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Newsline - May 30, 2007

First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov announced on May 29 the successful test of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying multiple warheads, and the "preliminary" test of a long-range tactical cruise missile, Russian and international media reported. He added that "as of today, Russia has new tactical and strategic complexes that are capable of overcoming any existing or future missile-defense systems. So in terms of defense and security, Russians can look calmly to the country's future." The Strategic Missile Forces command issued a statement stressing that the RS-24 ICBM, which is a version of the Topol-M or SS-27, will strengthen the ability of those forces "to overcome antimissile defense systems" from other, unnamed countries. The Russian military said that the RS-24 was launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Arkhangelsk Oblast and reached its targets in the Kura test area on Kamchatka Peninsula about 5,500 kilometers away. Britain's "Financial Times" noted on May 30 that "the show of military strength, coupled with [President Vladimir] Putin's strong words [see below], appeared calculated to maintain Russian pressure over the [proposed U.S.] antimissile system," which will include 10 unarmed interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic. Putin and other Russian officials call the project a threat to Russia's security, which Washington strongly denies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 23, 24, and 25, 2007). A military commentator wrote in the Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" of May 29 that the purpose of missile defense is to neutralize a Russian retaliatory strike in the event that the United States launches a nuclear first strike against Russia, possibly from submarines in the Kara Sea. The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on May 30 that Ivanov presented Russia's new missiles as an element in the "psychological warfare" against missile defense. PM

President Putin "found an ally in Portugal" in talks about bilateral and Russia-EU relations in Moscow on May 28-29 with Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates and his large delegation, "The Moscow Times" reported on May 30. Portugal will take over the rotating EU Presidency from Germany on July 1. Russia has for months tried to split the EU and NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 23, 24, and 25, 2007). Putin said of the planned U.S. missile system "We consider it harmful and dangerous to turn Europe into a powder keg and fill it with new types of armaments," and Russian media reported. He stressed that "this creates new, unnecessary risks for the entire system of international relations in the world and in Europe." In response to Western criticisms of Russian human rights policies, Putin said that "the death penalty in certain Western countries,[...] secret prisons and torture already in Europe, problems with the mass media in some countries, and immigration legislation in some European countries that doesn't correspond with the commonly accepted norms of international law and democratic norms" are all not in keeping with "common values." Putin added, "So, let's not talk as if we're dealing on one side with white, clean, and furry partners, and on the other side with monsters who have just come out of the woods and have hooves instead of feet, and horns." Socrates said that "the task is to arrive at a common strategic agreement that will unite our historic missions. With that idea, Portugal will embark on its EU Presidency." He warned Western countries against lecturing Russia on democracy, and stressed that "our relations have received an amazing impulse" thanks to his two days of talks. Putin said that Russia is "hoping that when Portugal chairs the EU, a new impulse will be given to Russia's relations with its European partners." He criticized Germany for objecting to Moscow's ban on Polish meat imports when Germany itself recently seized a shipment of Polish meat. "The Moscow Times" wrote that the atmosphere at the Putin-Socrates talks was "warm and sharp contrast to a recent Russian-EU summit [with German Chancellor Angela Merkel] outside Samara." PM

Police in Voronezh on May 29 blocked about 150 demonstrators in a March of Dissent from proceeding from a central square, where they were denied permission to demonstrate, to another location, where their rally was sanctioned, Ekho Moskvy radio and REN-TV reported. Some of the participants were detained along the way. Former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is a leader of the heterogeneous opposition umbrella group Other Russia, said that the authorities "succeeded in preventing the meeting [taking place].... We were not ready to overcome such a powerful force. But, at the same time, I don't consider it as a total failure because they showed again they are scared. They are scared even of a small group of people and are mobilizing the police.'' PM

Inspectors for the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological, and Atomic Monitoring (Rostekhnadzor) said in Novokuznetsk in Kemerovo Oblast in western Siberia on May 29 that inspections of 58 coal mines in the area revealed 1,842 violations of safety regulations, "The Moscow Times" reported on May 30. The inspections were launched following the March 19 explosion at the modern Ulyanovsk coal mine, which left 110 miners dead and was the country's worst mining disaster in 60 years. On May 24, a methane-gas explosion at the Yubileynaya mine took 39 lives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 22, and 27, April 17, and May 24, 2007). Rostekhnadzor plans to ask a local court to suspend the license of the Yuzhkuzbassugol company, which owns the mines. In London on May 29, the board of directors of the steel firm Evraz Group approved the takeover of Yuzhkuzbassugol, in which it already held a 50 percent stake, Interfax reported. The takeover was first announced on May 25, one day after the Yubileynaya explosion. PM

