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Newsline - April 27, 2007

General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian General Staff, said in Moscow on April 27 that he will begin talks in Brussels on May 10 with NATO officials on the future of the amended 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, Russian news agencies reported. On April 26, President Vladimir Putin announced a "moratorium" on Russian observance of the pact, which limits military deployments in specific regions. He linked his decision primarily to what he called the failure of unnamed NATO signatories to ratify the document or respect its provisions, as well as to the proposed U.S. missile-defense system and to NATO's eastward enlargement, which took place in 1999 and 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20 and 26, 2007). In Oslo on April 26, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov "confirmed...Putin's statement...that Russia is suspending -- he used the word 'moratorium' -- its adherence to the adapted CFE Treaty," news agencies reported. De Hoop Scheffer added that Lavrov's "message was met by concern, grave concern, disappointment, and regret" in NATO circles. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned in the name of "us Europeans" against a "growing spiral of mistrust between Russia and the United States," Deutsche Welle reported. PM

Sergei Mironov, who is the speaker of the upper house of Russia's parliament, the Federation Council, said on April 26 that President Putin's decision to suspend Russian compliance with the CFE is Russia's "first asymmetric response" to missile defense, which presumably means that other steps could follow, news agencies reported. Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote on April 27 that Russia itself has not met many of its obligations under international arms-control agreements and should think again before criticizing others. The paper suggested that Putin's aggressive anti-American and anti-Western statements and policies in recent months recall Soviet rhetoric and behavior and a desire to enjoy the respect and fear that the Soviet Union once inspired abroad. The daily also drew parallels between his domestic political policies regarding democracy and free speech and those of his Soviet-era predecessors. The paper suggested that his belligerence is also intended to deter NATO from eventually expanding into Georgia and Ukraine. Some other German commentators noted that Russia may be overplaying its hand in using missile defense and the CFE as issues to promote splits within NATO and the EU and to pave the way for new arms projects it has already decided on. Those commentators argued that Putin's tough Soviet-style rhetoric and his "democracy deficit" at home make it difficult for those European politicians who would like closer relations with Russia to take such a position before their voters. The BBC suggested on April 26 that Putin knows that the Europeans are dependent on Russian energy supplies and that he consequently need not heed their opinions. PM

Polish Defense Minister Aleksander Szczyglo was quoted by the Russian daily "Gazeta" on April 27 as saying that Moscow's hard line on missile defense is due to a desire by the authorities to convey to their own electorates an image of toughness in the run-up to the 2007 legislative elections and the 2008 presidential vote. He called the Russian position "strange," adding that nobody is trying to humiliate that country, which itself has already deployed missiles in Belarus close to Poland's border. In Oslo on April 26, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described as "laughable" Russia's adherence to its old arguments against missile defense despite repeated U.S. explanations of the actual state of affairs, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 20, 23, and 26, 2007). She added that "the Russians have thousands of warheads. The idea that you can somehow stop the Russian strategic nuclear deterrent with a few interceptors just doesn't make sense. So, obviously, we are very happy to continue this dialogue, but we have to continue it on a basis of a realistic assessment of what we are proposing, not one that is grounded somehow in the 1980s." PM

The Estonian authorities carried out in the early hours of April 27 a long-planned relocation of a World War II-era Soviet military monument from central Tallinn to a military cemetery, where the remains of 14 Red Army soldiers that were buried near the monument will eventually also be reinterred, international media reported. An unspecified number of Russian-speaking protesters began rioting and looting the previous evening near the monument in what Reuters described as the worst violence in Estonia for years. Police dispersed the rioters with tear gas after clashes that left 44 demonstrators and 13 police injured, and in which one man stabbed another to death with a knife. Police arrested about 300 people and reported 99 acts of looting and 13 cars overturned in the capital. Russian speakers make up about 300,000 of Estonia's 1.3 million inhabitants. The Moscow daily "Kommersant" noted on April 27 that "the majority of the Russian-speaking citizens of Estonia supports the Centrist Party of current Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar," not nationalist parties. The monument is regarded as a part of their heritage by many Russian speakers but as a symbol of Soviet occupation by most ethnic Estonians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 5, and 26, 2007). PM

On April 27, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin condemned "the actions of official Tallinn [in removing the monument] as sacrilegious and inhuman," Interfax and reported. Foreign Minister Lavrov promised unspecified "serious steps." The State Duma called on the government to downgrade political and economic ties with Estonia. The Federation Council appealed to President Putin to sever diplomatic relations with that country. Speaker Mironov accused the Estonian authorities of "mocking the dead and scoffing at the results of World War II." But Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia cautioned Russians about being too critical of the Estonians, the daily "Kommersant" reported on April 27. Zhirinovsky said that they "have the right to take [the statue] down. It is a foreign country. It wouldn't be a bad thing to take a look at events in Russia first. We ourselves are taking such monuments down." He was apparently referring to the recent removal of the monument to World War II pilots from a street in suburban Moscow, the daily added. On April 26, Estonian Ambassador to Russia Marina Kaljurand suggested that Russia send its own observers to participate in the excavations at the site of the monument. In Tallinn, however, Russian Ambassador to Estonia Nikolai Uspensky personally went to the Foreign Ministry to reject the offer. PM

