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Newsline - November 29, 2007

President Vladimir Putin said at a reception for the heads of foreign diplomatic missions on November 28 that Russia is determined to take its place among the major powers of the world and will not tolerate any attempts from the outside to "correct" its domestic political development, reported. He pledged that the upcoming parliamentary elections will be "honest..., transparent, and open as possible, without organizational failures and problems," in a possible dig at the United States, where the 2000 presidential election was riddled with organizational difficulties. He pointed out that "Russia is one of the world's 10 largest economies." Putin argued that Moscow seeks to solve international problems through the "honest and direct dialogue...that I called for [in] Munich in February" in a speech that many Western observers, however, considered bellicose and anti-American. Using a favorite term of America's European critics, Putin on November 28 called for "multi-polarity" in world affairs and defended his tough policies on "missile defense, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty" as contributing to "strategic stability." He rarely mentioned the United States by name but made it clear indirectly that Washington remains Moscow's chief priority (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). He stressed the importance of international cooperation against terrorism, arguing that "Russia felt the effects of this threat long before...September 11, 2001 [through] large-scale aggression by international terrorists in Chechnya and Daghestan." In a possible allusion to the 1997 book "The Grand Chessboard" by U.S. strategic expert Zbigniew Brzezinski, Putin warned that Russia's first priority is its relations with the CIS countries, which are not "a 'chess board' on which geopolitical games are played out." He called the EU an "important partner for Russia," noting that "we understand the difficulties the EU is going through and are confident that life will put everything in its place." He hailed "most importantly, the intensive bilateral relations" between Russia and some individual EU member states. Putin has been criticized by many in the EU for trying to split the bloc by avoiding dealing with the EU as a whole and concentrating on making deals with individual West European countries. PM

In one of his few explicit references to the United States in his November 28 speech, President Putin suggested that unnamed Russian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) should "be able to work in...the United States and other countries in an environment as comfortable as that which we provide for their counterparts working in Russia," reported. He did not mention that his government has harassed or shut down many NGOs through tough legislation. The daily "Vremya novostei" noted ironically on November 29 that Putin effectively announced on November 28 that Russia wants to export its defense of human rights. The paper recalled that Putin first floated the idea of setting up a joint "Russian-European institute for freedom and democracy" at the Russia-EU summit in October in Portugal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29 and 30, and November 6, 2007). Western human rights organizations and official agencies quickly dismissed the proposal as politically motivated and "not serious." "Vremya novostei" pointed out on November 29 that Putin is simply reviving an old Soviet propaganda technique by claiming that his country can help protect human rights abroad. The daily recalled that the Soviet authorities sought to spread the view among their citizens that human rights are not respected in the West and that Moscow must act to help the oppressed. The paper pointed out some specific cases that became the objects of Soviet propaganda campaigns, like the one in the early 1970s involving Angela Davis, a U.S. civil rights activist and communist organizer. The daily suggested that "the only thing [the Kremlin] needs to do now is find a contemporary Angela Davis." PM

Speaking in Madrid on November 28, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns called "preposterous" President Putin's recent claim that the State Department is behind the 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, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27 and 28, 2008). Burns argued that "it was clear to everybody in Vienna at the OSCE that Russia had broken precedence, that Russia had inflicted upon the OSCE, or impressed upon the OSCE, conditions for the monitors that were unworkable, [and] that it was the first country in memory over the last 15 years to demand the types of conditions that would make it impossible for ODIHR to act." He added that a Russian draft proposal on reducing the OSCE's vote-monitoring "would severely weaken and undermine ODIHR. And I know that some of the cosponsors are Uzbekistan and Belarus, and I know Kazakhstan is. We think it's very unfortunate that those countries developed this proposal. We are absolutely opposed to it." He stressed that "we will not compromise." The OSCE's ministerial council meets in Madrid on November 29-30. Burns said that the U.S. delegation will hold talks during those days with its Russian counterpart, which is headed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. On November 28, the daily "Kommersant" wrote that Lavrov and Putin have recently dealt a blow to relations with Washington by "outlining the concept of a foreign conspiracy against Russia's elections, with the OSCE acting as the contractor and the Bush administration as the client." PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov said in Moscow on November 28 that Russia wants to bolster the position of moderate Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, Interfax reported. Lavrov stressed that Abbas, like Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, won his post legitimately in an election. Lavrov stressed that strengthening Abbas's position will help promote Palestinian unity. Russia also defends its ties with the radical Palestinian Hamas on the grounds that it legitimately won the June 2006 Palestinian legislative elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28 and June 25 and 29, 2007). PM

Britain's "Daily Telegraph" reported on November 29 that Conservative Party leader David Cameron argued in Washington on November 28 that "Western forces, which could include British troops, must be sent into the Balkans to prevent Russia sparking a new European war" over Kosova. Cameron said "let me make it clear: there could be a new crisis in the Balkans by Christmas.... That [would be] a direct threat to our national security, and we must therefore take decisive action now to prevent it. We need to reinforce the military presence in the region now, by drawing on some of NATO's dedicated operational reserve, to prevent trouble later." The daily suggested that "British diplomats privately share Mr. Cameron's fears of a Balkan crisis, but ministers have stopped short of proposing a further military deployment, and the Tory leader's call could dramatically increase the diplomatic stakes over Kosovo." PM

The Savyolovsky Raion Court in Moscow on November 29 convicted self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky of embezzling more than 2 million rubles ($7.7 million) from the Aeroflot airline and sentenced him to six years' imprisonment, Ekho Moskvy and other Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). Berezovsky, who has been granted political asylum in the United Kingdom, called the case "a political farce." Prosecutors had asked for a nine-year prison term, and the Prosecutor-General's Office announced it will renew Russia's application to Great Britain for Berezovsky's extradition. RC

