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Newsline - December 6, 2007

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said on December 5 at a meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin that Russia will resume naval exercises in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean that will last "from today and until February 3, 2008," Russian and international media reported. Serdyukov added that "the expedition is aimed at ensuring a naval presence in tactically important regions of the [world's oceans], as well as establishing secure conditions for Russian navigation." The task force consists of four warships, seven support vessels, 47 planes, and 10 helicopters. It will be the largest Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean since President Boris Yeltsin sent a squadron to the Adriatic in 1999 in connection with the Kosova conflict. On December 6, Interfax reported that the Northern Fleet's part of the task force, led by the aircraft carrier "Admiral Kuznetsov," has started its voyage from Severomorsk near Murmansk in the direction of the North Atlantic. The online analytical publication "Stratfor Commentary" wrote on December 6 that "to float this task force, Russia had to cherry-pick ships from its Black Sea, Baltic, and Northern fleets.... It is the maximum the Russian navy can project at present, and the slow rate that Russian shipyards operate at suggests this will remain the case for some time." The publication added that the purpose of the exercise seems to be more political than military. It argued that "Russia in theory could reestablish itself as a permanent Mediterranean naval power, using a Cold War-era port in Syria. That in turn could embolden Damascus to take a firmer stance in dealing with Israel and the United States, which could have its own knock-on effect for U.S.-Iranian relations. The Russians are searching for levers to disrupt the recent progress in the Middle East; this may prove to be one of them." Putin said on August 17 that ageing Russian strategic bombers resumed regular long-range flights after a hiatus of about 15 years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 17, 21, and 25, 2007). Independent analysts concluded recently that the military decline characteristic of the post-Soviet period continues nonetheless (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2007). PM

Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko reaffirmed in an interview with Interfax on December 6 that Russia will not unilaterally build up its forces in Europe even after it suspends participation in the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) on December 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8 and December 4, 2007). He also proposed that the NATO-Russia Council, which meets in Brussels on December 7, lay the foundation for a joint missile-defense system. Grushko stressed that if "the U.S. [missile-defense] project is implemented the way the U.S. side has announced, the European security architecture, including the missile-defense area, will change dramatically." PM

On December 5, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated his criticism of the proposals on missile defense that Washington recently submitted to Russia in writing, saying they constitute a step back from what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates told their Russian counterparts in Moscow in October, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2007). Lavrov particularly regretted that "the proposal no longer talks about a permanent presence of Russian officers at proposed facilities in the third positioning region, in the Czech Republic and Poland, but it talks only about individual visits [by Russia's representatives] if Czech or Polish authorities agree to that." Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek has repeatedly ruled out any permanent Russian military presence on Czech territory and said that only brief visits by Russian civilian "experts" will be permitted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 22, 23, and 25, and November 7, 2007). On December 5, Lavrov also expressed disappointment with what he called a change in the U.S. position regarding Washington's offer to hold off activating the missile-defense system until a concrete threat emerges. He said that the written proposals indicate that threats will be evaluated "not jointly, but by the United States, based on its own analysis.... This is a radical contradiction to our approach." In Prague on December 5, the Czech Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the recent U.S. intelligence report on Iran will not affect Czech support for the missile-defense system because "the report deals with a nuclear program, not with a program to develop missiles." The daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" wrote on December 6 that Washington has "rethought" its position on Russian access to the missile-defense sites. The paper added that the U.S. intelligence report rules out the possibility of any Iranian nuclear threat at present, and argues that "it is now clear to everyone against whom" the U.S. missile-defense system is directed. PM

Finnish Ambassador to Russia Harri Helenius said at a news conference in Moscow on December 5 that his country and Sweden both have environmental concerns regarding the route of the projected Russian-German Nord Stream gas pipeline, Interfax reported. He stressed that "Finland is not interested in increasing Russian gas imports and is not interested in joining the construction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline." Poland, Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic states all object to Nord Stream on political or economic grounds or both. A recent meeting in Moscow between the prime ministers of Russia and Finland, Viktor Zubkov and Matti Vanhanen, centered on cooperation in energy, forestry, and the high-tech sector, "The Moscow Times" reported on November 28. The paper added that concerns regarding Nord Stream were also on the agenda, as was the need to end the long waiting period for trucks at crossing points on the countries' 1,300-kilometer border. The government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" wrote on November 28 that the prime ministers spoke "openly" about their concerns. The paper added, however, that differences do not seem to have affected bilateral economic cooperation, which has rebounded in recent years following its near collapse after the breakup of the Soviet Union. PM

EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said on December 5 that "we do hope for the future presidential elections on March 2 that there will be an invitation to Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers in due time and in an appropriate way," Deutsche Welle reported. Prior to the recent parliamentary elections, the Russian authorities imposed restrictions on election monitors that prevented the OSCE's Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) from fielding a monitoring mission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3 and 4, 2007). PM

