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Newsline - December 13, 2007

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with the BBC on December 12 that Russia's decision to close all regional offices of the British Council effective January 1 was "retaliation" for several moves by the British authorities in the continuing row over the 2006 murder in London of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). Lavrov said that "the British government undertook some actions which inflicted systemic damage to our relations, so we have to retaliate. This is nothing to do with anti-British sentiments. It's the law of the genre, if you wish." He noted that one of the British moves was "the completely unfounded demand for the extradition of [Andrei] Lugovoi" as a suspect in the Litvinenko affair. Lavrov also charged that Britain "refuses to cooperate with Russia in fighting terrorism." He added that he is "100 percent sure [that the British government knows] how to restore normal relations." Lavrov did not explicitly refer to the expulsion over the Litvinenko affair of four Russian diplomats from Britain in July, which British media suggested prompted the Russian move. British Ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton told Reuters by telephone on December 12 that the Russian decision against the British Council "is a continuation of the exchange of measures which resulted from the Litvinenko murder. Why do the Russian authorities want to do something that their own people will suffer from? What Russia is planning to do is illegal." The BBC reported on December 12 that the British Council intends to reopen all its offices in Russia following the New Year's holiday. Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Alekseyeva said in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service in Moscow on December 12 that the Russian authorities' move "reminds me very much of the sad times when we were behind the Iron Curtain and we weren't allowed to know what was going on the other side. Besides, there is a very unpleasant social aspect to it. It is fashionable with our rich people and our political elite to send their children to study abroad, primarily in Britain, while the British Council gave an opportunity to receive a good education in Britain to people who are not so well-to-do." PM

In London on December 12, a Foreign Office spokesman said that the British Council "is a cultural, not a political institution, and we strongly reject any attempt to link it to Russia's failure to cooperate with our efforts to bring the murderer of...Litvinenko to justice. The Council's activities in Russia are fully compliant both with Russian and international law." Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that the Russian move "is a very serious and illegal measure," British media reported. He added that "the 1963 Vienna Convention on consular relations and the 1994 U.K.-Russia agreement on culture confer legal status on the [British] Council's activities all over Russia." Miliband went on to compare Russian behavior to that of Myanmar and Iran. He said that "it's a very sad fact, but I have to point it out, that there are two countries in which the council is not allowed to operate. That is Burma and Iran. I very much hope that the announcement today from the Russian government does not signal that they are taking steps down that road, because that is deeply unwholesome company in which to be." PM

NATO issued a statement on December 12 condemning Russia's "suspension" earlier that day of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). The statement noted that Russia's move "is particularly disappointing because...[the NATO] allies have worked intensively with other [CFE] partners over the past months to try to resolve the Russian Federation's concerns constructively." The alliance statement said it reserves the right to "take any steps provided for by the treaty and international law," and at the same time said it still wants to "resolve the current impasse and preserve the benefits" of the treaty. In Washington on December 12, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that such unilateral Russian moves damage international efforts for arms control, Reuters reported. He argued that "this 'suspension', which is not provided for under the terms of the CFE Treaty, is the wrong decision." He also noted that "Russia's action is particularly disappointing because the United States and NATO allies have been engaged for the last several months in an intensive dialogue with Russia to address the issues Moscow has raised...[and made] constructive, generous proposals.... We encourage Russia to reverse its decision and to work with us to resolve all outstanding concerns." PM

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington on December 12 that Dmitry Medvedev, whom President Vladimir Putin recently named as his preferred successor, is "of another generation" of Russian leaders, Reuters reported. She added that she has met him several times and considers him "a very intelligent person." Rice noted his efforts to diversify the Russian economy and work "with regions on efforts to wire the country with the Internet." She added that she hopes "the time will come when Russia is going into a presidential election where there is a realistic chance for a really contested election. And I think that, to me, is the biggest problem" with Putin's endorsement of Medvedev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2007). PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov said in an interview with the BBC on December 12 that Russia does not intend to revert to Cold War behavior and "flex its muscles." He argued that "we are doing everything necessary to support our national security, be it bomber patrols or a Russian Navy vessel visit to the Mediterranean" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21 and December 6, 2007). He charged that U.S. "strategic nuclear forces and anti-missile systems are moving into Eastern Europe without any cause" to do so. Lavrov said Russia's resumption of bomber flights does not of itself constitute a return to the Cold War. "We do not threaten anybody. We've got our pride and economic partners," he added. Lavrov charged that "we have the muscles but do not show it. We have closed down our bases in Cuba and in Vietnam while in response, NATO multiplied its bases close to Russia's borders. In other words, we relax our muscles while the other side flexes its muscles." PM

The Japanese Coast Guard said on December 13 that the Russian authorities have seized four Japanese fishing boats off Kunashiri Island, which Russia has held since 1945 but which Japan claims as part of its Northern Territories, the Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported. Officials of the Rausu fishing cooperative, which owns the vessels, said that one ship crossed what Russia claims is its maritime boundary between Kunashiri and Japan's northern island of Hokkaido when the other three boats came to its assistance. The Japanese Foreign Ministry called the seizure "totally unacceptable and very regrettable." Tokyo also demanded the quick release of the fishing boats. The Russian Coast Guard based in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk said that it detained the four boats and 11 crewmen on suspicion of border violations and illegal fishing, Interfax reported. The Russian authorities noted that the four vessels "are not on the list Japan annually submits to Russia for fishing near the South Kuriles under intergovernmental agreements." The Japanese fishing industry charges that Russian patrol ships have for months been harassing or seizing Japanese boats that fished in disputed waters without incident for years. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 18, 2006 and August 7, 2007). PM

