|Tuesday, 15 October 2019|
RFE/RL Newsline, 07-09-17
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 DUMA APPROVES ZUBKOV AS PRIME MINISTERThe State Duma on September 14 overwhelming approved President Vladimir Putin's choice of former Federal Financial Monitoring Service Director Viktor Zubkov as prime minister, news agencies reported. The vote was 381 in favor and 47 against, with eight abstentions. The Communist Party delegates opposed the nomination and members of the Rodina faction abstained. By law, Zubkov now has one week to propose the structure of his government and to submit to the president his candidates for deputy prime minister(s) and ministers. RC
 NEW PREMIER LAYS OUT HIS PRIORITIES...Appearing before the Duma on September 14, Zubkov laid out the agenda for his new government. He emphasized that he will follow the framework laid out by President Putin in his recent addresses to the Federal Assembly. Zubkov said that "it is time for personnel changes; they are essential." He particularly singled out the "social bloc" -- headed by acting Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov -- for criticism. He also said the development of the military-industrial complex will be a priority. He added that the battle against corruption in government must be stepped up and the law against corruption must be enforced. He noted that he participated in the drafting of that law and said that "unprofessionalism and corruption are capable of sinking Russia." He said that he plans personally to oversee the main economic ministries, including the Finance Ministry and the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, but he did not criticize their work or the work of Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref or Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, both of whom are seen as market-oriented liberals. Zubkov added that he opposes media censorship. RC
 ...AMID SPECULATION ABOUT HIS POSSIBLE PRESIDENTIAL AMBITIONSZubkov on September 13 refused to rule out a run for president in March 2008, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other media reported. The previously little-known Zubkov, who turns 66 on September 15, told journalists that he might consider a presidential bid "if I achieve something as prime minister." Zubkov's statement fuelled speculation that he might be being prepared as a "caretaker" president who would hold the office for one term or less as a prelude to a return to power by President Putin. Speaking to RFE/RL on September 14, gazeta.ru political commentator Gleb Cherkasov said he believes Zubkov's coy statement is not to be taken seriously and is intended merely to distract the attention of journalists and pundits from more serious matters, such as the composition and structure of the new government. RC
 PUTIN EXPLAINS WHY HE CHANGED THE GOVERNMENTSpeaking to reporters on September 13, President Putin offered his most complete explanation yet for why he accepted the resignation of former Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, ORT and other Russian media reported. Putin said that the "uncertainty" about the future that cabinet members faced as the elections approached threatened the effective work of the government. "Therefore I deemed it necessary now to remove all those questions, just as, if you recall, was the case in 2004 on the eve of the presidential elections," Putin said, referring to his unexpected dismissal of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov just weeks before his reelection in March 2004. "In my opinion, it is better now to make some particular personnel decisions, to carry out some necessary steps, with the goal of modernizing the system of governing and not allowing breakdowns in connection with major rearrangements and major systemic changes. And of indicating the vector of the development of the structure of the administrative and executive power in the period after December 2007 and March 2008. I am counting on them to carry out these actions so that people can concentrate more and better on carrying out their official functions. And the entire system of power and government in Russia will function without breakdowns both during the election period and immediately after the elections." RC
 ONE POLL GIVES FRADKOV'S GOVERNMENT GOOD MARKS...A poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that a relatively high percentage of Russians (39 percent) have a favorable view of the government of outgoing Prime Minister Fradkov, strana.ru reported on September 14. That figure is up from 26 percent in the early days of his tenure in the spring of 2004. The cabinet's rating fell during late 2004 and early 2005 as it carried out a highly unpopular reform of in-kind social benefits (see "Analysis: Battling Over Benefits," rferl.org, August 17, 2004), but has recovered steadily since then. VTsIOM General Director Valery Fyodorov told the website that Fradkov's personal popularity rating is high, as are those of some now-acting ministers, including Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev. Health and Social Development Minister Zurabov is the least-popular member of the former cabinet with the support of less than 10 percent of the public. RC
 ...WHILE ANOTHER SHOWS PUBLIC READY TO FOLLOW PUTIN'S LEAD ON SUCCESSIONLevada Center analyst Boris Dubin told RFE/RL's Russian Service on September 13 that about 40 percent of Russians say they will vote for the presidential candidate supported by President Putin. Just 8 percent said they would vote against Putin's choice out of principle, and about 35 percent are undecided. Dubin added that he believes at least half of the respondents who say they are currently undecided will end up supporting Putin's candidate. He said the public's mood is overwhelmingly one of caution: "This is the main thing -- they don't want to change anything; they don't want to risk anything." RC
 'NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA' JOURNALIST DETAINED IN PURPORTED BLACKMAIL SCAMAn unidentified deputy editor of "Nezavisimaya gazeta" was detained on blackmail suspicions on September 13, "The Moscow Times" and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported the next day. A spokeswoman for the new Investigative Committee told "The Moscow Times" that the editor agreed to withhold publication of an article in exchange for monthly payments of $30,000 from a government official, who also was not identified. In an editorial on September 14, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" said the case involves material compromising to Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeyev that alleges the ministry has issued falsified grain-harvest reports in order to drive up prices. The paper describes the arrest as "an attempt to influence the paper's editorial policies." "We have written, are writing, and will write critical materials about specific people and agencies," the editorial states. Media analyst Oleg Panfilov told "The Moscow Times" that "it could be a provocation, but it could also be true, because there have unfortunately been many cases where journalists have blackmailed the subjects of their articles." "Nezavisimaya gazeta" is owned and edited by Konstantin Remchukov, a former government official with close ties to tycoon Oleg Deripaska (see "Russia: 'Nezavisimaya Gazeta' Is Worth Watching Again," rferl.org, September 3, 2007). It is also possible that the incident is an attempt to boost the paper's credentials, especially in the West, as an independent and maverick source of information in the run-up to Duma and presidential elections. RC
