RUSSIAN PREMIER HAILS MOVE TO SET UP WORLD'S LARGEST STEEL COMPANY
Mikhail Fradkov said in Moscow on May 29 after meeting with President Vladimir Putin that he hopes the proposed merger of the Luxembourg-based Arcelor SA steel company with Russia's Severstal to form the world's largest steel company will be completed by July 20, RIA-Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 26, 2006). The move will fend off a hostile takeover bid by Mittal Steel for Arcelor, which is the world's second-largest steel producer. Putin previously approved the merger but the Federal Antimonopoly Service has yet to do so. The U.S. banking firm Goldman Sachs, which has close ties to Mittal, has appealed to Arcelor shareholders to block the deal, "The Moscow Times" reported on May 30. "The Wall Street Journal in Europe" wrote on May 29 that the role of Severstal head Aleksei Mordashov in the merger "shows the rewards unquestioned loyalty to the Kremlin can bring." Mordashov played an important role in Putin's 2004 reelection campaign. At a May 26 news conference, Arcelor chairman Joseph Kinsch called Mordashov "a true European," "The New York Times" reported on May 27. Kinsch added: "I'm glad to see that the [unnamed] Russian ambassador is here. He's a friend." PM
OLIGARCH REPORTEDLY SEEKS STAKE IN STEEL COMPANY
Roman Abramovich, who is the governor of Siberia's remote Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, the owner of the English soccer team Chelsea and reportedly Russia's richest man, is negotiating to buy 40 percent of the shares of Evraz, Russia's second-largest steel producer, "The Moscow Times" reported on May 30, citing unnamed Evraz officials. Evraz specializes in "long steel" products such as beams and rails, whereas Severstal, if it merges with Arcelor, would control 22 percent of the world's automotive steel, the daily noted. The paper commented that Abramovich's move reflects "a race to consolidate the Russian steel industry." PM
POLES ACQUIRE YUKOS SHARE IN LITHUANIAN REFINERY
Orlen, which is Poland's biggest refining corporation and had a net profit of $985 million in 2004, has concluded a $1.49 billion deal with the Dutch-based Yukos International U.K. for Yukos's 53.7 percent stake in Lithuania's Mazeikiu Nafta refinery, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on May 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2006). The daily added that the sale will take place "despite immense resistance from Russia" and "is designed to give Poland and Lithuania more secure energy supplies and the opportunity to diversify their energy sources amid growing concern that...President Putin...is using his country's vast oil and natural gas reserves as a political weapon against neighboring states." Zygimantas Pavilionis, who heads the European Department at the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry, said that "this could be the first step in solving the problem of security of energy supplies in the region." On April 30, Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski reflected regional concerns by comparing the controversial Russo-German North European Gas Pipeline project that circumvents Poland and the Baltic states to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2005, and January 4 and March 9, 2006). PM
GAZPROM AGAIN REJECTS EU DEMAND
Aleksandr Medvedev, who is Gazprom's deputy CEO, was quoted by the "Financial Times" on May 30 as saying that Russia will not agree to EU demands that it open its pipeline system to independent producers and to third countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, and May 24, 25, and 26, 2006). Medvedev also criticized plans backed by U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney to build a gas pipeline from Kazakhstan to Europe as "unrealistic." "I'm rather sure that without Russian gas, no projects in new supply will fly. Today, due to the absence for the additional markets for this gas in Europe, it is absolutely unrealistic," Medvedev added. In a speech on May 4, Cheney accused Russia of backsliding on democracy and using its energy resources for blackmail (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). In his remarks to the London daily, Medvedev said that "when Mr. Cheney says that Russia is using blackmail [as a] negotiating technique, that [does not reflect] our normal business practice.... I believe that Russia didn't use gas supplies as a weapon and didn't blackmail anybody. We have done our utmost to secure transit routes through Ukraine." PM
RUSSIA TAKES CHAIR OF COUNCIL OF EUROPE
Russian State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov hosted a delegation from the from the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) in Moscow on May 29 to mark Russia's recent acquisition of the council's rotating chair, the first time it has headed a major Europe-wide organization, RFE/RL reported. Gryzlov warned that "as parliamentarians, we should emphasize the need for the European Court [of Human Rights] to perform exclusively legal functions, as it does in most cases, without getting involved in politics." The council and the court have previously criticized Moscow for alleged rights violations in Chechnya, police abuse, and curtailing the freedoms of minorities and of the media. Before meeting with President Putin in Moscow on May 29, PACE President Rene van der Linden said that Russia's chairmanship gives it the opportunity "to demonstrate that it is a full part of democratic Europe, as an equal partner." For his part, Putin said that Russia "will try to do everything to ensure that our cooperation develops further, and we will use our chairmanship of the [PACE] Committee of Foreign Ministers to achieve that goal." Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov argued that Russia needs "time" to fulfill its obligations to the council, including abolishing the death penalty, which it agreed to do on joining that body in 1996. PM
SHANGHAI LEGISLATORS TO BREATHE LIFE INTO A 'CLUB OF DICTATORS'?
