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Newsline - October 22, 2007

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Belgorod on October 19 that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently "made a number of interesting suggestions that we're looking at more closely," Interfax reported. He added that Russia wants the United States to put in writing the proposals that the two made orally. On October 18, President Vladimir Putin suggested that Washington indeed seeks to ease Moscow's concerns on unspecified matters affecting bilateral relations. The "International Herald Tribune" reported on October 20 and the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on October 22 that the United States offered a package of proposals to resolve its differences with Russia. Those issues include the proposed U.S. missile-defense project with sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, the Russian moratorium on the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the Iranian nuclear program, and the final status of Kosova. The U.S. offer on missile defense reportedly includes three points. The first is that Washington and Moscow would agree jointly whether a sufficient threat from a third state -- presumably Iran -- exists in order to activate a missile-defense system. The second point calls for integrating the Russian radar site at Qabala (Gabala) in Azerbaijan into the U.S. missile-defense system. The third reportedly involves stationing Russian monitors at the U.S. sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, if Warsaw and Prague agree. Russian authorities previously argued that Iran poses no threat that would justify constructing a missile-defense system. They also said that their offer to share facilities at Qabala is an alternative to the proposed system, not a supplement to it. Putin said on September 14 that if Western countries want to talk with Russia about Kosova or Iran, then each of these topics should be discussed specifically and individually (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14 and October 15, 17, and 19, 2007). The Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on October 19 that "Putin's adamant stand on missile-defense elements in Europe is already having an impact. The Americans say they may reconsider their options as soon as Iran stops enriching uranium. Should it ever succeed in persuading Tehran of the need for sound cooperation with the international community, Moscow would take a giant step towards being recognized as a global center of power." PM

A U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman said in Chicago on October 19 that Russia plans to ban products from "dozens" of U.S. meat plants and cold-storage facilities, which were inspected during the summer, "The Moscow Times" reported on October 22. Share prices of several leading U.S. meat companies dropped after the official spoke. Some U.S. experts suggested that the ban will be temporary and that U.S. firms can continue to export to Russia from other plants. Russia is reportedly the largest overseas buyer of U.S. chicken. PM

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin told a meeting of Group of Seven (G7) finance ministers in Washington on October 19 that Russia will not accept restrictions advocated by unspecified G7 countries on how it invests its oil wealth abroad, "The Moscow Times" reported on October 22. He argued that "sovereign wealth funds should be subject to the general rules of the free movement of capital. We do not want there to be any such restrictions." Starting in 2008, Russia plans to invest in foreign stocks around $20 billion from its $140 billion Stabilization Fund within the National Welfare Fund. Russian officials say they are interested in portfolio investments, not strategic ones. Concerns have been raised in the United States and Europe that Russia could target its investments for political purposes. PM

Vasily Likhachev, who is deputy chairman of the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, said in Moscow on October 22 that the victory of Donald Tusk's Civic Platform in Poland's October 21 parliamentary elections will significantly improve Warsaw's relations with both Brussels and Moscow, Interfax reported. Likhachev argued that an improvement in Polish-Russian political and economic relations will benefit "the entire European continent in general." But Sergei Markov, who heads the Institute for Political Studies and has close Kremlin ties, said in Moscow on October 22 that Tusk's victory over outgoing Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Law and Justice party is of primary importance to Berlin and Brussels, but only of secondary interest to Moscow and Washington, Interfax reported. Markov argued that, if anything, Poland might now acquire more EU support in its "confrontation" with Russia over missile defense and in its efforts aimed at reducing Russian influence in former Soviet republics, "primarily Ukraine and Belarus." Markov stressed that "the Polish political community is anti-Russian." The government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on October 22 quoted Tusk as stressing the primacy of Poland's relationship with the United States for its security. PM

A direct cross-Baltic cargo-ferry link began operation on October 18 between the port of Baltiisk in Kaliningrad Oblast and the German port of Sassnitz, dpa reported. The long-delayed connection enables railroad cars to be transported via a roll-on-roll-off vessel that will bypass Poland. The Soviet Union and the former East Germany set up a similar direct ferry link between Mukran near Sassnitz and Klaipeda in Lithuania to avoid crossing Polish territory during the 1980s, when the Solidarity trade union was in its heyday. PM

Anatoly Kucherena, who is a Public Chamber deputy and a lawyer, said in Moscow on October 19 that Russia plans to set up a committee based in Brussels or Germany to monitor Western observance of human rights, Reuters reported. He said that "in recent years, there has been a lot of criticism linked to human-rights violations in Russia. But...these things happen in other countries too. Imagine if Russia, or Russian human-rights activists, were to prepare about, for example, the state of human rights in France? What would happen?" It was a classic Soviet response to Western criticism of Moscow's human-rights policies to point out real or alleged Western failings on similar scores, such as in race relations in the United States or Britain. PM

President Putin on October 20 signed a decree creating a State Antinarcotics Committee, to be headed by Federal Antinarcotics Service Director Viktor Cherkesov, Russian media reported. Media speculated that the move is intended to raise Cherkesov's status to match that of Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev, who heads a similar State Antiterrorism Committee. Patrushev is among the 28 high-level government officials named to sit on the new committee. In recent weeks, the Russian media have been full of speculation about a turf war between Cherkesov and Patrushev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19, 2007). "Gazeta" noted that the deputy chairman of the new committee is presidential aide Aleksandr Beglov, who is in charge of the administration's property office, the same post that Putin himself held in President Boris Yeltsin's administration. An unnamed Kremlin source told the newspaper that it is likely that Patrushev will soon be named Security Council secretary and that Cherkesov will take over for him as head of the FSB. RC

Since President Putin announced on October 1 that he will head the Unified Russia party list for the December Duma elections, governors have been working to figure out what percentage of the vote the pro-Kremlin party should receive, "Argumenty nedeli," No. 42, reported. The weekly said a consensus is evolving that Unified Russia must pick up at least the same percentage that Putin himself polled in the last presidential election -- 71 percent. Unified Russia is currently polling about 55 percent. An unidentified Kremlin source said the Kremlin is pressuring governors for higher figures in order "to force them to actively help the party and guarantee its result." In an interview posted by RFE/RL's Russian Service on October 19, Levada Center analyst Boris Dubin said the "Putin effect" has not increased the public's interest in the elections. However, it has taken away support from all of the other parties and helped many undecided voters to make up their minds. Fellow Levada Center analyst Lev Gudkov told RFE/RL that the new Duma will comprise a huge majority interested in maintaining the status quo and a small Communist opposition advocating a return to the past. RC

