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Newsline - May 23, 2007

Russian businessman and former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi said in Moscow on May 22 that he is "not guilty" of the murder charges that the British authorities may bring against him for the 2006 poisoning death of Aleksandr Litvinenko, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). Lugovoi argued that he considers himself a victim in the case because he and his "family members were subjected to a radiation attack on British territory." He added that he does not "consider the accusations brought against me today adequate, and I don't even understand what kind of evidence they have or the motive why I supposedly did it and how I did it." Lugovoi stressed that the British prosecutors' statement in the case "causes nothing but sincere astonishment at the inadequacy of actions by representatives of British justice." He added: "We will probably express our position within a week. We will get prepared, invite journalists, possibly hold a news conference, and make statements about all those events that have taken place in recent years, in the past year, around Litvinenko and myself. And I think I can recall some facts that will cause a sensation for British public opinion." PM

A spokeswoman for the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office confirmed on May 22 earlier media reports that Russia has no intention of extraditing Lugovoi, news agencies reported. She said that "in accordance with Article 61 of the Russian Constitution, a citizen of the Russian Federation cannot be handed over to another state. A citizen who has committed a crime on the territory of a foreign country can be prosecuted on the basis of materials provided by that country, but only in Russia, if there is an analogous crime punishable under Russian legislation." Prominent Russian defense lawyer Genri Reznik noted, however, that he cannot recall such a case, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on May 23. Litvinenko's widow, Marina, said that the trial must take place "in London, in England" in order for justice to be done. British extradition lawyer Julian Knowles said that "there is no doubt that Russia is extremely irritated with Britain because of the failure of a number of Russian extradition requests to the United Kingdom," reported. He added that "Russia will take this opportunity to thumb its nose at the United Kingdom and probably not cooperate in the way that it should." PM

An unnamed spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on May 22 that the authorities will "not in any way shy away" from pursuing justice in the Litvinenko case, the "Financial Times" reported on May 23. The spokesman stressed that "murder is murder, [and] this is a very serious case." The daily noted that "relations between Britain and Russia hit a post-Cold War low...after Moscow said it [will] not extradite" Lugovoi. The paper added that "the prospect of an extended diplomatic and legal dispute with Moscow is likely to prove a test for Gordon Brown, the U.K.'s premier in waiting." The U.S.-based daily "The Wall Street Journal" wrote on May 23 that "the brazen murder of Litvinenko is a test of international society's willingness to defend its most fundamental principles." The paper argued that "the West now is obliged to contend with irrational Russian policies regarding to U.S. plans for a defensive antimissile system in Eastern Europe, as well as regarding Iran, North Korea, Georgia, Ukraine, and terrorist groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas. In every case, what is involved is not national interest but protecting the ruling Russian oligarchy's monopoly of money and power. Under these circumstances, the murder of...Litvinenko, a British subject killed on British soil, is most likely another instance of Russia's confidence that it can act with impunity." PM

State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov said on May 22 that the indictment of Lugovoi could lead to a worsening of Anglo-Russian relations, news agencies reported. He noted that "if we see that these are political and not legal conclusions...this will have the most negative impact on our relations." Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that it is now up to the British authorities to give their evidence against Lugovoi to their Russian counterparts. The Russian Foreign Ministry noted in a statement that "we have said, on numerous occasions, that we are interested in an objective and unbiased investigation of this case. As for an extradition, this would be a direct violation of the Russian Constitution." Communist legislator Viktor Ilyukhin, who is deputy chairman of the State Duma's Security Committee and a former prosecutor, said that the British prosecutor's statement is "all about politics. This is a public relations stunt aimed at blaming the Russian state for this murder." But First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Moscow on May 23 that he does not "see any major links between the case opened [in Britain] following Litvinenko's death and the development of Russian-U.K. relations in general," Interfax reported. PM

Self-exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky told the BBC in a telephone interview from Israel on May 23 that Litvinenko's killers could not have acquired the lethal polonium-210 isotope without state support. He stressed that the murder could "not have happened without his [President Vladimir Putin's] personal involvement, and that's exactly what [Litvinenko] told me in the hospital" just prior to his death. Berezovsky argued that "because of that, Lugovoi will never be extradited to London. On the other hand, I think Lugovoi's own life is in danger, because it is an absolutely typical KGB way to solve the problem, to kill the witness to the crime." noted on May 23 that "Russia and its security services are sufficiently chaotic and fractious for there to be many other possible masterminds and assorted motives. Unfortunately, even after the British prosecutors' announcements, finding the ultimate culprit still seems unlikely. It usually is when Russians die mysteriously." PM

