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Newsline - December 19, 2007

President Vladimir Putin and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party held private talks in Moscow on December 18 at the end of Steinmeier's one-day visit to attend the inauguration of the massive Yuzhno-Russkoye oil and gas field in northwestern Siberia, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11 and 18, 2007). The news agency noted that the talks were private and that "details are not known." Steinmeier also had a "very friendly" and lengthy conversation with presidential candidate, Gazprom Chairman, and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whom Steinmeier knows from his earlier days as chief of staff to former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Steinmeier told reporters that Putin's endorsement of Medvedev as his successor and Medvedev's nomination of Putin as his future prime minister are aimed at ensuring "stability," which he praised. Referring to the gas field, Putin said that "it is very pleasing that Germany has initiated a project here." Steinmeier noted that "this is a symbolic day for the development of economic and political relations between our two countries, particularly for energy supplies.... Russia supplies 30 percent of total European demand for gas, and in Germany alone it is 40 percent." Deutsche Welle quoted Steinmeier as adding that the Yuzhno-Russkoye project will ensure Germany's gas supplies for years to come. Medvedev said that developing the field "is a clear example of an effective Russian-German partnership. It is a mutual contribution to ensuring stability of the energy security of Europe." The government newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on December 19 quoted Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller as saying on December 18 that he hopes that his company and Germany's E.ON will soon conclude negotiations on exchanges of assets so that it can join in the Yuzhno-Russkoye project with a 25 percent stake. The paper declared that "Gazprom has entered Europe" through its deals with its German partners. Before returning to Berlin, Steinmeier met with a group of Russian human rights activists, whom he encouraged to continue working for their goals, Deutsche Welle reported. PM

On December 18, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on a visit to Riga to finalize a border agreement that the controversial Nord Stream pipeline under the Baltic Sea promotes energy security, news agencies reported. He stressed that countries in the region should not "politicize" the project. He did not elaborate. Poland, Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic states all object to Nord Stream on political or economic grounds or both (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 2 and 7, and December 6 and 17, 2007). Reuters quoted Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins as saying on December 18 that his country is pleased with energy cooperation with Russia. He noted that the huge Latvian Incukalns gas storage facility is also used to supply parts of Russia. In Moscow, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who is President Putin's aide and special envoy to the EU, said that Nord Stream is open to other possible participants besides Gazprom and its German and Dutch partners, Interfax reported. He said that "in terms of ownership, this is a Russian-German-Dutch project. If someone displays an interest [in joining the project], it should be declared and discussed." PM

President Putin said on December 18 at a press conference with visiting Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis that "Greece is interested in signing new [gas] contracts after 2016 that will last up to 2040, with volumes rising almost twofold" over current levels, "The Moscow Times" reported on December 19. Putin added that "in order to increase volumes, there is a need for additional transport capacities." He was alluding to Gazprom's link under the Black Sea to Bulgaria called South Stream, which is seen as a rival to the EU's Nabucco (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26 and December 10 and 17, 2007). Karamanlis said that he supports South Stream, but added that considerable work needs to be done before the project can be realized. Putin noted that Greece is interested in buying over 400 infantry combat vehicles from Russia. He stressed that Russia is a "very reliable partner," adding that it will not tolerate any "political limitations" to its military cooperation with Greece. He did not elaborate. PM

The new government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk recently reversed the policy of his predecessor Jaroslaw Kaczynski and decided to hold bilateral talks with Russia on the planned U.S. missile-defense site in Poland, which is scheduled to include 10 interceptors, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on December 19. In Moscow on December 18, Putin's aide Yastrzhembsky announced that the discussions will take place in Warsaw in early 2008. He said he hopes the talks with the Poles will "help them to look at the problem in another way." Yastrzhembsky added that Tusk has been invited to visit Moscow in late January. In Brussels, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said on December 18 that "NATO would certainly welcome the greatest possible bilateral consultations on the issue of the U.S. missile-defense proposal, and not just in the NATO context. We need to lower the temperature on this issue and move to common ground." Russia has repeatedly threatened to aim missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic, which is to host a U.S. radar site under the missile-defense plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, 19, 26, and 27, October 29, and December 17 and 18, 2007). Since taking office in November, Tusk has sought to improve relations with Germany, the EU, and Russia. His Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski recently held talks in Brussels with Lavrov. On December 18, Yastrzhembsky said that "Tusk's government has done more for Polish-Russian relations than was done in the past two years" under Kaczynski, AP reported. Speaking in Warsaw on December 18 via satellite link with Yastrzhembsky, Stefan Niesiolowski, a deputy parliament speaker and member of Tusk's Civic Platform party, noted that "we are a stalwart ally of the United States and [will] try to reconcile" that with being on friendly terms with Russia. Dpa reported from Warsaw on December 18 that, soon after taking office, Tusk withdrew Poland's objections to Moscow's joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Russia in turn dropped its two-year ban on Polish meat imports, paving the way for a resumption of talks on a Russia-EU partnership agreement. PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov said on Ekho Moskvy radio on December 18 that Russia will take "tangible" measures if the United States begins constructing missile-defense infrastructure in Poland and the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6 and 18, 2007). He stressed that "we will be ready to neutralize any risk that could arise. But we are also ready to ensure transparency from both sides. If any measures of trust are offered, we will not reject them." Lavrov appealed to Washington to be more "concrete" in its proposals. He repeated his earlier charges that Washington's written suggestions submitted to Russia in November were a pale shadow of the offers made orally in October in Moscow by top U.S. officials. He claimed that Washington withdrew an offer allegedly made in October for Russian personnel to be stationed permanently at the bases, a proposal that the Czech authorities firmly reject. Russia's campaign against missile defense is aimed at, among other things, driving a wedge between the United States and some of its European allies. PM

