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Newsline - December 12, 2007

Russia's controversial suspension of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty came into effect on December 12, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30 and December 7, 10, and 11, 2007). The pact, amended in 1999 and widely considered an important part of the European arms control structure, limits the deployment of tanks and other conventional weapons west of the Urals. Russia considers it outdated and not corresponding to its interests. On April 26, President Vladimir Putin announced a "moratorium" on Russia's observance of the agreement until the Baltic states and Slovenia sign it. On July 14, he signed a decree suspending Russia's participation in the pact, which would take effect 150 days later. The decree was subsequently endorsed by both houses of parliament. Critics charge that there is no provision in the CFE for suspension, and that Moscow must withdraw from the treaty if it refuses to observe it. The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on December 12 that "during the temporary suspension of Russia's participation in the CFE Treaty, the country will not be bound by limitations [specified in it], including by 'flank limitations' on the number of deployed conventional weapons," reported. The statement added that "at the same time, we do not have plans to amass and concentrate these weapons on the borders with our neighbors." PM

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried was quoted by Britain's "Financial Times" of December 12 as calling the Russian decision "deeply regrettable." Deutsche Welle argued on December 12 that the move came in response to U.S. plans to develop a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Anatoly Antonov, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's security and disarmament department, said that "there is no threat from Moscow. No one in Berlin would think that Russian tanks could move on Germany," Reuters reported on December 11. He stressed that Russia acted because "its concerns were not listened to" and that Moscow "remains open to dialogue." An unnamed Western diplomat said that the Russian decision will not lead to a new arms race, but will make verification of existing deployments more difficult. Interfax on December 12 quoted an unnamed "high-ranking official from the Russian Defense Ministry" as saying that "the need for ensuring the country's defense capability, which is the most urgent in...the North Caucasus, has already prompted us to take measures that...go beyond the flank limits stipulated by the CFE. This involves the two recently-formed mountain brigades deployed on our southern flank in Daghestan and the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic." PM

On December 12, the "Financial Times" reported that a new study by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) warns that Finland could face possible "military remonstrations in the vicinity of the Finnish the short to medium term" by an assertive Russia if Finland were to join NATO. Polls suggest that about 50 percent of Finns still reject NATO membership. But the paper noted that there is also a growing view that NATO membership would help Finland better meet its EU responsibilities and would act as insurance in the face of Russian assertiveness (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 25, October 4, and December 6, 2007). The Finnish Foreign Ministry will soon issue its first assessment in four years of possible NATO membership. The FIIA report noted that the debate involves more than just NATO, and impacts on "how we see ourselves." PM

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on December 11 that Poland may hold talks with Germany and Russia about those countries' controversial Nord Stream gas pipeline, which will bring Russian gas along the floor of the Baltic Sea to Germany, bypassing Poland and the Baltic states, Deutsche Welle and the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on December 12. He added that the three countries might hold joint talks to address Polish concerns as early as January. The pipeline will traverse an area of seabed that contains much chemical and military waste, including poisons and live explosives. Poland, Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic states all object to Nord Stream on political or ecological grounds or both (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15, November 2 and 7, and December 6, 2007). On November 6, Tusk told reporters regarding Nord Stream that "this initiative, this project, has not been prepared well." He added that he hopes Nord Stream will soon undergo "serious corrections." The "Financial Times" on November 7 quoted unnamed Gazprom officials as saying that they "do not understand" Tusk's comments. On December 12 in Moscow, Russian Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeyev announced that Russia and Poland have resolved a dispute over Polish meat exports that has been holding up broader Russia-EU negotiations over a new partnership agreement, Interfax reported. PM

Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on December 11 that President Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka spoke by telephone about the upcoming meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Russia-Belarus Union State on the eve of their talks in Minsk on December 13-14, Russian news agencies reported. Peskov apparently sought to play down recent speculation on Ekho Moskvy radio and elsewhere that the meeting could lead to a major announcement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10, 2007). He said that "it will be a working meeting to continue to discuss all the aspects of the continuous integration between our two countries." Peskov warned against paying any attention to "sensationalist speculation" regarding the meeting., however, suggested on December 12 that serious plans for a more substantial state union could well be afoot. On December 7, Lukashenka's spokesman Pavel Lyohki denied media reports that the two presidents will sign the Constitutional Act of the Belarusian-Russian Union State during the Minsk summit. PM

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin announced on December 12 that all regional offices of the British Council in Russia must be closed by January 1, 2008, and reported. He said that "given the lack of a legal basis for regulating the activity of the British Council in Russia, the British side was notified that the activity of all regional offices...except its head office in Moscow will be suspended." But Natalia Minchenko, marketing director for the British Council's Moscow office, denied Kamynin's assertions and told AP that "we have no plans to shut down" the regional offices. British Embassy officials were not immediately available for comment, the news agency added. The British Council promotes British culture and exchanges abroad. reported on December 12 that the Russian "move is being seen as retaliation for the expulsion of four Russian diplomats from Britain in July, in the continuing row over the [2006] murder on British soil of [former Russian security agent Aleksandr] Litvinenko." The website added that the decision is "another effort to squeeze British interests, in the row that began over Litvinenko. It is election season now, and Putin thinks he is completely invulnerable and [can] do what he likes. Relations between Britain and Russia are very, very strained, so squeezing out the British Council is a way of demonstrating how bad those relations have become. Moscow has never been very happy with the fact that the British Council gives English lessons and runs exams. They see it as a contamination with unwelcome ideas" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30 and December 5, 2007). PM

