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Newsline - January 3, 2008

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on January 3 in a statement on Russia's foreign-policy achievements in 2007 that President Vladimir Putin called the year a "moment of truth in European and global relations," reported. Lavrov argued that Putin's February 10 speech in Munich, which was widely seen as anti-American and aggressive, was a call for openness in international affairs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2006, and February 12, 2007, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). Lavrov spoke of what he called Russian initiatives aimed at disarmament and at removing "potential missile threats to the European continent," but did not mention the United States or missile defense by name. He made no criticism of Moscow's behavior in the international arena, but suggested that Russia is doing all it can to foster international peace and cooperation in spite of unspecified attempts to "draw it into a new confrontation." On December 26, the daily "Vremya novostei" and published a longer interview with Lavrov on international relations in 2007 in which Lavrov hailed the EU as "our chief economic partner, our common civilization," affirming that "our future is together with Europe." He mentioned relations with China and India and only then noted that "one more neighbor of ours is a leading player in the world, without it is difficult to tackle problems -- the United States." Lavrov depicted Russia as a victim of alleged Western tendencies to "cling to Cold War stereotypes" and make "unilateral decisions," points that he said were central to Putin's Munich speech. Lavrov indicated that the other main events of the year "largely derived from the Munich speech." Those developments included Russia's decision, which took effect in December, to suspend compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Lavrov also drew attention to Russian efforts against missile defense. He noted that neither the United States nor Russia has entirely overcome their respective mind-sets from the Cold War years. Lavrov cited several recent measures to promote integration within the CIS, saying that "if we put aside the various phobias, all the 12 member countries have common interests" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). He also singled out Kosova and Iran as important issues in the outgoing year and repeated Moscow's established positions on both. PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov said in his interview carried on December 26 by "Vremya novostei" and that Britain is responsible for "inflicting systemic harm upon our relations" in the continuing row stemming from the 2006 murder in London of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17 and 21, 2007, and January 2, 2008). He repeated Russia's position that the British Council must close all its offices outside Moscow as of January 1 because the council is in violation of Russian law. He also argued that "we had to retaliate" for what he called unacceptable British actions against Russian diplomats. Lavrov accused London of "maintaining silence, either because of misunderstanding or intentionally," on a Russian proposal for a "visa-facilitation agreement" between the two countries. He stressed that any initiatives to improve relations must be made by Britain. On January 3, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said that "we expect the British side to fully comply with Russian laws and stop the unlawful activity of the British Council on territory of the Russian Federation," reported. Kamynin added that "any other actions would be provocative and build up bilateral tensions." The British Embassy in Moscow recently said in a statement that the British Council will continue to operate in Russia as before. Kamynin argued on January 3 that "we are surprised at the attempts of London not only to deny the obvious but also to seek support from other countries, primarily EU member countries, for its hopeless position. It seems that an absence of legal arguments forces London to politicize the British Council situation." PM

The Federal Customs Service said in a statement on January 1 that it intercepted 895 kilograms of heroin on Russia's borders in 2007, RIA Novosti and international media reported. The haul also included 130 kilograms of cocaine, 50 kilograms of hashish, and 1,500 kilograms of unspecified other "narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances." Customs officials also prevented in 2007 120 attempts to smuggle "highly radioactive" materials out of Russia and 722 attempts to bring similar substances into the country. Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" reported on January 3 that "the disclosure is likely to fuel concern about how many illegal exports were not halted. It will also lead to new fears that Moscow has failed to stop material becoming available on the black market that could be used by terrorists to make radioactive 'dirty' bombs." PM

As of January 1, the Ust-Orda Autonomous Okrug and Irkutsk Oblast have merged into a single territory of the Russian Federation under the name Irkutsk Oblast, RIA Novosti and other Russian media reported. With the merger, the Russian Federation now comprises 84 territories. The citizens of the two territories approved the merger by overwhelming margins in referendums on April 16, 2006, and President Putin signed the merger decree on December 31, 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2006). The new region will hold legislative elections on October 12 and a new governor is expected to be installed by the end of this year. In the meantime, the governor of the old Irkutsk Oblast, Aleksandr Tishanin, will serve as acting governor of the new territory. As of March 1, another new territory -- Zabaikal Oblast, combining Chita Oblast and the Agin-Buryat Autonomous Okrug -- will come into existence, reported on January 3. RC

