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Newsline - December 28, 2007

President Vladimir Putin on December 27 chaired the final cabinet session of 2007, symbolically taking the prime minister's seat at the table, and other Russian media reported. Putin is widely expected to become prime minister in May 2008 provided that First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is, as expected, elected president in the March election. Putin said that 2007 has been a successful year for Russia, noting that gross domestic product rose by 7.6 percent and real incomes rose by 10 percent. "The task of [Prime Minister] Viktor Zubkov is to achieve such a pace of work that even my possible arrival at the White House [the government's office complex] will seem like a holiday for everyone," Putin told the ministers. Zubkov reported that the so-called national projects, overseen by Medvedev, have yielded positive results. He said that the average life expectancy in Russia has risen from 64.9 years in 2003 to 67.5 years in 2007. Putin added that some 30 percent more new housing was constructed in Russia in the first nine months of 2007 than in the same period in 2006. However, Putin noted that inflation, which is expected to reach 12 percent this year, was some 4 percent higher than beginning-of-the-year forecasts. RC

In a statement posted on December 27 on the Kremlin's website (, President Putin called the murder of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto "a barbaric act of terrorism." The statement added: "We hope that the organizers of this crime are found and punished accordingly. This was another cruel challenge issued by the forces of terrorism not only to Pakistan, but the entire international community." Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin also condemned Bhutto's murder in a statement posted on December 27 on the ministry's website, adding: "Now it is especially important that all of Pakistan's responsible political forces show maximum restraint, resist the extremists' provocations, and do everything possible to defeat decisively the forces of international terrorism, which are actively attempting to use the difficult situation in Pakistan on the eve of the parliamentary elections planned for 8 January 2008." Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov said the murder of Bhutto could trigger a wave of terrorism in Pakistan, ITAR-TASS reported on December 27. "We believe that it is a dangerous development, which in such an unstable situation on the eve of elections in Pakistan can become yet another factor of instability," he said. JB

The new State Duma, which convened on December 24, includes at least 40 active or retired officers of the military or security services, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on December 26. That figure represents nearly 10 percent of the 450-seat chamber. Colonel General Viktor Zavarzin (Unified Russia) will again head the Defense Committee, while former Federal Security Service (FSB) Director General Nikolai Kovalyov (Unified Russia) was again chosen to head the Veterans' Affairs Committee. Colonel General Vladimir Vasilev (Unified Russia), a former deputy interior minister, will continue as head of the Security Committee. Other prominent siloviki include Valery Vostrotin (Unified Russia and a member of the Defense Committee), a colonel general in the Emergency Situations forces; Colonel General Arkady Baskaev (Unified Russia and a member of the Defense Committee), a former commander of the Moscow district Interior Ministry troops; former Deputy Defense Minister Andrei Kokoshin (Unified Russia and a member of the Science and Technology Committee); General Aleksandr Korzhakov (Unified Russia and a member of the Defense Committee), who once headed President Boris Yeltsin's security team; and former FSB Colonel Andrei Lugovoi (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and a member of the Defense Committee), who is wanted in the United Kingdom in connection with the November 2006 killing of Kremlin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko. In addition, Airborne Forces Lieutenant General Aleksei Sigutkin (Unified Russia) was selected to head the Duma's apparatus. RC

The new State Duma includes 62 women, including 22 from the previous Duma, reported on December 24. Forty-four of the women are from Unified Russia, while 11 of the 38 A Just Russia Deputies are women, as are four of the 40 Liberal Democratic Party of Russia deputies and four of the 57 Communists. According to the website, seven of the women come from business, three from nongovernmental organizations, 12 are officials, two are former cosmonauts, five are athletes, and one is a ballerina. Britain's "The Sun" newspaper on December 28 noted that four Unified Russia deputies -- rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, gymnast and Olympic champion Svetlana Khorkina, Olympic skating champion Svetlana Zhurova, and boxer Natalia Karpovich -- have starred in "racy photoshoots in various Russian magazines." In all, roughly half of the deputies in the new Duma have become lawmakers for the first time, reported on December 24. About 70 are "top managers" in major industries, including oil, chemicals, metallurgy, and transport. For the first time, two handicapped deputies have joined the chamber, the website reported. RC

The new State Duma reelected Unified Russia party leader Boris Gryzlov as its speaker on December 24, Russian media reported. Deputies also selected nine deputy speakers: Yury Volkov, Vyacheslav Volodin, Nadezhda Gerasimova, Svetlana Zhurova, Lyubov Sliska, and Valery Yazev from Unified Russia; Aleksandr Babakov from A Just Russia; Vladimir Zhirinovsky from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia; and Ivan Melnikov from the Communist Party. Deputies also named the heads of 32 committees, 26 of whom are members of Unified Russia. In the last Duma, Unified Russia controlled all of the lower chamber's committees and commissions. The names of the new deputies and the composition of the Duma's committees can be found on the Duma's website ( Prime Minister Zubkov addressed the opening session and urged deputies to adopt the necessary legislation to implement the government's plan for the country's development in the period ending in 2020. RC

