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Newsline - January 24, 2008

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at his annual start-of-the-year news conference on January 23 that Russia and NATO need a new approach to security that offers collective security "without detriment to the security of others," and Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and October 2, 2007, and "RFE/RL Newsline," End Note, September 6, 2007). He noted that collective security depends on European countries as well as the United States and Russia. Lavrov slammed NATO expansion as "a policy inherited from the Cold War" and "not seriously motivated by security concerns." He added that "we hear that NATO enlargement is not directed against Russia... But [imperial German Chancellor Otto von] Bismarck said that in politics, especially in military affairs, you have to judge not intentions but potential. And the potential, the military spending, is increasing." Lavrov said that "future cooperation between Russia and Ukraine depends to a large extent on how [Ukraine's movement towards NATO membership] develops." He said that "we have our understandable, legitimate, explicit, and transparent interests in the post-Soviet region, but we intend to realize these interests through cooperation based on mutual respect and mutual benefit." He argued that "many people assume that Russia has such a firm position on Kosovo and warns that [its declaration of independence] will set a precedent just because it [secretly wants this] to happen in order to begin recognizing" other regions declaring independence near Russia. However, he said, "the Russian leadership has never said that after Kosovo we will immediately recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia." He said that Russia did not interfere in the recent Georgian presidential vote, "unlike others." Lavrov noted that Russia supports the strengthening of the EU, especially through its new Treaty of Lisbon, but he objected to what he called the manipulation of EU solidarity by individual countries against Russia. In this respect, he singled out Britain in the ongoing dispute over the right of the British Council to operate in Russia (see below), along with unnamed "neophytes" in the bloc. PM

The Russian daily "Gazeta" noted on January 24 that Foreign Minister Lavrov said the previous day that Russian foreign policy is based on pragmatism and not ideology. Lavrov added that Russia now has the political and financial resources to return to the world stage. The daily "Kommersant" suggested on January 24 that Lavrov was "optimistic" in his views on the future of the CIS. "The Moscow Times" wrote on January 24 that Lavrov "lashed out repeatedly at the European Union, saying that 'a reorganization of European architecture'" is one of Russia's top objectives for 2008. The "International Herald Tribune" on January 24 reported that Lavrov's comments on NATO "were unusually toughly worded." PM

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 23 that unspecified talk of a new Cold War between Moscow and Washington is "hyperbolic nonsense," news agencies reported. She noted that "there have been disappointments" in bilateral relations, and called on Russia to work toward a "transparent and open global energy economy." Rice argued that "Russia's greatness will ultimately be secured best through greater political freedom for its people -- and through the establishment of strong institutions that check the power of the state, rather than serve the interests of a few." She also met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Davos on January 23. After the meeting, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that Rice "reiterated the U.S. view that NATO should leave the door open to those European, democratic states [that] meet membership requirements" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2007). In Brussels on January 23, a NATO spokesman said that the alliance has invited President Vladimir Putin to attend the April NATO summit in Bucharest, AP reported. The news agency noted that Putin last met with NATO leaders outside Rome in 2001. In Moscow on January 23, Dmitry Rogozin, the new Russian ambassador to NATO, said that "the prospect of holding such a meeting depends largely on the [state] of our relations on key issues," Interfax reported. PM

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said in Davos on January 23 that Russia remains a "haven" for investors, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27 and October 1, 2007). He added that the Russian economy continues to be stable despite the turbulence on stock markets elsewhere. He argued that "over the past few years, Russia has managed to achieve economic stability piling up substantial international reserves, which play the role of an airbag. I believe Russia will soon be the focus of [international] attention as a haven of stability." RIA Novosti reported on January 23 that Russia's Stabilization Fund stood at $157 billion on January 1, 2008, up from $89.1 billion one year earlier. On January 24, Aleksandr Shokhin, who heads the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists (RSPP), said in Moscow that "the liquidity crisis in the U.S. economy" could affect Russian companies' ability "to finance large-scale projects requiring stable volumes of commodity exports," RIA Novosti reported. PM

The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights released a report on January 23 saying that Turkey and Russia are easily the worst offenders in a ranking chart of the court's human rights judgments for 2007, news agencies reported. The court's president, Jean-Paul Costa, said the majority of Russian complaints concerned rights abuses in Chechnya. Ukraine and Poland are the third and fourth-worst offenders on the court's list. The German weekly "Der Spiegel" once described the Strasbourg court as a "beacon of hope" for Russians, many of whom have little confidence in their own judicial system. More Russian citizens file cases in Strasbourg than do citizens of any other country belonging to the Council of Europe. President Putin has called many of the resulting court rulings politically motivated. PM