Air Force spokesman Colonel Aleksandr Drobyshevsky was quoted by Interfax as saying on December 19 that over 30 aircraft began a "patrol flight" earlier that day and that some of the planes will fly over neutral waters in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans and Black Sea. The aircraft taking part in the exercise include Tupolev Tu-160 (White Swan or Blackjack), Tu-22MZ (Backfire), and Tu-95 (Bear) bombers, which were developed decades ago, and Il-78 (Midas) refueling aircraft. President Putin said on August 17 that strategic bombers resumed regular long-range flights after a hiatus of about 15 years. PM

The Finance Ministry has reported on the 2007 results of the Stabilization Fund, "Vedomosti" and other Russian media reported on December 19. This year is the last year of the fund in its current form, as it is set to be split into two entities -- a Reserve Fund and a National Welfare Fund -- as of February 1, 2008. The Stabilization Fund was created in 2004 as a way of collecting surplus revenues from high global energy prices to use in the event of an economic downturn (see "How Are The Petro-Dollars Spent?,", March 15, 2006, and "To Spend Or Not To Spend,", January 9, 2005). At present, the fund stands at $150.9 billion and it earned a return of 11 percent in dollar terms this year, fund manager Pyotr Kazakevich told journalists. Analysts have been speculating that pressure is building to spend money from the fund, which until now has mostly been used just to pay off Russia's foreign debt (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1, 2007). In February, some $124 billion will be put into the Reserve Fund, while the reminder will go into the new National Welfare Fund, which is expected to have more liberal investment policies. In recent months, the government has loosened spending policies, increasing pensions and spending on infrastructure. Kazakevich, however, told "The Moscow Times" on December 19 that the temptation to use the fund for domestic spending must be resisted in order to keep inflation under control. RC

Regions across Russia are adopting measures to combat another sharp increase in prices of basic consumer staples, reported on December 19. The country experienced an unexpected jump in inflation in the weeks immediately before the December 2 Duma elections. In the Far East and the northern parts of the country, prices for gasoline, dairy products, cooking oil, and grain have increased between 3-13 percent since the elections. Local administrations in Tver Oblast, the city of Vladivostok, Krasnoyarsk Krai, the Republic of Udmurtia, and the city of Arkhangelsk have signed agreements on price freezes with producers. on December 19 reported that the price of 10 eggs in Kamchatka rose five rubles ($0.20) in just 24 hours this week. The website argued that considering recent government obligations to increase pensions, benefits to military personnel, and wages for budget-sector workers, the country can expect a noticeable upturn in inflation in 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). RC

Although more than 20 people have submitted preliminary documents to participate in the March 2, 2008, presidential election, only six are likely to appear on the ballot, "Moskovsky komsomolets" wrote on December 19. Those candidates include three who have been nominated by parties that are represented in the Duma and therefore do not have to collect 2 million signatures in their support: First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev, who is supported by Unified Russia, A Just Russia, and four other small parties; Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov; and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Among candidates who do not have such backing but who have a reasonable chance of submitting the necessary signatures are Union of Rightist Forces candidate Boris Nemtsov, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and Democratic Party of Russia leader Andrei Bogdanov. Bogdanov's small party is considered a project of the Kremlin, which is expected to help him qualify for the vote. According to the daily, former Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky is likely to withdraw his candidacy in favor of one of the better-known liberal candidates, Nemtsov or Kasyanov. According to a recent Levada Center poll, 23 percent of Russians think the liberal opposition will unite around a single candidate, while 40 percent believe this will not happen (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 29, 2007). RC

Chechen deputy military commissar Said-Magomed Kakiyev said on December 18 that some members of the Zapad (West) battalion, of which he is the former commander, have been deployed to the Abkhaz conflict zone, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on December 19. Sulim Yamadayev, commander of the Vostok (East) battalion, similarly confirmed that some of his men are currently in South Ossetia. Both units report directly to the Russian Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and have a reputation for ruthlessness and extensive combat experience. The website quoted Lieutenant General Yury Netkachev, the former deputy commander of Russian forces in the Transcaucasus, as saying that the Chechens were deployed to the conflict zones to deflect anticipated aggression by Georgia. LF

North Ossetian Interior Ministry personnel snatched two Ingush men in central Nazran on December 18, but were prevented from taking them to North Ossetia by Ingush police, who escorted both the Ossetian personnel and the two detainees back to Nazran, Russian media reported. The head of the North Ossetian detachment then called Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov, after which Ingushetian Interior Minister Musa Medov issued orders to release the Ossetians, and announced that the two detained Ingush were suspected of involvement in the August 13 bombing of the Neva Express train, the independent website reported. One detainee was released; the Ossetians took the second with them. Two Ingush brothers have been charged with the Neva Express bombing, although they have cast-iron alibis backed up by witnesses who are ready to testify that they were both in Ingushetia at the time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, November 2 and 26, and December 6, 2007). LF

