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Newsline - January 15, 2008

The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned British Ambassador Tony Brenton on January 14 to explain why the British Council reopened its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg that day despite a Russian order not to do so, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). The ministry subsequently said in a statement that "the ambassador was told that the Russian side sees such actions as a deliberate provocation aimed at inciting tension in Russian-British relations." The statement added that Russia will respond with "a series of administrative and legal measures," including some aimed at recovering what Russia claims are back taxes owed by the council's St. Petersburg branch. Russia will not renew accreditation for council staff in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg and will stop issuing visas for new employees assigned to posts related to the British Council at the consulates there. The ministry said that "we expect our British partners to stop ignoring obvious facts and refrain from a line of further confrontation that is fraught with the most negative consequences for Russian-British relations." Brenton told officials at the ministry that "the British Council is working entirely legally, that it will continue, therefore, to work, that any Russian action against it would be a breach of international law, and also the obvious fact that the work of the British Council is actually very helpful to Russia and is very popular among the Russian people." The ambassador and James Kennedy, who heads the British Council in Russia, said they will study a large package of documents that ministry officials gave them. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said that "the blame for the situation around the British Council lies entirely on London. And we are not linking this matter with any other issues in our bilateral relations. The British Council's activity on Russian territory is a separate matter." The dispute over the British Council is, however, widely seen as part of the continuing row stemming from the 2006 murder in London of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko. Last month, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the moves against the council "retaliation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2007). PM

On January 15, Britain's "Financial Times" commented that bilateral relations "looked set to hit a new low" in the wake of the latest developments concerning the British Council in Russia. Britain's "The Times" noted on January 15 in an article titled "From Russia With Spite" that "it beggars belief that an Anglo-Russian relationship relaunched in a blaze of Blairite bonhomie eight years ago should have sunk to this. The British Council's connection to the Litvinenko affair is nonexistent except insofar as its U.K.-appointed staff have diplomatic status. This, Moscow believes, gives grounds for reflexive attacks on the council's operations whenever any aspect of the bilateral relationship is causing irritation, without risking a full diplomatic rupture.... Russia's latest round of bullying is shot through with schoolyard spite, and entirely self-defeating." The Russian daily "Kommersant" suggested on January 15 that "the scandal involving the British Council has done nothing to improve the already sour bilateral relations." The paper quoted State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov as saying that "Great Britain needs a scandal. It needs new and new situations...where it will be able to blame Russia." The daily quoted remarks by British Ambassador Brenton that "the Russians admit a connection between the British Council matter and the disagreements we had over Litvinenko's assassination. We view this connection as a mistake." The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" predicted on January 15 that bilateral relations will continue to deteriorate, suggesting that while cultural links are not the most important aspect of bilateral ties, they are the most symbolic. "The Moscow Times" observed on January 15 that "the dispute is the latest in a series of incidents that have seen relations between Moscow and London sink to post-Cold War lows." PM

Lieutenant General Valery Ivanov, who heads the Far Eastern Air Force and Air Defense Joint Command, said in Khabarovsk on January 14 that the air forces of the United States and Russia plan to hold antiterrorism exercises in the summer aimed at improving communication interoperability, RIA Novosti reported. He added that "according to the scenario of the exercise, Russian aircraft will attempt to intercept a passenger plane hijacked in Japan when it flies over Russia's Far East, and the U.S. Air Force will do the same when it reaches Alaska." The two countries signed a memorandum in December 2007 aimed at promoting interoperability in dealing with possible hijackings and other potential terrorist threats to commercial aviation, and which provides for holding several joint exercises. PM

President Vladimir Putin signed an order on January 14 enabling Italy's Alenia Aeronautica, which is a subsidiary of Finmeccanica, to buy 25 percent plus one share in Sukhoi Civil Aircraft, which is part of the larger Sukhoi firm best known for its military planes, reported. The deal, worth $250 million, was concluded in 2007, Reuters reported. The daily "Vedomosti" reported on January 15 that it should take a further six months to implement the arrangement fully. Russia wants the Italian firm's help in developing the regional Superjet 100, which will have just under 100 seats and will replace ageing Soviet-era Tu-134 and Yak-42 aircraft on many domestic routes. "The Moscow Times" reported on January 15 that Russia hopes to sell over 1,800 Superjets at home and abroad in the next 20 years as part of a project costing $1.6 billion. The first planes are expected to enter service with Aeroflot in 2008. The Superjet was developed with assistance from Boeing and is Russia's first all-new airliner since the fall of the Soviet Union (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2007). First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said in September that "the Superjet is more than a plane, it is a priority project." PM

