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Newsline - April 18, 2008

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RUSSIA SWAPS DEBT FOR LIBYAN CONTRACTS
President Vladimir Putin told reporters on April 17 in Tripoli that Russia has agreed to write off about $4.5 billion in Libyan debt in exchange for contracts with Russian companies, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15 and 17, 2008). He added that "the Libyan leadership is ready for the most active cooperation with Russia in all areas." The daily "Vedomosti" reported on April 18 that the state firm Russian Railways (RZhD) will build a rail line connecting Sirte and Benghazi at a cost of $3.5 billion. The paper quoted "RZhD President Vladimir Yakunin [as saying] that it was the only contract signed in the course of [Putin's] visit. According to Yakunin, the Russian offer to build the railroad enabled Moscow and Tripoli to come to a mutually acceptable solution to the debt problem. [He] added that his company is always ready to help the government...in dealing with similar problems in relations with other countries. RZhD intends to participate in similar projects in Algeria and Syria." The paper noted that "Libya will buy approximately $1 billion worth of military hardware from Russia. Sources in the Russian delegation suggested that $500 million worth of contracts with Tripoli might be signed in April or May. They will deal with the delivery of light weapons, the modernization of T-72 tanks, and improvements in the Libyan coastal defense systems." The daily quoted an unnamed "source in the Defense Ministry" as saying that "negotiations over Su-35 fighters the Libyans would also like to buy are under way." "Vedomosti" noted that the "Libyans will invest $200 million in real estate in Russia. No details of this project are available." In addition, Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller, who accompanied Putin, "returned from Libya with two agreements, namely framework memoranda with the Libyan National Oil and Gas Corporation (LNOC) and Libyan African Investment Fund. The idea is to set up joint ventures with LNOC to handle joint oil and gas projects at all stages and projects dealing with electric power production. Where the Libyan African Investment Fund is concerned, Gazprom intends to combine efforts with it in the third countries, such as Nigeria, Niger, Mauritania, Chad, Sudan, and Algeria." PM

PUTIN MEETS WITH ITALIAN LEADER
President Putin arrived in Porto Rotondo on Sardinia on April 17 for two days of talks with Italian Prime Minister-designate Silvio Berlusconi, Russian and international media reported. Putin is the first foreign leader to meet with Berlusconi since the latter's recent election victory. Berlusconi said on April 17 that Putin "has shown himself to be a great friend by coming here. This shows a close relationship that has never been interrupted [during Berlusconi's nearly two years out of power]. The Russian Federation is very important for us [because] we get 30 percent of our oil and gas from them." The talks centered on energy, Russian-EU relations, and the possibility of Russia's Aeroflot buying an interest in Italy's Alitalia airline, in which the Italian government has been trying for some time to interest either foreign or private Italian investors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 28, 2007). Aeroflot and some Western airlines previously pulled out of talks regarding Alitalia because of what they regarded as unacceptable conditions attached by the Italian authorities to any privatization deal. Energy issues also figured prominently on the agenda, at least partly because Gazprom is interested in a possible swapping of assets in Libya with Italy's ENI. "The Moscow Times" noted on April 15 that the talks will not be welcomed by many in the EU who fear that the bloc is becoming too dependent on Russia for energy supplies. ENI and Gazprom already cooperate on the South Stream pipeline project, widely seen as a direct competitor to the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline, which is intended to reduce the bloc's dependence on Russia. PM

KOZAK DENIES RUMORS OF PLANNED 'MEGA-REGIONS'
Speaking at a closed government session on April 17, Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak categorically denied that the Russian leadership plans a territorial-administrative reform that would create 10 mega-regions, the heads of which would be his deputies, "Kommersant" reported on April 18. He pointed out that the existing internal borders are constitutionally determined and can therefore be changed only on the basis of a referendum among the population of the federation subjects concerned. Kozak further rejected rumors that his ministry will take over some of the current duties of the Finance Ministry and Economic Development and Trade Ministry, saying that if it tried to do so, it would "burst" under the additional pressure. LF

LUZHKOV CALLS FOR MOSCOW-MOSCOW OBLAST MERGER...
Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has said that the process of integrating Moscow and Moscow Oblast should begin soon. "With respect to Moscow and the oblast, the task of integration development today must not be simply discussed, but practically resolved in the nearest possible term," Luzhkov wrote in an article published in "Izvestia" on April 18. Unlike Regional Development Minister Kozak, Luzhkov claimed that the issue of merging Russian regions is again on the agenda. "On the heels of the creation of state corporations, the issue of changing the existing administrative-territorial division of the country [and] the creation of super-subdivisions on the basis of the existing federation subdivisions has become the subject of serious discussion," Luzhkov wrote. "The idea was rolled out on Kamchatka and in Krasnoyarsk Krai. The results were declared satisfactory." Kamchatka Oblast and Koryak Autonomous Okrug were merged to form Kamchatka Krai on July 1, 2007, and the Evenk and Taimyr Autonomous okrugs were merged into the Krasnoyarsk Krai on January 1, 2007. Luzhkov also called for the formation of tripartite management structures involving Moscow, Moscow Oblast, and the federal government for resolving "the key issues of development" in such areas as transportation, engineering, municipal and energy infrastructure, and strategies for "the formation of new satellite cities." In 2003, Luzhkov said he strongly opposed proposals to merge Moscow and Moscow Oblast (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 16, 2003.) JB