 ESTONIAN GOVERNMENT SAID SPLIT OVER RUSSIAN PIPELINE PROJECTEstonia's governing coalition is reportedly split over a request from Gazprom to conduct surveys in Estonian waters for the Russo-German Nord Stream pipeline project, and will not consider the issue before September 20, Forbes.com and "Moscow News" reported on September 12 and 13, respectively. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip's Reform Party is said to be supportive of the request on legal and economic grounds. Foreign Minister Urmas Paet of the Reform Party said on September 13 that he doubts that "Estonia can just say 'no' to Nord Stream. We are not completely free to make the decision only upon emotions and have to take into account several aspects." His ministry recently asked 20 leading Estonian institutions for their opinion on Nord Stream. Endel Lippmaa, who chairs the energy council at the Academy of Sciences, said on September 12 that "Gazprom has become partly a military enterprise, and we see that the pipeline poses not only ecological but also very serious security risks for Estonia. Such gas pipelines under the sea have lots of sensors that can be used also for military surveillance. No NATO country can [accept the possibility] that Russia might get such an option inside our territory." He added that "the fact that the leading government party has started to speak openly for granting permission for such work is very regrettable." Also on September 12, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves declined to comment on the Gazprom request. The Baltic states and Poland generally regard Nord Stream as a particularly odious deal cut by Moscow and Berlin in 2005 at the expense of, and without consulting, their smaller neighbors. Sweden and Finland have expressed environmental and other concerns regarding the project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, March 26, April 12, and August 15, 2007). PM
 WHAT'S BEHIND REPORTED CHANGE OF NAVY COMMANDERS?The daily "Kommersant" wrote on September 14 that the reported replacement of Admiral Vladimir Masorin as commander of the Navy by Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky is part of an effort by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to purge the ministry of top officials believed loyal to his predecessor, acting First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2007). Serdyukov is also the son-in-law of Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov. The daily suggested that General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian General Staff, could be the next to lose his post. "The Moscow Times" argued on September 14 that Masorin incurred Serdyukov's wrath by not asking his permission to receive a U.S. award in Washington recently. Interfax reported on September 13 that Masorin lost his post because he recently turned 60, which is the maximum age for that post. President Vladimir Putin has the legal authority to extend Masorin for five more years if he wishes to do so. PM
 'WHITE SWANS' FLY OVER ARCTICTwo Tu-160 (White Swan or Blackjack) strategic bombers left their base at Engels near Saratov on the Volga on September 14 for a one-day "patrol" over neutral waters of the Arctic Ocean, RIA-Novosti and Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4 and 12, 2007). President Putin said on August 17 that Russian strategic bombers resumed regular long-range flights after a hiatus of about 15 years. PM
 MEDIA TAKE STOCK OF 'BOMB ENVY'RIA-Novosti and "Izvestia" reported on September 13 and 14, respectively, that retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerny said on September 13 that the Pentagon has a 14-ton super bomb that is much more effective than the vacuum bomb recently tested by Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). McInerny reportedly said that the U.S. bomb can penetrate "anything in Iran," whereas the Russian device is not a "penetrator." He added that German reluctance to impose economic sanctions on Tehran has "forced" the United States into planning for "the military option" in dealing with Iran. "Izvestia" wrote that Washington and Moscow are "seeking to outdo each other with super bombs." The daily "Vremya novostei" suggested on September 13 that "some [in Russia] suspect that the new bomb is really all the Russian military-industrial complex has to show by way of arguments against Washington's plans to install missile-defense elements in Eastern Europe." The paper added that the bomb test could be linked to the upcoming Russian parliamentary and presidential elections, or could be part of a new "arms race" that has already begun. PM
 RUSSIA AGAIN DEMANDS GEORGIA RELEASE ARRESTED PEACEKEEPERSThe Russian Foreign Ministry posted on its website (http://www.mid.ru) on September 13 a statement condemning what it termed the illegal detention by Georgia of Tariel Khachirov and Vitaly Valiyev, two Russian members of the North Ossetian contingent deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone. Georgian police detained the two men late last month, and they were sentenced to two months' pretrial detention on charges of having abducted seven Georgians, all of whom were subsequently released (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). The Russian statement noted that Georgia has denied the men access to a Russian consular official and has not produced any evidence that they committed any crime. LF
 GUNMEN AGAIN ATTACK POLICE POST IN INGUSHETIAUnidentified gunmen opened fire from mortars during the night of September 13-14 on the Nazran city police headquarters, Russian media reported. Police pursued the gunmen as they retreated and a shoot-out ensued, but no casualties have been reported on either side. On September 13, Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov, Russian Deputy Interior Minister Colonel General Arkady Yedelev, and presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak attended a meeting in Nazran to discuss the recent upsurge in violence and how to counter it, regnum.ru reported. Echoing his superior, Rashid Nurgaliyev, Yedelev said that there are enough Interior Ministry troops in Ingushetia to "restore order." Kozak for his part subjected harshly criticized the Ingushetian Interior Ministry, accusing its officers of corruption, failing to take timely action, not coordinating their activities with the federal Interior Ministry contingent deployed to Ingushetia in July, and collaborating with the armed resistance, the daily "Kommersant" reported on September 14. LF
 MILITANT KILLED IN SHOOT-OUT IN KABARDINO-BALKARIAA Federal Security Service (FSB) vehicle was damaged by an explosive device late on September 13 in the settlement of Khasanya, south of Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. A search was launched for a group of militants believed to be responsible for the explosion, and one militant was killed and three FSB officers wounded in a subsequent shoot-out. The explosion was the fifth in the KBR in the last two weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2007). LF
 SUPREME COURT OPENS, ADJOURNS HEARING ON KCHR MURDERS APPEALRussia's Supreme Court opened on September 13 and then adjourned until October 11 a hearing on the appeal by 16 men against the jail sentences handed down to them in December 2006 in connection with the murder of seven businessmen near Cherkessk two years earlier in a dispute about the privatization of a local factory, regnum.ru and kavkaz-uzel.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 10 and 12, 2004, and August 24 and September 20, 2006). Eight of the 16 men, including Ali Kaitov, the former son-in-law of Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic President Mustafa Batdyev, were found guilty of murder and sentenced to between eight and 1/2 and 17 years imprisonment; the others received shorter sentences for concealing a grave crime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2006). The men's former lawyer, Boris Kuznetsov, is himself facing criminal charges for allegedly disclosing state secrets; his successor, Mikhail Botvinnik, on September 13 requested additional time to familiarize himself with the details of the case. LF