The popularity rating of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has increased more than 10 percent in the two days since President Putin tapped him as his preferred successor as president, "Kommersant" reported on December 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11 and 12, 2007). According to a Levada Center poll, 35 percent of Russians are prepared to vote for Medvedev for president, compared to 24 percent in a poll taken in the middle of November. Medvedev continues to receive support from the bureaucracy. Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov told journalists in Khabarovsk that he supports Medvedev for president and endorses his proposal that Putin become prime minister if Medvedev wins the March 2 election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). Aleksandr Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists (RSPP), told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that the business community supports Medvedev and that representatives "will appear in the media and in public." Members of the RSPP control most of Russia's nonstate media. RC

...AS CAMPAIGN CONTINUES TO GEAR UP, citing unidentified presidential administration sources, reported on December 13 that local administrations will be ordered to assign deputy governors to head Medvedev's local election offices, and that they will be required to take administrative leave during the campaign. One source also said the "organizational and human resources" of Gazprom will be mobilized. Medvedev is the chairman of the board of Gazprom, the state natural-gas monopoly. A spokesman for the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi said the organization plans fully to support Medvedev's candidacy. In addition to the four parties that have already pledged to nominate Medvedev -- Unified Russia, A Just Russia, the Agrarian Party, and Civic Force -- two more parties on December 12 said they will back him, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Leaders of the Party of Social Justice and the Party of Peace and Unity said their parties will back Medvedev, and called on the two opposition parties in the Duma -- the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia -- not to field their own candidates. RC

"Izvestia" on December 13 published the timetable of key dates connected with the March 2, 2008, presidential election. By December 18, all independent candidates must file their applications. Candidates nominated by political parties must file by December 23. Candidates must submit all documents to the Central Election Commission by January 16, and independent candidates must submit 2 million signatures by this date. The registration process will be completed by January 27. The campaign period, including media campaigns, begins on February 2. February 25 is the last day that a candidate may officially withdraw from the race or that a party may withdraw its support for a candidate (although under some "extreme circumstances," this deadline may be extended to February 29). Voting will be held on March 2. RC

Deputy presidential administration head Igor Sechin, who is considered the leader of the hard-core chekisty clan within the Kremlin, on December 12 made only his second public appearance in his eight years at the pinnacle of power in Russia, "Kommersant" reported on December 13. Sechin appeared together with Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev at a gathering of widows of security-service veterans. Earlier this summer, Sechin appeared at a board meeting of oil giant Rosneft, of which he is chairman of the board. Sechin told the widows that "everything that has been done, was not done in vain" and pledged state help for them and their families. For his part, Patrushev said Russia has "practically won" the war on terrorism. Political observers have commented that President Putin's endorsement of the relatively liberal First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev to succeed him was a major blow to Sechin's group, and have speculated that he may be losing influence. "Vedomosti" wrote on December 13 that Sechin's public appearance was a move to quash such speculation. RC

A government program to encourage ethnic Russians abroad to settle in Russia has brought just 400 people to the country in the year since it was launched (see "Ethnic Russians Divided On Moscow's Repatriation Scheme,", August 15, 2006), ITAR-TASS reported on December 12. In all, about 35,000 people have inquired about the program, according to Vadim Gustov, head of the Federation Council CIS Affairs Committee. Gustov blamed the slow start on "lack of clarity" concerning the rights of the newcomers and said the law should be reformed so that settlers immediately qualify for the 13 percent individual income tax rather than the 33 percent currently charged. In October, the head of the Federal Migration Service, Konstantin Romodanovsky, blamed the failure of the program on regional administrations. Fourteen regions have refused to participate altogether and Moscow and St. Petersburg have introduced prohibitive restrictions. When the program was created, the goal was to settle 50,000 people in 2007 and 100,000-150,000 in each of the next two years. The federal budget allocated 4.5 billion rubles ($184 million) for the program in 2007. RC

Primorsky krai journalist Yevgeny Sholokh was awarded the Andrei Sakharov Prize for journalism on December 12, RFE/RL and other Russian media reported. Sholokh is a reporter for the Vladivostok-based newspaper "Utro Rossii." The annual award goes to a journalist who writes on controversial topics despite resistance from the authorities, particularly on abuse of authority, corruption, hazing in the military, human-rights violations, and kidnappings in the North Caucasus. Sholokh wrote a series of articles about abuse and torture among marines of the Pacific Fleet that led to several criminal cases. RC

The famous Staraya Tula bakery, which specializes in traditional Russian ginger cakes called pryaniki, refused to make a cake for the 50th birthday of opposition politician and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, "Trud" reported on December 13. The Tula branch of Kasyanov's Russian Popular Democratic Union (RNDS) attempted to order a cake with the inscription, "To Mikhail Kasyanov, the next president of Russia," but the factory rejected the order. The director of the pryanik museum that is part of the factory told the daily, "You don't have the right to make political forecasts." RNDS activist Aleksandr Lesnikov said that when he went to pick up the cake, the inscription was not on it, having been replaced by a picture of a traditional Russian samovar. He refused to accept the cake and his 7,000 rubles ($286) were returned without question. RC

Police in Moscow have arrested an Armenian, Aleksandr Saribekian, in connection with the assassination attempt three months ago on Armenian parliamentarian and businessman Tigran Arzakantsian, Noyan Tapan and reported on December 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2007). Saribekian was identified as a member of a Moscow-based Armenian criminal group that sought to extort $1 million from Arzakantsian. The second participant in the attack on Arzakantsian remains at large. LF