...AMID RUMORS THAT HE WILL STEP DOWN
Moscow Mayor Luzhkov's article in the April 17 edition of "Izvestia" calling for the merger of Moscow and Moscow Oblast came on the heels of rumors that he will step down from the post he has held since 1992. On April 10, "The Moscow Times" quoted an anonymous Moscow city government official as saying that Luzhkov is likely to leave office by the end of the summer to take a senior government position. Luzhkov is in negotiations with the Kremlin about his future position, "but so far they have not reached any agreement," the official told the English-language daily, adding, "What is certain is that Luzhkov will not retire but will be given a really good position." Luzhkov, said the official, is waiting for "the right offer" from the Kremlin. The official told "The Moscow Times" that the Kremlin plans to reward Luzhkov for ensuring a high turnout in Moscow in the March 2 presidential election and for bringing in a solid percentage of the vote for President Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on April 9 that Luzhkov could replace Sergei Mironov as Federation Council speaker the same day outgoing President Putin is confirmed as prime minister. Gazeta.ru reported last month that President-elect Medvedev plans to replace Luzhkov and that Regional Development Minister Kozak and presidential-administration head Sergei Sobyanin are among the candidates to replace him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11, 2008.) JB

COMMUNISTS QUESTION PUTIN'S ELECTION AS UNIFIED RUSSIA LEADER
The Communist Party has asked the Federal Registration Service for a copy of the amendments that Unified Russia recently made to its charter that made it possible for outgoing President Putin to head the party without joining it. "Kommersant" reported on April 18 that the Communist Party suspects that the amendments violate the law on political parties and that Putin was therefore unlawfully made Unified Russia's head. The amendments to Unified Russia's charter, which created the new post of party chairman, were adopted on April 14, and on April 15, Putin was elected to that post while Unified Russia's previous leader, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, was elected chairman of the party's Supreme Council. According to "Kommersant," the Communists say the law on political parties stipulates that the ruling posts in a party must be elected in a secret ballot during a party congress, while Unified Russia's charter now states that the party's chairman and the chairman of its Supreme Council are to be elected in an open ballot. The paper quoted Vadim Solovyov, who is first secretary of the Communist Party's central committee and a State Duma deputy, as saying he too doubts that a nonparty member can be elected the head of a party, given that the law on political parties states explicitly that "members of parties" have the right to be elected to party leadership positions and that citizens "who are members of a political party" must be given equal opportunities to be represented in that party's ruling bodies. Solovyov told "Kommersant" that the Communist Party will decide whether or not to challenge the amendments to Unified Russia's charter in court after the Federal Registration Service responds to its inquiry. JB

KASPAROV LOSES HIS LAWSUIT
Moscow's Savelovsky Court on April 17 ruled against Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and United Civic Front leader, in his suit against the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2007). Kasparov charged in his suit that leaflets distributed by Nashi calling him "an American citizen," a "traitor" and a "thief" were defamatory, and he demanded 30 million rubles (more than $1.27 million) in compensation. Nashi claimed it had nothing to do with the leaflets. The judge who heard the case, Tatyana Adamova, said that Kasparov has 10 days to file an appeal, Interfax reported. The news agency quoted Kasparov's lawyer, Yury Kostanov, as saying that he and his client will appeal the ruling and that if the appeal is rejected, they may take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. JB

CHECHEN PARLIAMENT APPEALS TO RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY
The Chechen parliament on April 16 adopted an appeal to Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to disband the Vostok battalion that is affiliated with the Defense Ministry's 42nd Motorized Rifle Division and directly subordinate to Russian Military Intelligence, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on April 17. A traffic accident on April 14 in Gudermes reportedly led to a shoot-out between members of Vostok and of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's bodyguard in which over 20 people were killed, but a senior Russian Defense Ministry official subsequently denied reports of shooting or casualties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 16, and 17, 2008). On April 17, Adam Delimkhanov, a relative of Kadyrov who represents Chechnya in the Russian State Duma, accused Vostok commander Sulim Yamadayev of acting on orders from London-based former oligarch Boris Berezovsky with the aim of destabilizing the situation in Chechnya, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Also on April 17, Kadyrov's press service issued a statement rejecting as untrue media reports of "panic" among residents of Gudermes at the possibility of further fighting. LF

PACE CALLS FOR INQUIRY INTO ARMENIAN VIOLENCE
At its spring session in Strasbourg, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted on April 17 a resolution condemning the "de facto crackdown on the opposition by the authorities" in the wake of the disputed February 19 presidential election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Echoing recommendations made last month by the Council of Europe's Ago group, the resolution called for an "independent, transparent, and credible inquiry" into the violent clashes in Yerevan on March 1 between police and security forces and supporters of defeated opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian; for the release of persons detained in the wake of those clashes "on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges"; and for the immediate repeal of recent legal amendments effectively banning opposition rallies. It warned that failure by the Armenian authorities to meet those demands before the assembly's next session in June would call into question Armenia's credibility as a member of the Council of Europe and could result in the suspension of Armenia's voting rights. Former Armenian Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who heads Armenia's PACE delegation, said he considers the resolution reasonable and balanced, and stressed that "we must start taking steps immediately toward...democratization." Also on April 17, Suren Sureniants, one of the Ter-Petrossian supporters taken into custody after the March 1 clashes, was released from detention on health grounds after pledging not to leave the country, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

ARMENIAN ELECTION OFFICIAL SENTENCED FOR FRAUD
A Yerevan district court on April 17 sentenced district election-commission Chairman Seyran Mkrtumian to two years' imprisonment for deliberately overstating by 151 the number of votes cast for then-Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian in the February 19 presidential election at one polling station in the Erebuni district, and for the disappearance of 146 ballots cast for Ter-Petrossian during a February 23 recount of votes at a second polling station, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

