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Newsline - April 2, 2007

Neelie Kroes, who is the EU's commissioner for competition, said in Berlin on March 30 that Russia must give EU energy companies access to its pipelines as part of a planned new EU-Russia comprehensive cooperation agreement, which will replace the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement that runs out in 2007, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on March 31. She stressed that "both sides [must] have access to each other's grids." She noted that some large European energy companies are reluctant to pressure Russia because they have already struck lucrative deals with Gazprom, albeit without getting access to its pipeline system. Kroes argued that "the energy market is not transparent. It is blocked at the [Russian] border." Russia has repeatedly refused to ratify the EU's Energy Charter, which Moscow signed in 1994, and whose Transit Protocol would require Russia to open up access to its pipelines (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8 and 25, and February 6, 2007). Gazprom now effectively controls them as a monopoly, while seeking greater access to European markets for itself. In Hungary, the opposition recently criticized the government for signing a pipeline deal with Russia, which the opposition says works against EU attempts to formulate a joint energy policy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 23, and 30, 2007). Referring to that deal, U.S. energy expert Keith Smith told RFE/RL in Brussels on March 30 that the Kremlin is sharply focused on energy matters, while the EU lacks an organized approach. Smith said: "Who negotiates for Russia when it comes to energy? The Hungarian prime minister, [Ferenc Gyurcsany], was [in Moscow] a couple of days ago. Who is he negotiating with? [There's] only one person who negotiates on energy -- [President Vladimir] Putin. Why is the president of Russia negotiating on energy if it's not part of the political policies of the Russian government?" PM

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said on March 31 that Iran and Britain should let the United Nations deal with their dispute over the 15 British sailors and marines that Iran detained recently, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2007). Kamynin called on the two sides to provide information to the United Nations so that it could then prepare a report. He also denied recent media reports that Russia is willing to work with the United States to develop a joint missile defense against rogue states. PM

On April 1, legislation came into full effect prohibiting citizens of countries other than the Russian Federation from acting as salespeople in markets and in the retail trade in general, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16 and March 27, 2007). The laws, which began to be implemented on January 15, slap heavy fines on businesses that employ illegal workers and affect primarily the millions of people who come especially from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and China to work in markets and bazaars. The decree came in the wake of disturbances in Kondopoga and elsewhere in 2006, which appeared at least in part to be driven by resentment by ethnic Russians over the highly visible role of migrants at markets. The impact of the decree is not yet fully clear, but initial reports suggest that many vendors have closed their stalls rather than try to continue business by hiring Russian citizens to man their booths. Russians have generally disdained such work, which requires long hours and is poorly paid. In Ussuriysk near the Chinese border, the once-vast Chinese market appeared to be deserted, Britain's "The Independent" reported on April 2. There has been widespread speculation in the Russian press in recent weeks that the new decree will lead to shortages of fruits, vegetables, and consumer goods, and to higher prices. "The Moscow Times" reported on April 2 that many Azeri traders in Moscow are selling off their last vegetables and fruit and planning to leave for good. The daily added that one-third of the booths in the capital's clothes and food markets have been empty since January 15. Reuters reported from Moscow, however, that some traders think they will be able to get around the new legislation by bribing the authorities or buying Russian citizenship. PM

On March 30, Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov appeared to have touched off a national debate on amending the constitution to enable President Putin to seek a third term, which he is currently barred from doing, Russian media reported on March 31 and April 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2007). There have been many calls over the past year for changing the constitution to allow Putin to run again, but Mironov is a particularly prominent figure and appears to have broken new ground by outlining in public and in detail how this could be done. Also on March 30, Boris Gryzlov, who is a supporter of President Putin and speaker of the State Duma, repeated his opposition to changing the constitution. A spokesman for Putin said that the president also continues to oppose any revision of the constitution to that end. Opposition leader and former world chess champion Garri Kasparov told a news conference that Mironov's proposal reflects the nervousness of many people who acquired office under Putin and who fear for their futures, reported on April 2. PM

Pavel Gusev, who heads the media committee of Russia's Public Chamber, acknowledged on March 29 that Russia has become the second-most-dangerous country for journalists to work in after Iraq, reported.. Foreign NGOs have previously noted this fact, but this appears to be the first time that a prominent Russian official has called attention to it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2007). The daily "Kommersant" on March 29 quoted Gusev as also acknowledging that the authorities are cracking down on independent media, which the daily called the "first official acknowledgment of what rights activists and journalists have been publicly concerned about in recent years." Gusev said that "independent mass media are under attack now. The press is becoming increasingly state-controlled," and businesses close to the government are buying up media outlets. Gusev is also editor in chief of the mass-circulation daily "Moskovsky komsomolets." On April 2, the daily "The Moscow Times" reported that "Kommersant" has received a warning from the government's new media watchdog agency not to mention the small National Bolshevik Party because that party is not registered (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). A government spokesman said that "if there is no party, it's impossible to write about it." The National Bolsheviks and their offshoots present a curious mixture of communist and fascist ideas and trappings, reminiscent in some ways of the left-wing currents in Nazism and fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, which inspired Benito Mussolini's short-lived fascist republic at the end of World War II. PM

