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Newsline - January 17, 2008

Following the questioning of Russian British Council staff by the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the brief detention for alleged traffic violations of Stephen Kinnock, who heads the council's St. Petersburg branch, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in London on January 16 that "any intimidation or harassment of [council] officials is obviously completely unacceptable," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 15, and 16 January, 2008). He stressed that "we take that very seriously, indeed." The council's 29 Russian employees were reportedly subjected to multiple questionings on January 15-16 by officials of the FSB, the tax service, and the financial crimes unit of the Interior Ministry, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on January 17. Some questionings took place in government offices, while others involved police officials visiting council employees in their homes. James Kennedy, who heads the council's operations in Russia, said that the officials "are suggesting to our staff that they are working for an illegal organization, which we strongly contest, and that they are working as instruments of provocation for a foreign power, which again we contest." These developments are part of an ongoing dispute over the right of the British Council to operate in Russia, which in turn is widely seen as part of the continuing row stemming from the 2006 London murder of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko. The BBC noted on January 16 that Britain has few possibilities "for retaliation" against the Russian moves. The broadcaster added that London prefers to avoid further escalation of the dispute, but did not say what Britain might do if Russia took further moves against British staff. The broadcaster suggested that London is content "to keep the high moral ground" in the row. The BBC reported on January 17 that the council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, which were closed when the Russian staff were summoned to the police for questioning, are likely to remain closed for the immediate future. "There seems to be little appetite at the U.K. Foreign Office for further retaliation," the broadcaster noted. PM

Russian Ambassador to Britain Yury Fedotov said on Russian television on January 16 that "the British side, which initiated the worsening of our relations last summer, must now think seriously about the consequences that may follow if it does not fulfill the Russian authorities' decision to close the British Council offices." He did not elaborate. The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on January 17 that "the FSB will deal with the British Council now." The paper suggested that the imbroglio "seems to be a blind alley. The Brits are not being particularly tactful or polite. Shown the door by the host, they obstinately refuse to leave. On the other hand, Moscow's rigid stand on the matter reminds observers of the Soviet era, when the interests of citizens were sacrificed in the name of the state without a second thought." The daily noted that "according to the BBC, 20,000 Russians studied at the British Council's language courses and 500,000 learned the English language with the help from teachers trained by the British Council since 1994." The paper added that currently "2,500 young Russians study at British colleges and universities and owe their good fortune to the British Council. Last but not the least, lots of Russians will lose jobs if the British Council offices in the regions are closed for good." PM

Mikhail Margelov, who is chairman of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, is unlikely to realize his hopes of becoming the first Russian president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) at its January 21 session, the daily "Vedomosti" and reported on January 16. In September 2007, Margelov announced his intention of running in 2008 for the top position in PACE, which sometimes criticizes Russian domestic policies it regards as undemocratic or as violations of human rights (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). Margelov's hopes appeared dashed on January 10, when representatives of the five political groups represented in PACE changed the rules for rotating the president's post, with the approval of Margelov's European Democratic Group. According to the new agreement, the Socialists will nominate their candidate at the upcoming session, not the Democrats, who will have to wait until 2010 to put their nominee forward. "The Moscow Times" reported on January 17 that some members of PACE have strong reservations about electing a top Russian official to head a body that prides itself on defending human rights. The paper added that Margelov might not be able to secure a majority of the 300 legislators if he were nominated. An important issue for many parliamentarians is the fact that Russia is the only member of the Council of Europe that has not ratified Protocol 14 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. The protocol aims to speed up the processing of cases at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to which many Russians have turned after failing to get satisfaction in Russian courts. The Russian daily "Vremya novostei" commented on January 17 that "Russia has been cheated out of the chairmanship" of PACE. The daily suggested that the change in rules was the result of politically motivated intrigues by Swedish and Estonian legislators, who criticized the conduct of Russia's recent parliamentary elections. PM

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will unveil elements of his election platform during the second All-Russian Civic Forum, which will be held under the auspices of the Public Chamber on January 22, "Vedomosti" reported on January 17. The newspaper quoted a source in Medvedev's entourage as saying that he has prepared a major speech for the forum in which he will put forward "his vision for the development of civil society" and for domestic policy. "Vedomosti" quoted Sergei Markov, a former Public Chamber member who is now a State Duma deputy from the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, as saying he is certain that the forum, which was originally supposed to have been held last fall, is timed to coincide with Medvedev's election campaign. The first Kremlin-sponsored All-Russia Civic Forum was held in November 2001. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky panned that meeting as a "purely image-making activity" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2001). "Kommersant" reported on January 15 that Medvedev will "promulgate the theses" of his election campaign in a speech to the Congress of the Russian Association of Jurists set for January 29, which, according to the newspaper, will be attended by President Vladimir Putin and "the whole of the government's power bloc." Presidential-administration head Sergei Sobyanin, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, and Federal Antinarcotics Service head Viktor Cherkesov, among others, are members of the Russian Association of Jurists' governing presidium. During a visit to Murmansk on January 11, Medvedev said his election platform will largely build on Putin's course over the past eight years, "The Moscow Times" reported on January 16. JB