About two-thirds of Russians believe that Russia will move along "the path of democracy" if, as widely expected, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev becomes the next president, "Vedomosti" reported on January 15, citing a study by the Levada Center. Just 4 percent predicted chaos under Medvedev and 9 percent foresee "dictatorship." Twenty-three percent of respondents said they believe Medvedev will represent the interests of the middle class, while 20 percent said he would represent "simple people." A further 20 percent predicted he will represent the bureaucracy and 14 percent said he will represent the interests of the siloviki. Respondents also strongly opposed a redistribution of power between the president and prime minister, with just 17 percent favoring such a move even if Vladimir Putin becomes premier. Fifty-seven percent were opposed, even in that case. "Kommersant" reported on January 15 that Medvedev plans to reveal his election program during a speech to the Association of Lawyers of Russia in Moscow on January 29. RC

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on January 15 that the central television channels are already giving "complete supremacy" to Medvedev and have succeeded in marginalizing the other presidential candidates. The paper said the main channels mentioned Medvedev 344 times in the two weeks ending on January 13, with Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky coming in second with 96 references. While Medvedev received 12 full hours of coverage in the period, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was given two. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's voice was heard on state television only two times during the two-week period (as opposed to Medvedev's 172 times). RC

Communist Party leader Zyuganov has sent a letter to Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika demanding that he open a criminal investigation into alleged falsification of the results of the December 2 State Duma elections, reported on January 15. Zyuganov particularly noted election returns from Mordovia that showed Unified Russia receiving as much as 109 percent of the vote in some districts. Zyuganov also cited alleged examples of ballot-box stuffing, multiple voting, violations of the right to a secret ballot, and officials preventing voters from casting their ballots. The text of Zyuganov's letter can be found at RC

Two members of the Executive Committee of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party have been dismissed following allegations of financial impropriety, Russian media reported on January 15. Party officials declined to comment on the removals of Sergei Zhiltsov and Vladimir Barinov. "Moskovsky korrespondent" reported that the removals may be the result of a conflict among the three main groups within the party -- the newcomers loyal to President Putin and the two original groups that founded the party, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's Fatherland and the region-based All Russia party. RC

Lawyers for jailed former Yukos Vice President Vasily Aleksanyan have said that Russian officials have refused to obey a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights ordering that Aleksanyan be given emergency medical treatment, reported on January 15. According to the report, the court's ruling has not been made public because it contains secret information. Lawyers say Aleksanyan was diagnosed 14 months ago with an unspecified, possibly fatal illness, but he has not been given access to the specialized care he needs. Aleksanyan was arrested in March 2006 and has not yet faced trial. "The higher the [world] price of oil, the more the West is silent about rights violations in Russia and the worst the situation here gets," famed human-right lawyer Yury Schmidt told the website. "We are just like voices crying in the wilderness." RC

The staff of the independent Ingushetian website decided on January 14 not to collect any further formal statements from voters denying they cast ballots in the December 2 Russian State Duma elections, the website reported. To date, they have collected 88,112 such individual statements, which amounts to approximately 55 percent of the republic's total electorate. The republican authorities have claimed voter turnout of 98 percent, of whom 98.9 percent allegedly voted for Unified Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 4, 11, and 28, 2007, and January 10, 2008). On the basis of the thousands of signed disclaimers, legal experts are preparing a formal complaint to the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office against the Ingushetian authorities' falsification of the outcome of the vote. Meanwhile, Ingushetia's Interior Minister Lieutenant Colonel Musa Medov has asked the organizers of a planned demonstration to be held in Nazran on January 26 in support of President Putin's anticorruption and antiterrorism policies to postpone it in light of a possible terrorist attack, reported on January 14. The organizers responded to that warning by asking Medov on January 14 to take all necessary measures to protect demonstration participants. LF

A nationwide police search has been launched for Interior Ministry troops Lieutenant Yevgeny Khudyakov, whom the North Caucasus Military Court sentenced in absentia last month to 17 years' imprisonment for the killing in January 2003 of three Chechen construction workers, Interfax reported on January 14. Some 40 people staged a demonstration in Moscow last week to protest that sentence as unjust; they adopted a formal appeal to First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev to secure the release of Khudyakov and that of his fellow officer Sergei Arakcheyev, who received a 15-year sentence for the same killings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2 and 11, 2008). LF

The Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) Supreme Court ruled on January 14 that the Council of Elders of the Balkar People established in May 2006 violates Russian legislation banning extremist organizations and should be dissolved, and reported. KBR Prosecutor-General Oleg Zharikov warned the council's chairman, retired police Colonel Ismail Sabanchiyev, in July 2007 against engaging in "extremist activities," and Zharikov's office suspended its activities four months later after its leaders addressed a critical assessment of the socioeconomic situation in the KBR to then-presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27 and November 13, 2007). But senior Council member Oyus Gurtuyev protested that all the formulations in that assessment branded "extremist" by the KBR Supreme Court were quotations from official government documents. Council representatives said they will appeal the court ruling to the Russian Federation Supreme Court. LF