Venezuelan Air Force Colonel Oswaldo Hernandez Sanchez said in Caracas on December 5 that the government of President Hugo Chavez wants to buy at least 12 additional Russian military planes, including Ilyushin Il-76 (Candid) transport planes and Il-78 (Midas) refueling aircraft, AP reported. Chavez has in recent years become a well-publicized customer for the Russian arms industry, seeking products ranging from Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles to submarines and jet aircraft (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 28 and 29, July 2, August 16 and 21, and October 30, 2007). He says that Venezuela needs the transport planes to replace ageing U.S.-built Hercules C-130 aircraft because of Washington's embargo on arms sales to that country. The ban was imposed in response to what the United States calls a lack of support by Chavez's government for counterterrorism efforts and its increasingly close relations with Iran and Cuba. In Montevideo, Uruguay, the Russian Embassy announced on December 5 that President Putin has been invited to attend the summit of the South American Mercosur trading bloc, in which Venezuela seeks full membership, AP reported. An embassy press officer said that the chances of Putin accepting the invitation are "low" and that a final decision might not be made until shortly before the December 17-18 meeting. PM

The presidential administration plans to expand the scope of authority of the Public Chamber, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on December 6. President Putin is expected to meet with the newly composed chamber at its first session in late January, just weeks before the March 2 presidential election, and the newspaper reports he plans to discuss the reform at that time. Aleksandr Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists (RSPP), the so-called oligarchs union, told the daily that the administration could propose amending the constitution to include reference to the Public Chamber, which was created in 2005 (see "Russia: New Public Chamber Criticized As 'Smokescreen,'", March 17, 2005). Chamber member Valery Tishkov noted that the French Constitution includes reference to that country's public chamber and told the daily, "we should keep that in view if, for some reason, [our constitution] is going to be changed." Kremlin-connected analyst Sergei Markov, who is a member of the chamber, said boosting the status of the Public Chamber could be part of an effort to create mechanisms by which Putin will be able to control his successor. RC

RSPP head Shokhin told RIA Novosti on December 6 that "business does not object to a reconsideration of [privatization] deals that were carried out in clear violation of the law." He added, however, that the union opposes "state raiding." "It would be quite correct if the government would set an example," Shokhin said. "If it acquires shares in one or another business, it should state openly why it is doing so." Shokhin added that the main problem facing business today is overcoming the widening gap between the rich and the poor and creating more jobs. In an interview with "Kommersant" on November 30, businessman Oleg Shvartzman said the state is carrying out a "velvet reprivatization" in favor of Kremlin insiders, naming deputy presidential-administration head Igor Sechin. "This isn't raiding," he said. "We don't take over enterprises -- we minimize their market value using various means. As a rule, these are voluntary-compulsory means. There is a market value, there are mechanisms for blocking its growth, of course, all sorts of administrative things. But, as a rule, people understand where we are coming from...." In an interview with "Izbrannoye" that was posted on November 30, RSPP executive Oleg Kiselyov said: "My feeling about this publication is ambivalent. Yes, it is unpleasant, loathsome, disgusting, but it is true. I can't help but be glad that someone is speaking about this publicly." RC

Rumors have surfaced that the leadership of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and Yabloko parties might be changed following their crushing defeat in the December 2 Duma elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007), "Novyye izvestia" reported on December 5. The paper speculated that SPS Political Council member and the party's likely presidential candidate Boris Nemtsov could be named to replace party leader Nikita Belykh at the party's national congress in Moscow on December 17. Nemtsov was one of the party's four co-leaders -- together with Irina Khakamada, Yegor Gaidar, and Anatoly Chubais -- who all stepped down following the 2003 Duma elections, in which SPS polled just 3.97 percent according to official results. Former Economy Minister Yevgeny Yasin was also named as a possible candidate to take over the post. Meanwhile, Yabloko party youth leader Ilya Yashin said on December 5 that he is ready to take over from Grigory Yavlinsky as the party's leader, "The Moscow Times" reported on December 6. Yabloko polled 1.6 percent in the December 2 vote. Yashin said that "maybe it was a mistake" for the party to participate in the elections, and thereby help legitimize an undemocratic process. "[Yavlinsky] is not a street leader," Yashin said. "Today our party needs the kind of leader who can bring people onto the streets to fight against the system." "Novyye izvestia" quoted Yabloko sources as saying it may be time for the party to have a collective leadership rather than focusing so much on Yavlinsky. RC

Political analyst Aleksandr Kynev has calculated that as many as 118 of the 600 Duma candidates on the Unified Russia party list will refuse to take their seats in the legislature, "Vedomosti" reported on December 5 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2007). He said the party had 31 such "refuseniks" in the 2003 elections. Deputies-elect have five days after the publication of official election results to inform the Central Election Commission whether they accept their mandates, whether they reject them, or whether they reject the mandate now but wish to remain on the party's list in the event of vacancies in the future. RC