Politicians and analysts on December 12 reacted to a statement the previous day by First Deputy Prime Minister and presidential heir apparent Dmitry Medvedev, who asked President Putin to serve as prime minister if Medvedev is elected president in March 2008, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2007). Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov said the proposal is "a good algorithm and a workable suggestion from the point of view of the organization of future work," reported. Analyst Dmitry Badovsky told the website that Putin will probably not directly accept or reject the proposal for some time. Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the Political Forecasting Center, reminded "Vremya novostei" that Putin has said he does not want to shift the balance of power between the president and the prime minister. "In general, I think that the recent events have moved us away from the realization of the scenario of a parliamentary republic rather than moving us toward it," Vinogradov said. Analyst Valery Khomyakov told the daily that the move is a signal to the elites that Putin will remain in power, in order to avoid the impression that he is a "lame duck" now that Medvedev has been named the successor. However, Khomyakov added, the exact role for Putin after the March 2 election remains unclear. RC

Federation Council member Yury Sharandin, who heads the council's Constitutional Law Committee, told "Vremya novostei" on December 12 that it is not necessary to amend the constitution in order to enhance the powers of the prime minister. He noted that the constitutional law on the government contains the provision that the so-called power structures -- the Interior, Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Emergency Situations Ministries; the Prosecutor-General's Office; the Federal Security Service; and others -- are under the direct control of the president. In order to change that law, three-quarters of the Federation Council and two-thirds of the State Duma must vote for it. RC

Unified Russia and A Just Russia are setting up a joint campaign headquarters to support First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev in his presidential bid, reported on December 11. An unnamed Unified Russia source said that deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov will head the campaign. Surkov oversees the Kremlin's policies regarding political parties, the regions, and civil society. Federation Council Chairman Mironov, who heads A Just Russia, told the website his party maintains its opposition to Unified Russia, despite the fact that both parties will support Medvedev. He said the campaign headquarters will be a "super-party" structure. Political analyst Dmitry Gusev summed up the mission of the new campaign: "The main goal of Medvedev's election campaign will be to present him as a faithful Putinite, who is capable of continuing the reforms begun by Putin. They need to convince voters that in electing Medvedev, they are also electing Putin, who will remain in power and to whom Medvedev will in many regards be obedient." RC

President Putin on December 11 met with the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Moscow, Russian media reported on December 12. The meeting began just moments after First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev appeared on national television to ask Putin to serve as premier if he is elected president in March. Putin did not comment on Medvedev's statement, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported, but discussed the government's economic policies in detail. He said that the state should play a smaller role in the economy and pledged that the state megacorporations now being set up will eventually be altered. "We are not planning to keep state corporations in their present form," Putin said. "After these corporations stand on their own two feet, then I think it will be right for them to work in market conditions." He added that "state corporations should not monopolize Russia." In recent years, the government has created state corporations in key sectors including machine building, aviation construction, shipbuilding, and nuclear energy. It has also overseen the expansion of Gazprom and Rosneft. Most of these corporations are headed by key figures from Putin's inner circle. Putin also said the government will continue to put windfall revenues from high energy prices into the Stabilization Fund. However, he also opened the door for spending some of that fund -- now worth nearly $150 billion -- on "pensions and innovative projects." He said the government will divide the fun into two subfunds in 2008. RC

A company owned by Yury Kovalchuk, co-owner of the Rossia Bank and a close colleague of President Putin's, is expected soon to purchase from Gazprom-Media a controlling stake in the national daily "Izvestia" for some $150 million, "Kommersant" reported on December 12. Kovalchuk, who is often tagged as Putin's personal banker, already controls the national television networks REN-TV and Channel 5 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 5, 2007). He also controls the St. Petersburg daily "Sankt-Peterburgskie vedomosti." Furthermore, he is believed to control the "Komsomolskaya pravda" publishing group through his close colleague, Oleg Rudnov, who chairs that company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3, 2007). RC

In the wake of the collapse of the rightist parties the Union of Rightist Forces and Yabloko in the December 2 Duma elections, the Kremlin is developing plans to carve a new Kremlin-friendly rightist party out of Unified Russia, "Versia," No. 48, reported. Analyst Yevgeny Minchenko estimates that about 10-12 percent of the electorate is prepared to vote for a liberal party, although liberal parties picked up just 5 percent of the vote in the recent elections. The weekly noted that Dmitry Medvedev, who is now first deputy prime minister and President Putin's anointed successor as president, first proposed the creation of a right-leaning faction within Unified Russia in the spring of 2005. The paper's analysts speculate that leadership of the new party might be entrusted to Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Khloponin, Tver Oblast Governor Dmitry Zelenin, or former Unified Russia Duma Deputy Pavel Krasheninnikov. RC

An unnamed source within Unified Russia told "Vedomosti" on December 12 that the party has begun considering the leadership structure of the new Duma, which will hold its first session on December 24. The source said that party leader Boris Gryzlov will remain as speaker and that the party will have three deputy speakers, instead of the six it had in the last Duma. The three other parties represented in the Duma -- A Just Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and the Communist Party -- will have one deputy speaker each. He said that Aleksandr Babakov, who headed the A Just Russia faction in the last Duma, will likely become a deputy speaker, as will LDPR head Vladimir Zhirinovsky. In the last Duma, Gryzlov had nine deputies. The source added that the number of committees in the new legislature will be reduced from the 29 committees and nine commissions that the last Duma had. He said that, unlike in the last Duma where Unified Russia monopolized all the committee chairmanships, the opposition will be offered some leadership posts. Zhirinovsky told the daily the opposition can count on heading the committees on relations with the CIS, on tourism, on sports, and on the environment. RC

