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Newsline - November 30, 2007

The Kremlin said in a statement on November 30 that "President [Vladimir] Putin signed the federal law on suspending the [1990] Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty [CFE]," which limits the deployment of tanks and other conventional weapons west of the Urals and was amended in 1999. Russia considers the pact outdated and no longer corresponding to its interests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 14, 19, and 21, 2007). On April 26, Putin announced a "moratorium" on Russian observance of the agreement until the Baltic states and Slovenia sign it. On July 14, he signed a decree suspending Russia's participation in the pact, which would take effect in 150 days. The United States and other NATO members insist that the Baltic states and Slovenia may not accede to the treaty until all existing signatories ratify it, which they will do only after Russia makes good on commitments it gave at the 1999 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Istanbul on withdrawing its forces from Transdniester and Georgia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a closed-door session of the Federation Council on November 8 that the structures on which international relations are based are incapable of resolving major problems and that a "moment of truth" has arrived for breaking the impasse. He warned that Russia could "bring down" the international system based on NATO, the OSCE, and the CFE if it wanted to, which would force the creation of an unspecified "new system." On November 29, Lavrov told the OSCE's ministerial conference in Madrid that "everyone recognizes that the 1990 treaty does not correspond anymore to reality," news agencies reported. But U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said that "we don't believe any country should walk out of a major landmark arms-control treaty unilaterally as Russia intends to do." Speaking for the EU, Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado noted that the "EU regards the treaty as the cornerstone of European security and is deeply concerned by the emerging uncertainties about the future viability of the treaty should Russia cease to implement treaty operations." PM

Speaking in Madrid on November 29, Foreign Minister Lavrov warned that a "new fragmentation" threatens Europe unless the OSCE transforms itself, news agencies reported. He argued that unspecified "group interests" and the application of "double standards" could bring down "the whole European security architecture." Lavrov called for more "transparency" to end "abuses" in election-monitoring missions by the OSCE's Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). In the face of U.S. criticism at the meeting, Lavrov defended Russia's draft proposal to reduce ODIHR's monitoring activities and argued that the "OSCE has become a tool used for political purposes by one group of nations against another group of nations." On November 30, the daily "Kommersant" quoted Federation Council International Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov as saying that "Russia [wants] unified rules of the game and clear approaches, since many ODIHR missions are not entirely transparent." The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on November 30 carried an article by Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin, in which he argued that "it is well-known to all" that the current director of ODIHR, who is Austria's Christian Strohal, closely follows the "recommendations...of one [unnamed] OSCE member country" rather than serve all member states equally. President Putin recently claimed that the U.S. State Department was behind ODIHR's decision not to send observers to monitor the December 2 Russian State Duma elections, a claim that Washington and the ODIHR firmly deny (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 28, and 29, 2007). "Kommersant" on November 30 quoted Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokeswoman for the Warsaw-based ODIHR, as saying that "Moscow's proposals turn into legal practice all of the obstacles we have encountered in our relations with the Russian authorities." She called on the Madrid gathering to reject the Russian draft. In Madrid, U.S. Undersecretary of State Burns said on November 29 that "we fear that the fundamental understanding of how to achieve democratic peace in Europe has been under assault from within this organization," the "International Herald Tribune" reported on November 30. He added that "Russia is very isolated at this conference on this issue. No country has the right to write the conditions on how the ODIHR should monitor elections." On November 30, the government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" wrote that the Russian proposals are aimed at "defending the OSCE" from the "danger" of being turned into an organization of first- and second-class members. PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov told reporters on his plane while returning home from Annapolis on November 27 that Russia will host the next Middle East peace conference, but this does not yet appear to be a done deal, AP reported on November 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27 and 28, 2007). Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in Moscow on November 29 that Lavrov's proposal "received support" at the Annapolis gathering, but he stopped short of saying that the plan is definite. An unnamed European Commission official said in Israel, however, that a Moscow meeting "could take place as early as February." The news agency quoted Russian and Israeli experts as saying that President Putin might want a major conference in Russia for reasons of prestige, but they doubted that he has anything "to offer the peace process." On November 29, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters that he spoke to Lavrov in Annapolis, but the subject of a Moscow regional conference did not come up. Olmert added: "I don't know of any meeting in Moscow or any date on the agenda, and therefore I can't really respond." AP suggested on November 29 that Olmert is not interested in any large follow-up gatherings, but wants bilateral talks with Syria. The news agency stressed that any progress toward regional peace will depend on Israel and the Palestinians, not on Russia. PM

Mikhail Trepashkin, a former KGB agent who accused Russia's secret services of state terrorism, was released from prison in Nizhny Tagil on November 30, reported. He was jailed for four years for "revealing state secrets" after alleging Russian authorities were behind a spate of apartment bombings in Russia in 1999 in which hundreds of people were killed. Russia blamed the attacks on Chechen "terrorists" and used them as a pretext for new military action in Chechnya. Trepashkin also claimed that former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, who died of poisoning in London in 2006, was on a hit list compiled by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB). After his release from prison, Trepashkin said in Yekaterinburg that he is innocent of the charges. He stressed that the FSB killed Litvinenko for saying publicly that the FSB "has a department involved in extrajudicial killings." "It's the Kremlin that did this," Trepashkin said of the murder. PM

Officials across the country are undertaking extraordinary efforts to ensure a massive turnout for the Duma elections on December 2, Russian media reported on November 30. reported that four times as many absentee ballots have been issued for this election as for the Duma elections in 2003. The website says institutions of higher education in Tambov have issued absentee ballots to all students to encourage them to vote in Tambov rather than in their home districts. The administration of one district in Sverdlovsk Oblast has reportedly ordered managers of state enterprises to submit lists of employees who voted for Unified Russia. The regional headquarters of the Russian Railways system in Yekaterinburg has issued absentee ballots to all employees and has ordered them to vote from the work locations for Unified Russia, the website reported. Employees who fail to do so will reportedly not be eligible for end-of-the-year bonuses. "The Moscow Times" reported on November 30 about the revival and expansion of the Soviet-era practice of enticing voters to the polls with cheap foodstuffs and other consumer goods. Voters in Bashkorstan will be given coupon books, while those in Novgorod will be given prizes. Prime-TASS reported that at least $8 million has been spent on efforts to boost turnout. "Kommersant" reported on November 30 that subscribers to all the national cell-phone networks have received SMS messages urging them to vote, at an estimated cost of some $5.6 million. "Vedomosti" reported the same day that the Central Election Commission sent the SMS messages. In St. Petersburg, voters have received notices inviting them to take part in a free lottery called "Lucky No. 10." The notice features a checked box next to the number 10, which happens to be the number of Unified Russia on the ballot. "Trud" reported on November 29 that voters in Kemerovo will have a chance, after voting, to make stuffed animals, mostly bears, which is the symbol of Unified Russia. Voters in the Volga region will be offered psychological consultations. RC