The daily "Kommersant" on April 27 quoted Estonian Foreign Ministry State Secretary Matti Maasikas as describing the behavior of some Russian diplomats in Tallinn as "not in accordance with generally accepted diplomatic norms, and regrettable." The paper said he was referring to Russian Embassy First Secretary Vadim Vasilyev and embassy advisor Sergei Overchenko, whom the Estonian press recently described as having met "repeatedly" with Andrei Zarenkov and Dmitry Linter. They are, respectively, leaders of the Russian nationalist Constitutional Party and the Night Watch movement. Night Watch organized the protests at the monument and is linked to the Constitutional Party, which received 1 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections, the daily noted. Estonian Police and Security Commissioner Martin Arpo said that such "meetings [with diplomats] testify that Russia considers Zarenkov and Linter cannon fodder in Estonia. By using local radicals, Russia is attempting to influence the domestic political situation in Estonia and to destabilize it, as well as to strengthen the role of a small group of local radicals to show that they supposedly reflect the majority opinion in Estonian society." On April 26, Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said that relations between the two countries are bad and could get worse. He stressed, however, that the question of the monument is a purely internal affair. PM

A spokeswoman for Mstislav Rostropovich, a renowned cellist, conductor, and composer, announced in Moscow on April 27 that he died in a hospital there, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2007). He was hospitalized in February for an undisclosed illness. President Putin congratulated him on his 80th birthday in March, but Soviet authorities once forced him into exile and stripped him of his citizenship because of his support of democracy. PM

The U.S. State Department amended for the second time on April 25 the wording of a controversial paragraph of its annual report on human rights in Armenia, restoring the initial wording that caused consternation and protest in Yerevan and among Armenian organizations in the United States. That wording, affirming that "Armenia continues to occupy the Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories," was changed in the wake of Armenian protests to read "Armenian forces have occupied large sections of Azerbaijani territory adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian officials claim they have not 'occupied' Nagorno-Karabakh proper" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). Angered by that change, Baku cancelled the planned visit to Washington of a high-level delegation that was to have held bilateral talks on security issues on April 23-24, whereupon U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza telephoned Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov in an attempt to reassure him that the new wording did not imply a retreat from Washington's policy of respect for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Karapetian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on April 26 that "we thought the mistake was corrected and are bewildered by such an unserious approach." Mammadyarov for his part was quoted by on April 26 as saying the reversion to the original wording of the report is "very important news." LF

In an oral report on developments in 2006 to the Georgian parliament's Committee for Human Rights and Civil Integration, human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari on April 26 criticized the weakness of the judiciary; human rights violations committed by government agencies; the recourse by police to violence; overcrowding in Georgian prisons; and violations of the right to own private property, Caucasus Press reported. Specifically, Subari said the judge who presided over the trial of Interior Ministry officials convicted of the January 2006 murder of Tbilisi banker Sandro Girgvliani "compromised the independence and impartiality of the court" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7 and 14, July 7, and December 12, 2006). Subari also noted that 26 participants in various political protests were arrested and brought to trial in 2006, and he argued that he or a representative of his office should participate in ongoing negotiations aimed at resolving the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, given that "human rights are violated most frequently in conflict zones, including in those districts where peacekeeping forces are deployed," Caucasus Press reported. LF

When former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili resigned in mid-November 2006, less than a week after being named minister of economic development, he announced that he planned to travel abroad to study. But he vowed at the same time that "I will soon be back" (see "Georgia: What Led To Defense Minister's Demotion?", November 14, 2006). In recent days, several Georgian dailies have reported that a return by Okruashvili to Georgian political life is indeed on the cards. But there is no consensus as to whether he plans to launch a new opposition party, capitalizing on his popularity with the Georgian population (in December 2006 he ranked in second place, after Saakashvili, in a poll to identify the "man of the year"), or whether President Mikheil Saakashvili has lured him back to Tbilisi to undertake some clandestine assignment. The Georgian dailies "Rezonansi" and "Alia" reported on April 24 and 26, respectively, that Okruashvili plans to launch in September or October his own opposition party, to which up to eight parliament deputies from the ruling National Movement-Democrats faction may defect. But other commentators have played up reports published in "Alia" and "Rezonansi" on March 13 and 14, respectively, that Okruashvili's successor as defense minister, Davit Kezerashvili, instigated an audit of ministry spending under Okruashvili that found millions of laris were unaccounted for. Okruashvili's detractors have claimed that as defense minister he received carte blanche from Saakashvili to purchase whatever armaments he considered appropriate (see "Georgia: Is Tbilisi Moving Toward NATO Membership?", June 2, 2006). LF

Nursultan Nazarbaev met with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev in Bishkek on April 26 to discuss bilateral relations, reported. The two agreed to form a council to deepen cooperation between the two countries. Nazarbaev told a press conference that Kazakhstan is "ready to inject $100 million in economic aid into the Kyrgyz economy," Interfax reported. Nazarbaev said that Kazakhstan has already invested $300 million in Kyrgyzstan, including $100 million in 2006, the news agency reported. Kazakhstan will also provide humanitarian aid, including 1,500 tons of grain, reported. In connection with recent political demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007), Nazarbaev said, "those are your internal affairs. We support any decision, but we are sincerely concerned for Kyrgzystan." DK