Supreme Court judge Kurban Pashayev was shot dead in the stairwell of his apartment building as he returned home from work on December 11, and the daily "Kommersant" reported on December 12. Investigators believe the killing was linked to one of the high-profile criminal cases Pashayev presided over in recent years: he acquitted four men accused of two attempts, in November 2004 and February 2005, to kill then Deputy Prime Minister Amuchi Amutinov, and in February 2006 he acquitted Magomed Salikhov, accused of involvement in the apartment bombing in Buynaksk on September 4, 1999, that killed some 60 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 3, 2006 and May 15, 2007.) LF

The Ossetian jamaat Kataib al Khoul claimed responsibility on December 12 in a statement posted on the website for the shooting in Moscow on December 9 of two Ossetians engaged in drug dealing and gambling. The statement claimed this was the third such execution the jamaat has carried out in Moscow. The website on December 10 reported the shooting in Moscow the previous day, but identified one of the victims as a native of North Ossetia and the second as from Abkhazia. LF

Armenia's two largest privately-owned TV stations, Armenia TV and H2, rejected on December 11 the conclusions, unveiled the previous day, of monitoring conducted by the Yerevan Press Club of media coverage of the ongoing preparations for the presidential election to be held on February 19, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Yerevan Press Club Chairman Boris Navasardian said that Armenian Public Television and six privately owned TV stations have given overwhelmingly positive coverage of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, and primarily negative coverage of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2007). Sarkisian is backed by the majority Republican Party of Armenia and by outgoing President Robert Kocharian; Ter-Petrossian is regarded as his main challenger. Armenia TV news chief Gagik Mkrtchian argued that "if the prime minister is going a good job...we must cover his activities," and denied any bias against Ter-Petrossian. Officials at Armenian Public Television and Radio declined to comment on the Yerevan Press Club findings. LF

Continuing on December 11 his campaign to win reelection, outgoing President Saakashvili promised the predominantly Azerbaijani population of Bolnisi, southeast of Tbilisi, that he will transform the eponymous regional center into a "European city," Caucasus Press reported. He further assured the Azerbaijani population of neighboring Marneuli Raion the teaching of Georgian in the district's schools will be improved to help its residents integrate more easily into Georgian society, according to on December 12. Also on December 11, Saakashvili said he urges the government to repay unpaid debts for gas and electricity incurred by internally displaced persons. The Azerbaijani online daily quoted the Right Wing opposition Georgian parliament faction as calculating that to date Saakashvili has made election campaign promises to the tune of 11 billion laris ($6.8 billion). The draft budget for 2008 envisages maximum revenues of 5.8 billion laris, according to Caucasus Press on October 25. On December 10, Caucasus Press quoted Saakashvili's Netherlands-born wife Sandra Roelofs as having told a Dutch television channel that Georgia will be "doomed" if voters fail to reelect her husband. LF

Lado Gurgenidze met in Tbilisi on December 11 with bankers and businessmen to solicit voluntary contributions toward the start-up capital of 300 million laris needed in order to launch by the spring of 2008 a bank that would make available long-term low-interest loans to people wishing to open their own business, Caucasus Press and reported. Gurgenidze said the loan program would help to kick start the economy, create jobs, and boost exports. LF

Members of Georgia's Central Election Commission from the opposition Conservative and Tavisupleba (Liberty) parties told journalists on December 11 they believe the authorities may have deliberately overstated the number of registered voters in order to rig the outcome of the January 5 presidential election, reported. They pointed out that the figure of 3.37 million voters cited by the Central Election Commission is 700,000 higher than the number of registered voters in 2004. Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili rejected the opposition concern as "unserious" and "groundless." On November 24, Justice Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili assured then President Saakashvili that the revised voter lists are accurate to a 1 percent margin of error, reported. LF

The Central Election Commission has registered seven candidates for the preterm presidential ballot on January 5, Georgian media reported on December 11. They are outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili; Levan Gachechiladze, who is backed by the nine-party opposition National Council; oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili; David Gamkrelidze (New Rightists); Shalva Natelashvili (Labor Party); Gia Maisashvili (Party of the Future); and Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia (Imedi). Registration applications by five other would-be candidates -- former Interior Ministry troops commander Giorgi Shervashidze, lawyer Kartlos Gharibashvili, former Communist Party of Georgia head Avtandil Margiani, Archil Ioseliani, and Shalva Kuprashvili -- were rejected on the grounds that they failed to submit the required minimum 50,000 signatures in their support, reported on December 9. Gharibashvili, Margiani, and Ioseliani have all filed suit against the Central Election Commission in the Tbilisi City Court challenging their rejection, according to Caucasus Press on December 11. LF

A delegation from the U.S. Department of Energy has visited Kazakhstan with the task, among others, of inspecting border security in the western Mangistau region, according to an unnamed official of the Kazakh state Customs Control Committee, Kazakhstan Today reported on December 11. The U.S. team inspected the region's border security system in order to prepare a needs-assessment report before providing assistance to combat the exchange of "nuclear and other radioactive materials at specific border checkpoints." The assistance will also include "the installation of radiation control systems along the Kazakh border." RG

Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov on December 11 attended a ceremony marking the completion of the construction of the first stage of a natural gas processing plant in the western region of Aktobe, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. The Chinese-based CNPC-Aktobemunaygaz oil company began construction of the Zhanazhol plant in May. The first stage has an annual capacity of 2.2 billion cubic meters of gas; once completed, the plant will have an estimated total annual capacity of processing and producing 6 billion cubic meters of natural gas. The second stage of the plant is expected to be completed by the end of 2008, with all construction slated to end in 2010. RG

Three activists from the Kyrgyz opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party were assaulted on December 11 in the southern Osh region at the party's regional offices, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The unknown assailants injured Abdulnasir Juraev, the deputy head of the office, and two associates, AKIpress reported. The attackers also damaged the office and destroyed party literature, leaflets, and banners. RG

Officials of the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission reported on December 11 that 500 international observers are expected to monitor the December 16 parliamentary election, ITAR-TASS reported. The commission said that the observers included delegates from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and other observers from several international groups and local nongovernmental organizations. The commission also noted that the final number may be greater than 500, as more observers are still permitted to register by the December 12 deadline. RG

An unnamed spokesman for the Tajik state border guards announced on December 11 that 10 armed Afghans were arrested while attempting to enter Tajikistan, ITAR-TASS reported. The spokesman added that one Afghan was killed during a confrontation in the Shuroobod sector of the Tajik-Afghan border late on December 10. In another incident earlier in December, Tajik border guards seized a group of smugglers trying to cross into Tajikistan from Afghanistan. The border area is a main drug-trafficking route, where Tajik border guards have seized a total of 1.5 tons of drugs since the beginning of the year. RG

Several days of negotiations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over the price of natural gas broke down on December 11 after the two sides failed to reach an agreement on the price of Tajik gas imports, Asia-Plus reported. The talks in Tashkent were held by officials from Tajikistan's state Tojikgaz company and Uzbekistan's state Uzbektransgaz group. The talks broke down over Uzbekistan's demand to raise prices for Tajik gas imports from the current level of $100 to $185 per 1,000 cubic meters. Tajikistan is planning to import about 1 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Uzbekistan in 2008. RG

In comments to reporters in Ashgabat, OSCE Secretary-General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut on December 10 praised the organization's ties with Turkmenistan, and stressed that the OSCE is interested in a constructive dialogue with the country, ITAR-TASS reported. In a meeting with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Perrin de Brichambaut stated that the OSCE "expects fruitful cooperation with Turkmenistan" and welcomes Turkmenistan's openness to "constructive cooperation." RG

A Minsk district court on December 11 sentenced several activists for organizing or participating in an unsanctioned rally on December 10 against the presidential decree restricting the activities of small businesses (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2007), Belapan reported. The court sentenced activists Viktar Harbachou and Viktar Kryval to 15 days in jail for organizing the rally, and Viktar Kaley and Alyaksandr Tsatsura received 10 days -- the former for organizing the rally and the latter for alleged foul language in a public place. Alyaksandr Makayeu was sentenced to seven days in jail for obscenities in a public place. Kryval, Kaley, Tsatsura, and Makayeu were among those who earlier applied to Minsk city authorities for permission to hold the rally. The same day, a court also sentenced Viktar Ivashkevich, deputy head of the Belarusian Popular Front (BNF), to 15 days in jail for obscene language, and young opposition activists Barys Haretski and Krystsina Shatsikava for participating in an unsanctioned rally to seven days in jail and to a 700,000-ruble ($325) fine, respectively. AM

Aleh Shabetnik, an associate of the December 10 protest organizers, told Belapan on December 11 that any talks with the authorities are out of the question unless the imprisoned activists are released. Lawmaker Anatol Paulovich, chairman of the Committee on Industry, Fuel and Energy Complex, Transportation, Communications, and Enterprise in the Belarusian legislature, met on December 10 with protesters and pledged that government officials would meet with small-business representatives on December 19 to discuss their demands. Paulovich said that neither the Belarusian legislature nor the cabinet has the authority to abolish the presidential decree that, starting on January 1, bars small-business owners from hiring employees other than three family members. "The edict has been signed, it is in effect," Paulovich added. AM

The U.S. State Department on December 10 presented U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart with the 2007 Diplomacy for Freedom Award, it announced on its website. "Ambassador Stewart inspired her entire embassy to provide encouragement to embattled defenders of freedom," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, adding that the "Belarus regime has stepped up persecution of the opposition and ordinary citizens pressing peacefully for change." Stewart "has ensured that U.S. assistance is targeted to democracy initiatives, and she has found innovative ways to bring the message of U.S. support for freedom directly to the people of Belarus," Rice said in presenting the award. AM

President Viktor Yushchenko attended the December 11 session of the Verkhovna Rada and presented Yulia Tymoshenko as his nominee for prime minister, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko also proposed Yuriy Yekhanurov for the post of defense minister and Volodymyr Ohryzko as foreign minister. Yekhanurov was prime minister from September 2005 to August 2006. Ohryzko previously served as first deputy foreign minister. Yushchenko congratulated lawmakers on overcoming the political crisis, describing it as "our common victory" obtained in a "peaceful, fair, and lawful manner." AM

Exactly half of the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada voted on December 11 in favor of approving Tymoshenko, leader of the bloc bearing her name (BYuT), as prime minister, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The voting was attended only by the coalition parliamentarians of the BYuT and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS). According to the BYuT and NUNS, the voting cards of two coalition lawmakers did not function properly due to a problem with the parliament's electronic voting system. During the repeat voting, one card reportedly did not function and Vladyslav Lukyanov of the Party of Regions prevented speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk from casting his vote. The Ukrainian Security Service intends to investigate the incident and the operation of the voting system. Yatsenyuk announced that the Verkhovna Rada will continue its session on December 12. AM

