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Newsline - January 30, 2008

Unified Energy Systems (EES) CEO Anatoly Chubais told a banking conference in Moscow on January 30 that Russian foreign and domestic policies are "absolutely unprepared" to take advantage of the latest developments in world financial markets, Interfax reported. He said that Russians "need to ask ourselves a question: how much does its foreign policy cost Russia and can we pay that price?" Chubais added that Russia's foreign policy, which is widely perceived in the West as aggressive, prevented it from being allowed to participate in an unspecified "rescuing of U.S. banks" in the wake of the recent sub-prime housing loans imbroglio. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin argued in Moscow on January 30 that Russia's foreign policy is "pragmatic, and very often it is seen [in the West] as a hostile one. Russia, however, is just defending its interests." He said that "we should adjust our foreign-policy goals in the nearest future to guarantee stable investment," Reuters reported. Asked by reporters what he has in mind, Kudrin replied only that Russia's planned admission to the World Trade Organization will help it make the necessary changes, Interfax reported. He said that "the main political event of last year was that Russia did not change its constitution and did not yield to those who called for [President Vladimir] Putin to be elected for another term." PM

Speaking in Moscow on January 30, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Kudrin denied that Russia uses energy as a weapon, saying that market forces are responsible for increases in world energy costs, Interfax reported. He noted that "as prices rise, the perception grows in the West that Russia wants to use its energy resources for political leverage." Kudrin said that 85 percent of Russian energy exports go to Europe and that the Finance Ministry believes that such levels will be maintained for some time. He argued that energy demands will increase in the United States, Europe, and China in coming years, adding that "Russia will be a stable, predictable partner." Kudrin also said that Russia's aggregate foreign debts amounted to about 33 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) at the start of 2008, down from about 50 percent one year earlier. He noted that GDP grew by 7.8 percent in 2007, up slightly from 2006. Kudrin argued that Russia can expect its GDP to "grow at least 6.5-7 percent annually over the next three years" despite negative trends in the overall world economic situation. In 2007, direct foreign investment totaled $47 billion, or 3.7 percent of GDP. PM

The "RBK Daily" wrote on January 30 that "over the six weeks since [First Deputy Prime Minister] Dmitry Medvedev's nomination as a presidential candidate, Moscow's foreign-policy rhetoric has been toned down beyond recognition. Yet this doesn't change the essence of Russia's foreign policy: defending national interests." The paper argued that "Russia is publicly refusing to compete with the West for influence over neighboring countries or recognize Abkhazia in response to Kosovo. Russia is once again offering the West friendship and money to fight a crisis, while complaining mildly that the West 'doesn't understand us.'" The daily noted that "Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov's [recent] official rejection of the idea that Russia is competing for influence over other former Soviet republics has met with some disapproval, even within the Foreign Ministry itself. Some have sarcastically dubbed it the 'Lavrov Doctrine'" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24 and 28, 2008). The paper quoted Aleksei Mukhin of the Center for Political Information as saying that the strident tone in Russian foreign policy in the first half of 2007 reflected the political ascendancy of First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. Mukhin argued that "Ivanov was being groomed for the presidency in the event of a new Cold War, in the course of which Western corporations would seek access to our resources. And this had already started -- but a systemic crisis hit the United States in late summer of 2007, undermining the dollar. The crisis forced the West to tone down its anti-Russian rhetoric. Russia, which was not ready for a confrontation either, made an appropriate response by nominating the 'liberal' Medvedev" instead of Ivanov. Mukhin added that "no senior officials have defined our national interests. Perhaps Medvedev will explain what they are, if not to us, then at least to the West, since Medvedev already intends to explain why the West should not be afraid of Russia." PM

The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and reported on January 30 that the number of suicides in the Russian armed forces rose in 2007 to 224, compared with 210 in 2006. Suicide was the cause of 50.7 percent of all deaths in the military in 2007. The paper also noted that the overall "number of accidents and crimes...declined by about a quarter as compared to 2006. There was a similar drop in the number of noncombat deaths among military personnel," despite the rise in number of suicides. The daily added that "military judges and rights activists point out that there has not been any real progress on protecting...the rights of soldiers" or improving their standard of living. But Britain's "The Times" reported on January 30 that President Putin recently approved "a couture collection of new military Valentin Yudashkin, the country's famous clothing designer, [following] a fashion parade in the Defense Ministry headquarters." The cost of new uniforms for the armed forces is expected to be about $600 million. The Russian Army only recently introduced socks to replace the traditional foot wraps long used by Russian and Soviet soldiers. PM