In its annual financial report presented to the Armenian Justice Ministry, the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) claimed on March 30 to have made no expenditures for 2006 despite having opened several hundred offices and claiming to have recruited about 370,000 members, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The party, founded in late 2005 by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, has launched an ambitious national campaign for seats in the May 12 parliamentary elections and has the largest number of official members (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 10, 2006). Attempting to explain the seeming inconsistency between the party's activities and opening of over 500 new offices throughout the country, party spokesman Baghdasar Mherian claimed that the party was able to forego all expenses because all of its offices are owned by its members and "people close to the party" and contended that the thousands of people working for the party "are volunteers." In a series of public events throughout 2006, BHK founder Tsarukian openly donated several million dollars' worth of agricultural aid, free medical assistance, and other supposedly public services to a large number of rural villagers through an obscure charity but reported in the media as a party initiative. The financial report, detailing the annual income and expenses for all officially registered political parties, is required under Armenian law, although few parties regularly comply with the requirement. RG

The losing candidate in a recent Armenian local election, Arayik Aghababian, formally submitted a petition on March 30 to a district court challenging the election results, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Aghababian, a regional leader of the BHK, lost the March 25 mayoral election in the southern town of Armavir to incumbent Mayor and Republican Party (HHK) candidate Ruben Khlghatian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007). Aghababian refused to concede defeat and argued that his loss was the result of widespread voting irregularities, although he declined to file any formal complaint with the local election commission. The contest was the first-ever election face-off between the two largest pro-government parties and was seen as an early indicator for the May 12 parliamentary contest. RG

In a statement released in Baku, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry warned on April 1 against the use of its territory or airspace for attacks against "neighboring countries," according to ANS-TV and Interfax. The statement was issued in response to recent comments in Tbilisi attributed to U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza saying that the United States hopes to secure the use of airfields in Azerbaijan for military purposes. Those comments, extensively covered in the Georgian and Azerbaijani media, were widely seen as a reference to possible U.S. military action against Iran. While the Defense Ministry statement reiterated that "Azerbaijan, as a member of the antiterrorist coalition, allows the use of its airspace for the purpose of conducting antiterror operations in Afghanistan," it also noted that "Azerbaijan will not create opportunities or conditions allowing foreign countries to use its territory against neighboring countries." Azerbaijan has consistently expressed its unwillingness to provide any assistance for possible U.S. military action against neighboring Iran and this position was clearly articulated in an April 2006 meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2006). RG

A hand grenade carried by a passenger in an Azerbaijani commuter bus exploded on April 1 near the capital, Baku, ANS-TV reported. The explosion killed one and injured several of the dozen passengers in the bus. City police launched an immediate investigation and despite initial fears of a terrorist incident, the explosion was characterized as an accident, although it was unclear why the unnamed passenger was carrying a grenade. RG

Azerbaijani Industry and Energy Minister Natiq Aliyev criticized on March 31 the Russian authorities for threatening to suspend electricity supplies to Azerbaijan on April 1 unless Baku accepts Moscow's demand for higher prices, according to ANS-TV. Aliyev explained that Baku "does not agree" with the higher prices imposed for Russian electricity and added that "Azerbaijan does not need electricity or gas supplies from Russia." Azerbaijan, which normally received electricity from Russia's Unified Energy Systems according to the terms of a contract that expires on April 1, must now seek alternative supplies of electricity as it faces a short-term disruption in domestic power and possible power blackouts if Russian supplies are not resumed. RG

Speaking at a Baku press conference, Ilham Aliyev announced on March 30 plans to provide Europe with a significant level of natural gas by the end of the year, ANS-TV reported. In comments following a meeting with visiting Polish President Lech Kaczynski, Aliyev explained that Azerbaijan will transport gas from its offshore Shah Deniz gas field to the European market through the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline. Arriving in Azerbaijan after a visit to Kazakhstan, Kaczynski is planning to convene an energy summit in Warsaw in May that will include the presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine in an attempt to secure alternative energy supplies for Europe to offset its high dependence on Russian gas imports. RG

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili led a special ceremony on March 31 to rebury the remains of former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in a Tbilisi cemetery, the Civil Georgia website and ITAR-TASS reported. As some 35,000 people attended the funeral at a cathedral in Mtskheta, Saakashvili was joined by Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko and senior Georgian officials to honor Gamsakhurdia, who served for less than a year in 1991-92 as the first president of Georgia after it gained independence from the former Soviet Union. He died in mysterious circumstances in December 1993, after fleeing Georgia at the onset of a destructive civil war. His remains were moved from Grozny, the capital of neighboring Chechnya, to Georgia on March 28 for the April 1 reburial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2007). RG

A second U.S.-funded biosecurity laboratory opened on March 31 in a formal ceremony in Georgia's second-largest city, Kutaisi, Caucasus Press reported. In a ceremony with the visiting director of the Pentagon's Biodiversity Program, Sean Kelly, unnamed officials from the Georgian Defense Ministry hailed the opening of the new biosecurity facility and welcomed the U.S. support for counterproliferation efforts in Georgia. The new facility, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, is to be operated by U.S. military experts until 2014 when it is to be handed over to the Georgian military. The lab is similar to another operational facility in Tbilisi and conducts tests and research in biological hazards as part of a broader effort to monitor proliferation in the region. RG

