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Newsline - December 4, 2007

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said on December 3 that "reports from Russia include that there were allegations of [parliamentary] election-day violations [on December 2], and we have urged the Russians to look into them," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). When a reporter asked whether President George W. Bush's administration believes that the Russian vote was legitimate, she replied, "we'll reserve judgment." In London, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a statement that "it is vital that the Russian Central Election Commission urgently investigates all allegations of electoral abuses." In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said through a spokesman that he is concerned "about the conduct of the elections, in particular when it comes to freedom of expression and association." A spokesman for the European Commission said that "we are obviously aware of the allegations of irregularities. These will have to be assessed by the relevant bodies in Russia, and we will monitor this closely." Graham Watson, who heads the liberal faction in the European Parliament, said the vote proved that President Vladimir Putin is "a populist with the trappings of a dictator.... He is in the same category as [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez, only...more dangerous." In Prague, a Czech Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said on December 2 that the Russian authorities did not allow outside monitors "free and fair access," CTK reported. She added that "the future composition of the Russian parliament will always be overshadowed by doubts about the circumstances that have led to it." In Berlin, a government spokesman said on December 3 that the vote was "neither fair, equal, nor democratic," the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on December 4. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on December 3, "I deeply regret that there was no long-term Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE] election monitoring in Russia as was the case in previous years. There was only short-term monitoring by members of the parliamentary OSCE committee." He stressed that "it was clear that there would be doubts as to how the election result came about. And indeed...accusations were made that the elections did not happen according to OSCE principles. I expect Russia to look into all these accusations." In Paris, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman called on Russia to "shed light" on charges of voting irregularities, news agencies reported. PM

Britain's "Financial Times" observed on December 4 that "Russia's relations with the West threatened to hit a new Western leaders and institutions denounced parliamentary elections at the weekend as unfair and undemocratic. But independent observers suggested both sides could seek to contain the damage as Russia heads into a crucial and uncertain period." Some analysts writing in Western dailies suggested that President Putin will emerge from the election with renewed confidence and proceed to pursue his strategy of splitting the EU. Other observers indicated that the West's response will amount to nothing more than a "slap on the wrist" for Putin. The Bulgarian daily "Dnevnik" wrote on December 3 that Western leaders are living in a "fantasy world" if they think they can buy Russian gas without making themselves vulnerable to political demands from the Kremlin. Denmark's daily "Politiken" noted on December 3 that the Russian election "could be best described as a swindle." The paper argued that Western countries should not accept its results lest they compromise their own democratic values and deprive Russians of hope in a democratic future for their country. PM

President Putin said on December 3 that Russia could resume compliance with the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty if all NATO member states meet his long-standing demand that they ratify its 1999 amended version, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). He warned, however, that Russia will not "wait forever" for them to do so. Putin recently signed legislation calling for Russia's "suspension" of the CFE on December 12. 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 OSCE summit in Istanbul on withdrawing its forces from Transdniester and Georgia. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by telephone in December 3 with NATO Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer about unspecified "current questions regarding the activities of the NATO-Russia Council," which will meet in Brussels on December 7, reported. On December 1, the government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" wrote that "zero hour" has come for the future of the CFE Treaty. The paper argued that seven months have passed since Putin first announced Russia's intention to impose a "moratorium" or "suspension." The daily added, however, that "all attempts by Russian politicians, military leaders, and diplomats to get the message across to their foreign counterparts have failed. Russia doesn't intend to continue its persuasion efforts." The paper argued that "the fact that the moratorium is coming into force doesn't mean that Russia will immediately bring up more troops to its western borders or redeploy troops in the Leningrad and North Caucasus military districts, where the CFE's flank restrictions have applied until now. But Defense Ministry sources make it clear that from now on, all decisions related to troop movements within Russia's borders will be made without looking over our shoulders at NATO." The nationalist "RBC Daily" wrote on December 3 that NATO does not want either to accept Russia's terms or to start a new arms race in Europe. The daily suggested that the upcoming NATO-Russia Council meeting might provide clues as to which option the West finds less distasteful. PM

In Washington on December 3, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that the CFE Treaty does not include any provision for its suspension, AP reported. But the news agency also quoted a Washington-based arms-control expert as saying that the important thing is that Russia has announced it will no longer abide by the treaty. Aleksandr Khramchikhin, an expert with the Institute for Military and Political Analysis, was quoted by Moscow's "RBC Daily" on December 3 as saying that "NATO isn't scared of moratoriums. It's scared of Russia's potential real actions that might breach the CFE Treaty. The West was happy to forget about CFE, until Putin reminded it of the treaty's existence." PM

The Montreal-based company Bombardier confirmed on December 3 that its railways division is holding "very preliminary" talks with Russia's Transmashholding, which is a leading rail-technology manufacturer, Canada's "Globe and Mail" reported on December 4. The daily noted that Russian Railways "is looking to swap its stake in...Transmashholding for a 50 percent stake in Bombardier Transportation, the company's rail division, over a three-year period. The plan calls for the state-owned Russian Railways to purchase a $370 million stake in Breakers Investments, the Dutch company that controls Transmashholding, and to then exchange those holdings for a half-share in Bombardier Transportation." The website noted that Bombardier is "playing down" the story, which the Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on December 3. PM

"The Wall Street Journal in Europe" reported on December 4 that Moscow's Lefortovo Raion Court on December 3 sentenced Igor Reshetin, the head of the company TsNIIMASH-Eksport, to 11 1/2 years in prison for "leaking sensitive technology to China -- the latest case involving a Russian scientist who was prosecuted despite claims the sensitive materials were in the public domain." The paper noted that his "company does substantial business with Russia's Federal Space Agency, [and that Reshetin] has been in custody since his arrest in November 2005 by the Federal Security Service. He disputed the charges and said the information his company had transferred to China wasn't classified." A spokeswoman for the court said that the technology in question could have helped China to build missiles able to carry nuclear warheads. PM