Kyrgyz prosecutors have charged opposition leaders Omurbek Suvanaliev and Omurbek Abdrakhmanov with "organizing mass unrest," reported. The two were detained on April 23 in the course of questioning by the National Security Committee (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). Both are leaders in the opposition United Front For A Worthy Future For Kyrgyzstan, which recently held protests in Bishkek that ended in clashes with police on April 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). Tursun Akun, head of the presidential human rights commission, told journalists on April 26 that the two have been remanded in detention for a period of two months, Interfax reported. Akun criticized the authorities' actions on April 19, saying, "The dispersal of the April 19 opposition rally in Bishkek marked a departure from democracy and human rights." DK

Prosecutors in Chuy province have opened a criminal case in connection with a demonstration in support of Bermet Akaeva in Kemin district on April 23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007), "Vzglyad" reported on April 26. District prosecutor Jyldyz Ismailov said that investigators are currently "interrogating participants in the unrest and determining the total damage inflicted." Meanwhile, Galina Skripkina, a lawyer representing Akaeva, told Interfax on April 26 that on April 27 the Supreme Court will review Akaeva's appeal of a court ruling barring her from participation in an April 29 parliamentary by-election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, 2007). DK

Sharifkhon Samiev, the head of Tajikistan's national electrical power company, told AP on April 26 that Tajikistan plans to create an international consortium to complete the construction of the Roghun hydroelectric power station (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). Tajikistan originally signed an agreement with Russian Aluminum to finish the project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2004), but relations between the two partners have soured. Samiev said, "There is a [government] decision to bar Rusal from working in the country." Samiev noted, however, that other Russian companies could submit bids to join the planned consortium. DK

Viktor Yanukovych met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev in Tashkent on April 26 to discuss the development of bilateral relations, the state news agency UzA reported. Yanukovych cut short his visit, however, in reaction to a decree by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to dissolve parliament and set new elections for June 24, Interfax reported. In their talks in Tashkent, Yanukovych and Mirziyoev voiced hopes that their countries could increase bilateral trade to $1 billion in 2007, reported. According to the news agency, bilateral trade volume was $280.4 million in 2004, $330.8 million in 2005, and $615.3 million in 2006. DK

Several thousand people took part in the Chornobyl Way march organized by the opposition in Minsk on April 26 to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Participants included opposition leaders Vintsuk Vyachorka, Anatol Lyabedzka, and Syarhey Kalyakin. Former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich did not join the march, reportedly objecting to the fact that demonstrators marched along the route imposed by the city administration and not along the one they originally planned. Some 20 young people were reportedly beaten and detained by riot police after the march ended. They were subsequently released after being fingerprinted. Meanwhile, President Alyaksandr Lukashanka, who on April 26 was touring Chornobyl-affected regions in eastern Belarus, said the government will spend $1.5 billion on its Chornobyl relief programs from 2007-10. JM

TV Belarus, a channel funded by the Polish government, will start its broadcasts to Belarus on October 15, Belapan reported on April 26, quoting Polish Television journalist Agnieszka Romaszewska, who is coordinating the project. A relevant agreement to this effect was signed by Polish Television and the government earlier this week. TV Belarus is expected to broadcast into Belarus via satellite, providing coverage of major events in the country. The Polish government will offer 16 million zlotys ($5.7 million) for the project this year. Apart from Polish reporters, the project will involve some 20 Belarusian journalists. The channel is expected to broadcast 15 hours per day. JM

A total of 160 deputies from the parliamentary coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party have asked the Constitutional Court to rule if President Viktor Yushchenko's decree of April 26 on rescheduling early elections until June 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, 2007) is constitutional, Interfax-Ukraine reported on April 27, quoting Constitutional Court spokesman Ivan Abramov. Abramov added that on April 27 the court will continue to examine the constitutionality of Yushchenko's decree of April 2, whereby he dissolved the Verkhovna Rada and scheduled early elections for May 27. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who cut short his trip to Central Asia and returned to Kyiv on April 26, said on April 27 during a meeting with Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis that Yushchenko signed his new decree on early elections out of fear that the Constitutional Court's ruling on his April 2 decree would not be in his favor. "We must acknowledge that the situation is sharply worsening, and we will apparently witness new waves of organized civil protests both against parliament and the president. The signs are that the crisis will drag out," Ukrainian political analyst Andriy Yermolayev commented to Interfax on Yushchenko's new decree. JM