First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev, President Putin's chosen successor as president, spent January 29 at a congress of the Association of Lawyers of Russia, Russian media reported on January 29 and 30. Medvedev is a member of the association's advisory board and a lawyer by profession. Journalists were not allowed into the session of the Association of Lawyers that Medvedev addressed, at which Medvedev urged lawyers to work seriously to "strengthen the rule of law and the culture of law in society." Medvedev said that his experience overseeing the so-called national projects -- government initiatives to improving housing, health care, education, and agriculture -- has convinced him that many areas of Russian law are deficient. Medvedev added that the legal awareness of government bureaucrats must be improved. He noted that a new state television channel -- Law TV -- has recently begun broadcasting, a joint initiative of the Association of Lawyers and Medvedev himself. He said the project is part of an effort to "organize a system of legal enlightenment" that would include "schools, clubs, and the mass media." He also attended a meeting of the General Council of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, a Kremlin-friendly labor organization. reported that at the latter meeting there was no discussion of a recent wave of labor actions that have been held around the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13 and 30, 2007). reported that next week Medvedev will attend a congress of the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists, often call the "oligarchs' union." RC

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) might refuse to send monitors to the March 2 presidential election, "The Washington Post" reported on January 30, citing ODIHR spokesman Curtis Budden (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2008). Budden told the daily that ODIHR is not satisfied with the Central Election Commission's order restricting the mission to 70 monitors or the fact that monitors will not be allowed to enter Russia until three days before the poll. ODIHR declined to send monitors to the December legislative elections because of similar restrictions. During the 2004 presidential election, ODIHR sent 387 observers for both long-term and short-term monitoring. Budden said ODIHR has written to the Central Election Commission asking it to revise its conditions, and the fate of the monitoring mission will depend on the commission's response. Meanwhile, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who has been supportive of President Putin, told Interfax in a January 28 interview that "something is wrong with our elections, and our electoral system needs to be fixed." Gorbachev made the statement after election officials disqualified former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov from participating in the race (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28, 2008). RC

Vladimir Putin is expected to become the chairman of the Board of Directors of Gazprom after his term as president expires, "Kommersant" reported on January 30. That post is currently held by First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev. A list of candidates for the board is expected to be submitted to Gazprom on January 30 and to be confirmed at a meeting of the current board on February 4. The list would then have to be finalized at a shareholders meeting set for June 27. According to an unidentified Gazprom source, the list contains some 42 names for the 10 seats on the board (four representatives of the government, four representatives of company management, and two independent representatives). Medevedev said in December that he will step down as chairman if he is, as widely expected, named the winner of the March 2 presidential election. Putin, however, was asked in 2006 whether he would consider heading Gazprom after his term and he said: "I could hardly head any business structure. I don't feel like a businessman either in terms of my character or my previous experience." Nonetheless, an unnamed Western shareholder told "Kommersant" that no candidacy other than Putin's is being considered for the post. RC

Former acting Prime Minister and economist Yegor Gaidar said in an interview with the Russian-language edition of "Newsweek" (No. 5) that a global economic crisis is imminent and it is a "mistake" for the Russian authorities to claim Russia will not be affected. "If our gold reserves and the money in the Stabilization Fund are quickly spent in order to maintain economic growth of 7 percent a year, they won't last long," Gaidar said. "And after they are spent, the consequences could be catastrophic." Gaidar said the government should be preparing for economic growth to dip to 2-3 percent per year and level off at 4-5 percent. He urged the government to resist the temptation to artificially support the ruble. He predicted that the next president of Russia will have to work under "harsher conditions" than the current president. RC

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov and senior cabinet ministers met on January 29 with the acting commander of the Russian Group of Forces in the North Caucasus, Lieutenant General Yury Vinogradov, and other senior officers to clarify the circumstances in which Russian artillery shelled the village of Gekhi late the previous day, destroying or damaging 26 homes, and the Chechen government website reported. No one was reported injured in the barrage. Vinogradov explained that the artillery attack was directed at a group of between eight and 10 militants who sought to escape to neighboring Ingushetia after a shoot-out earlier on January 28 near the village of Bamut in which one Russian serviceman was killed and three seriously wounded. Bamut and Gekhi are approximately 15 kilometers apart. Kadyrov rejected the possibility of either error or negligence and termed the shelling "a criminal violation of military discipline" that risks undermining the Chechen population's trust in the government's ability to protect people. LF