Former Interior Minister and Executive Director of the Commonwealth of Independent States Vladimir Rushailo has been confirmed as the Federation Council representative of the legislature of Arkhangelsk Oblast, "Kommersant" reported on December 6. Rushailo, who has no particular connection with Arkhangelsk Oblast, replaces Yury Sivkov, who drowned while fishing on November 8. RC

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov fired Prime Minister Anatoly Kozachko on December 6 and named Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Vladimir Sengleyev, 40, to head a new cabinet, and "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on December 5 and 6, respectively. Ilyumzhinov praised Kozachko's track record since his appointment in 2003, but said new blood is needed to implement economic modernization, including the construction of a new oil refinery and energy-sector projects. Kozachko has been named a state adviser on livestock breeding. Addressing the outgoing cabinet on December 5, Sengleyev said his primary goal will be to downsize to some 750 personnel the government apparatus, which currently numbers 1,300 bureaucrats in 28 ministries, reported. The republic's population in 2002 was 292,410. LF

Chechen Central Election Commission Chairman Ismail Baikhanov announced in Grozny on December 5 that 96.15 percent of the republic's electorate participated in the December 2 referendum on amendments to the republic's constitution, and reported. That is marginally fewer than voted in the elections the same day to the Russian State Duma, in which Chechnya boasted the highest voter turnout -- 99.5 percent -- of any federation subject (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). An overwhelming majority -- 96.88 percent -- approved the proposed amendments, which include extending from four to five years the term of office of the republic head and parliament and replacing the bicameral parliament elected in 2004 with a unicameral legislature. LF

Murad Yunusov, a lawyer representing one of the two Khidriyev brothers charged with perpetrating the August 13 bomb attack on the Neva Express train, said on December 5 that investigators have taken no steps to question witnesses who can testify that the two men were working as usual on a construction site in Ingushetia on the day of the attack, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25 and November 2 and 26, 2007). Interfax on December 5 quoted Dmitry Dovgy, a senior official of the Prosecutor-General's Office, as saying that while there is "enough evidence" incriminating Maksharip and Amirkhan Khidriyev, "we are continuing our investigation," and it would be premature to say the case is solved. LF

Unknown gunmen shot and killed a police officer late on December 5 outside his home in the village of Stary Cherek in Kabardino-Balkaria's Urvan Raion, reported. He was the fifth policeman to be gunned down in recent months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, August 20 and November 20, 2007). A police post in Khasanya on the southern outskirts of Nalchik was subjected to automatic fire late on December 4, but no one was injured. LF

Relatives of 95 men killed during the fighting in Nalchik in October 2005 between police and security forces and Islamic militants have written to Deputy Prosecutor-General for the Southern Federal District Ivan Sidoruk demanding that legal proceedings be opened against his subordinate Aleksei Savrulin, reported on December 5, citing lawyer Larisa Dorogova. Savrulin issued orders in June 2006 that the men's bodies be cremated, rather than handed over to the families for burial, on the grounds that they were "terrorists" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 2007). The families argue that decision was illegal as the men's guilt was not established in court. Some of the dead were innocent passersby caught in cross-fire. LF

Visiting Yerevan on December 5, Georges Colombier, a rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) committee that monitors Armenia's compliance with its commitments to the Council of Europe, told Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian and other senior Armenian officials that the presidential election to be held in February 2008 "must be better conducted" than the May 2007 parliamentary ballot, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He added that the May vote was not "handled badly," but that "everything must be done to make the February 19 elections more democratic." The initial Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) assessment of the May parliamentary elections said that the Armenian authorities "were unable to fully deliver a performance consistent with their stated intention that the election would meet international standards" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). Also on December 5, Sarkisian, who is widely regarded as the likely winner of the February election, told journalists that he "regrets" that former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian is barred from participating in that ballot, as "he could have played a positive role," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Hovannisian, who was born in the United States, was refused registration on the grounds that he has not been a citizen of the Republic of Armenia for the required minimum 10 years. Sarkisian implied that Hovannisian would have won the sympathies of some voters who may instead support former President Levon Ter-Petrossian. LF

The Tbilisi City Court ruled on December 6 to unfreeze the impounded assets of the opposition Imedi-TV station, but its staff will be permitted to reenter the premises only on December 7 when that ruling takes effect, reported. Imedi's managing director, Bidzina Baratashvili, complained to that the authorities "are deliberately dragging out the process." Imedi's broadcasting license was suspended in late November for three months on the grounds that its journalists advocated civil unrest during the antigovernment protests in Tbilisi in early November. That suspension was lifted on December 4 in response to sustained pressure from the international community (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8 and 26 and December 3 and 4, 2007). Speaking at a press conference in Tbilisi on December 5, ombudsman Sozar Subar hailed parliament speaker and acting President Nino Burjanadze's December 3 announcement that Imedi will be permitted to resume broadcasting, but at the same time expressed his concern at "endless attempts to exert pressure on, curb, and tame the media," Caucasus Press reported on December 6. LF

