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Newsline - December 18, 2007

A Unified Russia party congress on December 17 unanimously nominated First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as the party's candidate in the March 2, 2008, presidential election, Russian and international media reported. President Vladimir Putin earlier tapped Medvedev as his preferred successor, and six parties have so far agreed to nominate him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2007). Putin and Medvedev both addressed the congress. "Vedomosti" reported on December 17 that Medvedev's campaign will be headed by presidential-administration chief Sergei Sobyanin and deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov. Political analyst Aleksei Malashenko told RFE/RL the same day that Medvedev is a good choice for Putin because "he doesn't have his own team and will rely on those people whom Putin suggests." According to a poll by the Levada Center summarized by on December 13, 63 percent of Russians are prepared to vote for Medvedev, while 15 percent support Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and 14 percent are ready to back Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Four percent of respondents say they support Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, who has said he will not run, while 2 percent back former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and 1 percent support Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) candidate Boris Nemtsov. "RBK Daily" on December 17 cited political analyst Dmitry Badovsky as saying the Kremlin plans to do everything it can to make sure Medvedev wins in the first round of voting. RC

Addressing the Unified Russia congress on December 17, President Putin agreed to become prime minister if First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev is elected president and pledged that there would be no redistribution of powers between the premier and the president, Russian and international media reported. Writing for on December 17, analyst Tatyana Stanovaya warned that such a scenario could lead to instability: "It would turn out that there is a capable president in the person of Dmitry Medvedev, in control of full presidential powers, but nonetheless considerably weaker politically than his predecessor. And there would be a prime minister, busy with operative management and under the control of -- dependent on -- the president, but at the same time having considerably greater political weight." She predicted that in such a situation, the political elites, and even the Unified Russia majority in the Duma, would gradually orient themselves toward Medvedev, and Putin would lose his influence. She noted that the government is always blamed by the public for any problems, and that the cabinet traditionally has very low public support. RC

Analysts from the business community have hailed the prospect of a tandem leadership made up of Medvedev and Putin, RIA Novosti reported on December 18. Troika Dialog brokerage house analyst Anton Struchenevsky said the tandem is "the optimal variant for Russia under the current conditions." He added that this scenario would be well-received among foreign investors. Brokerkreditservis analyst Maksim Shein said the tandem would lead to "predictability," and that the "rules of the game for investors would not change." Uralsib analyst Christopher Weafer called Medvedev and Putin a "dream team," but emphasized that "in 2008 the best choices for investors will be either state corporations or corporations that are close to the government." RC

The independent journal "Novoye vremya," No. 45, claims that President Putin wanted to step down after his term expires in order to consolidate his purported business interests, but that squabbling among Kremlin clans constrained him to agree to stay in power. Although details about Putin's supposed business holdings are unconfirmed, analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told "Die Welt" last month that assets under Putin's control are worth some $40 billion. Belkovsky said Putin controls 37 percent of Surgutneftegaz, 4.5 percent of Gazprom, and 50 percent of oil trader Gunvor. Putin's assets are reportedly managed by businessman Gennady Timchenko and banker Yury Kovalchuk. During the 2004 presidential campaign, rival candidate Ivan Rybkin charged that Timchenko managed Putin's interests in the oil sector and controls "the Kremlin's black fund" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 10, 2004). RC

The Russian Navy issued a statement on December 17 saying that it has successfully conducted a test launch of an unidentified new intercontinental ballistic missile from the nuclear-powered submarine "Tula" in the Barents Sea, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10, 2007). Colonel General Nikolai Solovtsov, who heads the Strategic Missile Forces, said in Vlasikha near Moscow that "the military hardware now on our weapons, and [the hardware] that will appear in the next few years, will enable our missiles to outperform any antimissile system, including future systems." He told journalists that "we are obliged to take appropriate measures to ensure that Russia's potential for nuclear deterrence is in no way devalued. I cannot rule out that should such an attempt be undertaken [by the United States], and in the event of a decision by top [Russian] military leaders, these [U.S.] antimissile sites in Poland and the Czech Republic could be selected as targets for our...missiles." Solovtsov added that "if the Americans signed a treaty with us that they will only deploy 10 antimissile [interceptors] in Poland and one radar site in the Czech Republic and will never put anything else there, then we could deal with that. However, they won't sign [anything]. They just tell us verbally 'we won't threaten you.'" He argued that Russia found itself encircled in the past when it took Western countries at their word. Solovtsov said that NATO "told us verbally that when we [all] reunite Germany, there won't be one NATO soldier [stationed] there. Now where are they? They already cheated Russia once." He also predicted that the number of Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles will "almost double after 2009-10." In June, President Vladimir Putin and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov threatened to target European sites with missiles if the United States goes ahead with its missile-defense program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, 19, 26, and 27, October 29, and December 17, 2007). General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the armed forces' General Staff, said in Moscow on December 15 that "the firing of an antimissile rocket from Poland [from the planned U.S. missile-defense system] could be seen by Russia's automated system as the launch of a ballistic missile, which could provoke an answering strike." Warsaw and Prague condemned his remarks as unacceptable. PM

The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on December 17 that Baluyevsky's remarks show that "the problem of American missile-defense elements in Europe has become an insurmountable barrier between Russia and the United States." The daily "Izvestia" argued on December 18 that Washington is pressing forward with its plans for Poland and the Czech Republic despite its verbal offers of cooperation with Russia. The paper suggested that Washington's written proposals submitted to Russia in November were a mere shadow of the offers made orally in October in Moscow by top U.S. officials. The daily added that talks on the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and on missile defense "are going nowhere." PM

