Vasil Siliverst in Yelsk, and Nikita Sasim and Pavel Yukhnevich in Minsk. Police officers routinely charge detainees on the eve of major opposition protests with "petty hooliganism," which covers the use of obscene language or other unseemly behavior in public place. Bakur and Abramava on October 12 were jailed for 10 and five days, respectively, on charges of using obscenities in a public place. On October 11, a court in Hrodna fined Anzhelika Borys some $215 and jailed Ihar Bantser and Mikola Lemyanouski for 10 and five days, respectively, finding the three guilty of publicly using foul language (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2007). Borys and Bantser are activists of the officially unrecognized Union of Poles in Belarus. Meanwhile, Vasil Palyakou and Uladzimir Katsora, who were jailed for seven days each on charges of using obscene language in Homel earlier this week, have gone on a hunger strike in jail (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2007). JM

The European Integration Council (REI), established by former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, held its first meeting in Minsk on October 10, Belapan reported on October 11. Milinkevich told journalists on October 11 that the REI is a group of experts united around European values. The REI comprises some 30 people, including Milinkevich as its chairman, Tatsyana Protska, Valyantsin Akudovich, Ales Antsipenka, Lyudmila Hraznova, Mikhail Zaleski, Ivan Nikitchanka, and Ales Mikhalevich. Participants in the meeting decided that the REI will serve as a forum for the discussion and development of a strategy of Belarus's integration into Europe. Milinkevich said the council will campaign to inform the public about Europe and its integration; provide training both in Belarus and abroad to show opposition activists what present-day Europe is like and how to implement European programs in Belarus; analyze the situation in the country and devise strategies for the development of Belarusian society; and support national culture. JM

The Supreme Court on October 11 upheld a Justice Ministry suit filed to close down the opposition Women's Party Hope, Belapan reported. The ministry filed the liquidation suit last month, accusing the party of failure to correct violations after receiving warnings and bring the operation of its local chapters into line with regulations. The Justice Ministry has already suspended the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists on similar grounds for six months and issued warnings to six other parties. JM

Speaking to journalists in Bratislava on October 11, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko suggested that the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc are able to form a new government in Ukraine following the September 30 elections, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. "The winners of the election are the Orange team; they have grounds to form a majority and nominate their candidate for prime minister," Interfax-Ukraine quoted Yushchenko as saying. Yushchenko added that he already knows the name of the next prime minister, but didn't reveal who it will be. He also noted that the ruling coalition will be officially formed only after the Central Election Commission publicizes official election results, which he said will take place on October 16 or 17. JM

President Yushchenko's administration on October 11 accused Russia of using a recent gas-debt dispute to influence Ukrainian politics, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Russia's Gazprom said last week that Ukraine owes more than $1.3 billion for gas supplies, and threatened to cut back supplies if the debt is not paid this month. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov later put the figure at $2 billion. "We regard it as a certain political pressure on Ukraine in this complicated moment of forming a new government in our state, as well as the preparation of a springboard for talks about our relations in 2008 concerning gas prices for Ukraine and Ukrainian services to Gazprom," deputy presidential chief of staff Oleksandr Shlapak told journalists in Kyiv on October 11. JM

The UN Mission in Kosova has banned a Serbian militia group, the St. Tsar Lazar Guard, from holding a rally on October 14. Organizations "of a paramilitary nature and that intend violence and [to stoke] ethnic tensions have no place in Kosovo," UN spokeswoman Myriam Dessables was quoted by local media as saying. The group had planned to gather in Mitrovica, one of the most volatile sites in Kosova. The UN's announcement on October 10 was widely expected, given the group's violently nationalist character and the UN's decision to prevent a similar gathering in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27, 28, and 29, 2007). The St. Tsar Lazar Guard has vowed to take up arms to prevent Kosova from gaining independence from Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30 and May 7, 2007). Its statements have repeatedly been cited by Kosovar Albanian radicals in justification of their willingness to fight for independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5 and 11, 2007). Despite assurances by NATO-led forces that the security situation within Kosova is stable and under control, there continues to be widespread fear that violence will return to Kosova and the region whatever the outcome of the ongoing bilateral talks between Belgrade and Prishtina. On a related note, the evacuation of the UN's Prishtina headquarters on October 10 after the discovery of a suspected bomb proved to be a false alarm, police have reported. AG