After investigating 372 separate complaints, the Chechen prosecutor's office issued a press release on December 12 concluding that sanitary conditions in almost all Chechen schools do not conform to basic standards, and some are without running water or sanitation, and reported. In addition, due to a shortage of teaching staff, some schools in the Gudermes, Urus-Martan, and Shelkovsky raions cannot teach foreign languages, while others have no teachers of physics, chemistry, history, or geography. Textbooks are in short supply. The prosecutor's office blamed the unsatisfactory situation on the republic's Education Ministry and called for immediate measures to rectify it. LF

Mukhu Aliyev traveled to Moscow on December 12 to discuss with Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika and Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev the recent spate of high-profile killings in Daghestan, including those of former parliamentarian Gazimagomed Magomedov on December 9 and of Supreme Court Judge Kurban Pashayev two days later, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11 and 12, 2007). Also on December 12, police in Makhachkala found the weapon used to kill Pashayev, which was manufactured in Chechnya, reported. Meanwhile, supporters of Bagaudin Gogurchunov, one of two candidates in the runoff ballot for the post of administration head of Kayakent Raion, have complained to police of harassment and intimidation, reported on December 12. The post became vacant after incumbent Murat Shikhsaidov was named agriculture minister in late August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). LF

Senior members of former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir (OY, Law-Based State) party complained on December 12 that privately owned television stations loyal to the government deliberately ignore Baghdasarian's campaign for the presidential election scheduled for February 19, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. OY Deputy Chairman Mher Shahgeldian said Baghdasarian has made only five television appearances since the May parliamentary ballot, and that media ignored his December 11 meeting with the ambassadors of several European countries. LF

Azerbaijan's Economic Development Minister Heidar Babayev and his Italian counterpart Pierluigi Bersani signed a protocol in Baku on December 12 on exports of natural gas from Azerbaijan via Turkey and Greece to Italy, and reported on December 12 and 13, respectively. Turkey, Greece, and Italy initialed an agreement in June on construction of a pipeline network to export Caspian natural gas to Italy; exports of Azerbaijani gas will begin in 2012 at an initial level of 8 billion cubic meters per year. LF

The Imedi television channel, which was ransacked by Interior Ministry special troops during the November 7 opposition protests in Tbilisi and then summarily closed, resumed broadcasting late on December 12, Georgian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13 and 15 and December 4, 2007). International officials exerted pressure on the Georgian leadership to rescind the three-month suspension of the station's license to permit it to cover the campaign for the preterm presidential election scheduled for January 5. Imedi's management is still calculating the financial damage inflicted on its premises and equipment by the Interior Ministry troops. Imedi's director of political programming, Giorgi Targamadze, was quoted by on December 11 as claiming that the Georgian authorities continue to pressure and "terrorize" its journalists and technical staff. LF

A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in New York on December 12 that members of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) have on a daily basis sought to verify repeated allegations by Georgian officials of the deployment of additional Russian troops and heavy weaponry to the Abkhaz conflict zone and parallel Abkhaz claims of a Georgian military buildup in the Kodori Gorge. It has not, however, been possible to confirm "many" of those allegations, the spokesman added without elaborating. The most recent (October 2007) UN Security Council resolution on Abkhazia "strongly urges both parties" to refrain from any acts of violence or provocation and to abide by previous ceasefire agreements. Russia has recently rotated the peacekeeping forces it deploys in the conflict zone under the CIS aegis. In a statement posted on December 11 on the website of de facto President Sergei Bagapsh (, Deputy Defense Minister Garri Kupalba denied that any foreign troops are currently deployed in Abkhazia outside the conflict zone, which extends for 12 kilometers either side of the Inguri River. LF

An unnamed official of the National Security Committee in the southern Ontustik region announced on December 11 that a border-guard detachment confronted a group of smugglers near the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. During a shoot-out with the smugglers, the border guards killed one and arrested two others in the southern Zhambyl region. A fourth smuggler escaped and was believed to have crossed back into Kyrgyzstan. RG

Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced on December 11 that the Kazakh government intends to nationalize "strategic" energy assets, ITAR-TASS reported. Speaking during a meeting of parliamentarians from the ruling Nur-Otan (Light of the Fatherland) party, Karimov said that a coordinated effort to restore state ownership of key energy assets is already under way, noting the purchase of shares in the Bogatyr coal mine in the country's northern Pavlodar region. RG

In an address to the Kazakh parliament in Astana, Culture and Information Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev on December 10 reiterated plans to nationalize the Khabar television station, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He explained that the state intends to carry through its plan to take control of the television channel, which was first announced in May 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). He added that the authorities will buy back all privately held shares in Khabar, in order to increase the state's share from its current 50 percent stake to full ownership. Khabar was originally founded in the mid-1990s by Darigha Nazarbaeva, the eldest daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev. RG

In Bishkek, Salamat Aitikeev, the head of the state-run Kyrgyzgaz energy group, announced on December 12 that negotiations with Uzbekistan failed to yield an agreement on the price of natural-gas imports for next year, AKIpress and ITAR-TASS reported. Aitikeev explained that although Kyrgyzstan is prepared to pay Uzbekistan $130 per 1,000 cubic meters of imported gas, Uzbekistan is seeking an unspecified higher amount that he said is "too high." Over the past three years alone, Uzbekistan imposed significant prices increases, from $42 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters. A similar round of talks between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over the price of natural gas also broke down over Uzbekistan's demand to raise prices from the current level of $100 to $185 per 1,000 cubic meters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). RG

