RUSSIA HOSTS IRAN TALKS
Political representatives of the Foreign Ministries of China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are scheduled to meet in Moscow on April 18 to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue, "The Moscow Times" reported. The host will be Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 12, and 13, 2006). On April 17, Andrei Denisov, who is Russia's outgoing ambassador to the United Nations, said in New York that his country backs a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and he called on Tehran to observe a moratorium on uranium enrichment until April 28, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is slated to make a report to the Security Council, RIA Novosti reported. PM
DID U.K. THWART GAZPROM TAKEOVER BID?
The "Financial Times" reported on April 17 that the United Kingdom "considered changing its merger control regime [in 2006] to block a potential takeover of Centrica, the [country's] biggest gas supplier, by Gazprom of Russia, a move that remains an option to thwart any bid that threatens energy security." The paper added that "the prospect of the state-run Russian gas company taking over the [United Kingdom's] biggest energy supplier prompted frantic activity within the Trade and Industry Department" regarding the legal possibilities of blocking such a takeover. Gazprom subsequently said that its remarks, which led to the speculation regarding its intentions, had been "misinterpreted." PM
NGOS FEAR THE WORST
Russia's new law regulating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) went into effect on April 17, "The Moscow Times" reported. Officials of some larger NGOs said that much of their time and resources is likely to be wasted on filling out new government forms requiring detailed reporting on their respective organizations' activities. Representatives of some smaller NGOs said that their survival is in question because they do not have the resources to keep up with the required paperwork. Aleksei Zhafyarov, who heads the NGO department of the Justice Ministry's Federal Registration Service, said recently that it will be impossible for his officials to study all of the required reports from all of Russia's nearly 500,000 NGOs. One NGO official asked rhetorically: "Why are [the authorities] demanding such an insane amount of details?" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29 and 30, February 1, and April 12, 2006). PM
VOTERS OVERWHELMINGLY APPROVE MERGER OF TWO REGIONS
About 68 percent of voters in Irkutsk Oblast and 99 percent in Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug, which is totally surrounded by Irkutsk Oblast, cast their ballots in a April 16 referendum on the proposed unification of the two administrative regions, the websites vesti.ru and regnum.ru reported the following day. With most of the votes counted, the respective election committees reported that the percentage in favor is 89.8 in Irkutsk Oblast and 97.79 percent in Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug. A new federal region known as Irkutsk Oblast is therefore likely to come into being on January 1, 2008. Vesti.ru noted that the turnout of 68 percent was a "record" for Irkutsk Oblast, even by comparison with previous presidential elections. Viktor Ignatenko, who heads the Irkutsk Oblast Election Commission, announced that "in 1993 [when the current administrative regions were set up], nobody asked anybody [what they wanted]. Now the people have made their decision, which only they can change, not the politicians." The unification project is part of a Kremlin-sponsored initiative to create larger administrative regions, which could presumably be more easily controlled. Opponents charged that critical views were not adequately represented in the media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2005, and March 22, 2006). The unification project contrasts sharply with the admonition to the regions of former President Boris Yeltsin to "take as much sovereignty as you can swallow." PM
DUMA WILL NOT AGREE TO THIRD PRESIDENTIAL TERM
Boris Gryzlov, who is speaker of the State Duma and head of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party Duma faction, said on April 18 that the parliament will not change the constitution to enable President Vladimir Putin to run for a third term when his current mandate runs out in 2008, news.ng.ru reported. Gryzlov stressed that both he and the president oppose any changes to the constitution. PM
PRO-KREMLIN PARTY CITES HISTORICAL TRADITIONS
Oleg Morozov, who is deputy speaker of the State Duma, told the General Council of the Unified Russia party in Moscow on April 15 that "we are the only influential party in Russia," "The Moscow Times" reported on April 18. He stressed that "we are the successors of the history of all Russian governments.... Unlike the rightists and the leftists, we are the successors of both tsarist and socialist Russia.... To be faithful to the centuries-old tradition of serving the fatherland, [we express] our...conservatism." Duma speaker Gryzlov gave a lengthy address highlighting the theme that "Russia must be strong," the party's website (http://www.edinros.ru) reported. The Moscow-based daily reported that Unified Russia will soon adopt a platform putting forth the "improbable concoction" of a strong, centralized state and free-marked reforms under the slogan of "social conservatism." Unified Russia is widely seen as a "Potemkin party" that facilitates the rule of President Putin and his elite, which created it in 2001. PM
YOUTH GROUP AFFIRMS SUPPORT FOR ARMY
About 700 members and supporters of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi came to Moscow from about 50 cities across Russia on April 15 for the group's second annual meeting, where several speakers stressed the importance of "supporting the army," "The Moscow Times" reported on April 17. Nashi leader Vasily Yakemenko called on members to support the military, thanked them for donating blood and campaigning against sales of alcohol to minors, and announced the possibility of internships with the state-run Gazprom and Transneft companies as well as with the Unified Russia party. Nashi spokesman Robert Shlegel said that any member of the youth organization found to be dodging the draft will be reduced to the status of a supporter. Most Nashi members are students aged 17-25, who are often regarded by others as careerists. PM
MUSCOVITES PROTEST AGAINST MEDIA CENSORSHIP
About 1,500 protesters gathered in Moscow on April 16 to mark the fifth anniversary of the takeover of the previously independent television broadcaster NTV by the state-owned Gazprom conglomerate, RFE/RL reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 2, 2004, and "Russia: Moscow Rally Decries Media Clampdown," rferl.org, April 17, 2006). Speakers and protesters stressed the link between growing media censorship in Russia and declining democratic standards. Viktor Shenderovich, who hosted NTV's former satirical puppet show "Kukly," said that state control of television in Russia is preventing the emergence of a strong opposition and an independent judiciary. He added that a decline in press freedom in any country generally leads to a drop in the standard of living. PM
