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Newsline - January 4, 2008

A spokesman for the British Embassy in Moscow was quoted by the BBC on January 3 as saying that the British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg will stay open despite a Russian order to close them. The spokesman said that the British Council's legal position in Russia is "rock-solid." The council plans to resume work on 14 January after the Russian New Year break. It's perplexing that the Russian government is pursuing this vendetta against the British Council, which does only good things for Russia and Russians." The dispute over the British Council is widely seen as part of the continuing row stemming from the 2006 London poisoning of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17 and 21, 2007, and January 2 and 3, 2008). On January 3, Russian news agencies quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin as saying that "we have not raised the question of the British Council's office in Moscow thus far, and this is an act of goodwill." This was the first time that a Russian official made mention of the council's Moscow office in the course of the dispute. Kamynin also accused Britain of "politicizing" the issue. On January 4, the "International Herald Tribune" quoted an unnamed British Embassy official as calling Kamynin's remarks "hypocritical in the extreme." The daily also quoted Kathryn Board, who heads the council's overseas network, as saying that "if there is a law that we don't comply with, the Russian government has yet to point it out." She added that Britain is in contact with the Russian authorities to enable the offices to reopen without incident on January 14. "We still have a week or so to go and very much hope this will be seen through to a proper conclusion." PM

Reuters reported from Vilnius on January 2 that the Lithuanian gas utility Lietuvos Dujos, which is 38.9 percent owned by Germany's E.ON Ruhrgas and 37.1 percent by Gazprom, expects to pay $354 per 1,000 cubic meters of imported natural gas as of January, citing a report by the Baltic news agency BNS. If the report is accurate, Lithuania will pay more than twice as much for natural gas in 2008 as it paid the previous year. Gazprom was not available for comment. A Lietuvos Dujos spokeswoman declined to comment on the report, noting that no agreement has yet been signed. PM

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on January 3 that no Russians have been hurt in the recent violence in Kenya, which followed a bitterly contested presidential election, reported. The ministry noted that Moscow is closely monitoring the situation and called on "all political forces in Kenya" to engage in "dialogue in accordance with the constitution." As did German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently, the ministry drew attention to mediation efforts by the African Union, but did not mention those of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. PM

The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on December 28 that the Russian military's numerous "training exercises" in 2007 stem as much from considerations of foreign policy as of military instruction and practice. The paper noted that "the Kremlin is clearly demonstrating readiness to defend Russian national interests by strength of arms -- and with help from allies from the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, if necessary. It is a message to whomever might have dismissed Russia that Russia and its army are not to be dismissed without having to pay a considerable price." On January 4, the online publication "Stratfor Commentary" noted that Russia's successful separate tests on December 25 of two different strategic missiles show that "Russia can indeed build missiles that work -- two in particular that might bear more of the burden of the strategic deterrent than either ever was intended to." The missiles in question are the RS-24 multiple-warhead ballistic missile and the Sineva upgrade to the SS-N-23 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). The online publication noted that Russia's nuclear arsenal is obsolescent and that tests of some planned new additions, such as the Bulava SLBM, have failed. PM

Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev said in an interview with the ministry's newspaper "Shchit i mech" on January 4 that law enforcement agencies have begun reversing the "criminalized situation in the country." Assessing the work of the Interior Ministry in 2007, Nurgaliyev said, "for the first time in many years the number of crimes committed on the streets and in public places has been reduced." He added that the number of "terrorist acts" was down 60 percent over 2006. Without elaboration, Nurgaliyev asserted that there were also "real successes in the battles against organized crime and corruption." He also said the reputation of the ministry is improving. "We can say that gradually, not as quickly as we'd like, police officers are being restored in society in their capacity as reliable defenders of the interests of the citizenry and the state." President Vladimir Putin said on December 19 that "our attempts to control corruption have been unsuccessful" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20, 2007), and a survey reported on December 7 found that Russians consider the police, prosecutors, and the courts to be the most corrupt organs of the Russian government. RC

ANALYSTS LOOK AHEAD TO 2008 on December 29 asked several Russian political analysts to discuss their visions of the coming year. Vagif Guseinov, director of the Institute of Strategic Evaluation and Analysis, warned that the economic situation is unstable, with a sharp gulf dividing the richest and poorest segments of society and a looming threat of high inflation. He said the main risks of 2008 stem from "these unsettled economic problems," which could be aggravated by a fall in world energy prices or by any government action that increases inflationary pressure. Political analyst Denis Dragunsky told the website that he expects continued economic well-being, but added that this prosperity is "somewhat unreliable because true well-being is based on democracy and on the confidence that your decisions and your rights will be reliably protected by the law." He said that 2007 destroyed all illusions of democracy in Russia and that a system of "choice based completely on the interests of the ruling group of people" has been established. Igor Bunin, president of the Center for Political Technologies, also noted the deep division between the haves and the have-nots, saying that Russia's underdeveloped social institutions are unprepared for any "collisions between these groups." He characterized the political system created by President Putin as "maximally personified," saying that "in this situation there are no institutions, neither political, nor judicial, nor social, that can guarantee stability and prosperity." RC