Raffi Hovannisian, who served as Armenian foreign minister in 1992-93, has issued a list of 21 questions to the nine candidates registered for the February 19 presidential election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 18. The U.S.-born Hovannisian has been barred from the ballot on the grounds that he has not been a citizen of the Republic of Armenia for the required minimum 10 years. His Zharangutiun party will decide on the basis of the responses it receives to his questions which alternative candidate to support. Candidates are asked not only to outline their election programs and list their personal "merits and shortcomings," but also to estimate to what extent their personal wealth has increased since 1991, and to stipulate whether they have ever done anything that would render them vulnerable to blackmail. Those candidates who now occupy leading posts or who did so in the past, such as Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, are in addition asked whether they have engaged in vote-rigging, jailed innocent people, or committed other "major errors." Ter-Petrossian reportedly met on December 16 with Hovannisian but apparently failed to secure his support, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 17. Two years ago, Hovannisian publicized a list of 22 similar questions to President Robert Kocharian, to which he never received any response (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 13, and 19, 2005). Also on December 18, opposition National Democratic Union Chairman and presidential candidate Vazgen Manukian, who served as defense minister and prime minister under Ter-Petrossian, told journalists in Yerevan that Prime Minister Sarkisian's control of administrative and financial resources and of "the entire election process" is so extensive that it is unlikely he will be defeated unless the opposition aligns behind a single challenger. Several opposition candidates withdrew to back Manukian in the September 1996 presidential election, the results of which were rigged by Ter-Petrossian's henchmen to preclude a runoff between Ter-Petrossian and Manukian (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," December 28, 1998). LF

The online daily on December 19 quoted Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov as telling journalists that Iranian Ambassador to Baku Nasir Hamidi Zade has been summoned to the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry. Mammadyarov said the ministry provided Zade with documentation pertaining to the sentencing earlier this month of 15 men found guilty of espionage on behalf of Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2007). The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned Azerbaijan's ambassador in Tehran on December 16, apparently to protest the official account of the men's subversive activities released by Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). LF

Opposition parliament deputy Levan Berdzenishvili (Republican) said on December 18 that the opposition will not dispute the outcome of the January 5 pre-term presidential election if international observers conclude that the vote is free and fair, Caucasus Press reported. On December 13, former parliament speaker and acting President Nino Burjanadze accused the opposition of lacking any interest in the conduct of fair elections and of preparing to challenge the outcome on January 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2007). Burjanadze said on December 14 that any attempt by the authorities to rig the election would be tantamount to "political suicide." "If we planned to rig the election, we should not be making such a colossal effort" to win voters' support, she reasoned. On December 12, Burjanadze announced the creation of an interagency government "task force" to ensure the elections are free and fair and to "assist" international observers. It is not clear what forms this assistance is meant to take. Meanwhile, opposition representatives continue to highlight errors in voter lists, which reportedly include 383 voters aged 107 and "many" aged 105, Caucasus Press reported on December 19. LF

The Kyrgyz Supreme Court ruled on December 18 to overturn a controversial electoral regulation requiring political parties to surpass a 0.5 percent threshold of the vote in each of the country's seven provinces and two largest cities in order to win representation in parliament, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. The ruling raises the possibility that the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) and Social Democratic parties, both of which met a related 5-percent national threshold, garnering roughly 8 and 6 percent of the vote respectively, may be represented in the new unicameral parliament elected on December 16. Preliminary results showed the pro-government Ak-Jol Eldik Partiyasy (Best Path Popular Party) winning nearly all the 90 seats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17 and 18, 2007). The Supreme Court verdict overturned an earlier ruling by a Bishkek district court that dismissed a lawsuit by the Ak-Jol party challenging the regional election threshold (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 29, 2007), the website reported. The electoral requirement was also criticized by Kyrgyz ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu as an infringement of "Kyrgyz citizens' rights" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007), and by the 12 political parties participating in the election (sees "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). RG

Speaking in Bishkek on December 18, Kubatbek Baybolov, one of the leaders of the Ata-Meken party, warned that it may boycott sessions of the recently elected parliament, ITAR-TASS reported. Although Ata-Meken came in a distant second to the pro-government Ak-Jol party, it was expected to gain about 15 seats in the wake of the December 18 Supreme Court ruling. Baybolov said the party's leadership will decide at an upcoming session whether or not to boycott the new parliament, and that the party remains adamant in calling for the "cancellation" of the December 16 election because the results "were falsified." He further argued that many of the "party's votes were stolen" and vowed that "we will protect our interests by legal means." Former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, the leader of the opposition Ar-Namys (Dignity) party, similarly criticized the election as "illegitimate" and predicted that despite its overwhelming victory, the Ak-Jol party will not be able to gain the "people's trust," according to the website. RG

A group of some 70 members of the opposition Ata-Meken party began a hunger strike in the southern Kyrgyz town of Osh on December 18 to protest the recent parliamentary election, AKIpress reported. Local party leader Myrzabek Akmatov explained that the hunger strikers are demanding a recount of votes and "real decisions" on a detailed list of voting irregularities compiled by the party's election observers. Another 10 Ata-Meken party activists began a similar hunger strike on December 18 in the southern Jalal-abad region. About 50 members and supporters of the opposition Ar-Namys and Ata-Meken parties staged a public rally on December 18 in front of the parliament building in Bishkek to protest the election results, according to the website. Gathering in the public square facing the parliament, the demonstrators expressed their unhappiness with the election as local police stood nearby. Police in Bishkek forcibly dispersed another opposition rally organized the same day by prominent human rights activist Tolekan Ismailova and arrested about 20 protestors, along with Ismailova and a journalist covering the event, AKIpress reported. RG