A broadcasting transmitter in the southern Serbian region of Sandzak was firebombed on October 10 in a crime widely seen as an extension of a dispute within the region's Muslim community. A police investigation has yet to produce any results, but the attack on the Regionalna TV installation follows attacks on two other local media sites. In both instances, there appeared to be a direct link to a power struggle between rival factions in the Muslim community's leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2007). AG

Sandzak's two rival Muslim factions both held rallies in the region's largest town, Novi Pazar, on October 11. Both passed without incident. Meanwhile, in Belgrade, the head of the Islamic Community of Serbia held a ceremony recognizing Adem Zilkic as Sandzak's religious leader, a move rejected by Muamer Zukorlic, whom Zilkic and his supporters say they removed from the post on October 3. Zilkic also assumed the executive leadership of Serbia's entire Muslim community as the incumbent, Hamdija Jusufspahic, is retiring. Jusufspahic will, however, remain the community's honorary leader for life, local media reported. Sandzak is home to over 80 percent of Serbia's 150,000 Bosnian Muslims. AG

A mass grave near the town of Srebrenica contains the remains of 221 people believed to have been Bosnian Muslims killed in July 1995 by ethnic-Serbian troops, the head of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Commission for Missing People told reporters on October 11. Murat Hurtic said that the excavation of the grave at Zeleni Jadar, which began in mid-September, yielded only 30 or so whole skeletons. That discovery suggests the site is a secondary grave into which bodies were moved from their original burial place, a practice adopted to obscure the traces of crimes against local communities. The investigators believe the bodies were Bosnian Muslims killed in Bratunac and originally buried near Glogova. AG

The governor of Montenegro's national bank, Ljubisa Krgovic, has said it is "absolutely impossible" that Montenegro would give up the euro as its national currency, Montenegrin media reported on October 10. Krgovic's statement on October 9 followed a report in Britain's "Financial Times" that the European Commission intends to criticize Montenegro's adoption of the euro. While critical of Montenegro's "unilateral euroization," Brussels reportedly will not call for Montenegro to abandon the euro, which it adopted in 2002 while still part of the same state as Serbia. AG

Predrag Kujundzic, the leader of an ethnic-Serbian militia group during Bosnia-Herzegovina's civil war, was arrested on October 10 in the Bosnian Serb-populated town of Doboj in northern Bosnia. Kujundzic is suspected of crimes against ethnic Croats and Bosnian Muslims in 1992 and 1993 in the same region. Kujundzic is also suspected of aiding the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader, Radovan Karadzic, to evade justice. Kujundzic's group, known as "Predini vukovi" (Predo's Wolves), a name derived from his own, was attached to the Bosnian Serb army near Doboj and was mentioned in the indictment brought against the late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. AG

Ukraine has reached an agreement on its outstanding debt to Gazprom, clearing the air ahead of negotiations on gas supplies for 2008 and mollifying wary European consumers. But behind the turbid deal stands one outstanding question -- how was such a large debt accrued in the first place?

After the Russian energy giant Gazprom threatened earlier this month to cut off natural gas to Ukraine unless it received $1.3 billion for past supplies, Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked that "the large debt was totally unexpected."

An astonished Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told reporters in Kyiv, "It can't be true that the debt is as high as [Gazprom] says it is." And Ukrainian Deputy Energy Minister Vadym Chuprun did his best to describe a complicated situation in which Ukraine is not responsible for the debts, saying that the many suppliers, owners, and operators involved in supplying Russian-controlled gas to Ukraine had to "settle their accounts first, and when the amount drops we'll see whose debt it is and whose fault it is."

The lack of awareness was difficult to fathom, considering that one of the companies deemed responsible for accruing the debt, the Swiss-based company RosUkrEnergo, has three powerful members of Gazprom's management committee on its board.

Even more befuddling was the fact that when the smoke cleared and the numbers of the debt-payment agreement were crunched, the combined debt by all debtors was $2.2 billion.

The debt was purportedly incurred by two companies -- RosUkrEnergo and UkrGasEnergo (UGE), a Ukrainian-registered joint venture between RosUkrEnergo and Ukraine's state-owned Naftohaz Ukrayiny.

Much of the disagreement centered on ownership of natural gas stored in underground facilities in Ukraine. When Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko on October 9 signed an agreement with Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller to pay off the debt by November 1, it was decided that 8.5 billion cubic meters of gas belonging to RosUkrEnergo, worth $1.2 billion, would be turned over to GazpromEksport. The remainder of the debt, $929 million, would be paid by UkrGazEnergo and Naftohaz Ukrayiny from their own funds, in cash.

The full text of the signed agreement has not been published and has yet even to be seen by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, raising fears that it will forever remain hidden from public scrutiny.