Mikhail Fradkov held talks with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Prime Minister Karim Masimov in Astana on March 30 to discuss bilateral cooperation, primarily in the energy sector, news agencies reported. Fradkov said Russia supports a Kazakh proposal to boost transit shipments of Kazakh oil on the Atyrau-Samara pipeline from current levels of 15 million tons a year to 25 million tons a year, Interfax reported. Fradkov also said the two countries plan to establish chemical and petrochemical joint ventures in Kazakhstan, ITAR-TASS reported. For his part, Masimov said, "We are going to attract investment from Russian companies in the power sector on the territory of Kazakhstan, which will permit deeper cooperation between our countries." Sergei Kirienko, head of Russia's Atomic Energy Agency, accompanied Fradkov on the visit. He told journalists that Kazakhstan and Russia are considering the construction of a nuclear power plant in Aqtau, "The Moscow Times" reported. According to ITAR-TASS, bilateral trade was $13 billion in 2006, a 35 percent year-on-year increase. DK

Amangeldy Shabdarbaev, head of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee, told the newspaper "Liter" in an interview on March 30 that 100 members of the banned extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir have voluntarily left the group. Shabdarbaev said their decisions came as a result of "explanatory work in which members of the clergy played an active role." Nevertheless, Shabdarbaev said that "we cannot underestimate the anticonstitutional activities of the forbidden organization Hizb ut-Tahrir." Hizb ut-Tahrir, which advocates the restoration of an Islamic caliphate throughout Central Asia, is one of 14 terrorist and extremist organizations banned in Kazakhstan. DK

Almaz Atambaev told a news conference after his confirmation by parliament on March 30 that "There should be a compromise and one particular side must not be allowed to have everything," reported. At his confirmation, Atambaev pronounced a harsh verdict on the achievements of the past two years, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. "Over the last two years, necessary, cardinal steps were not taken in the economy, corruption was not vanquished, and concrete measures were not taken to raise the living standards of ordinary citizens," he said. For his part, President Kurmanbek Bakiev told parliament that he is ready to discuss constitutional reform with the opposition, but he suggested that the opposition is showing a "lack of desire for real reform" by not responding to his offer to form a joint task force on the issue. Atambaev's appointment comes amid demands for early presidential elections and constitutional reform from the For Reforms and the United Front For a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan (United Front) opposition movements. DK

A joint statement by For Reforms and the United Front on March 30 stressed that those opposition movements will not participate in a coalition government headed by Prime Minister Atambaev, reported. The statement said the opposition movements will draft a new constitution and plan to hold a planned demonstration on April 11. Omurbek Subanaliev, former acting interior minister and a member of the United Front, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on March 30: "Our organization, the [United] Front, has put forward its main demand: to hold an early presidential election. If [President Bakiev] won't meet this demand, then we cannot go into negotiations [with the government]." DK

Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec; members are Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) Secretary-General Grigory Rapota met with Tajik Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov in Dushanbe on March 30, the official news agency Khovar reported. The two discussed preparations for the upcoming April 18 summit of Eurasec prime ministers in the Kazakh capital, Astana. They also held talks on the possible export of Turkmen electricity to Tajikistan through Uzbekistan and explorations being carried out by Russia's Gazprom at the Sargazon gas field (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2007). DK

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was unanimously elected chairman of the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) in Mary on March 30, Turkmenistan's Altyn Asyr television reported. The position had been vacant since the death of President Saparmurat Niyazov on December 21, 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006). In an address to the council, Berdymukhammedov pledged to provide rural areas with Internet and telephone services. The council also passed a number of changes to the constitution that increase the power of the president, Deutsche Welle reported on April 1. DK

Berdymukhammedov signed a decree on March 31 raising teachers' salaries by 40 percent starting September 1, reported. Students' stipends will also rise 40 percent. DK

Alyaksandr Lukashenka has issued greetings to the citizens of Belarus and Russia on the occasion of Unity Day, which is observed in Belarus on April 2, Belapan reported. "We have no right to decelerate the creation of a common economic space, a customs union, a free labor market, and common information, educational, and cultural environments," Lukashenka said in his message. "The objective need for rapprochement between Belarus and Russia becomes increasingly tangible with every year that passes. Humanitarian exchanges are expanding and everyday contacts between Belarusians and Russians are becoming more and more cordial," Lukashenka added. The "Day of the Unity of the Peoples of Belarus and Russia" commemorates the date of April 2, 1996, when Lukashenka and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement on the formation of a Belarusian-Russian community. A year later, on April 2, 1997, Lukashenka and Yeltsin signed an accord that transformed the community into a union. On December 8, 1999, both leaders signed the Treaty on the Formation of the Belarusian-Russian Union State. JM

