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Newsline - April 14, 2008

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DAILY CALLS ON RUSSIA TO CHANGE TONE TOWARD UKRAINE
General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads Russia's General Staff, attracted widespread attention at home and abroad when he said in Moscow on April 11 that "Russia will take unambiguous action toward ensuring its interests along its borders. These will not only be military measures, but also steps of a different character," Russian and international media reported. He did not elaborate but nonetheless "intrigued half the world," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on April 14 (see Part II). The daily argued that "Baluyevsky and whoever writes his lines" are simply playing into the hands of those abroad who "accuse [Russia] of behaving aggressively and disrespecting its nearest neighbors." The paper noted that any "harsh tone from Russia facilitates consolidation among political forces and the public in Ukraine and Georgia, lending strength to proponents of NATO membership." "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported that "NATO is waiting for Moscow to explain what kind of measures it intends to take. As of April 13, no public explanations have been provided. Neither was there any confirmation or denial of media reports that President [Vladimir] Putin, speaking at the NATO summit in Bucharest, questioned Ukraine's right to statehood and threatened to annex the Crimea." The newspaper argued that "if Russia wishes to delay NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, it should withdraw its threats and change its tone. It should call on Kyiv and Tbilisi to expand cooperation in the areas where this is possible, and concentrate on discussing disputed issues without any excess publicity." The paper noted that "regardless of geopolitical constructs, Ukraine and Georgia will remain our neighbors. Thus, in taking any steps at present, we should think about the future of Russia's relations with these countries." On April 14, "Izvestia" wrote that four countries with which Russia has problematic relations are in the process of changing their ambassadors in Moscow, namely the United States, Great Britain, Estonia, and Ukraine. PM

SECURITY FIRM ACCOUNTANT RELEASED FROM CUSTODY
Yelena Mardashova, an accountant with the Nemesida private-security firm who was summoned for questioning by the Investigative Committee on April 10 and then detained on suspicion of bribing Federal Antinarcotics Committee Lieutenant General Aleksandr Bulbov and others, was released on April 12 without being charged with any crime, "Kommersant" reported on April 14. Nemesida is reportedly owned by Bulbov's wife, Galina Bulbova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2008). "Kommersant" quoted Mardashova's lawyer Olga Semenyuk as saying that prior to releasing Mardashova, investigators tried to force her to give evidence "contrary to fact" and caused her to have a "hypertension crisis." The arrest last autumn of Bulbov and several other senior Federal Antinarcotics Committee officials on charges of corruption and illegal wiretapping was widely seen as part of an ongoing power struggle among influential "siloviki." JB

RIGHTS ACTIVISTS WARN OF VIOLENCE MARKING HITLER'S BIRTHDAY
Russian human rights activists are calling on police to be vigilant in connection with actions that radical nationalists plan to take on April 20 -- the birthday of Adolf Hitler, newsru.com reported on April 14, citing Interfax. The website reported that immigrants are already highly anxious in anticipation of possible attacks and ready to "administer justice." Newsru.com noted that for 20 years -- since the 1980s -- radical nationalists have attempted to mark Hitler's birthday with public actions and that a large number of attacks by skinheads on people from the Caucasus and Central Asia and other foreign citizens, as well as the desecration of Jewish establishments, usually take place on that day. Aleksandr Brod, the director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, said that one radical nationalist organization has already announced plans to carry out mass actions on April 20. "Since 2002, in Moscow institutes of higher learning where foreign students study, they have been permitted to miss lectures and also advised not to leave their dormitories," Brod said. "Institutes of higher learning in St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod have adopted this practice." According to newsru.com, various diaspora groups have vowed to dispense their own justice in response to the inaction of the Russian authorities in preventing racial violence. It quoted Brod as saying that radical immigrant websites are full of calls to mark April 20 with violence. JB

POLICE BEAT UP MUSCOVITES PROTESTING POLICE BRUTALITY
Police beat participants in a protest against police brutality held in Moscow on April 11, newsru.com reported. Citing Ekho Moskvy radio, the website reported that police apparently took offense at a banner declaring "Down With Cops' Lawlessness!" and attacked protesters and tried to tear up the banner, which led to a scuffle. Initially, no one was taken into custody, but, according to newsru.com, police and OMON riot police subsequently detained several people, beating them on the head and dragging them across the ground into a police bus. ITAR-TASS quoted city police as saying that 14 people were detained for actions aimed at provoking law enforcement personnel. The demonstration, which received authorization from city authorities, was called to protest an incident that took place in Moscow on April 4 in which police allegedly attacked a large group of youths after one of them was detained for drinking a beer in public. Police reportedly used tasers, truncheons, and their feet against the youths, and subsequently allegedly beat some of those detained once they were in custody. JB