Aleksandr Medvedev, Gazprom's deputy CEO in charge of exports, was quoted by Britain's "Financial Times" on May 23 as saying that his company will press ahead with plans to invest in the EU despite the poor relations between Brussels and Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21 and 22, 2007). He cautioned the EU against the "negative influence of [Poland and other] countries, which are not taking care of the problems of the whole of Europe but are pursuing their own egoistic and very strange directions." The paper also quoted Kremlin spokesman Peskov as noting on the eve of President Putin's visit to Austria that Moscow-Vienna relations are developing "very opposed to other countries of the EU, [because Austria] has respectful relations to Soviet soldiers buried there." This is an allusion to the current Russian campaign against Estonia, whose government recently moved a Soviet-era war memorial out of the center of Tallinn into a military cemetery. The Russian "RBK Daily" wrote on May 22 that Lithuania and Poland are seeking at Washington's behest to drive a wedge between Russia and Western Europe by promoting a new energy strategy aimed at reducing European dependence on Russia. The daily quoted German Russia expert Alexander Rahr as saying that "such plans aim to put an end to Germany's moderate policy. I fear that Brussels may succumb to the pressure applied by EU new members and revert to the policy of deterrence." But on May 23 quoted several European experts as saying that Russian heavy-handedness has served to promote cohesion among EU member states. PM

First Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov said in Moscow on May 23 that Russia has no intention of cooperating with the United States in its plans for a missile-defense shield in Europe, Interfax reported. Ivanov told reporters, "We are not going to cooperate against ourselves. We do not like the explanation" that Washington has provided regarding the system. He added that U.S. offers of cooperation are aimed only at soothing European opinion. He said that Russia does not need a missile-defense system of its own. Top U.S. officials have gone to great pains in recent months to convince Russian leaders that the proposed system is defensive and directed against possible threats from rogue states like Iran and North Korea, not against Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the Russian objections "laughable." Many commentators in NATO countries stress that Moscow's goal is justify its own military expansion and to undermine the Atlantic alliance by separating the United States and some of the newer member states on the one hand from some West European states on the other. The German Foreign Ministry and political establishment, for example, include many people who readily criticize Washington and the leaderships in Prague and Warsaw but seek close ties to Moscow. The Russian "RBK Daily" noted on May 22 that the United States will go ahead with missile defense regardless of what Russia says. The paper echoed some official Russian charges that the system probably will be expanded to become a global, offensive system, an accusation that Washington denies. PM

Communist regional legislator Roman Grebennikov won the May 20 mayoral election in Volgograd with 32.47 percent of the vote, Interfax reported, citing the city Election Commission's figures. The candidate of the pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party finished second, while the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia's candidate placed third. Nikolai Petrov, who is an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, was quoted by the "International Herald Tribune" on May 23 as saying that the Communist victory "shows that democracy can sometimes work in Russia." He added that the reasons for the upset are rooted in local rather than national conditions, however. This was one of the last ballots before the 2007 State Duma elections. PM

Unidentified masked men allegedly grabbed Akhmed Kartoyev on the street in Nazran on May 22, forced him into a car and drove away, the independent website reported. Kartoyev, who was born in 1977, is reportedly a devout Muslim and graduate of Cairo's Al-Azhar University. Between 150-200 Ingush, many of them practicing Muslims, have disappeared without trace after being similarly snatched by unknown abductors over the past two-three years. LF

In a televised address on May 22, Chechen Republic Mufti Sultan-hadji Mirzayev said that "in recent months" up to two dozen young men have left their homes to join the resistance, reported on May 23. He warned that anyone who takes up arms against the republic's leader "is not a Muslim," and that there will be no further amnesties for resistance fighters. LF

The Association of Chechen Community and Cultural Organizations that represent Chechens in other regions of the Russian Federation has written to President Putin asking him to put a stop to efforts to whip up "anti-Chechen hysteria" among the Russian population, according to "Novye izvestia" on May 22. The appeal enumerates reprisals against Chechens in recent months and notes that in the wake of one such clash, unsubstantiated rumors began circulating that a Chechen terrorist network is active in Moscow. Association head Mavlit Bazhayev, who is a member of the Public Chamber, told the newspaper that it will take between five and 10 years to counter the stereotype image of Chechens as having "problems with the law." LF

Serzh Sarkisian met in Yerevan on May 22 with Slovenian diplomat Boris Frlec, who headed the mission deployed by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to monitor the May 12 parliamentary election, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Sarkisian thanked the observer mission for what he termed its "impartial and objective" evaluation of the vote. He said the election set a new standard for next year's presidential ballot, but at the same time acknowledged that improvements are still needed to ensure that future elections comply completely with international standards. He pledged that all shortcomings listed in the ODIHR final assessment will be "thoroughly studied." Also on May 22, the Dashink (Alliance) party, which has one parliament mandate, issued a statement saying the election was not free and fair and that the international monitors turned a blind eye to procedural violations, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