President Putin appeared on national television on November 29 in a brief prerecorded statement to urge the public to vote in the December 2 Duma elections, Russian and international media reported. Earlier speculation that Putin might make a dramatic announcement, including possibly his resignation or that he would enter the Duma following the elections, proved unfounded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2007). Putin, who appeared in his capacity as a Duma candidate for Unified Russia, called on Russians to maintain the country's current course. "We cannot allow those who already tried to run the country to return to power," Putin said. He said that it is "a dangerous illusion" to think that the results of the elections are predetermined. Moreover, Putin said the Duma elections will "set the tone" for the presidential election set for March 2008. He also said the country must continue the fight against terrorism, crime, and corruption. The initial broadcast of Putin's statement was reportedly paid for by the Unified Russia campaign fund, reported. RC

The Central Election Commission on November 28 named the members of the working group that will be responsible for approving the final protocols for the December 2 legislative elections, "Vedomosti" reported on November 29. The group will be chaired by commission Deputy Chairman Stanislav Vavilov, a former Federation Council member who is a member of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. His deputy will be Duma Deputy Gennady Raikov, who was a member of the Unified Russia Duma faction until he left in March. The group's secretary will be Duma Deputy Valery Kryukov, a member of the Unified Russia Duma faction who has been assigned to assist the commission. The remaining members of the working group are all Central Election Commission staff workers. The working group will be responsible for receiving voting protocols from local election commissions and analyzing them in the light of data from the Vybory electronic voting system. It will assemble and prepare for Central Election Commission approval all documents relating to the official vote tally. Central Election Commission member Yevgeny Kolyushin, who represents the Communist Party, told the daily that the working group violates election law and is designed to distance commission members from participating in the vote count. Commission member Sergei Danilenko, from A Just Russia, noted that the commission has never had such a working group before. RC

The Communist Party has created a special working group to monitor the voting and the counting of ballots in the December 2 legislative elections, Interfax reported on November 28. The group is made up entirely of veterans of the prosecutor's office of the Soviet Union, the Soviet-era KGB, the Soviet-era Interior Ministry, and former Soviet-era judges, party official Ivan Melnikov was quoted as saying. Melnikov said the group will investigate all suspicions of falsification and will push for prosecution both of the suspected perpetrators and of those who may have ordered the crimes. RC

A rally in support of President Putin, analogous to one held in Moscow on November 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007), was held in St. Petersburg on November 27, Russian media reported on November 27 and 28. Although it had been widely rumored the Putin might attend and even that he might make a sensational announcement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2007), he was not present at the event and attendees were show a recorded version of the speech he delivered in Moscow. Unified Russia party leader and Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov told the crowd of several thousand gathered at a local concert hall that the elections "will be a referendum on Vladimir Putin, a referendum in support of his course." He added that everyone who "believes in the president" should turn out to vote. St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko also addressed the crowd and praised Putin's achievements during the eight years of his presidency. RC

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on November 29 confirmed his intention to run for president in the March 2, 2008, election, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Kasyanov said his candidacy will be confirmed by his unregistered National Democratic Union at a national conference in Moscow on December 7. "The new power will be formed on the basis of the presidential election," Kasyanov said. "The legislative elections are very important, but that is question No. 2. Today the situation in the country is developing in such a way that question No. 2 has been taken away from us, from the lives of Russian citizens and from the life of the political forces of the Russian Federation. Of course, the current authorities are nervous, as we can see. And this is expressed in the uncertainty of various actions, including the reaction to protest actions that take place." Kasyanov repeated his call for the opposition to unite behind a single candidate in the presidential election. He presented a draft coalition agreement under which the joint candidate, if he or she wins the election, pledges to draft his or her address to the Federal Assembly in consultation with all members of the coalition, as well as to consult on nominees for key posts including the prime minister, judges, the prosecutor-general, the chairman of the Central Bank, and others. Kasyanov called on Yabloko, the Union of Rightist Forces, the Other Russia coalition, and the Republican Party to join the coalition. RC

Former Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref was approved as the head of the Sberbank state savings bank by shareholders on November 28, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2007). "We have to prove that elephants can dance," Gref told shareholders. "We must create flexible signals that react to the market and a reliable structure that is friendly to depositors." The bank is 60 percent controlled by the Central Bank of Russia. Its capitalization is $95.7 billion, "Vremya novostei" reported on November 29. RC

United Civic Front leader Garry Kasparov, who is serving a five-day jail term for conducting an illegal demonstration in Moscow on November 24, is expected to be released on November 29 at 3:45 p.m. Moscow time, Ekho Moskvy reported on November 29. The unregistered United Civic Front plans to mark the event with a demonstration, which has been authorized by the city authorities. On November 28, about 10 people were briefly detained during an effort to see Kasparov. Those detained included journalists from Ekho Moskvy, "Kommersant," and, as well as the well-known satirist Viktor Shenderovich, Yabloko youth group head Ilya Yashin, and other activists. All were released after a brief detention. The New York-based NGO Amnesty International on November 28 declared Kasparov a prisoner of conscience and called for his immediate release. He has been held without access to a lawyer or visitors since his arrest on November 24. RC