A new study of television coverage of the Duma election campaign by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations has found that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party received nearly 60 percent of all primetime news coverage in the period from October 1 to November 22, "The Moscow Times" reported on November 30. The Communist Party came in second, receiving 1.2 percent of news coverage on NTV and 3.4 percent on Rossia. The daily reported that a poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that 69 percent of Russians who say they watched election debates were "favorably impressed" with Unified Russia's performance in them, even though the party did not take part in any debates during the campaign. The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations found that negative references to the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) have increased dramatically in recent weeks, with news reports of people claiming the SPS reneged on promises to pay them to appear at rallies and criticism of party official Boris Nemtsov's performance as first deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin. RC

Other Russia leader Garry Kasparov was released on November 29 after serving five days in jail for convening an illegal protest action on November 24, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other media reported the same day. After his release, Kasparov told journalists "Russia is entering a very dangerous stage because it is not clear how far [the authorities] will go." Kasparov was denied visitors and access to lawyers during his detention and pledged to file criminal complaints regarding what he called "violations" of the law and the constitution. Also on November 29, Soviet-era dissident and likely presidential candidate Vladimir Bukovsky was stopped by police in St. Petersburg for allegedly jaywalking. He was released after his documents were checked, but a scheduled bookreading in a downtown bookstore was canceled at the last minute for no reason. Bukovsky was also not allowed to enter a psychiatric facility in St. Petersburg where he was held in the 1960s by the Soviet authorities. Bukovsky called on the opposition to unite behind a single candidate in the March presidential election, REN-TV reported. In Samara, six Other Russia activists were arrested on November 28 and sentenced to six days in jail for resisting arrest and disobeying a police officer, Interfax reported on November 29. One of the activists is Anastasia Kurt-Adzhiyeva, the daughter of Sergei Kurt-Adzhiyev, the editor of the Samara edition of "Novaya gazeta," which was recently closed down by authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2007). Kurt-Adzhiyev said the six detainees have declared a hunger strike for the entire period of their detention. On November 23, Kurt-Adzhiyeva was detained by police because her passport purportedly aroused suspicions. She was questioned for over an hour by FSB officials about alleged extremist activity, reported. RC

"Izvestia" on November 30 published an article in which several pro-Kremlin political analysts gave their assessment of the current Duma elections campaign. Analyst Aleksei Chadayev praised the campaign, saying that it marked the formation in Russia of a real "working" political system. "Parties competed on the basis of ideas and views on various problems, rather than on the quantity of compromising materials," he said. "Profil" Editor Mikhail Leontyev agreed, saying that previous elections wer like "carnivals" and that previous legislatures played either no role or "an exclusively destructive" role. Leontyev said it was a good thing that President Putin involved himself so much in the campaign. "This means that we are electing real power. For the first time, we have a real party of power that has taken on some of the popularity of the current president and responsibility for everything that happens in the country. Thanks to this, not only Unified Russia but all the other participants in this election process have acquired a new status." Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika foundation, said the current elections will produce stronger parties. "The gap between the parties and the state structures made existing parties in many ways pointless. Now that gulf is being bridged," Nikonov said. Leontyev summed up the discussion: "It is clear that our political system is in the process of formation, but it is important that what is forming is precisely a political system and not an imitation of one." RC

Vadim Pokrovsky, the head of the Federal Center for Combating AIDS and one of the country's leading experts on HIV and AIDS, has said that HIV-infection rates are highest among certain profession, including journalism, medicine, show business, and law enforcement, where he claims there are high concentrations of male homosexuals, "Novy region" reported on November 29. "The risk of HIV infection among journalists is very high," Pokrovsky said. Pokrovsky seemed to hint that Duma Deputy and "Novaya gazeta" Deputy Editor Yury Shchekochikhin died of AIDS. "Not long ago a terrible story happened to the editor of a large weekly. He was very sick and went to various specialists who did not know that he was HIV positive. When they finally checked him for the virus, he was already in the last stage and died just two weeks after his diagnosis," Pokrovsky said. "Everyone knows this man, but I won't say his name. Guess for yourself." Shchekochikhin, who was well known for his investigations into official corruption, died in July 2003. According to official reports, he died of an extreme and unidentified allergic reaction, but his colleagues at "Novaya gazeta" believe he was murdered. The Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor-General's Office recently agreed to reopen the case. In recent weeks, there have been spurious reports in the regional press claiming the election workers of the opposition Union of Rightist Forces party have AIDS. RC

The Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences has issued the results of a new study on the self-image of Russians, "Novyye izvestia" reported on November 30. According to the finding, 83 percent of respondents think the main Russian national characteristics are kindness and hospitality. At the same time, the survey found that the percentage of Russians who describe the country as "a house of nations" fell over the last decade from 64 percent to 48 percent. Two-thirds said that work plays an important role in their lives, while 40 percent consider themselves poor. Eighty-six percent said they trust the president and 64 percent said they trust the Russian Orthodox Church. Russians had a less flattering view of Ukrainians, with 52 percent saying that nation's main characteristic is boasting, while 40 percent said it is lying and 33 percent said it is miserliness. RC

The Ford automobile plant outside of St. Petersburg resumed some operations on November 28 after being closed for eight days by a labor action, reported on November 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2007). The plant was restarted after some workers agreed to return to their jobs, although some 500 employees continue to strike for higher wages. "Vremya novostei" reported that the plant will work a single shift instead of the normal three. A plant official told "Novyye izvestia" that there will be no negotiations with workers until they return to their jobs. RC

An item entitled "Berezovsky Convicted, Sentenced In Absentia" in "RFE/RL Newsline" on November 29 should have said the self-exiled tycoon was convicted of embezzling more than 200 million rubles ($7.7 million). RC