Legislators from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, which belong to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), arrived in Moscow on May 29 for a meeting of their parliament speakers, RFE/RL reported (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2005). Russian Prime Minister Fradkov said that "we consider the first meeting of the heads of parliaments of [the SCO] member states as a landmark event in the development of this organization." Sergei Mironov, who is chairman of the upper chamber of Russia's parliament, the Federation Council, said on May 30 that "the problems of drug trafficking, illegal migration, trade in people, and illegal weapons trafficking are at the top of our priorities now. Experience shows that only on a collective and good-neighborly basis can we eliminate the consequences of natural disasters [and ensure] the protection of transborder natural resources and the environment." Critics have dubbed the SCO a propagandistic "club of dictators" that lacks substance. PM
GAY-RIGHTS ADVOCATES CALL MARCH A SUCCESS
Dozens of Russian Orthodox and nationalist protesters attacked and broke up a banned gay-rights parade at three separate locations in Moscow on May 27, RFE/RL reported. Police arrested about 100 people, most of them gay activists. Nikolai Alekseyev, the driving force behind the march, told RFE/RL on May 29 that he considers the demonstration "a huge breakthrough in visibility and in the debate over the situation of sexual minorities in Russia, because on [May 27] the whole world saw how low Russia has sunk with regards to implementing the rights of various minorities" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16 and May 17, 2006). On May 27, Leonid Niksnich, chairman of the Union of Orthodox Citizens, said that "we live in a Russian Orthodox country, and no gay parades will ever take place in Moscow. We will protest against them constantly and fight against them." Mayor Yury Luzhkov argued that such parades will be banned as long as he is in office. Among those injured in the scuffles was German parliamentarian Volker Beck. His young attacker told "The Moscow Times" that he slugged Beck "because I am a normal Russian guy." PM
FORMER CHECHEN PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY NAMED FOREIGN MINISTER
Acting Chechen President and resistance commander Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev on May 27 named Akhmed Zakayev as foreign minister in the underground government of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, Russian media reported. Zakayev, who was granted asylum in London several years ago, previously served as special envoy to Sadullayev's predecessor, Aslan Maskhadov. Sadullayev dismissed him early this year from the post of minister of culture following an internet polemic between Zakayev and radical Chechen ideologist Movladi Udugov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2006 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 10, 2006). In an interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, a Russian translation of which was posted on chechenpress.org on May 30, Zakayev denied that his new appointment heralds a shift in resistance policy. He said the resistance still hopes for a peaceful solution of the Chechen conflict, and added that discussions on how to reach such a solution are under way within the Russian leadership. Speaking with Spanish journalists in Moscow on February 7, President Putin again ruled out peace talks with "terrorists," but said Moscow would be prepared to embark on peace talks with resistance groups that surrender their arms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2006). LF
PRO-MOSCOW CHECHEN LEADER SAYS CIVIL SOCIETY SHOULD SUPERCEDE CLAN SYSTEM
Alu Alkhanov delivered on May 29 his first-ever state-of-the-nation address to the Chechen parliament, which unanimously supports his rival and would-be successor, Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 19, 2006). In his half-hour address, Alkhanov slammed what he termed the "primitive" clan-based political system characteristic of North Caucasus republics, but acknowledged that even given political support from Moscow, a lengthy transition period would be needed before that system can be replaced by a civil society. He also stressed the need to define priorities in economic planning, and identified higher-than-average unemployment and the enhanced risk of terrorist attacks in Chechnya as deterrents to would-be investors, Interfax reported. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on May 30 quoted Alkhanov as criticizing Moscow for failing to allocate adequate funds for reconstruction due to fears of "creating an economic foundation for Chechen separatism." Also on May 29, Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, who is speaker of the lower chamber of the Chechen parliament, told "Kommersant-Vlast" that the legislature would support Kadyrov's candidacy for the post of republic head. Abdurakhmanov described Kadyrov as the acknowledged leader of the republic and said it is he who deserves credit for speeding up reconstruction and the payment of compensation. LF
RELATIVES INFORMED THAT ABDUCTED CHECHEN ACTIVIST IS DEAD
Relatives of Bulat Chilayev, a staffer of the Chechen NGO Civic Assistance who was abducted in Grozny on April 9, have been informed that he was killed that same day, kavkaz.memo.ru reported on May 26, quoting "Caucasus Times." An unidentified mediator reportedly told Chilayev's family that his body will be handed over for burial if they abandon their protest picket (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 26, 2006). LF
SOVIET-ERA DISSIDENT BRANDS ARMENIAN LEADERSHIP AS 'PRO-RUSSIAN'
Paruyr Hairikian, who spent 17 years in Soviet labor camps on charges of anti-Soviet activities, told a congress of his Union for National Self-Determination on May 26 that Armenia's current leaders have reduced the country to a "Russian outpost," Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He called for the unification of opposition political forces from both the left and right of the political spectrum to prevent the anticipated handover of power in 2008 from incumbent President Robert Kocharian to Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who has close ties with Russia. LF
ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LEADERS TRADE BARBS
People's Party of Armenia Stepan Demirchian accused National Accord Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian on May 26 of lying in a live television debate several days earlier with outgoing parliament speaker and Orinats Yerkir party Chairman Artur Baghdasarian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. During that debate, Baghdasarian challenged Geghamian to explain why he failed to endorse Demirchian's father Karen in the 1998 presidential runoff and Stepan Demirchian in the 2003 runoff ballot; Geghamian claimed Karen Demirchian initially informed him he would not participate in the 1998 presidential ballot as he had been offered the post of prime minister, but then went ahead and registered as a candidate. Stepan Demirchian said on May 26 that he can "tolerate many things," but not Geghamian's "distortion of reality" concerning his father. Also on May 26, Demirchian declined to rule out the possibility of cooperation between the opposition Artarutiun parliament faction and the rump OY faction, Noyan Tapan reported. LF