The prosecutor's office in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), has responded to a collective protest by the widows of an unspecified number of the young fighters killed during the multiple attacks on October 13, 2005, by militants on police and security facilities in Nalchik, reported on January 30. The response characterizes as illegal harassment of the women by Nalchik police, including searches of their homes and compulsory fingerprinting. The police officers responsible will be reprimanded but not held criminally responsible for exceeding their authority. On January 29, KBR Interior Minister Major General Yury Tomchak told a press conference in Nalchik that sufficient evidence has been collected to conclude that the slaying of eight hunters in Chegem Raion in early November and the shooting in Nalchik earlier this month of Colonel Anatoly Kyarov, head of the KBR Interior Ministry Directorate for the Struggle with Organized Crime, and his driver, Lieutenant Albert Rakhayev, were the work of one and the same group of militants, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 5, 6, and 7, 2007, and January 14, 2008). The same website quoted unidentified KBR residents on January 16 as expressing doubts that militants based in the KBR were responsible for killing Kyarov. LF

In the ongoing power struggle between Kalmykia's President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and Elista Mayor Rady Burulov, who on January 9 demanded that Ilyumzhinov step down as president, Ilyumzhinov has co-opted the republican chapter of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, reported on January 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008). Under pressure from Ilyumzhinov, the republic's parliament voted on December 20 to dissolve itself, and elections for a new parliament were scheduled for March 2, concurrently with the Russian presidential ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 2008). Of the 30 names on Unified Russia's party list for the parliamentary ballot, most are supporters of Ilyumzhinov; only one is from Elista. The parliament has 27 deputies. On January 28, quoted political commentator Andrei Serenko as dividing the Kalmyk opposition into three categories: the "old" liberal opposition, many of them colleagues of journalist Larisa Yudina, who was slain in June 1998 while investigating official corruption; President Putin posthumously bestowed on her the Order of Courage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 9 and 12, 1998 and September 12, 2000 ); former officials who fell out of favor with Ilyumzhinov, including some prominent businessmen; and members of the present leadership who side with Burulov, and who reportedly have both significant financial resources and support in Moscow. LF

Police in Yerevan on January 29 impounded cars belonging to opposition politicians who support former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's candidacy in the February 19 presidential election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. More than 100 cars carrying Ter-Petrossian's supporters toured Yerevan's northern Avan district for over an hour on January 28 without first obtaining permission from the local authorities. Also on January 28, police announced the opening of an investigation into a brawl over the weekend involving Ter-Petrossian loyalists during a campaign rally in the town of Talin. In a campaign appeal to the population circulated on January 24, Ter-Petrossian again lambasted Armenia's current leaders as "robber barons" and compared voters' choice between himself and the authorities' presidential candidate, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, as one between "salvation" and "inevitable destruction," Noyan Tapan reported on January 28. Campaigning in Yerevan on January 26, Sarkisian warned that those persons who engage in "slander" during the election campaign will be held criminally responsible once the election is over, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on January 28. LF

The Azerbaijani online daily on January 26 quoted Colonel General Vladimir Popovkin, commander of the Russian Cosmic Forces, as saying that Russia plans to build an antimissile defense system on its territory that will replace and render redundant the radar facilities it currently leases in former Soviet republics. But Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibragim told on January 28 that his ministry has not received any formal notification from Moscow of any decision to close the Qabala (Gabala) over-the-horizon radar station in Azerbaijan. On January 29, Aleksandr Semyonov, head of the press service of the Russian Embassy in Baku, told that Moscow will indeed continue to replace Soviet-era radar facilities with modern ones, but that it will nonetheless abide by the formal agreement it signed with Azerbaijan on leasing Qabala. That agreement, signed in 2002, expires in 2012. LF

A MiG-29 fighter belonging to the Azerbaijani Air Force crashed into the Caspian on a training flight on January 29, killing the two pilots, Azerbaijani media reported. The reason for the crash has not yet been established. Also on January 29, Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Eldar Sabiroglu rejected as an exaggeration media reports that 100 Azerbaijani servicemen have been hospitalized with frostbite, reported on January 30. He said five servicemen have been taken to the Central Military Hospital in Baku and three more to a comparable facility in Gyanja. LF

Hungary's Appeals Court on January 29 upheld the verdict handed down on in November 2006 by the Pest District Court on Ramil Safarov, a military cadet sentenced in April 2006 to life imprisonment for the premeditated murder in February 2004 of Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian, an Armenian fellow participant in a NATO training course in Budapest, and reported on January 29 and 30, respectively. The court handed down an eight-month suspended sentence for assault following a brawl between Safarov and prison officers in June 2004. Hungary's Appeals Court rejected in February 2007 Safarov's appeal of his life sentence for Markarian's killing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19, 2004, April 18, 2006, and February 23, 2007). LF