PROSECUTORS TARGET 'EXTREMISM' ON INTERNET
"Kommersant" reported on April 11 that the Prosecutor-General's Office has sent the State Duma draft amendments which, in the name of fighting racist and nationalistic crimes, are aimed at toughening standards for media accountability, legitimize "norms of responsibility" for Internet site, and also increase state control over religious groups' educations programs. According to the daily, the greatest number of the new preventive measures is aimed at the Internet, including an amendment to the law "on counteracting extremist activity" stipulating that if any material posted by any website is deemed by a court to be extremist, then access to that material must be blocked. The proposed legislation also states that if an Internet site repeatedly publishes material deemed extremist, then it must be shut down. In addition, a list of extremist Internet material and websites will be regularly published in the media and Internet providers will have one month to stop hosting sites on that list. "Kommersant" noted that Federation Council Deputy Speaker Aleksandr Torshin has claimed that the role of the Internet "as a means of terror propaganda" has grown so much that it "not without good reason is called the academy of terrorism," and that terrorists freely "disseminate information" on the Internet and "practically propagandize their ideas openly, recruiting new followers; they buy up weapons and munitions, [and] communicate with one another." JB

FAITH IN RUBLE RISES AS DOLLAR FALLS
Nearly two-thirds -- 61 percent -- of the respondents in a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation over April 5-6 said that they have more faith in the ruble than the dollar or the euro, compared with 37 percent in July 2002, the foundation's website, fom.ru, reported on April 10. According to the polling agency's data, the prestige of the dollar has fallen sharply over the last six years: in July 2002, 35 percent of those polled said they preferred the dollar over the ruble or euro, but only 3 percent of those polled this April stated that preference. Meanwhile, the reputation of the euro has grown, from the 11 percent who said six years ago that they trusted it more than the other two currencies to the 27 percent who gave that answer this April. Asked if their families have any savings, 70 percent of the respondents answered no (the same percentage as in July 1997) and 25 percent answered yes (24 percent of those polled in July 1997 said they did). JB

UNIFIED RUSSIA, COMMUNISTS CALL ON KALMYKIA'S PRESIDENT TO RESIGN
Representatives of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, together with the opposition Communist Party, Greens, and various other opposition groups, launched three days of demonstrations in Elista on April 11 to mark the 15th anniversary of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov's election as president and to demand that he step down from that post, regnum.ru and kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on April 12 and 13, respectively. During a five-hour protest on April 12, they accused Ilyumzhinov of tolerating corruption and doing nothing to alleviate appalling economic hardship, and enumerated dozens of projects he has announced that were never implemented. Meanwhile, Rady Burulov, who has been temporarily suspended from his position as Elista mayor, was expelled on April 4 from Unified Russia's political council, regnum.ru reported on April 5. Burulov told regnum.ru the campaign to expel him from Unified Russia began in January, shortly after he called on Ilyumzhinov to resign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008). But Unified Russia attributed that decision to unspecified violations by Burulov of party discipline and to the party's poor showing in Elista in the April 2 elections to a new People's Khural (parliament). LF

INGUSH PARLIAMENTARIAN TAKES ISSUE WITH KBR INTERIOR MINISTER
Mukhtar Buzurtanov (Unified Russia), who chairs the Republic of Ingushetia parliament's committee for legislation, law and order, and security, released a statement on April 11 rejecting allegations made two days earlier by Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) Interior Minister Major General Yury Tomchak at a meeting in Nalchik with Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, regnum.ru reported. Responding to a question from Nurgaliyev, Tomchak identified Ingushetia as the primary threat to stability in the KBR, according to regnum.ru on April 9. Buzurtanov admitted that the crime situation in Ingushetia is "difficult," but added that Tomchak would be better advised to step up the efforts of his ministry to combat crime and terrorism rather than blame Ingushetia for the failure to apprehend militant Islamist fighters based in the KBR. LF

SUPREME COURT DEPUTY CHAIRMAN KILLED IN INGUSHETIA
Unidentified gunmen opened fire on April 13 on Supreme Court Deputy Chairman Khasan Yandiyev's Mercedes in Karabulak on April 13, Russian media reported. Yandiyev died later in hospital of his injuries. Yandiyev focused primarily on cases involving large-scale corruption and other serious crimes. As of April 14, all judges in Ingushetia will be provided with additional security, Interfax reported. LF

MILITANT LEADER REPORTED KILLED IN DAGHESTAN
Police and security forces shot dead Ismail Yangizbiyev, identified as leader of an illegal armed formation, in a special operation near the village of Pokrovskoye in Khasavyurt Raion in the early hours of April 13, Russian media reported. Two fellow fighters managed to escape. Yangizbiyev is suspected of involvement in numerous attacks on police officers in Khasavyurt over the past few years. LF

DAGHESTANI VILLAGER SUES DEFENSE MINISTRY FOR DAMAGES
A court in Daghestan's Botlikh Raion opened a hearing on April 9 in connection with a claim by village resident Gadjimurad Gasangadjiyev for 1.5 million rubles ($63,896) in compensation for damage inflicted to land he owned that was appropriated for construction of a military base to house Russian troops withdrawn from neighboring Georgia, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on April 10. At a public meeting on April 3, villagers rejected a request to cede a further 30 hectares of land to expand the base. Visiting Botlikh earlier this year, President Putin sought to mollify the angry villagers by promising funds for rebuilding local schools and the highway linking the village with the republican capital, Makhachkala (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2008). The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has accepted a collective appeal by Botlikh villagers for 750 million rubles in compensation for land appropriated for construction of the new military facility, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on April 3. LF

