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Newsline - November 21, 2007

President Vladimir Putin on November 21 participated in a campaign rally in Moscow's Luzhniki sports complex that was organized by Unified Russia and the national For Putin! movement, Russian media reported. RFE/RL's Russian Service reported that no international or independent media were allowed to cover the event. ITAR-TASS reported that Putin entered the facility as Soviet-era hymns played and urged the estimated 5,000 people gathered there to vote for Unified Russia on December 2. "The exclusive importance of these elections lies in the fact that they are happening just a few months before the election of a new head of state," Putin said, referring to the presidential election in March 2008. "And if there is a victory [for Unified Russia] in December, then there will be one in March." Putin criticized the party's opponents -- obliquely referring to the Communist Party and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) -- by saying that when they held key government posts in the 1990s, "they acted to harm society and the state, serving the interests of oligarchic structures and debasing our national honor." He accused them of wanting "to gradually restore an oligarchic regime based on corruption and lies." He said that if Russia continues its current course, it will emerge as one of the world's top five leading economies within 10 years. reported that opposition parties plan to complain to the Central Election Commission, urging a probe as to whether the Luzhniki event was paid for, as the law demands, out of Unified Russia's campaign fund. SPS lawyer Vadim Prokhorov charged that "closing access [to certain media outlets] on the basis of loyalty to the president is a violation of the law on the mass media and the 10th article of the European Convention on Human Rights." Election Commission member Yelena Dubrovina told the website that election law only requires that media be invited to such events and that parties themselves have the right to determine "how much press presence is necessary." RC

Addressing an annual meeting of Russia's top military officials on November 20, President Putin warned that Russia "cannot permit itself to remain unaffected by the obvious muscle-flexing of NATO next to the borders of the Russian Federation," reported. "In violation of previously reached agreements, certain member countries of the NATO alliance are increasing military resources near our borders," he said. "At the same time, Russian proposals, for example, about the creation of a single missile-defense system with equal access for all participants thus far remain, unfortunately, unanswered." Citing ITAR-TASS, the website quoted Putin as saying that Russia's decision to suspend its participation in the Conventional Forces In Europe (CFE) Treaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007) was an "appropriate measure" in response to the "muscle-flexing" by NATO. "I will emphasize: it is a forced and necessary measure," Putin said. "Our partners not only did not ratify the treaty, but also did not join it. As soon as our partners in actual fact join the adapted treaty, and, above all, implement it, Russia will consider the possibility of resuming the fulfillment of its obligations." Russia's moratorium on its CFE Treaty participation comes into effect at midnight on December 12. "It's just as well; are we supposed to wait for years?" Putin said. "We will not remain in this state perpetually." Putin also said that Russia must increase the combat-readiness of its strategic nuclear forces. "They should be ready to deliver a quick and adequate reply to any aggressor," Interfax quoted him as saying. In a report to the meeting following Putin's speech, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said that the commissioning of strategic nuclear weapons is being carried out "strictly" on schedule, "The Moscow Times" reported on November 21. JB

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said in response to President Putin's comments about the CFE Treaty and NATO "muscle-flexing" that "All NATO members continue to abide by the restrictions on the numbers and movements of equipment like tanks and aircraft, which the CFE Treaty requires, even if it hasn't entered into force, so there is no need to talk about muscle-flexing. NATO allies would certainly regret if Russia were unilaterally to impose a moratorium on its participation and adherence to the CFE Treaty," AP reported on November 20. Meanwhile, on November 20 quoted State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee First Deputy Chairman Leonid Slutsky as accusing the West of trying to "use control over conventional weapons in Europe exclusively as a means of advancing its geopolitical interests to the detriment of the general security." Russia's decision to suspend participation in the CFE Treaty, Slutsky said, is an indicator of its willingness to defend its right to "maintain its defensive capabilities, including in response the U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe." JB

In his speech to top military officials on November 20, President Putin said monthly salaries for servicemen will increase by 15 percent next month and reiterated his recent vow to pay all arrears to military pensioners, "The Moscow Times" reported on November 21. Putin also upbraided a senior general responsible for health issues in the military, demanding an improvement in the quality of housing for soldiers. "Our officers should no longer live in stinking slums," the daily quoted him as saying. Putin added that officers without housing, who number 150,000, should be provided with adequate housing by 2012. "The Moscow Times" called the "scolding" of the general "misguided," given that the Defense Ministry's health service is not responsible for military housing, but also suggested that it was a "populist gesture" made with an eye to the State Duma elections. Putin will head the federal ticket of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party in those elections, which will take place on December 2. JB

Russia's Foreign Ministry has said that a boycott of Kosova's parliamentary elections by Kosova's Serbian minority raises questions over the elections' legitimacy. Those elections, held on November 17, were won by the Democratic Party, whose leader, former guerrilla leader Hashim Thaci, has vowed to press ahead with Kosova's drive for full independence from Serbia, Reuters reported on November 20. Russia backs Serbia in opposing independence for Kosova. "Undoubtedly, the question arises of how politically legitimate bodies of power formed without the Serbs will be," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in comments posted on the ministry's website,, on November 20. "Will they be at all capable of cooperating constructively with second-largest ethnic community in Kosovo, without which it will be impossible to ensure stability or the prospect of the territory's forward development?" Kamynin also said that a "political campaign ahead of the Kosovo polls had a negative effect on direct talks between Belgrade and Pristina on the region's status" and that "political considerations have encouraged Kosovo's Albanian political leaders who took part in the polls to compete in putting out tough demands of granting unconditional sovereignty to Kosovo." The parliamentary elections, Kamynin said, have in fact "contributed to the further aggravation of ethnic tensions, which could turn into a worsening of the security situation." JB

Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri met with President Putin on November 20 at the presidential residence of Novo-Ogaryovo near Moscow. "Russia has always sided with Lebanon," Interfax quoted Hariri, the son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, as telling Putin during the meeting. "Today, we are again in need of Russia's assistance in overcoming the current crisis." AFP reported on November 20 that Lebanon's presidential election has been postponed for a fourth time despite last-ditch efforts by the opposition and the ruling anti-Syrian coalition to find a consensus candidate by a November 24 deadline. Putin, for his part, said during his meeting with Hariri that Moscow is "closely watching the situation in Lebanon." Putin added: "On the threshold of Lebanon's national holiday -- Independence Day [November 22] -- I would like to congratulate all the people of Lebanon, to wish them peace, prosperity, and harmony." In an interview published on November 19 in the daily "Vremya novostei," Hariri said he hopes Russia could dissuade Syria and Iran from "interfering in our domestic affairs, and from activities that complicate the situation in Lebanon" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2007). Lebanon's "Daily Star" newspaper on November 21 quoted Hariri's press office as saying that Putin told Hariri he will hold "immediate" talks with Iran and Syria to facilitate Lebanon's presidential election. JB