Igor Sazhin, the leader of the Memorial human rights group in the Republic of Komi, told RFE/RL's Russian Service from Syktyvkar on January 23 that his organization filed a suit earlier that day against the Russian Foreign Ministry for closing down the British Council's regional offices. He said that "there are no grounds for closing down information centers such as the British Council. [The ministry's move] is essentially illegal. There should have been a court decision [first], at least." Sazhin stressed that "the state must return to [observing] the law, and if they want to close [the British Council offices] they should do it in accordance with the law on culture, which says that citizens have the right to information. It is precisely the purpose of the British Council" to provide information, he said. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 18, and 22, 2008). On January 24, an unnamed Foreign Ministry representative was quoted by Interfax as saying that the "ministry's position is legal. That will become obvious to any court if it holds a hearing on the matter." The ongoing dispute over the right of the British Council to operate in Russia is widely seen as part of the continuing row between the two countries stemming from the 2006 London murder of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko. PM

IBM said in a statement on January 24 that Moscow State University has bought a Blue Gene supercomputer in the first sale of such technology to a former Soviet republic, Reuters reported from Moscow. The news agency noted that the "device is capable of 27.8 trillion operations per second [and will be used] in research on nanotechnology and [other] scientific applications, such as modeling the heart." The U.S. government uses versions of Blue Gene that Reuters described as almost 20 times more powerful than the model approved for sale to Russia. PM

Central Election Commission (TsIK) member Gennady Raikov announced on January 24 that 13.38 percent of the signatures submitted by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov in support of his presidential bid were invalid. ITAR-TASS quoted TsIK Secretary Nikolai Konkin as saying the result means Kasyanov has less than 2 million legitimate signatures, which constitutes grounds for refusing to register a presidential candidate. Konkin said the inspection of the signatures was completed late on January 23 and that Kasyanov was summoned to the commission's headquarters to receive a copy of the inspection's results but did not appear. Konkin said representatives of Kasyanov received a copy of the final tally on the morning of January 24. An initial check by the TsIK of 400,000 of the signatures submitted by Kasyanov found that some 15 percent of them (62,000) were invalid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2008). JB

TsIK member Siyapshakh Shapiyev said at a press conference on January 23 that the prosecutor's offices in the Republic of Mari El and Yaroslavl Oblast have opened criminal cases in connection with the alleged falsification of signatures supporting former Prime Minister Kasyanov's presidential candidacy, reported. Those accused of falsifying the signatures, if found guilty, could face a large fine or a jail term of up to three years. Shapiyev said signatures in support of Kasyanov's candidacy were also falsified in Kursk Oblast, although the TsIK has not yet received an official letter from the Kursk authorities concerning the violations. on January 23 quoted Stanislav Bisin, head of the TsIK branch in Nizhny Novgorod, as saying that authorities found problems with nearly 50,000 signatures gathered there in support of Kasyanov's presidential run. On January 22, Tatyana Chernyshova, a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office, said petitions supporting Kasyanov's candidacy with false signatures were discovered in the Yaroslavl Oblast city of Rybinsk and that Kasyanov's campaign staffers had "falsified signature lists containing more than 3,500 citizens' signatures," RFE/RL reported. She said an additional 12,000 falsified signatures were discovered in Mari El and that a criminal case has also been opened there. The head of Kasyanov's campaign headquarters in Mari El, Rustam Abdullin, was detained on January 11 on suspicion of forging 50,000 signatures. "RBK Daily" reported on January 24 that Abdullin signed a confession, gave evidence, and asked investigators for leniency but subsequently withdrew his confession, saying it had been forced out him by psychological pressure and threats. JB

Speaking to reporters on January 23, TsIK member Shapiyev said former Prime Minister Kasyanov is not criminally liable for the falsification of signatures on his behalf and that the responsibility lies with the members of his campaign team who falsified signatures and received money for doing so. According to Shapiyev, Kasyanov could be prosecuted as an accomplice only if it is established that he conspired with those who falsified the signatures. "But that is unlikely," quoted Shapiyev as saying. However, the "RBK Daily" on January 24 quoted lawyer Yury Nikolayev as saying that while, in theory, investigators would need to prove Kasyanov's participation in a conspiracy to falsify signatures, in practice investigators could interpret the evidence any way they please and that if they wanted to charge Kasyanov with involvement in such a conspiracy, the burden would be on Kasyanov's lawyer to prove his client's innocence. Kasyanov, for his part, charged during a news conference in Moscow on January 22 that the authorities began carrying out a "massive, large-scale campaign of intimidation" against his staff after his preliminary registration as a potential presidential candidate, "The Moscow Times" reported on January 23. "The authorities are scared of a genuine political fight," he told reporters. JB

