RUSSIAN NAVY HOLDS EXERCISES IN MEDITERRANEAN
An aircraft carrier battle group, led by the carrier "Admiral Kuznetsov" and the destroyer "Admiral Levchenko," conducted exercises in the central Mediterranean on January 8, together with an unspecified number of Navy aircraft, Interfax reported. In the Gulf of Taranto, off the coast of Italy, the destroyer "Admiral Chabanenko" led a small group of Russian ships in joint maneuvers with the Italian Navy that included antiterrorism drills and exercises in intercepting illegal arms shipments. The supply vessel "Ivan Bubnov" left the Libyan port of Tripoli after a "four-day business visit" to that city. Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, the navy's top commander, said that the maneuvers in the Mediterranean "help pilots gain practical skills in various climate zones located a considerable distance from their permanent bases." In early December, the attack group led by the "Admiral Kuznetsov" completed exercises with aircraft of the Northern Fleet and the strategic aviation forces in the North Atlantic and moved on to the Mediterranean (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6 and 10, 2007). Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said on December 5 at a meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin that Russia will resume naval exercises in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. In August 2007, Putin announced the resumption of long-range strategic bomber flights, albeit with aircraft designed decades ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). PM
PRO-KREMLIN YOUTH DETAINED WHILE PROTESTING ALLEGED SCHENGEN BLACKLIST
Nikita Borovikov, who leads the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi (Ours), announced on January 8 that members of his organization will soon launch a protest outside the Moscow offices of the European Commission against what he called Estonia's blacklisting of some Russian citizens from traveling to the EU's Schengen zone, which Estonia joined in December, Interfax reported. The people in question reportedly took part in demonstrations in 2007 against the Estonian government's plans to move a Soviet-era war memorial from downtown Tallinn to a military cemetery outside the city center. Borovikov said on January 8 that "we are indignant over the situation. This case shows that Europe is led on a leash by fascist Estonia and that one cannot in Europe enjoy the [unspecified] rights stipulated in the [UN] Universal Declaration of Human Rights." He added that "the ideas of united Europe...and of friendship between peoples have slammed up against the wall that Estonia is building both around itself and the EU. One can now march there with fascist flags and insult the [Soviet war] dead with impunity." Nashi press secretary Kristina Potapchuk said that "this action is the beginning of a campaign to restore the rights of tens of thousands of young Russians.... [The EU must] either end this illegal state of affairs, or stop speaking about democratic rights and freedoms." On January 9, about 300 Nashi protesters appeared outside the European Commission's offices, and police detained at least 40 of them for participating in an unauthorized demonstration, the radio station Ekho Moskvy reported. PM
OUTSIDER PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFULS CONTINUE TO COLLECT SIGNATURES
Democratic Party of Russia leader Andrei Bogdanov told Ekho Moskvy on January 8 that his party has collected more than the 2 million signatures necessary for him to apply to register for the March 2 presidential election. The Democratic Party, which is widely considered a Kremlin-supported pseudo-opposition party, polled 0.1 percent in the December 2 Duma elections, picking up fewer than 100,000 votes. Also on January 8, Interfax reported that former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's campaign has gathered 1.7 million signatures so far. Campaign spokeswoman Yelena Dikun said Kasyanov plans to collect 2.5 million signatures and to submit 2.1 million to the Central Election Commission by the January 16 deadline. The commission will certify the final list of candidates by January 27. Dikun said activists are having trouble gathering signatures because many Russians do not know that a presidential election is coming up. "The main political event is taking place in an information vacuum," she said. "And the authorities are not fulfilling their legal obligation to inform the citizenry." The main candidates in the election -- First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- do not have to collect signatures because they have been nominated by parties represented in the Duma. RC
DUMA RECONVENES WITH HEAVY WORKLOAD
The new State Duma reconvened on January 9 following the holiday recess, Rossia television and other Russian media reported. Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov told state television that the legislature is expected to consider some 600 new bills aimed at "realizing the initiatives of President Vladimir Putin." Gryzlov added that the new Duma will be "socially oriented." "The main tasks will be settling social questions," he said, emphasizing that measures will be taken to help pensioners, state-sector workers, and the military. RC
INDEPENDENT JOURNALIST BEATEN IN MOSCOW
"Gazeta" journalist Artyom Skoropadsky was beaten by an unknown assailant near his Moscow apartment building on the evening of January 7, Ekho Moskvy reported on January 8. Skoropadsky suffered bruises and cuts on his face and reported that the assailant did not attempt to take his money or his mobile phone. Skoropadsky has covered the Marches of Dissent political actions by the Other Russia opposition coalition and last month accompanied former Prime Minister Kasyanov on a campaign trip to Tambov. On January 5, Other Russia activist Maria Koleda was attacked by unidentified assailants outside her Moscow home (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2008). RC
MOSCOW TRANSPORT PRICES RISE
The prices for tickets on the Moscow transportation system have increased since the beginning of the year, strana.ru reported on January 8. As of January 1, a ticket on surface transport costs 17 rubles ($0.69) and a subway ticket costs 19 rubles. The price of a monthly transport pass increased from 1,080 rubles to 1,300. RC