Serzh Sarkisian posted on January 14 on his campaign website his 10-page program for the February 19 presidential ballot, in which he is considered the frontrunner among nine candidates, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. promises to turn Armenia into a "strong democratic state" where all citizens are equal before law and live in an "atmosphere of mutual respect, love, and indulgence." The highly conceptual document contains no target figures, specific government policies or envisaged legislative measures, but it does set ambitious goals such as complete elimination of poverty and Armenia's transformation into a regional financial center. It further calls for a "meaningful and consistent fight against corruption" and a crackdown on widespread tax evasion. Sarkisian says formal settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict must uphold the Karabakh Armenians' "right to self-determination" and ensure that Armenia continues to have a "common border" with the disputed territory. At same time, he makes it clear that he would not make unilateral concessions on Karabakh and the Armenian genocide issue in order to satisfy Turkey's preconditions for normalizing Turkish-Armenian relations. The foreign-policy section of his manifesto is otherwise vague; it says only that Armenian foreign policy must become "more active" and ensure Armenia's "influential participation in international and especially regional processes." LF

The French, Russian and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a settlement of the Karabakh conflict met in Baku on January 14 for 90 minutes with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, and then separately with President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijani media reported. They declined to make any statement to journalists in the wake of either meeting, both of which reportedly focused on the written draft, submitted to Mammadyarov and his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian at the OSCE Foreign Ministers' meeting in Madrid in late November 2007, of Basic Principles for resolving the conflict (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," June 30, September 18, and December 1, 2006, and "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2007). U.S. co-Chair Matthew Bryza was quoted as telling journalists on arriving in Baku on January 13 that the co-chairs hope the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents will orally endorse the draft prior to the Armenian presidential election next month, even if they are not prepared to sign it. Addressing a cabinet session on January 11, President Aliyev described 2008 as a deadline that will demonstrate whether a peaceful solution of the conflict is indeed possible, reported on January 15. LF

The U.S. State Department and the head of the European Commission delegation in Tbilisi, Per Eklund, issued separate statements on January 14 commenting on the announcement the previous day by the Georgian Central Election Commission of the final vote tally for the January 5 preterm presidential ballot, according to which incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili polled over 53 percent of the vote. EU Special Envoy for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby called on all political forces to respect the outcome of the January 5 vote and embark on a dialogue, Caucasus Press reported on January 15. Noting "significant challenges," the State Department nonetheless endorsed the election outcome; Eklund said the figures show there is "no need" to hold a second round of voting. U.S. Ambassador John Tefft similarly told journalists on January 14 after talks with parliament speaker and acting President Nino Burjanadze that no "mass violations" were registered during the voting and consequently a second round is not necessary, Black Sea Press and Caucasus Press reported. But former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, who backed the presidential bid of Saakashvili's closest challenger, businessman Levan Gachechiladze, told journalists in Tbilisi on January 14 that the nine-party opposition National Council has formally asked the CEC to conduct a recount because the data is "statistically very strange," RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. She said if the recount demonstrates that Saakashvili's victory is genuine, the opposition will accept it. Meanwhile, the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association (GYLA) on January 14 accused the CEC of violating the law by rejecting outright all complaints the GYLA submitted about perceived violations of voting procedure, Prime News reported. LF

Acting President Burjanadze on January 14 invited the opposition to abandon street protests and move to the negotiating table, reported. She said that the authorities are prepared to "respect" the opinion of the opposition, but that the latter should abandon its attempts at "destabilization," given that mass protests such as that by tens of thousands of people in Tbilisi the previous day are unlikely to change the election outcome, Caucasus Press reported. Opposition parliamentarian Kakha Kukava said the same day that the only issue the opposition is prepared to discuss with the authorities is a recount of the vote, reported. But on January 15, Republican Party leader David Usupashvili confirmed that "consultations" with Burjanadze have begun, although he declined to confirm her statement earlier that day that those talks focus on eight issues, including the reform of public television, reported. LF

Sozar Subar has addressed an open letter to President-elect Saakashvili warning that without serious progress in protecting human rights, a repetition of the mass public protests last November is inevitable, reported on January 14. Alluding to Saakashvili's election campaign promises, Subar argued that "we shall not overcome poverty, develop industry or become a better country if we do not protect one major value -- the individual and his rights." He further warned Saakashvili against a cosmetic government reshuffle that would leave power in the hands of the same people. He called on Saakashvili to take action to rein in an unnamed "influential group of people within the government" who, he said, believe that the only way to resolve problems is by brute force. Subar also noted that Saakashvili's much-touted anticorruption drive has in fact created "a group of people for whom everything is permitted," and he slammed as a violation of European standards the participation in Saakashvili's election campaign of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, who, according to Subar, "gave instructions to the heads of regional campaign offices, district heads and [regional] governors." LF

Giorgi Targamadze, who quit on January 12 as an anchor with the embattled opposition television station Imedi, announced on January 14 that he plans to form his own political party, the orientation of which will be Christian-democratic, with the aim of "fighting for democracy," reported. Targamadze headed the parliament faction of then Abkhaz leader Aslan Abashidze's Revival Union until March 2003. The Georgian authorities suspended Imedi's broadcast license for three months in the wake of the November clashes between demonstrators and police in Tbilisi, but rescinded that ban under intense pressure from the international community. The station's journalists voluntarily suspended broadcasting in late December after the Georgian Prosecutor General's office leveled charges of plotting a coup d'etat against its co-owner, businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26 and December 3, 4, and 28, 2007). LF

