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Newsline - January 23, 2008

The foreign ministers from the UN Security Council's five permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- plus Germany reached agreement at a meeting in Berlin on January 22 on a new Security Council resolution on Iran's nuclear program. AFP, citing RIA Novosti, quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying after the meeting that the new draft resolution envisages direct talks with Tehran that would include the United States. "It's clearly confirmed by the resolution that direct negotiations on resolving all questions related to the Iranian nuclear program -- with the participation of all six powers, including the United States -- would be initiated if Iran accepts the proposals of the six," Lavrov told Russian journalists. He added that the proposed text does not foresee fresh sanctions against Iran, although Western media reported that it does call for tightening existing travel and financial sanctions. Lavrov said the new wording "not only acknowledges, but salutes progress made by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in clarifying aspects of Iran's nuclear program." Lavrov said Iran has promised to deliver answers on outstanding questions put to it "within the next two or three weeks." AFP quoted a senior U.S. official as saying the new resolution "increases the severity of the sanctions already in place and will also introduce new elements." The official hailed the close cooperation between Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the issue, saying the United States and Russia over the previous four to five days "worked very hard together to try to make progress." Iran's official IRNA news agency reported on January 22 that Russia has delivered a fifth consignment of fuel for Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, bringing the Russian deliveries of nuclear fuel to Iran so far to 55 tons, or two-thirds of the total order of 82 tons. JB

Russian Air Force spokesman Colonel Aleksandr Drobyshevsky said on January 22 that two Tu-160 strategic bombers made a long-distance flight to the Bay of Biscay off the coast of France, where the Russian Navy is holding a large-scale exercise. The two bombers "carried out a series of military training tasks and conducted tactical missile launches," ITAR-TASS quoted Drobyshevsky as saying. British and Norwegian fighters intercepted and followed the two Tu-160s as they headed for the Bay of Biscay. JB

Serbia's government on January 22 adopted a draft agreement on energy cooperation with Russia, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on January 23. Under the deal, Serbia will be included in the South Stream gas pipeline project to take Russian gas to Europe under the Black Sea, while Serbia in return will sell a majority of NIS, the state oil monopoly, to Gazprom's oil unit, Gazprom Neft, for a price still under negotiation. "Kommersant" on January 23 quoted Serbian Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic as saying that the agreement will be signed in Moscow on January 25, and that it is "the best news for Serbian businessmen and our citizens." The newspaper quoted "a source familiar with the course of the talks" as saying that Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko will sign the agreement on behalf of Russia. JB

"Kommersant" reported on January 23 that Russia is ready to intervene in Serbia's presidential election in order to ensure that Boris Tadic, Serbia's EU-leaning incumbent president, defeats nationalist Serbian Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic in the presidential runoff election, set for February 3. The reports of Russian backing for Tadic ignore the fact that Nikolic, who beat Tadic 39 percent to 35 percent in the first round of voting on January 20, is so pro-Russian that he "even speaks of his readiness, in the event of his victory, to accommodate a Russian military base in Serbia at the ski resort in Kopaonik," "Kommersant," reported. Moscow fears that Nikolic, if he wins the presidency, will sever relations with any country that recognizes Kosova's independence, according to the daily. "The possibility that Serbia will turn into a rogue nation, albeit one loyal to Moscow, will disrupt the ambitious plans of Gazprom, for which Serbia is just one of the points of its ongoing European expansion," the newspaper wrote. Citing unnamed sources, "Kommersant" reported that Russia has invited Tadic and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to visit Moscow this week, and that Moscow is expected to try to convince Kostunica to support Tadic in order to ensure the latter's re-election. "The paradoxical nature of the situation consists in the fact that despite the European Union's negative attitude toward Gazprom's strengthening position in the Balkans, the political interests of Moscow and Brussels in a strange way coincide. Both Russia and the EU are counting on Boris Tadic's victory [with] each side reasoning from their own, non-intersecting interests in the Balkans." JB

First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov on January 23 blamed Russia's space agency, Roskosmos, for "operational shortcomings" in its Global Navigation Satellite System, or Glonass, the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). According to RIA Novosti, Ivanov complained that Russia's satellite group does not provide total accessibility to Glonass services across Russia, and that production output at the plants that manufacture the satellites remains inadequate. "Devices on the satellites have not yet reached the necessary reliability level," Ivanov said. "Unfortunately, competitive domestic navigation equipment is still not available on the Russian market." JB

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is President Vladimir Putin's chosen successor as president and is widely expected to win the March 2 presidential election, presented parts of his campaign platform during a speech to the national Civic Forum in Moscow on January 22, Russian media reported. Before an audience of some 1,300 representatives of public organizations and standing before a banner reading, "Russia, Forward!," Medvedev spoke mostly about social issues, saying it is "indisputable" that civil society "is an element of political life." He pledged that in the future the government "will maintain a steady course toward the development of a free society." He said the focus of social policy must be the individual. "It is for the individual that we must develop those spheres into which the state has lately invested significant resources -- health care and education, social support, employment, culture, housing, demographic and media policies." He added that Russia has "a good chance" of becoming "a prosperous, successful state." Medvedev said the state can only flourish with "a free information space," adding that "an inseparable part of that is influential and free mass media." Public Chamber member Eduard Sagalayev told that Medvedev's comments signal that the government will finally move to create a genuinely independent public broadcaster, an initiative that has been stymied since the collapse of the Soviet Union. RC