One-third of Russians believe the Unified Russia faction in the Duma, which controls 315 of the chamber's 450 seats, will "exclusively represent the interests of Vladimir Putin," according to a new poll by the Levada Center reported by on December 27. Just 16 percent believe the faction will support the president elected in March, even if that president is the Unified Russia candidate, Dmitry Medvedev. Twenty percent of respondents said the faction will represent the interests of the country, while 13 percent said it will protect the bureaucracy. The same poll found that 15 percent of respondents believe the Union of Rightist Forces party can survive its defeat in the December 2 Duma elections, while 14 percent believe the liberal Yabloko party will survive. Surprisingly, 42 percent said they don't think the Communist Party will survive into the next election and 40 percent said the same about the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, although both of those parties polled well enough on December 2 to gain seats in the Duma. RC

The Moscow City Election Commission has ordered local polling stations to open the sealed election protocols from the December 2 Duma elections, "Vedomosti" reported on December 28. According to the daily, the move comes at the order of the Central Election Commission and will be carried out nationally in the coming days, ostensibly in order to update voter lists for the March 2008 presidential election. Observers note, however, that opening the protocols will make it impossible to contest the results of the Duma elections, at a time when the Communist Party and others have pending court cases questioning them. In addition, opposition activists told the daily that opening the lists will enable officials to determine, by name, who voted and who did not, theoretically enabling the management of enterprises to check up on their employees. Moscow City Election Commission official and Yabloko member Andrei Buzin noted that cases of people being pressured to vote were widely documented during the elections. RC

Some two-fifths of Russians consider that 2007 was a successful year, according to polls released by the country's main polling agencies in the last 10 days. A similar percentage believe that 2008 will be "about the same." According to a poll by the Public Opinion Foundation, released on December 21 and reported by Interfax, although 38 percent of respondents rated 2007 positively, 67 percent were unable to name a specific positive event and 65 percent were unable to name a specific negative event. A poll by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), reported by RBK on December 28, found that 40 percent of respondents are looking ahead to 2008 with optimism, up from 30 percent who were optimistic about 2007 in a poll taken at the end of last year. Just 25 percent of respondents viewed 2007 negatively. Four years ago, 53 percent of Russians said that 2003 was a bad year. "People are beginning to forget how badly they lived during the period of [economic] crises," sociologist Yelena Matrosova told RBK. RC

A poll by the Levada Center has found that 46 percent of respondents favor the "compulsory purchase of private companies at prices assigned by the government and their transfer to state corporations headed by high-level bureaucrats," reported on December 26. Kremlin-connected fund manager Oleg Shvartsman made headlines in November when he told "Kommersant" that Kremlin-connected siloviki led by deputy presidential administration head Igor Sechin have been using "voluntary-compulsory" means to take over private businesses (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6 and 20, 2007). Twenty-three percent of respondents oppose such actions. In a later interview, Shvartsman elaborated on his views: "These enterprises were created by our fathers and grandfathers," he said. "And suddenly, at the decision of one person who was bribed, they belong to private individuals. This isn't right. The people do not support this." RC

Deputy Foreign Minister Losyukov said on December 27 that Russia is helping Iran strengthen its air defense capabilities, RIA Novosti reported. "I know we are assisting in work to reinforce Iran's air defense systems," Losyukov told reporters in Moscow, adding, however, "I have no concrete information on the issue and can make no comment whatsoever on the type of [military] hardware." 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," but did not say when or how many of the systems will be shipped to Iran. Russian officials declined to comment on the S-300 sale (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). Meanwhile, the Bush administration expressed concern over Iran's announcement that Russia will supply it with S-300 antiaircraft missile-defense systems, AFP reported. "We have ongoing concerns about the prospective sale of such weapons to Iran and other countries of concern," said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman. JB

Russia has released six more of the 11 Japanese fishermen detained earlier this month after their boats were seized in disputed waters, Japan's Foreign Ministry reported on December 27. AP quoted the ministry as saying that a vessel has been sent to pick up the six crew members off Shikotan Island, which is one of the four islands held by Russia since the end of World War II, but still claimed by Japan. On December 13, the Russian Coast Guard detained four boats carrying 11 people off the northern coast of Kunashiri Island, which is also claimed by both countries, on suspicion of border violations and illegal fishing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2007). A captain of one of the ships was subsequently released. Japan's Foreign Ministry said it will continue to press for the early return of the remaining four fishermen. JB