DETAINED ARMENIAN OPPOSITIONISTS ABANDON HUNGER STRIKE
In response to an April 10 appeal by former President and defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian, 21 of the 23 of his supporters who embarked on a hunger strike to demand the release of political prisoners and an independent inquiry into the violent clashes between Ter-Petrossian supporters and police in Yerevan on March 1 have ended their protest, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on April 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2008). Meanwhile, police and prosecutor's office personnel in the provincial town of Noemberian summoned and questioned six Ter-Petrossian supporters who took part in the post-presidential election protests in Yerevan and two more who participated in a meeting on April 9 to honor those killed during the police intervention on March 1 on the 40th day after their death, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on April 13. LF

COMPOSITION OF NEW ARMENIAN CABINET STILL UNCLEAR
The four parties that signed an agreement last month to form a new coalition government were apparently continuing consultations on April 11 on the distribution of posts in the new cabinet, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian told journalists on April 11 that "you will be informed about decisions in a few days," adding that any premature statement will "only hamper the discussions." Also on April 11, parliamentarian Rafik Petrosian, who represents President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), admitted that the HHK had expected one of its members to be named prime minister, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. (Tigran Sarkisian, who is not related to the president, is not a member of any political party.) On April 9, outgoing Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who has held that post for 10 years, announced that he will not continue in that position in the new cabinet, Novosti-Armenia reported. LF

FORMER AZERBAIJANI INTERIOR MINISTER QUITS POLITICAL STAGE
Opposition National Democratic Party of Azerbaijan Chairman Iskander Hamidov, who served as interior minister in the early 1990s under President Ebulfez Elcibey, announced on April 7 his departure from the political scene, day.az reported. Hamidov --who was jailed in 1995 on charges of embezzlement and abuse of his official position, designated a political prisoner by the Council of Europe, tried and resentenced in July 2003 on the same charges, but released a few months later (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 2004, and August 5, 2005) -- said he is no longer prepared to "try to deceive people" by making promises he cannot fulfill. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT TASKS MINISTERS WITH EXPANDING ABKHAZ PEACE PROPOSAL
Mikheil Saakashvili met on April 12 with Foreign Minister David Bakradze, Economy Minister Ekaterine Sharashidze, State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili, and National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia, whom he instructed to elaborate on the outlines of the new proposals he unveiled on March 28 for resolving the Abkhaz conflict, civil.ge reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008, and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," April 3, 2008). He tasked Sharashidze with developing "concrete proposals" to establish a free economic zone in Abkhazia's Gali and Ochamchira raions, and stressed to Bakradze the need "to engage in talks with our international partners about creating international guarantees for Abkhaz autonomy." Earlier peace proposals all lacked any such guarantees. Saakashvili added that he hopes Russia will play "a constructive role" in the peace process rather than "artificially exacerbating the situation." "Kommersant" on April 14 quoted Bakradze as stressing that Saakashvili's proposals "conform to the highest European standards," a statement that implies that the Georgian leadership is more concerned about convincing the international community of its readiness to resolve the conflict than in devising an approach to doing so that would overcome Abkhaz misgivings. But on April 13, de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh reiterated his rejection of Saakashvili's new blueprint, telling Interfax that Saakashvili's proposals "are unacceptable for us," and stressing that the Abkhaz population has already opted for independence. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba similarly said on April 13 that Abkhazia "will never agree" to take the offer of autonomy within Georgia as a basis for discussion, apsny.ru reported. Shamba added that a resumption of talks on establishing "good-neighborly relations between two sovereign states" is contingent on Georgia complying with previous agreements it has signed and withdrawing its forces from the Kodori Gorge. LF

KAZAKH RULING PARTY CONGRESS STRESSES NEED TO FIGHT CORRUPTION
Meeting in Astana, the national leadership of Kazakhstan's ruling Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland) party discussed on April 11 the need to step up efforts to combat corruption, Kazakh Television reported. Party leaders noted that bribery has become "a common thing for ordinary citizens" and asserted that corruption is "a dangerous disease" for Kazakhstan, and that bribery-related payments have surpassed several billion tenges (1 billion tenges is about $8 million) annually, with the average bribe about 80,000 tenges (some $650). The delegates also identified the South Kazakhstan, West Kazakhstan, and central Karaganda oblasts as particularly prone to entrenched corruption, and said that local law enforcement is itself "highly corrupt." Addressing the party leaders, State Secretary Oralbai Abdikarimov, who also serves as the head of the party's special anticorruption council, accused the customs service of being "the most corrupt state body," second only to the traffic police. He said that the judicial system, including the Supreme Court and prosecutors, is the third most corrupt state body. Abdikarimov noted that in the first three months of 2008, the Prosecutor-General's Office initiated 332 criminal corruption-related cases, including criminal charges against 68 members of the Nur Otan party, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He closed by saying that based on "an agreement" with the Prosecutor-General's Office, reports on anticorruption efforts will be released on a monthly basis. RG

