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Newsline - April 3, 2007

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on April 3 that Moscow is concerned about the political crisis in Ukraine and hopes that the political forces there will show "restraint and responsibility" and act within the framework of the law, Interfax reported. The statement added that Russia hopes that those political forces "will display restraint and demonstrate wisdom and responsibility to their people as they search for a way out of the current political crisis." Elsewhere, Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee and is often more outspoken than the Foreign Ministry, said in Moscow on April 3 that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was wrong to order the dissolution of parliament the previous day. Kosachyov argued that "the president of Ukraine made a mistake. This mistake clearly will not help resolve the problems in domestic political life there." Kosachyov believes that the Ukrainian parliamentary majority did not act outside the law and that, therefore, there was no justification for the president's "radical interference in the situation." Kosachyov stressed that his views are simply his "personal opinion." The daily "Kommersant" wrote on April 3 that the Kremlin prefers Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to the president but is less open about expressing its support than in the past. The newspaper added that the Kremlin has repeatedly forced a postponement of a planned visit by Yushchenko to Moscow and thereby undermined his position at home. When and if he does come to the Russian capital, the daily predicts his reception will be "extremely cold indeed." In another article, the same daily compared the situation in Kyiv now with that in Moscow "in October 1993, when legislators barricaded themselves in the Russian White House to protest President Boris Yeltsin's dissolution of the Russian legislature and refused to budge until the army sent in tanks to shell the parliament building and force the deputies to surrender. The question now is whether the warring factions [in Ukraine] will resort to force: the prime minister controls the police, while the president claims the support of the army." The paper also argued that Yushchenko's patience is exhausted. PM

First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told a Moscow meeting of World War II veterans on April 3 that Russians should boycott Estonian products and not spend their vacations in that country to protest what he called "vandalism" against Soviet-era military monuments, Interfax reported. He told his listeners: "don't spend your vacations in Estonia. Spend them in Kaliningrad." He said that he was speaking as a citizen, and that it is up to the Russian state to take more formal measures against Estonia over the monuments issue. Ivanov also called for developing a new port in Kaliningrad Oblast and completing a port in Ust-Luga near St. Petersburg in order to deny Estonia cargo-transit fees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2006, and January 3 and February 13, 2007). Most Estonians regard the war monuments as a symbol of foreign occupation by the Red Army. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said recently that many of Russia's problems with its neighbors stem from the fact that Russia has never really come to grips with its totalitarian past and the injustices Russia committed toward others. PM

Yevgeny Velikhov, who heads the leading Kurchatov Institute for nuclear research and was part of President Vladimir Putin's 2004 reelection campaign, told reporters in Moscow on April 2 that Iran has the know-how to make nuclear weapons and should be stopped before it does, Reuters reported. He argued that "from a scientific point of view...they could create nuclear weapons. When they could do it [in practice] is a more difficult question." He added that "if you remember, U.S. scientists expected the Soviet Union would only be able to create a nuclear bomb by around 1954 at the earliest. They were rather surprised when we created one in 1949." Velikhov argued that if the Iranians "have decided to create nuclear weapons, then they could create them. It is important that Iran does not get nuclear weapons. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will have a very negative [impact on] the security of the whole world." Velikhov believes that "biological, chemical, and nuclear arms should be forbidden, and that the holding and development of nuclear weapons should be considered a crime against humanity. I think all states should reject nuclear weapons, including the U.S. and Russia." PM

General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian General Staff, said in Moscow on April 3 that the United States cannot defeat Iran militarily, reported. He argued that any U.S. strike on Iran would be a great political mistake. He said that "Iran's military and industrial potential could be damaged, but it is impossible to defeat Iran." The general stressed that any attack on Iran would "send an echo throughout the world" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16 and March 30, 2007). He urged the United States to be prudent, reminding Washington that it "has already gotten into a mess twice, namely in Afghanistan and Iraq." PM

In Russia's latest attempt to acquire a strategic stake in the European airline industry, the state-owned carrier Aeroflot teamed up with UniCredit, which is Italy's largest bank, to submit a preliminary offer for at least 39.9 percent of the shares of Alitalia, which is Italy's largest airline, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on April 3. The shares belong to the Italian state and would give the holder a controlling interest in the carrier. Preliminary offers are due on April 19 for a sale that the Italian state would like to close by the end of June. Two other consortia -- one Italian and the other American and Italian -- have also submitted bids. The Italian government will retain about 10 percent of Alitalia's shares and insists that the new owner preserve the carrier's "national identity." In the fall of 2006, Russia's state-owned Vneshtorgbank confirmed it holds a stake of just over 5 percent in EADS, the parent company of Airbus. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the management of EADS, which seeks lucrative U.S. defense contracts, subsequently blocked Russian plans to acquire blocking rights and a seat on the board (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 10, 2006, and March 5, 16, and 23, 2007). PM

