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Newsline - June 26, 2007

Vladimir Putin said in Istanbul at the close of a meeting of the 12-member Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) organization on June 25 that "the Balkans and the Black Sea region have always been the area of our special interests," ITAR-TASS reported. He arrived in Istanbul from Zagreb, where he attended a June 24 energy summit of 10 Balkan leaders and promoted Russia's role as the region's dominant energy provider (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 25, 2007). In Istanbul, Putin stressed that Russia's energy resources "are in demand by our partners" in the region, and he called for the negotiating of long-term contracts. He argued that the two gatherings confirmed that "the stands of their participants coincide with Russia's.... I refer to the equal responsibility of countries that produce energy resources and [those that] transport them." In Zagreb, he promoted the idea of an "electricity ring" that would link unspecified Black Sea states and provide "the main elements of a common energy market," Interfax reported. At both summits, he stressed the advantages to all concerned of the planned Russian-Italian South Stream gas pipeline, which will bring gas from Russia across the Black Sea to Bulgaria and onward to Greece and to Central Europe. Britain's "Financial Times" noted on June 26 that "Putin was less forthcoming on how Russia could profit from the ambitious scheme. But it is clear the Kremlin hopes for political as much as commercial benefits. Indeed, the [$13.5 billion] scheme is hard to justify on financial grounds alone." Some other commentators said that Russia is seeking to control gas routes by being the first to lay pipelines in competition with some Western projects, notably the EU's Nabucco. PM

The Russian daily "Vedomosti" wrote on June 25 that the Balkans offer a wealth of opportunities for Russian investors. Reporting from the June 24 energy summit in Zagreb, the paper noted that "Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski proposed to his neighbors that their region should function as a transit corridor for oil and gas deliveries to Europe. Crvenkovski said that Macedonia is prepared to host pipelines and build new hydroelectric power stations, and is hoping for investment from Russian energy companies." The daily added that President "Putin responded by noting that Russian companies are ready to discuss specific issues with the Balkans states, for example, modernizing electric power stations in Bosnia-Herzegovina." The paper quoted an unnamed "Kremlin official [who] said that Russia is prepared to build a sector of the Blue Stream II gas pipeline [running from Turkey to northern Italy] across Croatian territory, and some of the gas might remain in Croatia. Atomstroieksport is interested in building the Belene nuclear power plant in Bulgaria. RAO Unified Energy Systems is interested in privatizing and modernizing electricity generation capacities. And Gazprom is prepared to negotiate with a number of Balkans states on building underground gas storage facilities." The daily mentioned that Russian "political analyst Irina Kobrinskaya noted that there is a conflict [over control of energy infrastructure] between Western Europe and Russia at present, but [the Balkan countries] are more free to choose their partners." PM

Speaking at the opening of the Russia-NATO Council in Moscow on June 26, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "there have been both successes as well as problems [in the 10 years of formal relations] between Russia and NATO" and the five years of the council's existence, news agencies reported. He added that "the work ahead of us won't be easy." He cautioned that discussions on controversial issues, such as the future of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and the proposed U.S. missile-defense system, must "be treated carefully, so that each other's stability and security is treated with care, and that no steps are taken that would aim at strengthening the security of one at the expense of the other." Lavrov stressed that "the limits of cooperation will depend on the course of NATO's [own] transformation." On June 26, quoted NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as saying that the 10 interceptors and one radar site included in the proposed U.S. missile-defense system will have "no influence" on Russia's vast military strength. He added that "NATO needs Russia, and Russia needs the [Atlantic] alliance. We must conduct discussions, otherwise we will not be partners." On June 25, veteran Soviet diplomat and former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov said in Tokyo that Russia "will never again follow along in America's wake," but will instead firmly pursue its own national interests, RIA Novosti reported. Also on June 25, the Russian Navy announced in Severomorsk near Murmansk that it will hold "large-scale maneuvers" centering on the aircraft carrier "Admiral Kuznetsov" in the central Atlantic in the fall of 2007, Interfax reported. PM

A methane-gas explosion in the Komsomolskaya coal mine near Vorkuta in the Komi Republic on June 25 left at least seven miners dead and four injured, RIA Novosti reported, citing an unnamed spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry. This is the latest in a series of disasters to hit Russia's coal mines in 2007. 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 turned up 1,842 violations of safety regulations. Some of the violations apparently were carried out deliberately in the interest of securing higher profits and wages. 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," May 30, 2007). PM

Between 150-200 residents of the Ingush village of Surkhakhi congregated on June 25 to discuss the June 17 killing of villager Ruslan Aushev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 18, 2007) and the detention and torture of his relative Magomed Aushev by security personnel who sought to recruit him as an informer for the Federal Security Service (FSB), reported. Russian security agencies subsequently identified Ruslan Aushev as one of the organizers of the June 2004 multiple raids on police and security facilities in Ingushetia. On June 22, while Magomed Aushev was being questioned by Ingush police about his public statement detailing how he was detained and mistreated, North Ossetian FSB personnel searched his home and threatened members of his family, according to Addressing the June 25 gathering in Surkhakhi, opposition parliament deputy Bamatgirey Mankiyev laid the blame for arbitrary reprisals committed by the law-enforcement and security agencies on the reluctance of Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov to take resolute action to curb such abuses, reported. LF