Momentum for reducing the number of federation subjects has been building throughout the years of Putin's presidency, noted on January 3. Some of the possible mergers that have been discussed are uniting the Khanty-Mansy and Yamalo-Nenetsk autonomous okrugs with Tyumen Oblast; uniting the Nenetsk Autonomous Okrug with Arkhangelsk Oblast; joining Yaroslavl and Kostroma oblasts; uniting Magadan Oblast and the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug; combining Kemerovo Oblast with Altai Krai and the Altai Republic; merging Chechnya and Ingushetia; subsuming the Republic of Adygeya into the surrounding Krasnodar Krai; combining Moscow and Moscow Oblast; and merging St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast. "Up until now, a key to deciding matters relating to merging territories has been the Putin factor," political analyst Dmitry Badovsky told the website. "It remains a question whether the new president will have the same opportunities and will." RC

The Central Election Commission has completed the process of setting up territorial election commissions to oversee the March 2 presidential election, and other Russian media reported on January 2. There are currently three people who will be certified as candidates from political parties: First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of Unified Russia several other parties; Deputy Duma Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR); and Duma Deputy Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party. In addition, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Democratic Party of Russia leader Andrei Bogdanov are in the process of collecting the 2 million signatures required of candidates who are not nominated by parties represented in the Duma. Supporters of Kasyanov have reportedly gathered more than 800,000 signatures, Ekho Moskvy reported on January 1. Asked during a December 25 rally whether he is having trouble collecting signatures, Kasyanov told journalists that all the notaries in the city of Pskov have declined to certify the signatures gathered there. The signatures must be submitted by January 15 and the final list of candidates in the election will be certified by the Central Election Commission on January 23. RC

The Central Election Commission on December 31 released the income statements of LDPR head Zhirinovsky and Communist Party leader Zyuganov, the first two people to be confirmed as candidates in the March presidential election, reported the same day. According to the statements, Zhirinovsky earned 3.6 million rubles ($148,000) between 2003 and 2007. He owns one apartment in Moscow and has a total of 250,000 rubles in four bank accounts. Zhirinovsky's wife, Galina Lebedeva, reported earning some 15 million rubles in the same period and claimed assets including a parcel of land, five dachas, eight apartments, two nonresidential buildings, and six motor vehicles. She has some 2.4 million rubles in bank accounts. Zyuganov reported much more modest means. He claimed 3.4 million rubles in income from 2003 to 2007. He has some 150,000 rubles in bank accounts. His wife, Nadezhda Zyuganova, reported 150,000 rubles in earnings during the period and co-owning an apartment with her husband, and claimed 250,000 rubles in savings. RC

Armenia's foreign-trade deficit surged by more than 70 percent during the first 11 months of 2007 to reach $1.81 billion, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 29, citing the National Statistics Service. That is equivalent to some 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Net imports rose by 47 percent, while exports grew by only 21 percent, albeit to a record figure of some $1.1 billion. The EU remains Armenia's single largest trading partner. Trade with other CIS states grew by 60 percent to reach almost $1.3 billion, with Russia accounting for almost half that figure. LF

In his New Year's address to the people of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev yet again affirmed that "we shall never make concessions over our territorial integrity," and therefore "Nagorno-Karabakh will never be granted independence," reported on January 1. Aliyev stressed that Baku will continue to participate in talks aimed at resolving the conflict peacefully "until our hopes [for a peaceful settlement] are completely exhausted," and he blamed Armenia for the failure to reach a settlement in 2007. "If the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh want self-determination, they can have it within the framework of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. If they do not want it, then they can leave Karabakh and establish a second Armenian state for themselves somewhere else," Aliyev said. In an interview with Moldova's Channel 4 television several days earlier, Aliyev characterized Armenia's approach to resolving the Karabakh conflict as "medieval," and as "leading nowhere, to a dead end," reported on December 30. He said the principles for countering "aggressive separatism" are self-evident and extend to all separatist conflicts, including that in Transdniester. LF