Speaking in a televised New Year's address to the nation, Armenian President Robert Kocharian stressed on January 1 the importance of the February 19 presidential election, saying that if held "properly," the election will be a "guarantee of stability," ITAR-TASS reported. Kocharian, who is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third five-year term as president, argued that 2007 was one of the country's "most successful years," citing continued economic growth and his government's success in "the strengthening of security, the economy, the social sphere and democracy." He also noted the importance of improving "the combat capability of our armed forces," which he identified as "an objective of primary concern." In his last address to the nation, Kocharian further added that the May 2007 parliamentary elections confirmed the "maturity of Armenian society" and resulted in greater "international prestige" for Armenia. RG

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti, on January 3 welcomed the pardon of five imprisoned Azerbaijani journalists, but reminded the Azerbaijani government of the need to reform laws criminalizing journalists for their work, Turan reported. Haraszti welcomed the December 28 decision by President Ilham Aliyev to issue a decree pardoning the five journalists, but added that three other journalists "should also be released," referring specifically to Eynulla Fatullayev, and the brothers Qanimat and Sakit Zahidov. He also urged the Azerbaijani authorities to implement the reforms required by both the country's OSCE commitments and by Council of Europe standards, saying that the "freedom of the media could only be guaranteed by law and not by gestures of goodwill" and arguing that "as long as defamation remains a criminal offense in the country, journalists cannot work without fear of prosecution." Ambassador Jose Luis Herrero, the head of the OSCE office in Baku, said that he hopes that the pardoning of the journalists "will help the very needed normalization of the situation of the media in Azerbaijan" and that "efforts to consolidate democratic mechanisms of interaction between the media, the government, and society at large should continue in a spirit of cooperation." Herrero promised that the OSCE "remains ready to support the government of Azerbaijan, media professionals, and civil society to preserve, consolidate, and reinforce the freedom of the press." RG

Speaking in Tbilisi, Georgian Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili reported on January 2 on preparations for the January 5 presidential election, Interfax reported. In an announcement following a meeting of the commission, Tarkhnishvili said that "all conditions are in place for ethnic minorities to take part" in the election, adding that a number of presidential ballots have been printed in the Russian, Armenian, Azeri, and Ossetian languages. He said that non-Georgian-speaking voters will also benefit from the preparation of voter rolls, district election commission documents, voting instructions, and voter cards that have been translated into those four languages. Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikoloz Gvaramia announced on January 3 that a special telephone "hotline" has been set up to field complaints and reports of violations during the voting process, Caucasus Press reported. RG

The Georgian Young Lawyers Association released on January 3 its preliminary report of the preelection monitoring, which reported a "series of violations" and criticized the fact that "a significant part of the preelection period took place during a state of emergency, against the background of virtual restriction of the media sources," according to Caucasus Press. The report also criticized the Georgian authorities for allowing or even encouraging officials to illegally participate in election campaigning and for the use of "administrative resources" to gain support among voters. The report went on to say that the temporary closure of Imedi-TV and revisions of the election laws on November 22 and December 7 made an effective monitoring of the election campaign more difficult. The group's monitoring effort focused on Tbilisi and seven regional centers -- Telavi, Dusheti, Rustavi, Gori, Ozurgeti, Kutaisi, and Batumi. RG

In comments in a televised interview, Kakha Kukava, a senior member of the Georgian nine-member opposition National Council group, announced on January 2 that the opposition intends to hold a public rally in Tbilisi on January 6, one day after the presidential election, Rustavi-2 television reported. Kukava, also an associate of opposition presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze, warned that "if the authorities falsify the results of the election, then naturally, we will have to protect our votes," adding that the opposition will proceed with the rally even if it is denied permission by municipal authorities. Reacting to the news, acting President and parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze warned that the authorities will not allow anyone to "destabilize the situation" in the country. She also warned the Georgian people "not to yield to any provocation." RG

In his last campaign speech as a candidate in Georgia's January 5 presidential election, former President Mikheil Saakashvili vowed on January 3 to "unite" Georgia and to "redeem the honor of the country," according to Caucasus Press. Saakashvili also declared 2008 "the year of victory and unified Georgia," pledging to reunify the country "no matter what the cost," Rustavi-2 reported. Speaking to voters in the western town of Zugdidi, Saakashvili reiterated his pledge to restore Georgia's territorial integrity three times, at one point adding a reference to the Inguri River, which currently serves as the de facto border between Abkhazia and Georgia proper, as the new "symbol of Georgia's unity." RG

