|Sunday, 26 January 2020|
RFE/RL Newsline, 08-01-17
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 BRITAIN SAYS CULTURAL LINKS SHOULD NOT BE 'HELD HOSTAGE'...British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in London on January 15 that Russian plans to impose visa restrictions on staff working for the British Council can only worsen the diplomatic row between London and Moscow, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14 and 15, 2008). The Russian visa restrictions and Miliband's response are part of an ongoing dispute over the right of the British Council to operate in Russia, which in turn is widely seen as part of the continuing row stemming from the 2006 London murder of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko. Miliband stressed on January 15 that "it is not in the interests of either the U.K. or Russia for flourishing cultural, educational, and scientific links to be held hostage to unrelated issues in this way." Miliband added that the council's activities in Russia rest on a firm legal basis. In Moscow on January 15, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "our 1994 agreement with Britain states that the British Council must carry out its activities only in accordance with the laws of the Russian Federation. The British Council opened all of its branches on Russian territory without the Russian government's permission and even without asking permission. What is there to talk about?" On January 16, Federation Council International Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov said that the British Council's operations in Russia run counter to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Interfax reported. He argued that the council has been engaged "in commercial activities for years. For instance, they provided paid educational services without a license.... These activities were stopped only after the intervention of the Russian tax authorities." The Vienna Convention prohibits accredited diplomats from involvement in commercial activities. PM
 ...AND PROTESTS FSB 'INTERVIEWS' OF BRITISH COUNCIL STAFFFormer KGB covert operations chief Yury Drozdov said on January 15 that the British Council's activities are linked to both British and U.S. intelligence agencies, the Interfax news agency reported. The Federal Security Service (FSB) said in a statement on January 15 that it has "started a campaign" to inform Russian citizens working for the council about the dispute between Moscow and London in order "to safeguard [them] from being used as tools in the Britons' provocative games," Interfax reported. It did not elaborate. On January 16, a British Foreign Office spokesman said that "we are aware of the incident [involving the FSB and council staff] and investigating the circumstances. Any attempt to intimidate British Council staff in Russia is completely unacceptable," Reuters reported. Late on January 15, Stephen Kinnock, who heads the British Council's St. Petersburg office and is the son of former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, was arrested by police on charges of drunk driving, dpa reported. British and Russian officials are investigating. PM
 POLISH PRESIDENT WARNS OF RUSSIAN POLICY AIMSPresident Lech Kaczynski said on Polish Radio on January 15 that Russia is trying to influence ongoing U.S.-Polish negotiations on the proposed missile-defense project, which includes locating 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic, news agencies and "The Moscow Times" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11 and 14, 2008). He stressed that "Russia is once again trying to exert pressure on Poland." Kaczynski added that the two countries should have good relations, but that Moscow must accept that its former satellites have "permanently left its sphere of influence." He said that Russia is seeking to enter strategic sectors of the Polish economy, including energy. Polish officials in the new government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk are currently conducting "tough negotiations" with Washington over missile defense in order to secure the most lucrative and militarily advantageous agreement for Poland, "The Washington Times" noted on January 16. Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said in Washington on January 15 after talks with his U.S. counterpart Robert Gates that "we in Poland still do not see the right balance between the costs and the benefits" of missile defense. The nationalist Russian paper "RBK Daily" wrote on January 16 that Klich and the Polish government want security guarantees from Washington while seeking at the same time to improve relations with Moscow. The daily quoted Klich as saying before leaving for the United States that Poland hopes that the money the United States will pay for the proposed base will contribute handsomely toward the cost of modernizing the Polish armed forces. The paper cited Klich as saying that "terrorist organizations" are the main threat to his country. He added that Warsaw "does not fear Russia...or a real threat of a military nature from it in the near future." The daily noted that Russia has repeatedly warned Poland and the Czech Republic against participating in missile defense. PM
 SLOVENIA SEEKS TO IMPROVE RUSSIA-EU TIESSlovenian Ambassador to Russia Andrej Benedejcic told reporters on January 15 that his country, which holds the rotating EU chair, will use its "excellent relations" with Russia to mend ties between it and the EU, "The Moscow Times" reported on January 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 2008). Referring to possible talks on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between Brussels and Moscow, Benedejcic noted "there have been positive signals.... We wish to achieve this within our presidency...[although] we are not obsessed with solving everything." The current PCA expired in December 2007 but was automatically extended for one more year in the absence of a new treaty. Poland previously blocked PCA negotiations because of a dispute over a Russian ban on Polish meat shipments, which has since been settled. Benedejcic denied on January 15 that probable recognition of an independent Kosova by most EU member states will further harm EU-Russian relations. He noted that "Moscow said many times that it sees the future of the [Balkan] region within the European Union." The Russian "RBK Daily" wrote on January 16 that the United States has persuaded the EU to support the independence of Kosova at the expense of Serbia and to the displeasure of Russia. The paper argued that an independent Kosova would, like Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, be a quasi-state that is ultimately dependent on the EU for its survival. PM
 GAZPROM REPORTEDLY MOVES TO CLINCH SERBIAN OIL BUYOUTBritain's "Financial Times" on January 16 echoed recent Serbian media reports in saying that the agenda of Russian President Vladimir Putin's January 18 visit to Sofia is likely to include the signing of an agreement for a Gazprom-led Russian business group to acquire Serbia's state oil monopoly (NIS) at what is estimated to be a fraction of its market value. Serbian Economy Minister Mladjan Dinkic recently said that the reported decision by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to offer NIS to Gazprom without a tender was politically motivated and "humiliating" for Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 2008). The EU has expressed concern over the possibility that NIS might be sold without a tender. Austria's OMV and Hungary's Mol are reportedly interested in NIS, the British daily added. PM
 PUTIN TURNS FOCUS TO SOCIAL ISSUESPresident Putin and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev met with Federation Council members in Moscow on January 15, Russian media reported. Putin told the lawmakers that he believes inflation can be controlled, but called at the same time for pensions and state-sector salaries to be raised. "Gazeta" commented on January 16 that the era of Putin as prime minister -- he is widely expected to head the government if Medvedev is elected president in March -- will be characterized by aggressive social spending, as compared to the policy of saving followed during Putin's presidency. Putin repeated his longstanding goal of making Russia one of the world's top five economies by 2020. RC