VETERAN LEADER REELECTED CHAIRMAN OF AZERBAIJAN OPPOSITION PARTY
Isa Qambar was reelected chairman of the opposition Musavat party for a third term at a congress on May 29, day.az reported. It is not clear when Musavat's ruling council annulled the ruling adopted at the party's previous congress barring any person from being elected chairman for more than two consecutive terms. LF
GEORGIAN POLICE DETAIN, TORTURE, THEN RELEASE OSSETIANS
Georgian police detained some 40-50 Ossetians on May 27 in villages in the South Ossetian conflict zone and took them to Gori for questioning, Russian and Georgian media reported. Most of the men were released the following day, and subsequently claimed to have been subjected to "brutal" torture." Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, accused Georgia on May 29 of conducting a policy of deliberate destabilization of the region under U.S. guidance, Interfax reported. After meeting in Tskhinvali with South Ossetian officials, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava and human rights ombudsman Sozar Subar both condemned the detentions and mistreatment as a human rights violation and demanded an investigation, Caucasus Press reported on May 30. LF
FORMER GEORGIAN FOREIGN MINISTER TO RUN FOR TBILISI MAYOR
Georgia's Way leader Salome Zourabichvili announced on May 29 that she will participate in the elections in November 2006 for a new Tbilisi municipal council with the aim of contesting the post of mayor, Caucasus Press reported. The 37 members of the city council choose a mayor from among their number; the successful candidate must garner at least two-thirds of the votes. Zourabichvili, who was born in France, served as a French diplomat before being invited to join the Georgian government in early 2004; she was dismissed at parliament's insistence 18 months later (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," October 21, 2005). LF
GEORGIAN OPPOSITION REJECTS INVITATION TO INVESTIGATE MAVERICK EX-MINISTER
Opposition parties represented in the Georgian parliament rejected on May 29 a proposal by the majority to establish a joint commission to investigate the activities of a fund established by former National Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, Caucasus Press reported. The opposition argued that such an investigation is the responsibility of the Prosecutor-General's Office, The parliament majority suspects that the Giorgadze Fund receives money from Russia. Giorgadze fled Georgia 11 years ago after being accused of masterminding a car-bomb attack on then-parliament Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze. He arrived in Moscow last week after spending a decade in hiding, and some Russian politicians have hinted that he could be granted political asylum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25 and 26, 2006). Meanwhile, members of Giorgadze's Samartlianoba (Justice) party launched a protest rally on May 27 in Zugdidi, western Georgia, to demand preterm parliamentary and presidential elections, Caucasus Press reported, quoting Giorgadze Fund President Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia. She also affirmed on May 30 that the fund received donations primarily from private businessmen, and the money is used for humanitarian purposes and not to buy support for Giorgadze, Interfax reported. LF
KAZAKH, RUSSIAN SECURITY SERVICES ARREST SUSPECTED MILITANT
In a joint operation in Astana, Kazakh and Russian security services have detained a suspected militant wanted for involvement in a June 2004 attack in Ingushetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2004), Interfax and RIA Novosti reported on May 29. The detained man was identified in reports as Z. Sampiev. A press release from Russia's Federal Security Service said that Sampiev was a member of the group of the "Arab mercenary Abu-Dzeit," Interfax reported. Russian prosecutors plan to seek his extradition, RIA Novosti reported. DK
KYRGYZ OPPOSITION RALLY GIVES GOVERNMENT UNTIL SEPTEMBER TO REFORM
An opposition rally attended by some 10,000 people in Bishkek on May 27 gave President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov until September to implement a 10-point reform program passed as a resolution during the demonstration, akipress.org reported. The opposition's demands are: 1) a new draft constitution; 2) the punishment of those responsible for the shooting of demonstrators in Aksy in March 2002; 3) an end to "family business" and a real fight against corruption; 4) guarantees of freedom of the press; 5) economic reform, including the return of all economic functions to the cabinet; 6) a stepped-up fight against crime; 7) an end to the use of state-controlled media to denigrate political opponents; 8) an end to monopolization and price-gouging in the construction sector; 9) compensation for merchants' losses in looting during the night of March 24, 2005; and 10) an end to "unconstitutional" attempts to limit free speech and demonstrations. Almazbek Atambaev, a member of the For Reforms movement that organized the protests, said that if the protesters' demands are not met by fall, "We will resume our protests and will demand the resignation of the ruling tandem [of Bakiev and Kulov]," gazeta.kg reported. DK
KYRGYZ IMAM QUESTIONED ABOUT LINKS TO MILITANTS
Muhammadrafik Kamalov, the imam of the largest mosque in the southern Kyrgyz city of Kara-suu, was detained and questioned by Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service (SNB) on May 24, ferghana.ru reported on May 27. Kamalov said that SNB officers told him they have proof of his links to militants allegedly behind a May 12 incursion into Kyrgyzstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 13, 2006). Kamalov denied any links to the incident. SNB sources said that the militants had in their possession a book by Kamalov with his telephone number on the cover. Kamalov told ferghana.ru, "A book they found or my telephone number doesn't mean that I'm linked to a person or that I'm cooperating with him." Kamalov was released on the evening of May 25 after questioning. DK
U.S. FIRM HOPES TO LINK TAJIKISTAN, AFGHANISTAN WITH POWER EXPORTS
U.S.-based power company AES hopes to invest $1 billion into a project to build electrical transmission lines linking Tajikistan and Afghanistan, Avesta reported on May 25. Tajik Deputy Prime Minister Asadullo Ghulomov and AES President Paul Hanrahan signed a protocol on May 24 paving the way for a feasibility study of the project. Hanrahan said that implementation could begin in 2006, with $1 billion in investments planned for the first stage. He said construction of the 220-kilowatt transmission lines between Tajikistan and Afghanistan would make it possible to export 1.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity from Tajikistan in the summer. DK
TURKMENISTAN BURNS CONFISCATED DRUGS...