A committee of leading human-rights activists headed by Andrei Babushkin on November 28 presented its assessment of the work of the Duma that just completed its term of office, reported on November 28. The report asserts that the Duma passed numerous laws greatly restricting human rights; that the Duma failed to act as an independent branch of government; that the Duma did not involve nongovernmental organizations in the process of drafting legislation; that the process of passing major laws was opaque and overly hasty, with many major bills being adopted in all three readings in 10 days or less. The report was particularly critical of a 2004 law that converted in-kind social benefits to cash payments (see "Analysis: Battling Over Benefits,", August 17, 2004), which the activists claim infringed the rights of 76 categories of citizens, particularly pensioners, veterans, and the handicapped. The report also criticized a 2004 law that restricted the circumstances under which referendums may be conducted. "That law is simply absurd, since [it makes it] impossible in principle to organize a referendum," Babushkin said. The report concluded that the deputies elected in 2003 were "neither morally nor professionally prepared for law-making activity." Maria Slobodskaya, a member of the governmental Public Chamber, which oversees civil-society development, criticized the report, saying it was wrong to "evaluate the activity of this parliament as completely negative." The Public Chamber is expected to issue its own report on the state of Russia civil society in December. RC

Igor Konashenkov, who is an aide to the commander of Russia's Land Forces, rejected on November 28 the allegation made earlier that day by recently named Georgian National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia that Russian peacekeepers deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone are involved in money-laundering and the smuggling of weapons and drugs, reported. Konashenkov further said that the replacement of Colonel Aleksandr Pavlushko, the chief of staff of the Russian peacekeeping force, by the former head of the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki, Major-General Yevgeny Avchalov, was "routine." Caucasus Press on November 28 reported that Pavlushko was replaced in the wake of an incident last month in which Russian peacekeepers beat up Georgian police near the Ganmukhuri training camp in western Georgia. Footage of that incident was subsequently screened on Georgian television (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 31 and November 1, 2007). LF

The Daghestan regional organization of the A Just Russia party released a statement on November 28 rejecting as a "provocation" and "black PR" the announcement the previous day by the republic's Interior Ministry of the arrest of a member of its staff on suspicion of offering residents of Kizlyar 200 rubles ($8.19) apiece to vote for A Just Russia in the December 2 election State Duma elections, reported. A Just Russia denied that the woman in question is or ever was one of its members. Also on November 28, a raion court in Makhachkala sentenced Nukh Nukhov to two months' pre-trial detention on charges of hooliganism and illegal possession of arms, reported. Nukhov is the Union of Rightist Forces' candidate for the post of Dakhadayev Raion administration head; that ballot is to be held concurrently with the Duma elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2007). Meanwhile, published on November 28 comments it solicited from Farid Babayev, head of the Daghestan organization of the opposition Yabloko party, shortly before his recent assassination (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). Babayev claimed that the Daghestan authorities are using every available means to ensure an election victory for the party of power, but he predicted that Yabloko would nonetheless win no less than 12 percent of the vote in Makhachkala and Derbent. LF

Amir Rashid, commander of the Shali front, has come out against the proclamation by resistance commander Doku Umarov of a North Caucasus emirate Umarov claims to head, reported on November 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 2007). Rashid added that the decision to proclaim a North Caucasus emirate was taken by a small group of people, including "representatives of Daghestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria," presumably meaning field commanders Magas (Akhmed Yevloyev) and Seyfulla (Anzor Astemirov), and that no senior or middle-level Chechen commander was informed of Umarov's intention in advance. Rashid is the fifth field commander to register openly his rejection of Umarov's decision. LF

Some 50 people, mostly residents of Beslan, have signed up to join the movement "Against Putin" in North Ossetia, reported on November 28. The movement's leader Vissarion Aseyev, who heads the North Ossetian branch of the United Civic Front and is a candidate in the December 2 elections to the North Ossetian parliament, told he signed up seven new members in 90 minutes in Vladikavkaz on November 25 before being detained for two hours by police and FSB personnel. LF

Lawmakers approved the amended 2008 budget in the third and final reading on November 28 by a vote of 87 in favor and two against, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Eight deputies from the opposition Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) and Zharangutiun (Heritage) factions abstained from voting, according to Noyan Tapan. The final version of the budget sets revenues at 746 billion drams (about $2.5 billion), and expenditures at 822 billion drams, resulting in a deficit of 76 billion drams. Both targets are some 40 percent higher than the comparable figures for 2007. GDP growth is projected at around 10 percent. The budget is predicated on an exchange rate of 325 drams to the U.S. dollar and 470 drams to the euro. Spending on education is to increase by 20 percent and on healthcare by almost 20 percent. No details were made public of planned defense spending, which Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian said in September would amount to the dram equivalent of $400 million in 2008, a 33 percent increase in dollar terms over the figure for 2007. LF

Anatoly Serdyukov traveled on November 28 to Baku, where he met with Prime Minister Artur Rasizade and with Azerbaijani Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev, Azerbaijani media reported. Serdyukov and Abiyev signed an agreement on bilateral military and military-technical cooperation for 2008. The two ministers then traveled to the Qabala (Gabala) radar facility, the joint use of which Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed to his U.S. counterpart George W. Bush in June as an alternative to U.S. plans for developing a missile-defense system that would include deploying interceptors in Poland and establishing a radar base in the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, July 3, and August 17, 2007). Abiyev stressed that Qabala belongs to Azerbaijan and no decision on its joint use by Russia and the U.S. can be taken without the participation of the Azerbaijani government, reported on November 29. LF