The French industrial group Alstom and Russia's Atomenergoprom agreed on April 2 to establish a joint venture to build turbines and nuclear reactors, news agencies reported from Moscow. Atomenergomash is a subsidiary of Atomenergoprom, the state-owned company in charge of producing equipment for Russia's civil nuclear program. Alstom said in a statement that Atomenergomash is to own 51 percent of the new group, with Alstom holding the remaining 49 percent. The venture will be located in Podolsk, close to Moscow. PM

During a late-night meeting of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian was chosen on April 2 as the party's candidate for prime minister, A1+ and ITAR-TASS reported. In a widely expected move, 66 members of the party's 69-member governing board voted to endorse Sarkisian as their nominee, with no other candidates considered. The selection of Sarkisian, who assumed the No. 2 spot within the party leadership last summer, virtually ensures his appointment as prime minister after an agreement was reached on March 26 in a meeting between President Robert Kocharian and the pro-government parties represented in parliament that confirmed that the post will go to a candidate from the HHK (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007). Kocharian is now expected to sign a decree in the coming days formally appointing Sarkisian as the new prime minister. Former Prime Minister Andranik Markarian died unexpectedly of heart failure on March 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). RG

A group of unknown gunmen on April 2 attacked a two-car convoy transporting the mayor of Armenia's second-largest city, wounding him and killing his deputy, driver, and two bodyguards, Reuters reported. The attack against Gyumri Mayor Vardan Gukasian was carried out as the vehicles were returning from a party conference in the capital, Yerevan. Armenian police spokesman Sayap Shirinian said that the attack occurred at around 10 p.m. and that Gukasian was seriously wounded but in stable condition, and that another bodyguard was hospitalized for serious wounds sustained in the attack. A police investigation was immediately launched, although Shirinian noted that the police have no suspects. RG

Commenting on the upcoming parliamentary elections in Armenia, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Julie Finley on April 2 criticized the Armenian authorities for restricting opposition access to the media and contended that the country's leaders "are afraid of losing their jobs," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Finley expressed further concern over the imposition of exorbitant prices for political advertising by major broadcasters, and said that it calls into question the concept of a level playing field for all political candidates in the face of the May 12 elections. Opposition leaders have voiced similar complaints over the rates for televised campaign spots, which vary from 80,000 drams to 130,000 drams ($355) per minute, which they see as part of a broader effort by the authorities to minimize the opposition's ability to access the largely pro-government electronic media. Finley warned "whoever has the power to do so" that they "better lower their rates," adding that media freedom and equal campaigning opportunities are as important as the voting and ballot-counting process for free and fair elections. Although Armenian law affords political parties and electoral blocs up to 60 minutes of free airtime on state television and 120 minutes on state radio, the Central Election Commission recently issued a new interpretation, ruling that only two minutes of the one hour of free television airtime will be allocated on a daily basis for 30 days, reported on March 31. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan, Armenian Deputy Culture Minister Gagik Gyurjian responded on April 2 to criticism of his participation in the recent opening of a newly renovated ancient Armenian church by the Turkish authorities, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo reported. Gyurjian defended his delegation's attendance at the March 29 ceremony as essential for easing Turkish-Armenian tensions, citing the need for "dialogue and mutual trust" and noting that the two sides "don't trust each other." He also argued that the effort will also ensure that the few remaining Armenian monuments in Turkey will be saved from destruction. The Armenian state delegation attended the inauguration ceremony organized by the Turkish government to mark the opening of the recently restored Akhtamar Church, located on the island of Akhtamar in eastern Turkey's Lake Van, which was attended by senior Turkish officials and leaders of Turkey's Armenian community (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2007). RG

Interior Minister Ramil Usubov announced on April 2 that Azerbaijan has made significant progress in combating the use of torture and other abuses of detainees by police, the Trend news agency reported. Usubov noted that in a meeting on March 31 with Elchin Behbudov, the head of a special state body empowered to investigate and prosecute torture cases, official statistics revealed that some 14 Interior Ministry personnel were officially investigated on such charges during the first four months of the year, with six of them dismissed from the ministry. Usubov also noted that a total of 139 Interior Ministry employees were formally reprimanded last year for varying abuses of human rights of detainees and prisoners, with 35 officers fired for serious violations. RG

