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Newsline - December 20, 2007

. President Vladimir Putin told reporters from the U.S. weekly "Time" on December 12 in Novo-Ogaryovo that he considers U.S. President George W. Bush "a very reliable partner, a man of honor" with whom he has a "really good personal relationship," reported on December 19. Putin stressed that he will leave office soon and has "no reason to give any compliments" he does not consider deserved. Putin declined to comment on the upcoming U.S. presidential race. He gave the interview in conjunction with the magazine's decision to name him "Person of the Year" for 2007 (see "Russia: U.S. Magazine Marks Putin's 'Grand Bargain,'", December 19, 2007). Most of his remarks about the United States were critical and made in response to reporters' questions about alleged Russian shortcomings. Putin responded to criticism of the development of Russian democracy during his administration by pointing to the confusion surrounding the 2000 U.S. presidential election and the indirectly elected Electoral College, which elects presidents in the United States. His tone with the reporters was often combative, including remarks like "it's clear that you've understood absolutely nothing of what I've said." Putin charged the United States is condescending toward those who want to be its friends because Washington wants only "vassals to command." The president's remarks reflected a strong desire to be treated by the Americans as an equal and indignation at what he senses is second-class treatment. Putin called such relations outmoded. "We don't want to give orders to anybody," he said. "We don't want to be a superpower that dominates and imposes its decisions. But we want to have enough strength to defend our interests and to build good relations with our neighbors and main partners so these partners are interested to see Russia develop and grow stronger." Putin charged that Washington seeks to belittle Moscow in order to intimidate it and influence its foreign and domestic policies. PM

...AND NATO...
In speaking to "Time" reporters outside Moscow on December 12, President Putin was particularly tough in discussing NATO, reported on December 19. The alliance has come in for heavy criticism by Putin and his subordinates, particularly since his landmark anti-U.S. speech in Munich on February 10. Putin asked the "Time" reporters on December 12: "How can NATO combat terrorism effectively? Did NATO prevent the terrorists from carrying out their attack on September 11 [2001] and killing hundreds and thousands of Americans? Where was your NATO to thwart that threat and to protect America? Where was it? It wasn't there, it isn't there, and it can't be there, because such threats can be addressed only by improving trust between each other, by working daily with partners that are capable of thwarting such threats. And Russia is one such partner." Asked to explain his famous statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century," Putin replied: "I meant not the political aspect of the Soviet Union's break-up, but the humanitarian one," which left "25 million" ethnic Russians as foreigners in states ruled by others. PM

Asked by "Time" reporters outside Moscow on December 12 about his possible future as prime minister, President Putin stressed that he has no plans to hold onto his presidential powers, reported on December 19. He said that if appointed prime minister, "I intend to carry out only the duties of prime minister as defined by the constitution and the law and to solve current economic and social problems -- roads, housing, education -- the things that concern the average citizen most of all. But the key political, administrative, personnel, defense, and international prerogatives do and must remain, of course, with the presidency." He added that he is in no hurry to be called a "national leader," saying that he feels more like a beast of burden. Putin said of opposition leader Garry Kasparov that "a person who works for an international audience can never be a leader in his own country." Putin stated bluntly that "our attempts to control corruption have been unsuccessful.... In a transitional economy and during the restructuring of an entire political system, dealing with such issues is more difficult, because unfortunately there is no reaction from civil society to this.... We have not worked out a system that encourages social control of the activities of public institutions." Asked in Moscow on December 20 about the newsweekly's decision to give Putin its distinction, presidential candidate, Gazprom Chairman, and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said "this is fully deserved," news agencies reported. He added that Putin "has done a lot for our country, and with his coming to power, Russia's authority in the international arena grew substantially stronger. People became proud of the fact that, in their pockets, they were carrying Russian passports, and if this is the assessment that an authoritative foreign publication gives [to Putin], then I agree with it." noted in its headline for the story on Putin and "Time" that the magazine once gave the same distinction to Adolf Hitler. PM

Atomstroieksport President Sergei Shmatko said on December 19 during a trip to China that Iran's first nuclear power plant -- which is being built by Russia at Bushehr -- will not come on line before late 2008, Interfax reported. He told the news agency that a precise date will be set "later." Atomstroieksport said in a statement on December 17 that it has begun delivering fuel for the first loading of the power plant (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14 and 17, 2007). The deliveries will take place in several stages over two months. The deliveries were scheduled to begin in March 2007, and the plant was slated to come on line in September 2007. Many foreign observers regarded the long delay, allegedly because of payment problems, as an excuse by Moscow to hold up work on the plant in response to pressure from Western countries. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on December 16 that it received written assurances from Tehran that the fuel will be used for no other purpose than for civilian energy needs. The statement noted that the shipment creates "qualitatively new conditions" that should enable Tehran to halt its own uranium-enrichment project because Russia is providing all the uranium it needs. The daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on December 18 that "it stands to reason to assume that the nuclear power plant will go on line in September 2008." Sergei Oznobischev, who is the director of the Institute of Strategic Evaluations and deputy chairman of the Russia-U.S. Association, told the daily that "many countries have cooperated with Russia only until they could manage to establish contacts with the United States, as a richer and stronger partner. A similar metamorphosis could happen in this case as well." He noted that "as for the Americans, Russian-Iranian rapprochement is something they could do without, but it is highly unlikely that they expected anything different from Moscow.... The Russian-Iranian contacts cannot sour the Russian-US relations any worse than they already are." PM