 ELECTION COMMISSION ISSUES RECORD NUMBER OF ABSENTEE COUPONSIn preparation for the March 2 presidential election, the Central Election Commission has printed and distributed to local election officials 2.6 million coupons that are issued to voters who wish to vote at a location other than where they are registered, gazeta.ru reported on January 16. Many observers asserted that the widespread abuse of such absentee coupons was a major source of fraud during the December Duma elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2007). The number of absentee coupons distributed rose from 570,000 in the 2003 Duma elections to 2.4 million for the most recent ballot. Analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told the website that "with an absentee coupon, one voter can vote at several polling stations and controlling whether or not he already voted is very difficult." Central Election Committee member Vadim Prokhorov, a member of the Union of Rightist Forces party, said that during the December vote, precincts in Tula and Tomsk oblasts complained that they did not have enough absentee coupons. A probe found that the ones that had been sent to those precincts had been handed out in bulk to the managers of state-controlled enterprises. "The last elections showed that with absentee coupons, you can falsify the results of an election," he said. "And the Central Election Commission did nothing. It is obvious that the same thing will happen during the presidential election." RC
 ACTIVIST QUITS UNIFIED RUSSIA YOUTH MOVEMENTAleksei Radov, a leading activist with Young Guard, the youth wing of the Unified Russia party, has left the organization in protest, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and other Russian media reported on January 16. Radov, who was a member of the organization's Political Council, distributed a statement saying: "My work [with Youth Guard], work on the elections with politicians and bureaucrats at various levels of the Putin vertical of power, has led me to understand the profound falsity of the entire Russian political process." Radov also told "Kommersant" on January 14 that he was disappointed that Unified Russia Duma deputies had reneged on promises to hire young activists as legislative staffers. He called on other activists to follow his lead and "take up socially beneficial activity, or at least something personally useful and sensible." Radov's colleagues in the movement were quick to denounce him, with activist Maria Sergeyeva writing on her blog that Radov is "a person who cannot be trusted" and who blames others for his own failures. RC
 CHILDREN OF OFFICIALS INCREASINGLY FIND NICHES IN BUSINESSThe children of leading Russian political figures and oligarchs are increasingly gravitating to high-level posts in the business world as the role of the government in the economy increases, "Kompania," No. 1, reported on January 14. The magazine says the phenomenon is so widespread that these children now make up "a new class." The magazine gave several examples of this group. Emin Agalarov, the U.S.-educated son of oligarch Aras Agalarov, is in charge of retailing for his father's Crocus International and is married to Leila Aliyev, daughter of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev. Aleksei Bogdanchikov, son of Rosneft head Sergei Bogdanchikov, is deputy head of the oil giant's investor-relations department. Sergei Matviyenko, son of St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko, is director of VTB-Kapital, a subsidiary of the state-controlled Vneshtorgbank (VTB). Sergei Ivanov, son of First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, is a vice president of state-controlled Gazprombank and his brother, Aleksandr Ivanov, works at the state-controlled Vneshekonombank. Ilya Voloshin, son of Aleksandr Voloshin, the former presidential chief of staff who is now head of the state electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems, is a vice president at Konversbank. He said in an interview that he was hired in part because of his "broad connections." Pyotr Fradkov, son of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) head Mikhail Fradkov, also works at Vneshekonombank. Vladimir Kiriyenko, son of Rosatom head Sergei Kiryenko, is chairman of the board of Sarovbiznesbank, a private bank that took over Garantia bank, which was created in 1996 by Sergei Kiriyenko. Vladimir Kiriyenko is also chairman of the Nizhny Novgorod telecoms company Volga, which is owned by Sergei Kiriyenko's close associate, LUKoil Vice President Vadim Vorobyov. RC
 NGOS FEEL SQUEEZE AS WESTERN GRANTS DRY UPIndependent Russian human-rights organizations are closing down or limiting their activities because of a sharp drop in Western funding, "Versia," No. 1, reported on January 14. According to the report, Western grant providers spent $20 million in Russia in 2007, down from $80 million in 2006. Most of the remaining Western money went to a small number of prominent organizations such as Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group. Helsinki Group Chairwoman Lyudmila Alekseyeva said the development is a harsh blow to regional organizations and predicted that activists will have to quit their rights work in order to earn money to survive. Major Moscow rights organizations say that more than 100 regional partner organizations closed down in 2007. Since 2006, the Russian government, through the Public Chamber, has been the main source of funding for nongovernmental organizations. In 2007, the chamber gave $51 million in grants, including large sums to pro-Kremlin youth groups Nashi and Young Guard (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2007). Organizations receiving Western funds have come under harsh state scrutiny and have been accused of following foreign political agendas. RC
 SOVIET-ERA WRITER SUFFERS SEVERE STROKEVasily Aksyonov, one of the greatest writers of the 1960s generation in the Soviet Union, has been hospitalized in serious condition after suffering a stroke, RIA Novosti and other Russian media reported on January 16. The 75-year-old novelist has reportedly been unconscious and partially paralyzed since the stroke during the day on January 15. Aksyonov, a doctor by profession, is the son of renowned Stalin-era memoirist Yevgenia Ginzberg, whose memoirs of her years in Stalin's labor camps rank among the period's most important documents. He spent much of his youth with his mother in exile in Magadan. In 1980, he left the Soviet Union and had his citizenship revoked. He spent nine years in exile in the United States. His works include "Ticket To The Stars," "Oranges From Morocco," and "The Island Of Crimea." RC
 MUNICIPAL OFFICIAL KILLED IN DAGHESTANMagomed Ismailov, the head of the Makhachkala Municipal Transport Department, was assassinated near his home on January 16, Russian media reported. His killers apparently opened fire on his car, then dragged him on to the street and shot him in the head before escaping. LF
 PROBE FAILS TO CONFIRM USE OF TORTURE IN CHECHEN PRISONRepresentatives of Chechen human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev have failed to confirm allegations by prisoners of ill treatment and the use of torture in the infamous Chernokozovo prison, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on January 15. Those representatives reportedly held an "open" discussion in front of video cameras with inmates, none of whom expressed any complaints about prison conditions. In addition, the investigating group was unable to locate any of the 124 inmates who signed a letter to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov and Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika complaining about the conditions in Chernokozovo (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). Speaking in Moscow on January 15, Oleg Orlov, who is chairman of the human-rights organization Memorial, told journalists that while the situation in Chechnya improved somewhat in 2007, human-rights violations continue, regnum.ru reported. He cited the requirements that all female employees of state organizations wear headscarves and that all employees of state organizations pay a percentage of their monthly salary into the charitable fund named after former republic head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. Svetlana Gannushkina, who is a member of the Russian presidential council on civil society and human rights, told the same press conference that Chechen displaced persons whose homes were destroyed during the fighting of the past 13 years are being summarily evicted from temporary accommodation not only in Chechnya but elsewhere in the Russian Federation, regnum.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 2008). LF
