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Newsline - May 24, 2007

President Vladimir Putin said in Vienna on May 23 that there is "no grave problem" clouding EU-Russian relations despite continuing differences over Kosova, Polish meat exports, and several other issues, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 22, and 23, 2007). Putin also continued Moscow's apparent campaign to split the EU by praising Austria's treatment of Soviet war graves and monuments and comparing it favorably to that of other, unnamed countries, presumably Estonia. He stressed Austria's role as "the biggest and, I stress this, the most reliable transit agent for Russian gas. Around one-third of Russian gas goes through Austrian territory. This is our contribution to European energy security." He criticized unnamed energy "transit countries" that seek "unilateral advantages" from their geographical positions. Putin told Austrian businessmen that their country has more than $2 billion invested in Russia, adding "I think Austrian partners will confirm my words that the Russian market is more dynamic and promising than many others." Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who is part of Putin's high-powered business delegation, plans to buy a 30 percent interest in the Austrian construction firm Strabag. This is only one of several projects that will increasingly interlock major Russian and Austrian businesses, including state-run ones like Gazprom, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote on May 24. The paper also quoted Austrian Economy Minister Martin Bartenstein as saying that "Putin and [Gazprom Chairman Aleksei] Miller conduct foreign policy with energy." On May 23 in Berlin, the three largest West European gas companies made a joint appeal for greater "political support" at home for increased ties with Gazprom despite ongoing disputes between the EU and Russia, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on May 24. Top officials of Gaz de France, Italy's Eni, and Germany's E.ON Ruhrgas, which is the only foreign company with a seat on Gazprom's board, warned that political support is necessary to ensure the success of long-term projects, such as the Russo-German Nord Stream gas pipeline. PM

Speaking in Vienna on May 23, President Putin again rejected the proposed U.S. missile-defense project, saying that "it is absolutely bad, and there is no necessity for it," international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22 and 23, 2007). Putin asked, "What is happening in Europe that is so negative that we need to fill Europe with new forms of weapons? What has happened that has worsened the situation in Europe and demands such actions? Nothing." Putin criticized longstanding U.S. plans for a military presence in Romania and Bulgaria, implying that the bases are directed against Russia. The Pentagon considers them part of its Middle Eastern strategy. Putin also warned that the European missile-defense project could lead to "a new spiral in the arms race." But in Moscow that same day, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said that Russia will develop an effective response to the missile shield without embarking on a new arms race. "A more efficient sword can be found for every shield," he argued. Referring to a new arms race, however, he said that "we are not going to repeat the same mistakes twice," by which he meant the arms race during the Cold War. Ivanov dismissed the U.S. explanation that missile defense is directed against Iran or North Korea as "a legend," saying that "a radar the U.S. is planning to deploy in the Czech Republic will be capable of scanning air space up to the Ural Mountains." The Russian weekly "Voyenno-Promyshlenny kurer" quoted in its May 23-29 issue an unnamed "source in the Strategic Missile Forces" as saying that "the Americans are continuing to pursue their idea of monitoring our missile launchers. They want to shoot down our missiles straight after launch, yet they're trying to convince the Russian leadership that the missile-defense elements in Europe pose no threat to Russia at all.... Once the basic infrastructure is in place [in Europe], it would be easy to install antimissiles, whether silo-based or mobile. The world is changing, but contradictions between East and West continue, just like in the old days." PM

At least 35 miners are dead following a methane gas explosion on May 24 at the Yubileynaya mine in Novokuznetsk in Kemerovo Oblast in western Siberia, reported. Seven miners were injured, three are listed as missing, and 179 were led to safety. The incident follows the March 19 explosion at the nearby modern Ulyanovsk coal mine, which left 110 miners dead and was the country's worst mining disaster in 60 years. Investigations showed that management and miners took serious safety risks in the interests of increased production and higher pay (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 22, and 27, and April 17, 2007). Both mines are operated by the Yuzhkuzbassugol company. Kemerovo Oblast has a population of just under 3 million people, 70 percent of whom are urban. It is an important industrial region, particularly for coal and metallurgy, and has some of the world's biggest coal reserves. PM

Russian customs officials recently blocked the shipment of six art objects to Dresden for an exhibition of contemporary Russian antiestablishment art, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on May 22. The officials said that those works of art could "bring about international dissension." The exhibition organizers in Dresden said that they will place small reproductions of the art works in question on the places where the originals were to have appeared. One of the items is a photomontage by the Siberian group Blue Noses, which depicts writer Aleksandr Pushkin flicking a cigarette lighter and President Putin warming his hands on a candle held by a beer-bellied Jesus Christ. Britain's "The Guardian" noted on May 24 that in 2006, Russian customs officials blocked some works en route to a London exhibition, including eight by the Blue Noses (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2006). Aleksandr Shaburov, one of the Blue Noses, declined to comment on the customs authorities' latest decision, except to say, "Sometimes in Russia a flea is turned into an elephant." PM

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev unveiled on may 23 a new long-term (until 2025) demographic-policy concept, the daily "Kommersant" reported. Medvedev explained that a program of measures is urgently needed to reverse the ongoing demographic decline. Russia's population is currently approximately 142 million, and is decreasing by 2 million people per year, but the new policy should halt that trend by 2011. By 2015, the population should reach 140 million and by 2025 145 million. Immigration is one of the factors intended to reverse the fall in population, but it will be kept to between 160,000-300,000 per year. A second factor, Medvedev said, is the envisaged improvement of health care, in particular in smaller towns and rural areas. But some experts cast doubt on Medvedev's expressed hopes of both steady immigration and a rise in the rate of natural increase. Demographer Nikita Mkrtchian pointed out that citizens of the former Soviet republics increasingly want to find employment in Europe or the United States, rather than Russia. Mkrtchian also noted that "You cannot force people either not to die or to give birth." LF