Speaking in Istanbul on June 25 at the 15th anniversary summit of the 12-member Black Sea Economic Cooperation, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian again stressed that Armenia sets no preconditions for establishing diplomatic ties with Turkey, Reuters reported. Oskanian appealed to Turkey to open the land border between the two countries, which has been closed since 1993, as a first step paving the way to discussion of "problematic issues," meaning first and foremost the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during the first two decades of the 20th century. Turkey has proposed establishing a panel composed of historians and scholars from both countries who would determine whether those killings constituted a genocide, as Armenians believe. Oskanian said Yerevan's participation in such a panel is contingent on the opening of the Armenian-Turkish border. LF

The progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) has vacated the Baku offices of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA) and "Hurriyet," the newspaper associated with it, to protest articles published in "Hurriyet" that allegedly insulted AHCP Chairman Ali Kerimli, and reported on June 25 and 26, respectively. The AHCP was offered temporary office space at DPA headquarters last fall after its eviction, together with the Musavat party and the newspapers "Azadliq" and "Bizim Yol," from the building they had for years occupied in central Baku (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006). An AHCP spokesman said the party will coordinate its operations from the homes of unnamed senior members. LF

Some 37 men serving life sentences at Azerbaijan's notorious Gobustan prison have embarked on a hunger strike to demand that their sentences be commuted to the maximum term of 15 years' imprisonment in force at the time they were originally sentenced, reported on June 25. The men have addressed an appeal to that effect to Azerbaijan's Constitutional Court. Several previous similar protests yielded no results (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8, 2005, July 24, 2006, and April 17, 2007). The prisoners were originally sentenced to death. Those sentences were commuted to life imprisonment when Azerbaijan abolished capital punishment as one of the preconditions for joining the Council of Europe. LF

The foreign ministers of Georgia and Russia, Gela Bezhuashvili and Sergei Lavrov, met briefly on the sidelines of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation summit in Istanbul on June 25, and said they will continue their talks at an unspecified later date, Georgian media reported. Bezhuashvili and Lavrov both dismissed as "unserious" an article published in the June 25 issue of the daily "Kommersant" suggesting that Tbilisi has offered to drop its objections to Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in return for a pledge that Russia will withdraw its support for Eduard Kokoity, de facto president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, and permit the advent to power in the region of pro-Georgian politician Dmitry Sanakoyev. Kote Gabashvili, chairman of the Georgian parliament commission on international relations, likewise rejected the "Kommersant" article as "something from the realm of fantasy," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on June 26. At the same time, Gabashvili did not rule out the possibility that Georgia and Russia may come to "some kind of agreements" with regard to South Ossetia. He said Georgia would drop its objections to Russia joining the WTO if Russia agreed to the imposition of "watertight controls" to prevent smuggling across the South Ossetian section of the Russian-Georgian border. In his address to the Istanbul summit, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili predicted that "we are approaching a great breakthrough" with regard to resolving the conflict with South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. He did not elaborate. LF

Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Baktykozha Izmukhambetov announced on June 25 that Kazakhstan is conducting a feasibility study of a project to construct a nuclear power plant, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Interfax reported. The minister said that the $100 million project would build a 600-megawatt nuclear power plant in the western city of Aqtau, which was one of three alternative sites considered, according to Interfax on June 20, 2006. Kazakhstan first raised the possibility of building a new nuclear power plant in 1998. Both the EU and the United States have expressed support for the idea (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2006), although EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs urged Kazakh officials during a visit to Astana last year to sign an agreement with the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) concerning its use of nuclear power (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 5, 2006). RG

In comments during a visit to the Iliy military range, Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov said on June 25 that the Kazakh military is "preparing a special peacekeeping brigade" that will participate in UN peacekeeping operations, Interfax reported. He added that the new peacekeeping brigade will consist of English-speaking soldiers and will conform to NATO standards. Akhmetov recently vowed that Kazakhstan will become an "advanced military power" within five years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007) and President Nursultan Nazarbaev has also pledged to purchase "the world's best" weapons and further bolster the armed forces, as well as formulate a new military doctrine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24 and May 9, 2007). The formation of the peacekeeping brigade is part of a broader reform effort focusing on the training and professional development of the Kazakh armed forces. RG

The Kyrgyz parliament voted on June 25 to reduce the powers of the Constitutional Court, the website reported. The measure, drafted by opposition parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov, is part of a broader judicial reform package and is intended to introduce greater accountability and transparency in the court's proceedings. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyz State Secretary Adaham Madumarov said on June 25 that he does not rule out the possibility of creating a confederation with Russia, but cautioned that such a move "should not be rushed," ITAR-TASS reported. Madumarov added that "a legal basis" should be prepared "to create a confederation," which he explained is "not a new" idea and is "justified by security issues," according to AKIpress. The opposition United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan movement recently called for a national referendum on the proposal to form a union with Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15, 2007). Former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, the leader of the United Front, argued that "a union with Russia will preserve the unity of Kyrgyzstan and its people," and threatened to seek the dissolution of parliament if the Kyrgyz authorities failed to consider his proposal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 2007). RG