Kazakhstan's KazMunaiGaz reached agreement late on January 13 with the Italian-led Agip international consortium formed to exploit the vast Kashagan oil field, Interfax and the "Financial Times" reported on January 14. Under that agreement, the various Western consortium members will cede some of their shares in the consortium to double KazMunaiGaz's stake to 16.81 percent. They will also pay between $2.5 billion-$4.5 billion in compensation for the delay in the start of operations, initially scheduled for 2008, until late 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, August 22, November 28, and December 27, 2007). LF

At a press conference in the town of Abai in Karaganda Oblast, Kazakh Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Bozhko said on January 13 that the January 11 methane explosion at a local coal mine will result in the suspension of mining operations there "for many months," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Bozhko added that the temporary closure of the mine will leave some 1,500 local residents without work, but explained that the mine is being filled with water while explosive methane is being removed. At least 30 miners died in the methane explosion and ensuing fire at the Abai coal mine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). Murat Perzadaev, the director of Arcelor-Mittal Temirtau, which owns and operates the mine, announced on January 13 that the company will provide compensation to the families of the miners killed in the explosion and cover all funeral expenses. A similar explosion at another Mittal-owned coal mine in Kazakhstan killed some 41 people in 2006. President Nursultan Nazarbaev expressed his condolences on January 11 to the families of the victims, and announced the creation of a special government commission to investigate the accident, according to ITAR-TASS. RG

Some 12 Kyrgyz opposition parties on January 14 in Bishkek announced the formation of a new opposition bloc, the For Justice movement, and vowed to create a new "public parliament," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The new opposition bloc, which includes the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party and the Ar-Namys (Dignity) party, is seeking to maintain public momentum to protest what is says were "unfair" elections for a new parliament last month. Another 21 civil groups have also joined the new For Justice movement, according to AKIpress. RG

President Kurmanbek Bakiev on January 14 appointed Moldomusa Kongantiev as the new interior minister, replacing Bolotbek Nogoibaev, according to the website. Prior to the appointment, Kongantiev served as the police chief of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Bakiev also replaced Osmonali Guronov, the first deputy interior minister, with Melis Turganbaev, and named Jenish Jakipov as a new deputy interior minister, replacing Rasulberdi Raimberdiev, AKIpress reported. In another series of appointments, Bakiev named several new regional governors on January 14, including Maratbek Jumabekov as the new governor of the Batken region, Beishenbek Bolotbekov as the new governor of the Talas region, and Omurbek Suvanaliev as the governor of the Naryn region. RG

At a meeting in Dushanbe on January 12, representatives of the Alliance of National Minorities of Tajikistan unanimously endorsed President Imomali Rahmon's designation of 2008 as the Year of the Tajik Language, reported on January 14. At the same time, they complained that the lack of suitable premises hampers the study by ethnic minorities both of their native language and of Tajik, and argued that true equality between the country's various ethnic groups is impossible without increased state support. The alliance represents ethnic groups who separately account for less than 1 percent of the country's total population -- Arabs, Georgians, Kazakhs, Koreans, Germans, Tatars and Bashkirs -- and seeks to facilitate their integration while at the same time enabling them to preserve their national identity. LF

A district court in Minsk on January 14 sentenced Syarhey Parsyukevich, an entrepreneur based in Vitsyebsk, to 15 days in jail for his participation in a January 10 protest against restrictions on the activities of small businesses, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Police detained Parsyukevich on January 13 in Vitsyebsk. Dozens of other businesspeople in the town who learned of Parsyukevich's detention later arrived at the police station and submitted a petition protesting against his arrest. That evening, police took Parsyukevich to Minsk, where he went on trial the following day. The Belarusian authorities have recently jailed at least 20 people for their participation in or links to the January 10 protest organized by small-business owners (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). Meanwhile, the Perspektyva small-business association has issued a statement pledging to fight to the bitter end for its right to continue functioning, Belapan reported on January 14. The Justice Ministry recently filed a suit with the Supreme Court seeking the closure of Perspektyva because of its leader Anatol Shumchanka's participation in an unsanctioned protest. "If the state has turned its back on the people and no longer needs entrepreneurs and their taxes, the authorities will surely make every effort to close down the organization, whose leader seeks to defend the economic and constitutional rights of small-business representatives at the price of his freedom," the statement read. Volha Krumina, the deputy head of Perspektyva, told Belapan that in the event of the organization's closure, its members will attempt to set up a political party or join an opposition political group. AM

Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin has said that Russia will be forced to review its relations with Ukraine if the latter joins NATO, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and news agencies reported on January 14. "We just explained that if they join NATO, we will have to review our relations," Interfax quoted Chernomyrdin as saying. "Ukraine is our largest neighbor and our ties are too close -- in particular regarding sensitive technologies and political affairs -- to take its membership in NATO lightly," he said. Chernomyrdin also suggested that Ukraine's joining the Single Economic Space along with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan would in fact assist its goal of further integration into the EU. Ukraine supports the formation of the Single Economic Space, but rejects Russia's proposal to set up a single duty zone or any international institutions that would limit its sovereignty. AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has said that her ruling coalition will support President Viktor Yushchenko's draft of the law on the Cabinet of Ministers, along with other bills recently submitted to the Verkhovna Rada, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on January 14. Tymoshenko said the presidential bill gives the government enough power to respond to questions regarding land ownership, taxes, and efforts against corruption at all levels. She earlier said that the presidential draft of the law on the Cabinet of Ministers attempts to limit the government's powers in favor of the president, and warned that if the government's powers are limited, she will consider running for president. AM

The Serbian government announced on January 14 that it has agreed on the retaliatory measures it will take against Kosova should the UN-administered Serbian province declare independence from Serbia. No details were given to the local and international press because, according to the minister for Kosovar affairs, Slobodan Samardzic, the plan is "a document of the highest possible secrecy for the state." However, earlier indications suggest that Serbia intends to impose a trade and travel embargo and cut off electricity supplies to Kosova, and it might withdraw its ambassadors from countries that recognize Kosova as a state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, and December 18 and 27, 2007). All still appear possible as Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told Germany's "Der Spiegel" on January 14 that Serbia will do "whatever is in its political, diplomatic, and economic power, also on an international level" to contest any "unlawful decision" on independence for Kosova. One little-mentioned possibility that is now generating discussion within Kosova is that Serbia might also halt supplies of water from the Gazivoda Reservoir, which lies on Kosova's border with Serbia. However, that possibility was rejected on January 12 by Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, who was quoted by Radio-Television Kosova as saying that he believes the possibility is "exaggerated" and is causing unnecessary "panic" among the population. The UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) is among those that has voiced concern at the vulnerability of the reservoir, with officials pointing out, as reported in December by Britain's "The Daily Telegraph," that "the people running the installation are all Serbs from the local area" and arguing that "without Gazivoda it is questionable whether Kosovo could survive -- not just for drinking water, but also for electricity." The Serbian government portrayed the adoption of its planned retaliation as "an expression of the state's united policy towards Kosovo." All Serbia's governing parties insist that Kosova should remain part of Serbia, but the tenor of comments -- particularly towards the EU, the United States, and NATO -- has varied. The assumption is that, as President Boris Tadic and several government ministers have insisted repeatedly, Serbia will not use force despite the argument voiced in September by a junior minister that Serbia would be legally entitled to send troops into Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and10, 2007). AG

Serbia opposes the partition of Kosova, Serbian Foreign Minister Jeremic told Germany's "Der Spiegel" on January 14, but the reality that "virtually all Serbs in Kosovo would not associate themselves" with an independent Kosova could, he warned, "open up a Pandora's box and lead to a division of Kosovo." Jeremic appeared to indicate that Serbia might not be able to contain such pressure from Kosovar Serbs, saying that "Serbia would like to maintain everything within the confines of international law...[but] there is reality, and there are people who may see things differently." AG

The leader of Serbia's most popular nationalist party, Tomislav Nikolic, is seeking to allay concerns about his possible election as Serbia's president, telling Reuters that the West will "get to know me as a man they can talk to, work with" and that his friendliness with Russia is simply part of a broader vision of a Serbia balanced between the EU and Russia. "Some say we must shun Russia and only look to the EU," Nikolic said. "But the Europeans themselves do great business with Russia, so I don't see why Serbia cannot work with both." He said, however, that Serbia should not forge closer ties with the EU by softening its position on Kosova. "Our problem is that the EU doesn't understand how much Kosovo means to us," Nikolic said in an interview published on January 14. "I'd be the first to back EU membership if they treated us like normal people, without conditions that were not set for others." Nikolic compared his straight-speaking with the varied positions of the governing coalition, saying: "They say we should join NATO, then want Russia's veto on Kosovo, they want to join the EU and also keep Kosovo. I am not prepared to lie like that.... They tell the West what it wants to hear, and at home they pretend to be great patriots." Nikolic also said he believes that he has done enough to allay concerns about his possible presidency. "I think I've dispelled fears of war, sanctions, isolation, all that cannot happen again." Nikolic, who would like Russia to station troops in Serbia to "bolster the Serbian position in seeking a solution to the Kosovo crisis and remove the potential NATO threat," said on January 8 that "we will not send our children to war" but indicated in December that he would be prepared, in extreme circumstances, to support the deployment of Serbian troops in Kosova to protect Serbian civilians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007, and January 9, 2008). Nikolic, whose Serbian Radical Party (SRS) is the largest party in parliament, is running a close second to President Tadic in opinion polls ahead of the January 20 vote. The election is expected to go to a second round, on February 3. AG