In an interview with a Moscow radio station, opposition presidential candidate and wealthy businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili promised on January 3 to improve and stabilize relations with Russia if elected as the next Georgian president, Caucasus Press reported. Patarkatsishvili said that he believes that he has a serious chance of winning the January 5 election and explained that if he wins, he will follow "a nonjudgmental approach to all rivals" and will govern "without quarrelling and without fighting." He added that he has only "love and respect" for Russia and noted that Russia is "a very pleasant and comfortable neighbor," as well as "a fantastic market for our products." Patarkatsishvili's candidacy has been rather dramatic, as he recently announced that he was not withdrawing his candidacy even though televised footage of him apparently offering a $100 million bribe to a senior Interior Ministry official to fuel protests following the January 5 vote initially led him to issue a statement on December 27 announcing that he would formally withdraw from the race (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 28, 2007, and January 3, 2008). RG

In Bishkek, Emergency Situations Minister Kamchibek Tashiev appealed on January 3 for international assistance in the wake of an earthquake that struck the southern Osh region on January 1, AKIpress reported. The appeal, directed to international organizations, asked for assistance in providing warm clothes, food, heaters, and warm tents to people in the affected by areas. Tashiev said that people in the villages in the Kara Suu and Nookat districts of Osh are in critical need of aid. The appeal follows an order on January 2 by President Kurmanbek Bakiev instructing all government ministries and agencies to accelerate aid and assistance to victims of the earthquake. Prime Minister Igor Chudinov also reported on January 2 that the earthquake destroyed 167 homes and buildings, but said that there were no immediate reports of casualties. The earthquake struck southern Kyrgyzstan in the early hours of January 1, with lesser aftershocks striking the area several hours later. RG

The Tajik State National University's law department hosted a ceremony on January 2 in Dushanbe marking the establishment of a new center to combat human trafficking, Asia-Plus reported. The new center, created with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration and funded by the U.S. Department of State, is the first-ever center in the region aimed at fighting human trafficking. The center is to provide training for the personnel of prosecutor's offices, police departments, courts and other specialists and will seek to support other programs designed to aid trafficking victims. RG

Recently reelected Uzbek President Islam Karimov on January 2 issued a presidential amnesty to coincide with the 15th anniversary of Uzbekistan's constitution, pardoning over 500 convicts and reducing the prison sentences for another 900 prisoners, Uzbek Television reported. The Committee for the Release of Prisoners of Conscience has appealed to the international community for support to draw attention to the fact that none of the country's political prisoners have benefited from the amnesty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2008). RG

U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart has responded to the December 30 statement of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka threatening to expel her from the country if Washington introduces new sanctions against Minsk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 2008), RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on January 3. Stewart said that the United States has repeatedly explained to Belarusian authorities that the measures were imposed against Belarusian officials and others responsible for human rights abuses, the crackdown on democracy, and corruption. Stewart said that the United States is also "prepared to take appropriate action against entities owned or controlled by such persons." Stewart stressed that her December 13 statement on possible new sanctions was in line with U.S. policy. "The key to improved U.S.-Belarus relations remains in Belarusian hands -- the release of all political prisoners and its respect for basic democratic norms, including free elections and freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association," she said. AM

TO U.S. Mikalay Charhinets, a lawmaker of the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament, said on January 3 that President Lukashenka "has issued the last warning to the U.S." with his statement threatening U.S. Ambassador Stewart with expulsion, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Charhinets, who heads the International Affairs and National Security Committee in the Council of the Republic, said that the United States treats Belarus "like an underdeveloped country where people starve, suffer, and are humiliated." "This will not work regarding Belarus," he added. Charhinets also said that Belarus is a co-founder of the United Nations and therefore the U.S. leadership should find "some other words for a talk." Charhinets said he does not believe that Stewart will indeed be expelled, but that if the U.S. government wants that, "it will get it." AM

The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) has submitted to the Verkhovna Rada a draft bill providing for the compensation in the course of 2008-09 of depreciated deposits at the savings bank of the former Soviet Union, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on January 4. Such compensation was among the BYuT's top slogans during the election campaign. The draft proposes to pay Ukrainians up to 1,000 hryvnyas ($198) in cash and to compensate the remaining part of depreciated deposits by various forms of property (plots of land, shares in joint stock companies where the state's stake does not exceed 50 percent, houses and apartments), or using the deposits to repay housing and utility bills. AM