The Russian company VSMPO-Avisma on December 27 signed a deal worth more than $1 billion to supply titanium to U.S. aircraft maker Boeing. Reuters reported that VSMPO-Avisma, the world's largest titanium producer, will supply Boeing with titanium under a deal running from 2011 to 2015, while Boeing will invest $27 billion in Russia over a period of 30 years. The news agency quoted Boeing's Russia chairman, Sergei Kravchenko, as saying that the contract represents a "serious contribution" to a major program for purchasing Russian titanium worth $18 billion from VSMPO-Avisma. According to Reuters, the supply deal follows an agreement struck in August to found a 50-50 joint venture to produce titanium parts for Boeing's next generation of passenger jets, the 787 Dreamliner. Meanwhile, "Vedomosti" on December 27 quoted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov as saying that foreign investment in Russia reached $45 billion in 2007, 1 1/2 times higher than the $30.5 billion foreigners invested in Russia in 2006. JB

Rostekhnologia General Director Sergei Chemezov predicted at a December 27 press conference in Moscow that exports of Russian armaments and military hardware may exceed $7.5 billion in 2008, Interfax reported. "I think that we will witness a certain growth [of military exports] next year," Chemezov said. "Exports may reach $7.5 billion. This is quite possible." Chemezov said that Russia's arms exports in 2007 totaled more than $7 billion. Rostekhnologia is the new conglomerate encompassing virtually all Russia's weapons producers and traders, including the arms-export monopoly Rosoboroneksport, as well as machine-building firms and the giant carmaker AvtoVAZ. JB

Speaking at a press conference in Moscow, where he met on December 21 with Russian Prime Minister Zubkov, President Mukhu Aliyev characterized the political and economic situation in Daghestan as "stable," reported on December 24. Aliyev noted that the number of "terrorist acts" committed has fallen dramatically over the past two years, from 47 in 2005 to 18 last year and only one this year. It is not clear which of the high-profile killings in recent months he had in mind. Aliyev nonetheless conceded that a small group of "terrorists" is still active in Untsukul Raion. On December 23, the Daghestan Interior Ministry said a total of 59 people have been detained in the ongoing crackdown in the Untsukul village of Gimri (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17 and 18, 2007). A member of the Russian Interior Ministry troops was wounded in a shoot-out with unidentified gunmen near Gimri on December 24. LF

At an emergency session on December 20, 14 of the 26 deputies to the Republic of Kalmykia parliament voted to surrender their mandates and hold pre-term elections, reported the following day. Deputies reportedly conceded that new blood is needed to expedite economic reform, but personal animosity between some deputies and speaker Igor Kichkov may also have contributed to their decision, according to the website. President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov raised the possibility of pre-term parliamentary elections 10 days after firing Prime Minister Anatoly Kozachko on December 5 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6, 2007). LF

Ingushetian Central Election Commission Chairman Musa Yevloyev has told Interfax that allegations that the reported 98 percent turnout in Ingushetia for the December 2 elections to the Russian State Duma was exaggerated are without foundation, reported. But reported the same day that as of December 22, 45,248 people had submitted written statements denying that they cast ballots; that figure is equal to 28 percent of the republic's registered voters. On December 24, the independent website reported that the number of those who have formally denied voting has reached 57,898, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3 and 4, 2007). LF

Boris Salmaksov, a senior investigator with the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office in the Southern Federal District, told Interfax that the party of nine hunters found murdered in the Chegem Raion of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) last month were killed by a band of armed militants, some of whose members also participated in the October 2005 attack on Nalchik, reported on December 26 and 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 5 and 6, 2007). Salmaksov said a hunt for the suspected killers has been launched throughout the Russian Federation. On December 17, quoted a local investigator as saying the suspects were still in Kabardino-Balkaria. Local commentators have questioned why, if the killers were indeed Islamic militants, they purloined the hunters' mobile phones but left untouched their supplies of food, which could prove crucial to survival in the mountains during the winter months. LF

At the instigation of Boris Zherukov, who heads the KBR chapter of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, the KBR parliament voted on December 20 to recall Khachim Karmokov, who represents the KBR on the Federation Council, reported. The vote was 81 in favor and three against, with one abstention. Karmokov headed the A Just Russia list of candidates from the KBR in the December 2 State Duma elections; Zherukov argued that the republic's representative to the Federation Council should be a member of the Duma majority. LF