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov is seriously considering pulling out of the March 2 presidential election, Russian media reported on January 23. Zyuganov has repeatedly stated that he will step aside unless candidates are given equal access to the media and if the resources of the executive branch are used to support the candidacy of the pro-Kremlin candidate, First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev. Zyuganov has also called on Medvedev to participate in campaign debates. "Vedomosti" reported that Communist Party officials have begun drawing up the necessary documents to withdraw Zyuganov's candidacy. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted that the Communist Party attempted to withdraw its candidate, Nikolai Kharitonov, during the 2004 presidential election, but officials refused to remove him. Political analyst Mikhail Rubin wrote on on January 23 that withdrawing from the race would make sense for Zyuganov: "Citizens support [Communist platform planks such as] restoring the death penalty, nationalization, state price controls, and spending from the Stabilization Fund," Rubin wrote. "However, under current circumstances when access to television is strictly limited for the Communists, Zyuganov cannot realize this potential." However, Rubin concluded that the Communists have always reached deals with the Kremlin in the past and predicted that this election year will be no exception. "The Communist leader needs the noise surrounding the possibility of withdrawing more than he needs withdrawal itself," Rubin wrote. RC

An analysis of the Russian media in the one-month period ending on January 21 by the Medialogia research firm has found that First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev has dominated the media, reported on January 22. Medvedev was mentioned in the media 4,295 times and quoted 1,352 times, compared to 1,143 mentions and 90 quotes for second-place Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Considering only national television, Medvedev again was the leader with 142 mentions and 71 quotations. None of the references to him were negative. Zhirinovsky again placed second with 43 mentions and 11 quotations, with one negative reference. By comparison, former Prime Mikhail Minister Kasyanov was mentioned 31 times with six quotations and one negative reference. In terms of airtime, Medvedev received six hours and 22 minutes of coverage, compared to one hour and 53 minutes for Zhirinovsky and 57 minutes for Kasyanov. A Levada Center poll released on January 22 found that 60.4 percent of Russians support Medvedev, 7.5 percent back Zhirinovsky, 6.1 percent will vote for Communist leader Zyuganov, and 0.9 percent are backing Kasyanov. Some 10 percent said they will not vote. RC

The Central Election Commission announced on January 21 that an initial check of 400,000 of the signatures submitted by former Prime Minister Kasyanov in support of his bid to run in the March election has revealed that some 15 percent of them (62,000) are invalid, Russian media reported on January 22. A rate above 5 percent is sufficient for officials to deny registration, meaning that it is extremely unlikely Kasyanov will be allowed to participate in the vote. The commission will conduct a second check of Kasyanov's signatures by January 30. Central Election Commission member Yelena Dubrovina said the failure rate of the first check was so high that even if all the signatures checked in the second round are found to be valid, the overall failure rate will be more than 10 percent (in the second check, officials examine only 200,000 signatures). Election officials and prosecutors in numerous regions are also investigating allegations that Kasyanov's campaign staff intentionally falsified signatures, reported. Election officials also announced on January 21 that Democratic Party candidate Andrei Bogdanov will be registered for the election, since only some 3.2 percent of his signatures were deemed invalid. RC

At least three local groups in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug have in the last month filed petitions with local election officials calling for a referendum on preserving the region's status as a separate subject of the Russian Federation, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on January 22. The government has begun taking steps to merge the region into Arkhangelsk Oblast, and in November an agreement was signed under which some of the region's autonomy was transferred to the oblast. Under Russian law, it is extremely difficult for citizens to initiate referendums and election officials have numerous legalistic means for denying such petitions. RC

With the political transition proceeding smoothly and no signs of a colored revolution in Russia, the Kremlin no longer has need of the youth organizations it created in the run-up to the December Duma elections, "Novye izvestia" reported on January 22. The Nashi, Young Guard, Young Russia, and Mestnye (Locals) groups are now struggling to find roles for themselves, according to analysts questioned by the daily. Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky said that, contrary to the expectations of many youth activists, "the ruling class is in no hurry to let anyone else into key positions -- not the young, not the old, not anyone from the outside." Ilya Yashin, head of the youth wing of Yabloko, told the daily the pro-Kremlin youth activists feel "unneeded" and disenchanted. A few senior leaders have been granted positions in the new political structure: former Nashi leader Vasily Yakemenko now heads the State Youth Committee (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 26, 2007); his brother, Nashi ideologue Boris Yakemenko, is a member of the Public Chamber; Young Guard official Andrei Turchak has joined the Federation Council; and four or five others were elected to the State Duma. Several pro-Kremlin ,s, including former Young Guard Political Council member Aleksei Radov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2008) and Nashi leader Nikita Borovikov told the daily it is likely the organizations will be merged into a single structure modeled on the Soviet-era Komsomol. The daily added that even opposition youth groups are experiencing a crisis of confidence, with Belkovsky noting that "cynicism and disenchantment are growing among the young." RC