 TWO TRAIN BOMBING SUSPECTS RELEASEDThe prosecutor's office has released Andrei Kalenov and Denis Zelenyuk, two of the three men detained in connection with the August 13 explosion that derailed the Neva Express train that runs between Moscow and St. Petersburg, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on September 13. The two have given a written undertaking not to leave Russia. In a telephone call to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service late on August 14, a man claiming to be the deputy commander of the Chechen militant group Riyadus Salikhiin claimed that group was responsible for the attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 14, 15, and 16, 2007). A Chechen, Khasan Idigov, remains in custody in connection with the bombing. LF
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 ARMENIAN PROSECUTOR GENERAL MEETS WITH MURDER CASE WITNESSESAghvan Hovsepian, whom the Armenian parliament confirmed on September 13 for a new six-year term as prosecutor-general, met that day with employees of a restaurant in the northern town of Vanadzor, the owner of which, Arman Darpinian, was arrested on September 7, apparently in connection with the August 26 killing of Lori prosecutor Albert Ghazarian, Noyan Tapan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2007). Up to 20 people, most of them restaurant employees, claim that police summoned them for questioning and beat and threatened them, demanding that they incriminate Darpinian in the killing. Hovsepian has ordered a probe into how the murder investigation has been conducted. Darpinian is the nephew of Vanadzor Mayor Samvel Darpinian. LF
 JAILED AZERBAIJANI JOURNALIST APPEALS FOR PARDONIndependent journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, who was sentenced in April to 2 and 1/2 years imprisonment on charges, which he denied, of threatening terrorism and inciting religious or ethnic hatred (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, May 30, and August 22, 2007), has appealed to President Ilham Aliyev to pardon him on the grounds that he was sentenced unjustly, the website day.az reported on September 12. On September 5, zerkalo.az and day.az reported that new charges of large-scale tax evasion are to be brought against Fatullayev. LF
 GEORGIAN PRESIDENT FIRES RIVAL'S CLOSEST ALLYPresident Mikheil Saakahvili issued two decrees on September 12 and 13, the first dismissing Mikheil Kareli as governor of the Shida Kartli region and the second appointing Vladimir Gegelashvili to replace him in that post, Caucasus Press reported. Kareli was named to the less prestigious post of head of the Gori city administration, in which capacity he will report to Gegelashvili. The explanation cited for his demotion was an incident earlier on September 12 in which a group of people, reportedly including Kareli, attempted to storm the town hall in Gori, which police had sealed after arresting several municipal employees on suspicion of corruption, according to civil.ge on September 13. Kareli is a close associate of former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who is widely rumored to be about to launch a new opposition party. In a September 13 interview with the independent Imedi television channel, Kareli pledged to "fight to the end for the victory of Okruashvili's team." LF
 ALLY WANTS GEORGIAN PRESIDENT TO REMAIN IN POWER FOR 20 MORE YEARSTamaz Khidasheli, who is chairman of the Georgian parliamentary committee on environmental protection and a member of the ruling United National Movement, proposed on September 13 in an interview with Radio Hereti that the Georgian Constitution should be amended to extend the presidential term to 10 years, and that incumbent President Saakashvili should be reelected in 2008 and again in 2018, Caucasus Press reported. Speaking to teachers at the opening of a new school building in Borjomi on September 12, Saakashvili argued that Georgians should cast off their collective "defeatist mentality" and adopt "a new ideology," Caucasus Press reported. LF
 COURT REJECTS GEORGIAN OPPOSITIONIST'S APPEALThe Tbilisi Court of Appeal rejected on September 13 an appeal by former Security Service head Irakli Batiashvili against his seven-year prison sentence for allegedly providing "intellectual support" to renegade warlord Emzar Kvitsiani in his bid to overthrow the Georgian leadership in July 2006, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27 and 31 and August 24, 2006 and May 23, 2007). Batiashvili's lawyer Soso Baratashvili said the judge refused to consider unspecified new evidence that Batiashvili is innocent. LF
 LOCAL OFFICIAL SHOT DEAD IN ABKHAZIAUnidentified gunmen opened fire on Igor Djindjolia, local administration head in the village of Mukhur in the Tkvarcheli Raion of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, on his return home early on September 13, apsny.ru reported. Djindjolia died of his injuries in hospital shortly afterwards. LF
 KAZAKH AGENCY REPORTS RISE IN CASES OF HIV INFECTIONThe Kazakh State Statistics Agency reported on September 13 that the number of cases of HIV infection has risen sharply since last year, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to the official statistics, a total of 1,165 new cases of HIV infections were registered in the first six months of the year, an increase over the 958 cases reported for the same period last year. The agency further reported that some 181 new HIV cases were diagnosed in the month of July alone, compared to 131 cases in July 2006. The increase in cases was also especially serious for children, as 40 new cases of HIV-infected children were diagnosed for the same period, a rise from 22 cases reported for the first six months of last year. The trend was confirmed last month by Roza Zhaukimova, an official with the regional administration in South Kazakhstan Oblast, who warned that the increased infections were most likely a result of unsanitary blood transfusions performed by medical workers who reused disposable syringes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15, 2007). In June, a district court in Shymkent sentenced 16 doctors and medical workers to prison terms of between three and eight years on charges of negligence for administering transfusions of tainted blood to some 120 children, 10 of whom have subsequently died of AIDS (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2006, and March 19, June 28, and July 19, 2007). RG
 KYRGYZ DEPUTY INITIATES PETITION DRIVE TO DISSOLVE PARLIAMENTDooronbek Sadyrbaev initiated a petition drive on September 12 to demand the dissolution of the Kyrgyz parliament, according to Kyrgyz television. Sadyrbaev said the drive is an attempt to combat the "immorality" of the parliament and a demonstration of the need to enforce the rules of the legislature. Deputy parliament speaker Erkinbek Alymbekov strongly opposed the petition, warning that it threatens stability and stressing that "although the parliament is not ideal, it is doing its job" and "needs to serve out its constitutional term and pass the necessary laws on improving the electoral system in order to hold elections by party lists in 2010." Another deputy, Karganbek Samakov, also criticized the initiative and defended the parliament for having "passed more than 500 laws" that he defined as critical "for the good of the country." Sadyrbaev has long been an outspoken, although sometimes erratic critic of many of the government's policies. Earlier this month, he claimed that an attempt was made to kill him by an unnamed "criminal authority" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). RG