The Supreme Court in North Ossetia sentenced four Chechens on December 26 on charges of kidnapping and membership of an organized criminal group, reported. The four men were found guilty of participating from 1994 through 2001 in an organized "kidnapping for ransom" criminal enterprise that targeted villagers in North Ossetia. Three of the men received prison sentences of between 13 and 17 years, while the fourth man received a lighter sentence of only two years after he cooperated with the authorities. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on December 26, Armenian presidential candidate and opposition Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party leader Artur Baghdasarian announced the formation of a new "civil movement," called In the Name of Democracy and Citizens' Freedom, that will seek to ensure that the February 2008 presidential election is "free and fair," Arminfo reported. Baghdasarian, who was constrained to resign as Armenian parliament speaker last year after a dispute with incumbent President Robert Kocharian, claimed that "tens of thousands of people" have joined his effort and declared, "our goal is to eliminate the atmosphere of fear reigning in the country and to ensure a free and fair election." He also warned that "poverty, unemployment, and immigration are rampant in the country," and pointed to the negative impact of the sharply appreciating Armenian currency, which he said is hurting both small and medium-sized businesses and ordinary citizens dependant on remittances from abroad. Calling for "drastic reforms" that he argued could only be implemented by a "legitimately and democratically elected" president, Baghdasarian went on to dismiss as "false and pre-planned" recent public opinion polls that ranked him as a distant second to rival presidential contender Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Baghdasarian said that he is confident that he will "make it into the second round of the election." RG

Vuqar Aliyev, the press spokesman for the Nizami district prosecutor's office in Baku, announced on December 27 that the office will not investigate the death of opposition activist Faina Kungurova, a former member of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan who died in unclear circumstances in police custody last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2007), Turan reported. Human rights and civil society activists have designated Kungurova, who was 33, the first woman political prisoner to die in detention in Azerbaijan. Aliyev said that the prosecutor's office concluded that "there was no outside influence on the case," and hence no need to investigate. According to a forensic examination, Kungurova suffered a fatal heart attack, reportedly after undergoing intensive questioning while in pre-trial detention. She was arrested on October 6 by police for allegedly "standing in a suspicious place" as President Ilham Aliyev's motorcade drove past. Following her arrest, police searched her home and reportedly discovered an unspecified amount of drugs. Kungurova was a well known opposition activist who was imprisoned in 2002 but pardoned two years later after international organizations pressured the Azerbaijani authorities to release her (see "Azerbaijan: Activist Becomes First Female Political Prisoner To Die In Detention,", November 29, 2007,). RG

In comments during a press conference in Baku on December 27, Yashar Jafarli, the head of Azerbaijan's Retired and Reserve Officers Union, called on President Aliyev to declare 2008 the "year of [the] army," Turan reported. Jafarli said that such a commemoration would coincide with "the 90th anniversary of the creation of the national army" of Azerbaijan, adding that in light of the "lack of contacts between the army and society," the declaration would address the "importance of propaganda of [the] army and its problems in [the] media." The Retired and Reserve Officers Union, which comprises several veterans' groups and military-related nongovernmental organizations, is an active advocate for soldiers' rights and for improved social benefits for the armed forces. RG

Wealthy business tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili issued a statement on December 27 from London expressing his "readiness" to withdraw his candidacy in the January 5 presidential election, Caucasus Press reported. The announcement follows days of mounting political scandal after the Georgian authorities accused Patarkatsishvili of attempting to organize the overthrow of the government and released secretly recorded audiotapes showing him offering a bribe to the head of the special police department if police agreed to help oust the government (see below). Patarkatsishvili is expected to submit a formal declaration to the Georgian Central Election Commission renouncing his candidacy in the coming days. RG

Giorgi Targamadze announced on December 26 that the popular pro-opposition Imedi television station of which he is director has "temporarily suspended" its broadcasts because its employees have been subject to "official pressure and blackmail," Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. Targamadze also explained that the decision was taken in response to the "dirty political games" underway prior to the January 5 presidential election and due to the "misunderstanding" of the candidacy of Imedi-TV co-owner Patarkatsishvili, Rustavi-2 TV reported. Patarkatsishvili has openly financed much of the activities of the Georgian opposition over the past several months. The Prosecutor-General's Office has publicly implicated both Patarkatsishvili and Valeri Gelbakhiani, a member of parliament who is also a senior member of the Patarkatsishvili campaign staff, in a "conspiracy to overthrow the Georgian government" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). The pro-government television channel Rustavi-2 recently broadcast a secretly recorded tape purportedly showing Gelbakhiani and Patarkatsishvili seemingly offering a $100 million bribe to Erekle Kodua, a senior official from the Interior Ministry, in return for his assistance in "unrest" planned to follow the January election. For his part, Patarkatsishvili issued a statement late on December 26 admitting that he met with Kodua in London on December 23, but explaining that he "was prepared to pay as much as Kodua asked for" in an effort to prevent another harsh crackdown by police on opposition protesters, AFP and Imedi-TV reported. Patarkatsishvili also said he has video footage of his own that he claims shows an Interior Ministry official asking a contract killer to assassinate him in London, where he currently lives (see "Georgian Opposition Broadcaster Shuts Down As Political Scandals Heat Up," December 27, 2007, Prosecutors in Georgia said they will investigate Patarkatsishvili's allegations, but at the same time suggested that he may be using them as an excuse to avoid returning to Tbilisi, where he is wanted for questioning. The Georgian authorities imposed a state of emergency following opposition demonstrations last month and temporarily suspended Imedi's broadcasts. RG

