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Newsline - January 14, 2008

The Foreign Ministry summoned British Ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton on January 14 to explain why the British Council reopened its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg the same day despite a Russian order not to do so, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17 and 21, 2007, and January 2, 3, and 4, 2008). A spokeswoman for the office in Yekaterinburg, which is located on the premises of the British Consulate, said that "the British Council continues to operate. Its status is being decided at the diplomatic level." The British Embassy declined to comment. The ministry maintains that there is no legal basis for the British Council to operate in Russia, a charge that Britain denies. The dispute over the British Council is widely seen as part of the continuing row stemming from the 2006 London murder of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko. PM

In a rare public comment on security issues, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on January 11 in Murmansk that "we must revive the protect our fishermen and for Russia to be a full-fledged naval power," Russian news agencies reported. In a televised visit to a fishing trawler, Medvedev was told by the ship's captain that Norwegian vessels engage in "demonstrations of force" against Russian ships in the Barents Sea. Medvedev responded that "you understand why [Russian] ships are not there -- because they don't exist. When we had normal naval power, ships were there and everyone respected us. I won't say feared, but respected." He called for more discussions between Moscow and Oslo to resolve their long-standing dispute over maritime boundaries. He added that "we are not, of course, going to start military action. We need to continue work...and step it up." Medvedev said that the navy is receiving top-level attention "for the first time in 20 years." Independent analysts concluded recently that the military decline characteristic of the post-Soviet period still continues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14 and December 6 and 10, 2007). PM

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told lawmakers on January 11 that the previous day's high-level talks with Russia on missile defense were "a matter-of-fact discussion, even with a dose of kind feelings," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008). He said he "came away with the impression that our neighbor is happy that we are finally talking" about an issue Russia considers important. Sikorski believes nonetheless that "fundamental differences in views" on missile defense remain between the two countries. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on January 11 that "the discussions helped clarify each other's positions," reported. The ministry added that "the sides were in agreement about the usefulness of continuing a candid exchange of opinions before decisions on sensitive security issues are taken." PM

The Moscow-based Institute of Democracy and Cooperation officially registered its New York branch on December 31, several weeks after registering a branch in Paris, "The Moscow Times" reported on January 14. Anatoly Kucherena, who is a lawyer, member of the Public Chamber, and chairman of the foundation, said in a telephone interview that "the improvement of Russia's image abroad is, of course, an important goal" for the institute, which plans to organize discussions on democracy and human rights. He denied that the institute is a Kremlin-backed project, saying that "there were no instructions from [President Vladimir] Putin. He expressed his opinion, but I would stress that this is a civil organization, an association of [nongovernmental organizations] NGOs and citizens." Kucherena said he has "no desire to copy the behavior of organizations like Freedom House...which has only one goal: to publish data which was assembled using methodologies that nobody understands, in order to draw attention to themselves." Freedom House is highly critical of the state of democracy and human rights in Russia. Putin first floated the idea of setting up a joint "Russian-European institute for freedom and democracy" at the Russia-EU summit in October. In November, he suggested that unnamed Russian NGOs should "be able to work in...the United States and other countries in an environment as comfortable as that which we provide for their counterparts working in Russia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 22, 29, and 30, and November 6 and 29, 2007). The Council of Europe's advisory committee on the protection of national minorities said in October that Putin's suggestion is "not a serious proposal." The Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote on October 29 that Putin's proposal is an effort at "tit-for-tat democracy, in which a Russian-funded institute will criticize Europe." PM

During a meeting on January 11, President Putin agreed to reform proposals put forth by Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika that could limit the authority of the Investigative Committee, "Kommersant" reported on January 14. Although the Investigative Committee, which was set up in September 2007 (see "Russia: Powerful New Investigative Body Begins Work,", September 10, 2007), is nominally part of the Prosecutor-General's Office, it has broad autonomy and has been viewed as a rival organization. Under the proposed reforms, some 60 percent of the Investigative Committee's cases -- all except the most serious cases -- would be given over to other organs within the Prosecutor-General's Office, purportedly in order to expedite them. Putin reportedly pledged to help pass the needed legislation through the Duma. "Kommersant" reported that the reform would give Chaika considerable more opportunity to influence those cases, as the Investigative Committee is largely insulated from his interference. RC

Prosecutor-General Chaika told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on January 11 that the overwhelming majority of civil rights violations in Russia are the result of "crimes of a corrupt nature." He said that fight against corruption is "one of the priorities" of his agency. He said that during 2007, special subunits were created at the national and regional level to enforce the laws against corruption. He claimed that last year his office uncovered "hundreds of thousands of cases of rights violations" in areas such as housing, pensions, health care, and wages. He said prosecutors have managed to secure some 120 million rubles ($5 million) in wage arrears for workers, and added that he intends to continue and to bolster efforts to protect the rights of citizens. RC