Oleg Turkov, who is speaker of the Amur Oblast's legislature, said on May 29 that President Putin's choice of Nikolai Kolesov, a deputy to the Republic of Tatarstan parliament, to succeed Leonid Korotkov as Amur Oblast governor, was unexpected, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, and May 10 and 29, 2007). Turkov added that the deputies learned of the presidential decision by fax and that he has no idea who proposed Kolesov's candidacy to Putin. Turkov said that Putin must have had "objective" reasons for making his choice, which others should not challenge. Kamil Iskhakov, who is President Putin's envoy for the Far East Federal District and a former long-time mayor of Kazan, is expected to present Kolesov to the legislature, which will begin an extraordinary session on June 1 to discuss and vote on his candidacy. Putin dismissed Korotkov, who faces charges of abuse of his official position, earlier this month. PM

The trial of Captain Eduard Ulman and three other spetsnaz officers accused of the execution in January 2002 of five Chechen civilians was adjourned on May 29 until June 1 after lawyers for two of the accused failed to appear in court, reported. The prosecutor insisted on May 28 that the trial should resume despite the disappearance of Ulman and two other accused. Police informed the North Caucasus Military Court in Rostov-na-Donu on May 28 that a nationwide search launched after the three men failed to appear in court six weeks ago has not established their whereabouts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2007). LF

Interviewed on May 29 in a maximum-security prison in Yerevan by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzumanian insisted that the charges of money laundering brought against him are unfounded and that "I never did anything illicit." Arzumanian was arrested in early May, two days after police found during a search of his apartment some $55,400 that they claim was illegally sent to him by a fugitive Russian businessman of Armenian descent to help finance the Civil Resistance movement that Arzumanian cofounded last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 9, 11, and 18, 2007). According to Arzumanian's lawyer Hovik Arsentian, a second Russia-based Armenian, Aleksandr Aghazarian, has since admitted to sending the money to Arzumanian. The Armenian National Security Service has reportedly not yet taken up Aghazarian's offer to submit to questioning. Arzumanian said his arrest and detention constitutes "political persecution" that he attributed to "total panic" within the Armenian leadership due to repeated public protests in the run-up to the May 12 parliamentary elections. He said that he has not been questioned by investigators during the three weeks he has spent in pretrial custody. LF

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on May 29 issued a statement expressing concern that 14 journalists employed by the newspapers "Realny Azerbaijan" and "Gundelik Azerbaycan," both of which suspended publication last week after being constrained to vacate their offices, have applied for political asylum in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, or Norway in recent days (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23 and 24, 2007). A second organization, Article 18, similarly released a statement calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to enable journalists to practice their profession freely in accordance with international agreements Azerbaijan has signed, the electronic daily reported on May 30. Speaking on independent ANS television late on May 29, presidential administration department head Ali Hasanov again denied that journalists in Azerbaijan are subjected to pressure. He said three or four international organizations are "unobjective" in their evaluations of the situation in Azerbaijan, and he accused RSF specifically of adopting a "pro-Armenian position." Meanwhile, "Realny Azerbaijan" Editor Eynulla Fatullayev, who was jailed on libel charges last month for 2 1/2 years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23 and May 23, 2007), has been transferred to solitary confinement in Bailov jail, while Yasha Agazade, a journalist for the newspaper "Muhalifet" who is serving a prison term for libel in the same jail (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2007), began a hunger strike on May 29, reported. LF

Bidzina Gujabidze of the Democratic Front opposition parliament faction argued on May 29 that the Georgian Interior Ministry should launch a special operation to arrest Eduard Kokoity, de facto president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. But Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told journalists in Tbilisi later the same day that he sees no point in doing so in light of what he termed the "diplomatic special operation" under way. Also on May 29, the local Georgian administration rejected as untrue claims by the South Ossetian authorities that water supplies to the disputed region have been cut off. Meeting in Tskhinvali on May 29 with Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko, Kokoity called for the withdrawal from the conflict zone of all armed forces except the Joint Peacekeeping Force that comprises contingents from Russia, Georgia, and North and South Ossetia, reported. Kokoity reaffirmed his commitment to resolving the conflict with Tbilisi exclusively by peaceful means, and he called for confidence-building measures and reconstruction in the conflict zone. Kovalenko for his part noted Russia's role as guarantor of earlier peace agreements, and he called for a resumption of talks on resolving the conflict within the existing format. LF