Officials at the Pushkin State Fine Arts Museum said in Moscow on December 19 that the Russian authorities have cancelled a showing in London of the exhibition "From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925," which is currently in Duesseldorf, the daily "Kommersant" reported on December 20. Museum officials said the British authorities failed to provide sufficient guarantees that all the works will be returned to Russia. The BBC reported on December 20 that Moscow fears the paintings could be impounded by a British court in response to claims by individuals saying the Russian government owes them money or by descendants of the original owners of the paintings in question. The British broadcaster noted that the Russian move is further evidence of deteriorating bilateral relations in the continuing row over the 2006 London murder of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 13, 14, and 17, 2007). The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on December 17 that neither side shows any willingness to back down in the dispute. PM

President Putin chaired a meeting of the State Council on December 19 devoted to discussing ways to realize the tasks he laid out in his state of the nation address in April, reported. According to the website, the meeting turned into a discussion of Russia's socioeconomic development in 2007 and future tasks in this area. "It turned out that outgoing President Putin set tasks for the future Premier Putin," wrote. "And future President Dmitry Medvedev helped him in that." During the session, Putin ordered Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin to review the federal budget for the next three years. According to the website, analysts say the main task for the future Putin-Medvedev tandem will be to curb inflation, which, according to the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, could reach 12 percent or more this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). Putin also called for increasing the effectiveness of the energy sector and stimulating the development of high-tech industries. Medvedev called for continued work on the so-called national projects in the areas of housing, public health, education, and agriculture. Putin also said that "democratic elections" for the country's parliament had been successfully carried out and reminded regional leaders of their responsibilities in the run-up to next March's presidential election. He asked them to ensure that citizens are able to express their "free choice" and that there is "uninterrupted administrative and economic activity" during the election period. JB

Presidential-administration chief Sergei Sobyanin has ordered the presidential domestic policy and state-legal departments to develop "variants for correcting federal legislation and law-enforcement practice in favor of strengthening the power of the chairman of the government," "Argumenty nedeli," No. 51, reported on December 20. President Putin said on December 17 that he would not seek to change the balance of power between the president and the prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007). The measures under consideration include amending federal constitutional law so that a president can dismiss a prime minister only if the move is backed by four-fifths of the State Duma and two-thirds of the Federation Council; "reestablishing the practically abolished mechanism for removing a president from office"; and giving the prime minister control over the "power departments," state corporations, and natural monopolies. According to "Argumenty nedeli," the federal constitutional law on the government is sufficiently contradictory that it would not need to be amended in order to give the prime minister control over the Federal Security Service, Interior Ministry, Prosecutor-General's Office, Investigative Committee and Justice and Emergency Situations ministries. "The premier can create and head a deliberative body," the weekly wrote. "For example, the State Committee for Defense, such as Stalin had. The defense minister, chief of the [armed forces'] General Staff and first deputy prime minister overseeing the [military-industrial complex] could be included in it." The prime minister can also be put in charge of bodies like the National Antiterrorism Committee and the State Antinarcotics Committee, wrote "Argumenty nedeli," adding that the only bodies over which the prime minister will have difficulty establishing direct authority are the Federal Protection Service (FSO), the president's Main Department for Special Programs (GUSP), and the presidential security service. The weekly cited unnamed Kremlin sources as noting signs of "latent competition" among the three contenders for the post of Kremlin administration chief under the next president, identifying them as Sobyanin, deputy Kremlin administration chief and presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, and presidential aide Igor Shuvalov. JB

"Komsomolskaya pravda" elected a new board of directors during a shareholders' meeting on December 19, "Vedomosti" reported on December 20. The board now includes two representatives of the ESN Group -- ESN Group head Grigory Beryozkin and "Komsomolskaya pravda" Editor in Chief Vladimir Sungorkin -- which bought 61 percent of the newspaper from Vladimir Potanin's Prof-Media holding company earlier this year. The board also includes four people connected to the St. Petersburg-based Baltic Media Group (BMG) -- BMG head Oleg Rudnov; BMG legal department chief Sergei Bartenev; "Nevskoe vremya" Editor in Chief Mikhail Ivanov; and Alyona Yerofeyeva, deputy general director of the company "Volna." "Vedomosti" quoted both an unnamed BMG "top manager" and an unnamed member of the "Komsomolskaya pravda" board of directors as saying that Rudnov now owns "the largest share holding" of "Komsomoskaya pravda" and is the newspaper's "majority shareholder." Rudnov is a business partner of Yury Kovalchuk, co-owner of the St. Petersburg-based Rossiya Bank and a close associate of President Putin's (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3, 2007). "Vedomosti" quoted analyst Vladimir Prybylovsky as saying that Rudnov worked in the ideological department of the Soviet Communist Party's Leningrad city committee and has known Putin since the 1990s. "Komsomolskaya pravda" is one of Russia's largest-circulation newspapers. JB

Oleg Shvartsman, the fund manager who touched off a storm with an interview he gave to "Kommersant" last month in which he claimed that the state is carrying out a "velvet reprivatization" in favor of Kremlin insiders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6, 2007), has given interview to the "Financial Times" -- his first interview with Western media. The British newspaper on December 19 reported that Shvartsman backed off from assertions that his fund, Finans-Group, is tied to the Kremlin and insisted that "Kommersant" had "distorted" his words. But he stood by his calls for a state-backed "reprivatization" drive. When pressed over the potential Kremlin ties of the backers of his company, Shvartsman said: "We are not going to check whether [investors] are relatives of administration officials." He added: "I have partners who enter either on the condition that they bring money or possibilities." He also told the "Financial Times" that his "Kommersant" interview "is an element of an internal clan battle." "The situation has been used to discredit the 'power' ministries among others and in a certain way they have achieved this," he said. "I have become a hostage of this situation." In his "Kommersant" interview, Shvartsman specifically named deputy presidential-administration head Igor Sechin as the leader of the Kremlin faction he claimed is pressuring businesses. JB