 FLOUR PRICES DOUBLE IN TAJIKISTANAn unnamed official from the Tajik Ministry of Economic Development and Trade announced on September 13 that the price of flour more than doubled in the past few days and that the government has immediately formed a special commission to address the crisis, Tajik television reported. According to official Tajik statistics, the price for a 50-kilogram sack of flour has risen to an average of 110 somonis (over $32) in urban areas, and has surpassed 150 somonis (or $44) in more remote districts. The sharp rise in flour prices, which has triggered a surge in prices for bread and other related bakery products, has affected the entire Central Asian region and has been traced to this year's poor wheat harvest in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine. Tajikistan is especially vulnerable to the price rise, as it relies on imports for over 60 percent of domestic demand. RG
 BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION LEADER AGAIN TRIES TO REGISTER HIS MOVEMENTFormer opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich on September 12 filed a new application to register his Movement for Freedom with the Justice Ministry, Belapan reported. The Movement for Freedom was founded in Hrodna in May. The Justice Ministry rejected Milinkevich's first application for registration, citing flaws in the organization's charter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). The movement held another founding conference in Zaslauye, Minsk Oblast, on August 11. At the conference, which was attended by 74 people from across Belarus, Milinkevich was elected chairman of the movement, while Viktar Karnyayenka and Yuras Hubarevich were named his deputies. JM
 UKRAINE-EU SUMMIT GATHERS IN KYIVPresident Viktor Yushchenko told the 11th annual Ukraine-EU summit in Kyiv on September 14 that there is no alternative to Ukraine's choice to integrate with Europe, UNIAN reported. Yushchenko also assured the EU delegation to the summit that the preterm parliamentary elections in Ukraine on September 30 will be democratic and transparent. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, EU Council Secretary-General Javier Solana, European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and Jose Sokrates, prime minister of Portugal, which now holds the EU rotating presidency, are attending the summit. Reuters quoted an unidentified EU official as saying on September 13 that the EU is still withholding its support for Ukraine's membership bid to the World Trade Organization. According to the official, EU support is contingent on Ukraine's canceling export duties on some goods, including hides, steel, and scrap metal. JM
 UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER EXPECTS 40 PERCENT OF THE VOTEPrime Minister Viktor Yanukovych told an election-campaign gathering in Sumy Oblast on September 13 that his Party of Regions will receive no less than 40 percent of the vote in the September 30 parliamentary polls. "After these elections, we will be in power for 10 years," Yanukovych predicted. Earlier this week, Yanukovych told journalists that he wants to stay in his job for five more years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). Meanwhile, the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies found in a poll conducted on September 1-10 that five Ukrainian parties are likely to overcome the 3 percent voting threshold to win seats in the Verkhovna Rada. According to the center, the Party of Regions is supported by 33.9 percent of voters, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc by 23.5 percent, the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc by 13.1 percent, the Communist Party by 5 percent, and the Lytvyn Bloc by 3 percent. The minimum percentage is likely to be too high for the Socialist Party, which has 1.6 percent backing, and the Progressive Socialist Party with 1.5 percent. JM
 SERBIA URGES BOYCOTT OF KOSOVAR ELECTIONSThe Serbian government has officially called on Serbs in the disputed province of Kosova not to take part in elections scheduled for November 17. B92 reported on September 13 that the decision was made after consultations with President Boris Tadic. Serbian media on September 12 quoted Tadic as saying he has no right to advise Kosovar Serbs whether to vote or not. The government stated by way of explanation for the decision that "eight years after the UN mission was introduced in Kosovo-Metohija, elementary conditions for a safe and free existence of the Serbs and other non-Albanians in the province are still lacking." It stressed that "two-thirds of all Kosovo Serbs still live in exile away from Kosovo, without any possibility of return." The statement did not draw a connection between the decision and ongoing talks about the future of Kosova. In Kosova itself, Kosovar Albanian media have reported that four ethnic-Serbian parties have already registered to take part in the elections. Oliver Ivanovic, the leader of the moderate Serbian List for Kosovo-Metohija, said in Belgrade on September 13 that a boycott would amount to endorsing a partition of Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He stressed that Serbian participation would be a signal to the Albanians that they must take the local Serbs seriously. The EU has urged Kosovar Serbs to participate. AG
 SERBIA HOPES TO GAIN CHINESE SUPPORT FOR POSITION ON KOSOVASerbia's foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, said he hopes to persuade China to support its position that the only acceptable solution for Kosova is a compromise agreement, Serbian television reported on September 12 at the start of a three-day by Jeremic visit to Beijing. The UN is not currently directly involved in efforts to resolve Kosova's future, but both Serbia and Russia insist that it is ultimately for the UN to decide Kosova's status. China did not take a clear position when a UN proposal for Kosova failed in the UN Security Council in July, but its long-standing sensitivity to any legitimation of separatist causes makes it a plausible supporter of Serbia's argument that changing Kosova's status would violate international law. According to B92, Jeremic said on September 13 that he has won assurances from China that it would block any effort in the UN Security Council to impose a solution on Serbia. There was no comparable statement from Chinese sources, although according to the Chinese news agency Xinhua on September 13, Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong described relations with Serbia as exemplary. China's deputy foreign minister spent the first week of September touring the western Balkans, visiting Bosnia, Montenegro, and Slovenia, but not Serbia. AG
 MLADIC 'NOT HIDING' IN SERBIAN MILITARY FACILITIESSerbian Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac has said that he can guarantee "fully and completely" that wanted Bosnia Serb leader Ratko Mladic is not hiding in military facilities in Serbia. However, the news agency SRNA reported on September 12 that Sutanovac is not prepared to guarantee that Mladic is not being helped by members of the military. Mladic has evaded capture for over a decade and there have been persistent reports that he has found refuge in military barracks and support from members of the army. Serbia's failure to capture Mladic is the key obstacle to it taking its first step to membership of the EU, concluding a Stabilization and Accession Agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2007). Sutanovac is a strong advocate for Serbia's accession to NATO, an issue that is dividing Serbian politics particularly acutely amid debate about Kosova's final status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21, and September 7 and 10, 2007). In an interview with the Bosnian daily "Slobodna Bosna," Jovo Djogo, a former colonel in the Bosnian Serb Army currently awaiting trial in Serbia for helping to hide Mladic, said that when he last saw Mladic -- in early 2001 -- it was in an army building, but that Mladic was banned from taking shelter in military facilities in 2002. He said that between 2000 and 2005, the man chiefly responsible for protecting Mladic was Serbia's current prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica. International and local media reported on September 12 that the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte, once again said that she believes Mladic is currently in Serbia. AG