Senior members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), a junior partner since 2003 in the outgoing Armenian government, are discussing an offer by Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) of unspecified posts in the new government to be formed in the wake of the May 12 elections, in which the HHK won 64 of the 131 seats in the new legislature, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on May 23. The HHD held the education portfolio in the last government and has reportedly also laid claim to the post of defense minister. But outgoing parliament speaker Tigran Torosian of the HHK pointed out on May 18 that naming the defense and foreign ministers is the prerogative of the president, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Speaking in Yerevan on May 22, Sarkisian said he favors drawing "able" political parties into the new government, whether or not they are represented in parliament, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He reasoned that doing so would only increase popular trust in the new government, but some observers have suggested that Sarkisian seeks primarily to ensure maximum support from across the political spectrum for his declared intention to run for the presidency in early 2008. LF

Bernard Fassier and Yury Merzlyakov, the French and Russian co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, met in Yerevan on May 23 with Armenian Prime Minister Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, Noyan Tapan reported. Sarkisian reaffirmed Armenia's commitment to a peaceful solution of the conflict that would respect the right of the Karabakh Armenians to self-determination. Oskanian discussed the prospects for further meetings between himself and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov, and between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. Fassier and Merzlyakov are due to travel to Baku on May 24 where they will meet the following day with Mammadyarov and President Ilham Aliyev. LF

Speaking at a press conference in Baku on May 23, presidential administration head Ramiz Mehtiyev predicted that democratic trends will pick up speed during President Aliyev's second term, reported. He also predicted that if an opinion poll were conducted today, it would show 98 percent support for Aliyev. Mehtiyev said that the election law will not be amended to provide for greater opposition representation on election commissions at all levels until opposition parties demonstrate a higher degree of political culture and commitment to democratic values. Mehtiyev argued that the former ministers of health and economic development, Ali Insanov and Farxad Aliyev, both accused of corruption and plotting a coup d'etat, cannot be considered political prisoners. He appealed to the entire population to combat what he termed radical religious tendencies. LF

Mehtiyev denied at his May 23 press conference that any pressure is being exerted on the opposition newspapers "Realny Azerbaijan" and "Gundelik Azerbaycan," reported. The two papers have been required to vacate their editorial office in Baku, which was searched by National Security Ministry personnel on May 22 in light of possible terrorism charges against "Realny Azerbaijan" editor Eynulla Fatullayev, who was sentenced last month to 2 1/2 years imprisonment on libel charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23 and May 23, 2007). A second presidential administration official, Ali Hasanov, told on May 23 that the two papers "are free to resume publication at any time." But " Gundelik Azerbaycan" editor in chief Sahveled Cobanoglu told fellow journalists on May 23 that resuming publication is "technically impossible," and that he has therefore decided to suspend publication indefinitely. Mehtiyev hinted on May 23 that President Aliyev may declare an amnesty for imprisoned journalists, reported. LF

U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft traveled to Sukhum(i) on May 23 where he met with Sergei Bagapsh, de facto president of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab, and Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, to discuss the prospect of resuming direct talks between Abkhazia and Georgia, reported. The Abkhaz side refuses to return to the negotiating table until Georgia withdraws the Interior Ministry troops it deployed in July 2006 to the Kodori Gorge. During a conversation that Tefft described as "frank," Bagapsh repeated to Tefft that the Abkhaz side considers that deployment a violation of the 1994 cease-fire agreement, but Tefft explained to journalists after his talks that the agreement does not preclude a police presence in Kodori. Bagapsh and Tefft also discussed Georgia's refusal to release an Abkhaz official detained earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7 and April 30, 2007). Asked to comment on Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's initiative to create a provisional pro-Georgian administration in the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, Tefft said that the United States "supports all steps by the Georgian leadership aimed at bringing all sides in the South Ossetian conflict to the negotiating table, including Mr. Kokoity," the region's de facto president. Ankvab briefed Tefft on the state of the Abkhaz economy and expressed interest in establishing bilateral economic cooperation, reported. LF

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili traveled on May 23 to South Ossetia where he met with Dmitry Sanakoyev, head of the pro-Georgian provisional administration, at Sanakoyev's headquarters in the village of Kurta, near Tskhinvali, Caucasus Press reported. Merabishvili told journalists after those talks that accommodation will be built in Kurta for a special police unit that will be deployed there. Also on May 23, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze issued a statement in Tbilisi calling for the total demilitarization of the South Ossetian conflict zone, including the disarming and disbanding of all illegal armed formations, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Bagdat Kozhakhmetov, a spokesman for Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry, told a press conference in Astana on May 23 that Rakhat Aliev, Kazakhstan's ambassador to Austria and the son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, is facing criminal charges of kidnapping, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Aliev is charged with kidnapping Abilmazhen Gilimov and Zholdas Timraliev, two managers at Nurbank, in late January. Timraliev is still missing. Gilimov's brother told a news conference in Almaty on May 23 that his brother told him, "Rakhat Aliev handcuffed us, threatened us with weapons and physical violence, and demanded that all of our acquaintances, friends, and relatives...give up [their] parts of the business," Reuters reported. Aliev, who is a shareholder in Nurbank, has denied allegations of improper conduct in a bid to take over the company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 12, and 20 and May 14, 2007). DK