Belarusian Prosecutor-General Pyotr Miklashevich told journalists in Minsk on June 25 that Alyaksandr Barouski, former head of the State Petrochemical Industry Concern (Belnaftakhim), has been charged with embezzlement, abuse of office, and disclosure of secret information, Belarusian media reported. Barouski, along with several other heads of state-run and private companies, was arrested last month by the Belarusian KGB (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 31, 2007). "At this time [Barouski] is being presented with the official charges," Miklashevich said. "Other persons are also being charged. This is in connection with supplies of oil products. Losses, naturally, amount to millions of dollars." JM

Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha has requested that the Prosecutor-General's Office examine the activity of Oleksandr Moroz in the post of parliament speaker following the withdrawal of opposition lawmakers from the Verkhovna Rada, Ukrainian media reported on June 25. "There are all grounds to believe that, following June 2 when parliament lost its legitimacy, Mr. Moroz is clearly exceeding his authority and abusing his office in his actions," the presidential press service quoted Baloha as saying. "It is a crime described precisely in Article 364 of the Criminal Code, which refers to an official using his authority and powers to inflict substantial damage on state interests protected by law. Such actions entail severe punishment in the form of imprisonment from two to eight years and a ban on assuming some positions for three years." Baloha reiterated President Viktor Yushchenko's argument that the Verkhovna Rada became illegitimate after 169 lawmakers from Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc gave up their parliamentary seats on June 2, thus bringing the number of deputies in parliament below 300. "The desire to influence the position of Moroz with the help of the Prosecutor-General's Office is an act of political helplessness," the Socialist Party, which is headed by Moroz, responded in a statement later on June 25. The Verkhovna Rada under Moroz's leadership decided earlier this month to end its ongoing session on June 27 and begin a new one on September 4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, 2007). JM

The Central Election Commission (TsVK) on June 25 adopted a resolution allocating Ukraine's regions to individual supervision by its members during the preterm parliamentary elections on September 30, Interfax-Ukraine reported. As expected, regions in the east, the south, and the center of Ukraine, which account for a majority of Ukrainian voters, were assigned to eight TsVK members representing the ruling coalition. The opposition's six TsVK members will supervise regions in the west of the country. TsVK head Volodymyr Shapoval, who was appointed by President Yushchenko, was not given any special regional assignment for the snap elections. Anatoliy Pysarenko, who represents the opposition in the TsVK, said that the regional assignment of responsibilities within the TsVK is unfair for the opposition. "This decision has brought us to our knees or even made us lie on our stomachs," Pysarenko noted, predicting that such an assignment will encourage vote rigging. "However, we agreed to this because we do not want to disrupt the elections," he said. It was the first valid sitting of the TsVK, following the approval of its renewed composition by the Verkhovna Rada on June 1. JM

U.S., European, Serbian, and Russian leaders have forcefully reiterated their positions on the future of Kosova, giving no indication that their rhetoric might change in the week preceding a meeting of the U.S. and Russian presidents on July 1-2. In Paris on June 25, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that independence for Kosova is inevitable, international media reported. Rice said any solution has to reflect "the reality that Serbia and Kosovo are not going to be part of the same body again," and that the pursuit of a solution that would stabilize the Balkans "means ultimately there will be an independent Kosovo." Later in the day, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said, "America has become the leader in proposing that another Albanian state be formed on Serbia's territory," and, according to international and Serbian media, that Washington's position is leading "directly to a worsening of relations" with Belgrade. "If the United States wants to develop good relations with Serbia, then it must respect Serbia's territorial integrity," Kostunica said. In Istanbul the same day, where he was attending the summit of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) organization, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic voiced the oft-repeated warning that independence for Kosova could prove a "Pandora's box" for the Black Sea region, Serbian media reported. Moldova and Georgia, which have faced separatist administrations on their territory since the early 1990s, are both members of the BSEC. In Moscow, the head of Russia's upper legislative chamber, Sergei Mironov, predicted on June 25 that Russia will veto any UN resolution that enables Kosova to become independent. Mironov said NATO's member states "took a historical piece of Serbia away from it [in 1999] and now they want to make an independent state on that territory." Mironov was speaking during a debate with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. International media quoted de Hoop Scheffer as saying he fears an "uncontrolled process" in Kosova, and as urging Moscow not to veto efforts by the UN to resolve the UN-administered province's status now. AG