A car bomb containing the equivalent of some 20 kilograms of explosives detonated at 6 p.m. local time on January 22 in the center of Nazran, killing the driver and injuring three other people, reported. The website quoted unnamed Ingushetian security officials as working on the assumption that the driver was a resident of Daghestan who planned to stage an act of terrorism in Ingushetia. Almost simultaneously, unidentified gunmen opened fire on a minibus in Nazran, injuring four of the eight passengers, who included senior staffers of the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (FAPSI) on temporary assignment in Ingushetia, reported. One of those wounded died later from his injuries. On January 20, telephone communications in Ingushetia were temporarily disrupted after unidentified perpetrators fired several grenades at the main post office in Nazran, reported on January 21. LF

Maksharip Aushev, one of the organizers of the demonstration in support of President Putin's antiterrorism policies planned for January 26 in Nazran, was summoned on January 21 to the republican prosecutor's office, where he was questioned and threatened by Prosecutor Yury Turygin and Interior Minister Colonel Musa Medov, according to Aushev was reportedly then taken to a local police station, where the officers on duty purportedly refused to comply with Medov's demand that HE be detained for 15 days. After some 600 people gathered outside the police station to demand Aushev's release, he was allowed to go free. Aushev and co-organizer Magomed Yevloyev issued a statement on January 22 affirming that the Nazran demonstration will go ahead as planned, reported. LF

Campaigning on January 22 in Armenia's southern Armavir district, Vahan Hovannisian, the presidential candidate of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), which is a junior partner in the coalition government headed by presidential front-runner and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, harshly criticized abuses of the existing election system, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. "Presidential or parliamentary elections always create a situation in Armenia in which those who have come to power owe their success, their victory not to you, but to criminal or semicriminal clans, wealthy individuals, oligarchs, senior government officials, who bring them votes on a plate by trampling on your rights, by crushing, deceiving, and bribing people," said Hovannisian. "That is lip service. The authorities do not benefit from that or become healthier as a result. But they are accustomed to eating from that plate," which only an HHD candidate can smash, he concluded. LF

Draft laws on freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are not among the draft legislation to be debated during the spring session of the Milli Mejlis, Iqbal Agazade, who heads the parliament's human-rights commission, told on January 23. On January 8, the online daily quoted presidential administration official Cingiz Asqerov as saying the proposed amendments to the existing law on freedom of assembly, which were drafted during discussions between the Azerbaijani authorities and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, are ready and have been sent to parliament. Parliamentarian Panah Husein of the opposition Musavat faction likewise complained to on January 22 that several bills he co-drafted have not been circulated among his fellow deputies. The bills are on political parties, former presidents, and oil. The fate of a fourth draft law, on corruption, drafted by former Justice Minister and Adalat party Chairman Ilyas Ismailov, also remains unclear. LF

In a January 22 letter to Mikheil Saakashvili congratulating him on his reelection for a second term as Georgian president, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso acknowledged Georgia's "undeniable success" over the past four years in promoting economic reform, combating corruption, and reforming state institutions, reported on January 23. But at the same time, Barroso noted that the crackdown in Tbilisi in November 2007 and the conduct of the January 5 preterm presidential ballot demonstrate that "Georgia still faces formidable challenges to foster a genuine democratic culture in its political body and to achieve a more effective separation of institutional powers." He expressed confidence that the Georgian authorities will ensure that the shortcomings observed during the January 5 vote will not be repeated during the parliamentary elections later this year. Also on January 22, several hundred people attended a demonstration convened by the Conservative party, a member of the nine-party opposition National Council, outside the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi to protest what they termed Washington's support for the falsification of the ballot to give Saakashvili a first-round win over the National Council's candidate, Levan Gachechiladze, reported. LF

Late on January 19, Kazakh police found German journalist Marcus Bensmann beaten unconscious on the side of a road in Astana, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Bensmann was assaulted by an unknown assailant and suffered a concussion and broken jaw, as well as from severe frostbite after being left in subzero temperatures. The 39-year-old Bensmann was flown to Germany for further medical care after being stabilized in a Kazakh hospital, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported on January 22. He was working in Kazakhstan on an assignment to produce a documentary for German television and is well-known as a writer on Central Asian affairs, including several articles critical of the Uzbek government. He is married to Uzbek journalist Galima Bukharbaeva, an eyewitness to the bloody crackdown on demonstrators by security forces in the Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005. RG

Prime Minister Karim Masimov on January 22 issued orders for the purchase of the Almaty International Airport by the Samruk state holding company, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. In a statement released in Astana, Masimov explained that the "airport has strategic importance," arguing that it "must be owned by the state." The airport is the largest and busiest air hub in the country and, according to data released by the Transport and Communications Ministry, accounts for roughly half of all passenger traffic and an estimated 68 percent of air-cargo traffic. The facility handles some 2.5 million air passengers each year. RG

In a report to a meeting of Kazakhstan's state agency for regulating natural monopolies in Astana on January 22, Deputy Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Duisenbai Turganov issued a detailed proposal for greater investment in the energy sector, according to Kazakhstan Today. Turganov called for some $21 million in state investment to fund a long-term strategic development plan to modernize the energy sector by 2015. The plan calls for the modernization of the "electricity generation, distribution, and transmission sector," in accordance with a strategic energy plan approved by Prime Minister Masimov. For his part, Masimov announced on January 22 at the same meeting his endorsement of a proposal to amend the law on energy-saving measures, instructing the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry to "speed up" a revised program on energy saving, incorporating a set of recommendations from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. RG