Viktor Yushchenko said at a congress of the Our Ukraine People's Union in Kyiv on March 31 that he will dissolve the Verkhovna Rada and call new parliamentary elections if "the actions of the majority in parliament do not return to a constitutional basis," Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. The president reiterated his threat of March 29, when he accused the government of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych of violating the constitution by forming a coalition based on individuals rather than political factions. Yushchenko essentially objects to increasing the ruling majority in the Verkhovna Rada with defectors from the opposition Our Ukraine and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. But on March 31, Yushchenko made several other demands of the government, calling on the ruling coalition to pass a law on the introduction of an imperative mandate for parliamentarians, stop "the politicization of law enforcement agencies," set up a commission for amending the constitution, and draft a new law on the Cabinet of Ministers. JM

President Yushchenko has invited the parliament's speaker and other parliamentary leaders for consultations to his office in Kyiv on April 2, Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko said on March 31 that he will decide on whether to dissolve parliament following consultations with parliamentary factions, as required by the constitution. The consultations will involve speaker Oleksandr Moroz; first deputy speaker Adam Martyniuk; deputy speaker Mykola Tomenko; Party of Regions caucus leader Raisa Bohatyryova; Yuliya Tymoshenko, head of the eponymous political bloc; Our Ukraine caucus leader Vyacheslav Kyrylenko; Socialist Party caucus leader Ivan Bokiy; and Communist Party caucus leader Petro Symonenko. It is not clear whether Prime Minister Yanukovych, head of the ruling Party of Regions, will participate in the consultations. JM

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians took part in two separate rallies in Kyiv on March 31 to manifest their stance in the ongoing standoff between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yanukovych, Ukrainian media reported. At a rally organized by the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the People's Self-Defense on Independence Square, participants called on Yushchenko to dissolve the Verkhovna Rada. "It is not just the president's right to dissolve parliament. It is his duty to dismiss this corrupt, treacherous assembly and go ahead with an open, honest, early election in which there can be no doubt democratic forces, those who defend and love Ukraine, will win," Tymoshenko told the crowd. A rally staged on European Square, some 300 meters away from Independence Square, manifested support for Yanukovych's ruling coalition. "We will never accept ultimatums that are outside the realm of law and the constitution," Yanukovych told his supporters in what appeared to be an indirect response to Yushchenko's threats to dissolve the Verkhovna Rada if the ruling coalition fails to heed his demands. JM

After two days of informal talks in Bremen, Germany, EU foreign ministers on March 31 failed to find a common position on a UN proposal for an independent Kosova, international media reported the same day. They did, however, agree to push for a rapid decision by the UN Security Council, which is scheduled to start debating Kosova in the presence of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu on April 3. After the meeting, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that EU members "welcome" UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari's "efforts in the process of Kosovo's status settlement," pointedly failing to endorse the plan that resulted from Ahtisaari's efforts. "It's never the case that all European partners have the same opinion in advance," Steinmeier said, according to Bloomberg. "That's how it is in the Kosovo question." A unified EU stance is critical if Russia is to be dissuaded from using its veto in the Security Council; Moscow opposes any solution imposed on Belgrade, which rejects the Ahtisaari blueprint. "We're talking to the Russians without succeeding so far in bringing about a visible change in the Russian position," Steinmeier said, stressing that the Security Council has to take the "legitimate interests" of both Belgrade and Prishtina into account, a key formula used by Moscow. EU members Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain have all reportedly voiced reservations about the UN plan. On March 29, the Slovak parliament passed a resolution opposing Kosova's "full independence," though the Security Council, of which Slovakia is currently a nonpermanent member, is only asked to decide on supervised independence for Kosova. Deliberations in the Security Council are expected to last several weeks. "Kosovo is going to be the big topic in April at the Security Council," a Western diplomat told AFP. TV

The EU foreign ministers in Bremen also heard from Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, who put the price tag of the EU-run civilian presence in post-independence Kosova at some 1.5 billion euros ($2 billion) for the first three years, international media reported on April 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2007). Rehn urged member countries to make funds available as soon as Kosova's status has been settled, while the German government, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, said in a statement after the Bremen meeting that any Security Council resolution "must provide the framework for the implementation of the status solution, in particular the civilian and military international presence overseeing implementation," dpa reported. This indicates that the EU wants the outlines of its poststatus presence in Kosova to be determined before the province is granted independence. The EU has already spent some 2 billion euros ($2.6 billion) on Kosova since the Serbian province became a UN protectorate in 1999, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on April 1. While much of that money went toward rebuilding Kosova's infrastructure and housing, damaged in years of Serbian anti-insurgency operations and NATO's subsequent bombing, the new funds will mostly pay for the EU's mission to strengthen the judiciary and the police, the promotion of economic development, and the protection of the Serbian minority and its cultural monuments. TV

The medieval Serbian Orthodox monastery in Decan was hit by an antitank grenade on March 30, local and international media reported the next day. Decan was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004 and is protected by NATO peacekeepers. No injuries were reported as the device apparently failed to explode, but the roof of an outer wall was damaged. A grenade launcher was later found in the vicinity. The Tanjug news agency quoted the monastery's abbot as saying the monastery has been targeted by 23 grenades since 1999, but the latest came close to hitting the church itself. In a statement released on April 1, diplomats from the six-member Contact Group on Balkan policy said, "All such violence against the Serb community or the Serbian Orthodox church in Kosovo is absolutely impermissible and intolerable," according to B92. "The full security of the Serb community in Kosovo is of the utmost importance, and any incidents of violence must be addressed promptly and resolutely by Kosovo authorities and the international community." TV

The parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim-Croat Federation approved a new government on March 30, local media reported the same day. Five months after Bosnia's general elections of October 1, 2006, a five-party coalition was put together by Prime Minister Nedzad Brankovic of the mainly Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and includes the country's main parties with the exception of the multiethnic Social Democrats. A first attempt at forming a government was blocked on March 23 by Bosnia's top international official after the candidate for interior minister, Fadil Jaganjac of the Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, failed the required vetting procedure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2007). After the party replaced him with Amuhidin Alic, a former interior minister of Zenica-Doboj Canton, the new government was able to be confirmed by the federation's parliament. It is unclear why Jaganjac failed to pass, but a current-affairs program on federation public television suggested it was linked to his wartime role in the departure of ethnic Serbs from the central Bosnian town of Zenica. Bosnia's international overseer, the Office of the High Representative, has the power to vet candidates for public office or to remove elected officials, civil servants, and managers in public companies from their jobs, an authority that is highly controversial both domestically and internationally. The latest development means that both the central level and Bosnia's two entities now have operational governments; the central government was formed in early February 2007 and the government of the Bosnian Serb republic in October 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20, 2006, and February 12, 2007). TV

Jusuf Barcic, widely considered to be a top leader of Bosnia's radical Islamist movement, died in the night of March 30-31 at a hospital in the northeastern Bosnian town of Tuzla after his car hit a traffic light, local media reported on March 31. Barcic was at the center of several recent incidents between a group of Islamic radicals, known collectively as "Wahhabis," and the established Islamic Community in Bosnia. Barcic and his followers repeatedly held unauthorized meetings in mosques, including Sarajevo's Emperor's Mosque, and refused to leave when asked to do so. Some of these standoffs only ended when the police intervened. His funeral in Tuzla was attended by several thousand of his followers, Bosnian state television reported on April 1. TV

Nebojsa Radmanovic, the chairman of Bosnia-Herzegovina's three-member Presidency, told Bosnian Serb public radio on March 30 that a package of constitutional amendments that narrowly failed passage in parliament in April 2006 is the only realistic solution to the country's constitutional crisis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27 and 28, 2006). "If the April package cannot be passed, we will have to start the constitutional changes talks from the beginning. That would mean at least two to three years of talks on the issue," he said. "I think that the international community's role should be to help and not to impose views," he added. In the same interview, he blamed the current stalemate over police reform, a key precondition for closer ties with the European Union, on certain politicians and international officials who want, in his view, to push through changes that run counter to the constitution, a reference to recent calls by Bosnian Muslim leaders for the abolition of the Republika Srpska. Police reform is currently stalled because the Bosnian Serbs insist on keeping the local police under the control of their self-governing entity, while most other politicians want the police to be controlled by Bosnia's central government. In an interview Radmanovic gave to the Serbian news agency Tanjug, he said that police-reform talks are at an "impasse," and described the current tensions in Bosnia as "the greatest since the end of the [1992-95] war," the Italian news agency AKI reported on March 30. TV

Recent clashes between Uzbek and other militants and tribesman in Pakistan's southernmost tribal area have left scores dead. The Uzbek militants are affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Central Asia's most infamous terrorist organization, which decamped to Afghanistan in the waning days of the Taliban regime to establish ties with Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.

After a U.S.-led military operation sent the Taliban and Al-Qaeda packing in 2001, the IMU fled with their hosts to the borderlands of Pakistan. But with that frontier now a battleground, has the IMU reached the end of the line?

The cause, death toll, and final outcome of the clashes involving Uzbeks and tribesmen were all unclear more than a week after the violence began. Accounts by international news agencies and Pakistani media agreed that the fighting started on March 19 near Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, the southernmost of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas; it pitted a group composed largely of IMU-affiliated Uzbek militants against local Pashtun tribesmen.

Most sources linked the outbreak of fighting to the death of an Arab affiliated with a local Pashtun leader named Mawlawi Nazir. Pakistan's "Dawn" newspaper, for example, described Nazir as the leader of "local Taliban" and painted a picture of mounting tension between pro-Taliban local tribes and Uzbek militants after Uzbeks killed an "Al-Qaeda-linked Arab" (identified as Saiful Adil). But AFP reported that clashes broke out "after ex-Taliban commander Mullah Nazir, who backs President Pervez Musharraf's moves to expel foreigners from the area, ordered followers of Uzbek militant [and IMU leader] Tahir Yuldashev to disarm."

Whatever lit the fuse, the official death toll continues to climb. Reports this week suggested a local cease-fire, but at the same time fierce fighting was reported just a few kilometers away. And reports emerged of overnight fighting in South Waziristan on March 29-30.

A tribal elder and opponent of the Uzbek presence in the region, Haji Khannan, has cautioned that "the only durable solution to the problem is to ask Uzbeks to leave the area." He claimed that Uzbeks' "continued presence would cause friction with the local tribes."

The official death toll now stands at around 170, with most of the dead ethnic Uzbeks affiliated with the IMU. Local sources told a Pakistani newspaper, "The News," that the fighting claimed far fewer lives, with casualties split evenly between local tribes and Uzbeks.