The Democratic Front opposition parliament faction called on May 29 for the resignation of Education Minister Aleksandre Lomaya, adducing a recent statement by new Control Chamber deputy head Levan Mkheidze that faction members say substantiates their earlier allegations of corruption and misappropriation of funds within the ministry, Caucasus Press reported. In late April, the opposition Conservative party, one of the members of the Democratic Front, alleged that the Education Ministry's coordinating center misappropriated some 40 million laris ($23.8 million). Mkheidze was quoted as saying that a recent audit of ministry accounts suggests that "there have been certain types of misconduct," without clarifying whether that misconduct was criminal. Lomaya has reportedly written to the Control Chamber complaining that its findings lack "objectivity," according to Caucasus Press on May 29. LF

Police officers in Almaty on May 29 detained Yekaterina Belyayeva after she demonstrated in the city's Central Square against recently adopted amendments to the constitution, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Belyayeva, who works for the Almaty-based "Vzglyad" weekly newspaper, displayed a handmade poster reading "Amendments to the constitution: the path to totalitarianism," and conducted her lone protest for 20 minutes before being arrested for holding an "unsanctioned demonstration." The constitutional amendments, adopted by parliament on May 22, grant President Nursultan Nazarbaev the right to serve unlimited presidential terms, along with other changes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2007). Belyayeva's arrest follows a similar protest involving independent journalist Sergei Duvanov, who was also arrested and subsequently fined (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). RG

An appeals court in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent issued a ruling on May 29 overturning the prior conviction of journalist Galina Vybornova, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Vybornova, convicted of libel by a lesser court, was acquitted of all charges and the case was fully dismissed. Vybornova's legal problems started after Zhambyl district Judge Bolat Berikov filed a criminal complaint charging her with libel and insulting a public official after she published an article hinting at corruption within his court. Her original conviction, which resulted in a fine of $1,600 in April, was strongly criticized by lawmaker Darigha Nazarbaeva, the daughter of President Nazarbaev. RG

In an announcement on May 29 in Almaty, Shinar Zhenebekova, a spokeswoman for the Kazakh national nuclear company Kazatomprom, said the company has signed an agreement to establish a joint uranium-processing facility with Canada's Cameco group, ITAR-TASS reported. The agreement calls for a preliminary feasibility study to evaluate the planned establishment of the facility within Kazakhstan's Ulbinskiy metallurgical plant. If the feasibility study recommends that the project proceed, the Canadian firm will hold a 49 percent stake in the uranium-processing venture, with Kazatomprom retaining a 51 percent share. The conversion process will produce uranium hexafluoride (UF6) from peroxide derivatives collected from Kazakhstan's supply of mined uranium. The resulting uranium hexafluoride gas will then be sent to Russia for further enrichment, as Kazakhstan is prohibited by international treaty from enriching uranium itself. The plan also proposes a substantial increase in the output of uranium mining at the Inkay deposit in southern Kazakhstan from the current level of 2,000 tons to 4,000 tons a year. RG

Results from a series of medical tests released on May 29 confirmed traces of a "toxin of unknown origin" in the bloodstream of Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. The official medical report provided a detailed assessment of Atambaev's condition, including "acute toxic hepatitis of indeterminate aetiology," or origin. The medical tests were carried out after Atambaev told parliament on May 22 that he became seriously ill from drinking water in his office on May 11, and attributed his illness to an intentional poisoning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23, 2007). Atambaev was reportedly unconscious for two days after the incident, ITAR-TASS reported. Parliament speaker Marat Sultanov earlier pledged to carry out an official parliamentary investigation if the medical results confirmed Atambaev's claims. RG