COURT RULES IN FAVOR OF OLIGARCH
A court in Krasnokamensk ruled on April 18 that the January transfer of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the embattled former head of the Yukos oil company, to solitary confinement for five days was unlawful, news agencies reported. Khodorkovsky is serving an eight-year prison sentence in the remote Chita Oblast for fraud and tax evasion after a trial that was widely viewed as politically motivated and engineered by the Kremlin. Russian courts have also placed some of his closest associates behind bars (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, and March 16 and 20, 2006). In related news, Khodorkovsky claimed on April 14 that an unnamed cellmate attacked him with a knife the previous night, slightly cutting his face, mosnews.com reported. Several of Khodorkovsky's supporters told reporters that they believe that the Kremlin is trying to break his will by "making his life in jail a hell." PM
ADYGEYA PRESIDENT'S STATUS REMAINS UNCLEAR
Khazret Sovmen submitted his written resignation as Republic of Adygeya president during an April 11 meeting in Moscow with presidential-administration head Sergei Sobyanin and presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak, the daily "Kommersant" reported on April 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2006). The paper identified as Sovmen's rationale for resigning the rising tensions in Adygeya due to the anticipated merger of that republic into the surrounding Krasnodar Krai (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 10, 2006). On April 13, the self-styled World Congress for Solidarity with the Republic of Adygeya, which represents the Cherkess diasporas in Jordan, Israel, Turkey, the United States, and elsewhere, released a statement affirming its support for Sovmen and for his opposition to plans to abolish Adygeya's status as a republic, according to kavkaz.memo.ru as reposted on kavkazweb.net. On April 17, regnum.ru quoted an unnamed source within the Adygeya leadership as saying that during a meeting of Sovmen and Adygeya parliament speaker Ruslan Khadjebiyekov with President Putin, the decision was made that Sovmen should remain in his post. LF
MEETING BETWEEN CHECHEN PRIME MINISTER, FUGITIVE GEORGIAN SECURITY CHIEF DENIED
The office of Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov rejected on April 13 as untrue a report published the previous day in the Georgian daily "Rezonansi" that former Georgian National Security Minister Igor Giorgadze met with Kadyrov during a recent tour of the Caucasus, RIA Novosti reported. The Georgian daily alleged that Giorgadze, who fled Georgia in September 1995 after being accused of masterminding an attempt to assassinate then Georgian parliament Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, also visited Adygeya and the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia. LF
MILITANT COMMANDER REPORTEDLY KILLED IN DAGHESTAN
Radjab Guseinov, identified as the militant commander of Daghestan's Buinaksk Raion, was killed on April 16 in a clash between police and Interior Ministry troops in the settlement of Nizhnii Djengutay, Russian media reported. Two Interior Ministry troops were also killed in the shoot-out, and a survivor from Guseinov's group of militants was tracked down and killed the following day, kommersant.ru reported on April 18. LF
ARMENIAN LOCAL ELECTION OFFICIAL DESCRIBES FRAUD
Spartak Yeghiazarian, who heads the local election commission in the village of Oshakan in Aragatsotn Raion, described to a press conference in Yerevan on April 14 how he and his colleagues forged voter signatures and stuffed ballot boxes to ensure a victory for incumbent President Robert Kocharian in the February 2003 presidential ballot, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Yeghiazarian said that the true winner in his district was People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian, followed by Artashes Geghamian, while Kocharian in fact polled only 12 percent. He claimed the results were subsequently rigged to give Kocharian 60 percent of the vote. Official returns gave Kocharian 49.5 percent of the vote in the first round of voting on February 19 and Demirchian 28.2 percent. In a runoff ballot on March 5, Kocharian reportedly garnered 67.5 percent compared to 32.5 percent for Demirchian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20 and March 6, 2003). Yeghiazarian said he was given, and carried out, similar instructions to rig the outcome of the referendum last fall on constitutional amendments proposed by Kocharian. According to official statistics, more than 1.5 million voters participated, of whom 90 percent expressed approval for the draft amendments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2005). LF
OSCE MINSK GROUP CALLS FOR NEW MEETING OF ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTS
Bernard Fassier, the French co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group that is trying to mediate a resolution of the Karabakh conflict, told journalists in Yerevan on April 13 following talks with top Armenian officials that "the negotiating process is not dead" despite the failure of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to reach a preliminary agreement on approaches to resolving the conflict during talks outside Paris in February, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2006). Fassier said that on the eve of those talks "the glass was half full, and we hoped to fill it completely." He admitted that did not prove possible, but added that "at least the glass was not overturned," implying that neither president attempted to sabotage the search for a preliminary agreement. Fassier confirmed that his U.S. colleague, Steven Mann, will visit Armenia and Azerbaijan this week, after which all three co-chairmen will meet in Moscow in early May. Fassier said he hopes it will prove possible to schedule a new meeting between President Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in June or July, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Addressing a border-troop contingent in Azerbaijan's northern Zaqatala district on April 12, President Aliyev said the Karabakh peace talks "have switched to a new format" that guarantees justice and a settlement in line with Azerbaijan's national interests, echo-az.com reported the following day. He did not elaborate. LF
KARABAKH AUTHORITIES DENY DRUG TRANSIT