 BOSNIAN ARMY INVITES IN CLERICSThe Bosnian Defense Ministry has signed an agreement allowing muftis to provide religious services to soldiers, the Bosnian media reported on September 12. According to the daily "Dnevni avaz," the ministry says it expects to sign similar agreements with the Catholic Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church, possibly this month. AG
 MONTENEGRO BOOSTS ARMY SALARIES BY 30 PERCENTMontenegro's Defense Ministry has decided to raise the salaries of the country's soldiers by on average 30 percent, the news agency Mina reported on September 11. The increase is part of a broader reform package that includes a reduction in the size of the army to 2,400 people. Nearly 1,500 soldiers were laid off between 2004-06. Montenegro joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program in December 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, May 1 and 10, and June 26, 2007). AG
 EX-PREMIER SUES MONTENEGRIN EDITORMilo Djukanovic, the head of Montenegro's largest party, is suing the editor of the country's most respected newspaper, "Vijesti," for libel after he accused Djukanovic of being behind a recent attack on him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). Djukanovic, who served for nearly 11 years as prime minister between 1991 and 2006, is demanding 1 million euros ($1.38 million) in damages. The case was also lodged against the editor in chief of "Vijesti," Ljubisa Mitrovic, and the paper's publisher. Ivanovic was beaten on September 1 by three men wielding batons and iron rods, after which he accused Djukanovic of orchestrating the attack in responses to investigations into his business dealings. Djukanovic was also criticized on September 12 by another leading figure in the national media, Miodrag Perovic, the founder and director of the weekly "Monitor," who wrote in "Vijesti" that Djukanovic had issued a veiled threat when he accused Perovic of acting as a self-appointed arbiter of public values. In his article, Perovic also wrote that the former prime minister "is obviously far fonder of iron bars than of reforms," has "created a society riddled with corruption and organized crime," and has been "installed by the Serbian secret police and [former Yugoslav leader Slobodan] Milosevic in order to lead Montenegro to war and crime." AG
 U.S. ALBANIANS PROTEST 'DISCRIMINATION' IN MONTENEGROAlbanian-Americans rallied on September 10 outside the White House in Washington, D.C., to protest against perceived "discrimination" against ethnic Albanians in Montenegro, the Montenegrin daily "Vijesti" reported. The paper quoted the best-known Albanian organization in the United States -- the National Albanian-American Council -- as saying that the rally's organizing group, the Albanian-American National Council, was previously unknown to it. The rally coincided with criticism of Montenegro's new draft constitution by ethnic-Albanian leaders in Montenegro. They argue that minority rights are insufficiently protected. After many months of delays, the draft is due to go to parliament on October 1, the speaker of the Montenegrin parliament, Ranko Krivokapic, said on September 10. Failure to secure the support of two-thirds of parliament would trigger a national referendum. Issues relating to national and ethnic identities have proved the chief stumbling block in debate about the constitution. Albanians make up 6 percent of the population, according to a 2003 census. Forty-three percent of the population call themselves Montenegrins, 32 percent Serbs, and 7 percent Bosnian Muslims. AG
 MACEDONIA HINTS AT RESPONSE TO GREEK VETO OF NATO BIDMacedonian President Branko Crvenkovski indicated on September 12 that Macedonia will withdraw from negotiations with Greece about its name if Greece vetoes Macedonia's bid to gain membership of NATO, Serbian media reported. Crvenkovski's statement followed a warning issued by Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis on September 6. "If this statement is put into practice...it would mean that Greece is blatantly violating and even invalidating the Interim Agreement between the two countries. Consequently, it would mean that all obligations on the part of Macedonia were suspended, including the one regarding the resumption of negotiations to overcome the name differences under UN auspices," Crvenkovski said. Karamanlis's warning was the latest in a series of threats by Greek officials this year. Macedonian officials have typically attributed the increase to populist electioneering ahead of Greece's upcoming elections, an argument that Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki made immediately after Karamanlis's statement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 18 and 23, 2007). There has, though, been a perceptible increase in tensions in recent years as Macedonia's bid for NATO membership has gained in credibility. Skopje hopes that NATO leaders will decide in April 2008 to invite Macedonia into the alliance along with Croatia and Albania. AG
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 NATO WELCOMES AFGHAN GOVERNMENT'S OFFER FOR PEACE TALKS WITH TALIBANNATO spokesman Nicholas Lunt on September 13 said the international force is optimistic about the potential outcome of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Lunt told journalists that while military power can play a key role is creating stability, long-term peace can only be achieved through engaging opponents in talks, but with proper control and sincerity, he added. "We welcome the Afghan government's efforts for peace and reconciliation," Lunt said. On September 9, President Hamid Karzai offered to hold peace talks with Taliban militants and Hizb-e-Islami, the faction led by former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). Taliban spokeman Qari Yusof Ahmadi said the Taliban does not rule out talking with the government, and would be willing to hold negotiations if the offer is extended through the appropriate channels, without specifying which channels. The United States has not made any explicit statements regarding the potential talks, although Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on September 11 warned that any talks with the Taliban must not detract from progress made by Afghanistan and its international partners on all fronts over the past six years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). JC
 CONFLICT SPREADING AND INTENSIFYING IN AFGHANISTAN, SAYS RED CROSSInternational Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) officials on September 13 warned that fighting in Afghanistan is growing more intense as the conflict spreads to over half the country, AFP reported. "The conflict is clearly spreading and, in certain areas, also intensifying," said Reto Stocker, the head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan. More than half of the country is at least somewhat affected by violence, as increasing numbers of people are displaced by clashes between Afghan and coalition forces and Taliban-led insurgents, Stocker said. He added that sustained violence in certain parts of the country has created "no-go areas" for aid workers, making it impossible for non-governmental organizations to provide assistance to those affected. Meanwhile, the ICRC is continuing its aid efforts by visiting prisoners held by the Afghan government or coalition forces. In August, the international aid group played a key role in the release of 21 South Korean hostages held by Taliban militants. "The ICRC has gained the trust of all the parties to the conflict, and the mandate is -- despite the worsening security situation -- respected by all parties to the conflict," Stocker said. JC
