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Newsline - April 11, 2007

Sergei Lavrov wrote in Britain's "Financial Times" of April 11 that the planned U.S. missile-defense system in Europe amounts to an attempt by Washington "to use the continent as [its] own strategic territory" and "alter the continent's geostrategic landscape." He maintained that the project "would also be an affront to all Europeans, as it would devalue the continent's pan-European and multinational organizations -- including NATO and the [EU] -- which we were told until just recently were the keystones of European security." Lavrov added that "we should like our U.S. partners to understand that a strong Russia, or a strong Germany or France, or a strong Europe, living in peace and harmony, cannot pose a threat to U.S. interests." He expressed concern that the missile defense, which will consist of 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar unit in the Czech Republic, "may well grow significantly, with the appearance of a new generation of antimissile missiles -- with a range of not hundreds but thousands of kilometers, multiple warheads, and also hypersonic interceptor missiles." Lavrov wrote that the project should be discussed at the session of the NATO-Russia Council in Oslo in late April. He argued, moreover, that "no such [external] threat exists for Europe or the U.S. today, or [will exist] in the foreseeable future. None of the so-called rogue states possesses missiles that pose a real threat to Europe. The construction of missiles capable of reaching the U.S. is an even harder task." Lavrov stressed that possible threats from rogue states "could become a self-fulfilling prophesy as a consequence of ill-considered actions. Should imaginary constructs get in the way of the flourishing trilateral efforts of Russia, the EU and the U.S. to solve real problems in the Middle East, the crises in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran's nuclear program? It is these problems that really threaten our continent's security." He believes that what he called the ongoing "discussion of a missile shield in Europe marks a watershed in European politics. Nothing can replace cooperation in security." Some German media have suggested in recent weeks that Russia is deliberately misrepresenting the facts regarding missile defense with the aim of splitting the EU and NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and March 22 and 30, and April 5, 2007). PM

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by Britain's "The Guardian" on April 11 as saying that Moscow is "extremely concerned and disappointed" by the Pentagon's decision to go ahead with the proposed missile-defense program. Although top U.S. officials have said repeatedly that they have kept Russia informed about the project, Peskov stated that "we were never informed in advance about these plans. It brings tremendous change to the strategic balance in Europe, and to the world's strategic stability." He added that "we feel ourselves deceived. Potentially we will have to create alternatives to this but with low cost and higher efficiency." Peskov noted that President Vladimir Putin also wants "dialogue" and "negotiations." It was a favorite Soviet propaganda or negotiating tactic to assume the role of the injured victim before announcing a long-planned political or military move, which was then presented as a response to a Western "provocation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2007). In Germany, however, Russia appears to be losing influence over the debate on missile defense because some conservative media and the governing Christian Democrats' (CDU) Konrad Adenauer Foundation are increasingly drawing attention to the threat posed to Europe by Iranian missiles, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on April 11. On April 10, Eckart von Klaeden, who is the CDU foreign-affairs spokesman, made the first appeal by a leading CDU official for a debate on missile defense as a response to the Iranian threat. PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov said on April 10 that Russia is investigating Iran's recent claims that it is now making nuclear fuel on an "industrial scale," international media reported. He added that "we are clarifying the situation, including in our contacts with experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], who are still working in Iran.... So far, we've had no confirmation that [uranium] enrichment has in fact started at the new cascades [of centrifuges]." Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement that Moscow is not aware of "any recent technological breakthroughs in the Iranian nuclear program that would change the [scope] of its enrichment effort." On April 11, Kamynin said that Russia has expressed its annoyance to Tehran over an Iranian air-defense exercise near the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which Russia is building for Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007). Presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko said on April 10 that Moscow is waiting for the IAEA to "clarify" the Iranian claims on nuclear fuel production. He added that Iran "does not always heed" Russian advice. On April 10, the daily "Kommersant" noted that Iranian General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, who is also deputy interior minister for security affairs, visited Russia recently despite his being one of 15 Iranians listed in a resolution that the UN Security Council approved in March to punish Iran for failing to halt uranium enrichment. The paper quoted him as pointing out that Russia voted for those sanctions and saying that his trip is "proof of the weakness" of the UN measures. The daily also wrote that Iran's boasting about its alleged nuclear prowess only increases the possibility of war. PM