The Central Election Commission on January 16 completed collecting documents from prospective candidates in the March 2 presidential elections. The commission now has 10 days to check more than 4 million signatures turned in on January 16 by Democratic Party leader Andrei Bogdanov and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who heads the Russian Popular Democratic Union, the Regnum news agency reported on January 17. Candidates of parties not represented in the State Duma must run as independents and thus are required to collect 2 million signatures in their support. Speaking to reporters as boxes holding more than 2 million signatures were delivered to the commission's Moscow headquarters, Kasyanov vowed to stay in the race at all costs. "The Moscow Times" reported on January 17 that investigators in the Marii-El Republic announced the previous day that they have opened an investigation into whether Rustam Abdullin, head of Kasyanov's local campaign office, faked signatures. FSB officers detained Abdullin earlier in the week and found in his bags 50,000 signatures, which they believe were falsified. If the Central Election Commission determines that 5 percent of the signatures collected by a given prospective presidential candidate -- meaning 100,000 signatures -- are illegitimate, it can refuse to register that person as a candidate. First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev did not have to collect signatures because two of the parties that nominated him to run for president, Unified Russia and A Just Russia, have Duma representation. For the same reason, two other prospective presidential candidates, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, were exempted from collecting signatures. JB

Jailed former Yukos Vice President Vasily Aleksanyan has accused Russian authorities of deliberately driving him to a condition "close to death" by denying him medical treatment in order to force him to testify against former associates, Reuters reported on January 16. "Attempts have not ceased to make me give false evidence and provide testimony incriminating other Yukos bosses, in exchange for giving me bail on health grounds, that is, in effect, in exchange for life," he said in an open letter he passed out of Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina Prison. Aleksanyan said he is now nearly blind, has a constant fever, and urgently needs drug treatment available only outside prison. The European Court of Human Rights has ordered that Aleksanyan be given emergency medical treatment, but, according his lawyers, Russian authorities have ignored the Strasbourg-based court's order (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15, 2008). At a Supreme Court hearing on January 16, prosecutor Vladimir Khomutovsky said Aleksanyan had HIV/AIDS. Aleksanyan's lawyers said they do not have their client's consent to disclose his illness, Reuters reported. Aleksanyan was arrested in March 2006 and is awaiting trial on charges of fraud and tax evasion. JB

Prosecutors in Oryol Oblast are investigating a local newspaper's decision to publish a translation of an article that appeared in a British newspaper claiming that President Putin is worth $40 billion, reported on January 16. At the end of last year, "Krasnaya stroka" published a translation of an article that appeared in "The Guardian" on December 21, 2007, under the headline, "Putin, the Kremlin Power Struggle and the $40 Billion Fortune." In it, analyst Stanislav Belkovsky was quoted as saying that Putin is worth "at least $40 billion" and that the real total may be "much more." He also claimed Putin "effectively" controls 37 percent of Surgutneftegaz, 4.5 percent of Gazprom, and "at least 75 percent" of Gunvor, the Swiss-based oil trader founded by a friend of Putin's, Gennady Timchenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2007). According to, after "Krasnaya stroka" published the translation, the newspaper's editor, Yury Lebedkin, received a fax from the oblast prosecutor's office asking him to come in to answer questions about the article and to provide a printout of the original from "The Guardian" website. reported that some "local experts" believe the probe was launched by the oblast administration to "put in its place" a newspaper that has criticized both the local and federal authorities, while others believe that in launching the probe, the local prosecutor's office was simply joining the "anti-British campaign" currently under way in Russia. Belkovsky, for his part, told the website the investigation of "Krasnaya stroka" was probably a local initiative not sanctioned by Moscow, but he added that the authorities are looking for any pretext to "pressure" opposition-oriented newspapers. JB

Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov has said that his political party may change its name at its next congress, reported on January 17. The full name of the party that Mironov leads is "A Just Russia: Motherland, Pensioners, Life," after the constituent parties that joined forces to form it. Mironov told the website that the party will drop "Motherland, Pensioners, Life," and add the word "socialist," resulting in a new name: "The Russian Socialist Party 'A Just Russia.'" According to, the name change is connected to the fact that the party has applied to join the Socialist International, which unites more than 160 socialist and social-democratic parties from more than 130 countries. "We are moving from PR signboards to serious ideological development of the party," the secretary of the party's politburo, Nikolai Levichev, told "Kommersant." Liberal Democratic Party head Zhirinovsky, meanwhile, ridiculed A Just Russia's name-change plans, suggesting that "Musorootstoinik" -- meaning "refuse-sedimentation tank" -- was a more appropriate name for the party. "It is understandable why they are changing their name: there are no longer any pensioners or defenders of the Motherland there, and the Party of Life, from the start, was a party of death," quoted Zhirinovsky as saying. "Mironov is an eccentric with strange ideas; now he's attached himself to the word 'socialism.' But people are tired of socialism, and this party won't live long under any name." JB

Russian Railways (RZhD) head Vladimir Yakunin and Armenian Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian signed an agreement in Yerevan on January 16 under which RZhD acquired the rights to manage the Armenian national rail network for a 30-year period, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In addition to an immediate $5.5 million payment to the Armenian government, RZhD will invest a minimum of $570 million into the obsolete Armenian rail network, $220 million of it over the next five years, and pay Armenia 2 percent of its annual revenues. Manukian explained that the deal is the only way to save Armenia's rail network from total collapse. Yakunin for his part said RZhD will not raise cargo tariffs, but will seek to increase cargo turnover. LF

Mukhu Aliyev met on January 16 with the heads of law enforcement and security agencies to evaluate the "counterterrorism" operation launched last month in the village of Gimri in Untsukul Raion, and reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 18, and 28, 2007, and January 7, 2008). Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov told the meeting that the so-called Gimri group of terrorists and saboteurs has made Gimri its base for the past decade, and he listed numerous high-profile crimes for which he claimed its members were responsible. He also claimed the group was subordinate to and took orders from Rappani Khalilov, leader of the so-called Daghestan jamaat within the North Caucasus resistance movement, who was killed four months ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2007). Magomedtagirov further claimed that the fortified bunkers discovered in Gimri give "the impression that the inhabitants were preparing for a war." Aliyev assured the ministry of his full support and encouraged them to request any additional help they need to continue the crackdown. LF

