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Newsline - June 4, 2007

President Vladimir Putin told journalists from Group of Eight (G8) countries in Novo-Ogaryovo on June 1 that the proposed U.S. missile-defense system could lead to a new arms race, even though Russia does not want one, international media and reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 30, and 31, and June 1, 2007). He argued that "if a new missile-defense system is deployed in Europe, then we need to warn you today that we will come with a response. We have to ensure our security, and we are not the initiator of this process." He stressed that "we will have to find new targets in Europe" for Russian missiles. Putin stressed that the proposed U.S. stationing of 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic "is not a missile-defense system just by itself. When it is set up, it will start operating automatically as part of the United States' nuclear capability." He added that this would be "the first time in history that elements of the nuclear capability of the United States appear on the European continent. That simply changes the whole configuration of international security...[and] increases the possibility of nuclear conflict." The Russian leader said that U.S. offers to cooperate with Russia on missile defense were not sincere. He stressed that "we have received no substantive proposals about serious cooperation from them and know that we won't receive any. That is because this system is being created as a part of the American nuclear potential, and of course it's absurd to talk of allowing Russia into the holiest of holies." Putin repeated Moscow's position that missile defense is directed against Russia and not against Iran, as Washington argues. He added, "I wonder why all this is being done. Why are our American partners so persistently trying to breathe life into plans to deploy a missile-defense system when it is obviously not needed for defense against Iranian missiles?" Putin suggested that "maybe it is being done specifically in order to make us take retaliatory steps and in order to prevent any further rapprochement between Russia and Europe." PM

Asked by a journalist in Novo-Ogaryovo on June 1 whether Germany's former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was correct in calling him a "dyed-in-the-wool democrat," President Putin replied, "Of course I am. I am an absolutely pure democrat. The real tragedy is that I am the only one.... Since Mahatma Gandhi died, there's just no one left to talk to," international media and reported. Putin called on his interviewers to "look at what is happening in North America -- nothing but horror. Torture, homeless people, Guantanamo, and the detention of people without trial." He added that one should "look at what is happening in Europe. Look at how they deal with demonstrators. The use of tear gas in one capital or another, the murder of demonstrators in the street.... In Germany, 70 people have died after being subjected to electric stun guns." Putin argued that one may demonstrate in Russia but must obey the law and not cause trouble. But, he added, "when people deliberately provoke law enforcement organs and deliberately gather in places where they are clearly disrupting normal everyday life or the city's functioning, then the authorities have to take appropriate steps and bring order. Thank God we haven't yet seen any extreme methods that are used in West European countries." PM

President Putin said in Novo-Ogaryovo on June 1 that Britain's recent request for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, the Russian businessman and former KGB agent whom British authorities want to put on trial for the 2006 poisoning death of Aleksandr Litvinenko, was politically motivated, international media and reported. He charged that the British authorities "know that the constitution prevents us from extraditing anyone. Why did they send this request? It means it was some kind of political act" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). Putin also defended Russian policy toward foreign investors in the energy sector. He argued that Shell's former contract on Sakhalin "was a colonial agreement. It had nothing in common with the interests of the Russian Federation." Putin noted that "when ecological problems were uncovered and the possibility of fines arose, the entry of Gazprom saved the project.... They paid out huge funds to be able to participate.... As far as I understand, our partners were mostly satisfied with the outcome." PM

Pawel Zalewski, who heads the Polish parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said recently that "in Russia today, the elite thinks in Cold War terms," Britain's "Financial Times" reported from Prague on June 4. He added that Russian leaders "demand that the West recognize their sphere of interest in the former Soviet Union and in former Soviet satellites." He said that Poland needs to strengthen its defenses against medium-range missiles "following threats from Russian generals who declare that Russian rockets are aimed at Poland." Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg argued that "Russia has again become a rich country and would like to return to the position of the Soviet Union of being a superpower. They [believe] that all former parts of the Soviet Union are their sphere of influence, and [that] the states that belonged to Comecon or the Warsaw Pact are those where they should have a right of veto. It is very simple: they are staking claims." PM

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek argued on June 3 that "Russia needs an outside enemy to hide problems at home," Czech Television reported. Britain's "The Economist" wrote on June 1 that Putin's "neurotic bluster plays...well among ordinary Russians [because]...the national mood...has become increasingly xenophobic" in recent years. But the Russian weekly "Ekspert" said in its May 28 issue that "Washington wants to put the European Union in its place and detach[it] from Russia" through the missile-defense project. The weekly argued that the United States seeks to keep the EU dependent on it for defense, adding that "anti-Russian attitudes among our former allies are ideally suited to Washington's purposes. The aim of the U.S. maneuver is to elicit a harsh response from Moscow." "Ekspert" believes that "the Americans would be able to draw us into an arms race and use the Europeans to undermine our economy. Eventually, the United States would be able to regain its positions in Europe." The weekly notes that "the Russian Federation has only two remaining elements that remind our citizens of its imperial past and fill our hearts with pride in our country: nuclear arsenals and Russia's vast territory.... Abandoning either of them would mean admitting to ourselves that we are no longer the great power that once made the whole world respect it, a great power that countries like Georgia and Estonia would not dare provoke." The weekly stressed that "Russia is acting very wisely by supporting certain European leaders in their intention to take [missile defense] to the EU or NATO for collective discussion. Some Russian politicians have even proposed that Russia and European countries should join forces to build a missile-defense system, with the aim of dividing Europe from the United States. That would be highly advantageous for Russia, permitting at least partial integration into the European security system." "Ekspert" argues that "the plans for deploying missile-defense elements in Eastern Europe pose a threat to Russia, but they also offer certain opportunities, and Russia should make use of them. There won't be many more chances like this." PM