Police from North Ossetia on December 18 detained two men suspected of carrying out an August 2007 train bombing, reported. The two suspects, identified as Salambek Zagiyev and Bashir Kotiyev, were detained in a special operation in neighboring Ingushetia and are wanted in connection with a bombing of the Nevsky Express train in Russia's Novgorod Oblast. After the arrest, however, security forces in Ingushetia stopped the North Ossetian police officers and held them for several hours before being released on instructions from Ingush President Murat Zyazikov. Kotiyev was also released, but Zagiyev was held in police detention in Vladikavkaz for further questioning. RG

Several hundred protesters rallied in Gyumri, Armenia's second-largest city, on December 19 in support of the embattled Gala Television station, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The rally was organized by local and Yerevan-based civic groups to support the station in the wake of a raid by tax inspectors in late October. Protesters also criticized the Armenian State Tax Service for freezing Gala's assets. The station ignored an official warning not to broadcast former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's September 21 indictment of the present leadership, after which the Tax Service accused Gala of failing to pay some 26 million drams ($80,000) in taxes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23 and November 1 and 13, 2007). RG

Speaking at a session of the Azerbaijani parliament in Baku on December 18, two pro-government deputies strongly criticized a group of journalists for their recent visit to Armenia, ANS-TV reported. Deputy Zahid Oruc called on parliament to "adopt a serious law" to monitor and possibly levy "sanctions" for such visits. A second deputy, Azay Quliyev, declared that "any contact with Armenia is unacceptable," and said parliament should express its "attitude to such visits." The deputies were referring to a recent visit by a group of Azerbaijani journalists to Armenia to report on a week-long Days of Azerbaijan event at an public school in Yerevan. That event was designed to "promote Armenian-Azerbaijani reconciliation" by giving students and teachers a chance to hold discussions with visitors from Azerbaijan, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 17. RG

According to an official announcement by the presidential press service in Baku on December 19, President Ilham Aliyev has appointed new governors, or "executive heads," for six regions, Turan reported. The newly appointed officials included Sair Alexasov as the head of the Qusar District, Aflatun Rufiyev in the Siyazan District, Anvar Seidaliyev in the Agsu District, Ramiz Cabrayilov to oversee the Lachin District, Aydin Agahuseynov in the Oguz District, and Elxan Huseynov as the new head of the Agstafa District. The reason for the replacements of such a large number of regional officials was not explained. RG

In a report assessing the January 5 pre-term Georgian presidential election campaign, the Media Council watchdog group said on December 18 that the political reporting of most media outlets in Georgia is "balanced in quantity," although the study found an "unequal distribution of airtime" among the candidates, Rustavi-2 television reported. Media Council member Davit Paichadze noted that despite expectations, Mikheil Saakashvili, who stepped down as Georgian president in late November to campaign for reelection, is in third place in terms of total airtime on both the Rustavi-2 and the public broadcasting stations, and his coverage was eclipsed by opposition Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili and candidate Levan Gachechiladze. The sole exception, the report found, was Saakashivili's domination of coverage by the traditionally pro-government Imedi-TV. RG

A district court in the central Kazakh region of Karaganda on December 19 handed down a three-year suspended sentence to Yury Litvinov, the former mayor of the city of Karaganda, following his conviction on charges of corruption, forgery, and abuse of office, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Judge Yerbol Abzhanov also placed Litvinov on one-year probation and banned him from holding any state position for at least a year. The same court acquitted Litvinov of all charges in June 2007, but prosecutors appealed that ruling. RG

Meeting in Astana on December 19, a delegation of senior banking officials led by Kazakh Central Bank Director Anvar Saydenov briefed President Nursultan Nazarbaev on measures aimed at "stabilizing" the country's financial markets, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. The officials reported that "despite temporary problems that certain banks in the country face, the situation is fully under control, and the level of lending volumes has stabilized." They also told the president that there is a need for further scrutiny of the financial sector, noting that a significant level of "foreign commitments" and loan repayments are due in 2008. The head of the Financial Market Regulation and Control Agency, Arman Dunaev, also participated in the briefing and reported on measures being taken in view of indications of instability in world financial market. Speaking at a press conference following the briefing, Saydenov said the Central Bank continues to hold "a quite large portfolio of reliable foreign assets" and stressed that "Kazakhstan's balance of payments is good," with expectations for continued growth of oil-driven export earnings. But he added that inflation is expected reach 18 percent by the end of the year. RG

In an announcement in Bishkek following the release of updated figures from Kyrgyzstan's December 16 parliamentary election, the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission (CEC) stated on December 19 that four parties have surpassed the minimum 5 percent threshold to enter the new parliament, AKIpress reported. With 2,235 of the country's 2,236 polling stations reporting , the CEC said that the pro-government Ak-Jol Eldik Partiyasy (Best Path Popular Party) won nearly 47 percent of the vote (1.2 million votes), followed by the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party with 8.29 percent (228,319 votes). The Communist Party placed third, with 5.12 percent (141,034 votes), followed by the opposition Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan with 5.05 percent (55,651 votes). The new results come in the wake of a decision by the Kyrgyz Supreme Court overturning a controversial electoral regulation requiring political parties to surpass a 0.5 percent threshold in each of the country's seven provinces and two largest cities in order to win representation in parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2007). That second requirement initially meant that only the Ak-Jol party would be in the new 90-seat parliament. The CEC also reported that the opposition Turan and Ar-Namys (Dignity) parties secured 2.02 and 1.6 percent of the vote, respectively, and other parties -- including the Erk, Erkindik, Asaba, Aalam, Glas Naroda, and the Novaya Sila parties -- all polled less than 1 percent. RG