Georgy Petrosian, foreign minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), and Armen Isagulov, the enclave's top police official, have written to the head of the U.S. State Department's Bureau for International Strategic Narcotics Control to take issue with its annual report for 2006, Noyan Tapan reported on April 14. That report claims that the NKR and adjoining Azerbaijani territories under Armenian control are used as a "narcotics transiting route." The NKR officials rejected that allegation as disinformation spread by the Azerbaijani government, noting that the bureau accepted the NKR's refutation in 2002 of previous analogous Azerbaijani allegations. They further stressed that the border between Iran and Armenian-controlled territory "is sealed." LF
AZERBAIJANI OFFICER SENTENCED TO LIFE IMPRISONMENT FOR MURDERING ARMENIAN
A Budapest district court on April 13 sentenced Lieutenant Ramil Safarov to life imprisonment for the "premeditated, malicious, and cruel" murder in February 2004 of Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian, an Armenian fellow participant on a NATO language-training course, dpa reported. Safarov will be eligible for parole after serving 30 years of his sentence. In Baku, the Karabakh Liberation Organization staged a demonstration on April 14 to protest the verdict, day.az reported. Some 100 students tried to stage a similar protest in Baku on April 17, but were forcibly prevented by police who briefly detained up to 50 of them, day.az reported the following day. The Azadliq opposition bloc released a statement on April 15 terming the verdict unjust in light of Safarov's youth and the fact that members of his family died in the Karabakh war, but warning at the same time against feting Safarov as a hero, day.az reported on April 17. LF
GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT RATIFIES AGREEMENT ON CLOSURE OF RUSSIAN MILITARY BASES
The parliament majority voted on April 13 to ratify two bilateral agreements signed two weeks earlier, one on the logistics of and timeframe for the closure of two Russian military bases in Georgia, and the second on military transit, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2006). Opposition deputies who are still boycotting parliament proceedings did not participate in the vote, and have slammed the agreements as counter to Georgia's interests. At a press conference on April 13, Democratic Front member Koba Davitashvili and Ivliane Khaindrava (Republican Party) objected specifically to the provision of the former agreement that envisions establishing a Georgian-Russian antiterrorism center at the base in Batumi that Russia will vacate, according to Civil Georgia on April 13. The agreements must also be ratified by the Russian State Duma. LF
GEORGIAN PRESIDENT SLAMS RUSSIA'S 'POLITICAL' BAN ON IMPORTS
Meeting on April 17 with members of the parliamentary majority, Mikheil Saakashvili said he still hopes to "normalize" relations with Russia despite the ban imposed on the import of Georgian wine and other agricultural produce, Caucasus Press reported. He attributed that ban to a "political decision" by the Russian leadership. On April 15, Russia's top public health official, Gennady Onishchenko, said that some samples of Georgian Borzhomi mineral water have been removed from sale in stores in Moscow Oblast as not fit for human consumption. But Georgian Agriculture Minister Mikheil Svimonishvili told journalists on April 17 that Tbilisi has not received any official notification of a Russian ban on the import of mineral water. On April 18, Caucasus Press reported that 70 trucks of Georgian agricultural produce bound for Russia, primarily apples and herbs, are backed up at a border crossing in South Ossetia because the drivers cannot produce evidence that the produce conforms to Russian sanitary norms, Caucasus Press reported. LF
GEORGIAN PRESIDENT WRAPS UP VISIT TO CHINA
President Saakashvili returned to Tbilisi on April 15 from a five day official visit to China, Georgian media reported. Saakashvili met in Beijing with President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao; he also visited Shanghai and the Pudong free-trade zone. Talks focused on bilateral economic cooperation, specifically construction by the Chinese of hydroelectric power stations that would reduce Georgia's energy dependency on Russia, and of textile plants that would import semiproduced goods for completion in Georgia and subsequent export. Georgia also hopes China will purchase up to half of its annual wine production, according to AFP. Beijing also agreed to write off $2.5 million of Georgia's $3 million debt. LF
GEORGIAN INTELLIGENTSIA DEMANDS INVESTIGATION INTO BANKER'S KILLING
Some 100 prominent members of the Georgian intelligentsia signed an open letter to President Saakashvili, published in the daily "Rezonansi" on April 17, calling for a fair investigation into the January killing of United Georgian bank employee Sandro Girgvliani, Caucasus Press reported on April 17. The letter alleges that the Interior Ministry and Prosecutor-General's Office are shielding those responsible for Girgvliani's death. On April 14, Girgvliani's grandfather, Djimsher Enukidze, accused the Interior Ministry of requisitioning from businessmen funds that were used to finance so-called "death squads," Caucasus Press reported. LF
SOUTH OSSETIAN LEADER ACCUSES OSCE OF BIAS
Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, met recently in Tskhinvali with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, Caucasus Press reported on April 17. On April 18, the same agency quoted Kokoity as having criticized members of the OSCE field office in South Ossetia for their allegedly biased assessments of the situation in the conflict zone. Kokoity reportedly compared the activities of the OSCE on South Ossetian territory to those of Georgian intelligence, and he threatened to impose unspecified restrictions on staff of the OSCE office whose activities violate existing agreements. South Ossetia released a lengthy statement in late March detailing instances of such allegedly biased reporting by the OSCE in recent months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2006). LF
KAZAKH PRESIDENT SETS PRIORITIES FOR REGIONAL HEADS
President Nursultan Nazarbaev told a meeting with provincial governors and the mayors of Almaty and Astana on April 14 that the task of making Kazakhstan one of the world's 50 most competitive countries should become a "national idea," Kazinform reported. The text of Nazarbaev's address to regional leaders was published on the president's website (http://www.akorda.kz). In it, Nazarbaev singled out the following issues: the efficiency of local executive government, regional socioeconomic problems, the introduction of electronic government, encouraging a healthy lifestyle, youth unemployment, competition and the development of small and mid-size businesses, and provincial strategic-development plans. DK
ATTACK ON KYRGYZ ACTIVIST PROMPTS CRIME-FIGHTING MEASURES...