Ivan Melnikov, first deputy chairman of the Communist Party's Central Committee and the head of party leader Gennady Zyuganov's presidential campaign, has responded to press reports that Zyuganov is seriously considering pulling out of the March 2 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2008). "Our party is organized in such a way that decisions of such a kind are made exclusively collegially, on the basis of the opinions of communists, assessments, discussions within the party," on January 23 quoted Melnikov as saying. "Currently, raising the question of removing Zyuganov's candidacy from the election is not relevant within our structures.... It's quite another matter that the situation itself, in which the whole administrative resource and administrative technologies work in favor of the candidate from the regime, the situation of a massive informational pumping up of Dmitry Medvedev, may force us to discuss this problem. The reason is simple: we don't want to wind up in a situation in which our candidate becomes a decoration for the accession of the successor. And if we feel that such a scenario is the sole one, then a discussion of this issue will become inevitable. Now this problem is aggravated by the high likelihood of Dmitry Medvedev's refusal [to participate in] debates.... But I repeat: currently, we are taking part in the campaign, aiming at a full-fledged struggle, at a second round of voting." Still, Communist Party Central Committee Secretary Vadim Zolovyov told that the issue of Zyuganov pulling out of the election will become clear in a week or two, adding that Zyuganov might pull out in order not be "a chip in Kremlin games." JB

More than 200 contract servicemen staged a picket in Makhachkala on January 22 to protest their summary dismissal from the ranks of the 42nd Motor Rifle Division permanently stationed at the Russian base at Khankala outside Grozny, reported on January 23. The servicemen alleged discrimination, saying they were demobilized purely on the basis of their ethnicity even though there are no tensions between servicemen from Daghestan and other ethnic groups. More than 500 servicemen from Daghestan have been dismissed in the last few months alone. Following a meeting between some of the men affected and Daghestan's Military Commissar Magomed Tinomagomedov, a commission was established including three parliament deputies and representatives of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers of Daghestan that will travel to Grozny to investigate the situation. LF

Police and security forces have arrested Pavel Novikov, a 21-year-old Russian from the North Caucasus who reportedly converted to Islam and joined the so-called Malokarachayevsk jamaat headed by Ruslan Ionov, and the daily "Kommersant" reported on January 23 and 24, respectively. Novikov is said to have participated in an abortive May 2007 attack on police in Karachayevo-Cherkessia and to have been one of only five members of the jamaat who survived when they were intercepted by the FSB in September 2007 while trying to cross the border into neighboring Georgia. Novikov reportedly then fled to Moscow where he took refuge with his father, who works as a carpenter. LF

The government of North Ossetia has drafted a five-year program of economic and social development for the period 2008-12 intended to attract investment, reduce unemployment, raise real incomes, and ensure the more rational use of government funds, reported on January 24 quoting Economy Minister Zaur Kuchiyev. The total cost of the various measures planned is estimated at 107.7 billion rubles ($4.37 billion). North Ossetia currently relies on federal subsidies for some 60 percent of its annual budget (of the North Caucasus republics, only Adygeya receives a small proportion from Moscow), but according to official statistics, unemployment in North Ossetia is only around 9 percent, compared to 64 percent in Chechnya and 67 percent in Ingushetia. LF

The Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office announced on January 23 the creation of an ad hoc unit tasked with preventing election fraud and reacting swiftly to any reports of irregularities during the February 19 presidential ballot, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The unit will be headed by Deputy Prosecutor-General Aram Tamazian, who told journalists on January 23 that so far he has not seen any evidence of serious violations. Harutiun Hambartsumian, who heads the NGO It's Your Choice, which plans to deploy observers at each of Armenia's almost 2,000 polling stations, told RFE/RL that his organization has registered only minor violations to date, and no allegations of the vote buying that was widely reported during the May 2007 parliamentary ballot. Meeting on January 22 with Ambassador Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, the head of the OSCE Election Observation Mission, outgoing President Robert Kocharian affirmed that the Armenian authorities will take all available organizational measures to ensure that the conduct of the ballot meets international standards for free and fair elections, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

The Turkish Embassy in Baku has confirmed the arrest in October 2007 of Mehmet Harun Gayaci, deputy chairman of the Independent Turkey Party, reported on January 24. Gayaci was apprehended during a police operation to prevent "illegal religious propaganda" and has been charged with propagating a religious sect that violates public order. LF

The trial opened on January 24 at Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes of Rovsan Novruzoglu, director of the Center Of The Struggle With International Terrorism And Corruption, reported. Novruzoglu was arrested in July 2007 and charged with forging official documentation and posing as a government official. He denies those charges. LF

Acting Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution David Bakradze rejected on January 23 the proposal voiced earlier that day by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the Georgian government should sign formal agreements with the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia pledging not to resort to military force against them, reported. Bakradze said Tbilisi is not against a cease-fire, but that the format Lavrov proposed implies that the conflicts in question are between neighboring independent states, and for that reason Georgia "will never agree" to sign any such accord. Bakradze said any nonaggression agreement "should specify that it concerns the settlement of an internal Georgian conflict, which aims at the exclusively peaceful restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity." In Sukhum, Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba denounced Bakradze's statement on January 23 as "blackmail" and further proof that Tbilisi has no interest in preventing a new war, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