A spokesman for wealthy Georgian businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili announced on January 3 in Tbilisi that Patarkatsishvili will not, after all, withdraw his candidacy in the January 5 preterm presidential ballot, Caucasus Press reported. The pro-government television channel Rustavi-2 last week broadcast footage of Patarkatsishvili apparently offering a $100 million bribe to a senior Interior Ministry official to fuel protests following the January 5 vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 28, 2007), after which Patarkatsishvili issued a statement in London, where he lives, on December 27 announcing that he would formally withdraw his candidacy on January 4. In Tbilisi, Giorgi Zhvania, the brother of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who was found dead in February 2005 in circumstances that remain to be clarified, announced on January 3 his resignation as manager of Patarkatsishvili's presidential campaign, reported. Zhvania recalled that Patarkatsishvili said when announcing his withdrawal from the race that the allegations leveled against him had given rise to "doubts" among the population, and that voters should elect as president someone whose reputation is beyond reproach. The doubts surrounding Patarkatsishvili have not yet been dispelled, however, Zhvania pointed out. One rival candidate, however, hailed Patarkatsishvili's decision not to quit the race, Caucasus Press reported. "Despite the fact that we have nothing common with Patarkatsishvili, we welcome his decision to run. This is a positive development, because the more rivals [incumbent President Mikheil] Saakashvili has, the more votes he and his undemocratic team will lose," Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili said on January 3. On January 2, former ladies' world chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili, who is a member of Patarkatsishvili's campaign staff, told journalists in Tbilisi that after the election Patarkatsishvili will establish a new national democratic movement that he will head, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Georgian opposition parties have rejected the proposal made on January 2 by veteran oppositionist Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia that opposition leaders decide on a single candidate to challenge Saakashvili in the January 5 presidential ballot, and that the remaining opposition candidates, of which she is one, should then withdraw from the race, Caucasus Press reported on January 3. Representatives of the nine-member opposition National Council and the Labor Party both expressed confidence that their respective candidates -- Levan Gachechiladze and Natelashvili -- will win, while a spokesperson for David Gamqrelidze of the New Rightists argued that the more presidential candidates participate, the greater the chances of precluding a Saakashvili victory. LF

Parliament deputies approved the revised draft budget for 2008 on December 28 by a vote of 146 in favor and one against, Caucasus Press reported. Newly appointed Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze asked the parliament in late November to delay discussion of the budget to allow for unspecified corrections, but deputies subjected the revised draft to harsh criticism on December 14, necessitating further revisions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). Revenues are set at 5.15 billion laris ($3.24 billion) and expenditures at 5.705 billion laris. Social spending, including health care, is the single largest item of expenditure (1.284 billion laris), followed by defense at 1.1 billion laris, which is equivalent to 19 percent of total expenditure, although less than the 1.494 billion laris allocated in 2007, according to on December 28. Economic growth is estimated at 6 percent, with GDP reaching $12 billion, and annual inflation at 8 percent. LF

Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court has rejected a suit by the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party calling for the annulment of the results of the December 16 elections to a new unicameral parliament, AKIpress reported on January 3. Announcing the allocation of the 90 seats in the new parliament on December 20, the Central Election Commission said that while Ata-Meken polled some 8.3 percent of the vote, it did not qualify for parliamentary representation because it failed to win the required minimum 0.5 percent of the vote in the southern city of Osh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20 and 21, 2007). An Ata-Meken representative told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the party submitted on December 21 to a Bishkek district court documentary evidence that it did garner the required minimum percentage of votes in Osh, but the court rejected its appeal, after which Ata-Meken appealed that rejection to the Supreme Court. The For Justice! movement of which Ata-Meken is a member plans to convene a discussion in Bishkek on January 14 of the Supreme Court ruling and the political situation in general, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. President Kurmanbek Bakiev's Ak-Jol Eldik (Best Path Popular) Party has an absolute majority in the new legislature with 71 seats; the opposition Social Democratic Party secured 11 seats and the pro-government Communist Party of Kyrgyzstan eight. LF