THREE MORE ARMENIAN MINISTERS RETAIN THEIR POSTS
Three more ministers from the outgoing cabinet of Serzh Sarkisian have been reappointed as members of the new government headed by former Central Bank Chairman Tigran Sarkisian, Noyan Tapan reported on April 18. They are Hasmik Poghosian (Culture, nonpartisan); Levon Mkrtchian (education and science, Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun), and Vardan Vardanian (urban development, Prosperous Armenia). LF

EMBATTLED ARMENIAN TV STATION TEMPORARILY RESUMES BROADCASTING
The GALA television channel in Giumri resumed broadcasting on April 17, one day after suspending broadcasts in line with a local court ruling ordering it to vacate and remove its equipment from the town's old television tower, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The station now has 10 days to find other facilities. GALA incurred the wrath of the Armenian authorities by defying orders not to broadcast trenchant criticism of then-President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Sarkisian by Ter-Petrossian last fall. Viewers across the country contributed toward paying a fine imposed on GALA earlier this year for alleged tax evasion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 1 and 13 and December 5, 2007 and March 26, 2008). LF

GEORGIA SLAMS RUSSIAN ENCROACHMENT ON UNRECOGNIZED REPUBLICS
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said on April 17 in an address to the cabinet broadcast live on national television that he expects Russia to "revise" plans, summarized in a Russian Foreign Ministry statement the previous day, to "regulate" and expand ties and cooperation with the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, civil.ge reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2008). He said those plans "violate Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity." Saakashvili warned that such moves cannot derail Georgian efforts to "reunify the country peacefully," and he expressed appreciation for expressions of concern and of support for Georgia's position by NATO and the EU. The Georgian Foreign Ministry released a separate statement on April 17 terming the Russian plans "dangerous" and an attempt "to legalize the de facto annexation" of the two unrecognized republics, civil.ge reported. Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze said Georgia will appeal to the OSCE to convene an urgent discussion under the so-called Berlin Mechanism of the Russian move, which originated with outgoing President Vladimir Putin. Georgia has also asked the UN Security Council to address the Russian plans. LF

GEORGIA SETS CONDITION FOR SIGNING NONAGGRESSION PACT
Georgian State Minister for European Integration Giorgi Baramidze said on April 17 that the Georgian government is ready to sign a formal pact abjuring the use of military force against Abkhazia in exchange for assurances that all refugees and displaced persons may return to their homes, Caucasus Press reported. Under the formal UN-mediated agreement of May 1994, Abkhazia has the right to bar the return of persons suspected of committing war crimes during the 1992-93 fighting. Meeting on April 17 in Sukhum(i) with Ivo Petrov, who is the deputy to the special representative of the UN secretary-general for Georgia, de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh warned that Abkhazia will take unspecified "appropriate measures" if Georgia continues to refuse to withdraw from the Kodori Gorge the Interior Ministry troops it deployed there in the summer of 2006, and he urged Petrov to pressure the Georgian government to do so, civil.ge reported. In its April 15 resolution extending for a further six months the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia, the UN Security Council stressed that the situation in the Kodori Gorge "has to be in line with the Moscow agreement on cease-fire and separation of forces of 14 May, 1994," which called for the withdrawal from the gorge of "Georgian troops," without stipulating whether Defense Ministry or Interior Ministry troops, or both, are meant. The Georgian authorities argue that the agreement does not apply to Interior Ministry troops (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 5, 2007). LF

KAZAKHSTAN CONCLUDES MILITARY COOPERATION ACCORD WITH SLOVAKIA
Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov and his Slovakian counterpart Jaroslav Baska signed on April 17 in Astana a new bilateral agreement on military and technical cooperation, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. In a press release issued by the Kazakh Defense Ministry, the agreement was hailed as an important basis for "expanding cooperation in the sphere of education," including the professional training of junior and mid-level Kazakh officers at military institutes in Slovakia. The agreement also calls for the repair, maintenance, and modernization of Kazakh military aircraft in Slovakia. The military cooperation agreement is the latest in Kazakhstan's broader strategic plan to train and modernize its armed forces, in accordance with its stated goal of emerging as an "advanced military power" by 2012 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007). RG

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT ARRIVES IN KAZAKHSTAN
President Kurmanbek Bakiev arrived on April 17 in Astana at the start of a two-day official visit to Kazakhstan for high-level talks concerning the development of bilateral relations, ITAR-TASS and Kabar reported. Bakiev also attended the second day of a summit meeting of the Kazakh-Kyrgyz economic and trade commission in Astana, an annual forum devoted to bilateral cooperation. During a separate meeting after the summit, Bakiev and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev discussed specific areas of cooperation, including trade, labor migration, energy, and the use of natural resources, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Bakiev told Nazarbaev that labor migration is a priority issue, called for parity in the treatment of migrants, and explained that while Kazakh citizens are normally granted 90-day visits before formal registration is required, while Kyrgyz visitors to Kazakhstan face more stringent restrictions, according to Kazakhstan Today. The leaders also noted that bilateral trade increased by almost 43 percent in 2007, reaching an overall volume of $517 million, with more than 400 joint Kazakh-Kyrgyz joint ventures operating in Kyrgyzstan and another 465 in Kazakhstan. Speaking to reporters at a joint press conference following their meeting, the two presidents said that they agreed to hold a "special international forum" next year in Kazakhstan focusing on the creation of "a union of Central Asian states." A Kazakh initiative, the proposal includes plans for the formation of an "economic union" backed by a regional coordination of economic development and energy resources. Separately, Nazarbaev praised Kyrgyzstan for its ratification of a border-delimitation accord, adding that the agreement "demonstrates a high level of trust" and that the "longstanding issue is now resolved," Kazakhstan Today and AKIpress reported. Nazarbaev made the comments in a speech at the second day of a meeting in Astana of the Kazakh-Kyrgyz economic and trade commission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2008). He was referring to the recent ratification by the Kyrgyz parliament of agreements handing over land and several resorts in Kyrgyzstan's Issyk-Kul region to both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and 14, 2008). RG