Perhaps this should not be surprising, considering the opaqueness of the system under which Ukraine receives Russian-controlled gas.

The middleman Swiss company RosUkrEnergo was created in July 2004 by Russian President Putin along with former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Other key players in the deal were Yuriy Boyko, the current Ukrainian energy minister who in 2004 headed Naftohaz Ukrayiny; Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian businessman with no affiliation to the Ukrainian government; and Gazprom CEO Miller. RosUkrEnergo was essentially formed to replace the discredited Budapest-based EuralTransGas, which was later exposed in the Western press as being a creation of Gazprom and Firtash.

Gazprom presently owns 50 percent of RosUkrEnergo while Firtash and his partner, Ivan Fursin, a banker from Odesa, own the rest through a company called Centragas, which in turn is owned by the secretive Mabofi Holdings in Cyprus.

Medvedev, the deputy head of Gazprom's management committee, sits on RosUkrEnergo's board, as does Valeriy Golubev, who is in charge of Gazprom's sales to CIS countries. And Konstantin Chuichenko, the head of Gazprom's legal division, serves as co-director of RosUkrEnergo.

According to the January 2006 agreement signed between Ukraine and Russia, RosUkrEnergo -- at Gazprom's insistence -- was brought in to be the monopoly supplier of Central Asian and Russian gas to Ukraine.

The agreement stipulated that RosUkrEnergo would purchase a "basket" of Central Asian and Russian gas from GazpromEksport at $95 per 1,000 cubic meters. The total volume of gas purchased by RosUkrEnergo, according to the agreement, was 73 billion cubic meters (bcm) -- about 20 bcm more than Ukraine consumed when Ukrainian production of 20 bcm is taken into account.

The extra 20 bcm was the commission Naftohaz Ukrayiny paid to RosUkrEnergo for its services. RosUkrEnergo in turn sold this gas in Europe to, among others, Emfesz KFT, a Hungarian-based company controlled by Firtash. Emfesz then resold part of the gas to Poland -- undercutting Gazprom's price -- and sold the rest on the Hungarian domestic market.

However, in mid-2007, sources in the Russian gas industry reported that Firtash's companies had accrued a debt to RosUkrEnergo of more than $2 billion. It appears Gazprom become wary of Firtash's ability to repay the debt and decided to rein him in, but had little leverage over the maverick businessman who seemingly maintained a close working relationship with Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's administration in Kyiv and, above all, with Boyko and Yanukovych's chief of staff, Serhiy Levochkin.

Considering the complexity of the gas-transit arrangement and the internal dealings, it appears that the October 9 debt deal is just a temporary solution to a recurring problem. And one can expect that the 8 bcm of gas returned to GazpromEksport will be used as leverage over the new Ukrainian government as negotiations for Gazprom supplies to Ukraine in 2008 kick off this month.

"The Washington Post" reported on October 11 that the U.S. Marine Corps last week proposed shifting its entire force from Iraq to Afghanistan in a bid to replace the army as the lead U.S. force there. Citing senior military and Pentagon officials, "The Washington Post" reported that the proposal was submitted to Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week in anticipation of a gradual withdrawal of troops from Iraq's western Al-Anbar Governorate. The plan would entail withdrawing all 25,000 Marines from Iraq, where a total of 169,000 U.S. troops are serving, and transferring them to Afghanistan. There are currently no Marines serving among the 26,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where U.S. forces make up the largest contingent of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). According to "The Washington Post," Marine Corps officers who have previously served in Iraq are enthusiastic about the plan, which would allow the military branch to remove itself from an increasingly unpopular war and focus its efforts on supporting the major U.S. counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan. Senior military officials, including Gates, have not commented on the plan. JC

Afghan authorities on October 9 shut down two private Afghan-run security companies and announced the upcoming closure of 10 others on suspicions of murder and robbery, AP reported. General Ali Shah Paktiawal of the Kabul police department said authorities closed down the security companies Watan and Caps due to the discovery of 82 illegal weapons during two raids on the firms' premises in Kabul. "There are some companies whose work permits have expired, and there are some companies that have illegal weapons with them," Paktiawal said. The government does not want such companies operating in Afghanistan, regardless of whether they are Afghan or international, he added. A Western security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 10 other private firms are slated for closure in the near future, including some major Western companies, although he did not name them. The Afghan government has criticized security companies for lack of accountability, using coercion, and failing to cooperate with and show respect for local security forces. Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, which is charged with managing the country's police and domestic security, said approximately 10,000 private security guards operate in Kabul alone, but the official quoted by AP said the ministry knows little about who the guards are. JC

The Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga) on October 11 urged Iran to delay the expulsion of thousands of Afghan refugees until the end of winter, citing Afghanistan's lack of resources to provide for the returnees, Reuters reported. In an open letter published by state media, the Council of Elders called on Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to step in and stop the deportations. Despite pleas from the Afghan government and international humanitarian organizations, Iran intends to deport approximately 200,000 Afghans considered to be illegal migrants. Some 1.8 million Afghans currently live in Iran, but Tehran claims that over half have entered the country illegally, and has already expelled some 260,000 refugees. The United Nations supports a slow repatriation process, saying it will take years for Afghanistan, a country struggling to maintain basic services and necessities, to be able to support the returnees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23 and September 18, 2007). Iran is second only to Pakistan in its number of Afghan refugees. JC

After being held hostage for nearly three months in Afghanistan, German national Rudolf Blechschmidt left for home on October 11, a day after he was released by his Taliban captors, dpa reported. Blechschmidt, a 62-year-old engineer, spent a night at the German Embassy in Kabul undergoing medical examinations before departing. He was one of two Germans and six Afghans kidnapped in July while visiting a construction site in central Wardak Province. The other German hostage was shot dead, and one Afghan is thought to have escaped three days after being kidnapped (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3, 2007). Blechschmidt spent nearly three months in a dark, cold room in the mountains as his captors demanded the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan. The militants released two videos in which Blechschmidt pleaded with the German and Afghan governments to negotiate the hostages' freedom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24 and October 10, 2007). Four staff members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which played an integral role in securing the release of 21 South Korean hostages in August, were themselves abducted and subsequently released while trying to free Blechschmidt and his colleagues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1, 2007). Officials said Blechschmidt and the five Afghans were handed over to authorities in Wardak Province in exchange for the release of four detained militants, including the father of the Taliban leader who masterminded the kidnappings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2007). JC

Iranian diplomats and a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on October 11 ended three days of talks in Tehran focused on the P1 and P2 centrifuges used in the nuclear fuel-making cycle, Radio Farda reported, citing news agencies. Iran uses P1 models but has shown a documented interest in acquiring P2 centrifuges, which are more advanced and used to make highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium, and the IAEA has sought to find out what Iran's intentions are (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2007). Iran agreed in late August to answer IAEA questions on its nuclear program. Iranian negotiator Javad Vaidi expressed satisfaction at this round of talks and said specialists will continue discussions in the coming days. AP quoted him as saying that Iran has answered the IAEA's questions regarding centrifuges. The IAEA is to present its governing board with a report on Iran's cooperation in November. ISNA reported that IAEA governing board members will receive the informal results of the Tehran talks in late October or early November. VS

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on October 11 that Iran is "lying" about the aims of its nuclear program and deceiving UN inspectors, AP reported. Speaking in Shannon, Ireland, en route to Moscow, Rice said Iran has a "history of obfuscation and, indeed, lying to the IAEA," adding that it is likely "pursuing nuclear technologies that can lead to nuclear weapons-grade material." Western states will decide in late November, after considering the next IAEA report on Iran, whether or not to impose another set of punitive economic sanctions intended to curb Iran's nuclear program. Iran's ambassador in Paris, Ali Ahani, told Radio France Internationale on October 10 that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful, and "will always remain non-military," adding that the 5+1 powers -- the permanent UN Security Council members and Germany -- must give the IAEA time to resolve questions surrounding Iran's program. He said France's recent "haste" in pushing for intensified sanctions on Iran was surprising, even to its European allies. He said Iran agrees its program should be transparent. "We are entirely determined in this regard, and will continue talks with the [IAEA]. We agree to any controls and inspections from the agency," he told RFI. VS

Ali Shakeri, an Iranian-American detained in Iran for four months on subversion-related charges and released in late September, returned on October 9 to his home in California, Radio Farda reported on October 11, citing Shakeri's comments to "The Washington Post" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26 and 27, 2007). He told the daily that his passport was returned to him on October 7. He added that he feels obliged to face trial for the charges, as he had to put up his brother's house, worth about $110,000, for bail to secure his release, and it would be confiscated if he does not return. Shakeri went to Iran on March 8 to visit his dying mother, but was arrested at the Tehran airport days later when he sought to leave after her funeral, Radio Farda reported. He told "The Washington Post" that he was not been mistreated in Tehran's Evin prison, but was kept in solitary confinement in Section 209, the wing for security-related and political prisoners. He was one of several Iranian-Americans detained or prevented from leaving Iran in recent months for allegedly subversive or antigovernment activities. VS