Representatives from the European Union, Georgia, and Kazakhstan met in Baku on April 2 with Azerbaijani officials to discuss plans for the Azerbaijani export of gas to European markets, according to and Trend news agency. Azerbaijani Energy Minister Natiq Aliyev revealed that the meeting reviewed plans to establish a new Caspian Sea-Black Sea-EU energy corridor aimed at transporting significant amounts of natural gas to European markets. The trans-Caspian pipeline project, which has received pledges of financial assistance from the European Union, is seeking to include the region's main gas suppliers -- including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, as well as Iran and Russia at some later stage. Aliyev added that the current negotiations center on the need for the reconstruction of power lines and gas pipelines between Azerbaijan and Georgia, the reconstruction of two underground gas-storage facilities in Azerbaijan, the construction of pumping stations, and the transportation of liquefied natural gas by tanker from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan for processing and transport to Europe via the Baku port. Georgian Energy Minister Nika Gilauri also attended the meeting and reiterated Georgia's need to secure long-term, alternative supplies of gas to end its dependence on imports from Russia. RG

The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders appealed on April 2 to the Azerbaijani authorities to allow jailed journalist Mirza Sakit Zahidov adequate medical treatment, according to a statement on the group's website ( The group highlighted the fact that Zahidov, who reportedly suffers from stomach and heart pains, has been refused hospitalization and has even been prevented from seeing a doctor by prison officials. Zahidov, a prominent satirical journalist, was sentenced to three years in prison after being convicted on drug charges in October 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2006). He claims that plainclothes police planted drugs on him when he was arrested and criticized his subsequent conviction and sentence as politically motivated acts aimed at intimidating the country's media. RG

Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze convened a meeting on April 2 with senior lawmakers from both the ruling majority and opposition parties to discuss a proposal to establish a new provisional administration in South Ossetia, Civil Georgia reported. Although President Mikheil Saakashvili has not yet formally submitted his full draft proposal to the parliament for consideration, the lawmakers began studying the terms of a two-page draft summary of the plan. The initial draft will then be presented for hearings of various parliamentary committees before it is discussed in full in a first reading by lawmakers during a parliamentary session set for April 5. Saakashvili initially announced the plan in his state-of-the-nation address on March 15, and presented more details in a March 26 session of the National Security Council (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 29, 2007). Burdjanadze also reiterated on April 2 that the Georgian side is ready "to have a dialogue with the so-called authorities" of both pro-Tbilisi leader Dmitry Sanakoyev and South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity. RG

In comments in a televised interview with Rustavi-2 television, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili added on April 1 new details in Georgia's accusations that Russian forces shelled several Georgian villages in the Georgian-controlled upper Kodori Gorge on March 11, Caucasus Press and Civil Georgia reported. Merabishvili said that Georgian investigators have found fragments from several Russian-made, radar-operated Ataka guided missiles that were allegedly used by army helicopters during the attacks. He claimed that the Ataka missiles, which were produced in 2005, are only available to the Russian military. The March 11 incident reportedly involved an attack by several Russian military MI-24 helicopters that overflew and opened fire on three villages in the upper Kodori Gorge (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2007). The incident was investigated on two separate occasions by a special group comprising Georgian and Abkhaz representatives, as well as UN observers and Russian peacekeepers. The results of those investigations have yet to be released. RG

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev issued decrees on April 2 dismissing First Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov, Emergency Situations Minister Janysh Rustenbekov, Health Minister Shailoobek Niyazov, and Toktobek Akmatov, chairman of the State Tax Committee, the news agency reported. Bakiev appointed Turatbek Junushaliev emergency situations minister, former Central Election Commission head Tuigunaaly Abdraimov health minister, and Temirbek Kurmanbekov head of the Tax Committee. Defense Minister Ismail Isakov, Interior Minister Bolotbek Nogoibaev, Foreign Minister Ednan Karabaev, and state security chief Murat Sutalinov all retained their posts in the government of newly appointed Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev, AP reported. DK

Opposition parliamentary delegates Osmon Artykbaev and Omurbek Babanov have refused an offer to join Prime Minister Atambaev's government, reported on April 2. "There was a proposal for [me to be] the first deputy prime minister," Artykbaev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "I offered my great thanks to [Atambaev]. However, I refused to take the position because our main aim is to build a foundation for carrying out constitutional reforms and building ways to develop them." Omurbek Tekebaev, who is a member of both the For Reforms and United Front For A Worthy Future opposition movements, told journalists on April 2: "Many people said that we would shut up and calm down if they offered us ministerial posts; but, as you see, this hasn't happened. We don't need official positions; we want real transformation in the country and we don't want to be cogs in the corruption machine," RIA Novosti reported. DK