President Islam Karimov on January 2 promoted Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov to the post of first deputy prime minister, and reported. Azimov was named deputy prime minister seven years ago; since then he has also held several key posts in the economic sector (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3, 2000, January 24, 2003, and July 27, 2005). Karimov dismissed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Higher Education Rustam Kasymov, naming First Deputy Minister Azimjon Parpiev to succeed him. He also appointed as minister of justice former Deputy Prosecutor-General Ravshan Mukhitdinov, and named former Deputy Finance Minister Sunatullo Bekenov to head the government press service. LF

Uzbekistan's Committee for the Release of Prisoners of Conscience has issued a statement, posted on January 2 on, appealing to the international community for help and support. The committee noted that while many political prisoners were sentenced on fabricated charges of committing economic crimes, none of them has been amnestied, while other prisoners who inflicted millions of dollars worth of damage on the economy have been released. In addition, Interior Ministry and Prosecutor's Office personnel are said to have accepted bribes from prisoners, including some sentenced for murder, to add their names to the list of those eligible for amnesty. LF

Lidziya Yarmoshyna, the chairwoman of the Belarusian Central Election Commission (TsVK), said on January 2 that candidates who receive foreign financial support will be disqualified from running for parliament, Belapan reported. Yarmoshyna said that in the previous election campaign, candidates were simply warned about the use of "illegal funds," but now face having their registration annulled. The TsVK is required to prove whether foreign funds were accepted, and will therefore "conduct special polls, hear explanations, collect evidence, for example copies of printed material," Yarmoshyna said. The TsVK might also collect evidence from Belarus's national security institutions. Yarmoshyna also said that the ban on foreign support was in place during previous election campaigns, but there were no measures in place to enforce it. The TsVK has proposed that the first round of parliamentary elections be held on October 12. AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on January 2 that Ukraine's gas-storage facilities are almost empty and the Ukrainian state oil and gas company, Naftohaz, is on the brink of bankruptcy, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Tymoshenko rejected claims that Naftohaz owns some 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas in its storage facilities. "What has been pumped there belongs to doubtful commercial structures," she said. Tymoshenko also said that a special investigative commission should be created to examine the financial standing of Naftohaz. Oleksiy Ivchenko, who headed Naftohaz in 2005-06, accused the former government of forcing Naftohaz to incur huge debts to Gazprom so that it would have to cede Ukraine's gas-transport system to the Russian monopoly. Mykhaylo Chechetov of the Party of Regions described such accusations as "an attempt to gain cheap political dividends at the beginning of the year." AM

A branch office of the only Serbian bank operating in Kosova was badly damaged by an explosion late on January 1. Few details have emerged and the motive for the attack remains unclear, but the police have told local and international media that no one was injured by what a police spokesman described as an "explosive device placed near the door of the bank." The incident occurred in Dragas, a town of about 35,000 on Kosova's southern border with Macedonia. A sizable minority of the town's population are Gorani, an ethnically Slavic Muslim minority. The target of the attack, Komercijalna Banka, primarily has outlets in areas populated by ethnic Serbs and channels funds sent by Belgrade to support ethnic Serbs in Kosova. Komercijalna Banka is the only Serbian bank sanctioned by the United Nations, which has been administering Kosova since 1999. Reuters reported that this is the second time this particular branch has been attacked since it opened its doors in 2004. AG

Serbs will have nine names to choose from when, on January 20, they vote for their president, Serbia's Central Election Commission announced on December 31, the Serbian broadcaster B92 reported. The two leading candidates are the incumbent, Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party (DS), and the acting leader of Serbia's most popular party, Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS). Tadic faces competition from the leader of another member of the governing coalition, Velimir Ilic, whose party -- New Serbia -- is in a coalition with the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) headed by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. The DSS has yet to say whether it will back Ilic or Tadic. Failure to back Tadic could prompt a coalition crisis, as support for Tadic's candidature was a condition of the deal that created the coalition government in May 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2007). The other candidates have small constituencies and stand little chance of reaching the runoff vote, which -- if needed -- will be held on February 3. They are: Milutin Mrkonjic of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) created by the late Slobodan Milosevic; Cedomir Jovanovic of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP); Istvan Pastor, who represents ethnic-Hungarian parties; Milanka Karic of the Serbian Strength Movement (PSS); Jugoslav Dobricanin of the Reformist Party (RS), and Marijan Risticevic of the People's Peasant Party (NSS). None of the latter three parties -- the PSS, the RS, and the NSS -- won seats in parliament in elections held in January 2007. AG