Yevgeny Primakov, Russia's prime minister in 1998-99, said on June 25 that Kosova could become a "very powerful radical Islamic state," RIA Novosti reported the same day. "Other territories that surround Kosovo could also join it, and this would be a powerful center through which influence could be exerted on European states," Primakov said in a comment that also appears to reflect Serbian fears of a Greater Albania. Primakov, who was Russia's foreign minister in the years leading up to the Kosovar separatists' conflict with Serbian forces in 1998-99, has commented several times on the status of Kosova in recent months, demanding a resumption of talks and warning that independence for Kosova could spark armed conflicts in a number of former Soviet republics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22 and March 19, 2007). Primakov, who now heads the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was speaking at a business forum in Tokyo devoted to the Russian economy. Russian government officials have not previously mentioned fears of Islam and Greater Albania in their criticisms of the UN proposal to grant Kosova independence. Kosova's statistics office estimates that 92 percent of Kosova's population of 2.1 million are Albanian in ethnicity, of whom about 60,000 are Catholics. Neighboring Albania is predominantly Muslim, but Orthodox and Catholic Christians make up an estimated 30 percent of the population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2 and June 11, 2007). During his visit to Albania on June 10, U.S. President George W. Bush hailed Albania as "a model of religious tolerance" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2 and June 11, 2007). AG

In a parting letter to the people of Kosova, outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, "I am proud for the role the United Kingdom played in giving Kosovo a better future" and he asserted that "we have come a long way since 1999." Blair said that "there were times that the road ahead seemed difficult. But, we are together." Blair said Kosova's independence "cannot be stopped," but warned Kosovars that they should remain patient as the international community searches for a consensus on its future, and that "violence would be counterproductive." The letter, which the British Embassy distributed on June 24, received widespread coverage in the Kosovar Albanian media, leading the news on Radio-Television Kosovo on June 24 and prompting a front-page editorial on in the daily "Kosova sot" on June 25. Its headline -- "Thank you, Tony Blair!" -- expressed the general view among ethnic Albanians. Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu on June 21 wrote a letter to Blair expressing his thanks for the leadership the British prime minister showed in advocating a NATO-led intervention in 1999. When, in May, Blair announced that he was standing down, Skender Hyseni, the spokesman of the Unity Team representing Kosovar Albanians in talks on the province's future, said that "Tony Blair and [U.S.] President [Bill] Clinton will remain icons in Kosova's history." Municipal authorities in Kosova are currently preparing to erect a statue to Clinton and its sculptor has said he will "definitely" make a statue of Blair (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2 and June 11, 2007). AG

The European Union has added the names of 15 relatives and associates of war crimes fugitives to its blacklist of people barred from entering member states, the Sarajevo daily "Dnevni avaz" reported on June 23. The 15 were reported to include the brother, daughter, and son of Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and the son and daughter-in-law of Bosnian Serb wartime military commander Ratko Mladic, both wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Also reported to be on the list are relatives of the two other fugitives wanted by the ICTY, Croatian Serb wartime leader Goran Hadzic and Bosnian Serb wartime police chief Stojan Zupljanin. TV

Four permanent residents of the United States have been taken into predeportation custody for violating the terms of their visas, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement released on June 21. The four, all residents of Chicago suburbs, concealed their wartime service in the Bosnian Serb army in order to gain refugee status in the United States, the ICE said, though it did not mention any suspicion that they might have been involved in war crimes. They entered the United States between 1997 and 2004 and subsequently became permanent residents. They will now have to appear before a federal immigration judge, who will decide whether they should be deported to Bosnia. In other news, two former Bosnian Serb servicemen have been indicted for war crimes near Bratunac in eastern Bosnia in May 1992, according to a statement issued by the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 25. A Bosnian Serb wanted on war crimes charges by a local court in Bihac was arrested in the northern town of Prijedor, in the Republika Srpska, also on June 25, according to local reports. The man was identified as Slavko Ris and stands accused of war crimes against civilians. TV

Bosnia's outgoing international High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling on June 25 imposed a law that hands management responsibility for a memorial dedicated to victims of the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica to Bosnia's central government, a statement by his office said the same day. The memorial complex near the site of a wartime UN compound in Potocari outside Srebrenica has to date been managed by a private organization. A law to give this responsibility to a public body was scheduled for parliamentary passage in June, but Bosnian Serb deputies boycotted the session, which thus could not pass the law. The law foresees that the Council of Ministers will appoint a steering board to run and maintain the complex, which also includes a vast cemetery of those victims whose remains have been found and identified. On July 11, the 12th anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica, the remains of another 400 victims will be buried there. The high representative has the authority to revoke or impose legislation. The Republika Srpska government reacted to the announcement by holding an emergency session. A statement released afterward said that Schwarz-Schilling overstepped his powers and violated the Dayton peace accords and the constitutional and legal order of the Bosnian Serb Republic, according to SRNA. "Schwarz-Schilling ignored the Bosnia-Herzegovina Parliamentary Assembly and once again pandered to the extremist demands of Bosniak [Bosnian Muslim] parties," the statement said. Schwarz-Schilling also used the press conference at which he announced the imposed law to deny rumors in the local media that he will stay on as an adviser to a yet-to-be-formed constitutional-reform commission. His term as high representative expires at the end of this week, when he will hand over to Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 16, and 17, and June 21, 2007). TV