German police detained former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili in Berlin late on November 27, together with a second former Defense Ministry official, Iason Chikhladze, Georgian media reported the following day. Okruashvili was arrested in Georgia in late September on charges of extortion and abuse of his official position, two days after publicly accusing then President Mikheil Saakashvili of condoning corruption and seeking to engineer the murder of a political opponent. He was released on $6 million bail 10 days later and left Georgia in late October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26 and October 9, 2007). His trial in absentia opened in Tbilisi 10 days ago. A spokesman for the Berlin Prosecutor's office told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on November 28 that Okruashvili was taken into custody on the basis of an application filed by the Georgian authorities through Interpol, and that the General Prosecutor's office must decide whether to approve his extradition to Georgia. The Georgian daily "Alia" on November 29 quoted Okruashvili's lawyer Eka Beselia as predicting that her client will not be sent back to Georgia to stand trial. LF

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev on November 27 elevated Iskenderbek Aidaraliev to the post of acting prime minister within hours of appointing him first deputy prime minister, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. The move followed Bakiev's surprise decision to "relieve" Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev of his post on November 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2007). The first deputy prime minister's post had been vacant since the removal in April of current Bishkek Mayor Daniyar Usenov. Aidaraliev is perhaps best known for his recent call to "abolish" the post of prime minister and "concentrate power in the hands of the president" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). Aidaraliev was previously governor of the southern Jalal-abad region, where he was replaced by Koshbay Masirov, Kyrgyz Television reported. Atambaev continued to tout his opposition credentials following his appointment in March, and heads the opposition Social Democratic Party, one of the most active challengers to Bakiev's new Ak-Jol Eldik Partiyasy (Best Path Popular Party). In comments to reporters following his removal as prime minister the previous day, Atambaev said on November 28 that he was "very grateful" to President Bakiev for his support but vowed to "devote himself" to forging a victory for his opposition Social Democratic Party in the December 16 elections for a new Kyrgyz parliament, AKIpress and Kyrgyz Television reported. Atambaev added that the country's current priority should be "stability" to ensure that "the parliamentary election by party lists is held fairly and transparently." Atambaev also recently warned of the "dangers of vote-rigging" in the upcoming election and expressed concern that "if the authorities elect a one-party parliament," it may "undermine stability" in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). Former Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov argued that Atambaev's dismissal was intended "to strengthen the president's position" and noted that "no matter what Almazbek Atambaev may say to support the president's policy, he is likely to choose the opposition," according to the website. RG

A Bishkek court on November 28 dismissed a legal challenge by Ak-Jol to a recently imposed 0.5 percent regional election threshold for parties to enter the Kyrgyz parliament, AKIpress reported. The Central Election Commission recently backed amendments excluding from parliament parties that fail to win 0.5 percent of the vote in each region and 5 percent nationally. Ombudsman and candidate Tursunbai Bakir-uulu has criticized the threshold as an infringement of "Kyrgyz citizens' rights" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). The leaders of the country's 12 main political parties participating in the December 16 parliamentary elections recently demanded the abolition of the minimum national and regional thresholds for parties, arguing that they "would substantially reduce many parties' chances to win" seats in parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). In a separate ruling, the court also upheld on November 28 a decision by the election commission to deny registration of the party list of candidates submitted by the Communist Party of Kyrgyzstan for its failure to meet the required gender balance of candidates. RG

Meeting in Tashkent on November 28, Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev and visiting Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov signed a new set of bilateral agreements on cooperation in energy and customs, as well as a specific accord on aircraft construction, ITAR-TASS and AKIpress reported. Ivanov also led an official delegation to an Uzbek-Russian business forum, where he hailed the "strategic" nature of Russian-Uzbek relations. Ivanov noted Russian plans to increase investment in Uzbekistan's mining and agriculture sectors, with a particular focus on exploring and extracting the country's uranium reserves. Additional agreements were signed by Russian Deputy Justice Minister Nikolay Savchenko and Uzbek Foreign Economic Relations, Investments, and Trade Minister Elyor Ganiev covering intellectual-property protection and bilateral military and technical cooperation. The Russian delegation expressed its commitment to helping finance a project to construct a liquefied-gas plant at the Muborak gas refinery in Uzbekistan's southern Qasqadaryo region. Russia currently accounts for roughly 22 percent of Uzbekistan's external trade, which totaled $2.3 billion for the first nine months of this year. RG

An amnesty providing for the release of almost 1,700 prisoners came into force in Belarus on November 28 with its publication in the "Respublika" newspaper, Belapan reported. The Belarusian legislature adopted the bill on October 24, and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed it on November 22. The amnesty was issued with the goal of saving $935,000 in public funds each year. It applies to people convicted of crimes punishable by no more than six years in prison and who have served at least one-third of their sentences; war veterans; people of retirement age; pregnant women; people with disabilities; youths under 18; parents of children under 18; former Chornobyl cleanup workers; people with HIV or tuberculosis; and those injured while working. The amnesty does not apply to those who committed crimes after having been amnestied previously, or those with poor disciplinary records. AM

Rene van der Linden, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), has called on the Belarusian authorities to commute three death sentences to milder sentences, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on November 28. A Belarusian court in 2006 sentenced Syarhey Marozau, Ihar Danchanka, and Valery Harbaty to death for running an organized crime group. Van der Linden also called on President Lukashenka to immediately place a moratorium on the death sentence. "The intention to introduce a moratorium on the death sentence and its future abolition are preconditions for joining PACE," van der Linden added. The Belarusian authorities recently executed Alyaksandr Syarheychyk, a former police officer sentenced to death for serial killings. AM

Presidential staff head Viktor Baloha said on November 28 that President Viktor Yushchenko has talked with the seven lawmakers of the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) who have so far failed to sign the coalition agreement with the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT), and persuaded them to do so, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. According to Baloha, Yushchenko used exhaustive arguments to dispel the doubts that prevented the lawmakers from signing the agreement. The broadcaster reported that Yushchenko believes that there are no longer any obstacles to concluding a coalition agreement between the BYuT and NUNS, forming a parliamentary majority, and approving a new government. AM

