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Newsline - January 31, 2008

Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov, who heads the General Staff's training department, said on January 30 that the staff is considering changing the composition and structure of Russia's military presence in Kaliningrad Oblast in response to the planned U.S. missile-defense project in Poland and the Czech Republic, news agencies and the daily "Kommersant" reported on January 30 and 31, respectively. Shamanov did not elaborate except to say that the military must be "capable of guaranteeing the protection of Russian interests" in the region. In June 2007, President Vladimir Putin and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov threatened to target European sites with missiles if the United States goes ahead with its program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, 19, 26, and 27, and October 29, 2007). Ivanov more recently linked missile defense to the unspecified military role of the Kaliningrad Oblast. "Kommersant" noted on January 31 that Iskander tactical ballistic missiles and unspecified tactical nuclear weapons might be among the weapons that could be stationed in Kaliningrad Oblast. Shamanov also said on January 30 that the number of submarine training exercises decreased by 20 percent in 2007 over the previous year due to "the technical state of the submarines." He noted that the average age of navy ships is 20 years and more, which limits their use in training exercises. Shamanov confirmed earlier reports that tanks and truck-mounted Topol-M intercontinental ballistic will this year again roll across Red Square to mark Victory Day on May 9, as they did prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Military aircraft will fly overhead and marching troops will display the new uniforms recently approved by Putin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008). In recent weeks, there has been some discussion in the press regarding the wisdom of reviving the massive military displays. Some observers said they consider doing so politically inexpedient, while others suggested that the parade might be difficult to stage on practical grounds since post-Soviet building activity has somewhat reconfigured the shape of the square. Independent analyst Pavel Felgengauer wrote in "Novaya gazeta" on January 24 that Moscow's aggressive rhetoric and muscle-flexing -- such as reviving military parades -- are helping to consolidate NATO and buttress U.S. leadership in the West. Shamanov's name is linked to widespread atrocities committed by units under his command in Chechnya in 1999-2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14 and 26, 2007). PM

Valery Yazev of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, who is deputy speaker of the State Duma, said in Berlin on January 30 that Germany and the EU are not doing enough to support the planned Nord Stream pipeline, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on January 31. Yazev is also president of the Russian Gas Society (RGO), which is widely seen as a lobby group for Gazprom. Yazev appealed to Germany and the EU to help "convince those countries that are against the construction of the pipeline." Poland, Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic states all object to Nord Stream on political or ecological grounds or both (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28 and December 18 and 19, 2007, and January 8, 2008). Gazprom owns 51 percent of the Nord Stream consortium, with Germany's BASF and E.ON controlling 20 percent each and the Dutch Gasunie owning 9 percent. Nord Stream's stockholders oversight body is headed by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Following several delays, the pipeline is now expected to go into service in 2011. But BASF officials recently said that more support from the EU is needed if the project is to meet even that deadline. EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said recently that the countries involved in Nord Stream, including Russia, must respect EU environmental regulations if Brussels is to give the project the final green light. PM

Outspoken nationalist politician Dmitry Rogozin, who is Russia's new ambassador to NATO, presented Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer with a "special souvenir tomahawk" on January 28, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10, 11, and 25, 2008). Rogozin said he hopes that the NATO leader will bury the hatchet as a sign of "putting an end to all conflicts between Russia and NATO. He is holding the tomahawk, and now we have to find a spade to bury this hatchet as deep as possible in the ground." Rogozin noted that NATO needs Russia's help on some vital issues, such as combating Taliban forces in Afghanistan. "Our main goal is to respect each other's interests and make the world more predictable and secure," he added. PM

President Vladimir Putin on January 30 held his final meeting as president with representatives of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russian media reported. First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is Putin's preferred successor as president, attended the meeting. Putin praised the FSB, which he headed in 1998-99, saying that "as a whole it has reliably and effectively resolved the issue of ensuring the security of citizens, society, and the state." Nonetheless, Putin said that in the light of the upcoming presidential election, the FSB must "increase its work to gather information about attempts to interfere with our internal affairs." He said Russia is a "sovereign state" and will not allow anyone from outside to interfere with the election campaign. Putin also told the gathering that they must ensure the country's economic security, in view of the large resources accumulated in the Stabilization Fund and elsewhere, and in view of the ongoing national projects and modernization of the armed forces. "All this requires enhanced guarantees of the country's economic security," Putin said. "Corruption and abuse of office must be rigorously curbed. The service must make use of its operative capabilities to untangle schemes to reroute state and budgetary resources," Putin said, according to Interfax. RC