In a ceremony in Ashgabat on May 28, Turkmen authorities destroyed 1,768 kilograms of drugs confiscated between October and May 1, 2006, NewsCentralAsia reported. The haul consisted of 143 kilograms of heroin and 1,625 kilograms of opium. Murad Islamov, chairman of the national coordination committee for the struggle against narcotics, said most of the drugs were seized on the Afghan-Turkmen and Iranian-Turkmen borders. Mehdi Subhani, Iran's deputy ambassador to Turkmenistan, said: "Turkmenistan and Iran have a common border of 1,250 kilometers and we have excellent cooperation with Turkmenistan in our joint struggle against narco-traffic." DK
...AS UZBEK AGENCY SAYS ONE QUARTER OF AFGHAN PRODUCTION GOES THROUGH CENTRAL ASIA
In a May 29 statement, Uzbekistan's National Drug Control Center said that nearly 25 percent of the drugs produced in Afghanistan pass through Central Asia on their way to world markets, Regnum reported. The center put the quantity of drugs traveling north from Afghanistan annually at 150 metric tons of heroin and 30 tons of opium, or 24 percent of Afghanistan's overall production, with some 75 percent of the heroin and opium proceeding to Russia and Europe and the rest remaining in Central Asia. The center put 2005 drug seizures in Uzbekistan at 467 kilograms of heroin, 107.7 kilograms of opium, 445 kilograms of marijuana, and 9.8 kilograms of hashish. Rising drug use within Uzbekistan is leading to the spread of HIV/AIDS, the center noted, with 2,198 new cases of HIV infection registered in 2005, including 1,168 cases spread by intravenous drug use. Of the total of 7,810 officially registered HIV-positive individuals in Uzbekistan, more than half are drug addicts, the center said. DK
UZBEK POLICE ARREST DISSIDENT'S SON FOR FRAUD
Ilhom Zaynobiddinov, the son of jailed Uzbek rights activist Saidjahon Zaynobiddinov, has been arrested in Uzbekistan on charges of counterfeiting money and other documents, Interfax reported on May 29. Uzbek Interior Ministry spokesman Alisher Sharipov said that the younger Zaynobiddinov's arrest was not related to any human rights activities, noting that Zaynobiddinov has a previous conviction for robbery and was amnestied in 2000. But ferghana.ru reported that the younger Zaynobiddinov was arrested only after he began to follow in his imprisoned father's footsteps, engaging in human rights activities and contacting his father's friends. Saidjahon Zaynobiddinov is currently serving a seven-year sentence for spreading "false information" in the wake of the Uzbek government's suppression of unrest in Andijon in May 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2006). DK
BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS JAILED FOR FIVE MONTHS ON CHARGES OF INCITING RIOTS
A court in Shchuchyn, Hrodna Oblast, on May 29 sentenced Syarhey Lyashkevich to five months in jail, finding him guilty of training opposition activists to stage riots, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Lyashkevich headed a local election headquarters of opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich during the presidential election campaign earlier this year. The judge said Lyashkevich instructed oppositionists in how to stage riots by showing them videotapes of street demonstrations. The defense argued that the videotapes could hardly be training aids as they had repeatedly been shown by Belarusian television channels. The main witness for the prosecution was a man sentenced three times for criminal offenses in the past. The key evidence in Lyashkevich's case was a videotape showing onstage performances by Belarusian pop stars interspersed with footage of clashes between opposition protesters and police at various times between 1996 and 2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 26, 2006). JM
BELARUSIAN MINISTER GOES TO MOSCOW FOR GAS PRICE TALKS
Energy Minister Alyaksandr Azyarets is expected to go to Moscow on June 1 for talks with Gazprom on a gas price for 2007, Belapan reported. Azyarets will be accompanied by Dzmitry Kazakou, head of Beltranshaz, the company that operates the country's gas-pipeline system. Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said on May 2 that the gas price will depend on Belarus's steps to "satisfy the economic demands" of Gazprom. Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka said on May 17 that he expects the gas price to rise by equal proportions in Belarus and Russia in 2007. "We don't want to have a low price, we want to have a price close to the Russian level and even the same price in the best-case scenario," Syamashka noted. "In 2007, the Russian government plans to raise the gas price by 11 percent [in Russia]. It would be fair if the price for Belarus increased by 11 percent as well." Meanwhile, "Kommersant" wrote on May 30 that Gazprom wants Belarus to pay $200 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas in 2007, up from $47 at present. According to the newspaper, the hefty new price is a reaction to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's failure to sell a promised stake in Beltranshaz to Gazprom. JM
CRIMEAN PORT PROTESTS PRESENCE OF U.S. NAVAL SHIP
Residents of the Crimean port of Feodosiya, along with activists of the Party of Regions, the Natalya Vitrenko Bloc, and the Russian Community of Crimea on May 29 blocked the port in protest against the visit of a U.S. naval cargo ship that anchored there on May 27, Interfax reported. The U.S. ship "Advantage" has already left the port, after reportedly unloading some small arms, engineering equipment, and construction materials. "This is technical aid to Ukraine under an agreement between the Ukrainian Defense Ministry and the U.S. Defense Department. They agreed to bring [construction materials] to Ukraine at their own expense, build facilities here, and leave them at our shooting ranges for decades," Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko said. "Any attempt to politicize [this visit] is cheap politics," Hrytsenko stressed. Meanwhile, late on May 29 the Feodosiya City Council held an emergency session and passed a resolution proclaiming the city to be a "non-NATO territory," Interfax reported, quoting the press service of the Natalya Vitrenko Bloc. JM