An official autopsy has determined that Vneshtorgbank official Oleg Zhukovsky died of drowning, "Tvoi den" reported on January 14. The autopsy also revealed no evidence of alcohol or drugs in Zhukovsky's body. Zhukovsky, a senior manager with the bank in charge of relations with firms in the forestry sector, was found dead in the swimming pool of his suburban Moscow home in December 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2007). Initially, investigators said it was a case of suicide, but it was later leaked out that his body had been found bound hand and foot and showed signs of torture. Initial reports also indicated that the swimming pool was empty. An unidentified investigator reportedly told "Komsomolskaya pravda" on January 14 that nothing suspicious connected with Zhukovsky's work has been uncovered and the investigation is now focusing on a possible conflict over money with his relatives. On the night of December 22-23, 2007, Aleksandr Funin, a high-level specialist with Vneshtorgbank, died under mysterious circumstances in his Moscow apartment. According to reports, he died of a gunshot wound and police reportedly believe it was an unfortunate accident. RC

The North Ossetia-based nongovernmental organization Voice of Beslan (Golos Beslana) has appealed to President Putin to intervene personally to stop what the organization describes as the "persecution" of its activists, reported on January 11. The appeal comes in response to a case filed against the NGO on charges of extremism in Ingushetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008) and other incidents of alleged harassment. The text of the letter to Putin, which details various incidents of purported harassment, can be found on the organization's website at The NGO has been active in defending the interests of the victims of the September 2004 school hostage taking in Beslan. RC

Militants opened fire late on January 12 in Nalchik on the car of Colonel Anatoly Kyarov, head of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic Interior Ministry Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, killing Kyarov and his driver, reported. Another police officer and two civilians were injured. According to a statement posted on January 13 on, Kyarov was killed in error by members of the Kabardino-Balkaria sector of the Caucasus Front, and the real target of the attack was Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev, who according to on January 14 was in Nalchik from January 6-12. claimed that Kyarov, who escaped an earlier assassination attempt in October 2004, was responsible for the deaths by torture of "hundreds" of practicing Muslims. LF

Police and security forces late on January 13 cordoned off an apartment building in Makhachkala where they suspected a group of armed militants was ensconced and stormed it the following morning after two women left the apartment in question, reported on January 14. Police subsequently discovered the bodies of three men, whose identity has not yet been established. On January 11, Interior Ministry officials met with residents of the village of Gimri in Untsukul Raion, where a "special operation" directed against armed militants has been under way for the past month, and appealed to militants to surrender their weapons and "return to a peaceful life," reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 18, and 28, 2007, and January 7 and 10, 2008). LF

Several thousand residents of a district of Makhachkala that has been subject to repeated power cutoffs over the part month again blocked major intersections on January 11, reported. City Mayor Said Amirov, whose resignation the protesters are demanding, branded them "provocateurs" at a meeting the same day. On January 12, Amirov implied that the local power-distribution company has orders to turn the city population against the republic's leadership, reported. Following repairs to power lines, as of January 12, the number of people affected had been cut by half from 22,000 to 11,500, but temperatures were still minus 15 degrees Celsius. The republican Emergency Situations Ministry offered to evacuate a total of 1,150 people to hotels and sanatoriums elsewhere in the city, but it is not clear whether it has yet done so. Those still left in freezing apartments continued on January 13 to denounce the government's failure to resolve the problem; the chairman of the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus, Ismail Berdiyev, warned the protesters on January 12 against recourse to illegal or violent actions. LF

The press service of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov issued a statement on January 11 denying that Kadyrov threatened at a meeting with media outlet heads two days earlier to shut down television stations that fail to provide adequate and appropriate coverage of religious issues, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10, 2008). The statement said some media outlets distorted Kadyrov's remarks at that meeting, and that he merely said that local government officials will assist small private television stations that do not have a license to broadcast to ensure they comply with the relevant legislation. Also on January 11, quoted Ismail Berdiyev, mufti of Stavropol Krai and Karachayevo-Cherkessia, as saying that Kadyrov has promised to finance from the charitable fund named after his late father, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, the construction of a cathedral mosque in Cherkessk, capital of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic. The estimated cost of construction is $10 million. LF

Nurdi Nukhadjiyev has tasked one of his aides with investigating allegations by Ruslan Kutayev, head of the International Committee for Problems of the North Caucasus, in an interview with Ekho Moskvy, that prisoners serving their sentences at the infamous Chernokozovo detention center in Nauri Raion are subjected to beatings and torture, reported on January 11. Kutayev said he has received a letter signed by 124 Chernokozovo inmates, which was sent also to Chechen Republic head Kadyrov and Russian Prosecutor-General Chaika, complaining of the use of torture and of the conditions under which they are being held. The signatories allege that healthy prisoners share cells with those suffering from tuberculosis or AIDS or who are mentally ill, and that they are not issued with underwear or bed linen. Human Rights Watch highlighted abuses in Chernokozovo in a special report issued in October 2000 titled "Welcome to Hell." LF