Twelve opposition parties unveiled on January 29 a memorandum addressed to parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze affirming their shared belief that the outcome of the January 5 preterm presidential election was totally falsified and rejecting the legitimacy of Mikheil Saakashvili's reelection, Caucasus Press and reported. The memorandum further listed 17 measures it considers essential to overcome the current "political crisis" and ensure that the parliamentary elections to be held in early summer are free and fair. Those demands include a recount in the presence of international observers of the votes cast in the January 5 ballot and the investigation of procedural violations committed during the vote; the release of all persons arrested for their political beliefs; the resignation of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili; measures to guarantee media freedom, including the inclusion on a parity basis of opposition nominees in the new supervisory board of Georgian Public Television; scheduling parliamentary elections before the current parliament's mandate expires in April, and elections for a new parliament in the Adjar Republic in July; a ban on participation by the president in the parliamentary election campaign; and drafting a new election law and measures to preclude manipulation of the findings of exit polls. The memorandum was signed by Levan Gachechiladze, who polled second to Saakashvili in the January 5 ballot and claims that the voting figures were rigged to give Saakashvili the 50 percent plus one vote required to avoid a second round runoff; presidential candidates David Gamkrelidze (New Rightists) and Gia Maisashvili (Party of the Future); nine of the 10 parties that aligned in October to create the opposition National Council; and Industry Will Save Georgia. The Labor Party, whose chairman Shalva Natelashvili ran separately in the presidential election, declined to sign the memorandum on the grounds that it has its own "independent strategy," reported. The signatories set a deadline of February 14, after which, if those demands are not met, the opposition will stage "permanent protest rallies," Gachechiladze warned on January 28. LF

Prime Minister Karim Masimov on January 29 issued instructions to the Energy Ministry and the state-owned KazMunaiGaz energy company to accelerate the planned takeover of the private Mangistau Oil and Gas Company, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Speaking at a cabinet meeting in Astana, Masimov explained that the government identified the purchase of the company as a strategic priority and that it is linked to the "expansion of the Pavlodar oil refinery and a network of gasoline stations when we buy it back." The planned renationalization of the company is the latest move in a more aggressive state-centered energy strategy that includes revising the energy law to give the government greater authority over the work of international energy companies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29, 2007) and to garner a greater share for KazMunaiGaz in an international consortium of mainly Western oil companies developing the offshore Kashagan oil field (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15, 2008). RG

A senior official in the Kazakh military prosecutor's office, Colonel Nurlan Sisimbaev, on January 29 identified continuing corruption as a "key problem" within the Kazakh Army, Kazakhstan Today reported. Sisimbaev told reporters in Almaty that "results of investigations into corruption cases in the sphere of public procurement show that large budgetary allocations have remained in the pockets of military officials who have been in charge of ensuring the country's defense and security." He also cited the case of an army colonel who, as head of the armed forces' main directorate for military and medical supply, was convicted of embezzling "nearly 200 million tenges" (about $1.5 million). RG

On January 29, opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party spokesman Joomart Saparbaev expressed concern at the deterioration of human rights in Kyrgyzstan over the last two years, adding that the "illegal detention" of protesters by the authorities has become more frequent, AKIpress reported. Saparbaev also warned that Kyrgyzstan is "rapidly retreating from democratic principles, which arouses a negative attitude among the general public to the incumbent authorities and will lead to a social cataclysm." RG

A district court in Salihork, Minsk Oblast, on January 29 sentenced Alyaksandr Tsatsura and Larysa Nasanovich to 15 days in jail for participating in an unsanctioned rally, Belapan reported. Tsatsura, leader of the unregistered organization For The Free Development of Enterprise, and Nasanovich, a former deputy chairwoman of the Women's Party Hope, attempted to deliver two petitions to the Salihorsk City Executive Committee on behalf of small-business owners and people who have been deprived of their benefits by new legislation. Police detained Tsatsura and Nasanovich after they read out the petitions to the gathering of nearly 100 people, then arrested them and charged with organizing an unsanctioned rally. AM

The leadership of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) condemned on January 29 as illegal the drafting of Dzmitry Zhaleznichenka into the army, Belapan reported. Zhaleznichenka, a third-year mathematics student, has been expelled twice from Homel State University for alleged violations of internal university rules. The first time, Zhaleznichenka managed to appeal his expulsion in court, which ordered the university to allow him to continue his studies. The second time, Zhaleznichenka was hastily drafted into the army. BNF Deputy Chairman Vintsuk Vyachorka said that the young party member was de jure a student when he was called up for military service. Vyachorka also said that the BNF will ask Zhaleznichenka to stop the hunger strike he has begun against the expulsion and the draft. "Dzmitry has proved his courage, consistency, and commitment to democratic principles in recent months, therefore placing his health in further jeopardy would not benefit the Belarusian cause," Vyachorka said. AM

The EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, on January 29 told Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in Brussels that political stability is now crucial for Ukraine, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Solana said that "Ukraine should conduct reforms...and move forward." EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner reiterated at the meeting with Tymoshenko the need for political stability in Ukraine and said that Ukraine should speed up its reforms, including reform of the judicial system, as well as fight corruption and make the climate for business more attractive. Ferrero-Waldner announced that she will visit Ukraine in mid-February to attend a meeting of ministers of the Black Sea region. EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson also announced he will visit Ukraine after February 5 in order to initiate talks on creating a free-trade zone between the EU and Ukraine. AM

A Slovenian diplomat accused by one of Slovenia's leading dailies of being a "yes-man" for the U.S. administration resigned on January 29, local and international media reported. Slovenian media did not report what reasons Mitja Drobnic, the political director of the Slovenian Foreign Ministry, gave for his decision. The Slovenian daily "Dnevnik," reported on January 25 , citing an internal Foreign Ministry report, on a meeting held in Washington between Drobnic and senior U.S. officials. The issue is particularly sensitive because Slovenia currently occupies the rotating presidency of the EU. The paper said that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried suggested to Drobnic what priorities Slovenia should pursue during its six-month presidency and urged it to be the first country to recognize Kosova as an independent state. The report prompted Slovenian President Danilo Tuerk to express concern on January 6 that the United States is seeking to exert pressure on Slovenia, and he urged the Slovenian government to ensure that its EU presidency is "impartial and principled," STA reported. Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel has not denied the existence of the internal report or its content, and his decision to order an investigation is seen in Slovenia as corroboration of the document's authenticity. Rupel told national television on January 28 that the leaked report is causing Slovenia "some difficulties with our interlocutors, especially from the United States." The Foreign Ministry hit out at those who leaked the document, describing them, according to STA, as "neither loyal citizens of Slovenia nor worthy of being called diplomats." Prime Minister Janez Jansa on January 25 denied that anyone is trying to tell Slovenia how to preside over the EU, and on January 27 he attacked "Dnevnik," saying that "interestingly enough, the Slovenian media outlet is the same that welcomed the arrival of Yugoslav tanks in 1991. We had all hoped that certain things had changed in Slovenia in the meantime, but they have unfortunately not." AG

The report cited by "Dnevnik" states that, in addition to arguing that Slovenia should be the first country to recognize Kosova as a state, the U. S. State Department officials urged Slovenia to work within the EU to ensure that it sends a mission to Kosova to replace UN administrators. The report also sheds light on the U.S. view on the positions of EU states. Washington reportedly believes six EU states are unlikely to recognize Kosova initially, but Fried apparently said that Slovenia has "no need to worry" about securing the backing of all 27 EU states. Fifteen would be enough in the U.S. view. Washington also indicated that it believes the question of an EU mission is more important than unity within the EU. For its part, Slovenia sought to enlist U.S. support in persuading the secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, to back the deployment of an EU mission to Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28 and 29, 2008). The U.S. officials said Russian "pressure" has placed Ban in a "tough situation," but it claimed to have "guarantees" from Ban that he would not prevent the deployment of an EU mission. For Ban, it would be easiest, they felt, for the issue of an EU mission to be addressed once Kosova had declared independence. The United States has said it would be among the first to recognize Kosova's statehood and that it is lobbying major non-EU states, including Japan, Turkey, and Arab countries. The report also indicates one tactic designed to limit Russia's influence, with the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for European affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, saying that it would "make sense" if Kosova were to declare its independence on a Sunday, so Russia would "not have time to call [a] UN Security Council session" before a number of countries have already recognized Kosova. According to the report, Washington also lobbied for the EU to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia before rather than after Kosova declares independence, in order to avoid the interpretation that the EU is compensating Serbia for the loss of Kosova, and said it would try and persuade the Netherlands to soften its stance toward signing an SAA with Serbia. On another note, Slovenian Foreign Ministry official Drobnic was critical of the position of France on the EU's relations with Serbia, a critique that is particularly sensitive because France will take over the rotating presidency of the EU from Slovenia on July 1. On January 28, the Netherlands vetoed the possibility of signing an SAA with Serbia, prompting the EU to offer Serbia a diluted, interim agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2008). AG