ENERGY EXPERTS TESTIFY AT KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT HEARING ON ALTERNATIVE ENERGY
In testimony before a Kyrgyz parliament hearing on renewable energy sources, Alaibek Obozov, the director of the Bishkek-based Center for Study of Renewable Energy Sources, reported on April 17 that Kyrgyzstan ranks second among countries in the region in solar-energy potential, according to AKIpress. Obozov added that Kyrgyzstan holds significant renewable energy resources, noting that the country has three times the level of potential solar energy of Germany, which has invested several million dollars in its solar-energy sector. He added that renewable energy sources could potentially cover almost 51 percent of Kyrgyzstan's energy needs, but admitted that renewable energy accounts for a mere 1 percent of current energy needs. Deputy Minister of Industry, Energy and Fuel Resources Batyrkul Baetov recently announced that the government has set a goal to double the use of renewable energy as part of a new national energy strategy that also calls for the expansion of solar and wind energy, as well as the development of micro-hydroelectric power stations. Energy Minister Saparbek Balkibekov recently told the parliament that budget constraints preclude the financing of alternative energy projects, however (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2008). RG

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT ADOPTS RIGHT TO INFORMATION LAW
The Kyrgyz parliament voted on April 17 to adopt a new law protecting citizens' rights to information, AKIpress reported. Adopted as an amendment to the Administrative Responsibility Code, the new information law was backed by Justice Minister Marat Kaipov who defended it as an important measure to provide Kyrgyz citizens with the right to obtain "non-secret information from government agencies and local government bodies" upon request. The law also imposes administrative penalties, including fines ranging from 500 to 1,000 soms ($15-$30), for any state official refusing to meet the new requirements for providing information, Kabar reported. During the same session, the parliament also adopted legal amendments strengthening the authority of the state ombudsman, including new immunities for the ombudsman's deputies and staff. RG

TAJIK MUNICIPAL AUTHORITIES SEEK TO MOVE SYNAGOGUE
An unnamed official of the municipal government in the Somoni district of the Tajik capital Dushanbe confirmed on April 15 that the authorities have filed a lawsuit seeking to force the relocation of the Dushanbe synagogue, Asia-Plus reported. The authorities are seeking to move the synagogue, which is located in close proximity to the construction site of the upscale Nations Palace, as part of ambitious municipal redevelopment plan that includes the construction of modern buildings. The same municipal plan sparked a series of demonstrations by local residents whose homes have been targeted for demolition in preparation for the planned construction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2008). According to the unidentified official, the leaders of the Jewish community were warned "several times that they should vacate the occupied building, which is to be demolished, but all warnings remained unanswered." The local rabbi of the religious community, Mikhail Abdurahmanov, said that "the authorities want to resettle us without resolving our further fate." RG

IAEA TEAM COMPLETES INSPECTION IN TAJIKISTAN
A delegation of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) completed on April 16 an inspection of several projects that it operates in Tajikistan, according to the Avesta website. Since 2001, the IAEA has financed four projects totaling about $4.5 million in Tajikistan, working in close cooperation with the Tajik Academy of Sciences, and dealing with radiation safety, monitoring and counterproliferation efforts. The IAEA arrived in Bishkek on April 17 to conduct similar inspections in Kyrgyzstan. RG

TAJIK SUPREME COURT JUSTICE DISCLOSES PAST ESPIONAGE CASES
The chairman of the Tajik Supreme Court, Nusratullo Abdulloev, disclosed on April 16 details of past espionage cases from 2007, Asia-Plus reported. Speaking to reporters during a press conference in Dushanbe, Abdulloev revealed that the Supreme Court sentenced three Uzbek nationals to "long prison terms" after they were convicted in 2007 of spying for Uzbekistan. He also said that the court heard another 53 espionage cases, some of them involving "Chinese, Afghan, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz citizens." RG

INTERNATIONAL RIGHTS GROUP CONDEMNS TREATMENT OF POLITICAL PRISONER IN TURKMENISTAN
The human rights group Amnesty International condemned on April 16 the treatment of a political prisoner in Turkmenistan, accusing the Turkmen authorities of denying him access to necessary medical care, AP reported. Amnesty International said that Valeri Pal, a 59-year-old political activist, was detained in February on suspicion of theft in 2004 at an oil refinery where he used to work. Amnesty expressed concern that Pal has yet to be charged and noted that he was involved in peaceful community activities and took part in protests against various social problems, casting doubt on the theft charges. RG