Dozens of activists in Paris protested against the death penalty on October 10 and staged a mock hanging from a crane to protest the use of the death penalty in Iran, "Le Monde" reported on October 11. The protest marking the fifth World Day Against the Death Penalty was organized by various nongovernmental bodies, including Reporters Without Borders. Rights monitors claim Iran has executed 210 people since January 2007, most of them armed criminals or drug traffickers, but some have been executed for other offenses. The daily reported that two Iranian Kurds, Adnan Hasanpur and Abdulvahed Butimar, were sentenced to death for alleged spying or collaboration with antigovernment guerrillas in July. They were apparently in prison when the sentences were passed, and read about the death sentences in the prison journal, reported on October 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 30, 2007). Iran continues to sentence minors to death, in spite of signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1975 and 1994, stated on October 11. VS

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Ankara on October 12 that Turkey is prepared to endure international criticism if it launches a military incursion into northern Iraq to rout Turkish-Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Reuters reported. The cost of such a move "has already been calculated. Whatever the cost is, it will be met," Erdogan said. The government is expected to seek parliamentary support for a military incursion next week, following the Eid Al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. U.S. General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, expressed concern over a possible incursion, saying it may harm the flow of supplies into Iraq from Turkey, AP reported on October 11. "A lot of our supplies come through Turkey... To maintain that commercial exchange is hugely important through the border crossing at Habur Gate. And we hope that will continue," Petraeus said. KR

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said in a report published on October 11 that widespread human rights abuses continue in Iraq. The 11th quarterly report, which covers the period from April 1 to June 30, noted that indiscriminate violence and the targeting of civilians in public places "foment fears of further decent into chaos and loss of any semblance of state control." The agency reported that "targeted assassinations, abductions for ransom or other motives, and extrajudicial killings continued to be reported on a regular basis." Among the prime targets for such attacks are media and legal professionals. UNAMI reported that it has been "unable to persuade" the Iraqi government to release casualty figures for the reporting period compiled by the Health Ministry and other institutions. The report said the government has failed to provide sufficient and durable solutions to the mass displacement crisis. As a result, "many Iraqis continue to seek ways to flee the country, an increasingly risky and challenging exercise in the face of both deteriorating security and increasing restrictions on entry into neighboring countries," the report noted. KR

UNAMI cited continuing reports of detainee torture and abuse at the hands of Iraqi prison officials, and observed that Iraq's judiciary remains ill-equipped to process the number of detainee files. However, the report commended measures adopted this year by Multinational Forces toward improving the due-process rights of detainees. UNAMI reported that the Iraqi government, the Kurdistan regional government, and the U.S. Embassy all criticized the agency over its previous report, the 10th quarterly assessment of the human rights situation in Iraq. The Iraqi criticisms "were largely based on objections to the tone of the reporting rather than its substance," while the U.S. Embassy said the last report "demonstrated numerous inaccuracies and blurred distinctions" resulting in a "skewed and inaccurate picture," UNAMI noted. "UNAMI welcomes responses received from officials to its human rights activities, including its public reporting, and believes that constructive dialogue can only assist in the fulfillment of objectives in this field," the report stated. KR

Three home-grown insurgent groups and their factions have announced the establishment of a so-called Political Council for Resistance, Al-Jazeera television reported on October 11. The council includes brigades from the Islamic Front for Iraqi Resistance (JAMI), the Islamic Resistance Movement or Hamas-Iraq, and the Jihad and Reform Front. The last group is a relatively new front comprising several well-known insurgent groups: the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Al-Mujahidin Army, the Al-Fatihin Army, and the Shari'a Council of the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army. The newly formed council said in a video-recorded statement that its political program calls for resistance to occupation, which it defines as "an act of injustice and aggression" which is "rejected by shari'a law." The council said the "armed resistance" should be viewed as the legitimate representative of Iraq. Al-Jazeera later interviewed the Islamic Army in Iraq's spokesman, Ibrahim al-Shammari, who said the council was formed to "meet the requirements of the fifth year of the ongoing jihad." He claimed the leaders of the jihad have noted statements by U.S. commanders and Defense Secretary Robert Gates implying the military's difficult position and fatigue in Iraq, and indicated that the political council may be uniting armed insurgent groups ahead of possible talks with the United States for a negotiated settlement to the insurgency. KR