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Newsline - November 27, 2007

President Vladimir Putin said in St. Petersburg on November 26 that the U.S. State Department is behind the recent decision by the Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) not to send an election observer team to Russia, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 20, and 26, 2007). Putin argued that "according to information we have, [the decision was made] at the recommendation of the U.S. State Department, and we will take this into account in our interstate relations with that country. Their goal is to deny legitimacy to the elections. But they will not achieve it." He stressed that Russia will maintain a strong military so that nobody can "poke their snotty nose into our affairs." Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokeswoman for the Warsaw-based ODIHR, called Putin's remarks "nonsense," adding that he was misinformed about the reasons for the group's withdrawal. She argued that "this was a decision that was simply based on the fact that we were not receiving any visas, and time had run out. The only consultation that took place was within our office." In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack noted that "there was no interference" by U.S. officials in their talks with the OSCE on monitoring. McCormack stressed that the decision was the OSCE's alone. The "International Herald Tribune" reported from Vienna on November 27 that Russia raised few obstacles to monitors from the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly in a move that "annoyed diplomats in Vienna. They said Russia was trying to play off one part of the organization against the other so as to weaken particularly the strong election-monitoring program of the [ODIHR]." "The Moscow Times" reported on November 27 that several Russian political analysts said on November 26 that "Putin's remarks demonstrated that a more aggressive policy toward the West was a central part of Unified Russia's campaign policy." The paper quoted Fyodor Lukyanov, who is chief editor of the quarterly journal "Russia in Global Affairs," as saying that "talking about foreign powers scheming against Russia is still a fruitful campaign strategy, but it harms Russian foreign policy" by making Moscow appear bellicose in Western eyes. PM

U.S. President George W. Bush said in a statement on November 26 that he is "particularly troubled by the use of force by [Russian] law-enforcement authorities [over the previous weekend] to stop...peaceful [demonstrations] and to prevent some journalists and human rights activists from covering them," international media reported. He added that he is "hopeful that the government of Russia will honor its international obligations in these areas, investigate allegations of abuses, and free those who remain in detention..... The freedoms of expression, assembly, and press, as well as due process, are fundamental to any democratic society." But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with state-run Vesti-24 television from Washington on November 26 that police responded properly to "provocations" by protesters who refused to remain in an area where city authorities had permitted them to demonstrate, reported. Lavrov argued that "it is clear to everyone that each democratic country has laws, and these laws should be observed. And when we are urged to ensure freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in line with our international obligations, it's probably a superfluous demand, as all that is fixed in our constitution." He added that "if initiators of demonstrations or rallies are told that they can hold their rallies at places where they will not create problems for the normal functioning of the city, then this should be respected, and any deliberate violation of these rules is, of course, a provocation. I didn't see anything in this situation that showed that our law-enforcement bodies exceeded their authority." PM

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in Brussels on November 26 that the recent crackdown by Russian police on demonstrators in Moscow and St. Petersburg was "heavy-handed," Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). He stressed that "the right to peaceful free speech and assembly are basic fundamental human rights. I very much regret that the authorities found it necessary to take such heavy-handed action." In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm called for the "immediate" release of detained opposition leader Garry Kasparov, dpa reported. A spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, which is headed by Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democrats (SPD), who rarely criticizes Russia, said that criteria for the rule of law were not observed in dealing with Kasparov. She noted that all political groups should have the opportunity to express themselves freely, especially shortly before an election. In Paris, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told RTL radio that Russia must explain the action of its police. He added that he cannot conceive that former world chess champion Kasparov could be a threat to his country's security. Kouchner nonetheless denied that Russia is becoming a dictatorship. PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov said in his interview with Vesti-24 television from Washington on November 26 after meeting earlier that day with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the latest U.S. proposals on cooperation on missile defense constitute a "significant rollback from what American representatives said" when he met with Rice in October, Russian media reported. He argued that "if 'joint work' means continuing [to implement] one-sided plans to build antimissile facilities in Eastern Europe, and we are only invited to assist in these plans and to provide the information we have, this is hardly what we have in mind when we propose to work together from the very beginning in carrying out an analysis, defining the threats, and agreeing jointly on what measures should be taken to counter them." Lavrov said he and Rice will hold further talks on missile defense. The daily "Kommersant" commented on November 27 that Lavrov's statement means that chances of a Washington-Moscow compromise on missile defense are even farther off than before (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 1, 9, and 26, 2007). Lavrov also said in Washington that Russia is prepared to host a conference on Middle Eastern issues, RIA Novosti reported. PM

The "Hindustan Times" reported from New Delhi on November 27 that Indian officials are "upset with Russia's unilateral decision to more than double the cost of the refurbishment of the aircraft carrier 'Admiral Gorshkov'" from $1 billion to $2.2 billion. Indian representatives will discuss the matter in Moscow shortly. India maintains that the existing deal, which is already at least two years behind schedule, was for a fixed price contract (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 3, 2006, and November 13, 2007). PM