Deputy Prime Minister Rizvan Gazimagomedov and Deputy Mayor Murad Mirzabekov addressed a January 16 session of Daghestan's Public Council that focused on the power outages of recent weeks that have triggered repeated protests by freezing residents, who demand the resignation of President Aliyev and Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 8, 10, and 14, 2008). The session pinpointed as contributing to those outages antiquated infrastructure and the failure to repair or replace it; the inefficiency of the municipal bureaucracy; and the emergence as a result of reforms implemented in recent years of natural monopolies beyond the control of the republic's government. Participants agreed unanimously that the municipal authorities have "practically reduced to nothing" all efforts undertaken by President Aliyev in the two years since his appointment to improve Daghestan's image. LF

Oleg Orlov, who heads the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial, told journalists in Moscow on January 15 that his organization has no information that would confirm recent claims of the use of torture in the Chernokozovo prison in Chechnya, and has itself received no complaints of such abuse, but will investigate the situation there, reported on January 16. International Committee for Problems of the North Caucasus head Ruslan Kutayev said last week he has received a letter signed by 124 Chernokozovo inmates complaining of beatings, torture, and ill-treatment, but an aide to pro-Moscow Chechen Republic human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev subsequently told that several of Nukhadjiyev's staff visited Chernokozovo and talked to prisoners, none of whom complained about conditions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14 and 16, 2008). Orlov added that Chechens serving prison terms elsewhere in the Russian Federation frequently turn to Memorial with complaints of appalling ill-treatment and request the organization's assistance in securing their transfer to prisons in Chechnya. LF

Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party Deputy Chairwoman Heghine Bisharian told a press conference in Yerevan on January 16 that the Armenian authorities are exerting extreme pressure on local government officials, teachers, and medical personnel to secure a victory for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian in the February 19 presidential election or risk dismissal, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. She said her party has received complaints from local officials, whom she declined to identify by name, that they have been ordered to guarantee 90 percent of the vote for Sarkisian. Sarkisian campaign spokesman Eduard Sharmananov dismissed those allegations later on January 16 as slander, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. "We stand for democratic ideas and believe that these elections...must meet democratic standards," he said. Also on January 16, veteran political journalist David Petrosian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that he was summoned and questioned by police the previous day in connection with allegations that he assaulted a young woman canvassing on January 12 on Sarkisian's behalf. Petrosian said he told the woman "quite categorically" to go away as campaigning does not officially begin until January 21, but denied using force. LF

Meeting in Stepanakert on January 15 with the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, Baho Sahakian, who was elected president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic last July, again argued that a republic representative should participate in the ongoing talks on resolving the conflict, Noyan Tapan reported on January 16. He further noted that militant statements by Azerbaijani officials negatively affect the negotiating process, and he reaffirmed his commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully and to embarking on direct talks with Baku. The Azerbaijani online daily quoted Russian co-Chairman Yury Merzlyakov as saying that once the conflict sides have reached agreement on the content of the draft basic principles, work will begin on the final text, and "we are certain that this cannot be done without the participation of representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh as this directly affects the people who live here." The co-chairs then returned on January 16 to Yerevan, where they will meet again with senior Armenian officials; they may then travel again to Baku to brief the Azerbaijani leadership on the content of their talks in Yerevan and Stepanakert. LF

Azerbaijan's Appeals Court rejected on January 16 an appeal by Eynulla Fatullayev, who was editor of the independent publications "Gundelik Azerbaycan" and "Realny Azerbaijan," against the 8 1/2-year sentence handed down to him in October on charges of threatening terrorism, inciting national or religious hatred, and tax evasion, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30 and 31, 2007). Addressing the court, Fatullayev again alleged that the charges against him were fabricated and politically motivated. His lawyer said he will appeal his sentence to Azerbaijan's Supreme Court and, if that fails, to the European Court of Human Rights. LF

The Tbilisi City Court on January 16 rejected five separate appeals against the final results, announced by the Central Election Commission on January 13, of the January 5 preterm presidential election, reported. Those results gave incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili 53.38 percent of the vote. The appeals were filed by the Tavisupleba (Liberty) party on behalf of the nine-party opposition National Council and its presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze; the Labor party; defeated candidates Gia Maisashvili and Badri Patarkatsishvili; and the Union of Teachers of Georgia. The court similarly dismissed a request by the opposition New Rightists for a recount of the vote in seven districts, Caucasus Press reported on January 16. Also on January 16, the Tbilisi mayor's office rejected an application by the National Council to stage a demonstration in Tbilisi at any time between January 19-21, reported. The opposition planned to convene a mass protest demonstration on January 20 to coincide with Saakashvili's inauguration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2008). LF

The Tbilisi City Court on January 16 sentenced businessman and defeated presidential candidate Patarkatsishvili in absentia to two months' pretrial detention, Georgian media reported. On January 10, the Prosecutor-General's Office brought formal charges against Patarkatsishvili of plotting to overthrow the government and to assassinate a senior government official; Patarkatsishvili's legal adviser Shalva Khachapuridze rejected those charges as unjust, unfounded, and politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10 and 11, 2008). Patarkatsishvili currently lives abroad. LF

A group of some 800 Kazakh miners at the Tentek mine in the central Kazakh region of Karaganda staged a one-day strike on January 16 to demand higher pay and improved working conditions, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to Ivan Sheredekin, the director of the mine, the striking miners presented a list of demands through their labor union leader, Marat Mirgayazov, which included better pay and safety measures in the wake of a deadly explosion only a few days earlier at the nearby Abai coal mine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). That explosion, reportedly triggered by methane gas, left at least 30 miners dead. A similar explosion in 2006 at another coal mine in Kazakhstan killed some 41 people. RG