Speaking in Astana on December 27, Anatoly Perminov, the head of the Russian Space Agency, confirmed that Russia has reached a long-awaited settlement with Kazakhstan providing compensation for environmental damage resulting from a rocket crash in September 2007, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to the terms of the settlement, Russia agreed to pay Kazakhstan $2.4 million for damage resulting from the falling debris and subsequent contamination from the crash of a Russian Proton rocket (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and 11, 2007). Russia also promised to reduce the number of Proton rocket launches from the Soviet-era Baikonur Cosmodrome that Russia leases from Kazakhstan for some of its space launches. The Baikonur facility is one of the world's leading space facilities and is regularly used to launch commercial and military satellites, as well as supply missions for the International Space Station. Two other Proton rockets crashed at Baikonur in 1999, leading to the imposition of a suspension on all launches at that time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7 and 8 and November 3, 1999). RG

In a statement released in Astana, an unidentified Kazakh Ministry of Transport and Communication official announced on December 27 that Kazakh and Russian officials have finalized an agreement to build a 600-kilometer canal linking the Caspian and Black Seas, ITAR-TASS reported. The project, reached at a formal meeting of a bilateral Kazakh-Russian working group, entails the construction of a strategic canal running from the Caspian Sea to the basin of the Sea of Azov and linking to the Black Sea. The working group has also drafted a proposal to the Eurasian Development Bank soliciting financing. The proposed canal project was first presented to the Kazakh government in 2006 by Eurasian Economic Community Deputy Secretary-General Serik Primbetov as a Russian initiative (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2006). RG

At a press conference in Astana on December 27, unnamed officials of the press center of the Kazakh Interior Ministry reported on the results of a recently concluded "special operation" targeting "illegal migrants," according to Kazakhstan Today. The four-day nation-wide police operation, which ended on December 24, uncovered a total of 10,446 foreign citizens working and living illegally in the country. Of the total, 9,916 were from other CIS countries and another 530 were identified as being from "other foreign countries." The detainees included more than 100 people who were wanted on various criminal charges in Kazakhstan and abroad. The Kazakh police deported 1,218 of the detained foreigners for "violating migration legislation" and initiated criminal cases against another 23 illegal migrants. The police operation also involved a sweeping inspection of firms and businesses employing the illegal migrant workers, as a result of which some 202 employers were charged with administrative offensives and fined for "violating the rules of recruiting and using foreign labor." RG

Speaking in Bishkek on December 27, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev endorsed the new cabinet selected by newly appointed Prime Minister Igor Chudinov, according to ITAR-TASS. The Kyrgyz parliament formally approved the new cabinet earlier in the day, AKIpress reported. Although the new cabinet is dominated by ministers from the previous government, Chudinov made some new appointments, including the former mayor of Bishkek, Arstanbek Nogoev, who has been appointed minister of agriculture, water resources, and industry; Marat Mambetov as the minister of health; and Tajikan Kalimbetov as the new finance minister. Former Finance Minister Akylbek Dzhaparov was named minister of trade and economic development. Bakiev appointed former Energy and Industry Minister Chudinov as prime minister on December 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). RG

Judge Mirzosharif Hojiboev, the presiding judge of the Sughd district court in the northern Tajik city of Khujand, handed down stiff prison sentences on December 26 to three men convicted on terrorism charges, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The three men were arrested in late May 2007 in the Isfara district, and were found guilty of engaging in "terrorism, creating an illegal armed group, and of cooperation" with the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), as well as being members of an outlawed extremist Islamist group known as Bayat, Asia-Plus reported. Two of the men were sentenced to prison terms of 10 years and the third to 17 years. The extremist Bayat group, an outlawed Islamist movement believed to have been formed in the early 1990s and operating mainly in areas of northern Tajikistan, has been linked to the January 2004 murder of a Christian missionary in the Isfara district (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," May 25, 2004). The unnamed defense lawyer for the men vowed to appeal the sentence to the Tajik Supreme Court. RG

An unidentified source in the TojikGaz state energy company confirmed on December 27 that Tajikistan has reached a new agreement on the price of natural gas imported form Uzbekistan, according to the Avesta website. The agreement, concluded with officials from UzTransGaz, the state gas producer in Uzbekistan, reportedly sets the price of gas imports at $150 per 1,000 cubic meters, a 50 percent increase over the current price, and covers the import of some 1 billion cubic meters of gas from Uzbekistan through 2008. Senior officials from UzTransGaz and TojikGaz signed an initial agreement on gas supplies in Tashkent earlier this month that increased planned imports by about 300 million cubic meters. According to the final agreement, Tajikistan is required to pay in full for the gas imports from Uzbekistan in advance, following past problems with mounting arrears. RG