An unidentified regional election official has charged that local officials have been ordered to double the number of votes Unified Russia receives in the December 2 legislative elections in their official tallies, "The Moscow Times" reported on November 27. The official, who asked not to be identified, said the inflated results will most likely be achieved by doctoring voter protocols to boost the number of voters who show up at the polls. A spokeswoman for the Central Election Commission denied the allegations and assured the daily that "no vote rigging will be allowed." The official discussed how Unified Russia's call for each supporter to bring 10 people to the polls to vote for the party will work. "This means that each one of us has to get 10 people to vote for Unified Russia, and we have to provide our superiors with a list of the names of these people," he said. "Everyone in the region is working on this." Communist Party Duma Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin told the daily that his party has also heard that officials are being required to double Unified Russia's vote totals. A journalism student at Oryol State University told the paper that professors have ordered students to vote for Unified Russia or face expulsion. Students have reportedly been ordered to vote at an on-campus polling station supervised by university faculty. reported on November 27 that local A Just Russia official Oksana Dmitriyeva has accused Unified Russia of bribing voters. She said the pro-Kremlin party has given voters blankets, pet food, free massages, and other gifts. She showed reporters a video of local cadets handing out packages of food bearing the Unified Russia logo. She added that local students have been promised places in dormitories in exchange for supporting Unified Russia. RC

Russia's legislative election campaign has entered its final phase with just days remaining before the December 2 vote, Russian media reported. President Putin and Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov on November 26 attended a Unified Russia-sponsored competition in St. Petersburg to honor the country's best managers. On November 27, Unified Russia will hold a concert in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral under the slogan, "We are united. We are Russia." On November 28 in St. Petersburg, Putin supporters will hold a demonstration similar to the one in Moscow's Luzhniki complex on November 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007), "Vedomosti" reported. The youth wing of the party, the Young Guard, will hold rallies in numerous regional cities on November 29 and 30. RC

Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov on November 26 met with the ambassadors of neighboring countries to discuss the December 2 elections, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on November 27. Churov said the commission has created a special medal with the image of ethnographer Nikolai Girenko that will be awarded to election monitors who help the commission correct errors in the voting system. Girenko, an expert on racist extremism who frequently testified at trials involving skinheads, was murdered at his apartment in St. Petersburg by neo-Nazis in June 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2004). Churov said the official election results must be published by December 17, but that he expects them to be available much sooner, by December 7-8. He said the commission expects some 1.5 million domestic election observers, mostly from the 11 parties competing in the polls. Interfax reported on November 27 that some 1,500 journalists will be accredited to cover the voting. Russian media will be represented by journalists from 14 radio stations, 17 television networks, 18 news agencies, and 31 newspapers and magazines. Churov was quoted as saying about 400 foreign journalists from 34 countries will also be covering the polls. Interfax also reported that some 45,000 police officers will be on duty on December 2 to maintain order during the voting. Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandr Chekalin told journalists on November 26 that officers have been studying the country's election laws. He said during the campaign police seized some 5.4 million pieces of campaign material that have since been turned over to judicial authorities for evaluation. RC

United Civic Front leader Kasparov, who was arrested on November 24 and sentenced to five days in jail for conducting an illegal demonstration, has been denied access to lawyers and has been unable to receive visitors or parcels, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other Russian media reported. Independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov issued a public statement on November 26 demanding that he and Kasparov's lawyer be granted access to him. On November 27, United Civic Front activist Aleksandr Ryklin said police have informed Kasparov's mother that Kasparov will not be allowed to receive parcels for his entire term of detention. RC

The Federation Council's adoption on November 26 of a measure setting the date for the presidential election as March 2, 2008, has set off speculation that President Putin will resign in the next few days, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on November 26. Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov commented that the election law would allow Putin to run for another term if he resigns as president before the Federation Council's resolution is officially published, which must happen by December 1. Central Election Commission Chairman Churov said on November 26 that he believes the law would forbid Putin from seeking another term even if he did resign. "The Federation Council will set the election for president of Russia for March 2," analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told RFE/RL. "On November 30, Friday, that decision will be published in 'Rossiiskaya gazeta.' If at the moment of publication of that decision Putin is formally the president, he cannot run again and that means there will not be a third term and he will leave power forever. Therefore, he has Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to resign and then run again. But only by remaining president can he maintain power and I think that in this regard he doesn't have any illusions." RIA Novosti reported on November 23 that Putin has recorded a statement that will be broadcast on national television on November 29. It did not reveal what the content of the statement is, but cited "Kommersant" as reporting it was recorded not in the Kremlin, but at the Ostankino broadcast center because "the president wanted to be seen as the lead candidate of Unified Russia's election list rather than as head of state." RC

President Putin on November 24 signed a decree creating the Russian Technologies state corporation and naming Rosoboroneksport head Sergei Chemezov as its head, Russian media reported on November 27, citing a Kremlin press release of the previous day. Chemezov, a powerful Kremlin insider with close ties to Putin, has long lobbied for the new megacorporation, which will include Rosoboroneksport; carmaker AvtoVAZ; steelmaker RusSpetsStal; VSMPO-Avisima, the world's largest producer of titanium; and other companies. Interfax reported that deputy Rosoboroneksport CEO Anatoly Isaikin will replace Chemezov at the helm of the state arms-export monopoly. Chemezov told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on November 26 that the goal of the new company will be to lift Russian machine-building to world leadership both in the civilian and military spheres. Chemezov defended the new corporation by citing the problems faced by Rosoboroneksport: "Our enterprise is a state special exporter, the last stop before the export of the products of the Russian military-industrial complex onto world markets, which answers for its commercial success. But at the same time we do not have any opportunity to regulate and control cooperative ties among the participants in the chain of production." "Vremya novostei" reported on November 27 that the new megacorporation's oversight board will be headed by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and does not include First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who oversees defense and technology issues for the government. RC