Serbia wants the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to assess whether it would be legal for Kosova to become an independent state, Serbian President Boris Tadic said on December 10. A decision to refer the issue to the ICJ, the UN's top court, would rest with the UN Security Council. "If the initiative succeeds, and we have the right to initiate such a process as a UN member, I believe it would be an important argument for the UN Security Council not to move toward accepting the probability of an independent Kosovo, but rather to move toward positions advocated by the state of Serbia," Tadic told Radio-Television Serbia. Serbia can probably count on Russian support. Russia has said a declaration of independence by Kosova would breach international law, and Russia's mediator at talks on Kosova's future, Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko, told Russian media on December 11 that Russia would demand that the UN annul any declaration by Kosova. An appeal to the ICJ could be just one of a range of legal challenges that Serbia would make, Tadic indicated. Countries that back Kosova's independence could face cases in their own domestic courts, he said. Tadic used the interview both to underscore Serbia's commitment to do "absolutely everything" to prevent independence for Kosova, and to urge Serbs to avoid violence. "We should do everything to prevent Kosovo's independence, we should do everything to gain allies in the process, because that is the only way for us to defend our interests before international institutions," Tadic said. "But we must do all of this in a peaceful, well-planned, and well-considered manner." Serbia believes negotiations between Belgrade and Prishtina should continue until a compromise deal is struck. In a new variation on that theme, an adviser to Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, Srdjan Djuric, called on December 10 for the talks to continue at locations within Kosova itself, the Beta news agency reported. AG

Serbia also indicated on December 11 that it will seek to coerce the European Union to turn to the UN for permission to establish a mission in Kosova. "We expect the EU to respect Serbia's position that an EU mission may not deploy on its territory in Kosovo without a new resolution by the UN Security Council," Prime Minister Kostunica said in a statement. Any attempt to bypass the UN would be "unlawful," he asserted. That message is not new, but it was one of a series of combative statements addressed to the EU by Serbian politicians the same day. While President Tadic indicated that recognition of Kosova's independence could trigger challenges in international and national courts, Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic underscored Serbia's rejection of the EU's belief that a decision about Kosova's future now rests chiefly with EU states. "That process belongs to the UN Security Council and all member countries of the United Nations, but in no way the European Union," international media quoted Djelic as saying. Reuters also quoted him as saying that "the EU is not a state" and therefore should not be "part of the Kosovo process." Serbian politicians appeared anxious to leverage the EU's wish to bring Serbia into its fold. "Whoever wants Serbia as a partner must know that Serbia accepts the partnership as a whole, and not a divided country," Kostunica said. But Djelic made clear that Serbia wants to join the EU. "We must ask ourselves what is in Serbia's national interest -- and EU integration certainly is," international media quoted him as saying. He too, though, fired a shot across the EU's bows when he spoke of the EU's precondition for closer talks, the capture of the Bosnian Serbs' wartime commander, Ratko Mladic. "It is possible to imagine a different government in Serbia, which will not cooperate with the tribunal at all," he said. That warning plays on EU concerns that a Serbia humiliated by the loss of Kosova could lurch toward more extreme forms of nationalism, isolating itself from the EU and reneging on commitments to cooperate to bring war criminals to justice. AG

In a move designed to demonstrate Serbia's determination to influence events within Kosova, its ministry for Kosovar affairs on December 10 opened a representative office in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica. Minister Slobodan Samardzic told reporters that, by opening the office, "Serbia is defending her territory, the right of its people to live within her borders, and international law." Samardzic described the office as a new center for Serbian institutions in Kosova, an indication that Belgrade is preparing to establish parallel political structures within Kosova. According to Kontakt Plus Radio, Samardzic promised ethnic Serbs that if Kosova declares independence, "there would be institutional parallelism throughout the province." However, in keeping with official policy, Samardzic ruled out the notion of partition. According to the Serbian broadcaster B92, the move was immediately criticized by the deputy head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), Steven Schook, who said it contravened the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which mandated the UN to administer Kosova following its 1998-99 conflict. It also breached commitments that Serbia gave to international mediators in talks that formally ended on December 10, Schook declared. The Kosovar Albanian daily "Zeri" reported on December 11 that Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu has urged the UNMIK to take concrete action, by closing the office. The paper also said the UNMIK has asked UN headquarters how it should respond to Serbia's step. As well as being a politically sensitive move, the opening of the office also has security implications as Mitrovica is arguably the largest potential flashpoint for ethnic violence in Kosova. AG