Tomislav Nikolic on January 29 took his campaign for the Serbian presidency to Moscow, where he met the man expected to succeed Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev. Nikolic also met with the speakers of the upper and lower houses of the Russian parliament, Sergei Mironov and Boris Gryzlov respectively. Nikolic's decision to spend one of the last days of the campaign in Moscow highlights the central importance that relations with Russia have assumed in the presidential race and appeared designed to undercut any support that President Boris Tadic may have garnered from a visit to Moscow on January 25 to seal a major energy deal with Russia. Nikolic has called Russia Serbia's "biggest ally, biggest friend, biggest protector," and has argued that Belgrade should allow Russia to station troops in Serbia to strengthen Serbia's hand in discussions about Kosova's future and to counter potential military action by NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007). Nikolic claimed on January 28 that he is "completely open to cooperation with the EU," but only on condition that Brussels must accept that Kosova should remain part of Serbia. Nikolic emerged victorious in the first round of the vote on January 20, but his lead over Tadic was a narrow four percentage points and both men are struggling to secure the additional votes needed to win the February 3 runoff (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). AG

Serbia's second-largest city, Novi Sad, on January 25 designated Russian President Putin an honorary citizen. The decision was made at the instigation of the largest party in the municipal government, the hard-line nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS). The timing, just over a week before the second round of the presidential election, underscores the respect of the party and its presidential candidate, Nikolic, for Russia. The move was backed by the local branches of the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS), which was founded by the late Slobodan Milosevic, and of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. The DSS has yet to endorse either candidate, even though it is part of the national government headed by Democratic Party (DS), whose leader, Tadic, is running for a second term. There have been reports that Kostunica has been withholding his support in an effort to persuade Tadic to adopt a tougher stance toward the EU, which Kostunica believes is intent on creating a "puppet state" in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). In early January, Putin was also made an honorary citizen of Vladicin Han, a Serb-populated town in the predominantly ethnic-Albanian Presevo Valley. AG

The most powerful ethnic-Serbian politician in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, has stepped up his support for Tadic's bid for the Serbian presidency, warning that defeat for Tadic could trigger the collapse of democracy in Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). Dodik's reputation among non-Serbian Bosnians is as a tough, possibly illiberal politician with a strained relationship with the EU, but Dodik has been a strong advocate of Tadic, the leader of the DS, which, among large Serbian parties, is most friendly to the EU and most liberal in its outlook. In an interview published by the Bosnian daily "Nezavisne novine" on January 29, Dodik warned that victory for the ultranationalist Nikolic would result in the future of Serbia and the region being "threatened." Nikolic's use of "false" patriotism would, Dodik asserted, "lead to the collapse of democracy in Serbia, which would also affect the region." The Bosnian daily "Dnevni avaz" on January 12 published an interview in which Nikolic described Dodik as "an idiot," adding, "you can freely write that." Tadic is "the only right choice for Republika Srpska and Serbia," Dodik said, referring to the Bosnian Serb-dominated region of which he is the prime minister. AG

Three Bosnian Serbs were arrested on January 28 over their suspected roles in the war crimes committed at the Susica detention camp in the Vlasenica area during the 1991-95 civil war. In all, around 8,000 Bosnian Muslims and other non-Serbs were detained in Susica at some point between May and October 1992. Many of them reported being subjected to physical or sexual abuse, including rape. It remains unclear what role the three men arrested -- Veljko Basic, Predrag Bastah, and Goran Viskovic -- are believed to have played at the camp. The camp's commander, Dragan Nikolic, was in December 2003 sentenced to 23 years in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which is based in The Hague. The sentence was reduced to 20 years on appeal. Most of those detained at Susica were driven from their homes by ethnic-Serbian forces and forced to sign documents stating they left of their own volition and ceding their rights to property in the area. AG


Condoleezza Rice said on January 30 that the political and security environment in Afghanistan could turn for the worse, if the Afghan government and its international security partners are not able to better coordinate their operations and expectations, Afghan and international media reported. In a frank assessment of the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Britain's Paddy Ashdown from consideration as the next United Nations envoy with expanded authority, Rice said in a joint press conference with Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith that "counterinsurgency work is very difficult because you have to clear the area of the terrorists or of the enemy, and then you have to be able to deliver goods and services for the people of the area, or the area will fall back into conflict." She added, "And I think it's fair to say that the international community has not yet found a way to coordinate its effort in a way that is effective and efficient and can fully support the Afghan government in reconstruction." The Afghan government reportedly derailed Ashdown's nomination as a "super envoy," fearing negative consequences for its own authority and image among the Afghan public. MM