Speaking to reporters in Astana, Kazakh Deputy Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Bolat Akchulakov on January 16 announced plans to expand the country's oil-refining and -processing capabilities, Kazakhstan Today reported. He said that the goal was to expand oil processing at refineries by some 500,000 tons of oil, to reach a target level of 12.5 million tons of oil for 2008. He added that in 2007, Kazakh oil refineries processed some 12 million tons of oil and produced 2.6 million tons of gasoline, 3.9 million tons of diesel fuel, 2.6 million tons of fuel oil and 258,900 tons of paraffin. RG

In a report to the Kazakh parliament in Astana, Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Valery Petrov announced on January 16 the schedule of rocket launches from the Baikonur Space Center, ITAR-TASS reported. The schedule, covering the first quarter of 2008, sets the launch cycle for some 32 Proton-type rockets. The Russian space agency Roskosmos recently concluded a long-awaited settlement with Kazakhstan providing compensation for environmental damage resulting from a Proton rocket crash in September 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007), agreeing to pay Kazakhstan $2.4 million for damage resulting from the falling debris and subsequent contamination from the crash (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and 11, 2007). Leased by Russia, the Soviet-era Baikonur facility is one of the world's leading space facilities and is regularly used to launch commercial and military satellites, as well as supply missions for the International Space Station. Two other Proton rockets crashed at Baikonur in 1999, leading to the imposition of a suspension on all launches at that time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7 and 8 and November 3, 1999). RG

A trial of 15 defendants charged with terrorism opened on January 16 in a district court in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Presiding Judge Shara Bisembieva told reporters that the defendants were charged with nine separate criminal offenses, including "setting up and managing a terrorist group, promoting terrorism, and publishing calls for committing acts of terror." With the trial closed to the public, little is known about the case except that the defendants were initially arrested in April 2007 during a police operation targeting so-called Islamist extremists in the south of the country. RG

The head of the parliamentary faction of the opposition Social Democratic Party, Isa Omorkulov, announced on January 16 that the party intends to challenge a Kyrgyz court decision to impose a $572,000 fine on the party for "material damage to the public budget" resulting from the cost of printing new ballots in the recent parliamentary elections, AKIpress reported. The initial ruling by the Bishkek district court upheld a motion filed by the Prosecutor-General's Office in favor of the Central Election Commission, forcing the party to pay the costs of the new ballots, which were printed after Social Democratic Party member Edil Baisalov posted pictures of a sample ballot to be used in the December 16 elections on his personal website (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2007). Baisalov was subsequently threatened with charges of "obstructing elections and inflicting material damage on the state" for the incident, which election officials argued would "assist" in producing forged ballots. RG

Prominent Kyrgyz human rights activist Maksim Kuleshov was arrested on January 16 in front of the Bishkek mayor's office and charged with violating a recently tightened law on "public rallies," according to AKIpress and the website. Kuleshov, who heads the Mir Svet Kultury (Peace is the Light of Culture) civic group, attempted to stage a small demonstration calling for democracy and criticizing Bishkek Mayor Daniyar Usenov. An unidentified police official told reporters that Kuleshov failed to secure official permission for his demonstration, explaining that Kuleshov notified the municipal authorities only two days prior to the event, rather than the 10 days' advance notice now required by the recently revised law on public events. On the same day, Bishkek district court Judge Muktarbek Alymkulov denied a motion filed by several human rights activists, including Kuleshov, which sought to overturn the new restrictions on public rallies and demonstrations. The new restrictions were adopted by the Bishkek city council in late November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). RG

In a ceremony in Tashkent, recently reelected Uzbek President Islam Karimov presided on January 16 over own his inauguration to another seven-year term as president, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Karimov was reelected with some 88 percent of the vote last month after overcoming a constitutional ban on serving more than two terms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). The December 23 election was soundly condemned by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as "neither free nor fair" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). In his formal inauguration speech, Karimov pledged to "faithfully serve Uzbekistan's people, strictly abide by the constitution and the republic's laws, guarantee the citizens' rights and freedoms," and to "conscientiously fulfill duties entrusted to the president," Uzbek Television reported. Uzbekistan has never held an election judged to be free or fair by Western election monitors and Karimov was easily reelected in 1992 and 2000, garnering 92 percent of the vote in the latter. He also had both those terms in office extended through national referendums in 1995 and 2002. RG

Belarusian authorities on January 16 sentenced several more activists for their participation in the January 10 protest against the restrictions on small-business activities, and detained 10 youths for their participation in the action of solidarity with political prisoners in Belarus, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. A court in Mahilyou sentenced Valadar Tsurpanau, an organizer of the January 10 vendors' protest there, to 10 days in jail for violating the law on mass events. Minsk courts sentenced student Yulia Siutsova and Karen Akopau, a member of the Movement For Freedom, to 15-day terms for participation in the January 10 protest in Minsk. Police detained three members of the youth wing of the Belarusian Popular Front, who came to the court in order to support Siutsova, and seven activists of the unregistered Youth Front organization, who displayed their solidarity with Artur Finkevich, an imprisoned leader of the organization, in central Minsk. AM

Ukrainian delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Hryhoriy Nemyra on January 16 reached a compromise with the EU over questions regarding export duties, thus removing the last obstacle on Ukraine's path to joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "This is the first step towards greater Ukrainian integration with the global and the European economy, " European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said. He told the UNIAN news agency that Ukraine agreed to limit its export duties and not to raise them in the future, but did not provide further details. The EU earlier demanded the annulment of all export duties from Ukraine, while Kyiv proposed a moratorium on the introduction of new export duties, as well as not raising existing duties. AM