Alyaksandr Kalinouski, who is head of the commercial department of the Minsk City Executive Committee, said at a meeting with a group of owners of small businesses on December 27 that there will not be any reversal of the presidential decree restricting the activities of small businesses, Belapan reported. "Nobody is preparing documents that would introduce alterations into it [the clause that bars certain business owners from hiring employees other than three family members as of January 1, 2008]," Kalinouski said. "This is the clear position of the leadership of the country, the government, and so on," he said, adding that the government might only take some measures to facilitate the re-registering of businesses as "private unitary enterprises." Most of the business owners present at the meeting left the hall in protest. Anatol Shumchanka, leader of the Perspektyva small-business association, said the vendors' problems will grow and protests are imminent. Shumchanka announced a protest rally in Minsk on January 10, 2008, and a "March of Entrepreneurs" later in the month. AM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has issued a decree on the creation of a National Constitutional Council, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on December 27. The goal of the council is to prepare a new version of the Ukrainian Constitution or amendments to the present one. Yushchenko believes that drafting either a new constitution or amendments to the existing one should not be the competence of the parliament alone. The Constitutional Council will comprise representatives proposed by political parties, local governments, the National Academy of Sciences, and national human-rights organizations. The decree sets January 15, 2008, as the deadline for nominations. Yushchenko will personally head the council. AM

Yushchenko also said on December 27 that the Ukrainian government and parliament should keep the economic situation in Ukraine stable, while at the same time compensating the population for their devalued Soviet-era savings bank deposits, UNIAN reported. Compensation for lost savings was among the leading slogans of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc during the recent parliamentary election campaign. Yushchenko said such compensation is the obligation of the entire state, not just of a particular coalition. Yushchenko said that the state owes citizens 132 billion hryvnyas ($26 billion), which amounts to half the national budget, but that the government while fulfilling its electoral pledges should keep the budget deficit under 2 percent and inflation under 10 percent in 2008. AM

The incoming president of the EU, Slovenia, has responded to the Serbian parliament's resolution that makes further steps towards EU membership contingent on the EU's stance on Kosova's independence by calling on Serbia not to turn its back on the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrej Rupel said on December 27 that "nobody is being forced to become a member," but questioned whether Serbia could realistically turn its back on the EU, Reuters reported. "How can a country surrounded by European Union member states survive if it is not a member itself?" he asked. All of Serbia's neighbors are members of, or intend to join the EU. Rupel also suggested that the upcoming presidential and local elections in Serbia may have contributed to the near-unanimous support for the resolution, saying that "most actions in Belgrade are intended for pre-election use." Slovenia assumes the EU's rotating presidency on January 1 and will hold the chair for six months. Serbia will hold presidential elections on January 20. The date of local elections is due to be set by the end of this month. AG

Serbia's parliament has given its assent to a budget deficit of 0.5 percent of gross domestic product in 2008 in a vote delayed by government discussions about the wording of a parliamentary resolution on Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). The deficit was originally intended to be 0.6 percent of GDP, local and international media reported. However, the approved budget envisages a substantially smaller cut in public spending than originally planned, just 0.8 percent rather than 1.7 percent. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been urging Serbia to cut spending more sharply. The government's revenue assumptions are based on a forecast that the economy will expand by 6 percent in 2008. The budget, which is worth 654.4 billion dinars ($12 billion), an increase of 9.9 percent on the 2007 budget, secured the backing of 132 of the 250 members of parliament. AG

One of Serbia's most senior Muslim clerics called on December 27 for Serbia to retain sovereignty over Kosova, Serbian media reported. Hamdija Effendi Jusufspahic, the head of the Islamic Community of Serbia, said that continued Serbian sovereignty is a means of preserving peace and stability in Serbia and in the region as a whole, but he added that Kosova, whose population is largely Muslim, should enjoy "the highest degree of autonomy and democracy." In talks on Kosova's final status, Serbia's government has offered Kosova "95 percent" autonomy. Serbia's Muslim community is currently divided in its loyalties, with some looking to Jusufspahic, who is retiring, and his successor Adem Zilkic, and others backing Muamer Zukorlic, who argues that the Muslim leadership in Sarajevo -- rather than in Belgrade -- should continue to lead Serbia's Muslims (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10 and 12, November 19 and 29, and December 3, 2007). AG

Albania's foreign minister, Lulzim Basha, faces investigation and charges of corruption after the Albanian parliament voted on December 27 to strip him of immunity. Basha is suspected of abuse of office in a previous post, as transportation minister, when he awarded a $595 million road-building contract to a U.S.-Turkish joint venture, Bechtel-Enka (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 4, 16, and 30, and November 27, 2007). The contract was to extend an existing highway by 40 kilometers to Albania's border with Kosova by 2009. Basha himself urged parliamentarians to lift his immunity, saying such a move would be a valuable precedent in the country's effort to counter corruption. He maintains, however, that he is not guilty of abusing his position. The overwhelming majority -- 107 -- of the 140 deputies voted in favor of the motion. Among those who voted against were members of the opposition Socialist Party, who, while accusing Basha of corruption, oppose the precedent of a member of parliament being stripped of immunity by a simple majority. Prosecutors have already questioned Basha and former Deputy Transport Minister Armand Teliti. AG