Legislator Kubatbek Baibolov, a member of For Reforms and the United Front, told on April 2 that the opposition has sent its draft constitution to President Bakiev. "We have presented a constitution based on the November constitution, which presumes a mixed form of government, but closer to a parliamentary system," Baibolov said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 9, 2006). "The government is formed by parliament and is politically responsible to parliament." Baibolov said the opposition does not intend to send anyone to participate in a task force on constitutional reform being set up by Bakiev because the draft constitution clearly represents opposition views. On April 2, Bakiev told the head of the presidential administration to expedite the formation of a task force on constitutional reform, Interfax reported. DK

Members of Tajikistan's ruling People's Democratic Party have won in three April 1 parliamentary by-elections, according to preliminary results, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on April 2. In Hamdoni district, Safarali Gulov won with 96 percent of the vote, with his opponent, Abdulqodir Hasanpura of the Islamic Renaissance Party, garnering just 2 percent of the vote, Regnum reported. In the remaining two by-elections, in Dushanbe and Kulov, People's Democratic Party members ran unopposed. DK

Bolat Nurgaliev, secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), told ITAR-TASS in Beijing on April 2 that the SCO would like to see Turkmenistan become more integrated into the region. "Turkmenistan is a part of Central Asia, a part of our region," Nurgaliev said. "And I believe that the position of all six countries [SCO member states] is to somehow involve the country in the integration and regional processes." Nurgaliev said that if Turkmenistan reaches out to the SCO, the organization will respond "appropriately." Nurgaliev suggested, however, that the initiative must come from Turkmenistan's leadership. "If we proceed from 'the Shanghai spirit,' which means the observation of the principles of mutual trust, mutual advantage, mutual consultations, respect for the diversity of cultures and aspiration for joint development, then this initiative should be put forward by Ashgabat," Nurgaliev said. DK

Police arrested opposition politician Andrey Klimau, a member of the United Civic Party, in Minsk on April 3, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Klimau was reportedly arrested on charges of calling for a violent overthrow of the political system in Belarus. The previous day, Belarusian prosecutors said they have launched a criminal case against Klimau, accusing him of insulting President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in articles published on the website Klimau spent one year in prison in 2005-06 after a court found him guilty of staging an unauthorized opposition demonstration in Minsk in March 2005. Klimau also spent four years in prison from 1998 to 2002 on charges of embezzlement and forgery. Those charges are widely believed to be politically motivated. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on April 2 signed a decree to disband the Verkhovna Rada and hold new elections on May 27, Ukrainian media reported (see End Note). The move followed the president's failed consultations with parliamentary leaders earlier the same day over the recent defection of opposition deputies to the ruling majority (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2007). In a televised address to the nation in the evening of April 2, Yushchenko said the main legal reason for the dissolution of the legislature was the ruling coalition's unlawful push to recruit individual opposition deputies to the parliamentary majority, whereas the constitution stipulates that such a majority should consist of parliamentary factions. He also accused the ruling coalition of passing unconstitutional laws and of failing to meet its promises and commitments. Yushchenko formally put his decree into effect by publishing it in his official bulletin on April 3. JM

During an emergency session in the evening of April 2, some 260 lawmakers of the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party adopted a resolution condemning Yushchenko's decree as illegal and constituting a "step toward a coup d'etat," Ukrainian media reported. The ruling coalition's lawmakers also passed a resolution disbanding the Central Election Commission formed in December 2004, and another one banning the government from funding the campaign for early elections. On April 3, ruling-coalition lawmakers requested that the Constitutional Court rule on whether Yushchenko's decree on the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada conforms with the constitution. JM

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told reporters in Berlin on April 2 that failure by the UN Security Council to quickly agree on a UN plan providing supervised independence for Kosova could result in violence, international media reported the same day. "We can't keep going on like this with Kosovo in limbo, after eight years of rule and administration by the United Nations they deserve more clarity about their future," he said, according to AP, adding that "further delay will destabilize the situation." The Security Council will start a crucial debate on a plan drawn up by special envoy Martti Ahtisaari on April 3 in the face of threats by Russia that it would use its veto if the plan did not take Serbia's position into account. "The conflict cannot be resolved unless the two sides overcome their disagreements," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a televised news conference in Moscow on March 29. "Mr. Ahtisaari has decided to ignore them, and I think he will fail." Fried said that the prospects of resolving the status issue without a Security Council resolution are "grim" and urged European governments to agree on the Ahtisaari plan, which received only tepid support from EU foreign ministers at a meeting last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2007). "One way or another, the status quo will end," Fried said, "and it will either end through a controlled, organized process that gives guarantees to the Kosovo Serbs and the maximum of transparency and an orderly process, or it will be uncontrolled and much more violent." TV