On April 9, Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko said at the start of a two-day meeting in Qatar of representatives of the world's leading natural-gas-exporting countries that Russia will not support the formation of a cartel of gas exporters, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13 and April 5, 2007). He stressed that "we do not, and will not, set ourselves the goal of ganging up on anybody. It would be destructive and it would make no sense at all." On April 10, however, the daily "Gazeta" reported that "Russia's proposal to establish a price-setting group has been approved. And a coordinated pricing policy is essentially what a gas industry equivalent of OPEC would focus on" if it were set up. The paper quoted Khristenko as saying that the measure was simply approved by an unanimous vote without signing any formal documents. The participants agreed "to put Russia in charge of coordination. The price-setting group will meet at least six times in 2007." The daily quoted Maksim Medvedkov, who is Russia's chief negotiator in talks for World Trade Organization (WTO) membership, as saying that "as for gas OPEC, it doesn't even exist yet. Why bother trying to gauge the danger of something that doesn't exist?" But Algerian Energy and Mines Minister Chakib Khelil told Reuters in Qatar on April 9 that "in the long term, we are moving towards a gas OPEC." PM

The U.S. State Department's annual report titled "Supporting Human Rights and Democracy" was released on April 6 and is highly critical of Russia over "the erosion of democracy" and inadequate protection for human rights, the Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote on April 11. The paper noted that the study "has drawn a rather sharp response in Moscow. The Foreign Ministry described it as 'politicized,' while several political analysts have called it an attempt to interfere in another country's internal affairs." Political analyst Sergei Markov said that the study "is part of [U.S.] preparations for declaring the [Russian] presidential election of 2008 to be unfair and illegitimate. The chief objective of the United States is to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Russia's presidential and parliamentary elections, and it makes no secret of that." PM

Yury Kalinin, who heads the Federal Corrections Service, said on April 6 that "the total number of prison inmates in Russia increased by almost 50,000 in 2006," the daily "Novye izvestia" reported on April 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 2007). He added that "there was a further increase of 12,000 in January and February 2007," or 6,000 per month on average. He acknowledged that "pretrial detention centers are overcrowded. That's because arrests are a broadly used measure, even for minor offenses." He stressed that "we are doing all we can to make prisons as transparent as possible." He added, however, that rights activists, if allowed to visit prisons, "start inventing things." PM

The consumer rights watchdog Rospotrebnadzor said in a statement on April 9 that "annual per capita alcohol consumption in Russia has almost tripled since the 1990s and amounts to around 15 liters," Interfax reported. The agency noted that increased consumption of alcoholic substances such as cleaning fluids and perfumes has greatly contributed to the rise. Low-alcohol beverages, including beer, have become more popular in recent years, but vodka sales have not been affected. The authorities are particularly concerned about rising alcohol consumption by teenagers and women. PM

As widely anticipated, Ramzan Kadyrov named his cousin, Odes Baysultanov, as prime minister on April 10, and the Chechen parliament voted unanimously the same day to approve that appointment, and reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16 and 19, 2007). Baysultanov, 42, graduated in 1994 from the Mathematics and Physics faculty of Grozny State University, and began working in the pro-Moscow Chechen government in September 2003, just weeks before the election of his uncle, Ramzan's father Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, as republic head. In June 2004 (shortly after the assassination of Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov) he was appointed charge d'affaires for the government and presidential apparatus, and in March 2006 first deputy prime minister. Baysultanov is a member of the Chinkhoi teyp (clan), whose members have a reputation for theft and dishonesty, according to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. Baysultanov told journalists on April 10 that he does not plan any major government reshuffle. He singled out as his priorities creating new jobs to reduce unemployment (which is currently officially estimated at around 50 percent of the able-bodied population), housing construction, and expediting the payment of compensation owed to those whose homes were destroyed during fighting over the past 12 years, reported. Also on April 10, Kadyrov abolished the position of deputy prime minister responsible for law enforcement and security and stripped the finance, agriculture, and energy and industry ministers, together with the official Chechen representative in Moscow, of the rank of deputy prime minister, RIA Novosti reported. LF

A court in Echmiadzin, south of Yerevan, on April 10 annulled the registration for the May 12 parliamentary election of two rival candidates to retired General Seyran Saroyan, who is supported by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Saroyan filed a law suit alleging that the two -- businessman Hakob Hakobian, who was elected to parliament in 1999 and 2003, and local oppositionist Susanna Harutiunian -- forged signatures submitted in support of their registration. Hakobian and Harutiunian have both reported reprisals against them in recent days, and they criticized the court ruling as politically motivated and intended to facilitate Saroyan's election victory. LF