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on January 16 that "there will be no more half-shady or shady privatizations in Ukraine," RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "All objects will be privatized in a completely transparent way, in open auctions," she said. First Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchynov announced that the government has approved a list of 28 Ukrainian enterprises that should be privatized in the first instance. The Odesa Portside Plant, the country's second-largest chemical plant, and Ukrtelekom are on the list, which Turchynov said is incomplete. The government assumed revenues of 8.5 billion hryvnyas ($1.6 billion) from the privatizations in its 2008 budget. AM

Tomislav Nikolic, the head of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), is the front-runner of nine candidates as Serbs head into the presidential election on January 20, a poll published on January 15 has revealed. Nikolic's lead over President Boris Tadic -- 21 percent compared to 19 percent -- is within the statistical margin of error, but Nikolic's reversal of Tadic's previous lead in a poll conducted by the same pollster, the Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID), augurs well for his prospects and may reflect the extreme nationalist's efforts to reach out to more moderate Serbs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11 and 15, 2008). The poll also suggests the election will go to a second round, as election rules require the winner to garner at least 50 percent of the vote. Nikolic spent January 16 in the ethnically divided Kosovar city of Mitrovica, telling a rally of around 2,000 ethnic Serbs that "I will never turn my back on you" and that "without Kosovo there is no Serbia." Nikolic's stance on Kosova is similar to that of other Serbian politicians, all of whom insist that Kosova must remain part of Serbia, and in recent days he has stated that he would not go to war over Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9 and 15, 2008). He has, though, said that he would be prepared to send troops into Kosova if NATO failed to protect Serbian civilians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2008). Mitrovica has been a focus of ethnic tensions in Kosova throughout the period of the UN's supervision of Kosova. AG

Ramush Haradinaj, a former prime minister of Kosova, should be sentenced to 25 years in prison for war crimes, prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) argued on January 15. Their demand came at the end of a 10-month trial in which witnesses have testified that Haradinaj failed to stop troops of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) under his command from harassing, beating, expelling, abducting, torturing, raping, and killing Serbian and Romany civilians during a 1998 campaign allegedly targeting ethnic Serbs and collaborators in the western region of Dukagjini. Haradinaj and his two co-defendants -- his uncle Lahi Brahimaj and Idriz Balaj, commander of an elite unit in the UCK -- face 37 charges, and prosecutors argued that all three "participated enthusiastically in the joint criminal enterprise," international media reported. All three pleaded not guilty. No date has been set for the court's ruling, but defense lawyers are due to present their closing statement on January 21. Haradinaj stepped down as prime minister in March 2005 when the indictment was issued, but the reluctance of witnesses to come forward has fueled criticism of the close relationship of officials in the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) with Haradinaj (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, March 2 and 6, October 1, and December 19, 2007). AG

Norway announced on January 15 that it plans to extradite to Serbia a Croatian Serb wanted for his alleged involvement in the 1991 Vukovar massacre, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2006). The Norwegian Justice Ministry said that it believes "there are sufficient grounds for suspecting" that Damir Sireta "committed war crimes against at least 200 people" following the fall of Vukovar to ethnic-Serbian forces in 1991. In all, at least 264 ethnic Croats and other non-Serbs were tortured and killed in the same massacre, at a pig farm in Ovcara, outside Vukovar. Croatia has also been seeking the extradition of Sireta since 2006, but Norway decided that Sireta should be returned to Serbia because, according to a ministry statement quoted by Reuters, Serbia's indictment "evidently comprises the most serious conditions." In absentia, a Serbian court has already sentenced Sireta, who has been living in Norway since 1998, to 12 years for the wartime murder of a prisoner. Serbian courts have so far sentenced 14 men to a total of 219 years in prison for their role in the Ovcara massacre (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2 and 14, and April 11, 2007). The UN's ICTY has so far jailed two commanders for their role in the crime, Mile Mrksic to 20 years and Veselin Sljivancanin to five years. Those sentences have been angrily condemned as too light by Croatia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1 and 16, November 1, and December 6 and 14, 2007). Croatia has itself has now issued a fresh indictment of a third officer, Miroslav Radic, who was found not guilty by the ICTY (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 29, 2007). AG

During the third quarter of 2007, police in the Republika Srpska questioned 25 people about the whereabouts of wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, local media reported on January 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008). Another eight people were questioned about another suspected war criminal, Stojan Zupljanin, the report said. Karadzic oversaw the creation of the Republika Srpska during the war and it has remained in existence as one of two autonomous regions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The report, which covers the period from July to September 2007, is a regular, quarterly summary sent to the ICTY summarizing efforts made to find war criminals. No mention was reportedly made of Karadzic's military commander, Ratko Mladic. The ICTY believes Mladic is in Serbia and Zupljanin is in Bosnia, but says it has no idea where Karadzic is (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). Police in the Republika Srpska predicted in September that Zupljanin would be caught "soon," but no progress has been reported since (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2007). Karadzic, Mladic, and Zupljanin are three of four men still wanted by the ICTY. The fourth, Goran Hadzic, is a Croatian Serb and is thought to be in Serbia. AG

Bosnia's chief war crimes prosecutor, David Schwendiman, announced on January 16 that his office has sent a report to the Republika Srpska police about its preliminary findings regarding the alleged participation of 36 police officers in the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995. No details were provided and the investigations are ongoing, but Schwendiman said he expects the head of the region's police force, Uros Pena, "to take certain steps in accordance with his competencies." He also said his office will open a special branch in Srebrenica by the end of March. All of the men were suspended from their posts in July 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2007). The highest-ranking officer affected is the Republika Srpska's deputy director, Dragomir Andan. The Republika Srpska itself two years ago compiled a list of 810 serving officials suspected of involvement in the atrocity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25 and June 20, 2007). Schwendiman took up his post in November with the promise that prosecutors would "outwork" and "outsmart" the thousands of Bosnians who may have been involved in war crimes and bring even the most powerful to justice (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2007). AG

2007 was a bad year for freedom, according to a prominent rights-advocacy organization that has registered a global decline in political rights and civil liberties for the second consecutive year.