SPECIAL OPERATION UNDER WAY AGAINST MILITANTS IN DAGHESTAN
At least one, and possible two militants were killed and one police officer injured in a shoot-out on January 8 in Daghestan's southeastern Tabasaran Raion after police under the command of Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov surrounded a group of suspected militant fighters, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. The remaining 10-15 militants managed to escape, but were pursued by helicopter until darkness fell. The area where they are believed to be hiding has been surrounded and the search for them resumed on January 9. In Makhachkala, a car bomb exploded near the headquarters of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan early on January 9 as a car belonging to Gazi Gaziyev, head of the Makhachkala office of North Caucasus Railways, drove past, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Gaziyev and his driver were hospitalized with minor injuries. LF
POLICE ATTACKED IN INGUSHETIA
One policeman was killed and a second injured late on January 8 when unidentified gunmen opened fire on their vehicles on the outskirts of the village of Nesterovskaya in Sunzha Raion, Interfax and ingushetiya.ru reported. LF
OFFICIAL RESULTS OF GEORGIAN PRESIDENTIAL BALLOT ANNOUNCED
With results from 30 precincts still unclear, Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili announced on January 9 the preliminary results of the January 5 preterm presidential election, Georgian media reported. Incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili was reelected for a second term with 52.21 percent of the vote; his closest challenger, businessman Levan Gachechiladze, polled 25.26 percent; U.K.-based businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, 6.99 percent; Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili, 6.42 percent; David Gamkrelidze (New Rightists), 4.02 percent; economist Gia Maisashvili, 0.76 percent; and Soviet-era dissident Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, 0.12 percent. In an interview aired late on January 8 by the pro-government television channel Rustavi-2, Saakashvili dismissed as "a myth" rumors that he plans to arrest his political opponents. He promised a cabinet reshuffle to bring in "a broader circle of people," "calm...honorable patriots and professionals," but stopped short of proposing a coalition government, civil.ge reported. But parliamentarian Kakha Kukava of the nine-party opposition National Council that backed Gachechiladze's candidacy told the same television station on January 9 that if Saakashvili truly wants to "take a step toward his people and the opposition," he should agree to a recount to demonstrate beyond all doubts that the published results of the ballot are accurate, civil.ge reported. Saakashvili also said on January 8 that parliamentary elections will be held in April or May. LF
SECOND GEORGIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE ALLEGES VOTE-RIGGING
Leading Labor Party member Nestan Kirtadze told journalists in Tbilisi on January 8 that the party's chairman, Natelashvili, in fact polled up to 20 percent of the vote on January 5, but that "the CEC has stolen those votes in favor of...Saakashvili," Interfax and the independent television channel Mze reported. She said that if the CEC does not revise its preliminary data by late on January 9 to reflect the true level of support for Natelashvili, the Labor party will join the protests planned by the National Council. LF
OFFICIALS DEPLORE GEORGIAN OPPOSITION CANDIDATE'S OUTBURST
Justice Minister Eka Tqeshelashvili on January 8 slammed defeated opposition candidate Gachechiladze's confrontation earlier that day with CEC Chairman Tarkhnishvili as "very regrettable," insulting to the Georgian people, and an attempt to "blackmail" the CEC, civil.ge reported. Gachechiladze accused Tarkhnishvili in front of journalists of attempting to rig the outcome of the vote and said he would be punished for doing so (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2008). Gachechiladze's supporters also congregated on January 8 outside the Tbilisi headquarters of Georgian Public Television to protest the official media's refusal to grant them airtime to inform voters of the irregularities and alleged rigging of the outcome of the vote in Saakashvili's favor, civil.ge reported. Gachechiladze himself said rallies will take place on a daily basis beginning on January 9 to demand media access and a second round of voting. LF
INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY CALLS FOR INVESTIGATION OF GEORGIAN ELECTION VIOLATIONS
The EU Presidency, currently held by Slovenia, released a statement on January 8 noting the initial assessment by International Election Observation Mission that the January 5 Georgian ballot was consistent with "most" standards for democratic elections. At the same time, the statement underscored the need for Georgia to investigate the procedural violations registered during the voting, and to "reinforce the independence of state institutions in a political campaign environment and to strengthen the freedom and pluralism of the media, as well as the independence of the judiciary." In a separate statement, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner similarly noted "important irregularities" during the vote that "need to be addressed," and she too concluded that "a strong and sustained commitment by the Georgian authorities to foster a more pluralistic and parcipitative society is essential." In Brussels, a NATO spokesman termed the election "an important step in Georgia's democratic development," and said "NATO will continue to deepen its Intensified Dialogue with Georgia," thereby apparently ruling out Georgia's hoped-for advancement at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008 to a Membership Action Plan, the final stage before a formal invitation is extended to join the alliance. In Washington, the U.S. State Department issued a statement on January 7 urging the Georgian government to "investigate all allegations of irregularities and work with all political forces to address the challenges and shortcomings identified by international monitors." LF
KAZAKH PREMIER SAYS ECONOMIC GROWTH SURPASSED EXPECTATIONS...