Meeting in Dushanbe on December 19, the upper house of the Tajik parliament elected three new deputy speakers, Avesta reported. With parliament speaker Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloev presiding, deputies elected Qohir Rasulzoda, the head of the northern Sughd Region, as first deputy speaker, and voted in Qodir Qosim, the head of the Mountainous Badakhshon Autonomous Region, as deputy speaker. Deputies also elected Munim Kholiqov, the mayor of the Istaravshan, as the head of the committee on relations with the lower house of parliament (or Majlis-i Namoyandagon), the executive branch, public associations and the media. The mayor of the city of Panjakent in the Sughd Region, Khisrav Abdunazarov, and the head of the Murghob District of the Mountainous Badakhshon Autonomous Region, Mayrambek Toychiyev, were named members of that committee. The election of the new parliamentary officials was held to fill vacancies following the resignation of several members of the upper house of parliament during the summer. RG

In a meeting in Ashgabat on December 18, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and visiting Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko discussed bilateral energy cooperation and the construction of a pipeline skirting the Caspian Sea, Turkmen Television reported. Berdymukhammedov informed Khristenko that an agreement on the Caspian project, which is to transport gas from Turkmenistan across Russian territory and on to European markets, is to be signed in Moscow on December 20. In a meeting last month with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov in Ashgabat, Berdymukhammedov promised to sign a final agreement on the pipeline, which is to transport some 230 million cubic meters of gas daily, representing an annual increase of about 20 billion cubic meters of gas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26 and 28, 2007). The existing pipeline, constructed in the mid-1970s, runs from Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Russia and currently pumps around 50 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually. RG

President Berdymukhammedov also met on December 18 in Ashgabat with the head of the Russian TeleSystems telecommunications company, Leonid Melamed, to discuss plans for the company's expansion into the Turkmen telecoms sector, according to Turkmen Television. Melamed also briefed Berdymukhammedov on his company's plans to introduce high-speed, broadband Internet services to the country as part of its planned investment. Melamed also agreed to a Turkmen request to train an undetermined number of Turkmen specialists in Russia. RG

Speaking in Tashkent on December 19, prominent Uzbek human rights activist Akhtam Shaimardanov criticized President Islam Karimov for seeking reelection in the country's December 23 presidential election, according to Reuters. Shaimardanov warned that "a continuation of [Karimov's] rule" could "spark unrest" in Uzbekistan. He also recently joined an effort by the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan to challenge the legality of Karimov's nomination as the presidential candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2007). According to the terms of the Uzbek Constitution, Karimov, now serving his second seven-year term, is prohibited from running for another term. He has already extended his term in office through national referendums in 1995 and 2002. RG

The UN General Assembly on December 18 voted 72 to 33, with 78 abstentions, to adopt a U.S.-initiated resolution criticizing the deteriorating human-rights situation in Belarus and urging the government immediately to release all political prisoners, Belapan reported. The resolution affirms that "the situation of human rights in Belarus in 2007 continued to significantly deteriorate." The document cites the "severely flawed" presidential election in March 2006 "due to arbitrary use of state power" and the government's failure to ensure that local elections in January 2007 met international standards. The resolution expresses "deep concern" over the government's continued use of the criminal justice system to silence political opponents and human rights defenders and over reports of harassment and closure of nongovernmental organizations, national minority and religious groups, opposition political parties, independent media outlets, trade unions, and student organizations. The document calls on Belarusian authorities "to release immediately and unconditionally all individuals detained for politically motivated reasons and other individuals detained for exercising or promoting human rights." AM

Anatol Shumchanka, leader of the Perspektyva small-business association, said on December 19 that nearly 80,000 market vendors took part in a one-day strike against a presidential decree restricting the activities of small businesses, Belapan reported. Under the decree, starting from January 1, 2008, certain small-business owners will be barred from hiring employees other than three family members. Shumchanka said most vendors took part in the protest in the country's regional capitals, apart from Vitsyebsk, where Shumchanka attributed the small number of protesters with a lack of agreement among activists. The Belarusian government offered to allow entrepreneurs who are affected by the decree to re-register as "private unitary enterprises," but vendors argued that operating as such an entity would mean higher taxes, among other things. An unregistered organization called For The Free Development of Enterprise intends to call a nationwide strike on January 1. AM

Ukrainian Premier Yulia Tymoshenko said on December 19 during the first meeting of the new Ukrainian cabinet that the government will prepare and submit within one week to the Verkhovna Rada a new draft of Ukraine's 2008 budget, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The government of former Premier Viktor Yanukovych adopted the budget draft in September, but the presidential staff announced later that it had not included all the social initiatives that were submitted by the president. Tymoshenko also said she wants all Ukrainian ministries to conduct "anticorruption audits or anticorruption examinations" in order to show "how [the previous government] spent each penny, issued each license, privatized and gave into private ownership each object -- whether it was done in a fair or unfair way." AM

Olena Lukash of the opposition Party of Regions on December 19 demanded parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk suspend the operation of the coalition of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS), RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The Verkhovna Rada on December 18 suspended parliamentary mandates of 14 BYuT and NUNS lawmakers due to their acceptance of posts in the new cabinet of ministers. Under Ukrainian legislation, the vacated seats will be filled by the individuals who followed the suspended lawmakers on the BYuT and NUNS electoral lists, but the procedure for registering new lawmakers by the Central Election Commission will take some time. Lukash, on behalf of the Party of Regions, proposed announcing officially the collapse of the coalition. Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov described the proposal as "a joke." AM

Kosova's president and Serbia's prime minister on December 19 presented their arguments for and against Kosovar statehood to the UN Security Council at a meeting called to discuss the conclusions of international mediators, international media reported. The mediators' report, which was submitted to the UN secretary-general on December 7, three days before the deadline, concluded that four months of additional talks have brought the two sides no nearer to an agreement. Ambassadors from a number of Western powers -- including those of permanent Security Council members the United States and Great Britain -- said after the meeting that the presentations by Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica demonstrated clearly that there is no value in further direct talks. Serbia and Russia, another permanent member of the Secretary Council, both believe talks should continue. The Security Council did not call for further talks. That decision rests with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has said. A decision to start a fresh round of talks would be the second time that the UN would have opted to review the conclusion reached in March by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari that Kosova should be granted "supervised independence." AG