In a statement released in Bishkek, an unidentified spokesman of the Kyrgyz opposition Social Democratic Party on December 12 criticized the decision by the municipal authorities in the Kyrgyz capital to deny the party permission to stage a pubic rally on December 14, ITAR-TASS reported. The demonstration was intended to protest the legal challenge by the Central Election Commission to hold the party responsible for the roughly 20 million soms (nearly $570,000) in costs from the commission's decision to destroy "all ballot papers" that have been prepared for the December 16 parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4 and 11, 2007). RG

Tajik parliamentary press spokesman Muhammadato Sultanov announced on December 12 that the parliament resolved to criminalize "involvement in witchcraft and fortune-telling," ITAR-TASS reported. Speaking to reporters in Dushanbe, Sultanov said the rationale for that decision was to provide "the efficient protection of human rights from various kinds of charlatans, who have crowded the public places, underground walkways, bazaars, and parks." RG

Tajik Culture Ministry spokesman Gulmahamad Davlatov said on December 12 that the ongoing process of re-registering the country's print media, as well as publishing houses and printers, will end by December 31, Asia-Plus reported. According to Davlatov, the ministry has officially registered 81 newspapers, 22 magazines, two news agencies, 15 publishing houses, and 60 printing houses. He also said that "more than 50 percent" of the country's newspapers, magazines, and news agencies have yet to complete the re-registration process, and warned that they will be subject to suspension if they fail to be registered by the deadline. RG

U.S. Representative Alcee Hastings (Democrat, Florida), chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission), has condemned the beating of youth activist Zmitser Fedaruk, who was knocked unconscious during a clash with riot police following a demonstration in Minsk's central square ahead of the December 13-14 visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on December 12. Fedaruk, 19, was taken to the hospital, where he regained consciousness but was not able to talk or respond to questions. "The merciless beating of Fedaruk is both outrageous and tragic," Hastings said in a statement. He noted that last week Fedaruk addressed the Helsinki Commission in Washington and talked about the threats opposition activists face in Belarus. Hastings said he not only supports Fedaruk's struggle for freedom, but also strongly condemns acts of violence against innocent people. "Unfortunately, the intimidation and abuse by [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka's regime does not seem to be coming to an end anytime soon," he added. Nearly 100 opposition activists gathered on December 12 in downtown Minsk to demonstrate against the possible threat to Belarus's independence represented by Putin's visit. Protesters waved white-red-white flags -- the official symbol of independent Belarus before Lukashenka became president in 1994 and banned the flag the following year -- and shouted, "Long live Belarus" and "No to alliances with imperial Russia." AM

President Viktor Yushchenko on December 12 resubmitted to the Verkhovna Rada his nomination of Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the parliamentary bloc bearing her name (BYuT), as prime minister, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The coalition of the BYuT and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense (NUNS) bloc failed to approve Tymoshenko on December 11, allegedly due to a glitch in the parliament's electronic voting system. The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), which investigated the system's operation, did not find any external interference into its functioning. The BYuT and NUNS factions planned to vote for Tymoshenko's approval on December 12 by casting paper ballots, but the Party of Regions blocked the rostrum and the parliament session was unable to begin. The Party of Regions demands that the Verkhovna Rada first elect its own leadership -- first deputy and deputy speakers -- before approving the nominee for prime minister. AM

Viktor Yanukovych, the outgoing prime minister and leader of the Party of Regions, has said that hopes for stability in Ukraine are misplaced, Interfax reported on December 12. The December 11 "events in the Verkhovna Rada revealed the obvious lack of viability of a [BYUT/NUNS] coalition of 227 lawmakers," Yanukovych said. "Society should receive an answer to the question of whether a coalition of 227 is capable of taking responsibility for the country," he continued. "Either they take responsibility and realize their promises to voters...or they must admit that a coalition of 227 cannot work," he added. The proposed coalition has a two-seat majority in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada. AM

The speaker of Serbia's parliament, Oliver Dulic, on December 12 ended months of speculation by calling a presidential election for January 20. The timing of the election -- and of local elections -- had been placed in question by the crisis in Kosova, with some arguing that the elections should be delayed until the future of the nominally Serbian but UN-administered province is determined (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25 and November 5, 2007). The date for local elections remains undecided. Incumbent President Boris Tadic currently appears likely to retain his position, but the relatively liberal Tadic's chances may be affected by developments in Kosova and the undeclared position of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). The DSS is a coalition partner of Tadic's Democratic Party (DS), but its leader, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, is a rival of Tadic. In the hope of limiting the impact of Serbian nationalism on the vote, some in the EU have called on Kosova to delay any declaration of independence until after the Serbian presidential election, which may run to two rounds. A runoff would be held on February 3. AG