 GUNMEN RELEASE REMAINING DEMINERS IN AFGHANISTAN...Militants on September 13 released the last three members of an Afghan mine-clearing group kidnapped on September 6 in eastern Paktia Province, the BBC reported. Police say no ransom was paid in the negotiation with village elders that secured the men's release. The captors remain unidentified, although the Taliban have repeatedly denied involvement in the abduction of the 13 deminers who were traveling through Paktia. Ten hostages were freed on September 10 following earlier negotiations between the captors and tribal elders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2007). While the wave of kidnappings of foreigners has raised concern among international aid organizations operating in Afghanistan, journalists on the ground claim Afghan citizens are kidnapped far more frequently than foreign nationals. The abduction of the deminers follows a series of high-profile abductions by the Taliban in recent months, including a group of 23 South Korean aid workers, two of whom were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2007). Mine-clearing groups in particular are concerned about their workers' safety. One such group, the Mine Detection Center, recently refused to continue operations without security guarantees from both the Afghan government and the Taliban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2007). JC
 ...AS TALIBAN MILITANTS DEMAND RANSOM FOR THREE AFGHAN OFFICIALSTaliban militants on September 12 demanded a ransom of 1.5 million afghanis ($30,200) in exchange for the release of three provincial government officials in southern Nimroz Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported, quoting Muhammad Hashim Nawrozi, the Khashrud district chief. Nawrozi did not say what the captors threatened to do if their demands are not met. Nimroz Governor Ghulam Dastagir Azad said the government will not respond to ransom demands, and that police have arrested five suspects. He warned that more arrests will follow if the hostages are not released within the next few days. Meanwhile, Deputy Governor Malang Rasuli openly disagreed with Dastagir, arguing that refusal to pay the ransom endangers the captives' lives. The provincial government has sent a 14-member delegation to negotiate with the kidnappers and resolve the crisis, according Nimroz Rural Rehabilitation and Development Department head, Khalil Rahman. Taliban rebels kidnapped the three staffers in Khashrud district three weeks ago while they were consulting local residents on National Solidarity Program development projects. JC
 UNITED STATES SEEKS MORE IRAN SANCTIONSSecretary of State Condoleezza Rice told NBC's "Today" show on September 12 that Iran is a "very troublesome neighbor" for Iraq. The same day, an unnamed U.S. government official told AP that the administration of President George W. Bush intends to list the Quds Force, part of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, as a terrorist group and subject it to financial sanctions for its alleged involvement in Iraqi insurgent activities. Iranian officials have denied that Iran is involved in any violence in Iraq. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, mentioned the Quds Force in a report he gave to Congress on September 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 12, and 13, 2007) and said its members are trying to turn Shi'ite militias in Iraq into a force similar to Hizballah, the pro-Iranian militia in Lebanon. Reuters reported on September 12 that the Quds Force may face tough sanctions even without being labelled a terrorist group. AP reported that the United States will also discuss the prospect of more sanctions against Iran at a strategy session with other permanent members of the UN Security Council scheduled for September 21 in Washington. It added that Security Council permanent members may debate sanctions against Iran at the UN in October. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni separately urged tougher sanctions on Iran on September 13, and said current UN sanctions are insufficient, AFP reported. She told Israeli radio the private sector should stop doing business with Iran, in spite of potential economic losses. The world, she said, cannot "allow itself to wait" to confront Iran over its nuclear program. Iran insists its nuclear program is only intended to generate electricity. VS
 IRAN HANGS CONVICTED BOMBERSThe public and revolutionary prosecutor of Ahwaz district in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, Musa Piriai, said in Ahwaz on September 13 that three men convicted of carrying out bombings in Khuzestan in 2005 were executed this week, IRNA and agencies reported. He did not say how the men were executed, or state their names. He said "a number of other bombing agents are waiting to be executed," and their cases are being processed in Tehran. He added that 80 percent of those allegedly involved in bombings in Khuzestan in 2005 have been arrested, while others are living abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2007). Separately, police or military troops killed three "armed bandits" in the Taibad district of northeastern Khorasan-i Razavi Province, "Kayhan" reported on September 13, without giving a date for the shootout. A gun battle began when police sought to stop the five armed men from entering the country; two apparently escaped, "Kayhan" reported, citing a statement by the provincial police force. Police confiscated two Kalashnikov rifles, ammunition, and 36 kilograms of opium and heroin during the mopping-up operations that followed, "Kayhan" reported. VS
 POLICEMAN ASSESSES IMPACT OF DRUGS IN IRANThe head of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, told a gathering of counternarcotics officials in Tehran on September 11 that annual drug production in Afghanistan increased from 200 tons to 8,200 tons "from the time the Americans entered" the country, "Kayhan" reported the next day. He said the U.S. troops "officially said they will have nothing to do with [combatting] drugs" as they are fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. He estimated the number of drug addicts in Iran at 2 million, but said that drugs affect 7 million-10 million Iranians if the families of addicts are included, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on September 12. Ahmadi-Moqaddam said 94 percent of all narcotics in Iran are confiscated, but he admitted that counternarcotics officials and the state have failed to control the "internal consumption market" for drugs. Ahmadi-Moqaddam said drug-control officials entirely agree with the judiciary on the need to reduce the number of "small-time" drug offenders in prisons. He said 90 percent of inmates sent to jail for drug-related offenses are minor offenders and often in jail for about a month for their inability to pay fines. He suggested replacing imprisonment with other, unspecified penalties, and said authorities should concentrate on catching large-scale traffickers. The greater the number of prisoners, he said, the lower the quality of their supervision, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. VS
 ARRESTED CLERIC SENT TO QOMAgents of Iran's special court for the clergy have sent Hojjatoleslam Hadi Qabel, a prominent member of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, to the city of Qom at the request of the court's branch there, Radio Farda reported, citing ISNA and agencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2007). Qabel, the Participation Front chief or coordinator in Qom, was arrested in Tehran on September 12, but no charges against him have been announced. Radio Farda reported that in comments in the daily "Kargozaran," Qabel recently criticized what he called the insulting language used by some pro-government websites against certain senior clerics such as Ayatollah Yusef Sanei, considered one of the more liberal of Iran's senior theologians. Qabel and his brother Ahmad Qabel are considered prominent members of the reformist camp, Radio Farda stated on September 12. It added that Qabel warned during 2005 presidential elections that those who "wield the whips at street junctions" -- meaning supporters of strict punishments, including whipping, for alleged religious and social transgressions -- are the same people who supported Mahmud Ahmadinejad in his bid for the presidency. VS