An unnamed official from the Ton district prosecutor's office announced on December 18 criminal charges against local demonstrators, according to AKIpress. The official said that the criminal charges included the "illegal deprivation of freedoms and hindering the exercising of electoral rights and work of electoral commissions" stemming from a demonstration the day before in which some 300-400 Ton residents blocked a highway through the northern Issyk-Kul Region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007). The demonstrators were protesting the conduct of the December 16 parliamentary election, accusing local election commission officials of misconduct and voting irregularities and saying that they witnessed the officials improperly handling ballots. RG

In comments to reporters in Bishkek, the head of Kyrgyzstan's presidential Human Rights Commission, Tursunbek Akun, said on December 18 that the country's opposition parties "deserved" to be defeated in the recent parliamentary election, AKIpress reported. Akun added that the opposition parties suffered an electoral loss due to their failure to unite and back the opposition Ata-Meken party. He also noted that one of the main "advantages" of the pro-government Ak-Jol party, which won a landslide victory in the poll, " was its solidarity compared with other opposition parties." RG

In an announcement released in Dushanbe, Nozirjon Yodgori, the press spokesman of the Barqi Tojik (Tajik Electricity) state energy company, said on December 18 that the planned launch of the first of four units of the Russian-built Sangtuda-1 hydroelectric power station will be delayed until the end of the month or early January 2008, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Yodgori declined to explain the reason for the delay, adding that Andrey Rappoport, the head Russia's Unified Energy Systems (EES), would "clarify the reasons" for the delay on his arrival in Dushanbe later on December 18. The first unit of the Sangtuda-1 plant will have a planned capacity of 220 million kilowatt-hours and, once all four units are completed, will have an annual projected capacity of 2.7 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. EES has invested approximately $500 million in the construction of the Sangtuda-1 plant to date and retained a 75 percent share in the power plant, which is planned to fully meet Tajikistan's domestic demand and allow for the export of electricity to neighboring Afghanistan. The Russian executive is also set to participate in a planned international tender for the construction of the Roghun hydropower plant. An agreement signed in 2004 under which Russia's RusAL pledged to construct the Roghun facility was annulled in August 2007 after doubts arose about its viability (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 30, 2007). RG

During a December 17 cabinet meeting in Ashgabat, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov approved a new long-term rural development plan through 2020, Turkmen Television reported. The development program includes measures to increase the "living standards of the rural population" and "specific reforms aimed at improving social and living conditions of rural residents." According to the terms of an accompanying presidential decree, the heads of state "ministries and agencies" and regional, district and urban officials are instructed to "develop an annual set of measures" and design "planned construction projects" for approval by the ministry of economy and finance. During a separate discussion in the cabinet meeting, President Berdymukhammedov also endorsed planned ceremonial events to commemorate the first anniversary of the death in December 2006 of former President Saparmurat Niyazov, also known by his self-anointed term Turkmenbashi (father of all Turkmen), whom Berdymukhammedov described as "a person dear to all of us." In a review of the government's performance for the year, Berdymukhammedov criticized Deputy Prime Minister Gurbannazar Asyrow for his "poor performance" and for shortcomings in the transport and communications sectors, and for "slow progress" in the construction of the Turkmen sector of the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway project. RG

The Supreme Court of Belarus on December 18 upheld a Justice Ministry decision to deny registration to the Movement for Freedom, an organization led by former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Belapan reported. The Justice Ministry has twice turned down the Movement for Freedom's requests to be officially registered: in July, citing alleged flaws in the organization's charter, and in October, arguing that the movement's founding conference violated the law governing mass events. Founders of the Movement for Freedom claimed that the law on mass events does not apply to the founding conference of a nongovernmental organization. "If the Supreme Court finds that the Justice Ministry's arguments are true and does not oblige the ministry to register us, we will hold founding conferences and apply for registration time and time again," Milinkevich said at the court. "We will force the situation to absurdity," he added. AM

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has issued a statement calling on Mikalay Charhinets, a lawmaker in Belarus's upper chamber, to drop a lawsuit he brought against the "Novy Chas" independent newspaper, Belapan reported on December 18. Charhinets, who heads the Committee on International Affairs and National Security in the Council of the Republic, seeks 600 million rubles ($278,000) in damages from the newspaper, claiming that a story it ran in September insults his honor and dignity. "We are concerned about the charges against Novy Chas, which could result in the closure of one of only a handful of independent publications remaining in Belarus," the CPJ said in a statement. "We call on Mikalay Charhinets to immediately drop his lawsuit. As a public figure, he is subject to higher scrutiny and media criticism than private citizens." A Minsk district court begins hearing the case on December 19. AM