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION PARTIES STAGE RALLY IN BISHKEK
About 2,000 Kyrgyz opposition supporters and activists rallied on April 12 in Bishkek as part of the opposition "People's Kurultai" (Grand Congress) or alternative parliament, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The rally participants, including several prominent civil-society figures, adopted a nine-point resolution calling for the dissolution of the parliament and the "invalidation" of the constitution. The opposition congress also called on President Kurmanbek Bakiev to "stop the privatization" of the energy sector and demanded an end to restrictions on the freedoms of assembly and the media, threatening to stage "acts of civil disobedience, rallies, and other protest campaigns" if their demands are not met. Addressing the rally, the leader of the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, Omurbek Tekebaev, argued that the government and parliament are "illegitimate" and called for them to be "replaced," AKIpress reported. Tekebaev added that the authorities are promoting a "feeling of despair and disappointment" and are "politically bankrupt." The rally was organized by some 15 opposition parties and groups, including the Ak-Shumkar (White Falcon), Ata-Meken, Ar-Namys, and Uluu Birimdik parties. Ar-Namys leader and former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov failed to attend the opposition congress, citing a "very busy work schedule" but he said that his supporters are free to attend the event, according to the 24 kg website. Meanwhile, two recently arrested Kyrgyz protesters were sentenced on April 11 to terms of two and 10 days of administrative detention, according to the 24.kg website. Ten other detainees were fined and released. They were arrested by Bishkek police on April 10 during a demonstration by about 50 opposition youth activists protesting the government's decision to hand over three disputed plots of land to Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2008). The demonstration was held outside the parliament building and organized by the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, the Ar-Namys (Dignity) party, and the Green party. RG

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT FORMS COMMISSION TO PROBE BORDER DEALS
The Kyrgyz parliament resolved on April 11 to form a new commission empowered to investigate border agreements, the 24.kg website reported. The commission is to examine past cases of Kyrgyz claims to Soviet-era facilities, as well as the controversial recent decision to hand over resorts on Kyrgyzstan's Lake Issyk-Kul to Kazakhstan. The parliament on April 11 approved the planned handover of four hotels near Lake Issyk-Kul, a popular resort area, to Uzbekistan, AKIpress and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The move sparked protest demonstrations outside the parliament building (see above) organized by the opposition Ata-Meken, Ar-Namys, and Green parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2008). The commission will consist of seven members, with two deputies each from the Social Democratic and Communist parties and three from the ruling Ak-Jol party, and is required to conclude its investigation by June 25, just prior to the parliament's scheduled summer recess. RG

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT EXPANDS POWER OF FINANCIAL POLICE
President Bakiev issued a decree on April 11 expanding the powers of the Financial Police and other state bodies tasked with combating economic crimes, AKIpress reported. In addition to the enhanced powers, the decree also renamed the agency the Financial Police Service and elevated its status to the lead "executive law enforcement agency" dealing with economic crimes, granting it the merged authority of economic criminal investigations formerly conducted by the National Security Committee, Interior Ministry, and State Customs Committee. The Financial Police Service was formerly empowered to "detect and investigate the cases of abuse of office that are related to economic crimes, such as offences committed by business entities during their economic activities, including bribery and senior officials of state bodies extorting money from business entities." RG

FRENCH FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS TAJIKISTAN
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi met on April 11 in Dushanbe with visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Asia-Plus and the Avesta website reported. Speaking to reporters following the meeting, Kouchner hailed Tajikistan as France's "strategic partner" in Central Asia and announced that he invited Rahmon to participate in "an international conference on Afghanistan" in Paris in June. Kouchner also told reporters that "France highly assesses Tajikistan's role in establishing peace and stability in Afghanistan." Kouchner then took part in a ceremony marking the opening of a new French Embassy building in Dushanbe, and also hosted a regional conference of French ambassadors posted to CIS countries. Kouchner arrived in Tajikistan after participating in a summit meeting of Central Asian leaders in the Turkmen capital focusing on the development of a new "strategy of a new partnership" to guide the European Union's relationship with the region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2008). RG

BELARUSIAN COURT FINES ACTIVIST FOR PROTESTING PLANNED CHEMICAL PLANT
A Belarusian district court on April 11 found Syarhey Abrazouski guilty of organizing an unauthorized protest against the construction of an agricultural chemical plant in the town of Druzhny, some 30 kilometers southeast of Minsk, Belapan reported. The court fined Abrazouski 1.4 million rubles ($656). Some 500 Druzhny and area residents took part in the March 22 protest. "I disagree with the position taken by the district authorities, who have repeatedly violated people's rights by not allowing them to demonstrate," Abrazouski told Belapan. The planned factory in Druzhny will reportedly manufacture toxic chemicals, including pesticides and herbicides, and reprocess old fertilizers collected from sites across Belarus. JM

