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Newsline - December 27, 2007

Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar said on December 26 that Russia will supply Iran with the S-300 antiaircraft missile-defense system "on the basis of a contract signed with Russia in the past." According to the Associated Press, Mohammad-Najjar did not say when or how many of the systems would be shipped to Iran. The S-300 can shoot down aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missile warheads at ranges of over 145 kilometers and at altitudes of about 27,000 meters, while the TOR-MI antiaircraft missile, 29 of which Russia delivered to Iran this year this under a $700 million contract signed in December 2005, can hit aerial targets flying at up to 6,000 meters. AP reported that Russian officials declined to comment on the S-300 sale, but Interfax on December 26 quoted a "Russian defense industry" source as saying Russia is expected to begin delivering S-300 systems to Iran in 2008 under a contract signed "several years ago." "Vedomosti" on December 27 quoted a manager of a "military-industrial company" as saying the deal involves two to four divisions of S-300s, which will be sold to Iran for between $500 million and $1 billion. "Kommersant" on December 27 quoted Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Washington-based World Security Institute, as saying Russia has been helping both Iran and Syria improve their air-defense capabilities as a way "of opposing U.S. plans" to use military force in the Middle East. He added that if Moscow believes the United States will strike Iran, "it will act to deescalate the situation" on the condition that Iran continues to work with the International Atomic Energy Agency on its nuclear program. Russia's Atomstroieksport announced earlier this month that it has started delivering fuel for the first loading of the Iran's nuclear power plant at Bushehr, which is being built by Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on December 26 that Moscow sees no economic necessity for Iran to continue its uranium-enrichment program, RIA Novosti reported. "We are attempting to persuade the Iranians that the freezing of this program would be beneficial for Iran inasmuch as it would lead to immediate negotiations with the six [international negotiators], including the United States," Lavrov said. JB

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov on December 26 denounced sanctions that the United States recently imposed on Belarus, Interfax reported. "We consider this decision politicized and believe that it is unacceptable to pressure Belarus under various pretexts," Zubkov said following a meeting of the Russia-Belarus union's council of ministers. He also called for the sanctions to be lifted. Last month, the United States imposed financial sanctions on Belneftekhim, a Belarusian state-owned petrochemical company, stating that it is controlled by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2007). JB

Russia successfully tested an RS-24 multiple-warhead ballistic missile on December 25, Russian news agencies reported. An unnamed official with the Strategic Missile Forces told RIA Novosti that the missile was fired from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Arkhangelsk Oblast and hit a designated target at the Kura test site on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's Far East. ITAR-TASS quoted the Strategic Missile Forces' press service as saying the RS-24 will eventually replace the RS-18 and RS-20 multiple-warhead missiles (known in the West as the SS-19 and SS-20, respectively) and, together with the single warhead RS-12M2 Topol-M (SS-27) truck-mounted missile, form the "backbone" of the Strategic Missile Forces. The RS-24 test was the missile's second successful firing -- it was first tested in May -- and the latest in a series of missile tests conducted in recent weeks. The Strategic Missile Forces announced on December 17 that an unidentified new intercontinental ballistic missile was successfully fired from the nuclear-powered submarine "Tula" in the Barents Sea (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). On December 8, the Strategic Missile Forces announced that an RS-12M Topol ballistic missile (SS-25) was successfully fired from the Kapustin Yar firing range in southern Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10, 2007). On December 16, the Russian Strategic Missile Forces announced that three additional Topol-M units were deployed near Teikovo in Ivanovo Oblast (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). JB

Russia launched a Proton-M booster rocket on December 25 carrying three satellites for the military-run Global Navigation Satellite System, or GLONASS, bringing the number of satellites in the system now in orbit to 18. The three GLONASS satellites were successfully put into precalculated orbits on December 26, ITAR-TASS reported, adding that the 18 GLONASS satellites now in orbit will "guarantee uninterrupted transmission of navigation signals practically on the entire territory of Russia." Reuters reported on December 25 that GLONASS is expected to cover the globe by the end of 2009, once all its 24 navigational satellites are operating, and thereby rival the United States' GPS mapping system. Russian news agencies reported that President Vladimir Putin asked First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov on December 24, when Ivanov presented plans for launching the three new GLONASS satellites, when he will be able to buy a dog collar that can be tracked by satellite so he can keep track of his dog, Koni. According to ITAR-TASS, Ivanov told Putin that such dog collars will be available in stores starting in July 2008. JB

"Gazeta," citing a source "close to the presidential administration," reported on December 27 that Anatoly Perminov, the head of the Federal Space Agency, or Roskosmos, has submitted his resignation and that most of his team will also be forced out of the agency before March 2008. The newspaper quoted the source as saying that Perminov will be replaced by "a person close to Putin but far from space" and that the new team will be tasked with organizing an expedition to Mars before the United States. NASA recently unveiled initial concepts for a manned Mars mission that could be launched in 2031. According to "Gazeta," Roskosmos officials denied that Perminov is stepping down. JB

Vedomosti reported on December 27 that 79 percent of the respondents in a poll conducted by the Levada Center over December 21-25 said they would vote for First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev if a presidential election were held on December 30. That means that more Russian voters are ready to cast their ballots for Medvedev than voted for Putin in the 2004 presidential election, when he received 71.31 percent of the vote. According to "Vedomosti," Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov each received the support of just 9 percent of the poll's respondents, with former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov trailing with 2 percent. However, Konstantin Simonov, the president the Center for Current Politics, said it is unrealistic to expect Medvedev will receive 79 percent in the presidential election in March, adding that the high level of support for Medvedev is due to the fact that Putin chose him as successor and that voters will be voting for the "Putin-Medvedev" tandem. on December 27 quoted Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute for Political Expertise, as saying Medvedev is not a primary object of criticism because he is viewed as an instrument rather than an independent political actor. "People have still not separated Medvedev from Putin; correspondingly, the latter gets all the criticism," he said. JB

Union of Rightist (SPS) Forces co-founder Boris Nemtsov announced on December 26 that he will not run in the March 2008 presidential election. In a statement posted on his website, Nemtsov said "at present two presidential candidates remain from the democratic opposition -- [former Prime Minister] Mikhail Kasyanov and me," and that he and his fellow SPS members believe the democratic opposition must have just one candidate. "Therefore I made the decision to pull out of the presidential campaign," he wrote. Nemtsov called on Kasyanov and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov to give an ultimatum to the "Putin-Surkov" group -- the latter referring to deputy Kremlin deputy administration chief Vladislav Surkov -- demanding that First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev participate in debates with other candidates, that all candidates have equal access to the three main national television channels, that a de facto ban on opposition politicians participating in political programs on federal television be lifted, and that the authorities do not use "the special services" and administrative resources during the campaign. Nemtsov said that if these four conditions are not met, Kasyanov and Zyuganov should also pull out of the presidential campaign. "It is obvious that the present presidential elections, just like the [December 2] parliamentary [elections], is a pure farce, because the candidates don't have equal opportunities for agitation, and Goebbels propaganda, security, and administrative resources are being used against the opposition." "The Moscow Times" on December 27 quoted political analysts Boris Makarenko and Aleksei Mukhin as saying Nemtsov had "flinched" because he understood he would be unable to collect the 2 million signatures he needed in order to register as a presidential candidate. Meanwhile, Zyuganov, who was registered as a presidential candidate by the Central Election Commission on December 26, said Nemtsov's list of demands is "interesting" and that he does not rule out that his party will reconsider his candidacy if the government continues to employ "dirty technologies." JB