TURKMEN OFFICIAL EXPLAINS STATE POLICY ON ENERGY INVESTMENT
In an address to the opening session of an international energy conference in London focusing on Turkmenistan, Deputy Prime Minister Tachberdy Tagiev explained on April 17 Turkmenistan's "multiple version" policy on energy investment under which national companies hold an exclusive monopoly right on exploring and developing land-based energy deposits, and foreign investment would be limited to developing offshore deposits in the Turkmen sector of the Caspian Sea, ITAR-TASS reported. He added that the Turkmen government has issued 32 licenses for the exploration of offshore oil and natural-gas deposits through production-sharing agreements and that "a foreign partner can participate" in land-based projects "only in the form of providing services." He also announced that as part of Turkmenistan's "strategic relations" with Russia, and based on a 25-year trade agreement concluded in 2003, Turkmenistan plans to increase its shipments of natural gas to Russia from the current annual level of 50 billion cubic meters (bcm) to 70-80 bcm. But he added that the increased gas supply is conditional on upgrading and modernizing two existing Turkmen-Russian gas pipelines. He went on to report that Turkmenistan currently supplies 8 billion bcm of gas annually to Iran and plans to sell another 30 bcm of gas to China once a planned pipeline through Kazakhstan is completed in 2009. Commenting on other pipeline plans, Tagiev added that Turkmenistan is considering the feasibility of building a gas pipeline via Afghanistan to Pakistan, which he said has attracted Indian interest. But he did not exclude the possibility of delivering natural gas to Europe through the EU's planned Nabucco pipeline, running along the southern Caspian-Black Sea corridor, and vowed that "we are ready to sell gas on our border, including sea border," while stressing that the project is "not a priority" for his government. RG

PACE RAPPORTEUR CALLS ON BELARUS TO RESPECT FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Andrew McIntosh, media-freedom rapporteur in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), called on the Belarusian government in a statement posted on PACE's website (http://assembly.coe.int) on April 17 to respect the right to freedom of expression, Belapan reported. "In view of recent police brutality against journalists reporting about a peaceful demonstration in Minsk on March 25 and the subsequent harassment of many journalists by security forces of Belarus, I call on the authorities in the Republic of Belarus to return seized material to the journalists, launch investigations into such abuse, and train law enforcement authorities in respecting the fundamental right to freedom of expression of everybody in Belarus including especially journalists," McIntosh said. "Respect of freedom of expression must be a necessary requirement for any change in the relations of the Belarusian government with [PACE], in addition to ensuring the independence of the courts, granting parliamentary powers to a democratically elected National Assembly, and abolishing the death penalty in Belarus," McIntosh added. Meanwhile, Vadzim Papou, the chairman of Belarus's Chamber of Representatives, expressed confidence at a briefing in Minsk on April 17 that PACE will restore the Belarusian legislature's special-guest status. Belarus is the only European country outside the Council of Europe. Its special-guest status in PACE was suspended in 1997 following a constitutional referendum condemned by foreign observers as undemocratic. JM

UKRAINIAN COURT RULES ON CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES VIA REFERENDUM
The Constitutional Court on April 18 ruled that "the people, as the bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in Ukraine, may execute at a national referendum called at the people's initiative its exclusive right to define and change the constitutional system in Ukraine, through adopting a constitution via a procedure defined by the constitution and the law," Interfax-Ukraine reported. However, the ruling reportedly explains that a new constitution may not be directly approved by a national referendum until the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament, amends the current constitution regarding the mechanisms and procedures for staging such a referendum. JM

INTERNATIONAL REPRESENTATIVE PRAISES KOSOVA LEADERS' 'MATURITY'
Pieter Feith, who is the chief representative in Kosova of the EU and the international community, said in Vienna on April 17 that Kosova's leaders showed maturity and made "great progress" in managing the timing of their declaration of independence on February 17, news agencies reported. Speaking in his capacity as chairman of the International Steering Group (ISG) that deals with Kosova, Feith noted that "the ISG will do its utmost to ensure that this progress is sustained." He stressed the ISG's opposition to Serbian attempts at partitioning Kosova, adding that "we look to all parties to actively take measures to prevent violence." Feith declined to specify any time frame for the planned transfer of the international mandate for Kosova from the UN's civilian administration to the EU's EULEX, saying that "it is a matter for the EU and UN to take this further." He added that nobody should be "hung up" about the lack of a specific date for that transfer. The transition is expected to take place on June 15, but Serbian opposition to the EU mission has prompted many observers to question the feasibility of that deadline. PM

SERBIAN LEADERS DISAGREE ON LOCAL ELECTIONS
The caretaker cabinet of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica agreed on April 17 to proceed with plans to hold local as well as parliamentary elections in Kosova on May 11, Serbian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, and April 1, 10, and 15, 2008). Trade and Services Minister Predrag Bubalo, who belongs to Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), said in Belgrade that "the decision was made unanimously. Elections will be held in Kosovo." In Prishtina on April 17, Joachim Ruecker, who heads the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), said in a letter to Slobodan Samardzic (DSS), who is Serbia's minister for Kosova, that only UNMIK has the legal authority to organize elections in Kosova. "I trust that Serbia will continue to respect UNMIK's...authority and mandate [and] will refrain from any unauthorized municipal elections and/or governance activity in Kosovo," he wrote. RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported from Mitrovica on April 17 that not all Kosovar Serbian leaders agree with Belgrade's position. One such leader, Oliver Ivanovic, said that local Serbs urgently need officials who have been legally and legitimately elected, and not only those "who appointed themselves" as leaders. He argued that by boycotting Kosova's 2007 local elections, local Serbs missed an opportunity to select their own officials. Ivanovic said that only elections organized by UNMIK will have full legitimacy. He noted that local Serbs do not accept the plan for Kosova put forward by former UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, but stressed that they would be unwise to ignore the opportunities the plan gives them for setting up local self-governing bodies. Nebojsa Jovic, who is a senior Serbian leader in northern Mitrovica, said that UN Security Council Resolution 1244 makes it clear that only UNMIK has the authority to organize elections in Kosova, and that the Serbs would be well advised to reach an election agreement with the UN body. Jovic stressed, however, that the Serbs should work only with UNMIK and not do anything that would suggest that they recognize the Kosovar authorities in Prishtina. PM