Serbia has rejected a number of criticisms leveled at it in a damning report presented to the UN by Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). "Del Ponte's accusation that Serbia is doing nothing to catch them does not stand," Rasim Ljajic, Serbia's minister in charge of coordinating efforts aimed at arresting the two fugitives, told the Serbian broadcaster B92 on December 12. However, he acknowledged that the Serbian authorities "have made mistakes in the manhunt" for Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the wartime leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, and that Serbia has lost track of both men. "We are not on the trail of those fugitives; that's a fact," he said. In her speech, Del Ponte did not accuse Serbia of doing nothing, but said Serbia's "slow and inefficient" steps "definitely do not match the urgency of the moment" and outlined a string of failings. Ljajic did not comment on Del Ponte's critique of "serious structural deficiencies" in Serbia's pursuit of the two men or on her allegations that there has been a "willful obstruction of cooperation." He did, though, address -- and reject -- her allegation that the Serbian authorities in 2006 sought to persuade Mladic to surrender when they knew where he was and could have arrested him. "It is not true that we negotiated," Ljajic said. "One of his protectors gave us signals that it is possible to locate Mladic, but that proved wrong," he said. Ljajic said Mladic was last seen in Belgrade in February 2006, while the last sighting of Karadzic, in Belgrade, was in 2004. An unnamed Serbian security official quoted by the news service Balkan Insight on December 12 said that Mladic "slipped away at some point earlier this year." He said Karadzic is "most likely" in Bosnia-Herzegovina now. On a related note, the deputy high representative of the international community in Bosnia, Raffi Gregorian, told Bosnian media on December 10 that raids on the homes of members of Karadzic's family have revealed evidence that, contrary to their assertions, they have maintained contact with him. AG

Hashim Thaci, one of the top rebel commanders in the Kosovar Albanians' separatist struggle in 1998-99, was mandated on December 11 to form the UN-administered region's new government. The decision by President Fatmir Sejdiu was fully expected, after Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) emerged from the November 17 parliamentary elections with a commanding lead. Thaci had already begun informal talks with potential coalition parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2007). There is no sign that an agreement is imminent. The PDK, which has 37 seats, could form a majority in the 120-seat parliament if it links up with the second-largest party, the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), which has 25 seats. A number of options are also possible if the PDK joins forces with other parties, and the dailies "Zeri" and "Express" on December 12 quoted the head of the UN Mission in Kosova, Joachim Ruecker, as encouraging a broad coalition. "I think it is important to have many segments of the society represented in this government," he said. Kosova's constitution requires ethnic Serbs and other minorities to have seats in government and four ethnic-Serbian parties have expressed their willingness to join the cabinet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4 and 7, 2007). However, one of the PDK's potential ethnic-Serbian partners, the Independent Liberal Party of Serbs led by Slobodan Petkovic, has said it would leave the government and parliament if Kosova were to declare independence unilaterally. Thaci has promised that any move towards independence would be coordinated with the EU and the United States, but the prospect of recognition by the UN Security Council is remote, given Russia's opposition. The results of the local elections also held on November 17 and completed on December 9 have yet to be officially confirmed. Preliminary results suggest another victory for the PDK, but there could be delays to an announcement due to allegations of electoral violations and a strike by vote-counters protesting at the nonpayment of wages. AG

A Bosnian Serb general, Dragomir Milosevic, was sentenced to 33 years in prison for planning and ordering "gross and systematic violations of international humanitarian law" during the siege of Sarajevo, the ICTY announced on December 12. Milosevic, who is no relation to deceased Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, is the second general sentenced for his role in the siege. Milosevic commanded around 18,000 Bosnian Serb troops for the closing 15 of the 44 months of the blockade, from August 1994 to November 1995. His predecessor, Stanislav Galic, was jailed for 20 years in December 2003, but his sentence was increased to life imprisonment on appeal in November 2006. The ICTY has said it may also push for a similarly lengthy punishment for the 65-year-old Milosevic, who was charged specifically with murder, inhumane behavior, and overseeing a campaign of terror. "There was no safe place in Sarajevo," said one of the three judges, Patrick Robinson. "One could be killed and injured anywhere and any time," he said, echoing prosecutors' assertion that "the particular cruelty of the crimes is shown by the fact that these acts were perpetrated against civilians in the perceived safety of their homes, at hospitals, schools, marketplaces, and while commuting to the city or fetching water." Over the course of the siege, some 12,000 people are estimated to have been killed. Around 10,000 of those died in Muslim-held parts of the city. Milosevic's defense team argued that the civilians were caught in crossfire between the warring sides, that the Bosnian Muslims placed military targets in civilian areas, and that many of the incidents were staged by Bosnian Muslim forces to garner international sympathy. However, Robinson said that there is compelling evidence that Bosnian Serb troops targeted civilians, as well as disregarded their safety. It was under Milosevic's leadership, moreover, that the Bosnian Serbs deployed one of the most indiscriminate weapons in their arsenal, a bomb designed for airplanes but fired from ground-to-ground rocket launchers. Among the crimes highlighted by Robinson as evidence of the Bosnian Serb leadership's intent were the shooting -- like "sitting ducks" and "clay pigeons" -- of civilians in "Sniper Alley," a key artery in Sarajevo, and the shelling of Sarajevo's Markale market in August 1995. That incident left 34 dead and scores injured, making it one of the most violent incidents in Bosnia's civil war. Milosevic was indicted in 1998, but emerged from hiding to give himself up only in December 2004. He showed no remorse during the trial or emotion at its conclusion. AG