Ekho Peterburga reported on December 25 that mass dragnets targeting draftees were being carried out across St. Petersburg. Citing the Soldiers Mothers of St. Petersburg human-rights group, the radio station said law-enforcement personnel are participating in the dragnets, which are being carried out at a number of the city's metro stations. In particular, law-enforcement personnel are checking the documents of all draft-age youths near the Vyborgskaya and Ladozhskaya metro stations, taking away some of them in police cars, Ekho Peterburga reported on its website ( The radio station quoted a spokesman for the Leningrad Military District, Yury Klenov, as saying police are taking these actions "in strict compliance with existing law" and under "orders." JB

In a statement issued from Vienna on December 22, Miklos Haraszti, the head of media-freedom issues for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), expressed concern that "recent cases of harassment and violence against independent and opposition media have contributed to an atmosphere of intimidation and fear in the journalistic community in Armenia," RFE/RL Armenian Service reported. According to the statement, which was posted to the organization's website (, Haraszti said he is particularly worried about a case of apparent retribution by the authorities against an independent regional television station for broadcasting news about the presidential campaign of former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian. Haraszti's comments, which were expressed in a letter to Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian, expressed concern over a December 13 explosion in front of the office of "Chorrord Ishkhanutyun," an opposition newspaper based in Yerevan, and urged "Armenia's law-enforcement bodies to punish the perpetrators not just for the sake of justice, but also to give support to freedom of expression in the country." RG

Speaking to reporters at a Yerevan press conference on December 22, Armenian Energy Minister Armen Movsisian revealed that "an international consortium" comprising "several" unidentified countries has expressed interest in building a new nuclear power plant in Armenia, Arminfo reported. Movsisian explained that the international community's attitude toward the construction of a new Armenian nuclear power plant had "changed positively" in recent years and claimed that "the international community is extending a helping hand to Armenia today for the construction of a new" facility, adding that a new multilateral approach may include Russia supplying "reliable" nuclear reactors, and Europe and the United States providing electrical equipment and electronics, respectively. Movsisian also revealed that a feasibility study for a new nuclear plant is set to be completed by September 2008. Movsisian also claimed on December 22 that Armenia will be able to start extracting uranium within the next two to five years, once planned Armenian-Russian exploration for industrial-grade uranium begins next year. He dismissed any suggestion that Armenia may enrich the uranium in Armenia, however, arguing that enrichment would be "economically inexpedient" since the country does not have large enough reserves. According to official Armenian statistics, the country holds an estimated 30,000 tons of uranium reserves, mainly in the country's southern Syunik region. RG

During a meeting with a group of prominent business leaders, Armenian President Robert Kocharian threatened on December 25 to "punish" unidentified "culprits" who are engaged in currency speculation, Mediamax and Armenian Television reported. The president noted that the Armenian authorities have investigated recent reports of "speculators" manipulating "frequent fluctuations" of the national currency. In separate comments on the economy, Kocharian hailed the increase in the volume of mortgage loans, saying that lower interest rates and improved repayment terms have revived the real-estate market considerably. RG

In a ceremony in Yerevan on December 26, President Kocharian formally signed on a document formulating the country's defense doctrine, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo. The new 18-page military doctrine, modeled on the country's national-security-strategy document, recognizes Azerbaijan's repeated threats to seize Nagorno-Karabakh by force as a main threat to Armenian national security and asserts that "in the event of an immediate threat of armed aggression," Armenia "reserves the right to take military actions" in response. The doctrine was formulated by a special commission within the Defense Ministry through an interagency process that collaborated with "local and foreign experts." The doctrine firmly states that Armenia's "strategic partnership" with Russia will remain the foundation for Armenian defense policy and noted that the two countries will continue to maintain close military ties both bilaterally and within the framework of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In recognition of the country's deeper ties with NATO's Partnership for Peace program, however, the new doctrine asserts that Armenia will "increasingly cooperate" with NATO member states -- and with the United States in particular -- in reforming its military and contributing to international security, as well as continuing its commitment to participation in international peacekeeping missions. Armenia has already contributed several military units to such peacekeeping efforts, deploying contingents to Kosova and Iraq, and Yerevan is considering joining the NATO-led multinational force in Afghanistan. RG

In a letter to Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov on December 22, Miklos Haraszti, the senior official for media freedom of the OSCE, called on Azerbaijani authorities to release all journalists currently in detention "as soon as possible," Turan reported. The letter reminded Azerbaijan of previous OSCE appeals to the country's leaders on the issue of media freedom and stressed that Azerbaijan must meet its commitments to secure freedom of expression and of the press. RG

The head of Azerbaijan's National Press Council, Aflatun Amasov, called on December 24 for a presidential pardon for imprisoned journalists, arguing that "such a humane act would be another example of respect for freedom of speech and human rights," according to Turan. Amasov met with several of the jailed journalists prior to the announcement and explained that "the Press Council decided to appeal to the head of state to release the convicted journalists as a special case." RG

In the wake of demands for the release of the country's imprisoned journalists, the Azerbaijani Court of Appeals on December 26 ordered the release of a newspaper editor, the APA news service reported. The ruling, effectively ending the incarceration of Nazim Quliev, the editor of the "Ideal" newspaper, followed the withdrawal of libel charges against him by an unnamed police official in Baku. A lower court had earlier sentenced the editor to a 2 1/2 year prison term for "libel" after he published material critical of the unidentified police official. RG

A district court in Baku on December 26 rejected a bid to free the editor of a prominent opposition newspaper, Turan reported. The court dismissed a motion by the defense lawyer for Qanimat Zahid, the editor of the opposition "Azadliq" (Equality) newspaper, challenging the two-month prison sentence imposed on him for "hooliganism." Zahid, who is well known for strongly criticizing Azerbaijani officials, was sentenced on November 11. Zahid denies the charge and asserted that the criminal case was a "provocation" by the authorities. His brother, Sakit Zahidov, known for poems satirizing the authorities, is serving a three-year sentence after conviction in a controversial October 2006 trial on charges of drugs possession. RG

The presiding judge of the Tbilisi City Court, Nana Darselia, on December 22 dismissed a motion seeking to strip two prominent presidential candidates of their officially certified registration for the country's January 5 presidential election, Kavkaz Press reported. The Georgian Young Lawyers' Association filed a petition challenging the candidacies of businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili and former President Mikheil Saakashvili, contending the two men were engaged in "bribing voters," a charge which the judge dismissed outright as "groundless." The ruling came as more than 1,000 Patarkatsishvili supporters staged a protest outside the courthouse. RG

An unidentified official from Georgia's Defense Ministry stated on December 23 that Georgia is ready to hand over several Russian peacekeepers recently detained by military police, according to the Kavkaz Press. Georgia also officially notified the United Nations' Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) of its intention to release the three Russian peacekeepers. The three Russian soldiers, serving as part of the Russian-led CIS Collective Peacekeeping Force, were seized on December 22 in Poti, after they allegedly violated the 12-kilometer "security zone" along the Enguri River, which separates Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia. Georgian military police claimed the Russians were out of uniform and failed to produce their identity cards. Following the arrests, the Russian officers were taken to the Georgian Military Police station in the town of Senaki. RG