The Kyrgyz parliament on January 22 approved Janyl Alieva as a new member of the Supreme Court, the website reported. Heading the effort to elect Alieva, parliamentarians Ishak Masaliev and Alisher Sabirov said that according to the Kyrgyz Constitution, the new judge will join the court as soon as she is sworn in, adding that she may then run as a candidate to assume the chairmanship of the Supreme Court. But the parliament ignored the deputies and voted to name Alieva the new Supreme Court chairwoman, making her the country's first female Supreme Court chief justice, AKIpress reported. That role has been vacant since the recent dismissal of Kurmanbek Osmonov by the parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2007). The parliament also elected Abibila Abdugaparov, an adviser to President Kurmanbek Bakiev, as a member of the Constitutional Court and, according to parliament speaker Adakhan Madumarov, both new judges will be sworn in on January 25, AKIpress reported. RG

Meeting in Bishkek on January 21, Alimbai Sultanov and Rustam Nazarov, the heads of the Kyrgyz and Tajik counternarcotics agencies, signed a bilateral cooperation agreement to coordinate efforts to uncover drug-smuggling routes and combat drug trafficking, Asia-Plus and the Avesta website reported. According to Vaysiddin Azamatov, the first deputy chief of the Tajik Drug Control Agency, the agreement also targets the link between drug traffickers and the financing of "international terrorist activity," and includes plans to stage joint cross-border operations aimed at disrupting the drug trade in the region. The agreement also establishes new programs for joint training and intelligence sharing based on the shared threat from the smuggling of heroin, opium, and marijuana by organized criminal groups operating in Afghanistan. RG

Speaking to reporters at a press conference in Dushanbe, Sherkhon Salimov, the director of the Tajik Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption, on January 21 accused the state-owned DushanbeGaz natural-gas distributor of embezzlement and corruption, Asia-Plus reported. Salimov charged unnamed officials with embezzling some 3.8 million somonis (over $1 million) through a complicated criminal scheme to skim money from purchases of cement and other building material during the construction of a DushanbeGaz subsidiary. Separately, Salimov also reported on the results of several investigations carried out by his agency, saying that it "instituted criminal proceedings against 127 officials of public management bodies, officers from the law enforcement and power-wielding structures as well as representatives from judicial authorities on charges of abuse of office, bribery, and embezzlement of state funds" last year. The Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption was first established in January 2007, merging anticorruption responsibilities previously held by several other bodies, including the State Financial Control Committee, the Main Tax Police Directorate, and the Directorate for Combating Corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2007). RG

The governor of Tajikistan's northern Sughd region, Qohir Rasulzoda, announced on January 21 that the region suffered an estimated 23 million somonis (about $6.7 million) in "economic damages" from electricity shortages last year, according to Asia-Plus. Speaking to reporters at a press conference in the city of Khujand, Rasulzoda, who was also recently elected as a deputy speaker of parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20, 2007), added that a series of power cutoffs over the past year have inflicted particularly severe damage to the region's cotton-processing industry. RG

A joint Tajik-Russian counterterrorism exercise opened on January 21 at the Russian military base outside Dushanbe, ITAR-TASS reported. The exercise, centered on testing a joint command-and-control system operated by Tajik and Russian officers, involved over 800 soldiers conducting operations using tanks, artillery, and aircraft targeting "terrorists" in several simulations in both desert and mountainous terrain. RG

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon met on January 22 in Dushanbe with the head of U.S. Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, to discuss "security and cooperation" between Tajikistan and the United States, according to Asia-Plus. Fallon, the commander of all U.S. military forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, expressed his appreciation for Tajikistan's assistance for coalition operations in neighboring Afghanistan and hailed Rahmon for agreeing to host Afghan military cadets at the Dushanbe Military Institute for international training. With a first stop in Tajikistan, Fallon is on a regional tour and is set to travel on to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. He was last in Tajikistan in November 2007 where he met with Rahmon and Defense Minister Colonel General Sherali Khayrulloev and concluded an agreement to provide training for the Tajik Army's peacekeeping force (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2007). RG

Alyaksandr Lukashenka on January 22 suggested that the opposition, under the guise of protecting businesses, is attempting to destabilize the country, Belapan reported. The previous day, small-business activists held an unsanctioned demonstration in Minsk to protest the presidential decree that, starting on January 1, restricts the activities of certain small-business owners. "We should not permit the destabilization of the country by an opposition that is hiding behind slogans about some protection of business," Lukashenka said. "Money and investors do not like marches on squares, some rumpus, but they, the opposition, seem to want destabilization. That is why we cannot allow calm and peaceful Minsk to come to a boil." Lukashenka said that small-business owners comprised "a 10th" of those gathered, adding that they left the demonstration "claiming that they were framed." AM