Nebojsa Radmanovic, the current chairman of Bosnia's tripartite Presidency, held talks in the Jordanian capital Amman with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania on June 25, the Jordanian news agency Petra reported the same day. Radmanovic, on a two-day visit to the Hashemite kingdom, hopes to strengthen bilateral ties in various fields. Abdullah reiterated his support for peace in Bosnia and said that success in Bosnia would provide an example to other peoples suffering from armed conflict. Radmanovic thanked the king for the role of Jordanian peacekeepers. A number of bilateral agreements in the field of the economy and the media were signed; one of them aims to prevent double taxation, while another agreement regulates the cooperation between Jordan's Chamber of Commerce and Bosnia's Foreign Trade Chamber. TV

The apology made on June 24 by Serbian President Boris Tadic "to all members of the Croatian people made unhappy in the name of my people" has prompted predictably mixed reactions in Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 25, 2007). Tadic on June 25 described acts of apology as an "obligation" for the presidency and other Serbian institutions, B92 reported the same day, but Serbia's two most powerful extreme nationalist parties, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and the Socialist Party of Serbia founded by the late Slobodan Milosevic, were highly critical, the Serbian media reported on June 24-25. The G17 Plus party, a member of the governing coalition, welcomed the step as a boost to bilateral ties. In Croatia, President Stipe Mesic said on June 24 that Tadic's apology came "at the right time," the news agency Hina reported the same day. He did not explain why. Zoran Milanovic, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, also praised Tadic's statement, as evidence of new leadership in Serbia. Tadic, who was elected president almost exactly three years ago, did not say why he felt the obligation to apologize at this point. AG

Concerns about the quality of Croatian justice featured prominently in a meeting that Serbian President Tadic held with leaders of Croatia's Serbian community in Zagreb on June 25, Hina reported the same day. A statement by the Serbian National Council (SNV) said that it discussed "trials and arrests for war crimes, which have recently become frequent and which are creating a sense of insecurity among Serbs in Croatia and among those wishing to return." Members of the Serbian community have previously called for Croatia to take steps to increase the transparency of its hunt for war crimes suspects and voiced concerns that some arrests of ethnic Serbs have been politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8 and 12, 2007). The SNV and Independent Democratic Serbian Party (SDSS), whose leader also took part in the talks, urged the Serbian government to try and ensure "that only those who committed crimes be tried and not those who have nothing to do with crimes." AG

A third party representing Serbia's Croatian minority was formed on June 24, Croatian and Serbian media reported on June 24-25. The Democratic Union of Croats (DZH) is also the second party to establish itself in the northern province of Vojvodina, where most of Serbia's roughly 70,000 Croats live. Croats constitute less than 1 percent of Serbia's population but, according to a 2002 census, 2.8 percent of Vojvodina's. In a statement quoted by the news agency Hina, the DZH said, "we are here because there is neither unity within nor results for the Croatian community." The DZH was formed by a splinter group from the Democratic League of Croats in Vojvodina (DSHV), which split several months ago amid a wave of expulsions and resignations that almost halved its membership. The DSHV said on June 24 that "there will be no talks" between the two parties, Hina reported the same day. DZH leader Djordje Covic said the party will focus on promoting the case for Croatian to be allowed as an official language and the right for education in Croatian. No Croatian party is represented in the Serbian parliament and only one has a seat in Vojvodina's parliament. AG

Montenegrin Defense Minister Boro Vucinic announced on June 22 that Montenegro will, starting on July 3, turn all but one of its 62 tanks into scrap metal, national television reported the same day. The one remaining tank, a T-55, will become a museum piece. The move is part of a broader program that will also leave Montenegro with no air force or missile systems, reflecting the transfer of much of Montenegro's security to NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and May 1 and 10, 2007). The size of Montenegro's armed forces will be reduced to 2,400. The news agency Mina reported in May that the armed forces employ 2,910 people and that the figure fell by 1,466 between 2004 and 2006. AG

Some of Iran's leading reformists are discerning increasing hostility from conservatives ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2008. Those fears have been highlighted by a recent demonstration in Mashhad against former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and sharp verbal exchanges recently in parliament.

There are also near-daily reports -- especially in reformist newspapers -- that the reformists are closing ranks. Many would-be reformers see a united front and single electoral list -- led by prominent moderates and veterans -- as the best chance of winning a parliamentary majority.

The Mashhad demonstration on June 18 was staged by a group of right-wing radicals and seminarians who gathered outside a special clerical court in eastern Iran. The protesters demanded the prosecution of ex-President Khatami for having shaken hands with women during a recent trip to Italy -- something that is banned under a strict interpretation of the Shari'a laws that govern Iranian life.

More recently, parliamentarians have responded with hostility to allegations by reformist legislators that reformists are being censored by the chamber's presidium. One right-wing lawmaker accused unspecified critics of the government of having ties to British intelligence networks, while another warned of serious consequences if reformists regained control of parliament.