In comments to reporters following a meeting of the Georgian National Security Council in Tbilisi on December 24, acting Georgian President Nino Burjanadze warned that the country faces a "serious threat" to its "constitutional order," RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. Her warning follows an announcement on December 23 by the Prosecutor-General's Office that it has uncovered a "conspiracy to overthrow the Georgian government" that was linked to Valeri Gelbakhiani, a member of parliament who also heads the campaign of presidential candidate Patarkatsishvili, a wealthy businessman living in exile. The prosecutor's office distributed a videotape that was later broadcast on television showing a man strongly resembling Gelbakhiani seemingly offering a $100 million bribe to Erekle Kodua, a senior official from the Interior Ministry, and asking him to take part in unrest that is expected to follow the January 5 presidential election, Imedi-TV reported. RG

Speaking at a press conference following a meeting in Astana to review the Kazahk National Security Committee's (NSC) performance over the past year on December 22, spokesman Kenzhebulat Beknazarov reported that it uncovered a criminal case of embezzlement involving the alleged misuse of 142 million tenges (more than $1 million) within the Defense Ministry's main intelligence directorate, Interfax-Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan Today reported. Beknazarov added that an unnamed former director of military intelligence was "caught red-handed" while attempting to bribe NSC officers over this case. Commenting on counterterrorism activities, Beknazarov said "as a result of prompt measures, including stepping up cooperation with foreign partners, the NSC has managed to prevent acts of terrorism in the country," emphasizing the related seizures of "improvised explosive devices, weapons, ammunition, and numerous extremist publications." Beknazarov also reported that the NSC "uncovered" a total of 657 cases of corruption in 2007, in connection with which 469 officials faced "administrative and disciplinary charges." That figure includes 95 local government officials, two judges, two court administrators, and five prosecutors. The corruption cases resulted in the administrative punishment of 102 officials and criminal convictions of another 128. The year-end report also noted a "decrease in the influence of organized criminal groups," and said the NSC conducted four large "special operations" aimed at countering organized crime that led to the elimination of "a number of transnational criminal groups" and "foiled" a smuggling operation involving the illegal trade in "expensive cars stolen from European states and Russia." RG

Kazakh Energy Minister Sauat Mynbaev on December 24 accused the U.S. Exxon oil company of "stalling talks" over the status of operations in the offshore Kashagan oil field, ITAR-TASS and AFP reported. Talks between Kazakhstan and an international consortium led by the Italian Eni energy group remain hindered by a Kazakh demand for a greater share in the Kashagan project for Kazakhstan's KazMunaiGaz state energy company, as well as earlier tension over the consortium's repeated production delays and cost overruns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 22, 2007). KazMunaiGaz currently holds an 8.33-percent stake in the project, but is seeking to increase its share to 16 percent, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. The Caspian Sea Kashagan oil field is viewed as the largest discovery of oil reserves made in the last 40 years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10, 2007). Mynbaev added that participants in the negotiations have agreed to set a new deadline of January 15. Despite the signing of a new memorandum on a "reconsideration" of the existing production-sharing agreement, Exxon reiterated on December 24 its refusal to join other consortium members in agreeing "in principle" to grant "some" of their shares in the project to KazMunaiGaz. RG

Meeting in Astana on December 26, officials from Kazakhstan's Kazatomprom state atomic-energy company and the Japanese Kansai Electric Power Corporation signed on of four agreements on cooperation in nuclear energy, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. The agreements, which involve the participation of other leading Japanese firms including Sumitomo, comprise detailed plans for Japanese expertise in modernizing and expanding operations at Kazakhstan's Ulba Metallurgical Plant, a facility run by Kazatomprom in the country's East Kazakhstan Region, with a focus on "the reconversion of regenerated uranium." The agreements include a protocol on the processing of uranium scrap and on the production of uranium-dioxide powder from hexafluoride. Kazakhstan also pledged to increase exports of uranium products to Japan by between 30-40 percent "in the near future." The head of Kazatomprom, Mukhtar Zhakishev, also announced on December 26 the start of talks with Brazilian companies on plans for the Kazakh company to extract tantalum in Brazil. Zhakishev added that Kazatomprom is holding talks with "other foreign companies" on setting up other "joint ventures outside Kazakhstan." RG

In a statement released in Almaty on December 26, Kazakhstan's national air carrier Air Astana announced plans to expand significantly the carrier's fleet with the purchase of nine new aircraft, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The planned $950 million purchase involves six new Airbus A320 and three Boeing 787-8 aircraft equipped with Rolls Royce Trent-1000 engines. The Air Astana statement added that in addition to the signing of relevant "letters of intent" with Airbus, Boeing, and Rolls Royce, it also has options to spend another $736 million to buy another three Airbus A320 and three more Boeing 787-8 jets at a later date. The nine new aircraft are to be delivered to Kazakhstan beginning in 2012. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Astana on December 26, Murat Tyuleubaev, a prosecutor with the Almaty aviation transport department, announced on the opening of a "criminal" investigation into the deadly crash of a private jet at the Almaty international airport earlier in the day, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The early morning crash involved a private Gulfstream-60 aircraft belonging to a German commercial air company that slide off the airport runaway on takeoff, triggering an explosion that killed one passenger and injured three crew members. The flight, which stopped in Almaty en route from Germany to Hong Kong, overshot the runway and broke through a protective concrete barrier about 400 meters beyond the airfield before exploding. Although the cause of the accident remains unknown, Tyuleubaev explained that the investigation is tied to a "criminal case" related to the violation of "traffic safety rules" and said the investigation is being conducted by a special commission established by the Kazakh Transport Ministry and led by the head of the state aviation-control directorate, Amantay Zholdybaev. RG

A municipal court in Bishkek on December 22 ordered the release of 11 Kyrgyz human-rights activists following their conviction by a district court on charges of participating in an "antigovernment" rally in Bishkek, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The activists were sentenced by the Birinchi May district court in Bishkek to incarceration of between five and seven days. The Kyrgyz authorities also released on December 22 another group of some 30 supporters of the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party who were detained on December 21 while protesting the results of the country's December 16 parliamentary elections. That protest was organized after the Ata-Meken party failed to win any seats in the new parliament despite receiving more than 8 percent of the vote. The Kyrgyz Central Election Commission ruled that the Ata-Meken party had failed to clear a regional voting threshold in the city of Osh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20 and 21, 2007), an assertion hotly disputed by the party, however. The pro-government Ak-Jol party, led by President Kurmanbek Bakiev, won an overwhelming majority, securing 71 of the 90 seats. Western observers and some local monitors reported that the election failed to meet democratic standards and the U.S. State Department criticized the vote for "widespread irregularities." RG

President Bakiev appointed on December 24 former Energy and Industry Minister Igor Chudinov as the country's new prime minister, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. On the same day, the newly convened Kyrgyz parliament also elected Adakhan Madumarov, a former state secretary and a senior member of the ruling majority Ak-Jol party, as the new parliamentary speaker, according to the website. Following the vote, the parliament also selected three other Ak-Jol deputies -- Kubanychbek Isabekov, Aziz Tursunbaev, and Cholpon Bayekova -- as deputy speakers, AKIpress reported. Bayekova is a former chairwoman of the Kyrgyz Constitutional Court and her election to parliament means that Bakiev must appoint a successor to the court. RG