The Verkhovna Rada on December 18 approved a new cabinet, Ukrainian media reported. Representing the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc are First Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchynov, Deputy Prime Minister Hryhoriy Nemyra, Transport and Communications Minister Yosyp Vinskyy, Economy Minister Bohdan Danylyshyn, Fuel and Energy Minister Yuriy Prodan, Labor and Social Policy Minister Lyudmyla Denysova, Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers Petro Krupko, Agriculture Minister Yuriy Melnyk, Industry Minister Volodymyr Novytskyy, Finance Minister Viktor Pynzenyk, Coal Minister Viktor Poltavets, and Environmental Protection Minister Heorhiy Filipchuk. From the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc's are Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Vasyunyk, Education and Science Minister Ivan Vakarchuk, Culture and Tourism Minister Vasyl Vovkun, Health Minister Vasyl Knyazevych, Construction and Regional Development Minister Vasyl Kuybida, Utilities and Housing Economy Minister Oleksiy Kucherenko, Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, Justice Minister Mykola Onishchuk, Family, Sport, and Youth Policy Minister Yuriy Pavlenko, and Emergency Situations Minister Volodymyr Shandra. The Ukrainian president has the right to name the foreign minister and defense minister, who are Volodymyr Ohryzko and Yuriy Yekhanurov respectively. AM

Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's outgoing prime minister and the leader of the opposition Party of Regions, said on December 18 in the Verkhovna Rada that Ukraine will face political instability and conflict among its leadership, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yanukovych described the approval of Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister as an event that "will deepen the political instability and prompt confrontation in society." Yanukovych said that Ukraine is entering a period of change marked by "crises, political intrigues, and quarrels, first of all within the Orange team," referring to the ruling coalition. AM

The second most senior international official in Kosova, Steven Schook, will not remain in his post in 2008, the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) confirmed on December 18. Alexander Ivanko, an UNMIK spokesman, refused to divulge why the UN did not extend Schook's contract, the news service Balkan Insight reported. It therefore remains unclear whether the decision was connected with internal inquiries into Schook's conduct. The UN itself has not disclosed the subject of its investigation, but in a combative press conference given in September, Schook said he was accused of "aggressive behavior," "an unprofessionally close relationship" with two ministers -- including Ramush Haradinaj, a former prime minister currently facing charges of war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) -- and of "personal relationships with international and Kosovar women here in the mission" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1, 2007). Schook said he was only "guilty" of loving his job, of "not acting like a diplomat" and of "having great respect for Ramush Haradinaj's performance" as prime minister. Balkan Insight says that Schook has already left Kosova. AG

Several thousand ethnic Serbs gathered on December 18 in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica to show their support for Serbia's attempt to forestall independence for Kosova and to voice their opposition to the planned creation of an EU mission in Kosova. "Our delegation in New York is representing not only the interests of Serbia, but also the essence of international law and the principles upon which the entire world order is based," said Marko Jaksic, a senior figure in the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), whose leader, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, will address the UN Security Council on December 19. Jaksic urged the Serbian parliament "to suspend all processes aimed at joining the European Union" until Brussels accepts that Kosova should remain part of Serbia. Kostunica has been highly critical of the EU, but has yet to advocate that Serbia cut ties with the EU or to link Belgrade's efforts to join the EU to the bloc's stance on Kosova. Jaksic also said the rally "sent Europe a message that its mission won't be coming to Kosovo outside of the UN resolution." Serbia and its chief ally, Russia, believe an EU mission requires a mandate from the UN Security Council, in which Russia, as a permanent member, holds veto power. EU leaders on December 14 gave the go-ahead for an EU mission in Kosova, but left the details to be determined by their foreign ministers. In all, about 1,800 administrators, judges, and police officers from the EU will be deployed in Kosova. On December 17, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that about 80 of them will be British. AG

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa has said he is "slightly optimistic...that before the summer next year we can see the region of the Western Balkans more stable." As the president of the European Union for the first six months of 2008, Slovenia will have a significant part to play, and Jansa was upbeat regarding that role. "Slovenia has excellent cooperation with Serbia, also Kosovo, with all the former Yugoslav republics," Jansa said, adding, "we know the situation very well, also the details which are not easily understandable for countries which are far away." On the subject of Kosova, Jansa said Slovenia will not be "one-sided" and will not be influenced by the resurgence of its business interests in Serbia. He predicted that Kosova will be "cooperative" with the EU, as the province is "an international protectorate" and "depends on international help and also on international security." Jansa said that whatever the outcome of the current crisis over Kosova's status, an international presence -- in the form of soldiers, administrators, and judges -- will most probably remain in Kosova "for years [until] Kosovo fulfils the conditions for real negotiations of European membership." The EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, spent December 18 in Slovenia to discuss Slovenia's preparations for the EU presidency. AG

Raffi Gregorian, the second most senior international official in Bosnia-Herzegovina, on December 17 told Bosnian national television that Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica can ensure the arrest of the Bosnian Serbs' two senior wartime leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, "with just one phone call," AP reported. Gregorian said that both men are in Serbia "for sure." Gregorian is a U.S. diplomat and a deputy to the international community's High Representative in Bosnia, Miroslav Lajcak. The outgoing chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte, told the UN Security Council on December 10 that she is convinced that Mladic "is in the immediate reach of Belgrade," but said she does not know if Karadzic "is in a monastery in Montenegro, or in the Republika Srpska, or in Serbia, or in an apartment in Serbia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). The principal war-crimes charges against the two men relate to the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, which the UN's top court declared an "act of genocide" in February 2007. AG

The World Bank has approved a new tranche of loans to Bosnia to be spent on development projects over the next four years, the bank told local and international media on December 17. The loans amount to $400 million, and Bosnia will be eligible for more funds once it undertakes a number of steps towards reforming its economy and institutions. The terms of the loans will be stricter and more commercial than previous loans offered by the bank, but the money will nonetheless be made available to Bosnia relatively cheaply, the bank said. "We want to link our assistance to reforms because the path to Europe will require some reforms and we are ready to be partners in that," the bank's country manager in Bosnia, Marco Mantovanelli, said. The money will be invested chiefly in transportation and energy infrastructure, the business environment, and reforms of the judiciary and social security. The World Bank has provided Bosnia with $1.2 billion in loans since the end of the civil war in late 1995. AG

Police in Tehran have raided more than 430 Internet cafes and other shops during the first days of the latest campaign against what they say is inappropriate and un-Islamic conduct.