Police on May 22 unveiled the findings of a preliminary enquiry into the death on May 12 of Levon Ghulian, a restaurant owner who police say fell to his death while under interrogation at police headquarters in Yerevan, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Ghulian's family claim his body bore injuries that could not have been sustained in such a fall, and have accused the police of torture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15 and 16, 2007). The preliminary enquiry did not substantiate those claims. Medical experts from Belgium and Germany examined Ghulian's body last week but have not made their findings public. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights appealed on May 17 to police service chief Lieutenant-General Hayk Harutiunian to launch a thorough and independent investigation into the circumstances of Ghulian's death, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on May 18. LF

National Security Ministry personnel searched the offices of the newspapers "Realny Azerbaijan" and "Gyundelik Azerbaijan" for five hours on May 22, confiscating files and equipment, reported. Police sealed the premises several days earlier after the Emergency Situations Ministry ordered the papers to vacate the building on safety grounds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). National Security Ministry personnel also searched the Baku apartment of Eynulla Fatullayev, a journalist for the twin publications who was sentenced last month to 2 1/2 years' imprisonment on charges of libel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007), and confiscated visiting cards, cassettes, and photographs. Fatullayev's lawyer Isakhan Ashurov, who was present during the apartment search, said the National Security Ministry has opened a criminal case against Fatullayev on charges of terrorism. LF

The Tbilisi City Court sentenced Irakli Batiashvili on May 23 to seven years' imprisonment on charges of providing "intellectual support" to renegade local official Emzar Kvitsiani, who in July 2006 called for the overthrow of the Georgian leadership, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 24, 2006). Those charges were based on a tape recording, which Batiashvili insists was cut and edited, of a telephone conversation between the two men. On May 22, Batiashvili, who served under former President Eduard Shevardnadze as intelligence service head, vowed to embark on an open-ended hunger strike if he were sentenced to prison. A former parliament deputy, Batiashvili founded the opposition party Forward, Georgia! two years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 30, 2004). LF

Dmitry Sanakoyev, whom Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili named earlier this month to head a provisional pro-Georgian administration in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, rejected on May 22 as untrue media reports that he met recently with former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, Caucasus Press reported. A member of Sanakoyev's press service admitted, however, that Sanakoyev's close friends include a Tbilisi-based businessman named Giorgi Okruashvili. Irakli Okruashvili, who was born in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, masterminded an abortive Georgian offensive in South Ossetia in 2004 and pledged in early 2006 to restore Georgian control over the region by the end of that year. Saakashvili dismissed him as defense minister in November 2006 and named him to another government post from which he resigned a week later. Unconfirmed media reports claim that he will soon announce the foundation of a new political party that he will head (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2007). LF

John Ordway, the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, told a briefing in Almaty on May 22 that Kazakhstan and the United States recently reached a mutually acceptable compromise on releasing $84 million frozen in a Swiss bank account (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Ordway said, "The Kazakh government's position is that the money was kept in the account of the Kazakh treasury and that is why it belongs to the Kazakh government. The position of the U.S. government is that the money was received as a result of officials' corrupt actions in the case instituted against [U.S.] citizen [James] Giffen." Giffen is currently awaiting trial in New York on corruption charges relating to his activities in Kazakhstan in the 1990s (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2003). He is alleged to have given more than $78 million in bribes to senior Kazakh officials. DK

The body of Peter Tabarini, a U.S. citizen who had been missing in Kazakhstan for nine days, has been found in a park in Atyrau, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry told Interfax on May 22. Tabarini was an employee of Tengizchevroil, a U.S.-Kazakh oil and gas joint venture. No details were available about the circumstances of Tabarini's death or how his body was discovered. DK

Prosecutors in Almaty have warned the commercial television company KTK and the "Karavan" and "Vremya" newspapers about covering the ongoing investigation of a scandal involving Nurbank, Interfax-Kazakhstan and "Kazakhstan Today" reported on May 22. A statement signed by Almaty Prosecutor Bagpana Taimbetova asked the media outlets to "refrain from publications or broadcasts on the course of the investigation into this criminal case without the permission of agencies involved in the preliminary investigation." The warning noted that violations could lead to the shutdown of the media outlets. Police are investigating the disappearance of Zholdas Timraliev, the deputy chairman of the board at Nurbank. The bank has been at the center of allegations of improper conduct by Rakhat Aliev, Kazakhstan's ambassador to Austria and the son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 12, and 20 and May 14, 2007). DK

Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev told journalists in Bishkek on May 22 that he was recently the victim of an attempted poisoning, news agency reported. Atambaev said he fell ill after drinking a glass of water in his office on May 11. He said, "It was clearly a poisoning attempt. For two weeks they detoxified my blood, and now I feel better." quoted parliamentary deputy Iskhak Masaliev as saying, "It's obvious that he has been sick. I asked Atambaev how he feels, and he said that they poisoned him. I don't know, he's the judge." Atambaev linked the incident to death threats he said he received in connection with the nationalization of the Kristall semiconductor plant, AP reported. Atambaev stressed to reporters that he intends to stay on as prime minister despite the alleged attempt on his life, reported. DK