In the wake of the April 12 attack on Edil Baisalov, head of the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2006), Kyrgyzstan's government has adopted a resolution to aid the fight against crime, "Bely parakhod" reported on April 14. The resolution called on the Interior Ministry to "define 'criminal enemy No. 1'" and "take all legal measures to neutralize him as soon as possible"; prosecute outstanding criminal cases against members of organized-crime groups; create mobile forces to stop suspicious individuals; and inform the population about leaders and members of organized-crime groups. Interior Minister Omurbek Suvanaliev told parliament on April 14 that the top organized-crime group in Kyrgyzstan is led by Ryspek Akmatbaev and is based in Issyk-Kul province, akipress.org reported. Suvanaliev promised to break up what he described as three major organized-crime groups in the country. Baisalov has been a vocal critic of Akmatbaev's political ambitions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2006). DK
...AS OPPOSITION PREPARES FOR RALLY
A group of NGOs and political parties has formed a committee to organize a planned April 29 rally in Bishkek and other cities to demand a return to the rule of law in Kyrgyzstan, akipress.org reported on April 17. Former parliamentary speaker Omurbek Tekebaev will head the 18-member committee. Kubatbek Baibolov, one of the rally's organizers, said the main demand will be for constitutional reform. Deputy Melis Eshimkanov said the rally will be a "Kyrgyz maidan," a reference to the demonstrations that took place in Kyiv after disputed presidential elections in 2004. Deputy Temir Sariev, another organizer, said the demonstration will be peaceful if the authorities act responsibly, Kabar reported. "If the authorities don't provoke [demonstrators], and if they don't use the methods of the previous regime, I think that this will be a peaceful demonstration," Sariev said. DK
KYRGYZ PRESIDENT CLAIMS SUCCESS IN FIGHT AGAINST CORRUPTION...
President Kurmanbek Bakiev told a meeting of the National Council to Fight Corruption on April 14 that the past year has witnessed "positive movements," gazeta.kg reported. "It's possible that somewhere at lower levels there are cases of extortion or bribe-taking, but at the high level this hasn't existed and doesn't exist," Bakiev said. "I consider this the main achievement." Bakiev also called on ordinary citizens to stop offering bribes: "The people themselves should put up a barrier against these phenomena." DK
...AND ENCOURAGES SACKING OF CRITICAL OFFICIALS
President Bakiev told a youth forum on April 15 that officials who criticize the president or prime minister should be fired, Kabar reported. "Politicians have appeared who criticized their bosses," Bakiev said. "I recently had a conversation with Prime Minister Feliks [Kulov]; I told him that he should fire ministers, akims, governors, and other heads of agencies he has appointed who criticize the authorities. If I've appointed them, I'll remove them." DK
TAJIK MINISTER BLAMES IMU FOR 2005 BLASTS
Interior Minister Humdin Sharifov told a news conference in Dushanbe on April 17 that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was responsible for two explosions in Dushanbe last year that claimed one life (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1 and June 14, 2005), RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Sharifov said that four alleged IMU members have been arrested in connection with the blasts, while two others are being sought, Reuters reported. According to Sharifov, three of the four men arrested are Tajik citizens and one is an Uzbek citizen, Interfax reported. DK
TURKMEN PRESIDENT ORDERS GAS SURVEY FOR CHINA PROJECT
Speaking at a cabinet meeting in Ashgabat on April 13, President Saparmurat Niyazov ordered Deputy Oil and Gas Minister Ishanguly Nuriev to survey gas reserves for a planned pipeline linking Turkmenistan and China, Turkmen television reported. "You have to take geologists and carry out a survey of gas reserves -- how much can be extracted and from which areas," Niyazov said. "You have to submit your proposals as soon as possible." China and Turkmenistan recently signed a framework agreement to build a pipeline for natural-gas shipments from Turkmenistan to China (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2006). DK
BELARUSIAN LEGISLATURE RECONFIRMS PRIME MINISTER
The Chamber of Representatives, Belarus's lower house, approved President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's nominee for prime minister, Syarhey Sidorski, on April 17, Belarusian media reported. Sidorski has led the cabinet since December 2003 but resigned on April 8 -- hours after President Lukashenka was sworn in for a third term -- in accordance with the constitution. Lukashenka renominated him as prime minister four days later. "It is important for the president to have a good performer without political ambitions. Sidorski so far has not demonstrated such ambitions. He is not a bad manager and the economy was in quite good condition during his tenure," Belarusian economic expert Valery Dashkevich told the agency. JM
BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT PLEDGES NOT TO BLACKLIST EU POLITICIANS
President Lukashenka said on April 14 that he is not going to compile "blacklists" of EU officials in response to the EU's recent move to expand its visa-ban list of Belarusian officials to 37 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10 and 11, 2006), Belapan reported. Instead, Lukashenka stressed that people who intentionally distort information about Belarus will be denied entry into Belarusian territory in a "natural way." JM
BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION ACTIVIST RELEASED ON PAROLE
The authorities on April 14 released prominent opposition activist Mikhail Marynich, 66, after almost two years' imprisonment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2006), Belapan reported. Marynich told the agency that he does not plan to quit politics. "The situation in the country has already started to change and Belarus will be different in a year or two. There is no alternative to this," he said. "It is the task of each of us to occupy a niche and work for the common goal of bringing democracy to the country." Marynich, a former minister and diplomat, was jailed in a case widely condemned as fabricated and politically motivated, on charges of stealing computers from the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, even though the embassy had not reported any such theft. JM