State Duma Deputy Yevgeny Roizman, who formerly headed the Sverdlovsk Oblast branch of the A Just Russia party, has announced that he will leave the party, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on October 19. Roizman told RFE/RL he is leaving because he was not included in A Just Russia's regional party list. He claimed that he was excluded because the party's local rating was too high -- 22.8 percent, he claimed -- and threatened Unified Russia's standing. Roizman added that the exodus of senior A Just Russia members is taking place because the election campaign is showing how limited the party's independence is. "When it all began, it was in earnest," Roizman said. "People believed. But when all these Kremlin games began, suddenly they understood that decisions are not made within the party and that somewhere other people are running things and dictating." RC

"Vedomosti" reported on October 22 that only some governors will be given permission to use the image of President Putin during the upcoming Duma election campaign. According to the daily, only 27 of the 65 regional heads who are on the Unified Russia party list have been given permission to use Putin's image. Moscow has already reportedly prepared a campaign linking the president with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov under the slogan "Putin's Plan is Luzhkov's Course." Citing several sources, the daily reported that in order to receive permission, a governor must either have a high popularity rating or Unified Russia must have picked up at least 40 percent of the vote in the most recent regional elections. A press spokeswoman for St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko confirmed that Matviyenko has applied for and received permission to use Putin's image. The daily reported that unpopular Kurgan Oblast Governor Oleg Bogomolov has been denied permission to display Putin's face alongside his own. A source close to Nizhny Novgorod Governor Valery Shantsev told the daily that governors have been told not to emphasize local issues or achievements in the coming campaign, but to focus all attention on "Putin's Plan." RC

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has complained that Russia is hindering its efforts to monitor the December State Duma elections, reported on October 22. The OSCE said that, although the organization normally begins sending monitors six weeks before a vote, the Russian government has not yet formally invited the OSCE team. Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov, speaking to European Union ambassadors on October 19, stressed that monitors will be allowed. "Russia attaches great significance to matters of the openness and transparency of the electoral process," Churov said. Central Election Commission member Igor Boris told the website that "some representatives of the OSCE are paying excessively intense attention to elections in the Russian Federation." He added that the OSCE has sent observers to many countries just a month before elections. Borisov added that the delay in inviting the monitors is due to the difficulties of writing a government decree on their work, and that talks are being held "with various state agencies in order to organize the work of the observers as effectively as possible and to ensure their security." In 2003, the OSCE concluded that "the campaign process was characterized by the widespread use of administrative resources and favoritism in the media toward the largest pro-presidential party, which produced apathy among voters." RC

In a statement posted on October 22 on the Chechen resistance website, Akhmed Zakayev, the London-based foreign minister of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI), claimed that the Russian authorities plan to infiltrate the entourage of ChRI President and resistance leader Doku Umarov and persuade him to declare himself emir of a North Caucasus emirate and to declare war on the entire world in the name of the region's Muslims. Zakayev suggested that the rationale behind those plans is to give the Kremlin free rein to deploy more forces to the North Caucasus under the pretext of fighting Al-Qaeda in order to deal the death blow to the independent ChRI and to continue its "genocide" of the region's peoples, "who are ever more actively defending their national and religious rights." To that extent, Zakayev continued, Umarov's proclamation of a North Caucasus emirate would serve the same purpose as did the declaration in August 1999 of an independent Islamic state in Daghestan in triggering a new war in Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 11, 1999). Zakayev further claimed that Moscow has allocated $500 million to implement "Operation Emirate," and that Russian intelligence operatives have met in an unnamed third country with Chechen representatives to secure their cooperation. In early 2006, Zakayev similarly took issue with Chechen ideologues, including former Information Minister Movladi Udugov, who advocated the proclamation of a North Caucasus caliphate (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 10, 2006). On that occasion too, Zakayev accused his ideological opponents of being in cahoots with the Kremlin, and specifically of having plotted the ill-fated invasion of Daghestan in the summer of 1999 that furnished Russia with the pretext for a new incursion into Chechnya. On October 19, the website, which Udugov controls, posted a statement under the pseudonym of Abu Khattab ad-Dagestani of the Daghestan Shariat jamaat calling on all resistance fighters in the Caucasus to pledge obedience to their amir. The statement was headed by a photo of Umarov but did not explicitly identify him as amir. LF

Unidentified gunmen opened fire late on October 19 on a group of young Ingush men on the street in the village of Chermen in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion, killing one of them and injuring two others, one of whom subsequently died, reported. The gunmen escaped. Some 900 people gathered for the funeral of the two victims. In a statement posted on October 21 on, the Coordinating Council of NGOs of the Republic of Ingushetia noted that the shooting coincided with the 15th anniversary of the start of the Ossetian-Ingush bloodshed in 1992. It appealed to the Russian leadership to condemn, and take measures to end, the "passivity" of the North Ossetian leadership toward the ongoing reprisals against Ingush in North Ossetia, and to enact security measures to protect Ingush in Prigorodny Raion. LF

In an October 19 interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Hasmik Navasardian expressed regret that the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) founded by her late husband Ashot Navasardian in 1989 has changed beyond recognition since his death in November 1997 and is now "a government structure." Established to campaign for Armenia's independence from the USSR and for the restoration of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, the HHK played a marginal role in Armenian politics until it was taken over after Navasardian's death by then-Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian. The HHK subsequently won the parliamentary elections of 1999, 2003, and 2007; one of its original members, Andranik Markarian, served as prime minister from 1999 until his death in March 2007. It has since become the de facto support base of Markarian's successor as prime minister, Serzh Sarkisian, who is regarded as the front-runner to succeed incumbent President Robert Kocharian in the presidential ballot due in early 2008. Hasmik Navasardian confirmed media reports of tensions within the HHK between long-standing members and newcomers whose primary loyalty is to Sarkisian. She warned that she would vehemently protest any attempt by the HHK to rig the presidential ballot in Sarkisian's favor. LF

Confirming repeated allegations by international human-rights organizations, Vilayet Eyvazov told a press conference in Baku on October 19 that police do on occasion resort to torture when interrogating suspects, and reported on October 19 and 20, respectively. He said that on average some 100 police officers are disciplined every year for exceeding their authority, but at the same time he denied that the incidence of torture by police is increasing. On October 22, quoted Elcin Behbutov, head of the Azerbaijani Committee Against Torture, as saying his organization has monitored the situation in police detention facilities in 15 raions and established that the use of beatings and torture continues. Meanwhile, Alizade Huseynov has been dismissed as head of the notorious Qobustan (Gobustan) prison for unspecified "errors," and reported on October 20. Over 80 prisoners serving life sentences at Qobustan have launched repeated protests in recent years to demand those sentences be commuted to a maximum of 15 years' imprisonment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8, 2005, July 24, 2006, and April 17, June 26, July 3, and August 20, 2007). LF