In its annual "Freedom Of The World" report released today, the New York-based group Freedom House found that one-fifth of the 193 countries it studied suffered setbacks last year. None of the states that earned the lowest designation, "not free," in 2006 showed any improvement last year, and it was the first time in the report's 15-year history that a two-year decline had been recorded.

The former Soviet republics were among the worst performers, with parliamentary elections late in the year in Russia, rated "not free," highlighting the perilous environment in the region's most influential state.

"It's fair to say that freedom is seriously lacking in this region or unit, that is to say the former Soviet Union," Freedom House Director of Studies Chris Walker told RFE/RL. "Of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics, seven of those are assessed by Freedom House as 'not free,' four are 'partly free,' and one is 'free' [Ukraine]. So, it's a very challenging landscape for freedom in that part of the world."

Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are among the "worst of the worst" countries in the world in terms of human rights, and are joined on the list of "not free" countries by Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

Two countries looked upon as examples of positive democratic change, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, both rated "partly free," took steps backward -- with Russia's influence in obstructing reforms being noted in the case of Kyrgyzstan.

"There were big hopes for Kyrgyzstan and Georgia that if new people came to power, then [the new governments] would apply democratic principles by their actions and pressure [on the opposition] would stop," Ilim Karypbekov, director of the Media Representative Institute in Kyrgyzstan, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

"However, if you look at Georgia, protest rally participants were beaten up again," Karypbekov continues. "At the same time, international observer missions showed that the [Georgian presidential] election was held under enormous pressure [on the opposition] and with the use of administrative resources. The same happened in Kyrgyzstan's [early parliamentary elections in December 2007]."

Joining Kyrgyzstan and Georgia among the former Soviet republics considered "partly free" were Armenia and Moldova.

The best of the bunch is Ukraine, which Walker says remains "free" because it has competing factions with well-defined positions, and a population that accepts the results of well-conducted elections.

Democracy in Georgia, rated "partly free," suffered in 2007 due to President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili's ability to dominate the political scene. The imposition of a state of emergency and a violent police crackdown on opposition rallies late in the year served to highlight the country's problems, according to Freedom House, but Walker notes that there is room for vocal dissent in the country.

Russia is a different matter altogether, according to Walker.

"2007 was a pivotal year for authoritarian consolidation in Russia in part due to the manipulated parliamentary elections in December, and the managed succession process which really revealed itself by the end of the year where it became very clear that there would not be an opportunity for ordinary Russians to have an open and fair selection of their next president," Walker says.

A man in Nizhny Novgorod, who requested anonymity, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that "I've never been to other countries, so I can't say how the situation in our country is different from theirs. But compared to the Soviet Union, I don't see any radical changes." "We never had freedom even though they tried to create it in the 1990s," the man adds. "What we are left with now, at least in my opinion, is a semblance of freedom."

A man in Yekaterinburg, meanwhile, tells the service that freedoms in Russia cannot be compared with those in European countries. "I think we're at the level of Central Asian countries where rights and freedoms basically exist on paper but in reality [are not upheld]," he says. "The presidential election campaign has exceeded all limits because there is a cult of personality, and that is taking us back to the past."

Of the former communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe, most advanced on the road to freedom, according to the report. Only Latvia -- rated "free" -- and Bosnia -- rated "partly free" -- showed signs of moving backward during 2007.

Aneta Grosu, editor in chief of the weekly investigative magazine "Ziarul de Garda," describes the situation in Moldova, which retained its "partly free" rating.

"Year by year it is more difficult with freedoms in Moldova: with press freedom, freedom of different opinions, human rights," Grosu tells RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service. "And for us, journalists, it is more and more difficult to do our job in these circumstances. Access to information is more limited, there is tougher punishment for what the authorities call libel, sometimes we face threats or acts of revenge from people we write about."

The report characterized Iran as "not free" and called it a "dictatorship," accusing it of not only suppressing the rights of its people, but also of imposing its influence on other countries through the support of Muslim militants.

Iraq, too, is rated "not free" because it has limited freedom, given the persistent sectarian fighting between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims that poisons daily life in much of the country.

Walker says the annual report is meant to be studied by all those with influence in the countries that are rated, from government officials to members of the local news media. The point: to spark debate about how freedoms can be improved.

Sometimes, however, governments react with hostility, Walker says, again pointing to Russia as an example.

The work of nongovernmental organizations, including Freedom House, has been increasingly scrutinized in Russia, which argues that some countries use such entities work to spread their influence in Russia.

Recently Russia opened branches of its own Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris and New York, with the intention of improving Russia's image abroad.

The organization's chairman, Anatoly Kucherena, recently told "The Moscow Times" that the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation 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."

Walker says that "attacks on our findings" aren't based on the substance of the report. And, he says, too often governments criticized in the report fail to debate such findings with the country's opposition.

"The local civil society in the country like Russia should have a right to talk about these findings without fear of reprisal and the hope is that it will help identify areas of concern, areas where there are problems, areas where there are possibilities for improvement so that domestic institutions can take the steps to make those improvements," Walker says. "I think that ultimately is the fundamental hope here."