Evidence continues to emerge that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party and other Kremlin-friendly organizations are pressuring businesses and individuals to support the party, reported on November 20. Earlier, a group of students from the Kolmna Pedagogical Institute published an open letter claiming the professors -- at the behest of the presidential administration -- compelled them to participate in pro-Kremlin demonstrations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2007). reported that the Siberian Coal Energy Company received a letter from the Kemerovo Oblast branch of Unified Russia saying that refusing to donate to the Unified Russia campaign is the same as refusing to support the president. "We take your refusal to provide financial support to the regional branch of the Unified Russia party for its campaign for the fifth State Duma of the Russian Federation as a refusal to support President V. V. Putin and the course he is implementing," the letter states. "I consider it my obligation to inform the presidential administration and the governor of Kemerovo Oblast of this." The website on November 20, citing an unnamed source "close to the president of Ingushetia," charged that the republican administration has brought to Moscow more than 20,000 ballots already marked in favor of Unified Russia. RC

The SPS continues to find itself under assault during the current legislative election campaign, Russian media reported on November 20. reported that a spam attack -- a mass electronic mailing -- was unleashed on November 20, purporting to be from the SPS and directing computer users to a website that froze their browsers. The website was a clone of the official SPS website that was registered to an unknown company in Turkey. Also on November 20, Ekho Moskvy reported that pensioners in Perm have received false discount cards, purportedly distributed by the SPS, offering discounts at stores and markets. Also in Perm, many voters found "bills" from the SPS in their mailboxes demanding that they make payments to the party's campaign fund or face "fines." Similar bills and discount cards were received earlier by voters in Orenburg. On November 16, a cyberattack by unknown hackers prevented SPS Political Council member Boris Nemtsov from holding an online question-and-answer session with readers of "Novoye vremya," Ekho Moskvy reported on November 16. On November 21, Moscow mayoral spokesman Mikhail Solomentsev told Interfax that it is possible that people "illegally using police uniforms" will beat Nemtsov during the March of Dissent activities scheduled for Moscow on November 24 and St. Petersburg on November 25. Solomentsev alleged the beating will be staged by opposition forces in order to "provoke a conflict with law-enforcement organs." Throughout the Duma campaign, SPS has been the victim of dirty tricks designed to frighten voters, prevent the party from distributing campaign materials, and keep candidates from meeting with the electorate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2007). On November 20, "Vedomosti" reported that SPS Duma candidates continue to quit the race, citing their desire to support President Putin. A representative of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party told the daily his party has nothing to do with the defections. RC

Ivan Bolshakov, a leading Yabloko youth activist and Duma candidate from Nizhny Novgorod, was arrested on the evening of November 20 in Moscow, reported. The arrest was made in connection with a months-old charge that Bolshakov was involved in a tussle with a police officer during a demonstration in Moscow in May. At that time, Bolshakov was briefly detained and released. Earlier on November 20, Bolshakov filed a complaint with the Central Election Commission charging that a 23-minute Channel One broadcast on November 18 amounted to illegal campaign support for President Putin and Unified Russia. RC

The latest poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) shows only Unified Russia gaining enough votes in the December 2 elections to win seats in the next Duma, reported on November 21. The poll shows Unified Russia with 55.9 percent of the vote, followed by the Communist Party (5.8 percent), A Just Russia (4.9 percent), and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (4.7 percent). A poll earlier this month by the independent Levada Center showed Unified Russia with 67 percent and the Communist Party with 14 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007). The Communist Party predicted this week that the Kremlin might try to falsify the party's results to keep it from entering the Duma and announced that its members will take to the streets after the elections if they believe fraud has been committed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2007). VTsIOM, a state research agency, has been attacked for allegedly carrying out research and modifying its results in collusion with the presidential administration and the Unified Russia party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2007). If only one party surmounts the 7 percent barrier, some seats will nonetheless be awarded to the second-place finisher under a provision of the election law designed to prevent one party from monopolizing the legislature. RC

"Novaya gazeta" editor in chief Dmitry Muratov was awarded the International Press Freedom Award by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists on November 20, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other media reported on November 20 and 21. Three leading reporters at the paper -- Igor Domnikov, Yury Shchekochikhin, and Anna Politkovskaya -- have been murdered in recent years. "I perfectly understand that this is not my award or an award for 'Novaya gazeta,'" Muratov told RFE/RL. "It is a posthumous award for Igor Domnikov, Yury Shchekochikhin, and Anna Politkovskaya, who were savagely murdered." "I would prefer that they would just close the newspaper rather than kill us one by one," Muratov told "The Washington Post" on November 20. Muratov said that his paper continues to publish, although he complained that state monopolies are making it difficult for him to sell advertising and to distribute the paper. RC

Foreign investment in Russia increased by a factor of 2.5 in the first nine months of 2007 compared to the same period in 2006, reported on November 21, citing the Federal Statistics Service. Investment reached $87.8 billion. Most of that came in the form of credits, but direct foreign investment was also up, reaching $19.6 billion. The most investment came from the United Kingdom ($20.7 billion), followed by the Netherlands ($17.3 billion), and Cyprus ($11.8 billion). Investment from the United States amounted to just $1.9 billion. The figures lead analysts to suspect that much of the "foreign investment" is actually Russian assets returning to the country in various guises. During the same period, Russian investors sent $15.8 billion to the United States, $8.5 billion to Cyprus, $8.3 billion to Austria, and $5.9 billion to the Netherlands. RC

The number of skinheads and neo-Nazis in Russia continues to rise dramatically, according to the Moscow-based NGO Sova, "Versia" No. 45 reported. Sova estimates there are 50,000-70,000 skinheads in Russia, about equal to those in the rest of the world combined. That figure is up from an estimated 7,000-8,000 in the mid-1990s. Sova deputy director Galina Kozhevnikova estimated that about half of the known neo-Nazi groups in Russia have the potential to carry out acts of violence. Sova reports that about 500 people have been victims of neo-Nazi aggression so far in 2007, including 55 people who were murdered. Sova identified the most dangerous groups as the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, the Slavic Union, and branches of Russian National Unity. RC

In a telephone interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on November 20, Akhmed Zakayev explained why he has stepped down as foreign minister of the unrecognized Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2007). Zakayev said that he believes that "everything that happens in the state should have a legal foundation, [and] everything should be done in accordance with the law." He said that for that reason, he considers it inappropriate to continue performing his duties until the ChRI parliament names a new prime minister and forms a new cabinet. The parliament ruled earlier this month that Doku Umarov effectively relinquished the powers of the ChRI presidency by declaring a North Caucasus emirate of which he claims to be the leader, and it collectively assumed those powers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30 and November 7, 2007). Zakayev stressed that "my resignation...should under no circumstances be viewed as a retreat from our fight for independence, for our freedom, and for the recognition" of the ChRI as an independent state. He further stated that "Chechnya at present is occupied, but it is not conquered...I am absolutely confident that the Chechen people have good reason to think that in the near future they will gain independence and live in a free, democratic country." LF

The organizers of a protest demonstration in Nazran scheduled for November 24 issued a statement on November 19 announcing their decision, in response to a request by senior Russian officials, to postpone the protest, which was not authorized by the republic's authorities, until after the December 2 elections to the Russian State Duma, the independent website reported. They simultaneously released the text of an open letter to Russian President Putin informing him of their decision. They added that many Ingush cannot comprehend Putin's continuing support for the corrupt and totally discredited leadership of Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov. immediately registered its disapproval of the postponement and affirmed its readiness to help any groups that nonetheless plan to stage a protest on November 24 against reprisals by police and security forces against the civilian population. Former Ingushetian parliament deputy Musa Ozdoyev, who in 2005 spearheaded the opposition to Zyazikov, was quoted by on November 20 as advising against announcing in advance the date of any future protest; he said spontaneous protests have a greater effect. Meanwhile, Ingushetia's two main internet providers continue to block access from within the republic to the website, and the authorities are removing all computer equipment from secondary schools, reported on November 20. LF