In a report to a cabinet meeting held in Astana by telephone conference call, Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced on January 8 that Kazakhstan's gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 8.7 percent in 2007, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Masimov added that the GDP increase surpassed the government's projected goal of annual growth of between 5 and 7 percent. In 2006, Kazakh GDP increased by 10.6 percent. In a separate report, the National Bank announced on January 8 that Kazakhstan's gold and currency reserves reached a new high of $38.4 billion in 2007, an increase of some 15.7 percent from the year before, ITAR-TASS reported. The increase in reserves corrects a 9.1 percent decrease last year. In a report to the same cabinet meeting in Astana, Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeev said on January 8 that the government has decided to establish new "working groups" empowered to "regulate the domestic market and stabilize the prices of oil products and food," according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. According to Shukeev, Agriculture Minister Akmetzhan Yesimov will head the working group dealing with price controls for food products, while Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Sauat Mynbaev will be in charge of the second body overseeing energy prices. He also noted that the government will take measures to ensure the availability of "oil products and food" in the country. RG
KYRGYZ PRESIDENT OUTLINES GOALS FOR COMING YEAR
At a cabinet meeting in Bishkek that included the heads of various state agencies and the National Security Council, President Kurmanbek Bakiev presented on January 8 his plans for the coming year, with several key goals for the new Kyrgyz government, the 24.kg website reported. He noted that despite "certain achievements in the fight against corruption," there is a need to "step up the work to eradicate" it. In addition to corruption, he also identified the development of agriculture as another priority for 2008, with an added focus on rural development aimed at improving the economic situation in the country's more remote regions. Bakiev also said that the earthquake recovery effort in the southern Osh region is continuing, but warned that the destruction of a number of schools and health-care facilities necessitates greater resources from the state and "aid to owners of private houses that were damaged" in the January 1 earthquake. Bakiev further added that he intends to present a more specific strategic plan to the newly elected parliament by January 10, with several concrete measures and programs. RG
EARTHQUAKE RECOVERY EFFORTS CONTINUE IN KYRGYZSTAN
The Kyrgyz government continued its recovery efforts in the wake of the earthquake that struck the southern Osh region on the morning of January 1, an unnamed official of the Emergency Situations Ministry announced on January 8, according to AKIpress. Ministry personnel completed inspections on January 7 of more than 7,000 homes and buildings in the region, looking for additional damage and carrying out a certification process to identify any structures especially vulnerable to further earthquakes. The ministry also delivered a sizable amount of emergency aid, including heaters, tents, blankets, drinking water, and food to the local population, some of which was donated by local offices of the United Nations. The recovery effort was also aided by Russian military personnel stationed at the Kant air base outside of Bishkek, with Russian pilots flying several missions to deliver aid to the southern region, ITAR-TASS reported. The magnitude 6.0 earthquake destroyed at least 167 homes and buildings, although there were no immediate reports of casualties, with lesser damage from a series of aftershocks that struck the area several hours later (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4, 2008). RG
KYRGYZ LAWYER DETAINED AFTER BEING EXTRADITED FROM UZBEKISTAN
An anonymous official from an unidentified international organization in Bishkek announced on January 8 that prominent Kyrgyz lawyer Saidkamol Ahmedov was detained by Kyrgyz police in the southern town of Osh after his extradition from neighboring Uzbekistan, according to the 24.kg website. Ahmedov, an ethnic Uzbek who is widely known for representing human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan, was detained for two months in Uzbekistan after being arrested in September 2007, the fergana.ru website reported. RG
NORDIC TELECOM COMPANY TO INVEST IN UZBEKISTAN
Lars Nyberg, the president of the joint Finnish-Swedish TeliaSonera consortium, met on January 8 in Tashkent with officials from the Uzbek Communications and Information Ministry, the Uzbek National News Agency website reported. Nyberg discussed his company's plans to invest some $150 million in developing Uzbekistan's underutilized telecommunications sector. TeliaSonera, which was formed in 2002 after the merger of Sweden's Telia and Finland's Sonera telecommunications companies, acquired new interests in Uzbekistan following its purchase of the joint Uzbek-U.S. Coscom group in July 2007 (see "Uzbekistan: U.S. Business Ventures Provide Valuable Lessons," rferl.org, August 15, 2007). The Uzbek government has recently sought to liberalize its telecommunications sector and adopted a new law in February 2007 aimed at easing foreign investment in the sector. RG
BELARUSIAN COURT FREES DETAINED SMALL-BUSINESS ACTIVIST
A court in Barysau, Minsk Oblast, on January 8 dismissed charges of hooliganism against Viktar Harbachou, the leader of the unregistered organization For The Free Development of Enterprise, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Harbachou, his wife, and his 13-year-old son were detained earlier that day after an incident in which, Harbachou said, an unknown man tried to provoke a fight. "He first hit me in the back, and then he picked on my son and wife," Harbachou said. After questioning Harbachou's son, the judge ruled out that there was no evidence against the family. Harbachou told RFE/RL that the previous day, a Belarusian law enforcement officer warned him about the planned provocation. He added that the authorities did everything possible to prevent him from attending a meeting with representatives of Belarusian businesspeople in Minsk. Belarusian entrepreneurs are planning a demonstration on January 10 in central Minsk to protest against a presidential decree restricting the activities of certain small-business owners. AM
BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT PREDICTS ECONOMIC GROWTH
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said during an Orthodox Christmas service at a cathedral in Minsk that Belarusians should see significant growth in the economy in 2008, Belapan reported on January 8. "This year will be difficult for us because we, whether or not we want this, have to make a significant surge to improve our economy," Lukashenka said, adding that it would have been much easier if "we did not experience excessive pressure on the part of our competitors." "The powers that be don't want smaller states to start showing themselves and doing well in some economic areas," Lukashenka said. "I don't respond to these external attacks and try to work so that our people's lives will be a little easier and better," he added. AM
UKRAINIAN PREMIER ANNOUNCES FINANCIAL AUDIT IN COAL-MINING INDUSTRY
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on January 8 that she will order a comprehensive financial audit of the coal-mining industry's operations over the past five years, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Tymoshenko instructed the Control and Audit Department, the Audit Chamber, and the Coal Ministry to conduct the audit of operations between 2003-07. Tymoshenko also pledged the assistance of the Prosecutor-General's Office and the Security Service of Ukraine in conducting the audit. Tymoshenko said she has information that mining companies sold coal below market prices and bought equipment at inflated prices. "I want all abuses in the coal industry to be made public, and to punish those responsible," Tymoshenko said. AM
LARGEST KOSOVAR PARTIES FORM NEW GOVERNMENT...