Croatia's president, Stjepan Mesic, on December 27 entered the controversy aroused by pictures of an indicted Croatian war criminal hunting with Croatia's interior minister, warning that the incident has damaged Croatia's credibility with the international community. Mladan Markac, one of three former generals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for their role in crimes against ethnic Serbs in the closing stages of the war in Croatia, was shown hunting boar on Mount Bilogora in the company of Interior Minister Ivica Kirin and other senior officials, allegedly on December 22-23. The date of the pictures is contested, but if it is accurate, Markac may have breached the terms of the house arrest imposed on him by the ICTY. "If Croatia wants to be a country that is trusted, all have to comply with the rules," the news agency Hina reported Mesic as saying. Markac and his fellow defendants, Ante Gotovina and Ivan Cermak, enjoy the official support of the Croatian government in their defense against the charges leveled by the ICTY. A similar controversy was recently stirred in Bosnia-Herzegovina, when the Bosnian Muslim member of the country's three-member presidency, Haris Silajdzic, met with Rasim Delic, the wartime leader of the Bosnian Muslim army, while Delic was on provisional release from the ICTY (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007). AG

There is no end note today.

Hamid Karzai on December 27 called the assassination of Pakistani former Prime Minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto an act of "immense brutality" and "a big loss for all of us," Afghan and international media reported. Karzai told reporters at a news conference in Kabul, hours after returning from Pakistan where he held talks with Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf, "We in Afghanistan condemn this act of cowardice and immense brutality in the strongest possible terms," adding "I am deeply sorry, deeply pained that this brave sister of ours, this great daughter of the Muslim world, is no longer with us." In a separate statement issued by his office, Karzai, who has survived two attempts on his life, said: "No doubt, the enemies of peace, stability, and the prosperity of Pakistan and the Muslim world are behind the heinous crime." Karzai praised Bhutto for her strong stance against extremism and violence in Pakistan and the region. MM

At a news conference in Kabul on December 27, U.S. Ambassador William Wood said the U.S. is in favor of a "serious reconciliation program with those elements of the Taliban who are prepared to accept the constitution and the authority of the elected government," Pajhwak Afghan News reported. "The only place where we have concern would be the members of the Taliban with close connection to al-Qaeda, the reason being that al-Qaeda is an international threat, it is a global threat and we don't believe that there should be separate peaces with al-Qaeda," Wood said. Wood also remarked that Afghan and coalition forces have killed or arrested many Taliban field commanders and other militant leaders in the past year and thwarted their offensive operations. As a result, there has been an increase in the flow of foreign militant fighters into Afghanistan and a rise in terrorist attacks, he added. President Karzai has voiced a growing interest in meeting with Taliban leaders to try to persuade them to join the government and stabilize the country. MM

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini "strongly" condemned in Tehran on 27 December the murder earlier that day of leading Pakistani politician Bhutto, IRNA reported. Bhutto was killed in a suicide attack at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi; 20 others also died in the attack. Hosseini said "this terrorist act" had no other purpose but to disrupt peace in Pakistan, and he expressed the hope that the Pakistani government's efforts to find the culprits will restore peace in Pakistan. Iran's ambassador in Pakistan, Mashallah Shakeri, phoned Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, on December 28 to convey his personal condolences and a similar message from Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, IRNA reported. VS

The White House expressed concern on December 26 at the possible sale by Russia of advanced ground-to-air defensive missiles to Iran, AFP reported (see Part 1). Iranian media have described the S-300 air-defense systems as an advanced version of the Russian TOR-M1 system previously sold to Iran, and capable of hitting targets at very high altitudes. The S-300 system can strike missiles or planes within a 145 kilometer range and at an altitude of over 27,000 meters, AP reported. The Iranian Defense Ministry announced the prospective sale on December 26. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said in Crawford, Texas, on December 27 that "we have ongoing concerns about the prospective sale of such weapons to Iran and other countries of concern," AFP reported. Iran is facing sanctions over its contested nuclear activities. VS

Ali Larijani, the Iranian Supreme Leader's representative on Iran's Supreme National Security Council, was in Egypt from December 24-27, where he met with senior Egyptian officials, including the foreign and intelligence ministers, Radio Farda reported on December 27. Larijani was ostensibly on a cultural and academic visit, but the broadcaster observed the visit was probably a further step in the two countries' discreet efforts to improve hitherto less-than-cordial ties. Bilateral relations deteriorated quickly following Iran's 1979 revolution, which toppled a Westernizing monarchy with which Egypt had cordial ties in the 1970s (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2007). Larijani also met the Egyptian head of the Arab League, Amr Musa. Radio Farda cited Larijani as telling the press in Cairo that "we have so far moved in a positive direction, but should not hurry." VS

Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi told journalists in Tehran on December 26 that he, like them, has read in the news that 11 parliamentarians have signed a motion calling on him to appear in parliament for questioning. Purmohammadi has faced objections in recent months from some parliamentarians over his working methods, including his tendency to appoint or dismiss provincial or district governors without consulting with local members of parliament. Parliamentarians also want him to account for money the ministry might have spent to computerize parliamentary elections next March. Such expenditures would have required the approval of the Guardians Council, which has a decisive say on the entire electoral process and has been reserved on computerization proposals so far. Purmohammadi said the parliamentary presidium has not yet formally taken receipt of the motion, but he is ready to answer questions "from the first day," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on December 27. Zanjan representative Rafat Bayat said in parliament on December 26 that the motion, signed by 11 members of parliament, has been submitted to the presidium, which she said must formally announce its receipt on December 27, ISNA reported. VS

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's office issued a statement on December 27 insisting that the 1975 Algiers Accord signed by Iran and Iraq that demarcates the two countries' shared border is still in force, international media reported. "The Algiers Treaty is valid and not void. It is still in force and no party can unilaterally cancel the treaty. This fact is recognized by the president and he did not mean in his passing and improvised remarks to cancel the active treaty," the statement said. During a December 25 press conference, Talabani was asked by a journalist whether the treaty is still in effect. He responded that the current Iraqi government voided the treaty because it was concluded between then former Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein and the former Shah of Iran, and not between Iraq and Iran. In response to Talabani's initial comments, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said the accord is permanent and cannot be breached (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said that while Baghdad is committed to the treaty, it is seeking an alternative to it, Reuters reported the same day. "The government is looking forward to an alternative treaty that will be better than the Algiers Accord," al-Dabbagh said. SS

Iraqi President and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Jalal Talabani announced on December 24 in Al-Sulaymaniyah that his party, together with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has formed a coalition with the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 25. Talabani made the announcement during a joint press conference with KDP leader and Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani, and Iraqi Vice President and Iraqi Islamic Party leader Tariq al-Hashimi. Talabani praised the new coalition, but stressed that other alliances have not been nullified. "Relations have always existed among the three parties and today, we signed the document which we discussed more than a year ago," Talabani said. "This alliance completes the other alliances....This alliance does not mean we have abandoned our previous alliances, but instead reinforces them," he added. Al-Hashimi said the agreement will have an important impact on the political process. SS

The U.S. military announced on December 27 that it killed 11 members of a breakaway faction from Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, in the southern city of Kut earlier that day. In a statement, the U.S. military said that the operation was directed against a person "reportedly responsible for attacks against coalition forces and supporters of coalition forces." There was no immediate comment from al-Sadr, but U.S. officials have said that one of the main reasons for the sharp decline in violence in Baghdad and southern Iraq has been al-Sadr's call for a six-month freeze on his militia's activities that began in August. Previously, al-Sadr said any Imam Al-Mahdi Army members who do not observe the cease-fire will no longer be considered members of the militia. "We commend all those who honor al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr's cease-fire pledge," said U.S. military spokesman Major Winfield Danielson on December 27. "Significant progress has been made in the fight for a secure and stable Iraq, but dangerous criminal elements still exist." SS

Police in the southern city of Al-Basrah announced on December 26 the discovery of a spy drone and a large cache of weapons in a private home, Al-Arabiyah satellite television reported the same day. Al-Basrah Police Chief Major General Abd al-Jalil Khalaf said Iraqi security forces raided a house in central Al-Basrah after receiving a tip-off and arrested five people. The house contained a large cache of weapons, including several mortar rounds, 20 rocket propelled grenades, 20 rockets, 50 hand grenades, several bombs and a spy drone. "What is strange is that a spy drone is used for the purposes of spying and information gathering," Khalaf said. "In fact, this raises our concern about the reasons why this plane is here, given that we have information that some of these planes were sold to certain people." He declined to offer further details and said an investigation is underway. SS

Unknown gunmen on December 27 kidnapped 22 people along the road between the Kan'an and Balad Ruz districts in the Diyala Governorate, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Iraqi security sources said the gunmen, suspected of being Al-Qaeda in Iraq members, set up bogus checkpoints along the road and stopped two vehicles. The gunmen then forced the occupants out of the vehicles and took them to an unknown location. The security sources said an investigation has been launched into the incident. Elsewhere in the Diyala Governorate, the Iraqi military said it has discovered the decomposed bodies of 17 men near the provincial capital of Ba'qubah, "Gulf News" reported on December 27. All the victims had gunshot wounds to the head. According to Iraqi Army Sergeant Nasr al-Dulaymi, 60 bodies have been discovered in the governorate over the past month. SS