A journalist in North Waziristan, Saylab Mas'ud, estimated to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on March 21 that "there were "about 2,000 to 2,500 Uzbek militia in the [immediate] area." The highest estimates to have emerged are of more than 10,000 "foreign" fighters in the Tribal Areas, although there is little evidence to support such claims.

The confused chain of events makes more sense if one considers in turn the three groups of actors involved -- Pakistan's central authorities, local tribesmen in South Waziristan, and the IMU -- and the interests they are pursuing.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been pressed by the United States to do more to contain militant activity in the tribal provinces bordering Afghanistan, and he has faced hostile demonstrations after his suspension of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Against that backdrop, he is eager to claim success for his policy of encouraging tribal leaders to deal with the problem of foreign militants.

A Pakistani military spokesman recently described tribal leaders in South Waziristan as "patriots" for their efforts to evict IMU fighters, Pakistan's "Daily Times" reported on March 27. As early as March 20, Pakistani military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad called the fighting "a success of the government tribesmen strategy," Reuters reported. The spokesman claimed "the tribesmen are fed up with [foreign militants] because they and their activities adversely affect their lives and business."

Nevertheless, comments by the leader of a local family described by "The News" as supporting the eviction of Uzbek fighters from South Waziristan hardly inspired confidence that the central government's policy will do much to reduce the militancy that is fueling violence in neighboring Afghanistan. Haji Sharif vowed that his people will "continue [their] jihad [in Afghanistan] if that is against America, the Russians, British, or India as long as [we] have souls in our bodies." Sharif shrugged off the fighting with the Uzbeks as a distraction from the larger conflict in Afghanistan. He said his group's "activities across the border have been affected by [the] crisis with the Uzbeks," adding, "We have enemies in our home."

What's more, Pakistan's army may have taken sides in the recent clashes in South Waziristan, although Pakistani military spokesmen have consistently denied any involvement in the fighting. "The Asia Times Online" on March 28 quoted "independent sources" as saying that Pakistani special forces aided Pashtun leader Nazir in clashes against Uzbek forces and carried out raids in an attempt to arrest IMU leader Tohir Yoldosh. Reuters reported on March 22 that local residents said that "some shelling aimed at Uzbek positions appeared to be coming from a military base."

According to "The Asia Times Online," the involvement of the Pakistani military "pits the 'coalition' of Nazir's Taliban and the Pakistani military against the leaders of the 'Islamic State of Waziristans.'" The latter refers to leaders in North and South Waziristan who are bitterly opposed to central government involvement in the tribal regions and support the presence of foreign militants.

As for the local tribesmen, a former British military attache in Islamabad, Brigadier Johnny Torrence-Spence, told a briefing in Washington on March 26 that Pashtuns in Pakistan's tribal regions are not a "single, homogenous group because they are divided along distinct tribal lines," the "Daily Times" reported. Reports from the region confirmed this, suggesting that some tribesmen object to the Uzbek presence in South Waziristan and are amenable to central government inducements to evict the Uzbeks, while others stand with the Uzbeks. "The News International" noted, for example, that Haji Sharif supports the eviction of the Uzbeks while his brothers, Haji Omar and Noor Islam, have been fighting alongside the Uzbeks.

Where does this leave the IMU? Reports in Pakistan's press indicate that they have both supporters and enemies among local tribesmen. Pakistan's central authorities publicly oppose the Uzbeks' presence. Most estimates put the Uzbeks' strength at around 1,000, although some, such as the journalist quoted above, say they could number as high as 2,000, and a March 26 report in Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" spoke of 10,000 Uzbek fighters led by Yoldosh.

"The Daily Telegraph" reported that Taliban leaders in Afghanistan have offered the Uzbek force a way out of its problems in South Waziristan in the form of "safe passage" to Konar, Paktiya, or Helmand Province in Afghanistan to take part in a spring offensive against NATO troops. In comments to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Colonel Tom Collins, dismissed the report as "Taliban propaganda" and said that there is no evidence the IMU militants are headed for Afghanistan.

But experts queried by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service were less skeptical. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who has written extensively on the Taliban and IMU, told RFE/RL that the ongoing events are difficult to interpret. But Rashid noted that "in order to deal with a difficult situation in Waziristan, foreign fighters may go to the south, to Afghanistan." The editor in chief of Pakistan's "Daily Mail," Makhdoom Babar, told RFE/RL that with conditions in Pakistan becoming less and less hospitable, he thinks the Uzbek force "will leave for Afghanistan." But Robert Birsel, a Reuters correspondent in Pakistan, suggested that Uzbek militants might be able to hammer out a truce with the local tribesmen in whose midst they have now lived for years.

Interestingly, the fighting in South Waziristan also drew comment from the global jihadist media apparatus. One group that regularly posts statements from jihadist insurgent groups in Iraq to pro-Al-Qaeda Internet forums, Al-Fajr Media Center, put out a press release in Arabic on March 21 on "what is happening in Waziristan." It claimed dismissively that "the Pakistani Army, its crusader overlords, and their apostate allies over the past five years have been unable to stand up to the holy warriors, whether in North or South Waziristan." Charging that the recent clashes were inspired by Pakistani intelligence agents, the Al-Fajr Media Center claimed that "the fighting is taking place between exiled holy warriors and their allies and some pro-government tribes, or the Pakistani Army and intelligence services dressed as tribes." It argued that the combat does not pit the Uzbeks against "tribes," as some are saying.