Statements made by Romanian and Greek ministers on December 11 suggest that claims of "virtual unity" among EU foreign ministers on December 10 were overly optimistic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2007). Romanian and Serbian media quoted Romanian Defense Minister Teodor Melescanu as saying on December 11 that the Romanian parliament would not recognize a "unilateral act, such as [a declaration of] Kosovo's independence." Speaking after meeting his Serbian counterpart, Dragan Sutanovac, in Belgrade, Melescanu condemned any putative declaration of independence as "not in keeping with international law," and warned that it "could have a very negative effect on the entire region." Melescanu also called for a continuation of direct talks. "We do not think that setting a date for the completion of negotiations between Serbians and Kosovars is productive, as after this date we could no longer talk about any other solution except for that of unilateral decisions," Melescanu explained. The Romanian news agency Rompres quoted Foreign Minister Adrian Cioroianu as making similar comments later on December 11. In an assessment closer to Russia's than to that of other EU states, Cioroianu expressed optimism that recent direct talks between Belgrade and Prishtina paved the way for a compromise solution. He credited Serbia for that perceived advance. He also appeared to undercut the EU's attempt to achieve unity and play a decisive role in resolving Kosova's status, insisting that it is up to individual states, not the EU, to decide whether Kosova should be recognized as an independent country. The EU's function, he said, is to provide a forum for discussion -- and so far that discussion has not produced a consensus. His ministerial colleague, Melescanu, said Kosova's future should be decided by the UN Security Council. Romania has long opposed a change to Serbia's borders, with President Traian Basescu saying in September that "Serbia is an independent, sovereign state whose territorial integrity must not be affected" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 6, 2007). AG

"It is still too early to talk of independence for Kosovo or of the possible recognition of its independence," Greece's foreign minister, Dora Bakoyannis, said in an interview with the Serbian daily "Vecernje novosti" published on December 12. "The fact that there was no progress [in direct talks between Serbia and Kosova] does not mean that we cannot arrive at a solution," she said. "Discussion about [Kosova's] status remains open," she insisted. Similarly, Bakoyannis appeared to leave open the possibility of a fresh round of direct talks when she addressed the Greek parliament on December 11. On that occasion, she called for a "period of reflection, so that Belgrade and Pristina evaluate new facts." It is unclear what the "new facts" that she referred to are. Bakoyannis took a less positive view than Romanian Foreign Minister Cioroianu about the recently concluded direct talks between Belgrade and Prishtina, saying that "there is no good or easy solution for Kosovo and no one has proposed one to date." Without explicitly linking Kosova's future and Serbia's EU prospects, Bakoyannis also said Serbia should be given the status of a candidate member of the EU by the end of 2008. Serbia has yet to complete its first step to membership, the signing of a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), though an SAA was provisionally agreed in November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2007). AG

The announcement of President Vladimir Putin's heir apparent was awaited with an anticipation comparable with that which precedes announcement that the king has finally produced a son. When Putin announced on December 10 that he supports First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to succeed him next March, the country's bureaucratic and political elites fell over themselves to be among the first to affirm their loyalty to the newborn prince. But the outward show of unity does not mean the transition problem is resolved.

Putin took some pains to make the anointing seem like a consensus-building process. He met with the leaders of four pro-Kremlin parties, all of which agreed to nominate Medvedev. However, by doing so, he undermined even loyal supporters such as St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko, who was widely quoted the day after the December 2 Duma elections as saying she hoped Unified Russia would nominate its candidate in an open process, taking into consideration the opinions of party members, rather than through some "backroom" negotiations.

The Communists were quick to see through the charade. "What kind of parties are these," Communist official Ivan Melnikov was quoted on December 11 as saying, "if the decision about what candidate to nominate is made at some sort of 'consultative meeting' and not at a party congress, taking into consideration the opinions of party members?"

The "backroom" process compelled pro-Kremlin figures to resort to the most elaborate verbal contortions in order to make the unfolding medieval scenario appear like the next step in Russia's march toward its own form of democracy. "Each of the parties, in its own way, is realizing its political program by supporting a single candidate," A Just Russia official Aleksandr Babkin said on December 11. "And this shows how the political system in Russia is maturing, and we now have the chance to make consolidated decisions, despite our differences."

But the campaign to have Putin named "national leader," calls for some sort of national assembly to confer supreme-leader status on Putin, the primitive cult of personality forming around him, and other features of the current political environment belie any argument that Russia's political system is maturing.

The appearance of a prince does not mean that Russia's perilous managed transition has been completed. In fact, that transition now enters its most dangerous phase. Four political parties have endorsed Medvedev, but political parties -- even the mighty Unified Russia -- have no importance in the political system that has emerged under Putin. It is the votes of Putin and his inner circle of "chekisty" that count, and only time will tell whether Medvedev can overcome any intra-elite resistance he may encounter.

In the early medieval period, it took Russia several centuries to establish the principle of direct royal succession. For generations, the death of a ruler led to brutal, open warfare either between the ruler's children, on the one hand, and his brothers, on the other, or among the ruler's children from different wives. Notably, the deceased ruler's stated preference for an heir rarely did much to prevent these conflicts.

There is already considerable evidence that the powerful "uncles" in Putin's inner circle -- figures such as deputy presidential administration head Igor Sechin, Rostekhnologia head Sergei Chemezov, Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev, and Federal Antinarcotics Service head Viktor Cherkesov -- have been butting heads as the succession issue remained unresolved. At the same time, there is little evidence that they have rallied, or will rally, around the princeling Medvedev, even with Putin's seal of approval.

Complicating Medvedev's task is Putin himself. Although Russia appears to have a new king, the old one is far from dead. In fact, the decidedly uncharismatic Medvedev was almost certainly chosen in part because there is no danger that he could ever overshadow Putin. Putin has said he has no intention of retiring from the political scene and that he expects to wield influence beyond the March 2008 election.