PACE CALLS ON BELARUS TO REPEAT PRESIDENTIAL VOTE
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on April 13 called on the Belarusian authorities to accede to the opposition's demand for a repeat of last month's presidential election, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. A statement called on Belarus to ensure the preconditions exist for the election to be free, fair, and in line with international standards. Estonian deputy Andres Herkel, PACE's rapporteur on Belarus, told the Strasbourg-based assembly that the March 19 election failed to meet acceptable standards of transparency. "I [have never seen] such a limited right for [election] observers," Herkel said. "Actually, all the process of [vote] counting was not transparent, and so, [there were] very few observers that were really independent or from the opposition side." JM
UKRAINIAN POLITICAL LEADERS MOVE TOWARD ORANGE COALITION
The leaders of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Our Ukraine People's Union, and the Socialist Party signed a protocol on April 13 pledging to work toward creating a parliamentary majority to form Ukraine's new government, Ukrainian media reported. The protocol reportedly includes a provision to the effect that the party that garnered the largest number of votes in the March 26 parliamentary elections will nominate its representative for prime minister. The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc came in second in the elections, ahead of the Our Ukraine bloc and the Socialist Party. Those three parties, which were allies in the 2004 Orange Revolution, constituted the previous cabinet headed by Tymoshenko until September 2005, when President Viktor Yushchenko sacked it after some of his closest aides had been accused of corruption by their brothers-in-arms from the Orange Revolution. Tymoshenko said on April 17 that she is ready to give up running for president in 2009 if it would help restore the Orange coalition of 2004. JM
BOSNIAN SERB PREMIER SAYS INDEPENDENT KOSOVA COULD DESTABILIZE BOSNIA
Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik warned on April 17 that Bosnia-Herzegovina could be destabilized if Kosova is granted independence, AFP reported the same day. "I am not saying that people would take up arms, but it is certain that this decision would result in lasting dissatisfaction and mistrust," the Bosnian Serb news agency SRNA quoted Dodik as saying. Many Bosnian Serbs have said that if Kosova gains independence from Serbia then Republika Srpska should have the same right to secede from Bosnia. BW
U.S. ENVOY LAUDS KOSOVA'S EFFORTS ON MINORITY RIGHTS
The U.S. envoy to Kosova's final-status talks, Frank Wisner, praised the province's leaders on April 14 for reaching out to the Serbian minority, Reuters reported the same day. Wisner lauded Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu and Prime Minister Agim Ceku for making efforts to improve the lives of the province's estimated 100,000 Serbs. "Your authorities have undertaken important steps to build a spirit of national confidence, national reconciliation, making it clear that all the citizens of Kosovo have a home here," Wisner said in remarks to reporters. The UN-backed talks on Kosova's future are scheduled to resume in Vienna on May 4. BW
SERBIA OPENS INVESTIGATION INTO KOSOVAR ALBANIAN WAR CRIMES
The Serbian war crimes prosecutor's office announced on April 17 that it has launched an investigation against 10 former Kosovar Albanian rebels for war crimes allegedly committed during the 1999 war, AP reported the same day. According to the prosecutor's statement, the crimes, in which two people disappeared and two others were robbed and seriously injured, took place in the Kosova towns of Pec and Djakovica, in March and June 1999. The alleged victims were Serbs, ethnic Albanians, and Roma. The statement gave no further details. Elsewhere, on April 16 Serbian authorities released Dejan Demirovic, a former police officer accused of killing 19 Albanian civilians, including women and children, in the village of Podujevo in March 1999. The charges against Demirovic were dismissed due to a lack of evidence, B92 reported. BW
ETHNIC ALBANIAN LEADER IN SERBIA SEEKS ROLE IN CONSTITUTION
Riza Haljimi, leader of the Democratic Action Party, said on April 18 that the Albanian minority should be allowed to participate in the drafting of a new Serbian constitution, B92 and Beta reported. "The [Albanian] minority in Serbia should have certain rights, [according to] principles proposed by the international community, because this is what is being asked to be done for Serbs in Kosova," he said. BW
NETHERLANDS TO DEPORT YUGOSLAV SPY TO SERBIA AFTER 33 YEARS
The Netherlands says it plans to deport a former Yugoslav secret agent who has lived in the country for 33 years, international news agencies reported on April 15. Slobodan Mitric fled to the Netherlands in 1973, saying that he refused to carry out an assassination in Yugoslavia. Later the same year, he killed three Serbs who he said were sent to assassinate him. He served 13 years in prison for the murders. The Dutch Justice Ministry has said it is now safe for Mitric to return to Serbia and has given him until April 26 to leave the country. Mitric's lawyer said he will appeal the decision. BW
MOLDOVA SEEKS NEW WINE MARKETS DUE TO RUSSIAN BAN
Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev said on April 17 that Moldova will reorient its wine exports away from the Russian market, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "We have been able to come to bilateral agreements and increase exports to Ukraine, Romania, and Poland," he said, adding that Chisinau is also seeking to increase exports in Southeastern Europe. Tarlev said that Russia accounts for 75 percent of Moldovan wine exports. This is due to both "habit" and the high level of Russian investment in the Moldovan wine industry. "But these investors did not expect...that Russian authorities can cut off the market [for] Moldovan wines [in] one stroke," Tarlev said. Citing safety considerations, Russia banned the import of Moldovan and Georgian wines on March 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). Tarlev called the ban a "political decision." BW