Azerbaijan's Military Court for Serious Crimes on October 22 sentenced Lieutenant Colonel Rasim Muradov to eight years' imprisonment on charges of soliciting bribes, reported. Muradov was arrested in July and charged with repeatedly soliciting bribes from conscripts while serving from 2002-05 as chairman of the commission responsible for induction into the armed forces. Speaking in court on September 27, the first day of his trial, Muradov affirmed his innocence and alleged that the charge against him was fabricated in retaliation for his public revelations of financial irregularities within the Azerbaijani battalion currently serving as part of the international peacekeeping force in Iraq forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 19, 25, and 26, and October 1, 2007). LF

Georgian and Russian delegations resumed talks in Geneva on October 19 on the terms for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), Caucasus Press reported. Russian chief negotiator Maksim Medvedkov subsequently described the talks as "constructive." The Georgian Foreign Ministry reaffirmed in a statement last month that Tbilisi will stop blocking Russia's WTO accession bid only when Russia meets its primary condition of legalizing and ensuring the proper functioning of two illegal customs checkpoints on the border between the Russian Federation and Georgia's breakaway unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2005, February 22, 2006, and January 19, June 26, and September 10, 2007). LF

Several thousand people turned out on October 20 in Kutaisi, Georgia's second-largest city, for a protest rally organized by the United National Council, the coalition of 10 opposition parties created following the arrest of former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, Caucasus Press reported (see "Does Former Georgian Minister's Arrest Mark A Political Watershed?", October 4, 2007). Also on October 20, leading representatives of the council met in Tbilisi with Peter Semneby, the EU special representative for the South Caucasus, to discuss the domestic political situation. LF

Between 2,000-3,000 protesters gathered in Almaty on October 20 to rally against the recent increase in the prices of foodstuffs and other basic staples, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Participants in the opposition rally, which local officials permitted, called on government to grant new compensation to the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population and demanded an increase in the level of both the minimum wage and the lowest pension to at least 30,000 tenges (almost $250) per month. The protesters warned that if these key demands are not met, they will hold further demonstrations seeking the resignation of the government. Addressing the rally, opposition National Social Democratic Party leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbai also called on the government to introduce "a state monopoly on bread production" and to impose a new "state regulation of prices for energy resources." The rally follows a similar, but much smaller, opposition demonstration in the northern town of Kostanai organized by the local branches of the opposition National Social Democratic Party, the People's Communist Party, and Pokolenie, a group that lobbies on behalf of pensioners (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 13, 2007). RG

In an announcement in Almaty, a leading member of the opposition Adilet (Justice) party, Maksut Narikbaev, announced on October 20 an end to the party's alliance with the Ak Zhol (Bright Path) party, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Adilet's decision to end the alliance was adopted during the fifth party congress in Almaty, which also elected Kuanysh Zhapakov and Amandyk Kulakhmet as co-chairmen of the party. The two opposition parties first entered into a tactical alliance prior to the August parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 2007). Another opposition alliance, consisting of the National Social Democratic Party and the Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) party, broke up earlier in the month, with each side promising to "work independently" against the government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2007). RG

After a round of talks in Astana, official stakeholders in the international consortium developing the offshore Kashagan oil field announced on October 20 that Kazakhstan will receive a greater share in the project, according to the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency. The Italian-led Agip consortium reached "an agreement in principle" to grant an unspecified number of additional shares in the project to Kazakhstan's KazMunaiGaz state energy company. The KazMunaiGaz group currently holds 8.33 percent of the Kashagan consortium. In the wake of mounting tension between the Kazakh government and the consortium following the consortium's decision to push back the start of production at the oil field from 2008 to late 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 22, 2007), Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev agreed on October 8 to not revise the contract with the Italian energy company Eni (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9, 2007). In August, the government suspended work at Kashagan for three months due to alleged violations of environmental-protection laws, as well as repeated delays and cost overruns by Eni (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2007). The projected total cost for developing the oil field has more than doubled from initial estimates of $57 billion to $136 billion. The Kashagan field holds between 7 billion and 9 billion tons of proven reserves, making it the largest oil field discovered in the last three decades and the fourth- or fifth-largest deposit in the world. RG

An unnamed regional head of the Environmental Protection Ministry in the East Kazakhstan region was arrested on October 19 on "suspicion of bribery," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to a press release issued in Astana by the National Security Committee, the regional official was arrested in his office while receiving a $20,000 bribe. RG

The Kyrgyz Central Election Commission announced on October 22 that based on preliminary results, an estimated 75 percent of Kyrgyzstan's 2.7 million voters on October 21 endorsed a set of government-draft constitutional amendments in a national referendum, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The commission added that almost 76 percent of voters approved separate legislative amendments raising the number of deputies and changing the election process from a single-constituency system to a proportional all-party list and increasing the number of parliamentary seats from the current 75 to 90, in an attempt to more equally balance power between the executive and legislative branches of government. The passage of the referendum is expected to trigger new parliamentary elections (see below). Although the Central Election Commission is not expected to release final results of the referendum until October 23, it said that it is confident that the minimum 50 percent threshold required for the referendum to be officially recognized as legal was met, Kyrgyz television reported. About 130 international observers and more than 10,000 local observers were registered to monitor the vote held at 2,190 polling stations throughout the country, Kabar reported. RG

After the government's set of proposed constitutional amendments were approved in a national referendum, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev issued a decree on October 22 formally dissolving parliament, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Bakiev is also expected to announce early elections once the referendum is officially declared valid on October 23. RG

The Green Party held a small demonstration on October 19 in Bishkek to protest the sharp rise in prices for food and basic commodities, according to AKIpress and the website. Green Party leader Erkin Bulekbaev claimed that "with our actions, we forced the country's authorities to work, which is why an extraordinary government session under the president's leadership was held" to study measures to reduce prices. He further warned that "if food prices do not go down in the nearest future, our party reserves the right to a nationwide rally." Local police arrested two demonstrators during the rally and, according to Bulekbaev, were "detaining people heading [for Bishkek] to participate in the rally at the entrances to the city." Although the demonstration included only about 20 Green Party activists, Bulekbaev blamed the small number on the closure of all roads leading to the Alatoo central square. RG