President Yushchenko on November 28 said the military draft in the fall of 2009 will be the last one before the Ukrainian armed forces become a fully professional army, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko ordered the government and the General Staff to determine by the end of this year the expenses connected with the transition to a contractual military, and to prepare a detailed action plan by February 1, 2008. Yushchenko also asked the government to revise the 2008 draft budget and raise its expenditures for the armed forces. He described the providing decent pay and conditions for military service people as a priority for Ukraine. AM

Kosova's and Serbia's leaders announced on November 28 that they failed to reach an agreement on Kosova's future in their last direct talks, which were held in Baden, Vienna. While the "troika" of diplomats mediating the talks will head to Belgrade and Prishtina on December 3 for separate meetings with the two negotiating teams, EU mediator Wolfgang Ischinger effectively ended the international community's second effort to broker an agreement with his statement that the failure of the November 26-28 talks "marks the end of Troika-sponsored face-to-face negotiations." The first international effort, which lasted 15 months, resulted in the UN's mediator, Martti Ahtisaari, proposing that Kosova be granted "supervised independence," an idea torpedoed by Russia when it was brought before the UN Security Council. It is now up to the UN secretary-general to decide whether there should be a third attempt to end the deadlock, as Serbia wishes. However, Ischinger's comments on November 28 underscored his conviction, stated on November 27, that further talks would be futile (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2007). "We did what we promised to leave no stone unturned," he said, adding that the talks "explored every humanly known option." Ischinger's U.S. counterpart, Frank Wisner, echoed his comments, saying "all efforts that we could make, we made" in Baden, and predicted that "we're going into a very difficult time." Peace in the region is now "very much at stake," Wisner added, but both he and Ischinger said that the two sides made it clear that that they are committed to avoiding violence. Ischinger struck at least one positive note, though. He indicated that the conference achieved one of its main goals -- to bring the leaders together "to interact and to have ample opportunity for discussion not only at the conference table...but over many hours, over dinner." He noted that Serbian President Boris Tadic and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, on one side, and Kosova's serving prime minister, Agim Ceku, and his probable successor, Hashim Thaci, "spent hours speaking personally and without a note-taker about their issues." "That level of communication," he said, will hopefully "be maintained for political purposes as we look down the road." Wisner also spoke of the "hard work" put in by the two sides and their "careful exploration of all the options." AG

The end of the talks gave fresh significance to Prishtina's and Belgrade's repetition of their long-standing statements of intent, as Serbia will very soon have to decide just how far it is willing to go in its efforts to frustrate Kosova's bid for independence. Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu made clear Prishtina will press ahead swiftly, telling reporters that "we cannot say the exact time and date when independence will be declared, but it will happen very quickly." He added that a declaration will be made "in coordination with the international community," a comment that may allay some EU concerns about an unmanaged push for independence, but a policy that also risks exposing the EU states' failure to reach a consensus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2007). Kosova would ignore Serbia's protests, because, Sejdiu said, Kosova "will not be held hostage." Meanwhile, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said a unilateral declaration of independence would be a "crime," and would be "annulled" by the Serbian authorities. The same position was voiced by Serbian President Tadic, who similarly warned that "a declaration of independence would not only destabilize Serbia, but the region, and would introduce a domino effect which could destabilize Europe." Neither they nor the other members of the Serbian negotiating team expanded on statements made on November 27 that Serbia is preparing responses to a unilateral move by Kosova, though Serbian President Tadic flagged the first likely steps when he said "we will take all legal and diplomatic measures to fight" any declaration of independence. The key legal arena may be the UN, with Kostunica arguing that "the negotiations must end the way they started -- at the Security Council." Kosova's leaders, by contrast, emphasized that there is no alternative to independence and that, as Sejdiu said on November 27, "Serbia wishes to deny the democratic will of [the] over 2 million people" of Kosova. There was, though, some nominal appreciation of the Serbian position among Kosovars, albeit intended to underscore Kosova's argument. "The good news" is that Tadic said "neither the status [question] nor any other issue will push Serbia toward a war," opposition leader Veton Surroi said on November 27 in comments carried by Radio-Television Kosova. "For Kosova, which over the last 100 years has been used to getting war news from Belgrade, this is good news and a change of approach," he said. AG

Albanians across the Balkans on November 28 celebrated the 95th anniversary of Albania's independence, but in Kosova, where Prime Minister Ceku once proposed that independence should be declared on November 28, the anniversary was largely eclipsed by the talks in Austria. The chief event was a parade by the Kosova Protection Corps, which works with NATO troops to provide security in the disputed region. November 28 is known as Flag Day in Kosova, but international pressure has ensured that the Albanian flag, which was the emblem of Kosovar separatists in the 1998-99 war, will not be the flag of Kosova. In the Presevo Valley in Serbia, veterans of a 1999-2001 military campaign against the Serbian authorities organized a range of activities, and the mayors of the region's largest towns permitted the Albanian flag to be flown. Presevo Mayor Ragmi Mustafa on November 27 told the news agency Beta that the flying of the flag was in part "a demand to the Serbian authorities that they legalize the free use of our national symbols and the celebration of national holidays." In Albania itself, the country's leading politicians gathered in the coastal city of Vlora, where the flag of an independent Albania was first lifted in 1912, and listened to President Bamir Topi urge greater dialogue and political unity. AG

The Serbian police on November 28 prevented a paramilitary group from gathering to mark the end of the talks on Kosova's future. The St. Tsar Lazar Guard earlier said they planned on that date to establish a "headquarters" on Serbia's border with Kosova to prepare for operations should Kosova declare independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). But the police stopped the group as they headed to an Orthodox monastery at Kursumlija, in southern Serbia, still some distance from the Kosovar border. The Guards' leader, Hadzi Andrej Milic, was detained and questioned for several hours. AG