 CHECHEN PROSECUTOR'S OFFICE DEMANDS CLOSURE OF BRITISH NGOThe Chechen Republic prosecutor's office has called for the closure of the Grozny office of the British NGO Center for Peacemaking and Community Development on the grounds that its original one-year accreditation expired in May 2005 and it has violated federal tax legislation, Russian media reported on January 15. Speaking in Moscow the same day, Memorial Chairman Orlov stressed that the NGO engages exclusively in humanitarian activities, including the rehabilitation of children, Interfax reported. He linked the prosecutor's demand to the ongoing crisis in Russian-British relations. LF
 ROMA HARASSED IN VOLGOGRAD OBLASTPolice in the Volgograd town of Volzhskoye continue to detain and fingerprint Roma for no valid reason, Elena Konstantinova, who heads the local branch of the Congress of Roma Women, told kavkaz-uzel.ru on January 15. She said that since New Year, the number of complaints about such arbitrary detentions she has received has increased. At a meeting three months ago of the Roma community in Volzhskoye, 20 separate complaints about such victimization were submitted for forwarding to Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on October 12. Some of the complainants were detained and fingerprinted several times. Konstantinova also noted that the trial of 10 young men who attacked a Roma settlement in Volzhskoye in April 2006, beating up nine people of whom two subsequently died of their injuries, has been suspended indefinitely. LF
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 MEDIATOR NOTES 'NEW APPROACH' TO KARABAKH SETTLEMENTSpeaking on January 15 in Yerevan at an international conference on security issues in the Black Sea region, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, who is also the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, said that the conflict parties "are demonstrating a new approach" to the draft Basic Principles for resolving the conflict, and neither side is trying to delay or block such a settlement, day.az reported. Bryza told journalists in Yerevan after meeting on January 15 with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian that the mediators are trying to bridge "the remaining small differences" between the two sides with regard to that draft, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. But he declined to predict whether both presidents will orally endorse the draft before the Armenian presidential election on February 19. "This takes time. We can't rush it. We need to give the presidents time," Bryza explained. The three co-chairmen are to travel on January 16 to Stepanakert for talks with the leaders of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Bryza said, "We need to understand the situation there. We need to know all of the personalities there better," following the election last July of a new president. The co-chairs will then return to Baku, where they met on January 14 with senior Azerbaijani officials, to brief them on the content of their talks in Yerevan and Stepanakert (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15, 2008). LF
 FORMER AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTIAL STAFFER RELEASED FROM JAILAzerbaijan's Supreme Court on January 15 commuted to a five-year suspended sentence the six-year prison term handed down in late 2006 to former presidential administration official Akif Muradverdiyev, day.az and zerkalo.az reported on January 15 and 16, respectively. Muradverdiyev was arrested in October 2005 in connection with the alleged coup plotted by then-Health Minister Ali Insanov and then-Economic Development Minister Farxad Aliyev, but was tried and found guilty only on charges of large-scale embezzlement of state property, abuse of his official position, and receiving a bribe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 26, 2005 and November 1, 2006). Azerbaijan's Appeals Court upheld that sentence last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2007). LF
 GEORGIAN OPPOSITION HAILS AGREEMENT ON PUBLIC BROADCASTER, RULES OUT CONCESSIONSUp to 30,000 people attended a rally outside the headquarters of Georgian Public Television on January 15 in support of opposition demands for a runoff following the January 5 pre-term presidential election, Georgian media reported. The Central Election Commission has declared incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili the winner with over 53 percent of the vote; the opposition National Council claims Saakashvili failed to poll the required 50 percent plus one vote in the first round and should therefore participate in a runoff against its candidate, Levan Gachechiladze. Gachechiladze told demonstrators on January 15 that "we will not compromise.... We will not let them falsify the election," AP reported. At the same time, he described as "a great victory" the agreement reached earlier that day between acting President Nino Burjanadze and opposition representatives on reorganizing the public broadcaster to give the opposition and the authorities equal representation on its board of trustees. In a live interview with Georgian Public Television on the evening of January 15, Gachechiladze again affirmed that the opposition will not agree to any compromises in ongoing "talks" with the authorities, and said he would not accept any offer from Saakashvili of a government post, civil.ge reported. Gachechiladze said he hopes the opposition will participate in the parliamentary elections to be held in spring or early summer as "a single, united, strong opposition coalition" that would encompass not only the nine-member National Council but also the Labor party, the New Rightists, and others. He announced that the opposition plans a "huge protest rally" on January 20, the day Saakashvili will be inaugurated as president. LF
 GEORGIAN PRESIDENT-ELECT PLEDGES STRONGER FOCUS ON HUMAN RIGHTS, TRANSPARENCYPresident-elect Saakashvili met on January 15 with ombudsman Sozar Subar to discuss the blistering criticisms contained in an open letter Subar addressed to him the previous day, civil.ge reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15, 2008). Saakashvili told journalists after the meeting, which Subar described as "very positive," that "we are going to cooperate with everyone dealing with human rights, with rule of law, ...with all public representatives." He also promised the depoliticization of public organizations, transparency in the work of law-enforcement agencies, and independence for private business, Caucasus Press reported. LF
 KAZAKH COURT SENTENCES FUGITIVE FORMER SON-IN-LAW OF PRESIDENTA Kazakh district court in Almaty on January 15 sentenced Rakhat Aliev, the former son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, in absentia to a 20-year prison sentence on charges of kidnapping, corruption, and extortion, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The court's presiding judge, Nurdilla Seitov, also ordered the seizure of all of Aliev's property and assets in Kazakhstan, and stripped him of all state awards and official titles, including his positions as major general in both the National Security Committee and the Financial Police. The trial of Aliev and some 20 co-defendants opened on November 20. Along with the corruption, money-laundering, and extortion charges, the defendants were convicted of forming an organized criminal group and abducting two employees of a leading Kazakh bank in an attempt to coerce them to turn over sizable property holdings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2007). The 45-year-old Aliev, a former Kazakh ambassador to Austria, remains in self-imposed exile in Austria after an Austrian court rejected a Kazakh extradition request (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 6, and 13, and August 9, 2007). He also served as a former deputy foreign minister, and was divorced from the president's oldest daughter, Darigha, last June. RG