A formal extradition request submitted by the Kyrgyz authorities was denied on October 19 by the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office, ITAR-TASS reported. The extradition request sought the return from Moscow of Aidar Akaev, the son of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, who fled the country following the downfall of his father in March 2005. Reacting to the news in a press conference in Bishkek, an official of the Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office, Uchkun Karimov, expressed disappointment with the decision and noted that the younger Akaev faces a number of outstanding criminal charges in five separate cases. Aidar's eldest sister, Bermet Akaeva, the only family member to remain in the country, was released only last month from house arrest after criminal charges of obstruction of justice, contempt of court, and creating "mass public disorder" were dropped (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7 and September 18, 2007). RG

Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov told journalists in Minsk on October 19 that Russia will consider the possibility of building a second line of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline running across Belarus, Belapan reported. Zubkov was in Minsk to take part in a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart, Syarhey Sidorski, within the framework of the Belarusian-Russian Union State. Sidorski noted that during the construction of the first line of the Yamal-Europe pipeline, pump stations and other necessary facilities were built for two pipelines. According to Sidorski, the second pipeline would cost between $2.5 billion and $3 billion. Speaking to a group of Russian journalists in Minsk earlier this month, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka suggested that Russia should abandon the idea of building a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea and instead double the capacity of the Yamal-Europe pipeline by building a second, parallel pipeline. To prompt a positive response from Moscow, Lukashenka offered free gas transit through Belarus for the following five years. The existing Yamal-Europe pipeline has an annual capacity of 33 billion cubic meters of gas. Gazprom sends 20 percent of its gas deliveries to Europe via Belarus. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on October 22 called on countries in the Council of Southeast European Defense Ministers to support Ukraine's bid to join the NATO Membership Action Plan, Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko was speaking at a meeting of the defense ministers' council in Kyiv. The council, created in 1996 at Washington's initiative, comprises Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Italy, Slovenia, the United States, Ukraine, Romania, Turkey, and Croatia. Moldova, Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Montenegro have observer status in the grouping. Meanwhile, the Party of Regions led by Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych announced on October 19 that it has collected 5 million signatures in support of a referendum to ask Ukrainians whether their country should avoid participating in any military bloc. A referendum called on popular initiative must be supported by at least 3 million signatures, among other requirements. Such a referendum initiative has to be approved by the president. The referendum will also ask whether Russian should have official-language status and whether voters want to directly elect the heads of oblast and raion administrations. JM

The Higher Administrative Court on October 21 requested that the Prosecutor-General's Office check the validity of the Socialist Party's allegations that the Central Election Commission (TsVK) violated the law in announcing the official results of the September 30 parliamentary elections on October 15, Ukrainian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2007). On October 18, the Socialist Party asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to open a criminal case against the TsVK, which it claimed committed a number of violations while tallying the September 30 vote. The petition to the Higher Administrative Court to order a vote recount was sent last week by five parties participating in the elections, including the Communist Party and the Socialist Party. JM

According to a 14-point list of conclusions reached by international mediators in talks on the future of Kosova, "Belgrade will not reestablish a physical presence in Kosovo." The document, which was obtained by AP, is intended to "open a path to a solution" through direct talks. The next round of negotiations will be held on October 22 in Vienna. The document does not include any conclusion about sovereignty, the key issue for Serbs. One of its conclusions is that Kosova should be able to establish independent relations with international financial institutions, which would play a critical part in the contested region's economic regeneration. AP's report, published on October 21, says the mediators do not mention foreign policy. There are three mediators, representing the European Union, the United States, and Russia. Belgrade has offered Kosova "95 percent" autonomy, including the right to forge its own ties with international financiers. Prishtina is insisting that the talks should focus not on Kosova's status but on its postindependence relationship with Serbia. It has suggested regulating ties with Belgrade through a friendship treaty. AG

An incendiary device -- "probably" a Molotov cocktail -- was thrown at an Orthodox church in Kosova on October 19, a spokesman for Kosova's police force, Ismet Hashimi, told the local media. The Serbian broadcaster B92 reported on October 19 that some Serbian sources say two Molotov cocktails were lobbed at the church. On October 19, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told a conference organized by the UN's Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that sites of cultural importance to Serbs are frequently attacked by Kosovars. Four Serbian sites in the disputed region are on UNESCO's list of cultural treasures. "Over 150 other Serb churches and monasteries have been destroyed over the past eight years, including the 35 [churches and monasteries] which were destroyed during the March pogrom of Serbs in the province in 2004," the news agency FoNet quoted Jeremic as saying. "In Kosovo, as everywhere else in the world, it must not be allowed that peace be built on the ashes of destroyed cultural heritage," he added. AG

Roughly 5,000 ethnic Albanians gathered on October 19 in the western Macedonian town of Tetevo to show their support for the Kosovar Albanians' campaign for independence. One of the key messages of the rally was the demonstrators' opposition to any partition of Kosova. "We think it will have a domino effect in Macedonia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia," Imer Aliu, a senior ethnic-Albanian leader and government minister, told the media. Both Serbia and Kosova officially oppose the notion of partition, but the lack of progress toward a resolution of Kosova's status has fueled speculation that the Serbian-populated north could eventually be separated from the rest of Kosova. The rally was organized by the Macedonian governing coalition's two ethnic-Albanian parties, the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh) and the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD). According to the news agency Makfax, the PDSh's leader, Menduh Thaci, told the crowd that they were voicing a protest "against all those who seek to destabilize and divide Kosova, thus hampering Macedonia's entry into NATO." Macedonia hopes to secure an invitation to join the alliance when NATO leaders meet in April 2008. The issues were similarly twinned by Abdylhadi Vejseli, the leader of the PPD, similarly said, "I pray to God to give wisdom to those who oppose this rally and prevent them from hampering our efforts to achieve the goals of independence for Kosova and entry into NATO for Macedonia," Makfax reported. Tetevo was one of the centers of the separatist conflict waged by ethnic-Albanian Macedonians in 2001. AG

Serbian police have arrested four members of a paramilitary group suspected of war crimes committed against Kosovar Albanians. The men are accused of shooting 14 civilians, mainly women and children, in the northern Kosovar town of Podujevo in March 1999, local and international media reported, citing Serbia's war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic. The men were named as Dragan Borojevic, Zeljko Djukic, Dragan Medic, and Miodrag Solaja. All the arrests were reportedly made on October 19 in Sremska Mitrovica, a town northwest of Belgrade. The group they belonged to, the Scorpions, was particularly feared in the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosova, and gained particular notoriety after footage showing its members killing Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. The video proved critical to the conviction, this April, of four Scorpions for their involvement in the Srebrenica massacre. One member of the unit, Sasa Cvjetan, was given a 20-year sentence in December 2005 for killing 20 Albanians and wounding five children in Podujevo. Another Scorpion arrested in connection with the slaughter at Podujevo, Dejan Demirovic, was released in April for lack of evidence. AG