UKRAINIAN LAWMAKERS RESPOND TO RUSSIAN STATEMENT ON KYIV'S NATO PLANS
Verkhovna Rada speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk told journalists in Kyiv on April 11 that he wants lawmakers to discuss the statement made by the chief of Russia's General Staff, General Yury Baluyevsky, on Ukraine's desire to join NATO, Interfax reported. Baluyevsky said in Moscow earlier that day that if Georgia or Ukraine joins NATO, Russia will take "military and other measures" to ensure "its interests along its borders." Anatoliy Hrytsenko, the head of the Verkhovna Rada's Defense Committee and a former defense minister, said the same day that Baluyevsky's words reflect the stance of Russia's top leadership on Ukraine's NATO bid. "It won't be enough just to summon the [Russian] ambassador for clarification or to send a [diplomatic] note through the Foreign Ministry. I think this situation calls for a special meeting of the National Defense and Security Council to discuss further prospects of our interaction with the Russian Federation in all areas," Hrytsenko added. JM

SWISS-BASED TRADER TO CONTINUE DELIVERING GAS TO UKRAINE
Oleksandr Shlapak, the first deputy head of the presidential administration, told journalists in Kyiv on April 11 that Naftohaz Ukrayiny has concluded a contract with Swiss-registered firm RosUkrEnergo on natural gas deliveries to Ukraine, Interfax reported. According to Shlapak, RosUkrEnergo, which is owned by Gazprom and two Ukrainian businessmen, will supply some 50 billion cubic meters of gas to Ukraine by the end of 2008 at a price of $179.50 per 1,000 cubic meters, compared to $130 last year. Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has pledged to exclude RosUkrEnergo from the gas supply chain, and described the company's role as "murky." "This is a compromise, but a victory considering the circumstances," Tymoshenko's energy adviser Oleksandr Hudyma said on April 11. JM

MACEDONIA SCHEDULES ELECTIONS FOR JUNE
Macedonia's parliament voted on April 12 to dissolve itself and hold early elections on June 1 following the collapse of the coalition government in March and the success by Greece in blocking Macedonia's attempt to join NATO in April, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14 and 17, and April 14, 2008). The proposal to call new elections was backed by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization's (VMRO-DPMNE), its former coalition partner the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSh), and the opposition ethnic-Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI). The mainly ethnic-Macedonian Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM), which is the largest opposition party, and some smaller parties opposed the move. The next scheduled election was not due until 2010. Menduh Thaci's PDSh left the coalition in March to protest what it called the refusal of the VMRO-DPMNE to recognize Kosova, to ensure greater rights for the use of the Albanian language and flag, or to provide benefits for ethnic-Albanian veterans of the 2001 conflict, which was resolved peacefully through the mediation of the United States and EU. Gruevski's coalition had 57 out of 120 seats in the outgoing parliament. Macedonian governments usually include at least one large party from each of the two main ethnic groups. Some observers suggest that the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE could benefit from growing anti-Greek sentiment in the wake of the recent Bucharest NATO summit. PM

SERBIAN NATIONALIST LEADER RULES OUT FURTHER EXTRADITIONS TO THE HAGUE
Tomislav Nikolic, who heads the nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), said in Prokuplje near the border with Kosova on April 13 that no more Serbs will be extradited to The Hague to face war crimes charges if his party wins the May 11 elections, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13 and 28, and March 5, 2008). Nikolic is officially deputy chairman of the SRS, whose chairman, Vojislav Seselj, is in The Hague facing war crimes charges before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Nikolic said in Prokuplje on April 13 that a vote for the SRS is a vote for Seselj's ideas, especially in the wake of the recent ICTY decision finding Kosova's former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj not guilty of war crimes charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2008). Nikolic added that anyone who recognizes Kosova's independence will "finish up in jail." He said that Serbian President Boris Tadic is welcome to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU if he wishes, but "I don't know where he'll go afterwards, because we'll be waiting in Belgrade for his return to show him what we think of his signature." Nikolic argued that the SRS wants to join the EU, but only an EU that accepts that Kosova "is an inalienable part of Serbia." Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) takes a similar position on relations with the EU, which recently led to the breakdown of the shaky coalition led by Kostunica and the pro-EU Tadic. The SRS is by far Serbia's largest single party, but would need support from smaller nationalist parties to form a government. PM

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT, TRANSDNIESTER LEADER HOLD LANDMARK TALKS
Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin met for 90 minutes on April 11 in Bendery with Igor Smirnov, leader of the unrecognized Transdniester republic, Russian media reported. Voronin proposed the meeting, the first between the two men in seven years, during a telephone call to Smirnov on April 6, according to "Kommersant" on April 12. The talks reportedly focused on confidence-building measures aimed at facilitating the resumption of talks in the 5+2 format (Moldova and Transdniester, plus Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE as guarantors, with representatives of the European Union and the United States present as observers) on a political solution of the Transdniester conflict. Interfax on April 12 quoted Voronin as telling Moldovan television that the meeting took place exclusively thanks to Russian mediation, Russia having fundamentally changed its approach to the Transdniester conflict following his meeting in January with President Putin. Voronin added that he and Smirnov agreed to establish working groups to draft confidence-building measures, after which the two men will meet again. In an interview published in "Kommersant" last month, Voronin implied that he was close to reaching an agreement with Russia under which Transdniester would remain an autonomous republic within Moldova in return for formal assurances that Moldova would not seek NATO membership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12 and 14, 2008). "Kommersant" termed the meeting between the two leaders a major success for Russian diplomacy, following the collapse in 2002 of talks on the plan for resolving the conflict drafted by then-Russian presidential administration deputy head Dmitry Kozak (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 18, 20, 21, 25, and 26, 2002). LF

SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR FOR SERBIA'S EU DREAMS
The European Union is racing against time -- and some of its own member states -- to create incentives for Serbian voters to choose a Western future when they go to the polls for parliamentary elections on May 11.