German Foreign Minister and Deputy Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier joined Gazprom Chairman and First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev and Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller in Moscow on December 18 to launch the massive Yuzhno-Russkoye oil and gas field in northwestern Siberia, Interfax and reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 2, November 2 and 6, and December 17, 2007). Firms from both countries are developing the field to supply the planned Nord Stream gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea. Miller said that "the commissioning of the Yuzhno-Russkoye field is a practical implementation of such Gazprom principles as exchange of assets and creation of a link from extraction to distribution to the final consumer. The implementation of this project strengthens Gazprom as a global player on the world energy market." He stressed that "we shall continue to meet all our contracted obligations both in the domestic market and to foreign consumers." Medvedev said that "this project is Russia's contribution to energy security in Europe." Gazprom has a majority stake in the field. Germany's BASF holds 25 percent minus one of the shares, while Germany's E.ON has an option on a further 25 percent. On December 17, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" quoted Steinmeier as saying that President Putin has brought "a high degree of stability to Russia." Steinmeier added that it is unfair to judge Russia, which is in "a stage of transition," as though it needed to be formally "certified for the quality of its form of government." He added that by proposing Medvedev as his successor, Putin "without doubt wanted to signal...that Russian policies will remain stable." Steinmeier said that Medvedev, "in comparison to the other candidates [for the Russian presidency], is the strongest proponent of a Western orientation and the economic modernization of Russia." Steinmeier was formerly chief of staff to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who heads the stockholders' oversight body for Nord Stream. Interfax reported that Steinmeier will hold talks with "top Russian officials" in the course of his visit. PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow that "we hope that the draft reform treaty that was approved at the [recent] EU summit in Lisbon will spur on the beginning of negotiations on our strategic partnership," Interfax reported on December 17. He added that "we would like to deal with the EU in a way that promotes collective and coherent interests in the dialogue with Russia." Lavrov argued that "we know very well the individual interests of EU member countries. [In many cases] bilateral relations are not burdened with artificial barriers and develop much better than the relations with Brussels-based institutions. At the same time, the EU has recently shown signs of 'collective one-sidedness' that implies 'solidarity' with a particular concern of any member country. As a result, we have a deadlock that affects our relations with the EU" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2007). Lavrov said that "it is illogical to regard Russia as an inseparable part of Europe only in the human rights dimension and deny the same principle in the military, political, and economic spheres. We also do not accept a return to past practice, in which our relations with the EU and its particular members were largely a function of Russian-U.S. ties." PM

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in Moscow on December 17 that Taiwan should abandon its plans to hold a referendum in early 2008 on applying for UN membership, Interfax reported. Kamynin stressed that Russia backs Beijing's claim of being the sole legal representative of China in international institutions. He also warned about possible, unspecified "interpretations" of the referendum. Kamynin added that "as an Asian-Pacific country, Russia attaches great importance to a non-crisis solution to the Taiwanese problem. We are confident that the preservation of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait meets the interests of all sides concerned, above all the Taiwanese." Taiwan has repeatedly applied for UN membership since 2001 under its official name, the Republic of China. The referendum backed by President Chen Shui-bian asks voters whether they want their country to apply for UN membership under the name Taiwan instead. This is widely seen as a form of referendum on Taiwanese independence and is promoted as such by pro-independence forces. PM

The SPS on December 17 nominated former Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov as its candidate to run in the March 2, 2008, presidential election, Russian media reported. Party leader Nikita Belykh and the party's Political Council resigned on December 17 to accept responsibility for the SPS's poor showing in the December 2 Duma elections, but the congress voted to reinstate Belykh and other officials. Leonid Grossman was again elected Belykh's deputy. Party Political Council member Anatoly Chubais said in his speech to the congress that First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev was "the best of the people the Kremlin might have nominated," but nonetheless pledged his personal support for Nemtsov's campaign. Nemtsov said that he will conduct talks with the other liberal candidates for president -- former Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky and former Prime Minister Kasyanov -- about the possibility of uniting behind a single opposition candidate. RC

The Federal Security Service (FSB) on December 18 held its second annual awards ceremony for works of art that create a positive image of the state-security organs and their employees, and other Russian media reported. FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev told the gathering that he is pleased that there were more qualifying works of cinema, television, and literature in 2007 than in 2006. "For us, the attitude of the Russian people to the results of our work is very important," Patrushev said. "It is an indicator of the level of trust in our work." Among the winners were the films "Operation" and "The Apocalypse Code" and the book "Andropov." Singer Aleksandr Rozenbaum was also recognized. RC

The Chechen Committee for National Salvation said in a statement posted on its website on December 14 that the authorities in Ingushetia, where the committee is based, have accused it of violating legislation on registration and financial transparency, the website reported. It said the authorities' demand that it submit additional documentation constitutes a violation of legislation on non-commercial organizations. "We have to defend ourselves adequately in order to be able to defend others," the statement concluded. In Grozny, the Union of NGOs has been evicted from the premises it occupied following a dispute between press office head Taisa Isayeva and the building administration. The building officials objected to Isayeva's failure to comply with Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's recent edict that women must wear head scarves in public, reported on December 17. The eviction order reportedly originated with a government minister. LF

Candidates representing the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party won two runoff elections on December 16 in the Kayakent and Dakhadayev districts, reported on December 17. In Kayakent, Nariman Abdurazakov of Unified Russia garnered 64.26 percent of the vote, compared with 33.82 percent for his non-partisan rival Bagaudin Gogurchunov, whose supporters complained last week of harassment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2007). In Dakhadayev, Djarulla Omarov polled 9,722 votes while Nukh Nukhov of the Union of Rightist Forces won 7,471 votes. Nukhov is in pre-trial detention in connection with an armed clash between his supporters and those of a rival candidate in the run-up to the March 11 municipal elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 6 and November 28 and 29, 2007). LF