In a May 29 speech in Bishkek marking the 15th anniversary of the Kyrgyz armed forces, President Kurmanbek Bakiev announced a series of planned reforms aimed at strengthening and modernizing the military, Kabar and AKIpress reported. Bakiev stressed the need to meet the "modern challenges and threats of the 21st century," and noted that military education and advanced training will be top priorities for developing the armed forces. He also identified specific goals, including the need to "increase mobility and combat readiness," and pledged to "provide the army with modern armaments and equipment." Commenting on the military's lackluster response to terrorist groups' armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan in 1999 and 2000, Bakiev warned that the army "must learn a lesson" and work to address its "shortcomings." In a separate address, Defense Minister Ismail Isakov hailed the strategic partnership with Russia as an avenue to the further strengthening of the armed forces, citing some $27 million in military assistance received from Russia since 2006 alone, ITAR-TASS reported. RG

A district court in Minsk on May 29 fined four activists of the unregistered Youth Front, finding them guilty of acting on behalf of an unauthorized organization, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Dzmitry Fedaruk was fined 1,240,000 rubles ($580), while Aleh Korban, Barys Haretski, and Alyaksey Yanusheuski were each fined 930,000 rubles ($435). The fifth defendant in the trial, Anastasiya Palazhanka, received an official warning. Yanusheuski is currently in the Czech Republic, pondering an application for political asylum. The May 29 punishments are significantly milder, compared to jail terms of six to 24 months handed down for similar offenses to four members of the unregistered organization Partnership in August 2006, or to the 18 months in a penal colony given to Youth Front leader Dzmitry Dashkevich in September 2006. Domestic and international human rights activists have called on the Belarusian government to abolish Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code, which penalizes participation in an unauthorized organization. "The very existence of Article 193-1 in the Criminal Code violates the Constitution of Belarus, which guarantees the freedom of association, as well as Article 22 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and commitments to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It allows bringing criminal action against an unregistered organization even if its activities were not directed against state or public security and did not violate public order or the rights and freedoms of others," the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights said in November 2006. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on May 29 gathered for a session for the first time in nearly two months with the participation of lawmakers from the opposition Our Ukraine and Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, Ukrainian media reported. The return of the opposition followed the May 27 political deal between President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz, which scheduled preterm elections for September 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). Lawmakers annulled their previous resolutions condemning President Yushchenko for his two April decrees dissolving the Verkhovna Rada, endorsed more than 50 bills adopted by legislators of the ruling coalition during the past two months, and passed a bill on reforming the Central Election Commission. The Verkhovna Rada was expected to conclude on May 30 passing legislation needed for the snap elections, but failed to gather opposition lawmakers for its morning sitting, reportedly because of the lack of agreement between the ruling coalition and the opposition on what legal changes need to be introduced. "Problems have emerged, but I do not want to focus attention on them, because we have agreed that we will find an answer to these questions today. We would like the answer to be positive. Otherwise, if we don't find it, it is going to be bad," Interfax-Ukraine quoted Yanukovych as saying at a government session on May 30, following his meeting with Yushchenko. JM

Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, on May 29 told the international media that "there has been no breakthrough" in discussions on the future of Kosova. He dismissed claims in a Croatian daily, "Jutarnji list," that Russia, the United States, and EU members of the UN Security Council are close to striking a deal that would pave the way for Kosova to gain independence. "These reports are not true," Churkin said, dubbing them "wild speculation" and adding that "things are exactly where they were yesterday or the day before yesterday." Citing unnamed sources "close to the Russian leadership," "Jutarnji list" claimed on May 28 that Russia would agree not to veto independence for Kosova if the Serbian province were allowed to join the UN only after two years, if Russian peacekeepers were stationed in Kosova, and if NATO deferred invitations to Georgia and Ukraine. AG

While dismissing reports of what would amount to a profound change in Washington's and Brussels' positions, Moscow has indicated it believes the West is shifting its stance on Kosova. According to a report by the EU Observer news service on May 29, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Europe desk, Sergei Ryabkov, told journalists in Brussels the same day that "there are some signs" that the Western powers are open to further talks involving Serbia on a solution for the UN-administered region. Serbia's new government and the Serbian Orthodox Church on May 25 called for negotiations to be reopened between Belgrade and Prishtina, which would effectively postpone a UN resolution. According to the Serbian broadcaster B92, Russia's ambassador to Serbia, Aleksandr Alekseyev, on May 29 confirmed a report in the local media that Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Russian President Vladimir Putin may meet during the three-day International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, which is due to begin on June 6. Putin is scheduled to be in Germany from June 6-8 at a summit of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized states. The issue of Kosova seems increasingly likely to feature prominently in the meeting. AG