(Andrew Tully is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Washington, D.C. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev interviewed Freedom House's Christopher Walker.)

On January 15 the Taliban issued a statement threatening foreigners patronizing restaurants and hotels in Kabul with suicide-bombing attacks in an attempt to further restrict their freedom of movement and work in Kabul and beyond, international media reported. "We will carry out a wave of attacks on restaurants, guest houses and other places frequented by foreigners," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. "They are not safe anymore." Western aid workers and diplomats are concerned at the prospect of a terror campaign directed against foreign civilians, who since 2001 have largely been spared violence in Afghanistan. The latest suicide attack, on Kabul's Serena Hotel, has highlighted the problem of how to protect the thousands of foreigners working on aid and reconstruction projects in Kabul, where there is no Baghdad-style protected Green Zone. Western organizations with offices and employees in Kabul are reportedly reviewing their security arrangements. MM

"The Times" of London reported on January 16 that the former high representative of the international community in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 2002-06, Lord Paddy Ashdown, is expected to become the next UN's special envoy in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10, 2007). The daily said that Ashdown is interested in the position provided the mandate includes powers beyond the UN, combining the position with representing NATO and the Europeans in Afghanistan as well as additional authority from the United States and the Afghan government, thus becoming a "super envoy" with a comprehensive and robust mandate to manage and coordinate international security and development efforts. If confirmed, the position would give Ashdown a central role in the international effort to restore stability in Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban insurgency. Ashdown refused to confirm the rumors and told "The Daily Telegraph" that "no decision has been made yet and no announcement has been made." MM

Speaking to reporters on January 16 in St. Petersburg, Florida, U.S. Navy Admiral William Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, said that recent violence and instability inside Pakistan has prompted Pakistani leaders to conclude that they must focus more intensively on Al-Qaeda hideouts near the border with Afghanistan, Afghan and international media reported. He viewed this as a significant shift from Pakistan's historical focus on India as a source of threats to its national security and much more in line with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' recent comment that Al-Qaeda terrorists hiding in the border area are increasingly aiming their campaign of violence at targets inside Pakistan. "My sense is there is an increased willingness to address these problems, and we're going to try to help them," Fallon said, adding that the U.S. assistance would be "more robust," but refusing to discuss details. A U.S. military incursion into Pakistani territory to combat Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants remains a highly sensitive subject among Pakistanis. MM

ISNA reported on January 15 that the price of natural gas that Turkmenistan sells to Iran has risen from $42 per 1,000 cubic meters over the past two years to $75, and observed that "this little exporter" may now be emulating Russia by using gas as a means to pressure Iran and force it to pay even more. Turkmenistan cut supplies of gas to Iran despite sub-freezing temperatures late in December 2007. Iranian Oil and Gas Minister Gholamhossein Nozari said recently that talks on raising the price for Turkmen gas to $140 will resume only when supplies are restored. The news agency reported that Russia's Gazprom has raised the price it pays Turkmenistan for gas from $100 to $130 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gas supplies have given Russia some political leverage in the past with importers like the EU and neighbors Belarus and Ukraine. ISNA added that the head of the Iranian parliament's Energy Committee, Kamal Daneshyar, has suggested taking Turkmenistan to an international court for cutting off Iran's gas supplies. Separately, Ahmad Nurani, a trade official or attache at the Iranian Embassy in Ankara, has said Iran plans to export gas to Turkey through a separate pipeline to prevent a repetition of the recent cut in gas exports, Fars reported on January 15, citing Turkish newspapers. Nurani said Iran halted exports to Turkey recently because export gas was running through Iran's domestic, nationwide gas supply system, which saw a fall in pressure and interruptions due to rising demand. VS

Mohammad Rezaian, the head of the Behesht-i Zahra Organization, which manages Tehran's main cemetery, was quoted as saying on January 14 that there has been a 15-20 percent rise in the morality rate in Tehran in "recent days" following the recent cold spell and heavy snowfalls, Radio Farda reported on January 15. Iranian media have reported just under 200 deaths in the nationwide cold spell of the past fortnight -- for various reasons including car crashes, gas leaks in homes, or carbon-monoxide poisoning. Tehran-based journalist Hamid Reza Aria told Radio Farda on January 15 that there are differing figures for deaths of homeless people in Tehran in recent days, but he gave a figure of 22-25. He said the death rate is in any case "more than the figure reported by news agencies." Aria said the Tehran city government committed itself four years ago to identify and give shelter to Tehran's homeless; Aria said the city has built three shelters in three areas in Tehran in the past two years. He indicated that people who take refuge in the shelters were also subjected to medical examination that led those infected with HIV or hepatitis to be sent for medical treatment. VS

Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar attended the opening at an unspecified location on January 15 of a production line for 35-millimeter antiaircraft guns, which are designed to fire on planes, helicopters and missiles, Fars news agency reported. The new artillery model is equipped with radar, and was described as having a short range and "very high firepower." Mohammad-Najjar praised the quality of the product and the speed with which he said the ministry's manufacturing arm developed it. He said the Defense Ministry will begin mass production of the gun after successful tests, Fars reported. VS

Three directors of the state-run National Iranian Gas Company convicted of receiving bribes have been given jail and whipping sentences, judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi told a press conference in Tehran on January 15. He said their sentences have to be confirmed by a higher court. Jamshidi said a judiciary department handling corruption cases gave the three unnamed directors 10-year prison terms and fines, ordered them to be whipped 74 times each, and banned them from state-sector service for life. They were convicted of receiving bribes from contractors over various projects. Jamshidi said each convict is to repay the state about $2.5 million, ISNA reported. Jamshidi added that two contractors involved in the case have been fined and given three-year jail terms. VS