In his speech to the UN Security Council, Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica based his defense of Serbian sovereignty on international law, asking: "Will for the first time in the UN's history a decision be taken -- contrary to the will of a democratic state and, what is more, of a UN founding member -- to redraw its internationally recognized borders, to abolish its sovereignty, and to amputate 15 percent of its territory?" By contrast, Kosovar President Sejdiu based his case for independence on the situation on the ground. "We are exhausted after nearly two decades of isolation, war, and political limbo," Sejdiu said. "Lack of clarity about our status has held back our economy, discouraged international investment, and prevented us from accessing international-financial-institution lending." He also stated that Kosova's bid for independence "is not a case of ethnic secession, but rather a special case that must be seen in the context of Yugoslavia's collapse," a statement designed to emphasize that independence for Kosova would not serve as a precedent for other separatist movements, as Russia and Serbia contend. Recent days have seen fresh warnings from Russia and Serbia that they will seek to annul, through the UN, any declaration of independence by Kosova against Serbia's wishes. There have also been competing assertions from Russia and Belgrade, on one side, and the EU, on the other, about whether the EU is legally able, as it believes it is, to replace the UN administration in Kosova with an EU mission without a fresh UN mandate. AG

Transdniester will renew its efforts to gain UN recognition as a sovereign state if the UN endorses independence for Kosova, the speaker of the Transdniestrian parliament, Yevgeny Shevchuk, said on December 19, according to ITAR-TASS. Past efforts by Transdniester to gain UN recognition were rejected "on the grounds that the issue should be examined by guarantor states within the framework of already signed agreements and under the aegis of the UN," Shevchuk said. Shevchuk linked his comments specifically to the position that the UN might adopt on the question of Kosova, and did not indicate how Tiraspol might react if Kosova were to declare independence without the endorsement of the UN. AG

Macedonia's foreign minister has again urged Greece not to veto Macedonia's bid for NATO membership because of the dispute over Macedonia's name, likening its right to a veto to "the right to a nuclear weapon," AP reported on December 19. "I believe Greece is a serious state, which will think twice before deciding to use such an option," Antonio Milososki said. He also called for top-level talks to resolve the dispute, which has resulted in Macedonia using the moniker "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" in many international forums since 1991. A senior official in the Macedonian foreign ministry said on December 18 that Milososki has written to his Greek counterpart, Dora Bakoyannis, proposing direct negotiations. Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski called for talks on December 10, a few days after UN-appointed mediator Matthew Nimetz visited both Skopje and Athens and brokered an agreement on talks in January. AP said that Milososki is suggesting more frequent meetings, with the Greek and Macedonian foreign ministers meeting twice a year. Reports in the local media indicate that is the plan, with the addition that the two countries' prime ministers should meet at least once a year and that a historical committee address some of the issues that underpin the dispute. Recent days have seen a flurry of reports in the Macedonian media about the diplomacy surrounding the issue. One unnamed source quoted by A1 television on December 18 claimed that Greek officials are on the verge of deciding not to veto Macedonia's invitation to join NATO, which Skopje hopes to receive in April, but will later block Macedonia's accession by refusing to ratify membership. AG

Ethnic-Albanian leaders on December 17 rejected an offer from the government to join a "coordinating body" that addresses security and development issues in the south of the country. The head of the body, Labor and Social Affairs Minister Rasim Ljajic, said the decision has a "political background," Balkan Insight reported. The body was established in 2000 largely to address security concerns related to the insurgency by ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia. The insurgency ended in 2001 and the committee's remit was then expanded to include economic development. A new strategy is currently being devised the aims of which, according to Ljajic, will be "the preservation of stability and economic development, the continuation of the integration of local Albanians in state bodies, and the encouraging of local Serbs to stay in the area." According to local media, officials from the Presevo Valley's three municipalities -- Presevo, Bujanovac, and Medvedja -- contend that they have not been adequately consulted during the formulation of the strategy, a charge Ljajic rejects. Ljajic comes from Sandzak, an ethnically mixed area in the south that borders Kosova and Montenegro. AG

Two mine-disposal experts were killed on December 18 as they tried to clear mines near the town of Trebinje in southeastern Bosnia-Herzegovina, local and international media reported on December 19. The Bosnian Mine Action Center, for whom the men were working, says 34 people have died trying to defuse mines since the end of Bosnia's civil war. The group did not disclose the names or nationalities of the latest victims. The location of some 350,000 mines is known, but there is no documentation on the position of most of the mines laid during the war. AG

The December 19 announcement that "Time" magazine has named Russian President Vladimir Putin its person of the year will come as little surprise to most Russians. "They say that Putin is the most successful figure of the 20th century," academic Leonid Polyakov told a roundtable in September. "I would pose the issue more broadly: Who in history has been more successful than him? Who accumulated such a potential of confidence after being in power just eight years?"

Or, as former First Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Sliska put it more succinctly in May: "Putin is our everything."

The newsweekly's editors are careful to note that the distinction "is not and never has been an honor." "It is not an endorsement," they continue. "It is not a popularity contest. At its best, it is a clear-eyed recognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individuals and forces shaping that world -- for better or worse." They correctly note that Putin's achievements have come "at significant cost to the principles and ideas that free nations prize" and that it is far from clear whether "he proves to be a reformer or an autocrat who takes Russia back to an era of repression."

And perusing the magazine's list of also-rans, including former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and British author J. K. Rowling, it is hard to argue that Putin does not deserve the recognition.