Two opposition parties issued a statement on May 23 harshly criticizing recently passed constitutional amendments, including the elimination of term limits for Kazakhstan's first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, the website reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). Social Democratic Party chairman Zharmakhan Tuyakbai and the three chairs of the Naghyz Ak Zhol party -- Bulat Abilov, Oraz Zhandosov, and Tulegen Zhukeev -- expressed their "principled disagreement with the majority of the amendments and additions to the constitution, which limit the rights and freedoms of Kazakh citizens, violate the principles of the division of powers and the balance of authority, and contradict Kazakhstan's international obligations." The statement said the signatories will try to "convince citizens of the politically disastrous nature of the concentration of unlimited power in the institution of the presidency." DK

Five committees of the Kyrgyz parliament adopted a decision on May 23 to recommend that the country's parliament evict the U.S. air base from Kyrgyzstan, news agency reported. The document refers to a July 5, 2005 declaration by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as the basis for seeking the base's removal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7, 2007). Reuters quoted Rashid Tagaev, the head of parliament's Defense Committee, as saying, "The committees decided it's unfeasible to host the air base." But Talai Kadyrov, the first deputy defense minister, told the committees, "The issue was considered at a recent cabinet meeting, which decided that the further presence of the air base in the country is expedient, as it is consistent with national interests," Interfax reported. A number of issues have marred Kyrgyz-U.S. relations over the base, including a shooting at the base in December 2006 that killed a Kyrgyz citizen (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2006), a collision that damaged a Kyrgyz aircraft, Kyrgyz complaints that the base damages the environment, and, most recently, suggestions that the base could be used for a strike against Iran. DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev said on May 23 that Kyrgyzstan envisages an expanded role for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in ensuring regional security, ITAR-TASS reported. The CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan. Bakiev made the comments during a meeting with CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha. Bakiev said, "Kyrgyzstan intends to take practical steps to reinforce its armed forces and special subunits that are part of the Collective Rapid Deployment Force in the Central Asian region. This will enable us to work more efficiently in strengthening the security of the CSTO in the near future." DK

Robert Simmons, the NATO special representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, met with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe on May 23, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Noting that NATO is playing a "significant" role in ensuring the stability and security of Afghanistan, Rahmon said, "We comprehensively support NATO's operations in our region and will cooperate in carrying them out." DK

Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan have decided to form a joint commission to "ensure the necessary organizational level for the start of a new stage in the history of Turkmen-Azerbaijan relations," reported on May 23. The decision was taken during a meeting between Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat. Mammadyarov told journalists after their meeting that their talks were "warm and productive" and stated that "the Azerbaijani side is ready to further deepen our contacts." DK

The Chamber of Representatives, Belarus's lower house of parliament, on May 23 almost unanimously passed a government-sponsored bill that abolishes state benefits for certain groups of people, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. In particular, the bill cancels reduced transportation fares for students, holders of the Veteran of Labor title, and workers who are entitled to reduced fares while on duty. The bill also gives fewer people the right to discounts on utility and phone bills and health services, and reduces the number of people allowed to receive discounted medical services at health resorts. Labor and Social Security Minister Uladzimir Patupchyk told legislators that the bill will help the state save some $170 billion rubles ($80 million) per year. Volha Abramava, the only legislator who voted against the bill, told Belapan that the withdrawal of state benefits should have been carried out as part of broader economic reforms, so that the people affected could understand why they lost their privileges. "A hidden potential for saving budgetary funds could have been found in costly economic sectors instead of the social sphere," Abramava added. To become law, the bill needs to be approved by the upper house -- the Council of the Republic -- and signed by the president. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko said in a televised address to the nation on May 23 that he is deeply concerned about the current situation in the Constitutional Court, Ukrainian media reported. "The court has been paralyzed and demoralized," Yushchenko said, adding that some of its judges are suspected of being involved in "large-scale corruption." Yushchenko noted that the Constitutional Court has not passed a single ruling in almost a year. He also said that the three judges he sacked from the Constitutional Court several weeks ago for violations of their oaths of office have been illegally reinstated in their posts by local courts. "I am forced to admit that the Constitutional Court is losing its constitutional legitimacy and, under the existing circumstances, cannot perform its function of ensuring the supremacy of the Basic Law in the country," Yushchenko noted. "I am therefore instructing the Prosecutor-General's Office to provide an immediate legal assessment of the situation in the Constitutional Court regarding the violation of the constitution and national legislation," the Ukrainian president added. Earlier the same day, Yushchenko held talks with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych on how to resolve the ongoing political crisis in Ukraine, but no official comment followed their meeting, which was reportedly ended abruptly after two hours. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on May 24 dismissed Constitutional Court Judge Petro Stetsyuk, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Before the vote, lawmaker Andriy Sokil told his colleagues that Stetsyuk shirked his duties by refusing to participate in the examination of President Yushchenko's decrees dissolving the Verkhovna Rada and calling for new elections. Stetsyuk reportedly justified his refusal by saying that the Constitutional Court was being pressured during its consideration of the decrees. Meanwhile, Valeriy Pshenychnyy, the acting head of the Constitutional Court, told journalists that earlier the same day he managed to gather just 10 judges of the 18-member panel. The minimum number for legally binding rulings of the Constitutional Court is 12 judges. Pshenychnyy charged that the authorities are moving "toward liquidating the Constitutional Court as the only body of constitutional jurisprudence." JM

