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Newsline - December 14, 2007

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in London on December 13 that Russia's recent decision to close all regional offices of the British Council effective January 1 is "totally unacceptable," British media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12 and 13, 2007). He added that "the British Council does a tremendous job both in Russia and in every part of the world. The British Council deserves to be supported in its activities. I think Foreign Secretary [David Miliband] has said there are only two countries in which this treatment has been meted out against British Council staff, and that's Iran and Burma. It's very important to recognize that the British Council is doing valuable work in Russia that is actually recognized to be so by the Russian people." Brown stressed that "we wish this action to be desisted from immediately. We are making our views known to the Russian government on that part. We want good relationships with Russia and the administration there, but that must be dependent on the Russians dealing with the problems as they arise, and one of them is that they should not be either putting at risk the welfare of the British Council staff or removing the facilities that it offers to the people of Russia." The daily "Kommersant" wrote on December 13 that the latest developments constitute "yet another scandal in Russian-British relations." It noted that the Russian "Foreign Ministry has been crusading for years against the practice of establishing regional branches of the British Council on the premises of consulates" and that its latest decision is "outright political." The daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" also pointed out on December 14 that the dispute is the latest in a series of spats between London and Moscow. The paper suggested that Britain ran afoul of Russian laws and would have done better not to do so. PM

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Brussels on December 13 that Russia's "suspension" of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty is "deplorable," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24, November 8, and December 12 and 13, 2007). In Berlin, German Foreign Ministry State Secretary Gernot Erler of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) told the parliament that "we don't need less, but more CFE," dpa reported. He called the treaty "indispensable." It is rare for Erler or other leading Social Democrats to criticize Russia in public. PM

On December 13, U.S. and Russian delegations "made little progress" in their talks in Budapest on missile defense, the fifth in a series of expert discussions, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10, 2007). U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation John Rood and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak led the talks. Rood said afterward that "we still see the missile threat evolving and that threat, which is real, continues to grow. There are more missiles and [they] are more sophisticated in the hands of countries that we are concerned about, such as North Korea and Iran." He added that "we had a serious discussion on the perception of the missile threat as it is today and how it will develop. This is the most detailed intelligence exchange we've ever had with our Russian colleagues." Rood stressed that the Americans tried once again to convince the Russians that the planned 10 missile interceptors in Poland and radar site in the Czech Republic do not "pose a threat to Russian security. [The system] is not aimed at Russia, and we think it does not have the capability to intercept long-range missile launches from Russia." In response to some European charges that missile defense is unnecessary, Rood noted that Washington recently activated its existing system as a successful deterrent against North Korea without having to engage in verbal clashes with Pyongyang. PM

Hundreds of U.S. and Russian troops on December 14 concluded joint training exercises in Germany called Torgau 2007, which began on December 2 and are aimed at combating global terrorism, AP reported. Lieutenant General Kenneth Hunzeker of the United States and Lieutenant General Vladimir Chirkin of Russia commanded the respective units in Hohenfels, near Weiden, in Bavaria. Hunzeker said that he and Chirkin "talked to our soldiers several times and said, 'this is not about politics. This is about how to work [joint military] operations so that our two nations can do that in the future in the global war on terror.'" He added that "we both strongly believe that this program should expand and that, hopefully, our two nations will see it the same way." Chirkin noted that the missile-defense dispute will be dealt with "mainly by the politicians and not by the military. And though a problem exists, I don't think it will hurt the relationship between Russia and America, especially military relationships." He stressed that it is as important for the two countries to work together against global terrorism as it was to fight together against Nazi Germany in World War II. U.S. and Soviet forces linked up for the first time during that conflict on a bridge in Torgau on the Elbe River in 1945. PM

Atomstroieksport President Sergei Shmatko announced in Moscow on December 13 that his company and the Iranian authorities have resolved a long-standing payments dispute over the Bushehr atomic power plant and will announce a schedule for completion soon, "The New York Times" reported on December 14. The daily noted that "the scheduled completion date is important because the contractor has said it will ship uranium fuel rods to Iran no sooner than six months before the date is set." It is not clear how the financing dispute was resolved. Many foreign observers regarded the dispute as an excuse by Moscow to hold up work on the plant in response to pressure from Western countries. The daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on December 14 that Iran has offered Russia attractive terms for a large-scale gas joint venture. PM

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on December 13 that former Deputy Foreign Minister Yuly Vorontsov died on December 12, at age 79, reported. He was the Soviet ambassador to Afghanistan during the troop withdrawal in 1988-89 and later served as the Soviet and then Russian ambassador to the UN. President Boris Yeltsin named him ambassador to the United States in 1994. PM