An unidentified member of the Karakol City Council in the northern Kyrgyz Issyk-Kul Region announced on December 26 the imposition of new restrictions on public gatherings, with strict regulations on "street demonstrations, pickets, and protests," Kabar reported. The Karakol City Council also designated a local sports stadium as the sole location for public events and warned that anyone who attempts to stage "protests" or similar pubic gatherings in the town's central square will face criminal charges. The decision makes Karakol, the administrative center of the Issyk-Kul Region, the second Kyrgyz town after Bishkek to introduce restrictions on public gatherings and political campaigns. RG

Speaking in Bishkek on December 25, Ambassador Markus Muller, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Center in Bishkek, condemned the Kyrgyz authorities for their "disproportionate use of force" and "rude and unjustified arrests" of human-rights activists and opposition supporters, AKIpress reported. Muller also noted that the country's December 16 parliamentary elections "failed to meet several commitments which were made by the Kyrgyz Republic to the OSCE" and stressed that the refusal to allow the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party to enter the new parliament "clearly runs counter to the democratic principles of tolerance and respect to citizen's choice." He went on to say that although "Kyrgyzstan has been an example of democratic reforms in the region up until the interests of continuing the democratic process and stability in the country, the shortcomings of the electoral process should be considered positively in order make necessary corrections." RG

Following the December 16 parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan that were criticized as neither free nor fair by observers and that gave a sweeping victory to a pro-government party, a new broad opposition coalition was formed on December 25, comprising nine Kyrgyz opposition parties and 10 civic groups, according to AKIpress. The new coalition, led by an 18-person "organizational committee," pledged that any political parties or nongovernmental organizations "that accept or share the goals and tasks of the movement" are welcome to join. The largest opposition parties in the new coalition include the Ata-Meken (Fatherland), Ar-Namys (Dignity), and Asaba parties. The temporary leadership of the coalition, which is tasked with formulating "the main goals and tasks of the movement," is headed Alikbek Dzhekshenkulov, a prominent member of the Kyrgyz Association of Political Scientists. It is expected to be replaced by an elected body once the coalition's strategy and program are completed. RG

Speaking in a televised interview on December 26, President Bakiev pledged that the operation of the military airbase at the Manas airport outside of Bishkek by a coalition of Western countries will continue until neighboring Afghanistan "stabilizes," Interfax reported. Although Bakiev noted the use of the facility by U.S. and European military personnel is "temporary," he explained the base is still needed for counterterrorism operations because Afghanistan "may still be a center and a source of international terrorism." In December 2001 Kyrgyzstan agreed to host the Western forces and granted them access to the airbase, which serves as an essential forward operating area for coalition efforts in Afghanistan. In a related development, a Kyrgyz district court in Bishkek rejected on December 25 a legal challenge to the operation of the Manas airbase. RG

The head of the Uzbek Central Election Commission, Mirzo-Ulughbek Abdusalomov, announced on December 24 that incumbent Uzbek President Islam Karimov was reelected to a third term after securing over 88 percent of the vote in the country's December 23 presidential election, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Karimov, who has governed Uzbekistan since 1989, soundly defeated three little-known candidates, who garnered only between 3 and 4 percent of the vote each. The CEC reported a voter turnout of more than 90 percent. Candidate Asliddin Rustamov of the People's Democratic Party received 3.7 percent of the vote, followed by Diloram Tashmukhamedov of the Adolat Social-Democratic Party, and human-rights activist and independent candidate Akmal Saidov, with 2.9 and 2.8 percent, respectively. The OSCE criticized the vote as falling well short of democratic standards. An official from the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Urdur Gunnarsdottir, said the "election was held in a very controlled political environment, which did not really leave much room for real opposition and this election failed to meet many of the commitments that OSCE states have made to hold democratic elections." She also noted that despite the presence of alternative candidates, "when you have these candidates endorsing, publicly endorsing the incumbent president, then that in reality deprives the electorate of choice." Uzbekistan has never held an election judged to be free or fair by Western election monitors and Karimov was easily reelected in 2000 with 92 percent of the vote. Karimov ran for a third term despite a constitutional restriction against any person being president for more than two terms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). He was elected in 1992 and 2000 and had both those terms in office extended through referendums in 1995 and 2002. RG

Russia has transferred to the National Bank of Belarus a $1.5-billion loan, Belapan reported on December 27, citing a source in the Belarusian Finance Ministry. Minsk asked Russia for a $1.5-billion stabilization loan in February to ease the effects of the higher price for natural gas imported from Russia. Belarus and Russia reached an agreement on the loan on December 20. Russia pledged to give the loan in one tranche before the end of the year. The loan must be repaid in 15 years, with a five-year deferment of repayment. Earlier this month, the Belarusian government increased the state-debt limit from $2 billion to $4 billion. According to the Finance Ministry, the debt then amounted to $827.8 million. AM

Representatives of Belarusian small businesses met on December 26 with government officials to discuss the situation that arose after a recent presidential decree restricting the activities of small businesses, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Under the decree, starting from January 1, 2008, certain small-business owners will be barred from hiring employees other than three family members. The meeting was headed by lawmaker Anatol Paulovich, chairman of the Committee on Industry, Fuel and the Energy Complex, Transportation, Communications, and Enterprise in the Belarusian legislature. Viktar Harbachou, leader of the unregistered organization For The Free Development of Enterprise, said the precondition for further talks with the authorities should be a moratorium on the decree's clause barring on hiring. Paulovich suggested vendors formulate their demands in writing and submit them to the government and the legislature. AM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on December 26 introduced Raisa Bohatyryova of the Party of Regions to the cabinet of ministers as the new secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (RNBO), RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko on December 24 issued a decree on Bohatyryova's appointment. The next day, the leadership of the Political Council of the Party of Regions objected, urging Bohatyryova not to accept the appointment. Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the Party of Regions, earlier announced that his party has moved into the opposition and its members cannot participate in the government. In the former convocation of the Verkhovna Rada, Bohatyryova headed the faction of the Party of Regions. AM

The Verkhovna Rada distributed on December 26 parliamentary committees among the political forces represented in the chamber, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The coalition of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) will control 10 committees and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) will have four. The Party of Regions heads nine committees; the Communist Party, three; and the Lytvyn Bloc, two. AM

The opposition Party of Regions on December 21 formed a shadow cabinet with party leader Yanukovych as its premier, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The shadow cabinet comprises Finance Minister Mykola Azarov; Economy Minister Iryna Akimova; Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk; Interior Minister Mykola Dzhyha; Fuel and Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko; Coal Industry Minister Serhiy Tulub; Transport and Communications Minister Vasyl Kozak; Labor and Social Policy Minister Mykhaylo Papiyev; Education and Culture Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk; Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko; Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych; Environment Minister Anatoliy Tolstoukhov; Agriculture Minister Viktor Slauta; Utilities and Housing Minister Oleksandr Popov; Emergency Situations Minister Nestor Shufrych; Construction and Regional Development Minister Volodymyr Yatsuba; Industry Minister Anatoliy Kinakh; and Family, Sport, and Youth Policy Minister Viktor Korzh. Serhiy Lyovochkin was appointed shadow head of the National Bank of Ukraine and Inna Bohoslovska, head of the State Tax Administration. Leadership of the Culture and Health ministries, the Ukrainian Security Service, and the Customs Service remain vacant for future participants of the shadow cabinet. AM