Lado Gurgenidze told Reuters in Brussels on December 5 that his government plans "significant" cuts in spending on defense and infrastructure in order to balance the budget. He did not elaborate. The draft 2008 budget initially set defense spending at 922.1 million laris ($571.8 million), compared with a total of 1.495 billion laris in 2007, Caucasus Press reported. Arguing in October for the second of two increases this year in defense spending, Nika Rurua, deputy chairman of the parliament's Defense and Security Committee, said the additional funds were required for construction of new military bases and to increase the armed forces' manpower. Western experts have repeatedly questioned why Tbilisi is intent on increasing the number of military personnel in blatant defiance of NATO recommendations. LF

The Kyrgyz opposition Asaba (Flag) party on December 5 issued a call for "all healthy political forces" in the country to boycott the December 16 parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. In a statement released in Bishkek, the party argued that the Kyrgyz authorities and the Central Election Commission are limiting the activities of opposition parties in an attempt to ensure their victory in the coming elections. Asaba leader Azimbek Beknazarov explained that the boycott threat is due to the authorities' use of "administrative resources" to weaken the opposition, AKIpress reported. Bolotbek Sherniyazov, a candidate from the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, also recently warned that several opposition parties will hold public rallies to protest the government's use of administrative resources to thwart "equal opportunities for all participants" in the run-up to the elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2007). RG

Speaking in Bishkek on December 5, Interior Ministry official Melis Turganbaev released new details in the investigation into the murder of journalist Alisher Saipov, AKIpress reported. Turganbaev announced that security forces are searching for two suspects identified by witnesses as having carried out the October 24 shooting of the journalist in the city of Osh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2007). He added that police have arrested the owner of a gun that forensic tests have proved was used in the killing, according to the website. He also dismissed earlier reports suggesting that the killing was linked to Saipov's reporting on corruption within Uzbekistan. Initial speculation pointed to the Uzbek security services, seemingly bolstered by several reports in the Uzbek state media criticizing Saipov, who was an ethnic Uzbek, and calling him an "enemy of the Uzbek nation" and accusing him of destabilizing the situation in the country. RG

During an official state visit to Japan, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon met on December 5 in Tokyo with Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Koumura to discuss bilateral relations and the activities of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency in Tajikistan, Asia-Plus and Avesta reported. Rahmon also briefed Koumura on regional security and the situation in Afghanistan, and noted that he sees Japan as a "strategic partner" of Tajikistan, ITAR-TASS reported. In a separate meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, Rahmon welcomed Japanese interest in investing in the construction of the planned Dusti-Panj-Farkhor-Guliston highway running through southern Tajikistan. RG

Russian officials on December 5 deported an Uzbek man wanted by the Uzbek authorities for his suspected membership in an unidentified Islamist group, Reuters reported. Russia's repatriation of Abdugani Kamaliev, who was arrested in Russia in November 2006, was opposed by the European Court of Human Rights, which argued against the extradition on the grounds that Kamaliev could face jail and possible torture if he was returned home. RG

Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Varanetski and Ian Boag, head of the Kyiv-based European Commission delegation to Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine, on December 5 initialed a draft agreement on the establishment of a European Commission delegation in Minsk, Belapan reported. The European Commission asked the Belarusian authorities for permission to open an office in Minsk in 2005, and at the same time sent a draft agreement to the Belarusian government. The Belarusian authorities gave their consent in April 2007, and the European Commission sent the draft agreement once again. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in October approved the draft as a basis for further negotiations, and appointed Varanetski to negotiate the terms with the Commission. Varanetski said that the December 5 agreement will now be submitted to Lukashenka for his signature. AM

Anatol Lyabedzka, the leader of the United Civic Party (AHP), said on December 4 in Washington that the European Commission and the U.S. State Department should resume sending joint delegations to Belarus, Belapan reported. "It is better to speak to Minsk in one voice, having a single stance," Lyabedzka said during a hearing at the U.S. Congress on the situation in Belarus. He proposed holding a conference on the situation in Belarus bringing together Belarusian government officials and opposition politicians with representatives of the European Union, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and their parliamentary organizations. "The condition for holding this conference initiated by the European Union is the [Belarusian authorities'] release of political prisoners," Lyabedzka said, adding that such a conference would clearly indicate whether the Belarusian government is ready for reform. AM