In its appraisal of Putin, "Time" argues that he has brought Russia out of the chaos of the 1990s to a new stability from which most Russians are benefiting. "In his eight years as president, he has guided his nation through a remarkable transformation," the article contends. "He has restored stability and a sense of pride among citizens who, after years of Soviet stagnation, rode the heartbreaking roller coaster of raised and dashed expectations when [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev and then [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin were in charge. A basket case in the 1990s, Russia's economy has grown an average of 7 percent a year for the past five years. The country has paid off a foreign debt that once neared $200 billion. Russia's rich have gotten richer, often obscenely so. But the poor are doing better too: workers' salaries have more than doubled since 2003."

Although "Time" argues that this economic miracle is "partly a result" of high global energy prices, it would be more accurate to say that Putin has been phenomenally lucky that throughout his presidency revenues have flowed in at rates several times greater than the most optimistic projections of 2000. His greatest achievement in this regard has been that he bullied the Yeltsin-era oligarchs into accepting "new rules of the game," which included diverting most of the profits from high energy prices into the government's Stabilization Fund. That fund now contains some $150 billion -- even after being used, as "Time" notes, to pay off Russia's astronomical foreign debt.

Putin's other achievement in this regard has been that he placed capable economists, including Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and former Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, in charge of these assets, which so far has prevented them from being pillaged. In recent months, however, Gref has been removed from the cabinet and Kudrin has come under fierce attack from the siloviki -- people with ties to the military and security services -- in Putin's inner circle. In February, the Stabilization Fund is to be split into two new funds and the battle to spend those billions will be fierce, possibly to the point of rocking the "stability" for which Putin traded Russia's freedoms.

Many observers have argued that the energy-price windfall has encouraged Russia to put off major reforms and investments that are needed to create truly stable economic development. In the early years of Putin's presidency, he pushed through liberal and much-hailed tax and customs codes and rationalized many Soviet-era economic policies. But in recent years there has been little to boast of. The so-called national projects to improve agriculture, housing, education, and health care (projects that have been overseen by Putin's anointed successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev) have yielded few results and have been attacked as bottomless money pits. Although energy exports account for more than half of Russia's state revenues, production is stagnant. During Putin's second term, old state-dominated monopolies have grown and new ones have been created, increasing the opacity of the economy and placing a premium on political ties and cronyism over sound management and innovation.

"Time" writes that Putin established stability through authoritarian domestic policies. "His government has shut down TV stations and newspapers, jailed businessmen whose wealth and influence challenged the Kremlin's hold on power, defanged opposition political parties and arrested those who confront his rule," the magazine's appraisal notes. Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov perhaps put it better during a conference in August: "The personality of Vladimir Putin is more important to society than institutions of state." Or, to quote Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov, "Can Putin really be wrong?"

A key result of Putin's draconian domestic policies has been the elimination of all oversight and a consequent flourishing of corruption. To take one example, a study in October found that the country loses some $40 billion a year just on state purchases. Recently a Kremlin-connected businessman told "Kommersant" how the siloviki, led by deputy presidential-administration head Igor Sechin, are raiding lucrative private businesses by making them offers they can't refuse. "This isn't raiding," he said. "We don't take over enterprises -- we minimize their market value using various means. As a rule, these are voluntary-compulsory means. But, as a rule, people understand where we are coming from."

Former Duma Deputy Anatoly Yermolin, himself a retired Federal Security Service (FSB) colonel, told "Novoye vremya" earlier this month: "Putin is not fighting against corruption. He is using it to control the country." He added that "the genius of Putin's management of the country is that the president and his team have turned the main weakness of Russian state management -- corruption -- into its greatest strength."

During his interview with Putin, the "Time" correspondent asked about the corruption problem and received a "testy" response from the president. "If you are so confident, then I presume you know the names and the systems and the tools.... Write to us," Putin said. In a country with no independent law enforcement agencies and no legislative oversight, one that has virtually no independent media and no functioning NGOs, finding out "the names and the systems and the tools" is no easy task.

Although it is no "honor," "endorsement," or "popularity contest," Putin has clearly earned the distinction of person of the year. But it remains to be seen if he really has carried out a "grand bargain" of freedom for stability. The freedoms are gone, but the promised stability -- as the country's current political transition suggests -- seems far from certain. To use analyst Markov's phrase: Can a country where "the personality of Vladimir Putin is more important to society than institutions of state" really ultimately be stable?

The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, Admiral William Fallon, arrived in Afghanistan on December 19 to assess progress on an assessment he is leading aimed at finding a more effective way to deal with the Taliban insurgency, Afghan and international media reported. "I don't want to make too big a deal of it," Fallon said on route to Afghanistan. "But I've asked my staff to go back and take a look at everything we're doing here, to look at the situation, to reassess where we are so that we can have a firm understanding of the situation. And as we figure out what we want to do strategically in the country, how we can do it better." Fallon is seeking better coordination among allied forces in Afghanistan and said progress is being made. He attributed some of the progress to a joint U.S.-Afghan-Pakistani coordination committee that is seen as having more success sharing information and coordinating counterterrorism efforts along the northeastern portion of the Afghan-Pakistani border, although the southern part of the border has not seen the same reduction in cross-border insurgent activity. MM

In an address to the Afghan people on December 19 marking the Muslim festival of Eid-e Qorban, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, President Hamid Karzai described Afghanistan as a victim of foreign terrorism and urged the United States and its allies to target terrorists outside the country, Bakhtar News and international media reported. Karzai said sanctuaries outside Afghanistan are training and sending terrorists into Afghanistan. He called on international security forces in Afghanistan to revise their strategy in the war on terrorism. "Their presence in Afghanistan must be against terrorism," Karzai said, "which has hideouts that are outside [of Afghanistan], its training and support bases that are outside." Such comments to the press are usually seen as referring to Pakistan. Karzai's comments come days after the Pentagon said the U.S. military and its NATO allies have begun reviewing strategy in Afghanistan, where violence from the Taliban-led insurgency has been on the rise. MM