President Putin said in Novo-Ogaryovo on June 1 that "we don't consider [the southern Kurile Islands] as disputed territory because this situation emerged as a result of [Red Army occupation at the close of] World War II and it is fixed in international documents," international media and reported. He added, however, that "we nonetheless understand the motives of our Japanese partners' behavior. We want to rid ourselves of all [points of antagonism] from the past and are seeking a resolution to this issue together with Japan." On June 3, however, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Kunashiri and Shikotan in the Southern Kuriles, which are known as the Northern Territories in Japan and still claimed by Tokyo, Japan's international broadcaster NHK reported on June 4. Lavrov stressed on his trip that any settlement in the region would have to be based on postwar "realities," reported. Japanese media said that the visit was aimed at reaffirming Moscow's claim to the islands before an anticipated meeting between Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the margins of the upcoming G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany. The dispute over the Northern Territories has prevented Moscow and Tokyo from signing a peace treaty concluding World War II between them. PM

Two members of a Russian and Daghestani Interior Ministry force were killed and a third injured on June 2 when they walked into an ambush set by a group of between five and eight militants near the village of Solnechnoye in Khasavyurt Raion, Russian media reported. Reinforcements and combat helicopters were summoned and the militants' hideout was subjected to mortar fire that killed three of them, according to the daily "Kommersant" on June 4. Ekho Moskvy quoted Daghestan's Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov as saying the militants belonged to the force led by field commander Rappani Khalilov and participated in the terrorist bombing in the town of Kaspiisk on May 9, 2002, that killed at least 34 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2002). "Kommersant," however, reported that the operation was launched in response to reports that a group of fighters subordinate to field commander Ismail Yangizbiyev was based in the area. LF

An explosive device attached to the gates to the property in Nazran of Islamic Institute rector Magomed-Bashir Aushev detonated early on June 3, reported. The explosion caused some damage to the building and to Aushev's car, but no one was injured. A respected Muslim scholar was abducted in Nazran 10 days earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23, 2007). LF

Speaking to journalists in Nalchik on June 1, Russian Deputy Interior Minister Colonel General Arkady Yedelev claimed there is evidence that the organizers of the October 2005 multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik were in contact with unspecified Western intelligence services and aimed to destabilize the situation in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), reported. But lawyer Larisa Dorogova, who represents the families of some of the 92 militants killed during those attacks, told later on June 1 that Yedelev's allegation is "strange," given that such contacts with Western intelligence services are not mentioned anywhere in the official records of the ongoing investigation. She further denied that the attacks constituted an act of terrorism, arguing that they were undertaken in retaliation for the gratuitous reprisals by KBR police against young men who were practicing Muslims. LF

The Moscow city prosecutor has suspended the investigation into the October 2002 hostage taking by Chechen militants at a Moscow theater, Russian media reported on June 1 quoting Igor Trunov, a lawyer representing relatives of some of the 128 hostages killed when Russian special forces stormed the building early on October 26. The rationale cited for suspending the investigation was that it has not proved possible to locate the accused. Trunov pointed out that while 40 of the 52 hostage takers were killed, only two -- Gerikhan Dudayev and Khasan Zakayev -- are currently being searched for. Trunov also said that the documentation he received from the investigator suggests that the death in July 2006 of Chechen radical field commander Shamil Basayev, who claimed to have masterminded the hostage taking, was the result of an accidental explosion and not of a special operation, as claimed at the time by Federal Security Service head Nikolai Patrushev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 1, 2002 and July 11, 2006). LF

The Constitutional Court opened on June 1 hearings into appeals filed by four opposition parties against the official results of the May 12 parliamentary election, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The Hanrapetutiun and Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) parties and the Impeachment bloc are demanding the court invalidate the results of the vote under the proportional system (for 90 of the 131 mandates) and schedule repeat voting. The Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party headed by former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian is initially seeking a recount of ballots cast at 10 percent of Armenia's 2,000 polling stations. Orinats Yerkir representative Hovannes Markarian told the court on June 1 that if the discrepancies revealed by the recount appear to be so large as to have influenced the election outcome, Orinats Yerkir will demand a new vote nationwide. The Court must rule on the appeals by June 10. Meanwhile, only some 1,000 people attended a rally in Yerevan on June 1 convened by Hanrapetutiun, Nor Zhamanakner, and Impeachment to protest the alleged falsification of the election. LF

Yasha Agazade, a journalist for the newspaper "Muhalifet," has abandoned the hunger strike he began last week, reported on June 4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30, 2007). Agazade was sentenced last month to 2 1/2 years' imprisonment on charges, which he denied, of libeling academician Jalal Aliyev, the uncle of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. LF