The opposition Political Council of United Pro-Democratic Forces has urged the Presidential Administration to hold "direct consultations" about the 2008 parliamentary elections, Belapan reported on December 5. In a letter sent to presidential administration chief Henadz Nyavyhlas, the opposition coalition called on the government to "develop joint proposals that will make it possible to conduct in 2008 an election whose legitimacy will be recognized by political organizations and all voters in Belarus, as well as by the international community." The letter also states that the opposition will decide on the basis of the authorities' reply whether it participates in the forthcoming elections. AM

President Viktor Yushchenko said on December 5 that the approval of Arseniy Yatsenyuk as the speaker of the Verkhovna Rada is a step toward political stability in Ukraine, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko also said that Yatsenyuk will act as a speaker for the whole Ukrainian parliament, and not just for some factions. Yatsenyuk pledged to treat lawmakers of all factions equally, and suggested offering some parliamentary leadership posts to the opposition. Outgoing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, however, criticized the manner in which Yatsenyuk was elected. Yanukovych said that 227 lawmakers of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) endured a "humiliating procedure" during the vote, in which the leaders of the two blocs "checked out" how lawmakers voted. AM

President Yushchenko on December 6 nominated Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the parliamentary bloc bearing her name, for the post of Ukraine's prime minister, UNIAN reported. "The head of state announced several times that he would not delay the nomination of the premier. Now he has kept his word," presidential staff chief Viktor Baloha said. However, the approval of Tymoshenko may be delayed, as the BYuT and the NUNS agreed in their coalition deal to pass a package of bills regarding the functioning of the future government before approving the nominated prime minister. AM

Kosovar Albanian leaders will not be able to speak at a crucial meeting of the UN Security Council if a request by the Serbian government is heeded. In a letter sent to the president of the Security Council, Serbia's ambassador to the UN, Pavle Jevremovic, argued that as Kosova is not a state its representatives can attend meetings of the Security Council but not address it, Reuters reported on December 4. The meeting on December 19 will discuss a report submitted by international mediators detailing the course of direct talks between Belgrade and Prishtina about Kosova's future, and could have a significant bearing on whether talks continue. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica hopes to be able to address the meeting. AG

The widespread perception in the Balkans that Serbia is stoking tensions within Bosnia-Herzegovina prompted a dispute between Croatian President Stjepan Mesic and Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic on December 4, with Mesic declaring that "special relations between the entities and neighboring countries, although permitted by the Dayton agreement [which ended Bosnia's civil war in 1995], do not serve the purpose of strengthening Bosnia-Herzegovina as a state." Serbia and the ethnic-Serb-dominated Republika Srpska established a special high-level cooperation council in September 2006, and sought to reinvigorate cooperation again this September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, 2007). Mesic's criticism, made at a conference in Brussels and reported by the Croatian news agency Hina, prompted Djelic to retort that "Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina vote for Croatia's parliament and president, which is not the case with Serbs." Under legislation dating back to the Balkan wars, Bosnian Croats were able to cast votes on November 23 in Croatia's parliamentary elections. Mesic said he is "not happy" about that law, but argued that, unlike Serbia, Croatia has "abandoned" the pursuit of special relations with Bosnia's Croats and has consistently sent the message to Bosnia's Croats that they should "pursue their happiness in their homeland." Returning to Serbia's relations with the Republika Srpska, Mesic said that Croatia "insists that the entities in Bosnia-Herzegovina are not states, nor can they act like states." AG

Croatian President Mesic and Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Djelic also differed on the issue of Kosova's right to independence and partition. Mesic argued that partition should be out of the question because "if Serbs in northern Kosovo were to declare independence, Albanians in southern Serbia would do the same thing, and that means war." Djelic asked whether Mesic applied the same logic to Kosova, which he argued is an integral part of Serbia and which, because it was never a republic in the former Yugoslavia, does not have a right to self-determination. Serbia officially opposes the partition of Kosova and Djelic did not raise that option. Mesic described Kosova as having been a constituent part of the Yugoslav federation and therefore has a claim to self-determination. Croatia has backed the plan drawn up by the UN's special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, who argued in March that Kosova should be granted "supervised independence." AG

Zoran Zivkovic, who served as Serbia's prime minister in 2003-04, has told the news service Balkan Insight that "the only avenue" that could lead to a resolution of Kosova's status between Belgrade and Prishtina is partition. In the interview, which was published on December 5, Zivkovic said that "partition is not the best nor the most democratic solution, but it offers both sides something so they can achieve some of their goals." He predicted that Kosova will become independent and that ethnic Serbs "may opt to unilaterally declare they want to stay within Serbia, using exactly the same arguments as Kosovo Albanians" about their right to self-determination. Both Belgrade and Prishtina officially reject the idea of partition. Zivkovic was critical of official Serbian policy, describing Belgrade's claim that it is defending the principle of sovereignty as "lame" and arguing that Belgrade's policy is "insufficient to provide for the survival and security of Kosovo Serbs." AG