An operation launched on December 16 in the Daghestani village of Gimri is not over, reported on December 18, quoting an unidentified resident (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). The village is reportedly surrounded by some 1,000 Interior Ministry troops backed by tanks, heavy artillery, and armored personnel carriers. A curfew has been imposed, and parents dare not allow their children to leave home to attend school. Troops continue to check the identity of residents and have detained more than 50 suspects, the agency reported. Speaking on republican television on December 17, Daghestan's Deputy Interior Minister Magomed Gazimagomedov said that armed militants based in Gimri and elsewhere in the surrounding Untsukul Raion perpetrated a series of terrorist and criminal acts, making armed intervention imperative. Gazimagomedov put the number of people detained at 40, and said the search for militants will continue until "we have rounded up the entire underground gang." LF

Opposition National Democratic Union Chairman and presidential candidate Vazgen Manukian on December 17 rejected as a forgery extracts, published two days earlier in the daily "Haykakan zhamanak," of what the paper claimed were notes he made during the run-up to the September 1996 presidential election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The paper said those notes were confiscated during a search of Manukian's apartment after the standoff in Yerevan between the authorities and Manukian's supporters, who alleged the outcome of the ballot was rigged to ensure a first-round victory for incumbent Levon Ter-Petrossian. A close associate of Ter-Petrossian subsequently confirmed that the 1996 election was indeed rigged to preclude a runoff between Ter-Petrossian and Manukian (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," December 29, 1998). The alleged notes made by Manukian call for informers to be recruited within the government to provide him with confidential information. They also advocate heightening existing tensions, if necessary by resorting to assassinations and acts of terrorism in the run-up to the vote. Manukian told RFE/RL that he will ask state prosecutors to launch an official investigation into the allegations by "Haykakan zhamanak." That paper supports Ter-Petrossian, who, like Manukian, has registered as a candidate in the presidential election scheduled for February 19, 2008. Manukian predicted that a forensic examination will establish that the handwriting of the notes is not his, and he asked why, if the notes were genuine, the Ter-Petrossian leadership failed to bring criminal charges against him in 1996 for advocating terrorism. The "Haykakan zhamanak" article was signed by a pseudonym; the paper's editor, Nikol Pashinian, told RFE/RL the author does not wish to discuss it with other journalists. LF

Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry press department head Xazar Ibragim told the website on December 17 that the purported threat by Seyvan Barzani, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) representative in France, to redirect the PKK's military operations against Azerbaijan in the event of an incursion by Turkish armed forces into northern Iraq "demonstrates the full extent of the threat" posed by the PKK in the region. Barzani's purported threat was first cited by the Russian news agency; Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry declined to comment on it. In recent weeks, Azerbaijani media have repeatedly cited Turkish press articles claiming that the PKK has already established military bases either in the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh or in neighboring Azerbaijani districts under Armenian control (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2007). The Armenian Foreign Ministry has denied those allegations, and the Azerbaijani daily on December 18 pointed out that Armenia has little to gain and much to lose by hosting PKK bases. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili, who stepped down as Georgian president in late November to campaign for reelection in the January 5 pre-term presidential ballot, outlined his election platform in a 30-minute speech aired on December 16 by three pro-government television channels, and Caucasus Press reported on December 16 and 17 respectively. Saakashvili pledged that if he is reelected, Georgia's GDP will grow by 300 percent within five years, to $30 billion, and he will abolish poverty, raising the minimum monthly pension to $100 and introducing a free healthcare package for the poorest strata of the population. He also outlined a system of cheap credits and tax breaks intended to boost the creation of small businesses, and measures for boosting exports. The parliamentary opposition New Rightists faction calculated earlier this month that Saakashvili has already promised far more in financial benefits and incentives than the government can realistically deliver (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). In a December 15 interview with the newspaper "Svobodnaya Gruziya," summarized on December 15 by, Saakashvili's predecessor as president, Eduard Shevardnadze, said Saakashvili committed "a fatal mistake" by endorsing the use of violence against peaceful protesters in Tbilisi in early November rather than meeting with them to discuss their grievances. LF

An Ossetian police officer was killed and two people seriously injured on December 16 in Tskhinvali, capital of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, when a bomb exploded in the police officer's car, Caucasus Press reported on December 17. The South Ossetian authorities blamed the Georgian authorities for the attack, but Dmitri Manjgavadze, the Georgian representative on the four-party Joint Control Commission that monitors the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone, rejected that accusation as an attempt to fuel tensions, and called for an independent investigation by international organizations. LF

An unidentified official of the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission (CEC) confirmed on December 17 in Bishkek that according to preliminary returns, the pro-government Ak-Jol Eldik Partiyasy (Best Path Popular Party) appears to have won all 90 seats in the new unicameral parliament elected on December 16, the website and AFP reported. The CEC official reported that with some 81 percent of the votes tallied, the Ak-Jol party, which is led by President Kurmanbek Bakiev, secured roughly 46 percent of the vote, followed by the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party in a distant second place with under 10 percent. Those are the only two parties to have surpassed the minimum 5 percent national threshold, although only Ak-Jol is expected to have met the second requirement of garnering at least 13,500 votes in each of the country's nine regions. Ata-Meken, led by former parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebaev, reportedly failed to surmount the regional threshold in southern regions of Kyrgyzstan widely viewed as Bakiev's strongest base of support. RG