At a press conference in Moscow on December 3, Goran Lennmarker, the chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the December 2 legislative elections did not comply with OSCE standards, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other media reported. He said the elections did not meet the obligations Russia has undertaken in the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Lennmarker said the merging of the government bureaucracy and the Unified Russia party amounts to an abuse of office. He added that the state-controlled media was clearly biased in favor of Unified Russia; that new election legislation has resulted in reduced competition; and that opposition parties were harassed and prevented from campaigning. Luc van der Brande, who headed the observer mission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), told journalists that President Putin's decision to run for parliament while still serving as president was "unprecedented." "The presidential administration and the president himself exercised enormous influence on the election campaign," he said. "If Russia has managed democracy, then these were managed elections." The PACE is expected to issue a complete election assessment on December 17. President Putin dismissed the criticism and repeated the assertion that Russia is developing in a democratic direction. "Russians will never allow for the development of the country along a destructive path, the way it happened in some countries in the post-Soviet space," Putin said, according to "The New York Times" on December 4. "And this sense of responsibility of citizens for their own country is, in my view, the most important index of the fact that our country is strengthening not only economically, not only socially, but also in terms of its domestic politics." RC

President Putin on December 3 told journalists that something should be done about the current situation in which legislative elections and presidential elections are held in rapid succession, Russian media reported on December 4. "It is unfortunate that one election campaign here is piled up on top of another, the presidential one," Putin said. "People are already tired of all sorts of political technologies and political advertising. Maybe the new Duma needs to think about how to divorce these two campaigns in the future. It is important that the country not get burdened with an endless series of elections." Analysts told that the most likely way of achieving this goal would be by disbanding the new Duma and holding early elections in two years, or by extending the president's term in office. Putin also said he intends to summon the new Duma into session before the constitutionally stipulated 30 days. Outgoing Duma Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska told journalists the new lower chamber will hold a session from December 25 to December 28, reported on December 4. RC

Russian analysts continue to discuss the significance of the December 2 Duma elections, Russian media reported on December 4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). Economist Andrei Illarionov told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the elections could end up producing instability. "If the State Duma ceases to be a place for discussion...then the place for discussion will become the streets and the squares of our cities," he said. He said the Kremlin's dominance of the political scene could lead the opposition to go underground, as was the case with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. "Russia now is even less democratic than those Arabian countries," Illarionov said. Analyst Leonid Radzikhovsky, writing in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on December 4, said, "Our political system is monotonous: there is no real competition at any level." "The reason is simple," he added, "our authoritarian consciousness. To compete with one another openly and then remain colleagues in one party is practically an unreal thing for us. Competition is division, enmity, and the expulsion of the loser. That is the Russian tradition of confrontation as distinct from, say, the Anglo-American tradition of compromise." Kremlin-connected analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov told the daily that "the election results show that for the first time in modern Russian history, we have a party of the majority." "This is a qualitatively new stage in the development of Russia's political system," he said. RC

Kremlin-connected oligarch Aleksandr Mamut has purchased full control of the popular blogging website from its U.S.-based partner, Six Apart, "The Moscow Times" reported on December 4. LiveJournal will be run by Mamut's media holding, SUP, which has managed the site under license since 2006. LiveJournal is one of the most popular sites on the Russian Internet, with some 18 million visitors monthly. It has hosted material that is extremely critical of the authorities and during the recent Duma campaign was a repository of citizens' complaints about voter intimidation and other forms of election fraud. RC

Makhmud Makhmudov, who is first secretary of the Daghestan republican committee of the Communist Party (KPRF), said on December 3 that the purported high voter turnout and high vote for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party in the previous day's elections to the Russian State Duma were the result of massive falsification and pressure on voters, reported. He complained that the party's observers at polling stations were refused copies of vote protocols and that polling station heads refused to accept their formal written complaints over such refusals. According to official returns, the KPRF polled 11.6 percent of the vote in Daghestan; the party believes the actual figure was between 20-25 percent. The KPRF plans to convene a protest in Makhachkala on December 4 at which it will make public specific violations of procedure and demand a recount of votes cast. Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev on December 3 assessed the voting process as better organized than the elections in March of this year to a new republican parliament, which he admitted were marred by "numerous mistakes," and he praised the role of the republic's election commission and of local administrators. LF

The independent website claimed on December 3 to have received some 900 e-mails from voters outraged at the voter turnout figure of 98 percent claimed by the republic's authorities. Of 428 people who have participated in an electronic survey on that website, 90 percent claimed not to have voted on December 2. The website reproduced what it said was a sample letter sent by one of its visitors that voters who did not cast ballots are encouraged to send to Ingushetia's Prosecutor Yury Turygin, complaining that an unknown person has voted in their name and demanding a criminal investigation into that abuse. Theoretically, it is not possible to vote without producing proof of one's identity. LF

The Foreign Ministry of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh has released a statement, posted on December 3 on KarabakhOpen, rejecting specific arguments and recommendations contained in the most recent assessment of the Karabakh conflict by the International Crisis Group (ICG). That report, entitled "Nagorno-Karabakh: Risking War," was released in mid-November. While describing the report as "highly professional," the Foreign Ministry criticizes it for portraying the Karabakh conflict as one between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the Nagorno-Karabakh as merely the object of that conflict; for downplaying the role of the Nagorno-Karabakh in resolving the conflict; and for omitting any mention of the plight of Armenians forced in 1990-91 to flee the northern districts of the unrecognized republic that remain under Azerbaijani control. Moreover, the report portrays the prospect of deciding the final status of the Nagorno-Karabakh "in the distant future" by means of a referendum as a positive factor, even though the republic's population has voted for its independence. The Foreign Ministry contrasts that approval for delaying a formal decision on Karabakh's status with the recommendation contained in an August 2007 ICG report on Kosovo calling for recognition of its independence as soon as possible. LF

Deputies voted on November 30 in the final reading with 103 votes in favor to approve the budget for 2008, Azerbaijani media reported. Seven opposition parliamentarians from the Musavat faction voted against on the grounds that some of the budget's provisions are likely to lead to a deterioration in social conditions, and that the opposition's proposed amendments and suggestions were not incorporated into the final draft, reported on November 30. The budget sets revenues at 7.38 billion manats ($8.69 billion), which is 27.9 percent higher than in 2007, and expenditure at 8.5 billion manats (27.7 percent more than in 2007), with the resulting shortfall covered by the 2007 budget surplus and the emission of short-term government bonds. The budget contains a provision for raising the salaries of military personnel in the event that revenues prove to be higher than anticipated (the oil price on which revenues are calculated is not specified). GDP growth is predicated at 16.1 percent. LF