 SERIOUS CRIMES FELL BY 10 PERCENT IN KAZAKHSTAN IN 2007Kazakh President Nazarbaev and Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov on January 15 reviewed a new annual report on crime statistics that registered a 10 percent decline in serious crimes in Kazakhstan for 2007, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Despite the fall in crime, Nazarbaev ordered the interior minister to adopt increased measures to combat drug use. Nazarbaev welcomed the introduction of a law on firearms that went into effect on January 1, 2008, and provides state compensation for a "buy-back" program designed to pay weapons owners to voluntarily turn in their unregistered firearms, ammunition, and explosives. RG
 KYRGYZ OPPOSITION ACCUSES TAX POLICE OF HARASSMENTSpeaking to reporters in Bishkek on January 15, Dzhoomart Saparbaev, the press spokesman for the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, accused the Kyrgyz tax police of harassing the opposition by initiating tax audits targeting several opposition political parties, the 24.kg website reported. Saparbaev said Ata-Meken, along with fellow opposition parties Ar-Namys (Dignity) and the Party of Greens, has recently been targeted by tax police in a probe of the parties' economic activities. RG
 TAJIK OPPOSITION CRITICIZES GOVERNMENT OVER ENERGY CRISIS...At a January 15 press conference in Dushanbe, Rahmatullo Valiev, the leader of the opposition Tajik Democratic Party, criticized the Tajik authorities for their inability to resolve the country's long-standing energy crisis, ITAR-TASS reported. Valiev called on Tajik leaders to "fulfill their constitutional duty before the nation and take emergency measures" to resolve the energy crisis, and demanded that they increase electricity supplies. He also specifically urged the authorities to ensure electricity supplies to public facilities such as schools and hospitals, noting that the current electricity flow to the regions have been reduced to a mere two to three hours a day, and that a "rolling blackout" is underway in Dushanbe. Just hours later, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon on January 15 ordered an increase in electricity supplies to residents of the capital, Dushanbe, Tajik Television reported. Rahmon ordered that "the volume of the daily electricity supplies to the residents of Dushanbe be increased by 1 million kilowatt-hours by reducing the consumption of the Tajik Aluminum Plant." Shavkat Shoimov, the deputy head of the state-owned TojikGaz energy group, recently announced that prices for natural gas and electricity will be increased sharply to help offset a spike in prices for energy imports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008). RG
 BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT CALLS FOR SPEEDING UP WORK ON PLANNED NUCLEAR PLANTThe Security Council of Belarus on January 15 made "an ultimate political decision regarding the construction of a nuclear power plant" in the country, Belarusian media reported, quoting the presidential press office. Speaking at a meeting of the council, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka called on the government to speed up preparations for the project. "We need to switch from speculation to practical work and ensure that the construction of the plant begins this year," Lukashenka said. "The public understands that there is no alternative to the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus today." Finance Minister Mikalay Korbut estimated that the construction of the plant will cost $4 billion, adding that the project will be financed with public funds and foreign loans. The Belarusian authorities are considering two possible sites for the plant in Mahilyou Oblast. The plant is expected to start operating in 2018, and to provide 30 percent of all electricity generated in Belarus by 2020. AM
 BELARUSIAN COURTS JAIL MORE SMALL-BUSINESS ACTIVISTSA Minsk district court on January 15 sentenced Alyaksandr Talstyka, a small-business activist, to 15 days in jail for his participation in a January 10 unauthorized rally against government restrictions on the activities of small businesses, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Police detained Talstyka near his home in Minsk before taking him to court. The Belarusian authorities have recently arrested and jailed at least 20 people for their participation in protests against a presidential decree, effective as of January 1, that bans certain small-business owners from hiring employees other than three family members. AM
 UKRAINE REQUESTS NATO MEMBERSHIP ACTION PLANUkrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and Verkhovna Rada Speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk have sent a request to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer for Ukraine to be given a NATO Membership Action Plan at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April. The text of the request was posted on the presidential website (http://www.president.gov.ua) on January 15. Ukrainian leaders argue that the policy of integration into Euro-Atlantic bodies is determined by Ukrainian legislation, and therefore should not be seen as directed against third countries. Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, and Yatsenyuk assured de Hoop Scheffer that the Ukrainian public will be consulted about the country's possible membership in NATO. They anticipated that the alliance will soon acknowledge the country's progress in its "intensified dialogue" with NATO and relevant reforms. AM
 U.S. SENATOR PRAISES UKRAINE FOR PARTICIPATION IN PEACEKEEPING MISSIONSSenator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican and the chairman of the U.S. Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations, said on January 15 in Kyiv that "the United States is grateful to Ukraine for its important support in Iraq," Interfax reported. Lugar said that the United States intends to ask Ukraine for further support "both in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places requiring the interests of peace around the world." Lugar also stressed the importance of preserving the Ukrainian gas transportation system, an important route for energy supplies to Europe. AM
 UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT RATIFIES VISA FACILITATION AGREEMENT WITH EUThe Verkhovna Rada on January 15 ratified an agreement with the EU facilitating the visa regime for Ukrainians entering countries in the Schengen zone, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The agreement establishes categories of Ukrainians who are eligible to obtain five-year or one-year multi-entry EU visas, and categories of Ukrainians for whom visas will be issued with no fee. Those eligible for obtaining visas free of charge are parents or children of people who have the right to stay in the EU; schoolchildren, students, and journalists; people participating in humanitarian aid activities; drivers of international cargo and passenger transportation; and crew members on international trains. For those who are not exempt from the fee, the agreement sets the charge for a visa at 35 euros ($51). AM