A spokesman for the Georgian Border Protection Service has rejected as untrue the January 23 claim by Kristian Bzhania, spokesman for de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh, that Abkhaz coastguard vessels opened fire at two Georgian naval vessels off the coast of Gali in southern Abkhazia earlier that day, reported on January 24. The press service said no Georgian vessels were in the area at the time of the purported incident. LF

Eduard Kokoity, leader of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, appealed on January 23 to Russia and the OSCE to arrange a meeting between himself and Mikheil Saakashvili, who was reelected earlier this month to serve a second term as Georgian president, reported. Kokoity explained that he wants to discuss with Saakashvili proposals contained in his 2005 peace proposal, in particular demilitarization of the conflict zone, including a formal pact on the non-resumption of hostilities; economic rehabilitation, which would encompass creation of a "zone of economic preference" incorporating South Ossetia and the neighboring Gori Raion in Georgia and the Alagir Raion of North Ossetia; and South Ossetia's future political status. Kokoity further affirmed that South Ossetia's recognition as an independent state "is only a matter of time," and could be expedited by international recognition of Kosova, according to RIA Novosti. He further appealed to Moscow to condemn what he termed Tbilisi's efforts to undermine the four-party Joint Control Commission, the primary forum for talks on resolving the conflict, reported. LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev made several new appointments on January 23, including Kayrat Kalimbetov as the new head of presidential administration, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Nazarbaev appointed the outgoing head of his administration, Adilbek Zhaksybekov, as the deputy chairman of the ruling Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland) party. Kalimbetov was previously the head of the Kazyna sustainable development fund. Nazarbaev also named Arman Dunaev, the chief of the Financial Market Regulation and Control Agency, to replace Kalimbetov as the head of the state fund. In yet another appointment, Albert Rau was named the new governor of the central Aqmola region, replacing Mazhit Yesenbaev, who in turn was appointed the chairman of a new state agency for competition, according to Kazakhstan Today. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Minister of Economic Development and Trade Akylbek Japarov outlined on January 23 his economic and trade priorities for 2008, AKIpress reported. Japarov identified several goals for the year, including an increase in foreign investment, the modernization of the country's infrastructure, social-sector reforms, and the implementation of a more balanced regional development program. Japarov then reported on economic developments through 2007, noting that the country's gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 8.2 percent and reached 139.7 billion soms ($3.88 billion). He also said that inflation is expected to reach 8 percent, mainly due to continued volatility in global commodity markets and rising prices for energy and food. RG

During a meeting in the government offices in Bishkek, Prime Minister Igor Chudinov on January 23 briefed U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch on the state of economic reforms, heralding the emergence of a vibrant private sector, which he said now accounts for over 40 percent of Kyrgyz GDP, the website reported. Chudinov also informed Yovanovitch that the government intends to submit a newly formulated Tax Code to the parliament, aimed at encouraging business to "rapidly develop," and vowed to accelerate agricultural reform. For her part, Yovanovitch told Chudinov that the U.S. Congress has recently approved a new $15 million aid package to assist Kyrgyzstan in combating drug smuggling. The Kyrgyz government has prioritized its efforts to fight the drug trade and recently concluded a new agreement between the Kyrgyz and Tajik counternarcotics agencies aimed at coordinating efforts to uncover drug-smuggling routes and combat drug trafficking (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2008). RG

Kyrgyz ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu was reappointed on January 23 by the leadership of his opposition Erk party, according to AKIpress. According to a statement released in Bishkek, the party's decision to nominate Bakir-uulu to a second term as ombudsman is "based on enormous appeals of citizens, organizations, public associations, political parties" which expressed their support for him. RG

At a press conference in Dushanbe, Sharifkhon Samiev, the head of the Tajik state-owned Barqi Tojik energy company, announced on January 22 that an ongoing energy crisis and a severe shortage of sufficient electricity has forced the closure of many of the country's largest industrial plants and factories, Asia-Plus reported. He noted that the state-owned energy group has cut off electricity supplies to all industrial enterprises, with the only exceptions limited to "facilities of statewide importance" such as bakeries and dairy plants, hospitals, airports, and communications centers. He added that schools and universities will also "be unaffected as far as possible." It is not clear whether the Tajik aluminum plant, which accounts for half Tajikistan's electricity usage, is exempt from the cuts. Samiev noted that the power cuts "will result in the supply of daily electricity in the provinces being reduced to only three hours -- 1 1/2 hours of electricity in the morning and 1 1/2 in the evening." RG