MONTENEGRIN PRIME MINISTER SAYS HE WANTS SERBIAN RECOGNITION FIRST
Speaking after a meeting with European Union officials in Brussels on May 29, Milo Djukanovic said he wants Serbia to be the first country to recognize Montenegrin independence, AFP reported the next day. "I have no doubts that the EU will do so, that Russia and the U.S. will do so," Djukanovic said, adding that he hopes Belgrade will offer its recognition "by the end of the week." Djukanovic also pledged that his government will not infringe on the rights of Serbs living in Montenegro, notably on issues of visa-free travel and access to education, medical care, and work. Montenegro voted on May 21 to dissolve its union with Serbia and become independent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2006). BW
EU OFFICIAL TELLS MONTENEGRO THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS TO EUROPE
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told Prime Minister Djukanovic on May 29 that while there are no shortcuts to membership, Montenegro could finish talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) by the end of the year, AFP reported the same day. "If the negotiations continue as professionally and effectively as thus far, then we should be able to conclude the negotiations before the end of this year," he said. "Montenegro has a concrete European perspective like other countries of the western Balkans. However, as I told the prime minister, there is no shortcut to Europe," Rehn added. The European Union broke off talks on an SAA with Serbia and Montenegro due to Belgrade's failure to arrest war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic by an April 30 deadline (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). The EU has said it will now resume talks with an independent Montenegro. BW
BOSNIAN SERBS SEEK TO FOLLOW MONTENEGRIN EXAMPLE
In the aftermath of Montenegro's referendum, a group of Bosnian Serbs are calling for Republika Srpska's independence, Reuters reported on May 29. The Serbian National Movement, made up mostly of Serbs forced out of Croatia in 1995, said it has collected nearly 50,000 signatures of Serbs across the country for a petition to demand an independence referendum. "The will of the citizens cannot be ignored. The Serbian people do not want to live in a Bosnia imposed on them. The Serbian people want a free Republika Srpska, separated from an imposed Bosnia and Herzegovina," movement head Dane Cankovic said. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has proposed Bosnia be organized as a federal unit, giving each ethnic group the right to self-determination through referendum, a move that angered the international community. "The international community will not allow the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina to be endangered," High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling said in a statement released on May 29. "Bosnia and Herzegovina is not in question now or in the future." BW
BOSNIAN SERB SENTENCED 20 YEARS FOR WAR CRIMES
Bosnia-Herzegovina's war crimes court on May 26 sentenced a former Bosnian Serb paramilitary officer to 20 years in prison for atrocities committed during the 1992-95 war, Reuters reported the same day. The court ruled that Dragoje Paunovic "ordered and carried out persecution against the Muslim civilian population from the Rogatica area on political, national, ethnic, cultural, and religious grounds by committing murders and other inhumane acts." Specifically, on August 15, 1992, while leading a small group from the Rogatica battalion based in eastern Bosnia, Paunovic ordered his soldiers to capture 27 civilians and use them as human shields on the front line, according to his indictment. Later that day he ordered soldiers to shoot the captives, and shot some of them himself. All but three of them were killed. BW
THE BALKANS AFTER THE MONTENEGRIN VOTE
The victory of pro-independence forces in Montenegro's May 21 referendum suggests that one long-standing contentious issue will soon disappear from the Balkan political agenda. Other problems will continue to bedevil the region, however, some with far-reaching implications.
Montenegrins have voted narrowly but indisputably for independence from Serbia and the end of the joint state known as Serbia and Montenegro. This marks one of the final stages of the dissolution of former Yugoslavia and one of the more peaceful chapters in that story. It is true that many people in both republics remain unhappy with the outcome of the referendum. Perhaps, however, they might at some future date come to agree with those Czechs and Slovaks, who were unhappy with the division of their country on January 1, 1993, but eventually came to accept that both peoples were better off without the constant and irritating disputes between them that overshadowed much of former Czechoslovak public life.
Indeed, Serbs and Montenegrins appear heading for a comfortable "velvet divorce." Vuk Draskovic, who is foreign minister of the joint state, said on May 24 on a visit to Helsinki that many of the most important issues could be settled by mid-July. He also noted that Serbs and Montenegrins share deep historical and cultural links, which will not be affected by a division that promises to be free of the deep-rooted animosity that characterized some previous episodes in the dissolution of former Yugoslavia.