Jailed former Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky has declared a hunger strike in support of former Yukos Vice President Vasily Aleksanyan, Russian media reported on January 30. Aleksanyan, who has been held without trial for two years, reportedly has AIDS and has been denied medical treatment, despite an order from the European Court of Human Rights that he be given proper medical care (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15 and 17, 2008). A Moscow court on January 30 held a preliminary hearing of Aleksanyan's case, despite a request from the defense that it be postponed because of his deteriorating health. Ekho Moskvy reported on January 31 that Aleksanyan was brought by force into the courtroom that day and that he told journalists that he had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma as well. Aleksanyan is charged with embezzlement and money laundering, charges that he denies. Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Yury Shmidt, told Ekho Moskvy on January 31 that Khodorkovsky intends to continue his hunger strike until Aleksanyan is admitted to a hospital. A prison official in Chita, where Khodorkovsky is being held, told Interfax on January 31 that Khodorkovsky could be punished for "refusing to take food." RC

First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev on January 30 opened his new campaign website, The site contains a short biography, selected quotations from Medvedev's speeches, transcripts, information about his campaign staff, and a photo gallery. It also includes English versions of several speeches and interviews. "Vedomosti" reported on January 30 that Medevedev's official campaign will be "quiet and economical," and will focus on his connection with President Putin and his work on the national projects, government efforts to improve housing, health care, agriculture, and education. An unnamed source in the presidential administration told the daily: "We don't need a lot of advertising. Medvedev is successfully winning the confidence of the voters without it." Research has shown that Medvedev has received as much as 90 percent of the state-television airtime devoted to the election and that all his coverage has been positive. The other candidates are mentioned rarely and often in neutral or negative tones (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2008). Medevedev has declined to participate in televised campaign debates with his opponents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2008). RC

Prosecutors in Yaroslavl Oblast on January 30 filed a criminal case in connection with signatures gathered there in support of the presidential candidacy of Democratic Party of Russia leader Andrei Bogdanov, "Novye izvestia" reported on January 31. According to the charges, a group of campaign supporters falsified some 300 signatures in the region. Prosecutors in the same region earlier filed a similar case against the campaign of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Kasyanov on January 28 was denied registration as a candidate by the Central Election Commission, which determined that some 13 percent of his submitted signatures were invalid. Bogdanov, however, was registered. A representative of the Central Election Commission told the daily that even if the Yaroslavl charges against Bogdanov are upheld, they will not affect his status as a candidate. RC

A recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) indicates that the long-respected Russian concept of the intelligentsia is on the verge of extinction, commentator Sergei Shelin wrote on on January 30. The poll found that 26 percent of respondents, asked to name someone "famous in Russia" whom they regard as intelligent, named President Putin, followed in second place by First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev with 6 percent. Filmmaker Nikita Milkalkov came in third with 3 percent, tied with First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. Less than 3 percent of respondents mentioned the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, Nobel Literature Prize laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or the late historian Dmitry Likhachyov. The most important result, according to Shelin, is that 43 percent of respondents were unable to name anyone. Asked to characterize a member of the intelligentsia, more than half of respondents said "educated" or "smart," while about one-quarter said "polite" or "cultured." Only 2 percent of respondents said members of the intelligentsia should be "politically or socially active," while only 1 percent said it is important they "have their own point of view." Forty-two percent of respondents nationally, and 65 percent in Moscow, said the influence of the intelligentsia has declined since the collapse of the Soviet Union. RC

The management of the Ford automotive plant outside of St. Petersburg has agreed to significant concessions to workers, following a series of labor actions, reported on January 31 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20 and 30, 2007). The plant agreed to raise salaries an average of nearly 20 percent, bringing average wages at the plant to 25,586 rubles ($1,045) a month. The plant will also institute a retirement-savings plan and other social benefits. RC

Mustapa Genzhekhanov, who heads the legal department within the administration of Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev, convened a press conference in Makhachkala on January 30 at which he rejected as untrue allegations published five days earlier by the independent newspaper "Chernovik" that the successful applicant for one of the vacant positions within the presidential office paid a $30,000 bribe, and reported. Miyasat Muslimova, who heads the presidential department for information and analysis, similarly told the press conference that the sole criterion for selecting personnel is their level of professionalism. A total of 75 people applied for 14 vacant posts in various departments, of whom 41 were short-listed; the successful candidates were present at the press conference to answer journalists' questions. LF