In a report released at a press conference in Dushanbe, Tajik Labor and Social Protection Minister Shukurjon Zuhurov revealed on January 22 that more than half of the Tajik population lives below the international poverty line, which he defined as equal to $1.20 per day in 2007, according to Asia-Plus. Zuhurov said that despite a rise of over 41 percent in the average monthly wage last year, to about 156.74 somonis ($44), the nearly 20 percent inflation rate for the same period "practically devoured this achievement," as it sparked a "considerable rise" in prices for basic foodstuffs and energy. Zuhurov warned that "if cardinal measures to curb inflation are not taken, efforts by the authorities to reduce poverty will not yield the desired results." He then released a statistical analysis showing a 70 percent price rise in prices for flour and bread last year, along with a price increase of over 50 percent for energy. RG

Zmitser Dashkevich, the leader of the opposition Youth Front, was released on January 23 from a correctional facility in Shklou, Mahilyou Oblast, after serving 16 months of an 18-month term for heading an unregistered organization, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. The prison's administration explained that a court ruled to reduce Dashkevich's sentence. Dashkevich was arrested on September 15, 2006, and sentenced at a closed-door trial. While serving his sentence, Dashkevich was also fined $870 for refusing to testify against another Youth Front activist. Amnesty International has declared Dashkevich a prisoner of conscience. Meanwhile, Homyel State University rector Alyaksandr Rahachou on January 22 signed a second order to expel Dzmitry Zhaleznichenka, a third-year mathematics student and a member of the Belarusian Popular Front, for violating the university's internal regulations, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. The first expulsion order was based on similar accusations, but Zhaleznichenka, who has an excellent academic record at the university, appealed the decision at a Homyel district court. The court last week ordered the university to allow Zhaleznichenka to continue his studies. Zhaleznichenka claims that he has not behaved improperly in the current academic year, and considers the expulsion order politically motivated. AM

Andrea Rigoni, the special rapporteur on Belarus at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), said on January 22 that PACE should restart political dialogue with Belarus, Belapan reported. "I am against severing all contact with the Belarus authorities. As we have seen, that has no effect on the situation in the country, and simply makes it harder to get through to the people," Rigoni said at a meeting of PACE's Political Affairs Committee in Strasbourg. Natallya Andreychyk, a representative of the Belarusian legislature, said at the meeting that "Belarus shares its past with the rest of Europe and is open to dialogue." Vintsuk Vyachorka of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front told the meeting that the situation with regard to human rights and civil liberties has significantly deteriorated even since the beginning of this year. Vyachorka said that the Belarusian authorities continue to jail people for political reasons and obstruct the activities of the opposition, nongovernmental organizations, civil society, and the independent media. AM

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a January 23 statement that Ukraine considers its possible accession to NATO to be "broadening the zone of stability and security in Europe to the south and to the east," Ukrainian media reported. The ministry also stressed that Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic aspirations should not be regarded as an exclusive alternative to the further development of its relations with Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry recently stated that Russia will be forced to review its relations with Ukraine and take "adequate steps" if Ukraine joins NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15, 2007). Verkhovna Rada speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk suggested that the Russian statement is interference in Ukraine's internal affairs, and said the two countries' relations should be "based solely on mutual respect and non-interference in our sovereign rights." Yatsenyuk, President Viktor Yushchenko, and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko recently sent a request to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer for Ukraine to be given a NATO Membership Action Plan at the alliance summit in Bucharest in April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2007). AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Tymoshenko said on January 23 that Ukraine and Russia should hold talks on the level of transit fees for the shipment of Russian natural gas to Europe via Ukraine, UNIAN reported. Tymoshenko said that Russia has increased the price for natural gas delivered to Ukraine threefold since the start of 2006, while the shipment fee has remained unchanged. Tymoshenko also said she has ordered experts to examine fuel transit pricing schemes in other countries. President Yushchenko recently urged caution in international energy policy, claiming that renegotiating transit fees with Russia might result in increased prices for Ukrainian gas consumers. Ukraine currently pays $179.50 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas, while Russia pays Ukraine $1.7 for the transit of 1,000 cubic meters of gas per 100 kilometers. AM

Bosnia-Herzegovina's army should be disbanded and security in the country left to an international force, the country's leading ethnic-Serbian politician, Milorad Dodik, proposed on January 22. Speaking in Berlin at a forum organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Dodik described the country's existing army as a "caricature" and argued for transforming Bosnia into a demilitarized zone protected by international troops. He also suggested that the 300 million-euro ($439 million) budgeted for Bosnia's army could be redirected into social and development projects. The local press reported on January 23 that a number of Bosnian Muslim and Croat parties have already branded the proposal irresponsible and unacceptable. Reports do not specify whether Dodik linked his proposal to concerns about security in Bosnia should Kosova become an independent state. The army was one of the first of the country's major institutions to be consolidated and integrated ethnically. Bosnia, which now has an all-volunteer army, is part of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, and has a contingent serving in Iraq. Earlier this month, NATO approved Bosnia's Individual Partnership Action Plan, which outlines steps that Bosnia needs to take to integrate its military with NATO. The current international troop presence in Bosnia is under the EU's command and was halved in size last year. AG