The presumed final chapter in that story, namely the independence of Kosova, has yet to be concluded. In the view of Kosovar Albanian leaders, Serbia forfeited all claim to the overwhelmingly ethnically Albanian province by its repressive policies in 1998-99. The Albanians also demand independence on the basis of self-determination and majority rule, which has underpinned the international decolonization process since the end of World War II. In Kosovar Albanian eyes, two processes are intertwined, namely the dissolution of Yugoslavia and decolonization.
The Kosovar Albanians reluctantly yielded to pressure from the international community to include Serbian representatives in talks aimed at resolving Kosova's final status, which began in 2005. The Albanians stress nonetheless that Belgrade can have no veto over the direction of the negotiating process -- a point that most of the international community acknowledges -- and that Serbia's role centers primarily on resolving technical, practical issues.
The Serbian side has nonetheless frequently engaged in foot-dragging and obstructionism, and has questioned the impartiality of UN negotiator Martti Ahtisaari. This negative approach should come as no surprise, not only because Serbian political culture remains heavily engaged in blame and denial where the conflicts of the 1990s are concerned, but also because no Serbian politician wants to appear "weak" on Kosova in the run-up to elections that are widely expected in 2006 or 2007. In short, Kosova talks are likely to go nowhere prior to the Serbian vote unless the international community makes good on its hints that it will not allow the negotiating process to drag on indefinitely.
Independence for Montenegro and Kosova is hardly likely to resolve all the problems of the region, even if one does not take particularly seriously the complaints from Belgrade about either or both of those developments. The most important issue confronting the western Balkans is the process of Euro-Atlantic integration, or membership in the EU and NATO. It has long been widely understood in the Balkans and beyond that Euro-Atlantic integration is ultimately necessary to stabilize the region politically and provide the investments and development necessary to promote economic growth and social stability.
But NATO seems in no particular hurry to admit the next group of candidates, which includes Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia. Perhaps more importantly, the entire process of EU enlargement has been called into question by the rejection of the proposed EU constitution by French and Dutch voters in 2005.
This has not gone unnoticed in the region. Pro-reform forces have found the changed mood in many of the older EU member states disturbing and discouraging. By contrast, antireform forces -- often linked to the complex structures involving business, nationalist politicians, the security forces, and organized crime that emerged in the 1990s -- have taken heart. At the end of April, the Bosnian parliament rejected a package of constitutional changes backed by the United States and EU that are necessary if Bosnia-Herzegovina is to draw closer to Brussels. Elsewhere, Serbian leaders allowed to pass two EU-imposed deadlines for the arrest and handover to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal of former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic.
As a result, the EU announced on May 3 that it is suspending talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia and Montenegro. Many observers see this development ironically as the final nail in the coffin of the EU-sponsored joint state, since some Montenegrin voters seem to have concluded that Serbia is holding their country back from EU membership and cast their ballots for independence.
In the end, what will ultimately determine the pace of Euro-Atlantic integration in most of former Yugoslavia and Albania is a combination of the willingness of those countries to undertake reforms themselves, and the desire of the EU and NATO not to have a "black hole" develop on the eastern side of the Adriatic that could attract the attention of terrorists and become an even greater hotbed of organized crime and human trafficking. What the time frame for this integrative process will prove to be is anyone's guess. What is certain is the reform process in the western Balkans will become stalled or even be reversed unless the EU and NATO maintain a clear commitment to enlargement.
FATAL ACCIDENT INVOLVING U.S. TROOPS IN KABUL LEADS TO DEADLY RIOT
A U.S. military truck which reportedly had mechanical problems slammed into several cars in Khairkhana District of Kabul on May 29, killing five people and injuring several others, the Afghan Interior Ministry reported. Following the accident, hundreds of people began rioting, and reports say coalition troops or Afghan forces fired toward hostile demonstrators. At least eight people were killed in the ensuing violence and around 100 more were injured, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported on May 29, citing government officials. The rioters marched towards the center of Kabul destroying and looting property and shouting "Death to America" and "Death to Karzai." Afghan authorities imposed a curfew in the Afghan capital. A U.S. military spokesman said that the "coalition is conducting a full investigation regarding" the traffic accident, adding that the U.S.-led coalition regrets any loss of life in the incident. AT
AFGHAN PRESIDENT CLAIMS INVOLVEMENT BY 'INSURGENT ELEMENTS'
In a televised address broadcast by official Afghanistan National Television on May 29, President Hamid Karzai said he regrets the loss of life when a "vehicle of the coalition forces went out of control, most probably due to brake failure." Karzai said U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann "expressed his deep regret" about the accident. Karzai said that following the accident, "a number of opportunists and insurgent elements resorted to destruction" of property, adding that "undoubtedly" the people "who committed [these] crimes" will be prosecuted. Karzai called on his people to "seriously deal" with the "insurgent elements" in the country and not allow them to "destroy" Afghanistan again. The Interior Ministry issued a statement on May 29 urging Kabul citizens to "be patient and not to give the enemies" of the country an "opportunity to misuse" the traffic incident, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. AT
AFGHAN PARLIAMENT DEMANDS INVESTIGATION
The Afghan National Assembly has decided to hold a joint session of the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) and Meshrano Jirga (Council of Elders) on May 30 to discuss the deadly traffic accident and the riots in Kabul, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported on May 29. The decision to hold the joint session was made after People's Council speaker Mohammad Yunos Qanuni met on May 29 with representatives of the demonstrators who demanded that the perpetrators of the incidents in Kabul be identified; those members of the police force who allegedly fired on the demonstrators be prosecuted; coalition forces scale down their movements in residential areas; and security guards at Ariana Television who allegedly wounded a demonstrator be held accountable. The independent Ariana Television on May 29 broadcasted scenes of angry demonstrators attacking its main entrance and appealed for assistance on air. AT
AFGHAN PRESIDENT IN IRAN...