Marie L. Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, told and state-run Kyrgyz television KTR in Bishkek on May 22 that the U.S. airbase in Kyrgyzstan cannot and will not be used for any possible military operations against Iran. "The agreement which was signed between the United States and Kyrgyzstan in 2001, and approved by the Kyrgyz parliament, defines the tasks of the base: it will be used only for an operation in Afghanistan, which is aimed at fighting terrorism," Yovanovitch said. She added, "It is absolutely out of the question that this airbase could be used for an operation in Iran." Murat Sultanov, the speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, recently warned that Kyrgyzstan will shut down the U.S. airbase if there are suspicions it might be used for a strike against Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). DK

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov dismissed Orazberdi Khudaiberdiev from his position as minister of railway transport at a cabinet meeting in Ashgabat on May 21, the website reported the next day. Deryaguly Muhammetguliev, the first deputy railway minister, was appointed to replace Khudaiberdiev. Berdymukhammedov also dismissed Ashgabat Mayor Orazmurat Esenov and replaced him with Deryageldi Orazov, who most recently served as chairman of the State Committee on Tourism and Sports. The report did not give a reason for the dismissals. DK

Belarusian courts on May 22 decided to release on parole opposition politician Mikalay Statkevich and opposition youth leader Pavel Sevyarynets, two and three months before their respective prison terms are due to end, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Statkevich and Sevyarynets in May 2005 were each sentenced to three years in prison for staging a series of unauthorized demonstrations in Minsk in the fall of 2004 against the official results of the 2004 parliamentary elections and referendum, which are widely believed to have been rigged. The sentences were subsequently reduced by one year under an amnesty law. Both Statkevich and Sevyarynets believe that the authorities decided to release them ahead of schedule in order to curry favor with the EU as it considers the trade benefits Belarus receives under the bloc's Generalized System of Preferences. the EU threatened last year to suspend Belarus's benefits this coming June if Minsk fails to observe trade union rights. The suspension might cost Belarus an estimated 400 million euros ($536 million) per year. "No matter how I tried to persuade the judge and the prosecutor [on May 22] that my trial was illegal, they did not pay any attention," Sevyarynets told RFE/RL. "I made the conclusion that they had simply been ordered to free me. I link this move to the voting on the suspension of [EU trade] preferences for Belarus that is to take place soon. So, my release was a political decision and has no relation whatsoever to either justice or a law-governed state." JM

Belarus's Supreme Court on May 22 rejected an appeal from former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, who was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison in 2006 on charges widely believed to be politically motivated, Reuters and Belapan reported. Kazulin, who was arrested during a post-election opposition protest in March 2006, was found guilty of hooliganism and organizing group activities disturbing the public peace. The appeal by Kazulin, the rector of Belarusian State University from 1996-2003, can only be further examined by the prosecutor general or the chairman of the Supreme Court. Kazulin's release is a key demand by Western groups pressing for reforms in Belarus. "Kazulin's release is now linked strictly to a change of political regime in the country. By using Kazulin as an example, the court has given a stiff rebuke to any optimists hoping for some sort of liberalization," Kazulin's lawyer, Ihar Rynkevich, told journalists. JM

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka told journalists at a joint news conference with his Iranian counterpart Mahmud Ahmadinejad on May 22 that Minsk has asked Tehran to help Belarus reduce its energy dependence on Russia, Belapan reported. "We talked about this honestly and have asked the Iranian side to help solve this problem," Lukashenka said at the news conference in Minsk. Lukashenka also said that Belarusian companies will receive "special treatment" in Iran in exchange for similar treatment of Iranian companies in Belarus. Ahmadinejad told journalists that the stances of the two countries on international and regional problems "coincide." "We've reached a perfect mutual understanding and will assist and support each other at the international and regional levels," he added. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko told a forum of foreign investors in Kyiv on May 23 that he will not take any decision to resolve the ongoing conflict between him and parliament by force, Ukrainian media reported. "The only way to overcome the parliamentary to hold pre-term elections. I want to say that every step I'm going to take in the future will be based only on law," Yushchenko said. The Ukrainian president also said the anticrisis group that he and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych set up earlier this month to deal with the crisis has "exhausted itself," and is now being used to "drag out the negotiation process." Yushchenko promised that lawmakers from the opposition Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine will take part in a session of the Verkhovna Rada next week, following the expected announcement later this week of a date for early parliamentary elections. The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine stopped attending parliamentary debates after Yushchenko issued a decree on April 2 dissolving the Verkhovna Rada and calling for snap elections. JM