Minsk district courts on January 22 sentenced seven participants in the January 21 protest against restrictions on the activities of small businesses to terms in jail and others to fines, the Vyasna human rights group reported on its website ( Artur Pyatsko, Viktar Kuklish, Syarhey Shautsou, and Uladzimir Nyapomnyashchy received 15-day sentences; Andrey Kim received a 10-day sentence and a fine of $490; Andrey Presnyak received a 10-day sentence; and Alyaksey Bondar received five days in jail. The remaining detainees were sentenced to fines: Andrey Sharenda -- $818; Yury Bakur and Mikhail Subach -- $654; Liliya Subach, Alina Hladkaya, and Ales Krutkin -- $490, Viktar Buhayeu, Vadzim Barouski, Alyaksandr Hrabyanchuk, Mikalay Dzemidzenka, Alyaksandr Lyubyanchuk, Valantsin Sakalouski, and Kanstantsin Balahura -- $327; and Andrey Sauchuk and Tamara Sauchuk -- $245. AM

President Viktor Yushchenko said on January 22 that the Verkhovna Rada during its ongoing session should pass a draft bill abolishing parliament deputies' immunity from prosecution, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Vyacheslav Kyrylenko of the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) and Ivan Kyrylenko of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) on January 21 submitted the corresponding draft to the parliament. The annulment of parliamentary immunity must first be approved by a simple majority in the Verkhovna Rada, then confirmed by the Constitutional Court, and finally the 450-seat parliament must approve it by a two-thirds majority. The coalition of the BYuT and NUNS controls 228 seats in the Verkhovna Rada. AM

President Yushchenko met on January 22 with leaders of parliamentary factions and called on them to nominate representatives to the National Constitutional Council, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko created the Constitutional Council in December 2007 in order to prepare a new version of the Ukrainian Constitution. Yushchenko told the meeting that at least 230 candidates to the council have been proposed so far, including representatives of four parties represented in the parliament. "The opposition must be involved to the maximum. This is of crucial significance for me," Interfax quoted Yushchenko as saying. Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the opposition Party of Regions, said that his party is holding off on nominating its candidates until a meeting with the president. "If we are at the start and if we are beginning to move along this way, our party will undoubtedly participate," Yanukovych said. AM

Kosova and its international allies have already set a date for Kosova to declare its independence and the date will be made public "in the coming days," Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci told reporters on January 22. Thaci emphasized that the decision was "coordinated" with the European Union and the United States. Thaci will be heading to Brussels on January 25 to meet with the EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, the secretary-general of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and the Dutch diplomat who will head the EU's planned mission to Kosova, Peter Feith. The general expectation to date has been that Kosova will declare itself a state shortly after Serbs choose their next president on February 3. AG

The Serbian government agreed on January 22 to sell Serbia's largest energy company, Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS), to the Russian energy giant Gazprom. Details of the deal will be agreed on January 25, when Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic flies to Moscow. The price for the controlling, 51 percent stake in NIS is one of the key details yet to be agreed, the government said, but the deal is expected to include cash -- Gazprom has so far offered to pay 500 million euros ($725 million), according to the highest figure reported -- as well as a commitment from Gazprom to route a gas pipeline through Serbia and build a storage unit, local media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). The importance of the deal was underscored by several ministers, with Ilic describing it as "Serbia's most important strategic deal" and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica declaring that it will "secure stable and regular energy supplies...for the next few decades." However, the government's smallest party, G17 Plus, refused to vote because, as its leader, Economy Minister Mladjan Dinkic, stated, "the agreement remains incomplete and can be improved." Dinkic has consistently criticized the perceived rush to a deal, arguing on December 29 that "I am in favor of negotiations with the Russians -- but for negotiations, and not to go with our hands up" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). Among the details that have yet to be settled is where the pipeline will run, with uncertainty about whether it will be part of the main South Stream pipeline -- which will run to Italy -- or an offshoot pipeline (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2007). Russia and Serbia's neighbor, Bulgaria, in mid-January agreed that part of the South Stream pipeline should pass through Bulgaria. The EU expressed concern on January 10 about a possible NIS-Gazprom link-up, saying that the European Commission "hopes that the sale of an important asset such as the Serbian oil company will be open and driven by objective, commercial and economic interests" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). AG

Two Kosovar police officers and a member of the UN-administered province's civil emergency corps were arrested on January 21 for a bomb attack on a coffee shop in central Prishtina in September 2007, AP and local media reported. The blast killed two people, including a police officer, injured 11 people, and destroyed four buildings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 25, 2007). Police gave no names, details, or motives, but did state that more arrests are likely. The blast occurred near a cafe-bar whose owners are widely suspected of -- but not charged with -- involvement in the killing of a member of an elite police unit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 6, 2007). The latest in a series of bomb blasts in Prishtina in the past year occurred on January 20, in an upscale neighborhood (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). The number of people reported injured has now risen from four to five, but none are in a serious condition. The daily "Koha ditore" reported on January 22 that one, unnamed person has been arrested in connection with that incident. The motive for the attack remains unclear. AG

Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu marked the second anniversary of the death of his predecessor, Ibrahim Rugova, by visiting Rugova's grave in a cemetery in the capital, Prishtina, on January 21. Speaking to a crowd that included diplomats and Kosovar officials, Sejdiu described Rugova as "the father of the modern state of Kosova," local media reported. Rugova was also the founder of Sejdiu's party, the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), the dominant force in Kosovar politics during the 1990s and during much of the 2000s. However, Rugova's insistence on seeking independence for Kosova through nonviolent means was eclipsed in 1998-99 when the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) launched a separatist campaign. The UCK's political leader, Hashim Thaci, is now Kosova's prime minister, following the victory of his party, the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK), in parliamentary elections held in November. The PDK has since formed a grand coalition with the LDK, which has been in government ever since one was formed following NATO's intervention in 1999. AG

Figures from Serbia's January 20 presidential election suggest that the winner of the first round, the nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, won particularly strong support among ethnic Serbs in the disputed province of Kosova. Nationally, Nikolic secured 39 percent of the vote, but in Kosova his support was 42 percent, the news service Balkan Insight reported. Nikolic chose to make the ethnically divided and sensitive town of Mitrovica one of his last campaign stops in an effort to accentuate his credentials as a defender of Serbia's sovereignty over Kosova, and his position as an extreme nationalist is deemed a significant factor in his first-round victory, even though both he and his chief rival, President Boris Tadic, insist on Serbia's continued sovereignty, reject the possibility of going to war over Kosova, and reserve the right to send troops into Kosova to protect the Serbian minority (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). AG

Two of Hollywood's brightest stars, George Clooney and Sharon Stone, have voiced support for Serbia's attempt to retain sovereignty over Kosova, German and local media have reported in recent days. Clooney told the Serbian-language, Frankfurt-based daily "Vesti" on January 19 that "I will, with my colleague and friend Sharon Stone and her childhood friends, who are of Serb origin, organize a protest soon over the attempt to have Kosovo declare independence," the paper quoted him as saying. The Serbian news agency Tanjug reported on January 21 -- citing unnamed foreign media -- that two other stars, Sean Connery and Richard Gere, have also voiced support for Serbia's case. AG

The latest round of talks aimed at settling Greece's dispute over Macedonia's name ended on an optimistic note on January 21, with the UN's mediator, Matthew Nimetz, saying, "we are definitely making progress." He added that an agreement on the 16-year dispute might be within reach following what he described as "the best meeting so far, with both parties demonstrating willingness for ironing the differences." He did not indicate whether any new compromise proposals were made. At Greece's insistence, Macedonia has been referred to in most international forums as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" for most of its existence as an independent state and, although over two-thirds of the UN's members recognize Macedonia under its constitutional name, "the Republic of Macedonia," Greece's public stance has hardened over the past year, with Athens threatening to veto Skopje's attempt to join NATO and the EU. Going into the meeting, there was no indication that either side would compromise, the news agency Makfax reported. However, Macedonian media reported that Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki suggested during the talks that the two countries should first make a public declaration of friendship in which Macedonia would state that it has no claims on or aspirations to Greek territory. Despite repeated Macedonian avowals to the contrary, Greece believes that Skopje's insistence on the use of the name Macedonia hides a longer-term determination to lay claim to the northern Greek province of the same name. In December, Macedonia also proposed the creation of a historical committee to address points of difference in the two countries' historiography. Macedonia is willing for Greece to refer to Macedonia using a name of its choice, but insists on being able to use its constitutional name with the rest of the world. The latest meeting, which was held in the Macedonian town of Ohrid, is part of an attempt to instigate more regular contacts between the two countries' negotiators (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 6, and December 5, 12, and 20, 2007). Further talks will be held in Athens in two weeks' time. AG


Afghan President Hamid Karzai on January 21 held an extraordinary session of the Council of Ministers to discuss key issues of governance and security, the Bakhtar news agency reported. Karzai expressed his satisfaction that few incidents occurred during the recent Ashura celebrations, and noted the "fraternal environment" between Sunnis and Shi'a "realized by religious scholars and noble people across the country." Also during the session, Finance Minister Anwarulhaq Ahady provided an update on national development priorities and fund allocations laid out in the next five-year budget, and emphasized economic development and employment opportunities as essential to ending poverty and social unrest in Afghanistan. MM

The "Kabul Times" reported on January 21 that President Karzai has asked the United Nations to clarify "some vagueness" regarding the role of the new UN special envoy in Afghanistan, Paddy Ashdown. The request reflects the concerns of some Afghan officials over the extent of Ashdown's authority in Afghanistan. Ashdown's reported role as a "super envoy," as the media have labeled him, and the fact that he comes from Britain, a former colonial power in Afghanistan, have raised fears that he might undermine the authority of the Afghan government in the eyes of the public. The "Anis" daily newspaper said in an editorial that "Ashdown should know that he is only the coordinator of UN programs in Afghanistan. He lacks competence to determine our policy." The editorial added that the perception that a powerful foreign administrator contributes to determining policies in Afghanistan is likely to cause indignation among the Afghan public and further complicate the political and security environment. MM