Opposition National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian told a press conference in Yerevan on November 20 that he will not back former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's candidacy in the presidential elections scheduled for February 19, 2008, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Manukian, who ran unsuccessfully in the elections of 1991, 1996, 1998, and 2003, said he will participate in that ballot. In 1996, Ter-Petrossian's henchmen rigged the outcome of the first round of voting to preclude a runoff between Ter-Petrossian and Manukian (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," December 29, 1998). Manukian said that while he considers it "inevitable" that the present Armenian leadership be replaced, he does not think a return to power by Ter-Petrossian would improve the situation. "There are people who consider Levon Ter-Petrossian the lesser evil, but there are also many, many people who consider [Prime Minister] Serzh Sarkisian the lesser evil. And I don't rule out the possibility that if Levon Ter-Petrossian and Serzh Sarkisian go into a second round, Serzh Sarkisian will emerge as the legitimate president," Manukian said. Also on November 20, EU special representative for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby told RFE/RL's Armenian Service in Yerevan that he believes the February 2008 ballot will "express the maturity of Armenia's political system." He characterized as "positive" the anticipated "high degree of pluralism" in terms of competing political views. Semneby met in Yerevan on November 19 with Ter-Petrossian, who outlined proposals for precluding electoral fraud and complained that for weeks police have been systematically harassing his supporters. LF

Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian on November 19 dismissed as "disinformation" a claim by the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry that the lion's share of the Russian armaments recently withdrawn from Georgia have been shipped to the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Russian allegedly plans to establish a new military base, according to Arminfo, as reposted by Groong. Some of that weaponry has been given to the Armenian armed forces, quoted the Azerbaijani spokesman as saying. Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Karapetian similarly dismissed the Azerbaijani allegation as "a deliberate lie." Under an agreement reached in May 2005, Russia undertook to close its two remaining military bases in Georgia by late 2008. The first, in Akhalkalaki, was formally vacated in September 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2006); the last consignment of armaments and personnel departed from the Batumi base last week and arrived at the Russian military base in Giumri, Armenia, on November 16, reported. LF

Ilham Aliyev met in Paris on November 20 with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy, and reported the following day. The two men discussed the prospects for expanding bilateral economic relations, especially in the spheres of oil and gas; Azerbaijan-EU relations; and the ongoing international mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group aimed at resolving the Karabakh conflict. On November 17, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian met in Paris with the Minsk Group co-chairs to discuss a possible meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov on the sidelines of the OSCE foreign ministers' meeting in Madrid on November 29-20, reported. LF

Georgian public television on November 20 broadcast a documentary chronicling the developments that culminated in the November 7 police crackdown on demonstrators in Tbilisi and the subsequent imposition of a nationwide state of emergency, the website reported on November 21. The documentary claimed that the protests were part of an attempt, masterminded by Russia's Federal Security Service and financed by Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, to overthrow the Georgian leadership. Patarkatsishvili is wanted in Russia on criminal charges. The documentary claimed that former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili played a key role in the plot and instigated a mutiny at a military base near Tbilisi on September 27 that the authorities swiftly suppressed. LF

Speaking at a conference in Astana on November 20, leading Kazakh journalists and human rights activists criticized recent suggestions by Minister of Culture and Information Yermukhamet Yertysbaev that the state should impose controls over the Internet, Kazakh Television reported. Askar Shomshekov, the head of the Center for Support of Journalists, said that although there should be a state role in policing the Internet for cyberterrorism or child pornography, Yertysbaev's proposal reflects "a desire to limit the access of [Internet] users" in Kazakhstan to information. Yertysbaev recently called for "state regulation" of the Internet, arguing that "rules of behavior in Kazakhstan's virtual space should be clearly specified," and adding that "certain problems" related to the improper use of the Internet should be subject to "criminal punishment" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007). His comments are seen as a response to the posting of alleged recordings of telephone conversations of several senior Kazakh officials on several opposition websites (see "Kazakhstan: More Leaked Recordings Target Presidential Party,", November 15, 2007), but also linked to a recent "cyberattack" targeting the computer network used by the police department in Almaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16, 2007). RG

Speaking at a press conference in Astana, Prosecutor-General's Office spokesman Saparbek Nurpeisov noted on November 20 that prosecutors are increasingly concerned over a rise in suicides among teenagers in Kazakhstan, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. He explained that according to a study conducted from 2005 to July 2007, there was a dramatic "increase both in the number of suicides and suicide attempts among minors over the past three years." Nurpeisov told reporters that during the period under review, the report found that "there were 750 suicide cases and 1,146 suicide attempts among minors." The report also determined that the average age of the children who committed suicide or a suicide attempt was between 14 and 17, or "when minors have the most unstable mental condition." RG

Daniyal Akhmetov on November 19 announced new plans to establish a military academy in 2008, according to Kazakhstan Today. In a public speech during a tour of the northern Pavlodar region, he explained that the plan will bolster efforts to develop Kazakhstan's military capabilities and that the planned military academy will be established with U.S. assistance and is to include instruction from "the best national and foreign specialists." In a separate report released on November 20, Akhmetov also announced that the total number of army conscripts increased by some 50 percent in 2007, adding that "we are creating a compact but not small army, since its size must be determined by the tasks set ahead of the army." Kazakhstan is actively engaged in a broader effort to expand, train, and modernize its armed forces, reflecting a strategic goal of emerging as an "advanced military power" within five years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007). RG

In a joint statement released in Bishkek on November 20, the leaders of the 12 main political parties participating in Kyrgyzstan's December 16 parliamentary elections demanded the abolition of the minimum national and regional thresholds for parties, according to the website. Forwarding their demand to President Kurmanbek Bakiev, the party leaders called for the cancellation of the October amendment to the Electoral Code that imposed a new requirement for political parties, whereby they must garner at least 5 percent of the vote nationally and surpass 0.5 percent of the vote in every region in order to secure seats in the new parliament. The appeal also expressed concern that the "state machinery" is being used by the authorities to "actively and openly support" the Ak-Jol Eldik Partiyasy (Best Path Popular Party) founded by Bakiev. The deputy leader of Ak-Jol, Elmira Ibrahimova, also criticized on November 20 the Central Election Commission for enforcing the stricter minimum vote requirements, saying that they "would substantially reduce many parties' chances to win" seats in parliament, AKIpress reported. Ibrahimova also warned that Ak-Jol is prepared to challenge the commission's decision in court if the measures are not overturned or modified. RG

Speaking to reporters in Dushanbe on November 20, Tajik Labor and Social Protection Minister Shukurjon Zuhurov announced that participants in the summit meeting of the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec), an economic body within the CIS, adopted a new common policy on labor migration, Asia-Plus reported. Zuhurov explained that the agreement includes important new initiatives, such as providing medical insurance for migrants and social protection for their family members. He noted, however, that the agreement has been approved by all the Eurasec member states except for Uzbekistan, saying that "the Uzbek side did not endorse the draft, but expressed a special opinion" that argued that "multilateral agreements in the field of migration were not effective, while such issues, in their opinion, should be resolved at a bilateral level." Eurasec is an international economic organization within the larger CIS comprising Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Another CIS-related meeting was also held in Dushanbe on November 20, with participants in the sixth session of the CIS Coordination Council's information security committee meeting to discuss the security of regional telecommunications and information-security policy within the CIS, Avesta reported. RG