Starting on January 1, government officials, academics, students, businesspeople, and a number of other groups from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia are now able to obtain EU visas more simply and cheaply (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 9, 2007). All these groups will now find it easier to get multiple-entry visas. Pensioners and students will be issued visas free of charge. The five countries have in turn agreed to conditions for the repatriation of their citizens, to bolster anticrime measures, and to tighten border security. The only EU states to which the agreement does not apply are Britain and Denmark. Two states that are not members of the EU -- Norway and Iceland -- are also signatories of the agreement. AG

Bosnia-Herzegovina's War Crimes Chamber on December 31 brought charges against a general in the Bosnian Serbs' wartime army, Novak Djukic, for his alleged commanding role in an artillery attack on the town of Tuzla in May 1995 in which 71 people were killed by a single shell, the news service Balkan Insight reported. Most of those killed in what became one of the most notorious incidents in Bosnia's civil war were young people. Estimates suggest as many as 150 people were injured. Djukic was arrested in early November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2007). At the time of the incident, Djukic was a major. Charges were also brought, on December 28, against Predrag Kujundzic, the leader of an ethnic-Serbian militia group during the war. Kujundzic is suspected of crimes -- including murder, rape, and torture -- committed against ethnic Croats and Bosnian Muslims in 1992 and 1993 in and near the northern town of Doboj. Kujundzic was arrested in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 12, 2007). AG

Croatia's interior minister, Ivica Kirin, resigned on December 29 after he was photographed on a hunting trip with a man indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), retired General Mladen Markac (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 28, 2007). The same day, police arrested Markac at the ICTY's request on the grounds that he breached the terms of his short-term release. According to Croatian media, Kirin said he felt obliged to resign as he was the minister responsible for ensuring that Markac did not venture out of his home without the ICTY's permission. Markac is one of three former generals on trial at The Hague for crimes committed during Operation Storm, one of two campaigns that in 1995 ended the war in Croatia. The campaigns resulted in the mass exodus of ethnic Serbs. The other generals are Ivan Cermak and Ante Gotovina. The ICTY's prosecution of the generals is deeply controversial, and Croatia's refusal to arrest them delayed by years the country's progress toward EU membership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 5, October 11, and November 9, 2007). The three men continue to enjoy the government's official support (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). AG

A tiny former Yugoslav republic, Slovenia, has become the first postcommunist European Union member state to assume the responsibility of the EU's rotating six-month presidency.

Slovenia, with just 2 million inhabitants, is expected to use its role coordinating EU policies until June to shift the bloc's foreign-policy attention to the western Balkans, and Kosova in particular.

Any EU presidency holds out opportunities and challenges for the incumbent. The primary challenge lies in keeping the EU's course steady. As the first of the EU's 10 postcommunist member states to take the helm, Slovenia will face a tough test. It will have been made easier, however, by the achievement of its smallish predecessor, Portugal, in forging a consensus on the new EU treaty, which was signed in December.

Slovenia faces a major opportunity in the chance to direct the EU's attention to issues that are of particular interest to the holder of the presidency. Ljubljana has already said it wants the EU to focus on the western Balkans, and in particular Kosova, during the next six months. This comes in sharp contrast to Portugal's preoccupation with Africa.

Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel in December confirmed Ljubljana's commitment to aiding the resolution of Kosova's status. "I hope we can contribute to resolving the Kosova question during our [EU] presidency," Rupel said. "In view of what has happened in recent months, we understand that Slovenia will have to deal with these most complicated processes during its presidency." He went on to predict that "these processes will be concluded by the end of our presidency."

Rupel was quoted by AP as saying on January 1 that "the western Balkans must be guaranteed a European perspective." According to Rupel, Slovenia sees the region as its primary responsibility as the current EU presidency. "This will be our contribution to stabilizing the part of Europe which has been most affected by events at the end of the 20th century," he said.