The Ingushetian authorities have asked the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office to take the appropriate measures to arrest Magomed Yevloyev, the Moscow-domiciled owner of the independent website and one of the leaders of the opposition to Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov, the daily "Kommersant" reported on January 31. Doing so presents procedural problems insofar as Yevloyev is himself a registered lawyer. LF

Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov said in a January 30 statement that he has no objection to merging the tax services of Adygeya and Krasnodar Krai, but that the resulting consolidated agency should have its offices in Maikop, the Republic of Adygeya capital, reported. Tkhakushinov rejected as unacceptable any subordination of subsidiaries in Adygeya of federal agencies to the corresponding structure in Krasnodar Krai, within which Adygeya is an enclave. At the same time, he stressed that he enjoys an excellent working relationship with Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev. Two prominent Adygeya NGOs have recently appealed to top Russian politicians not to abolish the local offices in Adygeya of the Federal Tax Service and several other federal agencies (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 25, 2008). LF

The campaign staff of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian have released an evaluation of the first 40 days of the campaign leading up to the February 19 presidential election, in which Ter-Petrossian is widely regarded as the most serious challenger to the government's candidate, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Noyan Tapan reported on January 30. That evaluation noted "many" violations on the basis of which it concluded that the ongoing campaign represents "a step backward" in comparison with previous elections. It accused Sarkisian of abusing his official position, and government media of "unprecedented" attacks on Ter-Petrossian. That latter accusation has been partly corroborated by the findings of monitoring of the Armenian media conducted by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation Mission, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on January 30. The OSCE registered disproportionate coverage by most major television channels of Sarkisian's campaign activities compared with only minimal coverage of the other eight candidates, and noted that Ter-Petrossian "was regularly portrayed in a negative light." LF

The closed trial opened on January 30 at Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes of Emil Suleimanov, the former head of security at Baku airport, reported on January 31. Suleimanov was arrested in September 2007; he and four other airport security officials are charged with treason, abuse of their official position, and illegal possession of arms and ammunition. Suleimanov was described as a former KGB operative who subsequently served with Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry, the successor agency to the KGB. He is said to have installed listening devices in the room at the airport where Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev meets with and briefs cabinet ministers before leaving the country. LF

Meeting with journalists from regional media outlets on January 30, President Mikheil Saakashvili praised the new cabinet, which parliament is to approve on January 31, Georgian media reported. Saakashvili noted that Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze has never belonged to any political party, and that ministers were selected purely for their patriotism and professional qualities, rather than their political affiliation. He disclosed that he offered the opposition National Council the healthcare portfolio, but the opposition rejected it. Saakashvili further stressed that Georgia needs "a strong parliament" with "more functions," and a stronger judiciary. He did not elaborate. On January 31, it was announced that Gela Bezhuashvili, who served as foreign minister in the previous cabinet, has been named to head the Intelligence Department, which is directly subordinate to the president, Caucasus Press reported. Bezhuashvili, 40, has previously served as defense minister and as Saakashvili's national-security adviser. LF

A French court has released former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili on bail, Caucasus Press reported on January 31, citing Okruashvili's lawyer Eka Beselia. Okruashvili left Georgia in late October 2007 and sought political asylum in Germany in light of charges of corruption and embezzlement of state funds brought against him after he accused President Saakashvili of protectionism and plotting the murder of a political rival (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26 and October 2 and 9, 2007). The German authorities transferred him to French custody earlier this month on the grounds that his Schengen visa was issued by the French Embassy in Tbilisi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10, 2008). LF

Police in Astana have detained three men from South Kazakhstan Oblast on suspicion of beating and robbing Markus Bensmann, a journalist with Germany's ARD television channel, Interfax and reported on January 30, quoting Zhanat Bitenov, the head of the Astana Crime Squad. Bensmann was found unconscious and badly beaten on the street early on January 20, the day after he arrived in Astana (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2008). According to Bitenov, Bensmann emerged inebriated from a night club and flagged down a car belonging to one of the three suspects, who realized he was a foreigner and decided to rob him. The three men have confessed to the assault and robbery, Bitenov said. LF