The parliament of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) issued an appeal to all voters on November 25 to "support the course of Vladimir Putin" in the December 2 Duma elections, regardless of their personal political preferences, reported on November 25. The appeal stressed that the socioeconomic improvements registered in the KChR over the past seven years are "justifiably" linked with Putin's name. The KChR chapter of the KPRF, one of four factions in the republic's parliament, refused to endorse that appeal, arguing that it constituted a gross violation of legislation barring organs of state power from taking part in the election campaign. On April 30, identified the KChR, with 293,200 voters, as one of at least a dozen federation subjects with small populations that risk ending up without their "own" deputy in the new Duma as a result of the abolition of single-mandate constituencies. The others are the Altai Republic (135,900 voters); the Tyva (170,000 voters) and Khakasia (386,000) republics; the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (29,400); the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug (35,600); the new federation subject that emerged on July 1 following the merger of Kamchatka Oblast and the Koryak Autonomous Oblast with Kamchatka Krai (giving a total of no more than 270,000 voters); the Yamalo-Nenetsk Autonomous Okrug (349,000); Magadan Oblast (126,600) Ingushetia (156,000 voters as of 2004); Adygeya (320,700), and Kalmykia (200,800). Voters in the KcHR's new Abazin autonomous formation created last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2005 and October 11, 2006) will vote on December 2 for a raion administration head and local council, reported on November 29. Five candidates will compete for the former office, and 39 candidates for the 15 seats on the local council. LF

Voters in Chechnya will also be required to vote on December 2 on amendments to the republic's constitution, which was originally adopted in a referendum in March 2003 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 22 and 31, 2003, and "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). The amendments delete the original stipulation that the Chechen Republic head is elected by popular ballot; increase his term of office and that of parliament deputies from four to five years; and replace the present bicameral parliament of 60 deputies with a unicameral parliament numbering only 41 deputies. The new parliament will be empowered to introduce further amendments to the constitution. A poll conducted in October and summarized on October 30 by found that up to 90 percent of respondents intended to vote in the Duma elections and referendum. Speaking on November 27 at a youth forum in Grozny, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov called on all participants to vote, stressing that of Russia's numerous political parties, it is Unified Russia that actually delivers on its promises, according to LF

Over 300 candidates have registered to participate in the elections to a new North Ossetian parliament that are to be held concurrently with the December 2 elections to the Russian State Duma, reported on November 23 quoting republican Central Election Commission Chairman Konstantin Kadiyev. The legislature will number 70 deputies: 141 candidates have registered to compete in the 35 single mandate constituencies and 165 for the remaining 35 seats allocated on the basis of party lists. The republican chapters of nine political parties -- Unified Russia, A Just Russia, Patriots of Russia, the LDPR, the Communist Party, the SPS, the Party of Social Justice, the Agrarian Party and Civic Force -- have nominated candidates. Elections will also take place on December 2 for local councils in Vladikavkaz, where 186 candidates will compete for 32 seats, and in seven raions, including the disputed Prigorodny Raion from which the Ingush population was expelled in late 1992. LF

The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled on November 29 that the Russian authorities must pay Grozny resident Zaynal Tangiyeva 66,000 euros ($97,350) in compensation for the killing in January 2000 during the battle for Grozny of her parents and uncle, reported. Also on November 29, the Russian Supreme Court upheld the verdicts handed down by the North Caucasus Military Court in June on Interior Ministry special forces (spetsnaz) captain Eduard Ulman and three other men found guilty of the killing of six Chechens in January 2002, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, 2007). LF

Kabardino-Balkaria Republic Interior Minister Major General Yury Tomchak told the republic's parliament on November 29 that terrorism suspect Zeitun Gayev was not tortured or subjected to any kind of pressure or threats before he jumped to his death from a window two weeks ago while being interrogated, reported. Gayev, 29, was detained on November 15 in the suburbs of Nalchik after police reportedly found weapons in his car (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007). LF

Gagik Hakobian, the majority stakeholder in the Royal Armenia coffee importing company, was sentenced on November 29 to six years' imprisonment on charges of large-scale organized fraud, smuggling, tax evasion and forgery, charges of which a Yerevan court acquitted him in July, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. A second Royal Armenia executive, Aram Ghazarian, received a two and a half year sentence, but was amnestied. He said he will appeal the sentence. The two men were first arrested in October 2005 after publicly accusing senior customs officials of corruption. Pargev Ohanian, the judge who acquitted them earlier this year, was dismissed last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 15 and 17, 2007). LF

Vartan Oskanian and Elmar Mammadyarov met on the sidelines of the OSCE Foreign Ministers' conference in Madrid on November 29 with the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a settlement of the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan and Azerbaijani media reported. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner were also present. The co-chairmen presented to the two ministers a written draft of the 10 "basic principles" for resolving the conflict that have been under discussion for the past three years (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," June 30, September 18 and December 1, 2006). Mammadyarov said agreement has not yet been reached on "one or two" of those principles, according to; Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibragim said only one remains to be resolved. The Minsk Group co-chairmen will travel to Armenia and Azerbaijan in late January 2008 in the hope of securing at least the oral acceptance by the two countries' presidents of the "basic principles" before the presidential elections in Armenia in February and in Azerbaijan in the fall of 2008. LF

The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled on November 29 that the Azerbaijani government must pay 20,000 euros ($29,540) in compensation to Alikram Gumbatov, who in 1993 declared a short-lived independent Talysh republic on Azerbaijan's southern border with Iran, reported. The court upheld Gumbatov's claim that he was subjected to an unfair trial, tortured, and denied medical treatment for tuberculosis. Gumbatov was sentenced to death in February 1996; that sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Following repeated requests from the Council of Europe, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pardoned Gumbatov in 2004, whereupon he emigrated to the Netherlands (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, 2004). The trial on charges of treason of Novruzali Mamedov, a prominent Talysh academic arrested in February, has been set for December 7, reported on November 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). LF