Serbia's leaders on April 26 presented their case for Kosova to remain part of Serbia to a UN Security Council fact-finding mission, apparently focusing on the failure of Kosova's authorities to protect and integrate the region's ethnic Serbs. According to the Balkan news website, Slobodan Samardzic, an adviser to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, said Kostunica "handed over a number of documents describing the problems facing Serbian returnees to the province, including numerous abductions, killings, limited freedom of movement, [and the] destruction of housing and religious sites," and outlined ways in which the authorities in Kosova have failed to meet the stipulations of UN Resolution 1244, which was passed in the wake of the 1998-99 war and set out the mandate for UN and NATO missions in the region. The news agency FoNet added that Kostunica stressed the isolation of the Kosovar Serbs' enclaves, argued that the rule of law is not being extended to Serbs adequately, and sought to dispel the idea that a multiethnic state is being built. President Boris Tadic presented a similar case, but, according to FoNet, also argued that Serbia is now a democratic and peaceful state in which Kosova's Albanians could enjoy full rights if the region were reincorporated into Serbia. Kostunica has previously described the visit as opening up a "completely new phase" that will lead to new talks on the future of Kosova, and the abandonment of the blueprint for Kosova drawn up by the UN's special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, March 8, and April 25, 2007). Serbia's position in any new talks was hinted at by Samardzic, who said that "Serbia offered something that was not even considered seriously [by Ahtisaari], substantial autonomy with international guarantors." He did not name the potential guarantors. Kostunica's description of the mission's purpose has been rejected by Western officials, and that line was underscored on April 26 by the U.S. ambassador to Belgrade, Michael Polt, who told B92 radio that the mission does not presage more talks, but is intended to help determine the wording of a UN resolution on Kosova. U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns last week said a UN resolution would not grant independence to Kosova, but would remove "political and legal impediments to independence." AG

Thousands of Serbian refugees headed for Kosova on April 26, camping on the border in a mass gathering intended to draw the attention of the UN Security Council mission to their desire to return to the contested Serbian province, local and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2007). Goran Savovic, the deputy head of the Association of Exiled and Displaced Serbs, said on April 26 that he expected 12,000 to gather, Reuters and the Serbian broadcaster B92 reported, but the latest figures reported by Radio-Television Serbia put the number of participants at the site -- in Rudnica, near the Jerinje border crossing -- at 8,000. In Belgrade, a protest outside the seat of government attracted about 100 Kosovar Serb refugees. Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica on April 26 again estimated the refugee population at 200,000. AG

A member of Serbia's negotiating team at talks on the future of Kosova, Marko Jaksic, predicts some Kosovar Serbs "loyal" to the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) will paint a rosy picture of life in Kosova for the Security Council delegation, the Serbian daily "Glas javnosti" reported on April 24. Jaksic, who also heads the Association of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo and Metohija, as Serbs refer to the province, said the UN ambassadors "will meet with Serbs loyal to UNMIK and hear fabricated reports on the good life of Serbs" in Kosova. Jaksic named several communities where "Serbs will laud UNMIK's performance," saying that the mayor of one community "will praise the place as a land of milk and honey. They will embellish reality in Kosovo at the direction of [UNMIK head Joachim] Ruecker and his deputy." Jasic also named a number of sites not currently on the delegation's agenda that he hopes the ambassadors will visit. "Either way, we will try to forestall the fabrication of reality by these 'private Serbs,'" he said. Reuters quoted another Kosovar Serb leader, Nebojsa Jovic, as saying this week that the tour will "familiarize the Security Council mission with all the crimes committed against Serbs and the concentration-camp conditions in which they live." AG

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on April 25 underlined that Washington disagrees with the argument, frequently presented by Serbia and Russia, that independence for Kosova could serve as a dangerous precedent for the region. According to a transcript of a briefing with journalists on April 25, Rice said that the United States wants "to work with Russia and, indeed, with the Serbs to make certain...that everybody understands that Kosovo is sui generis, that this is not a precedent for any other circumstances in which there might be a claim of independence," but instead arises from "a very particular set of conditions" created by the Balkan war. Russia has not referred to Kosova as a precedent for some weeks, but has instead focused its objections on the need for Serbian assent, the inviolability of Serbia's borders, the situation of Serbs in Kosova, and the potential for instability in the Balkans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). The demand for Serbia's agreement effectively creates a double veto on a solution, since Russia -- as a permanent member of the UN Security Council -- can scotch any resolution, a possibility that on April 24 it threatened to use (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). After an April 26 meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Oslo, Rice stressed that Washington is holding talks to assure Belgrade that it "has nothing to fear from the international community" and "has everything to gain by closer association with Europe and with European institutions." She reiterated Washington's view that a decision on the future of Kosova, which has been under UN administration since 1999, needs to be made soon, telling journalists that "we aren't going to improve the possibilities for a stable situation in the Balkans by delay. We are going to have to act" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2007). AG