Azerbaijani media on January 12 quoted a senior official of Norway's StatoilHydro as confirming that the company is engaged in talks with Russia's Gazprom on the possible purchase by Gazprom of gas from the Caspian Shah Deniz field, of which StatoilHydro is the operator and in which it has a 25.5 percent stake. Gazprom has declined to comment. The StatoilHydro official was quoted as saying the anticipated Gazprom purchases would begin only when the second stage of exploitation of Shah Deniz gets under way. Three months ago, Azerbaijani media quoted Statoil-Azerbaijan Vice President Jan Heiberg as saying the second stage of exploitation of Shah Deniz could be delayed by one year, from 2012 to 2013 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 3, 2007). LF

Addressing a cabinet meeting on January 11, Ilham Aliyev noted that Azerbaijan recorded GDP growth of 24 percent in 2007, while the volume of investment in the economy reached $6 billion, reported. He said that the poverty level has been reduced from 49 percent of the population in 2003 to 16 percent today, and predicted that it will fall even lower. Aliyev further noted that the last tent camp for displaced persons was closed in 2007, and that as of January 1, 2008, the minimum monthly wage and pension has been raised by 20 percent to 60 manats ($71). LF

Between 50,000-80,000 people congregated in Tbilisi on January 13 to demand a second round of voting in the January 5 preterm presidential ballot, Georgian and international media reported. Defeated opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze told the protesters that "we demand a second round of voting;" he also called for criminal charges to be brought against Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili. Some protesters reportedly carried placards reproaching the United States and the OSCE for failing to protest the alleged rigging of the election outcome in Mikheil Saakashvili's favor, AFP reported. The protesters dispersed peacefully but plan to reconvene on January 15. On January 13, the Central Election Commission approved by a vote of seven to six updated data that gave incumbent Saakashvili 53.47 percent of the vote, compared with 25.69 percent for Gachechiladze, whereupon Tarkhnishvili declared Saakashvili to have been legally elected president, Caucasus Press reported. The six opposition commission members plan to appeal that ruling to the Tbilisi City Court. Also on January 13, the commission dismissed all complaints by opposition candidates and NGOs that monitored the vote against perceived procedural violations, reported. The commission has annulled the results of the vote in five precincts, and local courts at five more. LF

Former intelligence service head Irakli Batiashvili has been pardoned and released from jail, Georgian media reported on January 11. Batiashvili was sentenced in May 2007 to seven years' imprisonment on charges, which he denied, of providing "intellectual encouragement" to insurgent local Governor Emzar Kvitsiani in July 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27 and 31 and August 24, 2006, and May 23, 2007). The pardon decree was signed by acting President Nino Burjanadze, who told journalists in mid-December that Batiashvili would be released the day after the inauguration of the Georgian president to be elected on January 5. Batiashvili's lawyer Soso Baratashvili told Caucasus Press on January 11 that despite his client's release, the European Court of Human Rights will still review the legality of his trial and imprisonment. LF

At least 30 miners died on January 11 in a methane explosion and ensuing fire at the Abai coal mine in Karaganda Oblast, and 14 more were injured, Interfax and Kazakhstan Today reported on January 11 and 14, respectively. Rescue operations were suspended on January 13 as water began seeping into the shaft where the explosion occurred. Prime Minister Karim Masimov expressed condolences to the families of those killed; he will head a government commission to investigate the cause of the blast. Interfax on January 14 quoted Murat Perzadaev, director of Arcelor-Mittal Temirtau, which owns the mine, as saying eyewitnesses believe the blast was a natural disaster and not the result of negligence. On January 12, Masimov warned the heads of government agencies that he will personally monitor their websites, some of which he said do not meet the required standards, kz-today reported. LF

At a January 14 session in Bishkek of the opposition movement For Justice!, former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva characterized the December parliamentary elections in which the Ak Jol Eldik (Best Path Popular) Party of President Kurmanbek Bakiev won 71 of the 90 mandates as "a serious retreat from democracy" that served only to intensify the north-south divide within Kyrgyzstan, the website reported. Oppositionist Cholpon Jakupova for her part concluded that all legitimate means of opposing the ruling authorities, including mass protests, have proven futile. Former Security Council Secretary Miroslav Niyazov compared the present political situation with a boxing ring in which the authorities and population are preparing for a fight. He denounced the new parliament as not legitimate and incapable of representing the interests of the population, and he urged voters to lobby for the decentralization of power. LF