Speaking in Bishkek on December 17, Emil Aliyev, the head of the election headquarters of former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Feliks Kulov's opposition Ar-Namys (Dignity) party, threatened to appeal the results of the previous day's parliamentary election, noting that in light of "numerous violations of the election law" several opposition parties plan to do the same, ITAR-TASS reported. Aliyev predicted that the sweeping electoral victory of the pro-government Ak-Jol party will only "cause tension in the country," as those political parties that did not gain seats in the parliament "will be forced to act not in parliament within the law, but at rallies and during their meetings with people in regions." Speaking at a press conference in Bishkek on December 17, Dinara Oshurakhunova, the head of the Coalition of Non-Governmental Organizations for Democracy and Civil Society, expressed support for the opposition claims and alleged that the election was "invalid and illegitimate," AKIpress and the website reported. Oshurakhunova added that independent civil society observers witnessed "major irregularities" and noted that "observers' rights were severely restricted." She listed cases where observers "were threatened with physical violence" and "were even forced out of polling stations." She further contended that in some areas, the vote count was disrupted when the "electricity was cut off." Oshurakhunova concluded that "all these and other cases of irregularities give us the right to declare the early parliamentary election as falling short of the international standards and invalid and their results ineffective." The previous day, only hours after voting ended, members of the opposition Ata-Meken party similarly claimed that its supporters were left off voters lists, while local activists from two main civic groups, the Interbilim Center and the Civil Committee for Protecting Voters' Rights, reported that they witnessed at least "nine types of violations of the election process," including illegal interference in the election process by local officials and police, bribing voters, vote rigging, and provocations and threats directed against independent observers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). RG

Former Kyrgyz parliamentarian and opposition Ata-Meken party candidate Temir Sariev reported on December 17 that some 300-400 residents in the Ton district of the northern Issyk-Kul Region blocked a major highway for over three hours to protest the conduct of the December 16 parliamentary election, according to the website. The demonstrators accused local election commission officials of misconduct and voting irregularities, saying that they witnessed the officials improperly handling ballots, AKIpress reported. They demanded that the election results in their district be declared invalid. RG

Kimmo Kiljunen, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) short-term observer mission to monitor the Kyrgyz ballot, on December 17 characterized the December 16 election as failing to meet democratic standards, and hence as a "missed opportunity," according to AKIpress and a press release posted on the OSCE website ( Kiljunen added that "having led the past two OSCE election observation missions here in Kyrgyzstan, I am personally disappointed that there is now a backsliding in the elections process," and he stressed that the election undermined "political pluralism" in Kyrgyzstan. The statement also noted that the ballot "failed to meet a number of OSCE commitments," and fell short of "public expectations for further consolidation of the election process." The statement did not respond to allegations by the victorious Ak-Jol party that OSCE observers tried to interfere in the work of precinct commissions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). RG

At a meeting of municipal officials in Dushanbe chaired by Mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloev, City Prosecutor Qurbonali Muhabbatov announced on December 17 that the Dushanbegaz state gas company will be held "criminally liable" for a gas explosion in a block of apartments in the capital on December 7, Avesta reported. The explosion, which left six people injured and many more homeless, was attributed to "negligence" by the gas company. Muhabbatov added that his office is also considering forcing the company to compensate the victims of the explosion for their losses. RG

Running unopposed, General Abdurahmon Azimov, a prominent member of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT), won a December 16 by-election in the southern Kulob district to Tajikistan's Majlisi Namoyandagon, the lower house of parliament, according to Asia-Plus and Avesta. Azimov, a presidential adviser who previously served as a commander of the Tajik border guards, won over 94 percent of the vote, in which about 52 percent of eligible voters took part. Azimov ran unopposed after the opposition Islamic Revival Party (IRPT) refused to field a candidate. Local IRPT leader Kulob Muhammadsharif Nabiev defended his party's decision to boycott the by-election, arguing that the Tajik authorities refused the party's demand for representation on local electoral commissions. The by-election was called following the death of Khumdin Sharipov, who formerly represented the Kulob district in the parliament. RG

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on December 17 signed a presidential decree, effective January 1, 2008, abolishing a requirement for Belarusian nationals to obtain a travel-permit stamp in their passports before leaving the country, Belapan reported. Belarusians currently have to pay around $16 for a one-year travel permit. The decree also establishes regulations for the creation of a single database of people who are barred from leaving Belarus. RFE/RL's Belarusian Service quoted Interior Minister Syarhey Martynau as saying that the database will include nearly 100,000 people who are "aware of state secrets," face criminal prosecution, have outstanding financial commitments, or fall into several other categories. AM

A Minsk district court on December 17 sentenced an activist for entrepreneurs' rights, Mikalay Serhiyenka, to 10 days in jail for disorderly conduct, Belapan reported. Serhiyenka was detained on December 6 along with fellow activists Alyaksandr Makayeu, Aleh Korban, and Nadzeya Syankevich while police officers searched the Minsk office of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions. Police charged Makayeu, Korban, and Serhiyenka with using foul language and disturbing the public peace. Makayeu was sentenced to seven days in jail on December 11, a day after small-business owners rallied against a presidential decree restricting their business activities. Serhiyenka's trial was postponed due to the absence of witnesses for the defense. AM

The 450-seat Verkhovna Rada on December 18 approved Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the parliamentary bloc bearing her name (BYuT), as Ukraine's prime minister, UNIAN reported. Tymoshenko received 226 votes, the exact number needed for her approval as premier. The voting session was attended only by the coalition lawmakers of the BYuT and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS). All 156 BYuT members and 70 out of 72 NUNS members voted in favor of Tymoshenko. Ivan Spodarenko did not cast his vote because he was hospitalized, and Ivan Plyushch abstained. Tymoshenko, who is backed by President Viktor Yushchenko, last week fell short of winning approval as prime minister by a single vote. AM