The Serbian Radical Party (SRS) on April 25 denied claims that it is set to back the formation of a minority government, local media reported on April 25 and 26. The SRS emerged as the strongest party in parliament after elections on January 21, but it has so far been shut out of coalition talks. The SRS is a radically nationalist party, and its leader, Vojislav Seselj, is currently facing trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for war crimes. The SRS's denial was a response to a statement by the leader of New Serbia, Velimir Ilic, in the April 25 edition of "Vecernje novosti" that New Serbia and its coalition partner, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), expect "to reach a deal with the SRS soon to form a minority government. This government would be supported by the SRS in the assembly." Together, the DSS-NS coalition (47 seats) and the SRS (81) would hold a three-vote majority in the 250-member parliament. Ilic's statement matched a prediction by Dragoljub Micunovic, a leading member of the Democratic Party (DS), the country's second-largest party and the one previously expected to lead a government. Speaking to "Vecernje novosti" on April 25, Micunovic said that "when I look back, there were hardly any negotiations at all" between the three parties initially expected to form a government, the DS, the DSS, and G17 Plus. " There were only several formal talks where we seemingly agreed about the basic principles of the new government's work, and then came the question of who would be prime minister," at which point talks floundered. Micunovic said the DSS is "probably" prepared to ditch talks and align with the SRS instead, likening the scenario to a wedding at which "everything is ready but there is a stand-in bride just in case." The delay in forming a government has been attributed in part to ongoing talks about Kosova, though some leading political figures and commentators have said the failure to form a government is in fact undermining Serbia's position at a critical time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2007). According to the news agency Beta, the SRS expressed a similar view on April 25, citing the question of Kosova as one reason why agreement on a new government is "of priority importance." In recent days, leading figures have voiced mounting skepticism that a government will be formed by May 14, a deadline set down by the constitution. That raises the prospect of early elections, though opinion polls have indicated ordinary Serbs would prefer to have a government immediately rather than to have a chance to reconsider their preferences (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2007). Micunovic said no "reasonable solution" could be expected after May 1. AG

Sweden has rejected a request for an early release lodged by a former president of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Republika Srpska, Biljana Plavsic, UPI reported on April 26. Plavsic, who is 76, cited poor health as the grounds for her request for an amnesty on her 11-year sentence, which began in 2003. The Swedish authorities did not elaborate on their reasons for rejecting her request, which was submitted last year. Plavsic gave herself up to the ICTY in January 2001 after being indicted on eight counts: two for genocide, five for crimes against humanity, and one for war crimes. A plea bargain and an expression of "full remorse" resulted in seven charges being dropped and in a lower sentence. Sentenced in The Hague, she was moved to Sweden in June 2003 to serve out the remainder of her sentence. During Bosnia's 1992-95 war, she was a vice president of the Republika Srpska and a member of its supreme military command. After the war, she served as president of the Bosnian Serbs' autonomous region between 1996 and 1998. AG

Albanian politicians and commentators appear united in their praise for a plan by U.S. President George W. Bush to visit Albania, the first-ever stopover by a U.S. president. Bush will visit Albania during the Balkan leg of a European trip that will also take him to the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Italy, and finally Bulgaria. Washington and Tirana have given no specific reason for the one-day visit, which is scheduled for June 10. Prime Minister Sali Berisha said the visit is an acknowledgment of the comprehensive nature of reforms undertaken by the government to consolidate the rule of law, while Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu called the visit "one of the greatest events in history for Albania and Albanians," local media reported on April 25. Commentators struck a similarly euphoric tone. One commentary, in the April 25 edition of the daily "Koha jone," saw Bush's arrival as a "courtesy visit" to a country ranked as the most pro-American country in Europe, an "expression of gratitude" for contributing troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and "a visit by the leader of a nation that has played a role of vital importance throughout our often tragic history, ranging from U.S. President [Woodrow] Wilson's stand at the Paris Peace Conference [in 1919], where he opposed Albania's dismemberment and its deletion from the map of the Balkans, to President [George H.W.] Bush, who set the red line on Kosova during the Christmas of 1992, down to the help provided by the United States, at the head of a global coalition, to prevent a tragedy in Kosova." Bush will arrive in Tirana two days after a meeting of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrial states that seems increasingly likely to highlight differences between the West and Russia over the future of the contested region of Kosova, Albania's neighbor. Albania has contributed troops to U.S.-led military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as to the EU force in Bosnia. AG

The United States on April 26 called for the resumption of five-party talks on the future of Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester, Moldovan media reported the same day. David Kramer, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told journalists in Chisinau that talks should immediately resume in the old 5+2 format, which brings together Moldova, Transdniester, and mediators from Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with the EU and the United States allowed to observe. Multilateral talks were suspended in February when Transdniestrian representatives refused to return to the negotiating table. That breakdown in multilateral dialogue followed a year after the last 5+2 meeting. However, an April 13 report by the Jamestown Foundation suggested Moldova and Russia were nearing a bilateral deal containing substantial concessions to Moscow and Tiraspol (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). It is not clear whether the visit by Kramer was prompted by the report, but the statement by Kramer, who acted as Washington's observer in earlier 5+2 meetings, is only the latest indication of heightened Western activity since the article. The EU's special representative to Moldova, Kalman Mizsei, on April 21 flew to Moscow for talks on Transdniester at which, according to on April 23, U.S. diplomats were present, while, according to a report by the Basa news agency, Romania called on April 26 for a return to the old format. Romania is not a party to the talks, but, as a neighbor of Moldova with a shared history, it has a particularly significant stake in developments in the region. Moldova itself discussed the issue of multilateral talks with Russia on April 24, local media reported the same day. The possibility of a deal between Moscow and Chisinau has raised questions about whether the EU's reluctance to embrace Moldova has encouraged a drift back toward Russia. Moldova's relationship with the EU has featured prominently in recent days, with French and Austrian officials backing Moldova's aspirations to join the EU during prearranged visits on April 25 and 26, and with the opening on April 25 of a European Commission-backed center in Chisinau that will process visa applications for four members of the EU. AG

At one level, President Vladimir Putin's announcement in his annual address to the nation on April 26 that Russia is suspending its compliance with the amended 1999 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) is nothing new, given that for the past two years, senior Russian diplomats have repeatedly threatened to withdraw from that treaty completely.