President Putin has published a decree ordering the new State Duma to convene on December 24, Russian media reported on December 14. It is widely believed that Putin will personally address the opening session, at which deputies are expected to elect a speaker, deputy speakers, and committee chairs. Putin addressed the opening session of the last Duma on December 29, 2003. Meanwhile, the Central Election Commission has confirmed the mandates of 442 members of the 450-seat lower house. The remaining eight mandates all belong to Unified Russia, but are awaiting final documentation. In all 101 Unified Russia candidates -- including President Putin, cabinet ministers, and regional leaders -- refused their mandates. One exception was Yaroslavl Oblast Governor Anatoly Lisitsyn, who has informed election officials that he has asked to be removed as governor so that he can serve in the Duma, Interfax reported. In the new Duma, Unified Russia will have 315 seats, the Communist Party will have 57, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) 40, and A Just Russia 38. RC

The LDPR on December 13 nominated party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky as the party's candidate in the March 2, 2008, presidential election, Russian media reported on December 14. In his acceptance speech, Zhirinovsky told supporters that the LDPR is the only independent political force in the country and claimed it has always supported democracy and press freedom. He called for "a different Russia" with "open and fair elections." He repeated calls for long-standing LDPR positions, including the reduction of the number of federation subjects and the elimination of the Federation Council. Former world chess champion and Other Russia leader Garry Kasparov has said that he will not run for president. Kasparov told journalists on December 13 that his supporters have been unable to hold a nominating convention because they were unable to secure a venue in Moscow. The deadline for nominating non-party candidates was December 13. Former Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov told Interfax on December 13 that he will not run for president. He too said that his Republican Party has met with difficulties renting space for party meetings and offices. RC

In addition to the national legislative elections on December 2, eight subjects of the federation held regional legislative polls, "Vremya novostei" reported on December 13. In all eight regions, Unified Russia received substantial majorities, although the party often did worse locally than nationally. The pro-Kremlin party picked up 42 of 48 seats in Mordovia, 74 of 100 in Udmurtia, 60 of 70 seats in Krasnodar Krai, and 31 of 36 seats in Saratov Oblast, the daily reported. RC

Although the option of voting "against all candidates" was eliminated in the December 2 Duma elections and the Other Russia opposition movement was calling on voters to spoil their ballots, the number of spoiled ballots was less than in previous elections, according to official results, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on December 13. Officially, just 1.1 percent of the ballots were registered as spoiled. In 2003, some 4.7 percent of voters voted "against all" and a further 1.6 percent of the ballots were reported as spoiled. Further, in regional elections in March, the percentage of spoiled ballots ranged between 3 and 6 percent. Political analyst Aleksandr Kynev told the daily it is unfathomable that the number of spoiled ballots could be in decline considering that turnout rose, the "against all" option was eliminated, the number of parties was sharply reduced, pressure on voters to vote was increased, the opposition was calling on people to spoil their ballots, and there was a sharp burst of inflation on the eve of the polls. RC

In response to a question from ITAR-TASS, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin on December 13 expressed "outrage" that the second channel of Polish state television interviewed Akhmed Zakayev, prime minister of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, on December 10 in connection with its coverage of International Human Rights Day, reported. Zakayev also gave an interview to the Polish daily "Rzeczpospolita" in which he said he is not afraid that he could be assassinated like his close friend, former KGB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, and journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Kamynin suggested that the favorable media coverage of a man accused of terrorism was intended to reverse the recent warming in Russian-Polish relations. Zakayev was in Poland to participate in an international conference. LF

North Ossetia's Supreme Court passed sentence on December 14 on three men from Ingushetia found guilty of a series of terrorist acts in North Ossetia, the daily "Kommersant" reported on December 14. The three men -- Rustam Tsurov, Umar Khadziyev, and Alikhan Ozdoyev -- were said to have joined in late 2005 a band of militants headed by Abubakar Khamkhoyev and subordinate to radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, and to have perpetrated acts of terrorism in December 2005 and February 2006, the second of which killed three people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 3, 2006). They were apprehended in July 2006 in Vladikavkaz. The three were sentenced to 24, 23, and 18 years' imprisonment, respectively. LF

Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic President Mustafa Batdyyev has issued a decree designating 2008 the Year of Native Languages, reported on December 13 citing RIA Novosti. Competitions will be held in fluency in Karachai, Circassian, Abazin, and Nogai, and to determine the best teachers of those languages. At the time of the 2002 Russian census, Karachais accounted for 38.5 percent of the republic's roughly 440,000 population, followed by Russians (33.6 percent) and Cherkess (11.3 percent). Abazins accounted for 7.4 percent, and Nogais 3.4 percent. LF

An explosive device detonated early on December 13 in Yerevan, severely damaging the entrance doors to the editorial offices of the semiweekly newspaper "Chorrort ishkhanutiun," Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The paper's editor, Shogher Matevosian, said her staffers were recently warned by Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's chief bodyguard that Sarkisian's supporters are so incensed by the paper's cartoons that they may resort to violence. The paper has also incurred the displeasure of Mher Sedrakian, mayor of Yerevan's Erebuni district. LF

Prime Minister Sarkisian told Reuters in Brussels on December 12 that he does not think the presidential elections due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2008 will negatively impact on the Karabakh peace process, and that he believes a framework agreement could be signed prior to the Armenian presidential ballot on February 19, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 13. Sarkisian is widely regarded as the favorite among the nine prospective candidates for that ballot. The co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group engaged in mediating a settlement of the conflict submitted to the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in Madrid last month a written version of the so-called Basic Principles for resolving the conflict that have been under discussion since mid-2004, and expressed the hope that the two countries' presidents will endorse them before the elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30 and December 7, 2007). On December 11, the co-chairmen met in Helsinki with Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva to brief him on the peace process, reported on December 13. Finland will take over the OSCE rotating chairmanship on January 1, 2008. LF

Meeting on December 13 with staff and students at Tbilisi State University, Nino Burjanadze accused the Georgian opposition of lacking any interest in the preterm presidential election to be held on January 5, 2008, Caucasus Press reported. She said the fact that opposition parties have repeatedly predicted that the vote will be rigged to ensure the reelection of Mikheil Saakashvili suggests that their members are preparing instead to take to the streets on January 6 to protest a Saakashvili victory. Meanwhile, the participation in the ballot of one of the seven registered candidates, businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, is in jeopardy given that the Georgian authorities have turned down a request by his campaign staff for special guarantees he will not be arrested if he returns to Georgia from abroad, reported on December 14, the day Patarkatsishvili initially planned to arrive in Tbilisi. Saakashvili implicated Patarkatsishvili last month in conspiring with Moscow in an unsuccessful bid to overthrow the Georgian leadership. Presidential candidates automatically enjoy immunity from prosecution for the duration of the election campaign. LF

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on December 11 pledged France's support for Kazakhstan's "preparations for the chairmanship" of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Sarkozy congratulated Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and said that "France is ready to accept young Kazakh diplomats to train them in political and security issues." The OSCE recently awarded the rotating chairmanship to Kazakhstan in 2010, after a one-year delay on the issue as organization member countries failed to reach a consensus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2006). Human rights groups had opposed Kazakhstan's bid to chair the OSCE due "its poor rights record." RG

Kazakh President Nazarbaev met with Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Astana on December 13 to discuss ways to increase bilateral trade between Kazakhstan and Turkey, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Nazarbaev noted that the two countries' volume of trade reached $1.5 billion in 2007, but he called on his Turkish counterpart to take steps to reach their joint goal of surpassing $5 billion in trade by 2010. Nazarbaev hailed Turkey as "a stable political and economic partner" and stressed the importance of the Kazakh-Turkish intergovernmental commission, which is preparing to implement "a large-scale economic project for its next session." Kazakhstan is also involved in a project to construct an oil refinery at the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Following the meeting, the two presidents announced the signing of an "action plan" on economic cooperation for 2008-2009. RG

In a nationally broadcast address on December 13, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev called on the Kyrgyz public to turn out and vote in the country's December 16 parliamentary elections, Kyrgyz Television reported. He stressed that a total of 12 parties have registered for the ballot, including the opposition Ata-Meken and Ar-Namys parties, so that voters "have the opportunity to elect any party you want." Bakiev also said that the new parliament will work "more fruitfully than the previous parliament," and added his "reassurance" that the election will be free and fair. RG

Prominent Uzbek poet and government critic Yusuf Juma has been missing since he staged a small protest on December 10 outside the office of the Bukhara mayor, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on December 13. Uzbek police attempted to arrest Juma during the demonstration, but police officials subsequently denied that he was in their custody. During the demonstration, Juma and his supporters reportedly "shouted insults" at the police and injured a policeman while they attempted to flee the protest by car. Juma faces criminal charges of "discrediting law enforcement personnel" and assault and battery. RG