The deadline for claims to property in Kosova to be submitted has passed, the Serbian news agency Tanjug reported on December 5. The Kosova Property Agency, which is handling restitution and other property issues, has received nearly 30,000 claims, mainly by people displaced during the 1998-99 war. The second-most-senior official in the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), Steven Schook, said in August that the number of cases handled by the agency "quite frankly set a standard worldwide in any postconflict environment" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 10, 2007). A report published this summer by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found that about 16,000 people have returned to Kosova since the conflict and that about "10,405 residential properties belonging to currently displaced persons remain destroyed" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 2, 2007). AG

Carla Del Ponte, the outgoing chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), has urged the EU not to formally adopt a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia until Serbia arrests Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' wartime commander. Del Ponte, who was speaking at a conference on the Balkans in Brussels on December 4, said the same after paying her last official visit to Belgrade on December 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2007), Reuters reported. With Del Ponte's blessing, the EU "initialed" an SAA with Serbia in early November but the SAA has yet to be fully adopted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2007). In Belgrade, Del Ponte argued that if the EU does not link the SAA with cooperation on war crimes, Mladic will never be captured. In Brussels, Del Ponte said that she believes Mladic is being protected by people affiliated with the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Serbia's most popular party. The Croatian news agency Hina reported that, on the sidelines of the conference, Del Ponte met with Croatian President Mesic, during which, according to Mesic, Del Ponte supported Croatia's attempts to persuade the courts to pass heavier sentences on three former officers of the Yugoslav People's Army involved in the siege of Vukovar . Two of them -- Mile Mrksic and Veselin Sljivancanin -- were found guilty, and a third, Miroslav Radic, was acquitted of war crimes and has since been indicted by a Croatian court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, October 1 and 10, and November 1, 2007). Del Ponte told reporters that the ICTY has "no problems with Croatia," which could "serve as an example" to the region, Hina reported. AG

A retired army officer at the center of a landmark war crimes case in Serbia will not face charges, Serbian authorities decided on December 5. They argued that Vladimir "Rambo" Kovacevic, who is currently in a military hospital in Belgrade, is suffering from a permanent mental illness and is unfit to stand trial. For the same health reasons, Kovacevic, who is charged with ordering troops of the former Yugoslav People's Army to shell the port of Dubrovnik in 1991, was not brought to trial before the ICTY. An expert called by the Serbian court, Gordana Dedic, said it is impossible to know whether Kovacevic suffered from the illness at the time of the shelling, though he had seen a psychiatrist in 1988, media in the region reported. Dedic also said that it is not possible to assess Kovacevic's mental condition at the time when he committed the crimes he is charged with. The mayor of Dubrovnik, Dubravka Suica, said she was deeply disappointed with the ruling, the news agency Hina said. Kovacevic's case was the first to be transferred from the ICTY to the Serbian justice system, in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, 2007). Two other men indicted at the same time as Kovacevic in 2001 were sentenced on similar charges, for eight years in the case of General Pavle Strugar and for seven years for Admiral Miodrag Jokic. AG

A close associate of the late Slobodan Milosevic is one of 15 men indicted by Serbian prosecutors on December 5 on suspicion of running a major cigarette-smuggling ring. Eight of the 15 men have been arrested by police, including Milosevic's associate, Mihalj Kertes, who was the head of Serbia's customs office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, and October 18, 2007). The alleged mastermind, a businessman called Stanko Subotic, known also as "Cane," remains at liberty, Serbian media reported. Special prosecutor Miljko Radosavljevic said the group earned $7 million "by facilitating illegal imports and sales of cigarettes." Kertes denies all the charges. AG

Nikola Spiric, who resigned from his position as prime minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina's federal government in October, has been nominated by his fellow Bosnian Serbs for the post he vacated, local media reported on December 5. Spiric resigned over governance reforms demanded by Miroslav Lajcak, the international community's high representative in the country. The leader of Spiric's party, Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, on November 30 accepted Lajcak's reforms. Dodik predicted that the country's governing coalition will also remain unchanged. AG

Spain on December 4 assumed control of the EU's peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina (EUFOR) in a ceremony that saw the outgoing German commander, Rear Admiral Hans Jochen Witthauer, passing responsibility to General Ignacio Martin Villalain. Spain currently has the largest contingent of soldiers serving in Bosnia. Figures quoted by the Spanish newspaper "ABC" on December 4 put the current number at 258. Before a decision in February to more than halve EUFOR's troop levels, from over 6,000 to about 2,500, there were 580 Spanish soldiers in the country. The EU and Witthauer have reappraised the security situation since the decision to reduce EUFOR's size, now expressing greater concern that tensions in Kosova could affect stability in Bosnia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28 and October 31, 2007). Roughly 30 countries contribute troops to EUFOR, with Italy, Turkey, Poland, and Hungary the largest contributors after Spain. Spain also has 641 troops in Kosova. AG