Ambassador Roy Reeve, who heads the OSCE Mission in Georgia, reached agreement on June 1 during talks with Eduard Kokoity, leader of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, on unspecified measures to restore water supplies in the area surrounding the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, Caucasus Press reported. Water mains have been damaged by farmers who tap them to obtain water for irrigation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1, 2007). Water supplies to some Georgian villages were duly resumed on June 2. But on June 3, Boris Chochiyev, the top South Ossetian negotiator, accused the Georgian side of preventing Ossetian engineers from traveling to Georgian-populated villages north of Tskhinvali to repair the pipeline that supplies the town with water. In retaliation, South Ossetia suspended water supplies to villages in Georgia's Gori Raion. The Russian Foreign Ministry on June 1 accused Georgia of engaging in "political games" by insisting that the South Ossetian leadership coordinate its repair efforts with pro-Tbilisi South Ossetian provisional administration head Dmitry Sanakoyev. The Georgian Foreign Ministry responded by accusing Moscow of deliberate distortion of the situation in South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported on June 2. Speaking at a press conference in Tskhinvali on June 3, Chochiyev alleged that Georgia is "preparing for war," reported. Sanakoyev told journalists in Tbilisi the same day that "Tskhinvali wants to destabilize the situation by ultimatums and intimidation." LF

Georgia's Ministry for Conflict Resolution issued a statement on May 31 calling on Ambassador Jean Arnault, the special representative of the UN Secretary-General for the Abkhaz conflict, to persuade the Abkhaz authorities "as soon as possible" to resume talks on security issues and the repatriation of displaced persons, Caucasus Press reported on June 1. The Abkhaz suspended talks last year after Georgia deployed Interior Ministry forces to the Kodori Gorge and refuse to return to the negotiating table until those forces, and the so-called Abkhaz government in exile, leave Kodori (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2006, and February 26 and May 7, 2007). Arnault visited Sukhum(i), capital of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, last week where he met with senior officials, including de facto President Sergei Bagapsh and Vice President Raul Khadjimba, reported. LF

Austrian authorities arrested Rakhat Aliev, the son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, in Vienna on June 1 and released him on $1.3 million in bail on June 3, agencies reported. Aliev, who is wanted on kidnapping charges in Kazakhstan, must remain in Austria while that country weighs Kazakhstan's extradition request, the BBC reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 12, and 20, and May 14, 24, and 31, 2007). Aliev told Austria's "Profil" that "Austria must not deliver me to a system under which my life and the lives of my family are endangered," AP reported. The charges against Aliev stem from an alleged takeover attempt at Kazakh bank Nurbank, in which Aliev is a shareholder. Aliev has said that the charges against him are a politically motivated response to his desire to run for the presidency. Kazakhstan's parliament recently removed term limits for Nazarbaev, whose current term runs through 2012 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). DK

Prosecutors in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh have opened a criminal case in connection with alleged "terrorism" after an explosion on May 30 damaged the editorial offices of two local newspapers, the website reported on June 1. The blast broke windows and caused damage but no injuries. DK

Approximately 50 representatives of leftist political parties in Kyrgyzstan held a demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek on June 2 to protest the presence of the U.S. military base in the country, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Klara Ajibekova, the leader of one of Kyrgyzstan's two communist parties, told demonstrators that the rally was the beginning of a drive to oust the base from Kyrgyz territory, news agency reported. "Kyrgyzstan is becoming the hostage of the U.S. Let the U.S. play all its games on its own territory. Today's rally is the beginning of the Kyrgyz people's struggle against the deployment of the base in the country," Ajibekova said. Aleksandr Tiperov, head of a movement calling for the removal of the U.S. air base, said that he and his supporters plan to gather signatures for a referendum on the U.S. presence, reported. Kyrgyz law requires at least 300,000 signatures to trigger a nationwide referendum. A number of committees in Kyrgyzstan's parliament have recommended a review of the U.S. military presence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2007). DK

An opposition assembly held by the opposition movement For a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek on June 2 called for a referendum on a union with Russia, Interfax reported. Former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, the leader of For a Worthy Future, told reporters, "A union with Russia will preserve the unity of Kyrgyzstan and its people, who have been split by the government's silly steps into the north and the south." Kulov said that if parliament does not take up the plan for a confederation with Russia, activists will work for a referendum to dissolve the legislature, news agency reported. "We give the country's leadership until autumn. By that time, the collection of signatures in support of a confederation with Russia will be completed, and we will wait for the authorities' reaction," Kulov said. "And following the collection of 300,000 signatures, we will put three questions to a referendum, specifically the creation of a union with Russia; an early presidential election; and the parliament's dissolution and a new parliamentary election." DK

Speaking at a donors' conference in Dushanbe on June 2, President Emomali Rahmon criticized Russia for its failure to write off Tajik debts, agencies reported. Rahmon said "Russia very often writes off debts of African countries, forgetting about its closest neighbors," the website reported. He added, "Asian countries remain forgotten, and in particular Central Asian countries." Rahmon said that Tajikistan has raised the issue with Russia several times and received no response, but will pay off its remaining debt to Russia "next year," RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Tajikistan's debt to Russia stood at $35 million in January 2007. DK