Slovenia's most immediate concern, as Kosova appears prepared to declare its independence from Serbia, will be to ensure effective EU leadership in managing the transition. The EU accepts that Kosova's days as a Serbian province are numbered, but hopes the Kosovar leadership will agree to close international supervision.

Slovenia's presidency will presumably be at the forefront of EU efforts at avoiding any spillover effects -- whether in the Balkans or other breakaway unrecognized republics hoping for a precedent. Managing the transition in Kosova itself will be a relatively easy task by comparison, as the EU has long-term plans in place for financial aid and institutional assistance. Stopping attempts to use Kosova as a blueprint by separatists in Georgia or Moldova, on the other hand, will require deft diplomatic footwork from Slovenia. Georgia, in particular, will be following very closely the EU's response to possible attempts by Russia to profit from the situation. The handiest and most common tool in the EU arsenal is "presidency statements," which are now Slovenia's responsibility.

The focus on Kosova will inevitably mean less attention to other areas. Thus Brussels' European Neighborhood Policy is likely to be shifted to the back burner for the next six months. Slovenia's own presidency program notes that short-term EU interest in the neighborhood will be confined to "economic cooperation and enhanced people-to-people contacts." A meeting with countries participating in the EU-led "Black Sea Synergy" initiative will take place in Ukraine.

Central Asia will see the implementation of national programs within the framework of the EU's Central Asia Strategy, adopted in June 2007 at Germany's initiative. Slovenia will lead a debate on the first results of the strategy at a June 2008 summit.

Slovenia's global agenda will be dominated by two well-established EU concerns -- climate change and energy. Under Slovenian leadership, the EU will continue to push for an international agreement on carbon-dioxide emissions after 2012 when the Kyoto treaty expires. The EU is also likely to formally approve the Nabucco natural-gas pipeline that is eventually intended to link it to the gas reserves around the Caspian Sea.

Another key EU preoccupation will be immigration. EU leaders agreed in December to work together to curb illegal immigration, but also committed themselves to moves to develop a policy for allowing limited legal immigration.

The EU has proclaimed 2008 "the year of intercultural dialogue."

(Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.)

In an interview with Pajhwak Afghan News on December 31, former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmed Jalali said that "Pakistan has gradually become a center of the Al-Qaeda network that radiates out to the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe." Jalali also referred to the December 27 assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto as "devastating not only for Pakistan, but also for a region that suffers from instability and violence fueled by religious extremism and militancy." Addressing the security situation in the region, Jalali said: "The use of religious militancy as an instrument of foreign policy by Pakistani military regimes in the recent past has helped the rise of extremism and entrenchment of transnational terrorist groups in Pakistan. Talibanization of Pakistani tribal areas is a dangerous outcome of the ill-fated policy." He expressed hope that Bhutto's assassination will unite the Pakistani government and moderate forces in a decisive struggle against extremism in Pakistan. Jalali is a professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies of the National Defense University in Washington, but Afghan political observers speculate that he might soon rejoin the Afghan government. MM

In his interview with Pajhwak Afghan News, Jalali said the situation in Afghanistan worsened in 2007, and that he "finds the country faced with the worst crisis since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001." "The main drivers of instability in Afghanistan include the insurgency, chronic weakness of the Afghan government and state institutions, an exploding drug production, and a weak economy. At the same time, uncoordinated military operations by international forces and shifting political dynamics in the region are additional contributing factors. These challenges have serious implications for stabilization efforts and the process of state-building in Afghanistan." He argued that the majority of Afghans do not want the Taliban to return to power, but asserted that the unstable environment in Afghanistan stems from the government's failure to deliver services and security, prompting exploitation by "drug traffickers, alienated tribes, opportunist militia commanders, unemployed youth, criminals, and other self-interested spoilers." Meanwhile, at a press conference on December 31 in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Homayon Hamidzada, said 2007 was challenging, but overall a year of success for Afghanistan, the Bakhtar news agency reported. He noted achievements in terms of "economic growth, governance, and strengthening ties with foreign countries." He specifically pointed to the growth of the Afghan National Army and the success of an international conference on Afghanistan that resulted in pledges exceeding $700 million in reconstruction funds. He acknowledged an unstable environment due to factors such as terrorism, the drug trade, and corruption, but added that "the international community, in collaboration with the government, is making efforts to maintain security and prosperity in the country." MM