The 1999 revised version of the treaty imposes strict limitations on the quantities of combat helicopters, tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery that signatories may deploy on their territory, and specifically in the sensitive so-called "flank" zones, which in the case of Russia are the North Caucasus and Pskov and Kaliningrad oblasts.

A buildup of tanks and artillery in the North Caucasus (where Russia is already suspected of having exceeded its allowed CFE limits by virtue of the deployment of armor and artillery in Chechnya and neighboring republics since 1999) could, however, pose a threat to Georgia.

It may be significant that Putin's announcement was made at a time when both Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli are abroad, and shortly after Saakashvili unveiled plans for "resolving" the conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia by offering terms that both sides are almost certain to reject. Such a rejection could in turn be adduced as fuelling the Georgian argument that as diplomatic means have failed, the only way to bring those regions back under the control of the central Georgian government is by force. Putin's April 26 statement could herald a Russian military buildup in the North Caucasus intended to deter Tbilisi from any such military incursion.

The United States and other NATO members have declined to ratify the amended CFE Treaty until Russia complies, first, with its commitments (as set out in Paragraph 19 of the Istanbul Summit Declaration adopted at the OSCE summit in November 1999) to "complete withdrawal of Russian forces from the territory of Moldova by the end of 2002," and second, with the bilateral agreement appended as an annex to the Final Act of the November Istanbul Conference, and which sets a timetable for the closure (now close to completion) of the four Russian military bases in Georgia.

The signatories to the Final Act pledge to "move forward expeditiously to facilitate completion of national ratification procedures, so that the Agreement on Adaptation can enter into force as soon as possible," but they do not explicitly peg ratification to Russian compliance with its commitments to either Georgia or Moldova.

New NATO members that were not signatories to the original 1990 CFE Treaty (the Baltic states and Slovenia) will eventually be required to accede to the revised treaty, but only after all 30 original signatories have ratified it. To date only four of those 30, including the Russian Federation, Belarus and Kazakhstan, have done so.

No other signatories have yet hinted that they might follow Russia's example and impose a "moratorium" on their compliance with their respective CFE commitments. But Armenia and Azerbaijan have engaged in mutual accusations that the other has violated the "ceiling" on certain categories of weaponry imposed under the 1999 amendments, and might for that reason welcome the precedent Putin has set, even if they do not immediately follow suit.

Religious scholars (ulama) in the southern Helmand Province have condemned suicide attacks and beheadings carried out by the Taliban, the Pajhwak Afghan News reported on April 26. Helmand Ulama Council chief Hajji Mawlawi Ahmad asked a gathering of scholars on April 26: "[which] face of Islam are the Taliban projecting to the world by killing innocent civilians in the name of jihad?" Mawlawi Mohammad Rasul, a scholar from Nad Ali district, claimed that suicide attacks have no "room" in Islam. Mohammad Rasul argued against the beheadings. Scholar Mohammad Nabi blamed Pakistan for "training suicide attackers." Helmand Governor Asadullah Wafa, supporting the opinions of the ulama, told the news agency that the "Taliban have given Islam a bad name by beheading people and carrying out suicide blasts." Wafa urged the militants to join the reconciliation program offered by the Afghan government to its opponents. AT

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam defended her country's decision to partially fence its border with Afghanistan in order to stop illegal cross-border activity by militants, the Karachi daily "Dawn" reported on April 26. "We are only trying to plug the gaps on the border from where terrorists, criminals, smugglers, and drug traffickers cross," Aslam said. Pointing to Afghanistan's rejection of the fencing plan, Aslam said that cross-border movement "has been a source of vociferous complaints, especially by Kabul," adding that Afghanistan "should welcome any" steps taken by Pakistan to curtail such movements. Responding to Kabul's contention that erecting a fence will divide families living on either side of the border, Aslam said that Islamabad is "equally sensitive to the movement of tribal people," adding that for that reason her country is proposing establishing "designated crossing points and checkpoints." The crux of Kabul's rejection of fences or other barriers is that such measures would presumably lend legitimacy to a boundary that Afghanistan does not officially recognize (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," January 15, 2007). AT

Two French hostages held by the Taliban are alive and in good health, AFP reported on April 26. Yusof Ahmadi, speaking for the Taliban, told the news agency that the two are "eating well," adding that they are "guests" of the Taliban. "There has been no particular development of the case," Ahmadi said, adding that there are no direct or indirect negotiations. Two French employees of the nongovernmental group Terre d'Enfance and three Afghan colleagues were kidnapped by the Taliban on April 4 in the southwestern Nimroz Province; unconfirmed reports indicated that one Afghan hostage was later killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5 and 25, 2007). The Taliban have since demanded that France withdraw its roughly 1,000 troops from Afghanistan. Additionally, the Taliban have demanded that the Afghan government comply with their demand for a prisoner exchange. Kabul has vowed that no deals will be made with hostage takers following fallout from March, when the Karzai administration caved in to Italian pressure and released five Taliban prisoners in exchange for an Italian journalist, but failed to win the release of two Afghan hostages abducted along with the Italian. The Taliban beheaded one of the Afghan hostages before the Italian's release and later killed the second man as well (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2007). AT