Kosova's two largest parties on January 7 signed an agreement to form a new government, over seven weeks after elections were held and roughly four weeks after coalition talks began. The Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) and the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) agreed in principle on December 26 to sit in government together, but failed to reach agreement on the allocation of ministries and the names of ministers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). The PDK's 39-year-old leader, Hashim Thaci, will be prime minister and the party will have seven other portfolios: the Economy, Energy, Transportation, Agriculture, Interior, Education, and Public Services. The LDK of President Fatmir Sejdiu will chose one of two deputy prime ministers and will control five ministries: Justice, Health, Trade and Industry, Local Government, and Culture. Who the ministers will be has not been decided, but reports in the local media indicate that Thaci secured a promise from the LDK not to select people who served in the previous, LDK-led coalition government. The new government should be formally approved by the disputed region's parliament on January 9, the date by which Thaci has for some days been promising to have formed a government. The two parties have 62 seats in parliament and can rely on the votes of a number of other deputies, as the coalition government is constitutionally obliged to include at least two members of ethnic minorities. In the event, representatives of ethnic-minority parties will occupy three seats. Serbs will head two ministries -- Social Welfare and the ministry handling the return of ethnic-Serb refugees -- and another minority representative will hold the Environment portfolio. In the latter stages of the talks, the daily "Koha ditore" reported that some PDK officials were hinting that the party could look elsewhere for possible partners, but PDK and LDK leaders were under pressure both from the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) and other parties to form a government more quickly. UNMIK head Joachim Ruecker considers the creation of a government essential given the period of uncertainty that Kosova's pending declaration of independence will usher in. AG
...EXTEND PRESIDENT'S TERM...
The coalition agreement also stipulated that President Sejdiu must now face reelection by parliament on January 9 and that, instead of serving three years, his term in office will be extended to five years. The move required UNMIK head Ruecker to make changes to Kosova's constitutional framework, which the UN established. He did so on January 8, local media and the news service Balkan Insight reported. As well as reelecting Sejdiu, who has been in office since January 2006, and approving the new government, the assembly, which held its first session on January 4, will also appoint a new speaker. The name of the nominee for the speaker's post has yet to be announced, but he -- or she -- will come from the PDK. The UN-drafted constitutional framework for Kosova stipulates that women must occupy at least 30 percent of each party's seats in parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2007). AG
...AND REITERATE DEMAND FOR STATEHOOD
Announcing that a new government has been agreed, Kosovar Prime Minister-designate Thaci said that "the No. 1 commitment of this government and of all Kosova citizens is to formalize Kosova as an independent, democratic state." According to local media, Thaci also reiterated that while he is determined to lead Kosova to independence soon, he will coordinate his government's steps with the United States and EU states. The PDK and the LDK were on opposing sides in the last parliament and their relationship has been sour at times; Thaci insisted that "this is a state-building partnership between two parties committed to cooperate in building an independent, sovereign, and democratic state for all its citizens." All other major parties in Kosova back statehood, but the creation of a grand coalition between the region's two largest parties offers the prospect of stability at a key time. The LDK advocated passive resistance to the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990s, but in 1998 many Kosovar Albanians turned to violence and it was out of the separatist Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), under the command of Thaci, that the PDK emerged. AG
SERBIA HOPES TO SIGN EU DEAL THIS MONTH...