In his farewell remarks in Kabul on January 1, the UN secretary-general's special representative and the head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Tom Koenigs, expressed both hope for progress in Afghanistan and concern for the country's security situation, Iran's Press TV reported. "Progress is being made to cement peace and stability for the Afghan people," Koenigs said. "But I hear the frustration of people who want to see faster progress. I share the same frustration." The UN is looking for a replacement for Koenigs, and Paddy Ashdown, a British politician who led the international mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is among the leading candidates. MM

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in Tehran on January 2 that annual state budgets have so far been complicated and arcane, and his government has proposed a simplified budget format that he said would save parliament much time and debates, IRNA reported. He told the press after a cabinet meeting that state budgets were previously too rigid and detailed, specifying sums to be allocated to every state-sector department or body. He said the budget must be simple enough that ordinary people and civil servants can understand it; money, he said, must be allocated strictly to bodies directly dependent on ministries, which are in turn publicly accountable. "We have resolved all the problems in the new budgeting style and written it simply, so every Iranian who can read can understand it and see how much money was received and how much spent. This is a great event," he said. Ahmadinejad indicated his government has reduced a typical budget text of 100 pages to 1 1/2 pages, and that parliament could save itself a lot of time debating the text. He said the proposed budget for the Persian year to late March 2009 will be ready on January 6, IRNA reported. Some parliamentarians have said the government's new budgeting format will reduce parliamentary supervision of its expenditures. VS

Police and some officials have reacted negatively to comments on January 1 by government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham apparently distancing President Ahmadinejad's government from a police drive in recent months against public indecency, street violence, and petty crime, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Elham's press conference remarks are not the first such observation distancing the government from a police drive that has been questioned by some politicians and is unpopular among some Tehran residents; some people have complained that police have been intrusive or rough in acting against alleged offences against public decency. The police have said they have done nothing without coordination with all judiciary and executive-branch officials, while a member of the Guardians Council, a body of senior clerics and jurists, has deplored Elham's remarks as a bid to attract support ahead of the mid-March parliamentary elections. Tehran police chief Ahmad Reza Radan has told ISNA Elham is not opposed to the police sweep in principle, merely to unspecified police excesses, Radio Farda reported. ISNA quoted the head of the police force's public-security department, Hossein Ashtari, as saying on December 29 that the "plan to enhance social security [is based on] public demands and in full coordination with judicial and executive authorities." Separately, Guardians Council member Mohsen Esmaili told a police gathering in Tehran on January 1 he is sorry certain politicians are "questioning" police initiatives "to win a few more votes," Radio Farda reported. According to the pro-government daily "Iran" on January 2, Elham said President Ahmadinejad asked the police at some point to present their "plan" for the security sweep, which he said they have not done; Elham said that if the police wish to act "as judiciary agents, their actions are outside government management." Elham said the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution -- a body founded after the 1979 revolution -- in 1997-98 ratified the "basic principles" of decent clothing and behavior in public, "Iran" reported. VS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a crowd in Yazd, central Iran, on January 2 that the March parliamentary elections are a test for the country, and candidates should not discredit or insult each other, IRNA reported. He urged Iranians to vote for the best candidates in terms of "faith, humility...piety," and their ability to empathize with common people, IRNA reported. Reformists say that right-wing elements have already started a denigration campaign against them, and they are concerned that vetting authorities may again disqualify many of their candidates from running in the elections. VS

A group defending Azeri prisoners' rights, Asmek, has expressed concern over the condition of five Iranian Azeris detained in Zanjan, northeastern Iran, and Tehran's Evin prison, on possible subversion-type charges, Radio Farda reported on January 1. The detainees are described as activists or journalists, and identified as Said Matinpur, Alireza Matinpur, Jalil Ghanilu, and a married couple: Behruz Safari and Laila Heidari. Relatives who visited them on December 31 have alleged that they have been tortured and are not allowed to see attorneys. A spokesman for the group, Alireza Javanbakht, told Radio Farda the activists were detained separately in late May and their families say some of them have been hospitalized after being subjected to intense physical and psychological pressure. Javanbakht said the detainees have not been allowed to discuss their charges with relatives, but he said other people similarly detained and now released were accused of acting against the state. VS