Academician Nariman Aliyev, 77, a renowned viticulture specialist, was found shot dead together with his wife at their home in the village of Mamedkala in Derbent Raion on November 26, reported. Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev told journalists the murder was the work of "destructive forces" out to destabilize the situation in the run-up to the December 2 elections to the Russian State Duma, reported. Aliyev convened a meeting of law-enforcement and security officials the same day to discuss the investigation into the killings of the Aliyevs and of Farid Babayev, who headed the Daghestan organization of the opposition Yabloko party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). Speaking in Makhachkala on November 25, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky said Babayev was "a victim of Putin's authoritarian regime, which makes a point of physically annihilating its opponents," and that the Daghestan leadership shares responsibility for Babayev's murder, reported. Yavlinsky recalled that Babayev repeatedly protested official corruption and human-rights violations and criticized the republic's leadership. He further characterized Daghestan as "the most complex and dangerous region" of Russia and said the central government should intervene to stabilize the situation there. Meeting with Yavlinsky on November 26, President Aliyev categorically rejected his criticisms. LF

Ismail Sabanchiyev, who heads the embattled Council of Elders of the Balkar People, told a press conference in Nalchik on November 26 that the council has appealed to Balkars to vote in the December 2 State Duma elections for the pro-presidential Unified Russia party, reported. He explained that Unified Russia was instrumental in the passage of legislation on local self-government, on the basis of which the Russian Constitutional Court ruled in April 2007 that the parliament of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) was not empowered to annul the status of the villages of Khasanya and Belaya Rechka on the southwestern outskirts of Nalchik and subsume those districts into the Nalchik municipality. He said the Balkars as a small ethnic group should be grateful to Unified Russia and should also recognize the need for "strong executive power." Sabanchiyev rejected the accusations of "extremism" leveled against the council, on the basis of which the republican prosecutor's office suspended its registration earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2007). The Council has appealed that suspension to the KBR Supreme Court. LF

The Chechen Committee for National Salvation released a statement on November 26 deploring the formal indictment of two Ingush brothers, Amirkhan Khidriyev, 30, and Maksharip Khidriyev, 29, on charges of terrorism connected with the August 13 bombing of the Neva Express train, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). The statement noted that the two men, who were permanently employed as construction workers in Ingushetia prior to their arrest last month, both have cast-iron alibis. It also pointed out that they were detained without a warrant and not informed the reason for their detention or where they were being taken. The two men are currently being held in pretrial detention in Novgorord Oblast; neither their relatives nor their lawyers have been permitted to met with them since October 31. LF

Dashink party head Samvel Babayan, a former commander of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic defense forces, rejected on November 24 criticisms of Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian made earlier this month by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on November 26. Addressing a Dashink congress, Babayan explicitly denied Ter-Petrosian's allegation that Sarkisian was "expelled " from Karabakh in 1993 following "serious disputes" and settled for a while in Moscow. Babayan claimed he and Sarkisian jointly planned the capture of six Azerbaijani raions contiguous to Karabakh between April-October 1993, and that Sarkisian was exiled to Moscow because the Armenian leadership sought to prevent what he termed "the liberation of territories." Babayan said that while in Moscow, Sarkisian "did a useful, important job" in negotiating the supply of Russian arms to Armenia. Sarkisian was named Armenian defense minister later in 1993. Babayan said that in light of Ter-Petrossian's conciliatory line on Karabakh, he will not endorse his candidacy in the February 2008 presidential ballot, but neither did Babayan explicitly express his support for Sarkisian. The congress approved on November 24 the planned merger of Dashink, which has one parliament mandate, with the extraparliamentary Ramkavar-Azatakan party (see "Armenia: Three Parties To Merge In Opposition,", August 22, 2007). But the third proposed member of that planned new party, the National Rebirth party headed by former Yerevan mayor Albert Bazeyan, is divided on the merger, which will be put to a vote at its congress on December 5, Noyan Tapan reported on November 26. LF

Faina Kungurova, a former member of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, died in pretrial detention on November 18 of unknown causes, Turan and reported on November 26. Kungurova was detained on October 5 close to a highway along which the presidential motorcade was scheduled to pass and charged with possession of drugs. She was arrested on charges of hooliganism in 2002 but released under the terms of an amnesty two years later. LF