The U.S. State Department and U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart on December 13 condemned the police crackdown on Belarusian opposition activists in Minsk the previous day, Belapan reported. Protesters rallied on December 12 against perceived threats to Belarus's independence, specifically Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Minsk the following day to discuss the proposed Russian-Belarussian Union State. Riot police broke up the protest, severely beating Anatol Lyabedzka, the leader of the United Civic Party, and youth activist Zmitser Fedaruk, who was knocked unconscious and taken to the hospital. "This incident is another in a long series of repressive acts by the Belarussian authorities against their own citizens," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement. Ambassador Stewart, who visited Fedaruk at a hospital on December 13, said that the United States will continue its "steps to focus the international spotlight" on people responsible for the lack of democratic progress in Belarus. Stewart warned that Washington is ready to impose sanctions on more Belarusian state-run companies if Minsk does not move toward democratization. In mid-November, the U.S. Treasury Department froze all assets under U.S. jurisdiction belonging to Belarus's largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim, and its representatives, and forbade Americans from doing business with the company on the grounds that it is controlled by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. AM

Russian President Putin on December 13 began a two-day visit to Belarus, and met with his Belarusian counterpart, President Lukashenka, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. The two presidents did not issue any statements following the meeting. Pavel Lyohki, a spokesman for Lukashenka, told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service that the two leaders will "consider a broad range of Belarusian-Russian issues and current questions." Lyohki said that the agenda on December 14 includes the budget of the proposed Belarusian-Russian Union State, mutual trade relations, plans for joint activities in foreign policy, and questions related to the functioning of the union state's secretariat. Putin's arrival in Minsk was met with another demonstration by opposition activists on the evening of December 13, during which police detained 15 youth activists who displayed a banner reading "Putin go home." The activists were taken to a police station and released an hour later. AM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said on Ukrainian Channel 5 television on December 13 that lawmakers in the Verkhovna Rada will reach an agreement and resolve all current disputes by the end of the year. "I am convinced that the country will enter 2008 with [an agreement on] the leadership of the newly elected parliament, the government, and parliamentarian committees," Yushchenko said. "Ukrainian politicians should take responsibility for ongoing order or disorder in the parliament. The country expects the authorities to be in place and to defend Ukraine's domestic and foreign interests," he added. The work of the Verkhovna Rada has been deadlocked in a procedural dispute between the opposition Party of Regions and the coalition of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc. The coalition insists on first voting on the nominee for prime minister, while the Party of Regions demands that the parliament vote on its own leadership before the premier is approved. AM

A plan being drafted by the EU's incoming president, Slovenia, suggests Kosova will declare itself an independent state in the first two months of 2008 and will be recognized by the EU's four largest states -- Britain, France, Italy, and Germany -- within 48 hours. The plan was outlined in a report published by the "International Herald Tribune" on December 12, which says its sources were "senior EU officials." Kosova would probably make its move after Serbia votes in presidential elections, which are scheduled for January 20 but will almost certainly require a run-off on February 3. Most other EU states would swiftly follow suit, followed -- at intervals -- by the United States; non-aligned European states such as Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway; Southeast European states including Slovenia and Kosova's neighbors; and Turkey, and then the 56 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The plan needs to be discussed and supported by EU leaders. The report has yet to be confirmed by Slovenia, whose foreign minister, Dimitrij Rupel, said on December 11 in comments reported by Reuters that the process of deciding Kosova's status should proceed "slowly" and "rationally" in order to avoid a "crisis," and predicted that it "will not go as fast as some people would like to have it." The plan's underlying goals -- a swift, managed, and concerted show of unity by the EU and a demonstration of the EU's determination to lead the international effort to decide Kosova's future -- match those stated by most EU leaders, but several EU states remain reluctant to move so swiftly or to recognize Kosova as a state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2007). The plan also envisages the rapid convening of a donor conference to raise funds for key infrastructure projects. The EU is already preparing to assume responsibility from the UN for running Kosova, though Serbia insists that that requires the support of the UN Security Council, in which its chief ally, Russia, holds veto powers. AG