In sum, reports from Pakistan's tribal areas indicate that while the IMU retains some fighting strength, it is now a bit player in a complex game far removed from the organization's origins in Uzbekistan and its onetime goal of unseating Uzbek President Islam Karimov and establishing an Islamist state in Central Asia's most populous country. Trapped for now in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the IMU is caught up in the shadowboxing between Pakistan's central authorities and the leaders of Waziristan's various Pashtun tribes-- and in the larger efforts of global jihadists to continue their fight in and around Afghanistan.

It may not be the end of the road for the IMU, but it is a road that has led far from home, with few prospects for a return in the foreseeable future.

The heaviest rain in years has brought severe flooding across drought-stricken Afghanistan, the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported on April 1. Flashfloods, avalanches, and landslides have killed as many as 80 people and destroyed thousands of homes across several of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. "We are facing a humanitarian crisis," Haji Shalizai Deedar, governor of the eastern Konar Province, told IRIN. "Hundreds of families need urgent assistance." The rain damaged farmland, killed hundreds of cattle, and shut down bridges and highways across the country. The heavy rains have been coupled with melting winter snow. Afghanistan's second vice president and head of the National Emergency Committee, Karim Khalili, said, "the current scale of the disaster is beyond our capacity and we face difficulty in providing assistance to the affected people." The Afghan government has declared emergencies in 13 provinces and has requested international humanitarian assistance. CJ

A suicide bomber attacked an army convoy in the Laghman Province capital of Mehtarlam on April 1, Reuters reported the same day. Two soldiers and seven civilians, including five children, were killed in the blast and several other passersby were wounded. In a separate attack on March 31, suspected Taliban militants ambushed two police convoys in Kandahar Province, killing seven policemen, AP reported on April 1. According to the provincial police chief, Esmatullah Alizai, four other policemen were injured during the ambush, which occurred in the border area between the Spin Boldak and Shorawak districts. CJ

The Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce announced it will organize two U.S. forums to prioritize and emphasize Afghanistan's developmental needs, the Bakhtar News Agency reported on April 1. The first forum, "Reassessing Priorities for U.S. Funding in Afghanistan," is scheduled for April 14 in Washington and will be attended by key U.S. policymakers, members of the Bush administration, and business-community representatives. The second forum will focus on "security and economic development" and will be held in May. Atiq Panjshiri, president and CEO of the chamber, indicated recently that the forums are needed because much of the U.S. funding for Afghanistan is being spent on "security issues, while development comes second in the list of priorities." CJ

Afghan Deputy Minister for Information and Culture Ghulam Nabi Farahi has announced that a new tourist center will be established in Kabul to support Afghanistan's tourism industry, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on April 1. Farahi said the center will teach students about tourism promotion and will include courses on Afghan culture, customs, and society. The center will also provide tourism information to foreign visitors in Kabul. Pajhwak Afghan News reported that the number of tourists visiting Afghanistan has increased by 25 percent over the past two years. The Information and Culture Ministry has allocated $2 million to establish the center, although no anticipated completion date has been announced. CJ

Between 100 and 2,000 members of the Basij militia, a force affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, demonstrated outside the British Embassy in Tehran on April 1 to protest the alleged incursion of British forces into Iranian waters near Iraq, Radio Farda reported. The 15 sailors and marines were arrested by Iranian forces on March 23, provoking a diplomatic dispute. Protesters threw stones and firecrackers into the embassy compound, causing explosions but reportedly no casualties or damage, Radio Farda and AFP reported. The embassy told AFP that police controlled the protest. The British Embassy is in a business district in downtown Tehran and occupies a large compound surrounded by streets. Demonstrators carried placards denouncing Great Britain and the United States, the EU's support for Britain in the dispute, and the March 24 UN Security Council resolution issued against Iran because of continuing work on its nuclear program, Radio Farda reported. Some placards called for the expulsion of the "Old Fox's" ambassador, a reference to the British ambassador, Radio Farda reported. British Defense Secretary Des Browne told BBC television in Afghanistan on April 1 that Britain and Iran are in "direct bilateral communication" over the issue, news agencies reported. VS

Tehran-based political observer and former diplomat Sabah Zanganeh told ISNA on March 31 that Iran's position on the illegal entry of British sailors into its waters is legal and "in keeping with international laws," while the UN Security Council and the EU have merely given Great Britain "moral" or "political support." He said Iranian courts and Iran's laws are competent to prosecute the sailors. Zanganeh said that the positions adopted by the EU are political and "they have no legal value and are more a political position to comfort Britain, following its many pressures. They will neither affect Iran's political position nor have any legal impact on Iran's legal position." The positions of Iranian officials will become "more solid and serious" if Britain increases its "political pressure," Zanganeh said. He added that in asking Britain to apologize for the alleged territorial violation, to help resolve the matter, Iranian officials "merely show their goodwill when they are not obliged to propose a solution to this issue. It is the British who must look for a solution." He said Britain's public protests and an "attack" on the Iranian Consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah -- allegedly by British troops -- showed the weakness in Britain's legal position, ISNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2007). VS