In the same interview with Reuters, Nikolic urged the EU not to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia on January 28, as Serbian Foreign Minister Jeremic has been urging (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008). "Signing the SAA in the middle of the campaign to give [President] Tadic a boost is meddling in our elections," Nikolic said. "It wouldn't be a good move, just empty talk." It would be "empty," he argued, because Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has already stated that he will not sign the SAA unless the EU drops its plan to deploy a mission to Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4, 7, and 8, 2008). AG

Serge Brammertz, the newly appointed chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), sees no reason to change his predecessor's assessment that Serbia is not full cooperating with the UN court in its efforts to track down and try suspected war criminals. Brammertz took over the post from Carla Del Ponte on January 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2007). "He will not be making any new assessment at this time unless there are significant developments which warrant one," Brammertz's spokesperson told Reuters on January 14. Brammertz's statement, which was conveyed through a spokesperson to Reuters on January 14, poses a dilemma for the EU, which now has to decide whether it should Serbia's failure to cooperate fully and sign an SAA, or continue to insist that Serbia must arrest the Bosnian Serbs' wartime military commander, Ratko Mladic, before it can sign an SAA, the first step toward membership. Foreign Minister Jeremic recently declared that, although Mladic remains at large, Serbia is cooperating fully, and there is currently a debate within the EU -- recently articulated most publicly by the EU's president, Slovenia -- that "full cooperation" does not necessarily mean the capture of Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2008). However, Del Ponte was damning in her final report to the UN, saying that Serbia is fully committed "only in words, not in deeds," and its efforts have resulted in "no clear road map, no clear plan in the search for fugitives, no serious leads, and no sign that serious efforts have been taken to arrest the fugitives" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). In an interview published by "Der Spiegel" on January 14, Jeremic again defended Serbia's failure to capture the last war crimes indictees, saying, "it is not easy to find people who were military commanders during the war and are hiding out in rough terrain." The EU's leaders are expected to make a decision on January 28, and Jeremic has warned that if it decides not to endorse the SAA the EU could swing Serbia's pending presidential election in favor of an extreme nationalist and delay Serbia's membership of the EU "for the next generation or more" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008). Brammertz is due to meet EU officials in the next few days. AG

A senior figure in the UNMIK was attacked and beaten on January 12, local media reported. The official, Ekrem Hajdari, was released shortly after being taken to hospital suffering from blows to the head and body dealt by baseball bats. As yet there is no evidence as to why Hajdari was attacked, but a UNMIK spokesman, Adriatik Stavileci, told the news service Balkan Insight that "the assault must be related to Hajdari's post" as deputy director of the province's customs service. In that position, he ran investigations into smuggling by organized crime gangs, including a recent investigation that, according to Stavileci, resulted in several customs officers being suspended, the other deputy director being arrested, and internal inquiries into the activities of 50 officers. Hajdari is a Kosovar Albanian. AG


Four militants armed with guns and grenades attacked the Serena Hotel in central Kabul on January 14, Afghan and international media reported. Afghan intelligence officials said seven people, including three foreigners, were killed in the attack, in which at least one militant detonated a suicide bomb. AFP quoted intelligence chief Amrullah Salah as saying four people were arrested, including a man who was supposed to carry out a suicide attack at the hotel but did not . The Serena Hotel, which opened in 2006, is the only five-star hotel in Afghanistan, and is popular among diplomats and often used for conferences. Claiming responsibility for the attack, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that "four members of the Taliban, one of them wearing a suicide vest and all armed with Kalashnikovs, entered the Serena hotel and opened fire on foreigners." The well-guarded hotel is located near the presidential palace, several government ministries, and a district police station, and is a particularly brazen target for Taliban insurgents. MM

The BBC and Afghan media reported on January 14 that some detainees held by the U.S. military at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan were allowed to speak with their families via a video link set up by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at its Kabul offices. Relatives of about 60 detainees visited the ICRC call center and spoke with their loved ones for the first time during their detentions. "We thought that our father was not alive, we did not have any hope of seeing him again," said Sayed Noor Ahmad, the son of one of the detainees. "Now the ICRC has restored our hopes and we are hoping that he will be freed with Allah's help." A spokeswoman for the ICRC, Graziella Leite, said, "We believe it is a joyful moment for the families to be able to see and talk to their loved ones." Most of the inmates are suspected Taliban fighters who have been detained since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. The new program giving them the opportunity to communicate with relatives is a joint effort of the U.S. military and the ICRC. MM

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood on January 13 visited the volatile Musa Qala district in southern Helmand Province to try to persuade tribal elders and farmers to halt poppy production, Pajhwak Afghan News and international media reported. Wood met with the new district chief, Mullah Abdul Salam, a former senior Taliban commander who defected to join the government last month. Wood urged Salaam to persuade residents to halt "the practice of producing poison," and said the cultivation of opium poppies is against the law and against Islam. Taliban insurgents held sway in Musa Qala for most of 2007 until a joint operation by coalition and Afghan forces recaptured the area in December. Wood described his talks with Salaam and other leaders in Musa Qala as positive, and said plans are underway to stabilize the region and that the area will remain under government control. Afghan officials say the drug trade helps finance the Taliban insurgency and corruption in southern Afghanistan, and that many Afghan farmers continue to cultivate poppies as a much-needed source of income. MM