The Bosnian Serbs' prime minister and president have both in recent days called for a resumption of talks between Belgrade and Prishtina on the future of Kosova, local and international media reported. Nebojsa Radmanovic, the Serbs' representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina's three-member Presidency, made his case on May 28 during a visit to Slovakia, which is both a member of the UN Security Council and the home of the international community's incoming high representative to Bosnia, Miroslav Lajcak (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 16, and 17, 2007). The Czech and Slovak media quoted Radmanovic as saying a solution imposed on Serbia could lead to upheaval across Europe. Slovakia has stated that it will vote with other EU members of the Security Council, but has also said it fears Kosova could be seen as a precedent by other minorities, including Slovak Hungarians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). In comments made to the television station RTRS on May 29, Milorad Dodik, prime minister of the Republika Srpska, focused on the possibility that Kosova might ignore the UN's decision, saying "we certainly would not support...a unilateral proclamation of Kosovo's independence." Bosnian Serb leaders have tempered their rhetoric about Kosova this year, primarily stressing that events in Kosova will not trigger violence in the Republika Srpska, a Bosnian Serb-dominated autonomous region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19 and 20, 2006, and January 5 and 26, and April 12, 2007). The Croat member of the Bosnian Presidency, Zeljko Komsic, on May 4 said that Bosnia will follow the position of the EU on the future of Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2007). AG

The newly appointed head of Kosova's constitutional commission, Hajredin Kuqi, said on May 25 that the draft of a constitution will be ready within a month of the approval of a UN resolution paving the way for the region to become a state, the news service KosovaLive reported the same day. Kuqi did not say when he expects the resolution to be passed. Washington's hopes of a vote in May, while it heads the UN Security Council, have been dashed and commentaries in the Kosovar media are increasingly debating whether the UN might postpone a vote until September. President Fatmir Sejdiu appointed members to the constitutional commission on May 24. Once drafted, the constitution will be sent to Kosova's parliament for approval. Other attempts to establish the foundations and symbols of a state are currently moving fitfully, amid reports of differences within the Unity Team, the cross-party body representing the interests of Kosovar Albanians in their bid for independence. Leaders of the Unity Team on May 29 announced a competition for a new flag and state symbols, local and international media reported the same day. The competition will be formally approved on June 4 and will be closed two weeks later. Parliament originally announced a competition in mid-March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). Prime Minister Agim Ceku said on May 18 that the state symbols state will not be ready by the time Kosova gains independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). Again, no date was predicted. Martti Ahtisaari, who drafted the UN's proposed settlement, deems the Kosovar Albanians' current flag -- a double-headed eagle on a red background -- insufficiently inclusive. AG

May 28 was the last day for Montenegrins to contribute to the heated dispute about the country's draft constitution. Montenegrin media on May 27 reported that 70 persons and institutions have suggested changes. The constitutional committee of the Montenegrin parliament now has 15 days to amend the draft and submit it to parliament for approval. Details of the suggested changes were not revealed, but debate among political parties has focused on questions of identity, ranging from the elements featured on state symbols to the fundamental question of whether Montenegro should be a civic republic or a republic of nations -- the option preferred by ethnic Serb parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, and March 12 and 15, 2007). Despite the political differences, Prime Minister Zeljko Sturanovic on May 29 told Montenegro Radio that he remains confident that the draft will win the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament. If it fails to do so, the draft will be put to a referendum, which Sturanovic described as "a waste of effort, time, and money" that would also "deepen political differences." A leading figure in the Serbian People's Party (SNS) has already called for a boycott of any referendum. Rasko Konjevic, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which is part of the governing coalition, told TV Crna Gora on May 22 that there is "consensus on about 85 percent of the constitution." The Council of Europe's European Commission for Democracy through Law -- commonly known as the "Venice Commission" -- is expected to give its view on the draft constitution in early June. AG