The EU, whose image was tarnished in the eyes of many Serbs when most of its members backed Kosova's independence, is offering the prospect of future membership to Serbia. But Brussels is struggling to give the offer a definitive shape.

The main problems boil down to two names and one abbreviation -- Kosova, Mladic, and an SAA.

The EU is asking Serbia to forget Kosova and to deliver war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic. In return, Brussels is offering to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Belgrade and to begin talks on abolishing EU visas for Serbian citizens.

But there may not be enough time for all of this before the elections on May 11. Addressing the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on April 7, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana urged everyone in the bloc to be welcoming. "We have to make all the effort to extend our hand to the Serbian people, to continue telling them clearly -- not only with words but with facts -- that we want them to be a part of the European family of nations," Solana said.

The speaker of the Serbian parliament, Oliver Dulic, who was in Brussels in early April, handed the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee a detailed wish list. The pro-European politicians whom Dulic represents want the EU to sign an SAA with Serbia by the end of this month, give it candidate status by the end of the year, ease visa restrictions by early 2009, and launch accession talks with Serbia in the second half of 2009.

Dulic says such tangible offers could sway Serbian voters on May 11. He said the EU must err on the side of generosity, if anything, to compensate for a feeling in Serbia that the country is always fated to get the sharp end of the stick. "We need the EU to put tangible content into the phrase 'EU integration,' content that will be both realistic and attractive to our citizens," Dulic said. "We applaud EU leaders repeating that citizens of Serbia have their place in the EU family, but this is simply not enough, especially now when the nationalists point out that the EU is treating Serbia differently from any other postcommunist country."

Solana and EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn agree, to a point. Both say they work day and night to deliver an SAA and a "road map" to a visa deal.

But there are problems -- and not in Belgrade so much as in some EU capitals. The Netherlands wields a veto over the SAA. It refuses to allow the EU to sign the agreement with Serbia before it delivers Mladic, who commanded Bosnian Serb troops who killed up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Belgium also has misgivings.

In addition, a number of member states are wary about handing Serbia an easy visa deal. Immigration pressure and the threat of terrorism have caused the EU to up the ante for countries wanting to ease their visa regimes with the bloc. Dulic complained that the conditions being imposed on Serbia are tougher than those faced by other countries. And there was some sympathy among his audience. Elmar Brok, a senior German deputy, noted that Serbia is faced with a "painful historical irony," given that Yugoslav citizens were free to travel in Europe during the Cold War.

In the short term, however, signing the SAA appears to be the most tangible reward the EU has to offer.

Solana said on April 7 that he has addressed the Dutch parliament on the issue. He made another impassioned appeal at the European Parliament, arguing that the Dutch wish to see Mladic in court may be thwarted forever should anti-EU nationalists come to power in Serbia. "My appeal is for everybody to think about [this]: those -- who are many, all of us -- who do want cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal, who would like to have Mladic in front of the international community, having a fair trial. They know very well that at the end of the day if [Radical Party leader Tomislav] Nikolic wins the elections, [that] will never take place," Solana said.

Solana said Serbia is in an "exceptional situation," adding that it needs "exceptional solutions." Dulic issued a similar warning, saying Mladic and other war crimes suspects might well "die free men" if pro-European forces lose the May 11 elections.

Dulic argues that, because the SAA is a technical agreement with little political content, linking it to the handover of war criminals makes little sense. He also points out that Croatia, an EU-candidate country, was allowed to sign its SAA with its most notorious suspect, Ante Gotovina, still on the loose.

But the EU's biggest problem is that it is able to engage in dialogue with only one part of Serbia's political spectrum -- a part, moreover, whose relative strength it cannot gauge with any reliability. Nationalist elements, meanwhile, reject cooperation with the EU as long as it is seen as favoring Kosova's independence and gives support to authorities in Prishtina.

And even many relative moderates are in stark opposition to the West on the issue of Kosova. Dulic, for example, used his address at the European Parliament to say that Kosova's independence was "deeply illegal." Perhaps the best that Serbia's pro-European forces can do under the circumstances would be to say in unison with Dulic that they consider integration with the EU "as important as Kosovo."

Events in and around Kosova may yet overwhelm the EU's cautious attempts to reach out to Serbia. Solana said the crucial test for the relationship will come between the May 11 elections and June 15 -- when Kosova's first constitution is expected to come into force.

(Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.)