A group of radical Muslims will go on trial on January 14 on charges of plotting to kill a Muslim leader and attack sites in the southern city of Novi Pazar and the capital, Belgrade, the Serbian authorities announced on November 28. According to the news service Balkan Insight, the dozen or so radicals, who are typically referred to as Wahhabis, adherents of the strict form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, were arrested in operations earlier this year following the discovery of arms at an alleged terrorist training camp (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19 and 24 and April 20, 2007). The alleged target of their assassination plot was Muamer Zukorlic, a senior cleric in the southwestern region of Sandzak. Zukorlic, who says he has received numerous death threats from Wahhabis, has repeatedly warned against the threat posed by radical Muslims and criticized the Serbian authorities for doing too little to counter their activities. Zukorlic was formerly the senior Muslim leader in Sandzak, but in October violence erupted between his supporters, who argue that Serbia's Muslims should look to Sarajevo for guidance, and those who argue that they should answer to a new Islamic leadership formed specifically for Serbian Muslims (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2007). There was another violent confrontation between the two sides on November 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007). In the wake of that clash, police arrested an unspecified number of people on November 27, the news agency Beta reported. The dispute, which is deeply entwined with local politics, has also exposed differences within Serbia's coalition government, with one minister from Sandzak, Rasim Ljajic, backing Zukorlic strongly and the minister for religious affairs, Radomir Naumov, appearing to endorse a bid to oust Zukorlic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2007). AG

Miroslav Lajcak, the Slovak diplomat charged with steering Bosnia-Herzegovina's postwar recovery and development, again warned on November 27 that the political situation in the country could "spiral out of control." Lajcak made the comments in a speech to the European Parliament that echoed one given to the UN on November 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007). On November 23, the leaders of the country's three communities followed through on a framework agreement on police reform, a key requirement of the EU, by agreeing on an action plan. However, in recent weeks the key source of tension within the country has shifted from differences between the three communities on the police to differences between Lajcak and the Bosnian Serbs about reform of the governance system. A fresh attempt on November 27-28 to forge an agreement on one aspect of Lajcak's reform -- changes to procedures in the federal parliament -- produced no breakthrough, leaving open the possibility that the Bosnian Serbs might abandon the country's central institutions, a move that could potentially paralyze action at the federal level. In his speech to the European Parliament's Foreign Policy Council, Lajcak stressed the failings of local politicians, saying that "each of the political leaderships...clearly wants to impose its own vision of the country," AP reported. The prospects are poor, he said. "The legacy of war and the logic of nationally based and zero-sum politics make any significant compromise profoundly difficult, if not entirely impossible," he said. As a result, "for the time being, there are no real prospects of restarting the process" of bringing Bosnia into the EU's stabilization and association regime, a prelude to any formal bid for membership. While major changes, such as a new constitution, must be a "domestic product," he indicated that much depends on international resolve. "If we do not act quickly and decisively, problems will spiral out of control. This is a lesson from the early 1990s and one that is relevant for the present and for the future," Lajcak said. Bosnia is now the only state to emerge from Yugoslavia that has not signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. AG

A district court in The Hague ruled on November 27 that relatives of victims of the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia, can bring a case against the UN and the Netherlands for their troops' failure to protect what was at the time designated a UN "safe area" and prevent the killings. The case will be the first suit against the UN. The UN has yet to respond to the ruling, but when the suit was first lodged in June, it invoked its immunity from prosecution, citing a 1946 treaty, and said it will not participate in any court hearings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 5 and 12, 2007). About 450 Dutch soldiers, serving under a UN mandate, abandoned the city after it was entered by Bosnian Serb troops in July 1995. Within days, the Bosnian Serb troops executed around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. A subsequent Dutch inquiry brought down the Dutch government in 2002. Munira Subasic, the head of a group representing the victims' relatives, told local media that the slaughter, which has been recognized by a UN court as an "act of genocide," occurred "under the flag, protection, and eyes of the UN," and that the UN was therefore an accomplice in the crime. AG

An officer in the Bosnian Serbs' wartime military police force was sentenced on November 28 to 28 years in prison for murder, rape, and the abuse of prisoners of war. Bosnia-Herzegovina's War Crimes Chamber found Jadranko Palija guilty of participating in the slaughter of villagers in the northwest of the country, near Sanski Most, in May 1992, raping a woman in 1992, and mistreating Bosnian Muslim and ethnic-Croatian prisoners over an extended period, between 1993 and 1995. Palija was arrested in October 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 2006). Local courts are increasingly assuming the workload of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which is due to start its last proceedings in 2008 and close its doors in 2010. AG

Croatian prosecutors said on November 27 that they have indicted a former officer in the Yugoslav Army for war crimes committed after the fall of Vukovar in November 1991, despite his acquittal this September by the ICTY. Prosecutors believe there is fresh evidence that Miroslav Radic ordered crimes committed in Vukovar, and shot a Croatian prisoner of war. The acquittal of Radic and the perceived lightness of sentences passed at the same time on two other men -- Mile Mrksic and Veselin Sljivancanin -- caused outrage in Croatia and prompted Croatia's prime minister, Ivo Sanader, to protest to the UN (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 1, 2007). ICTY prosecutors have lodged an appeal against the 20-year sentence on Mrksic and five-year term given to Sljivancanin, but are not seeking to overturn Radic's acquittal. AG