A rift of potentially major importance has emerged within the Serbian government, with the party of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica calling for the annulment of the decision to call for presidential elections on January 20. The party's chief whip, Milos Aligrudic, said that the speaker of parliament cited a technical reason; he argued that the speaker did not wait for a number of related laws to come into force. But the broader issue, voiced by several politicians, is that the decision on a date was made unilaterally by the government's largest party, the Democratic Party (DS) of President Boris Tadic. Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) accused the DS of violating the coalition agreement, which requires all major decisions to be made by consensus. The DS argues that the move, made by the speaker of parliament, Oliver Dulic of the DS, respected the provisions of an agreement made in early November, under which the coalition parties agreed to delay a decision on the vote until after December 10, when the most recent round of talks on Kosova's status wound up. The news agency Beta reported, citing unnamed sources, that Tadic and Kostunica negotiated on the vote in the past several days, but failed to reach a compromise. The full extent of the DSS's dissatisfaction may not become apparent for some time, as the DSS has said Kostunica will make a full response only after he addresses the UN Security Council on December 19 in New York. Reports in the Serbian media suggest that the DSS insisted that no decision on the date of the presidential election should be made until after Kostunica's appearance at the UN, arguing that the conclusions of the Security Council should have a bearing on the timing of the vote. Tensions between the government's two largest parties could be compounded if it emerges, as some unnamed sources claim, that the DS consulted with the government's junior partner, the G17 Plus coalition. Under the Serbian constitution, the deadline for calling the vote was December 31. AG

The rift between the DS and the DSS has highlighted Prime Minister Kostunica's failure so far to endorse President Tadic's bid for a second term as president, the tensions in the DSS's own position, and divisions that could bring extreme nationalists to power. Under the terms of the agreement that resulted in the formation of a new government in May, the DSS and its coalition partner, New Serbia (NS), agreed to support the DS's nominee for the post of president. However, the DSS has remained conspicuously silent about Tadic's candidacy, and the NS has said its leader, Velimir Ilic, will stand for the post. The DSS therefore risks alienating its closest partner, the NS, or its most important cabinet partner, the DS. Tadic's main challenger is Tomislav Nikolic, the acting head of Serbia's largest parliamentary party, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), whose formal leader, Vojislav Seselj, is on trial in The Hague on war crimes charges. Tadic remains more popular than Nikolic in opinion polls, but his lead has been shrinking. Other presidential candidates stand very little chance. They include Cedomir Jovanovic of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Istvan Pastor, who will represent three ethnic-Hungarian parties. The Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) -- the party established by Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia's leader through the 1990s -- has not announced whether it will put up a candidate. Its importance in electoral politics has shrunk, and its total of 16 seats is only one more than the LDP has in the 120-seat parliament. AG

Carla Del Ponte on December 13 gave the last press conference of her eight-year tenure as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), talking of her pride at the tribunal's achievements and her frustration at the failure to capture the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs' secessionist drive in the 1990s. "The fact that Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are still at a stain on all [the] great achievements" of the ICTY, which include the detention of 157 of the 161 people indicted by the court. The two other men who remain at large are Goran Hodzic and Stojan Zupljanin. "It pains me to still have to talk" about Mladic and Karadzic, she said. Del Ponte had hoped to see both men tried, and she has said previously that the hope that at least Mladic would be captured prompted her to accept a UN request that she extend her tenure by three months, until the end of this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 2007). In a speech delivered to the UN on December 10, Del Ponte said she fears that Mladic and Karadzic may never be caught, for which she blames Serbia's failure to cooperate fully. But in her December 13 statement, she said "I think...that Karadzic and Mladic will be here, and I hope soon, with the help of the European Union." To ensure they are captured, Del Ponte urged the EU to continue to insist on Serbia's full cooperation with the ICTY as a precondition for closer ties, and called on the UN to keep the ICTY open until the two are captured. The ICTY is due to start its last cases in 2008 and to close its doors in 2010. Del Ponte will be replaced by Serge Brammertz, a Belgian prosecutor currently leading the UN's investigation into the killing of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, in 2005. AG

A former senior member of ICTY chief prosecutor Del Ponte's team, Geoffrey Nice, on December 12 launched a blistering attack on his former boss, telling the Bosnian daily "Dnevni avaz" that "she did not prove herself either as a lawyer, a manager, or a leader," and that she was wrong to meddle in politics. Nice was Del Ponte's deputy prosecutor at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic. Nice maintained that many members of the ICTY's staff left because of the lack of professionalism in Del Ponte's office, and argued that the ICTY's performance was undermined by Del Ponte's preference for people who shared her opinions. He was also critical of the UN for failing to rein her in, saying that "nobody, neither in The Hague nor in New York, had control over her work or behavior." Earlier this year, Nice accused Del Ponte of reaching a secret agreement with Serbia enabling Belgrade to withhold documents from the UN court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17 and 23, 2007). AG