Iranian state media quote the police as saying that in the past few days, they have closed down 25 Internet cafes and given warnings to 170 cafe owners for "using immoral computer games and storing obscene photos," and for the presence of women without "proper hijab" on the premises.

At least 23 people -- including several women -- have been detained for similar reasons.

The owner of one of the Tehran Internet cafes that was inspected and temporarily closed down by police, who gave his name as Hessam, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that police started questioning him when they found some family photos -- with a female member of the family among them -- on a computer.

"We had a few family photos in our system. They asked, 'Who is this girl that is sitting close to you?'" Hessam said. "Just because of those private photos, they closed this place for three or four days. [The police pressure] has reached that level! It has become a headache, a problem for everybody. We don't know what to do."

The Internet, and Internet cafes, have become increasingly popular in Tehran and other Iranian cities in recent years.

According to official state figures, 60 percent of the country's population has access to the Internet. However, independent sources say that figure is exaggerated, given the fact that many Iranians villages do not even have electricity. International estimates say that some 20 percent of Iranians have access to the Internet.

Most of the customers at Internet cafes are young people who come to play computer games, check their e-mail, or take part in website chat rooms and blogs.

Some Iranian journalists describe the latest campaign as an attempt by the authorities to limit access to a major source of alternative news and information and restrict Iranian's intellectual and social freedom.

Badrolsadat Mofeedi, an independent journalist and a campaigner for media rights, told RFE/RL from Tehran that the latest assault on Internet cafes is no surprise. Mofeedi said that "in addition to a crackdown on independent media, every now and then the Iranian authorities put pressure on all other sources of news and information, such as satellite dishes, the Internet, and even bookshops."

In October, several Tehran bookstores were given a 72-hour ultimatum to close down coffee shops that were operating inside their stores. Amaken-e Omomi, a state body that controls retail trade, said that operating a cafe inside a bookshop is an "illegal mixture" of trades.

"Some Internet sites have been filtered. A variety of measures has been taken to restrict the political and social atmosphere for those who are involved in the distribution of the information," Mofeedi said.

The Iranian authorities say they have blocked access to "immoral websites" such as pornographic sites.

According to Iranian independent journalists, however, many political websites -- including personal weblogs or blogs -- and many independent news sources are blocked with a filter so that Iranians cannot access them. Those sites includes

Hassem, the Internet-cafe owner, says the "heavy filtering of the websites has slowed down the Internet in Iran, reducing its speed by almost 50 percent."

The clampdown has coincided with the ongoing police campaign against anyone who violates a strict Islamic dress code.

The police have even installed mobile stations on Tehran's busiest streets to stop women who disobey the dress code, for instance by wearing a hat instead of a head scarf or by tucking their pants inside of their boots.

Isa Saharkhiz, an independent journalist and a member of the Association for Press Freedom in Iran, told RFE/RL from Tehran that enforcing these restrictions -- on everything from dress to the Internet -- has been part of the Iranian government's policy since President Mahmud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005.

Saharkhiz said the closure of the cafes was partially aimed at preventing young people and intellectuals from getting together, as well as trying to restrict the free flow of information.

"None of these practices brought any results in the past," Saharkhiz says. "No one is able to put barriers on news and information and, especially, no one can shut down the Internet -- in Iran or elsewhere in the world."

Cafe owner Hassem said that no matter how hard the authorities try to block access to websites, young Iranians will succeed in circumventing the filter and find their way to the prohibited sites.

(RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Sariborz Soroosh contributed to this report.)

Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington, Said Jawad, told Pajhwak Afghan News on December 18 that top U.S. generals familiar with the situation in Afghanistan anticipate the need for an additional force of 5,000 soldiers to combat the Taliban insurgency and stabilize the country. Jawad recently held a series of meetings with top U.S. officials to make his case for additional forces and assistance. "I think the current levels and capacity of security forces in Afghanistan, international and Afghan forces combined, are not enough to overcome the challenges that you are facing," Jawad said. He recommended increasing the number of forces deployed; improving the quality of troops, including removing some of the limitations on their mandates; and most importantly, building the capacity of the national army and police force to help sustain progress. MM

A statement attributed to Taliban leader Mullah Omar on December 18 called on international forces deployed in Afghanistan to withdraw, and dismissed NATO's operations to retake the town of Musa Qala in Helmand Province as insignificant, Pakistan-based Afghanistan International Press (AIP) reported. The statement released to news agencies by AIP quoted Mullah Omar as claiming that aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq has brought suffering not just to the occupied states, but also to the aggressor states, and blaming the United States and its allies for violence in Afghanistan. "Therefore, international institutions and all countries, especially Muslim states, should find a way for the evacuation of aggressor forces, and along with occupied nations help form a permanent and independent government," the statement said. Omar downplayed NATO forces' recent recapture of the Taliban-held district of Musa Qala, remarking that "they are...celebrating a partial occupation of the small district of Musa Qala, the way they did six years ago over the occupation of Afghanistan." MM