Minsk district courts on January 11 sentenced 23 participants in the January 10 protest against restrictions on activities of small businesses to jail sentences of largely 15 days, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The sentenced activists are: Anatol Shumchanka, leader of the Perspektyva small-business association; Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civic Party; small-business activist Uladzimir Shyla; and 20 youth activists who were detained by the police at the closing stage of the protest. Five of the youths were jailed with injuries they received during their arrest. Other activists called an ambulance for them as they were standing trial, but a doctor did not object to their being jailed. Tatsyana Tsishkevich, who was severely beaten during her arrest and presented her blood-stained jacket in court, received a 20-day sentence. A Minsk district court on January 12 sentenced Alyaksandr Makayeu, an advocate of entrepreneurs' rights, to 15 days in jail on charges of using foul language. The court in Barysau, Minsk Oblast, the same day reheard the case of Viktar Harbachou, who was recently cleared of charges, and fined him $350 for disorderly conduct. AM

The U.S. Embassy in Belarus has condemned "the detention, arrest, and mistreatment of activists before, during, and after peaceful protests by Belarusian entrepreneurs and civic leaders held on January 10 in Minsk," it said in a January 11 statement posted on its website. The embassy said that the arrests and sentencing of participants, including Harbachou, Lyabedzka, and Shumchanka, "was clearly intended to prevent them from exercising their civil and human rights or to punish them for exercising these same rights." The embassy pointed out that the arrested demonstrators received injuries during or after their arrests. "Such treatment of peaceful demonstrators violates fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly," the statement said. The embassy urged the authorities to permit Belarusians to participate without harassment in peaceful demonstrations and urged security forces to exercise restraint in their interaction with demonstrators. AM

Belarus's Justice Ministry has filed a suit with the Supreme Court for the closure of the Perspektyva small-business association over its participation in the January 10 demonstration, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus service reported on January 13. The ministry accused demonstrators of violating the law on mass events and paralyzing traffic in central Minsk for more than an hour. "The actions by the organizers of the unauthorized rally, including the Perspektyva national public association, caused considerable damage to the interests of citizens, state, and public interests," the ministry said. It argued that the constitution "guarantees everyone freedom of opinion, convictions, and their full expression, as well as freedom of assembly and rallies," but "this should be done with due regard for rules set by state laws and not infringe on the rights of other people." The Justice Ministry has also ordered the United Civic Party (AHP), the Belarusian Party of Communists (PKB), and the Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) to explain within three days why their leaders attended the January 10 demonstration in Minsk, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The ministry ordered the parties to provide information "whether these persons [AHP, PKB, and BNF leaders] had been authorized by the respective parties to participate in the above-mentioned mass event" and present "appropriate decisions by the parties." The ministry warned that the parties will be ordered to "express their official stance regarding their actions at the unauthorized event" unless they provide proof that the leaders were authorized to attend the rally. AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on January 12 that her government will reach direct agreements with Russia on natural-gas supplies to Ukraine, UNIAN reported. "Corruption and shady dealings should be eliminated from the system of gas supplies to Ukraine, along with RosUkrEnergo and UkrGazEnergo," she said. "The goal of all our actions will be the transition to direct agreements between Ukraine and Russia on natural-gas supplies." Swiss-based RosUkrEnergo has a monopoly on gas supplies to Ukraine, and sells gas to Ukraine through the UkrGazEnergo company. A 50 percent stake in RosUkrEnergo is owned by Ukrainian billionaire Dmytro Firtash with a partner, while Russian gas giant Gazprom controls the other 50 percent. AM

Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said on January 12 that Ukraine's armed forces will be fully professional by the end of 2010, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported, and that the transition will cost nearly 50 billion hryvnyas ($10 billion). The ministry plans to make the Ukrainian Navy fully professional this year and call the last military draft in 2010. President Viktor Yushchenko issued a decree last year ordering the government to make the armed forces fully professional by the end of 2009. Later, he ordered the government and the General Staff to determine by the end of 2007 the cost of the transition, and to prepare a detailed action plan by February 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25 and November 29, 2007). AM