At the close of a meeting in Dushanbe on November 19, the head of the National Association of Independent Media, Nuriddin Qarshiboev, unveiled a series of recommendations by the group aimed at reforming Tajikistan's current law on the media, Avesta reported. The group noted that although "the first phase of work to reform" the law on the media "has been accomplished," the group now plans to "attract independent lawyers and representatives of government bodies and the country's parliament to study the proposed changes and amendments to existing legislation." The group also called on journalists to more actively "engage in the law-making process" and to "put forward their concrete proposals to improve the norms of legislation regulating the activities of the media in Tajikistan." RG

In a speech to the cabinet in Ashgabat on November 19, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov reaffirmed Turkmenistan's support for a Russian plan to construct a new natural-gas pipeline that would skirt the Caspian Sea, ITAR-TASS reported. He explained that "Turkmenistan adheres to its partnership obligations" and stressed that it "is making efforts to develop the Caspian pipeline project." The Russian project was first formulated in May, based on an agreement signed between the Turkmen, Kazakh, and Russian presidents. Speaking after his visit to Turkmenistan for an international energy conference, U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman also said on November 20 that he "was not convinced" that Turkmenistan would fully support a rival U.S.-backed Caspian Sea gas pipeline that would bypass Russian territory. RG

The Movement for Freedom, an organization led by former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, has appealed to the Supreme Court after its second request to register the organization was denied by the Belarusian Justice Ministry, Belapan reported on November 20. The Justice Ministry rejected the Movement for Freedom's request for official registration earlier this year, citing flaws in the organization's charter. The Supreme Court later upheld the rejection. In late October, the ministry rejected the group's second application for registration, claiming that the founding conference of the movement violated the law governing mass events in Belarus. Yury Hubarevich, the deputy chairman of the Movement for Freedom, told the agency that the law on mass events does not apply to the founding conference of a nongovernmental organization. The organization intends to complain to the UN Human Rights Committee if the Supreme Court upholds the latest Justice Ministry decision. AM

Ukraine's Donetsk region on November 20 held funerals for 28 of the 90 miners killed in the November 18 gas blast at Zasyadko coalmine, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. More funerals will be held over the next several days for the victims of the worst-ever tragedy in the Ukrainian coal-mining industry. The death toll has risen to 90, while rescuers are still searching for another 10 miners, according to the broadcaster. The Ukrainian government has offered the families of the dead miners $20,000 each in compensation, and children of the victims will receive their fathers' monthly wages until they reach adulthood. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who ordered an investigation into the causes of the blast and vowed to punish those responsible, has also stated that coal-mining remains a key industry for Ukraine. Ukrainian coal resources are estimated at 175 billion tons, and offer "energy security for many generations of Ukrainians," Yushchenko said. AM

President Yushchenko said on November 20 that the 1932-33 Great Famine in Ukraine should be considered a national and worldwide tragedy, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and Interfax reported. "I am certain we must also speak about this famine as a worldwide tragedy, a tragedy that people not only in Ukraine should know about," Yushchenko said. "This is why we are knocking on doors around the world, asking people to support the memory," he added. Ukraine commemorates the victims of the famine on November 24. Yushchenko has also declared 2008 a year of remembrance for the victims. The famine, orchestrated by the regime of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, killed 7 million-10 million people in Ukraine. AM

A spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, Andriy Deshchytsya, has described as 'tactless' the exchange of statements between the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministries over vandals' attack on an exhibition in Moscow dedicated to the Great Famine in Ukraine, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on November 20. Three activists of the Eurasian Youth Union on November 17 tried to destroy the exhibit at a Ukrainian cultural center. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry called the incident a "profanity" against the memory of the famine victims, while the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Ukraine "unilaterally distorts history" by referring to the famine as "genocide." Deshchytsya said there is no issue of whether to recognize the famine as genocide, as Ukraine has already done so. AM

One-day talks on the future of Kosova held in Brussels on November 20 produced no hint that either Serbia's or Kosova's leaders are about to abandon their entrenched positions in search of a compromise on Kosova's formal status. A communique issued by the talks' mediators said, "Pristina described its vision of Kosovo's supervised independence in line with the recommendations of UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari," recommendations that Serbia and Russia have consistently rejected since they were formally presented in March. "Belgrade continued to elaborate to Pristina its vision of a highly autonomous Kosovo inside the borders of Serbia." As it had at a previous meeting, Serbia suggested that China's "one state, two systems" arrangement with Hong Kong could open up the path to a solution, but one of Belgrade's negotiators, Slobodan Samardzic, said it also offered another example of extensive autonomy -- the Aland Islands, an archipelago that the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations, decided in 1921 should belong to Finland, while at the same time stipulating that its largely Swedish-speaking population (now numbering around 27,000) should enjoy autonomy. Serbia argues that the UN Security Council -- in which its chief ally, Russia, holds a veto -- should decide Kosova's future. "I'm afraid none of these models can be imported to Kosova," the spokesman for the Kosovar negotiating team, Skender Hyseni, responded. "The clear intention of Serbia is to drag this process on until hell freezes." For its part, Belgrade accused the Kosovar Albanians of offering nothing constructive and biding their time until the talks are scheduled to end. A proposal put forward by the EU's mediator, Wolfgang Ischinger, that the two capitals should accept a "status-neutral" solution based on the accommodation reached by East and West Germany in the 1970s won no traction, with Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica describing it as a "trick." "It is another word covering the fact that Kosovo and Serbia would be independent states and that is not acceptable," he said. The teams will next meet on November 26 for three days of talks in a castle outside Vienna -- the first time that talks will have lasted more than a day. International media also described them as the last talks before the international mediators report to the UN secretary-general on December 10, a date that Kosova, the EU, and the United States view as the end of attempts to find a solution. It seems unlikely that the Kosovar team will produce any new proposal. Asked what could possibly be left to discuss, spokesman Hyseni said, "We have to be creative enough to find a way of exhausting these three days." AG

In the wake of parliamentary elections in Kosova and ahead of the last scheduled talks on the region's future, Kosova's senior leaders on November 20 gave a more detailed outline of their plans to declare independence. The acknowledged-but-still-unofficial victor in the elections, Hashim Thaci, stated -- as he did on November 19 -- that Prishtina will liaise with other capitals before declaring independence. "Kosova is ready for independence, we are prepared, but we will cooperate very closely," AFP quoted Thaci as saying. "Kosovo will do nothing without coordination with our partners Washington and Brussels," a comment that pointedly leaves out the other key mediator in talks, Moscow. Thaci said shortly after his electoral victory that a declaration would follow "immediately" after the UN's secretary-general receives a formal report on the status talks on December 10, but gave no timeline. Kosova's president, Fatmir Sejdiu, on November 20 went further, saying that a "couple" of days after December 10, a declaration of independence will be submitted for approval by Kosova's parliament. Sejdiu also said Prishtina will declare independence "in coordination with all the countries that are helping Kosova," but added that "we have to have in mind also the will of population, and that is independence." Sejdiu's timeline will shift the pressure back onto the EU foreign ministers, who said on November 19 that they are trying to convince Kosova not to take unilateral action and on the United States, which has, according to unconfirmed reports, been trying to persuade Kosova to postpone a declaration until mid-January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2007). Serbia has refused to accept December 10 as the end of talks. "We are not accepting artificial deadlines," Serbian President Boris Tadic said on November 20. AG