The European Union "must choose...whether it will sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement [SAA] with Serbia or...send a mission to implement [a plan for] supervised independence of Kosovo," Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in a written statement issued on January 3. The EU "cannot at the same time break up Serbia and sign the SAA with Serbia," Kostunica concluded, the Serbian broadcaster B92 reported. This is the first time that Serbia has made a linkage between the EU's plan to take over responsibility for administering Kosova from the UN and the signing of an SAA with Serbia, the first step toward membership. Kostunica's statement also marks the adoption of a tougher position on an EU mission, which Serbia has objected strongly to but has previously indicated would be possible if backed by a resolution by the UN Security Council. Kostunica's declaration also expands on a resolution passed on December 26 in which the Serbian parliament stated that "all international accords that Serbia will sign, including the SAA, must be in keeping with the preservation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). In his January 3 statement, Kostunica said the "illegal and therefore anti-European" deployment of an EU mission is tantamount to "snatching part of Serbia's territory" and the creation of a "quasi-state" on Serbian territory, and would render "null and void" the SAA preliminarily agreed by Brussels and Belgrade in November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2007). Kostunica has previously warned that Kosova would be a "puppet state" of the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). Kostunica also stated, as he has before, that the EU is acting "under U.S. pressure." The EU has increasingly sought to take the lead on resolving Kosova's status, with key states such as Britain and France warning that the EU's response could be critical to the future of the EU's common foreign policy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). Kosova's future as a state and Serbia's future as an EU member will be high on the agenda of an EU summit to be held on January 28. EU leaders have already signaled that they are prepared to put Serbia's bid for membership on a fast track and are holding out the prospect of signing an SAA at the summit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). AG

Serbia "will never send its soldiers to fight senseless wars," Serbian President Boris Tadic told reporters on January 2 during a visit to military facilities near Serbia's border with Kosova. Tadic warned that sending troops into Kosova would be counterproductive, resulting in Serbia definitively losing its claim to Kosova and provoking a confrontation with the international community. Tadic also stated that "many people would like to see Serbia dragged into a war," later adding that "extremists on both sides" would like a conflict. There have been recurrent threats and counterthreats by Serbian and Kosovar Albanian militias, but the possibility of military action in Kosova made headlines in September when a senior figure in the governing coalition, Dusan Prorokovic of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), said that Serbian troops could "cross the boundary and go everywhere in Kosovo without any legal problems" if Kosova declared independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and 10, 2007). Since then, Tadic and government ministers belonging to his Democrat Party (DS) have repeatedly ruled out the possibility of Serbia sending troops into Kosova. Prime Minister Kostunica and other DSS ministers have not echoed Prorokovic's threat, but they have repeatedly attacked NATO's perceived plan to create a "puppet state" in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 20, 21, and 24, 2007). Tadic hopes to be reelected president on January 20, but he faces stiff competition from Tomislav Nikolic, the acting leader of Serbia's most popular party, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS). The SRS is an extreme nationalist party but Nikolic has not talked of going to war over Kosova. In his most prominent recent statement, he called for Belgrade to invite in Russian troops, arguing that "a Russian military presence would bolster the Serbian position in seeking a solution to the Kosovo crisis and remove the potential NATO threat" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007). AG

Austria declared on January 2 that it will be one of the first countries to recognize Kosova as an independent state. "We will not sit in the first row and just watch what others are doing," Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer said in an interview for the Austria Press Agency (APA). "Austria will certainly be among those that will have a clear attitude on the issue, and will show the way forward," he continued. Gusenbauer underscored the importance for Europe of such clarity and determination in resolving Kosova's final status, which he described as the "last big unsolved issue of the 20th century." The EU needs to demonstrate that it can "solve problems at home in Europe," he contended. Gusenbauer added that EU leaders have already agreed "to see the final solution on the issue of Kosovo's status and following consequences as a European challenge" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2007). Most members of the EU believe Kosova should be a state, but are urging it to coordinate a declaration of independence from Serbia with the international community. In his interview for APA, Gusenbauer offered support for Serbia in its bid for EU membership, arguing that the EU should drop its insistence that Serbia capture Bosnian Serb wartime leader Ratko Mladic before it can complete an SAA with Brussels. He argued that it is "not fair" to expect Belgrade "to deliver a concrete result if it can't be delivered." Carla Del Ponte, who left her post as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on December 31, maintains that Mladic is "in the immediate reach of Belgrade," while Raffi Gregorian, a U.S. diplomat serving as the international community's deputy high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, believes that "just one phone call" by Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica would be enough to bring Mladic into custody (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12 and 19, 2007). AG