In his closing address at his trial on charges of large-scale embezzlement, former Health Minister Ali Insanov alleged on April 10 that President Ilham Aliyev usurped power in 2003 when his father and predecessor Heydar Aliyev was incapacitated and went on to consolidate his position by falsifying the outcome of the presidential ballot in November of that year, the online daily reported on April 11. Insanov declared yet again that the charges brought against him are unfounded and politically motivated, and that he considers himself a political prisoner. The prosecution has demanded a 12-year jail sentence for Insanov and the confiscation of his property, and prison sentences ranging from four to 10 years for 10 other former ministry employees, reported on April 10. Ali Akhmedov, who is deputy chairman of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, dismissed as "ravings" Insanov's allegations that Ilham Aliyev seized power illegally. But at the time, some observers suggested that a statement purportedly signed by Heydar Aliyev announcing his decision to step down due to ill health, and which was read out by an announcer on state television in early October 2003, was a forgery (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," October 11, 2003). LF

The UN Security Council convened in closed session on April 10 to discuss UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's April 3 report on the situation in Abkhazia, Georgian media reported. Addressing that session, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli outlined a three-stage Georgian proposal for resolving the Abkhaz conflict, which would entail the return to Abkhazia of all displaced persons who fled during the 1992-93 war; recognition by Abkhazia of Georgia's territorial integrity; and a referendum on Abkhazia's future status vis-a-vis the central Georgian authorities. The Abkhaz leadership is certain to reject the second and third components in light of its determination to achieve international recognition, and because Georgians were the largest ethnic group in Abkhazia prior to 1992 and their votes would thus prove decisive in any post-repatriation referendum. The Russian delegation to the UN circulated on April 10 an appeal by Abkhaz de facto Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba to the international community to recognize Abkhazia as an independent state. Shamba had hoped to attend the Security Council session, but according to Russian diplomats, he was refused a U.S. visa at Georgia's urging. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, however, told journalists in Washington in April 10 that Shamba withdrew his visa application. Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin walked out of the Security Council session to protests participants' collective refusal to hear Shamba's appeal, according to Caucasus Press on April 11. Noghaideli told journalists after the Security Council session that Abkhazia has no hope of gaining international recognition as an independent state, and he slammed what he termed Russia's "unconstructive role" in the conflict-resolution process, Caucasus Press reported on April 11. Also on April 11, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued during an address in Washington that Russia should respect the independence and territorial integrity of neighboring states and desist from any actions that would "suggest that the separatist movements in South Ossetia or in Abkhazia have any claim to independence," Caucasus Press reported. LF

OSCE Chairman in Office and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos met in Astana on April 10 with Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin, according to a press release posted on the OSCE website ( the same day. Moratinos said Kazakhstan is making good progress in planning democratic reforms, but he stressed that the success of Kazakhstan's bid to assume the OSCE chairmanship in 2009 is contingent on implementation of those planned measures. After failing to reach a consensus in 2006 on the Kazakh bid, the OSCE postponed a decision until December 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6, 2006). For his part, Nazarbaev told a number of Kazakh television stations in an April 9 interview that Kazakhstan "has things to offer the OSCE: years of stable and peaceful development; a developing economy; harmony among faiths; and its leadership in this region," Khabar reported. LF/DK

Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev told a news conference in Bishkek on April 10 that President Kurmanbek Bakiev has sent a constitutional reform bill to parliament based on suggestions from a recently formed task force, Kabar reported. Atambaev said the amendments are based on the November 2006 constitution that restricted presidential powers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 9, 2006), RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. "These changes, mainly, were based on the ideas of the November [2006] constitution," Atambaev said. "As a the result of the changes, there would be a strong parliament, a strong government, a strong judiciary, and a strong president in our country. We made an effort to reach a maximum balance between the branches of state power." Atambaev also noted that the task force was representative, Kyrgyz Channel 5 reported. He said "a group comprising 11 representatives of the opposition, the authorities, and the parliament has been working out the draft for several days." Members of the United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan and the For Reforms opposition movements, which have planned a large demonstration in Bishkek on April 11, did not take part in the task force (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2007) and are demanding Bakiev's resignation as a precondition for constitutional reform. DK

President Bakiev on April 10 accused opposition groups of wanting to stage a "coup d'etat" by rejecting his offer of talks and pressing ahead with plans to hold protests, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Bakiev defended the government's progress in improving the situation in the country, saying the economy is becoming stable, Kyrgyz state television is undergoing reforms the opposition demanded, and a draft of a new constitution has just been completed. Bakiev said protests are being organized against the president and the government by "dissatisfied politicians who are trying, under the guise of a battle for reform, to get power for themselves." In a statement, Bakiev said demonstrations planned for April 11 calling on him to resign will be allowed to go ahead in Bishkek, but that police would take the "very strongest measures" against anyone breaking the law. In a meeting with Russian journalists in Bishkek on April 10, former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, head of the United Front, said that 50,000 people will take part in the April 11 rally, reported. Kulov said he is sure police will not fire on demonstrators because the police support opposition demands. United Front spokesman Azamat Kalman told the opposition insists that constitutional reform take place under a new coalition government that will function until a new presidential election can be held. DK