INTIFADA CONFERENCE IN TEHRAN HAS MULTIPLE OBJECTIVES
Tehran hosted on April 14-16 its third "Support for the Palestinian Intifada" conference. Previous conferences took place in April 2001 and June 2002, and they were attended by regional government officials and Palestinian rejectionist groups. Iran's involvement with these groups is increasingly relevant as the world considers how Iran would react to a military strike against its nuclear facilities.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referred to Iran, during a March 9 roundtable in Washington, as "a kind of central banker for terrorism in important regions like Lebanon through Hizballah in the Middle East, in the Palestinian territories, and we have deep concern about what Iran is doing in the south of Iraq." The State Department has classified Iran as a "state sponsor" of terrorism since 1984, and it lists a number of the groups that participated in previous conferences -- such as Hamas, Hizballah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad -- as "terrorist organizations" backed by Iran.
Iran's frame of reference is a requirement in the country's constitution that calls on the government to support "the just struggles of the oppressed against the oppressors in every corner of the globe." The secretary-general of the conference series, Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, referred to this requirement in an interview that appeared in the April 6 issue of "Iran" newspaper. He went on to speak of the ways in which Palestinians will benefit from the weekend's event. The more than 500 participants, he said, "will discuss the dangers of the anti-human activities and policies of Israel, which have the backing of America, and they will think of some ways of countering those policies."
It is not just ideology or charity that motivates Iran. Mohtashami-Pur suggested that the creation of a Palestinian state would contribute to Iranian security. "Naturally, if the Palestinian nation restores its legitimate right, even the threats [against] the Islamic Republic of Iran, which come from abroad, will be reduced substantially," he said.
Security interests, furthermore, explain meetings held in Damascus on April 13 between one of Iran's top officials and leaders of Hizballah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani met with Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and told him that unity is a key factor in ensuring survival, IRNA reported, and he repeated this message in a meeting with Ramadan Abdallah Shallah of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Given this perspective, one would expect success for the Hamas delegation that came to Tehran on April 11 to secure funding. Hamas needs to compensate for the refusal of Israel, the European Union, and the United States to sponsor the Palestinians until Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. Indeed, Tehran welcomed the Hamas victory in Palestinian legislative elections earlier this year. At that time, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei encouraged the Islamic community to come forward with funding, and Hamas Political Bureau chief Khalid Mish'al reportedly secured a pledge of financial assistance when he visited Tehran in February. More recently, on April 12, Ali Akbar Velayati, the former foreign minister who now serves as Supreme Leader Khamenei's foreign affairs adviser, urged Islamic countries to fulfill their promises to fund a Hamas-led government, IRNA reported.
Superficially, then, it would appear that Iranian support for Hamas will be overwhelming. But there are indications that Hamas would not be similarly supportive of Iran. When Khalid Mish'al spoke at Tehran University on February 21, he was asked how Hamas would react if Israel attacked Iran, "Etemad-i Melli" reported. "Have no fear," he responded, "we will pray for you." When one of the students retorted that Israel would be destroyed if it attacked Iran, Mish'al laughed and said, "if you destroy Israel, you will be doing so over our heads." He went on to criticize U.S. polices, but added that this disapproval does not mean Hamas should go to war with the United States. This lack of commitment is likely to give decision makers in Tehran pause when it comes to aiding Hamas.
There may be another reason to wonder about the level of Iranian support for Hamas. Secretary of State Rice has noted that the Palestinian Authority needs $1.9 billion annually, "Al-Hayah" reported on February 18, and questioned Iran's willingness to foot the bill. "We will wait and see whether Iran will provide aid of this magnitude," she said.
When it comes to return on investment, Iran's relationship with Hizballah is more likely to pay off. Iran was once Hizballah's main sponsor, and Mohtashami-Pur, the secretary-general of the Intifada conference, was instrumental in Hizballah's creation when he served as ambassador to Syria in the 1980s. Iran's Martyrs' Foundation (Bonyad-i Shahid), a semi-governmental charity, continues to openly fund Hizballah institutions such as schools and hospitals. Hizballah, furthermore, seeks to recreate the Iranian model of a theocratic state, and it continues to regard Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei as a leadership figure. The importance of the relationship was made clear when Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah visited Tehran in August 2005 to meet with the newly inaugurated President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and the two met again in Damascus on January 20.
In Lebanon today, a number of political actors are expressing concern about an Iran-Syria-Hizballah axis. The supreme leader's representative at the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, Mujtaba Zolnur, referred to potential Hizballah support when discussing the possibility of a U.S. attack. He said, "Iran has a lot of supporters in other countries and once our interests are endangered, the enemy's [interests] in other countries will also be endangered," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 23.