No fewer than 22 potential candidates submitted documentation to Georgia's Central Election Commission on November 26 with the aim of registering to participate in the preterm presidential election scheduled for January 5, 2008, Caucasus Press reported. By contrast, six candidates succeeded in registering for the January 2004 presidential ballot and seven in April 2000, of whom one withdrew at the last minute. The hopefuls include incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili; Levan Gachechiladze, who is backed by the nine-party opposition National Council; oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili; David Gamkrelidze of the New Rightists; Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili; Gia Maisashvili, head of the Georgia's Future party; former Imereti Governor Temur Shashiashvili; Soviet-era dissident Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia; lawyer Kartlos Gharibashvili, who ran unsuccessfully in the 1991, 1995, 2000, and 2004 elections; former Communist Party of Georgia leader Avtandil Margiani, and Fazil Aliyev, who represents Georgia's 500,000-strong Azerbaijani minority. In a televised address to the nation on November 26, parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, who assumed the powers of president the previous day after Saakashvili stepped down to embark on his election campaign, called for "unity and calm" in the run-up to the January ballot and appealed to voters to "think carefully" before casting their ballots, Caucasus Press reported. Concurrently with the preterm election, a referendum will be held in which voters will be asked to say whether they think the next parliamentary elections should be held in the spring or the fall of 2008 and whether they support Georgia's hoped-for accession to NATO. LF

CIS defense ministers voted on November 27 in Astana to extend the tenure of Major General Sergei Chaban as commander of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed since July 1994 under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone, and reported. Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said the peacekeepers are performing their duties well, but that Chaban will be replaced "in the near future." Saakashvili demanded Chaban's immediate expulsion from Georgia in the wake of a standoff between Russian peacekeepers and Georgian police last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 31, 2007). Speaking in Tbilisi later on November 27, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said the vote to extend Chaban's tenure was illegal because Georgia did not participate, reported. Saakashvili signed a decree on November 25 on Georgia's withdrawal from the CIS Defense Ministers' Council. LF

Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov met in Astana on November 26 with visiting Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko to discuss energy ties and reviewed plans to expand bilateral trade and investment, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Khristenko, in Astana to participate in a meeting of the Kazakh-Russian intergovernmental commission that opened in Astana the same day, told reporters that Russia is "shifting from trade operations to big, systemic investment projects" in the energy sector and has a new focus on "electricity generation." Although bilateral trade is expected to reach about $16 billion by the end of 2007, the energy sector constitutes the overwhelming share of investment and trade. RG

Meeting in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission formally issued a list of 12 parties eligible to participate in December 16 parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Kabar reported. The commission approved party lists submitted by: Ata-Meken (Fatherland); Communists of Kyrgyzstan; Ar-Namys (Dignity); Aalam (The Universe), the party of independent people; Erkindik (Freedom); Asaba (Flag); Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan; Jangy Kuech (The New Force); the party of women and youth of Kyrgyzstan; Ak-Jol (Ak-Jol Eldik Partiyasy [Best Path Popular]) Party; Erkin Kyrgyzstan (Free Kyrgyzstan); El Dobushu (People's Voice); and Turan. With the close of the registration process, the official campaign period opened on November 26. RG

To comply with the recently revised Electoral Code, Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu and the Constitutional Court's presiding judge, Cholpon Baekova, both stepped down on November 26 in order to stand as candidates in the December 16 parliamentary elections, AKIpress and Kabar reported. Bakir-uulu heads the Erkin (Free) Kyrgyzstan party and tops that party's list of candidates. Kanybek Joroev, the presidential representative in the parliament, also resigned on November 26 to run for a seat in the new parliament. RG

Senior leaders of the Kyrgyz opposition Ata-Meken party on November 26 opened their party's election campaign with a series of rallies and public meetings in the northern Talas region, AKIpress reported. The Ata-Meken party is led by a former parliament speaker and prominent opposition figure, Omurbek Tekebaev, and its campaign for the approaching parliamentary elections was bolstered by the support from former deputies Bolot Sherniyazov, Temir Sariev, Kubat Baibolov, Tashbolot Baltabaev, and former Interior Minister Bakirdin Subanbekov. The opposition Social Democratic Party staged a rally the same day in Bishkek's central Ala-Too Square. The Social Democrats are led by Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev. RG

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon met in Dushanbe on November 26 with the head of the European Union's East Europe and Central Asia working group, Darja Bavdaz Kuret, Tajik television reported. Rahmon presented Kuret with a review of his government's efforts to combat drug smuggling in the region and noted the need for greater border security. Rahmon also discussed overall relations with the EU, with a focus on "integration in the fields of energy and the creation of a regional market of electricity." RG

Uzbek President Islam Karimov on November 26 launched his reelection campaign with a series of public events in the southern region of Surxondaryo, Uzbek Television reported. Karimov, who has served as the president of Uzbekistan since 1989, was recently certified as a candidate in the December 23 election despite a constitutional ban on third terms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). RG

Alyaksandr Lukashenka on November 26 said in an interview with the Spanish daily "El Pais" that the European Union does not want the normalization of relations with Belarus. Lukashenka said that "Europe has gone too far and does not know today how to get out of this, saving its face." "If the European Union has enough determination to do that, we will be sitting at one table and holding a dialogue to be closer. We want this, but the EU does not want this and puts forward unacceptable terms," he said. The Kyiv-based European Commission delegation to Belarus and Ukraine issued a statement last week on the occasion of the first anniversary of the European Commission report titled "What the European Union Could Bring to Belarus." "The EU's offer to Belarus remains valid," the delegation said, adding that the conditions for the improvement of relations between Belarus and the EU include "the release of all political prisoners, respect for freedom of speech and of association, the holding of free and fair elections, the investigation of the cases of missing persons, and respect for the rights of minorities." AM