Avdy Kuliev, head of the United Democratic Opposition of Turkmenistan, died in Norway on April 10 after surgery, the opposition Dogry Yol website ( reported. Kuliev was independent Turkmenistan's first foreign minister, but left the country in the early 1990s when he joined the opposition to President Saparmurat Niyazov. DK

In a presidential decree of April 10, Alyaksandr Lukashenka relieved General Alyaksandr Paulouski of the post of chairman of the State Border Troops Committee and appointed to this post Colonel Ihar Rachkouski, Belapan reported. Lukashenka gave no reasons for his decision. Paulouski served as the head of the State Border Troops Committee since 1996. Prior to his appointment, Rachkouski was the head of the border troops' active operations department. AM

The Constitutional Court of Ukraine has postponed hearings on the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada until April 17, Interfax reported on April 10. Also on April 10, five Constitutional Court judges complained about pressure exerted on them and asked for the state to provide them with bodyguard services. Ukraine's security services have agreed to provide them with temporary protection. The judges also said that they cannot decide on high-profile cases unless there are conditions that would allow unbiased rulings. "The president of Ukraine has issued a decree to dissolve the Verkhovna Rada within his constitutional authority. Regretfully, some well-known statesmen and political figures are making premature statements that the decree is unconstitutional, whereas the constitution says that only the Constitutional Court is authorized to decide on the constitutionality of the decree," the judges said in a statement. The Constitutional Court consists of 18 judges, appointed by the president, the parliament, and the Council of Judges, a nonpartisan judicial body, who each name six. An effective ruling requires the support of at least 10 judges. AM

Viktor Yushchenko said on April 10 that all political forces involved in the Ukrainian governmental crisis should accept and honor, rather than discuss, any future Constitutional Court ruling on the legality of the presidential decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada, Interfax reported. "I would like Constitutional Court rulings to be obeyed rather than discussed," Yushchenko said. "I am sure that this rule is applicable to all sides," he replied when asked whether he himself will obey a ruling if the Constitutional Court finds his decree unconstitutional. "Both the constitution and its interpretation by the Constitutional Court should be respected by all parties to the process. This is one of the fundamental preconditions for resolving any conflict, including the conflict that is under way in Ukraine today." AM

Yushchenko told a meeting on April 10 of the heads of Ukrainian law enforcement agencies that "all law enforcement and security agencies should undertake a peacekeeping mission and stay away from political conflicts," Interfax reported, quoting Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko. Hrytsenko also said that participants in the meeting did not discuss whether to introduce a state of emergency nor whether to beef up law enforcement and security agencies to deal with the situation. According to Hrytsenko, two groups are monitoring the activity of Ukrainian law-enforcement agencies -- one operates on behalf of the president and is led by Vitaliy Haiduk, the secretary of the National Defense and Security Council, and the second acts on behalf of the government and is led by Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Radchenko. AM

In a landmark ruling, Serbia's war crimes court on April 10 jailed four Serbs for their role in the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995, on the basis of a video that was shot by a member of their paramilitary group, local and international media reported. They are the first Serbs to be jailed by Serbian authorities for their role in what was the worst massacre in Europe since 1945. The men, all members of a Serbian paramilitary group known as "the Scorpions," were found guilty of the murder in cold blood of six Muslims, a tiny fraction of the roughly 8,000 men and boys killed at Srebrenica. Only one of the five, Pera Petrasevic, confessed to or expressed regret for the crime. He was sentenced to 13 years. The unit's leader, Slobodan Medic, and another man were sentenced to 20 years, while the fourth man convicted was given a five-year term. One man was acquitted for lack of evidence. Two other men arrested are standing trial separately. The video shows the convicted men among a group of soldiers taunting the six Muslims before subsequently shooting them in the back in a ditch. In addition to the video, the court heard evidence from 21 witnesses. The video's broadcast on Serbian television in June 2005 is credited with convincing many Serbs that reports of a massacre at Srebrenica were true. However, a poll conducted in December found that 50 percent of Serbs still believe the massacre did not take place and 43 percent do not believe that the killings, if they took place, qualify as a crime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9, 2007). AG