The nine-party opposition National Council issued a statement on November 29 accusing Mikheil Saakashvili of misusing government resources to promote his candidacy in the January 5 pre-term presidential ballot, Caucasus Press and reported. The statement cited as one example of such abuse the meeting Saakashvili convened on November 28 with displaced persons at the Tbilisi town hall, which was broadcast by several television stations, and at which Saakashvili announced that he has issued instructions to government officials that displaced persons illegally occupying state-owned property should be granted the right to live there permanently. Tina Khidasheli of the Republican Party termed such pledges an attempt to bribe voters. Saakashvili has also arbitrarily overturned earlier decrees on privatization and on the mandatory use of cash registers at markets, announced an amnesty for thousands of prisoners, and pledged an increase in state-sector salaries and pensions. Parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, who assumed the powers of president for the duration of the election campaign, was quoted by Caucasus Press on November 30 as saying she will do all in her power to ensure the presidential election is fair and objective. LF

Chairing a special Defense Ministry working group meeting in Astana, Daniyal Akhmetov on November 29 called for greater efforts to dispose of unwanted ordnance and redundant stocks of ammunition, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. He noted that despite efforts by the working group to deal with the problem, "there is a huge amount of obsolete ammunition that needs to be scrapped" still remaining in several large army depots around the country. He further noted that their storage posed the threat of "spontaneous explosions and fires." The Defense Ministry's working group reported that although some 2 million "pieces of various types of ammunition" were identified in 2003 and targeted for disposal, only 30 percent has been effectively destroyed to date. Akhmetov resolved to open a competitive tender to allow "Kazakh and foreign companies" to bid for a contract to destroy and dispose of the remaining ordnance. RG

Kazakh Deputy Defense Minister Bolat Zhanasaev met on November 29 in Astana with a visiting delegation led by Yasar Guler, the Turkish General Staff director for education and training, to discuss the planned expansion of military cooperation, training, and technical assistance for the Kazakh armed forces, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. In an official press release issued by the Kazakh Defense Ministry following the meeting, Zhanasaev noted that the talks on Kazakh-Turkish military cooperation covered "a wide range of issues, including such aspects as training Kazakh personnel, assisting in developing Kazakh naval forces, providing military and technical aid to the armed forces, paying mutual visits and language training [for] servicemen." He also welcomed the Turkish offer to increase the number of Kazakh officers studying at the Turkish Defense Ministry academy. To date, some 450 Kazakh officers have graduated from specialized training programs conducted by Turkish military instructors. RG

Tolekan Ismailova, the director of the Bishkek-based Civilians against Corruption human rights center, announced on November 29 that Kazakhstan has extradited human rights activist Ulugbek Osmonov to Kyrgyzstan, according to the website. Osmonov is accused of organizing an attack on then-Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev in May during a visit to the Talas region. Ismailova said that Osmonov is innocent of the charges and was only in the Talas region at the time to investigate local protests over the resumption of mining activities at the nearby Jeruy gold mine. Demonstrators there halted the official motorcade and attacked the prime minister's convoy, pelting the vehicles with stones. RG

Takhtalifum Yesengulov, the director of operations at Kazakhstan's Zhanazhol oil and natural-gas fields, announced on November 28 that the construction of a new $800 million gas refinery in the western Kazakh region of Aktobe is "nearly complete," Kazakh Television reported. The gas refinery is linked to the development of the Zhanazhol oil field by the China National Petroleum Corporation and is expected to be completed by 2008. The project was first initiated in 2006 and includes plans for the construction of a new gas pipeline and a railway line aimed at facilitating the export of liquefied gas, sulfur and gas condensate through the Buxoro-Ural pipeline to Russia and Europe. In the initial stages, the new plant will be able to produce some 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas, 500,000 tons of liquefied gas, and 1 million tons of condensate and light oil products annually, with projections forecasting a future increase to some 6 billion cubic meters of gas by 2009. RG

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on November 29 released a report on Kyrgyzstan's justice system that identified several shortcomings in its courts, Kabar reported. According to an official release posted on the OSCE website (http:///, the "trial monitoring report" noted deficiencies in "the public's right to attend trials, investigation of defendants' allegations of torture, and the presumption of innocence" and urged the Kyrgyz authorities to address these areas as prerequisites for fair trials. The report summarized the results of a trial-monitoring program conducted on behalf of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) from November 2004 through September 2006, and involving the monitoring of some 1,134 court sessions in three city and 26 district courts. The ODIHR report was formally presented in Bishkek during a conference attended by judges from seven regions, and lawyers and prosecutors from across the country. The monitoring study reported that judges in 92.2 percent of cases observed "acted in compliance with the code of professional conduct," and noted that in 7.8 percent of the monitored court sessions, judges "made statements of an accusatory nature, made threats, exerted psychological pressure on participants in the process, or restricted their rights" without valid justification. RG

A district court in Minsk on November 29 sentenced Alyaksandr Talstyka and Ruslan Lutsenka to 10 and seven days in jail, respectively, for violating the law on organizing mass events, Belapan reported. Police detained Talstyka and Lutsenka on November 28 while they were distributing leaflets promoting a rally, planned for December 10, to protest against a presidential decree restricting the activities of small businesses. Talstyka is an organizer of the rally and a member of an unregistered organization, For The Free Development of Enterprise. The organization earlier this month asked the Minsk authorities for permission to hold the rally, but has not received a response. AM

At the November 29 session of the Verkhovna Rada, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense (NUNS) bloc submitted a coalition agreement signed by 227 lawmakers of both groupings, Ukrainian media reported. The agreement gives the BYuT and NUNS factions a majority of just two votes in the 450-seat Ukrainian parliament. The coalition agreement was not signed by NUNS member Ivan Plyushch, who announced that he continues to support a "broad coalition." NUNS leader Yuriy Lutsenko said he believes Plyushsch will change his stance and join the coalition, but added that if he fails to do so, he will be excluded from the NUNS caucus. The next session of the Verkhovna Rada is scheduled for December 4, when lawmakers intend to elect a speaker of parliament and other leaders. AM

The EU's European Council has approved agreements with Ukraine on simplified visa requirements for Ukrainians entering the Schengen travel zone, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The agreement, ratified earlier in November by the European Parliament, sets the cost of a visa at 35 euros ($51) and reduces or eliminates that fee for some Ukrainian citizens. The agreement is due to come into force on January 1, 2008, after its ratification by the Ukrainian parliament. AM