Austrian Chancellor Gusenbauer's statement prompted the Serbian government to send a "strongly worded" note of complaint to Vienna and to warn that "such statements greatly damage bilateral relations between Austria and Serbia." In December, the Serbian government and parliament warned that Belgrade will "reconsider diplomatic and all other relations" with any country that recognizes Kosova as a state, but did not specify the possible consequences (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). Belgrade's protest to Vienna contained no direct threats. Serbian media reported that, in its note, Belgrade reiterated its view that a decision on the future of Kosova should rest with the UN Security Council, a case that Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic put to ambassadors of the council's permanent members on a visit to New York on January 3. Russia, Serbia's chief ally and a veto-holding member of the Security Council, has said it will only agree to a solution acceptable to Serbia. Gusenbauer floated in April 2007 the possibility of using Austria's and Italy's management of the German-speaking Italian region of South Tyrol (Alto Adige) as a model for Kosova, he has urged Kosova to hold back from any unilateral move, and in July said Kosova's fate should be decided by the Security Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20 and July 31, 2007). However, in recent months Austria has consistently backed the general European position and advocated a unified stance on Kosova. Serbia's energy minister, Aleksandar Popovic, interpreted Gusenbauer's statement as a reflection of a deeper historical trend in relations between Vienna and Belgrade, telling the news agency Tanjug on January 2 that historically Austria has always acted "in a similar way" toward Serbia. AG

A junior minister caught up in one of the biggest political disputes of 2007 has resigned from the Macedonian government, local media reported on January 3. Deputy Interior Minister Refet Elmazi said he wanted to step down for "personal reasons," but the resignation of this controversial figure may ease criticism of the government. Elmazi survived a vote of no confidence in parliament in November after it emerged that he had been involved in a brawl between ethnic-Albanian deputies in September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, and October 2, 2007). However, the involvement of a minister in a dispute heavily criticized by the EU and NATO was seen domestically as setting back Macedonia's bid for membership of the two Western organizations. Macedonia started 2007 hoping to gain the status of an EU candidate member in 2008, but that hope was dismissed in the EU's annual review in late 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 31, and November 7, 2007). Macedonia still hopes to be invited in April to join NATO, but there is concern in Macedonia that NATO's relationship with Macedonia may have cooled (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2007). Elmazi, a member of the largest ethnic-Albanian party in the governing coalition, the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh), first tendered his resignation from government in the summer of 2007 in protest at a security raid on a village, Tanusevci, that was the stronghold of ethnic-Albanian separatists in 2001, but on that occasion Gruevski rejected his resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 11, 2007). Elmazi was also at the center of controversy in November when he said that a television station could face criminal charges over the way that it covered another police operation in which six people were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2007). AG

Albania on January 1 became the latest Balkan state to introduce a flat tax. Companies and individuals alike will now pay taxes of just 10 percent, local media reported. Businesses will also pay at most 10 percent into social-security funds. The previous corporate-tax rate was 27 percent. The government hopes that the change to lower tax rates and a simpler tax system will increase tax-collection rates, which are already improving, and will attract foreign investment. The overhaul has the backing of the International Monetary Fund. Other countries in Southeastern Europe with a flat-tax system are Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia. AG

The parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim-Croat Federation voted on December 29 to slash the corporate-tax rate in the autonomous region from 30 to 10 percent, starting January 1. The move means the tax rates are in the federation and its Bosnian Serb-dominated counterpart, the Republika Srpska, are now the same. Other changes made at the same time mean that the two tax regimes are now roughly on a par. AG

Georgia's voters will go to the polls on January 5 in what is in effect a vote of confidence in President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was elected to that post exactly four years earlier on a wave of euphoria following the November 2003 Rose Revolution that toppled Eduard Shevardnadze. If the January 2004 ballot, in which Saakashvili received 97 percent of the vote, was an exultant affirmation of trust in his commitment to effect positive change, this election will quantify the extent and depth of popular anger and disillusion at his failure to deliver on promises ranging from improving living standards and reducing unemployment to zero tolerance of corruption and the restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity.

Saakashvili called the preterm ballot in early November, just 36 hours after police used indiscriminate force to disperse opposition protesters in Tbilisi, injuring hundreds of people. The protesters had congregated peacefully outside the parliament building daily since November 2 to demonstrate their discontent with Saakashvili's track record over the previous four years, specifically, the failure to improve living standards and reduce unemployment (reportedly still at the same level as before the Rose Revolution), frequent human rights violations and cavalier disregard for the letter of the law (as epitomized by Interior Ministry involvement in the murder of a young banker in January 2006), and the widely held perception, publicly expressed on September 25 by former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, that Saakashvili routinely turns a blind eye to egregious corruption within his immediate entourage.