During the press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Rice in Washington, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith expressed his government's concern about the political strife in Kabul and lack of a stable international figure to coordinate efforts, echoing Rice's frustration. Smith pledged continued commitment in Afghanistan, despite some reservations, and said Australia will provide "aid, civilian training, infrastructure, governance [and] the capacity-building contributions that are required." Smith also voiced worries over instability in neighboring Pakistan and its implications for Afghanistan "When it comes to Afghanistan, we are, as a government, particularly concerned about Afghanistan and the adverse consequences for Afghanistan so far as what's occurred recently in Pakistan." MM

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters in Ottawa on January 29 that he is frustrated by the refusal of other NATO member states contributing troops in Afghanistan to provide more military personnel, saying it could undermine NATO's credibility, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Harper put conditions on extending Canada's troop commitment in Afghanistan beyond its current mandate, which expires by the end of 2008. "Canada must continue to do its part, but it needs support from its allies," he said, adding that NATO's reputation is "on the line" and depends on the Afghan mission's success. Canadian troops are deployed in the war-torn southern Kandahar Province where they have had 78 soldiers killed since the mission began in 2002. A Canadian government panel issued a report on January 22 recommending a change from military operations to development aid and reconstruction, and requested NATO allies to contribute more combat troops to support Canadian soldiers fighting Taliban insurgents in Kandahar. MM

Omar Zakhilwal, the head of the government's Afghanistan Investment Support Agency (AISA), told a press conference on January 28 in Kabul that total investment in Afghanistan decreased from over $1 billion in 2006 to approximately $500 million in 2007, the Bakhtar news agency reported. Zakhilwal cited the deteriorating personal security situation across the country as the main cause for the decrease in business activity and investment in Afghanistan. He said, "the investors were not concerned over the general security situation in the country, but the personal threats particularly in Kabul and Herat raised concerns among them," noting a rise in the kidnapping of businessmen by criminal groups for extortion and ransom. He added that more than 2,000 companies were registered with AISA in 2007, the majority of which were Afghan businesses covering all sectors of the economy, including 45 percent in services, 33 percent in construction, 11 percent in industries, and 10 percent in agriculture, adding another 46,000 job opportunities for the Afghan public. Zakhilwal also cited other reasons for the fall in investment, such as the "lack of infrastructure, particularly, power supply, existence of corruption in administration, and lack of credit." He called for more effective coordination and expressed the hope that business investment will increase again as Afghanistan stabilizes. MM

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Bahrain on January 29 that Iran has answered all outstanding questions on its nuclear program and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed its "transparency," Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. In March, IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei is to publish a report on Iran's cooperation with the IAEA in recent months. The United States in particular is pushing for more UN sanctions on Iran for suspected nonproliferation violations and for its refusal to end sensitive nuclear fuel-making activities. "American intelligence bodies have corroborated this," Hosseini said, apparently referring to the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate published in December that concluded that Iran suspended its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. "Unfortunately, in spite of all these measures, one cannot see any change in the less-than-constructive conduct of the five-plus-one" powers -- the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany -- and "pretexts and provocations" are continuing "in response to Iran's constructive cooperation." The UN Security Council has begun discussing a third sanctions resolution against Iran; two are already in place but Iran has ignored them. Iran's nuclear program is believed to have prompted neighboring Arab states to consider nuclear programs of their own, though Radio Farda on January 29 quoted Abdullah al-Hisham, a Gulf Cooperation Council official involved with the group's nuclear development initiatives, as saying that member states' nuclear plans are not "reactive." VS

Workers of the Kian Tire firm outside Tehran have been on strike in recent days over four months' unpaid wages, Radio Farda reported on January 29, citing Iranian news agencies and websites. The broadcaster reported a separate strike in recent weeks in a telecommunications firm. Kian Tire workers have reportedly burned tires and blocked a road between Tehran and Islamshahr, where the factory is based, while security forces were reportedly standing by and observing the strike. Islamshahr labor activist Mohammad Hasanpur-Talebian has told ISNA the strike was a result of the firm's privatization, and he accused the "new owners" of thinking more of "profit and their own interests. As they can turn the unit into capital, they are trying to increase pressure on workers by not paying them and by signing temporary contracts." Another worker from Tehran, Reza Aqdasi, told Radio Farda the new owners have said the firm is bankrupt, and he said they are trying to sell the site to property developers. "Investors now think they can make much more profit with real estate construction and are not concerned with the payment of wages and insurance and the like to hundreds or thousands of workers." A leftist member of parliament, Alireza Mahjub, observed in an interview recently that some workers in Iran have not been paid in a year, Radio Farda reported on January 29. VS