The verdict was greeted with dismay by members of the victims' families, who previously called for the men to be given the maximum sentence of 40 years. Lawyers for the family will appeal the decision, but Beho Delic, a brother of one of the victims, called for the case to be reheard by the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Munira Subasic, the head of the Mothers of the Enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa association, condemned the sentences, telling the Bosnian news agency Fena that the victims' families have been "humiliated." The verdict was also attacked by human rights lawyer Natasa Kandic, whose organization unearthed the video. "Considering the seriousness of the crime committed, justice was not done with the verdict," she was quoted by international news agencies as saying. The deputy speaker of the parliament of the Bosnian Serbs' autonomous region, Sefket Hafizovic, said that the sentences were too lenient, but he added that the trial highlighted the failure of Bosnia's Republika Srpska to bring prosecutions. "Unlike the institutions and courts of the Republika Srpska, it seems that Belgrade is doing something in this area," Hafizovic was quoted by Fena as saying. On February 26, the UN's top court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), ruled that the massacre at Srebrenica was an "act of genocide," prompting a dispute about Bosnia's constitution and the continued existence of the Republika Srpska (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 5, 13, 15, and 21, 2007). On April 9, "The New York Times" reported that the ICJ allowed Serbia to withhold documents that some lawyers believe could have resulted in Serbia being found guilty of genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2007). To coincide with the end of the trial, Serbia's B92 television broadcast a documentary that included interviews with former members of the Scorpions. In it, one said the group's members had become "hooked" on fighting, but the documentary also highlighted family and old school ties as particularly binding forces within the group. One former member apologized for the killings, but added: "Now the Scorpions are smeared and blamed for everything. But there was someone else who ran the operation and who made those mistakes and who is the real guilty party." The men believed by the ICTY to be the masterminds of the massacre -- the Bosnian Serbs' political leader, Radovan Karadzic, and their military commander, Ratko Mladic -- have been on the run since the ICTY indicted them in 1996. AG

In a separate case, Serbia's Supreme Court on April 10 quashed a 20-year sentence handed down on a man accused of taking part in the massacre of Croats and non-Serbs in the Croatian village of Ovcara in November 1991, B92 reported. The court found that the evidence brought against Sasa Radak was insufficiently verified. Figures from the ICTY suggest that at least 260 people were killed in the massacre, which took place shortly after the fall of the eastern Croatian city of Vukovar during the war between Croatia and Serbia. However, Radak remains in detention, as the court ordered a retrial. The retrial of another 16 men accused of participation in the slaughter began in mid-March. The ICTY heard final statements in the trial of three commanders allegedly involved in the massacre in mid-March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). Serbia's Supreme Court on March 1 upheld a sentence on one man accused of participating in the killing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2007). AG

On April 7, the Bosnian Serb newspaper "Nezavisne novine" reported that Bosnia's state police have submitted a file to prosecutors indicating that radical Muslims were involved in placing the bomb that damaged the tomb of Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian Muslims' wartime and first postwar leader, in August 2006. The head of the investigation, Sead Lisak, told the paper that there has been "some progress in this investigation, but this is all that we can say. This is a very sensitive investigation and there is a special provision about the secrecy of this information and the data on this case." Though the "Nezavisne novine" report is unconfirmed and draws on unnamed sources, it may well fuel the debate about the role being played in Bosnia by radical Muslims, whom the press usually calls "Wahhabis," a reference to the austere form of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. For months, the Bosnian press has covered in great detail tensions between Wahhabis and the Muslim community as a whole and with local communities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2007). Coverage has increased further since the discovery of an alleged Wahhabi training camp in southern Serbia and the funeral of the Wahhabis' informal leader, Jusuf Barcic, on April 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19 and 29, 2007). Barcic's funeral was attended by over 3,000 people, a figure surpassed probably only by the funeral of Izetbegovic himself. AG

An Iranian firm has signed a deal with Bosnia-Herzegovina to construct an ethanol fuel plant, according to reports in the local and Iranian media. The reports, which did not give the date of the contract, indicate that production will start five years from now, after an extensive period -- possibly lasting three years -- spent de-mining the site. The Iranian firm, Mashal Khazar Darya, has been granted a 50-year lease on the site, which is on the banks of the River Sava. The project would be the first Iranian-owned ethanol refinery in Europe, the company's head, Esmaeil Shahmir, told the Iranian news agency Mehr on April 8. Shahmir said that the contract is worth $150 million. The fuel is expected to be exported to Austria, Germany, and markets around the Black Sea. AG