As during a September 28 demonstration to protest Okruashvili's arrest two days after he went public with those allegations against Saakashvili, individual participants in the November protests also called for Saakashvili to step down and for the abolition of the presidency. Georgian officials subsequently construed those slogans as a call for the overthrow of the government that rendered imperative police intervention to disperse the demonstrators and prevent a coup d'etat.

Of the 22 hopefuls who initially expressed their intention to run in the preterm ballot, only 13 submitted the requisite documentation to the Central Election Commission, of whom seven were finally registered. They are Saakashvili; businessman Levan Gachechiladze, representing the opposition National Council; London-based oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili; New Rightists party leader David Gamkrelidze; Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili; Party of the Future leader Gia Maisashvili; and veteran dissident and Imedi (Hope) party leader Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia.

Three of the candidates -- Saakashvili, Patarkatsishvili, and Natelashvili -- are campaigning primarily on economic and social issues. Saakashvili has promised a "Georgia without poverty": the Right Wing opposition Georgian parliament faction calculated in early December that Saakashvili had already made specific election-campaign promises to the tune of 11 billion laris ($6.8 billion). Patarkatsishvili has pledged to pay the population's gas and electricity bills, raise unemployment benefits and pensions, and finance a series of economic programs from his personal fortune, while Natelashvili advocates a socialist model that would deliver free education and medical care immediately, and free gas and electricity within three years. Gachechiladze too has pledged to cut unemployment and distribute cheap credits, but in addition both he and Gamkrelidze focus on a fundamental reform of the political system. Both have pledged to abolish the post of president; Gachechiladze advocates a parliamentary republic, while Gamkrelidze has proposed holding a nationwide referendum on restoring the monarchy.

But the differences between the various candidates' platforms have been overshadowed by fears that the authorities will stop at nothing to ensure a Saakashvili victory. Consequently, focus has shifted from issues to tactics, and the campaign has been marred by a level of vituperative mutual accusations between the authorities and opposition candidates rare even in the no-holds-barred world of post-Soviet politics. Natelashvili's campaign office accused the authorities of trying to kill him on the night of December 20-21. Both opposition candidates and NGOs have documented the use by Saakashvili of state resources to promote his campaign. The OSCE Election Observation Mission concluded in a statement released in late December that some of those allegations are credible. But Georgian officials have denied any infringements, and insist that they will spare no effort to ensure the ballot is free and fair. Parliament speaker and acting President Nino Burjanadze affirmed on December 21 that trying to rig the outcome of the vote would be tantamount to "political suicide," asking rhetorically why Saakashvili should campaign so energetically if the authorities were intent on rigging the outcome of the vote.

Independent opinion polls conducted in recent weeks suggest, however, that not only does Saakashvili have no hope of repeating the overwhelming victory he scored in 2004, he may not even win the required 50 percent of votes cast to ensure a first-round victory. His rating has been assessed at between 16-20 percent, while Gachechiladze is in first place with between 20-40 percent. As of mid-December, Patarkatsishvili ranked third in most polls, although Black Sea Press on December 28 ranked him second with 17.6 percent after Gachechiladze with 30.8 percent; Saakashvili was in third place with 16.5 percent. But the accusations leveled against Patarkatsishvili by the Prosecutor-General's Office on December 24 of plotting the violent overthrow of the present leadership may undercut support for him -- as they were almost certainly intended to do. A runoff between Saakashvili and Gachechiladze cannot therefore be ruled out.

Meanwhile, the pro-government media continue to push Saakashvili's candidacy. Playing on many people's fears of renewed instability, the Rustavi-2 television channel on December 15 warned of economic and political crisis should an opposition candidate be elected. On December 10, Caucasus Press quoted Saakashvili's Netherlands-born wife Sandra Roelofs as having told a Dutch television channel that Georgia will be "doomed" if voters fail to reelect her husband.

Afghan officials said on January 3 that hundreds of families have fled sectarian violence in northwestern Pakistan in the past two weeks and arrived in the eastern Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktia, Pajhwak Afghan News and international news media reported. The majority of those fleeing are women and children and most are staying in the homes of friends and acquaintances. Clashes last week between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in Pakistan's Kurram tribal area left at least 21 people dead, and authorities imposed a curfew in the area. Khost Governor Arsallah Jamal told reporters: "The situation is under control. There is no serious threat," noting that "in the past 30 years, we have seen these conflicts between Shi'a and Sunni in Kurram." Abdul Rahman Mangal, the deputy governor in neighboring Paktia Province, said about 480 families have come to the border districts there, including about 20 to 30 Afghan families who were living in Pakistan. MM