At the end of a 41-month trial, Belgrade's Special Court for Organized Crime on May 23 convicted 12 men of the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, international and local media reported the same day. Only seven of the 12 face immediate imprisonment; the other five remain on the run. The panel of judges imposed the maximum sentences possible, 40 years, on the mastermind of the attack, Milorad "Legija" Lukovic-Ulemek, and the man who pulled the trigger, Zvezdan Jovanovic. The other 10 were reportedly given sentences ranging from eight to 37 years, most of them over 30 years. This is the third high-profile case in which Lukovic-Ulemek has been convicted: in July 2005, he was given 40 years for the murder of former President Ivan Stambolic in May 2000, and, in February 2007, he was sentenced to 15 years for his role in a 1999 assassination attempt on Vuk Draskovic, then a leading opposition figure and subsequently Serbia's foreign minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15, 2006 and February 20, 2006). Jovanovic initially confessed to shooting Djindjic, an admission he subsequently retracted. The judges concluded that Lukovic-Ulemek had convinced the others that the assassination would end Serbia's drive for integration with Europe, return allies of Serbia's long-time leader Slobodan Milosevic to power, and halt the extradition of war crimes suspects. Djindjic was instrumental in ousting Milosevic and was responsible for his transfer to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Lukovic-Ulemek and Jovanovic led a special paramilitary group formed by Milosevic, the Red Berets, that was subsequently disbanded by Djindjic. Judge Nata Mesarevic described the assassination as a "political murder directed against the state, in which the criminalized part" of the Red Berets conspired with a mafia group, the Zemun clan. The broadcaster B92 quoted Mesarevic as saying the leaders of the Red Berets and Zemun gang were upset primarily by investigations into the murders of Stambolic and the prominent journalist Slavko Curuvija, and other murders and kidnappings. The Red Berets are also thought to have been involved in an assassination attempt on Djindjic in February 2003, shortly before the attack that killed him on March 12, 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). AG

In an official party statement carried by the news agency FoNet, Djindic's Democratic Party (DS) hailed the convictions as historic and evidence that Serbia's judiciary is capable of bringing people to justice in the face of extreme and persistent pressure. In the 41 months since December 2003, when the trial started, several witnesses have been killed and a presiding judge stepped down after threats against his life. His successor, Nata Mesarevic, was threatened just weeks before passing judgment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2007). The party hailed Djindjic as one of Serbia's "greatest reformers and fighters for democracy" and said his death created an "obligation to continue the modernization and Europeanization of Serbia." However, there was also criticism of the sentences by Djindjic supporters. Members of the DS outside the courthouse held placards saying "40 years is not enough." Cedomir Jovanovic, head of the small Liberal Democratic Party and a man described by the broadcaster B92 as a protege of Djindjic, expressed a similar view. "Justice was not done, and justice cannot be done as long as the questions of who ordered the murder, who organized it, and who was behind the obstruction [of] the Special Court's work remain unanswered," B92 quoted Jovanovic as saying on May 23. A similar opinion was expressed by Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), a former minister under Milosevic, and a political opponent of Djindjic. In an interview with B92, Nikolic said, "I believe that at least five or six sentences are missing" against "the people who organized [Djindjic's assassination] and who are hiding in the shadows." He did not name his suspects. Jovanovic's lawyer, Nenad Vukasovic, described the trial as a "public cremation of the law and legal institutions" and said his client will appeal, B92 reported on May 23. AG

Oliver Dulic, a member of the Serbian government's largest party, will be the new speaker of the Serbian parliament, international and local media reported on May 23. Dulic, the only candidate for the post, secured 136 of the available 250 votes when parliament met on May 23. Dulic's election ends the short-lived tenure of Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), the country's strongest party. Nikolic's election on May 7 with the support of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) marked the nadir in efforts to forge a government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 10, and 11, 2007). It was swiftly followed by a last-minute deal between the DSS and the Democratic Party (DS), of which Dulic is a member, and Nikolic's forced resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 15, and 16, 2007). As well as holding the chair of parliament, the DS now controls the presidency, the Foreign Ministry, the EU portfolio, and the search for war crimes suspects. The speaker determines parliament's agenda and stands in for the president when he is unavailable. Dulic, a 32-year-old doctor, is the youngest parliamentary speaker in Serbia's postcommunist history. Seven members of the 25-strong cabinet are in their thirties: Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic is 31, Energy Minister Aleksandar Popovic is 35; Telecoms Minister Aleksandra Smiljanic, Local Government Minister Milan Markovic, and Environment Minister Sasa Dragin are all 36; while Diaspora Minister Milica Cubilo and Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac are 38. AG

Indonesia's foreign minister, Hassan Wirayuda, told journalists on May 23 that his country has yet to decide whether to support a UN-drafted plan that proposes supervised independence for Kosova, the Italian news agency AKI reported the same day. Indonesia is one of the 15 countries set to vote in the UN Security Council on the final status of Kosova. Indonesia on May 17 signed a resolution by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) backing independence for the UN-administered region. However, at Indonesia's request, that resolution reportedly stated that independence for Kosova should not be viewed as a precedent for other regions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 18, 2007). Indonesia, a country of 6,000 inhabited islands and 300 different ethnic groups, has faced a number of separatist movements in recent decades in regions such as Aceh and East Timor (now an independent state, Timor-Leste). The author of the UN's proposed settlement for Kosova, Martti Ahtisaari, brokered a peace deal in Aceh in 2005 and a Dutch diplomat widely tipped to oversee an independent Kosova, Peter Feith, headed an EU mission to Aceh in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2007). AG