Two-thirds of Macedonians believe that it is more important to have a strong economy than a strong democracy, according to an opinion poll published in the newspaper "Vecer" on April 7. The poll found that almost half of the population said they would prefer an authoritarian leader to a democratic government, reflecting a majority view that a strong leader is best able to resolve problems quickly. This view coexists with a very strong approval rating for the current government, with most saying that the government's economic policy is positive and almost 80 percent expressing the belief that the government is working for everyone's good. The poll, which was conducted in March by the Brima Gallup polling agency, also found that Macedonians believe corruption has fallen sharply (14 percent said they had paid a bribe to government officials in the past 12 months). Roughly 80 percent of those polled highlighted poverty, unemployment, and the poor standard of living as the country's key problems, but one-third said personal failings rather than social handicaps are the principal reasons why people are unable to achieve success in their lives. In other findings, the poll said that 8 percent of Macedonians plan to leave the country in search of a better life over the next year, with the United States being the preferred destination. AG

A former prime minister of Albania, Pandeli Majko, resigned on April 10 as the secretary-general of the largest opposition party, the Socialists, dpa reported the same day. Majko, who is 40 and served as prime minister in 1998-99 and briefly in 2002, gave no reasons for his resignation. The Socialist Party is currently in turmoil: the newspaper "Rilindja demokratike" claimed on April 7 that more than 30 of the party's members of parliament oppose changes in the party's statutes aimed, they believe, at boosting the control of the party by its leader, Edi Rama. AG

Meanwhile, two towering figures of the Socialist Party, its leader Edi Rama and its longtime leader Fatos Nano, appear to be heading for a major clash. Nano, who has served as prime minister three times and resigned as the Socialist leader in September 2005, announced on April 5 that he will run in the June presidential election. Victory would elevate Nano above his longtime rival Sali Berisha, currently the prime minister, a former president, and -- with Nano -- the most prominent figure in Albanian politics since 1991. Theoretically, Nano could also benefit from an upswing in the left-wing vote in local elections held in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 16, and 21, and March 13, 2007). However, so far Nano's candidacy has chiefly highlighted divisions between Socialists and even raised the possibility of the party splitting. When he declared his candidacy on the television station Klan, Nano specifically criticized the Socialist Party, accusing it -- and other political parties -- of "a conflict-riddled policy" that "will do nothing other than block the reforms our country has started for its integration into Euro-Atlantic structures." Nano was also critical of Rama's attempts to tighten control over the Socialists, and many of those currently opposed to changes in the party's statutes are described as supporters of Nano. One Socialist deputy quoted by the newspaper "Rilindja demokratike" on April 7, Durim Lamaj, said the party could split if Rama gains tighter control of it. Rama expressed his disappointment at Nano's comments, saying they do "not bring Mr. Nano closer to the presidential chair." Unlike its chief rival, the Democratic Party, which won the parliamentary elections held in 2005, the Socialists have yet to name an official presidential candidate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9, 2007). AG

President Vladimir Voronin on April 10 presented the Moldovan government with proposals that envisage far-reaching changes to Moldova's economy, including -- according to the local news agencies Basa and IPN on April 10 -- an end to corporate tax for companies that reinvest their profits. The reports indicate that a 15 percent tax would be imposed on dividends, but did not indicate whether companies that retain their profits, rather than reinvesting or disbursing them, will be subject to corporate tax. Finance Minister Mihai Pop told Basa on April 10 that what was described as "the application of [a] zero quota to entrepreneurial income" should not hurt the budget as the gap would be filled through "VAT and other types of taxes specific to economic growth." Details of the possible changes to value-added tax (VAT) and indirect taxes were not reported. The two other major measures are a tax amnesty and the legalization of various forms of capital. The proposals are aimed at ending misreporting, stemming the outflow of capital, and reducing the size of Moldova's large black economy. The plan will be presented to parliament within the next 10 days. Pop said the amnesties could come into effect this year, Basa reported. AG

"Establishing stability" appears prominently on almost anyone's list of the achievements of Russian President Vladimir Putin's two terms in office. "I personally would be reluctant to conclude that [Putin's] motives are bad," James Wolfensohn, then president of the World Bank, wrote in "The Wall Street Journal" in September 2004. "I think Russia is a pretty difficult place to run, and so I wouldn't come to that conclusion too quickly."

Putin's achievements have been largely bolstered by his staggeringly high personal popularity ratings -- especially in contrast to those of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin -- and a generally favorable global political and economic environment for Russia.

The greatest challenge Putin has faced in his seven years at the helm has been controlling the situation in the North Caucasus and ending the vicious wave of terrorist attacks that swept through Russia in the decade ending in September 2004. Putin has been largely successful in this, as Russia has not seen a major terrorist incident since the Beslan school siege. Instead, Russian confidence in the future has been bolstered by such events as the July 2006 death of Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev.