Germany has topped up its deployment of peacekeepers in Kosova by some 500 troops, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung told the German daily "Die Welt" of April 2. "We fear the situation will become more dangerous during the talks on Kosovo's political future," he said in a reference to a Security Council debate on Kosova scheduled to start on April 3 and likely to last several weeks. The reinforcements are set to be withdrawn at the end of April, a Defense Ministry spokesman told Reuters, but could stay longer if the situation demands it. Including the latest deployment, Germany now has some 2,900 soldiers in Kosova as part of NATO's 16,000-strong peacekeeping mission, KFOR. TV

Caucus leaders meeting in Belgrade on April 2 failed to agree on an emergency session of parliament to debate state finances, B92 reported the same day. On March 30, the caretaker government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica passed an interim budget that was promptly denounced by the Democratic Party (DS) of President Boris Tadic as "anticonstitutional." A former finance minister and top DS official, Bozidar Djelic, told B92 that more than 150 million euros ($200 million) has been spent in the past few days. "If this trend continues, the caretaker government will use up the majority of state funds, and leave the next government with almost nothing," Djelic said, calling it a "betrayal" of citizens' trust. Serbia's parties have still not agreed on a coalition government following the January 21 general elections, in which the DS came in ahead of Kostunica's party. They may be reluctant to do so before Kosova's status has been determined by the UN Security Council. TV

The trial of a former military judge in a lawsuit filed by the relatives of a soldier killed at Belgrade's Topcider barracks in 2004 has begun in Belgrade, B92 reported on April 1. The family of Dragan Jakovljevic hopes to use the proceedings to shed light on the mysterious death of Jakovljevic and another elite guard soldier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 12 and December 10 and 14, 2004, February 10, 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," November 19, 2004). The Jakovljevic family accuses the former judge, Vuk Tufegdzic, of making disparaging comments about Jakovljevic during the investigation into his death. "We seek justice for our son, and wish he had never enlisted in the army," Jakovljevic's father said. The circumstances of the deaths remain a mystery despite two investigations into the matter. A government investigation concluded that a third party was responsible for the deaths, while a military investigation headed by Tufegdzic found that Jakovljevic killed his colleague and then committed suicide. The Jakovljevics' lawyer, Vladan Batic, a former justice minister, said he believes the case is linked to fugitive Bosnian Serb wartime commander Ratko Mladic. Two days before the soldiers died, security forces carried out an inspection of a bunker that is part of the sprawling Topcider facility, adding to suspicions that the two sentries may have witnessed something they were not allowed to see. Because of defective surveillance cameras, no footage of the killings exists. TV

The World Bank's board of executive directors approved a loan of $30 million to support the government of Macedonia in its efforts to improve the country's investment climate and public-sector management, "Focus" reported on March 30. The loan, the second in a series of three loans over a period of three to four years, provides assistance to a program of intensive structural and institutional reforms that are required for Macedonia's eventual EU membership. Macedonia and Croatia are the only countries in the western Balkans that are official membership candidates. Macedonian Foreign Minister Gordana Jankulovska, meanwhile, confirmed that a visa agreement with the EU will come into force as planned in December, "Focus" reported. The agreement will relax the EU's visa requirements for the countries of the western Balkans. The World Bank also approved a loan of $10 million to help Albania maintain economic growth, AP reported on April 2. The loan aims to improve the investment climate as well as the delivery of public social services. The World Bank has been the main donor in Albania since 1991, committing about $925 million to the country, according to World Bank data. TV

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Daniel Fata told Macedonian Defense Minister Lazar Elenovski that Macedonia needs to accelerate reforms if the country wants to enter NATO in the alliance's next enlargement round, expected next year, AP reported on March 29. "There have to be democratic, political, economic, and military reforms, and all that is part of the package of issues to be reviewed," Fata told reporters, adding that the country has made "impressive strides" in defense matters. Macedonia, Croatia, and Albania are hoping to enter NATO as early as next year. TV

The Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague on April 2 upheld a 20-year sentence against Bosnian Croat Miroslav Bralo, a former paramilitary, international media reported the same day. Bralo, a member of a counterterrorism unit of the Bosnian Croat army known as the "Jokers," pleaded guilty in 2005 to eight charges of murder, torture, and rape committed in 1993 in central Bosnia's Lasva Valley, including a notorious massacre of over 100 Bosnian Muslim civilians in the village of Ahmici in 1993. Bralo surrendered voluntarily, pled guilty, and helped trace the bodies of his victims. At his sentencing hearing, he also apologized to his victims. All this, the defense argued, was not taken into account sufficiently, an argument that the appeals chamber has now rejected. The presiding judge of his initial trial said that Bralo would have gotten 25 years had it not been for the mitigating circumstances of his surrender and apology. TV

President Viktor Yushchenko on April 2 signed a decree to disband the Verkhovna Rada and hold new elections on May 27. A majority of parliament lawmakers, including members of the Party of Regions led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, responded by condemning the decree as a "step toward a coup d'etat" and indicated they will disobey the president's order.