Reuters reported on May 22 that Kosova plans to erect a statue in honor of Bill Clinton, the former U.S. president. Authorities in the Kosovar capital, Prishtina, have already honored Clinton by naming the city's central street after him and commissioning a 12-meter-tall mural of him on the same street. The city's authorities say the statue will be placed on Clinton Boulevard this summer, Reuters reported. The sculptor, Izeir Mustafa, described Clinton as a "savior" who "saved us from extermination" at the hands of the Serbian authorities. "I definitely will do a statue of Tony Blair," Mustafa also said. "He saved us as well." The report did not indicate whether Mustafa has been commissioned to make a statue of Britain's outgoing prime minister. Kosova's Albanian political leadership was fulsome in its praise for Blair after his announcement on May 10 that he will stand down as premier. Radio-Television Kosova (RTK) on May 10 quoted a spokesman for the team negotiating Kosova's independence, Skender Hyseni, as saying "Tony Blair and President Clinton will remain icons in Kosova's history." There were also warm words on May 18, when Bernard Kouchner, a former head of the UN's mission in Kosova and advocate of liberal intervention, was appointed France's foreign minister. A leading political figure, Veton Surroi, told RTK on May 18 that "it is very good news for Kosova and for the whole of Europe that an idealist and a great humanitarian such as Bernard Kouchner has become French foreign minister." AG

A Muslim leader has called for a referendum that would enable the population of Sandzak, a border region, to decide whether the region should belong to Serbia or to Montenegro, the Montenegrin daily "Dan" reported on May 23. Dzemail Suljevic, who leads the People's Movement of Sandzak, made his call on May 21, the first anniversary of Montenegro's vote to separate from Serbia. Independence for Montenegro meant that Sandzak, which was already split by administrative borders, was also split by state borders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). Suljevic said that, overall, the people of Sandzak had suffered from the dissolution of Serbia and Montenegro. A similar, unheeded call for the unification of Sandzak was made in 1991. Suljevic said "the question, with minor alterations, should be the same in 1991: 'Are you in favor of Sandzak autonomy and life with Serbia or Montenegro?'" Censuses held in 2002 and 2003 indicate Sandzak has a population of around 426,000, of whom 45 percent are Bosnian Muslims, 37 percent are Serbs, and 7 percent are Montenegrins. The Serbian half is more heavily populated, with a population of 236,000 compared to 190,000 within Montenegro. AG

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on May 22 called for a greater degree of reconciliation between the three main ethnic groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bosnian media reported on May 23. Ban made his plea during a meeting in New York with two members of Bosnia's three-member Presidency, Nebojsa Radmanovic, a Serb, and Haris Silajdzic, a Muslim. Ban also urged the country's politicians to agree on reforms of the police force, public administration, and the media, all of which are key concerns of the EU and the international group overseeing Bosnia's postwar development, the Peace Implementation Council. The international community's high representative in Bosnia, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, told the UN Security Council on May 16 that political reforms have been blocked for over a year owing to a "hostile political environment" created by a "resurgence of nationalist rhetoric" and the "long, difficult process" of forming a government following elections in October 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2007). Radmanovic and Silajdzic reportedly reaffirmed their commitment to democratic institutions and to international efforts against terrorism. Silajdzic was also due on May 23 to meet with two of the U.S. State Department's most senior officials, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried and Undersecretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, in talks aimed at ending the stalemate over reform. Milorad Dodik, prime minister of the autonomous Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, was also scheduled to attend. Shortly before his departure for Washington, Dodik said the Republika Srpska needs a separate police force to counter Islamist terrorist groups and ruled out an end to the country's ethnically-determined administrative divisions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). AG

In a statement issued on May 23 by the Office of the High Representative, Christian Schwarz-Schilling condemned as "a shameful waste of time and betrayal of voter's confidence" the failure to form local governments in one of Bosnia-Herzegovina's cantons. Elections were held in October 2006. Schwarz-Schilling said that the parties' "continued failure to recognize the need to form the cantonal government, as a priority matter, and to exercise ownership and responsibility is a scandal." He said he is now taking a direct role in the dispute and promised to take measures that will "become increasingly painful for parties and individuals alike." The international community in 1997 granted the high representative extensive powers to fire obstructive officials and force through legislation. Schwarz-Schilling has been reluctant to use those powers. Bosnia's political parties have been critical of their use and party leaders questioned by state television on May 22 said their application is "unnecessary" in this case. Schwarz-Schilling leaves office on June 30 and will be replaced by a Slovak diplomat, Miroslav Lajcak (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 16, and 17, 2007). AG

Iran's current five-year development plan foresees a gradual cut in key interest rates to 10 percent or less by 2010.

A rate reduction is viewed in some government circles as a desirable end in itself, given Islam's prohibition on usury and related practices; they also see it as a means of curbing inflation. But others argue that progress against inflation should precede any interest-rate cut.

Iranian inflation is currently estimated at between 13 and 24 percent, depending on the source. The state-capped lending rate for banks is 14 percent, although private banks can charge significantly higher (17 to 19 percent) borrowing rates for technical reasons.