 NO DECISION ON EU MISSION TO KOSOVA UNTIL FEBRUARY...The decision to deploy an EU mission to Kosova will probably not be made on January 28, as was widely expected, a spokeswoman for the Slovenian government, the current president of the EU, indicated to international media on January 14. AFP quoted her as saying, "it is clear that no decision will be taken before February," while Reuters quoted her as saying, "there is a high probability we will not take the decision until February." Both reported, however, that she linked the probable delay to a desire "not to intervene in the current situation in Serbia," which is in the midst of a presidential election campaign. Serbs will go to the polls on January 20 and -- in the probable event of an inconclusive result -- also on February 3. EU leaders meet on January 28 and were expected to decide both on the timing of the deployment of the mission to Kosova and on signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia. The EU mission would take over responsibility for administering Kosova from the UN, but the plan has been dogged by criticism from Serbia. The Serbian government insists that a mission can only be deployed with the backing of a new resolution from the UN Security Council, an assertion rejected by Brussels. In the past two weeks, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has increased the pressure on Brussels by insisting that the EU must choose between sending a mission to Kosova and signing an SAA with Serbia. In public, Kostunica has not dropped the demand for a UN resolution. The delicacy of the EU's position is also heightened by Serbia's failure to meet a long-standing condition for an SAA -- the capture of a suspected war criminal, Ratko Mladic -- and a recent demand from Serbia's foreign minister that it sign an SAA now to boost the chances of the most pro-Western of the front-runners in the election, President Boris Tadic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9 and 11, 2008). AG
 ...AS KEY EU STATES PREPARE TO DISCUSS KOSOVAForeign ministers from the four EU states most deeply involved in resolving Kosova's status will meet in Slovenia on January 19, Slovenian and international media reported on January 14."No breakthrough decisions are to be expected," a report by the Slovenian news agency STA stated. Slovenia currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, and the four foreign ministers invited -- from Britain, France, Germany, and Italy -- represent the four European members of the six-member Contact Group heading diplomatic efforts to broker an agreement on Kosova's future. There is no indication that Russia and the United States, the other two members, will attend. All four European states agree that the status quo cannot continue in Kosova, that the EU should support a declaration of independence by Kosova, and that the EU should deploy a mission to Kosova. However, a handful of EU states remain opposed or reluctant to accept Kosovar statehood. International media reported on January 14 that the Slovenian and Italian presidents called for European unity on the issue of Kosova, but Romania, for one, remains reluctant to fall in behind the majority position. Serbian television reported on January 12 that Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Cioroianu said on January 11 after meeting his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, that Romania "is hesitant" about possible independence for Kosova because it could lead to an "avalanche" of secessionist campaigns elsewhere (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 6, and December 13 and 17, 2007). There are also disagreements about how to handle Serbia's bid for EU membership, an issue that all insist should be separate but which has nonetheless gained in urgency as EU leaders seek to persuade the Serbian leadership that the country's future lies within the EU despite the EU's support for Kosovar statehood. AG
 KOSOVAR OFFICIALS ATTACKEDFour Kosovar government officials were injured on January 14 when a hand grenade hidden under their car exploded, AP and local media reported. Reports about the condition of the injured vary, with AP and Serbian media reporting that all four were seriously injured while Kosovar media quoted police as saying that one person is in serious condition. They were traveling near the town of Suhareka in a car belonging to the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare at the time of the blast. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack and the police have not indicated what lines of inquiry they are pursuing. The ministry was in the headlines most recently when Kosovar Albanian veterans of the 1998-99 war protested at the appointment of a Kosovar Serb to head the ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10, 2008). The government officials injured in the attack were all Kosovar Albanians. On January 12, a Kosovar Albanian official in the customs service was attacked in an incident that police say may have been connected to internal investigations into customs officials' collusion with smugglers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15, 2008). AG
 TRIAL OF ALLEGED ISLAMIST MILITANTS BEGINS IN SERBIAFifteen alleged militant Islamists accused of terrorism and of plotting assassination appeared in court in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, on January 14, local media reported. The trial comes almost nine months after the discovery of an alleged terrorist camp in the southern border province of Sandzak and subsequent raids that left one man dead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19 and 24, and April 20, 2007). Prosecutors believe that the accused, most of whom were arrested near the Sandzak capital, Novi Pazar, were planning to kill a local Muslim cleric and attack a police station. In his opening statement, prosecutor Jovica Jovanovic also claimed that the men had close links to militants elsewhere in the Balkans, in Austria, and in Saudi Arabia. Prosecutors believe the Islamists -- typically referred to in Serbia as Wahhabis, followers of Serbia's austere brand of Islam -- wanted to kill Muamer Zukorlic for allegedly spying for the United States. Zukorlic was at the time the leading cleric in the region, but in October the mainstream Muslim community was split by an attempt to oust him and the continuing dispute has on several occasions resulted in violent confrontations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10 and 12, November 19, and December 3, 2007). AG
 FUROR IN BOSNIA OVER REPUBLIKA SRPSKA MEDIABosnian Serb leaders have protested in recent days the concern expressed by the international community's Office of the High Representative (OHR) that authorities in the Bosnian Serb-dominated region of Republika Srpska are limiting freedom of the press. The furor began on January 10 when Raffi Gregorian, the second-most-senior international official in Bosnia-Herzegovina, met with local media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the Republika Srpska and then issued a statement expressing concern at "recent allegations of attempts to infringe upon press freedom and the rule of law," and stressing "the important watchdog role an independent press and civil society perform." The claim prompted a leading figure in the region's and country's most popular party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), to call on Bosnian Serb politicians to break off contact with Gregorian. However, the SNSD's leader and prime minister of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, limited himself to saying that the OHR was seizing upon the complaints of a few "frustrated people" in an attempt to justify its continuing existence. The OHR was initially slated to be closed down in mid-2007, but its mandate was extended due to concerns about the impact of Kosova's possible independence and about the slowness and uncertainty of Bosnia's progress toward the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). The dispute prompted one of the major publications in the Republika Srpska, "Nezavisne novine," on January 13 to publish an editorial critical of those media and NGOs that complained. AG