Serbia hopes to sign a key deal with the EU this month, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told reporters after meeting with the EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, on January 8. "Serbia hopes that we are going to be able to sign the Stabilization and Association Agreement [SAA] on January 28," he said, but added that "full cooperation" with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) remains a precondition set by the EU. To the EU, "full cooperation" has long meant that Serbia must arrest the Bosnian Serbs' wartime commander, Ratko Mladic. However, Jeremic gave a different interpretation, arguing, according to the BBC, that "Serbia is cooperating fully with the Hague tribunal and therefore as far as we are concerned all conditions have been met." The ICTY maintains that Mladic is currently in Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). Reuters quoted Jeremic as saying that Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht will hold talks with the ICTY's new chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, on January 17-18 "to get information from him as well as to whether this cooperation is full." Assessments by the ICTY have previously had a critical impact on EU policy toward Serbia, but, with an extreme nationalist opponent of the ICTY, Tomislav Nikolic, mounting a major challenge for the presidency, arresting Mladic before the Serbian elections are complete would require enormous political courage. Serbs go to the polls on January 20 and, probably, also on February 3. Jeremic's statement further undercuts the stance of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who said on January 3 that the EU must choose between signing an SAA with Serbia or sending an EU mission to Kosova. That ultimatum has since been indirectly contradicted by President Boris Tadic and Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2008). Jeremic did, though, insist once again that the EU must secure a mandate from the UN Security Council before it takes over responsibility for administering Kosova from the UN. "There's got to be a Security Council decision. This is the firm position of Belgrade. We're not going to change our mind on this," he said. Tadic, Djelic, and Jeremic all belong to the Democratic Party (DS), the largest party in the governing coalition headed by Kostunica, who leads the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). AG
...AS EU PRESIDENCY, COMMISSIONER SUPPORT EARLY DEAL
Dimitrij Rupel, the foreign minister of the EU's current president, Slovenia, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on January 8 that they both support the formal adoption of an SAA with Serbia "as soon as possible." Neither Rehn nor Rupel explicitly said they favor waiving the precondition that Serbia capture Mladic before the SAA is completed. However, Rupel appeared to indicate that he believes the precondition should be dropped. "I'm one of those who believe that the SAA should be signed as soon as possible, possibly by the end of this month," AFP quoted Rupel as saying. "There are some countries that still have some problems with the SAA...some of our colleagues need to be convinced that it is a good idea," he continued before pinpointing where EU states differ. "Full cooperation is one of the conditions. The problem is how we decide" what full cooperation is, he said. Rehn, too, said he wanted an SAA "as soon as possible," but added that "that is in the hands of Serbia and whether Serbia is willing to meet the conditions." Nonetheless, Serbia has "a very tangible European perspective." Rupel was dismissive of Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica's ultimatum to the EU, saying that this was "like the world has been turned on its head." "It is Serbia that is seeking membership of the EU, not the EU seeking membership in Serbia," he said. Rehn and Rupel were meeting in Slovenia, where they, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, and top EU officials discussed the priorities of Slovenia's presidency. The news agency dpa reported that they identified the top priorities as the future of the western Balkans, economic competitiveness, and climate change. AG
SERBIAN RADICAL LEADER RULES OUT WAR OVER KOSOVA...
Serbia will not go to war over Kosova but it would be obliged to impose a trade embargo and weaken links to the West if Kosova declares independence with the backing of the West, Serbia's leading extreme nationalist politician, Tomislav Nikolic, said in an interview published by the daily "Vecernje novosti" on January 8. Nikolic was speaking on the campaign trail ahead of presidential elections on January 20. Nikolic's Serbian Radical Party (SRS) became Serbia's most popular party in parliamentary elections held in January 2007, and he is expected to give incumbent President Tadic a tough challenge at the polling stations. Nikolic said that Serbia should "cut all economic ties, transport, flow of capital, goods and people from Albanian-controlled parts of Kosovo," and that because "their passports will not be valid here,... Kosovo Albanians will not be able to enter Serbia." He also stated that the ambassadors of any countries that recognize Kosova's independence should be expelled. Nikolic has made similar statements in the past, but on this occasion Nikolic added, "We will not send our children to war" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007). AG
...BUT INDICATES WILLINGNESS TO INTERVENE
In an underreported interview given to the daily "Glas javnosti" on December 31, SRS leader Nikolic said that, under certain conditions and with care not to antagonize NATO, Serbia should send troops into Kosova. Asked whether troops should enter Kosova if the NATO-led force in Kosova, KFOR, "failed to respond to violence adequately," Nikolic said any step would need the agreement of "all of us in Serbia," but stated that "I think that we would have to enter our territory." Nikolic said Serbia should intervene "if necessary," but he downplayed the possibility and took care not to attack NATO verbally, saying "there are civilized people in KFOR and UNMIK and they are not likely to look on and tolerate murder and pillaging." He also made clear that, if Serbia were to intervene, it would tell NATO "that we are not becoming involved because of them, not to shoot at them, but to protect our people." Nikolic has previously called on the Serbian government to invite Russian troops into Serbia, because "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). Nikolic's differences with the West were highlighted again on January 6 by his promise to protect the four men still wanted by the ICTY for crimes committed during the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2008). AG
BOSNIA INVESTIGATES SCORES OF SUSPECTED SUPPORTERS OF INDICTED WAR CRIMINALS
Bosnian prosecutors are currently investigating 42 people suspected of helping fugitives indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal elude justice, the daily "Nezavisne novine" reported on January 8. The newspaper also said that one of the 42, Ljuban Ecim, has been in the custody of Serbian police facing charges related to drug trafficking since mid-December. He is also wanted in Bosnia-Herzegovina for smuggling and corruption. During the war, Ecim served as the deputy commander of the secret services in the Bosnian Serb-controlled town of Banja Luka. Ecim features on a list of 35 people facing a ban on entering the EU for providing support for war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic, and that alleged support has prompted several searches of his home in Bosnia in recent years. The ICTY and authorities in the region say they have no idea where Karadzic is currently hiding. Two of the other three fugitives, Bosnian Serb military commander Mladic and the Croatian Serb Goran Hadzic, are thought to be in Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). Police in Bosnia's Republika Srpska region said in September that they believe the fourth man, Stojan Zupljanin, is living "like a beast in the countryside" in their region and that it is "certain" he would "soon" be caught, but there has been no indication since then that the net is closing on him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2007). Ecim is mentioned in the ICTY's indictment of Zupljanin. The names of the other 41 people under suspicion have not been disclosed, but they are said to include a number of former high-ranking officials in the Bosnian Serb leadership and members of the fugitives' families. The Serbian news agency Tanjug quoted prosecutors as saying they already have substantial evidence of collaboration. AG
EU FORESEES 'LESS THAN TOTAL' INDEPENDENCE FOR KOSOVA
The European Union is trying to steer Kosova away from full independence. Instead, it wants supervisory powers in return for financial aid and a 2,000-strong assistance mission of legal experts and law enforcement agents.