President Rahmon also criticized NATO and the United States for insufficient efforts to fight drug production in Afghanistan, Interfax reported. Rahmon said, "I have repeatedly expressed my concerns [about drug trafficking from Afghanistan] to U.S. and NATO representatives, but they said the elimination of drugs is not among the goals of the antiterrorist operations." He added, "Tajikistan occupies the third position in the world in terms of the amount of contraband drugs it seizes, but our country, or any other, including Afghanistan, cannot defeat drug [trafficking] alone." DK

U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Steven Mann met with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on May 31 for talks on energy sector cooperation, reported the next day. In an interview published on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat ( on May 31, Mann said that "the United States wants to support the vision of Turkmenistan's president and open Turkmenistan to the modern world of investments." Mann stressed that the United States continues to back the idea of "alternative pipelines in different directions" to export Turkmen oil and gas. In comments to the press, Mann expressed continued U.S. support for a pipeline across the Caspian Sea, the Trend news agency reported. Turkmenistan recently reached an agreement with Kazakhstan and Russia to construct a new pipeline along the shore of the Caspian to feed into Russia's existing pipeline network (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). DK

Belarusian police on June 3 arrested Antoni Bakun, the pastor of a Minsk-based Protestant community called the St. John Divine Church, Belapan and the "Nasha Niva" weekly reported. Bakun was arrested while conducting a religious service and subsequently placed in a pretrial detention center. He is reportedly to stand trial on a charge of "organizing and conducting a religious meeting without permission." Bakun was arrested on the same charge on May 27 and fined $290 by a court the following day. In recent weeks, Belarusian authorities have taken action against a number of Christian believers, expelling a U.S. Protestant minister and anulling the residency permit of Polish member of an Evangelical Christian church (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 18, 2007). JM

The Verkhovna Rada on June 1 approved a package of bills needed to stage early parliamentary elections on September 30, as agreed by President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Moroz last month, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). Among other measures, lawmakers amended the election law, introducing a requirement for a minimum 50 percent turnout and restrictions on voting abroad. The legislature also revised the 2007 budget law to provide funds for the early polls, and approved the revised composition of the Central Election Commission (TsVK). The TsVK elected Volodymyr Shapoval as its head the following day. "The fact that we resolved the parliamentary crisis in a decent and democratic way is a colossal achievement.... This has been a test which we have passed with honor. This has been entirely Ukraine's effort," Reuters quoted Yushchenko as saying on June 2. The same day, the official presidential bulletin published all the early-election legislation passed by the Verkhovna Rada, thus formally putting it into effect. The bulletin also included a decree appointing Oleksandr Medvedko as Ukraine's prosecutor-general. Yushchenko fired Svyatoslav Piskun from that post last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 2007). JM

The pro-presidential Our Ukraine party and Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) held conventions in Kyiv on June 2, where they formally approved last week's withdrawal of their deputies from the Verkhovna Rada, Ukrainian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1, 2007). The move was part of last month's deal on early elections by President Yushchenko, Prime MinisterYanukovych, and parliamentary speaker Moroz, who agreed that the Verkhovna Rada should dissolve itself based on the resignation of opposition lawmakers. Our Ukraine and BYuT jointly control some 170 seats in the 450-seat Rada, and the withdrawal of their deputies reportedly took parliament below the 300-seat minimum it needs to legally function. It is not clear whether the Verkhovna Rada elected in March 2006 has now ceased to exist following the withdrawal of the pro-presidential parties. Prime Minister Yanukovych told journalists on June 3 that he will urge legislators to continue working. "The Ukrainian Constitution provides for the continuation of work of the branches of power," Yanukovych added. The ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party is reportedly planning to gather for a parliamentary session on June 5. JM

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn promised Serbian President Boris Tadic on June 2 that the EU will resume talks with Belgrade on a Stabilization and Association Agreement by mid-June, international and local media reported on June 2 and 4. Rehn said the exact date will be set after the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte, returns from a visit to Belgrade on June 4. Rehn said Serbia has demonstrated its "clear commitment to full cooperation with the ICTY" through its role in the capture, in Bosnia, of a leading Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect, General Zdravko Tolimir (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 31, 2007). Tolimir was transferred to The Hague, where the ICTY is based, on June 1. AG

Christian Schwarz-Schilling, the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, on June 1 urged the country's government to accelerate plans for the creation of state-run prisons, following the escape of a convicted war criminal, Radovan Stankovic, on May 25 from a prison in the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). At present, prisons are run by the governments in the country's two autonomous regions, with Serbs being jailed in the Republika Srpska and Muslims and Croats being placed in prisons in the Muslim-Croat Federation (Muslims are sent to central Bosnia and Croats to Herzegovina). In an article that appeared in "Dnevni avaz," "Nezavisne novine," and "Vecernji list" on June 1, Schwarz-Schilling said that, in the years before a state system is in place, war criminals should be sent to the most secure prison, wherever that may be and regardless of their ethnicity. "The issue is security, not ethnicity," he said. Stankovic's escape has caused outrage in Bosnia, and also raised questions about the timing of the arrest of the war crimes suspect Zdravko Tolimir, which came days after Stankovic's escape and shortly before a planned visit to Serbia by the head of the ICTY (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 31, 2007). The capture of Tolimir is the first time that police in the Republika Srpska have apprehended a war crimes suspect indicted by the ICTY. AG

The UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) on June 1 succeeded in brokering a deal that allows the Serbian Orthodox Church to continue to build a wall around a church in Pec (Peje). In a press statement, UNMIK described the dispute as a "months-long impasse on technical issues." On May 16, the local council ordered the church to halt construction, after 100 meters of the 600-meter-long wall had been built, arguing that planning regulations had been violated. The issue became a focus of attention for some ethnic Albanians critical of the UN plan for Kosova's independence, which includes provisions on the protection of Serbian cultural and religious sites (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). The most vociferous Kosovar nationalist grouping, the Self-Determination movement, on May 21 likened the construction to the Berlin Wall, calling it an attempt to "Serbicize these monuments of the people of Kosova's cultural heritage" and to separate "the majority population from their past in order to destroy their history in this land." Pec was a major Serbian religious center before its capture by the Ottomans in the late 14th century. AG

Greek police believe that an arson attack that destroyed the car of a Serbian diplomat in Thessaloniki on May 31 was not aimed at Serbia, the Serbian broadcaster B92 reported the same day. No one was injured in the attack, which, according to B92, also destroyed a car with a Greek license plate. Radomir Zivkovic, Serbia's consul-general in Thessaloniki, told Radio Belgrade on May 31 that he believes that "this act was not aimed against our country" and said that "the police have reason to suspect that [the perpetrators] were anarchists." AP reported on June 1 that a police office and a branch of a private bank were also targeted. AP noted that anarchists in Athens and Thessaloniki routinely target diplomatic cars, banks, and government buildings. AG

Experts from the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional matters, have recommended that Montenegro make 199 changes to its draft constitution, Montenegrin media reported on June 1 and 2. The commission, known in full as the European Commission for Democracy Through Law, said improvements are particularly required in clauses relating to minority rights and the judiciary. It nonetheless concluded that the draft broadly meets Council of Europe standards (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30, 2007). AG

Police forces in five former Yugoslav republics have broken up a gang that has been smuggling migrants into the EU. Police officials from the five states -- Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia -- told journalists in Belgrade on June 1 that the joint operation resulted in the arrest of 77 people. The largest number, 21, were seized in Slovenia. Nineteen were seized in Macedonia, 16 in Croatia, 11 in Serbia, and 10 in Bosnia. Local media reported that the migrants each paid between 2,000-3,000 euros ($2,700-$4,040) to be smuggled into the EU. AG

Moldovans went to the polls on June 3 to elect nearly 900 mayors and 12,000 local councillors. The results have yet to be declared, but opinion polls before the vote suggested that the Communist Party, which has ruled since 2001, remains the country's most popular party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). Most attention in the campaign has focused on two areas where the Communists are relatively weak: the capital and the autonomous region of Gagauzia. No Communist has ever succeeded in becoming mayor of Chisinau, though, since an electoral impasse caused the mayor's resignation in 2005, the capital has been run by a succession of three acting mayors, all openly supported by the ruling Communist Party. The current acting mayor, Veaceslav Iordan, has since formally been adopted by the Communist Party as its candidate in the race. In Gagauzia, the Communists are seeking to make a comeback after losing in a gubernatorial election in December 2006. Gagauzia, a region populated by an ethnically Turkic but religiously Christian Orthodox people, is significant not just because it enjoys substantial autonomy, but also because it enjoys disproportionate political leverage, as its governor automatically becomes a member of the cabinet. A large number of candidates will be running, including representatives of 24 parties, testimony to the opposition's failure to unite against the Communists. The intense competition makes it probable that a second round, on June 17, will be needed in many areas -- including Chisinau, where there were 18 candidates -- as mayors require the support of at least 50 percent of voters. The opposition filed a large number of complaints before the vote, but initial reports suggest that election day passed off with few incidents. AG

Transdniester on June 2 released a local politician whom it has held in prison since the region's separatist conflict with Moldova, international and local media reported on June 2. Andrei Ivantoc, an opponent of Transdniester's separation from Moldova, was arrested on June 2, 1992 on charges of terrorism and sentenced in 1993 to 15 years in jail. Ivantoc, who is now 46, was one of four members of the Tiraspol branch of the Christian Democratic People's Party who were jailed. One of the members, Ilie Ilascu, was released in 2001 and is now a member of parliament for a nationalist party in Romania. A second, Alexandru Lesco, was freed in 2004. The Basa news agency reported on June 1, citing Deputy Reintegration Minister Ion Stavila, that the last of the four, Tudor Petrov-Popa, is due to be released on June 4. The European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) in 2004 ordered the release of Ivantoc and Petrov-Popa and ordered Moldova and Russia to pay the four a total of over $1 million in compensation. The court held Russia partly responsible for their detention because of its military and political support for Transdniester (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 2004). Russia has since paid the compensation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19, 2004). AG

Valery Golubev, the deputy chairman of Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom's Management Committee, said in April that the price of gas charged by Gazprom to Ukraine will depend on how closely the economies of both countries are prepared to cooperate, the Ukrainian website reported.