 SENIOR MACEDONIAN MINISTER RESIGNSA senior figure of the New Social Democratic Party (NSDP), Vera Rafajlovska, resigned on January 14 from her post as economy minister, local media reported. It is unclear as yet what impact her resignation will have on the governing coalition, in which the NSDP is one of a number of small parties that allied themselves with the winner of the 2006 elections, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE). Rafajlovska said she made her decision for "personal reasons," but there is speculation that it may have been connected with the recent resignation -- again, for "personal reasons" -- by a junior minister, Deputy Interior Minister Refet Elmazi of the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4, 2008). The NSDP and the PDSh clashed in November when the NSDP backed an unsuccessful opposition vote of no confidence against Elmazi for his role in a scuffle with members of another ethnic-Albanian party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, and October 2, 2007). That vote prompted the NSDP to support an unsuccessful vote of no confidence in Rafajlovska in December. AG
 MACEDONIA IN MOURNING OVER DEATH OF PEACEKEEPERSMacedonia observed a day of national mourning on January 15 to honor 11 soldiers killed in a helicopter crash on January 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). The 11 men were all given state funerals, five of them in a cemetery in Skopje reserved for leading figures in Macedonian history. The others were buried, at their family's request, in their home towns. The helicopter was bringing back members of Macedonia's contingent in the international peacekeeping service in Bosnia-Herzegovina when it crashed. Flags were also lowered in Bosnia, and the international community's representative in Bosnia, Miroslav Lajcak, and members of the country's presidency were among those who signed a book of condolence opened for the soldiers in Sarajevo. An investigation into the cause of the crash is still under way. AG
 MONTENEGRO HEADS SOFTWARE PIRACY TABLENo country in Southeastern Europe pirates software more than Montenegro, according to the Montenegrin office of Microsoft, local media and the news service Balkan Insight reported on January 14. Over four-fifths -- 83 percent -- of software on Montenegrins' computers is copied, Microsoft claimed. The figure is a little lower in Serbia (78 percent), significantly lower in Macedonia and Bulgaria (69 percent), and substantially lower in Croatia (55 percent) and Slovenia (48 percent). The head of Microsoft Montenegro, Oliver Obradovic, urged Podgorica to clamp down, citing among his arguments a Microsoft estimate that the Montenegrin state is losing $5 million-$6 million in potential taxes because of software piracy. AG
 CROATIAN LEGISLATOR TO STAND TRIAL FOR WAR CRIMESCroatia's parliament decided on January 12 that one of its members, Branimir Glavas, should not be immune from prosecution for war crimes, thereby enabling the continuation of the highest-profile war crimes case yet heard in Croatia. The Croatian parliament did not, however, endorse a court decision that Glavas should remain in detention despite failing health triggered by a hunger strike. The head of a parliamentary commission that assessed Glavas's claim of immunity, Damir Sesvecan, told local media that, in his weakened condition, Glavas would not be able to influence the course of the trial. The issue was one of the first addressed by the new parliament, which met for the first time on January 11. This is the second time that Glavas's immunity has been lifted. In the first instance, his trial was halted in December 2006 for health reasons. He was rearrested on different charges in April 2007, but his reelection to parliament in elections held in November 2007 halted his trial. Glavas, who rose to the rank of general in the 1991-95 war, is accused, among a range of crimes, of commanding a paramilitary unit that abducted and killed Serbian civilians in an incident that has become known as the "Sellotape case" because the 10 victims' mouths were taped over before they were drowned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, and May 14 and 21, 2007). This is the third hunger strike he has gone on while in police custody. In early January, a deterioration in his health prompted doctors to transfer him from a prison hospital to an open hospital. Glavas became a major political figure after the war, but was expelled in 2005 from the most powerful party during the war, the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). He made a comeback by establishing his own party. While popular enough to win reelection to parliament even as the leader of a small party, Glavas has been criticized by some war veterans, who have called for him to be stripped of his war medals for the "contempt shown toward the Croatian legal system" by his decision to go on hunger strike (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). AG
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 AFGHAN INTELLIGENCE ACCUSES PAKISTANI MILITANT OF MASTERMINDING ATTACK ON KABUL HOTELAmrullah Saleh, the head of Afghanistan's intelligence service, said on January 15 that Siraj Haqqani, a leader thought to be based in the tribal area of North Waziristan in Pakistan, was behind the attack on Kabul's Serena Hotel on January 14, Afghan and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15, 2008). "We've captured the planners of this terrorist attack," Saleh said in announcing the arrest of four suspects connected to the incident. They included one of the attackers, who wore a police uniform, and another who allegedly transported the attackers to the hotel, and two other suspects who provided accommodation in Kabul for the attackers. Two other attackers died in the attack. There are still conflicting reports on the circumstances and the nationalities of the victims, who include some Westerners. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, and the hotel remains closed for business. MM
 AFGHAN NEWSPAPER CRITICIZES BRITISH DEFENSE MINISTER'S COMMENTSOn January 15, the Afghan daily "Arman-e Milli" criticized British Defense Minister Des Browne for saying that British troops will remain engaged in Afghanistan for decades, interpreting the comment as violating Afghanistan's national sovereignty. Browne told the British weekly "The People" on January 13 that Britain's troop commitment in Afghanistan could last for decades to defend the country against the risk of chaos and the rise of an extremist regime again (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15, 2008). Browne's "irresponsible comment...is regarded as an explicit sign of deviation from international treaties and against the national sovereignty of Afghanistan," the privately owned Afghan daily commented. "For [deciding] on the continuation of foreign troops' presence in Afghanistan is the right of the government, the parliament, and our people. No authority of any country has the right to extend the duration of its troops' presence without the consent and request of the Afghan people." MM
 'KITE RUNNER' BANNED IN AFGHANISTANRadio Netherlands reported on January 15 that the Afghan government has banned the release or sale of the film "The Kite Runner" in Afghanistan for fear of public backlash and possible violence. Latif Ahmadi, the head of state-run Afghan Film, told Reuters on January 14, "On the basis of the instruction of the Information and Culture Ministry, the 'Kite Runner' film's depiction and import has been banned." The film is based on the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini, and in a particularly controversial scene shows the rape of a Hazara boy by a Pashtun bully. The authorities fear that this scene, among other of the film's themes, could inflame old and new ethnic animosities and could threaten relations among ethnic groups. The act of rape is also perceived as highly offensive in Afghanistan's cultural and religious domains. The story chronicles friendship and betrayal between two Afghan boys from before the Russian invasion in the 1970s up to the emergence of the Taliban. MM