Now, however, Russia enters a period fraught with danger for any personality-based political system -- elections and the transfer of power. Inasmuch as the Federal Assembly has been all but entirely subordinated to the Kremlin and is dominated by the Kremlin-controlled Unified Russia and A Just Russia parties, the December 2007 legislative elections are likely to pass smoothly. However, the race in the spring of 2008 to become Putin's successor is another matter entirely.

At present, the front-runners in the race are the two first deputy prime ministers, Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov. Medvedev -- who chairs the massive state-controlled gas giant Gazprom and who oversees the social portfolio in the government -- has a solid base from which to campaign, but is widely seen as handicapped by a notable lack of charisma. Ivanov, who definitely comes off more forcefully on television and who has a military background that lends him a tougher image, lacks the firm political and economic backing that Medvedev enjoys.

In recent months, Russian political analysts have agonized over the fact that the so-called siloviki -- the section of the political elite that is bound by ties to the intelligence and security structures and is widely believed to be centered around Putin's deputy chief of staff, Igor Sechin -- does not back either Medvedev or Ivanov. Increasingly, they are speculating the siloviki could play the role of spoiler as Putin attempts a managed power transition -- a role they fear could easily undermine the surprisingly fragile "vertical of power" that Putin has built so assiduously in the past few years.

Analyst Aleksandr Ryklin wrote on the "Yezhednevny zhurnal" website in December 2006 that the stress on the political structure could end in "the collapse of the entire system of power." Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Andrei Ryabov wrote in "Novaya gazeta" the following month that "the vertical of power is gradually on its way out under the influence of the group interests of ruling-class factions that are thinking primarily about their own survival after 2008."

It would not be hard to argue that the weakening of the vertical of power or even the collapse of the "entire system" created by Putin would not be a bad thing -- if not for the wild card of the siloviki, since the stability ushered in by Putin is a decided liability for their political fortunes. Although the allegations have never been conclusively demonstrated, it should not be forgotten that many observers have argued that the siloviki engineered their rise to prominence by provoking or exploiting violence in the North Caucasus in 1999 and -- perhaps -- by arranging a series of bombings in Russian apartment buildings that killed hundreds and paralyzed the country with terror.

Observers including Vitaly Leibin, Ivan Yartsev, and Natalya Royeva have all pointed to the recent high-profile killings of Central Bank Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and former Federal Security Service officer Aleksandr Litvinenko as signs of the direction developments in Russia could take if a powerful section of the elite begins to see its political advantage in increased fear and instability.

Since Sechin and the siloviki do not seem to have placed their support behind any possible successor, speculation is mounting that their real goal is to compel Putin to accept a third term and thereby extend the status quo. An editorial in "Kommersant-Vlast" in January argued bluntly that Sechin's group could force Putin to remain in office by destabilizing the situation in the North Caucasus. Political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, writing on in January, argued the siloviki could be plotting a policy of "managed destabilization."

However, the institutional weakness of the Russian political system -- which remains heavily centered on Putin's personal popularity -- and the superficial nature of the imposed stability that has emerged in the North Caucasus in the last two years means that "managed" destabilization could quickly become unmanageable. And if it does, Russia and many in the international arena could find themselves relieved if Putin does agree to stay on for a few more years.

Taliban militants ambushed an Afghan army convoy on April 10 with rockets and heavy machine guns in southern Afghanistan, AFP reported. Four soldiers were killed and 19 others were injured, the Afghan Defense Ministry said. The convoy was returning to its base in the Trin Kol district of southern Zabul Province from an operation in a nearby village when dozens of Taliban opened fire, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi said. He added that the Taliban also sustained an unspecified number of casualties. RR

Australia will nearly double its military force in Afghanistan to 1,000 troops, Reuters reported. Australia is sending 300 special-forces commandos to Oruzgan Province in southeastern Afghanistan to hunt down the leaders of the Taliban insurgency, Prime Minister John Howard told a news conference on April 10. Australia will also send air-force radar crews to Kandahar, as well as extra logistics and intelligence officers. It will also extend the deployment of a team providing security, Howard said, increasing Australia's deployment to about 950 by the middle of 2007 and to more than 1,000 by the middle of 2008. "Essentially, their operations will be targeted on the Taliban, disrupting Taliban operations and going after the Taliban leadership," Australian Defense Force commander Angus Houston told reporters. Australia withdrew its special forces from Afghanistan in September 2006, but kept about 500 troops to help with reconstruction work. RR