The Iranian Intelligence Ministry has summoned at least 10 students for questioning, following several days of protests on the Tehran University campus, Radio Farda reported on January 29. The protests over food and conditions began late last week, but the university calmed down late on January 28, Radio Farda quoted Farid Hashemi, a member of Students for Democracy, as saying. He said the university campus was "half-closed" now following consultations between university authorities and students, and because of the summons issued by the Intelligence Ministry. Hashemi said he thinks the authorities are planning "a more extensive response" against the students. Hashemi said that "a large number of students" from Tehran University have disappeared and it's not clear if they were arrested, though he said at least 10 were summoned to the ministry's "investigative committee." There, he said, they would likely be questioned as suspected rioters or witnesses "with the same methods as are used in prison." VS

Iranian judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi told the press in Tehran on January 29 that four customs officials have been sentenced to death after being convicted of charges including large-scale bribery -- they allegedly took a little over $1 million in bribes -- Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Jamshidi said that "the execution sentence for people who disrupt Iran's banking and financial system will be implemented." He added that three others connected to the case have asked for the more lenient sentence of life prison terms, which was being examined by the judiciary. He also announced the arrests of 54 Baha'is "who engaged in publicity against the system"; he said three were given four-year prison terms, and the other 51 received three-year terms. The Baha'is worked in a nongovernmental association helping to provide education for poor children in Shiraz, in southern Iran, but government officials have alleged they promoted Baha'i religious ideas to the children, Radio Farda reported. Iran's government barely tolerates the Baha'i faith, an unorthodox offshoot of Islam, and many Baha'is left Iran after the 1979 revolution. VS

Ali al-Dabbagh told Al-Sharqiyah television on January 29 that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is continuing dialogue with Kurdish and Sunni Arab leaders toward overcoming the current political crisis, the news channel reported the same day. Regarding talks aimed at returning Sunni Arabs from the Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq) to their cabinet posts, al-Dabbagh said, "Everybody hopes that these talks...will lead to a political agreement according to which Al-Tawafuq Front and other parties would resume their participation." He added: "I believe this [return to government] will not take place within days or [a] week as has been rumored or as some parliamentarians have said. More time is needed so that Al-Tawafuq could nominate new candidates to fill the vacant positions in the Iraqi government." Regarding negotiations with the Kurdistan Coalition, he told Al-Sharqiyah: "We are waiting for a delegation from Kurdistan to continue talks that were suspended due to the holidays -- including Eid and the new year. The dialogue is continuing. There is no problem." The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's (PUK) media website reported on January 29 that President Jalal Talabani, who heads the PUK, met with al-Maliki to discuss the political situation. The report did not give any details of the meeting. KR

Mosul Deputy Governor Khasraw Goran said on January 29 that Mosul residents are grateful for the Iraqi government's decision to send additional troops to the northern governorate, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2008). "For several years, these [Al-Qaeda-affiliated] terrorists have been controlling the people's destiny in this city," Goran said. "They killed and slew many people. That is why citizens are afraid." Al-Iraqiyah also reported that 10 civilians were wounded in a car-bomb attack in Mosul on January 29. Also, five U.S. soldiers were killed in a bomb attack in Mosul on January 28. KR

Al-Sharqiyah television cited an unidentified security source and a local chieftain on January 29 as confirming that the bodyguards of a Baghdad area awakening-council chief were responsible for his assassination on January 28. The bodyguards reportedly confessed to detonating explosives they planted in Abbas al-Dulaymi's car. Al-Dulaymi headed the Sab al-Bur Awakening Council, one of the groups formed by tribesmen in the last year to fight terrorists. The news channel also reported on January 29 that more than 230 members of the Al-Mashahdah Awakening Council near Ba'qubah have withdrawn from the council after not receiving their salaries for two months. KR

Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abd al-Karim Khalaf said documents destroyed during the January 28 fire at the Central Bank in Baghdad were copied and stored in a separate location, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Al-Sharqiyah television earlier reported that files detailing corruption at a number of ministries, including information detailing the transfer of funds outside Iraq, were destroyed in the blaze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2008). Khalaf said no money or gold was destroyed in the fire, and that the fire only caused some material damage. "Azzaman" reported on January 29 that several members of parliament have called on the prime minister to launch an independent investigation into the fire, as well as an earlier fire at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. "The fires have turned into ash important documents condemning officials for corruption," the ministers said in a statement, implying the fires were deliberately set to protect officials accused of graft. KR