Speaking to journalists in Ljubljana, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa -- whose country holds the EU Presidency for the next six months -- said on January 7 that Kosova will not have "total independence." He added that such a European mission wouldn't be sent to a "totally independent country, [a] sovereign country." Kosova's security will remain heavily dependent on 16,000 NATO troops in the province.
Jansa indicated the EU will seek to conclude a Stabilization and Association Agreement, which can be a precursor to EU membership, with both Serbia and Kosova. Dangling such a scenario before Kosova could be seen as an EU attempt to dissuade Kosova from seeking full-fledged independence.
Several EU member states have reservations about Kosova's independence. Cyprus, in particular, fears a precedent will be set allowing its own northern Turkish community to secede.
Jansa said EU unanimity is needed only for the establishment of contractual relations between Kosova and the EU, a development that is not likely to materialize in the immediate future. Abstentions within the EU will not, on the other hand, deter it from providing assistance to Kosova.
All EU member states agree that Kosova's current status as a Serbian province is not sustainable. Jansa said his own experience as a pro-democracy campaigner in what was Yugoslavia 20 years ago suggests it is "obvious" there cannot be a solution that satisfies both Serbia and Kosovo. Therefore, he said, the EU is now "looking for the second-best solution." This solution will have to be found quickly, he warned, or stability in the region will be at risk.
Jansa offered no clear views on how the EU expects to mollify Serbia, which has left no doubt it will not acquiesce to the loss of Kosova. He said Serbia's intransigence is not "in the interests of the Serbian people," and that the choice, "which was artificially made by some politicians in Serbia," of "Kosovo or the European Union" is a "real alternative."
Jansa appeared to offer a conflicting set of predictions when quizzed on Serbia. On the one hand, he noted it would take a generational change before the Serbian public could accept the loss of Kosova. On the other hand, Jansa said tough talk is a Balkan specialty and does not preclude quick changes of position. He predicted that "after a year's time, the situation could be quite different -- maybe not among the Serbian elites, but among the people."
Jansa noted that no conceivable solution will immediately guarantee stability in the region and warned of a "period of turbulence" in the course of which the EU will need to be "very sensitive and very strong."
Looking ahead, Jansa said the fate of ethnically divided Bosnia-Herzegovina will prove a "more serious problem" than Kosova. He said the 1995 Dayton peace accord produced only one result -- the cessation of hostilities. All other goals have remained unattainable, Jansa said, adding the effect of the accord will need to be "reassessed." This is likely to take place during the EU's Czech presidency in the first half of 2009.
(Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.)
U.S. MARINE TESTIFIES ON CIVILIAN CASUALTIES IN AFGHANISTAN
The Pakistani newspaper "The Frontier Post" reported on its website on January 8 that the U.S. Marine Corps has begun hearing testimony in an investigation into the conduct of two officers involved in the shooting deaths of 19 Afghan civilians and wounding of 50 others on March 4, 2007, in eastern Afghanistan. A former U.S. Marine, Nathanial Travers, was the first to testify at the proceedings at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the daily reported. "I really felt there were a lot of people who died who didn't need to," Travers said, adding, "They were just driving their cars." In the incident in Nangarhar Province, U.S. Marines in a six-vehicle convoy opened fire on a crowded road after an explosives-rigged minivan crashed into their vehicles. One Marine was wounded. The administrative Court of Inquiry, scheduled for two weeks, will focus on the actions of Major Fred C. Galvin, 38, the commander of a 120-person special operations company, and a platoon leader, Captain Vincent J. Noble, 29. Neither officer has been charged with a crime. Attorneys for the two officers have said testimony will show the death toll was lower than originally reported and that the incident was a justified shooting. Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission has concluded that the Marines fired indiscriminately at pedestrians and passengers in cars, buses, and taxis at six different locations along a 16-kilometer stretch of road. MM
CANADIAN OPPOSITION PROPOSES MULTIDIMENSIONAL POLICY IN AFGHANISTAN
Canadian opposition leader Stephane Dion of the Liberal Party said on January 8 that Canada's involvement in Afghanistan should include diplomatic and development efforts and a "potential continued military presence," while retaining Canada's military capacity to deploy elsewhere, Canadian and Afghan news media reported. He also announced that his party is open to other possible roles for the Canadian military in Afghanistan, including training the Afghan National Army and police, providing protection for civilians, or spearheading reconstruction efforts. But Dion cautioned that the Liberals "will not accept the simple rebranding of the current combat mission as a training mission." He called on the ruling Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to show greater commitment to the mission's accountability and transparency. Harper recently appointed a panel to study the military's role and recommend a way forward in Afghanistan. The panel's report is expected to be released by the end of January. MM
CHINA WINS A BID TO EXTRACT COPPER IN AFGHANISTAN
The Kabul-based Bakhtar news agency on January 8 reported that the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) has won a bid to mine rich copper reserves in Afghanistan. The Chinese state-owned company beat major competitors including U.S.-based Phelps Dodge, Canada's Hunter Dickinson, and Kazakh-British company Kazakhmys. Once contract negotiations are completed, MCC will invest $3 billion to mine one of the world's largest mineral reserves, worth an estimated $42 billion. The site in the Aynak district, 35 kilometers southeast of Kabul, has the potential to become the richest resource-extraction spot in Afghanistan in the coming years. MM