A day before her approval as prime minister, Tymoshenko on December 17 told the "Izvestia in Ukraine" newspaper that the new Ukrainian government will build its relations with Russia based on "stability, harmony, and partnership." "We will resolve the issues of gas supplies and gas transportation during talks. We want to act in favor of the mutual benefits [that can be] derived by Ukraine and Russia," she said. Tymoshenko stressed that Ukraine should move toward integration with the EU and the World Trade Organization while not weakening its relations with Russia. "We need to enter the free trade zone and simplify the visa regime for our citizens," she added. AM

The acting leader of Serbia's largest party, Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), has called for the Serbian government to invite Russia to station troops in Serbia. "A Russian military presence would bolster the Serbian position in seeking a solution to the Kosovo crisis and remove the potential NATO threat," Nikolic said in an interview published by the daily "Dnevnik" on December 15. Nikolic recently said that Serbia should "link [its] survival now, and then our progress, to our biggest ally, biggest friend, biggest protector," Russia. Nikolic also told "Dnevnik" that Serbia should impose "a complete blockade" affecting "all forms of traffic, including people, goods, and capital" if Kosova declares independence. Nikolic is running a close second to President Boris Tadic in opinion polls with just under five weeks before presidential elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2007). He was officially put forward as a candidate on December 14. The SRS's official leader, Vojislav Seselj, is currently facing war-crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. AG

Serbia has failed in its attempt to prevent any Kosovar leader from addressing a key meeting of the UN Security Council, according to local and international media. Belgrade has argued that the council can only be addressed by representatives of a sovereign state, but the council's current chair, Italy, ruled that Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu should be allowed to speak on December 19 when the UN debates a report by international mediators on the progress of direct talks between Belgrade and Prishtina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6, 2007). At Russia's and Serbia's insistence, Sejdiu will be speaking "personally and at his own request," Serbian media reported. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica will also speak at the meeting and is expected to call on the UN to order the resumption of direct talks. Russia has already circulated a draft resolution to council members calling for new talks, and Serbian President Tadic predicted on December 16 that another permanent member of the council, China, will be one of several other countries that will support a call for fresh negotiations. Western powers argue that the possibilities for a compromise through negotiations have already been exhausted in the two previous rounds of talks, which lasted a total of 19 months. Before leaving for New York on December 16, Sejdiu said he will ask for "broad support" for independence for Kosova. Sejdiu has spoken at the UN once before, in September 2006, but that was only an informal briefing. Sejdiu said he will also meet with the ambassadors of four states set to join the Security Council: Costa Rica, Croatia, Libya, and Vietnam. AG

"If Serbia imposes an economic embargo on Kosovo, Albania will open its borders to help the Kosovar people," Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha told AFP on December 14. "The government of Tirana will also engage all its capacities so that Kosovo can benefit from Albanian infrastructure and have access to Albanian ports," he said. In another expression of Albania's strong support for Kosova, Berisha recently said that "Serbia should understand it will not progress and persist as a colonial power,'' Bloomberg reported on December 14. Albania is currently building a new road to slash the journey time from the Kosovar border to the port of Durres from six to two hours, but the construction will take years. AG

Serbia hopes it will reach an agreement with Russia in 2008 to send used nuclear-fuel rods from a decommissioned reactor to Russia, the news service Balkan Insight reported. The rods, which the Soviet Union supplied in 1976, should be shipped to Russia by the end of 2010. Serbia returned some fuel rods in 2002, but those were unused. Milan Pesic, the official charged with overseeing the decommissioning of the Vinca Nuclear Institute, also said Serbia is seeking $30 million in international aid to deal with the nuclear waste. Serbia is reportedly seeking to identify a suitable storage site in Serbia for the waste from the Vinca reactor, which was built in the early 1950s. AG

An Algerian, Atau Mimun, has become the first foreign-born Bosnian citizen to be deported following a review of passports granted during and after Bosnia's civil war. Mimun returned to Algeria on December 9, but the first local reports of his deportation were published on December 14. Mimun fought in Bosnia's civil war and was naturalized in 1994 after marrying a Bosnian. The decision to expel him appears to have been made on security grounds. Dragan Mektic, a deputy security minister, told the Bosnian daily "Nezavisne novine" that Mimun was judged to be a "threat to national security and the constitutional order of Bosnia-Herzegovina," and said Mimun is believed to have links with "people who are under surveillance because of terrorist activities." He did not name any terrorist group. "Nezavisne novine" cited media reports as saying that, prior to coming to Bosnia, Mimun trained fighters in a camp near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. The daily "Dnevni avaz" reported on September 9 that 613 foreign-born Bosnians, 575 of them from Muslim countries, have been stripped of their citizenship since the start of the review. Most were wartime volunteers, although the number who fought was not stated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, April 12, and November 19, 2007). Reports suggest that the commission to review citizenship granted during the war was established in February 206 following pressure by the United States. Mektic said no further deportations are pending "because the conditions...are not yet in place," a reference presumably to the legal options open to deportees before they are expelled. Bosnians whose citizenship has been revoked can appeal, apply for asylum, and apply to be granted temporary residence. AG