"If politicians make a decision to establish closer economic ties between our countries, this will guarantee lower gas prices," Golubev said. "However, if the politicians decide to separate these ties, then the price of gas for Ukraine will be same as for Germany. Does Ukraine really want this? I want to stress that Russia does not need this."

This explanation of pricing for gas sold to Ukraine is different from previous explanations provided by Gazprom managers and by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Such explanations have emphasized that Russia is striving to stop subsidizing gas supplies to Ukraine.

"We have subsidized the Ukrainian economy with low gas prices for a decade and we intend to end this practice," Putin said in January 2007. Putin didn't mention, however, that Ukraine buys mostly Turkmen, rather than Russian gas.

The present price Ukraine pays for gas was negotiated early this year and was based on a January 2006 agreement whereby Gazprom agreed to a price for a "basket" of Turkmen, Kazakh, and Russian gas.

Ukraine wound up paying $95 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas in 2006 and $130 in 2007, when Turkmenistan raised the gas price for Gazprom to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters.

As of this year, Ukraine does not buy any Russian gas -- it only imports 50 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas each year.

Turkmenistan sells this gas to a Gazprom subsidiary company, Gazeksport, for $100 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazeksport then resells it to RosUkrEnergo, a middleman with headquarters in Switzerland, which resells it to a joint venture company, UkrGazEnergo, at the Russian-Ukrainian border. It is then sold on to Ukrainian domestic and industrial consumers.

If Gazprom should suddenly determine that the economies of the two countries are not "close enough," it could raise prices. But buying Turkmen gas for $100 and reselling it to Ukraine at the market price of $250-270 could be risky.

Such price speculation could upset the Turkmen leadership, which traditionally has insisted that Gazprom should not engage in such deals. Turkmenistan would then most likely be forced to raise the price it charges Gazprom to world market levels.

Golubev's comments raise another question: Who is empowered to decide when "closer economic ties" between Ukraine and Russia reach the point of closeness that qualifies Ukraine for a substantial gas-price reduction?

Any price reduction that Russia might give to Ukraine would be, in effect, a very expensive subsidy. Russian politicians and the Finance Ministry might be hard-pressed to accept such an arrangement.

Golubev could well be disguising Gazprom's long-standing efforts to obtain a controlling share in the Ukrainian trunk gas pipeline by talking about "economic closeness" in return for cheap gas. This was the tactic used in Belarus and in Armenia, where Moscow was intent on initially gaining a stake and, ultimately, a controlling stake in the pipelines.

The question remains: Is Gazprom willing to sacrifice billions of dollars in subsidies in return for control over the pipeline?

During his visit to Moscow in April, according to the RIA Novosti news agency, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said he would honor the 25-year contract signed with Gazprom in 2003 to supply Russia with the lion's share of Turkmen gas. At the same time, however, Berdymukhammedov was very vague about the price he would charge Gazprom for this gas. Why, many ask, should Turkmenistan sell its gas to Gazprom at prices far below world prices?

At this time Kazakhstan, according to RIA Novosti, began threatening to raise its price for gas from $100 to $160 per 1,000 cubic meters, and the Turkmen leadership was reportedly contemplating a similar price increase. Central Asian gas producers have said that in two years they plan to charge world prices for their gas.

If this were to happen, it would definitely drive up the price Ukraine pays for gas -- unless Golubev's formula for cheap gas is implemented.

In mid-May, when Putin signed an agreement with Central Asian leaders to build a new Caspian gas pipeline to export Central Asian gas to the West, the price Turkmenistan would charge for its gas was not mentioned.

"The price [for Turkmen gas] is to remain unchanged until the end of 2009, but talks are to take place before July 1, 2009, on changing it under long-term deals by bringing it into line with European prices," Interfax reported on May 14.

Golubev's remarks were by and large ignored by the Ukrainian media, which was preoccupied with the ongoing confrontation between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

Yanukovych, who favors close political and economic ties with Russia, is seen as the beneficiary of Golubev's remarks. But does his business constituency agree with this?

The Industrial Union of Donbas, one of the most powerful business groupings in Ukraine, has had a separate gas-purchasing agreement with Kazakhstan for many years.

Golubev has not been a visible participant in the Ukrainian-Russian gas discussions till now, but given his background he seems to enjoy powerful support from the Kremlin. A former KGB officer, Golubev worked in the St. Petersburg mayor's office when Putin and Aleksei Miller, the present head of Gazprom, worked there.

In February 2003, he became a member of Gazprom's management committee and in November 2006 became its deputy chairman, replacing Aleksandr Ryazanov, who had been fired.

Golubev's responsibility at Gazprom is the CIS market for Russian gas sales, one of the most sensitive jobs in Gazprom.

His pronouncements about a vague gas-pricing scheme for Ukraine could be an indication that the Kremlin is intent on trying to use scare tactics with the twin objectives of bringing Ukraine closer into the Russian fold while at the same time helping to further Putin's long-standing support for Yanukovych.

Golubev's attempt to promote this new "carrot-stick" scheme, despite his unrealistic arguments, could mean that Gazprom is trying to both influence Ukrainians to support Yanukovych in return for cheap gas and maneuver Ukraine into abandoning or sharing its control over the largest single gas pipeline for Russian gas to the EU.