Miroslav Lajcak, the Slovak diplomat charged with overseeing Bosnia-Herzegovina's postwar recovery, on October 19 announced measures to halt the deliberate obstruction of legislation passing through the cabinet and parliament. To win approval in the federal parliament or government, legislation will now only need a quorum of deputies or ministers physically present rather than a quorum of the full parliament or cabinet, local and international media reported. To date, it has been common practice for ministers and deputies simply not to attend key sessions. "The praxis of delay and creating complications through pure absence has to stop," Lajcak told reporters. He set a December 1 deadline to approve his proposal, warning that if parliament does not adopt the measures he will impose them using the extensive powers invested in him by the international community. Lajcak made it clear that this is just one symptom of a broader problem in Bosnia's political system. "We can all see that Bosnia-Herzegovina is not functioning right, not functioning as a healthy, normal state," AP quoted him as saying. "Because agreements cannot be made and solutions found, the work of the institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina is blocked. Decisions are not made, laws are not adopted," Lajcak continued, adding that only three reform-related laws have been adopted in the past year and only one related to the EU. In his October 19 press conference, Lajcak said, "the only people who can feel endangered by this are those who believe that they have the right to undermine the functioning of this country." AG

The Bosnian Serbs' most powerful politician, Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, attacked Lajcak's initiative, telling Bosnian reporters that the measures are unconstitutional and "will not be accepted in the Republika Srpska," one of the country's two autonomous entities. The news agency SRNA quoted him as saying, "this is the worst possible day for Bosnia-Herzegovina and future relations within it." Dodik warned that the measures open the way to legislation backed only by a minority, and that that would threaten the vital interests of the country's various ethnic groups. "This [was] the day when confidence was lost in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the good intentions of the international community, especially in High Representative Miroslav Lajcak," Dodik said. "We cannot allow such a centralization of Bosnia-Herzegovina," AP quoted Dodik as saying, in a reference to Lajcak's threat to use his extraordinary powers. According to Republika Srpska's public radio service, Dodik depicted Lajcak's decision as a "concession" to "political circles from Sarajevo," the federal capital but also chiefly Muslim-populated. Lajcak's move was also attacked by the head of the federal government, Nikola Spiric, a Bosnian Serb, SRNA reported on October 20. Dodik earlier, on October 18, warned that Serbian officials would resign their positions in federal institutions if Lajcak were to use his right to dismiss officials, the newspaper "Dnevni avaz" reported. By contrast, TV Hayat reported on October 20 that Lajcak's initiative was welcomed by the head of the country's three-member presidency, the Croat Zeljko Komsic. "I think that the decision is good, but I expect him not to stop at this," Komsic said, adding that Lajcak's initiative to unblock the work of the state government "was included in the April [2006] constitutional amendments package, which was accepted by Mr. Dodik." AG

Seventeen months after Montenegrins voted for independence from Serbia, Montenegro's parliament has agreed on a constitution for the country. A two-thirds majority was needed, and in the end 55 of the assembly's 76 members -- 72 percent, or four votes more than needed -- voted in favor of a constitution that, critically, defines Montenegro as a state of citizens. Montenegro's Serbian parties wanted it to be defined as a state of nations, a wish that critics saw as an attempt to lay the grounds for secession. They and a number of other, chiefly ethnic-minority parties opposed the draft constitution's stance on issues of identity, such as official languages and state symbols. However, in the end, the opposition Movement for Change, the Liberal Party, and parties representing Montenegro's Bosnian Muslim and Croatian minorities backed the governing coalition. Those who remained opposed to the new constitution included three ethnic-Albanian parties and, numerically more importantly, ethnic-Serbian parties. The new constitution defines the country's state language as Montenegrin, not Serbian, and replaces the colors of the Yugoslav flag -- red, white, and blue -- with an eagle on a red backdrop. The passage of what the parliament's speaker, Radko Krivokapic, described as a "modern," "European" constitution concludes discussions on one of the issues that has most divided Montenegro since it declared independence in June 2006. Krivokapic told national television on October 19 that "whatever was demanded by some others for their support for the constitution were requests that were unacceptable -- on language, on symbols, on citizenship. None of this was acceptable for the state of Montenegro to remain a state." AG

The adoption of Montenegro's constitution amounts to spitting on the Orthodox Church in Montenegro, the daily "Dan" on October 20 quoted Metropolitan Amfilohije as saying. "Everything else is allowed but there can be no name of the Orthodox Church there," Amfilohije said, referring to the constitution. "For 2,000 years this church had its name and today they call it a religious community. What does a religious community mean? Today the Montenegrin parliament is determined to deprive the church of its name, to turn it into some abstract religious community, to erase the church of Christ, of St. Sava, and the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral that gave birth to Montenegro." Amfilohije heads the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, which is locked in a dispute over property and history with the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which sees itself as Montenegro's historical church and as a bearer of Montenegrins' national identity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13 and 16, and September 20, 2007). The government has not publicly come down on any side, but the Serbian Orthodox Church accuses it of backing the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, one of several Orthodox Churches in the region that have not been recognized by the broader Orthodox world. The relationship of Serbian Orthodox believers with the state has also been strained recently by the government's decision to bar entry to a bishop accused of aiding Serbian war-crimes suspects (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 13, 2007). It has since softened its position, allowing him entry under close supervision (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and 10, 2007). AG

The latest in a series of cross-party talks about judicial reform in Macedonia ended on October 19 with no sign of a breakthrough. Judicial reform is a key demand both by NATO and by the EU. Macedonia hopes it will in April secure an invitation to join NATO, and become a candidate member of the EU in 2008. Radmila Sekerinska, the head of the largest opposition party, the Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM), described an agreement as being "practically impossible to reach," the news service Balkan Insight reported. The bone of contention covered most prominently in recent coverage relates to the appointment of public prosecutors, but a broad range of issues are under discussion. Roundtable talks resumed in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007). Macedonia's progress -- both generally and with regard to judicial reform -- has repeatedly been criticized by EU officials this year, failings that are expected to be reiterated when the European Commission issues a progress report in November. AG

Nearly three in five Greeks believe their government should veto Macedonia's bids to join NATO and the EU if it continues to insist on using its current constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia. The poll, which was published by the Greek daily "Eleftheros Typos" on October 20 and conducted by Metron Analysis, showed 58.3 percent in favor of a veto and just 6.3 percent who said Macedonia should be allowed to use the name it has chosen. Another 30.2 percent back a compromise. Greeks object to the use of the word "Macedonia," in part for historical reasons and in part because of fears that the Macedonian government entertains irredentist ambitions to claim the Greek province of the same name. The Greek government has repeatedly threatened to exercise its veto, most recently on October 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9, 2007). As well as bedeviling Macedonia's strategic ambitions, the dispute continues to hamper numerous less significant aspects of the two countries' ties. For example, according to AP and local media reports, 133 young Macedonian athletes on October 19 walked out of the Southeastern European Youth Games in northern Greece in protest at the organizers' decision to describe them as representatives of "FYROM," the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the name Greece uses to refer to Macedonia. AG