Abdul Manaf, the governor of Gereshk district in Helmand Province, on January 21 confirmed that district residents have held several scattered demonstrations against purported desecrations of the Koran by British troops, Britain's "Daily Mail" reported. The protesters claim that British forces threw copies of the Muslim holy book on the ground. Manaf suggested that Taliban militants and their allies might have started the rumors to incite violence and promote antigovernment feelings among the local population. A witness told the "Daily Mail" in a phone interview that "villagers told [the British troops] that there were no Taliban hiding in the villages, and swore by copies of the Koran they had in their hands," but "the British soldiers threw away the Koran and began searching the houses." A spokesman for the British forces, Lieutenant Colonel Simon Millar, in southern Afghanistan acknowledged that a small demonstration took place, but said no troops desecrated the Koran. Allegations of desecration of the holy book have in the past led to violent demonstrations against the presence of the international security forces and the government of President Karzai. MM

Poor farmers cultivating poppies in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province complain that no other form of livelihood is possible due to the lack of infrastructure, the high cost of fuel, and water shortages, the BBC reported on January 22. A farmer told the BBC that "I only have a small area of land and 10 people in my family... I can only grow enough wheat to last two months on this land, so the only way to feed them is growing poppies." British counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan have largely failed to curb local farmers' reliance on the drug trade, which is also blamed for fueling the Taliban insurgency, corruption, and instability. David Belgrove, the head of the British counternarcotics team in Afghanistan, said that "to stop poppy production [requires] more than just law enforcement. It's a complex thing of establishing the rule of law, building alternative livelihoods, building access to markets, education -- and all of these things are very difficult to deliver in an unstable environment." MM

At a meeting in Berlin on January 22, foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany agreed to intensify existing sanctions on Iran for its suspected failure to comply with the international nuclear nonproliferation regime, agencies reported. The reports did not reveal the precise contents of the agreement, but a draft text is to be presented to the Security Council for discussion in the coming days, AP reported. Iran has refused to suspend its nuclear-fuel production activities, which are thought to have potential military applications. Tehran maintains that its nuclear program is strictly civilian and that it has a right to make fuel for nuclear power generation. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the press in Berlin on January 22 that the six powers agreed "on the content of the next Security Council resolution," and more broadly on working to prevent Iran's "nuclear armament." An unnamed U.S. official told AP that the new resolution seeks to increase "the severity of sanctions, and...expands the sanctions in some of the categories," such as travel bans and freezing assets for Iranian citizens and companies thought to be involved in the nuclear or missile-development industries. VS

The former U.S. envoy to the United Nations, John Bolton, said on January 21 that U.S. military action against Iran in response to its nuclear program is "highly unlikely" in 2008, but warned that Israel might take military action to prevent Iran from gaining access to nuclear weapons, AFP reported. Speaking on the sidelines of a conference in Herzliya, Israel, Bolton said that UN sanctions are not likely to stop Iran's nuclear program, and that in the absence of U.S. action, Israel might strike Iran "if it feels Iran is on the verge of acquiring that capability." Iranian officials, including President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, have repeatedly stated their opposition to Israel's existence. Meanwhile, Israel has reacted skeptically toward a U.S. intelligence report, released late in 2007, that concluded that Iran probably stopped its nuclear-weapons development program in 2003. "The pressure is on Israel now after the National Intelligence Estimate, because, I think, the likelihood of American use of force has been dramatically reduced," Bolton said. He said the regional "calculus" would change if Iran became a nuclear power, and "the preemptive use of force or the overthrow of the Iranian regime has to come before they get the weapon," AFP reported. VS

Iranian reformists on January 22 reported that many registered candidates for parliamentary polls scheduled for March have been disqualified, Radio Farda reported that day, citing Iranian agency reports. A spokesman for the Reformist Coalition Headquarters, Abdollah Naseri, said the disqualified candidates include members of the last, reformist-dominated parliament, and of the Participation Front and the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organization -- two reformist parties that have publicly criticized the government of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The registrants were disqualified by electoral executive boards appointed by the Interior Ministry to check candidates' backgrounds. The head of the Interior Ministry's election headquarters, Alireza Afshar, earlier said that 3,000 hopefuls had criminal or legal records of varying gravity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). The records of some former lawmakers might include prosecution on slander-related charges for critical speeches they made in parliament and elsewhere. Tehran-based academic Sadeq Zibakalam told Radio Farda that "clearly...the governing system is very serious about the disqualifications." He said he believes moderate reformist figures associated with former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi and his National Trust Party may succeed in entering the next parliament, Radio Farda reported on January 22. Some of the reformist figures whose candidacies have reportedly been accepted are Mohammad Reza Aref, a vice-president in the government of Mohammad Khatami; Ishaq Jahangiri, Morteza Haji, and Ahmad Khorram, respectively the ministers of industry, education, and transport under Khatami; and former legislators and leftist clerics Majid Ansari and Rasul Montajabnia, Radio Farda stated. VS

A man convicted of killing a married couple in Khorramabad, western Iran, was hanged in public early on January 22, "Kayhan" reported the next day. The unnamed killer reportedly stabbed the couple to death in their home with a sharp object. VS