A pro-Taliban cleric said on June 2 that the Taliban's new top field commander has vowed to expel U.S. forces and liberate Afghanistan from "American slavery," AP reported the same day. The statement was made in an audio recording purportedly by Mansur Dadullah, and was broadcast at a rally in northwestern Pakistan on June 1. Mansur Dadullah is a brother of former Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, who was killed in a U.S.-led operation in May 2007; some Taliban leaders have indicated that Mansur Dadullah is taking over his brother's role as a Taliban commander (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2007). According to cleric Abdul Sattar Chishti, who organized the 12,000-person rally, Mansur Dadullah vowed to avenge his brother's death and appealed to adolescents to participate in the holy war against the "infidels." The demonstration took place in Killi Nalai, in Pakistan's northwestern tribal region. Pakistan has deployed about 90,000 troops to the region to flush out remnants of the Taliban. Afghan and some Western officials claim Pakistan is sheltering Taliban militants, enabling them to launch attacks inside Afghanistan. Pakistan denies the claims. JC

A boat sank as it was crossing a river in Afghanistan's Helmand province on June 2, killing approximately 60 civilians and Taliban militants, AP reported the same day. Afghan Defense Ministry officials released a statement that same day saying that the Afghan army is investigating exactly how many insurgents and civilians were on board. The statement did not say what caused the boat to sink, although Defense Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi said that Afghan troops saw the boat sink from a military helicopter, suggesting that the passengers may have been involved in a battle. The Helmand River flows through the southern Helmand Province, a region known to be a Taliban stronghold and the world's top grower of opium poppies. JC

Suspected Taliban militants ambushed a NATO convoy in eastern Afghanistan on June 2, killing an alliance soldier and a translator and wounding seven people, AP reported the next day. Militants used small arms and rocket-propelled grenades in the attack, according to a statement released June 3 by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Fifteen militants were killed during the clash. The ISAF statement did not provide details on the location of the attack or the nationalities of the casualties. Separately on June 2, militants attacked a police checkpoint in the Yaqubi district of Khost Province, resulting in a shootout that left 12 militants dead, an Interior Ministry statement reported. The same day, in the Shakin district of nearby Paktika Province, police killed three suspected insurgents in a clash with Taliban militants, according to Ghamai Khan, a spokesman for the governor of Paktika. JC

During a visit to Afghanistan on June 3, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the country is making slow, cautious progress, despite the Taliban's efforts to intensify attacks in recent months, AFP reported the same day. Gates told reporters traveling with him that he believes things in Afghanistan are headed in the right direction, but he said he wants to see that leaders are actually coordinating the numerous reconstruction and political development efforts. A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said NATO and U.S. forces have succeeded in halting the Taliban's offensive, but concerns remain over the growing violence and the adoption of tactics from Iraq, including suicide bombings, IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and EFPs (explosively formed projectiles). EFPs have been used with destructive effect in Iraq against U.S. armored vehicles, and are believed to be brought into Afghanistan from Iran. Gates is scheduled to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and top U.S. and NATO commanders during his visit. JC

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on June 3 that Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana did not discuss Western demands for Iran to suspend nuclear fuel production in their talks in Madrid last week, IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1, 2007). Halting uranium-enrichment work has been a key demand from Western powers in negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. Hosseini said Larijani and Solana, who is negotiating on behalf of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the 5+1 powers), will meet again in two weeks, "but before that there will be specialist meetings" to examine ideas discussed at the Madrid talks. The spokesman said Iran will continue cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) strictly within the framework of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and IAEA requirements. Hosseini said that if Iran's nuclear program were taken off the UN Security Council's agenda, Iran could "come to an agreement" on certain "confusing" points about its program, and answer the IAEA's questions within weeks, IRNA reported. VS

Nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said in comments published in "El Pais" on June 3 that he and Solana discussed "concepts" that could be used as a basis for further negotiations, and ideas for "unblocking the present situation." Larijani told the Madrid daily that he does not wish to exaggerate the "potential" of those ideas for overcoming the present impasse on Iran's nuclear program, but said, "we have agreed to work on them in the next two weeks." He said if the United States abandons its "old doctrine of unilateralism, militarism, and preventive strikes," then "there will be a basis" for Iran and the United States to resolve their differences over the nuclear program and issues such as Iraq. The "working basis," he said, is "respect for international norms and the rights of peoples. These are the parameters for establishing a more stable situation in the world." Larijani said the latest IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program found no serious deviations from international guidelines, even if there were outstanding questions. "They always have some questions, and we try and answer them.... A country's activities are not going to be shut down over a few questions," he said. VS

Tehran-based academic Ali Khorram told IRNA on June 3 that he believes the European Union has "to some extent come to accept the idea of enrichment on Iranian territory," and said the issue of suspending uranium enrichment is no longer a pertinent issue of discussion. Western states want Iran to halt its work to enrich uranium, fearing that the enriched nuclear fuel could be used to make weapons. Khorram said, "it seems Washington still wishes to maintain suspension as an issue, whereas the European Union has to some extent accepted" Iran's fuel-enrichment work. Khorram told IRNA that the EU is looking for a new solution to the nuclear standoff with Iran, and said it should discuss its stance with the United States. He added that the United States has "lost its position" with the 5+1 powers, and has had to "expend more energy" in obtaining their support for new sanctions against Iran. VS