Moldova and Tajikistan are the two countries in the world that benefit most from remittances. According to a World Bank report issued on November 29, money sent home by migrant Moldovan and Tajik workers accounted for 36.2 percent of their countries' gross domestic product. The total sum remitted by Moldovans in 2006 was $1 billion. Kyrgyzstan ranked fourth (27 percent). AG


In anticipation of Human Rights Day on December 10, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) on December 4 called on all Afghans to defend the rights of women, including their right to live without fear of domestic or other violence, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. UNAMA said that it has joined forces with local authorities and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in its efforts to defend women's rights. Marguerite Roy, the head of UNAMA's regional office in Mazar-e Sharif, said: "Many of the victims continue to suffer in silence. This violence is unacceptable regardless of whether it is perpetrated by family or strangers, in the public sphere or behind closed doors, in times of peace or conflict." UNAMA acknowledged substantial progress for Afghan women since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, but said that violence against women remains endemic, and their role in public life and rebuilding Afghanistan remains impaired by social stigma. MM

At a ceremony on December 4 in the central province of Parwan, 21 Afghan militia commanders handed over their weapons to officials of the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) program, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. A joint press statement from the UNDP, UNAMA, and the Afghanistan New Beginnings Program (ANBP), a disarmament and demining project, said on December 3 that the commanders are supporting DIAG "by negotiating and accepting to surrender their weapons, thus allowing the consolidation of peace, rule of law, and prosperity in Afghanistan." Under the DIAG disarmament program launched in June 2005, 35,000 weapons and more than 300,000 pieces of ammunition have reportedly been collected so far. Afghan authorities and ANBP officials also participated in the ceremony to express their appreciation for the efforts and recognize the province's adherence to DIAG's disarmament requirements. MM

Homayun Hamidzada, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, told journalists on December 3 in Kabul that the government has no plans to negotiate with either fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar or warlord and former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Daily Oulook Afghanistan reported. Hamidzada noted that both men are on a UN list of terrorists, and described them as "sworn enemies of Afghanistan, endangering the lives and properties of Afghans." His comments reflect the Karzai administration's interest in negotiating only with moderate elements of the insurgency. The UN is currently pushing for reconciliation efforts among warring factions in Afghanistan, and Karzai recently commented that he would personally reach out to the Taliban leader for talks, if he could only establish contact with him. MM

Four Afghan boys who acted in the movie "The Kite Runner" left Afghanistan for Dubai on December 2, Afghan and international media reported on December 5. The reports quoted Megan Colligan, executive vice president of marketing for Paramount Vantage, which is releasing the film internationally on December 14, as saying, "We knew [the boys] were well, but they were anxious about what would happen when the film came out." The production of the film has provoked controversy in Afghanistan because of a scene in which the main character witnesses the rape of his friend, but fails to intervene. Rumors about the content of the movie have already triggered public outrage, and there is widespread fear that its release could set off violence in reaction to the rape scene. An actor in the movie, Khalid Abdalla, said at the premier on December 4 in Hollywood that "the reason the decision [to leave Afghanistan] was made was for the safety of the boys. Everything else is secondary to that." He added, "Clearly there is a controversy, but I think it's overblown, and I think it needed time to rest." "The Kite Runner" is based on the 2003 best-selling novel by Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini. MM

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in Tehran on December 5 that "the absence of justice, security...brotherhood, and the unfettered rule of powers" around the world is the fruit of Western ideas, and he accused Western states of discriminating against Muslims in their countries, IRNA reported. He told a gathering of senior jurists of Islamic states that religious minorities in states like Iran perform their religious rites and lead "their ordinary lives amid all possible peace and freedom." He urged Islamic states to make Islamic rulings the bases of their legal systems and said the Islamic rights system is among the most advanced in the world. Western "culture and civilization" could not bring people justice or security, Khamenei said. VS

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Tehran on December 5 that Iran already has the right to use peaceful nuclear power because it is a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and this is not a right another state could give it, IRNA reported. He said NPT signatories enjoy duties and rights, but Iran has had to rely on domestic skills to develop its program because of restrictions. Western states suspect Iran may have sought to develop nuclear weapons, but Mottaki said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said there is no evidence Iran has done so. Now, he added, 16 U.S. intelligence bodies "have clearly stated there was no activity until access nuclear weapons," IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4 and 5, 2007). He said that "when American officials are asked about" the recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) "report, they reply, we only received this information a week ago...the people who say this have presumptions on running the world and having a role in all international decisions." VS