AFGHANISTAN GETS READY FOR TOURISM
The Al-Jazeera news network reported on its website on January 2 that Afghan mountaineers are receiving training in Italy to spearhead the reopening of some of Afghanistan's spectacular mountains to tourism. The Rome-based Mountain Wilderness organization has trained young Afghans in the past few years to serve as tour guides to revitalize adventure tourism in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush Mountains. After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the Italian group organized the "Oxus Mission: Mountains for Peace" program with the aim of promoting tourism in Afghanistan's wilderness. Afiyat Khan, a former Afghan mujahedin fighter who is receiving training with Mountain Wilderness, told Al-Jazeera that he hopes to open his own business to work as a full-time tour guide in his native province of Badakhshan in northeastern Afghanistan, where his father formerly accompanied foreign tourists into the mountains. MM
IRAN DOWNPLAYS NAVAL INCIDENT IN GULF
Iranian officials are downplaying the gravity of a standoff between Iranian and U.S. ships early on January 6 in international waters near the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on January 8 that the Iranian boats' movements were "ordinary," and similar incidents have occurred before, ISNA reported. He said such incidents are usually resolved once the ships identify one another. CNN reported that one of the U.S. ships came close to firing on the Iranian ships after the Iranians made suspect moves and issued threats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2008). A naval commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in the Persian Gulf, Alireza Tangsiri, told the Mehr news agency on January 8 that the incident was a "normal interception," and that the IRGC is obliged to intercept vessels entering the gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. He said Iran and Oman have a right to control the entry of ships into the gulf and vessels must respond to calls from Iranian patrol units. Iranian state television separately quoted an unnamed IRGC official as rejecting reports that one Iranian boat sent a "threatening" message on January 6 signaling an imminent collision, AFP reported on January 8. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called the incident provocative and dangerous, AFP reported. VS
IRANIANS FACE GAS SHORTAGES IN WINTER COLD...
Iranians are facing interrupted gas supplies and reduced gas pressure in their homes in some provinces as the country faces a severe cold spell, Radio Farda reported on January 8, citing news agency reports. The government shut down schools and offices in many districts across the country, including the capital, Tehran, between January 6-8, due to heavy snowfall and to save gas used for heating. Tehran schools and offices were to remain shut on January 9, the provincial governor's office announced on January 8. Gas shortages have been reported in provinces including Gilan, Isfahan, Luristan, Khuzestan, Kurdistan, West Azerbaijan, Semnan, and South Khorasan. IRNA reported particularly difficult conditions in the district of Khalkhal in the northwestern province of Ardebil. Temperatures there fell to minus 26 degrees Celsius on the night of January 7, and residents have apparently had intermittent or no gas supplies for a week. In several provinces, officials have urged Iranians to reduce their gas use, or risk having their gas supplies cut off entirely. Recent snows have led to road closures and car accidents that have killed at least 20, the BBC reported on January 8. It added that more snow is expected in Iran in the coming days. VS
...AS REGIONAL GAS EXPORTS HALTED TO MEET DOMESTIC NEEDS
Iran apparently stopped exporting gas to Turkey on January 7 due to shortages at home, ISNA reported, citing Russia's NTV. The news agency added that Turkey is importing gas from Russia to make up for the shortfall. Iranian politicians have in turn protested over Turkmenistan's interruption of gas supplies to Iran, saying Turkmenistan is violating an agreement signed last year to increase gas supplies to Iran at a higher price (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 2008). The Fars news agency quoted an unnamed Iranian Oil Ministry official as saying on January 5 that Turkmenistan has cut supplies in a bid to raise the price of its gas again. The official said the agreement signed a year ago stipulated that the agreed price would remain stable for three years. "A year after that agreement, Turkmenistan has proceeded to cut off gas with the pretext of repairs, which is a blatant...violation" of the agreement, the official told Fars. A member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Mahmud Mohammadi, separately told Fars on January 5 that some lawmakers believe Iran is selling its gas to Pakistan too cheaply under the terms of the so-called Peace Pipeline, to be signed in the coming days. The pipeline was initially intended to extend to India and ensure the flow of Iranian gas to both countries. Mohammadi said Iran has effectively agreed to sell its gas at a low price over a long period, at a time of changing energy prices. He said this is against Iran's national interests, and that parliament will take unspecified action if the oil and foreign ministries do not convince his committee of the financial viability of the deal. VS
PASSENGERS STRANDED IN TEHRAN AIRPORT
Heavy snows have halted domestic flights in Iran and caused delays to international flights, Iranian media reported. IRNA reported on January 8 that hundreds of passengers were stuck in the Imam Khomeini Airport outside Tehran for the previous three days, as their flights were cancelled. Among the stranded were members of a German soccer team, Hansa Rostock, which was trying to return to Germany after a match against an Iranian team. IRNA reported that around noon on January 8, 1,000 passengers were either waiting to be given back their luggage after definitive cancellations or checking timetables for delayed flights. VS