Speaking at a press conference in Tbilisi on December 3, Ambassador Peter Semneby, the EU's special representative for the South Caucasus, expressed approval of the pledge given earlier that day by parliament speaker and acting President Nino Burjanadze that the Imedi television channel will be allowed to resume broadcasting, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. Imedi's broadcasting license was suspended in November for three months on the grounds that it incited civil unrest during the antigovernment protests in Tbilisi in early November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26 and December 3, 2007). Semneby said the lifting of the ban removes the "question mark" over media freedom in Georgia during the run-up to the preterm presidential elections scheduled for January 5. At the same time, indirectly referring to the allegations leveled by the Georgian authorities against Imedi, he warned that "the media should take care not to transmit, even inadvertently, calls for violent action which may, in the sensitive situation we are facing, be a source of misunderstanding at best, and tension and further action of that kind at worst." Mikheil Saakashvili, who formally relinquished the powers of president on November 25 to embark on his reelection campaign, on December 3 reaffirmed that the closure of Imedi was justified on the grounds of its calls for violence, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Speaking outside a church in Tbilisi on December 3, the anniversary of the murder in 1994 of her husband, Giorgi Chanturia, Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, who heads the Imedi political party and intends to participate as a candidate in the January 5 preterm presidential election, named Nika Rurua, a member of the United National Movement (GEM) parliament faction, and his brother Zhorika as being among 14 people responsible for her husband's murder, Caucasus Press and Prime News reported. She recalled that only one of the 14, Temur Khachishvili, a member of the Mkhedrioni paramilitary group who served as interior minister in the early 1990s, was arrested in connection with the killing. Khachishvili was sentenced in November 1998 to 15 years' imprisonment on charges of participating in the August 1995 car-bomb attack on then-parliament Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, who pardoned him in mid-2002. Two other members of the GEM parliament faction, Givi Targamadze and Kote Gabashvili, rejected Sarishvili-Chanturia's allegation; Gabashvili claimed that Nika Rurua was in the United States on the day Giorgi Chanturia was killed. LF

Dmitry Zhuchenko, the head of a Kazakh civic group that helps rehabilitate former convicts, was sentenced on December 3 to five years in prison for a fatal assault, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Zhuchenko, 29, maintained his innocence and denied the charges. A district court in the town of Karaganda convicted him on November 30 of "deliberately inflicting heavy bodily injuries leading to death." RG

Several Kyrgyz civic groups, led by the co-chairman of the Liberal Youth Alliance, Mirsuljan Namazaliev, held a commemorative event on December 3 in Bishkek to mark the end of a traditional 40-day mourning period for slain Kyrgyz journalist Alisher Saipov, AKIpress reported. Namazaliev said that the 26-year-old journalist was "killed for his professional activities," and noted that the commemoration also sought "to remind Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev of his promise to take personal charge of the investigation into the murder of Saipov." Shortly after Saipov's killing on October 24, demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of the Interior Ministry in Bishkek to demand a "thorough and objective investigation" into his death. The authorities announced that Bakiev will personally lead the inquiry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 26, 2007), but the lack of any official statements or reports on the progress of the investigation has angered Saipov's supporters. RG

Bolotbek Sherniyazov, a candidate from the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, said on December 3 in Bishkek that several opposition parties are planning rallies to protest the Kyrgyz authorities' use of "administrative resources" to try to thwart "equal opportunities for all participants" in the upcoming parliamentary elections, the website reported. The Ata-Meken party is led by a former parliament speaker and prominent opposition figure, Omurbek Tekebaev, and has recently adopted a more confrontational stance toward the government. Ahead of the elections scheduled for December 16, the leaders of the opposition Ata-Meken, Ar-Namys, Rodina, and Glas Naroda parties have joined with the fellow opposition Social Democratic Party and Green Party to highlight what they call an unfair advantage held by the pro-government Ak-Jol (Bright Path) party. In a statement released later on December 3, the Green Party likewise accused the Central Election Commission of bias, arguing that the "results of the vote are predetermined." RG

At a December 4 meeting in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz Central Electoral Commission decided to destroy "all ballot papers" that have been prepared for the December 16 parliamentary elections, Kabar reported. The commission ordered the opposition Social Democratic Party to pay the full cost of destroying the ballots and printing new ones, ruling that the measures were necessary after a party member, Edil Baisalov, reportedly photographed a printed ballot and posted it on the Internet. The commission also revoked Baisalov's registration as a parliamentary candidate and appealed to the Prosecutor-General's Office to open a criminal case on charges of interfering with the vote. Baisalov, a nonvoting member of the commission, said that during his December 2 visit to the Uchkun printing house, where the ballots were being printed, he witnessed "no precise calculations or control over the number of printed ballots," AKIpress reported. RG

A major Turkmen-Russian economic forum opened on December 4 in Ashgabat with representatives from over 50 Russian companies, ITAR-TASS reported. The forum, officially known as the second session of the Turkmen-Russian Economic Cooperation Commission, resumed its activities in July after a nearly five-year hiatus. Organized jointly by the Turkmen and Russian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the event includes some 100 businessmen and specialists from 17 regions of Russia. The forum is aimed at forging new agreements on joint measures to increase bilateral commerce and investment, with an added focus on issues of taxation, banking, and customs regulations in the two countries. RG

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said in a December 2 interview with the Spanish daily "El Pais" that he would consider pardoning former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin if the jailed politician asks him. Kazulin, who ran in the March 2006 elections, was arrested during demonstrations that followed the polls and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for organizing events that disturbed the public order. Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau claimed that protesters set off a bomb at the demonstration, but numerous reporters present at the scene could not confirm that claim. Lukashenka noted that Kazulin's prison term is a short one. "We have both life imprisonment and the death penalty," he said. "If he had not been a presidential candidate, he would have received 10 or 12 years, not 5 1/2, for a blast on our streets. But as an ex-candidate, he aroused some sympathy," Lukashenka added. Dzmitry Harachka, a lawyer for Kazulin, told Belapan that Kazulin has not considered asking Lukashenka to pardon him, as he does not consider himself guilty. AM

An unregistered Belarusian theater company, the Free Theater, has received a French human rights prize, Belapan reported on December 3. The Liberty, Equality, Fraternity prize, created by the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights under the French prime minister in 1988, is annually awarded to five non-governmental organizations for efforts to promote human rights, without regard for their country of origin. This year's prize was awarded in two categories -- for efforts against human trafficking and for freedom of belief, expression, and information. The Belarusian theater company and the four other winners will share 75,000 euros ($110,000) in prize money. The Free Theater comprises some 15 playwrights, directors, producers, and actors. Lacking a performance venue of their own, they stage their shows in bars, clubs, privately owned stores, and at secretly held workshops. AM

Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of the parliamentary bloc bearing her name (BYuT), said on December 3 that the opposition Party of Regions tried to bribe four lawmakers to withdraw their signatures from the coalition agreement between the BYuT and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc, RFE/RL Ukrainian Service reported. Tymoshenko said the lawmakers accepted the bribes with the goal of collecting evidence against the Party of Regions. "This was our project to publicly demonstrate a betrayal of political morality, the Party of Region's betrayal of the principles that should exist in politics," Interfax quoted Tymoshenko as saying. "We have recorded the transfer of the money, which we then returned. We recorded how, where, and to whom they returned it," she said. Tymoshenko said that "one lawmaker's soul is valued at $20 million." In late November, Tymoshenko accused the Party of Regions of attempts to bribe BYuT lawmakers. Raisa Bohatyryova of the Party of Regions subsequently challenged Tymoshenko to repeat her allegations in a court of law. AM

Following the most recent gas explosion at the Zasyadko coal mine in Donetsk, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko sent a letter to outgoing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych demanding that operations at the mine be halted immediately, and calling for an investigation into why it was not closed after the initial deadly explosions on November 18, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on December 3. The gas blast in November killed 101 miners; another on December 1 left dozens hospitalized, and a third the following day killed five more. Yanukovych, who visited Donetsk on December 3, did not rule out the closure of the coal mine in order to prevent further casualties, but warned it might cause major economic problems. Yanukovych said that the Zasyadko mine produces 3 million tons of coal annually, while Ukraine still has a deficit of around 6 million tons a year. AM

The official results of Kosova's parliamentary elections, released on December 3, showed figures very similar to those posted on the day of the elections, November 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007). The results, which have yet to be certified by the head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), which administers the contested province, confirm that the victor in the elections was Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK), whose 34.3 percent of the vote translated into 37 seats in the 120-seat parliament. The largest party in the previous parliament, the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), was reduced to 25 seats on the back of 22.6 percent of the popular vote. Third place -- 13 seats and 12.3 percent -- was won by a newcomer, the New Kosova Alliance (AKR) which is led by Behgjet Pacolli, described by the daily "Express" on December 3 as "the richest Albanian in the world." The only other parties to clear the 5 percent hurdle were an alliance of the Democratic League of Dardania (LDD) and the Albanian Christian Democratic Party of Kosova (PShDK), which gained 10 percent of the vote and 11 seats, and the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK), which won 10 seats thanks to the support of 9.6 percent of voters. The AAK is led by a former prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, who is now in The Hague facing war crimes charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 6, 2007). The most prominent parties to fail to get into parliament were the ORA, whose leader, Veton Surroi, was one of five Kosovar politicians involved in the negotiations on Kosova's status, and the Justice Party, which has a more religious following. Kosova's Serbs boycotted the elections, but are nonetheless entitled under the constitution to 10 seats. Another 10 seats are reserved for other ethnic minorities, with the Romany, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities entitled to four seats, the Bosnian Muslim community three, the Turkish community two, and the Gorani one. Romany and Turkish parties won four of the 100 contested seats. In all, minorities will therefore have 24 seats. According to the Central Election Commission, women must occupy at least 30 percent of each party's seats in parliament. Municipal elections were also held on November 17, but the results have yet to be published. Second-round run-offs are due on December 8, but that date must be confirmed by the UNMIK. AG

PDK leader Thaci said on December 3 that only now will his party begin talks on forming a government. Thaci has also said he is open to discussions with any party. One possible partner is the third-placed AKR, which has in recent days agreed to cooperate with the PDK at the municipal level. However, Thaci said on December 2 that this does not mean there will be a coalition at the national level. Pacolli has said his main condition for entering government would be the implementation of his economic plan for Kosova. Another party that is open to joining the government is the LDD-PShDK, which came fourth in the elections. The LDD's leader, Nexhat Daci, has said that the party "is not for sale," but also that "the price" for it to join the government "is not cheap." The LDD, which was established by disgruntled members of the LDK, would be "very comfortable" in opposition, he added. There has been no indication yet whether the PDK and the second-place LDK could form a grand coalition, and local media reports suggest a power struggle is brewing within the LDK. However, analysts have predicted the two parties will strike a deal. They have governed together in the past and, with the momentous challenge of leading Kosova to independence ahead, analysts believe they could team up again. AG

The PDK's Thaci on December 3 reached out to Kosova's minorities, primarily its ethnic Serbs, saying that the PDK's platform for a governing coalition would be "stability and multiethnicity." Kosova's constitution stipulates that at least two ministers must be from ethnic minorities, one of whom must be a Serb, but in an interview published by the magazine "Focus" on December 3, Thaci stressed his personal commitment to full representation, saying, "I will consult them frequently, I will listen to their problems, and I can state clearly that I take seriously my promise that I will be a prime minister of all Kosovars." A boycott of the elections by the overwhelming majority of ethnic Serbs has reduced the presence of Serbs in parliament and poses a question of legitimacy for any Serb in the government, but three Serbian parties have reportedly said in the past two weeks that they would be willing to join a coalition: the Serbian Forces Movement Party (SFMP) of Dragomir Karic, the Serbian National Party (SNS) led by Mihajlo Scepanovic, and the Independent Liberal Party of Serbs led by Slobodan Petrovic. One of the chief Kosovar Serb opponents of Belgrade's call for a boycott, the moderate Oliver Ivanovic, has said he will not join the government. The boycott poses a headache for the UNMIK about how the municipalities dominated by ethnic Serbs should be governed. "Koha ditore," a Kosovar Albanian daily, on December 4 quoted Ivanovic as saying that a decision should be reached by UNMIK and the Serbian government. AG

The three diplomats who led the latest, four-month round of talks on the future of Kosova spent December 3 in Prishtina and Belgrade briefing Serbian and Kosovar leaders on the report they will present to the UN's secretary-general on December 10. The UN Security Council is due to discuss the report on December 19. No details were given of the report by the three diplomats -- frequently referred to as "the troika" -- but the EU's mediator, Wolfgang Ischinger, said it will "contain the entire process of the troika's participation in the negotiations" and will mention "how and to what extent" the two sides cooperated. It will not contain recommendations, he said in an interview for the December 3 edition of the Serbian daily "Blic." "We'll leave that to our governments," he said. However, Ischinger reiterated his personal view that "there are no additional options that would lead towards a Kosovo status solution based on compromise." A "possible scenario," Ischinger said, is that Kosova's leaders will declare independence unilaterally, but he added that "my impression" is that they would take the step in coordination "to the possible extent, with the EU, the U.S. and other countries." He concluded, "One thing is clear: the status quo is unsustainable and a decision is necessary." AG