The Iranian authorities hanged eight men and women on January 2 in Tehran's Evin prison, all convicted of murders or killings, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 3. One was a man named Alireza who killed three women in Tehran in 2005-06, after entering their apartments in the guise of a prospective buyer of the property. The others were convicted of killings following marital or financial disputes. One, 27-year-old Hamid, killed his brother, a property developer, the daily reported. Two men were separately hanged on January 2 in the prison in Zahedan, southeastern Iran, after being convicted of drug trafficking, "Kayhan" reported the next day. Abdulqiveh Shahji was hanged for bringing in 3.25 kilograms of heroin and Babuddin Karbalai for bringing in about 2 kilograms, the daily reported, citing the Zahedan public and revolutionary court. Three convicted drug traffickers were also hanged in public in Qom, north-central Iran, on January 2, "Jomhuri Islami" reported. The daily indicated that they were all repeat offenders. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki reportedly received treatment in London for a blocked coronary artery, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on January 2. He told Nidal al-Laythi, the managing editor of "Al-Zaman," which, like Al-Sharqiyah is owned by Iraqi businessman Sa'd al-Bazzaz, that the artery is now functioning following a catheterization procedure. Al-Maliki said the artery had been partially blocked for 17 years. Al-Laythi told Al-Sharqiyah on January 2 that he visited with al-Maliki and found him to be in good health. Al-Maliki "was speaking without difficulty. He displayed no signs of illness whatsoever," al-Laythi said. Pro-Ba'athist Arab media have speculated that al-Maliki may have suffered a stroke in late December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 2008). KR

Shi'ite legislator Falah Shanshal escaped assassination on January 3 when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. No further details were given of the alleged attack. Shanshal represents the followers of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Meanwhile, AP reported that three people were killed and 11 injured in an attack on the home of a member of the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party in Baghdad on January 3. The member was not identified by name, but police said he was not at home at the time of the incident. The Al-Da'wah Party is led by Prime Minister al-Maliki. Those killed in the attack were identified as a man, a 13-year-old boy, and a woman who was in a house next door, according to AP. KR

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih announced the cabinet's endorsement of an amended draft civil-service law that will raise the minimum starting salary as well as the annual pay of state employees, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on January 2. The draft law calls for a 75 percent increase in the salaries of Ph.D. holders, a 50 percent increase in pay for master's degree holders, and a 35 percent pay increase for employees holding a bachelor's degree. Employees holding technical certificates will see a 25 percent increase in their salaries, and those holding preparatory-school certificates will see their salaries raised by 15 percent. Those employees not holding degrees will see a 10 percent salary increase. The draft must be sent to parliament for ratification before it can take effect. KR

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said on January 1 that the cabinet has sent a draft amnesty bill to parliament that calls for the release of some detainees held in Iraqi prisons. The bill does not pertain to those in U.S. custody. It also excludes former Ba'athists, and those held on charges of terrorism, kidnapping, rape, adultery, homosexuality, and smuggling antiquities, according to AP on January 1. Al-Dabbagh said the draft, if passed in its current form, could result in the release of 5,000 of the 20,000 detainees in Iraqi custody. KR

The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, praised what he called the "Iraqi surge" during a walkabout with reporters in the village of Uwaysat, south of Baghdad, on January 2, AFP reported. On the U.S.-led surge targeting insurgents that began nearly a year ago, Petraeus said, "We cannot let up -- they are much more on the defensive right now than they have been in years and that is where we have to keep them." He added, "It's very important to remember that our surge is dwarfed by the Iraqi surge that is taking place." Petraeus said official Iraqi security forces have increased by about 110,000 over the past year. "There are also 70,000-plus concerned local citizens [a reference to the arming of tribal awakening councils] who are now helping our forces and our Iraqi partners," Petraeus added. The Pentagon announced last week that the surge, launched on February 14, has yielded significant progress over the past three months, with the number of attacks across Iraq down by 62 percent. KR