There was both praise and criticism for Del Ponte from Paddy Ashdown, who for much of Del Ponte's tenure was the most powerful figure in Bosnia. The international community's former high representative told the BBC that he is a "great admirer" of the Swiss prosecutor, and said that "on balance," she did a "great job." Some of her qualities that drew criticism -- her perceived lack of diplomacy, for example -- were "refreshing" and appropriate from a prosecutor, Ashdown said. However, "some of her more colorful statements," including allegations she leveled at international figures, were "not justified by the facts," were "unhelpful," and "undermined" the position of the international community. Ashdown attributed the failure to bring Mladic and Karadzic to justice to Serbia's lack of cooperation and the EU's decision "to relax its conditionality," so that the closeness of its relationship with Serbia is now less dependent on its cooperation with the ICTY. He too argued that the ICTY should remain open "until the primary architects" of Bosnia's civil war, Mladic and Karadzic, "are brought to justice." AG

Veselin Sljivancanin, one of the Yugoslav People's Army's top commanders during the siege of Vukovar, Croatia, has been released from detention at the ICTY pending an appeal against his five-year prison sentence. The UN tribunal concluded that Sljivancanin was entitled to provisional release since he has already served almost 90 percent of his sentence. Sljivancanin has been in the ICTY's custody since July 2003. The provisos of his release are that he must hand in his passport to police, cannot talk to the media, and "must not interfere in any way with victims or potential witnesses." Sljivancanin was found guilty in September 2007 on one count of aiding and abetting torture by failing to stop or prevent the beating of Croatian prisoners of war at Ovcara following the fall of Vukovar in November 1991. Ovcara was the site of the slaughter of 264 Croats and other non-Serbs. Sljivancanin's codefendant, Mile Mrksic, was jailed for 20 years for aiding and abetting the murder of 194 of them. The sentences given to Sljivancanin and Mrksic -- and the acquittal of another defendant, Miroslav Radic -- provoked a storm of protest in Croatia, with Prime Minister Ivo Sanader taking his complaint directly to the General Assembly of the UN, which created the ICTY (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, October 1 and 10, and November 1, 2007). Since his release by the ICTY, Radic has been charged by Croatia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 29, 2007). On a related note, the ICTY on December 10 allowed three men currently facing trial -- a former president of Serbia, Milan Milutinovic, and two former Bosnian Serb officers, Radivoje Miletic and Milan Gvero -- to return home for several weeks. Miletic and Gvero will return only after the Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on January 6-7, but Milutinovic is due back in The Hague on January 2. A fourth man, former Bosnian Serb colonel Vinko Pandurevic, was allowed on December 11 to return home for 10 days to attend a memorial service for his father. AG


Britain will support negotiations with Taliban insurgents to give them roles in Afghanistan's new government and military, provided they renounce violence and respect human rights, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on December 12, British and Afghan media reported. In a speech to the House of Commons, Brown said, "If they are prepared to renounce violence and abide by the constitution and respect basic human rights, then there is a place for them in the legitimate society and economy of Afghanistan." British officials said that this reconciliation process will include offering salaried jobs and possibly even high-status positions to Taliban leaders and fighters who are part of the Islamic militant organization for non-ideological reasons. "The aim here is to split the officer corps of the Taliban, making an escape from insurgency appealing, especially to those who are participating mainly for financial reasons," Britain's "Globe and Mail" quoted an official at Britain's Department of Defense as saying. MM

Brown's comments marked a shift in strategy away from the U.S. and Canadian policy of non-negotiation with the Taliban, and toward Afghan President Hamid Karzai's approach to national reconciliation. The U.S. "Peace Through Strength" program currently encourages Taliban insurgents to lay down their arms, but offers little more than amnesty from prosecution in exchange. Canadian officials in Afghanistan have reportedly said that they are beginning to embrace Karzai's approach, but the military has not followed suit. But in his statement, Brown did not advocate engagement in larger-scale negotiations that might give the Taliban itself a place in Afghanistan's future government, and said that the objective of the new strategy is "to defeat the insurgency by isolating and eliminating their leadership." Brown also pledged 450 million pounds ($916 million) in additional reconstruction assistance for Afghanistan between 2009 and 2012, some of which can be used by the Afghan government to make offers to Taliban insurgents to leave the movement and join pro-government society. MM