Some 25 journalists employed by Kyrgyzstan State Television have embarked on a hunger strike to demand the resignation of Melis Eshimkanov, a former opposition politician whom President Kurmanbek Bakiev named to head the channel three months ago, and reported on January 31 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29, 2007). The hunger strikers accuse Eshimkanov of rehiring journalists who worked at the channel under former President Askar Akaev, and of financial violations. Eshimkanov's aide Moldoseyit Mambetakunov, however, told that the demands for Eshimkanov's resignation were launched in retaliation by the channel's former deputy director, Beyshenbek Bekeshov, whom Eshimkanov dismissed. LF

Tajikistan's foreign debt rose by over 29 percent in 2007 to reach $1.12 billion, Interfax reported on January 30, citing the Tajik Finance Ministry. That sum is the equivalent of 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The ministry said the steep rise is the consequence of 11 separate loan agreements totaling $154.3 million signed in 2007. Tajikistan's largest creditors are the World Bank ($400 million), the Asian Development Bank ($300 million), and China ($216 million), which is engaged in several major highway and power-line construction projects in Tajikistan. LF

President Emomali Rahmon telephoned his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on January 28 to ask that Turkmenistan increase by an unspecified amount the volume of electricity it currently exports to Tajikistan, reported on January 29. Berdymukhammedov reportedly agreed to do so "within the realms of the possible." Central Asia has for several weeks been experiencing unusually severe cold that has increased domestic electricity consumption across the region and led to widespread power outages across Tajikistan. LF

The Turkmen Foreign Ministry issued a statement on January 30 condemning as "incomprehensible" a proposal made by Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on January 28 during her talks in Brussels with EU officials, reported. According to on January 29, Tymoshenko proposed construction of a new gas pipeline across the Black Sea from Georgia to Crimea, to be named White Stream (by analogy with the Russian Blue Stream undersea pipeline from Russia's Black Sea coast to Turkey). The proposed new pipeline, according to Tymoshenko, would provide Ukraine with an alternative source of natural gas and transport Turkmen natural gas to EU member states. The plan would be contingent on construction of a companion pipeline across the Caspian from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan to link up with the existing Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum export pipeline. As deputy prime minister under President Leonid Kuchma in 2000-01, Tymoshenko was responsible for negotiating the purchase of Turkmen natural gas. The Turkmen statement observed that it is normal international practice for those states that have oil and gas reserves available for export to come up with proposals for export pipeline routes after consultation with the parties directly concerned. LF

Speaking on January 29 in Dushanbe at a conference on Russian-Tajik security cooperation, Anatoly Starodubets, who is deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Russian leadership is ready to do all in its power to bring about an improvement in the strained relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, reported on January 29. He stressed that Moscow places great value on cordial relations with both those countries. On January 30, the website reported that Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov will visit Moscow next week and meet there with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. LF

Over 50 Belarusian intellectuals on January 29 took part in a meeting to establish an organizing committee for an association called the Institute of National Remembrance (INP), Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The gathering adopted a declaration that provides for researching the issues of the Belarusian nation and its achievements from ancient times to the present day. Writer Vasil Yakavenka, who was elected as one of several committee co-chairmen, said that the INP intends to "inhibit the dissolution of civil society and national culture in the country." Another committee co-chairman, playwright Ales Petrashkevich, said that the INP's goal is to "return historic memory to the Belarusians, who have been forced for centuries to renounce their roots." "This should be a reply to those who suppress the truth about our national history and consciously publish lies, which find their way into history textbooks," he added. AM

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on January 30 in Minsk that Russia is worried about "pressure exerted by some Western countries on Belarus to force the republic into changing its policy," Belapan reported. Lavrov, who attended a board meeting of the Belarusian and Russian Foreign Ministries, condemned the "attempts at economic and political pressure" as "counterproductive and short-sighted." "Sanctions have never had the desired effect. Problems should be solved through mutually respectful dialogue, not through dictation and pressure," Lavrov said. Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau said that his ministry is currently working "to neutralize these matters as much as possible to ensure that economic sanctions could not be worsened and even could be removed." AM

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on January 30 that during her upcoming visit to Moscow she intends to discuss increasing the price for the transit of Russian natural gas across Ukraine to Europe, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Tymoshenko said following a government meeting that Ukraine "moves toward market prices for natural gas" purchased from Russia and therefore "it also needs to move as regards tariffs on the transportation of Russian gas" across Ukrainian territory. Tymoshenko believes that the transit fees and the price for Russian natural gas are mutually connected and this constitutes grounds on which agreement might be achieved. Tymoshenko said her visit to Moscow is scheduled for February 21-22. AM

Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko has filed a complaint about the criminal case opened against him by Kyiv's prosecutor's office to the Prosecutor-General's Office, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on January 30. Kyiv's prosecutor's office charged Lutsenko with the "infliction of slight injuries" on Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetskyy at a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28, 2008). Lutsenko claims that the criminal case against him was opened without sufficient evidence and that the decision to open a case takes into account only Chernovetskyy's version of the incident. AM

The vice president of the European Commission, Franco Frattini, flew to Belgrade on January 30 to start talks about the possibility of ending visa requirements for Serbian citizens, the news service Balkan Insight reported. "We know that 70 percent of young people in Serbia have never traveled abroad," Frattini told journalists before heading for Belgrade. "That's not acceptable and we want to rectify that." The EU announced on January 18 its willingness to launch talks on visas and reiterated its commitment when its foreign ministers met on January 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2008). This is the second sign in a matter of days that the EU wants to tighten relations with Serbia, following agreement within the union on January 28 to offer Belgrade a deal focusing on trade links (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2008). The offers fall short of measures desired by pro-EU ministers in Belgrade, who believe the EU could swing votes toward Serbia's serving president, Boris Tadic, in the runoff to be held on February 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008). Frattini's schedule includes meetings with Tadic, with Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic, whose portfolio includes European integration, and with police officials. The EU eased visa restrictions on Serbs and citizens of four other Balkan states as recently as this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007 and January 3, 2008). AG

The UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) has sent a letter to Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica in which it criticizes Belgrade for intimidating Kosova's Serbian minority, UNMIK told journalists on January 30. In the letter, UNMIK chief Joachim Ruecker singled out a visit made by Serbia's minister for Kosovar affairs, Slobodan Samardzic, to Kosova on January 18 during which, according to Ruecker's spokesman, Aleksandar Ivanko, Samardzic "made statements aimed at intimidating the lawful local administration and preventing it from cooperating with UNMIK and the provisional institutions of self-government." UNMIK also said that "the letter also focuses on a pattern of activities in Kosovo of the Serbian government that are in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1244." Ivanko did not elaborate on either of the charges leveled against Belgrade. The Security Council resolution established the basis for UNMIK to enter Kosova in 1999, which it has administered ever since. The Serbian government has been calling on Kosovar Serbs not to join Kosova's institutions, and Samardzic has said that if Kosova declares independence, Serbia will set up "state structures in Serbian settlements" in Kosova. Kosovar dailies have in recently days reported, without providing sources, that the United States and the four EU states that are part of the Contact Group leading international efforts to resolve Kosova's future have urged UNMIK to dismantle existing parallel structures established by Belgrade after the Serbian presidential runoff on February 3. AG

The human rights group Amnesty International on January 28 urged UNMIK and the authorities in Kosova to do more to punish war criminals. "Hundreds of cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity -- including rape and disappearances -- as well as other interethnic crimes, remain unresolved seven years after the United Nations began its efforts to rebuild the Kosovo judicial system," the group said in a press statement released to mark the publication of a report on the UN's program to establish a judicial system that complies with international standards. "Hundreds of cases have been dismissed for want of evidence that was neither promptly nor effectively gathered. Relatives of missing people report that they have been interviewed too many times by international police and prosecutors new to their case, yet no progress is ever made." Amnesty also said that, when it leaves Kosova, the UN will have failed "to leave a legacy of experienced and well trained prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers able to try such crimes." "Local prosecutors and judges are little better prepared to conduct proceedings in cases involving crimes under international law," Amnesty declared. "Legal reforms essential for conducting such proceedings still have not been enacted into law." UNMIK spokesman Ivanko said on January 30 that UNMIK's policy "is that we do not comment on the substance of reports issued by NGOs." The former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte, and nongovernmental organizations have also been critical of the witness-protection program in Kosova. AG

Two people were killed in the Republika Srpska when a bomb exploded on January 30 outside a cafe in Pale, the news service Balkan Insight reported the same day. In addition, one person was seriously injured and four others lightly injured. The reason for the attack remains unclear, but the identity of one of the victims, Vlatko Macar, a suspected criminal, has raised the possibility that it was part of a broader battle between rival criminal gangs. Macar was the owner of the cafe, Omerta, outside which the bomb was placed. Pale served as the base for the Republika Srpska's leadership during the 1991-95 civil war. AG

Albania's parliament held a ceremony on January 29 to honor the country's wartime resistance movement for its role in saving Jews from being sent to concentration camps during World War II, local media reported. Tirana says Albanian families sheltered and saved 1,200 Jews from death, most of them from neighboring countries. Albania's own Jewish community was very small, numbering just 204 in the 1930 census, but hundreds fled to Albania after the Nazis' rise to power in Germany and expansion into Central Europe. Italy annexed Albania in 1939, but Nazi Germany moved into Albania in September 1943. AG

An independent study to be released in Washington on January 30 warns that Afghanistan is at risk of becoming a failed state because of declining international support and growing militant violence there.