Mahmud Alizadeh-Tabatabai, a lawyer for the detained head of the Association in Defense of Prisoners' Rights, Emadeddin Baqi, told ISNA on January 15 that Baqi's case has been sent to a branch of the Revolutionary Court. He said Baqi was detained in October last year in relation to the case, which he said relates to his activities on behalf of prisoners' rights. VS

In a January 16 interview with Reuters, UN special envoy to Iraq Staffan de Mistura said that the passing of the Accountability and Justice Law was an encouraging sign for Iraq, despite his earlier misgivings about the country's political situation. "At the beginning of the year we were worried...we were genuinely concerned by the lack of progress on national dialogue," de Mistura said. "Today that has substantially changed. It has changed our mind from being worried or from being pessimistic," he added. The new law, unanimously passed on January 12, was a revision of the de-Ba'athification law, which paves the way for thousands of former Ba'athists who lost their jobs following the downfall of the former regime to return to their government and military posts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). De Mistura also indicated that the law's passage would encourage him to present a positive picture of progress in Iraq in his upcoming report to the UN Security Council. He said the report will "compliment" the Iraqi government's work on fostering national reconciliation. However, he warned that Iraq still needs to pass more key legislation, including a revenue-sharing oil law and a provincial-elections law. "Iraq needs to maintain the momentum, 2008 is going to be a crucial year," de Mistura stressed. SS

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on January 16 that it expects to see Iraq's economy grow in the next two years, international media reported the same day. Mohsin Khan, director of the IMF's Middle East and Central Asia department, said he expects 7 percent growth in Iraq's GDP in 2008 and 7-8 percent growth in 2009, up from just 1.3 percent in 2007. The forecasted growth is mainly due to high oil prices and an expected increase in oil production. With regard to Iraq's oil production, Khan sees "at least" an increase of 200,000 barrels per day, bringing the total to 2.2 million barrels per day. "Of course, all of this is conditional on oil-production expansion and the security situation improving," Khan cautioned. He also said Iraq shows "very impressive" signs of progress toward economic reforms, including strengthening of the central bank and a sharp curb on inflation. SS

A woman wearing an explosive belt blew herself up on January 16 in a crowded marketplace in the Diyala Governorate, killing eight people and wounding seven, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. The attack occurred near a Shi'ite mosque in the town of Khan Bani Sa'd, near the provincial capital of Ba'qubah. Suicide attacks by women in Iraq are relatively rare, but this was the second such attack in the governorate this month. On January 2, a female suicide bomber blew herself up at a checkpoint manned by members of a local awakening council in the town of Ba'qubah, killing 10 and wounding 23. Among those killed was Abd al-Rafa'a al-Nidawi, a Sunni leader who coordinated between U.S. forces and members of the group fighting terrorists in the city. SS

The Iraqi government announced on January 16 that it will impose a vehicle curfew in 10 governorates during the festival of Ashura in an attempt to prevent violence, state-run Al-Iraqiyah reported the same day. The Interior Ministry announced that all traffic will be banned from January 17 to January 19. The governorates affected are: Baghdad, Babil, Al-Basrah, Diyala, Dhi Qar, Karbala, Maysan, Al-Muthanna, Al-Najaf, and Wasit. Interior Ministry spokesman General Abd al-Karim Khalaf said that roads leading to Karbala, where the festival reaches its climax, will be sealed off to all private vehicles except for buses transporting pilgrims. This year, security for the festival has been stepped up after clashes erupted in August 2007 between security forces and members of Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army during the religious festival in Karbala that left 52 people dead. Among the security precautions are roadblocks, snipers taking up positions on rooftops, the deployment of 25,000 soldiers and policemen along the pilgrimage route, and the use of aircraft to keep watch from above. Pilgrims are also forbidden to carry mobile phones or be accompanied by children. Ashura, which means "the 10th" in Arabic, falls on the 10th day of the Muslim month of Muharram. It commemorates the killing of Imam Husayn, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, by the armies of the Caliph Yazid in Karbala in 680. SS

Production at the Bayji oil refinery was stopped on January 16 due to a power failure, the Voices of Iraq news agency reported. An official at the refinery, who requested anonymity, said production was halted due to the disruption of electricity lines to the facility. Oil Ministry spokesman Assim Jihad added that the power disruptions were very costly, as "any disruption, even for five minutes, would require 24-30 hours to restore the gradual operation of the refinery units one by one." Meanwhile, the Electricity Ministry rejected these claims, instead saying the production stoppage was due to the refinery being completely dysfunctional. "Electricity would not be cut except in an entire blackout, which would not exceed two hours," a spokesman for the Electricity Ministry said. This is the second Iraqi oil refinery to halt production in three days. On January 14, a massive fire at the Al-Shuiba oil refinery in the southern city of Al-Basrah forced it to temporarily shut down. Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani blamed the fire on a hovering coalition helicopter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2008). SS

The U.S. military announced in a statement on January 16 that Iraqi forces found a significant weapons cache in the Baghdad district of Al-Rashid. The statement said the seizure of the cache occurred on January 14 and included 16 sticks of plastic explosives, 17 blasting caps, three rocket-propelled grenade boosters, and five mortar fuses. It said that an Iraqi citizen also handed over a bag containing several rocket-propelled grenade warheads. All the weapons were subsequently handed over to coalition forces for disposal. U.S. spokesman Major Kirk Luedek praised ordinary Iraqi citizens for helping Iraqi and coalition forces uncover illegal arms. "We are proud of the Iraqis who are determined to make their communities safer by showing us these munitions," he said. SS