Ministers in the Kosovar cabinet recently formed by Hashim Thaci face stricter scrutiny of their expense accounts, the Kosovar media reported on January 23. "I will ask everyone to save as much as possible," Thaci told his cabinet, indicating that he believes ministers could reduce their spending by as much as 50 percent. In opposition, Thaci and other politicians were highly critical of alleged operating costs run up by ministers. Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) is in power with the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), which was the most powerful party in the previous government. Among other issues currently high on the government's agenda are preparations to implement recommendations made by the UN's special envoy to Kosova, Martti Ahtisaari, as part of his broader recommendation that Kosova be granted "supervised independence." The government was officially approved by parliament on January 9 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10, 2008). AG

A man suspected of killing a Macedonian police officer was shot and killed on January 22 when police attempted to arrest him. The news agency MIA reported that the victim, Naser Nebija, opened fire on police when they approached his home in Aracinovo, an ethnic-Albanian village, prompting the police to return fire. Nebija was suspected of being one of a number of gunmen who opened fire on a car carrying members of an elite police unit near Skopje on January 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 7, 2008). In addition to killing one police officer, the gunmen wounded two others. Citing unofficial reports, the news service Balkan Insight reported on January 22 that Nebija had a criminal record that included rape, burglary, and illegal possession of weapons, and that police found weapons and two cars with false license places at his home. This was the second police death in the past half-year. The previous killing, in October 2007, was one of a number of incidents that the government has described as criminal rather than political (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, October 25 and 31, and November 5, 8, and 9, 2007). The violence has nonetheless stoked concerns that, as in 2001, latent tensions between the minority Albanian and majority Macedonian communities could turn violent. Aracinovo was a stronghold of ethnic-Albanian separatists during the six-month conflict in 2001. AG

Moldova would like to cooperate more closely with Russia and for the two countries' relationship to "evolve into a true strategic partnership," President Vladimir Voronin said during a visit to Moscow on January 22. Neither Voronin nor his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, said much in public, but the meeting is seen as a further sign of a rapprochement between Moscow and Chisinau following Putin's decision to lift bans on the import of Moldovan wine, spirits, meat, fruit, and vegetables (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15 and June 25, 2007). Administrative barriers to the resumption of trade have come down only slowly and erratically, but recent trade figures indicate that Moldovan producers are slowly beginning to recover some of the Russian market lost during the course of the bans, which were imposed in 2005 and 2006 and lifted only in 2007. No recent meeting between Voronin and Putin -- including three in June 2007 -- has produced much in terms of fresh deals or public information about the state of relations between the two countries, prompting criticism in Moldova and fueling suspicion that Voronin and Putin may be nearing an understanding about the future of Transdniester, a region that broke away from Moldova in 1992 and is heavily dependent on and closely aligned with Russia. A report of a pending deal on Transdniester in April 2007 was followed by a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at reviving multilateral talks on Transdniester's status, but they have yet to be resumed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23 and 27, and May 7, 19, and 25, 2007). Voronin enjoyed a close relationship with Moscow when he came to power in 2001, but his decision in late 2003 to reverse his position on a plan for Transdniester in the face of public opposition was followed by a reorientation in his foreign policy toward the European Union. AG

During his visit to Moscow, Moldovan President Voronin was given an award from the Russian Orthodox Church in recognition of his "outstanding work to strengthen the unity of Orthodox Christian peoples," "The Moscow Times" and the Moldovan news agency IPN reported. "The Moscow Times" said Patriarch Aleksy II made the award on January 21 specifically to thank Voronin for resisting the alleged expansion of the Romanian Orthodox Church into Moldova. During Voronin's two terms in office, Moldova has repeatedly been criticized for restricting religious freedom and has been sanctioned by the European Court of Human Rights, which in one ruling in 2001 obliged Moldova to recognize the Bessarabian Orthodox Church, which belongs to the patriarchy of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Since late December, four of the eight Romanian priests in the church have been forced out of Moldova, officially because they breached work regulations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 7, 2008). That move prompted the church's head, Metropolitan Petru Paduraru, to write to the Council of Europe in mid-January protesting harassment by the Moldovan authorities. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, Voronin told reporters on January 21 that the establishment in October 2007 of three new dioceses by the Bessarabian Orthodox Church is "part of Romania's aggressive policy against the Moldovan state." Aleksy said the creation of new dioceses "was an anticanonical pact of intrusion on the territory of another local Orthodox Church and establishing its dioceses there." AG