In her final speech to the UN in her capacity as the chief prosecutor at the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte assailed Serbia for its failure to cooperate fully to bring suspected war criminals to justice and called once more on the EU not to forge closer ties with Serbia until it captures the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leaders, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. In a speech devoted entirely to the failings in Serbia's cooperation with the UN court, Del Ponte said she is leaving her post with a "feeling of disappointment" because of "commitments that were not honored." Mladic's and Karadzic's continued evasion of justice is, she argued, a "stain on the international tribunal's work" and "undermines the very idea of international justice." During her tenure, Serbia has transferred many indictees to The Hague, but Del Ponte pointed out that "most of them" surrendered voluntarily. Instead, Serbia should be judged by its efforts to bring those accused of the most "heinous" crimes to justice: Mladic and Karadzic. Both Mladic and Karadzic "have repeatedly been sighted in recent years in Serbia," she said, but the Serbian government chose to negotiate with Mladic in 2006 rather than arrest him, another war crimes indictee, Goran Hodzic, "was assisted in his escape in 2004," and the Serbian authorities had failed to take action when Karadzic was in Belgrade in 2004. Some Serbian officials have worked "hard," she said, but the capture of Mladic and Karadzic requires the "full commitment" of the state -- and Belgrade has shown "that level of commitment only in words, not in deeds." Despite Serbia's declared commitment to cooperate with the ICTY, "there is no clear road map, no clear plan in the search for fugitives, no serious leads, and no sign that serious efforts have been taken to arrest the fugitives," Del Ponte said. Serbia's "slow and inefficient" steps "definitely do not match the urgency of the moment," she declared. Those comments -- and comments made on previous occasions -- made clear that Del Ponte believes there is a lack of political will in Serbia, but she did not attack specific Serbian leaders and she reserved her most specific criticisms for Serbia's security services. The "serious deficiencies" of the intelligence services included a lack of cooperation between agencies, a lack of strategy or "proper analysis," a failure to act on, check, and process information, the failure to provide "full and comprehensive reports," and unsystematic, poorly prepared and uncoordinated actions. "Important operational decisions are not implemented or are implemented too slowly or postponed indefinitely, for reasons which are not always clear," she said. In one specific example, "the Serbian authorities refused to conduct even the most basic investigative procedures, such as conducting a search of the residence of a relative of a fugitive out of concern for political repercussions." Overall, Serbia's cooperation was undermined by "serious structural deficiencies" and a "willful obstruction of cooperation." AG

Del Ponte acknowledged that communication within Serbian agencies has improved in the past half-year and that "some of the remaining issues" relating to access to documents and archives have been resolved. However, she said that the "cautious optimism" she felt six months ago -- following the formation of a new government and its "significant role" in the arrest of two fugitives, Zdravko Tolimir and Vlastimir Djordjevic -- has "waned considerably" because "there has been too little progress and commitment on the issue of fugitives and too few concrete steps have been taken to arrest them." Overall, the net situation is the same as it was. "Two years ago, I told this council [the UN Security Council] that the Serbian government had raised expectations that Ratko Mladic would be arrested soon. However, despite its declared commitments, I reported that Serbia failed to take action to arrest and transfer the fugitives and described the shortcomings in the plans to search for fugitives. Today, the situation remains exactly the same," she said. AG

Del Ponte concluded her damning speech to the UN by renewing her call to EU member states "to maintain their principled position by insisting on Serbia's full cooperation with the international tribunal as a condition in the EU preaccession and accession process." She continued, "Let me be clear: full cooperation with the international tribunal signifies the arrest and transfer of Ratko Mladic." In November, Serbia took its first major step towards EU membership by initialing a Stabilization and Association Agreement, but the agreement still needs to be formalized (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2007). "EU conditionality has in recent years been the most effective tool to obtain the transfer of ICTY fugitives," Del Ponte said. "I am convinced that the arrest of the remaining four fugitives will only be achieved if this policy is upheld." Asked why she placed greater emphasis on capturing Mladic, the news service Balkan Insight quoted Del Ponte as replying: "Because I know where Mladic is, and I know that Serbia can give me Mladic. But Karadzic -- I don't know in which country of the region he is hiding. I know he is in the region, but I could not tell you if it is in a monastery in Montenegro, or in the Republika Srpska, or in Serbia, or in an apartment in Serbia." Mladic, by contrast, "is in the immediate reach of Belgrade." AG

The Bosnian authorities on December 7 suspended four serving members of state agencies suspected of involvement in war crimes. The most senior official suspended was the deputy head of the border police, Vahid Alagic, who is facing investigation for the murder of 48 ethnic-Serbian civilians near the southern town of Konjic. The security service suspended two of its officers -- Zijo Landzo and Faik Spago -- for the same crime, and another officer, Milenko Tepavcevic, because he is being investigated for his suspected role in the slaughter of 37 Bosnian Muslim civilians in Sarajevo. The same day, a former police commander, Vinko Kondic, was arrested and faces charges of crimes committed during the war against Bosnian Muslim and Croat civilians in Kljuc, and a guard at a wartime prison camp at Semizovac, Mladen Milanovic, was charged with torturing Bosnian Muslim and Croat civilians. A day earlier, on December 6, Bosnia's new war crimes prosecutor, David Schwendiman, signaled that new indictments are likely to be issued soon against men suspected of involvement in the Srebrenica massacre. Bosnian Muslims who live in the Srebrenica region have repeatedly complained that they regularly encounter officials who were involved in the massacre (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, June 20, and July 11, 2007). Shortly after his appointment, Schwendiman promised to bring more of Bosnia's many suspected war criminals to justice. His office says that 16,150 people may have committed crimes during the war (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2007). AG

Macedonia is willing to enter direct talks with Greece about its name, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said on December 10. "As two neighboring countries, we should sit and talk through whatever the problem is," AP quoted Gruevski saying. "It's not good for Macedonia and Greece to communicate through institutions of the European Union and NATO and also through the media," as is currently the case. Gruevski's statement followed visits to Skopje and Athens by Matthew Nimetz, a UN-appointed mediator who is trying to end the 16-year dispute between the two countries about Macedonia's name (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 6, and December 5, 2007). Gruevski gave no indication, however, that Macedonia is prepared to change its official position. It says it is willing for Greece to use a different name for Macedonia in bilateral relations, but believes other countries should be allowed -- as most already do -- to employ Macedonia's constitutional name, "the Republic of Macedonia." Greece has threatened to veto Macedonia's bid for NATO and EU membership if it does not change its stance. That prospect, and concern about security in the region as the dispute over Kosova reaches a climax, has led to what Nimetz recently referred to as "heightened interest" within the international community in finding a solution. AG


Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said on December 11 that the key town of Musa Qala in southern Helmand Province is in the hands of NATO and Afghan forces, who are strengthening their positions and continuing cleanup operations, Bakhtar News Agency reported. Azimi said the next two days will be crucial to completely secure Musa Qala and restore services for its residents. Separately, President Hamid Karzai reportedly said the decision to enter Musa Qala -- the most significant territory controlled by the Taliban -- followed reports of "brutality there by the Taliban, al-Qaeda and foreign fighters." "The successful attack was aided by some local Taliban leaders switching allegiance to the government," Karzai said. A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said militant fighters left Musa Qala because of a strategic decision to avoid Taliban and civilian casualties. MM

The Afghan Interior Ministry said in a statement on December 10 that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan Army launched operations in the Taliban-controlled Panjwai district in Kandahar Province on December 8, killing at least 31 Taliban insurgents, Afghan and international media reported. The offensive in Panjwai coincides with the operations in neighboring Helmand Province to clear the center of Musa Qala of Taliban and possibly Al-Qaeda militants. The Interior Ministry said that "the operation will continue until the elimination of militants from the area." Separately in Kandahar Province, Afghan forces detained three Taliban insurgents and secured a weapons cache during combat operations on December 9. MM

Canadian CTV and Afghan media reported on December 11 that Canada is stepping up its efforts to train and equip the Afghan police force in some of the country's most hostile territories. According to the reports, the Canadian efforts are promoting what the military calls a "spiderweb" of small but well-connected Afghan Army and police substations. The Canadian forces hope to be able to redeploy to other trouble spots once the Afghan police are prepared to maintain security in their areas, CTV reported. Major Louis Lapointe, the commander of training for Canadian troops in Afghanistan, said that "from our side, we're trying to give them the skills to survive.... But to do that, they need weapons and proper training." Lapointe noted that it is difficult even to keep the police outposts supplied with basic necessities such as food and heating fuel. MM

President Karzai on December 6 signed legislation allowing for the establishment of an independent law association, the Afghan Bar Association, news website reported on December 10, citing a statement by the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI). Mark Ellis, the International Bar Association's executive director, said the Afghan Bar Association "will ensure that a competent, honest, and independent legal profession will help steer Afghanistan into a peaceful future." He noted that "IBAHRI has worked closely with the Afghan Ministry of Justice for the last three years to establish the basis of a nonpolitical, independent association which will both protect and advance the legal profession and also promote the rule of law in Afghanistan." The Afghan Bar Association is expected to have responsibilities including determining the eligibility of lawyers for admission to the profession, and setting the standards of professional ethics, discipline, legal aid, and continuing education for lawyers, according to its charter. MM

Judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi said in Tehran on December 11 that some 20-24 students and others are in detention for allegedly disrupting the public peace in recent months, agencies reported. Jamshidi spoke in the wake of recent demonstrations by Tehran students (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10, 2007). He said five people were arrested during the most recent gathering, probably referring to demonstrations on December 9, though he said only one was a student, AFP reported. A visiting delegation from the European Parliament has meanwhile called on Iran to release detained students and trade unionists, ISNA reported on December 10. The 11-member delegation met with Iranian lawmakers that day to discuss current affairs and human rights. Delegation head Angelika Beer, speaking alongside Mahmud Mohammadi, a member of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said the delegation believes 27 students have been arrested in Iran in December alone, and that their families do not know where they are. She said her delegation asked the Iranian authorities to release the students, as well as several prominent trade unionists; she also called for a reprieve for Adnan Hasanpur, a Kurdish journalist apparently awaiting execution on security-related charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 12, 2007). VS

A branch of Iran's Supreme Court on December 10 overturned an earlier verdict in the case of the 2003 death of photojournalist Zahra Kazemi while in custody, "Etemad" reported on December 11, quoting Abdolfattah Soltani, a lawyer for Kazemi's mother (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 29, 2007). Soltani told ISNA the case is to be reinvestigated at the Tehran provincial court. He said a department of the Supreme Court has acknowledged the flaws that he and other lawyers observed in the investigation following Kazemi's death, and decided that the Tehran provincial penal court, with a panel of five judges, should investigate the case. The first court failed to find anyone guilty for Kazemi's death, and acquitted an intelligence ministry agent of charges of accidental manslaughter for lack of evidence. Kazemi is suspected to have died as a result of violence during interrogation either at the hands of intelligence ministry or judiciary agents, though neither body has accepted responsibility. Branch 15 of the Iranian Supreme Court, which has overturned the initial ruling, began examining the case on July 2, "Etemad" reported. VS

Ali Nikunesbati, a student activist and a member of the nationwide grouping Office to Consolidate Unity (DTV), was released from Tehran's Evin prison while awaiting a ruling on December 10, ISNA reported. He was arrested on November 8 for allegedly disrupting the public peace, ISNA reported. A court ordered his release after an unnamed guarantor or guardian left a written pledge, ISNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 9, 2007). Separately, the Tehran Revolutionary Court is scheduled to try activist Yaqub Ali on December 16 on charges of acting against national security through antigovernment propaganda, ISNA reported on December 10. His lawyer, Nasrin Sotudeh, said she has studied his case and found no evidence for the charge. VS