On January 13, British Defense Minister Des Browne told "The People" newspaper in London that British forces will remain in Afghanistan for decades, although their numbers will decrease over time. "We cannot risk it again becoming an ungoverned training haven for terrorists who threaten the U.K.," Browne said, referring to the years of chaos in the 1990s that led to the rise of the Taliban regime and the establishment of Al-Qaeda bases in the country. He also cautioned that "there is only so much our forces can achieve. The job can only be completed by the international community working with the Afghan government and its army." Britain has about 7,800 troops in Afghanistan as part of the 40,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which combats the Taliban insurgency and aids reconstruction. MM

The Interior Ministry's registration period for candidates for the March 14 parliamentary polls closed on January 11, as some observers in Tehran expressed dismay at the absence of some prominent figures who were expected to register. Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi said in Tehran on January 12 that he was satisfied that some 7,200 hopefuls have registered across the country, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 14. Those candidates must now be vetted and approved by the Guardians Council, a body of jurists. Hossein Marashi, a member of the centrist Executives of Construction Party, told ISNA on January 13 that there were fewer registrations in Tehran than expected. Marashi himself did not register. Speculating about why many prominent politicians have decided not to run for parliament, some newspapers have suggested that reformists are reluctant to face an increasingly strict vetting process that might lead to their disqualification and damage their public reputations. The daily "Etemad-i Melli" named politicians who did not register including conservative former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati; moderately conservative cleric and former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rohani; former President Mohammad Khatami; and former parliamentary speakers Mehdi Karrubi and Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri. Marashi said, "a large number of personalities preferred not to be in the whirlwind of factional reactions and political limitations.... Today, personalities who might have been effective in parliament are missed." "Etemad" noted on January 14 the "significant" absence of centrist politicians close to Expediency Council chief Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, saying that several decided against registering "at the last minute." These included Rohani; Mahmud Vaezi, a former deputy foreign minister when Hashemi-Rafsanjani was president; Fatemeh Hashemi, Rafsanjani's daughter; and Mohammad Baqer Nobakht, a former lawmaker currently working in the Expediency Council and the head of the Moderation and Progress Party. The daily noted that the absence of moderates raises questions about centrists' and moderates' next political moves. One prominent politician who did register on January 11 was Ali Larijani, the former chief nuclear negotiator, who said he registered after consulting with two senior clerics, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 12. VS

Mohammad Baqer Nobakht told the press in Tehran on January 14 that his Moderation and Progress Party is part of a broad and inclusive moderate trend in Iran, ISNA reported. "Our view is not that the country should be run by a particular political group to have its problems solved," Nobakht responded when asked why many of his party's members, considered close to Expediency Council chief Hashemi-Rafsanjani, did not register. He said his party seeks to guide a "third current" that includes all "deserving" people and works for progress in Iran. He said former nuclear negotiator Rohani decided not to run because he has no specific program, and believes his presence in parliament would not "help resolve problems," ISNA reported. VS

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki on January 13 rejected allegations regarding Iran made that day by U.S. President George W. Bush, and said Bush has failed to attain what he called "the anti-Iranian goals" of his current Middle East tour, Radio Farda reported, citing news agencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). The Al-Jazeera television network quoted Mottaki as saying that Bush is trying in vain to undermine Iran's relations with Arab states. Mottaki said Iran has not aided terrorists, as the United States alleges, and he accused the U.S. authorities of discreetly talking to "terrorists," Radio Farda reported. He said that Bush has given the "most support" to extremist groups in the Middle East, and claimed that U.S. policies have boosted extremism, Radio Farda reported. Iranian officials have intermittently accused the United States of financing and helping to create groups like the Taliban in the 1980s as part of the Cold War effort to oust Soviet troops from Afghanistan. More recently, they have blamed the occupation of Iraq for stoking militancy in the region. VS

The deputy head of the Tehran-based Association for the Defense of Prisoners' Rights, lawyer Farideh Gheirat, has criticized the ongoing detentions of dozens of students for alleged antigovernment activities, Radio Farda reported on January 12. The students, who have been imprisoned for some 40 days, are members of a grouping called Students for Freedom and Equality. Tahereh Sadeqi, the mother of detained student Ali Kalai, told Radio Farda on January 12 that she has had no contact with her son in recent weeks, adding, "I have no idea if he is dead or alive." The other families have also "had no meetings with their children," she said. Sadeqi said officials have not formally stated any charges, and that the students' relatives "only found out through the press that [Intelligence Minister Gholamhussein Mohseni] Ejei has said they are from leftist Marxist groups." She rejected that charge, as well as rumors that some of the detained were found with explosives and sought to violently overthrow the Iranian regime. Tehran deputy chief prosecutor Hasan Haddad is reportedly handling their cases. Sadeqi told Radio Farda that relatives tried in vain to meet with Tehran chief prosecutor Said Mortazavi on January 9. She said she believes Iranian authorities are trying to fabricate charges against the students so they can "jail them for a long time" and ensure the March elections are held "peacefully, without the presence of these students." VS