The Iranian government said on January 3 that it has warned the 1.5 million Afghan refugees living in Iran without proper papers that they face arrest and detention in camps for up to five years unless they leave the country, the Bakhtar news agency reported. Iran began expelling tens of thousands of Afghan immigrants in April 2007 by loading them on buses and dropping them off at the Afghan border. Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Bahin said in a news conference in Kabul the same day that the Afghan government was not "formally" told about the move, but he called on the Iranian authorities to delay their decision. "We've not formally received what we see in the media," he said. "We hope that those decisions are not executed, at least during the freezing months of the winter." More than 2 million Afghans live in Iran, while a similar number remain in eastern Pakistan after fleeing war and unrest in their homeland over the past three decades. MM

In a news conference in Kabul on January 2, ISAF commander U.S. General Dan McNeill predicted continued Taliban-led violence in 2008, which he linked to the booming illicit drug trade, the Bakhtar news agency reported. He told reporters, "I expect to see yet another year of explosive growth in [opium] poppy [production] and I think that will again complicate the security sector," adding, "When I see a poppy field, I see it turning into money and then into IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and Kalashnikovs." McNeill showed great concern over the issue and portrayed the drug trade as poisoning the youth of Afghanistan and fuelling the Taliban insurgency against the government of President Hamid Karzai. McNeill said the Taliban are likely to continue their insurgency, mainly using roadside bombs and suicide bombings after carrying out more than 140 such attacks in 2007. MM

Jelveh Javaheri and Mariam Hosseinkhah, two women's rights activists who have worked on gathering a million signatures to change discriminatory laws in Iran, have been released from a Tehran jail on bail, Radio Farda reported on January 2. Hosseinkhah, a journalist by profession, and Javaheri, a postgraduate sociology student, were arrested in connection with their work with the website, which promotes the antidiscrimination goals of the One Million Signatures Campaign, Radio Farda reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2007). An unnamed lawyer for the two told ISNA on January 2 that he has not been informed of formal charges against them. He said they were released after bail of a little over $50,000 was set, though it was not immediately clear if this was for both or if the sum was for each. Hosseinkhah was questioned in Tehran in November over her writing activities and asked to give the names of people working with and another women's website, Hosseinkhah refused to give names and was arrested, Radio Farda reported, citing unnamed activists in Tehran. VS

Members of 17 student associations from several Iranian universities have written to judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi to protest a jail sentence given to Hesam Firuzi, a doctor who formerly treated some political and student detainees, including Ahmad Batebi, Radio Farda reported on January 2. Batebi, a student, was jailed for his part in the 1999 Tehran protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18 and March 20, 2007). The Tehran revolutionary court has sentenced Firuzi to one year in prison on the charge of engaging in antistate propaganda, Radio Farda reported, apparently in retaliation for his revelations to the press about Batebi's physical state. The students asked Shahrudi if medical treatment of patients by doctors is now a criminal offense, or how publicizing a patient's state of health could constitute antistate propaganda. Ali Taqipur, a student from Babol in northern Iran and a signatory, told Radio Farda that Firuzi felt he had a legal duty to speak out about Batebi's health. VS

Relatives of Mohammad Sadiq Kabudvand, a Kurdish rights activist, have expressed concern about his condition: he is being held in Tehran's Evin prison and apparently accused of antistate activities, Radio Farda reported on January 3. Kabudvand was arrested on July 1, 2007, and has been held both in Evin prison's Section 209, where political detainees are kept, and in solitary confinement in another section, and also subjected to unspecified physical and psychological pressure, Radio Farda reported. Kabudvand was the founder of the Kurdistan Organization in Defense of Human Rights and editor in chief of a banned weekly, "Payam-i Mardom" (People's Message). He has written about rights abuses, executions, and female self-immolation in Kurdistan Province in western Iran. His wife met with him on December 31 and has told Radio Farda he was "extremely dizzy. We could not understand the reason for his dizziness." His lawyer Nasrin Sotudeh has told Radio Farda that Kabudvand is charged with acting against the state, engaging in antistate propaganda, and opposing religious laws through his former press or investigative activities. VS

The Iranian authorities on January 3 began to register aspiring candidates for midterm polls for the Assembly of Experts, a body of clerics that supervises the supreme leader's office, Fars and ISNA reported, citing the deputy interior minister for parliamentary affairs, Mohammad Hussein Musapur. Aspirants have six days to register from that day, Musapur said. The polls are to be held in mid-March for seats in the Tehran, East Azerbaijan, Ilam, and Qazvin provinces, Fars reported. Musapur said hopefuls for parliamentary elections also set for mid-March may register from January 5. He said 45,000 inspectors will supervise the various stages of the elections, ISNA reported. Deputy Interior Minister for Political Affairs Alireza Afshar also told the press at the Interior Ministry in Tehran on January 3 that the Guardians Council, the body of clerics that confirms the legal validity of elections, has in principle agreed with the computerization of most stages of coming elections, including vote counting, ISNA reported. Afshar said the ministry and the council are now discussing the mechanics of computerized elections, ISNA reported. VS