The Serbian parliament on December 26 passed a resolution that condemns any attempt by Kosova to declare independence and rejects the possibility of Serbia taking the next step toward to membership of the EU if European states recognize Kosova as an independent state, local media reported. The resolution states that "all international accords that Serbia will sign, including the SAA [Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU], must be in keeping with the preservation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country." Serbia has been hoping to finalize an SAA by January 28, when EU leaders gather for their next summit, but the last EU summit, on December 14, suggested that at the January 28 meeting most EU states will be on the verge of recognizing Kosova's independence. The resolution had the backing of both the government's pro-EU and nationalist wings, a point emphasized by President Boris Tadic, leader of the relatively Western-oriented Democrat Party. Tadic said "the resolution essentially gives up neither our European future nor Kosovo, and those are two cornerstones of my policies." The vote also won the support of the vast majority of parliament, with 220 of the assembly's 250 members voting in favor. Only 14 voted against. AG

The Serbian parliament also explicitly rejected a role for the EU in Kosova, warned states not to recognize Kosovar statehood, and noted that Serbia's relationship with NATO could be affected. The resolution states that an EU mission to Kosova would "endanger the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and constitutional order of Serbia," a statement that echoes -- in part -- the Serbian and Russian governments' insistence that the UN Security Council must pass a new resolution before the EU can take over responsibility for Kosova from the UN. The resolution also states that Serbia will "reconsider diplomatic and all other relations with the states that possibly recognize the independence of Kosovo," a statement that echoes earlier declarations made by ministers and most strongly by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. The resolution also declares that "because of the overall role of NATO...parliament decides that Serbia will declare military neutrality when it comes to existing military alliances, until a possible referendum when a final decision would be made." The statement says nothing about changing Serbia's current relationship with NATO -- it is a member of the alliance's Partnership for Peace program -- and effectively reiterates the Serbian government's policy that it will call a referendum before joining NATO. AG

Kosova's two most popular parties agreed in principle on December 26 to form a coalition government, five weeks after general elections and three weeks after the announcement of official results (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, and December 4, 2007), local media reported. The post of prime minister will be occupied by Hashim Thaci, the leader of the largest parliamentary party, the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK). The 15-member cabinet will include seven other PDK members, while the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), which dominated the previous government, will have five seats. The names of ministers and their portfolios have yet to be finalized, but an LDK source cited by the news service Balkan Insight said the five LDK ministers will not include people who held posts in the previous government. The remaining three ministerial posts will be occupied by representatives of Kosova's ethnic minorities. Kosova's constitution stipulates that at least two portfolios must be held by representatives of ethnic minorities, at least one of them a Serb. The Ministry for Refugee Returns, a ministry of particular concern for Kosovar Serbs, is expected to be headed by an ethnic Serb. Together, the PDK and the LDK enjoy a two-seat majority in the 120-member assembly, but the coalition may also pick up a few votes from non-Albanian parties. AG

Prime Minister Thaci immediately repeated his determination to lead Kosova to independence and, in an interview with Britain's "Financial Times" on December 26 urged the EU to assume the supervisory role currently played by the UN. "Negotiations [with Serbia] are over," Thaci said. "Now is the time for a decision. Kosova is united, is prepared for independence. Kosova deserves a decision by the international community for independence." Thaci promised that an independent Kosova would be "a free, democratic new state...a state, a country that would be a home for all its citizens," and said that he will only appoint ministers "with clean hands." Thaci will be the fifth prime minister in the eight years since the UN assumed control over Kosova in 1999. AG

Agim Ceku, the leader of Kosova's outgoing parliament, said on December 24 that he plans to create a new political party. "I want to create my own party, with a new vision," Kosovar media quoted Ceku as saying. "I am open to all those who want to join a new vision of an independent Kosova." He did not provide details. Ceku was not a politician before he became prime minister, a post that he assumed in 2006 after the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK), the junior partner in the government, asked him to head the LDK-led government. Ceku was previously the head of the Kosova Protection Corps (TMK), a locally staffed emergency-response unit supervised by the UN, but he had been a leading figure in public life because of his role as the commander of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) during the 1998-99 separatist war. Ceku had previously given no indication of his intentions after the end of his premiership. There had been speculation that he could join ORA, a political party whose leader Veton Surroi stepped down on December 23. Surroi was one of the five politicians negotiating on Kosova's status, but he failed to lead the ORA back into parliament in the November 17 elections. AG

Serbia's chief war-crimes prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, said on December 25 that the Bosnian Serbs' wartime military leader, Ratko Mladic, is currently in Serbia, Reuters and local media reported. Mladic's political commander, Radovan Karadzic, is "in the region," Vukcevic also said. Both assessments correspond with appraisals that he made in late November, and with the belief of Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4 and December 10 and 12, 2007). However, Serbia's defense minister, Dragan Sutanovac, said "I have no such knowledge and I don't know on which basis Vukcevic said it," Reuters reported on December 25. The news agency FoNet on December 26 cited Rasim Ljajic, the minister responsible for cooperation with the ICTY, 26, as saying that Vukcevic had told him his words had been misinterpreted. The second most senior international official in Bosnia-Herzegovina, U.S. diplomat Raffi Gregorian claimed on December 17 that "one phone call" from Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica would be enough to end Mladic's 12 years on the run (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2007). AG

Prosecutor Vukcevic's statement and the subsequent denial by Minister Ljajic came a matter of days after the Serbian daily "Blic" reported that Serbia's secret services have been searching hospitals for Mladic. "Blic" reported that several doctors suspected of treating Mladic have been questioned and that the facilities at Belgrade's Military Medical Academy and several other clinics have been searched. Again citing secret service sources, "Blic" said Mladic is believed to be suffering from high blood pressure and heart problems. Among those suspected of helping Mladic are doctors who treated Zdravko Tolimir, a general in the Bosnian Serb wartime army who was arrested and transferred to the ICTY in The Hague this summer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1 and 4, 2007). However, the report of a special operation to find Mladic has been denied by Ljajic, who added that Serbia's security agencies carry out "regular checks of all state institutions." AG

In the latest sign of diplomatic tensions between Romania and Moldova, Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Cioroianu did not meet with Moldovan officials when he visited Moldova on December 21. Cioroianu's decision was depicted as a snub by the Moldovan Foreign Ministry, which, according to the news agency Infotag, issued a statement calling it "an unfriendly act which does not contribute to improving relations between Moldova and Romania." Relations between the two countries became even more sour in mid-December when Chisinau expelled two Romanian diplomats. The reasons given were vague, but the move came on the backdrop of complaints by Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin of "constant aggression" by Romania, whose president, Traian Basescu, talks of the eventual unification of the "Romanian people" in the two countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). Romania has not responded by expelling any Moldovan diplomats -- and will not, Cioroianu said on December 21 -- but the purpose of Cioroianu's visit to Chisinau -- to open a new consular section at the Romanian Embassy -- was sensitive, coming against the background of mass applications for Romanian citizenship by Moldovans. During the opening ceremony, Cioroianu denounced the expulsions as "acts of provocation." He also said "Romania is ready to sign a basic political treaty between the two states," a key demand by Chisinau, but media reports do not indicate that he commented on one of the issues that vex Chisinau, a recognition of Moldovan speech as a distinct language. AG

Albanian President Bamir Topi paid a visit to Iraq on December 23 to meet the 71 Albanian soldiers serving in the international coalition. This is the first time that Topi has visited the Albanian contingent since he won the presidency this summer. His predecessor, Alfred Moisiu, never visited the Albanian forces in Iraq. Topi met with the head of the multinational force in Iraq, U.S. General David Petraeus, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad before visiting the Albanian mission in Mosul. Albanian troops are also serving with international missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan. Topi described the deployments as being "of great value" to Albania's effort to secure an invitation from NATO to join the alliance. The issue of membership for Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia is expected to be one of the key decisions to be made by NATO leaders when they meet in Bucharest in April 2008. AG

One year after the public uprising that ousted Soviet holdover Eduard Shevardnadze and swept Saakashvili to power, the Rose Revolution had already become the stuff of legend.