Yushchenko's decision to dissolve the parliament and call new elections followed last week's defection of a dozen opposition deputies to the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party. That changeover strengthened the government's support base in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada to some 260 votes.

Yushchenko was evidently afraid that even more defections from his Our Ukraine bloc and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc would follow, allowing Yanukovych to increase the parliamentary coalition to a constitutional majority of 300 votes. In such a scenario, Yanukovych's coalition would be able to override presidential vetoes, change the constitution, and reduce the Ukrainian presidency to a merely symbolic role or even abolish it altogether.

By dissolving the Verkhovna Rada, Yushchenko, who has often been criticized for indecisiveness, made his boldest move since being elected president in December 2004. In a television address to the nation on April 2, Yushchenko asserted that it was his "duty" to disband the legislature. "My actions were dictated by the urgent necessity to save the state, its sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and to ensure the constitution of Ukraine, the rights and liberties of people and citizens are upheld," he said. "I would like to underline that this is not only my right, it is my duty."

Yushchenko stressed that the main legal reason for the dissolution of the legislature was the ruling coalition's push to convince individual deputies from the opposition to switch allegiance to the parliamentary majority. The constitution, he said, unambiguously stipulates that such a majority should consist of parliamentary factions, rather than individuals.

But some Ukrainian commentators maintain that Yushchenko's justification for his decree is shaky, to say the least. They point out that the Ukrainian Constitution explicitly states only three cases when the president may call early parliamentary elections: if the Verkhovna Rada fails to form a majority within 30 days after its first sitting, or a new cabinet within 60 days after the dismissal or resignation of the previous one, or if it fails to gather for a sitting within 30 days during an ongoing parliamentary session.

So did Yushchenko overstep his bounds in issuing the decree to disband the Verkhovna Rada? Parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz on April 2 has no doubts about it. "The Verkhovna Rada, with all its responsibilities, states that today there are no legal reasons to dissolve this parliament, which people freely elected according to all the democratic standards as recognized by all the Ukrainian and international organizations, and the president himself."

During a late-night emergency session on April 2, lawmakers from the ruling coalition adopted an address to the nation, blasting Yushchenko's decree as a "step toward a coup d'etat." They also passed two other resolutions that have added fuel to the rising political tensions in the country -- they revoked their resolution of December 2004 on the formation of the Central Election Commission, and banned the government from funding a campaign for early parliamentary elections.

Moreover, the ruling coalition on April 3 made a formal request to the Constitutional Court, asking it to pass a judgment on Yushchenko's decree. The Constitutional Court, however, has failed to gather for a single session in the past six months. Some argue that it may take months for the panel of 18 judges to rule on the decree. Meanwhile, Yushchenko formally put his decree into effect on April 3 by publishing it in his official bulletin.

There seem to be two immediate options available for Ukraine's main political players to move ahead in the current political crisis.

A less favorable scenario for Ukrainian politicians is to wait for the Constitutional Court's ruling and, in the meantime, allow people to decide in street rallies who of the two key figures -- Yushchenko and Yanukovych -- is more loved by the electorate. Such an option would almost certainly deepen the historical divide between the west and the east of Ukraine and, in an extreme case, could lead to bloodshed or even split the country into two political entities.

A better option for both sides is to hold fresh elections in May -- even if the decision would represent a major public boost for Yushchenko at Yanukovych's expense.

But if Yanukovych wants to maintain the standing of a responsible prime minister and guarantee a public role for himself in postcrisis Ukraine, he should do everything possible to preserve the country's political stability, rather than satisfying his personal ambitions by outplaying and marginalizing Yushchenko.

At the emergency cabinet meeting, Yanukovych suggested in enigmatic fashion that he is mulling over a "third" option for resolving the current standoff between Yushchenko and himself. "If the president does publish his decree tomorrow [April 3], he still has the chance to rescind it," he said. "I will not say out loud what the third option is. All other [options] would boost tensions significantly in Ukraine, and the president would be fully responsible for that heavy burden."

Some were quick to conclude that the prime minister does not rule out a show of force in dealing with the president. Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, one of the two presidential allies in Yanukovych's cabinet, felt obliged to immediately clarify whose side the armed forces would take in such a scenario. "In accordance with existing legislation, the army will only carry out orders from the commander in chief [Yushchenko]," he said.