The head of NATO forces in Kosova, Xavier de Marnhac, on November 28 urged international leaders to make clear what they expect from the roughly 16,000 troops under his command should Kosova declare independence and the security situation deteriorate. "We need, from a military perspective, to have a very clear understanding on what is the international community intent here in Kosovo," Reuters quoted him as telling the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington, a not-for-profit organization that acts as a forum for discussion primarily of NATO-related affairs. What is already clear in de Marnhac's mind is that "it's going to be tough -- and to expect to do that without breaking eggs, forget it. We will definitely break some eggs." He did not elaborate. However, he said that, based on Belgrade's increasingly tight control of ethnic-Serbian communities, he believes Belgrade is considering "some kind of separate ruling" in Serbian-populated areas of northern Kosova. That raises the specter of partition, an idea categorically dismissed by both Belgrade and Prishtina during direct talks. The talks ended on November 28, and the UN Security Council will discuss Kosova's future on December 19, by which time Kosova may or may not have declared independence. Kosova's outgoing prime minister, Agim Ceku, said on November 28 that "our goal is to have the end of the year," but Kosova has also made it clear it will not act unilaterally. De Marnhac identified the planned transfer of policing responsibilities from the UN to the EU as another source of potential problems. "Any gap that might happen in the changing of the international police presence here in Kosovo is a major concern for me," he said. The NATO commander also indicated how security problems between Kosova's Albanian and Serbian populations could conceivably resolve themselves, saying that "in the mid to long term there will be some kind of biological end to the problem here because, you know, one of the population[s] will simply disappear." The average Kosovar Albanian is 28 years old, while the average Kosovar Serb is 54. AG

Belgian lawyer Serge Brammertz will succeed Carla Del Ponte as the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the UN Security Council unanimously decided on November 28. He will take up the post in January 2008, when Del Ponte becomes Switzerland's ambassador to Argentina. Del Ponte had originally planned to step down in September, but agreed to the UN's request to stay until the end of the year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27 and September 17, 2007). That decision ensured that the end of her term coincided with the end of Brammertz's tenure as the head of a UN investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, September 17, and November 11, 2007). Brammertz, who has long been touted as Del Ponte's successor, was appointed for a four-year term, but the ICTY is due to close its doors in 2010, two years after accepting its last cases. The key challenge for Brammertz is to bring four remaining war crimes indictees to trial: the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic; a Bosnian Serb police commander, Stojan Zupljanin; and a Croatian Serb wartime leader, Goran Hadzic. It will rest with the UN to decide whether to keep the tribunal's doors open should the four not be captured and brought to trial by the end of 2008. Brammertz will be the ICTY's fifth chief prosecutor since its establishment in 1993. AG

Bosnia's new chief war crimes prosecutor, David Schwendiman, on November 29 warned the 16,150 suspected war criminals still wanted by the Bosnian justice system that "if you are responsible for crimes committed during the war, regardless which side you were on, you can't hide from us." Speaking to a news conference, Schwendiman continued: "It won't matter how powerful you are or think you are. You will not rest well, because you will know that we aren't resting. This I promise. We will outwork you. We will outsmart you." Reuters quoted Schwendiman's deputy, Milorad Barasin, as saying that, since its establishment in 2005, Bosnia's War Crimes Chamber has issued 40 indictments against some 70 war crimes suspects, and launched investigations into a further 312 cases involving 900 people. The figure of 16,150 people possibly guilty of war crimes is based on data from prosecutors' offices across the country. In June, Sarajevo's Research and Documentation Center published the names of 97,207 casualties of the war. It is thought the total number of dead could be 10,000 higher. AG

Serbian prosecutors have filed war crimes charges against 14 former Yugoslav People's Army soldiers and Serbian paramilitary fighters over the killing of 70 Croatian civilians in October and November 1991, local media reported on November 29. The men are believed to have forced scores of civilians to walk over a minefield near the village of Lovas, killing 22 of them, and to have shot another 48, some of them after they were captured. The indictment follows the exhumation of bodies from a number of mass graves near the village. The Serbian authorities arrested 12 men in late May in connection with the case after what they said was an investigation that lasted a year and a half and involved interviews with more than 50 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 31, 2007). In 2003, Croatia charged 17 men with involvement in the killings, but was able to take only one of them into custody. AG

The prime minister of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, on November 28 handed privatization documents to the corruption watchdog Transparency International, a move triggered by public suspicions of graft in a number of high-profile deals struck by the government of the Bosnian Serb-dominated entity. Reuters reported that, while defending the transactions, Dodik agreed that Transparency International employees should be allowed to monitor any future sales of strategic companies from the outset. The deals that have roused suspicion are the sale of oil-industry assets to a Russian company, and an energy-sector joint venture between a local power generator and the Czech company CEZ (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, and March 21, 2007). AG

Montenegrin and Italian power companies are in talks that could lead to the countries' electricity grids being connected, Reuters reported on November 29. Montenegro's EPCG said a study should be completed in early 2008 into the feasibility of establishing an undersea cable. Initially, electricity would probably mainly be imported into Montenegro, which is currently capable of meeting just 65 percent of its electricity needs. Throughout the Balkans, energy is now a crucial issue, with economic growth, aging infrastructure, a lack of fresh investment, and the EU's decision to shut down part of the Bulgarian nuclear power plant Kozloduy all contributing to the problem. Efforts are, though, afoot to create a regional energy market, based on a treaty signed in October 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). The International Energy Agency concluded in a report issued in August that Montenegro "still needs to develop robust energy strategies and reliable data systems in order to reach market fundamentals." Thanks to regular sunshine, dense forests, and plentiful water, there are hopes -- encouraged by the World Bank -- that Montenegro could turn successfully to renewable sources of energy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27, 2007). AG

Moldova's government has described a Russian decision to set up polling stations in the breakaway Transdniester region as "interference" in its "domestic affairs," AP and Moldovan media reported on November 29. Russia announced the decision on November 27, just five days before Russians are due to vote in parliamentary elections. AP said that there are about 85,000 Russians in Transdniester who are eligible to vote. It is not clear whether that number includes Transdniester's president, Igor Smirnov, a Russian who moved from Ukraine to Moldova in 1987. Transdniester has a population of about 550,000, of whom upwards of 25 percent are ethnic Russians. Around 1,500 of them are military personnel. Moldova insists that Russia should withdraw the troops, which arrived as a peacekeeping force in 1992, but Russia has given no indication that it will make good on promises made in 1993 and 1999 to pull out. Transdniester's close ties with Moscow were underlined in July, when Smirnov endorsed a plan to harmonize Transdniester's "political and legal systems" with Russia's, a move that the plan said would establish "a solid basis for further integration into Russia's legal, economic, cultural, information, and education fields." AG