Government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham told reporters in Tehran on December 5 that the case on Iran's nuclear program is closed following the recent NIE report and the United States is now "embarrassed" after "poking its nose" into Iran's nuclear program, IRNA reported. "This is a formal admission by a government and state that has wasted the international community's time with its baseless reports and inflicted harm on [that] community," he said. Elham added the report showed that states and international bodies should now view U.S. reports with skepticism. He also defended the Iranian president's recent trip to Doha to attend the opening of the Gulf Cooperation Council conference, and said critics of the visit did not understand the "sensitive and strategic nature of Iran's relations with regional states." He said that "fortunately," relations with Persian Gulf states have improved under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. VS

Britain's Standard Chartered Bank has severed business ties with Iran after some 60 years, Radio Farda reported on December 3, citing a report the previous day in Britain's "The Observer." The weekly quoted bank official Michael Rice as saying that the bank has had no business ties with Iran for some months now. This was apparently in response to U.S. pressure. Standard Chartered is one of a number of prominent banks, including Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, UBS, and HSBC, to either curtail or end their business relations with Iran in response to U.S. government pressure, Radio Farda reported. Iran is subject to two UN Security Council sanctions resolutions intended to induce it to stop producing highly enriched nuclear fuel. VS

U.S. Commander General David Petraeus told reporters in Baghdad on December 5 that Al-Qaeda remains a threat in Iraq, international media reported. "We have to be careful not to get feeling too successful," Petraeus warned. "We see this as requiring a continued amount of very tough work. We see Al-Qaeda as a very, very dangerous adversary still able to carry out attacks and an adversary that we must continue to pursue." In a December 5 statement on the Internet, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the December 3 killing of Interior Ministry adviser Major General Fawzi Muhammad Husayn, and said the group considers Muhammad a criminal member of a death squad -- a reference to rogue Interior Ministry units -- "who harmed unarmed Muslims in the evil prisons of the Interior Ministry." The group also claimed responsibility in a separate statement for the December 2 attack in Baghdad on a diplomatic convoy from the United Arab Emirates, which left two diplomats dead and four wounded. On December 4, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq announced the start of a new armed campaign that will target members of Sunni awakening councils across the country through the end of January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2007). KR

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters at a December 5 press briefing in Baghdad that a secure and democratic Iraq is within reach, international media reported. "We need to be patient. We also need to be absolutely resolved in our desire to see the nascent signs of hope across Iraq expand and flourish so that all Iraqis can enjoy peace and prosperity," Gates said. Speaking at the same briefing, Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim al-Ubaydi said security has vastly improved in recent months. "Mr. Gates has arrived in circumstances that are totally different from the circumstances that had prevailed during his previous visits, because we have realized progress in the security domain. Security now is on the level that prevailed in 2004. Still, there are hotbeds of terrorism and we have much to do," al-Ubaydi said. He added, "We continue to be prepared for the worst." Al-Ubaydi said his talks with Gates focused on preparations that must be completed before the Iraqi Army can take over responsibility for security from the U.S. Army. "We must be aware of what it means for a new army like the Iraqi Army to replace a capable army like the U.S. Army," al-Ubaydi said. He added: "We need to establish systems for the Iraqi armed forces, especially the building of the fire-support system, whether these systems are land weapons like mortars or on helicopter gunships. At the same time, we need to build the administrative system. We also have to build the command-and-control systems." KR

Minister of Trade Abd al-Falah Hasan al-Sudani has said the central government has halved the budget allowance for food aid in next year's budget, making it likely that the number of items distributed to the public will be cut, AP reported on December 6. Al-Sudani said in a statement that the ministry requested $7 billion to cover next year's budget, but has only been allocated $3 billion. The ration system, which began under Saddam Hussein's regime to provide necessities while the country was under sanctions, provides monthly food rations and other necessities to two-thirds of the population. Under the system, Iraqis are allowed to use ration cards to purchase rice, flour, sugar, cooking oil, tea, beans, powdered milk and baby formula, detergent, and soap. Al-Sudani said the budget, if not revised, will mean that Iraqis receive half as many items. Iraqi media reported on December 3 that al-Sudani addressed the parliament about the pending crisis during that day's Council of Representatives session. KR

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have reportedly been holding discussions on the reappointment of leadership positions in the coming year, "Rozhnama" reported on December 5. Under the current agreement forged by the two leading parties in the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) in 2005, KDP head Mas'ud Barzani serves as president of the KRG and commander of the peshmerga. PUK Deputy Prime Minister Adnan Mufti was appointed speaker of parliament, Nechirvan Barzani assumed the position of Kurdish prime minister, and PUK Prime Minister Umar Fattah became the deputy prime minister of the unified administration. Under the agreement, the KDP and the PUK were to swap leadership positions after a fixed period of time (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," June 3, 2005). According the "Rozhnama," it seems that KRG Vice President Kosrat Rasul Ali and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, both PUK members, are in the running to assume the post of regional prime minister. The newspaper suggested current Prime Minister Barzani will assume the post of parliament speaker. KR