On January 22, Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, a 23-year-old journalism student in northern Afghanistan's Balkh Province, was condemned to death in a "secret trial" in the city of Mazar-e Sharif for allegedly writing an article critical of the Prophet Muhammad's views on women's rights, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Local and international media denounced the verdict as biased and unjust. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), which is involved in training journalists in Afghanistan, accused the local authorities of prosecuting Kambakhsh because his brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, works for IWPR. "We feel very strongly that this is a complete fabrication on the part of the authorities up in Mazar, designed to put pressure on Parwez's brother Yaqub, who has done some of the hardest-hitting pieces outlining abuses by some very powerful commanders in Balkh and the other northern provinces," IWPR country manager Jean MacKenzie said. Ibrahimi told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that "every member of our family is concerned about it. We are sorry to see this unjust decision by the Balkh court." Kambakhsh, a student at Balkh University and a reporter for "Jahan-e Naw" (The New World), newspaper was detained in October over critical comments in an article referencing verses in the Koran that were about women rights. MM

The head of Afghanistan's Independent Journalists Association, Rahimullah Samandar, strongly condemned the verdict against Kambakhsh, Radio Free Afghanistan reported. "The Afghan Independent Journalists Association, and...the Committee to Protect Afghan Journalists..., both organizations, strongly condemn this decree," he said. "This is illegal, this is unjust, it's unfair. It is in accordance with neither Afghan law nor the Afghan Constitution." Samandar appealed to President Hamid Karzai to reverse the verdict, accusing Islamic clerics of putting undue pressure on the judicial system. Samandar pledged continued opposition to the verdict and asserted: "We will appeal to other courts. We will appeal to the international community, to international media organizations, and also to the Afghan president, and the Afghan parliament to help us," and remedy the injustice. Separately, Reporters Without Borders urged Karzai on January 22 to intervene in the Kambakhsh case "before it is too late." "We are deeply shocked by this trial, carried out in haste and without any concern for the law or for free expression, which is protected by the [Afghan] constitution," the Paris-based media watchdog added. MM

In a continuing sign of a split within the Taliban leadership, the Hong Kong-based "Asia Times Online" claimed on January 23 that its sources have learned that Mullah Mohammad Omar, the supreme Taliban leader, has removed Baitullah Mehsud as the leader of the Pakistani Taliban and urged all Taliban forces to redirect their efforts against the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Mehsud and his foreign jihadist allies, including Al-Qaeda, have reportedly been the force behind the recent military attacks on Pakistani security forces in Waziristan, undermining the ability of other Taliban leaders to reach a peace accord with the government. With Mehsud now replaced, Omar is said to be aiming to rally all Taliban fighters in the tribal areas for a spring offensive in Afghanistan. After the recent sacking of Mansur Dadullah in southern Afghanistan, Mehsud's removal, if confirmed, may signal a purge of key Taliban commanders with close ideological and operational ties to Al-Qaeda. MM

The foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany agreed on new sanctions targeting Iran's contested nuclear program on January 22, though without punitive economic measures sought by the United States, Reuters reported on January 23. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Berlin after the meeting that the draft will be presented to the UN Security Council within weeks. Media reports give an impression of persistent divisions between the United States and Iran-friendly powers China and Russia. Citing an unnamed U.S. official, Reuters reported that the new sanctions will include travel bans and asset freezes on unspecified Iranian officials, while an unnamed EU official separately told Reuters that the draft resolution lacks punitive economic sanctions and contains no warning to Iranian banks thought to be involved in financing nuclear activities. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on January 23 that the new resolution will not impose harsh sanctions but urge states to be vigilant in trading with Iran and prevent the transfer of sensitive material there, AP reported. British Foreign Minister David Miliband was more positive about the agreement, and urged Iran on January 23 to choose economic incentives and the benefits of cooperation with the international community, instead of confrontation, AFP reported. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in Tehran on January 23 that any new UN resolution against Iran would be illegal and ineffective, nor would it deter Iran's bid to develop nuclear technology, Iranian and Western news agencies reported. Ahmadinejad told the media in Tehran that "we shall continue our path in the framework of international laws to attain our evident rights. These countries cannot threaten" Iran or "impose anything," and Iran will not stop its activities due to the sanctions, Radio Farda reported. Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili separately met with European parliamentarians in Brussels on January 23 and reiterated that Iran's is a peaceful program and nuclear weapons are not a part of its defensive doctrine, Bloomberg reported. The head of media affairs at the Supreme National Security Council, Ahmad Khademolmelleh, told IRNA on January 23 that Jalili discussed a "shared paradigm" with EU parliamentarians, and proposed talks on energy security, democracy, and economic ties. He said Jalili's proposals indicated Iran wants relations with the EU to go beyond the nuclear issue. Jalili met in Brussels with European Parliament members including Angelika Beer, a Green member familiar with Iranian affairs, and the head of the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, IRNA reported. He was to meet on January 24 with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, IRNA reported. VS