On his first day as prince, Medvedev appeared on television to appeal to Putin to serve as his prime minister if he is elected. With Unified Russia and its constitutional majority in the Duma behind him, to say nothing of Putin-oriented organizations like For Putin! and Nashi, Putin will remain a force with which Medvedev must contend. In addition, Putin has formulated a number of key domestic programs, especially economic-development plans, with a time frame through 2020, meaning that Medvedev will be additionally constrained on the level of policy.

Although this short leash is no doubt intended to mollify the "uncles" and reassure them that this change is really no change at all, it could serve to weaken Medvedev to the point that they feel even more emboldened to attack him. It is widely believed that most of them favored a third term for Putin and that some have been making efforts to compel Putin to stay on. As prime minister, Putin would become acting president if Medvedev resigns or is forced from office.

"Putin will maintain his influence, and while Medvedev is entering into his new role, [Putin] will watch and see how Medvedev manages to build consensus within the elite," analyst Dmitry Badovsky told on December 11. "And then he will decide if Medvedev is succeeding or not. If not, Putin will come back."

Russia also has a time-honored tradition of strong leaders killing off their heirs -- either literally or metaphorically. Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great both killed their own sons. On the other hand, Russian history offers few examples of successful tandem leadership along the lines of the Medvedev-Putin model currently being floated.

Russia's current political transition has moved a step forward with the appearance of an heir. But the drama is far from being played out.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said during a trip to Kuwait on December 11 that increased and lasting economic assistance from global allies would reinforce efforts to create stability and combat extremism in Afghanistan, Bakhtar and international news media reported. Karzai linked peace and stability in Afghanistan "to sustained international support in the campaign against terrorism, and better internal coordination between the Afghan ministries responsible for maintaining security." Karzai met with the amir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, to discuss closer cooperation, regional and international affairs, and enhanced bilateral relations based on confidence-building. Underlining the potential for Kuwaiti investment in Afghanistan, Karzai reiterated that Kabul remains in need of additional economic resources in the fight against extremism with regional and global implications. MM

Afghanistan National Army (ANA) commander Brigadier General Gul Aqa Naibi on December 12 praised the ANA for restoring "freedom and democracy to the people of Musa Qala by removing the Taliban and their foreign fighters," Afghan and international news sources reported. He said the Afghan people should be proud of "the exceptionally brave and professional military action to ensure the rightful authority of government." Afghan forces and troops of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in recent days reclaimed control of Musa Qala, a strategic district in southern Helmand Province, from Taliban militants. But ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Carlos Branco cautioned that "there will continue to be some resistance from Taliban fighters" and some pockets of remaining Taliban control, news agencies reported on December 11. MM

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany held talks by videoconference on December 11 on a new set of sanctions against Iran intended to curb its contested nuclear program, news agencies reported. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington on December 11 that the great powers are examining "new language" in the draft sanctions, and expressed confidence they will vote for a resolution in the coming weeks, dpa reported. The U.S. moves to forge a consensus in favor of sanctions might be set back by the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) published on December 3. The report, reflecting the views of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, downgraded the apparent threat of Iran's nuclear program, concluding that Iran may have halted its suspected development of nuclear weapons in 2003. President George W. Bush on December 12 called on Iran to explain why it apparently had a nuclear weapons program in the first place. "We believe Iran had a secret military weapons program, and Iran must explain...why they had a program," dpa quoted him as saying. VS

At a December 11 press conference in Tehran, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad welcomed the NIE report as a "positive step." He expressed hope there will be "more positive steps" from Washington, "in which case conditions will change and issues will become less complicated," the daily "Etemad-i Melli" reported on December 12. He told journalists to ask those skeptical of the NIE and of recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports on Iran why they are disconcerted by the prospect of reduced tensions between Iran and the United States, "Etemad-i Melli" reported. Ahmadinejad continued, "We have received numerous [requests] from American officials for talks or for travel to Iran, and we are examining them." He added there are no "secret channels" between Iran and the United States, and that Iran is not hiding anything from its own people or other countries. In response to questions on recent personnel changes, including the removal of Iran's education minister, Ahmadinejad maintained that he has a right to reshuffle ministers or officials as he sees fit. But he added that "we have no other resignation [planned]. There is no series of resignations coming." VS

Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, who recently resigned from his post as deputy interior minister for police and security affairs, has been appointed by Iran's supreme leader as a deputy head of the armed forces joint headquarters in charge of Basij affairs, media reported on December 11. The Basij is a nationwide militia affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC); Zolqadr is an IRGC general. Radio Farda reported on December 11 that his appointment to the new role by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei puts an end to recent media speculation on whether Zolqadr resigned or was dismissed, though the broadcaster added that some press reports in Tehran indicated he disagreed with certain government policies. Radio Farda cited the daily "Hamshahri" as reporting on December 8 that an unnamed "outside" official wrote to Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi asking him to dismiss Zolqadr. Zolqadr was a deputy head of the IRGC for 16 years before his appointment as deputy minister in November 2005. He was also a deputy head of the IRGC joint headquarters for eight years. He is one of several Iranian officials subject to UN travel restrictions for his alleged links with Iran's suspected nuclear or ballistic programs, Radio Farda reported. VS