A meeting with the most senior Bosnian Muslim military commander to be charged with war crimes, Rasim Delic, may land Bosnia's leading Muslim politician, Haris Silajdzic, in hot water with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), as well as with Bosnia's Serbian community. According to Bosnian radio, ICTY prosecutors believe Delic breached the terms of his provisional release from detention, which stipulate that he cannot discuss his case with anyone other than his lawyer. Unconfirmed media reports indicate that Delic updated Silajdzic on the details of his trial when they met in Sarajevo on December 13. ICTY prosecutors have reportedly asked the tribunal to place Delic in detention once again. Delic had the ICTY's permission to stay in Bosnia over the holiday period. He spent two years in Bosnia between the time of his indictment, in February 2005, and the start of his trial in July 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, September 10 and 11, and October 18, 2007). Relatives of victims of Bosnia's civil war expressed their anger at Silajdzic's move on December 14, while the prime minister of the Serb-dominated region of Republika Srpska, Miroslav Dodik, described Silajdzic's decision to grant Delic an audience as "absolutely unacceptable." Delic is charged with failing, as the head of the Bosnian army, to prevent acts of murder, rape, and mistreatment committed by his troops. Delic's predecessor as head of the Bosnian Muslim army, Sefer Halilovic, was acquitted of war crimes in 2005. AG

The former leader of a Bosnian Serb paramilitary unit, Momir Savic, has been arrested, Bosnian media reported on December 14. Savic was seized on December 13 in the Visegrad region of eastern Bosnia, the same area in which his forces are alleged to have murdered and expelled Bosnian Muslims and Croats in 1992. Savic and his group are believed to have cooperated with another paramilitary group, the "White Eagles," led by Milan Lukic, who is currently awaiting trial in The Hague. (Savic's case is being handled by the Bosnian authorities.) Lukic is accused of killing approximately 150 people, but operations led by Lukic and associated groups left thousands dead. This August, a Bosnian court passed a 12-year sentence on a relatively junior participant in killings and rapes in the Visegrad area, a former policeman named Nenad Tanaskovic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2007). Savic's group is also linked to violence in 1992 in the Sandzak region, which straddles Serbia and Montenegro. AG

Russian President Vladimir Putin ended months of speculation about his political future on December 17 when he agreed to serve as prime minister in the event that voters elect his chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, as president.

Putin made his announcement during a speech to the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia congress.

"If our people, Russian citizens, give their vote of confidence to Dmitry Medvedev and elect him the new Russian president, I will also be ready to continue our joint work, in this case as chairman of the government of the Russian Federation -- without any changes in the [balance of] power between the presidency and the government," Putin told cheering delegates.

As the Kremlin's candidate, Medvedev is widely expected to easily win the March 2 election, which analysts say will more closely resemble a coronation -- the passing of power to a carefully considered, unthreatening political heir.

"Today the situation has finally been clarified," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Center for Elite Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology. She adds that while Medvedev will be the de jure head of state, Putin will rule de facto.

"It will be the sort of tandem in which Medvedev will fulfill more ceremonial and decorative functions and Putin will make the key decisions," Kryshtanovskaya says.

But while Putin's announcement clarifies which post he will occupy after a new president is inaugurated in May, uncertainty still looms over how Putin will remain in charge when he leaves the Kremlin.

"He is in a zone of risk. [Putin] is doing everything so he will not be a lame duck -- or a lame bear," Kryshtanovskaya says. "All the intrigue, all the secrecy [surrounding the succession] was all designed to draw attention to this process so it would not be visible that he is taking risks and that he is vulnerable."

Kryshtanovskaya and other Kremlin-watchers say Putin will partially rely on Medvedev's loyalty to maintain control over the political system, but also will use other levers of influence.

One such lever is Putin's control over the Unified Russia party, which on December 2 won a two-thirds majority in the State Duma. That majority is enough to initiate constitutional amendments -- and to impeach the president.

Putin is also expected to maintain at least informal control over the military, security services, and Foreign Ministry -- which under current legislation report to the president.

And despite Putin's pledge not to decrease the president's powers at the expense of the prime minister, analysts nevertheless say constitutional changes are likely.

"This tandem will hardly last the whole four-year presidential term without changes" in the balance of authority, Kryshtanovskaya says. "I think the process of amending the constitution will soon start. At first it will be just discussions. Later a Constitutional Assembly will be convened. This is a long process. The goal will be to change the political system."

Another possibility, Kryshtanovskaya says, is for Putin to return to the presidency after a respectable interval with Medvedev in office. The constitution only forbids presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms.

Putin anointed Medvedev -- who currently serves as first deputy prime minister and chairman of the state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom -- in televised Kremlin meeting on December 10.

Putin said he "completely and fully supported" Medvedev's candidacy, which was put forward by United Russia and three other pro-Kremlin parties. The next day, Medvedev, also in televised comments, appealed to Putin to serve as his prime minister.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters on December 17 that as a result of Defense Secretary Robert Gates' talks with NATO defense chiefs in Edinburgh last week, the U.S. Central Command will initiate a review of its own strategy in Afghanistan, Afghan and international media reported. Whitman noted that the review by the Central Command will complement Gates' initiative to better coordinate the military, political, and economic strategies to combat violence and extremism in Afghanistan. "There is no secret that some of the capabilities have been lacking and that we have been wanting to fill in, in order to achieve greater progress at a faster rate," AFP quoted an unnamed Pentagon spokesman as saying. NATO defense chiefs with troops in southern Afghanistan agreed on December 14 in Edinburgh to develop a master plan for efforts to stabilize the country over the next five years. MM

The U.S. deputy commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Joseph Votel, said on December 16 that the security situation, governance, and economic conditions have improved in Afghanistan compared to last year, Afghan and international media reported. "We are in a much better position right now than we were a year ago at this time," Votel said. Votel did, however, acknowledge increased violence and continuing influence held by Taliban insurgents wielding new capabilities. "They cannot necessarily compete with us militarily, so in some cases and in some areas we have seen an increase in the use of IEDs or rocket attacks against our bases or against our operations," he said. Votel added that U.S. and coalition forces continue to respond to changes in enemy tactics and adjust their strategies. Afghanistan in the past two years has seen an increasing number of attacks on Afghan and U.S.-led coalition troops and government targets. MM