Dutch Overseas Development Minister Bert Koenders announced on December 17 that the ministry has awarded a three-year contract worth 34 million euros ($49 million) to a German group, Gesellschaft fuer Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), to construct roads, fund small businesses, and assist local governments and farmers in the volatile southern regions of Afghanistan, Afghan and international media reported. Dutch lawmakers are currently preparing to debate the government's decision to extend its military mission with the NATO-led force in Afghanistan by two years until 2010. The coalition government is assured of a majority of lawmakers supporting the deployment extension in Afghanistan. Critics of the mission in Afghanistan argue that Dutch troops are too deeply involved in fighting to contribute to rebuilding Afghanistan's damaged economy and infrastructure. MM

The U.S. Senate on December 18 passed bipartisan legislation creating the post of a special inspector-general for Afghanistan's reconstruction to monitor U.S. aid to the country, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Senator Frank Lautenberg (Democrat, New Jersey), a co-author of the bill, said, "Our work in Afghanistan is crucial to both our national security and our fight against terrorism. Unfortunately, we have too little information about how American money is being spent in Afghanistan and whether there is waste, fraud, and abuse of these funds." The legislation was included in the final conference version of the FY 2008 Department of Defense Authorization Bill. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives by a vote of 370 to 49. MM

The U.S. State Department and the foreign ministries of France, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and China postponed a videoconference scheduled for December 18 to discuss a third set of sanctions on Iran, AFP reported. State Department spokesman Tom Casey told AFP in Washington that day that the powers will resume contacts in the coming days. The 5+1 powers -- the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany -- have yet to agree on the text of a third set of sanctions against Iran in response to its refusal to suspend its nuclear enrichment activities. Iran insists that its nuclear program is purely peaceful, but Western governments fear Tehran could use nuclear technology to produce weapons. Diplomats from the 5+1 powers held a videoconference on December 11 but did not finalize a draft text for sanctions. AFP quoted U.S. State Secretary Condoleezza Rice as saying in Washington on December 18 that the United States and Russia presently disagree on the timing and nature of sanctions, but stressed the continuation of a "two-track" approach with Iran, consisting of sanctions or a combination of talks and economic incentives. VS

Mark Fitzpatrick, an analyst at London's International Institute of Strategic Studies, told Radio Farda on December 18 that in agreeing to send fuel to Iran for the Bushehr nuclear plant, Russia has lost one means of pressuring Iran to abandon its fuel-making activities. Iran has pledged not to reuse the fuel sent to it for any military applications, but it could renege on its promise, Fitzpatrick said. He said Russia will now find it difficult to persuade Iran to abandon fuel production. Fitzpatrick added that Russia has evidently ended a two-year delay in sending fuel to Iran and believes Iran will soon resolve pending questions about its nuclear program with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He told Radio Farda that with or without economic incentives from Western powers, Iran has shown no inclination to abandon fuel-making activities. VS

Former diplomat and Tehran-based analyst Sabah Zanganeh told the Mehr news agency on December 18 that Iran should welcome the delivery of fuel to the Bushehr plant and start planning its future cooperation with Russia, which, he said, is seeking strategic partners in the Middle East. He said Russia produces nuclear fuel and will want to continue supplying Iran, but he cautioned that Iran must convincingly rebut arguments that it no longer needs to make its own nuclear fuel. Zanganeh said Iran should remind the international community that it needs a consistent, secure, and reliable nuclear fuel supply. Iranian politicians have in recent years accused Russia of deceit because of its delays in delivering fuel or in completing the construction of Bushehr, arguing that such delays show Iran needs to be as autonomous as possible, including in producing fuel, in its developing nuclear program. Separately, Reza Talai-Nik, an Iranian legislator and member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told the Fars news agency on December 18 that the Russian fuel delivery will boost confidence between Iran and Russia and "facilitate nuclear diplomacy." He urged renewed diplomatic efforts to counter "increasing pressure" from the United States and Israel on Iran to stop its fuel enrichment activities. VS

Reza Hosseini was formally presented on December 18 as the new deputy head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' (IRGC) joint headquarters for cultural affairs, replacing Hossein Taeb, Fars reported. The IRGC's joint headquarters chief Mohammad Hejazi presented Hosseini at a ceremony in Tehran and highlighted the importance of his duties, including drafting doctrines for the IRGC, overseeing the Basij militia's response to "soft" subversion by state enemies, and spreading the "culture of martyrdom" in the force. Iranian authorities regularly cite this as an important expression of selflessness and piety among Iranians. VS

The Iranian Interior Ministry and the Guardians Council -- which has supreme vetting and supervisory powers over Iranian elections -- are continuing talks on computerizing the electoral process, including vote counting, Deputy Interior Minister for Political Affairs Alireza Afshar said at the ministry in Tehran on December 18, Mehr reported. Iran is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in mid-March. Afshar said the two bodies agree on some aspects of computerization, but the Mehr report did not specify which. The Guardians Council has been reluctant to abandon standard paper-based voting, which it believes allows its inspectors to closely check on the results. Afshar on December 18 visited a ministry workshop providing training for the use of the election software developed by the ministry. Reformists have separately expressed concerns in recent days about Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati's most recent remarks on the vetting of electoral aspirants. He recently suggested that candidates will be disqualified from running in the March elections unless they can prove to Guardians Council officials that they are fit to run for public office. The council usually weeds out the majority of aspiring electoral candidates, leaving only the reputedly pious or conservative candidates. However, the council denies that it does anything but implement the law. VS