Ali Farahbakhsh, an economic journalist jailed in Iran last April after being convicted of espionage, is reportedly ailing in prison, and is not receiving adequate treatment, his mother told Radio Farda on June 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28 and 29, and April 23, 2007). Badri Farahbakhsh said she is concerned about the health of her son, whom she visited on May 28, and said he has been suffering from unspecified digestive disorders for a month now. She said "they briefly gave him treatment in the first few days, but then stopped that." She added that the Tehran chief prosecutor's office refused her requests to allow Farahbakhsh's release for medical treatment. Her son's illness, she said, could damage his kidneys if untreated. Farahbakhsh was arrested at the Tehran airport on November 22 when he was returning from an economics conference in Thailand, Radio Farda reported. VS

Iran's Interior Ministry and the Guardians Council, a body of senior jurists, have chosen March 14, 2008, as the date for Iran's next parliamentary elections, Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai told the press in Tehran on June 2. The Guardians Council must approve the eligibility of aspiring candidates and confirm election results. Kadkhodai said state officials planning to run for parliament will have to resign from their posts by July 6, in keeping with election laws, "Etemad" reported on June 3. Aspirants may register their candidacies between January 5 and 11, "Iran" reported on June 3, citing an Interior Ministry statement. Kadkhodai expressed confidence that the Expediency Council, a political arbitrating body, will reject a contested parliamentary bill to hold the next parliamentary and presidential elections concurrently at a later date, and said that possibility is clearly unconstitutional (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10 and 23, 2007). VS

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told Al-Arabiyah television that all political parties in Iraq agree that the current political landscape in Iraq must change, the news channel reported on June 1. "We undoubtedly have observations about the performance of the government," he said, speaking about the Kurdish position. "The political, sectarian, and nationalist quota system produced a government that is not on the required level in various fields." Salih said that parliament might consider a no-confidence vote. "Iraq has a parliamentary system, and alliances change every now and then," he said. Referring to former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's efforts to gain support for a nonsectarian-based national-unity government, Salih said: "Iyad Allawi is our friend [and] we have good relations. He discussed this issue [of a new front] with the Kurdish leaders. We stressed the need to have an alliance for the moderates in Iraq and in the Iraqi parliament.... We believe in the need to bring these forces together so that they can serve as a political base for rule in Iraq. Talks were held on this issue with Iyad Allawi and other leaders in the [United Iraqi] Alliance and the Iraqi Accordance Front and we continue to discuss this issue." KR

Kurdistan region President Mas'ud Barzani told reporters at a June 2 press briefing in Irbil that he and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki discussed ways of broadening political participation during the prime minister's three-day trip to the region, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. "We discussed several issues, including ways we can expand the political base in support of the current government," Barzani said. "We welcome any front that is established with the aim of supporting the current government, but this should be done through agreement among the main effective forces that struggled and played a key role in toppling the former regime and participated in the political process right from the beginning." Al-Maliki told reporters that Iraq's political leaders need to adopt unified positions if they are to resolve outstanding issues. KR

Jalal Talabani returned to Iraq on June 1 following two weeks of medical treatment in the United States, international media reported. "I briefed President [George W.] Bush [on May 31] on the efforts exerted by the Iraqi government -- the prime minister, myself, and military commanders from the coalition forces -- to hold negotiations with the armed brigades calling themselves 'resistance.' These negotiations are nearly completed. When the [draft] oil law is approved and the amendments to the de-Ba'athification law are endorsed, we hope to reach agreement with these groups," Talabani told reporters in Al-Sulaymaniyah, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on May 3. KR

A Chaldean Catholic priest and three of his assistants were shot dead on Mosul on May 3, AFP reported the same day. Father Raghid Ganni and three assistants were leaving the Holy Spirit Church following an evening mass when their car was ambushed just 100 meters from the church. Catholic leaders blamed the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq for the slayings. Iraq's Christians have come under increasing threat in recent months, and some Christian leaders claim as much as half the Christian community has fled Iraq or become internally displaced due to threats of violence. Prime Minister al-Maliki told reporters in Irbil on June 2 that the government has met with Christian leaders and presented a plan to protect the Christian community that includes driving insurgents from the Al-Durah neighborhood of Baghdad, where Christians have been under siege for weeks (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," June 1, 2007). KR

Sheikh Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah, head of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, told the London-based "Al-Hayat" that the Islamic State of Iraq may have more weapons than the Iraqi Army, the daily reported on June 2. Abu Rishah said that based on the tribes' seven months of fighting the Islamic State in Al-Anbar Governorate, it appears the group "has large armament capabilities, equal to the Iraqi security forces' [capabilities] and even exceeds them." He contended that the Islamic State systematically looted stockpiles in Al-Iskandariyah, Al-Taji, Al-Mahmudiyah, and Al-Fallujah after the Hussein regime collapsed in 2003. Meanwhile, tribal leader Sattay al-Anzi from Karbala told the daily that militias and insurgent groups have benefited from a strong arms trade due to Iraq's porous borders. "Al-Amarah and Al-Basrah cities have become main outlets for smuggling weapons from Iran and Kuwait," he added. KR