Yuriy Yekhanurov, a former prime minister and currently a lawmaker for the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) in the new parliament, on November 26 posted on his website a letter urging the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) and NUNS to revise some provisions of their coalition deal and sign the document in public, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. In particular, Yekhanurov wants some election pledges of the BYuT to be postponed, including the abolition of value-added tax, the compensation within two years of depreciated deposits at the savings bank of the former Soviet Union, the switch to a fully professional army from January 1, 2009, and the abolition of the military draft from January 1, 2008. Leaders of the BYuT and NUNS in mid-October initialed the coalition accord, but six NUNS lawmakers have so far refused to sign it. The BYuT and NUNS control 228 seats in the new Verkhovna Rada -- just two more than the number required to pass most legislation. AM

Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha said on November 26 that the Christian Democratic Union Party and the Forward Ukraine! party, which are part of the NUNS bloc, have suspended their participation in the transformation of NUNS into a single party, Interfax and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Baloha also said that the commitment to unify the bloc into a strong single party was one of the conditions for President Viktor Yushchenko's support for NUNS during the early parliamentary elections. Baloha believes that such a commitment increased NUNS' chances among Ukrainian voters. "Politicians who gained seats in the parliament should bear in mind their promises to the head of state," Baloha said. The NUNS bloc comprises nine political parties and movements. AM

The Council of Europe on November 22 urged the Macedonian authorities to open a new investigation into the death three years ago of President Boris Trajkovski, citing "worrying" inconsistencies in the findings of an official investigation. In a statement to accompany the release of a report commissioned by a Council of Europe committee and headed by a Swiss member, Andreas Gross, concluded that the plane crash that killed Trajkovski was "most likely" an accident, but added that there were "numerous inconsistencies and contradictions in the official inquiry." Gross suggested that the Council of Europe should itself be involved in the investigation. Trajkovski's plane crashed in poor weather in February 2004, near the Bosnian town of Mostar. The official inquiry, which was conducted by Bosnian authorities and NATO-led forces stationed in Bosnia at the time, concluded that the crash occurred because the pilot was flying too low. However, Gross said there were "possible indications of negligence on the side of the NATO-led stabilization force SFOR, which could have prompted a cover-up," and he also said there were "quite worrying" questions, such as "the long time needed to find the wreckage" and "the dysfunctional black box flight recorder." AG

One of Macedonia's most popular television stations, Alsat-M, has accused the government of leading a concerted, two-month campaign aimed at curtailing its independence. In a statement released on November 21, Alsat-M said the government has since September sent in numerous inspectors and -- most recently -- threatened, through Transport and Communications Minister Mile Janakieski, not to renew its broadcasting license. The statement also raised questions about two recent incidents on November 16, in which its broadcasting relay points were damaged by intruders. The station dated its problems to an incident in September when police roughed up one of its cameramen during an operation in the wake of violent scenes in parliament between ethnic-Albanian parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2007). Alsat-M's editor in chief, Muhamed Zeqiri, told the news service Balkan Insight that the pressure mounted in early November after Deputy Interior Minister Refet Elmazi stated publicly that Alsat-M could face criminal charges over the way that it covered a police operation in which six people were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8 and 9, 2007). Alsat-M is the newest broadcaster in Macedonia, but it has secured popularity across the country, in part by broadcasting in both Macedonian and Albanian. AG

The bodies of eight non-Albanians killed during the 1998-99 war in Kosova were on November 23 handed over to Serbia for burial, the UN Mission in Kosova said. The ethnic background and the identities of the dead were not given, but, according to AP, a Serbian official, Veljko Odalovic, said the victims were killed after the international coalition entered Kosova in June 1999 to halt the fighting. The eight were among the 2,398 people who, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, remain listed as missing. Around 10,000 people were killed in the conflict. Serbian President Boris Tadic said on November 23 that he expects the search for the missing to continue, "because that is a precondition for good relations." There was some potentially positive news for the families of the missing on November 21, when, according to the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, Russia's mediator in talks on Kosova's future, Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko, said that Belgrade and Prishtina have agreed "to look for the missing." The families of Kosovar Serbs and Albanians missing since the war have previously sought unsuccessfully for the issue to feature in the talks. AG

Forensic experts have exhumed the remains of 616 Bosnian Muslims killed during the Srebrenica massacre from a mass grave in the eastern Bosnian village of Kamenica, Reuters and local media reported on November 22. This is the largest number of bodies recovered this year from one site. "We found 76 complete and 540 incomplete bodies," an official of the regional commission for missing persons, Ismet Music, told reporters at the end of the monthlong excavation. In an effort to hide their crimes, ethnic-Serbian soldiers frequently reburied victims, resulting in incomplete bodies being found. Many of those buried in this "secondary" grave were originally buried in Kravice and Pilica, local media reported. However, the grave contains documents identifying many of the victims and unusual soil conditions mean that many of the bodies found in the latest excavation are well-preserved. The arms of many of the victims had been tied before they were killed. This is the ninth mass grave found in Kamenica, which is not far from Srebrenica, where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29, 2007). AG