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced visit to Baghdad on January 15, international media reported. An unnamed official at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad told CNN that Rice is scheduled to meet with Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister al-Maliki, to press them to make more progress on political reconciliation. Rice arrived in Baghdad from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where she was accompanying U.S. President George W. Bush on his Middle East tour. Her visit comes just days after the passage of the new Accountability and Justice Law, which allows many former Ba'athists to return to their government posts. The United States praised the passage of the bill, saying it is an important step toward national reconciliation. A U.S. Embassy statement announced that "passage of this law represents a signal achievement in that Iraqi political leaders have collectively chosen to reform a de-Ba'athification process that many regarded as flawed, unfair, and a roadblock to reconciliation." SS

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said on January 14 in Baghdad that he welcomes the Accountability and Justice Law recently passed by the Council of Representatives, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Speaking at a joint news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and vice presidents Adil Abd al-Mahdi and Tariq al-Hashimi, Talabani said he hopes that the passage of the law will spur Iraqi lawmakers to pass more significant legislation soon. "We have welcomed the Council of Representatives' endorsement of the Accountability and Justice Law. We hope that the council also passes the Governorates Law and the Oil Law," Talabani said. The law that unanimously passed on January 12 is a revision of the de-Ba'athification law, and paves the way for thousands of former Ba'athists who lost their jobs following the downfall of the former regime to return to government and military posts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). SS

Salih al-Mutlaq, the leader of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, told Al-Iraqiyah television on January 14 that the new political alliance of 10 parliamentary blocs will break the current political stalemate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). Al-Mutlaq stressed that the new alliance, which will do away with the current sectarian quota system, will help build a government of qualified individuals. "The political blocs, represented by their 145 votes, gave a clear signal that they are for a government that is not based on the quota system. Therefore, it is the duty of the prime minister to form a government that is completely free of any quota system," al-Mutlaq said. He also said that the new alliance will lead to the formation of a true unity government that will help end sectarian and ethnic tensions. "I consider this a positive phenomenon because all these blocs will get together in a national project that is completely detached from the issues of sectarianism, fanaticism, and party bias," al-Mutlaq said. "The aim will be keeping Iraq above anything else -- above sectarian, party, and other affiliations," he added. SS

A special ceremony was held in the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital of Irbil on January 14 to mourn 365 victims of the 1987-88 Anfal campaign, international media reported on January 15. Several Kurdish and Iraqi leaders were in attendance as 365 flag-draped coffins, containing the remains of Kurds found in mass graves last year in the northern city of Mosul and the southeastern city of Samawah, were laid to rest. In a speech, Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani described the occasion as bittersweet. "This ceremony makes us feel pain and happiness at the same time," Barzani said. "We feel pain because we find ourselves in front of the bodies of innocent victims, and we feel happy because they are back at the homes of their fathers and grandfathers." The Anfal campaign, which means "spoils of war," was carried out by the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and killed an estimated 180,000 Kurds. Last year, an Iraqi court convicted and sentenced to death former Ba'ath Party official Ali Hasan al-Majid, former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad, and former deputy director of operations for the Iraqi military Hussein Rashid Muhammad for their roles in the campaign. They currently remain in U.S. military custody awaiting execution. SS

Gunmen on January 14 shot and killed federal appeals court Judge Amir Jawdat near his home in western Baghdad, KUNA reported. Local police officials said several gunmen in two cars ambushed Jawdat while he was being driven to work from his home in the Baghdad neighborhood of Al-Mansur. His driver was also killed, while the perpetrators fled the scene. Authorities said they are investigating the incident. Jadwat was a high-ranking judge in the federal appeals court and a member of the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council, a supervisory body that oversees the court system and swears in all judges. Professionals such as judges, professors, doctors, and lawyers have often been targeted for assassination in recent years in Iraq. SS

In a January 14 interview with "The New York Times," Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Muhammad al-Ubaydi indicated that Iraq will require the presence of U.S. forces for at least 10 years. He said Iraq will not be able to maintain internal security until 2012, nor be able to defend its borders from external threats until at least 2018. "With regard to the borders...we are not going to be able to answer to any external threats until 2018 or 2020," al-Ubaydi said. He did not provide specifics on a timeline for reducing the number of U.S. forces in Iraq. Al-Ubaydi also said that Iraq will require more military hardware from the United States, such as helicopters, tanks, and armored personnel carriers, to maintain internal security. As Iraq assumes authority over its defenses against foreign threats, it will need warplanes and reconnaissance aircraft, he said. Al-Ubaydi spoke during a visit to the United States to meet with senior military officials for talks on the two countries' long-term military relationship. SS