In the capital, Tbilisi, actors were hired by Saakashvili's National Movement party to give a dramatic rendition of the events of autumn 2003. The chronicle began with protests that followed flawed parliamentary elections on November 2. It culminated three weeks later, with Saakashvili standing on the floor of the Georgian parliament, roses in hand, and demanding change.

"The whole world knows the rest of the story," a young woman shouted proudly. "Mikheil Saakashvili, carrying flowers in his hands, enters the parliament hall, while Shevardnadze runs away!"

A second actor, speaking to throbbing strains of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," likened the struggle to a battle between good and evil. "Today, good is on the side of the Georgian people! Today, God is with us!"

For many Georgians, the grandiose anniversary reenactment was a disappointing contrast to the real-life enthusiasm of the year before. The Saakashvili government, in its eagerness to commemorate the historic achievements of the Rose Revolution, had instead transformed it into a hackneyed public-relations event.

It's a criticism that has dogged the administration ever since. Are they working for the good of the public, or for the good of their image?

Saakashvili, carried to the presidency with an astonishing 96-percent win, vowed sweeping reform. And indeed, the past years have seen striking changes.

One of the most successful programs has been a government initiative targeting corruption in higher education. In just a matter of years, the long-standing practice of bribing officials in exchange for enrollment in prestigious universities has been almost completely eradicated.

Tbilisi universities are now accepting, without bribes, qualified students from the country's poorer regions; the Education Ministry, once a bastion of mismanagement, has been celebrated for its steps to promote merit-based enrollment.

The president's team -- many of whom studied abroad and are familiar with the image-conscious impulses of the West -- were quick to highlight such success stories in speeches and television campaigns. But they repeatedly shied away from delivering difficult news; potentially painful long-term reforms went largely unexplained, outside voices were discouraged.

It wasn't long, says political commentator Ghia Nodia, before Georgians felt they weren't being told the full story.

"This government seems excessively oriented toward public relations -- at least, this is a criticism that we often hear," Nodia says. "But this PR is often overtly simplistic, focused only on showing some infrastructural achievements, like building a road or repairing the facade of a building. There has been very little by way of dialogue with the public, little explanation of actual reforms."

For many, it was a question of pace. Saakashvili's young, energetic administration, its eye on the prize of a "modernized" Georgia, pushed through reforms at a rapid-fire rate. In the first year alone, reforms in everything from education to taxation to the Georgian Constitution were instituted. One Georgian lawmaker commented at the time that it was a "record year" for adopting legislation. For ordinary Georgians, the effect could be dizzying -- so many sacrifices, so few apparent rewards.

Numerous segments of society grew increasingly disenchanted as their own lot grew harder. The country's intelligentsia -- professors, artists, performers -- found themselves stripped of old privileges and jobs as market-oriented reforms took hold. Older workers saw themselves pushed aside as administrative posts were filled with robust young hires. Entire cadres of Shevardnadze-era police forces were summarily purged in an effort to clean up the country's notorious corrupt law enforcement. In one fell swoop, Saakashvili had earned a powerful, and deeply resentful, enemy.

Perhaps the greatest discontent with the government was triggered by its policies on private property. Illegal construction and illicit privatization had flourished under Shevardnadze, often with dangerous and unsightly consequences. Saakashvili, seeking to rectify what was widely acknowledged as a serious problem, moved quickly. Perhaps too quickly. Apartments given by Shevardnadze to artists and writers were promptly confiscated; unlicensed buildings were demolished -- often with shovel-bearing government aides the first to dig in for the benefit of nearby television crews.

Evicted residents were often offered compensation, but for the public, it was too much, too fast. But even as discontent grew, Nodia notes, authorities refused to waver, convinced that in the long term, their strategy would pay off.

"Of course, we shouldn't be under the illusion that reforms introduced by the government wouldn't come up against protest; these reforms, after all, are often oriented against ingrained social instincts," he remarks. "That said, it still would have been possible to carry them out -- they just needed to be more patient. The government should have had more human patience regarding different opinions, and perhaps should have explained things many times. But there are not many people in the government who are capable of doing this."

Giga Bokeria, an influential lawmaker and Saakashvili's close associate, says the government may have failed in communicating with the public on some key initiatives, including those related to private property.

But, he says, the reforms pushed forward nonetheless -- and that is the more important achievement.

"It's often said that 'the people are not ready for democracy.' I've heard this many times," Bokeria says. "We never shared this [sentiment] - I myself didn't; our team didn't. On the contrary -- I think that ordinary citizens in Georgia are not only ready, but are asking for changes, although this is not to say that we don't have any societal problems of course. Main barriers in our society are created by those elites that used to have comfortable positions in the old order of things."

Still, as time went on, a number of Saakashvili's reforms have had the unintended effect of fueling his detractors. As part of its sweep of law-enforcement structures, the government had sought to encourage the public to cooperate with its new, "Western-style" police force by turning in relatives or neighbors suspected of committing crimes. The initiative was, in some ways, a success -- more than 80 percent of all Georgians now characterize their relations with police as at least "relatively good." But the opposition, capitalizing on Soviet-era suspicion of the authorities, derided the program as undignified and cowardly.

The education reform, despite its successes, likewise raised criticism because of changes imposed on the national curriculum and the way literature was taught. A decision to change the instruction methodology for early Georgian Christian texts, for example, sparked charges by nationalists that Saakashvili deliberately sought to "erode" the standing of Georgian literature in academia. And in the economic sphere, new privatization programs and investment incentives led to accusations that the government sought to sell its soul to "foreigners."

At any point, critics say, Saakashvili and his aides could have stopped to address such critiques. Instead, the government appeared to become even more uncompromising, dismissing complaints as uninformed and the work of troublemakers. Shocking observers, the president himself openly mocked members of the old-school intelligentsia who opposed his rule-of-law campaign, and referred to his opponents as people who had been "flushed down" into oblivion.

Gaga Nizharadze, a Tbilisi-based psychologist, says an unyielding drive to "modernize" society is a frequent characteristic of governments brought to power in a public uprising. In many instances, he says, Georgians initially viewed Saakashvili's reforms as positive and necessary -- but were ultimately turned off by the patronizing style in which they were presented.

"Things were being explained in a very condescending manner. As a rule, the least popular members of the ruling team were speaking about [reforms], with smiling faces -- with a grin, as the English would say -- as if to say, 'this is what should be done, brothers,'" Nizharadze says. "Their PR showed only achievements -- and when it came to shortcomings, we were being told that it wasn't our business."

Disenchanted, Georgian society decided to make it their business. Four years after the Rose Revolution, a new crowd of protesters had gathered outside the Georgian parliament. For the first week of November, angry complaints about the state of Georgian affairs mingled with calls for Saakashvili's ouster. When Saakashvili finally responded with force, imposing a state of emergency and bringing in riot police to disperse an already dwindling crowd, the once-celebrated reformer seemed to have gone full circle, devolving into a wary, defensive autocrat.