For the first time, a war crimes indictee has struck a plea-bargain agreement with Bosnian prosecutors, the news service Balkan Insight reported on November 23. The suspect, Idhan Sipic, now faces six to 10 years in prison, his attorney said, for murdering a woman in September 1995 and throwing her body into a well. He was serving with Bosnian Muslim forces at the time. The agreement has yet to be accepted by Bosnia's War Crimes Chamber. In other news, the War Crimes Chamber on November 20 upheld a 34-year sentence passed on a Bosnian Serb paramilitary commander, Gojko Jankovic, for the murder and rape of seven Bosnian Muslim and Croat civilians in Foca between 1992 and 1993. Jankovic's sentence, which was handed down in February, is the longest given by the Bosnian court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). AG

Albania's parliament on November 22 approved the appointment of a new chief prosecutor, a day after Prime Minister Sali Berisha succeed in removing his one-time adviser, Theodhori Sollaku, from the post. Sollaku is replaced by Ina Rama, the first woman to occupy the position. The vote -- 83 in favor and 33 against -- reflected the sharp divisions between the government and the opposition in the dispute over Sollaku's ouster. Sollaku was sacked and Rama appointed at the recommendation of President Bami Topi and of a parliamentary commission, which on November 5 concluded that Sollaku had failed adequately to tackle organized crime and had released 22 prisoners too early. Topi's membership of the Democrat Party and the speed at which the inquiry reached its conclusion -- within days of starting a monthlong process -- have all stoked opposition concerns that the Democrats are engaged in a campaign to politicize the judiciary in their favor. In the months before his removal, Sollaku led investigations into claims of corruption in the government, investigations that some claimed were an attempt to forestall his removal. One minister, Foreign Minister Lulzim Basha, was implicated. Parliament refused to strip Basha of immunity, and Berisha ordered police not to cooperate with prosecutors in their efforts to investigate Basha (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, October 16 and 20, and November 6, 2007). At the time of his dismissal, Sollaku was also investigating another minister, Ilir Rusmajli, who gave up his justice portfolio on November 14 after evidence emerged that his brother put pressure on the director of prisons to award him a construction contract (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2007). Berisha, who served five years as Albania's president in the 1990s, won the post of prime minister in 2005 largely thanks to a campaign that focused on fighting corruption. AG

Albania is failing to meet its obligation to provide support for adults who emerge from its institutions, Amnesty International argued in a report released on November 21. Orphans struggle to find work, housing, or understanding of their marginalization in a country where family ties are particularly strong, the human rights watchdog said, but it particularly stressed that they are unable to gain "secure and adequate housing," which, it stressed, is a human right recognized by international treaties to which Albania is a signatory. In a society where a network of parents and relatives is often the route to employment and marriage, adult orphans who have grown up in institutional care in Albania are also vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and criminals, and are themselves more likely to become criminals. The numbers affected are relatively small -- 340 orphans aged between 25 and 40 -- but that is a large proportion of the 600 orphans currently in institutions. The small number of institutionalized orphans reflects the strong family ties in Albania, a country of about 3.5 million people. Amnesty called on the government to pay more attention to orphans when it allocates the roughly 4,000 flats in a new, internationally funded social-housing program targeted at low-income families. Under Albanian law, orphans already have priority rights to housing. AG

A commission established by the Serbian government has rejected many of the criticisms leveled by a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization at Serbia's care system for children with mental and physical disabilities. A statement issued on November 23 said that the report's author, Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI), "created a grossly distorted picture" and "used incorrect data in its research." It said that "the number of mentally ill who are kept in special hospitals is one-third" the figure of 17,200 given in the MDRI report (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). However, the commission acknowledged failings and one of its members, Minister for Labor and Social Affairs Rasim Ljajic, said on November 22 that the government has now adopted a plan to modernize and upgrade facilities, pay staff more, increase staff levels, and develop additional rehabilitation programs. Neither he nor the commission as a whole repeated broader criticisms voiced by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who portrayed the report as part of a broader international campaign of "systematic propaganda" against Serbia timed to undermine Serbia's bid to retain sovereignty over Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). AG


A roadside explosion targeted a convoy of Afghan soldiers traveling to their base in the eastern Paktia Province on November 26, killing four soldiers and injuring two others, Chinaview reported. "The Taliban rebels detonated a roadside bomb by remote control in Zurmat district today at noon, destroying a military vehicle and killing four soldiers on the spot," said Deen Mohammad Darwish, a local government spokesman. Separately, an explosion destroyed a civilian car south of Kabul, killing four civilians, according to regional police commander General Zalmay Oryakhail. No group has claimed responsibility for either blast. MM

In a stormy session of the Wolesi Jirga on November 26, speaker Yunos Qanuni repeated a demand that six senior officials responsible for security in the northern Baghlan Province be dismissed and then led a walkout by several dozen deputies, Bakhtar News Agency and international agencies reported. Opposition leader Qanuni cited the findings of an investigative committee dispatched to Baghlan by the Wolesi Jirga after a devastating suicide bombing on November 6 that killed six members of parliament along with scores of schoolchildren and bystanders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2007), saying provincial security officials had been guilty of "negligence and incompetence." He accused Hamid Karzai's government of ignoring legislators' previous demand for officials including Baghlan's governor, to be sacked. "I do not want to stay here and sit in this position until your demands are fulfilled," AP quoted Qanuni as saying before the walkout. MM