The Serbian government has managed to halve the number of people living in poverty three years ahead of schedule, Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic said on November 29. Belgrade originally hoped to halve the poverty level, from 13.4 percent, between 2002 and 2010, B92 reported. While that goal may have been completed within five years rather than eight, almost half a million of Serbia's population of 7.5 million (excluding Kosova) still live in poverty, Djelic said. Unemployment is one of the major factors, with the current rate -- 21.6 percent -- placing Serbia at the "top of the European [poverty] ladder," Djelic said. Serbia's efforts to revive its economy in recent years have won plaudits, with Mladjan Dinkic being declared the world's best finance minister by the journal "Euromoney" in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 24, 2007). Labor and Social Policy Minister Rasim Ljajic said on October 1 that around 400,000 children in Serbia are poor, and half that number live in extreme poverty. A report published by the UN's Children's Fund (UNICEF) in February found that 300,000 children in Serbia live near or below the poverty line (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, 2007). AG

Croatia is the Southeastern European country that ranks highest in the UN's latest Human Development Index, which was published on November 27. Its position -- 47th out of 177 countries -- is, however, lower than that of another former Yugoslav state, Slovenia (27), which likes to think of itself as a Central European country. It is followed by Bulgaria (53), Romania (60), Bosnia-Herzegovina (66), Albania (68), Macedonia (69), and Moldova (111). Of the former Soviet republics, only Uzbekistan (113), Kyrgyzstan (116), and Tajikistan (122) ranked lower than Moldova. The table includes neither Serbia nor Montenegro. The index is a composite measure of life expectancy, knowledge (measured by literacy and schooling), and the standard of life (measured by gross domestic product per capita). The changes in ranking year on year were marginal and affected by adjustments to the methodology used. AG

Although the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) party is, at best, a long shot to win any seats in the next State Duma, the party has been the target of intense harassment from officials across the country since campaigning began last month. Deputy party leader Leonid Grozman told "Vedomosti" recently the Kremlin's attention means that support for the party is higher than opinion polls indicate.

In short, politics in Russia have reached the point where the only way for parties to gauge their popularity is by measuring the lengths to which the Kremlin will go to suppress them. This is one vivid example of the way in which the country's political system has been deformed by the Kremlin's long-standing insistence on managing every aspect of acquiring and maintaining power. The macro-level contours of that manipulation -- controlling the media, introducing antidemocratic election laws (including the elimination of elections for the heads of regional administrations), virtually eliminating public referendums, introducing strict limitations on political parties -- have been well documented.

But the extent of managed democracy in Russia goes much deeper. For example, when the parties contesting the December 2 Duma elections were formulating their list of candidates earlier this year, there was strong evidence that the presidential administration was exercising strong influence, even among parties that are usually viewed as independent. Key supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the Communist Party were either lured or intimidated away from participation. The SPS initially floated the names of youth activist Maria Gaidar, former Open Russia head Irina Yasina, and outspoken independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov as possible national-list candidates. But when the dust settled, the choice fell on little-known literature professor Marietta Chudakova, who has since proceeded to play almost no visible role in the campaign.

The SPS "must act within the framework created by the Kremlin," Ryzhkov told RFE/RL at the time. "As far as I can tell, the Kremlin has no desire to allow representatives of the real opposition to participate in the upcoming elections." Ryzhkov intimated that one of the Kremlin's control mechanisms lies in its stranglehold over the media. "There is an absolutely concrete list of names of people who cannot be shown on television," Ryzhkov said. Selecting one of these people to figure on a party's national list of candidates would be tantamount to choosing a total media blackout. Of course, when "opposition" parties fail to include serious politicians like Ryzhkov in their ranks, those politicians become further marginalized in the public mind.

As the December 2 elections draw nearer, the administration's tactics intended to keep the process to the script have become more heavy-handed. Opposition parties and even the Central Election Commission have noticed a national trend in which police are taking a highly proactive role in the campaign, acting on purported election-law violations even before local election officials have a chance to weigh in on them. "Earlier, election commissions first reacted to violations and then the police, if necessary, became involved," an unnamed member of the Central Election Commission told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" this month. Opposition activists have been questioned in their homes and campaign materials have been impounded on pretexts from drug charges to accusations of hidden advertising. Opposition demonstrations -- as opposed to pro-Kremlin rallies -- have been severely restricted by municipal authorities in Moscow and other cities, and police have been willing to use force to keep things under control.

As the implementation of the Kremlin's political-transition plan devolves from the presidential administration -- and its election-meister, deputy administration head Vladislav Surkov -- to regional and local administrations, such tactics are likely to become more brutal. Local officials, after all, understand that their political futures do not depend on what voters think of them, but on how well they demonstrate their loyalty to the Kremlin and their devotion to President Vladimir Putin's course. And they will stop at little in their competition with one another to demonstrate what capable "managers" they are. The recent slaying of Yabloko activist Farid Babayev in Daghestan following his criticism of the republican administration's manipulation of the election campaign may not be the last such tragedy before the vote.

There is little doubt that the managed political system that has been installed in Russia will produce -- or be seen to produce -- exactly the result the presidential administration wants. If anything, the Kremlin could be compelled to falsify the results of the pro-Putin juggernaut Unified Russia downward to compensate for the unrealistically Soviet-style results many regional administrations are likely to come up with on election day.

But that system cannot produce the result that the Kremlin really needs -- legitimacy. The December 2 landslide will not be derived from popular support for Putin or Unified Russia. It will be the product of a dirty combination of undemocratic practices, blatant fear-mongering, the manipulation of public cynicism, and the total elimination of competition. This environment -- "the framework created by the Kremlin," to use Ryzhkov's phrase -- is designed down to the last detail to prevent the expression of the public's will rather than to manifest it.

And, despite the constrained environment of political information and expression, the Russian public broadly understands this. An RFE/RL poll taken last month found that two-thirds of respondents believe the elections are not being conducted honestly, and nearly half are sure the results of the election will be determined by Putin or his administration. Just over 15 percent of respondents said the elections will represent the will of the Russian people.