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, attending a NATO conference in Edinburgh, is expected to push allied countries to draw up a "new strategic concept for how to wage the conflict [in Afghanistan] over the next three to five years," Afghan and international media reported on December 13. "The Afghanistan mission has exposed real limitation in the way the alliance is organized, operated, and equipped," Gates said. "We're in a post-Cold War environment. We have to be ready to operate in distant locations against insurgencies and terrorist networks." The meeting brings together defense chiefs from NATO members Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, Romania, and Estonia, and non-member Australia, which also has troops stationed in southern Afghanistan. Separately, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on December 11 that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is "plagued by shortfalls in capability and capacity, and constrained by a host of caveats that limit its ability." MM

Omar Zakhilwal, director of the government-backed Afghanistan Investment Support Agency (AISA), told China's Xinhua news agency on December 12 that reconstruction efforts since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 have been steady and on track, despite some interruptions by the resurgence of the Taliban. He said Afghanistan has received more than $5 billion in investment in the past six years, mostly in the field of reconstruction run by the private sector, and cited significant progress in road building, telecommunications, airlines, mining, agricultural products, volume of exports, and small business growth. In spite of the noted growth, the security situation has continued to disrupt reconstruction efforts by the Afghan government and the international community in 2007, as bombings, kidnappings, and ambushes continued, particularly in Afghanistan's south and east. MM

Iranian officials and delegates of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on December 12 concluded three days of talks in Tehran, focusing on the source of traces of highly enriched uranium found in Iran, agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2007). Highly enriched uranium could be used to make nuclear weapons, although Iran insists it has a strictly civilian nuclear program, and has agreed to clarify aspects of its program to the IAEA. Its envoy to the IAEA in Vienna, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told IRNA on December 13 that the talks were constructive and Iran "answered and explained" all the IAEA's questions, adding that the IAEA will state its conclusions later. Separately, Iran and Russia are reported to have resolved contractual differences that have delayed completion of the Bushehr nuclear plant in southern Iran. The Russian side is to announce a timetable for the plant's completion by the end of December, AP reported. Russia's Interfax news agency quoted the head of Russian firm Atomstroiexport, Sergei Shmatko, as saying in Moscow that difficulties with the Iranian contracts have been resolved. He also suggested the formation of a joint venture at Bushehr to assure security -- perhaps referring to a mechanism to prevent nuclear materials from the plant being diverted toward military activities, AP reported, citing RIA-Novosti. VS

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Iran's Housing Minister Mohammad Saidikia, Industry Minister Ali Akbar Mehrabian, and other officials of both countries attended ceremonies launching the construction of a car plant near the city of Hama, north of Damascus, on December 13, IRNA reported. A joint firm mostly owned by Iranian carmaker SAIPA is to produce passenger cars to be sold in Syria, IRNA quoted Mehrabian as saying. The head of SAIPA, Ahmad Qalebani, who was attending the ceremonies, told IRNA the completed plant will initially make 30-40 cars a day. Separately, at the opening of a cement factory, also north of Damascus, Al-Assad said it represents a "new cornerstone" in strategic ties between Iran and Syria, and offers a response to attempts to undermine their relations, IRNA reported. Construction on the cement plant, outside the city of Homs, began in 2003, IRNA reported; it was built at the cost of $250 million by Iran's Ehdas-i Sanaat and Syria's National Cement Institute firms. VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini on December 12 condemned the car bombing that day that killed General Francois el-Hajj, a respected soldier who was tipped to become Lebanon's army chief, Iranian state television reported. Hosseini called the bombing another move intended to raise tensions and block efforts to find a consensual president for Lebanon. Factions there have failed in recent weeks to agree on a choice of president, as confrontation continues between Westernizing forces in parliament and the cabinet and their opponents, backed by Iran and Syria. El-Hajj's superior, Michel Sleiman, was recently touted as an acceptable choice, and el-Hajj would have become army chief if Sleiman became president. Last summer el-Hajj led a military operation against extremist militants hiding in a Palestinian refugee camp, but it was not immediately clear if the assassination was retaliation for that battle. Hosseini said "the enemies" of Lebanon, including Israel, are reaping the greatest benefits from instability in Lebanon. The right-wing Tehran daily "Kayhan" on December 13 claimed to see Israel's "footprints" in the killing, stating that Israel and the United States benefit most from assassinations in Lebanon. The election of a president and restoration of stability in Lebanon, it added, would mean "the Lebanon front against [Israel] is strengthened and America would certainly not be able to carry out its plans" in Lebanon. VS