The EU hopes to delay a declaration of independence by Kosova in an effort to persuade Moscow to change its stance on Kosova's status, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on December 3. Citing unnamed EU diplomats, the daily said Brussels is proposing a three-point plan that would effectively put off a declaration of independence by a matter of weeks. Firstly, the EU would replace the UN as the administrator of Kosova shortly after December 10, when international mediators are due to submit a report on unsuccessful direct talks between Belgrade and Prishtina. Secondly, the EU would implement a plan presented in March by the UN's special envoy to Kosova, Martti Ahtisaari, which envisaged significant autonomy and guarantees for ethnic Serbs and major changes in Kosova's institutional structure. Thirdly, the EU would apply pressure on the Kosovar Albanian leadership, as the newspaper put it, to "go along with the EU plan for a few more weeks." Russia has in the past rejected the Ahtisaari plan, principally on the grounds that he recommended "supervised independence" for Kosova but also because it questioned the protections offered the Kosovar Serbs. Serbia is counting on Russia supporting it in its opposition to an EU mission being established without a UN Security Council resolution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). An EU mission backed by the UN would have Serbia's backing, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said on Serbian television on December 3. Both Moscow and Belgrade contend that all decisions relating to Kosova should pass through the Security Council, and both insist that talks should be resumed after December 10, a date that Kosova, the EU, and the United States all believe should mark the end of negotiations between Kosova and Serbia. AG

The Bosnian Serbs' leader, Milorad Dodik, has issued a fresh warning against a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosova, arguing that it could lead to decades of tension in the Balkans. According to the Serbian broadcaster B92, Dodik said during a December 2 visit to Belgrade that stability in the region can only be achieved through an agreement acceptable to both Belgrade and Prishtina. However, he predicted that the Republika Srpska, which is home to most of Bosnia's Serbs, would remain stable and peaceful "even if there is a unilateral declaration of Kosovo's independence." Dodik has repeatedly assured the world that he would ensure there is peace and stability within the Republika Srpska, a position he reiterated in a letter to "The Washington Post" in late November in which he took issue with a depiction of him by a former U.S. envoy, Richard Holbrooke, as a "nasty nationalist who [has begun] threatening secession" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). Nonetheless, in an interview with Bosnia's TV Hayat on December 1, he warned the international community and the leaders of Bosnia's other communities that they should tread carefully: "Do not ask us to recognize Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence and you will not have any problems in Bosnia. If you do ask that of us, then you will of course have a problem." Asked what that problem might be, Dodik said that the Republika Srpska would not be "part of the majority that would recognize an independent Kosovo." The Republika Srpska's response would "of course" not include street protests, but he predicted that independence for Kosova would stoke secessionist sentiment among the ethnic-Serbian population, a prediction he has made on several previous occasions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). A decision by the UN Security Council, as wanted by Serbia and Russia, would ensure that "nothing would be disputable because Bosnia-Herzegovina is a member of the United Nations and Security Council decisions are binding for us." AG

In the same TV Hayat interview on December 1, Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik said he favors a solution in Kosova that would not "[incorporate] Albanians into Serbia's political system," saying that "would be problematic in terms of Serbia's long-term stability." He continued, though, that "it would be fair to give Serbia a way out, such as the Kosovo municipalities that today have a Serbian majority remaining within Serbia and the rest to be declared independent." "This would give Serbia a possibility not to feel humiliated in this process in the years to come," he said. Dodik expressly added that this apparent argument for a partition of Kosova was not intended to indicate that "the Republika Srpska should secede and join" Serbia. There has been pressure within the Republika Srpska for a referendum on secession should Kosova gain independence, but Dodik said that "if we here should opt for any kind of action or any referendum, it will be exclusively because of our dissatisfaction with the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, not at all because of Kosovo." In August, Dodik warned that nobody should expect there to be no further territorial changes in the Balkans should Kosova gain independence, a warning that prompted the international community's high representative in Bosnia, Miroslav Lajcak, to threaten him with sanctions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). In September 2006, Dodik raised the possibility of a referendum on independence for the Republika Srpska, but he has not done so this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19 and 20, 2006). AG

Seven people were injured, two of them seriously, when a bomb exploded in central Prizen late on December 2, local media reported. The identity of those injured is unclear, though Bulgarian media reported that one of them was a Bulgarian woman and one Albanian. The news agency FENA reported, citing unnamed sources with NATO's peacekeeping force, that another bag of explosives was found on the site of the explosion. The culprits, target, and motivation all remain unclear, but the location -- in a suspected brothel -- has prompted speculation that the explosion was the result of a dispute among criminals. Police have reportedly carried out several raids on the club investigating human trafficking and prostitution. AG

Carla Del Ponte on December 3 paid her last visit to Belgrade as the chief prosecutor for the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). According to a statement issued by the Serbian authorities, she and Serbian officials agreed that Belgrade's cooperation that "relates to submitting documents as well as access to satisfactory," but, according to the news agency FoNet, the statement also said that on the front that remains the key issue -- the capture of war crimes suspects -- no breakthroughs are expected in the immediate future. Del Ponte was hoping to leave office with at least Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' wartime commander, in detention in The Hague awaiting trial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29, 2007). Prior to the meeting, Rasim Ljajic, the minister charged with overseeing the hunt for Mladic and three other suspects wanted by the ICTY, told the broadcaster B92 that "it is unlikely that Ratko Mladic or anyone else will be extradited to The Hague before Mrs. Del Ponte leaves her post." Del Ponte told the Dutch newspaper "De Volkskrant" on December 1 that she expects Mladic to be arrested in December or January. Ljajic also emphasized the importance of capturing Mladic, saying that "without this millstone round our necks" Serbia would be better placed in relations with the EU and "in a better negotiating position as far as the Kosovo talks are concerned." Serbian and EU officials have repeatedly stated that Serbia's EU future and Kosova's future are not interlinked with negotiations. There was some indication of a new target date for Mladic's capture from Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic, who told the news agency Beta on December 1 that it is very important that Serbia sign the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) at the next EU summit on January 28. Mladic's capture remains a precondition for the full adoption of an SAA, which the EU initialed with Serbia in early November, with Del Ponte's approval. Del Ponte will submit a report on Serbia's cooperation to the UN Security Council on December 10. AG