Russia's mediator in talks on Kosova's status, Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko, has accused the United States of projecting a "pseudo-reality" about Kosova. In an interview published on November 21 in the daily "Izvestia," Botsan-Kharchenko said that Moscow, Serbia's strongest ally on Kosova, looks "at the situation from the point of view of international law, not pseudo-reality," unlike "the Americans [who] believe that Kosovo's separation has already taken place de facto." He said the United States and other Western states assume Kosova's independence is inevitable. "Mildly speaking, this does not help Serbian-Albanian dialogue," he said. He reiterated Moscow's view that independence for Kosova would set a precedent for separatist movements around the world. Russia's Foreign Ministry on November 20 highlighted another factor that, it believes, has harmed the negotiation process: the UN's decision to go ahead with parliamentary elections in Kosova on November 17. It said in a statement that "a political campaign ahead of the Kosovo polls had a negative effect on direct talks between Belgrade and Pristina on the region's status.... Political considerations encouraged Kosovo's Albanian political compete in putting out tough demands of granting unconditional sovereignty to Kosovo." The elections therefore "contributed to the further aggravation of ethnic tensions, which could turn into a worsening of the security situation." Moscow also cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election results given that Kosovar Serbs boycotted the vote. Ethnic Serbs now make up about 7 percent of Kosova's population. AG

In response to a report by a U.S.-based advocacy group highlighting the abuse of disabled children in Serbia's psychiatric hospitals and social-care institutions, the Serbian government and the UN's Children's Fund (UNICEF) have pledged to take action. In a statement issued on November 16, UNICEF accepted that there are serious deficiencies in how Serbian institutions treat children and adults with disabilities, and welcomed the report by the Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI) as bringing "visibility to the situation of children with disabilities in residential institutions," saying it will seek to improve cooperation with Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2007). However, it also acknowledged that past efforts to work with the Serbian authorities have achieved little. AG

While promising to take action to improve the treatment of institutionalized children, Serbian ministers have attacked the content and timing of the MDRI report. Justice Minister Dusan Petrovic said on November 16 that "the government will deal with [this issue] as soon as possible," and AP reported on November 17 that Social Affairs Minister Rasim Ljajic has halted the admission of children to one of the seven orphanages and two psychiatric institutions cited in MDRI's report. "No one is denying that the situation is hard because of poor economic conditions and problems left over from the past," Ljajic said, "but this should not be used for politics." The report, he claimed, suggested Serbia is deliberately mistreating patients, an aspersion that he described as "unacceptable." The sharpest criticism has come from Prime Minister Kostunica, who, according to AP, on November 15 described the report as "fabricated," "biased," "malicious," and insisted that a planned Serbian review of the institutions mentioned in the MDRI report would show the "real" state of affairs in Serbia's institutions. Reuters on November 15 quoted Kostunica as saying: "we are witnessing systematic propaganda saying Serbia is full of fascism. Now we have camps for helpless children." He claimed that the timing of the report, as Serbia's effort to forestall Kosova's independence reaches a climax, was "not accidental." MDRI's report, which was based on four years of research, said the situation in Serbia's institutions has improved over the past 10 years, but highlighted that institutions continue to keep some members permanently on their beds and argued that "filthy conditions, contagious diseases, lack of medical care and rehabilitation, and a failure to provide oversight renders placement in a Serbian institution life-threatening." It also argued that some of the most extreme human rights violations "are tantamount to torture." The MDRI report estimates that some 17,200 children and adults with disabilities are confined in institutions in Serbia. UNICEF said children with severe mental disabilities are "in any society very seldom the priority group for services reform...and Serbia is no exception." AG

The leader of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serbs, Milorad Dodik, has turned to the European Parliament in an effort to forestall reforms set to be driven through by the international community's high representative to the country, Miroslav Lajcak. At a press conference on November 20, Dodik, who heads the government of the Republika Srpska, a Bosnian Serb-region that emerged from the civil war, portrayed his letter as an appeal to protect democracy in Bosnia and to defend the Dayton accords, which ended the war in December 1995. The letter was triggered by Lajcak's decision to streamline the decision-making process in Bosnia's federal government and parliament, a move that Bosnian Serbs fear will reduce their power and argue will undermine the constitution, which was based on the Dayton accords. Lajcak has said that, using his extensive "Bonn powers" to sack officials and impose laws, he will force through the reform if it is not approved by the federal government by December 1. Dodik's decision to write to the European Parliament rather than the European Commission and EU leaders may in part be due to the strong support for Lajcak expressed once more by EU foreign ministers on November 19. "I am convinced that there is a democratic conscience among the members of the European Parliament and that we will finally begin behaving properly and give Bosnia-Herzegovina a chance," Dodik told reporters. The Bosnian Serb at the head of the federal government, Nikola Spiric, has resigned in protest at Lajcak's initiative and Dodik vowed that if Lajcak's decision is not rescinded, his party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), the most popular in Bosnia, will go into opposition and its members in the federal parliament will "withdraw." In a November 18 interview with the newspaper "Glas javnosti," Dodik said that a boycott would show "those who have created such an unstable situation" that "their motivation to step up the functional ability of the institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina has led to them not functioning at all." In addition, TV Hayat reported on November 18, the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia's three-member Presidency, Nebojsa Radmanovic, has argued that a boycott could make early general elections the only way forward. The last national elections were held in October 2006. AG

Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik coupled his specific objections to the decisions made by High Representative Lajcak with a call for the Office of the High Representative (OHR) to be abolished. The post was due to be abolished in June 2007, but the international community extended its mandate by a year owing to concerns about Bosnia's lack of progress and fears about the impact of Kosova's bid for independence. If the international community wants to run Bosnia, "it should establish a protectorate," the news service Balkan Insight quoted Dodik as saying. On November 19, the daily "Glas Srpske" published an article by Dodik in which he made a full critique of the OHR and of Lajcak. "If the high representative has legislative, executive, and judicial powers..., then we do not need elections, parliaments, governments, courts, or citizens," he wrote. "It turns out that all the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina are just bit players in an eternal film titled: 'I am your OHR and you shall have no other gods before me.'" But, for all its powers, the OHR has been ineffective, Dodik said. "We can see how much 10 years and 829 decisions using the Bonn powers has brought us closer to the EU, how they have made Bosnia-Herzegovina more stable, and how much it affected interethnic trust," he wrote with heavy sarcasm. His conclusion was that "everything has turned quite the opposite from the proclaimed 'good OHR intentions.' Or, to speak the truth, it has turned out exactly to justify the OHR remaining and appearing necessary." His argument that the OHR is intent merely on self-preservation may also explain a comment made to reporters on November 20 in which he portrayed Lajcak as a puppet, arguing that "people from Sarajevo" want to engineer a situation in which the position of high representative becomes permanent. The news agency SRNA on November 19 quoted Dodik as saying that "a persistent and annoying group of quasi-experts in the OHR is behind the high representative's latest measures and it is imposing them." AG

Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik told reporters on November 20 that he plans to unveil on November 22 a full outline of a plan to resolve Bosnia's political crisis. "My proposal," he said, "will be that as a first sign of normalization of relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we put the Dayton constitution before the Bosnia-Herzegovina parliament for ratification." That suggestion highlights that Bosnia's parliaments have never ratified the Dayton accords and the resulting constitution and gives him an extra political tool, but in essence the proposal reiterates Dodik's long-standing insistence that there can be no change to the peace deal, which formalized the wartime creation of the Republika Srpska and granted it extensive autonomous powers. While highlighting Dodik's belief that the status quo should be maintained, his argument, expressed once again on November 20, that some politicians want to change the constitution also has the potential to stoke fears that the loose stitching of Bosnia's postwar political arrangement could unravel. On the streets, there has been panic buying, and talk of military action has begun to emerge (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). The Bosnian Serb media has recently talked on a number of occasions of the possibility of a NATO "occupation" of the Republika Srpska. Asked about that speculation in a November 18 interview with "Glas javnosti," Dodik said, "NATO is too serious an institution to be wasting time on such foolishness." He also insisted that stability is the be-all and end-all of his policy, telling "Glas javnosti" that "absolutely any event, no matter what side it may come from, we regard from the standpoint of the need to maintain peace and stability. And that is all!" However, Dodik in August appeared to renew threats the Republika Srpska could raise the possibility of independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 26, April 12, August 21, and October 26, 2007). Bosnia-Herzegovina TV1 reported on November 17 that he did so again in an interview with the Serbian television channel Enter TV. It said that, asked when the Republika Srpska could expect to become independent, Dodik said he does not know, but that it would be difficult to explain to people in the Republika Srpska why similar situations are being resolved in different ways. Dodik also said that most Bosnian Serbs want the Republika Srpska not to be part of Bosnia. AG

Over 300,000 people in the Republika Srpska have so far signed a petition protesting against High Representative Lajcak's reforms, the Croatian news agency Hina reported on November 19. The organizer, a nongovernmental organization called Spona, says it will continue to collect signatures. It also said the petition will ultimately be sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that it will be used as the basis for a demand for a referendum on independence for the Republika Srpska. The group has predicted that a referendum will be held. Prime Minister Dodik has in the past called for Bosnian Serbs to be allowed a referendum on independence, but has not done so this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19 and 20, 2006, and January 5 and 26, 2007). AG

The need to pursue relations with energy-rich but repressive Central Asian states is increasingly forcing the EU to reassess its foreign-policy priorities. There is mounting evidence that in that debate, those who stand for values are losing ground to those who put the bloc's strategic interests first.

In a world whose energy needs will be 50 percent higher by 2030, Central Asia's massive gas -- and to a lesser extent oil -- reserves are a tantalizing prize. The competition is stiff; Russia, China, the United States, and Japan are all courting the governments in the region.

But Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are also among the world's most oppressive regimes. Their neighbors are not far behind. Only Kyrgyzstan qualifies as a "partially free" country in Freedom House's yearly ranking lists.

On the horns of a dilemma, the EU's first instinct is to have it both ways.

Addressing a November 13 high-level conference on EU-Central Asian economic cooperation in Berlin -- where several of the region's foreign ministers were in attendance -- EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the two sides' interests have become "closely intertwined." "To deepen our relationship is not one option among many -- it is a clear geopolitical imperative," she said.

Ferrero-Waldner celebrated the sudden blossoming of political contacts, noting two foreign-minister-level meetings have taken place this year already. She assured her audience that the meetings were a two-way street. "We attach an especially great importance to the fields of education, the rule of law, and a human rights dialogue," the commissioner noted.

Yet the agenda of the Berlin conference made no mention of any of these concerns, focusing exclusively on opportunities for trade and investment.

The Berlin conference took place under the aegis of the EU's new Central Asia Strategy, adopted in June at Germany's initiative. Germany is determined to carve out a niche for itself in overseeing the EU's relations with its eastern neighbors -- and balance France's attempts to focus EU foreign policy on the Mediterranean. Sometimes called a new "Ostpolitik," Berlin's vision aims at elaborating a coherent and comprehensive set of EU policies for the former Soviet Union.

But although the Central Asia Strategy has what officials in Brussels call a "human rights component," the EU appears in a hurry to forge on with the other "components," foremost among them energy cooperation.

Thus, on November 15, the bloc's energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, arrived on his first-ever visit to Turkmenistan. His spokesman, Ferran Tarradellas, told RFE/RL a day earlier that the EU hopes Turkmenistan will become a major alternative energy supplier.

Tarradellas sought to differentiate clearly between energy and the EU's human rights concerns. Piebalgs' visit, he said, was solely about the terms of the potential trade in gas. "We are talking about a commodity which we buy for money and we want to see the rules of the game [settled]. Human rights are not bought and not open to negotiation," he said.

What this means in concrete terms was not immediately clear. Ferrero-Waldner's spokeswoman Christian Hohmann explained that progress in the field of human rights remains a precondition for a closer political relationship between the EU and Turkmenistan. She pointed to the stalled Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the two sides that the European Parliament refuses to endorse.

But pressed on whether the immensely lucrative prospect of energy trade is in any way conditional on human rights advances, Hohmann baulked. "I cannot give a clear answer," she said. "In our policy, human rights concerns play a big role and will continue to do so. And we do think that dialogue and cooperation are the way to promote human rights" in Turkmenistan.

The EU's optimism that closer links will automatically lead to improvements in rights standards has been bitterly contested by human rights organizations. The stakes were made very clear by Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, who warned in a statement issued on November 2 -- the eve of the visit to Brussels by Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov -- that the EU had a "crucial opportunity" to influence developments in the country.

"Denial of freedom of expression, association, religion, and movement were egregious and long-standing aspects of [former President Saparmurat] Niyazov's tyranny, and we're just not seeing improvements in most of these areas," Cartner said. "The EU should stick to its own criteria for engagement and insist on progress before it deepens its relationship with Turkmenistan on specific reforms."

Yet EU officials privately concede that it is not likely current human rights concerns will affect the EU's pursuit of energy in the region. In fact, the EU is quietly reviewing the premises of its foreign-policy posture. Riina Kionka, the human rights representative of the bloc's foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, has said the EU is reviewing its policies with regard to repressive regimes. She told a hearing of the European Parliament's human rights subcommittee on October 3 that the EU is currently involved in a "period of reflection" on the usefulness of sanctions against countries such as Uzbekistan.

In other words, the EU is coming round to the view that sanctions are counterproductive.

Recently, most EU states have supported Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009, in the face of determined opposition from the United States and a handful of other OSCE members.