NATO Secretary-General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer warned Albanians that it is still not certain that NATO leaders will invite Albania to join the alliance in April 2008, the target date for Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia. "The invitation tickets are not punched yet; further reform is necessary," de Hoop Scheffer said after meeting with Albanian President Bamir Topi on October 19 in Brussels. "A lot of work will still have to be done and no guarantees can be given," international news agencies quoted him as saying. He highlighted the judiciary and the political system as areas in need of reform. "I guarantee that we will deepen the reforms of the justice and electoral systems, and focus attention on the fight against organized crime and corruption," Topi responded. Albania is contributing troops to NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, a fact that de Hoop Scheffer praised. He also described Albania as a "moderating voice" in the Balkans. Albania is strongly supportive of independence for Kosova and has been liaising frequently with Macedonia, which has a large ethnic-Albanian minority, in an effort to ensure stability in the region. Albania's population is also very strongly in favor of NATO. In a speech given in Brussels on October 18, Topi said that "94 percent of the Albanians support Euro-Atlantic integration," the news agency ATA reported. AP quoted unnamed NATO officials as saying it is also still unclear whether Macedonia will be invited to join. Albania is currently hosting its largest-ever NATO exercises. AG

Now that President Viktor Yushchenko has confirmed that he wants the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense (NUNS) bloc to form a ruling coalition, the two Orange Revolution allies may have a second chance to deliver on the promises they solemnly made in 2004 and disappointingly failed to meet.

But while Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko have already shown some public signs of unity -- most recently in Lisbon on October 18, where both espoused the virtues of European values during a congress of the European People's Party -- the question remains as to whether they have overcome their past differences sufficiently to run a new government.

After Yushchenko backed the pairing on October 17, Tymoshenko and Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, a leader of the pro-Yushchenko NUNS, presented the coalition deal they initialed on October 15. The entire 105-page document was subsequently published on the Internet.

The most important provisions of the deal state that Tymoshenko is to be proposed as prime minister, while the NUNS bloc will nominate a candidate for the post of parliament speaker. Cabinet portfolios are to be distributed on a 50-50 basis between the two blocs.

The deal makes room for a third "democratically oriented" participant in the coalition, although it does not mention it by name. It does, however, clearly stipulate that neither the Party of Regions nor the Communist Party can be considered as a potential coalition partner, thus narrowing the field to only the Lytvyn Bloc, which has 20 lawmakers in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada.

The overwhelming feeling of deja vu that Ukraine observers may experience upon hearing such news is quite understandable. A similar, if somewhat shorter, coalition document was preliminarily signed by the BYuT and Our Ukraine immediately after the March 2006 elections. At that time, the desired third coalition partner was the Socialist Party, which failed to win parliamentary seats this year.

After four months of futile coalition talks in 2006, the Socialists switched sides and formed a ruling majority with the Party of Regions and the Communists. President Yushchenko had no choice in August 2006 but to designate Viktor Yanukovych, his bitter political rival, as prime minister.

Could such a situation repeat itself this year? Could the NUNS bloc eventually abandon Tymoshenko and form a "broad" coalition with the Party of Regions, thus uniting the west and the east of Ukraine politically, if not ideologically or emotionally? Such a turn of events cannot be ruled out.

Tymoshenko, for whom the regained post of prime minister could be a much-coveted springboard for launching a presidential bid in 2009, has already made many compromises in order to ensure Yushchenko's support for her attempt to lead the government once again.

To begin with, she agreed to give the NUNS bloc half of the cabinet portfolios, although her party won 156 parliamentary mandates versus NUNS's 72. Furthermore, she agreed to endorse a package of 12 bills ahead of the expected vote on her approval as prime minister in the newly elected parliament. Some of the proposed bills, including one on the Cabinet of Ministers, significantly reinforce presidential powers at the expense of those of the prime minister.

But not even such concessions can guarantee that Tymoshenko will be vested with the powers she craves. BYuT and NUNS together have 228 votes, just two more than the majority required to pass most legislation in the Verkhovna Rada, including the approval of a new cabinet.

Tymoshenko can expect voting discipline within the BYuT ranks, but the NUNS bloc is a motley collection of nine political groups. What if the interests of one of these groups are not duly taken into account in the distribution of postelection spoils? In such a situation, it would not appear to be difficult to persuade just three lawmakers from a dissatisfied NUNS component to skip or abstain from a crucial vote.

It also seems unlikely that the Party of Regions will allow the Orange Revolution allies to adopt the 12 bills Tymoshenko has promised to endorse, which are sine qua non for starting the new government.

The Party of Regions will almost certainly demand separate votes on each of the proposed bills in order to exhaust the combat spirit of the Orange allies and nip their coalition-building effort in the bud. Attempts to block the parliamentary rostrum and even fistfights among lawmakers are not out of the question -- and are even likely -- at the inauguration of a new Verkhovna Rada.

But even if the Orange coalition manages to pass the 12 bills to please Yushchenko, approves Tymoshenko as prime minister, and appeases the hunger of all the NUNS constituents for political jobs, the problem of how to mobilize 226 votes for each individual piece of legislation in the future will remain an issue.

The Lytvyn Bloc, which could stabilize the slim Orange majority, is not eager to reveal its political preferences or appetites. Perhaps it is just waiting for a worthy piece of postelection pie in exchange for its role of kingmaker. But what if the Lytvyn Bloc has decided not to meddle in what seems to be an unavoidable exchange of blows between the BYuT and the Party of Regions, and has chosen an observer role? In that case, the Orange allies will need a political miracle or two to get their ruling partnership going.

On the other hand, a restored Orange coalition appears to be the only way for Yushchenko to perpetuate hopes for launching his presidential bid in 2009. If the president were to again nominate Yanukovych as prime minister, he would stand to lose even the dramatically dwindled support he currently enjoys in western Ukraine. Tymoshenko has unequivocally declared that she will immediately start working on her presidential bid if she fails to get the post of prime minister.

It is easy to predict that, given the current distribution of political sympathies in Ukraine, Yushchenko has no chance of qualifying for the second round in the next presidential polls. But keeping Tymoshenko in the government would provide Yushchenko a glimmer of hope -- either by satisfying her political appetite, or by tarnishing her image as a competent and efficient politician who can deliver on her promises.