In an editorial on April 25, the state-run "Anis" lamented the fact that despite promises by the Afghan Interior Ministry to disarm private security guards who are operating in Afghanistan, no "practical steps have so far" been taken to reduce their numbers. "Something which is even more cause for concern is the fact that the majority of the guards in [the service] of international firms belong to groups led by former warlords and their commanders," the editorial added. According to "Anis," many "unpleasant" incidents in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan have been linked to the private security guards. "We have well-equipped police and a strong army to defend Kabul," the editorial notes, thus private security guards should be disarmed and only allowed to carry nightsticks. Many foreign and local firms and individuals in Afghanistan hire armed guards for protection. AT

Iranian Deputy Interior Minister for Security and Police Affairs Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr said in the western city of Sanandaj on April 25 that Iran could fire "tens of thousands of missiles" onto U.S. targets every day if the United States were to attack Iran, Radio Farda reported, citing IRNA. The United States has stated it has not ruled out military strikes if Iran presses ahead with its controversial nuclear program. Zolqadr said some analysts believe the United States is "very much inclined" toward a "military initiative" against Iran, but is presently too weak to do so. For that reason, Zolqadr said, the United States has resorted to "soft" acts of hostility, including sanctions and subversion. Zolqadr accused the United States of fomenting ethnic and religious discord in Iran and backing some nongovernmental organizations and newspapers. He said some newspapers in Iran are doing their duties "well" in line with the "enemies' goals." He threatened a sharp response to any strikes: "With long-range missiles, nowhere will be safe for America, and Iran can fire tens of thousands of missiles on American targets. It can threaten Israel...with long-range missiles," Radio Farda reported. VS

General Pervez Musharraf told the daily "El Pais" in Madrid on April 24 that he could not exclude the possibility of U.S. military strikes against Iran "if the confrontation continues," reported on April 26. "That would affect all of us. It would affect Pakistan," he said, adding that U.S. strikes against "Iranian Shi'ism" would not only fuel discord between Shi'a and Sunnis in Pakistan, but also exacerbate anti-American sentiments among the Pakistani populace, reported. Separately, Bahraini Defense Minister Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa told Bahraini television in Manama on April 25 that the kingdom is ready for any conflict between Iran and the United States, but hopes this can be avoided, AFP reported. Bahrain provides a base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Al-Khalifa said a national committee established in May 2006 is preparing for "any catastrophes." AFP reported on April 25 that Kuwait also announced last week its contingency plans for a possible Iran-U.S. conflict. VS

A Tehran court has reportedly blocked the prosecution of state agents charged in relation to the death in prison of Akbar Mohammadi, a former student activist who died -- apparently after a hunger strike -- in late July 2006 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," August 10, 2006), ISNA reported on April 25, citing Khalil Bahramian, a lawyer representing Mohammadi's family. The relatives had brought charges against an unspecified several state agents and/or prison officials, presumably for negligence or alleged involvement in Mohammadi's death. A Tehran Criminal Court department quashed the charges, Bahramian said, without explaining why. "State agents should be prosecuted for what they do as far as possible within the bounds of the law. I shall pursue this matter," he said. Separately, a Tehran court has fined former legislator Fatemeh Haqiqatju after convicting her on various calumny and false-allegation charges, ILNA reported on April 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2007). Haqiqatju, a member of the last parliament, was absent and represented by a lawyer at the court session. The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps had brought charges against her, ILNA reported, without stating how much she was fined. VS

Several Iranian legislators have resigned in recent days in response to administrative changes in their constituencies, though their resignations must be accepted by parliament, Iranian dailies reported. All legislators from the southern coastal province of Hormozegan offered their resignations on April 24, in protest at the appointment of a new provincial governor without prior consultation with local legislators, ILNA reported on April 25, without saying precisely how many legislators have resigned. One resigning legislator, Ali Moallemipur, representing Minab, said on April 25 that the government rejected a governor who was proposed by the province's lawmakers, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on April 26. "All the representatives...insist on their resignations," he said. Separately, Ahmad Nikfar, representing the Eqlid constituency in the southern Fars Province, announced his resignation in parliament on April 25 due to a government decision to transfer the village of Khosro va Shirin from the Eqlid district to the Abadeh district, "Etemad-i Melli" and "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 26. The transfer provoked three days of protests in Eqlid, which Nikfar said were suppressed with the imposition of "martial law." Changes in provincial delineations in Iran have in the past provoked violent protests. The reduction in size of districts presumably leads to reduced state budget allocations. VS