The presidential administration has made a lot of political capital by spreading the fear of an Orange Revolution-style uprising, by creating the impression that Russia is surrounded by enemies who want to sink the country into chaos, and by driving home the idea that unity is strength and pluralism is weakness. However, the Kremlin's analysts must be aware that a system based on the semblance of a democratic process is actually fundamentally unstable. The current "framework" allows no room for dissent, for creative criticism, for public influence over political choices -- and that is an untenable situation. The framework must be shifted -- either in the direction of increased democracy or toward undisguised totalitarianism. And given the background of the chekisty surrounding Putin and the policies they have consistently implemented in eight years of power, it seems more than unlikely the shift will be toward democracy.

Residents of Musa Qala, in Helmand Province, began fleeing the area on November 28 in advance of anticipated clashes between NATO-led coalition forces and Taliban insurgents, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The district is a Taliban stronghold and has witnessed intense fighting in recent years. Haji Tor Khan, a tribal elder, said that coalition forces are advancing on the periphery of Musa Qala and preparing to conduct raids, adding that "despite the biting cold, war-weary residents spend nights in the open and return to their houses after the sunrise" due to fears of further hostilities. Brigadier General Mohammad Hussain Andiwal, the Helmand chief of police, confirmed that preparations are under way for a U.S.-led joint counterinsurgency sweep, Pajhwak News Agency said. The area has changed hands several times between Taliban insurgents and coalition forces since 2006, but Taliban insurgents have now controlled Musa Qala for several months. MM

In a ceremony held at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on November 29, President Hamid Karzai greeted the families of slain Afghan National Army soldiers and national police in recognition of their sacrifices for the cause of peace and stability, Bakhtar News Agency reported. Karzai offered his condolences to the families for their losses, awarded them with state medals, and promised that the "martyrs' salaries" will be paid to their relatives, along with other financial assistance. Bakhtar quoted Karzai as saying that "without any doubt, Afghanistan has been protected by the people of this country, and this endeavor of the nation will continue in the future." The mother of a slain soldier reportedly told Karzai that she "encouraged her sons to protect this country and defeat its enemies," adding that she is ready to sacrifice her other children to defend Afghanistan. MM

U.S. General Bantz Craddock, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, suggested in a policy speech on November 27 that he would welcome "greater involvement by Muslim nations" in bolstering Afghan and NATO operations to fight the Taliban insurgency, Bakhtar News Agency reported on November 29. Although some Muslim forces, such as Turkish soldiers, are part of the coalition in Afghanistan, Muslim countries have generally been reluctant to send troops there for fear of a public backlash at the prospect of their forces combating fellow Muslims. Craddock was reportedly optimistic that Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa would be interested in contributing to training programs by providing teams of military experts to support the expanding Afghan National Army. The NATO command in Afghanistan has had difficulty persuading allied countries to provide the additional trainers and resources needed to prepare the Afghan security forces to stand alone against the Taliban. MM

In a letter published on November 29 by the British daily "The Independent," Mark Malloch-Brown, a junior British foreign minister, said the Taliban does not pose a serious threat to the elected government of Afghanistan, the news website reported, citing Afghan and international media sources. Malloch-Brown wrote that "the Taliban does not control a single province or have the ability to hold territory, showing they are far from being a resurgent force." The letter apparently aimed to dismiss the findings of a report by the Senlis Council think tank, released on November 21, that depicted the Taliban as a de facto governing authority in much of the country and asserted that reconstruction is lagging and security deteriorating in vast areas of Afghanistan. Malloch-Brown emphasized the progress made in Afghan development, adding, "We do not believe the Senlis Council conclusions are accurate or offer the right way forward." MM

Iran's representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told Belgian legislators in Brussels on November 29 that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has effectively failed over four decades to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and he blamed the world's nuclear powers for undermining the treaty. He said their public warnings about proliferation are intended to distract public opinion from their own arsenals, IRNA reported. Soltanieh said these arsenals are an "objective danger" to the world. The sizeable arsenals of the United States and Russia, development of Trident missiles by Great Britain, or the United States' decision to cooperate with states not in the NPT has discredited the treaty, Soltanieh said. He accused the United States and France of violating the NPT's first article by passing on technology to non-NPT states. He said developing states like Iran are being treated unfairly by being subjected to strict inspections and being denied the technology-development provisions of the treaty. He suggested that this would dissuade other states with incipient nuclear programs from joining the treaty. VS

Tehran's chief prosecutor, Said Mortazavi, on November 28 reversed a recent judiciary decision to drop espionage-related charges against former diplomat Hossein Musavian, whom the Intelligence Ministry claims has passed secret information on Iran's nuclear program to foreign powers, Radio Farda and Iranian news agencies reported. The initial acquittal angered President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and the Intelligence Ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 28, and 29, 2007). Mortazavi has transferred the case from the security department of the prosecutor's office to another department, and cited violations of judicial procedures in the decision to drop the charges. Musavian's prosecution has caused tensions between centrist and right-wing forces, which have accused each other of pressuring the judiciary with regard to Musavian, who is seen as close to political moderates or pragmatists. Mortazavi has written to the Intelligence Ministry and forbidden details of the case to be revealed until it is concluded, Fars news agency reported. VS

Deputy parliament speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar warned Iranians on November 29 to watch out for those "showing a green light" to Western powers in Iran, Fars reported. He warned in a speech to the conservative Islamic Society of Engineers that people should beware of "radical and extremist currents" and "all those showing a green light indicating their readiness to serve the West." These elements, he said, are trying to use "denigration and psychological warfare" to win votes in the parliamentary elections set for March 2008. He did not specify whether he was referring to the right-wing or reformist factions. Bahonar said an 11-member coordinating committee will seek to forge conservative or "fundamentalist" unity for the polls. He also dismissed the recent Middle East peace conference in Annapolis as "ceremonial" and ineffective, and said the Palestinian authorities who went there did not really represent the Palestinians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27 and 28, 2007). Iran, he said, will hold a separate conference on Palestine in Tehran, and invite groups including Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Islamic Jihad, a militant group. VS