Prison authorities hanged two convicted drug traffickers in a prison in Zahedan, southeastern Iran, on December 17, "Kayhan" reported on December 18. The convicts were Khodadad Shebakhsh and Mohammad Reza Saleh, convicted on charges including armed robbery, drug trafficking, "spreading corruption on earth," and fighting God and religion. Separately, two brothers named Mohammad and Hasan were hanged in a prison in Isfahan, central Iran, on December 17, after being convicted of murdering a woman and her two-year-old son in 2005. They reportedly stabbed the two to death while robbing the woman's apartment in Isfahan, "Iran" reported on December 18. VS

The Turkish government did not provide advance notice to U.S. commanders in Iraq before the December 16 bombing campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan, AP quoted defense and diplomatic officials as saying on December 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). Two officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they knew nothing of the Turkish campaign until it was already under way. The United States then informed the Iraqi government of the incursion, one U.S. official said. One senior State Department official said the Turks informed the United States of the air strikes through military channels in Ankara only after the first planes were in the air. When questioned as to why Ankara didn't provide advance notice, Turkish officials said there was no time. "They said it was hot pursuit," the U.S. official said. "But our message to them was that they need to make sure we're aware of what they're doing and that we find out about it before the guns start firing." The official said that established coordination mechanisms require that Turkey inform Iraq and the United States ahead of any operation. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari also expressed dismay over Ankara's failure to inform his government. The Turkish military said in a December 18 statement that its ground forces that day inflicted a "heavy blow" on the Turkish-Kurdish separatist group Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007). KR

Turkish Air Force Commander General Aydogan Baboglu told the Istanbul-based daily "Milliyet" in an interview published on December 19 that Turkish forces did not hit any civilian targets during their bombing campaign in Iraq. "We identified each and every target [ahead of time]. We were certain that every single one was a building or location used by the PKK. After being sure that they were not being used by civilians, we included them on the target list. The operation was carried out in the form of precision strikes against these specifically identified targets. There is no question of any village or buildings used by civilians being hit," Baboglu said. He added that the military has video of the "entire operation." "The buildings we hit are buildings used by the PKK for various purposes. They are places used as shelters, storage depots, and for other purposes," he said. Baboglu told "Milliyet" that Turkey's superior air capability ensured the mission was carried out successfully, adding: "Those who were unaware of Turkey's might now know. I do not want to compare [Turkey] with other countries, but the strength and ability of the Turkish air forces have been seen once again." KR

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on December 18 that it is deeply concerned over the displacement of Iraqis as a result of Turkish shelling this week, and estimated that more than 1,800 people, or an estimated 300 families, have fled their homes along the Iraqi-Turkish border. UNHCR spokeswoman Astrid van Genderen Stort told reporters at a press briefing in Geneva that some families reported leaving their homes in two districts about 100 kilometers inside Iraq out of fear that their villages would be shelled. The displaced people told the UNHCR that 10 villages were shelled by Turkish forces. "Winter has set in and living conditions are very harsh, particularly for host families which now have to care for additional people," Stort said, adding that many of the displaced Iraqis said they cannot afford to pay monthly rents of $200 to $300 for alternative accommodation. One woman was reportedly killed in the shelling, and several people were injured. Stort added that over 200 farm animals were killed. "We were told families have each left one member behind in the affected villages as they could not leave their [remaining] livestock unattended," she said. The UNHCR met a request by the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) on December 17 to provide emergency supplies including blankets, stoves, lanterns, mattresses, and other necessities to families in need. The KRG will reportedly provide kerosene to the displaced families. KR

The United Nations Security Council met an Iraqi request on December 18 to extend the mandate of multinational forces in Iraq for another year. The 15-member body unanimously approved the extension, saying the mandate can be terminated earlier than December 2008 if the Iraqi government desires, a UN press release noted. In a letter to the Security Council requesting a one-year extension of the mandate, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki noted that multinational forces have "made an important and significant contribution to efforts to establish security and the rule of law" in Iraq. "It is our intention that our national forces will continue to take over those security functions until all 18 governorates are under the full security control of our troops in 2008," al-Maliki wrote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2007). KR

Iraqi security forces in Al-Qadisiyah Governorate south of Baghdad arrested 11 gunmen posing as members of the governorate's awakening council, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 18. Husayn al-Badri, head of the governorate council's security committee, said the gunmen were stopped while trying to cross the main road connecting the provincial capital of Al-Diwaniyah with outlying villages. Meanwhile, a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation led to the arrest of the head of the Salah Al-Din Awakening Council, Sabah al-Hassan al-Shammari, on charges of illegitimately gaining money from citizens, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 18, quoting security sources in the governorate. No further details were provided on the charges against al-Shammari. KR

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is "ready" to extend his decision to freeze the activities of his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, his spokesman Salah al-Ubaydi told reporters on December 18, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Al-Sadr froze his militia's activities for six months in August following violence among Shi'a in Karbala that left scores dead and more than 200 injured (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). KR