Prime Minister Yanukovych said at a government meeting on May 23 that the Verkhovna Rada should urgently consider a number of bills on holding early elections, Ukrainian media reported. Yanukovych said he will meet with Yushchenko later on May 23 to press him to accept the adoption as soon as possible of a "small package of bills to ensure honest and transparent elections." Yanukovych reiterated his earlier stance that pre-term elections should be held in the fall. "[Setting] the date of early elections is now considered possible. If the elections take place, they will be held in late September or early October," Yanukovych noted. Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha told journalists on May 22 that the date set down in the president's second decree -- June 24 -- remains in force, but he added that Yushchenko is prepared to move back the date to enable the adoption of necessary legislative changes. JM

Reuters reported on May 22 that NATO member Turkey is blocking plans aimed at ensuring the smooth cooperation of NATO's mission in Kosova with the EU police force due to arrive in Kosova once the UN Security Council decides on Kosova's final status. Unnamed diplomatic sources quoted by Reuters say that Turkey wants more say over European security policy, and wants Brussels to persuade EU member Cyprus to agree to let Turkey, which began EU preaccession talks in October 2005, to become an associate member of the European Defense Agency. NATO officials reportedly confirmed the claims. NATO currently has around 16,000 troops in the region, and the EU expects to send 1,500 officers to Kosova as part of the transition arrangement. AG

Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, on May 22 gave his clearest public commitment yet to hand the war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Kostunica told Radio-Television Serbia that "it is necessary to determine where the rest of the suspects are, including Ratko Mladic," continuing, "That means they should be located, detained, and handed over to the Hague tribunal." The UN court views Mladic as one of the two key figures behind the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnia, and believes he is hiding in Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16 and 18, 2007). Long-standing differences between Kostunica and President Boris Tadic allegedly surfaced when talks about a new government broke down in early May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). When a cabinet was eventually formed, overall responsibility for Mladic's capture was effectively transferred to Tadic from ministries previously held by Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14 and 16, 2007). The EU's enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, on May 16 said the EU expects to resume preaccession talks with Serbia "very soon, when we see the program of the government is rigorously being implemented concerning cooperation with the ICTY" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2007). AG

Kosova's prime minister, Agim Ceku, has denied a report that he plans to set up a new party. The daily "Koha ditore" on May 22 quoted Ceku as saying "I only pay attention to the government's activities and not to party activities," while the May 22 edition of "Express" quoted Ceku as saying "I am committed only to the solution of final status and, as well as possible, the functioning of this government cabinet." "Zeri," which published the claim on May 21, said that a new party will probably be formed in late 2007, once Kosova has gained independence and ahead of local and parliamentary elections. Ceku was a compromise candidate for the ruling parties Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK) and the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK). In its article, "Zeri" quoted a range of AAK and LDK officials as saying Ceku has given no indication that he plans to form a new party. Prior to his elevation to the premiership in March 2006, Ceku was in charge of transforming the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), in which he was a commander, into an emergency response unit, the Kosovo Protection Corps. AG

Kosova's minister for public services, Melihate Termkolli, on May 21 said she is skeptical that Kosova will hold a census this autumn, the news service KosovaOnline reported the same day. Termkolli said technical preparations are well advanced, but that she foresees political obstacles. That report and others in the Kosovar media do not specify the potential political obstacles, but the census issue is tied to a UN decision on Kosova's status. The proposal drawn up for the future of Kosova by Martti Ahtisaari, the UN's special envoy to the region, envisages a census being held shortly after the UN Security Council rules on Kosova's status. The United States is promoting a swift resolution on Kosova's status, but those efforts are currently being opposed in the UN Security Council by Russia. Termkolli said a decision on the timing of the census lies with Kosova's parliament and the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). No census has been held in Kosova since 1991. AG

The international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina and a leading mufti have called for Bosnian Muslims to remain in Srebrenica. The Office of the High Representative (OHR) on May 20 urged Bosnian Muslims who left Srebrenica in April and set up a refugee camp in Sarajevo to return to the eastern Bosnian city. Concerns arose about worsening conditions and the health of the children in the camp after one child was hospitalized suffering from bronchitis and pneumonia. The mufti of Tuzla, Husein Kavazovic, said Muslims should remain in Srebrenica, and he called for extra security to be provided, the daily "Dnevni avaz" reported on May 18. The group of about 50 people left Srebrenica in protest at conditions there and discrimination against Bosnian Muslim returnees, and also cited security as a concern. An OHR spokesman, Chris Bennett, on May 20 told Bosna-Hercegovina TV 1 (BHTV1) that "the security situation in Srebrenica is much better than it was last year, two years ago, or seven years ago, when people started to return to Srebrenica." According to the news agency SRNA, the head of the EU's police mission in Bosnia, Vincenzo Coppola, said on May 22 that he believes it is safe for Bosnian Muslims to return to Srebrenica and that the EU force has bolstered its presence in the area. Their exodus also coincided with a debate about the status of Srebrenica, in which some Bosnian Muslims argue that Srebrenica, the site of a UN-recognized "act of genocide," should not be administered by the Bosnian Serb-dominated authorities in the Republika Srpska. There is also heated discussion about the future constitutional make-up of Bosnia. The Bosnian Muslims' most senior politician, Haris Silajdzic, is calling for the abolition of the Republika Srpska (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). The Office of the High Representative and the country's various ethnic groups recently agreed to set up a coordinating commission to oversee efforts to improve the situation under the leadership of a former U.S. ambassador to the country, Clifford Bond (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2 and 10, 2007). However, in a television interview with BHTV 1 on May 20, the man who initiated the Bosnian Muslims' exodus from Srebrenica, Camil Durakovic, made clear that step "is not enough. It will be enough when Srebrenica is excluded from the Republika Srpska and if they do not work on this, they should not ask us to go back, as we will not go back." AG