In an interview published by the Serbian weekly "NIN" on May 24, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski urged Belgrade to intensify and increase contacts with Skopje. "For good contacts two sides are needed," Gruevski said, continuing: "I have an impression that one side in the past avoided contacts. However, that is in the past and we should put the past behind us." Gruevski said that in his nine months as prime minister, the only time he has been unable to get a response to a request for a meeting was with Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. Both Kostunica and Gruevski lead center-right parties, but he said cooperation between their parties is limited for "no special reason other than inactivity." Gruevski did not mention Kosova. According to the MIA news agency, President Branko Crvenkovski on May 29 said that "if there is no [UN Security Council] resolution, as a candidate for EU and NATO membership, we will follow the common harmonized policy from Brussels." Crvenkovski also called the notion that Belgrade and Prishtina might reach a solution "an illusion." AG

An unconfirmed report in the daily "Gazeta Shqiptare" on May 27 says that a television spot broadcast by the government ahead of U.S. President George Bush's visit has been taken off the air at Washington's request. Unnamed government officials said Washington believes the government inappropriately took political credit for Bush's visit, while Washington wants it to be clear Bush is coming to Albania for the sake of ordinary Albanians. The spot, which aired just four times, includes a voiceover by Prime Minister Sali Berisha and footage of a series of U.S. secretaries of state meeting Albanian politicians of various political persuasions over the past 15 years. Bush's visit has been hailed by almost every faction of Albanian politics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27 and May 17, 2007). When the visit was first announced, Berisha described it as an acknowledgment of the comprehensive nature of reforms undertaken by the government to consolidate the rule of law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2007). Bush is scheduled to meet with political leaders from Macedonia and Croatia, as well as Albanian leaders, during the visit, but his itinerary remains unclear. A report on May 23 indicated that Bush will not meet ordinary Albanians, and might not enter Tirana, but the daily "Koha jone" wrote on May 25 that Bush's convoy will pass through Tirana during the five-hour stopover on June 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 2007). AG

Nearly three-quarters of Moldovans, 72.2 percent, would say yes if a referendum were held on EU membership, according to the results of an opinion poll published in the local media on May 23 and 24. This is the highest level of support for EU membership ever recorded in Moldova. An even higher number, almost 76 percent, believes EU membership would improve their lives. Only 7 percent would vote to oppose membership, according to the Barometer of Public Opinion poll. The poll also showed great confidence that Moldova will become a member soon, with 49 percent saying they expect EU accession within 10 years. Another 20 percent put the preaccession period at 20-25 years. Support for EU and NATO membership differs greatly, with only 29 percent in favor of joining NATO and 27 percent against. The dynamic is also unfavorable, with support dropping and opposition rising. Moldova is currently a neutral state, and 38 percent favor continued neutrality. The poll also found that the desire to enjoy the benefits of EU membership overwhelmingly explains why 38 percent of the Moldovans polled have applied or plan to apply for Romanian citizenship. So far this year, 1.4 percent have won Romanian citizenship, 10 percent have applied, and another 27 percent intend to submit an application, according to the poll. Only 6 percent said they applied for a Romanian passport because they "feel Romanian." AG

A deputy in the parliament of Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester was shot dead late on May 27, the news agency Basa reported on May 28. Valery Emelyanov is the second politician in the region to be murdered in the past three months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). The report says Emelyanov was shot eight times, but otherwise details are scant. No motive is apparent, though in its speculative report Basa wrote that Emelyanov was connected with the previous victim, Viktor Neumoyin, and quoted an unnamed source as saying they were both implicated -- in some undisclosed fashion -- in a case involving the murder of a police officer. Neumoyin was a close associate of the son of the leader of Transdniester, which is not internationally recognized. AG


A letter purportedly signed by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar Mujahed expressed profound sadness and distress over what it called the "innocent martyrdom" of Afghan civilians. The letter was posted on May 29 on a website allegedly representing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- and was signed by Mullah Omar in the name of the leadership council of the Islamic Emirate. The letter states that civilians have been suffering "since the beginning of the jihad against foreign invaders and the Afghan government," and says that the two opposing sides have blamed one another for causing suffering to civilians, but no independent reporting is available. The letter says the Taliban proposes the establishment of a "joint delegation, comprising representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, independent journalists, and Afghan religious scholars and elders," to take responsibility for reporting civilian casualties, identifying the perpetrators, and trying to prevent further casualties. It said that "both the Islamic Emirate and NATO" should cooperate with the proposed commission, guarantee its security, and ensure its honest reporting. In recent months, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been under pressure from several fronts in his own country because of civilian casualties resulting from NATO and U.S.-led coalition operations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2007). AT