Afghan Urban Development Minister Yusuf Pashtun and University of California researcher on urban development Pietro Calogero told a joint news conference in Kabul on November 26 that the Afghan capital has fallen victim to "rapid, unregulated, and unequal" urbanization, IRIN reported. "Almost 70 percent of houses and commercial buildings have been built irregularly and in contravention of the Kabul city master plan," Pashtun told IRIN. Kabul's population has grown from an estimated 500,000 people in 2001 to over 3 million in 2007, largely due to the return of Afghan refugees from Iran and Pakistan. The vast majority of Kabul residents live in slums that lack electricity, plumbing, schools, clinics, or other facilities. "Only 2 percent of Kabul residents have regular access to electricity, while over half of them lack access to sanitation," Mohammad Yasin Hellal, a Kabul city official, was quoted as saying. Calogero emphasized the future needs of urbanization in Afghanistan and warned that "there should be more funding for urban development and building urban infrastructure because people will choose to live in urban areas." Pashtun blamed a lack of resources and capacity within the Afghan government, adding that his ministry needs more funding, more professional staff, and at least 15 years to resolve the crisis. Meanwhile, President Karzai used a regular cabinet session on November 26 to express concern about worsening air pollution in Kabul and discuss ways to reduce environmental damage, Bakhtar News Agency reported. The cabinet decided to task Second Vice President Karim Khalili with leading a team of ministers and senior environmental officials to examine the causes and effects of pollution in the capital and recommend policy solutions for consideration. Much of Kabul's pollution is blamed on its unpaved roads, diesel-fueled cars and generators, and the burning of rubber tires to heat public baths or to bake the bricks used in construction. MM

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a gathering of Basiji militiamen in Tehran on November 26 that the November 27 Annapolis summit to discuss peace between Israelis and Palestinians is doomed to fail, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media reports. He said that "all the world's statesmen" know the U.S.-hosted conference "is already condemned to failure." He said the United States is trying to help Israel, and warned Arab states to "beware of the plots of the Zionist enemy." The conference is being attended by representatives from several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, Iran's regional ally. Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told Saudi King Abdullah by telephone on November 25 that he is disappointed that the kingdom will send a delegate to the summit, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal is to represent the kingdom. Ahmadinejad reportedly told the king the United States is an "accomplice" in Israel's crimes and could hardly be an impartial host. Iranian news agencies have reported that Abdullah assured him that Saudi Arabia will never recognize Israel and would defend Palestinian rights, Radio Farda reported. VS

Iranian senior Deputy Foreign Minister Alireza Sheikh-Attar told the visiting deputy head of the Hamas political bureau, Musa Abu Marzuq, in Tehran on November 25 that the Annapolis meeting is not intended to help the Palestinians and its organizers "are pursuing their own goals," "Iran" reported on November 26. Hamas has stated its opposition to the summit. The two also discussed current divisions between Hamas and the Fatah organization of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas. Abu Marzuq told Sheikh-Attar that Hamas considers the Palestinian constitution the "framework" for government and that he believes talks could help resolve differences with Fatah. He said U.S. policy on Palestine is "confused" and the United States has no "means of resolving the Palestinian issue." The Annapolis conference, he predicted, will fail. VS

The Association in Defense of Prisoners' Rights has issued a statement asking for the release of its head, Emadeddin Baqi, "Etemad" reported on November 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). The group stated that it was formed to help improve the lot of prisoners and is working in line with international treaties and Iran's own laws, and with permission from the state. The group vowed in its statement to continue its activities and efforts to have Baqi released. Separately, the judiciary has refused to pardon blogger Arash Sigarchi following a request to judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi by the Iranian Association of Journalists, the country's main professional press group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2005, and February 7, 2007). A court in Gilan, northern Iran, sentenced Sigarchi to 14 years in prison in 2005 for his writings, though a second court reduced this to three years. He served 16 months of his sentence in a prison in Rasht, northern Iran, but "Etemad" reported that the prison doctor called for his release in November or December 2006 when he was diagnosed with cancer in his mouth. The report suggested he has not been released, and the judiciary has rejected the request for his release or pardon, citing opposition to this by the Gilan provincial intelligence department. VS

Deputy Oil Minister Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh stated his approval for the current gasoline-restriction policies in Tehran on November 25 and said the government is not contemplating allowing Iranians to buy gasoline at free-market prices above a monthly 100-liter-per-month quota currently sold at a subsidized price. He said it would only do so if parliament forced it to do so by passing a law. Legislators have urged the government to allow extra purchases, to resolve shortages in some areas, and end a growing black market in gasoline, but Nematzadeh said there is already enough traffic in Tehran and the government is disinclined to let Iranians buy more gasoline. Iran imposed the restrictions in June to curb traffic, pollution, and fuel wastage; critics have said it has not properly implemented fuel-restriction legislation ratified by parliament. Fars news agency reported on November 25 that Iran imported almost 3 billion liters of gasoline, worth just over $1.47 billion, in the seven-month period from March 21, 2007. VS

Iran's Intelligence Ministry announced in Tehran on November 26 that it has busted a "propaganda and military cell" and arrested 11 members of the Kurdish militant group Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), which has battled Iranian forces in the western regions in recent months, Radio Farda reported. The ministry said the group was responsible for actions including a bomb explosion at an exhibition, an attack on a police post, and starting a fire, all in the western city of Sanandaj. The PJAK is often associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), another Kurdish group that has fought Turkish forces in southeastern Turkey and now from northern Iraq, where the PJAK is also thought to have positions. The ministry said the 11 were handed over to judicial authorities, without elaborating. VS