MASS GRAVE DISCOVERED IN NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN
Afghan security officials have reported the discovery of a mass grave containing at least 100 bodies in Balkh, near the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, Reuters reported on April 12. Officials believe that the victims were ethnic Hazaras who were massacred by the Taliban when the Islamist militia took over the region in the 1990s. Provincial security official Abdurrauf Taj told reporters that bodies are still being unearthed and the number of victims may rise. A local commander, Sardar Mohammad Sultani, said that investigators will work hard to determine and find the truth about the bodies, adding that the bodies were not moved until a team from Kabul inspected the site. AT

TALIBAN MILITANTS, FOREIGN ENGINEERS KILLED IN CLASHES
Twenty-four Taliban insurgents were killed and eight injured in fighting with Afghan security forces backed by foreign military aircraft in the southern province of Zabul late on April 11, AFP reported. Zabul Deputy Governor Gulab Shah Alikhail told AFP the operation was intended to protect a key highway to Kabul. Afghan and foreign security forces later launched a follow-up operation against the Taliban militants, killing three. In the southwestern province of Nimroz the same day, suicide bombers attacked a convoy carrying Afghan and Indian road construction workers, killing two Indian engineers. A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yusof Ahmadi, claimed responsibility for the attack. On April 12, Indian officials said the country will continue to support reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, despite the security risks, the "Economic Times" of India reported. Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony said New Delhi has expressed its concern to Kabul about the threats faced by Indian workers in Afghanistan, and that the two governments remain in constant contact. AT

FRENCH OFFICIAL SAYS PAKISTAN MUST HELP END VIOLENCE IN AFGHANISTAN
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Canadian counterpart Maxime Bernier visited a NATO air base in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar on April 12, AFP reported. Kouchner called on Pakistan to aid security efforts in Afghanistan, saying that Pakistan's help is critical in combating the Taliban. "Further military means are needed in order for the process of securing Afghanistan to proceed...but there must also be a regional view, particularly with regards to neighboring Pakistan." Kouchner said he spoke with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the need to step up security along the Afghan-Pakistani border, which runs through difficult terrain and is difficult to patrol. "This is an Afghan-Pakistan problem, but this incredible looseness which allows all sorts of trafficking cannot be allowed to continue," Kouchner said. "This border problem needs to be resolved, and if we can take part in that process, that would be great," he added. He added that he intends to meet with the new Pakistani leadership, but did not provide details. AT

IRANIAN ATOMIC AGENCY CHIEF TRAVELS TO VIENNA
The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aqazadeh, traveled to Vienna on April 13 and was scheduled to meet with Muhammad el-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the following day, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on April 13. Hosseini said Aqazadeh's meeting with El-Baradei is routine, Radio Farda reported. A deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Saidi, has told Iranian television that Aqazadeh will explain to el-Baradei Iran's reportedly imminent use of new, more advanced centrifuges for uranium enrichment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 9, 2008), Radio Farda reported. Saidi said the economic incentives offered by the West are not enough to deter Iran from its nuclear fuel-making activities, and urged Western countries to adopt a "more rational policy with Iran," and accept its "nuclear advances and the peaceful nature of our program," Radio Farda reported. A number of Western governments fear Iran will use its fuel-making knowledge to make weapons in the future, which Iran denies. In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said on April 13 that Iran will make unspecified proposals to the 5+1 powers -- the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany -- at their next meeting scheduled for April 16 in Shanghai, Radio Farda reported. Mottaki told reporters in Tehran that the details of Iran's proposals, which he said are aimed at helping to resolve regional issues through dialogue, will be released in coming days. The 5+1 powers are to discuss whether or not to provide Iran with more incentives to curb its nuclear program, Reuters reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said Iran will not accept any package that does not assure its "rights," and he suggested the great powers should compensate Iran for financial losses incurred as a result of three rounds of UN Security Council sanctions, Reuters reported. Iran insists it has a right to produce nuclear fuel, in line with Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty provisions. VS

OFFICIAL TOUTS IRAN'S CONCILIATORY INITIATIVES
Supreme National Security Council Deputy Secretary Javad Vaidi said in Tehran on April 13 that Western powers misinterpret "any positive move" by Iran as being the result of weakness caused by UN sanctions, IRNA reported. "If we do anything positive, it is not because of fear, weakness, or pressure, but it really is because we wish to resolve mutual problems and concerns," he told students of the Science and Industry University. He said Iran has cooperated throughout mid-2007 with the IAEA, to clarify its contested nuclear program, and the West should now reciprocate. He said the West favors a policy of pressuring Iran into abandoning its nuclear program and thus discrediting itself. "When a government ends its nuclear program by its own hands, it means everything it said was a slogan" and the nuclear program was not intended for Iran's progress but to bring about "a deal" with foreign powers, Vaidi said. VS

DOZEN IRANIANS DIE IN MOSQUE EXPLOSION
An explosion killed 12 people in a mosque in the southern city of Shiraz on April 12 and injured scores more, news agencies reported. On April 13, Iranian Deputy Interior Minister Abbas Mohtaj said the explosion was an accident, not a bomb attack as thought earlier, Reuters reported. The agency cited Iranian media as speculating that this may have been an explosion of certain items displayed in the mosque days or weeks before, during a show of armaments or ammunition from the time of Iran's 1980-88 war with Iraq. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said on April 13 that the investigation is continuing, while a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Mohammad Nabi Rudaki, said a terrorist attack has not yet been ruled out, Reuters reported. VS