New Australian Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon called for efforts above and beyond military operations in Afghanistan to restore security there, the Pakistan-based "Frontier Post" reported on December 17, citing Australian newspapers. Fitzgibbon made the statement at the meeting in Edinburgh of eight NATO member countries engaged in the conflict in southern Afghanistan. After returning from the NATO meeting, Fitzgibbon told "The Australian" daily that "the previous government would have us believe that good progress is being made in Afghanistan. The reality is quite a different one. We are winning the battles and not the war, in my view. We have been very successful in clearing areas of the Taliban, but it's having no real strategic effect." Fitzgibbon emphasized that the struggle should focus on winning the hearts and minds of the more moderate Taliban loyalists and local Pashtuns in southern and eastern Afghanistan who feel alienated and victimized by the current conditions and the tactics of foreign forces. MM

Pajhwak Afghan News reported on December 16 that Afghanistan's former mujahedin commanders and their allies re-established a shura, or council, on December 15 in the eastern province of Nangarhar to combat public mistrust and support the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. Provincial mujahedin shuras used to rule Afghanistan in the early 1990s after the fall of the communist regime in Kabul. The new shura elected Haji Hazrat Ali, a former mujahedin warlord, as its chief and Syed Abdul Ghaffar Bacha as its spokesman. Bacha told Pajhwak Afghan News that "the main purpose of the shura is to bridge the gulf between the masses and government, and to serve the people." The spokesman added that the shura also intends to develop an action plan for the coming general elections and ensure proper representation of former mujahedin commanders in the Afghan government. MM

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aqazadeh, told Iranian state television on December 17 that Russia has delivered a first shipment of fuel to the Bushehr nuclear plant in southern Iran, BBC Monitoring reported. He said the plant is 95 percent complete and will begin working in the Persian year from late March 2008. The fuel delivery comes a few days after Russia reported the resolution of related contractual and financial problems (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2007). Aqazadeh also confirmed that the Natanz enrichment plant near Tehran is currently working with 3,000 centrifuges, a number that will eventually increase to 50,000. Separately, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in an interview with the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," published on December 17, that a recent U.S. intelligence report on Iran's nuclear program could provide an opportunity for a peaceful resolution to the standoff over Iran's nuclear program, though he said he doubts Iran will use the opportunity constructively. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate downgraded the threat of Iran producing nuclear arms very soon, stating that Iran halted its pursuit of nuclear weapons in 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2007). Steinmeier said Iran must be deterred from pursuing nuclear arms. He observed that while the United States has shown willingness to negotiate constructively on the nuclear issue, it is doubtful "there is a similar inclination on the Iranian side." Iran maintains that its program is merely intended to generate electricity. VS

Ali Larijani, the Iranian Supreme Leader's representative on Iran's Supreme National Security Council, told reporters in Tehran on December 17 that now "is a good time" for Iran and the 5+1 powers, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, to resume talks on Iran's nuclear program, IRNA reported. Larijani said "if [the 5+1 powers] have any other suggestions, they should mention them in talks" following the end of Iran's current program of collaboration with UN inspectors. He suggested that the United States could even engage in direct talks with Iran. In previous talks, the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana has talked to Iran on behalf of the Western powers, but Larijani said that "if they have something to say, they can come and say it themselves." He added that suspending uranium enrichment is no longer relevant as a precondition for talks, IRNA reported. Larijani was until recently the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. Javad Vaidi, a vice-secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, told IRNA on December 18 that the United States will find it harder to forge a consensus for sanctions against Iran now that Russia has begun sending nuclear fuel to Iran. Vaidi said Russia would "need more evidence" against Iran for another resolution. Vaidi said the Natanz enrichment plant will be completed in three or four years, and will produce fuel to supply one nuclear power plant, IRNA reported. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on state television in Tehran late on December 16 that his government is working to tackle the longstanding causes of persistent inflation in Iran. Inflation has become a major issue discussed in parliament and in the Iranian media. Ahmadinejad said inflation slowed to some extent in the 2005-06 period, but has risen again since then. He blamed the inflation rate on low productivity, high production costs, "inflexibility in production," a bloated state sector, and the economy's considerable dependence on oil revenues and imports, among other causes. He said that while rising oil prices have increased Iran's revenues, the cost of its imports has also risen. Ahmadinejad said the average price of imported goods has risen 16 percent -- presumably in the Persian year since late March, compared to the previous year -- and he observed much greater increases in some basic goods, including rice and cooking oil. He noted measures being taken to counter inflation, including supporting domestic manufacturing, encouraging stock-market investment, cutting government spending, and moves to stabilize prices in housing and construction, "Iran" reported on December 17. Ahmadinejad then left for Saudi Arabia on December 17 to take part in the hajj. VS

The detained head of the Association in Defense of Prisoners' Rights, Emadeddin Baqi, was tried in absentia on December 15 at a branch of the Tehran Province appeals court, the daily "Etemad" reported on December 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7 and December 5, 2007). Baqi was detained in mid-October for alleged anti-state activities. In his published articles and books, he has criticized rights abuses or state policies in Iran. His lawyer, Yusef Molai, has said several lawyers defended Baqi and other defendants at an open court session on December 15. "We are waiting for the court's final decision on this," Molai said. Separately on December 17, a Tehran court charged the banned daily "Sharq" and its editor Mehdi Rahmanian with "publishing false reports to incite public opinion," and publishing indecent material, Mehr reported. The daily was taken to court by various institutional plaintiffs over four separate news reports, one of which was an interview with a member of what was called a "deviant" political group, and was considered to have provided the group with publicity, ISNA reported on December 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). The daily's lawyer, Mahmud Alizadeh-Tabatabai, told Mehr that Rahmanian defended himself and the newspaper at a December 17 court session, and was released after a third party left a written pledge. A verdict is now expected, Alizadeh said. VS