The family of one of four internationally indicted war criminals from the Balkan wars, Stojan Zupljanin, has urged him to surrender to the Serbian authorities. In a letter published by the Serbian daily "Blic" on December 1, Zupljanin's family urged him to "sacrifice" himself because "the Serbian people and the two states where they live [Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina] are exposed to big pressure" and "have to survive." For that to happen, "there is a need for a sacrifice to be made," concluding: "the decision is yours." Zupljanin's family also said that they personally are living under intense pressure from the police, have had their assets frozen, and are unable to find jobs because he remains on the run. The authorities in the Republika Srpska said in September that it is "certain" he will be arrested "soon" and that the onetime police commander is "living like a beast in the countryside" in the Republika Srpska (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2007). They also said that pressure on families is proving a particularly effective tool for law enforcement agencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2007). According to Bosnian public radio, Zupljanin's son, Mladen, said the family issued its call through the Serbian rather than Bosnian media because they believed it would receive greater publicity in Serbia. AG

No one was surprised that preliminary official results of the December 2 Duma elections gave a resounding victory to the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. With some 64 percent of the vote, according to government figures, the party seems set to get about 310 seats in the 450-seat lower chamber -- more than the two-thirds majority needed to initiate constitutional changes.

Moreover, the left-leaning pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party -- which competes with Unified Russia only in manifesting its loyalty to President Vladimir Putin's administration -- somewhat unexpectedly was awarded 7.6 percent of the vote and some 38 seats, giving the Kremlin-controlled parties a solid block of nearly 350 seats. On top of that, the pseudo-opposition Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), which consistently votes with Unified Russia, can expect a faction of some 40 seats. In all, the block of seats in the Duma representing parties that stand for increased centralization and state domination will reach nearly 400 seats.

"There is no doubt this is a different country now," Boris Nadezhdin, a leader of the opposition Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) -- which failed to win seats in the Duma -- told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "We have returned to the Soviet Union. It is not parliament or the next president that will have real power, but the Unified Russia party."

As Putin said in a nationally televised message days before the vote, the Duma elections have set the tone for the presidential election on March 2, 2007, in which a Unified Russia candidate handpicked by Putin will almost certainly sail to an easily stage-managed victory. This new combination of power gives the party and those who control it virtually a blank check in terms of remaking Russia's political balance. "The country is now entering a period of full renewal of supreme legislative and executive authority," Putin said in the same campaign message. "And in this situation it is especially important for us to ensure continuity of the [political] course."

Although calls for changing the constitution have been mounting for months and were renewed on election night by A Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov, major changes will likely be instituted only after the March presidential election. If Putin and his inner circle intend, as it now seems that they do, to establish Unified Russia and its domination of the Duma as the center of political power in the new Russia, they will need to trim the independence of the president.

The model for doing so has already been established. In 2004, in purported response to a series of devastating terrorist incidents including the school hostage-taking in Beslan, Putin's team dusted off an old set of proposals to centralize power and bring the Duma and the regional authorities under the wing of the presidential administration. One of the key changes instituted was the elimination of the direct election of regional heads, who have since been confirmed by local legislatures following nomination by the president. The move cut off the regional heads from their independent sources of support among the electorate.

Analogously, following the presidential election in March, the pro-Kremlin Duma could move to create a parallel system in which the president of the Russian Federation is confirmed by the Duma after being selected by the ruling party. Such a move would greatly simplify the oft-stated main goal of Putin, Unified Russia, and the ruling elite -- maintaining continuity of the current political course. Similarly, the revamping of the political structure in Russia could encompass a reduction of the authority of the Federation Council. It is even possible the upper chamber could be deemed redundant and eliminated -- despite its useful function as a source of sinecures for discarded former officials.

At the same time, the December 2 elections represent a huge -- perhaps fatal -- setback for Russia's liberal-democratic opposition. In the 2003 elections, the main parties of this ilk, Yabloko and SPS, polled about 4 percent each, which was rightly considered a disaster. This year, all the liberal-democratic parties combined failed to poll even 4 percent and none of them individually reached even 2 percent.

The immediate consequence of this defeat is that the parties will not qualify for further state support. Under Russian law, parties that pick up at least 3 percent of the vote are given five rubles ($0.20) per vote received each year. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky has said that such support is virtually the only source of income for his party. Moreover, parties that fail to poll 2 percent must reimburse the state at commercial rates for the free broadcast airtime and space in state newspapers that was allotted to them during the campaign. This provision of the law gives the state considerable legal leeway to initiate actions against these parties. Finally, parties that failed to receive 4 percent of the vote will forfeit the 60 million-ruble deposit they submitted to participate in the elections.

Considering these new obstacles and the stacked political environment in Russia, it would be little short of miraculous if any of these parties even exist in four years, and a genuine miracle would be required for any of them to have any measurable influence.

As a result of Unified Russia's consolidation of political power and the devastation of the genuine opposition that the official results of these elections represent, Russia can look forward to a political scene dominated by the party of power for years to come.

There is one thing that all four parties in the next Duma will be able to agree on: the Kremlin's increasingly assertive stance on the international stage. If the world sees any unanimous votes coming out of the lower chamber, they will certainly be on such hot-button issues as relations with Georgia, missile defense, NATO expansion, and the like.

One of the first statements that the Unified Russia leadership made on election night was to assert that the new Duma will take up the matter of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have sought incorporation into the Russian Federation. If anything, these elections represent a manifestation of foreign-policy solidarity that is even stronger than the near-unanimous support they create for the so-called Putin Plan.

Speaking to journalists in October, Putin said Russia will require "manual control" for the next 15-20 years. The December 2 elections have put in place all the tools necessary for his inner circle to exert and extend that control. From "managed democracy," Russia has entered a phase of just plain "management."