At Germany's insistence, EU member states last month lifted a visa ban on a number of Uzbek top officials accused of complicity in the 2005 mass killings in Andijon. Uzbekistan is the most populous country in the region and its goodwill is vital for the success of the EU's Central Asia Strategy. Similarly, officials in Brussels told RFE/RL there was strong pressure to relegate human rights to the margins of the agenda of a low-level EU-Uzbek cooperation meeting in Tashkent on November 14

There is a feeling in Brussels that the EU's hand is forced and the term "dialogue" has simply become a fig leaf for contacts whose agenda is largely dictated by the Central Asian governments. The EU simply has no leverage -- the resources of the countries attract other major players and the regimes there are apt to prefer the best deal.

Kazakhstan set the trend with its "multivector" policy of welcoming all suitors. Turkmenistan appears to be following suit. Its immense gas reserves have caught the eye of the EU, which is also mulling ways of cutting out the current middleman Russia by backing a trans-Caspian pipeline project.

The EU knows time is of the essence and realizes that it is in no position to dictate terms, least of all political conditions. Ashgabat is already under contract to supply Russia with 80 billion cubic meters of gas annually. It has agreed to build a new pipeline to China capable of handling 30 billion cubic meters a year. The United States is sponsoring another 10 billion-cubic-meter gas transit link via Afghanistan to Pakistan where it will liquefy the fuel and ship it out.

To put this in perspective, the EU currently imports about 150 billion cubic meters of year of gas from Russia, or 25 percent of its annual consumption.

Still, one industry insider told RFE/RL, the EU may be underplaying its hand. Both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, the two countries with the biggest gas reserves in the region, are themselves keen to secure European business. "They know it is not a 'political market,' unlike Russia, and therefore it is more desirable for them," he said. Hence both countries' attempts to delay the finalization of a new transit deal with Russia, preliminarily agreed by their presidents in May this year. Both now appear amenable to EU-backed plans to build a trans-Caspian pipeline to Azerbaijan, which would eventually link them with European markets via Turkey.

However, both Ashgabat and Astana are aware that building direct links with Europe risks provoking Moscow's ire. Ashgabat especially is keen to secure guarantees from the EU that its income won't suddenly dry up if Russia should blockade its gas exports.

The EU is not a unitary actor when it comes to foreign policy, and major joint decisions need unanimity among the 27 member states. But Germany's size guarantees its views are heard. And Russia itself is increasingly becoming a factor in the bloc's Central Asia policy. Its increasingly authoritarian tendencies make it less dependable as an energy supplier, but also engender new worries in new member states who fear its growing power. Paradoxically, although loath to play into the hands of the repressive regimes in Central Asia, they feel that talking to them in order to try and undercut Russian influence in the region may be the lesser evil.

(Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.)

U.K.-based charity Oxfam International released a highly critical report on November 20, asserting that security and development efforts in Afghanistan are lagging badly and that aid funds are being misused, news website reported, citing Reuters. The report, submitted to the British House of Commons, called for urgent action from the United States and other donor countries to change course in Afghanistan before it is too late. The report states that development aid distribution and implementation are "ineffective or inefficient," and that violence is on the rise, citing UN estimates of a 20-30 percent upsurge in 2007 compared to the previous year. It estimates that two-thirds of the $15 billion provided by the United States has bypassed the Afghan government, and more than half has been allocated to five U.S. contracting companies, undermining the work of government institutions and wasting resources by relying on for-profit foreign contractors and sub-contractors. The 24-page report calls on donor countries to provide more long-term aid to the Afghan people, ensure transparency, increase coordination, and improve aid effectiveness through the increased use of in-country resources. MM

The Oxfam report made public on November 20 said development aid funds amount to just a small fraction of what is spent on military operations, and urged the United States to divert resources toward economic aid in order to avert a humanitarian crisis in rural areas of Afghanistan, IRIN News reported. The report stated that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has spent some $4.4 billion in Afghanistan since 2002 -- compared to U.S. military spending in Afghanistan of $35 billion in 2007 alone. The report recommended withdrawing the 25 provincial reconstruction teams led by coalition forces in Afghanistan from areas that are relatively safe and instead focusing their efforts on development and aid in more unstable areas. Despite increased military operations intended to stabilize Afghanistan in the past six years, security and economic conditions have deteriorated in the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan, with adverse effects on Afghan public support for the U.S.-led counterinsurgency operations. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has refused to comment on the report. MM

At the end of a six-day trip to Afghanistan, Louise Arbour, the UN's high commissioner for human rights, on November 20 called attention to the rising civilian casualties in Afghanistan and called on both Taliban insurgents and coalition forces to minimize threats to civilians, international media reported. More than 1,200 civilians have died in fighting and insurgent violence this year, about 200 of them in suicide bombings and about half the total number in operations by Afghan and international troops. The Taliban denies responsibility for causing civilian casualties, and exploits the issue to provoke Afghan public anger against foreign forces and depict the Afghan government as incapable of protecting its citizens. Arbour noted that civilian deaths have eroded Afghan public support for the presence of international security forces and undermined confidence in the Afghan government. Arbour also said that progress on women's rights in Afghanistan has stalled, "despite the promise of the post-Taliban era," and highlighted the disproportionate suffering of women in Afghanistan. MM

At a joint news conference on November 20, the Afghan interior and defense ministries announced that a would-be suicide bomber was arrested as he prepared to attack kill Afghan Army soldiers in Kabul, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Kabul police chief Major General Mohammad Salim Ihsas told reporters that the attacker is a resident of Kuram Agency in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal region, but withheld his name. Afghan security forces said that he was carrying 20 kilograms of explosives as he tried to enter a vehicle designated for transporting soldiers to the Kabul Military Training Center. Defense Ministry spokesman Zemary Bashari praised the coordination between the police forces and the army in capturing the would-be bomber, adding that the attacker's nationality does not imply Pakistani government involvement. MM

Former National Security Council member and Iran observer Gary G. Sick told the daily "Etemad" on November 19 that Iran-U.S. relations are not critical at present, but suffer from enduring mutual distrust rooted in the 1979 hostage crisis and the Iranian revolution. He told the daily by telephone from New York that neither side has been eager to hold direct talks to resolve essential differences in recent years, but said Iran might have responded more positively to overtures made by the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. He said it is unlikely that President George W. Bush's administration will talk to Iran in its remaining time in office, saying it is too late for such talks. But he said closer relations might be possible if the next U.S. president is interested in direct talks with Iran, and suggested a more permanent "mechanism" for Iran-U.S. talks to replace occasional meetings, such as those on Iraq. Sick rejected the suggestion that U.S. policy caters principally to the needs of Israel, and said the United States has its own interests. He stated that he is confident Iran does not seek to attack Israel, and speculated that President Ahmadinejad has been upset by the media's "exploitation" of his some of his remarks regarding Israel. But Sick said Iran must clearly state it has no intention of attacking Israel in order to reduce tensions and open the way for a possible renewal of dialogue with the United States. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim in Tehran on November 20 and told him that those planning the next Middle East peace conference are merely trying to force Arab states to form relations with Israel, Fars reported. Another round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is planned for November 27 in Annapolis, Maryland. Ahmadinejad said the meeting will "have no benefits for Palestine. The aim of those holding the autumn conference is to tie all Arab states" to Israel. He said Iranian-Syrian ties are cordial and expanding, and both states are trying to assure regional peace "without foreign intervention," Fars reported. VS