Major General Amos Yadlin, the head of Israel's military intelligence, said in Jerusalem on April 1 that Iran is making defensive preparations for a possible "attack this summer" by the United States, Reuters reported. He said Iranian allies Syria and the Hizballah in Lebanon are also making defensive preparations, as they believe they may be targeted as part of an attack on Iran. He said Israel is monitoring the preparations as it thought the three parties might "misinterpret various moves in the region." The website quoted Yadlin as telling the Knesset the same day that Israel has been observing the fortification of "military positions" by Tehran, "Syrian military movements and indications of war preparation with the help of Iran, and the large-scale smuggling of Iranian-supplied weapons to" the Hizballah. Yadlin said Israel does not expect Iran or Syria to start any war, but believes war might break out even without a U.S. attack, because of the "involvement of many players," reported. VS

Economist Ali Rashidi discussed some of the reasons for persistent inflation in Iran in comments published by Radio Farda on March 31. He said the limited number of distributors of such goods as food or farming products, and the large number of small retail outlets with relatively high costs, are two reasons why Iranian consumers pay high prices for their purchases. Rashidi said prices might fall if Iran liberalizes its economy and integrates it with the global economy. Current imports, he said, are controlled by a small number of groups or individuals who oversee the distribution of imported goods in the domestic market through a network of middlemen or dealers. Customers are paying for the inefficiency of the large number of shops and retail outlets, he said, adding that shopkeepers shift their personal and family expenses onto the price of goods paid by customers. Rashidi told Radio Farda that Iran operates a "19th-century" distribution system. He said Iranian officials have no understanding of "economic developments" and believe it "economical" to allow the proliferation of shops while opposing department stores or very large retail units. Rashidi urged the development of a "systematic" distribution network with large outlets and more direct links between producers and consumers as antiinflationary measures. VS

Iraqi presidential spokesman Kamran al-Karadaghi denied an April 1 report by the London-based "Al-Hayat" that President Jalal Talabani is involved in negotiations with armed groups, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. The newspaper cited government sources reported that a number of insurgent leaders are negotiating with the presidency, which in turn informs Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office of the talks. The Presidency Council consists of Talabani and his two vice presidents, Shi'ite leader Adil Abd al-Mahdi and Sunni leader Tariq al-Hashimi. "Al-Hayat" quoted sources as saying the Islamic Party, which al-Hashimi leads, is playing a key role in talks with armed groups. According to the report, the talks also seek to open dialogue with former Ba'athists who fled Iraq in 2003. As for the armed groups, channels of communication have been opened with the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Al-Rashidin Army, the Umar Brigades, and the Black Flags, "Al-Hayat" reported (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," March 30, 2007). KR

Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the de-Ba'athification Commission, met with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on April 1 to discuss President Talabani and Prime Minister al-Maliki's draft Law on Accountability and Justice, which would essentially revise the de-Ba'athification law, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007). "Iraqi politicians have expressed different views over the intention of some armed groups to join the political process. A number of politicians stressed the need to reveal the names of these groups and the mechanisms through which these groups will join the political process. Others have said this step is an important factor in uniting Iraqi ranks and entrenching security in the country," Chalabi told reporters at a press conference following the meeting in Al-Najaf. Chalabi is opposed to the draft law (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," March 30, 2007). KR

Hashim al-Shibli has resigned as justice minister, reportedly after a series of disputes with both the government and Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List, the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on April 1. Al-Shibli, who is affiliated with the National Democratic Party, was nominated to his post by the National List. Al-Shibli told the daily that his positions "are different and distinct from those of the Iraqi National List," adding: "I have been in disagreement with them since I took my post as justice minister. The [list] wanted to dictate certain positions to me." The National List has denied the claims. Regarding the government, al-Shibli said he has a good relationship with Prime Minister al-Maliki but "I also had objections to the government's performance in the political, security, and economic fields, and also in the service sectors. I held different views regarding the efforts to get a national-reconciliation process under way." He also mentioned "other reasons" related to the need to improve the ministry's performance. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh claimed that al-Shibli resigned when he learned he was to be replaced under the coming cabinet reshuffle. Al-Dabbagh said the ministry under al-Shibli failed to end violations of prisoners' rights in Iraqi prisons. KR

Thousands of Sunni Arab youths have flooded recruitment centers seeking positions in the army and police after some tribes in Al-Anbar announced their intention to fight armed groups affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq, Al-Arabiyah television reported on April 2. The tribes are members of the Al-Anbar Awakening Council, which was formed last year by tribesmen angry over Al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks in the restive western governorate. The report also noted that the council's tribes are fighting against local tribesmen who support Al-Qaeda. Tribesmen from the council have already formed three battalions with support from Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani, who supplied the tribes with weapons and funding to fight the armed groups. According to Al-Arabiyah, the tribes have managed to surround 1,000 Arab fighters in Al-Ramadi. KR