Kazem Darabi, who was jailed in Germany after being convicted of complicity in the murders of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents at a Berlin restaurant in 1992, returned to Tehran on December 11 after the German authorities released him, Radio Farda reported. Darabi insisted upon arrival that he was not a member of any "group or formation" at the time of the killing and was unjustly jailed. He said he intends to write a book in German that will make unspecified revelations about Germany's judiciary. He was greeted at the airport by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for European Affairs Ali Baqeri. Baqeri told the press Darabi is innocent, and lamented that he had been separated from his family for several years. Darabi said he was jailed in 1997 in connection with the murders because Germany suspected him of being an Iranian intelligence agent, which he implied was untrue. The German court concluded the "terrorists" had consulted at Darabi's house before the crime, Radio Farda stated on December 11. Another man jailed in connection with the killings, Abbas Rahil, has also been released, according to agency reports on December 10. VS

Iranian Deputy Minister for Arab and African Affairs Mohammad Reza Baqeri on December 10 said that the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) invitation to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to attend its recent summit showed the importance the council places on Iran's role "in determining the fate of the region," "Iran" reported on December 11, quoting Baqeri's remarks to the Iranian Arabic-language television channel Al-Alam. Some reformist papers in Tehran have questioned the usefulness of Ahmadinejad's visit, while one lawmaker asked why Ahmadinejad went when he apparently was not invited (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2007). Baqeri said clearly the "active presence" of "this large, powerful, and kindly neighbor" among its "little neighbors" was encouraging to them, and that Ahmadinejad's 12-point proposals on regional cooperation "were very much a source of satisfaction." He blamed former colonial powers for sowing the seeds of discord among countries in the region with the border delineations established early in the 20th century. He dismissed reports that Iran is disputing the ownership of three Persian Gulf islands with the United Arab Emirates, and said "the issue is a misunderstanding over one island, which can be resolved through talks." He said counties in the region must assure the security of the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, "Iran" reported. VS

Three car bombs exploded about six minutes apart in the Shi'ite city of Al-Amarah in Maysan Governorate on December 12, international media reported. Initial reports put the death toll at 40, with more than 100 injured. The first bomb detonated in a parking garage at around 10 a.m. A second bomb-laden car parked some 50 meters away exploded as crowds of people gathered to examine damage from the first attack. A third bomb then exploded outside a movie theater another 50 meters away. Al-Amarah is located some 265 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, close to the Iranian border. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has formed a so-called support council in the city of Samarra which will assume responsibility for maintaining security there, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced on December 11. Members of the council include tribal leaders and city residents. The Golden Mosque, which houses the shrines of Shi'ite imams Ali al-Naqi and his son, Hasan al-Askari, is located in Samarra. An insurgent bombing badly damaged the mosque last year, sparking more than a year of unprecedented sectarian violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). The mosque was bombed for a second time in June 2007. After the second attack, UNESCO announced that the UN Development Group's Iraq Trust Fund will donate $5.4 million to rebuild the mosque complex, while the Iraqi government has pledged $3 million to the project. Al-Dabbagh said the new support council will work to keep armed groups from infiltrating the city, and provide an atmosphere conducive to the rebuilding of the mosque complex. KR

A suicide car bomber on December 11detonated explosives on a street in western Baghdad that houses several politicians' offices and homes, Iraqi media reported. Two guards were killed in the attack and 12 people injured. Al-Arabiyah television reported that bomb went off at a crossroad between the headquarters of the Sunni-led Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, led by Salih al-Mutlaq, and the headquarters of the Shi'ite-Sunni grouping Iraqi National List, which is headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Maryam al-Rayyis, a former adviser to Prime Minister al-Maliki, also lives on the street. Allawi's aides claimed the attack targeted the former prime minister. Neither Allawi nor al-Mutlaq was in Iraq at the time of the attack. KR

A police source in Ninawah Governorate has said that police obtained intelligence suggesting 250 insurgents have entered the governorate to carry out attacks, including a planned bombing of Mosul Dam, Al-Sharqiyah television reported December 11. The police source said the intelligence information came from the Interior Ministry, adding that the insurgents obtained special underwater training outside Iraq in preparation for the attack. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in an October report that the dam is in imminent danger of collapsing. "A catastrophic failure of the Mosul Dam would result in flooding along the Tigris River all the way to Baghdad," the report warned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 1, 2007). Iraqi officials disputed the report. KR

The National Council of Iraqi Tribes has called on the Iraqi government to close the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, according to a statement posted on the Iraqi Islamic Party website on December 12. The statement said tribal leaders from 15 of Iraq's 18 governorates held an extraordinary meeting on December 5 and called for an end to the "terrorist presence" of the Iranian regime in Iraq. The tribesmen also voiced support for the U.K. government's decision to remove the Mujahedin e-Khalq Organization (MKO) from its list of terrorist groups. The MKO is an Iraq-based Iranian organization advocating the overthrow of the Iranian regime, and was supported by Saddam Hussein before the start of the war in 2003. Some 4,000 MKO members were placed in detention by U.S. forces following the fall of the Hussein regime. According to the Islamic Party, a Sunni Arab party headed by Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, some 300,000 citizens "in the southern region" of Iraq condemned "Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs." The tribal leaders also called for Iranian consulates in Iraq to be closed. KR