In an unannounced visit, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived in Kabul on December 3 to assess the security situation in Afghanistan, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Gates announced that the United States is considering arming and training local Afghan tribes to counter the resurgence of Taliban militants, following a strategy similar to the U.S. military's arming of Sunni tribes in Iraq to combat Al-Qaeda elements. The strategy has apparently been successful in curbing the Al-Qaeda network in Iraq, while efforts against militants in Afghanistan have been hampered by political instability, particularly in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. "I'm not worried about a backslide as much as I am about how we continue the momentum going forward," Gates told reporters in Djibouti on December 3 just before he left for Kabul. "One of the clear concerns that we all have is that in the last two or three years there has been a continuing increase in the overall level of violence" in Afghanistan, he said. Gates is expected to meet with key Afghan leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, during his visit, and to talk to military commanders about conditions across the country. MM

An opinion poll released on December 3 found that Afghans are increasingly critical of U.S. military efforts, with just over half of respondents still showing confidence in the ability of U.S. and NATO forces to provide security, down from two-thirds in 2006, Afghan and international media reported. The survey -- conducted for ABC News, the BBC, and the German public television station ARD -- noted that Afghans overwhelmingly prefer President Karzai's administration to a possible return of the Taliban regime, but they also believe that the government should negotiate with the Taliban to end the war. The survey also revealed that in southwestern Afghanistan, support for NATO-led forces has decreased to 45 percent this year, from 83 percent a year ago, apparently due to the increase in civilian casualties resulting from foreign troops' operations. MM

Canadian Minister of International Cooperation Beverley Oda announced on December 3 that Canada will increase its support for mine-clearing programs in Afghanistan by pledging another $80 million over the next four years, the Canadian Press reported. At a news conference at the Canadian War Museum, Oda said that "the money will go to the UN Mine Action Center, to be used for clearing land-mine-infested areas of Afghanistan, as well as to fund education programs and assist victims of landmines." Priority activities include surveying, clearing, mine-risk education, and victim assistance in the areas with the highest civilian casualties. Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world; according to some estimates, as many as 100 Afghans are killed or maimed by landmines each month. MM

Christopher Alexander, the deputy head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and a deputy special representative of the UN secretary-general, on December 3 announced that the UN will spearhead efforts to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan and accelerate the reconciliation and peace-building process through political outreach work, the news website reported, citing international media. "We will try to include those Afghans who feel excluded from current institutions and make them part of development and rebuilding," Alexander said. "2008 can be a year of success for Afghanistan," as UNAMA focuses on "political outreach, rule of law, and reintegrated strategy," he said. He added that another top priority will be leading multilateral efforts to rebuild institutions that ensure law and order. MM

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad arrived in Doha, Qatar, on December 3 to attend as a guest the 28th conference of the heads of state of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which comprises the Persian Gulf emirates and Saudi Arabia, international news agencies and regional media reported. Ahmadinejad told the gathering that Iran and the GCC member states are neighbors and cooperation is a natural part of their relations, and he urged the formation of a regional cooperation body to promote joint economic projects and investment. He suggested waiving visas for each other's citizens and promoting energy-sector investment and free trade, but also cooperating on security, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on December 4. On December 2, the daily asked if the president's visit to the GCC had any specific goal, and if his previous visits to Gulf states, including to Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, have had any clear benefits for Iran. It asked how the Iranian Foreign Ministry would react if the Gulf states reiterated during Ahmadinejad's visit the "tenuous" claims by the United Arab Emirates to "three Iranian islands," meaning the disputed islands of the Lesser and Greater Tunbs and Abu Musa. VS

Syrian Foreign Ministry official Faisal Meqdad visited Tehran on December 2, where he met with Iranian President Ahmadinejad and presented him with a message from his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, Radio Farda reported on December 3, citing news agencies. The broadcaster observed that the trip followed Syria's presence at the November 27 Annapolis Middle East peace conference, at which Iran expressed apparent displeasure, and was perhaps intended to reaffirm cordial ties between the allies. Meqdad represented Syria at the Annapolis talks. Ahmadinejad told him that "enemies" could not have damaged ties between Iran and Syria, which he described as strategic, but that it is "natural the conference would have no clear or positive results," IRNA reported. The conference was intended as a first step in renewed efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Radio Farda cited the Arab daily "Al-Hayat" as observing that while Iran has not directly criticized Syria, it criticized Arab participants generally. A recent demonstration outside the Jordanian Embassy in Tehran was apparently a response to efforts Jordan's King Abdullah II made to persuade Syria to participate, "Al-Hayat" noted. VS

Iranian financial dailies have reported that insufficient investment in Iran's oil and gas sectors -- due to sanctions and pressure on Iran over its contested nuclear program -- would threaten energy exports that constitute Iran's main revenues, Radio Farda reported on December 3. The daily "Sarmayeh" on December 2 cited officials including former Oil Ministers Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh and Kazem Vaziri and the present head of the parliamentary Energy Committee, Kamal Daneshyar, who have warned that falling investment and insufficient finances could reduce oil exports to almost nothing. Daneshyar predicted a fall in daily oil production to about 2 million barrels a day in the next 10 years, while high domestic energy consumption and falling exports would, he added, reduce Iran's income to the level of Afghanistan. Another financial daily, "Donya-i Eqtesad," noted on December 2 the business-confidence impact of past and prospective sanctions. It reported that the state recently failed to find buyers for blocks of shares in two state firms targeted for privatization -- the Mobarakeh steel firm and IRALCO, an aluminum firm. Iranian dailies have also reported recently a refusal by some Chinese banks to extend credit to Iranian businessmen. Iran has sought to turn to China, among other states, to make up for reduced business with the West pressuring it over its nuclear program. The head of the Iran-China joint trade chamber, Asadollah Badamchian, recently told ISNA that Chinese banks have not explained yet why they are depriving Iranian traders of credit facilities, but he said that if this continued, it would damage bilateral ties, Radio Farda reported on December 3. VS

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, who discussed sanctions on Iran in Paris on December 1, said in Singapore on December 3 that China is cooperating in forging a new set of sanctions intended to induce Tehran to halt its nuclear program. Iran has refused to stop nuclear fuel-making activities that are of potential use in producing weapons. Burns told reporters that "we were able, with the Chinese government, to focus on...areas where we agree to sanctions," and described this as a forward step, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said in Paris on December 3 that the great powers are to start working on a sanctions text after "a consensus was reached on the elements of a new resolution of restrictive measures toward Iran," AFP reported, adding that the text will then be considered by the UN Security Council. Andreani said the powers agreed that Iran has not stopped uranium enrichment, part of the fuel-making process, and has shown "a lack of openness" in its latest talks with top EU diplomat Javier Solana. VS