A Norwegian official has voiced his country's indignation at the execution of a 27-year-old woman in Tehran on January 2, Radio Farda reported, citing the Norwegian daily "Aftenposten." Raheleh Zamani was convicted of killing her husband -- who she said had mistreated her for years -- and was hanged in Evin prison with seven others (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2008). Norwegian State Secretary Raymond Johansen has said his government was adamantly opposed to the execution and will inform the Iranian ambassador of its dissatisfaction. Johansen told the daily it is "just terrible" that Zamani's two children, aged 3 and 5, are now orphans. He said Norway's protest is important for opponents of the death sentence in Iran. Rights bodies have noted an increase in executions in Iran in recent years, rising from 94 reported or documented executions in 2005, to 177 in 2006 and "at least" 297 in 2007, Radio Farda reported on January 3, citing figures from AFP and Amnesty International. VS

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told a conference in Baghdad on January 3 that the government will require all ministries to use an e-government system, which will help ensure greater transparency and fight corruption, Iraqi media reported. Salih said Science and Technology Minister Ra'id Fahmi will head a committee tasked with designing the system by year-end. "All ministries and government institutions are to take part in this system and put their data and information into this system to show the movement of public funds, to enable citizens and the media to see this movement," Salih said. He added that ministries will be required to make their spending public from April 1. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in a New Year's address that 2008 is the year of reconstruction in Iraq, adding that fighting corruption will be a key goal of his administration this year. Salih told conference participants that Iraq must break the cycle of corruption that took hold under the former regime and continued throughout the oil-for-food program, and later through the mismanagement of contracts by post-Hussein governments. KR

Integrity Commission Chairman Musa Faraj told the January 3 conference that the Commerce, Defense, Interior, Oil, and Electricity ministries are the most corrupt, AP reported. Faraj estimated that graft has cost Iraq some $300 billion in lost oil revenues since 2003. Faraj told conference participants that pressure from within Prime Minister al-Maliki's administration -- but not from al-Maliki himself -- has restricted the commission's ability to function. Faraj said the former head of the commission, Judge Radi al-Radi, fled Iraq and sought asylum in the United States last year after officials at the prime minister's office, acting on their own accord, pressured al-Radi not to investigate corruption allegations against some officials and ministries. The officials also sought to curb the authority of inspectors-general appointed to ministries. Faraj said the weakness of the Integrity Commission is also a factor. KR

The UN World Food Program (WFP) has launched a $126 million initiative to feed more than 1 million displaced Iraqis who are unable to meet their basic needs due to violence and instability, the UN announced on January 3. Some 750,000 of the most vulnerable Iraqis displaced within Iraq will benefit from the program, along with more than 360,000 Iraqis who have fled to Syria. The Iraqi aid will consist of flour, white beans, and vegetable oil to the internally displaced who are unable to collect monthly food rations because they hold ration cards for areas where they are no longer residing. In Syria, rations will include rice, vegetable oil, and lentils. About 155,000 Iraqis will receive immediate aid. The WFP says it hopes to provide aid to 360,000 Iraqis in Syria by year-end. There are currently 2.2 million internally displaced Iraqis, and about 1.2 million registered Iraqi refugees in Syria. WFP Syria Country Director Pippa Bradford said many Iraqis in Syria have depleted their savings and are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. A recent UN poll found that one-third of Iraqis surveyed in Syria said they skipped one meal a day to feed their children (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2007). KR

After a two-year investigation into the killing of some 24 civilians in Al-Hadithah, a Marine Corps investigation has decided that none of the Marines involved in the incident will be charged with murder, "The Washington Post" reported on January 4. The civilians were allegedly killed by U.S. Marines in November 2005 after a roadside bomb killed a fellow soldier. Instead, two enlisted Marines and two Marine officers will face trial for the killings and for failing to investigate them. Iraqi residents in the town called the attack on the civilians a massacre, saying the Marines stormed the homes of local residents and killed unarmed men, women, and children in the incident. Eight Marines and officers were initially charged with murder and failure to investigate an apparent war crime. Three men were later cleared of charges and a fourth was granted immunity to testify. One Marine, Staff Sergeant Frank Wurterich will be arraigned next week on nine counts of voluntary manslaughter, with the charges alleging that he had an intent to kill and that his actions inside one home amounted to unlawful killing, the daily reported. The charges against Wurterich allege he killed at least nine people without properly obtaining positive identification that they were the enemy in the midst of an attack. KR