Afghan President Karzai visited Tehran from May 27-28, Iranian news agencies reported. The Afghan delegation included national security adviser Zalmay Rasul, Agriculture Minister Obaidullah Ramin, acting Culture and Information Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin, acting Economy Minister Amin Farhang, Energy, Water, and Power Minister Mohammad Ismail Khan, Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Interior Minister Moqbal Zarar, Public Works Minister Surab Ali Safari, and Transportation Minister Enayatullah Qasemi, IRNA reported. Governors from Farah, Herat, and Nimroz provinces, which border Iran, were also in the delegation. BS
...AND MEETS LEADERS AS AGREEMENTS SIGNED
After his first meting with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Karzai said Afghanistan would like to expand its trade and economic relations with Iran, IRNA reported, and he noted Iranian contributions to his country's reconstruction. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Karzai that American and European interference in Afghan affairs is harmful to Afghan progress, Fars news Agency reported. Khamenei also referred to the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan, the world's biggest opium producer, and the continuing dispute over the quantity of water from Afghanistan's Helmand River that flows into Iran's Sistan va Baluchistan Province. Karzai also met with parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel and Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki. Also during the visit, agreements and memorandums regarding prisoner exchanges and criminal extraditions, railway construction, and cooperation in other fields were signed. BS
AFGHAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS KABUL OPPOSED TO OFFENSIVE FOREIGN MILITARY BASES
Rangin Dadfar Spanta, who accompanied Karzai to Tehran, told his Iranian counterpart Mottaki on May 28 that Kabul has "been opposing the establishment of foreign bases in Afghanistan aiming to act against our neighbors," IRNA reported. Iran has repeatedly voiced its opposition to the presence of the U.S.-led coalition forces and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in neighboring Afghanistan. AT
ALLEGED SOUTHWESTERN BOMBERS ARRESTED
Mohsen Farokhinejad, deputy governor general for political and security affairs in the southwestern Khuzestan Province, announced on May 28 that several foreigners responsible for bombings in Abadan, Ahvaz, and Dezful last year have been arrested in Syria, IRNA reported. Farokhinejad said the accused are Wahhabis. Amnesty International reported on May 15 that Ahwazi Liberation Organization President Abdullah al-Mansuri, Ahwazi Student Union in Syria Chairman Jamal Obeidi, and seven other Iranian-Arab activists were detained in Damascus on May 11 and are in danger of being forcibly returned to Iran. Another man wanted in Khuzestan for his connection with a fraud network, Ali Ayashi, has been detained in Turkey, but Ankara will not extradite him, Farokhinejad said. BS
AZERI UNREST CONTINUES IN IRAN
Ethnic Azeris staged a demonstration outside the legislature in Tehran on May 28, Fars News Agency reported on the same day and "The New York Times" reported on May 29. Fars estimated some 200 protesters, while "The New York Times" reported about 2,000 demonstrators. The crowd was protesting publication in the official "Iran" newspaper of a cartoon showing an Azeri-speaking cockroach. The protesters were dispersed by security forces. According to "The New York Times," demonstrators chanted in Azeri, demanding the teaching of that language in schools, the establishment of independent television channels that use the language, as well as the release of jailed demonstrators. The newspaper said other protests occurred in the city of Ardabil. Cyrus Ahmadi, the official in charge of political and security affairs in the Ardabil governor's office, said on May 28 that following the previous day's unrest the situation has returned to normal, ILNA reported. Enhanced security measures are in place, he said, and most of the people who were arrested are not from Ardabil. BS
IRANIAN OFFICIALS BLAME FOREIGN POWERS FOR NORTHWESTERN UNREST...