Aside from strategic interests and constitutional requirements, Iran probably has another reason for hosting "Support for the Palestinian Intifada" conferences. It is a Shi'ite state, whereas Sunnism is the predominant school of Islam in the world. Moreover, the Persians are a distinct minority in the predominantly Arab Middle East. Through its activism on this issue, Iran is portraying itself as a committed leader -- more Palestinian than the Arabs, and more Muslim than the Sunnis.
'ANGRY' AFGHAN PRESIDENT ORDERS PROBE INTO CIVILIAN DEATHS AT HANDS OF INTERNATIONAL FORCES...
Afghan President Hamid Karzai on April 17 ordered an inquiry into the death of seven noncombatants as a result of joint military operations conducted by Afghan and the U.S.-led coalition forces in the southeastern Konar Province, AFP reported. Karzai expressed his condolences on April 15, and a statement from his office said, "President Karzai was angered by the deaths of these seven people and demands the [coalition] military use more restraint in future attacks against terrorists [so as] not to harm civilians," according to AP. The current military operation, dubbed Operation Mountain Lion, is the largest in months and involves 2,500 personnel Afghan security forces and coalition troops supported by U.S. and British airpower. AT
...AS U.S. MILITARY LAUNCHES ITS OWN INVESTIGATION
The U.S. military in Afghanistan announced on April 16 the launch of its own investigation into civilian and Afghan police deaths during Operation Mountain Lion, "The New York Times," reported on April 17. The probe will look into the seven civilian deaths in Konar. "Our hearts go out to the families of the innocent victims of this battle," U.S. Army Major General Benjamin Freakley said. A U.S. statement accused the rebels of taking the fight near civilian areas. In a related incident, the U.S. military is planning to investigate reports that four Afghan police officers died in Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan on April 14 in a U.S. air attack. AT
OPERATION MOUNTAIN LION CONTINUES IN AFGHANISTAN
Konar Governor Asadullah Wafa said on April 17 that the joint Afghan and international Operation Mountain Lion is continuing in the district of Manugi so that people in the area can live in peace and security, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported. Eight "enemy" personnel have been killed so far and four others wounded, he added. The report did not identify the enemy combatants. AT
REPORT SUGGESTS SUICIDE BOMBER IN PAKISTAN MIGHT HAVE BEEN AFGHAN NATIONAL
"The News" on April 16 quoted anonymous sources who say investigators from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) believe a suicide bomber who killed dozens of people in the southern port city of Karachi on April 11 was an Afghan national. The report stressed that the ISI investigation is not yet complete but claimed the ISI has presented its preliminary report on the tragedy to President Pervez Musharraf. AT
IRAN MAKES FINANCIAL COMMITMENT TO HAMAS-LED GOVERNMENT
Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki announced on April 16 -- the third day of a conference hosted by Tehran on support for the Palestinian Intifada -- that Iran will provide the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority with $50 million in aid, state television reported. Mottaki added that Iran will encourage other Islamic countries to contribute. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya praised the financial pledge, the Hamas-affiliated Palestine Information Center reported on April 16, and spokesman Ghazi Hamad noted Iran's "courage" and challenge of "American hegemony." "I think Arab states ought to learn from Iran and stop being at America's beck and call," Hamad added. The Palestine Information Center noted that Minister Mottaki did not say "how and when" the payment will be made. Confronted by inflation and unemployment, Iranians quoted by Reuters said they would prefer that their government spend the money at home. BS
LEBANESE DRUZE LEADER DESCRIBES ALLEGED IRANIAN INTERFERENCE
Druze leader and Lebanese parliamentarian Walid Jumblatt claimed in the April 17 issue of "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's recent statements about Shi'a being loyal to Iran are not entirely true. Jumblatt said some Shi'a in Lebanon and other parts of the Arab world are loyal to their home countries. "At the same time," he continued, "there is a large political extension by the Islamic Republic of Iran that tries to use the Shi'ites in purposes that are not in the interest of the Arab world." Jumblatt called Hizballah an instrument of Iranian influence in Lebanese affairs, adding, "Hizballah is a faction that is politically linked to the Republic of Iran." Jumblatt has made repeated accusations about the existence of an Iran-Syria-Hizballah axis that is trying to manipulate affairs in his country. Radio Farda noted that Jumblatt's comments appeared just a few days after Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani met with Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in Damascus. Radio Farda added that Iran provides Hizballah with roughly $80 million annually. BS
IRAN'S LATEST NUCLEAR CLAIM ELICITS 'CONCERN,' SKEPTICISM AS TEHRAN REPORTEDLY DIGS IN
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in Washington on April 17 that, if true, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's announcement of research on the use of advanced P-2 centrifuges to enrich uranium would be "a very serious concern," Reuters reported. Some analysts are skeptical about such Iranian claims, "The Washington Post" reported on April 17, while others suspect the P-2 centrifuges are part of a secret military nuclear program. In past dealings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Tehran has claimed that experimental work on the advanced centrifuges ended in 2003. Meanwhile, the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security's comparison of satellite imagery from September 2002 through March 2006 indicates that Iran is expanding and also burying some of its nuclear facilities, according to the ISIS website (http://www.isis-online.org) on April 14. Halls at the Natanz site's Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant and its Fuel Enrichment Plant were buried under concrete and dirt and could be 17 meters underground, the ISIS claimed, and there is evidence of a new tunnel entrance at the Isfahan uranium-conversion facility. BS