British and U.S. election observers will not be allowed to monitor Serbia's upcoming presidential election, Serbia's Central Election Commission decided on January 11. The decision is a protest at their desire "to destroy us [Serbia] and wrest Kosovo away from Serbia," a member of the commission from the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Slavoljub Milenkovic, told news agencies. Observers from other EU states will be among the 23 registered observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), even though the large majority of EU states share Britain's view on Kosova's claim to statehood. Although Russia is a member of the OSCE, it will be sending three of its own observers to the election, which will be held on January 20 and will, if needed, go to a second round on February 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008). The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) already has long-term observers in Serbia, ODIHR spokesman Curtis Budden told the news service Balkan Insight. They include some U.S. and British citizens. The commission's decision has so far been criticized by one government minister, Milan Markovic. "No one should be barred from monitoring the vote because our elections are open and democratic and we have nothing to hide," the minister for local government said. Markovic belongs to the Democratic Party (DS), the largest party in government and the party of President Boris Tadic, who has adopted a more EU-friendly stance than the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and the nationalists of the SRS. Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic (DS) has said he expects the election to be a referendum on relations with the EU and has called on the EU to boost Tadic's chances by allowing Serbia to take its first key step towards membership, and sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008). AG

The United States is "aggressively" pressing the European Union to recognize Kosova as a state very swiftly after Kosova declares independence, "The New York Times" reported on January 11, citing unnamed EU officials. "The cake has been baked, because the Americans have promised Kosovo independence," a senior EU official said. "And if Washington recognizes Kosovo and European nations do not follow, it will be a disaster." The daily reported that the United States wants the EU not to delay recognizing Kosova "by even a week," and indicated that Kosova is "expected" to declare independence at some unstated date "after" the second round of Serbia's presidential election, which is scheduled for February 3. The paper reported that U.S. President George W. Bush "aggressively" pressed Washington's case in a recent phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and that Merkel "agreed it was vital to recognize Kosovo to stabilize the western Balkans." However, the newspaper did not indicate that Merkel agreed to recognize Kosova's independence according to Bush's timeline. The EU has repeatedly stated that Kosova's status is an issue that needs to be decided primarily by the EU, and all but a small number of EU states support independence for Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). On January 9, when his cabinet won the Kosovar parliament's support, new Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said that a declaration of independence is just "weeks" away, but insisted -- as Kosovar leaders have said repeatedly for months -- that Kosova will coordinate its actions with the EU and the United States. AG

The European Commission has voiced concern at the progress of a privatization tender under which Serbia would sell its oil monopoly to the Russian energy giant Gazprom. Speaking to the BBC on January 10, the EU enlargement commissioner's spokeswoman, Krisztina Nagy, said, "the commission hopes that the sale of an important asset such as the Serbian oil company will be open and driven by objective, commercial, and economic interests." Gazprom has offered 400 million euros ($591 million) for a controlling stake in Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS), which has a monopoly on the distribution of oil and gas in Serbia. The deal would also entail Russia routing the planned South Stream pipeline to Italy through Serbia rather than Romania (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2007). EU-based companies are among the energy concerns interested in buying NIS, but in a further sign that Gazprom is the front-runner, Gazprom representatives spent January 12 and 13 in Serbia, the latest in a series of talks held over recent months. The tender for NIS has been beset by uncertainty and a lack of clarity about the size of the stake on offer, the timeline, and the terms of the contract. Initially, it flagged its intention to sell, by the end of 2005, a 25 percent stake for $300 million in cash and $250 million in extra investment. AG

The daily "Blic" reported on January 9, citing unnamed sources, that the government is pressing Gazprom to raise the price to 2 billion euros ($2.95 billion), and the same paper reported on December 26 that Gazprom has offered 500 million euros ($739 million) in cash and another 500 million euros in investment into NIS. On December 29, Serbian Economy Minister Mladjan Dinkic described Gazprom's offer as too low, saying that "I am in favor of negotiations with the Russians -- but for negotiations, and not to go with our hands up." However, whatever its dissatisfaction with Gazprom's offer, the Serbian government has also conceded that Gazprom is in a position to drive a hard bargain. "We simply have no alternatives -- Gazprom's proposal includes security of supply and this is very important to Serbia," Dejan Stojadinovic, a spokesman for Serbia's Energy Ministry, was quoted as saying by the BBC on January 10. "We have no possible supply from Algeria or Norway, which are supply points for the rest of Europe." Over 90 percent of Serbia's gas, for example, comes from Russia. Serbia also has potential value to Russia as a transit country, which could result in revenues of millions of euros a year for Serbia. The purchase of NIS would be one of the biggest deals struck by Russian companies in Serbia, and would accentuate concerns both that Serbia is gravitating away from the EU and toward Russia, and that Serbia is rewarding Russia for its strong support for Serbia's defense of its claim to sovereignty over Kosova. One candidate in the presidential election, Tomislav Nikolic of the SRS, has even suggested that Russia should establish a military presence in Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007). AG

Eleven crew members and soldiers died on January 12 when a Macedonian military helicopter crashed, local and international media reported. There were no survivors. The Russian-made helicopter was bringing back home members of Macedonia's contingent in the EU's peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina when it crashed just south of Skopje, the Macedonian capital. The cause of the crash remains unknown. Macedonia has contributed troops to international forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in Bosnia. AG