 PRESIDENT APPROVES U.S. SCHOLAR'S REQUEST FOR ISFAHAN BURIALPresident Ahmadinejad has agreed to a request sent to his office by U.S. scholar Richard N. Frye to be buried, when he dies, in Isfahan, a historic city in central Iran, IRNA reported on September 13. Frye was born around 1920 and was a member of the Harvard University teaching faculty from 1948 to 1990, and founded the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. He was a visiting lecturer at universities in Frankfurt, Hamburg, and elsewhere. His well-known or frequently published books on Iran include "Iran," "The Heritage of Persia," and "The Golden Age of Persia." He criticized the ugly development of modern Tehran and the destruction of what remains of its 18th and 19th century architectural heritage at a conference at the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004. Frye first expressed his wish to be buried in Isfahan in his will, but IRNA quoted the president's response to a "recent" letter from Frye. The president thanked him for his scholarly work on Iran and Islamic civilization. VS
 KEY SUNNI TRIBAL LEADER ASSASSINATED IN CENTRAL IRAQSheikh Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah, the leader of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, was killed on September 13 by a roadside bomb outside his home in Al-Ramadi, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Colonel Tariq al-Dulaymi, undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior, said Abu Rishah was on his way home when his convoy stopped to assist a handicapped man on the roadside. Moments later, a bomb exploded. Abu Rishah "was returning home when his convoy was hit by a roadside bomb planted by insurgents. His car was hit directly," Dulaymi said. The blast also killed one of Abu Rishah's bodyguards. The Al-Anbar Salvation Council is a coalition of tribes in the western Al-Anbar Governorate that aims to rid the region of groups linked with Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It has been widely reported that the council was working alongside U.S. and Iraqi forces against Al-Qaeda elements in the governorate. Sheikh Jubair Rashid, a senior member of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, described Abu Rishah's killing as a major blow to the group, AP reported. "Such an attack was expected, but it will not deter us," Rashid said. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion immediately fell on Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The group earlier claimed responsibility for the June 25 suicide bombing at the Al-Mansur Hotel in Baghdad that killed four Sunni tribal sheikhs from the Al-Anbar Salvation Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2007). SS
 IRAQI LEADERS CONDEMN KILLING, PRAISE ABU RISHAHIraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office issued a statement condemning the assassination of Sheikh Abu Rishah, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on September 13. "The criminal incident, which has the fingerprints of the terrorist Al-Qaeda organization, seeks to undermine security and stability in Al-Anbar Governorate. This will only lead to isolating this terrorist organization, not only in Al-Anbar, but in all of Iraq," the statement said. "Martyr Abu Rishah had a prominent role in combating the takfiris [unbelievers] who tried to hijack Al-Anbar Governorate and establish a backward regime in Iraq," it added. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani issued a statement extolling Abu Rishah and called on Iraqis to follow the slain martyr's example. "The great deeds of Sheikh Abu Rishah exhort us to close ranks, shun discord, and work together against the forces of ignorance and terrorism, which assassinated Abd al-Sattar Abu-Rishah," Talabani said. SS
 U.S. ANNOUNCES RELEASE OF IRAQI DETAINEES DURING RAMADANThe U.S. military announced on September 13 that it will release up to 80 Iraqi detainees every day, many of them Sunni Arabs, during the holy month of Ramadan. Major General Douglas Stone, the commander in charge of U.S. detention operations, said all detainees eligible for release will be reviewed by an impartial release board. "This will be a completely non-sectarian, non-political process," said Stone. "The detainees being released are only those who MNF-I [Multinational Forces-Iraq] have determined no longer need to be detained for imperative reasons of security," he added. The U.S. military reached a deal on the "special Ramadan releases" with Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi last month. Al-Hashimi has long complained about the continued detention and treatment of Sunni Arab prisoners by the Shi'ite-led government and U.S. forces. The issue was a key factor that prompted the main Sunni Arab political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, to quit the government in August. SS
 SYRIA TO SUSPEND VISA REQUIREMENT FOR IRAQIS DURING RAMADANThe Syrian government announced on September 13 that it will suspend the visa requirement for all Iraqis fleeing their home country as a goodwill gesture during the holy month of Ramadan, AFP reported. A Syrian official said the decision is aimed at allowing Iraqi families to reunite during Ramadan. Damascus initiated the new visa program on September 10 to stem the flow of Iraqi refugees entering Syria. An estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees are currently in Syria, and the Damascus government has warned that its resources and infrastructure are overstretched in trying to deal with such a large displaced population. Previously, Syria had an "open door" policy, in which Iraqis were given a three-month visa that was easily renewable. But under the new visa regime, only Iraqis involved in the economic, commercial, and scientific sectors will receive visas, and they must obtain them from the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad. Human rights groups have warned that the new visa system will exclude desperate Iraqis who are fleeing to Syria to escape the violence at home. SS
 IRAQI SUNNI MINISTER SAYS RETURN IS ONLY 'TEMPORARY'Iraqi Planning Minister Ali Baban announced on September 13 that his recent return to his cabinet post is only temporary, and that he will soon resign from the Iraqi government, KUNA reported. He stressed that the reason for his return on September 11 was to complete unfinished work and to offer his views on pending bills that he deems detrimental to Iraq's future (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). "I returned to offer my views on draft bills related to oil, gas, finance, and local councils. These bills could bring danger to Iraqi interests if approved. I will then resign from the government within days," Baban said. He had previously been highly critical of the draft petroleum law, saying it requires "fundamental amendments." Baban is a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, part of the Iraqi Accordance Front, which withdrew its ministers from Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki's government in August. SS
 SAUDI ARABIA REPORTEDLY PLANS WALL ALONG IRAQ BORDERSaudi Arabia is reportedly planning to build a security barrier along its border with Iraq to prevent militants from entering the kingdom and to deter Saudi extremists from going to Iraq, "Al-Riyadh" reported on September 13. The 900-kilometer security barrier will cost an estimated $1 billion, with the first stage due for completion in 2009. Saudi Arabia has invited bids from five companies, and the winning bid will be announced later this year. "The protection line will [include] two rows of barbed wire equipped with the newest radar and infrared viewing devices," Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki said in Riyadh on September 13.