The headline of the reformist daily "Etemad's" front-page report on the seminarians' protest against Khatami suggested that a "radical current" has begun "a new round of attacks against reformists."

Another reformist daily, "Etemad-i Melli," reported that the hostile exchanges in parliament signaled that a "hostile front against reformists" is "taking shape in planned presession speeches in parliament." "Etemad" saw the speeches and protest in the context of the coming elections, in which, it claimed, "there is said to be a great possibility of a reformist victory" fueled by perceived failures since Mahmud Ahmadinejad was inaugurated president in 2005.

Reformists believe December's local-council polls represented voters' rejection of the government and support for moderates and reformists. Ahmadinejad supporters dismiss that interpretation. But a fractured right wing might be nervous at the possibility of facing a centrist front led by prominent politicians.

Even if prominent centrists like Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karrubi, or ex-President Khatami do not run for parliamentary seats, they could allow themselves to be associated with such a front, and discreetly campaign for it.

One way to prevent such figures playing a pivotal role might be through lawsuits. The leadership has resorted to the use of laws and legalism to exclude unwanted persons from public life in the past. Such processes can drag on like a persistent, low-level pain -- without necessarily leading to prison -- and deprive the accused individual of political energy and motivation.

The seminarians who targeted Khatami outside a branch of Iran's special court for Shi'ite clerics in Mashhad on June 18 reportedly filed a formal complaint with the court. Evidence was said to include video footage showing Khatami shaking hands with "half-naked Italian women" on one of his numerous trips abroad -- where he frequently discusses conflict resolution or rapprochement between religions. Protesters carried placards denouncing Khatami's tolerance and alleged moral laxity and urged prosecutors to respond and defend the clergy's tainted honor.

The court might or might not prosecute Khatami. For his part, Khatami might rethink how critical or outspoken he wishes to be in the nine months leading to parliamentary elections.

It is notable that photographs appeared in some newspapers some weeks ago of President Ahmadinejad, not shaking, but kissing the hand of his elderly former teacher. Those images drew expressions of disbelief from religious conservatives, but the episode has all but disappeared from public attention.

As the reformist daily "Aftab-i Yazd" likes to remind its readers intermittently in editorials, offenses against decency and morals are either "outrageous" or "negligible" in Iran -- depending on who commits them.

One reformist who is a former cabinet minister, Morteza Haji, urged judicial and intelligence authorities to "at least reveal to the public" the identities of the people he accused of being intent on discrediting ex-President Khatami, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on June 24.

"Etemad" and "Etemad-i Melli" also gave prominent coverage to recent verbal clashes between reformists and conservatives in parliament. Reformists have denounced as censorship a June 17 decision by parliament's presidium to discontinue the practice of reading out the names of groups of legislators who criticize the government, citing time constraints. Conservatives have in turn accused reformists of using the criticism to grandstand and waste parliamentary time.

On June 20, in what "Etemad-i Melli" believed was a move planned the previous night, two conservative lawmakers launched sharp attacks on reformists. Mahmud Abtahi told the chamber that an unspecified group was constantly attacking the government, using "rude words" and aggressive manners. He accused those critics of ties to corruption and to British spies, and threatened to make their names public. Qaenat representative Musa Qorbani separately warned legislators to remember the sixth parliament, which he said hurled "swear words" at the Guardians Council, a body of senior jurists, and the judiciary, and sought to defend "offenders" and ratify laws that senior officials had declared "illegitimate."

"Etemad" suggested that the political right fears adverse election results in March. The paper accused rightists of trying to "target" prominent reformist personalities and to make it easier for the Guardians Council to strike down the candidacies of reformists over perceived "deviations." The daily quoted the head of the reformist Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organization, Mohammad Salamati, as saying that -- given public discontent with the government's performance -- a return to power by reformists is "certain." Salamati added that he "doubt[s] the people will once more turn to" a radical right wing at the ballot box.

Reformists know, of course, that public support is not always enough to place them in positions of power. They suspect right-wing adversaries might use various means to exclude them from power -- including legal charges and political accusations.

The reformists' move toward the political center -- and their increasing association with prominent centrist statesmen like ex-Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani -- might signal a bid to win greater "institutional" protection to bolster their popular support. But it might also prompt arch-conservative sympathizers with Ahmadinejad and the Guardians Council to target those "institutional" safeguards as Iran's parliamentary elections draw near.