The study was a voluntary effort coordinated by the Center for the Study of the Presidency, a nonpartisan organization in Washington. It is a follow-on effort to the work of the Iraq Study Group -- a congressionally mandated panel and the first major bipartisan U.S. assessment of the Iraq war since the 2003 invasion.

The Afghanistan assessment was co-chaired by retired U.S. Marine Corps General James Jones and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas Pickering.

Its warnings come a time when military and political officials from the United States and NATO are debating the distribution of war-fighting resources in Afghanistan and Iraq.

An advance copy of the Jones-Pickering assessment, obtained by AP, says progress achieved in Afghanistan during the last six years is under "serious threat" from resurgent militant violence, mounting regional challenges, and a weakening international resolve. It says there is a growing lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan people about the future direction of their country.

The Jones-Pickering assessment also warns that the international community has not deployed enough military force or disbursed sufficient economic aid to Afghanistan.

Among some three dozen recommendations, the study calls for NATO to increase troop levels and military equipment to Afghanistan. It recommends the appointment of a special envoy to coordinate all U.S. policy on Afghanistan. It calls for the U.S. management of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be separated. And it urges the creation of a unified international strategy to stabilize security within five years.

Finally, the Jones-Pickering assessment recommends that Washington rethink its overall military and economic strategy in Afghanistan because of waning support among voters in other NATO countries.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he agrees that more troops are now needed in Afghanistan. But he says they should not be U.S. soldiers. Indeed, U.S. officials worked for months last year trying to get NATO allies to commit more troops to Afghanistan. But major alliance members such as Germany and France have restricted the way their forces can be deployed. They also have refused to significantly bolster the 10,000 NATO troops already deployed as part of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force.

In December, NATO announced that it would send an additional 6,000 troops to southern Afghanistan to counter an expected Taliban spring offensive. At the same time, Washington said it wanted to withdraw about 4,000 U.S. troops from the same region.

But last week -- with other NATO countries still refusing to muster the additional troop numbers desired by the United States -- Washington confirmed that it would instead send an additional 3,200 U.S. Marines to Afghanistan's volatile border region near Pakistan.

Still, most NATO countries aren't abandoning their security commitments in Afghanistan outright. On January 29, the German legislature voted to extend the stay of German troops currently in Afghanistan.

"The only sustainable way to secure this country in an enduring way is to enable the Afghans themselves to be able to defend this country against all external and internal threats," Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said in welcoming the decision. "Having that in view, what we are expecting from all our friends and allies, especially the countries [with] which we enjoy the closest relations, like Germany, we are hoping that they shall assist us."

For his part, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in an interview published on January 30 by the German newspaper "Die Welt" that he is not sure whether additional foreign troop deployments are the right answer for Afghanistan's security problems.

Karzai, in an apparent reference to militancy in neighboring Pakistan, said it is more important for international forces to concentrate on training camps and refuges outside of Afghanistan where terrorists have fled.

Karzai also said Afghanistan needs help to further expand its own security and legal institutions -- including the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, the civil service, and the judiciary -- before the level of international troops in Afghanistan is reduced.

(Ron Synovitz is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

The Afghan parliament's media office said on January 30 that the upper house, the Meshrano Jirga (Council of Elders), has endorsed the recent decision by a Balkh Province court sentencing a journalism student to death for alleged blasphemy, Afghan and international media reported. The court in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif found 23-year-old Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh guilty of distributing an article questioning verses in the Koran about the rights of women (see "Afghanistan: Uncle Of Student Condemned To Death Says Court Biased,", January 29, 2008). According to AFP, the Meshrano Jirga issued a statement that endorsed the court's death sentence on Kambakhsh for "insulting Islam and misinterpretation of Holy Koran verses," and it "strongly criticizes those domestic and international organizations which are pressuring Afghanistan's government and legal authorities when pursuing such people." The statement is apparently signed by the chairman of the upper house, Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, a former mujahedin leader and religious scholar. Afghan and international journalists and civil society groups have protested the closed-door verdict as fabricated and unjust. MM