The authorities attempted to distance themselves from the protests. Bokeria acknowledges "some mistakes" were made in explaining and communicating the government reforms. But he says many people came out for strictly social reasons -- unemployment, low standard of living, and lack of money.

"Even if fewer mistakes were made -- and I think no one could be under the illusion that a government exists which does not make mistakes -- but OK, let's say we had better and more timely reforms, with better communication [with the public] -- the protest rallies would have occurred anyway," he says. "And this will remain the case in the future as well. This happens everywhere, especially with such kinds of transitions, and I don't think there is anything surprising in this."

Saakashvili is now one of seven candidates on the ballot for early presidential elections on January 5. The past month has seen a distinct transformation in the leader who could once do no wrong. Saakashvili may win a second term, but not with 96 percent. This time, he has to work to win. He has been an active campaigner, touring a number of Georgian regions, meeting with everyone from farmers to members of the intelligentsia. Instead of promoting sweeping, long-term reforms, he is carefully emphasizing the importance of issues like social welfare, unemployment, and Georgian culture and traditions.

Whether this will translate into a more accommodating presidential term remains to be seen. But for now, observers like Temur Iakobashvili say they are content to see that the bullish, reformist president has become the responsive, reformed candidate.

"After the events of November, Saakashvili realized that the level of discontent is pretty high among the population," Iakobashvili says. "There's no doubt that this discontent is mainly caused by welfare factors, but there were also other mistakes that are not directly linked with the social sphere, and are more connected to rhetorical, or terminological aspects - be it people being "flushed down," the "red" [intelligentsia], and so on. He is trying to rectify these mistakes now. And this, in principle, is the right way to go."

For ordinary Georgians, does the political evolution of Mikheil Saakashvili come too late?

"There's hope, but very little," says one man in Tbilisi. "He started talking only when things became difficult. Where was he before? Why didn't he come out and do good for people then?"

"There are issues on which I trust Saakashvili," says another. "But there are also those things that I don't know, and therefore I can't trust him completely. If I had known those things too, I might have trusted him 100 percent."

Of one thing, Giga Bokeria is certain. Saakashvili, says the lawmaker, will not turn his back on reforms -- no matter how much he softens his message.

"Of course, politics need to be adjusted. When you see that you made a mistake somewhere, you should try to correct it," he says. "But God forbid there should be developments where Saakashvili revises his political course in any in-depth way. This would mean abandoning the reforms."

In a brief joint news conference in Islamabad on December 26, Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan signaled an improvement in relations and underlined the need for intelligence cooperation to fight the militant threat from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban along their mutual border, Afghan and Pakistani news media reported. Karzai traveled to Islamabad at the invitation of Musharraf, who said the spread of extremism and terrorism is "destroying both our countries." "We have to work together to function well for the mutual benefit of both the countries, and that is what Pakistan looks forward to," Musharraf said. Karzai, who often referred to Musharraf as "my brother" during the news conference, said they had discussed issues of vital importance to the future of the two nations. "And it is incumbent upon the leadership of the two countries, the governments, to find ways to bring peace and stability to each home, each family, in both countries," Karzai said. Afghanistan and Pakistan are pivotal allies in the U.S.-led "war on terror" and both receive substantial U.S. aid aimed at fighting militants. But both have also seen a sharp increase in violence this year. MM

The government of President Karzai on December 26 ordered expelled two senior diplomats for allegedly negotiating with Taliban insurgents in Helmand Province without authorization, Afghan and international media reported. The officials, Michael Semple, the Irish deputy head of the EU mission in Kabul, and Mervyn Patterson, a senior UN official understood to be a British citizen, were declared persona non grata for actions said to be "detrimental to the national security of the country." Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the UN mission in Afghanistan, described the situation as a "misunderstanding," but said both diplomats had agreed to leave Afghanistan. "We see no basis for such a decision, but we respect the sovereignty of the government of Afghanistan and have every intention to abide by that decision," Siddique said. The row comes amid claims the British secret service has held secret talks with senior Taliban insurgents, despite Prime Minister Gordon Brown's pledge that Britain will not negotiate with terrorists. MM

During a stop at Kandahar Airfield to spend Christmas with the Canadian troops, Defense Minister Peter MacKay said on December 25 that weapons are flowing from Iran to Afghan insurgents, Canadian and Afghan news media reported. MacKay also targeted Pakistan, warning against the flow of weapons and explosives to terrorist groups that are targeting NATO forces in Afghanistan. He said Afghanistan has "very negative influences coming in from other countries, Pakistan, certainly, Iran, in particular." He also said improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from Iran pose a particular concern for Canadians, most of whose 73 combat deaths have been the result of IEDs. MacKay remarked that it is difficult to cut the lines of supply when you have people in other countries giving weapons to be used against Canadian and coalition forces operating in Afghanistan. MM

Afghan intelligence forces on December 24 reportedly detained a 50-year-old foreign woman carrying a suicide vest in eastern Afghanistan, Bakhtar News Agency reported. The burqa-clad woman was detained at a bus station in the town of Jalalabad, in Nangarhar Province near the Pakistani border area, said Sayed Fazlullah Wahidi, governor of neighboring Kunar Province. Wahidi announced that the woman was a foreigner, although he did not reveal her nationality. Afghan intelligence officials who questioned the woman said it appears she was transporting the vest for militants and did not intend to detonate it herself. The number of suicide attacks in 2007 has exceeded 140, but, according to Bakhtar News, no suicide bombings have been carried out by women. MM

Iran's Interior Ministry has announced that aspiring candidates for parliamentary elections scheduled for March 14 are to register between January 5 and 11, Radio Farda reported on December 25, citing Iranian Deputy Interior Minister Alireza Afshar, who heads the ministry's election headquarters. Reformists have expressed concern about the strict vetting of aspirants by the Guardians Council, the body that checks all stages of elections and which has often disqualified many potential candidates as unfit for public office. The Interior Ministry and Guardians Council have also discussed computerizing various stages of the elections, though there is no firm agreement. Afshar said the initial registration stage will be done by Internet. He added that voters will cast paper ballots and present national identity cards when voting and that vote counting in Tehran and large cities will be computerized if the Guardians Council approves, ISNA reported. He added there are 43,700,000 eligible voters and that mid-term elections for certain municipal council seats and seats in the Assembly of Experts will be held together with the parliamentary polls. Afshar said aspirants for the municipal seats and seats in the Assembly of Experts will be able to register, respectively, in the one-week periods following January 3 and 24, ISNA reported. VS

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on December 25 that Iran will not accept any change to the 1975 Algiers accord signed between Iran and Iraq, Radio Farda reported. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has said he does not recognize the frontier accord, dated June 3, 1975, which established a border along the middle of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, called Arvandrud in Iran, AP reported on December 26. Hosseini said frontier accords are permanent in nature and set "objective" obligations for states, adding there is no legal validity to any comments on suspending the Algiers accord. Iranian politicians have echoed Hosseini's remarks. The head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Alaeddin Borujerdi said in Tehran on December 25 that Iranian parliamentarians expect Talabani to reject the remarks attributed to him, Radio Farda reported. Iran's ambassador in Baghdad, Hasan Kazemi-Qomi, told ISNA on December 25 that "current talk" regarding the treaty concerns the implementation of certain technical or legal details, and an Iraqi delegation is to travel to Tehran to discuss these sections. He suggested the treaty itself is not being questioned by either side, ISNA reported. VS