KOSOVA SERBS OBJECT TO CHARGES OVER RIOTS
Mitrovica Serbian leader Jovic told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service on April 17 that the recent publicizing of accusations by Kosova's police that 21 unnamed Serbs, including some politicians, were actively involved in politically motivated riots following Kosova's declaration of independence is just one more attempt at exerting pressure on local Serbs and their leaders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2008). He said that those responsible for violence should be brought to justice, but that the cases against them should be pursued without publicity until the investigations are completed and formal charges filed. Jovic argued that those members of the international community who recognize an independent Kosova should consider their responsibility for the violence, because Kosova's Serbs will not accept the independent state. Velimir Bojovic, who heads the town council in Leposaviq, said that Kosova's police sought to "destabilize" the largely Serbian-populated north by publicizing the accusations against the 21 Serbs. PM

NEW ARMENIAN PRESIDENT INHERITS 'CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE'
After a divisive and violent postelection crisis, recently installed Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian is anxious to form a new cabinet capable of defusing tension and reaching out to a polarized population.

The scripted and predetermined transfer of power from outgoing President Robert Kocharian to his prime minister, Sarkisian, proved far more difficult and challenging than initially expected. But it was neither the political campaign, nor even the election itself, that has posed the most significant challenge to the new Armenian president, but the "crisis of confidence" that has emerged in the wake of the government's response to the postelection crisis.

That crisis began with a series of demonstrations and protests by opposition supporters that culminated in a deadly March 1 clash between riot police and demonstrators. In response to the violence, which left eight demonstrators and two policemen dead, Kocharian imposed a 20-day state of emergency that outlawed public rallies and imposed restrictions on the media.

By the end of the state of emergency, it became clear that the crisis was far from over, with the authorities' subsequent crackdown on the opposition only fueling tension and fostering discontent. Against this backdrop, Sarkisian's April 9 inauguration was marred by a crisis of confidence. This was also confirmed by the decision to stage a large military parade in the Armenian capital timed to coincide with the inauguration, a move aimed more at protection and intimidation than celebration.

Throughout his tenure as defense minister and prime minister, and even before that, President Sarkisian has been widely regarded as a chess enthusiast. His passion for chess is also seen as explaining his obsession for tactics and strategy, and he is now applying the very same tactics and strategy to a new political chessboard.

Sarkisian is now seeking to consolidate and stabilize his power base. The first step toward this goal is the formation of a cabinet. But even this first step is fraught with challenge and difficulty, stemming from deep-seated and pronounced public skepticism. For this reason, Sarkisian sought to reassure and reach out by bringing in the nonpartisan Central Bank chairman, Tigran Sarkisian (no relation), as prime minister. That choice was intended to reassure the public by selecting a technocrat as prime minister, in a tactical move toward more neutral politics. Similarly, the elevation of General Seyran Ohanian from military chief of staff to defense minister was regarded as a prudent promotion for a professional and prominent military figure generally respected and viewed as largely above partisan politics.

The political benefits from these first appointments have been somewhat dissipated by the president's more questionable third appointment, however. Although the dismissal of long-serving Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian was widely expected, his replacement by Ambassador to France Eduard Nalbandian was rather surprising. Regarded as a "professional diplomat," Nalbandian gained prominence more from his ties to the Russian political elite and his personal connections with Russia (he is rumored to hold Russian citizenship) than from any significant diplomatic experience or achievements.

The significance of replacing the diasporan Armenian Oskanian with the more Russian-centric Nalbandian seems to be rooted in Sarkisian's need to reassure Armenia's patrons in Moscow, after Russian concerns over the recent political crisis and perhaps to balance efforts Sarkisian has made over the past 18 months to improve his image in the West.

The real challenge to Sarkisian at this stage comes not from the opposition, however, but from the power of his predecessor. Bolstered by his still-potent hold over the parliament and the vulnerability of the newly forged four-party ruling coalition, Kocharian seems intent on exercising his leverage over Sarkisian in the next round of ministerial appointments.

Specifically, Kocharian is now seeking to protect and promote two of his most loyal and trusted political allies. He wants to further the political career of his long-time ally, outgoing Minister for Territorial Administration and Deputy Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian, by imposing him on Sarkisian as his next chief of staff. At the same time, Kocharian is also attempting to protect his own former chief of staff, the young and widely disliked Armen Gevorgian, by forcing Sarkisian to name him as deputy prime minister.

Kocharian's plans may be successful, mainly due to the combination of Sarkisian's crisis-induced weakness and Kocharian's own influence over a significant number of parliament deputies, including those from Prosperous Armenia (the second-largest bloc), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnakstutiun (HHD), and even a large number of deputies from the dominant Republican Party (HHK), the largest party. The HHK has been nominally led by Sarkisian since the death of former Prime Minister Andranik Markarian in March 2007, but is not 100 percent loyal to him.

While this challenge from Kocharian is now potent and will influence Sarkisian's ability to select the ministers of his choice, Kocharian's power over the new president is both limited and fleeting. Given that Kocharian lacks a real power base of his own and now has no official position, those still loyal to him are likely to gravitate sooner or later into Sarkisian's orbit. But for the moment, the two men remain natural rivals.