IRANIAN WRITER ORDERED TO RETURN TO JAIL
The head of Iran's Association in Defense of Prisoners' Rights, journalist Emadeddin Baqi, was ordered on April 12 by a court to return to jail within days, three months after he was released for medical treatment, Radio Farda reported on April 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). Baqi was imprisoned in 2007 on subversion-related charges, though he and his lawyers reject the charges and the prison sentence. He was reportedly kept in solitary confinement for at least two months following his detention in mid-October, and suffered two heart attacks in prison, Radio Farda reported. His lawyer, Mohammad Reza Faqihi, also a member of the Association in Defense of Prisoners' Rights, has told Radio Farda that Baqi's doctor should be the one to decide when Baqi is fully recovered and fit to return to jail, but that prison officials made the decision in this case. VS

IRAQI CLERIC SAYS U.S. WILL ALWAYS BE HIS 'ENEMY'...
In an April 12 statement responding to remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said he will not abandon his opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Gates told a Pentagon press briefing on April 11 that he would be surprised if U.S. forces tried to arrest al-Sadr should the cleric return to Iraq. "He is a significant political figure," Gates said of al-Sadr. "If he is willing to work within -- we want him to work within the political process in Iraq. He has a large following. And I think that it's important that he become a part of the process if he isn't already." In his response to Gates, al-Sadr said: "You will never be but my enemies and will remain so.... Let it be known that the hawzah [Shi'ite seminary] and colonialism are two far-apart things that will never meet and [even] if you have not taken me as your enemy, I have taken you as my enemy." Al-Sadr went on to threaten the U.S. government. "If you do not withdraw from our land or schedule your withdrawal in a manner that is acceptable to the oppressed Iraqi people, we will not be deterred from forcing you out of our land and resisting you, using methods we deem appropriate," he said. Al-Sadr called on the Iraqi government to adhere to what he said are the Iraqi people's wishes and force coalition forces to leave Iraq. He also praised the role of the Iraqi resistance in defending the people from the occupation. KR

...AFTER GUNMEN IN SOUTHERN IRAQ KILL HIS AIDE
Gunmen assassinated a senior aide to Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr on April 11, Iraqi media reported. Riyad al-Nuri was gunned down outside his home in the holy city of Al-Najaf. The government imposed a curfew on the city immediately afterward, and announced it will investigate what it called "an attempt to eradicate moderate religious and patriotic figures and foment sedition in the holy governorate of Al-Najaf." The investigation is reportedly being led by State Minister for National Security Affairs Shirwan al-Wa'ili. Curfews were also imposed in Al-Hillah and the Al-Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. Meanwhile, al-Sadr issued a statement blaming "the hands of the occupier and its henchmen" for the assassination, and declared a three-day mourning period. One unidentified al-Sadr supporter told Al-Sharqiyah television on April 11 that Iranian intelligence was responsible for the assassination, while other aides to al-Sadr blamed two rival Shi'ite parties, the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party of Prime Minister al-Maliki and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. KR

LONDON DAILY SAYS AL-SADR ORDERED TO LEAVE IRAN, IS NOW IN IRAQ
The London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on April 12 that Iranian authorities have forced Muqtada al-Sadr to leave Qom, where he was reportedly finishing advanced seminary studies. Al-Sadr allegedly arrived in Iraq two days before the assassination of senior aide al-Nuri, Iraqi sources told the daily. The sources claimed al-Sadr was forced to leave Iran as punishment for the clashes that erupted across southern Iraq last month between militiamen loyal to al-Sadr and Iraqi security forces. Moderate officials in Iran said al-Sadr's presence in Iran was causing tension with the Iraqi government. KR

IRAQI SECURITY FORCES DISMISS 1,300 FOR REFUSING TO FIGHT SADRISTS
Iraqi officials said on April 13 that some 1,300 members of the police and army have been dismissed from their jobs for refusing to fight Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, during the government crackdown at the end of March. Interior Ministry spokesman Abd al-Karim Khalaf said those dismissed will still face court-martial. The majority of the desertions were in Al-Basrah, where 500 soldiers and 421 policemen were dismissed. The others were dismissed for failing to carry out orders against Sadrists in Wasit Governorate. KR

IRAQI PREMIER ORDERS TIGHTER REGULATION OF OIL DISTRIBUTION
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered gas stations and other oil-derivative outlets to adhere to state policies on distribution, and said anyone taking part in price fixing or meter tampering will be punished, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on April 13. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told the news channel that the order was issued following intense criticism from citizens that state and private distributors are manipulating the quota system. "Manipulation has increased to such an extent that it harmed citizens," al-Dabbagh said. "Therefore, there should be strict and decisive measures to stop such violations by some gangs, people, and figures, regardless of their titles, who seek to make illegal profits by imposing protection money on oil-derivatives distribution outlets. [Those who abuse the system] make problems and complicate the situation in the local market." KR

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