Around 1,000 supporters of General Abdul Rashid Dostum staged a peaceful rally on May 29 in Maymana, the provincial capital of Faryab Province, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. The demonstrators released a proclamation demanding that Joma Khan Hamdarad, the governor of neighboring Jowzjan Province, be removed from his post and transferred to another province. The demonstrators also denounced statements by Ahmad Khan, a lawmaker of the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) from Samangan Province, alleging that Dostum was behind an assassination attempt against him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). In Sheberghan, the provincial capital of Jowzjan, as many as seven civilians were killed on May 28 in clashes between security forces and Dostum's supporters. Ruhullah Jan, a spokesman for the Jowzjan governor, told AIP that on an otherwise normal day, "General Dostum's supporters came, intimidated the shopkeepers, and forced them to shut their stores." AT

Sheberghan-based Aina Television, in a commentary on May 29, called the clashes the day before "a gory page" in the history of the city. Referring to the violent demonstrations in Sheberghan, the commentary said that "dozens of children have become orphans and dozen of women have become widows." The commentary said that in keeping with "the values of constitutional law, the defenseless and innocent people staged a peaceful demonstration against the cruelty and dictatorship of the blood-thirsty ruler [Governor Hamdard] and demanded...[that Kabul] remove this ominous owl from Jowzjan." According to the Aina commentary, the "peaceful demonstration" was used by Hamdard as a pretext to order security forces to open fire on the crowds. Hamdard "successfully accomplished his mission" and was "praised by his bosses," the commentary added, without identifying the bosses. AT

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressed Iranian lawmakers in Tehran on May 29 and told them that parliament's "identity" consists in upholding "Islamic principles and the revolution's values," IRNA reported. He said the current parliament has so far adopted rational and "principled" positions on domestic and foreign political affairs, has worked well with the government of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and should continue to do so in its remaining year. Khamenei contrasted this parliament with certain "ignorant" people who, he said, raised controversial issues in the previous parliament, possibly referring to the last, reformist-dominated parliament's concern for political reform and civil-rights issues. He suggested that voters effectively rejected that chamber by electing a more conservative parliament. Khamenei appeared to oppose parliament's recent bid -- so far blocked by senior state jurists -- to hold simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections in 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10 and 23, 2007). He said that "one must not go after issues that are evidently...contrary to the constitution, because these issues will waste parliament's time. Parliament's time should not be spent on details of certain executive matters," IRNA reported. VS

A director-general for counterespionage at Iran's Intelligence Ministry told the press in Tehran on May 29 that a number of "spy networks" have been identified and "hit" in Iran, the Fars news agency reported. The official -- whose name was not released -- said these networks are guided from "inside Iraq by American and British espionage services, with the support of some Iraqi elements." He or she said the networks have been active in Tehran and Iran's western provinces -- Kurdistan, Ilam, Kermanshah, Hamedan, and Khuzestan. The official said spies have sought to access "important and sensitive individuals and centers" in Iran, and use this access to collect confidential information. He named other alleged activities including kidnapping, "terrorist actions," filming and photographing sensitive sites, sabotage, and "soft" measures such as fomenting discontent among Iranian minorities. He said the ministry has arrested "a large number" of spies connected to these networks and is looking for more, and lamented that many of those detained are Iranians. He specifically warned academics to beware of establishing connections with foreign institutions, and said such ties are possible "traps," or means by which foreign intelligence services could obtain secret information about Iran. VS

Mohammad Hussein Aqasi, the lawyer representing detained RFE/RL reporter Parnaz Azima, has denied reports that Iran has charged his client with acting against national security, Radio Farda reported on May 29. "I absolutely reject the honorable judiciary spokesman's claim, because my client is not facing such a charge," Aqasi told the broadcaster in Tehran. News agencies quoted Iranian judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi as saying the same day that Azima and two Iranians working in research-related projects have been charged with acting against national security. But Aqasi said that to his knowledge, Azima has only been charged with "engaging in propaganda against the system." He said the only offense so far attributed to Azima was in relation to her work with Radio Farda and "reporting matters about Iran and broadcasting them on radio." The lawyer said he intends to challenge in court the qualification of news reporting as an "action" against national security. Aqasi said Jamshidi may have confused the charges against Azima with those made against two other Iranians recently detained in high-profile cases, Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh. He said he and Azima should be informed of any new charges against her, and thought it unlikely that Jamshidi would be informed before they were. VS