PERIOD SET FOR NEXT IRANIAN ELECTIONS
Deputy Interior Minister for Political Affairs Ali Jannati announced in Tehran on April 17 that the next Assembly of Experts and municipal-council elections will take place simultaneously, ISNA reported. He said the elections will be held in the month beginning on October 23, although a precise date has not been selected. Jannati went on to say that the Interior Ministry wanted to delay the Assembly of Experts election until February 2007, but because the assembly rejected the delay the Interior Ministry decided to move up the date of the council elections. BS
IRAQ'S SHI'ITE ALLIANCE IN STALEMATE OVER PREMIER NOMINATION
The April 17 session of the Iraqi parliament was cancelled as Shi'ite leaders from the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) continued to argue over their nomination of a candidate for prime minister, international media reported. Sources within the UIA told Iraqi and Western media that the UIA is working on putting forth a "package" of candidates for the posts of president, prime minister, and their deputies. Meanwhile, it appears that two alternative candidates for the premiership are being considered: Ali al-Adib and Jawad al-Maliki. Both men belong to current nominee Ibrahim al-Ja'fari's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, KUNA reported on April 16. Some media reported that fellow Shi'ite Adil Abd al-Mahdi, who lost the nomination to al-Ja'fari by one vote, is now being considered for a vice-presidential slot, the position he held in the outgoing transitional government. Other possible candidates for the two vice-presidential slots are secular Shi'ite leader Iyad Allawi and Sunni Arab leaders Adnan al-Dulaymi and Salih al-Mutlaq, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on April 15. Iraqi Islamic Party head Tariq al-Hashimi remains a frontrunner for the parliament-speaker position, but the UIA prefers Sunni leader Iyad al-Samarra'i for the post, the news channel reported. KR
INSURGENTS ATTACK IRAQI-U.S. FORCES IN BAGHDAD
Some 50 insurgents attacked a joint U.S.-Iraqi checkpoint in the Sunni Arab neighborhood of Al-Adhamiyah in Baghdad, prompting a seven-hour firefight for control of the area, according to an April 17 military press release. Five companies of Iraqi soldiers and two U.S. quick-reaction-force platoons provided back-up assistance to Iraqi and U.S. forces in the area. Five insurgents were killed in the attack and seven detained, the press release noted. In addition, two Iraqi army soldiers were wounded. Iraqi and U.S. forces have since sealed off the neighborhood, which is known as a Ba'athist stronghold, nytimes.com reported on April 18. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera television reported on April 18 that clashes between "gunmen wearing police uniforms" and local residents had resumed. The The Iraqi Islamic Party said in an April 17 statement (http://www.iraqiparty.com) that the battles broke out between government forces and area residents, adding that the Sunni Abu Hanifah Mosque was targeted in the fighting. The party called on the Health Ministry and aid organizations to help the families of Al-Adhamiyah. KR
HANDWRITING EXPERTS LINK FORMER IRAQI PRESIDENT TO AL-DUJAYL OPERATIONS
Handwriting experts confirmed that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein signed documents connected to a regime crackdown on the residents of Al-Dujayl following a 1982 assassination attempt against Hussein in the town, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on April 17. Although Saddam Hussein and Barzan al-Tikriti, his half-brother and co-defendant in the Al-Dujayl trial, refused to present handwriting samples to the court, forensic experts were able to verify the men's signatures on key documents in the case using other official documents signed by them. The experts told the court on April 17 that Hussein's signature was on a document calling for rewarding officers involved in a crackdown on the Shi'ite residents of Al-Dujayl after the attack on Hussein. The experts said they could not verify the signature of co-defendant Mizhar Abdullah al-Ruwayid, but prosecutors contended they will soon present new documents that will help verify al-Ruwayid's signature. Defense lawyer Khalil al-Dulaymi argued that the documents used to verify Hussein's signature were "stolen after the occupation of Baghdad." Chief Judge Ra'uf Rashid Abd al-Rahman called for further handwriting analysis to be carried out on Hussein's signature, and said the trial will resume on April 19. KR
IRAQI SUNNI POLITICIAN'S BROTHER FOUND DEAD
The brother of Sunni Arab politician Salih al-Mutlaq, head of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, was found dead in Baghdad on April 17, some three weeks after his abduction in the capital, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Taha Muhammad al-Mutlaq died of gunshot wounds to the head, said Interior Ministry sources. Al-Mutlaq's killing comes after the brother of another high-profile Sunni Arab politician -- Mahmud Ahmad al-Hashimi, brother of Iraqi Islamic Party head Tariq al-Hashimi -- was killed in Baghdad on April 13. KR
U.K. FORCES DISARM POLICE IN IRAQ'S SECOND CITY
U.K. military forces have reportedly begun disarming some policemen in Al-Basrah following a surge of kidnappings and killings linked to members of the police force, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on April 16. An unidentified British military spokesman told the news channel that the security situation in the city has deteriorated to such a degree that it became necessary to strip the police patrols in the city of their weapons. Al-Sharqiyah reported that members of the police have even been accused of carrying out killings inside prisons. Al-Basrah's Sunni Arab community has come under increasing attacks by Shi'ite militias in recent weeks. Al-Basrah's police chief said last year that as many as three-quarters of the city's police have links to militias (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," November 4, 2005). KR