Irrespective of what course political events in Ukraine may take in the coming days and weeks, Ukrainians are certain to face a newly turbulent and nerve-racking period.

Some residents of the southern Afghan Helmand Province say conditions there are worse now than they were under Taliban rule, the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported on April 2. Nongovernmental groups in the region claim that more than half of the schools in Helmand have been closed for at least one year, depriving thousands of students of their right to an education. Aid workers state that the volatile province is a "no-go zone for aid and development agencies" due to general insecurity, potentially spelling hardships that help the Taliban recruit or find public sympathy. The Afghan Counternarcotics Ministry has sought to implement an extensive poppy-eradication program in Helmand, which reportedly produces more of the crop than any other single province in the country. IRIN suggests that some fear eradication efforts could turn beleaguered farmers against the government. The Senlis Council, a security and policy group that backs licensing poppy cultivation for medicinal purposes, claimed on March 19 that "Afghans increasingly believe the international community is losing Afghanistan to the Taliban." CJ

Nearly 500 Afghan tribal elders vowed at a meeting in the Grishk district of southern Helmand Province on April 1 to support the central Afghan government and oppose the Taliban, the Bakhtar News Agency reported the next day. The elders agreed that Taliban supporters should have their houses burned and be driven from the districts in which they reside. Helmand Governor Asadullah Wafa welcomed the show of support, saying that lasting peace is impossible without public cooperation. Thousands of Pakistani tribesmen recently made a similar pledge to oppose and drive out Taliban supporters from their side of the Afghan-Pakistani border, Reuters noted. Thousands of militants are believed to have sought shelter in the tribally dominated regions after the ouster of the Taliban in 2001. CJ

Afghan President Hamid Karzai reiterated his claim that rogue members of Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), are sheltering Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Afgha News Agency reported on April 2. In the April 1 edition of "The New York Times," Karzai claimed his government has "solid, clear information" indicating that Mullah Omar is residing in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Omar was the leader of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan from 1996 until the group was overthrown when U.S.-led forces attacked in 2001. Afgha News states that Quetta has been a refuge for other Taliban members, including the group's former defense minister, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund. Pakistani officials have repeatedly denied that they are harboring Taliban leaders. CJ

German authorities will provide new training to members of the Afghan National Police in northern Afghanistan, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on April 1. Police officers will be shown how to handle citizen complaints and will learn techniques to use while searching houses and vehicles, as well as other policing methods. One German police expert, speaking at a news conference in Mazar-e Sharif on April 1, indicated that about 30 German police trainers will be involved. German officials trained approximately 1,500 Afghan police personnel last year in northern Afghanistan, Pajhwak reported. CJ

Hamid Reza Haji-Babai, a Hamedan representative and member of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said in Tehran on April 2 that UN Security Council Resolution 1747 is "entirely political" and Iran is not obligated to implement its demands, IRNA reported. The resolution was approved on March 24 and expands previous sanctions on Iran in order to halt its nuclear fuel-making activities. Haji-Babai said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will lose its standing "with such resolutions" and become a tool in the hands of "powers including America and Britain." The resolution "is not binding for Iran," he added. He invited the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, the 5+1 powers, to resume talks with Iran over its nuclear program. He said the resolution was "a mistake in addition to past mistakes" and when Iran faces "such conduct, we have to pursue our own interests and take suitable positions." He said the government's latest decision to limit cooperation with the IAEA was correct (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007) and said Iran will respond appropriately to future UN measures. VS

A former FBI agent or operative has been missing in Iran since early March and the U.S. State Department is seeking information about the disappearance, international news agencies reported on April 2. The State Department has through diplomatic intermediaries asked Iran for information on the missing man, who has not been named. Spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington that the U.S. government is not linking the disappearance to the capture of British servicemen by Iran on March 23. The man was reportedly last heard from on March 11 on the Iranian island of Kish in the Persian Gulf, or on the mainland in that zone. He was reportedly working on a film-related project. Separately, Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told Britain's Channel 4 television on April 2 that Iran may refrain from prosecuting the captured British servicemen, who are accused of illegally entering its territorial waters, contrary to its previous statements, news agencies reported. Larijani said there was no need for "sensationalism" in the case and a delegation might investigate to see if the Britons had entered Iran's waters, Reuters reported. VS