Expediency Council Secretary and former revolutionary guards chief Mohsen Rezai told a seminar in Tehran on December 25 that the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, launched by Iraq's late dictator Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran in 1980, cost Iran about $22 billion. Rezai told the seminar the conflict needs further study, the Fars news agency reported. He said researchers should especially study the roles and active participation of Iranian commanders in "various operations" and compare these with "European generals and those of other countries." VS

Kazem Jalali, the rapporteur of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said Iran must realize that Russia and China -- with which Iran maintains extensive business and security ties -- have no desire for confrontation with the United States and use diplomacy to further their economic interests, ISNA reported. The two powers have been reluctant to impose punitive sanctions on Iran for suspected nonproliferation violations in its nuclear program. "Clearly the Chinese...will not tolerate anything in their foreign policy that will harm their economic development," Jalali said. He said "provoking a regional challenge" would harm Chinese economic interests by raising energy prices and disrupting the regional market for Chinese goods. He said he believes the Chinese would not tolerate U.S. moves to "radicalize the atmosphere" in the Middle East or the world. Russia, he said, has made a "strategic" decision to work with Iran, as both states oppose what he described as the United States' ambition to be the world's only superpower. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki separately told the press in Manamah, Bahrain, on December 26 that he hopes Iran's nuclear dossier will be closed in next couple of months, IRNA reported. He asked states to support Iran's current cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. VS

A group of 40 Iranian Jews secretly left Iran and arrived in Tel Aviv on December 25, Radio Farda reported, citing media reports. This was reportedly the single largest departure of Jews from Iran in recent years, the broadcaster observed. Iran does not recognize Israel, but officials insist Jews are allowed to live and worship and are not mistreated in Iran. Many Jews are thought to have left Iran following the 1979 revolution that replaced the Westernizing monarchy with a revolutionary regime. Radio Farda reported that some relatives of the latest group had left previously and met them at Ben Gurion Airport. The arrival was reportedly given prominent coverage on Israeli television. AP cited some of the recently arrived as expressing satisfaction at arriving in Israel. One 15-year-old identified as Michael was cited as saying that he had spent a difficult time in Iran and was not allowed to wear the Jewish skull cap in public. The 40 Jews migrated through an unnamed third country, AP reported. VS

The Turkish General Staff announced on December 26 that it had launched air strikes against suspected Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) positions in northern Iraq, its third cross-border attack within a week, international media reported. The Turkish military said it had "determined that a large group of terrorists, who have been watched for a long time, were preparing to pass the winter in eight caves and hideouts in the Zap region." Jabar Yawar, the Kurdish regional minister for peshmerga affairs, confirmed the attacks and said the bombings lasted for about an hour with no apparent casualties. Iraqi Kurdish leaders have urged Turkey to end its cross-border attacks, claiming that Iraqi civilians have been killed during the raids. During a December 24 press conference and speaking a day after a Turkish air strike on suspected PKK positions north of Irbil, Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani called on Turkey immediately to cease raids on northern Iraq. "We cannot accept this situation. We cannot accept our villages being bombed and our people killed," Barzani said. SS

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on December 25 that Turkey has the right to carry out cross-border attacks against PKK fighters, the Anatolia news agency reported the same day. Speaking at a ruling Justice and Development party meeting, Erdogan said, "We have used whatever means necessary within the framework of international law, and we will continue to do so." "I would like to make it clear that civilians have never been our targets," he added. "The target is definitely the terrorist [PKK] camps. We carry out our task by using all technological means." Erdogan insisted that cross-border attacks are undertaken only after all "diplomatic, military, social, and economic measures" are exhausted and stressed that the operations against the PKK will secure the Turkish-Iraqi border and restore stability to the region. Meanwhile, Turkey's military issued a statement on December 25 indicating that between 150 and 175 PKK fighters were killed during large-scale air strikes on December 16. The Turkish General Staff said that more than 200 targets were hit, including three command centers, two communications centers, two training camps, nine logistical areas, 182 living quarters, and 14 arsenals. SS

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced on December 26 that the Iraqi cabinet has approved a draft law that would offer general amnesty for thousands of prisoners in U.S. and Iraqi custody, Reuters reported. The draft law, which needs to be approved by the Iraqi parliament, will identify prisoners eligible for release. The number of detainees in U.S. and Iraqi prisons is estimated at 50,000, and that figure has risen sharply since the beginning of the U.S. troop surge, in February, which greatly expanded U.S. military operations. The amnesty law is regarded as a vital step toward reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi'a, since the majority of prisoners are from Sunni Arab communities. Many of the prisoners have been held without formal charges, and Sunni Arab leaders have repeatedly called for their release. The U.S. military announced on December 23 that it had released 160 prisoners from its Camp Bucca detention facility, and it intends to free most of its detainees by the end of 2009 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2007). SS

The Kurdistan parliament announced on December 26 that it had approved a UN proposal on extending the deadline of Article 140 on Kirkuk by six months, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Kurdistan Parliament speaker Adnan al-Mufti said lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the proposal, which also gives the UN a greater role in preparing for the Kirkuk referendum that will determine whether the governorate is to be incorporated into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Article 140 calls for a three-step process of "normalization," which seeks to reverse the Arabization policies of the former regime when thousands of Kurds and non-Arabs were forcibly evicted from Kirkuk and replaced with Arabs from central and southern Iraq. Normalization is then followed by a census and finally a referendum. Under the constitutional article, the referendum is scheduled to take place sometime in December, but the normalization process has yet to be completed and no preparations have been made for a census, prompting Kurdish officials to acknowledge that the referendum needs to be postponed. However, several Kurdish lawmakers expressed concern that Article 140 will not be implemented within the next six months, and some cast doubts on the UN's ability to make any progress on the issue. SS

The Iraqi government warned on December 24 that it will halt oil exports to South Korea if a South Korean consortium led by the state-run Korea National Oil Corp (KNOC) proceeds with an oil-exploration project in a Kurdish-controlled region, "Yonhap" reported the same day. An official at KNOC said one of the leading partners in the consortium, SK Energy Company, was warned by the Iraqi government in a telephone call not to move forward with the project because it has not been authorized by Baghdad. Doing so may lead to the suspension of oil exports from Iraq, the official said. The South Korean consortium signed an agreement in November take over a 38 percent stake in the Bazian oil field in northern Iraq that is estimated to hold 500 million barrels of crude oil. During the first ten months of this year, Iraq was South Korea's sixth-largest supplier of oil. "If Iraq cuts off oil shipments, it could cause prices to rise since South Korea will have to seek imports from elsewhere on short notice," said an official in South Korea's Energy Ministry. Previously, Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani said any foreign firm that has signed deals with the Kurdistan regional government might be barred from doing business with the Iraqi federal government, (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16, 2007). SS

A suicide truck bombing on December 25 targeting a checkpoint in the northern city of Bayji killed 25 people and wounded more than 80, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Iraqi security sources said the suicide bomber struck when people were lining up near a checkpoint to buy gas cylinders in a residential area. Sources also said the checkpoint was jointly manned by the Iraqi Army and members of the "awakening" council of Bayji's Al-Ghaz neighborhood. Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Abd al-Karim Khalaf announced immediately after the attack that Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani had ordered the dismissal of Bayji police commander Lieutenant Colonel Salah al-Qaysi, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Khalaf said an investigation committee headed by Major General Rashid Fulayyih has been formed to look into the bombing. SS