Government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham on November 19 accused domestic critics of the government's policies of trying to mount a bloodless overthrow of the system, Mehr reported. The daily described Elham's comments as a response to recent warnings by senior officials, including ex-presidents Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, that the government must exercise more caution in its foreign policy and regarding its nuclear program. Elham told a gathering of Tehran Province election officials that "those who say the country is in critical condition" and suggest that the decisions of President Ahmadinejad's administration are "hasty and unreasonable" are preparing the way for "enemy infiltration" and a "peaceful overthrow" of the Iranian government. He said Iran's enemies will use parliamentary elections set for next March as their "path" of infiltration, and vowed to retaliate against the "enemy's soft war." VS

Alireza Rahmani-Fazli, a senior deputy head of the Supreme National Security Council, has resigned, "Etemad" reported on November 20, citing the Fars news agency. Rahmani-Fazli is described as a close ally of former security council chief Ali Larijani. The daily noted that the resignation signals what may be the first of several reappointments in the Supreme National Security Council under new council chief Said Jalili. It added that Jalili has not yet appointed a successor to Rahmani-Fazli. VS

Fars and the daily "Etemad" have separately cited unconfirmed reports that the head of the ISNA new agency, Mirhamid Hasanzadeh, is being pressured to resign. The daily observed that government allies are dissatisfied with the agency's critical reporting. The Iran Students News Agency was founded during the regime of President Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, though "Etemad" observed it has been generally cautious since Ahmadinejad's 2005 election. The agency now works under the aegis of a state cultural body, the University Jihad. "Etemad" reported on November 20 that Hasanzadeh has been pressured to resign by University Jihad directors, who are similarly under pressure from the government, presumably because of their failure to promote ideas favored by the government in the media or universities. Hasanzadeh has apparently refused to resign and said he would have to be dismissed, "Etemad" reported, citing unnamed sources. VS

The head of "moral security" or anti-vice force of the Iranian police, Ahmad Ruzbahani, told the press in Tehran on November 20 that some 4,800 "louts" or "thugs" have been arrested and 31 sentenced to death, Fars reported. The report did not specify a time frame for the arrests, but police launched an intensified crackdown on public insecurity and breaches of Islamic decency norms this past spring. Ruzbahani said members of the public helped police catch some of the "louts" who initially escaped arrest. The majority of those arrested, Ruzbahani stated, were under 23 years old, and 53 percent were between 17 and 23. He said about 5 percent were between 14 and 17; police are reluctant to consider the younger group serious offenders, Ruzbahani said, "but unfortunately some of the things these people did were precisely in line with the criminal acts perpetrated by louts," including rape in some cases. The majority of the arrested criminals have been given lengthy prison terms, he said. He warned they would face more severe punishments if they return to crime once released, Fars reported. VS

At a press conference on November 20, the spokesman for the Baghdad Security Plan, Brigadier General Qasim Ata, warned foreign security firms to respect Iraqi laws or face the consequences, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. He also said that Iraqi forces have been instructed to take a firm stance on any foreign security firm that violates Iraqi laws. "We gave [the Iraqi forces] instructions to deal quickly with all violations committed by foreign security contractors," Ata said. "Unfortunately, some foreign security firms show no respect for Iraqi law or Iraqis' blood. We demand that these companies adhere to the law," he added. Ata was referring to the November 19 incident in which a member of a foreign security firm shot and wounded a woman in the Al-Karradah district of central Baghdad. Iraqi security forces later arrested 42 employees of the foreign company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2007). Meanwhile, the U.S. military said the company responsible for the shooting was not a private security firm, but a logistics contractor that supplies food to multinational forces, which it identified as Dubai-based ALMCO. SS

In an interview published in the November 20 edition of "Al-Hayat," Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi for the government's current legislative backlog. Al-Maliki said that al-Hashimi obstructed 26 pieces of legislation that were already approved by the Iraqi Parliament. According to Iraqi law, the three-man presidential council, of which al-Hashimi is a member, must ratify all legislation. In addition, al-Maliki said the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq), in which al-Hashimi is a leading figure, is not representative of all Sunni Arabs in Iraq. The front is the largest Sunni political bloc, with 44 seats in the 275-seat parliament. Since August it has boycotted al-Maliki's government because the prime minister has refused to meet the front's list of demands. In the newspaper interview, Al-Maliki insisted that he will replace the six ministers from the front who are boycotting his government with candidates nominated by Sunni tribal leaders from Al-Anbar, Tikrit, and Mosul. He also rejected accusations by the Sunni bloc that he is marginalizing Iraq's Sunni Arabs. He pointed to the army and the police forces, where the proportion of Sunni Arabs has either equaled or exceeded the percentage in the population overall. SS

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a statement on November 20 saying that it has pledged $11 million to Jordan in an effort to help improve health services for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees living there. The money will be distributed by the Jordanian Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation and will help the Jordanian Ministry of Health enhance public medical services and primary health centers. "In the health sector this will mean increased capacity and improved services to help Jordanians and our Iraqi brethren," said Jordanian Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Suhair al-Ali. The UNHCR estimates that there are 750,000 Iraqi refugees living in Jordan, and their presence has strained the country's infrastructure, primarily in the health sector. "For a long time there was not enough attention given to the burden on Jordan, and we continue to try to help in alleviating this burden," said Imran Riza, a UNHCR representative in Jordan. SS

At a press briefing in Baghdad on November 19, U.S. commander Major General Mark Hertling said that there are indications that Al-Qaeda in Iraq is shifting its operations toward the country's north. Hertling said the U.S. troop surge, coupled with efforts by local groups like the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, have helped push Al-Qaeda in Iraq elements out of Al-Anbar Governorate and Baghdad, but those successes mean that Al-Qaeda in Iraq has shifted some operations to northern Iraq. As a result, Hertling said the north has now become the most violent part of Iraq. The military's Multinational Division North (MND-North) "has the highest number of attacks in all of Iraq," Hertling said. He indicated that U.S. military operations in the north have led to the capture of approximately 200 Al-Qaeda in Iraq suspects since the launch of Operation Iron Hammer on November 5, but warned that there are many other terrorist cells operating in the region. "We've had success, but it is still going to be a very tough fight to eliminate those terrorists and insurgents and extremists completely from those areas," he added. SS

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh on November 20 welcomed the announcement that Iran and the United States have agreed to hold a new round of talks on how to help stabilize Iraq, Iraqi media reported. The United States has made a formal request for another round of talks through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which handles its interests in Iran in the absence of formal diplomatic ties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). "The Iraqi government hopes that the new round of talks among the three countries will be fruitful and yield tangible steps that lead to mutual understanding," al-Dabbagh said in a statement. "The negotiations will help the security and stability of Iraq and also decrease tension in the region," he added. The new round of talks, which has yet to be scheduled, will be the fourth. The three previous meetings failed to reach a breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian relations, with each side accusing the other of being responsible for the violence in Iraq. SS

A U.S. helicopter crashed near Baghdad on November 20, killing two U.S. soldiers and wounding 12 others, the independent news agency Voices of Iraq reported. The helicopter crashed near the town of Salman Pak, 35 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. U.S. military spokesman Major Brad Leighton said the crash was not caused by hostile fire. He declined to give any information on casualties or details on the type of aircraft. Nearly 70 helicopters have crashed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, about half of them because of hostile fire. SS