Said Qanbarzehi was executed by hanging on May 27 after he was found guilty of participating in a February 14 bombing in Zahedan, southeastern Iran, which killed a group of Iranian soldiers traveling by bus, ILNA reported on May 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007). Qanbarzehi was convicted on charges of "fighting God and religion and spreading corruption on earth" through armed activity, membership of a terrorist group, and assassination and bombing, ILNA reported. The execution took place at prison in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan Province. VS

Tabriz representative Muhammad Reza Mirtajeddini said in Tehran on May 29 that a three-country committee on Iraq -- proposed during May 28 talks between U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq -- could contribute to restoring security in that country, ILNA reported. Mirtajeddini is a prominent conservative legislator who regularly speaks on foreign affairs issues. He said that Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, informed U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker of the reasons for the "security problems" in Iraq and "America's sabotage and changes in Iraq." Separately, Iran's Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki told the Saudi daily "Al-Watan" that he has held ongoing phone consultations with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal on the situation in Lebanon, ISNA reported on May 29, without saying when the interview was published. Mottaki said Iran and Saudi Arabia have also been exchanging "written messages" on Lebanon. VS

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that a cross-border operation to attack Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants in Iraq will be carried out "if necessary," the Anatolia news agency reported on May 29. Asked by NTV whether an operation would be carried out, Erdogan said, "One does not talk about whether these kind of operations will take place or not, it would simply be carried out." He added: "There are two dimensions to it. One is military and technical, the other is political and diplomatic. Both parties [presumably the military and diplomatic corps] would work on their parts. Then they would come together and discuss. Following that, the necessary steps would be taken rapidly." Erdogan said last week that he saw eye-to-eye with the army over possible military action, Reuters reported on May 30. The news agency reported that Turkey sent more tanks -- about 20 -- to the border on May 30 ahead of a possible incursion. KR

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq said in a video posted to the Internet that it now has Russian-made thermal bombs, Al-Jazeera television reported on May 30. The group said it has established a new unit called the Thermal Brigade to attack coalition vehicles with its thermal grenades. The Islamic State of Iraq claims the grenades can penetrate armored vehicles. The video shows insurgents lobbing the grenades at the vehicles, the news channel reported. KR

Jordan has said it will accept S-series Iraqi passports until the end of the year, Jordanian media reported on May 29. The Iraqi government asked the Hashemite Kingdom in mid-May to allow Iraqis holding the outdated passports to remain in the kingdom through December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2007). Iraqi Ambassador to Amman Sa'd Jasim al-Hayyani said Jordan's decision took into account the delays faced by the Iraqi Embassy in issuing the new G-series passports, "Al-Ghadd" reported. "Our embassy offices receive an average of 200 passport applications every day. Our role is limited to receiving and sorting out these applications before sending them to the competent departments in Baghdad," al-Hayyani said. He told the "Jordan Times" on May 29 that 4,000 out of 12,000 applications have been processed so far by the embassy, the daily reported on May 30. There are an estimated 700,000 Iraqis currently residing in Jordan. Al-Hayyani added that it will be two to three months before the embassy is equipped to issue passports directly to Iraqi nationals. Until that time, applications will continue to be forwarded to Baghdad. KR

The British government acknowledged that five U.K. nationals were kidnapped outside the Iraqi Finance Ministry in Baghdad on May 29, the BBC reported the same day. Abducted were four bodyguards and a finance expert who was advising the ministry. Witnesses told the BBC that the kidnappers were dressed in Iraqi police uniforms and arrived in as many as 40 police vehicles. Witnesses said the street was sealed off at both ends, and the kidnappers walked right past ministry guards. British Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters during a trip to Libya that the government will do "everything we possibly can" to help locate the abducted. Meanwhile, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani said the ministry has launched an investigation into the incident, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on May 29. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said on May 30 that Shi'ite militants from Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army may have been behind the abductions. He speculated that they were assisted by rogue police, Reuters reported. KR