Tymoshenko has made a lot of unworkable election promises during the campaign, including one on returning lost Soviet-era savings to Ukrainians within the next two years-- an endeavor that would require a sum equal to Ukraine's annual budget.

Another apparently unrealistic pledge, which was written down in the coalition deal, is to abolish the military draft in Ukraine as of the beginning of 2008 and switch to a fully professional army in 2009.

When asked about the plan on the sidelines of the October 18 congress in Lisbon, President Yushchenko told reporters that "I'd like to tell my political friends and colleagues: They may develop certain visions at their level or they may not, but today I'd advise them to follow the 'National Program for the Development of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.'" And Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, bewildered after reading the coalition-deal passage pertaining to the military draft, compared it with abolishing Newton's three laws of motion.

Thus, the birth of a new government in Ukraine is taking place on shaky ground and amid heightened expectations of economic and political wonders. Ukraine already has its fairy-tale heroine with a fetching blonde braid -- now comes the time for her to work her magic.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on October 19 called on the alliance's members to step up their troop commitments in Afghanistan, warning that success against the Taliban-led insurgency is vital for global security, the "International Herald Tribune" reported. In an interview at NATO headquarters in Brussels, de Hoop Scheffer said that the conflict in Afghanistan is now entering its most difficult phase, and he warned that "if we do not prevail, the consequences for the public in Europe will be dire." Military commanders in Afghanistan have complained of a lack of sufficient troops and equipment, while some member countries have expressed concern over NATO solidarity due to disparities in troop deployments in Afghanistan's most dangerous regions. Specifically, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States do most of the fighting, while troops from other states, including Germany, remain in Afghanistan's relatively calm northern regions. De Hoop Scheffer cited substantial gaps in force levels promised by member states and pledged to ask ministers for more troops in an upcoming alliance meeting. He also discussed the serious lag in police training and proposed deeper involvement, saying that while it is not NATO's responsibility to train the army and police, the alliance desperately needs the Afghan National Army to take over control. There are approximately 41,000 NATO troops currently in Afghanistan and 644 NATO and U.S. troops have been killed since the mission began in 2001. JC

President Hamid Karzai on October 20 called on Afghanistan's neighbors to launch a regional campaign against terrorism in order to enable the region to effectively utilize its natural resources and develop trade, Reuters reported. Addressing representatives from the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) at the final session of the 10-member group's annual conference, Karzai cited terrorism, along with drugs and organized crime, as the "main block to regional development." He warned the group, including its founding members, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, that development "will not be possible if we do not isolate the handful of terrorists wherever they are and organize...a joint campaign against them." Economic development would help bring stability, Karzai added, a particularly important issue for Afghanistan, where the Taliban-led insurgency has generated persistent violence and conflict since the fall of the extremist movement in 2001. In addition to fighting terrorism and the drug trade, ECO representatives discussed several economic-development issues, including investment, transit and transport facilitation, energy, and the export of gas and oil. Afghanistan hosted the group's four-day conference for the first time in decades (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2007). JC

U.S.-led coalition soldiers and Afghan troops on October 19 and 20 killed approximately 50 insurgents in Afghanistan's top poppy-growing region, AP reported. Coalition officials said troops killed more than 12 militants on October 19 after insurgents ambushed a security patrol near the town of Musa Qala in Helmand Province. Coalition and Afghan troops called in air strikes to resist the initial attack as the insurgents continued to bring in reinforcements throughout the battle, which lasted several hours, the coalition said. Nearly three dozen militants were killed in a second battle in Musa Qala the following day. Taliban militants fired rocket-propelled grenades and other small arms at a combined coalition-Afghan patrol, initiating several hours of fighting also involving military aircraft. Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, the primary ingredient in the illicit drug heroin. Top NATO commander U.S. General Dan McNeill has said that profits from the trade of opium poppies fund between 20 and 40 percent of Taliban militant operations. JC

Three senior officials in the Ministry of Urban Development were arrested on October 19 on charges of embezzlement, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Attorney-General's Office said the next day, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Attorney-General Abdul Jabbar Sabit issued the arrest orders for the three men, whose names were not released, ministry spokesman Ghaus Zalmay said. The three allegedly embezzled approximately $6.5 million afghanis ($131,000) through the purchase of vehicles for the ministry. Zalmay said the men served as directors of administration and finance, policy making, and in the relations and documents departments. An investigation has been launched in order to find out if any other officials are involved in the "fraud," Zalmay added. JC

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told reporters in Tehran on October 21 that Iran's newly appointed chief nuclear negotiator, Said Jalili, and his predecessor Ali Larijani will meet with EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana in Rome on October 23 to discuss Iran's nuclear program, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media reports. Hosseini said Larijani will be there as the Iranian supreme leader's representative at the Supreme National Security Council. Larijani resigned as the council's chief on October 19 or 20, and was replaced by Jalili, the Iranian deputy foreign minister for Europe and America; Hosseini said Iran's nuclear policies have not changed since the appointment, and that Western parties should not misinterpret the reshuffle as such a change. "There is full solidarity among our country's officials regarding peaceful nuclear objectives, which they pursue vigorously," Hosseini said. VS

The Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee met on October 21 to discuss Larijani's removal as Iran's ranking nuclear negotiator, which has reportedly caused unease among legislators, "Etemad" reported on October 22. Committee member Darius Qanbari told reporters the deputies mainly discussed "the Europeans' negative interpretation" of the resignation. He quoted committee Chairman Alaeddin Borujerdi as having told the meeting that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad "is effectively looking for obedient people, but as Larijani is an authority on nuclear issues, he paid little attention to the president's comments, [which] made it difficult for the continue working together." Commenting on the speculation at the meeting, Qanbari said some members believe Ahmadinejad's recent criticisms of Iran's nuclear diplomacy to date did not, as the press believed, merely target the former negotiating team, but also the one led by Larijani. This, some legislators said at the meeting, provoked a discussion between Ahmadinejad and Larijani at an unspecified meeting and Larijani was asked to resign if he felt that "he cannot carry on," "Etemad" reported. Qanbari said legislators seemed to agree Jalili has "no political weight" compared to Larijani and will likely not play "an effective role" in talks, with his chief asset being his "full coordination," presumably with the president. Borujerdi told "Etemad" on October 21 that senior state officials have thought it prudent not to oppose Jalili' appointment, on the grounds that appointing the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council is a presidential prerogative. VS