Macedonia's foreign minister, Antonio Milososki, suggested on May 22 that a recent, renewed threat by Greece to veto Macedonia's bid for EU and NATO membership is linked to upcoming Greek parliamentary elections. In comments carried on May 22 by the news agency MIA, Milososki described Greece as being in a pre-election state and predicted that populist efforts will ensure that the dispute over Macedonia's name figures prominently in the campaign. Elections in Greece are schedule for March 2008, but there is speculation they could be brought forward to this autumn. Milososki was responding to a demand by Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis on May 21 that Macedonia "abandon its intransigence." Karamanlis said Greece, as an EU and NATO member, could block Macedonia's accession bids. Milososki rejected Greece's claim, saying "we have made several concessions in the past 15 years, showing a large dose of constructiveness." He added that it was Greece that rejected the latest proposal by a UN special envoy, Matthew Nimitz, while Macedonia accepted it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 18, 2007). Greece and Macedonia resumed UN-mediated talks on May 16, but the proposal mentioned by Milososki probably dates back to 2005 when Nimitz proposed that countries who currently recognize Macedonia by its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia, should continue to do so, while Greece should refer to it as Republika Makedonija-Skopje. Greece insists that Macedonia should be known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Greek newspaper "Kathimerini" reported on May 19 that diplomats are warning that Nimitz may abandon his mediation role, in which case, the paper said, Macedonia could take its case directly to the UN Security Council. AG

The head of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Stefan, on May 21 conditionally accepted the possibility of the Russian Orthodox Church mediating in its dispute with the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Macedonian news agency MIA reported the same day. The Russian Orthodox Church made its offer in April, following a meeting with a number of Macedonian Orthodox bishops (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). The Macedonian Orthodox Church objects to the Serbian authorities' refusal to allow it to operate in Serbia, while the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has been allowed to register in Macedonia, complains of persecution, particularly in the case of embezzlement charges brought against its archbishop in Macedonia, Jovan Vraniskovski (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). In comments paraphrased by MIA, Archbishop Stefan said his church is willing to accept Russian involvement if it is "well-intentioned," but he said mediation is premature. He also stated unequivocally that the Macedonian Orthodox Church will not change its position on the fundamental cause of the dispute: his Church's 1968 declaration that it is completely independent of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Orthodox leaders in Moscow do not recognize the Macedonian Orthodox Church's canonical independence, or "autocephaly." Archbishop Stefan described Macedonians as being "divided as a homeland, as a country, and as a nation," and said they should "cherish spiritual unity aimed at truly living freely." AG

There is no End Note today.

Ali Akbar Qasemi, deputy head of Afghanistan's parliamentary committee for defense and territorial integrity affairs, on May 22 accused Defense Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak of misusing government funds, Kabul-based Tolo Television reported. Qasemi alleged that Wardak spent $1,800,000 in five trips abroad, a charge Wardak rejected. Qasemi said his committee has reviewed sample documents from the Defense Ministry showing the costs of the trips in afghanis, but said other reports his committee received indicated that the actual amounts are in U.S. dollars. One dollar is worth approximately 50 afghanis. "If this is so, will you be ready to stand in front of the media and admit that whatever you said was wrong?" Wardak asked Qasemi. The accusations against Wardak add to the current tensions between Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration and the Afghan National Assembly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14 and 21, 2007). AT

President Karzai received Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander Claus George Ferdinand in separate visits to the presidential palace in Kabul on May 22, state-run Afghanistan National Television reported. In a joint press conference, Harper and Karzai said they discussed Canada's military role in Afghanistan and ways to prevent civilian casualties during military operations. In his meeting with Steinmeier, the Afghan leader expressed his grief over the recent deaths of three German soldiers in northern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). AT

Karzai has appointed Mohammad Akbar as the acting minister of refugees and returnees, state-run Radio Afghanistan reported on May 22. The Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) voted to remove Mohammad Akbar from his post as the refugees and returnees minister on May 10 over the refugee crisis stemming from Iran's forces repatriation of ten of thousands of Afghans since mid-April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2007). AT