AFGHAN PRESIDENT URGED TO STOP EXECUTIONS
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that Afghanistan's legal system does not meet international standards in capital cases and it called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai not to sign the execution orders for about 100 prisoners due to concerns over fair trial standards, the BBC reported on April 17. The group said the Supreme Court's issuing of the death sentences shows "a disturbing disregard for the right of life," and urged Karzai to suspend the death penalty. "More mass executions will be a huge setback for the rule of law in Afghanistan," said Elaine Pearson, HRW's Asia deputy director. "The Afghan justice system still has a long way to go to respect the basic rights of the accused." Executions are relatively rare in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. But in 2007, 14 people accused of a variety of crimes were executed by a firing squad on the same day. AT

AFGHAN PARLIAMENT PROPOSES TALIBAN-STYLE MORAL CODE
A committee in the Afghan legislature has drafted a bill seeking to introduce Taliban-style Islamic morality codes, AFP reported on April 16. The draft, which bans women from wearing makeup in public and young boys from wearing women's clothes, needs to be approved by both chambers of parliament and President Karzai's signature to become law. According to the law, women and girls must wear "suitable dresses," and also a hijab while at work or school. The draft also demands an end to dog fights and pigeon races, billiards, and video games, and calls for separate halls for men and women during wedding parties. Loud music is also banned at such gatherings. The draft mirrors many of the laws introduced by the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 with strict Islamic Shari'a law. AT

DOZENS OF TALIBAN KILLED IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
Afghan and foreign forces killed several dozen Taliban insurgents in clashes in the south of the country on April 17, Reuters reported the same day. A senior provincial police official, Faridullah Khogiani, said that 20 Taliban rebels were killed by Afghan and NATO forces in the southern province of Zabul. In neighboring Ghazni Province, another 10 insurgents were killed after a failed ambush against a U.S.-led convoy, a provincial official said. The Afghan Defense Ministry said in a statement that in the same province, Afghan National Army soldiers killed another three Taliban insurgents. Also on April 17, at least two NATO soldiers were wounded and a tank destroyed by a bomb in Kandahar's Spin Boldak district on the Pakistani border, border-police chief Abdul Raziq Khan said. AT

TRAINING OF POLICE IS 'PRIORITY' FOR AFGHANISTAN
The new UN special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said on April 16 that the training of Afghan police is a priority for the international community, AP reported. "In the overall architecture of what we are doing, this [police training] is still an area which really needs high priority and extra efforts," he told reporters after a meeting of troop-contributing countries in Afghanistan. The representatives agreed that the Afghan police must be strengthened. Eide said the security situation until the 2009 elections is challenging, and he asked the international community to fund the elections. "The international community needs stronger coordination, the civilian and the military need to be better coordinated," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said at the same press conference. AT

IAEA CHIEF SAYS IRAN'S PROGRESS IN PRODUCING FUEL SLOW
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei said in Berlin on April 17 that Iran is making slower progress on installing centrifuges to enrich uranium than Iranian statements suggested earlier, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10 and 14, 2008). Statements by Iranian officials seemed to indicate that Iran is ready to double its 3,000 centrifuges at the Natanz plant. Western powers want Iran to stop enriching uranium, because of its possible military application. El-Baradei said Iran probably has 3,300-3,400 working centrifuges now, and these are of the older P-1 type, which spins more slowly than newer versions. Iran is interested in using faster centrifuges, but is reportedly not yet using them. Reuters quoted unnamed diplomats as saying Tehran has placed some advanced centrifuge models in Natanz but these are not yet in operation. Iran has developed a version of the faster P-2 centrifuge. El-Baradei urged Iran not to accelerate its enrichment program while international suspicions about the aims of its program are unresolved, Reuters reported. Separately, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has told an Israeli daily that Iran will never become a nuclear power, and he expressed confidence that international efforts to block its ambitions will succeed, AFP reported. He told "Maariv" that Israel is playing an "important part in these efforts, without leading them," and that there is no need for Israeli politicians to make threatening remarks about Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2008). VS

TROOPS PARADE IN TEHRAN
Iranian soldiers paraded in Tehran on April 17, Army Day, and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad made a speech in which he said Iran is so powerful that no state would dare attack it, news agencies reported. The parade included the display of about 200 warplanes and missiles, the BBC reported. Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar also said after the parade that Iran's armies have updated equipment and are entirely self-sufficient with armaments and equipment, Fars news agency reported. He said Iran does not seek to make nuclear weapons, but its Defense Ministry and armed forces are developing conventional weaponry "and this only to assure our security and defend ourselves, not to attack any other country." He said Israel would regret any attack on Iran, and observed that the Jewish state is losing its morale and population. "After Israel's disgraceful defeat by Lebanon's Hizballah [in 2006], the people of Israel and especially young people have no hope" for its survival, Mohammad-Najjar said, referring to a month of Israeli air strikes on Lebanon that failed to destroy Hizballah. He claimed that "statistics show" that about half the Israeli population wants to emigrate, which indicates "the decline of the usurping Zionist regime," Fars reported. VS

IRANIAN FEMINIST FACES SUBVERSION CHARGES
Women's rights activist and environmentalist Khadijeh Moqaddam was detained on April 8 and released on April 16 after posting bail worth a little over $100,000, Radio Farda reported on April 17, citing website reports from Tehran. She is charged with threatening national security, engaging in antistate propaganda, and "inciting public opinion" through her work with the One Million Signatures Campaign, which seeks to change discriminatory laws against women. Her relatives said she was held in solitary confinement for over a week in a detention center in northern Tehran, Radio Farda reported. VS