The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on June 25 that highly advanced laboratories inside Afghanistan convert 90 percent of the country's opium into heroin and morphine prior to export worldwide, AFP reported. Afghanistan is the largest opium producer in the world, but until 2005 almost exclusively smuggled the illegal drug in its raw form, UNODC representative Christina Oguz told reporters in Kabul. Flights over the major opium-producing areas in Afghanistan reveal "a lot of small fires," which are actually heroin labs, according to Oguz. The Taliban-led insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan receives some $3 billion annually from drug trafficking, Oguz said, adding that the battle against drugs must be fought at the same time as the insurgency. JC

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) admitted on June 24 to killing more civilians in an attack on a Pakistani building on June 23, AFP reported the same day. An ISAF weapon hit a building containing civilians in Pakistan as military aircraft were engaging insurgents suspected of preparing to attack a base in southern Afghanistan, ISAF spokesman Major John Thomas said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 25, 2007). Pakistani military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad on June 24 said 10 civilians were killed and 14 wounded, and that Pakistan demands an explanation. Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said the incident underscored the need for improved coordination in the fight against militants in the region, AP reported on June 25. "We regret the loss of innocent life," Thomas told AFP. Escalating civilian casualties by Afghan and foreign military forces is fueling disillusionment among some Afghans and aid organizations about post-Taliban Afghanistan. JC

ISAF said on June 25 it is investigating a report that says U.S. and Afghan troops were involved in abusing a suspected Taliban member, Reuters reported the same day. Wolfgang Bauer, a correspondent with the German magazine "Focus," reported in June that he and a colleague witnessed U.S. and Afghan soldiers threatening a man during a search for Taliban in a village in Ghazni Province. After a patrol apprehended a suspect in a house who refused to talk, an Afghan platoon leader tied one end of a rope to the suspect's foot and the other to a vehicle, "Focus" reported. He threatened to drag the man unless he told the truth. A U.S. soldier then started the engine, according to "Focus," and let it run for two minutes before turning it off. Both U.S. and Afghan military officials have launched an investigation in response to the article. JC

Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi asked Iranian authorities on June 25 to release two Iranian-U.S. citizens -- a researcher and a journalist -- who are currently being kept in Iran, Radio Farda reported. Ebadi urged the release of Haleh Esfandiari, an academic with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who has been imprisoned over espionage- and national-security-related charges and is reportedly being held in solitary confinement. Ebadi also urged judiciary officials to allow Radio Farda journalist Parnaz Azima to leave Iran. Azima's passport was confiscated and she is reportedly charged with engaging in propaganda against Iran's government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25 and June 7, 2007). VS

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos spoke to his Iranian counterpart, Manuchehr Mottaki, by telephone on June 25 and asked Iran to use its "influence" in Lebanon to help find the "causes and conditions" of the bombing murder of six soldiers of the Spanish Army working in UNIFIL, the UN contingent of peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, ISNA reported. The troops were apparently killed by a remote-controlled bomb as they patrolled a district called Khiam, though nobody has so far claimed responsibility, EFE and AP reported on June 25. Mottaki condemned the killing and said he will instruct Iran's ambassador in Beirut to cooperate with Spain's ambassador, ISNA reported. The Hizballah militia, allied to Iran, has condemned the killing, agencies reported on June 25. VS

Ahmad Khorram, a transport minister in the last reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami, told a gathering of teachers in Isfahan, central Iran, on June 24 that government critics can expect to face an "extensive" wave of charges and accusations intended to facilitate their elimination from parliamentary elections scheduled for in March 2008, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on June 25. "You can be sure the eighth parliamentary elections will be even stricter," he said, referring to pre-election vetting of aspirants by the Guardians Council, a body of jurists that examines the legal eligibility of aspirants and that reformists suspect of favoring conservatives. Khorram said that "people are being organized right now" to chronicle what critics do and say before the polls, and "they work especially on criticisms and challenging debates concerning the government." He said critics would be marked as people "who have worked against national unity," but that Iranians have learned how to respond to such maneuvers. The daily separately reported that the Interior Ministry was testing on June 25 a "mechanized" vote-counting system -- possibly a reference to computerized tabulating. Counting -- currently done by hand by Interior Ministry officials -- is a sensitive stage of Iranian elections that often leads to tensions and recriminations among politicians. The Guardians Council, which must confirm election results, would have to approve computerized vote counting, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. VS

The Iranian Central Bank's deputy governor for currency affairs, Jafar Mojarrad, told ISNA on June 24 that "Iran is continuing to reduce the dollar share of its foreign-exchange holdings, as it has no need of dollars." He said officials decided to reduce Iran's U.S. dollar holdings due to "political pressures," presumably exerted over its nuclear program. "Likewise, dollar transactions for trade have been halted," Mojarrad added. "We do not have any transactions in dollars, so we do not need dollars." Mojarrad added that Iran welcomes the euro in trading transactions. Iran's Central Bank lowered the share of dollars in its foreign-exchange holdings to 20 percent in March, down from 40 percent in December, the daily "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on June 25. VS

Police in Iran are to continue a declared plan undertaken in recent months to assure the security of public places and respect for public morality and modest appearance, Radio Farda reported on June 25, citing Iranian news agencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and 19 and May 15, 2007). Tehran police are reportedly taking their security campaign -- which in earlier phases saw the arrests of indecently dressed youngsters, "louts," and armed criminals -- to leisure venues including parks and semi-rural areas around Tehran that residents frequent for weekends outings or walks, Radio Farda reported. It quoted Tehran police chief Ahmad Reza Radan as saying on June 23 that "our aim is for families to have peace and quiet in their hours of rest and leisure, and this plan will be implemented simultaneously in Tehran and across the country." The fight against indecent clothing and "louts" will continue "with vigor," Radan said. VS