The 14 percent rate is equivalent to Iran's base rate, and there is presumably a range of rates pertaining to various loans or interests on deposits. A legislator and member of the parliamentary Plan and Budget Committee, Hasan Seidabadi, spoke on April 22 of 30 percent interest rates on loans.

Proponents and opponents of interest-rate cuts broadly disagree over how rates can impact inflation, which officials want to curb. Those who believe higher rates can help curb inflation -- and they have recently come to include members of the Money and Credit Council, a body affiliated with the Central Bank -- have opposed a cut this year. Backers of annual cuts have cited the need to rigidly abide by the stipulations of the development plan and a related law (the Law to Rationalize Bank Profit Rates), which call for a decrease in rates of roughly 2 percent a year. Under that model, interest rates are regarded as "bank profits."

Broadly speaking, proponents of interest-rate cuts are those with an enduring faith in state economic planning. Their opponents, on the other hand, are more inclined to look to market mechanisms. The government appears to lie somewhere in between. In principle, it supports rate cuts; but it appears reluctant to impose them in the face of inflation of above 13 percent.

Mohammad Khosh-Chehreh, a member of parliament's Economic Committee, on April 22 described the government as "stuck" in its implementation of annual interest-rate reductions, Fars News Agency reported. He said the Money and Credit Council's April 21 decision not to recommend a rate cut from 14 percent in the Persian year to March 2008 revealed inflationary concerns within the government. The head of the parliamentary Economic Committee, Mohammad Shahi-Arablu, said less than a week later that the government is obliged to implement laws on rate cuts, and that avoiding an interest-rate cut this year would simply necessitate a greater rate cut the following year, Aftab news agency reported.

Opponents of rate cuts have warned that reducing rates to below inflation could deprive banks of precious resources, as major investors seek higher returns elsewhere.

Gholamreza Mesbahi-Moqaddam, a member of the Money and Credit Council, told ISNA on April 22 that rates could not be cut when the inflation rate had evidently risen in the year to March 2007. A former parliamentarian, Ahmad Meidari, cautioned on April 28 that cutting rates would lead institutional investors to keep fewer assets with banks and instead channel them into areas like the real-estate market, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day. That, he said, could fuel a rise in the cost of housing. Meidari added that there are already signs that major companies, like insurers, have begun diverting resources into the real-estate sector.

Supporters of interest-rate cuts argue that the reduced cost of borrowing will reduce production costs, bringing consumer benefits. Parliamentarian Mohammad Shahi-Arablu claimed to Mehr agency on April 22 that reducing rates "has had positive effects on investment and increasing non-oil exports in the past two years." He said lower rates have led to an increase in demand for loans and financing, which he said has prompted banks to prepare themselves to provide financing. On April 28, he dismissed banks' concerns at financial losses. He said banks have warned they would go bankrupt when the 2004-05 law on bank rates was ratified, but they were evidently still in business, while rates have dropped from 24 percent then to 14 percent. Iran's Labor Minister Muhammad Jahromi told Mehr agency on May 21 that production and employment would increase proportionately with falling rates.

The proponents of cuts seem at times to regard the cost of money as the only factor impeding Iranians from investing. They appear to ignore the possibility that factors like uncertainty, policy, distrust of state bodies, or a reluctance to become involved with red tape or complicated taxes might also play a role. Distrust is arguably a discernible factor in the economic choices of many who lived through Iran's 1979 revolution -- which led to the confiscation of many estates, homes, and businesses. Iranians appear to favor liquid assets -- cash deposits, informal loans to acquaintances, gold coins, dollar or euro notes, apartments -- more than their counterparts in more developed states. A key element that is arguably absent in Iran is a systematic trust in the financial and legal system that permits "abstract" investments with deferred returns.

Tehran-based economist and lecturer Mohammad Qoli Yusefi said in April that interest rates are not a decisive factor in Iran, because bank loans are only available to those with connections to the state economic or political apparatus, according to ILNA. Yusefi warned that Iran's banking system and money market have become "a political instrument." He said Iranians keep their savings in banks despite relatively high inflation because they have few alternatives and believe Tehran's stock market to be too volatile.

The reformist daily "Etemad-i Melli" commented on May 21 that "prolonging economic decisions has slowly become a habit for the government." The paper said the perceived trend is causing "confusion among the public and many officials." It compared the issue to another thorny economic problem with which the government has been struggling: how much to charge drivers for gasoline. A new two-tier pricing system for gasoline that was due to start on May 22 has been postponed over apparent technical glitches and the government's failure to set those prices.

The latest news concerning the interest-rate debate suggests Iranian public discord that is not uncommon when it comes to state decisions. Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari said on May 20 that there would be no cuts for the time being, ISNA reported. "Etemad-i Melli" quoted a deputy head of the central bank, Akbar Komeijani, as saying the same day that the issue would have to be examined for another six months. But two days later, government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham announced a presidential decision to cut interest rates for all banks to 12 percent this year, according to Fars.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government can appear as indecisive when it comes to economics as it is bold and fiery in its statements regarding foreign policy.

At the moment, the potential costs of that indecision -- and indeed the boldness -- might appear affordable in large part due to the billions of petrodollars that are flowing into the Iranian treasury.