Four Iranian students arrested in late 2007 were released on bail on January 21, "Etemad" reported the next day. The students were identified as Ruzbeh Safshekan, Mohsen Ghamin, Ruzbahan Amiri, and Anusheh Azadbar. Their parents had to post bail ranging from just over $30,000 to a little over $150,000, the daily reported. The report indicated they were among leftist students arrested in December for taking part in protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5 and 10, 2007). The daily reported that judicial authorities have set bail for seven other students, and that their parents or other relatives are trying to raise the money. ISNA separately reported on January 21 that a branch of the Revolutionary Court has acquitted three women's rights activists of charges of disrupting the public peace, resisting arrest, and threatening national security. Susan Tahmaseb or Tahmasebi, Fatemeh Govarai, and Asieh Amini were charged after taking part in protests in Tehran in March 2007, but were acquitted after an investigation and court hearings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 9, 2007). VS

The Iraqi Council of Ministers on January 22 overwhelmingly approved a draft law modifying the national flag, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. The new flag design will have the same colors and keep the words Allah Akbar (God is Great), but remove the three stars at the center. The stars symbolized the former Ba'ath Party slogan of unity, freedom, and socialism. Iraqi Kurds have bitterly complained about the existing flag, saying it is associated with the former regime's oppressive policies, including the 1987-88 Anfal campaign that killed an estimated 180,000 Kurds. In 2006, the Kurdish authorities banned the use of the flag at all public buildings in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The issue became even more contentious when the Kurds adamantly refused to fly the Iraqi flag during the upcoming pan-Arab meeting, scheduled to take place in the Kurdish region on March 10, raising the potential for embarrassment for the Iraqi government. Azad Barami, a Kurdish lawmaker, applauded the new flag. "The Kurds are happy with the change because they have suffered a lot of miseries under this [old] flag. This is a victory not only for the Kurdish coalition, it is a victory for all [Iraqis]," Barami said. The design for the new flag is intended to be used for just one year, while discussions continue on a final design. SS

A dispute between Iraqi parliamentary blocs has stalled the passage of Iraq's $48 billion budget for 2008, international media reported on January 22. The dispute centers on a demand by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that 17 percent of the budget be allocated to their semi-autonomous region, based on population estimates, and that the national defense budget also be used to pay for the regional Kurdish Peshmerga security forces. But several lawmakers say that in the absence of an accurate census, the Kurds should only receive 12 percent and allocate funds for the Peshmerga themselves. Usama al-Nujayfi of the secular Iraqi National List said the Kurds' demands present a major problem. "Kurdistan's share of 17 percent is not fair, and the Peshmerga allocations should be taken from Kurdistan's allocations, not from the Defense Ministry," al-Nujayfi said. SS

The Iraqi government on January 22 announced that it has extended to February 18 the deadline for foreign firms to apply for service contracts linked to the development of Iraq's oil fields, AFP reported. Asim Jihad, a spokesman for the Iraqi Oil Ministry, said that more time is needed to prepare the documents related to the service contracts. "The deadline was extended from January 31 to February 18," Jihad said. "A ministry committee has invited international companies to apply for service licenses related to the extraction of oil, the development of oil fields, and the deployment of expertise, equipment, and training for projects that will be implemented by Iraqis," he added. Jihad said the contracts will be valid for two years, after which the firms will be allowed to bid for more lucrative long-term resource exploitation contracts. SS

A suicide bomber on January 21 attacked a funeral in the town of Hajaj in Salah Al-Din Governorate, killing at least 17 people and wounding more than 11, Iraqi media reported. Local police said the bomber targeted a funeral tent where approximately 70 mourners were gathered to pay respects to Antar Muhammad Abid, a relative of Salah Al-Din Deputy Governor Ahmad Abduallah al-Jaburi. Police believe that the intended target of the attack was al-Jaburi, who escaped unharmed. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing. However, an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the funeral was attended by several members of a local Awakening Council, and that suspicions therefore fell on Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Awakening Councils are a collection of local Sunni tribes who have organized themselves to rid the region of Al-Qaeda in Iraq elements. SS

A suicide bomber on January 22 detonated his explosives near a boys' school in the city of Ba'qubah, capital of Diyala Governorate, killing one person and wounding at least 22, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Local security officials said the man was wearing an explosives belt and pushing a booby-trapped cart when he set off the blast at the main entrance to the Al-Jawahiri Preparatory School. An official at the Ba'qubah General Hospital said 17 students and four teachers have been treated so far, many of them for serious injuries. Diyala Governorate is one of the most violent regions in Iraq and the site of ongoing fighting between U.S. and Iraqi forces and Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Ba'qubah and the surrounding areas have witnessed several suicide bombings in the last week. On January 17, a suicide bomber attacked a Shi'ite mosque in the city, killing eight people and wounding at least 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2008). On January 16, a female suicide bomber blew herself up in a crowded marketplace in the town of Khan Bani Sa'd, near Ba'qubah, killing eight people and wounding seven (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2008). SS

The U.S. military announced in a statement on January 22 that its forces have arrested a key member of Al-Qaeda in Iraq's Baghdad network. The suspect is believed to be a "direct subordinate of the network's senior leader." The military said the suspect was "involved in attacks against coalition forces, beheadings, sniper and improvised explosive device attacks, and foreign terrorist facilitation." U.S. military spokesman Major Winfield Danielson said the arrest was another blow to the Al-Qaeda in Iraq network. "Iraqi and coalition forces continue our efforts to drive Al-Qaeda in Iraq members and other extremists from their hiding places, and bring them to justice," Danielson said. SS