Muslim women will be allowed to wear head scarves in photographs on identify documents, the Macedonian Interior Ministry decided on January 10. According to local media and the news service Balkan Insight, the ruling affects passports, identity cards, driving licenses, visas, and other official documents. A Muslim women's association filed a complaint in November that argued that plans to require women to show their heads in full would violate their religious rights. In another recent concession to Muslim sensitivities, the Macedonian government in September withdrew two school textbooks dealing with the history of the Arabs on the grounds that they contained images of the Prophet Muhammad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). AG

Albanian officials are currently trying to persuade Macedonia to ease pending visa changes that could prevent Albanians obtaining visas at the border. As plans stand, Albanians will have to go to the Macedonian Embassy in Tirana if they wish to enter Macedonia after February 1. The change, which is due to Macedonia's attempts to comply with EU regulations, would affect scores of countries, but would particularly affect ties with Albania and Kosova, as up to one-third of Macedonia's population is ethnically Albanian. Kosovars will, reportedly, not have to obtain visas provided they are carrying documents provided by the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK). They would, however, face the same obligations as Albanians should Kosova become an independent state. In an interview published by the Macedonian news agency Fokus on January 10, the mayor of the Macedonian town of Ohrid, Aleksandar Petreski, said that the change could affect 200,000 people just along the border near Ohrid. Albania is seeking to maintain the current visa regime, the head of Albania's parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, Prec Zogaj, told the news agency ATA on January 7. On a related note, the Macedonian news agency Makfax recently reported that Albanian national television quoted a number of ordinary Albanians as saying that they have recently been asked to present life-insurance policies as well as visas when crossing the border. AG

Universities in Tehran and other Iranian cities have reportedly taken "disciplinary measures" against some 60 student activists as part of a crackdown ahead of parliamentary polls in mid-March. Meanwhile, at least 20 leftist students remain in Tehran's Evin prison after being arrested in December during protests on Iranian Student Day.

The punitive measures target around 60 students in several universities in Tehran, Mazandaran, Isfahan, Mashhad, and other cities, but student activists say they won't be cowed and vow to continue protests for democratic change.

Amin-e Nazari, the leader of the Association of Islamic Students in Hamadan University, told Radio Farda that the most recent action involved four members of the association being suspended from the university, while six others have received an official warning.

Nazari says the students believe that authorities want to silence outspoken students who are critical the government's policies. "As the [March 14 parliamentary] elections approach, the authorities want the groups who criticize them to stay silent, so that they can arrange an election show with the people," Nazari says.

Salman Yazdanpanah, who calls himself a pro-democracy student, has been temporarily expelled from Tehran University. Yazdanpanah told Radio Farda that the authorities accuse him of insulting university personnel and taking part in unauthorized demonstrations.

Yazdanpanah says he has never insulted any university staff. He says he was punished "in connection with our activities at the university, in connection with the materials we wrote in our publication and for participating in demonstrations." "I wrote in my defense that not one university employee ever came and told me, 'Salman has insulted me.' These charges are false," Yazdanpanah says.

The disciplinary measures follow the arrest of at least 20 leftist students in Tehran and other cities in December. Most of them are still in Evin prison's notorious Section 209, where detainees are held in solitary confinement. Section 209 is solely controlled by Iran's Intelligence Ministry, and even Evin authorities are said to have no access to the section.

The security officials have reportedly called them "rebel students" and family members have been told that their children "acted against national security." However, the imprisoned students have not been officially charged. Their parents and relatives have protested the arrests and asked the country's top leaders and the United Nations office in Tehran to help secure their release.

And despite promises from judiciary officials, the parents have not been allowed to meet with their arrested children. According to Nasreen Abdullahi Musavi -- whose daughter, Ilnaz, is among those detained -- Evin authorities told parents last week that the imprisoned students "are still being interrogated" and that decisions about their cases will be made "very soon."

The leftist students, whose main slogan is "Freedom and Equality," initiated demonstrations at Tehran University in December to mark Student Day. Other groups soon joined, including students from Islamic schools, and the protests spread to other Iranian cities. Several students were arrested in the provinces, but most of them have reportedly been released.

The demonstrators criticized President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government for cracking down on dissent on campuses and elsewhere, and they called for broader democratic changes -- such as freedom of political and social organizations -- and improved human rights.

Amin-e Nazari said the students' activities will continue despite the arrests and punishments by the authorities because "no one is afraid of disciplinary committees and prisons anymore."

"After all of those measures, have universities become quieter? Actually, the opposite is true. The university has become more decisive," Nazari says. "As one of my friends said, when they arrest or suspend our classmates, obviously we cannot remain silent."