President Ahmadinejad met with parliamentarians on October 20 or 21, in his seventh meeting with representatives from the executive and legislative branches intended to exchange views and improve cooperation, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on October 22. The daily noted that the meeting consisted principally of speeches -- some on the economic conditions of Iranians -- and that legislators avoided asking the president about the resignation of Larijani as chief nuclear negotiator. Ahmadinejad addressed the meeting and presented his presidency as marked by hard work, diligence, and cooperation with parliament. The daily perceived his comments to be implicitly disparaging to previous presidencies. He said that "the pattern between parliament and the government might have continued as it was before. The president might have worked no more than four-five hours a day, and parliament might have shown less sensitivity about the work at hand, but that is not the case." He did not specify which president only worked a few hours a day. He said that "there was a group" in previous governments that would not allow the "slightest criticism of the government," in contrast with his government, which "has always welcomed criticism, and it plans in the near future to have a ceremony to encourage its critics." The country's environment, he said, "is a friendly atmosphere where people freely say what they want." He defended the imposition of gasoline restrictions by his government; the people have welcomed the plan, he said, and the state must pay them back the money being saved with reduced fuel use, "Etemad-i Melli" reported. VS

In spite of reports of attempts among reformists to field a single list in parliamentary elections scheduled for mid-March 2008, reformist politician Mohammad Reza Rahchamani told the Fars news agency on October 21 that it is "clear" that reformist "radicals" will not retire from the political fray, and "moderates" might have to distance themselves from them in the upcoming polls. Moderate reformists in Iran have advocated cautious and incremental democratization policies. Rahchamani, a former head of the reformist Solidarity Party, said he thinks there will be five reformist lists for the elections, and the reformist vote would be "fractured." He warned that reformists would face defeat if there were a wide variety of candidates. He expressed support for former parliament speaker and moderate reformist Mehdi Karrubi as a potential reformist figurehead. He said that while no one person can represent the entire reformist movement in Iran, Karrubi has long been active and played a key role in the 1997 elections that brought Mohammad Khatami to the presidency. He said reforms have in the past suffered from an absence of "management," and reformist subfactions and individual politicians have spoken out without regard for the overall interests of reforms. Reformists need a grand strategy to win in coming elections, Rahchamani said. "They must be does not fall into the hands of extremist people, because they may state...demands...that cannot be realized, which drives [voters] away," he said. VS

Fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on October 21 ambushed a group of Turkish soldiers near the Iraqi border, killing 12 of them and wounding more than 16, international media reported. The Turkish military issued a statement indicating that a group of PKK fighters entered Turkey from northern Iraq and attacked Turkish soldiers based in the town of Daglica, approximately 40 kilometers from the Iraqi border. The military said it immediately launched a counterattack using helicopters and killed 23 PKK fighters. On Turkish national television, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed anger at the incident. "Our anger, our hatred is great," he said, adding that the government will take "an approach that is calm...and based on common sense." The Firat News Agency reported that the PKK fighters took several Turkish soldiers hostage, but a Turkish military official denied this. The attack is expected to increase pressure on the Turkish government to send troops into northern Iraq in an effort to eradicate PKK elements based there. SS

At an October 21 joint news conference with Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani in Irbil, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said that Iraq cannot comply with Turkey's demands that it arrest and hand over leaders of the PKK, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Talabani described Turkey's demands as unattainable. "The leaders of the Kurdistan Workers Party are based in the rocky Kurdistan mountains. The mighty Turkish Army itself has not been able to arrest them; how can we arrest them and hand them over to Turkey?" Talabani said. "Handing over Kurdish [PKK] leaders is a dream that will not come true," he added. Taking a more antagonistic tone, he said that Iraq will never hand over any Kurd to Turkey. "Not only that, we will not hand over even a Kurdish cat to Turkey," Talabani said. Turkey has repeatedly called on Iraq and the United States to move against PKK fighters based in northern Iraq. SS

Kurdistan regional President Barzani warned during the October 21 news conference that if Turkey carries out its threat to conduct unilateral military operations against the PKK in northern Iraq, Iraq's Kurds will be compelled to defend themselves. Barzani said: "We will defend ourselves against any attack by whomever. We will not be part of these conflicts, but if such conflicts affect us or the Kurdistan region in a direct manner, we will defend our citizens." Barzani also said that his government will do all it can to assist Turkey if Ankara adopts a peaceful solution to the PKK problem, but he stressed that "it is difficult for us to take any step while under threat." Asked if he considers the PKK a terrorist organization, Barzani answered, "if Turkey works out a peaceful solution, and if the PKK turns it down, we would say that they are a terrorist organization. But at this point, we cannot say that." SS

In an October 20 interview with "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat," Iraqi President Talabani criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for expressing support for a possible Turkish military intervention into northern Iraq to root out PKK fighters. Talabani described al-Assad's comments as "dangerous and contrary to the spirit of Arab solidarity." "How could the president of an Arab country support military intervention against the Republic of Iraq? This is a very serious matter that hurts relations between the two countries," Talabani said. He added: "I have always refrained from commenting on Syria's positions out of my desire to preserve our longstanding ties with Syria. However, this time I cannot tolerate this [policy], which goes beyond all bounds. The Syrian president would have done better to say the same thing as the Americans and Europeans, namely, that he prefers a political solution, even if he understands the Turkish position." On October 17, during a news conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Ankara, al-Assad expressed his support for Turkish military incursions into northern Iraq, saying Turkey has the right to defend itself (see RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2007). SS

The U.S. military issued a statement on October 21 saying that it killed 49 "criminals" during three separate operations in Al-Sadr City. The military said the operations targeted a Shi'ite militia leader who led kidnapping operations, and that they were unaware of any civilian deaths. However, Iraqi police sources and local officials indicated that several women and children were among those killed when U.S. aircraft carried out strikes in the predominantly Shi'ite district. Abd al-Mahdi al-Mutari, an official in radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, described the attack as "barbaric," the BBC reported. "Most of those killed and wounded were women, children, and elderly men, which shows the indiscriminate monstrosity of the attacks on this crowded area," he said. The Ministerial Committee for National Security issued a statement on October 21 saying Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has called for an investigation into the incident, Al-Sharqiyah reported. SS

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi issued a statement on October 21 rejecting Prime Minister al-Maliki's claim that all Iraqi officials are banned from visiting detainees in Iraqi prisons and taking pictures of them, KUNA reported. Al-Hashimi said that the ban applies to other officials, but not those in the Presidential Council, to which he belongs. He said the Presidential Council requires no permission in the matter. On October 20, al-Maliki said he was opposed to what he called "politically motivated" visits to Iraqi detention centers by government officials. Al-Hashimi has repeatedly visited detention centers and called for the release of thousands of Sunni detainees who have not been charged with any crimes. SS