A suicide bomber struck the Al-Mansur Hotel in central Baghdad on June 25, where a group of Sunni tribal sheikhs aligned with the United States were holding a meeting, international media reported. Initial reports indicated that 12 people were killed, including four tribal sheikhs and a Sunni Arab member of parliament. The sheikhs are associated with the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, a coalition of tribes in the western Al-Anbar Governorate that aims to rid the region of groups linked with Al-Qaeda in Iraq. A police source said that a man wearing an explosive belt was able to slip through several layers of security, enter the lobby, approach the group of sheiks meeting there, and detonate his belt. The source identified the four sheikhs who were killed as former Al-Anbar Governor Fasysal al-Gud, sheikh of the Al-Bu Nimir tribe; Sheikh Abd al-Azizi al-Fahdawi of the Al-Fahad tribe; and Sheikh Tariq Salah al-Assafi and Fadil al-Nimrawi, both of the Al-Bu Nimr tribe. The Al-Mansur Hotel is also home to the Chinese Embassy, as well as a base for two Western news organizations. SS

Two U.S. generals publicly expressed doubts on June 24 that Iraqi troops are capable of carrying out operations necessary to hold onto the territorial gains made over the last week against suspected insurgents in Ba'qubah, capital of the eastern Diyala Governorate, and around Baghdad, international media reported June 25. Brigadier General Mick Bednarek, the U.S. commander in Ba'qubah, and Major General Rick Lynch, his counterpart in the south of Baghdad, spoke of a variety of problems with the Iraqi forces, including a shortage of trained troops and a lack of basic supplies like ammunition, radios, and trucks. "One of our biggest challenges is how are we holding and retaining the terrain that we clear," Bednarek said, adding that Iraqi security forces are "not quite up to the job yet" of holding the territory themselves. He indicated that it will take several weeks to clear insurgents from Ba'qubah, while it will take "several more months" before Iraqi forces in Diyala Governorate are able to take over security operations alone. SS

Kurdistan region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said on June 25 that his government has approved a draft oil law and has informed the Iraqi government in Baghdad, the independent Voices of Iraq news agency reported the same day. "I sent a message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to update him on our approval of the proposed draft law and we will wait to have it sent to the parliament," Barzani said. Kurdish lawmakers rejected an earlier draft on the grounds that it gives the central government too much control over the distribution of the oil revenues. Under the revised draft, the Kurdish regional government (KRG) would directly receive a share of the oil proceeds, believed to be approximately 17 percent of total Iraqi oil revenues. The draft law had stalled due to partisan bickering since February and the Kurds' approval represents the removal of a major hurdle for the establishment of a comprehensive oil and gas law in Iraq. Lawmakers in parliament are set to discuss the draft oil law within a few days. SS

Iraqi Forces General Command spokesman Jabbar al-Yawar announced on June 25 that the KRG and the Iraqi government have agreed that the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, will be transformed into a regional guard under the command of the Iraqi forces, the AKI news service reported the same day. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's website reported that the new force will be called the Kurdistan Region Guardian Force and will have a specific role in protecting the region controlled by the KRG. Al-Yawar said that the "training of these new guards will be carried out by the multinational forces along the same lines as the training they give to the Iraqi armed forces." He also noted that the budget for the new force will be allocated by the federal Defense Ministry. SS

Kurdistan region President Mas'ud Barzani said on June 25 that survivors and families of the victims of the 1988 Anfal campaign should be justly compensated, Kurdistan Satellite Television reported the same day. Barzani noted that the guilty verdicts in the Anfal trial prove that genocide and crimes against humanity were committed against the Kurdish people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 25, 2007), and therefore just compensation needs to be given to victims at all levels. "We will work very seriously with the federal government to make sure people are compensated, at all levels. All sides should try, at least, to alleviate the effects of this massive disaster. I am not saying to eliminate the effects, as nothing can eliminate them," Barzani said. On June 24, the Iraqi High Tribunal sentenced three former Iraqi officials to death, including Ali Hasan Al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali," for their roles in the Anfal campaign against the Kurds. SS

The U.S. military announced in a statement on June 25 that U.S. and Iraqi forces have discovered an execution house and an illegal prison in the city of Ba'qubah, northeast of Baghdad. The soldiers discovered the execution house using information from local citizens, who said it was used by Al-Qaeda in Iraq. After a search of the house, they discovered bloody clothes in several rooms and five bodies buried in the yard behind the building. Nearby, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers also found a house that appeared to have been used as an illegal prison, with several numbered rooms and bars covering the building's windows. "The fact that we continue to find these booby-trapped houses filled with explosives and torture chambers only reaffirms that Al-Qaeda has no regard for the safety and welfare of the people of Ba'qubah. They only want to see death and destruction," said Colonel Gary Patton, chief of staff for Task Force Lightning. SS