In the same December 19 address, President Karzai also reiterated that international forces should reduce the use of air power, which is widely seen as causing the most civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the resurgence of Taliban in 2006. He said the reliance on airpower to counter Taliban and foreign jihadi fighters is taking "the struggle against terrorism nowhere." Separately, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan and a former deputy minister, Abdul Salam Zaeef, told Reuters on December 19 in Kabul that he strongly backs negotiations with the Taliban, but sought assurances and a shift of policy by the U.S. and coalition forces. He attributed support for the Taliban and general instability in Afghanistan to "a lack of jobs or real progress in reconstruction, as well as a reliance on fighting by foreign troops." He warned that "using guns and aircraft and...killing is not good for Afghanistan; it's not bringing pleasure to the people." MM

President Karzai is scheduled to visit Pakistan on December 26-27 to strengthen ties between the two countries, Pakistani news sources reported. Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Muhammad Sadiq told a weekly news briefing that "the visit, an expression of solidarity with Pakistan, comes in response to an invitation extended by President Pervez Musharraf and the meetings are expected to focus on bilateral relations and reconstruction in Afghanistan." Sadiq also said that during the visit, Karzai will meet Musharraf and Prime Minister Mohammadmian Soomro to discuss the regional and international situation and the war against terrorism. MM

A Tehran court has acquitted three students detained for the past eight months on charges of insulting religion and Iran's president, Radio Farda reported on December 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 26, 2007), citing their lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah. Dadkhah told Radio Farda a branch of the Tehran provincial courts dismissed the charges against Ehsan Mansuri, Majid Tavakkoli, and Ahmad Qassaban. Dadkhah said he believes the case is over and the three should be released by December 22. He said the court sentenced them to four months' imprisonment for publishing false reports about the Basij militia, but said this was irrelevant as they have been jailed for eight months. The three were detained over pamphlets published in their names in March at Tehran's Amir Kabir University, which they immediately denounced as forgeries intended to discredit certain university publications and their editors. Dadkhah said the court concluded the pamphlets were indeed forgeries and the Tehran prosecutor's office had not presented evidence to prove Tavakkoli, Mansuri, and Qassaban had written or published them. VS

International labor bodies have welcomed the release on December 16 or 17 of Iranian trade unionists Ibrahim Madadi and Reza Dehqan, Radio Farda reported on December 19. Madadi is a deputy head of the Tehran bus drivers' union and Dehqan is a founding member of a union of house painters. Madadi and Dehqan were arrested on August 9 and November 18, respectively, the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) website ( reported on December 17. ITF and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions have called on Iran to release two other labor detainees -- Mansur Osanlu, the Tehran bus drivers' union chief, and Mahmud Salehi, the former president of a bakers' union in Saqqez, western Iran. ITF Secretary-General David Cockroft told Radio Farda on December 19 that Salehi is ill and should be released on medical and humanitarian grounds. Tehran bus union member Reza Shahabi told the broadcaster on December 19 that Madadi was asked during interrogations why he had gone to Osanlu's house before his arrest; Madadi had taken part then in a protest at the house calling for Osanlu's release. Otherwise, Shahabi said, the judiciary had said little about Madadi's detention "even though Mr. Madadi, an innocent man, has been [jailed] for four months and seven days." Shahabi said he thinks the Iranian authorities now understood the bus union's "activity is not political [but] defends workers' rights." VS

Iranian parliamentarian Mahmud Mohammadi told Radio Farda on December 18 that some 30 to 34 students may have been detained in Iran in connection unrest or gatherings in recent weeks, but he said he doubts they have been mistreated. He said he based the number on claims made by relatives. Mohammadi was one of several Iranian parliamentarians who recently met with and discussed human rights with a delegation of EU parliamentarians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). Mohammadi said students might have been spoken to "a little harshly" during interrogations, but "I doubt they would be harassed or abused after arrest." Asked why families of detainees had been told not to contact the foreign media, Mohammadi said this should not be interpreted as a threat. He said families should know they can ask their parliamentary representatives to investigate complaints on their behalf. He said there is no legal ban on Iranians talking to foreign radio stations such as Radio Farda, but there is a "moral ban" when such media are backed by what he termed "hostile powers." Iran, he added is a free country in which people can, if they insist, take their complaints to the foreign media. VS

Relatives of Ali Azizi, a member of the student group the Office to Consolidate Unity (DTV), were allowed to meet with him in Evin prison on December 17, about 40 days after his arrest, "Etemad" reported on December 19. Azizi was reportedly arrested on November 4. He told relatives his interrogation is over but he is still being detained. Separately in Hamedan, western Iran, an unspecified number of students of Bu Ali Sina University protested on an unspecified date -- perhaps - December 18 -- to urge the release of Farshad Dustipur, arrested eight days before the protest, "Etemad" reported on December 19. The students called for the law to be respected. VS

An Iranian judge has alleged that women's rights activists Ronak Safarzadeh and Hana Abdi, arrested in October or early November in the town of Sanandaj in western Iran, are affiliated with an unnamed terrorist group "from northwestern" Iran and were involved in bombings in Sanandaj, "Kayhan" reported on December 19, citing the Fars news agency. The report cited an unnamed judge investigating the bombings in Sanandaj as saying the women have been detained with "several other people" and may be charged with acting against the state through collaboration with a terrorist group and by forming a sabotage cell. The official said the arrests "have nothing to do" with their "civic activities," which include gathering signatures in support of women's rights. He further charged that these activities were used as a front for allegedly violent plans. The official said two others were "recently" arrested in Tehran for similar activities, and it is evident to the court that "some activists in the women's campaign" are members of "this particular terrorist group." He said authorities are looking to identify more suspected members, "Kayhan" reported. VS