Hundreds of Afghan women demonstrated on January 29 in the southern city of Kandahar to demand the release of an American aid worker, Cyd Mizell, and her Afghan driver, Mohammad Hadi, who were kidnapped in a residential neighborhood last week, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Taliban sources continue to deny involvement in the abduction of Mizell and no other group has claimed responsibility. Qari Yusof Ahmadi, a spokesman for Taliban, reportedly said: "All I can say is that she is missing. I was not informed from any Taliban quarter that she was abducted by the Taliban." The director of the Kandahar Women's Association, Rona Tareen, urged Mizell's captors to release her. "Her kidnapping is against our culture and tradition," she said, adding that Mizell has helped many local women find jobs and market their embroidery work. The demonstration by so many women in the conservative southern province was a rare public display of their wishes and a call for government officials to act quickly. Kandahar and its vicinity remain among the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan, due to Taliban insurgency and criminal activities. MM

An advance copy of an assessment report by the U.S. Afghanistan Study Group obtained by AP on January 30 portrays a worsening political and security environment in the country due to intensified insurgency activities, Afghan public discontent, and widening policy divergence among countries involved in supporting Afghanistan (see End Note). The group was co-chaired by retired U.S. Marine Corps General James Jones and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas Pickering. Their report says the root causes of the deteriorating situation are mounting Taliban violence, regional pressures, and decreasing international resolve. The study concludes that Afghanistan is at a crossroads, and offers three dozen recommendations, foremost among them the appointment of a special envoy to coordinate all U.S. policy in Afghanistan; a call to "decouple" Iraq and Afghanistan in the legislative process and in the management of these conflicts in the executive branch; and a call for "the creation of a unified international strategy to stabilize security within five years." MM

Speaking to Afghan lawmakers and diplomats on January 30 in Kabul, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood accused Iran of supplying weapons to Taliban insurgents and questioned Iranian intentions in the country, Afghan and international media reported. Wood described the relationship between Afghanistan and Iran as "complicated," and said, "There are from time to time difficulties and certainly there is no question that elements of insurgency have received weapons from Iran." After criticizing Iran's forced repatriation during the winter of thousands of Afghan nationals, he cast doubt on Iranian reconstruction assistance. "Iran is providing assistance to Afghanistan: whether that is meant to assist Afghanistan or influence Afghanistan, I leave that to you," he told the mostly Afghan audience. MM

Speaking in Bushehr, southern Iran, on January 30, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said that Iran's nuclear dispute with the West will soon end in Iran's favor, and that Iran is about to reach the end of its nuclear quest, news agencies reported. He said Iran will begin using nuclear power in its electricity grid next year, ISNA reported. Russia has completed the delivery of fuel to the Bushehr power plant (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25 and 28, 2008), which could begin operation in October. Ahmadinejad also called Israel a "filthy entity" nearing the end of its existence, and called on the great powers to end their support for Israel, which Iran does not recognize. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Bahrain the same day that Iran's "doctrine" does not include any deviation from peaceful nuclear activities toward "other aims" such as producing weapons. Western states are concerned that the continuation of fuel-production activities will allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons one day. He told Bahraini parliamentarians that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has forbidden any deviation from the program. VS

Deputy Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi told ISNA on January 30 that a third round of UN sanctions on Iran's nuclear program would probably not have much "depth" and is designed to maintain Western credibility. "America and Britain insist there should be a resolution and also want a consensus, but Russia and China are not in favor of a resolution that has depth and does damage," he said, adding that Iran will wait and see the "depth" of the resolution before deciding on its response. Separately, right-wing parliamentarian Mohammad Hussein Farhangi said in Tehran on January 30 that Iran would have no choice but to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) if "sanctions continue to be issued" against its program, ISNA reported. He said if there are doubts about the International Atomic Energy Agency's "goodwill" and Iran's rights are not protected, "our presence in the agency and the NPT will not benefit our country and...interests." VS

A member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Rashid Jalali-Jafari, warned on January 30 that Iran would not be the only country harmed if "America lights another fire in the Persian Gulf," ISNA reported. He told the news agency that U.S. President George W. Bush's recent comments on Iran in his State of the Union address were surprising, but useless and with "no impact in the country." Jalali-Jafari said with reference to any U.S. threat of war: "If Iran is to be harmed in any way, America and its possible allies will also be harmed." Bush told Congress on January 28 that the United States will defend its troops, allies, and interests in the Persian Gulf against Iran, AFP reported. He told "the leaders of Iran" to "stop your oppression at home and your support for terror abroad." VS

Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel met with President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on January 30, and told the press there afterward that the two had "good" talks, news agencies reported. Haddad-Adel said his presence in Cairo is evidence of improving relations between Iran and Egypt, and that Mubarak assured him he will reject any U.S. pressure on Egypt not to formalize ties with Iran. Haddad-Adel said Iran and Egypt might resume relations "in coming weeks or months." The two countries severed relations after the 1979 Iranian revolution, mainly because of Egyptian ties with Israel and its pro-Western positions. Haddad-Adel said he discussed possible economic cooperation with Egypt with Mubarak, as well as Gaza, Iraq, and Lebanon; he said Iran wants an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, IRNA reported. VS

Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi on January 29 ordered an end to public executions in Iran without his express approval, IRNA reported the next day. Hashemi-Shahrudi stated in a directive to judiciary officials that public executions could henceforth be carried out only with the approval of the head of the judiciary and "in line with social necessities." His directive also banned the publication of photos of executions and charged public and revolutionary prosecutors' offices around the country with ensuring the order is respected, IRNA reported. Judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi told the media in Tehran on January 30 that the purpose of the directive is for members of the public and especially youngsters not to be traumatized by the sight of public executions, Radio Farda reported. Drug traffickers and murderers, but also some rapists, are sometimes hanged in public in Iran. Jamshidi said the death penalty in Iran applies to "a very small number of crimes. Radio Farda cited Iranian media as reporting the execution of five convicted murderers in Tehran's Evin prison on January 30, and that 33 people have been hanged in Iran in the past two months. VS

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a leader of the Sunni Arab Iraqi Accordance Front, has met with representatives from former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List, according to a January 30 press release posted to al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party website. The vice president reportedly discussed with National List members Izzat al-Shahbandar and Muhammad Allawi areas where the two blocs can cooperate. Al-Shabandar and Allawi were reportedly intent on forging some kind of alliance with the Accordance Front, and called for the two blocs to devise a unified position and joint vision. The two groups intend to hold more meetings "in the next few days," the press release stated. Al-Hashimi has held meetings with representatives of several political parties and blocs this week, including the Kurdistan Democratic Party and representatives of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. KR

Royal Dutch Shell may invest $2.5 billion on a natural-gas plan in southern Iraq, Bloomberg reported on January 31. An unidentified person "involved in the plan" told the media outlet that Shell met with Iraqi officials in The Hague last week to propose the construction of a pipeline linking Al-Basrah with a new facility on the country's coast. Shell would also construct a facility capable of liquefying 16 million cubic meters of gas a day and shipping it to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in an effort to meet regional energy demands, the source said. Gas demand in the Persian Gulf increased by 28 percent from 2003 to 2006, Bloomberg reported. Iraq had 3.17 trillion cubic meters of gas in reserves at the end of 2006, according to BP estimates. The Shell project's daily output would meet about 14 percent of the United Arab Emirates' demand. The source said Shell will finalize its proposal next week. Iraqi Oil Ministry officials could not be reached for comment, Bloomberg reported. KR

Michel Marto, a former Jordanian finance minister and head of the Housing Bank in Amman, has said his bank launders money deposited by Iraqi and U.S. officials, the Paris-based "Le Figaro" reported on January 31. "Yes, my bank accepts suitcases full of dollars that Iraqi and U.S. officials bring me from Baghdad," Marto said. The money reportedly comes from commissions paid by foreign firms doing business in Iraq. The firms "are forced to pay both the Iraqi official of the ministry involved in the call for tender and the U.S. official monitoring the situation behind the scenes," a diplomat who has recently left Baghdad told the daily. "Part of the billions of dollars allocated to Iraq's reconstruction has in fact been invested in Jordan," the diplomat said. KR

Two earthquakes some eight hours apart rattled the city of Al-Kut in the Wasit Governorate of southeast Iraq on January 30, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on January 31. There were no reports of casualties in the quakes. The Baghdad Seismological Center estimated the first quake to have a magnitude of 4, and a source from the center told the Aswat Al-Iraq website that the quake lasted for four minutes. There was no information on the second quake, or whether it was actually an earthquake or an aftershock. The same area witnessed several quakes in 2004, with magnitudes ranging from 4.7 to 5.1. KR