In a press release on May 23, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for the immediate reinstatement of Malalai Joya, a lawmaker from Farah Province in western Afghanistan who was suspended from her position on May 21. The Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) of the Afghan National Assembly suspended Joya on charges of insulting members of parliament after she compared the Meshrano Jirga (Elders' Council) to a stable (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). "Malalai Joya is a staunch defender of human rights and a powerful voice for Afghan women, and she shouldn't have been suspended from parliament," said Brad Adams, the Asia director at HRW. In the press release, HRW noted that members of parliament regularly criticize each other, but no one else has been suspended. "The article banning criticism of parliament is an unreasonable rule that violates the principle of free speech enshrined in international law and valued around the world," said Adams. "The Afghan parliament should be setting an example by promoting and protecting free expression, not by stamping it out." AT

A man riding a motorcycle detonated explosives he was carrying on the northern outskirts of Kabul on May 23, killing a police officer and injuring six other people, including two police officers, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Ali Shah Paktiyawal, the head of the Kabul police department's criminal investigation unit, told AIP that the bomber "blew himself up near a foreign military vehicle," but he said that no foreign servicemen were harmed in the attack. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- claimed on May 23 that "Hashem, a mujahid of the Islamic Emirate" from Laghman Province carried out a "sacrifice" attack against a convoy of foreign forces in Kabul, killing 12 foreign troops and seven Afghan soldiers while injuring several others from both groups. Those claims could not be independently confirmed. AT

A Finnish soldier attached to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was killed and two Norwegians were injured in an explosion on May 23 in Maymana, the provincial capital of Faryab Province, international news agencies reported. A statement issued on ISAF's website on May 23 reported that one ISAF "soldier was killed and four wounded in a suicide bomb attack in northern Afghanistan" on May 23, but it did not give the location of the attack or the soldier's nationality. Meanwhile, a website purporting to represent the Taliban claimed on May 23 that "mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate" targeted a convoy of "invading foreigners" with a remote-controlled mine, destroying the vehicle and killing all of its occupants. Faryab is not considered a Taliban stronghold. It is not unusual for the Taliban to claim responsibility for attacks for which they are not responsible, or to exaggerate the casualties. AT

Mansur Dadullah, a brother of slain Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, has warned in a recorded message that a large number of "mujahedin" are preparing to sacrifice their lives to carry out Mullah Dadullah's mission, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on May 23. Mullah Dadullah, a notorious commander of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, was killed in a joint U.S.-Afghan operation in Helmand Province on May 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). Mansur was released from Afghan government custody in March along with four other Taliban prisoners, in an exchange for the release of an Italian journalist abducted by Dadullah (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). Mansur's original name is Ahmad Mansur, and he seems to have added Dadullah's name as his last name. Shahabuddin Atal, a purported spokesman for the slain commander, told Pajhwak that he has been appointed as Mansur's spokesman. Atal also claimed that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has appointed Mansur to take over from Dadullah as the chief Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan, but he said the letter of appointment will be made public in a later date. The regular Taliban spokesmen, however, have not commented on any replacement for Dadullah. While they praise the slain commander, it is very likely that the mainstream Taliban, who want to portray their movement as a national struggle, are content with his departure from the scene because of his seemingly wanton brutality. AT

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated in a May 23 report that Iran has pursued uranium enrichment and related activities in defiance of two UN Security Council resolutions demanding that it stop, AFP and AP reported. The IAEA said its inspectors' ability to fully monitor Iran's activities in several sites is "deteriorating." The UN gave Iran a May 24 deadline to halt its enrichment activities. The report, issued as the deadline passed, is to be examined by the IAEA governing board in June, and may lead to a third set of UN sanctions. Iran maintains that it intends to mass-produce nuclear fuel to generate electricity, but Western powers fear it could enrich uranium to the level needed to produce nuclear weapons. The IAEA report stated that Iran has not collaborated with inspectors enough for them to "provide assurances about...the exclusively peaceful nature" of its program, AFP reported. The report observed that as of May 13, Iran was injecting 1,312 centrifuges in its Natanz plant with uranium hexafluoride gas, used to produce enriched uranium, and had reached the enrichment levels needed to make power-plant fuel, though not bomb-grade material. Iran, it added, has installed 328 more centrifuges since then, and is building another 328. AFP cited an official "close to the IAEA" in Vienna as saying that Iran could attain its goal of running 3,000 centrifuges by late June. VS

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said in Washington on May 23 that Western powers do not accept IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei's recent suggestion that Iran be allowed to enrich some uranium for power generation as a compromise in the dispute over its nuclear program, agencies reported. Burns said the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany reject any such compromise, and "we are not going to agree...that 1,300 centrifuges can continue spinning at" the Natanz plant, Reuters reported. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in Washington the same day that the United States will now consult with its allies on the issue, and urged Iran to cooperate with UN inspectors, Reuters reported. El-Baradei was quoted as saying in mid-May that rather than demanding a complete halt to enrichment, Western states should now focus on preventing Iran from progressing to industrial-scale enrichment, as it has already acquired the technology for limited nuclear fuel production (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2007). Iran's parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel told a Tehran press conference on May 23 that "we have said worldwide everything we wanted the Americans to hear, which is that we intend to peacefully use nuclear energy and consider this our right. We do not intend to make atomic weapons, and are ready to cooperate with the [IAEA] within the framework of its regulations." VS