Seven men and women convicted of various crimes including the homosexual "abuse" of teenage boys in one case, were to due be hanged in Tehran's Evin prison early on December 19, "Iran" and "Etemad" have reported. One convict is a 28-year-old identified as Qasem, who was convicted of abducting and abusing 19 teenagers in southern Tehran, "Kayhan" reported on December 19. The others were facing retaliatory death sentences for murders or killings: one is a woman named Zahra, who reportedly poisoned her husband with cyanide in 2005 with the help of a friend or lover. Another is a 27-year-old woman named Raheleh, who reportedly killed her husband when she discovered he had cheated on her, "Etemad" reported. VS

Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said on December 19 that he has been unable to reach a deal with Baghdad on the issue of the peshmerga budget, Kurdistan Satellite TV reported the same day. Under the Iraqi constitution, Baghdad should provide a budget to the Kurdish government to cover the peshmerga defense forces as part of the Iraqi Defense Ministry's budget. But the central government has refused to do so, saying it will not transmit the 2007 and 2008 budgets to the peshmerga forces until the Kurdish region declares and transfers revenues from customs and other sources. "To be honest with you, they [Baghdad officials] do not want to do it, but they want to find a constitutional interpretation to the effect that [the peshmerga] are regional forces," Barzani said. "If they were part of the regional forces, why did we cooperate with the Iraqi Army and send peshmerga to Baghdad to defend [the city]? We had martyrs in Mosul, Baghdad, and Diyala while defending the Iraqi state against insurgents." KR

Ahmet Muratly, the representative of the Iraqi Turkoman Front to Ankara said that delaying implementation of Article 140 of the constitution will allow for the settlement of more Kurds in the Kirkuk Governorate, thereby solidifying the Kurdish majority there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007). The plan to implement Article 140, which has been extended for six months, calls for a census to be conducted to determine the ethnic breakdown of the population, to be followed by a referendum on whether the governorate will join the autonomous Kurdish region. Turkomans are opposed to joining the Kurdish region and claim the Kurdistan regional government is unduly influencing the demographic landscape in the governorate. They also claim the Kurds intend to seize Kirkuk, which contains at least 20 percent of the country's proven oil reserves, and declare independence from Iraq. Muratli called the Kurdistan regional government a "problematic administration" and said the implementation of Article 140 will lead to the destruction of the Turkoman population and the breakup of the country. KR

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters at a December 19 briefing that the Pentagon received ample notification ahead of Turkey's bombing campaign against Turkish-Kurdish rebel bases in northern Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). U.S. military and diplomatic personnel in Baghdad earlier told AP they were not notified of the raids until the first bombing campaign was well under way (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2007). "We had ample notification of the air strikes by the Turkish Air Force over the weekend on PKK positions in northern Iraq," Morell told reporters. "I know there's been some question in some of the reporting as to whether or not we had notification. I can sit here today and tell you emphatically there was indeed notification provided to us prior to the bombing -- bombings; that it was communicated to us through an apparatus that we have set up in Ankara, the Ankara Coordination Center. I believe the actual communication went from the Turkish General Staff to the Ankara Coordination Center. Within the coordination center it was relayed to our folks, and from there it goes to a wider audience within our operation." Asked if the Pentagon was informed of Baghdad's dissatisfaction over being notified late, Morrell said: "I think it is best asked to Baghdad." He stressed to reporters that as a sovereign state, Turkey is under no obligation to inform the United States ahead of any bombing campaign in Iraq, nor does Turkey need to seek U.S. permission for such an operation. KR

The U.S. military released 100 detainees on December 19 on the first day of the Eid Al-Adha religious holiday, according to a December 20 Multinational Force-Iraq press release. "I would like to take the opportunity to welcome you back to the new, peaceful Iraq," Major General Doug Stone told the detainees at a ceremony marking their release. "I hope and believe that you will be the role models for the generations to come and contributors to Iraq's glory and prosperity." The detainees were released after a review process that determined they no longer pose a threat to the state. The detainees also pledged before an Iraqi judge to maintain peace and good conduct. "Approximately 850 detainees have been released so far during the Hajj and Eid Al-Adha holiday season," the press release noted. The Iraqi Interior Ministry released 184 prisoners from jails in the Diyala Governorate as a goodwill gesture, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on December 19. Salah Al-Din Governorate released 75 detainees for Eid Al-Adha, including three men from the Samarra Shrine protection force arrested after insurgents blew up the shrine in February 2006, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 19. KR

Iraqi tips led U.S. forces to a suspected Al-Qaeda safe haven that contained a torture complex and mass graves in Al-Miqdadiyah north of Baghdad last week, according to a December 20 Multinational Force-Iraq press release. The complex was uncovered during operations carried out between December 8 and 11 that reportedly left 24 insurgents dead and 37 detained. After clearing the area of insurgents, troops found several bodies and eventually uncovered 26 human remains in multiple mass graves next to execution sites. "In the same area, a torture complex was found, consisting of three detention facilities with one doubling as both a headquarters building and torture facility. The buildings contained chains on the walls and ceilings, a bed still hooked up to an electrical system, and several blood-stained items," the statement said. U.S. forces also located and destroyed nine weapons caches, including antiaircraft weapons, sniper rifles, more than 65 machine guns and pistols, 50 grenades, a surface-to-air missile launcher and platform, 98 personnel mines, 170 pipe bombs, 130 pounds of homemade explosives, 21 rocket-propelled grenades, and other weapons. KR