IRANIAN STUDENTS DENOUNCE 'ILLEGAL' COURT SENTENCES
The human rights committee of the Islamic Students Association at the Amir Kabir University has denounced as blatantly illegal the jail sentences recently given to three Amir Kabir students (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2008), Radio Farda reported on April 17. Ehsan Mansuri, Majid Tavakkoli, and Ahmad Qassaban have been jailed for offenses including insulting state officials and religion, though they have rejected the charges. The committee described their definitive conviction and imprisonment as "without a doubt the most evident instance of the violation of" Iran's own laws and international human rights norms, Radio Farda reported. The students' lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, has told Radio Farda he will complain to a judiciary supervisory board. He cited legal discrepancies in the prosecution of the students, including the acceptance of certain accusations against them by the final sentencing court without the support of relevant evidence. VS

IRAQI PREMIER SEEKS NATO ASSISTANCE
At a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Brussels on April 17, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on NATO to provide additional military training and equipment, Iraqi media reported. Al-Maliki said Iraq will not ask NATO to send forces to fight in Iraq. "We feel there is a need for more efforts, there is a need for more speedy operation in the equipping and training" of Iraqi troops, al-Maliki told reporters after the meeting. "We came here to improve and enhance work that is already under way." De Hoop Scheffer said NATO will continue and expand the training mission to meet the Iraqi request. NATO has already trained more than 10,000 Iraqi officers as part of a program it began in 2004, and has some 170 instructors on the ground in Iraq. NATO also coordinates the supply of equipment from member states to the Iraqi Army and has to date sent $175 million worth of equipment and ammunition to Iraq, AP reported on April 17. KR

AIDES TO IRAQI CLERIC SAY MILITIA WILL NOT DISARM
Aides to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told the London-based "Al-Hayat" that al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, will not comply with a government demand to disarm, the daily reported on April 17. Rasim al-Marwani, an adviser to the al-Sadr office's Higher Cultural Committee in Al-Najaf, told the daily that al-Sadr will not dissolve the militia as long as the government refuses to meet al-Sadr's demands for disarming. The main condition is the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq or the setting of a timetable for that withdrawal. Meanwhile, militia leader Zuhayr al-Kufi told "Al-Hayat" that "the Al-Mahdi Army has become a force to be reckoned with in Iraq and is stronger than the regular Iraqi Army, which is built by the occupiers. We cannot hand over our arms to those who collaborate with the occupiers and who want to destroy us. This is an illusion that will not materialize." Al-Kufi added that recent attempts by the government to reinstate an arrest warrant against al-Sadr for the 2003 killing of Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khu'i have only reinforced the militia's desire to remain armed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 2008). KR

IRAQI MILITARY SPOKESMAN SAYS AL-QAEDA COMES THROUGH IRAN...
Major General Qasim Ata al-Musawi, official spokesman of the Baghdad security plan, told elaph.com in an interview published on April 17 that there is evidence that Iranian elements sponsor Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Ata said infiltration by Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents across Iraq's borders has decreased due to beefed-up security by Iraqi forces, but that the borders cannot be completely controlled. "We have seized Iranian and Western-made weapons in the hands of elements involved with Al-Qaeda," he said. "I do not want to give the security situation a political color, but there are those belonging to Al-Qaeda who enter [Iraq] through Iran, perhaps in an official and legitimate way, and under various nomenclatures." Ata said that 50 to 60 percent of Iraqis who belong to Al-Qaeda appear to join out of economic need. "The rest are religious hard-liners," he said. "It is rare to find educated elements belonging to the organization." KR

...AND THAT MILITARY DOES NOT HAVE SECTARIAN AGENDA
Ata told elaph.com that the military does not target some militias rather than others or have a sectarian agenda. "We deal with the individual in light of his deed and his violation of the law, and we do not deal with him on the basis that he belongs to the Al-Mahdi Army, Badr Corps, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [the previous name of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq], the [Iraqi] Islamic Party, or [the Islamic] Al-Da'wah Party. We do not take these issues into consideration in our principles and battle strategy," he said. "We defend [those who] adhere to the law and hunt down anyone who violates the law, carries arms, and places himself as an alternative to the state," he added. Ata said that once the security situation stabilizes, "We ought to think deeply...of the way to review the structure of the security forces...because we need quality more than quantity, and an individual who implements the military orders away from all sectarian, ethnic, and partisan loyalties in order to implement the [army's] motto [of serving] God, the country, and the people." Once that is achieved, he said, foreign forces will be asked to leave Iraq. KR

REPORT SAYS ANOTHER 700,000 IRAQIS INTERNALLY DISPLACED IN 2007
A report released on April 17 by the Norwegian Refugee Council says that another 700,000 Iraqis were internally displaced in 2007, bringing the current estimates on the number of displaced inside the country to 2,480,000. Approximately 25,000 children were displaced per month in 2007, and by the end of the year approximately 75,000 children were living in camps or temporary shelters, the report said. Thousands of children were drawn into child labor, association with armed groups, or homelessness after their family's wage earner was kidnapped or killed. "Particularly intense displacement due to sectarian violence continued in mixed areas, for example in Baghdad and Diyala [governorates] as both Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs fled their homes for safety in areas where their sect was in the majority. Other groups, including Kurds, Christians, Palestinians, and Sabean-Mandeans, also continued to be forced from their homes by intimidation and threats," the report said. In the Kurdish region, Turkish military incursions displaced around 4,500 people in Dahuk Governorate. Increasing restrictions were placed on the movement of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and by year-end at least 11 of the country's 18 governorates refused to register IDPs coming either from within their territory or from other areas. "In some cases, these measures were reportedly designed to control the demographic makeup of governorates and hence the outcome of future elections," the report noted. Only 22 percent of all IDPs assessed by the International Organization for Migration in 2007 reported regular access to public distribution system food rations, while 56 percent reported irregular access. KR

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