Members of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee and deputy intelligence ministers met in parliament on December 12 to examine the cases of people arrested at Tehran University on December 4 who the government said were trying to pose as students and cause trouble, Mehr agency reported. Committee member Mohammad Nabi Rudaki told the agency members of parliament were told some of those arrested "took their cue" from unnamed opposition groups abroad, and were trying to form a new student grouping at Tehran University. Rudaki did not state the number of those arrested (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10, 2007). Separately, the head of the parliamentary committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, told ISNA on December 12 that EU parliamentarians' recent visit to Iran was effective in helping them see the "realities" in Iran, so they will not view Iran with prejudices based on information spread by the "hypocrites' organization," a reference to the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, a militant group opposed to Iran's government. The delegation recently called on Iran to release detained students (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). Borujerdi told ISNA he met with the EU delegation, along with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki and parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel. He said he told the delegation the West's "ambivalent policies on human rights" are "incomprehensible" to Iran. VS

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari announced on December 13 that the next round of talks on the situation in Iraq between the United States and Iran in Baghdad will not take place on December 18, as planned, but at the end of the month, Al-Jazeera television reported on December 13. "It seems there will be some delay as the two sides have certain arrangements" to handle. "However, we hope the talks will be held by the end of this year," Zebari told the news channel. Meanwhile, Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi said on December 13 that there have been technical problems regarding the agenda for both the American and Iranian delegations, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Abawi said the ministry is working to arrange a date suitable to both sides. KR

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on December 13 called on Iraqis involved in armed combat against the government and multinational forces to reconsider their stance, Iraqi media reported. Speaking at the Tribal Awakening Conference for Baghdad and its Suburbs, Talabani said Iraq has made a transition from an era of violence to an era of dialogue. "As an Iraqi citizen and as president of the republic, I would like to make an urgent and brotherly appeal to the...national resistance and [those] who are taking up arms against the elected government and the multinational force. I hereby urge them to reconsider their positions, and to change their resistance from a bloody, armed a national, peaceful, democratic, public, political, and media resistance." He continued, "There has to be a state of accord among the key forces" in Iraq. Talabani praised Iraqi tribes for the "key role" they played "in liberating Iraq" from terrorists and militias. Some 800 tribal leaders attended the meeting, which was also attended by Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani, Multinational Force - Iraq Commander General David Petraeus, and U.K. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Prentice. Al-Hashimi told the conference that "the chances of a civil war [breaking out] are gone forever." KR

Shi'ite Ayatollah Muhammad al-Ya'qubi has called on Iraqis to embrace the principle of accord, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 13. "The democracy that politicians are talking about is in fact distorted," al-Ya'qubi said at a meeting with journalists. "By following the majority's choices only, it views things from a single perspective. The current government is not fit for Iraq's political and social situation. We therefore have to go back to the principle of accord." The cleric also stressed the need to abolish sectarian political parties. Al-Sharqiyah television did not report where the meeting was held. KR

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi told the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" newspaper in an interview published on December 13 that the Iraqi government must do more to integrate the members of Sunni awakening councils into the security forces. Asked about the alleged decisions of some armed groups to join awakening councils, al-Hashimi said, "Some [council members] belong to armed groups and others are volunteers and do not belong to armed groups." He continued, "The awakening council elements are unarmed now, and there is a need to arm them. The disagreement between some regional parties and us is about supporting the awakening councils....We [Sunni Arabs] demand that the government employ [council members] in the security make them fall under the control and instructions of the state." Regarding national reconciliation, al-Hashimi said: "The Iraqi government must open the door to dialogue and the Ba'athists must accept the rules of the new political and democratic game. [Ba'athists] must abandon their culture in the administration of the state, the ideology of coups, and so on....Everyone is talking with everyone, but nothing has been achieved until now in this regard, and efforts must continue." KR

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has resumed his seminary studies with the goal of gaining the title of ayatollah, AP reported on December 14. Al-Sadr reportedly believes he must attain the position of ayatollah if he is to successfully compete with the rival Shi'ite al-Hakim family, which boasts a long line of senior ayatollahs with significant political clout in Iraq. Al-Sadr also comes from a long line of influential clerics, but many of them have passed away. Al-Sadr's father Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and his two brothers were killed in 1999, allegedly by the Hussein regime. "If Muqtada becomes a religious authority, the entire movement will grow stronger," said one al-Sadr aide. AP reported that al-Sadr could achieve the rank of ayatollah by 2010 or earlier. Successful candidates achieve the rank through the completion of rigorous Islamic studies. Aides said his studies focus on vilayet i-fiqh, the school of thought that promotes clerical rule. AP also reported that al-Sadr is trying to bring more legitimacy to his militia by weeding out rogue elements, while some militiamen are taking seminary lessons for three hours a day, five days a week. Aides said those who pass the seminary exams will remain in the militia. KR