Commander Hossein Zolfaqari, the deputy chief of Iran's police force, paid a visit to the construction sites where barricades are being built along the Afghan-Iranian border, state-run Zahedan-based Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran Sistan-Baluchistan Provincial TV reported on May 21. During Zolfaqari's visit to the Zabul and Zahak districts of Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan Province, the chief of the border guards in Sistan-Baluchistan, Colonel Mullahshahi, reported that canals and fences have been constructed along 138 kilometers of the border. The construction work is still underway. AT

Iranian parliamentarians on May 22 voted to send a bill to the country's top political arbitration body, the Expediency Council, after it was rejected twice by a body of state jurists, agencies reported. Parliament has twice voted to hold simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in late 2008, but this was rejected as unconstitutional, most recently in May, by the Guardians Council, a body of jurists that must confirm the constitutionality of legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2007). Parliament continues to stand by the bill; 229 legislators on May 22 voted to send the legislation to the Expediency Council, chaired by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Ninety-four legislators voted against the referral. Proponents of the bill say holding simultaneous elections would save the country time and money, but jurists say the constitution has fixed the presidential and parliamentary terms, and no legislation can change them. Expediency Council member Majid Ansari said in Tehran on May 22 that the body will now have to decide whether this bill is important enough for state interests to disregard the constitution for its sake, Aftab news agency reported. He asked why, if legislators are so worried about saving money, they have shown scant interest in removing costly state subsidies, such as those on fuel. VS

Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi said his ministry has proposed late March to early April 2008 as the date for the next parliamentary elections. The date would depend on the final outcome of parliament's proposal to hold simultaneous legislative and presidential polls (see above). Purmohammadi said the ministry has made its proposal to the Guardians Council, which supervises elections and confirms their results; if it approves the proposal, the Guardians Council will inform state officials of the election schedule in due course. Purmohammadi said officials who wish to run for parliamentary seats would have to resign six months before the date of elections, ISNA reported. VS

Iran raised gasoline prices on May 22 from 800 rials to 1,000 rials a liter, or just under $0.09 to just under $0.11, agencies reported. But the government is delaying implementing a more complicated two-tiered pricing system that will require nationwide use of smart cards for drivers. The new system will allow drivers to buy a set monthly amount of gasoline at $0.11 cents a liter -- a heavily subsidized price -- but they will have to pay much higher prices for amounts above the monthly limit. The new system is a bid to cut consumption and save billions of dollars in gasoline imports. Interior Minister Purmohammadi said in Tehran on May 22 that the government will try to implement this system from June 5, but it has been delayed so far by the complexities of the card system, ISNA reported. Purmohammadi suggested drivers would have to pay the market price of gasoline the government has to import. Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh gave June 7 as the starting date of the new pricing scheme, by which time he said the government will have determined the various prices and quotas, ISNA reported. Gasoline stations have already begun accepting smart cards for gasoline purchases by those drivers who have them, Mehr reported on May 22. Drivers who have not yet obtained their cards are being asked to show their drivers' licenses to allow vendors to record their consumption, Mehr quoted Deputy Oil Minister Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh as saying. VS

Ali Farahani, an official of the National Oil Products Distribution Company affiliated with the Oil Ministry, told the Fars news agency on May 22 that the state has spent nearly half its entire allocated gasoline import budget for the Persian year that began on March 21. Farahani said the annual budget allows the government to import $2.5 billion in gasoline this year, and it has already spent "more than $950 million." He said at the current consumption rate, the gasoline import budget will run out in the last ten days of July. He said Iranians consumed some 4.57 billion litres of gasoline in a 59-day period from March 21, or 77.5 million liters a day. The figure showed a 9.4 percent year-on-year rise in consumption, which Farahani said "is of concern." VS

Reformist politicians and members of the Freedom Movement of Iran, a party of religious liberals and moderate critics of Iran's government, issued a public statement on May 22 protesting against the state's ban on a party gathering in recent days, Radio Farda reported. Members were scheduled to commemorate the party's 46th anniversary, but authorities banned the meeting as illegal. The statement criticizing the official decision was signed by 275 public figures and activists, including party members and sympathizers such as Mustafa Tajzadeh, a deputy interior minister in the reformist government of former President Mohammad Khatami; Mohammad Reza Khatami, the deputy speaker of the last reformist-majority parliament and President Khatami's brother; and Ali Akbar Musavi-Khoeini, Rajabali Mazrui, and Fatemeh Rakei, all prominent members of that chamber. The signatories criticized the "increasing pressure" threatening the country's political parties. The Freedom Movement frequently criticizes Iran's governmental system, but formally accepts Iran's present constitution. The state barely tolerates the party, though some of its members were ministers in the first government after the 1979 revolution. Its secretary-general, Ibrahim Yazdi, appeared at a branch of the Tehran Revolutionary Court on May 22 for questioning or on unspecified charges, ISNA reported. VS