At least 14 civilian workers building a road in Afghanistan's eastern Nuristan Province were killed by an apparently misdirected U.S. airstrike on November 26, news website e-ariana reported on November 28, citing other media sources. The laborers and engineers were building a U.S.-financed road in the region. Sayed Noorullah Jalili, the director of the Amerifa road construction company, said, "I don't think the Americans were targeting our people. I'm sure it's the enemy of the Afghans who gave the Americans this wrong information." Nuristan Governor Tamim Nuristani said that "U.S. troops were tipped off that a feared local Taliban commander was in the area, but they hit the wrong target." The U.S.-led coalition said it is investigating the incident. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) confirmed that it conducted air strikes against Taliban fighters in the area, but did not say when. Rising civilian casualties in Afghanistan, sometimes caused by faulty intelligence, have fueled public resentment toward international military operations. MM

CNN reported on November 28 that the NATO command in Afghanistan is seeking to counter Taliban propaganda by posting videos on The videos, formerly kept secret, seemingly aim to undermine support for the Taliban by showing the true nature of the militants' activities and tactics. CNN cited one video excerpt showing "an armed Taliban fighter disguised as a woman in a full burqa, taking refuge with women and children to avoid being targeted by NATO." Another clip shows Taliban commanders meeting in a house in southern Afghanistan while a young boy is posted "at the door as a human shield, forcing the NATO chopper pilot to hold fire," CNN reported. According to CNN, the NATO strategy is "to counter years of propaganda video posted on the Internet showing Taliban attacks on NATO forces which fighters use to claim that NATO's position in the Afghan war is deteriorating." MM

India-based Asia Times Online reported on November 28 that Afghanistan's Counterinsurgency Academy, also known as the COIN Academy, is still under construction and struggling to remain operational, and is hampered by the diversion of resources and attention to Iraq. The report quotes U.S. Army Major Luke Meyers, the academy's operations chief, as saying that "We're trying to build this as fast as we can but it's taking time. We're six years behind, to be honest. We're glad we've made this step at least." The academy on the outskirts of Kabul finally opened its doors in April, although construction is still continuing. It is tasked with teaching counterinsurgency strategies to newly deployed international trainers embedded with the Afghan security forces and coalition forces. Asia Times Online quoted Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think-tank, as saying that Afghanistan is the central front in the war against terrorism. "This is where the attacks came from. This is where Al-Qaeda central has reconstituted itself," Korb said, adding that the efforts must continue to complete the facilities and make COIN fully operational. MM

A senior Pakistani Baluch leader, Balash Khan Marri, was assassinated by unknown assailants on November 28 in southern Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera reported. Marri was the head of the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), which is suspected of terrorism in Pakistan's volatile Baluchistan Province, bordering Afghanistan. He was wanted by Pakistani security forces, which have been involved in repeated clashes in Baluchistan to quell a number of insurgency movements, including the BLA, that demand greater autonomy for the region and greater access to the benefits of the area's mineral wealth. An Al-Jazeera correspondent in Islamabad commented that "this will come as a major blow to the Baluch Liberation Army, and already we are seeing protests in the [Baluchistan] provincial capital, Quetta." MM

Iran's Intelligence Ministry and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad are reportedly displeased with a Tehran court's decision to acquit former diplomat Hossein Musavian on espionage-related charges, Radio Farda reported on November 28, citing Iranian agency reports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2007). Musavian was a member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team under former President Mohammad Khatami, and is considered close to political moderates critical of Ahmadinejad's administration. Observers suspect that his arrest last May and prosecution were politically motivated. Ahmadinejad told the press after a November 28 cabinet meeting that Musavian has had "10 to 15 sessions with foreigners and talked to them; information was given, and we suggest, indeed insist, that this information be published to inform the nation," Mehr reported. He said this would clarify the facts, and asked why "the nation should not know what foreigners know." The Intelligence Ministry has called on the courts to reconsider the case, Radio Farda reported on November 28. VS

Iranian judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi said on November 27 that Iran is appointing a new panel of judges to investigate the case of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who died in unclear circumstances while detained by Tehran authorities in 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5 and July 3, 2007). Jamshidi said the Iranian Supreme Court has found procedural problems with the last court's investigation, and is reconsidering its competency in handling the case, Radio Farda reported. Lawyers for Kazemi's family have long challenged many aspects of the investigation, which has so far led to no convictions for murder or manslaughter. AFP cited Canadian lawyer John Terry as saying on November 27 that he questions whether the change of judges indicates the judiciary's resolve to "seriously investigate" Kazemi's death. Kazemi's son Stephane Hashemi also expressed doubt on November 28, and speculated the move might be a response to a civil suit filed against Iran over Kazemi's death in the province of Quebec, Montreal's "The Gazette" reported. VS

Plainclothes agents arrested Reza Valizadeh, a journalist and the editor of the Baznegar website, in Tehran on November 27, Radio Farda reported the next day, citing Iranian reports. The broadcaster quoted unnamed sources close to Valizadeh as saying that he might have been arrested for his recent reports on the purchase of expensive security dogs to protect President Ahmadinejad. Valizadeh reportedly contacted the Iranian Association of Journalists, an independent press freedom body, before his arrest and informed the group that security or police officers were coming to his office to present him with a court summons. He is apparently being held at an unknown location. Radio Farda reported that Valizadeh's website reported less than two weeks ago on the purchase of four bomb-sniffing dogs from Germany, each costing a little over $150,000, as part of Ahmadinejad's security team. The report has been carried by other media, including the Fars news agency and "The Guardian." VS