IRANIAN CONSERVATIVES MULL ELECTION LIST
The United Front of Fundamentalists (Jebhe-yi mottahed-i osulgarayan), which has presented itself as the main right-wing coalition for parliamentary polls scheduled for mid-March, is studying a tentative list of 77 politicians, from which it will choose 30 candidates for Tehran seats, Fars reported on January 8. The 77 were chosen from "dozens" of lists submitted to the front by various right-wing political groups. Iran's conservative groups are working to forge a grand alliance and agree on candidates for constituencies, but newspapers have reported persistent rivalries and disagreements, which right-wing elders have sought to downplay. Fars reported that the current list is not definitive, and that not all those on the list have made up their minds to run for parliamentary seats. The candidate list includes prominent politicians and current and former lawmakers, including Mariam Behruzi, a moderate conservative often interviewed in the press; Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the right-wing daily "Kayhan"; Mohammad Nabi Habibi, the head of the traditionalist Islamic Coalition Party; deputy speaker of parliament Mohammad Reza Bahonar; and brothers Mohammad Javad Larijani and Ali Larijani, who are reputedly close to Iran's Supreme Leader. VS
IRAQI OFFICIAL SAYS DETAINEES ADMITTED IRAN, AL-QAEDA COOPERATION
Tamir (Abu Azzam) al-Tamimi, an adviser to the tribal armament program, told Al-Sharqiyah television on January 8 that a number of insurgents detained in recent days have confessed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Qods Force has cooperated with Al-Qaeda in Iraq to coordinate attacks on the so-called awakening councils. The councils, groupings of Sunni Arab tribesmen formed to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq, now operate in some nine governorates, and are increasingly being targeted in terrorist operations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2008). The councils' security forces are paid by the U.S. military to bring security to their communities. Al-Tamimi told Al-Sharqiyah that some 11,000 tribesmen have volunteered to work without pay over the past six months. "This is a strong indication of the determination of the leaders of awakening councils to continue to fight Al-Qaeda," he said. KR
IRAQI SECURITY OPERATIONS REIN IN TERRORISTS
Iraqi Brigadier General Qasim Ata, a spokesman for the Law Enforcement Plan, told reporters on January 8 that Iraqi security forces killed six terrorists, detained 218 others, and free 14 hostages in security operations carried out over the preceding 48 hours in Baghdad's Karkh and Al-Rasafah districts. Ata said several weapons caches were uncovered and four bombs defused in the operations. Meanwhile, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on January 8 quoted Diyala operations commander Major General Abd al-Karim al-Rubay'i as saying that a joint Iraqi police and army force arrested 13 terrorists and defused five explosive belts and three other explosive devices in Diyala operations. U.S. and Iraqi forces on January 8 announced the start of a new military campaign targeting Al-Qaeda in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2008). KR
PREMIER ASSURES VATICAN REPRESENTATIVE THAT CHRISTIANS ARE SAFE IN IRAQ
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told the Vatican's ambassador to Iraq and Jordan, Monsignor Francis Assisi Chullikatt, that the Iraqi government is committed to protecting Christians, Iraqi media reported on January 8. On January 6, several churches and Catholic institutions in Iraq were targeted in bomb attacks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 7, 2008). After the meeting, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters in Baghdad that the Vatican will sponsor an upcoming conference in Rome on the plight of Iraqi refugees. "The Iraqi government supports the efforts being made by his Holiness the pope to alleviate the Iraqis' suffering and promote the message of peace and love," al-Dabbagh said. KR
UNHCR APPEALS FOR FUNDS FOR IRAQI REFUGEE PROGRAMS
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on January 8 announced the launch of an appeal for $261 million to fund its 2008 operations aiding Iraq's refugees and displaced. Chief UNHCR spokesman Ron Redman said the appeal will cover programs serving the 2.2 million internally displaced Iraqis as well as 2 million refugees in neighboring countries. The UNHCR also provides assistance to some 41,000 non-Iraqi refugees in Iraq, including Palestinians, Iranians, Turks, and others, Redmond said. He noted that the UNHCR has nearly 350 staff directly engaged in operations in Iraq and the region. The refugee agency has registered more than 220,000 Iraqis in neighboring states, and provides health assistance to some 210,000. Educational support for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, and other countries has allowed 100,000 Iraqi children to attend school. The 2008 appeal will help fund the schooling of an additional 100,000 Iraqi children this year. KR
U.S. EMBASSY, MILITARY SAY HAJJ CARRIED OUT WITHOUT INCIDENT
A joint statement issued on June 8 by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S.-led coalition said the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in December was carried out safely and successfully. More than 30,000 Iraqis traveled to and from holy sites in Saudi Arabia without a single security incident, the statement noted. The statement praised the plan devised by the Iraqi government and coalition forces, which organized visas, screened travelers, and managed the flow of pilgrims through several airports, countless bus routes, and two major ports of entry. The statement noted the effective use of air travel in and out of airports in Baghdad, Al-Basrah, Irbil, Al-Sulaymaniyah, and Mosul, adding, "The successful hajj marks yet another successful milestone for the government of Iraq and the citizens it serves." KR