An Iranian fighter jet crashed into the Oman Sea off Iran's southeastern coast near the port of Kenarak, Radio Farda reported on November 26, citing IRNA. The plane was an F-4 fighter jet, in use in Iran since such planes were bought in the 1970s by the shah's government. It reportedly crashed during maneuvers in the afternoon. IRNA did not elaborate on the causes of the crash or fate of the pilot, Radio Farda reported. VS

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced on November 26 that he and U.S. President George W. Bush have agreed to begin negotiating on future military, economic, and diplomatic cooperation, Iraqi media reported. In addition, al-Maliki said that Baghdad will ask for the renewal of the U.S.-led coalition's UN mandate for a final year, ending in 2008. The UN Security Council has been renewed the multinational troops' mandate annually since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Al-Maliki indicated that a more robust bilateral Iraq-U.S. pact will eventually replace the UN mandate. "What President Bush and I signed today is just a declaration of principles and intentions to reflect our desire to have such a relationship that enables us to remove Iraq from Chapter 7 [of the UN mandate] as well as to end the presence of the multinational force in 2008," al-Maliki said. During a press conference in Washington, D.C. on November 26, Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, the deputy national security adviser for Afghanistan and Iraq, said the agreement will set the agenda to help build a future U.S.-Iraqi relationship. "The two negotiating teams, Iraq and the United States, now have a common sheet of music with which to begin the negotiations.... What we expect this to do is provide a bilateral mandate," Lute said. SS

At a November 25 news conference in Irbil, Kurdistan region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani could not cancel any oil contracts signed by the Kurdistan regional government (KRG), "Peyamner" reported the same day. Al-Shahristani recently voided all oil exploration and exportation deals between the KRG and foreign companies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). Barzani also stressed that the oil contracts comply with provisions enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution and said the KRG does not attach any value to al-Shahristani's comments. "The KRG will continue its work [on oil contracts] within the Iraqi Constitution. We have a constitutional tribunal, if there is any problem, al-Shahristani can take it there in order to be solved," Barzani said. He also expressed regret that al-Shahristani is trying to coordinate with Iraq's neighboring states to prevent the KRG from exporting its oil, describing the tactic as reminiscent of those used by the former regime. SS

At a November 25 news conference in Baghdad, Muhsin Abd al-Hasan, head of the Iraqi border guards, said that large numbers of Iraqi refugees have started to return, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. "We are receiving tremendous numbers of displaced families at the borders of Syria and Jordan," al-Hasan said. "We are having difficulties dealing with the large numbers." Al-Hasan said that in an effort to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Iraq, refugees are being subjected to intense searches by border guards, which in turn has led to long lines at border crossings. Meanwhile, Adnan Jawad Ali, deputy commander of the Iraqi ground forces, said that many refugees who have returned to their homes in Baghdad found them looted or destroyed, AFP reported on November 26. He said the Iraqi military has deployed units into areas where refugees are returning to provide security, but stressed that it is up to the government to deal with the problems of damaged or destroyed homes. On November 23, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees downplayed the return of thousands of Iraqi refugees, stressing that it is due more to necessity than an indication of improved security in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). SS

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, said at a November 25 press conference that U.S. accusations that Iran is behind much of the violence in Iraq are unfounded, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Al-Hakim said U.S. forces need more proof that Iran is fomenting violence in Iraq and he stressed that the Islamic Republic has repeatedly expressed its willingness to support the government and people of Iraq. "During my meetings with [Iranian] officials, they reiterated what they had announced before; namely, that they really want to support the Iraqi government...and stand by the Iraqi people, especially since they have a long history of support for the Iraqi people," al-Hakim said. U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith said on November 24 that an Iranian-linked Shi'ite militia was responsible for the November 23 bombing at a Baghdad pet market that killed 13 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). SS

An Iraqi journalist living in Jordan said 11 members of his family living in Baghdad were killed by a Shi'ite militia, the BBC reported on November 26. Dia al-Kawwaz, the editor in chief of the news website Shabakat Akhbar Al-Iraq (Iraq News Network), said Shi'ite militants stormed his family's house in northern Baghdad on November 25 and killed everyone inside, including his wife and children. Shabakat Akhbar Al-Iraq has long been critical of the Iraqi government and the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The Iraqi Association to Defend Journalists' Rights issued a statement condemning the "brutal crime" against al-Kawwaz's family. "We call on the government to review the crimes and violations being perpetrated against journalists and their families. They should take responsibility to protect journalists who are the main targets of gunmen," it said in a statement. Reporters Without Borders said approximately 206 journalists and media assistants have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. SS

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry announced on November 26 that Iraq has endorsed the UN Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the use and storage of chemical weapons, KUNA reported. Surud Najib, head of foreign relations in President Jalal Talabani's office, said the three-member Presidential Council recently endorsed Iraq's accession to the convention after the parliament approved the measure. "The decision will present a new civilized face of Iraq when it deals with the international community," Najib said. He also noted that the move enables Iraq to seek greater international assistance to eliminate remnants of chemical weapons produced by the former regime as well as to ensure that a new Iraq will be free of weapons of mass destruction. SS