Amnesty International said in its Report 2007, released on May 23, that Iraqi security forces committed widespread human rights violations in 2006, including killing civilians and torturing detainees, and allegedly took part in sectarian killings. Sectarian fighting displaced at least 400,000 Iraqis inside the country, while another 1.8 million sought shelter in neighboring states. Non-Muslim religious minorities were frequently targeted in attacks, including religious leaders. Judges, lawyers, academics, and physicians were targeted or threatened, prompting many professionals to flee Iraq. The situation of women continued to deteriorate, and increased violence was noted, including abductions, rapes, and honor killings by male relatives. The criminal court system sentenced scores to death, and at least 65 men and women were executed. By the end of 2006, some 170 men and women were on death row. Amnesty also reported that thousands of people were detained by multinational forces "without charge or trial and without the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention." The report said many others were released after months or years in detention without explanation, and thousands are still being held "without any effective remedy." KR

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi has "suspended" a threat to withdraw from the government, according to a May 22 press release posted to the Iraqi Islamic Party's website. The Iraqi Accordance Front, to which the party belongs, threatened earlier this month to withdraw from the government to protest the slow pace of reforms. The Islamic Party statement cited al-Hashimi as saying the threat to withdraw from government has not been canceled altogether. Kurdish and Shi'ite officials, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, have tried to persuade al-Hashimi in recent meetings to not pull out, and promised to follow through with the reforms pledged to Sunni Arabs in 2005, including constitutional reform. "We got off to a good start and had solemn promises, but there is still a long and arduous path ahead of us to review these files. I hope that these dialogues will end in Iraq's favor and in the Iraqis' favor," al-Hashimi said of the meetings. KR

Nuri al-Maliki marked the first anniversary of the formation of the national unity government on May 22, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. In a speech broadcast on the state-run news channel, al-Maliki contended that 2006 tested the will of the Iraqi people, particularly following the February bombing of the Al-Askari shrine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006), adding: "Sectarian war which threatened our national unity is now behind us." He acknowledged the ongoing insurgency, however, saying: "Regrettably, some have rebelled against [national] dialogue and reconciliation. We will deal with them firmly and in accordance with the law." KR

Saying the national reconciliation plan is the "strongest weapon" to fight terrorism, al-Maliki vowed that a reconciliation does not mean a return of former Ba'athists to positions of power. He invited Iraqi tribes and civil society organizations "to form national salvation councils in all Iraqi governorates and to stand by the side of our armed forces in order to destroy the epidemic of terrorism, which is targeting Iraq." Regarding the current security situation, he said: "It is an open war against the terrorists. We are determined to strike all outlaws with an iron fist -- terrorist organizations, militias, armed groups, and crime gangs that tamper with the security of the country.... We will give a full chance for those who voluntarily lay down their weapons and return to the national rank. We will exhaust all political solutions before we begin taking military impose the authority of law." KR

Hamid Ma'lah, a spokesman for the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), told Al-Sharqiyah television on May 22 that the party's Shura Council is running the affairs of the party in the absence of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who is in Tehran for cancer treatment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). "At present, we have the SIIC's Central Shura committee, which regularly holds meetings to run SIIC affairs. There is no big administrative problem because we have institutions, which are headed by officials, and the SIIC has a central Shura committee that draws the broad outlines of the [party's] work. Work continues as usual," Ma'lah said. He added that if an important matter arises, the party will consult al-Hakim via telephone. Al-Hakim's son, Ammar, who heads the party's Badr Organization, told London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that it is unlikely he will assume his father's position as head of SIIC in the elder's absence, the daily reported on May 22. KR

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said in a May 22 press release that Iraqi children need urgent access to clean water, sanitation, and immunization. The aid agency said in a separate press release issued the same day that national water networks in Iraq are in disrepair. "Even before the Iraq war began in 2003, millions of people were struggling with broken pipes and faulty systems. But since then, Iraq's water problems have multiplied." The country's main pumping stations and water-treatment plants have been looted, and sabotage to the pipeline has further damaged infrastructure. Children are now exposed to contaminated water and waterborne diseases. UNICEF provided water to 120,000 Iraqis daily last year in Baghdad, but water tanker services have now been halted due to a lack of funds. UNICEF said it will hold press briefings on May 23 to discuss urgent assistance needed for Iraq. The aid agency Save the Children reported on May 8 that Iraq's child mortality rate has increased by 150 percent since 1990. It added that some 122,000 Iraqi children, or one in eight, died in 2005 before reaching their fifth birthday. Only 35 percent are immunized and pneumonia and diarrhea account for over 30 percent of child deaths in Iraq, Save the Children reported. KR