 PRESIDENT BACKS PEACE JIRGA IN EASTERN AFGHANISTANPajhwak Afghan News reported on January 13 that a peace jirga (council) formed by governors, lawmakers, and tribal elders from four eastern provinces in Afghanistan met recently with President Hamid Karzai and received his backing. The jirga is aimed at ending the Taliban insurgency and violence in the region and the entire country through negotiations. Participants in the jirga presented their recommendations to Karzai on a range of initiatives to find a comprehensive political solution to continuing conflict in the country. Nangarhar Province Governor Gul Agha Sherzai remarked during the meeting, "The jirga deserves full support not only from President Karzai, but also from the entire global fraternity," and he expressed optimism about the jirga's potential to meet its goals. According to the report, Karzai told the gathering to convey the message in their area, the whole country and the region that peace in Afghanistan means peace in the world, and he offered his endorsement of their initiative and objectives. MM
 BUSH WARNS IRAN AGAINST 'PROVOCATION'On a visit to Riyadh on January 15 during a Middle East tour, U.S. President George W. Bush warned Iran that it will be held responsible if it strikes U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, Reuters reported. Iranian and U.S. ships were involved in a standoff in the Persian Gulf on January 6, although Iran has disputed allegations that it provoked the confrontation. Bush said "they had better be careful and not be provocative," but added that he told Gulf rulers that "I want to solve this diplomatically." Separately, Tehran-based academic Sadeq Zibakalam told IRNA on January 15 that groups in Iran "backed by the Bush administration have no public support base" and will "get nowhere, however much the Bush administration supports them." Reformists in Iran recently have vigorously rejected any association with the U.S. government. Zibakalam said the alleged U.S. support is more likely for exiled "counterrevolutionaries" like royalists or the communist Mujahedin Khalq Organization, not reformists in Iran. "America gave no support to reformists when the government, parliament, and Foreign Ministry were in the hands of reformists, so it is not right to say America supports reformists inside the system," Zibakalam said. VS
 IRANIAN LEGISLATOR SAYS TURKMENISTAN LIED ABOUT GAS CUTS...Kamal Daneshyar, the head of the Iranian parliament's Energy Committee, told Radio Farda on January 14 that Turkmenistan has probably stopped piping gas to Iran as a strategy to raise its prices, and said that Turkmen officials lied when they cited technical problems as the reason for cutting gas supplies to northern Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 2008). "All nations know this is a lie," Daneshyar said. But he admitted that wasteful fuel use in Iran would in any case have caused the present nationwide gas shortage, regardless of the Turkmen cuts. "Because of the unprecedented cold and inefficient fuel use in the country, this crisis would have happened [anyway]... Iran alone uses about half the energy of Europe." Daneshyar said Iran produces 460 million cubic meters of gas daily, but uses 200 million cubic meters beyond what it produces. He blamed low energy prices for a "senseless increase in consumption," and said the government must "increase its interaction with the world" and step up investment to boost energy production, Radio Farda reported. Turkmenistan cut its gas supplies at the beginning of January, and may seek $140 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas supplied, nearly double the current price, the Fars news agency reported on January 12. It added that Turkmen officials recently told an Iranian delegation that they want to change a previous agreement on gas exports to Iran to raise the level from 8 billion to 14 billion cubic meters a year, and increase the rate of $75 per 1,000 cubic meters, the agency reported. VS
 ...AS OTHER OFFICIALS CITE INADEQUATE RESPONSEThe head of Iran's national trade chamber, Mohammad Nahavandian, said on January 14 that the government should have had contingency plans for what he termed a critical gas shortage situation, Mehr reported. He asked why factories or workshops were the first to have their gas cut as the shortages worsened. "While saving gas is...a national duty for every individual and supplying household gas is a priority, the country's manufacturing factories should not be at the front line of gas cuts." He asked why the government did not foresee the current cold spell, and said a response should have been planned long beforehand. A member of the parliamentary Energy Committee, Heshmatollah Jasemi-Ojaq, said the same day that the government should have planned for the cold spell, and that Iran should export no gas until it is sure it can meet domestic demand, ISNA reported. Jasemi-Ojaq, a lawmaker representing Qasr-i Shirin in the western Kermanshah province, said the committee has drafted a motion to prevent gas exports until domestic supplies are assured for homes and factories. He did not say if the motion has been debated in parliament. VS
 IRANIAN OIL MINISTER SAYS NO EXPORTS UNDER WAYOil Minister Gholamhossein Nozari told lawmakers in Tehran on January 15 that Iran is "presently not exporting a single cubic meter of gas," and that current gas export deals will not take effect before 2011, IRNA reported. However, he cited a deal with Turkey as the exception. Nozari said most gas produced in Iran is used in homes, but stressed that his ministry is attentive to the need to keep gas reserves to be used in the oil industry to enable oil extraction. Some lawmakers and observers in Tehran have pointed out that gas used for injection into oil fields is more important than gas exports, as oil production is Iran's main source of income. Nozari indicated that high domestic consumption is causing the fuel shortage, and said gas injections at oil fields had to be stopped three days ago to assure household supplies. "While injecting gas into oil fields is more economical, we have to meet people's needs in the minus 30 degree cold," he said. Nozari said Iran must manage gas consumption to assure that supplies remain for homes, industry, oil production, and eventually for export. "The Oil Ministry's top priority is...injection [for oil extraction]. As for exports, the way gas is being consumed in this country means there will be [nothing] left for export," IRNA quoted Nozari as saying. VS
 TURKEY BOMBS PKK POSITIONS IN NORTHERN IRAQTurkish warplanes bombed suspected Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) positions in northern Iraq on January 15, international media reported. The Turkish military confirmed the bombings, but said its warplanes targeted only confirmed PKK positions in the Zap-Sivi, Avasin-Basyan, and Kakurk regions. "Our planes returned to their bases safely after successfully completing their duties," the Turkish military said in a statement. General Jabar Yawar, a spokesman for the Kurdish Peshmerga security forces, told Reuters that there was also heavy shelling of areas near Amadiyah. There was no immediate word on any casualties or serious damage. It was the fourth air strike on PKK targets in northern Iraq since December 16. Turkey has massed up to 100,000 troops along the Iraqi border to curb infiltration into Turkey by PKK fighters based in northern Iraq. On January 14, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he does not know when Turkey's offensive against PKK fighters in Iraq will end. "We hope that this fight against terrorism will end soon, but we don't know how much longer it will last," Erdogan said. SS
 SUNNI LEADER DENOUNCES ACCOUNTABILITY AND JUSTICE LAWIn a January 14 interview with the Jordanian daily "Al-Arab Al-Yawm," Salih al-Mutlaq, the leader of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, denounced the newly passed Accountability and Justice Law, describing it as highly politicized and "drafted in the interest of political agendas." Al-Mutlaq added that the new law is very loosely written, and warned that it may unfairly target a large percentage of the Iraqi population. "If we apply the new law, we will find that a big percentage of the people -- that is, half the population of Iraq -- will be deprived of their rights. Therefore, we wonder, how can we achieve the stability and reconciliation that the Iraqi government and the parliament continue to brag about?" al-Mutlaq asked. The Accountability and Justice Law, unanimously passed on January 12, is a revision of the earlier de-Ba'athification law, and paves the way for thousands of former Ba'athists who lost their jobs following the downfall of the former regime to return to government and military posts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). The draft law must now be ratified by the three-member Presidential Council to go into effect. SS