Thirty-three members of parliament urged the government on November 28 not to meddle with the "free flow of news" in Iran, apparently in response to unspecified changes and reappointments in ISNA, one of the country's main news agencies, "Etemad-i Melli" reported the next day. The legislators made the collective observation addressed to the government during the last parliamentary session before a 10-day recess, and seemed to be from both majority right-wing and minority reformist factions. The legislators noted an increasing and "restrictive" interference into the work of publicly funded news agencies and stated that "there is concern that agencies merely come to [provide] biased and inverted news to public opinion." VS

More than 1,000 activists and politicians have signed a statement calling for the release of feminist Mariam Hosseinkhah, who was detained on November 18, Radio Farda and reported on November 26 and 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007). She has been charged with inciting public opinion and publishing false reports or allegations, apparently in relation to web-based articles and a campaign to gather 1 million signatures to change discriminatory Iranian laws, Radio Farda reported. A court set her bail at a little over $100,000, which she could not pay, and she is reportedly being held with ordinary criminals in Tehran's Evin prison. Cologne-based activist Mariam Sotut told Radio Farda on November 26 that many activists and feminists have been arrested in recent months, but she stressed that objections and verbal protests or reports on them inside and outside Iran are helpful. "Without these objections, those arrested would not be released," she said. She expressed hope that objections to Hosseinkhah's arrest would help ensure her release. VS

The detained head of the Association in Defense of Prisoners' Rights, Emadeddin Baqi, has said he may consider going on hunger strike in response to his treatment in Tehran's Evin prison, the website reported on November 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 24 and 25 and November 7 and 27, 2007). The website is run by graduate former members of the student grouping Office for Strengthening Unity (DTV). Baqi was allowed to meet with his family on November 26 and reportedly told them he has written several letters to officials, including the judiciary chief and the Intelligence Ministry, pointing out the legal discrepancies with his arrest, and threatening to stop eating if the "legal violations and psychological torture" to which he said he was subjected continue. The website quoted his wife, Fatemeh Kamali-Ahmadsarai, as saying the same day that prison guards stood right next to the family as they talked. She indicated that Baqi has been in solitary confinement since his arrest in mid-October. VS

The U.S. military announced on November 28 that approximately 6,000 Sunni Arabs in the northern city of Al-Hawjah have signed a security pact with U.S. forces to form a volunteer force to combat Al-Qaeda in the region, international media reported on November 29. According to U.S. military sources, each member of the new volunteer force will be paid $275 a month and most will man security checkpoints around the city starting on December 7. U.S. military officials said that the new pact represents the single largest volunteer mobilization program since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and will focus on preventing Al-Qaeda from finding a foothold in northern Iraq. An army commander, Major Sean Wilson, said the new force will be an invaluable asset in helping prevent militants from using Al-Hawjah as a gateway into northern Iraq. "They're another set of eyes that we needed in this critical area," Wilson said. Several Sunni groups have united to combat Al-Qaeda throughout Iraq, many of them coalitions of local Sunni Arab tribes. The most well-known is the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, which has been fighting to expel Al-Qaeda-linked elements from the western Al-Anbar Governorate. SS

Iraqi forces on November 29 discovered two cars packed with explosives parked near the Baghdad office of Adnan al-Dulaymi, the leader of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Brigadier General Qasim Ata, a spokesman for the Baghdad Security Plan, said that Iraqi forces successfully conducted controlled detonations of both bombs and later arrested seven of al-Dulaymi's bodyguards who were thought to have had a role in planting them. However, al-Dulaymi rejected Ata's report in an interview with Al-Iraqiyah, saying that the general made the statement without thoroughly investigating the incident. "I condemn this statement and hope that Mr. Qasim Ata will refrain from making such comments, and contact us to fully understand the incident," he said. Al-Dulaymi went on to say that implicating his bodyguards was a way of trying to sully his reputation and that of the Iraqi Accordance Front. The Sunni leader has been a vocal critic of the Shi'a-led government in Baghdad. SS

Relatives of an Iraqi journalist, reported to have been killed by gunmen, appeared on Iraqi television on November 28 to repudiate the claim that they were slaughtered, the BBC reported. On November 26, Dia al-Kawwaz, the editor in chief of the news website Shabakat Akhbar Al-Iraq (Iraq News Network), claimed that 11 members of his family were killed by suspected Shi'ite militiamen who raided his family's home in Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2007). However, U.S.-funded Alhurra television carried a report showing that all members of his family are alive and uninjured. One of al-Kawwaz's sisters denounced his actions, and one of his brothers-in-law accused al-Kawwaz of fabricating the story for political reasons. The Shabakat Akhbar Al-Iraq website has long been critical of the Iraqi government and the U.S. military presence in Iraq. SS

At a press conference at the Al-Sulaymaniyah airport on November 29, former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi called for Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani to meet with Kurdish leaders to iron out the contentious issue of oil deals signed between the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) and several foreign firms, reported. Allawi said al-Shahristani should meet with his KRG counterpart, Oil and Natural Resources Minister Ashti Hawrami, instead of leveling threats against the Kurds through the media. Al-Shahristani has previously described the KRG deals as "illegal" and "null and void." He also threatened to bar any foreign firms that signed deals with the KRG from acquiring Iraqi oil contracts in the future. In a recent interview on Monte Carlo Radio, al-Shahristani said he has come to an agreement with Iraq's neighbors to prevent the Kurds from exporting oil. The KRG maintains that its deals with foreign firms are lawful and in line with the Iraqi Constitution. SS

At a November 29 press conference in the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said the security situation in Iraq is definitely showing signs of improvement, international media reported. He expressed hope that the security improvements will enable Iraqi leaders to make headway on the political front and pass much-needed legislation, such as a comprehensive oil law. "We are very optimistic that the progress that has occurred in security will be matched with political progress," Negroponte said. "We think the political progress that has happened already is significant," he added. While violence has dropped since the U.S. troop surge was put into full effect, observers question whether Iraq's Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders can put aside their differences and take the steps needed to achieve national reconciliation. SS

The "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" newspaper reported on November 29 that a significant splinter group has formed within the Al- Da'wah Party and is actively seeking to remove Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as party chairman and replace him with former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari. Several sources close to the Al- Da'wah Party told the pan-Arab newspaper that the splinter group will eventually want al-Ja'fari to challenge al-Maliki for the position of prime minister. There have been reports that some members of the United Iraqi Alliance, to which the Al-Da'wah Party belongs, are unhappy with al-Maliki's performance as prime minister, particularly with regard to the lack of political progress. SS