Iran has arrested another Iranian-American allegedly associated with what Iran says is a U.S.-backed network of activists, academics, and writers quietly trying to topple the Islamic Republic, Radio Farda reported on May 23, citing "The Washington Post" and agencies. The detainee is Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant affiliated with the New-York based Open Society Institute, a body financed by Hungarian-born philanthropist and democracy advocate George Soros, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 18 and 22, 2007). Iranian authorities have leveled similar accusations against Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American scholar detained in Iran since May 8, accusing her of links to a U.S.-funded drive to bring down Iran's Islamic establishment. "The Washington Post" reported that Tajbakhsh disappeared on May 11, and his family only recently found out about his arrest. Separately, rights group Amnesty International observed in its annual report, released May 23, that "the human rights situation deteriorated" in Iran in 2006, and civil society saw "increasing restrictions on fundamental freedoms of expression and association." It stated on its website that torture remains "commonplace" in Iran, and "at least 177 people were executed" last year. Amnesty International said "the true numbers of those executed or subjected to corporal punishment were probably considerably higher than those reported." VS

The Sanandaj Revolutionary Court in western Iran sentenced journalist Roya Tolui in absentia to six months in jail, ILNA reported on May 23. Tolui, a member of the editorial board of the banned weekly "Payam-i Mardom" (People's Message), fled Iran in 2006 after a previous arrest and interrogation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 13, 2005, and March 1 and October 3, 2006). Tolui's lawyer, Nasrin Sotudeh, told ILNA that her client was sentenced for taking part in protests outside the Kurdistan governor's office in Sanandaj on July 30 and August 1, 2005, when locals were angered by what they said was security officials' killing of a Kurdish activist. Sotudeh said the sentence against Tolui was actually issued on July 18, 2006, but she was only informed of it on May 21. VS

Mohsen Armin, a member of the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organization, a reformist party, told ILNA in Tehran on May 23 that scheduled talks between Iranian and U.S. envoys in Baghdad show "an important change in Iran's position toward America, a change that could be the start of a new chapter" in their relations. He said it is to be expected that the May 28 talks are only meant to address Iraqi security; it would not be fair, he added, to expect this set of talks to fundamentally change relations that have been hostile since 1979. He chided certain "extremist" elements among Iran's right-wing factions for first denouncing, then accepting, talks with the United States. He rejected the argument that the "public and officials" did not trust previous governments to undertake talks, but trust the government of Mahmud Ahmadinejad to do so. Parliamentary speaker Haddad-Adel separately told the press in Tehran on May 23 that "talking to America on Iraq is our Islamic and human duty toward this neighboring country." VS

The parliament's Constitutional Amendment Committee has proposed several plans to resolve problems regarding the status of Kirkuk Governorate peacefully and equitably, according to Shi'ite politician Abbas al-Bayati, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on May 23. According to the news channel, the most promising proposal calls for a two-stage solution that would first establish the oil-rich governorate as an independent region for a period of five to seven years. In the second stage, residents would be allowed to vote on whether Kirkuk should remain an independent region or join the Kurdistan region. The news channel did not report on reactions to the proposal. KR

Deputy Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi met with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Al-Najaf on May 23, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Abd al-Mahdi told reporters following the meeting that the cleric expressed concern over the security situation in Iraq. Abd al-Mahdi said al-Sistani "stressed the importance of solidarity among Shi'ites and Sunnis, adding, "He also stressed the importance of [acknowledging] the suffering of some Christians. [Al-Sistani] expressed his sorrow at the attacks which targeted some Sunni brothers, including Council of Representatives Speaker [Mahmud] al-Mashhadani and [Deputy Prime Minister Salam] al-Zawba'i." KR

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has reportedly said the United States is willing to negotiate with armed groups who want to lay down arms and join the political process, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on May 23. Crocker was quoted as saying that national reconciliation has been a slow process, adding that the next weeks and months may provide an opportunity to speed up the process. KR

Many former members of Iraq's intelligence services are hesitant to adhere to an Interior Ministry order that they register at local police stations throughout the country, "Al-Zaman" reported on May 23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). The Interior Ministry announced earlier this week that all former employees of the intelligence services must register with the ministry through police stations. Those who can return to work will receive their old jobs, while others will receive pensions, according to the announcement. The ministry gave individuals 60 days to comply, or 90 days if they are outside Iraq; otherwise they will be considered aligned with insurgent groups. According to the newspaper, former Ba'ath Party members fear that once they register with the ministry, their identities will be publicized and they will be targeted by so-called Shi'ite death squads. KR

The U.S. military confirmed on May 24 that it has found the body of a missing U.S. soldier who was abducted nearly two weeks ago. Iraqi police found the body in the Euphrates River near Al-Musayyib, south of Baghdad. Military spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Josslyn Aberle said the body was that of 20-year-old Private First Class Joseph Anzack, Jr. The soldier had bullet wounds to the body and bore signs of torture. "The search continues for our other two missing service members, and we will continue to search until we find them," Aberle said. Meanwhile, several Iraqi media outlets reported on May 24 that the bodies of the two other soldiers abducted alongside Anzack have been found. The reports have not been independently verified. Al-Sharqiyah television reported that police in Babil Governorate found the two bodies, both dressed in U.S. military fatigues. Police sources said the bodies have been handed over to the U.S. military, the news channel reported. KR

Data collected by "The Washington Post" reveals that sectarian killings in Iraq may be on the rise again, the daily reported on May 24. From May 1-22, 321 unidentified corpses were found across Baghdad, according to morgue data provided by an unidentified Health Ministry official. The same number of bodies were found in the capital during the whole month of January, the newspaper reported. In April, morgue data shows 182 bodies were found in the capital, making the expected total for all of May double that of the preceding month. U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher C. Garver told "The Washington Post" that the military has seen a "slight rise in sectarian violence," but said it remains unclear if the rise marks a decisive shift in trend. KR