Former Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hasan Rohani on December 11 defended his negotiating team's decisions on Iran's nuclear program in 2003-04, including the temporary suspension of uranium enrichment. He indicated that suspending enrichment activities was in keeping with Iran's abilities and needs at the time, and was not merely a goodwill gesture for the West as Iranian officials have sometimes said, the "Etemad" and "Jam-i Jam" dailies reported on December 12. Rohani said, "suspension was a necessary cover under which [other] technologies could be completed." He said the suspension was intended both to soothe the international environment and allow Iran to complete building infrastructure, including its nuclear plants in Isfahan, Arak, and Natanz. "Natanz wasn't ready then, so how were we going to install 3,000 centrifuges? How many centrifuges do you think we had then? ...I myself told the technical officials...when you are ready for enrichment, you tell us and we shall break the suspension." Rohani also responded to criticism by President Ahmadinejad and his allies that former nuclear officials were compliant with the West. He said Iran suspended enrichment for a while and implemented the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty following agreements among senior officials, and said that move was "everyone's decision." Rohani said that current critics are "ill-informed." He said Iran thwarted a genuine threat of confrontation with the West at the time, adding, "I don't know what some of these people are saying today, making judgments from the sidelines." When Iran suspended its pursuit of enrichment, he said, it did not even have uranium hexafluoride, the gas fed into centrifuges for enrichment. VS

Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Dharar arrived in Tehran on December 11 for talks with Iranian officials, ISNA reported. Iran and Western ally Egypt have had difficult relations since the 1979 revolution in Iran, though these have hesitantly improved in recent years. Dharar met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki and with Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Abbas Araqchi, IRNA reported on December 12. Dharar gave Mottaki a message from Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Ghayt. President Ahmadinejad said in Tehran on December 11 that delegations' visits between the two countries are a prelude to renewed ties, "Iran" reported. Kazem Jalali, a spokesman for the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, also said in Tehran that day that parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel may travel to Egypt in late January 2008 to attend a meeting of parliament speakers from Muslim countries, ISNA reported. He said he hopes the trip will improve bilateral ties. VS

Police shot dead 12 suspected "terrorists" on December 13 in the Iranshahr district of Iran's southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan province, Iranian state television reported. A police official named Ghaffari told state television that police and security forces killed 12 and arrested six "terrorists," who he said belong to the Sunni militant group Jundullah. Ghaffari said Jundullah, which has been involved in bombings and kidnappings in the province, was planning further attacks in the region. He said police also found arms, ammunition, documents, communications devices, and detonators; he added that the documents and "clear confessions" by those arrested indicate they were planning an attack "with foreign help." Ghaffari said the group is working to sow ethnic and sectarian discord in the region. VS

Iraq and Syria have agreed to reactivate an oil pipeline that links Iraq's northern Kirkuk fields to the Syrian town of Banias on the Mediterranean Sea, international media reported on December 13. Iraqi Foreign Minster Hoshyar Zebari made the announcement during a two-day visit to Damascus. "There are tenders offered by a number of companies to open this oil pipeline," Syrian national news agency SANA quoted Zebari as saying. He added that Syrian companies could benefit from investing in Iraq. KR

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on December 12 that it has exceeded its target of 20,000 Iraqi refugee resettlement referrals for 2007. As of December 7, the agency transferred the files of 20,472 of the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees to 16 countries for resettlement consideration, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Ireland, Brazil, Chile, Finland, Norway, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Spain, and Germany. Some 14,798 files were submitted to the United States, the UNHCR said. It named Australia, Canada, Sweden, and New Zealand as the top five receiving countries after the United States, adding that a total of 4,575 Iraqis, or 22 percent of total referred cases, left host countries for resettlement by December 1. The majority of those resettled, 2,376, went to the United States. The UNHCR estimates that there are still between 80,000 and 100,000 "extremely vulnerable" Iraqis in need of resettlement. It concluded that the security situation in Iraq remains unclear, and warned Iraqis in host countries not to return home at this time. KR

The European Commission decided on December 12 to grant 50 million euros ($73.5 million) in humanitarian and structural support for the provision of basic health and education services for Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, the commission's website announced the same day. "The commission will continue to provide assistance in close cooperation with national authorities, EU member states, and other donors -- in particular the UN agencies -- to provide an effective response to the needs of the Iraqi refugees and their host communities," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said. Some 10 million euros will be allocated to provide protection and basic assistance to the most vulnerable refugees through the commission's humanitarian aid department, ECHO, while about 40 million will go to Jordanian and Syrian institutions providing education and health care to refugees. KR

The bodies of 16 people were discovered in a ditch in volatile Diyala Governorate on December 13, international media reported. Police said the victims -- all adult males -- were killed recently. Twelve were beheaded, while the other four were found shot in the head. There appears to be an increase in violence across the country this week, following a lull in violent attacks. Some 41 people were killed and 150 injured in three bomb attacks in the southern city of Al-Amarah on December 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). Two liquor stores were bombed in eastern Baghdad on December 13. Media reports in November indicated some liquor stores in the capital are reopening after closures that lasted two years or more due to attacks and threats by Islamist militias. Police also discovered a car packed with explosives parked near a Shi'ite mosque in the Al-Za'faraniyah district of Baghdad. KR

Five women living in the city of Irbil killed themselves over a recent four-day period, reported on December 11. All of the deaths were the result of self-immolation. Jilamo Abd al-Qadir, who heads a local human rights organization, said the women were between 15 and 30 years old, and reportedly faced "social problems." No further explanation was given. Suicide is widespread throughout the Kurdish regions of Iraq and neighboring states (see "Iran: Self-Immolation Of Kurdish Women Brings Concern,", February 8, 2006), in Muslim societies where it is otherwise uncommon. An estimated 538 women in Iraqi Kurdistan committed suicide in 2006, IRIN reported on March 9. KR