Iranian police arrested four or five women's rights activists on April 2 when they tried to gather signatures for a "million-signature campaign" targeting laws that discriminate against women, Radio Farda and ILNA reported. Those arrested were Sara Aminian, her unnamed husband, Nahid Keshavarz, Mahbubeh Hosseinzadeh, and Soussan Tahmasebi, Radio Farda reported, adding that they were taken to a Tehran detention center used for vice-related or public-decency offenses. The broadcaster stated that they were previously arrested in March, then released, for taking part in women's rights demonstrations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 15 and 20, 2007). ISNA separately reported on April 2 on the reexamination in coming months of the unresolved case of Zahra Kazemi, a photographer who died in 2003, apparently during interrogation in Tehran's Evin prison (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," June 26 and October 30, 2006). Lawyer Mohammad Seifzadeh said lawyers for the family will attend a session at a supreme-court branch in Tehran, due to be held at an unspecified date in the Persian month to July 22, and explain why the last court verdict was flawed. VS

A Tehran court is to try former Deputy Interior Minister Mostafa Tajzadeh on April 25 on charges of "publishing false reports" and proffering calumny, the "Aftab-i Yazd" daily reported on April 3. Tajzadeh, a member of the reformist Participation Front, was a Tehran city councilor and deputy interior minister in the government of President Mohammad Khatami. Another Participation Front member and deputy speaker of the last parliament, Mohammad Reza Khatami, is to be tried on April 8 on charges relating to the contents of the now-banned daily "Mosharekat" (Participation). (Mohammad Reza Khatami is the brother of the ex-president.) The charges against Mohammad Reza Khatami, brought by the public prosecutor and an unspecified private plaintiff, include engaging in publicity against the political system, publishing false reports intended to "incite" public opinion, and making insulting allegations against state officials and bodies, ISNA reported on April 2. ISNA reported on the trial set for April 10 of another reformist, former legislator Fatemeh Haqiqatju, without specifying the charges. VS

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has reportedly rejected a proposal by President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to revise the de-Ba'athification law put in place by the Coalition Provisional Authority, "The New York Times" reported on April 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007). The newspaper quoted an unidentified aide from the ayatollah's office as saying there is a "general feeling of rejection" over the proposal. On April 2, al-Sistani met with Shi'ite politician and de-Ba'athification Commission head Ahmad Chalabi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2007), who is a staunch opponent of the draft law. Ibrahim al-Janabi, a parliamentarian from former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List, which favors a revision of the current de-Ba'athification law, told the newspaper that attempts to lobby the clergy "is the weapon of losers." "When they feel they might lose out, [some politicians] go to the ayatollahs to get support to push through their goals," al-Janabi said. KR

U.S. and Iraqi forces in Diyala Governorate discovered a terrorist training camp in Zaganiyah on March 29, according to an April 2 coalition press release. The training camp, which included a fortified underground bunker with three exit points, four prepared fighting positions, and a training camp building, was found while soldiers were conducting clearing operations in the Diyala River valley palm groves. Five weapons caches were also uncovered that included terrorist planning and training materials, bomb-making materials, homemade explosives, and more than 100 rocket-propelled grenade rounds and more than five rocket-propelled grenade launchers. "Time" magazine reported on March 29 that the U.S. military suspected the existence of terrorist training camps in Zaganiyah and nearby Qubah where fighters train and perfect their bomb-making skills. U.S. forces said there were about 100 suspected insurgents holed up in Zaganiyah. One alleged insurgent killed recently carried a passport indicating he was in New York City and Boston last year, "Time" reported. KR

The chief prosecutor in the Anfal trial, Munqidh Fir'awn, demanded the death sentence for Anfal defendant Ali Hasan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein and former secretary-general of the northern bureau of Iraq's Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party, who has been accused of using chemical weapons against the Kurds, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on April 2. Fir'awn also sought the death penalty for former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad, former Republican Guard commander Husayn Rashid al-Tikriti, and former top military commander Farhan Mutlaq Salih al-Juburi. Fir'awn recommended a lighter sentence for former intelligence chief Sabir Abd al-Aziz Husayn al-Duri, and said former Ninawa Governor and Ba'ath Party Regional Command member Tahir Tawfiq al-Ani should be freed. KR

Iraqi security forces are preparing to assume security control over the southern Iraqi governorate of Al-Basrah, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on April 2. Staff Major General Ali Hammadi, who heads the Emergency Committee in the governorate, told Al-Iraqiyah that the first stage of Operation Iraq Seaport has been launched, adding that security agencies are working to improve their efficiency in Al-Basrah. He anticipated that Iraqi forces will officially be handed control of the Shatt Al-Arab Hotel base on April 8, and after that the larger Al-Shu'aybah base, which is currently used by British forces as a logistical base. Hammadi said Iraqi forces are not operating without the assistance of multinational forces in Al-Basrah. KR