Turkish soldiers crossed the Turkey-Iraq border overnight and reached locations about 2.4 kilometers inside Iraq, Iraqi media reported on December 18. Turkey is hunting fighters from the Turkish-Kurdish separatist group Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Media reports differed on the number of troops involved, with estimates ranging between 500-800 Turkish troops having crossed into Iraq by mid-morning. Reuters reported limited clashes between Turkish soldiers and the PKK, with no casualties reported. Jabar Yawar, the Kurdish regional minister for peshmerga affairs, said the troops crossed into Iraq's northernmost Dahuk Governorate and were some 120 kilometers north of the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil. Meanwhile, Jamal Abdallah, a spokesman for Iraq's Kurdistan regional government, said the troops were in a deserted mountainous frontier area, AP reported December 18. KR

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said on December 17 that the United States "continues to assist with information to the Turkish government that will help them deal with the insurgent situation that they have up there." Whitman did not say whether the United States gave its permission for the Turkish bombing campaign launched on December 16 in Iraq's Kurdish region, as Turkish officials alleged (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). On December 18, the "Washington Post" quoted Pentagon officials as saying that the United States is providing real-time intelligence to Turkey through an intelligence-sharing center it established in Ankara, providing imagery and other immediate information gathered from U.S. aircraft and unmanned drones. A senior administration official said the goal is to track the movement of PKK fighters. KR

The European Union issued a statement on December 17 urging Turkey to "exercise restraint" in its hunt for PKK rebels holed up in northern Iraq. Turkey launched what it called a large-scale bombing campaign against suspected rebel positions inside Iraq on December 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). "The [EU] presidency calls on the Turkish authorities to exercise restraint, to respect the territorial integrity of Iraq, and refrain from taking any military action that could undermine regional peace and security," the statement said. It also reiterated "the importance of reinforcing the dialogue and cooperation between the governments of Turkey and Iraq in order to ensure that the Iraqi territory is not used for any terrorist actions against Turkey." AFP reported on December 17 that the air strikes killed seven people, two of them civilians. KR

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unexpected visit to Kirkuk on December 18, stressing the importance to all Iraqis of the contested governorate and its capital city. "It is an important province for the future of Iraq, for a democratic Iraq, an Iraq that can be for all people," Rice said. Kirkuk is often called a microcosm of Iraq because of its ethnic and religious diversity. It is also a highly contested region, because Kurds claim the governorate, which holds vast oil fields, has historically been populated by Kurds, and as such should be incorporated into the autonomous Kurdish region (see next item). Rice hailed the recent progress made in resolving disputes between ethnic groups over control of the Kirkuk Governorate Council (see RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2007). Observers speculate that the purpose of Rice's visit might be to send a message to the Kurds regarding their designs on Kirkuk, because she did not hold a separate meeting with Kurdish leaders while in Kirkuk. She did, however, hold a closed-door meeting with local officials and representatives of Kirkuk's various ethnic communities. KR

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) announced in a December 15 statement on its website that an agreement has been reached between Iraq's presidency council, the prime minister, and the Kurdistan regional government's premier to extend by six months the constitutional deadline for implementing Article 140 on Kirkuk. The constitutional article calls for the normalization of Kirkuk, which entails the return of Kurds from the governorate who were displaced under Saddam Hussein's campaign of the 1980s, and the simultaneous return of Shi'a who were moved to Kirkuk under the campaign back to homes in the south. Under Article 140, a referendum was slated to be held this month in which residents of the governorate would vote on whether to join the Kurdish autonomous region. However, UN and Iraqi officials have said it is impossible to carry out the referendum on schedule. The UN statement said the agency will initiate a "process of facilitating the implementation of the article" during the next six months. According to independent lawmaker Mahmud Uthman, the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission said earlier this month that it will need five months to organize the referendum, the Sbay website reported on December 15. KR

Insurgents detonated a truck packed with explosives near Iraq's largest dam on December 17, international media reported. The explosion partly destroyed the main access bridge to the Mosul Dam and killed a policeman, Reuters reported. The dam itself did not sustain damage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned earlier this year that the dam, which holds 12 billion cubic meters of water, is on the verge of collapse due to poor construction. If it collapses, the Tigris River will likely flood its banks all the way to Baghdad, wiping out two major cities and killing tens of thousands of people, the report warned. Mosul police said last week that some 250 insurgents entered the governorate with the aim of blowing up the dam. A source said the insurgents obtained special underwater training outside Iraq in preparation for the attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). It is unclear whether police tightened security around the dam in light of the security threat. KR

Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani has reportedly refused to sign a new law passed by the region's parliament, the Sbay website reported on December 17. Barzani told the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, which drafted the law, that he will "not ratify a law that limits freedom," syndicate chairman Farhad Awni said. The draft law was heavily criticized by Iraqi journalists, media outlets, and international media watchdogs, who argued the law did not go far enough to protect journalists' rights (see "Iraq: Kurdistan Region Grapples With Draft Press Law," December 14, 2007, Official sources within the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate told RFE/RL on December 13 that the public criticism has led the group to reconsider the draft, and that it would ask Barzani not to sign it. The law will now be sent back to the parliament for revision. KR