 BELARUSIAN AUTHORITIES TURN THE OPPOSITION INTO DISSIDENTSBy Jan Maksymiuk
A recent wave of arrests of youth activists in Belarus clearly testifies to the sad reality that the Belarusian authorities do not intend to democratize public life.
But the arrests also show that, following the hotly contested presidential election in March 2006, the ruling regime has considerably marginalized and alienated its opponents. Now Belarusian opposition activists increasingly resemble Soviet-era dissidents, rather than challengers for power.
On September 4, a district court in the city of Salihorsk issued an official warning to 16-year-old Ivan Shyla for acting on behalf of the unregistered opposition organization Youth Front. The judge reportedly took into consideration the fact that Shyla is unemployed and a minor, and therefore did not fine or jail him.
The same day, an 18-year-old girl, Nasta Azarka, was tried in the city of Nyasvizh on the same charge as Shyla and fined the equivalent of $600, which is twice the country's official average monthly wage.
Shyla and Azarka were lucky to have gotten off with such light sentences.
In October 2006, Youth Front leader Zmitser Dashkevich was sentenced to 18 months in a correctional institution for belonging to an unregistered organization.
And in August 2006, a district court in Minsk jailed four young people, finding them guilty of running an unregistered organization that "infringes upon the interests and rights of citizens." The four, who wanted to monitor the presidential election on March 19, 2006, were arrested one month before the polls. Mikalay Astreyka was sentenced to two years in jail, Tsimafey Dranchuk to one year, and Enira Branitskaya and Alyaksandr Shalayka to six months each.
It seems that now, after the wave of opposition protests following the March 2006 presidential election has died down and the opposition is again under strict surveillance and control by the KGB and other law-enforcement bodies, Belarusian judges have been ordered to reduce the severity of punishment for involvement in an unregistered organization.
But the intolerance of the police and the courts toward political protesters continues unabated. During the Shyla trial in Salihorsk, police arrested 11 young people who came to show solidarity with their associate in front of the courthouse. Seven of them were jailed or fined by the same court the following day.
"We have selective repressions. Given that Belarusians are a nation of timid individualists, the authorities strike at the headquarters and the leaders. In essence, they jail very few people, but intimidate millions," opposition leader Mikalay Statkevich, who spent two years in prison in 2005-2007, told the Belarusian independent newspaper "Svaboda" in July.
Moreover, the Justice Ministry remains as adamant as ever with regard to registering opposition-minded organizations. It has already rejected half a dozen registration requests from the Youth Front, always finding some formal irregularities in documents submitted for registration. Perpetuating the illegal status of the Youth Front, of course, makes it easier for law enforcers to neutralize its members.
There are also signs that the Justice Ministry, under various formal pretexts, wants to outlaw most opposition parties in Belarus ahead of legislative polls in 2008, in order to make life for oppositionists even more difficult.
In August, the Justice Ministry suspended the legal status of the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists for three months. The ministry had issued warnings over paperwork irregularities and the party's participation in the founding conference of a Belarusian left-wing alliance, which took place not in Belarus, as required by legislation, but in Ukraine, because the alliance was unable to lease a venue for the conference in its home country.
On September 12, the Supreme Court held a preliminary hearing on a suit by the Justice Ministry to shut down the opposition Women's Party "Hope."
Thus, after squeezing out the opposition from parliament in 1996, the regime has now apparently decided to push its opponents outside even the precarious framework of legitimacy they have enjoyed so far.
But even for those parties that don't face closure, their activities in Belarus are now fairly similar to those of Soviet-era dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s.
Belarusian oppositionists are basically allowed to remain free, but the authorities have managed to restrict their influence to the atomized circles of mostly urban intelligentsia that are opposition-minded even without any outside encouragement. As for the overwhelming majority of ordinary Belarusians, they appear to be ignorant not only of the opposition's goals, but also of its very existence.
Such a situation cannot be blamed on the regime's repressive machinery and information blockade alone.
Many critics of the Belarusian opposition point out that its goals and slogans, particularly regarding democratic transformations and European integration, are very far from the present-day concerns and expectations of most Belarusians.
Belarusian writer Svyatlana Aleksiyevich told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service earlier this week that she cannot help feeling that the opposition groups "are just clubs for harboring illusions." "The Social Democrats have one illusion, the Communists have another, and the United Civic Party has yet another. In other words, they have no base among ordinary people," she continued. Addressing those parties, Aleksiyevich asked, "Why is there such a gap between you and your own people?"
Hopes that the Belarusian opposition could mobilize wider social support behind former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich were demolished at an opposition congress in May.
Instead of formulating a clear-cut and consistent alternative to the authoritarian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- which was particularly vulnerable at that time, following a painful Russian gas price hike at the beginning of 2007 -- the congress spent almost all of its energy squabbling about leadership.
In effect, Milinkevich was dismissed as head of the Political Council of United Pro-democratic Forces, which instead chose four co-chairs to please major opposition factions. "The fight for power in the country has been replaced by a fight for power among the opposition," Milinkevich aptly commented on the congress. The social momentum for change generated by the opposition during the March 2006 presidential campaign, not very impressive to begin with, was irretrievably squandered.
On September 12, the Political Council of United Pro-democratic Forces appealed to people with no party affiliation to become candidates on the opposition list in next year's parliamentary elections.
Desperate as it looks at first glance, that appeal nevertheless seems to be a reasonable attempt at bridging the gap between the elitist circle of Belarusian opposition politics and society as a whole. At any rate, it makes more sense for the Belarusian opposition to seek understanding among people in its own country than abroad. If they fail to find such understanding this time, they may be called dissidents without any reservations.