The foreign ministers of Iran and Iraq, Manuchehr Mottaki and Hoshyar Zebari, met in Tehran on April 25, ISNA reported. Mottaki said afterward that Iran will consider taking part in an Iraq-related summit at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, scheduled for May 3-4, ISNA reported. The conference is to be attended by Iraq's neighbors and Egypt, Bahrain, and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Mottaki said Iran's presence would show its "serious resolve" to help bring "stability and security" to Iraq. He said Zebari gave him explanations about certain "decisions" that had provoked "doubts" on earlier agreements between Iran and Iraq over an unspecified "course of affairs." He did not elaborate. Iran, he added, will announce its decision in light of Zebari's explanations, ISNA reported. Zebari said he brought Iran a "message" and that Iraq understands Iran's position on the conference. He stressed that "Iraq needs the participation of all neighboring states, especially Iran, in this conference." He said "we are optimistic" that five Iranians arrested in Irbil last January by U.S. forces will be released "soon." VS

Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari on April 26 criticized legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives calling for a U.S. troop withdrawal to begin by October 1, the BBC reported. He described the legislation as "politicking" that would damage "the security, political development, not only in Iraq, but in the entire region." Zebari insisted that any withdrawal should be based "on conditions on the ground." "The moment that Iraqi forces, security, military, are self-reliant, capable of standing on their own, defending their own country, providing security, then definitely there would be a way for the troops to leave," he said. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh warned that the legislation sends the wrong message to Iraqis, particularly those who were contemplating joining the political process, AP reported on April 26. "We see some negative signs in the decision because it sends wrong signals to some sides that might think of alternatives to the political process," al-Dabbagh said. He argued that the legislation essentially constitutes a loss of the four years of sacrifice that U.S.-led coalition forces have made in Iraq. SS

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki held talks with Omani leader Sultan Qabus in Muscat on April 26, international media reported the same day. Iraqi government spokesman al-Dabbagh told reporters that the two discussed "the political and security situation in Iraq, as well as national-reconciliation" efforts. Oman was the final leg of al-Maliki's regional Arab tour in preparation for an international conference on Iraq to be held at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on May 3-4. On April 25, al-Maliki held talks with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabar al-Sabah and Prime Minister Sheikh Nasir al-Muhammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah concerning Iraq's $15 billion debt to Kuwait (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, 2007). Aides to al-Maliki indicated that Kuwait will not forgive Iraq's debt, because the Kuwaiti parliament would most probably not approve such a request. On April 22, al-Maliki held talks with the Egyptian leadership in Cairo (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). SS

"Al-Zaman" reported on April 26 that Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki was told repeatedly by Saudi authorities that he could not meet with Saudi King Abdallah Abd al-Aziz during his regional Arab tour because the monarch's schedule is too full. An unidentified Saudi diplomat told dpa that the real reason why al-Maliki was not able to meet the Saudi monarch is because of "his negative position toward some groups [in Iraq], his bias toward other groups, and his actions in allowing Iran to have a greater role in Iraq." When asked about the incident, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih tersely answered that the situation may have been due to a logistical problem, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on April 26. "Maybe some technical or logistic requirements did not allow the prime minister to pay a visit [to Saudi Arabia] during his Arab tour. However, there is nothing other than what I said," Salih said. SS

The U.S. military announced on April 26, that it has detained Lieutenant Colonel William Steele, the commander of Camp Cropper, on charges of "aiding the enemy," international media reported the same day. A U.S. military statement said that Steele aided the enemy by providing an unmonitored cellular phone to detainees between October 2005 and October 2006. He is also accused of having an improper relationship with a translator and with the daughter of a detainee, having unauthorized possession of classified information, and wrongfully and knowingly possessing pornographic videos. These offenses are believed to have occurred between October 2005 and February 2007. "He has been in detention in Kuwait since last month pending an Article 32 hearing, which is a preliminary hearing where evidence will be presented to determine whether this should go to court-martial," U.S. military spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Josslyn Aberle said. SS

The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, announced at a press briefing on April 26 that the security situation will get worse before it gets any better, international media reported the same day. "Because we are operating in new areas and challenging elements in those areas, this effort may get harder before it gets easier," he said. "I think there is the very real possibility that there's going to be more combat action and that, therefore, there could be more casualties." Petraeus made the statements after briefing members of the U.S. Congress during a closed-door session and as the U.S. Senate passed legislation calling for a U.S. troop withdrawal to begin by October 1. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar bill a day earlier. He warned that a withdrawal of U.S. forces before Iraq is fully stable could lead to increased violence. "My sense is that there would be an increase in sectarian violence, a resumption of sectarian violence, were the presence of our forces and Iraqi forces, at that time, to be reduced," Petraeus said. SS

Unknown gunmen killed two relatives of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Tikrit on April 26, KUNA reported the same day. Local police officials said gunmen stormed the house of Hussein's cousin, Hashim Hasan al-Majid, in the Al-Qadisiyah neighborhood of Tikrit, killing him, his wife, and daughter before fleeing. Al-Majid is the brother of Ali Hasan al-Majid, the former secretary-general of the northern bureau of Iraq's Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party, who was also known as "Chemical Ali" for his use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds during the 1987-88 Anfal campaign. SS