Iranian journalist Iraj Jamsheedi told RFE/RL that the student movements enjoy support among Iranian society "because their demands reflects those of the majority of the Iranian people."

(Farangis Najibullah is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague. Mohammad Zarghami is a correspondent for Radio Farda.)

Afghan activists and journalists in the northern Balkh Province demonstrated on January 13 to demand the release of a 23-year-old reporter for the daily newspaper "Jahan-e Naw" (The New World) jailed by Afghan security forces for alleged blasphemy, the Bakhtar news agency and other Afghan media reported. Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, a student at Balkh University, has been detained for three months "accused of mocking Islam and the Holy Koran" and for distributing an article saying the Prophet Mohammad "ignored the rights of women," according to Bakhtar. Demonstrating outside the Human Rights Commission's office in the provincial capital of Mazar-e Sharif, protesters said that the accusation is false and demanded Kambakhsh's release. Afghanistan is experiencing a boom in media activities and relative journalistic freedom since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001; however, charges of blasphemy still carry the death penalty. MM

Coalition countries fighting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan welcomed on January 11 the move by the Japanese lower house of parliament to reauthorize the use of the Japanese Navy to supply fuel to U.S.-led coalition ships operating in the Indian Ocean, Afghan and international media reported. Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's ruling coalition took the very rare step of using a two-thirds majority to overrule a rejection in the upper house of parliament controlled by the opposition. The approval is seen as a victory for Fukuda, who supports Japan's presence in South Asia. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which won control of the upper house of parliament in July, halted the mission two months ago, arguing that it lacks a mandate from the United Nations and goes against the country's pacifist constitution, which forbids Japan from engaging in warfare overseas. The move is seen as a boost to the U.S.-Japanese alliance, and Japan's vessels are expected to resume their support mission for operations in Afghanistan as early as next week. MM

Canadian opposition Liberal leader Stephane Dion and deputy leader Michael Ignatieff met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on January 11 while visiting Afghanistan on a fact-finding mission to assess the future direction of Canadian involvement in the country, "The Canada Press" and international media reported. Canada's combat mission in the volatile southern province of Kandahar is scheduled to end in February 2009, and the Canadian opposition is pushing for changing Canada's role to supporting development projects and noncombat operations. Speaking to reporters at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul, Dion declined to say whether Karzai was disappointed with the Liberal plan to end Canada's military operation. Last week, the Liberals formally submitted their plan to a government-appointed panel debating the future of the Afghan mission. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper supports extending Canada's combat role in Afghanistan until 2011. MM

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei met with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on January 12, during a visit in which he asked for enhanced cooperation to help clarify the remaining questions on Iran's nuclear program and for its transparency, Radio Farda reported, citing news agencies. Khamenei in turn told el-Baradei that the IAEA should be the only agency dealing with Iran's nuclear program, not the UN Security Council. He said the United States will not be able to use the dispute over Iran's nuclear program to bring Iran to its knees, Reuters reported. The Security Council has imposed two sets of sanctions on Iran to try to force it to stop enriching uranium and other activities, due to suspicions that Tehran is violating the nuclear nonproliferation regime. El-Baradei also met on January 12 with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili. Ahmadinejad said Iran considers the IAEA the only legitimate body dealing with its nuclear program, even if it is willing to talk with other states, Radio Farda reported. Ahmadinejad urged the IAEA to do its duty without yielding to pressure from other states; he said that "some states think the [IAEA] is an instrument for pursuing their own policies," the daily "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on January 13. VS

Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told IRNA on January 13 that Iran has been given until March to answer the IAEA's questions on its program, Radio Farda reported. He said IAEA chief el-Baradei agreed with Iranian officials in Tehran that the two sides will cooperate to ensure Iran answers questions on its program by March. In the wake of el-Baradei's visit, the IAEA issued a statement in Vienna on January 13 saying that Iran will provide answers to the IAEA's questions within a month, Reuters reported. Iran also gave el-Baradei information on its work to develop advanced centrifuges for faster uranium enrichment -- part of Iran's contested nuclear fuel-making activities -- Reuters quoted the IAEA as saying. VS

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told the press in Tehran on January 13 that the United States lost face following a January 6 confrontation between Iranian and U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. He said the United States exaggerated the gravity of the incident "to fool the region," AFP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 10, and 11, 2008). U.S. ships were reportedly ready to shoot at an Iranian boat at one point, to avoid what seemed like an imminent collision. Hosseini also said U.S. President George W. Bush is spreading anti-Iranian sentiments in his current Middle East tour, AP reported. On January 13, the commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf, Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, told Bush in Bahrain that the U.S. Navy took the January 6 incident "deadly seriously," AP reported. The news agency separately reported that the U.S. Navy said that one of its ships fired warning shots at an Iranian boat in the gulf on January 11, an incident Iran's Hosseini said was not confirmed by any "of the relevant authorities." VS