Lawmaker Darius Qanbari, a deputy from Ilam and a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told parliament on November 28 that President Ahmadinejad's government has neither been "kind" and inclusive nor managed to realize social and economic justice, as the president promised before his election in 2005, "Etemad" reported. Qanbari said the government has instead been "vindictive" toward previous governments, which followed moderately liberalizing or reformist policies. Qanbari said there can be no social justice in Iran with the current "unprecedented" inflation rate -- estimated to be anywhere between 14-25 percent -- which he said is deepening class differences. "The poor have become poorer and the rich richer," and the middle class is under pressure, Qanbari said. He added that the government rejects specialist advice in its policy-making, and has turned to propaganda to justify its actions. "People are asking how...government officials are calculating the inflation rate and reaching figures like 14 or 15 percent. They say housing prices have more than doubled in the past two years and prices of basic goods...have doubled," Qanbari said. Also on November 28, Parliamentary Economic Committee member Iraj Nadimi said the parliamentary economic and budget committees and representatives of the Central Bank recently met to discuss inflation and its causes, "so people do not think we are indifferent," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on November 29. He noted sharp inflationary trends in housing, food, and transport, and blamed state policies. VS

Iraq's top Shi'ite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a statement on November 27 denouncing sectarian killings and calling on Shi'as to help protect their Sunni brothers, Iraqi media reported on November 28. Al-Sistani made his remarks during a two-hour meeting with top religious leaders and scholars in the southern holy city of Al-Najaf. The meeting, labeled the First National Conference of Shi'as and Sunnis, focused on ways to strengthen Iraqi unity and end the sectarian conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2007). According to Khalid al-Mullah, the leader of the southern branch of the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association, al-Sistani said, "I am a servant of all Iraqis, and there is no difference between a Sunni, a Shi'a, a Kurd, and a Christian." Al-Sistani also warned Sunni clerics to beware of "enemies' plots to sow discord among Iraqis." SS

A letter signed by 60 Iraqi oil professionals backing Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani in opposing direct deals between the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) and foreign firms was presented to the Iraqi Parliament on November 26, Iraqi media reported. The letter described such deals as a "deliberate and dangerous action" by the KRG without any "legal or political standing whatsoever." The letter also stressed that the only authority with the legal right to sign petroleum contracts is the Iraqi Oil Ministry. "The position taken previously by Iraqi oil professionals was a correct one, and they would like to confirm their stance and declare their support for the stance taken by the Minister of Oil and the Oil and Gas parliamentary committee in rejecting those [KRG] contracts." The KRG has long argued that in the absence of a comprehensive national petroleum law, it has the right to sign deals with foreign firms within the framework of its own regional oil law, passed in August. Al-Shahristani has referred to those deals as null and void, and warned that any firms that conclude deals with the KRG will be barred from signing contracts with the Baghdad government in the future. SS

At a November 28 press conference in Baghdad, Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i, the head of the Sunni Waqf (Endowments) Office, called on the Iraqi government to merge thousands of Sunni tribal fighters, who have been waging a campaign against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, into the Iraqi security forces, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Al-Samarra'i noted that the estimated 70,000 tribal fighters receive no government support beyond the $300 monthly salary paid by the U.S. military, and suggested that the best course of action is for the militiamen to be placed under the command of the Baghdad government. "These fighters must be integrated into the police and army. These are honorable, courageous men who want to protect their relatives and property from Al-Qaeda," al-Samarra'i said. Shi'ite leaders have expressed concern that arming Sunni tribesmen is akin to creating a Sunni militia that may one day turn against the Shi'a-led government. SS

Russian announced on November 28 that it has opened a consulate in the northern city of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish administered region in Iraq, reported. Vladimir Jamov, the Russian ambassador to Iraq, welcomed the move, saying it will enhance Russia's diplomatic presence in Iraq. "From this moment the Russian flag will fly on the ground of the Kurdistan region. The consulate will be of great importance for the citizens of the region," Jamov said. Kurdistan regional Prime Minister Nichervan Barzani described the move as a new phase in relations between Russia and the KRG. "The opening of this consulate in Irbil is an indication of the desire Russia has to extend its cooperation to the Kurdistan region to serve the common interests of both sides," Barzani said. SS

The U.S. military announced on November 28 that a female suicide bomber attacked a U.S. patrol in the Al-Amin neighborhood of central Ba'qubah the previous day, wounding seven American soldiers and five Iraqi civilians. The wounded were flown to a military hospital, and U.S. officials said the incident was under investigation. Ba'qubah is the capital of Diyala Governorate, which, according to U.S. military commanders, has become one of the most dangerous areas in the country since Al-Qaeda in Iraq shifted its operations there after being driven out of Al-Anbar Governorate. Suicide attacks by women in Iraq are relatively rare, but not unprecedented. In November 2005, a Belgian woman who converted to Islam blew herself up in an attempted attack on U.S. forces, in which she was the only casualty. SS

The UN children's organization, UNICEF, on November 28 warned that there are signs of a major cholera outbreak in Baghdad, international media reported. UNICEF said 101 cases have been recorded in the Iraqi capital in the past three weeks, making it the site of 79 percent of all new cases in Iraq. The organization said the Shi'ite neighborhood of Al-Sadr City is among the worst-affected areas. "While national caseloads are declining, we are increasingly concerned about a possible outbreak in Baghdad. UNICEF is working with the WHO [World Health Organization] to try to limit the spread in the capital and treat the sick as Iraq's rainy season sets in," UNICEF said in a statement. Since the middle of August, the WHO has confirmed more than 3,300 cholera cases in Iraq, with at least 14 deaths resulting from the disease. On November 22, the Health Ministry warned that with the steep rise in new cholera cases, Iraq is facing a potential health catastrophe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). SS