The head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, told IRNA on December 4 that a recent U.S. intelligence report has effectively confirmed the assertions by Iranian officials that Tehran's nuclear program is peaceful, and should form the basis for U.S. policymaking. A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran found that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 as a result of international pressure and sanctions, but noted that continuing uranium-enrichment activities could still allow it to develop a bomb in 2010-15 if it so chooses, AP reported on December 4. The news agency quoted part of the report as stating that Iran maintained a freeze on possible weapons-related activities in 2007 and may be less determined to develop a bomb than previously supposed. Borujerdi said the report "nullified" the claims of those in the U.S. administration who have said Iran "is thinking of producing nuclear bombs." He said the claims have always been made by members of the U.S. administration "under the strong influence of the Zionist lobby" and were intended to distract opinion from Israel's "200 warheads," IRNA reported. VS

Iran has expelled Canadian Ambassador John Mundy, apparently in response to Canada's refusal to accept several diplomats Iran has proposed as its ambassador to Ottawa, international news agencies reported on December 3 and 4. Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier said in Toronto on December 3 that Mundy was appointed recently but had not yet had his credentials formally accepted, AP reported. Both countries' embassies are being run by lower-ranking diplomats for now. Iran-Canada relations deteriorated in 2003 following the death in Tehran of Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi, who died in suspect conditions in detention and for which Iran has yet to convict those responsible. VS

The Amsterdam-based Firat news agency reported on December 4 that the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) has withdrawn its peshmerga fighters from along the Iraq-Turkey border. The news agency, which supports the Turkish-Kurdish separatist group Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), quoted Kurdish Minister for Peshmerga Affairs Jabbar Yawir as telling the Turkish press that the forces were pulled back to avoid provoking tensions on the Turkish side. Turkey claims it launched attacks against PKK bases in northern Iraq in recent days, a claim denied by the KRG. "Although the peshmerga units maintain strict security measures in areas where the PKK exists, we have moved to reduce and withdraw our armed units in areas that are close to the Turkish soldiers," Yawir was quoted as saying. Meanwhile, Al-Sharqiyah television quoted Yawir on December 3 as denying reports that the peshmerga withdrew from their positions along the border, saying that the units made routine movements but did not evacuate their posts. KR

The Kurdish daily "Rozhnama" reported on December 3 that a group of masked men have been "patrolling" the town of Mawat in Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate and harassing locals. The men have reportedly been seen on the streets after 11 p.m. demanding food and money from residents for the past two weeks. Residents said all but one of the men in the group were masked, and the unmasked man had a beard. A local police officer said that several residents filed complaints, but the police have not yet made any arrests. The independent newspaper "Hawal" reported on December 1 that the armed men are affiliated with the terrorist group Ansar Al-Islam. The group was based in several villages close to the border with Iran until coalition air strikes destroyed their bases in 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2003). KR

Iraq's Sunni "resistance" groups have purposely scaled back their attacks and are in the process of regrouping, a key insurgent leader told Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper, the daily reported on December 3. The leader said the groups are waiting out the current military surge and apparently plan on reengaging once U.S. forces are drawn down. The leader, identified under the pseudonym of Dr. Abdallah Suleiman Omary, told the daily his group, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, is against Al-Qaeda as well as Al-Sahwa, a reference to the awakening councils set up by tribesmen in parts of Iraq to fight Al-Qaeda. "Al-Sahwa has made a deal with the U.S. to take charge of their local areas and not hit U.S. troops, while the resistance's purpose is to drive the occupiers out of Iraq. We are waiting in Al-Sahwa areas. We disagree with them but do not fight them. We have shifted our operations to other areas," Omary said. He described the awakening councils as a "temporary deal" with the United States that will fall apart as people realize the United States' true intentions, including building military bases in Iraq. KR

Muhsin al-Sa'dun, a lawmaker representing the Kurdistan Coalition, told Al-Iraqiyah television on December 3 that the parliament may vote on the draft Accountability and Justice Law this week. The draft law is expected to replace the de-Ba'athification law enacted by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Al-Sa'dun said the parliament held a second reading of the draft law, adding that "the draft law has been discussed for two sessions now, and is likely to be discussed" again on December 4. "It will remain on the agenda until positive changes are made so that it can be passed as a comprehensive, general, and just law.... We hope to finish our deliberations on this matter by the end of the current week," Al-Sa'dun said. KR

The UN's World Food Program (WFP) announced on December 3 that it will double the amount of assistance it provides to Iraqi refugees in Syria by April 2008, according to a UN press release. WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said that despite the efforts of donors and the Syrian government, "more Iraqi women, children, and men are unable to meet their basic food needs, and social support systems in Syria are being overstretched." One-third of respondents in a recent UN survey said they skipped one meal a day in order to feed their children. Sixty percent said that due to rising food prices, they buy less expensive foods that are often less nutritious. The WFP said it will expand its assistance and offer aid to 114,000 Iraqis by April 2008, up from its current aid to 51,000 people. The monthly food ration will include rice, lentils, and vegetable oil. WFP appealed to donors for increased support, saying it is facing a 38 percent shortfall in its current operations. Meanwhile, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced on November 30 that two sick Palestinian refugee children from Iraq have died in the past two weeks. One of the children was a 3-year-old boy who died at the Al-Walid refugee camp on the Iraq-Syria border. He had been suffering from pneumonia and rickets, a bone disease caused by lack of vitamins and minerals. The UN said some 2,000 Palestinians are living in severe conditions in refugee camps along the Iraq-Syria border. KR

At least 25,000 Iraqi refugees have returned home from Syria since mid-September, according to preliminary estimates by the Iraqi Red Crescent, "The New York Times" reported on December 4. The organization said a decrease in violence prompted the returns, though many returnees reported having run out of money and said they faced visa restrictions in Syria. Some 20,000 of the refugees returned to homes in Baghdad. The Red Crescent said many of the returnees found squatters in their homes and had to find alternative housing. The UNHCR said in a November 29 statement that 14 percent of Iraqi refugees are returning because of improved security, while 70 percent told UNHCR they were leaving because of visa restrictions and poverty. Refugees are not allowed to hold jobs in Syria. The UNHCR said some 600 Iraqis left Syria each day during the week of November 29. The Iraqi government has claimed that higher numbers of refugees -- estimated at 60,000 total for just September and October -- have returned to Iraq. The UNHCR warned last month that the security situation in Iraq remains unstable, adding that large-scale repatriation may further destabilize the country. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is offering each returning family 1 million dinars ($821) and free transportation home. KR