Speaking in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates on January 13, U.S. President Bush called Iran a threat to global security and urged the United States' Arab allies to join in confronting that threat "before it is too late," AP reported. Iran's "actions threaten the security of nations everywhere," he said, and cited among its threatening actions defying UN Security Council resolutions on its nuclear program, intimidating neighbors with its rhetoric, undermining peace in Lebanon, and sending arms to Taliban militants in Afghanistan. VS

Iran's state aviation authority has removed the head of the Imam Khomeini Airport, Iran's main international airport, apparently for the mismanagement of recent flight cancellations and delays caused by heavy snowfalls, as well as passenger indignation, Radio Farda reported on January 13, citing news agencies. The aviation authority did not give a reason for the removal of Gholamreza Baqerian, who was appointed to run the airport in 2003, but Radio Farda noted that the move is seen as a response to the recent problems at the airport. Iran has experienced very cold weather with heavy snowfall in recent days that led to fuel shortages, closed roads, car accidents, and flight cancellations or severe delays. There were reportedly no outbound flights at the Imam Khomeini Airport from January 6-8, and passengers roamed its halls, apparently not knowing anything about the status of their flights, Radio Farda and dpa reported. Such information would have allowed some to take taxis back to Tehran, 50 kilometers away, Radio Farda added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2008). VS

Some 10 parliamentary blocs have announced the formation of a new national alliance that will work to dispense with the sectarian quota system and support national reconciliation, Iraqi media reported on January 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 7, 2008). The blocs reportedly include the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, led by Khalaf al-Ulayyan; the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, led by Sunni leader Salih al-Mutlaq; the Iraqi National List, led by Iyad Allawi; the Shi'ite-led Al-Fadilah Party; the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party -- Iraq Organization, led by Ibrahim al-Ja'fari; the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki; and independent members of the Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq). Al-Sharqiyah television reported that the supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and a group from the Conference of the Iraqi People, which is led by Adnan al-Dulaymi, are expected to join the alliance at a later date. The London-based "Al-Hayat" reported that the Iraqi Turkoman Front and the Yezidi Progressive Movement also joined the alliance. KR

The parliament ratified the Accountability and Justice Law on January 12, Iraqi media reported, which will pave the way for Sunnis who lost their jobs following the downfall of the Hussein regime to return to government and military posts. The new law reportedly grants members of the former Ba'ath Party a three-month probation period after which they will be free from prosecution. The law was unanimously passed by the 143 members of 275-member parliament present at the session. Those members of the Ba'ath Party who are wanted on outstanding charges are not covered under the law. "We seek to take judicial action only against the criminals who directly or indirectly committed crimes against the Iraqi people," Shi'ite parliamentarian Abbas al-Bayati told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television. "I think the Accountability and Justice Law has sent a message of national reconciliation." Sunnis have said they are not entirely convinced that the law will eliminate the sectarianism that has come to plague Iraq since 2003. Many Sunnis told the media that they also fear that anyone could file false charges against them out of hatred or racism. KR

Major General Abd al-Karim Khalaf, who heads the Iraqi Interior Ministry's operations center, has said that Iraqi security forces have penetrated the Al-Qaeda in Iraq organization, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on January 13. Khalaf said Al-Qaeda has become an open book. Meanwhile, awakening-council adviser Abu Azzam al-Tamimi has urged more volunteers to join awakening councils across Iraq, Al-Sharqiyah reported on January 12. The councils were formed in 2007 by Iraqi tribesmen to fight Al-Qaeda. The Iraqi government announced on January 12 that Al-Anbar, the first governorate to form an awakening council, may soon take over responsibility for security from the U.S. military, possibly as early as March. KR

Iraq has imposed a ban on all motorcycle movement in Baghdad beginning on January 14 until further notice, Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Qasim Ata announced on January 13. The ban was apparently imposed to stem possible terrorist attacks using motorcycles during large-scale processions in the Al-Kadhimiyah district that will commemorate the holy day of Ashura, which marks the 10th day of the holy month of Muharram. For Shi'a, the holy day marks the day the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Husayn was killed in a battle in Karbala. Processions take place across the country in the days leading up to Ashura, with Shi'ite men and boys flogging themselves in an expression of grief meant to reflect the pain that Husayn suffered. Security forces in Karbala have banned the carrying of weapons by pilgrims to the holy city during Ashura, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on January 13. One thousand people were killed in a stampede set off by an explosion in Al-Kadhimiyah in 2005 during commemorations marking the martyrdom of Imam Musa al-Kadhim (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 1, 2005). KR