As unrest among ethnic Azeris in Iran continues into its third week, Iranian officials are accusing foreign powers of fomenting the unrest. Government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said on May 29 that foreigners are encouraging ethnic differences in an effort to undermine national security, state radio reported. Such efforts will fail, he continued, because "Iran has been able to create a united Islamic identity and culture by respecting the ethnic identities, values, cultures and languages." Elham added, "The people in this country are united, especially in Azerbaijan." BS
...LINKED TO NUCLEAR ISSUE
Ali Nikzad, governor of Ardabil Province, also said on May 29 that foreigners are behind the unrest, Fars News Agency reported. Many residents of Ardabil are ethnic Azeris and, Nikzad added, "Some people arrested after recent disturbances were neither from the city of Ardabil nor from the province. They were unknown people supported by foreign [intelligence] services." President Ahmadinejad told the cabinet in Tehran on May 28 that Iran's enemies are trying to incite ethnic unrest because Iran will not back down on the nuclear issue, ILNA reported. Supreme Leader Khamenei made a similar accusation in a speech to legislators on May 28, state television reported. He said, "The last arrow in the quiver of the enemy against the Iranian nation and the Islamic Republic is to sow tension and stir ethnic and religious unrest." BS
TEHRAN MEDICAL STUDENTS HOLD SIT-IN
Students at the Iran University of Medical Sciences staged a sit-in on May 29 to protest against the chancellor office's refusal to permit elections for the Islamic Students Union, ILNA reported. Students Union head Mustafa Vafai said efforts to hold the election began seven months ago. He added that on May 28, the union was advised that it cannot hold elections until its activities conform with "the regulations regarding Islamic organizations." Vafai said that in an earlier meeting, the union was told that its Student Day rallies, its statements on the 2005 presidential election, and its publications are objectionable. Violent demonstrations took place at Tehran University the previous week, and on May 26 Tehran police spokesman Mohammad Turang said eight people have been arrested for damaging dormitories, Fars News Agency reported. Turang referred to "thugs" who make trouble, and added that foreigners are behind the troubles: "Investigations show that a current from outside the university was involved in the recent turmoil in the Tehran University dormitory. It seems that these people are related to foreign sources." BS
IRAN INSISTS ON ENRICHING URANIUM
Government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said on May 29 that uranium enrichment on Iranian soil will continue, IRNA reported. He said Iran is doing this in line with International Atomic Energy Agency rules and regulations. The Atomic Energy Organization's Mr. Sadat-Husseini, who heads the nuclear research center's technical and engineering department, announced on May 29 that Iran conducted a successful nuclear fusion test five years ago, state television reported. Supreme Leader Khamenei told legislators in a May 28 speech in Tehran that Iranian scientists' accomplishments in the nuclear field have guaranteed the country's energy supplies, state television reported. Any reversals in this field will be a complete loss for Iran, he said, as he praised the legislature's approval of a bill to halt voluntary suspension of enrichment activities if Iran is referred to the UN Security Council. BS
U.S. MARINES ACCUSED OF 'COVERING UP' KILLING OF IRAQI CIVILIANS
U.S. Representative John Murtha (Democrat, Pennsylvania) accused the U.S. military on ABC television of trying to "cover up" the killing of 24 Iraqis on November 19, 2005, in Al-Hadithah, 200 kilometers northwest of Baghdad, AFP reported on May 28. The civilians were allegedly killed by U.S. Marines after a roadside bomb killed a fellow soldier. Two ongoing military investigations into the killings are expected to be finished soon, with one probing the deaths, and the other looking into allegations that the Marines covered up the incident. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (Republican, Virginia) likened the incident to the Abu Ghurayb scandal, and said he will treat the Al-Hadithah case as such and hold congressional hearings. BAW
IRAQI PRESIDENT, BRITISH HUMAN RIGHTS ENVOY DISCUSS PRISONERS ISSUE
In a joint press conference with British human rights envoy to Iraq Ann Clwyd on May 27, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani asked that female prisoners be handed over to the Iraqis, the Iraqi News Agency reported the same day. Talabani also asked for the release of all prisoners kept in Iraqi or coalition prisons without charge. Clwyd echoed Talabani regarding some 5,000 men in Iraqi custody and 15,000 in U.S. military custody, saying that "there are too many people in detention. Their number should be reduced," Reuters reported on May 29. The issue of prisoners has become central to sectarian tensions, since the Sunnis accuse former Shi'ite-led Interior Ministry forces of the illegal detention, abuse, and killings of Sunnis. Clwyd also attended the trial of Saddam Hussein on May 29 and described the court proceedings as "dignified." The trial is scheduled to resume on May 30. BAW
U.S. JOURNALISTS AMONG OVER 30 DEAD IN IRAQ
As a result of eight car bombs and shootings on May 29, over 35 people were killed, including two journalists from U.S. CBS-TV and a U.S. soldier, AP reported the same day. Another CBS-TV correspondent was seriously injured. Meanwhile, Iraqi lawmakers met on May 29 to discuss the security situation, with Shi'ite parliamentarian Baha al-Araji saying that "the deteriorating security situation is due to the fact that the Interior and Defense ministries are still unfilled." Abbas al-Bayati, a deputy from the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance, told the Voices of Iraq website on May 29, that "if the [parliament] blocs fail to agree on naming the candidates, then Prime Minister [Nuri] al-Maliki may have to choose candidates by himself and present them to the parliament." BAW
POLITICAL, RELIGIOUS FIGURES SPEAK OUT ON SECTARIAN TENSIONS IN SOUTHERN IRAQ
Political and religious groups have condemned the wave of assassinations in Al-Basrah since the February bombing of the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra, Voices of Iraq reported on May 29. Shi'ite, Sunni, and Christian figures called for a solution to the deteriorating situation. Tensions are reportedly not only sectarian, but within the majority Shi'a as well. "The situation in Al-Basrah...could turn into an open armed conflict between Shi'ite groups if it is not resolved," a senior government official in Baghdad told Reuters on May 29. Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its Badr Brigades and Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army are at the center of the friction, along with the Al-Fadilah party. Baha al-Araji, a parliamentarian affiliated with al-Sadr, blamed the tensions on Iran and the U.S.-led "occupation" and said that "if it is not solved, the spark could turn to fire. It all depends on how the government will deal with it," Reuters reported. Government officials say that Prime Minister al-Maliki could himself lead a peace delegation to the city. BAW
DRUG DEALERS, ADDICTS ARRESTED IN IRAQI KURDISTAN
Security forces in Al-Sulaymaniyah announced on television on May 28 that they have arrested 13 people who smuggled narcotics into the country, "Hawlati" reported the same day. They have also confiscated some drugs. Three of those arrested are well-known Kurdish singers who have become addicted to the drugs. Two are Iranians who were attempting to plant cannabis in the region, the Peyamner news agency reported on May 28. BAW