 IRAQI SHI'ITE PARTY DENIES JOINING NEW POLITICAL ALLIANCEJabir Al-Khalifah, a leading member of the Shi'ite-led Al-Fadilah (Virtue) Party, on January 15 denied reports that his party has joined a new national political alliance, Voices of Iraq reported on January 16. "All reports about joining a new political alliance are false," al-Khalifah said. Iraqi media reported on January 13 that 10 political blocs, including the Al-Fadilah Party, have formed a new alliance to break the current political stalemate, dispense with the sectarian quota system, and work toward national reconciliation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). The Al-Fadilah Party has 15 seats in the 275-seat Iraqi Council of Representatives, and last year withdrew from the Shi'ite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance. SS
 IRAQI OIL MINISTER ACCUSES COALITION FORCES OF STARTING REFINERY FIREIn an interview with Reuters on January 15, Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani accused U.S.-led coalition forces of causing a huge fire at the Al-Shuiba oil refinery on January 14 in the southern city of Al-Basrah. He said a coalition helicopter caused the massive fire and the loss of a huge quantity of gas, but did not explain how. "We have always asked coalition forces not to let their aircraft hover above the refinery," al-Shahristani said. U.S. and British officials denied that any coalition aircraft were involved in the blaze. An unnamed official at the state-run Southern Oil Company said the cause of the fire was not a helicopter, but a single mortar round fired at the refinery. The official declined to say who fired the mortar. The fire injured 10 people and forced the refinery, the largest in southern Iraq, to shut down temporarily. An official at the Southern Oil Company said the refinery will be back online within two days. SS
 THE MAKING OF A RUSSIAN PRESIDENTBy Robert Coalson
Even as the Russian Foreign Ministry was condemning alleged violations during the January 5 presidential election in Georgia, the president-making machine in Moscow was swinging into action.
The ministry's complaints about Georgia -- that the vote saw "the widespread use of administrative resources, blatant pressure on the opposition candidates, and stringent restriction of access to financial and media resources" -- pretty much sum up the Kremlin's strategy for installing First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as the successor to Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin's task in this case is easy. Polls show Medvedev already has the support of more than half of all voters and more than 70 percent of decided voters. In second place with some 13 percent of the vote, according to the Levada Center, is Putin himself, although he is not eligible to seek another term. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky are languishing with 5-7 percent, while former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov registers 1 percent or less.
Medvedev's campaign -- headed by Kremlin political guru and deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov -- has begun to activate regional administrations in support of its aims. More than 60 regional leaders who agreed to head the local party lists of the Unified Russia party before the December Duma elections are now being pressed to head the local Medvedev campaigns as well.
It is a clear fusion of administrative muscle and political ambition, and illustrates exactly why this vertical of power -- in which governors are directly dependent on the Kremlin -- was created in the first place. As RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on January 11, the purpose of Medvedev's recent trips to the regions -- he has made widely covered visits to Murmansk and Kaliningrad in recent days -- is not to meet with voters but to establish working relations with local officials. In addition to the normal task of creating a plausible scenario to arrive at a predetermined percentage of the vote for Medvedev, governors will also have the more difficult task of persuading voters that the so-called national projects -- sweeping reforms in the areas of housing, health care, education, and agriculture that Medvedev has overseen -- have brought them benefits on the ground.
The yoking of the country's administrative resources to the goals of Unified Russia proved powerfully effective in December. In Ingushetia, for instance, the local administration claimed that 98.35 percent of voters turned out in December, and 98.72 percent of them voted for Unified Russia. In the face of these unrealistic figures, local activists began collecting statements from voters who swore that they did not go to the polls at all. Last week, the movement announced it had collected such statements from more than 87,000 voters, about 54 percent of the republic's entire electorate. The activists have said that if prosecutors refuse to investigate, they will take their complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
But it was not only in the North Caucasus that pro-Kremlin forces benefited from administrative resources in the Duma elections. In the Duma elections, opposition party events were thwarted, election materials were impounded, demonstrations were banned, opposition candidates' access to voters was restricted, and media support was as intensely biased toward the pro-Kremlin parties on the local level as on the national. As political analyst Sergei Markov told RFE/RL's Russian Service, "you can't have too many political resources."
Meanwhile, the two candidates trying to make the presidential ballot without the support of a party represented in the Duma -- Kasyanov and Democratic Party leader Andrei Bogdanov -- have been beavering away at the task of collecting the 2 million signatures required of such self-starters. Although the Democratic Party, usually seen as a Kremlin-backed pseudo-opposition group, picked up fewer than 90,000 votes in the Duma ballot, Bogdanov supporters claim they have already reached the 2 million goal. Kasyanov, on the other hand, is running up hard against the January 16 deadline. INDEM think tank analyst Yury Korgunyuk told "Vedomosti" that he thinks Kasyanov's chances of getting his signatures approved by the Central Election Commission are practically zero.
Bogdanov recently told "Moskovsky komsomolets" that one Kremlin tactic is to pay off or infiltrate the companies that are hired by opposition campaigns to organize the collection of signatures. They submit a certain percentage of bad signatures that the commission has no trouble finding. Of course, such machinations are impossible to prove, but it is not hard to imagine that such consulting firms could see considerable benefits from being more loyal to the Kremlin political machine than to minor candidates who have no political future.
What is easy to prove is that the Kremlin-controlled media machine is already grinding away. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote this week that the central television channels are already giving "complete supremacy" to Medvedev, and have succeeded in marginalizing the other candidates. The paper said the main channels mentioned Medvedev 344 times in the two weeks ending on January 13, while Zhirinovsky came in second with 96 references. While Medvedev received 12 full hours of coverage in the period, Kasyanov's voice was heard on state television only twice during the two-week period, as opposed to Medvedev's 172 times.
On January 26, the Central Election Commission will certify the final list of candidates and all indications are they will be Medvedev, Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky, and -- for spice -- Bogdanov. The campaign begins on February 2 and voting will be March 2. But Medvedev already won the election on December 10, with 100 percent of Putin's vote.