Following public objections by Iranian reformists that the Interior Ministry has disqualified most of their registered hopefuls for the mid-March parliamentary elections, Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Hussein Musapur told the Fars news agency in Tehran on January 23 that the ministry has approved "more than 70 percent" of registered candidates. Musapur said that of some 7,200 registrants, the ministry's executive boards disqualified 20 percent and were unable to establish the eligibility of a further 10 percent. Those approved by ministry personnel must now be approved by the Guardians Council, a body of senior clerics and jurists. Musapur said those in the uncertain 10 percent could take their cases to the Guardians Council. Reformist campaign spokesman Abdollah Naseri told ISNA on January 22 that reformists will use all legal channels "to follow up the issue of the extensive disqualification of reformists." The disqualified or "unqualified" include former members of parliament such as Elias Hazrati, and sitting members from the minority or reformist faction including Qodratollah Alikhani and Mehranguiz Morovvati, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 23, citing Iranian websites. VS

The Center for Human Rights Defenders, a Tehran-based body led by the Nobel Peace laureate and lawyer Shirin Ebadi, has in a statement called on the Iranian government to investigate the death in custody of student Ibrahim Lotfollahi, Radio Farda reported on January 23. Officials in Sanandaj, western Iran, informed Lotfollahi's relatives on January 15 that he committed suicide in prison there; his relatives are skeptical. The Center for Human Rights Defenders said that there was a "big question mark" over the fact that Iranian security agents reportedly buried Lotfollahi at night, instead of handing his body over to relatives for possible postmortem examinations. The statement observed that suspect deaths are no surprise when interrogations are not supervised in Iranian detention centers. "Such incidents are warnings to officials to find a way to control the conduct of their agents," the statement read. The New York-based Human Rights Watch also called on Iran on January 18 to investigate the suspicious deaths of Lotfollahi and Zahra Bani Yaqub, a medical student who died in detention in the western town of Hamedan three months ago. Lotfollahi was arrested in Sanandaj on January 6 and is thought to have died on January 15, Radio Farda reported. VS

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry announced on January 23 that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has accepted an invitation from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to visit Baghdad, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. No date has been announced for the visit, which will be the first by an Iranian leader to Iraq since the Islamic regime came to power in 1979. Talabani, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and several cabinet officials have led delegations to Tehran in recent months. KR

Mosul Police Chief Brigadier General Salih Muhammad Hassan was killed in a January 24 suicide bomb attack as he toured the wreckage from a blast the previous day that destroyed an abandoned apartment building used by insurgents. The attacker, wearing a police uniform, approached Hassan and his bodyguards and blew himself up, Reuters reported. One bodyguard was killed in the attack and five others were wounded. The January 23 attack on the abandoned building in Mosul killed at least 12 civilians and three Iraqi Army personnel and wounded 132 civilians, Multinational Force - Iraq reported on January 24. Many of the victims were women and children. Reuters reported that 35 nearby homes were either badly damaged or destroyed by the blast. U.S. Major General Mark P. Hertling blamed the attack on Al-Qaeda in Iraq. KR

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi told Al-Sharqiyah television that the Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq) has yet to hold negotiations with the government that would pave the way for the front's ministers to return to work, the news channel reported on January 23. Media reports in recent days suggested the front has already entered into negotiations with the government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). Al-Hashimi told Al-Sharqiyah that the government has yet to meet the front's demands. "To be clear, the talks held days ago were only general ones. Negotiations have not yet started," al-Hashimi said, adding that talks "will begin when we open and discuss the Iraqi Accordance Front's demands one by one." KR

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh and Environment Minister Narmin Uthman told reporters at a January 23 press briefing in Baghdad that an estimated 25 million land mines remain planted in fields across the country, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. That equals about one land mine for every citizen, al-Dabbagh said. He added that the mines are spread across some 4,000 minefields, and that some date back to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 Gulf War, as well as the 2003 war. Uthman said she will head the effort to remove the land mines, which, she said, have hindered development in the agriculture and oil sectors. KR

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on the Iraqi government to set a date for the withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq, ITAR-TASS reported on January 23. "We understand the position of the Iraqi government, that it cannot cope on its own without foreign troops, but we believe it would be correct to fix the approximate terms for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq," Lavrov said in Moscow. He contended that a withdrawal of multinational forces would "make the situation in the country somewhat calmer." "The factor of the presence of foreign troops plays a substantial role in what concerns the situation in the security sphere," he said. Lavrov also called on the Iraqi government to work toward developing a national reconciliation program. KR