Afghanistan promised on April 10 to do all it could to free two French aid workers seized by the Taliban, AFP reported. A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai responded to a question about the two French nationals missing since April 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2007) by stating, "the security institutions are doing their utmost...for their safe release." The Taliban say they are holding the pair and three Afghans who work for the organization Terre d'Enfance (A World For Our Children), since abducting them in Nimroz Province. Karzai, however, said on April 6 that no more hostage deals will be made after a controversial trade involving five Taliban prisoners resulted in the release of Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a reporter for the Italian daily "La Repubblica." An Afghan journalist seized together with the Italian was killed by the Taliban on April 8. RR

The chief of the Border Roads Organization (BRO), the Indian Army-led road-construction and -maintenance organization, cited security as a major concern for his personnel working in Afghanistan, ANI reported on April 10. "In Afghanistan as a whole, there is a security problem because you have elements of Taliban, who were there earlier, who are trying to regroup," BRO Director-General K.S. Rao said. "The state administration is trying to establish itself. So there are some pockets where it will take some time for the state administration to come in. At times, we do have stray incidents taking place, so like any disturbed area, one has to be prepared for any eventuality." India is constructing the 219-kilometer Deleram-Zaranj Road at an estimated cost of $88.37 million. RR

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholam Reza Aqazadeh, said in Tehran on April 10 that the EU would have to "forego" its "$20 billion" worth of commercial exchanges with Iran, should it push for economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, ISNA reported. "If they do this, the Europeans should be able to tolerate oil prices above $100" a barrel, he added. He said Iran intends to multiply centrifuges -- which spin repeatedly to enrich uranium gas and make nuclear fuel -- in the Natanz plant to 50,000 over the next two years, as part of its stated goal to mass produce nuclear fuel. The UN has twice imposed sanctions on Iran in a bid to halt fuel-making activities that have potential bomb-making applications. Aqazadeh said that "the Europeans" will suffer more from sanctions. "It is not as if they can quickly find a replacement for a $20 billion reduction in trade exchanges," he said. Iran, he said, has had to rely on its own capabilities for its nuclear program in past decades, "and ballistic and nuclear sanctions, or [sanctions] on loans from world banks and cheap loans have always been implemented on Iran and are nothing new." He said if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reduces its cooperation with Iran, "we too will have to reduce our cooperation." News agencies reported the arrival of two IAEA inspectors in Iran on April 10 for a weeklong inspection of the Natanz facility. VS

Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi said in Tehran on April 10 that thousands of Afghan migrants should be repatriated, but with due respect for their persons and families, IRNA reported. Iranian officials have repeatedly urged the repatriation of thousands of Afghans, some of whom have been in Iran for decades. "We have to ensure they can gather and safely transfer the assets they have saved up in Iran," Purmohammadi said. He was speaking after meeting with Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta. Purmohammadi cited the problem of illegal migration into Iran and said Iran and Afghanistan must ensure tighter control of their frontier. Iran, he said, would provide unspecified assistance with "employment and...residence" to Afghans voluntarily returning home. Purmohammadi said Iran and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai enjoy a "satisfactory and acceptable" level of understanding. Spanta praised Iran for fighting drug trafficking and cited a direct link between trafficking and terrorism. "In the frontier region between our country and one of its neighbors, there are...bases for terrorist training, and increased drugs production is more evident in this area than other areas in Afghanistan," he said. He singled out as a "major problem" collusion between terrorists and drug traffickers. He added that Iran has promised to help provide antinarcotics training for Afghan police, IRNA reported. VS

Tehran police chief Ahmad Reza Radan said on April 8 in Tehran that the capital's police will from April 21 act against Iranian young men and women deemed to be violating the country's Islamic dress codes and public decency norms, Radio Farda reported on April 9, citing the police force website. He cited indecent attire as including shorts, headscarves that fail fully to cover women's hair, tight women's overcoats, and "revealing" clothes in general. Iran's laws forbid socializing and sexual contacts between unmarried couples, as well as conduct or dress deemed sexually provocative. Women have since shortly after the 1979 revolution been forced to wear a full-length garment called a "chador," or an overcoat Iranians have come to describe as "manteau" -- using the French word -- both aimed at covering their bodies and colorful clothing. The norms are not always respected by youngsters, especially in Tehran. Radan said there would be a "sharp response" women who flout the laws, and the plan would continue "for as long as we see fit." A second phase of the plan, he said, would deal with men. Men are already forbidden to enter government offices in T-shirts, colorful clothes, or neckties, all of which have also been officially disapproved of since 1979. Radan said police will pursue a related public-information campaign until April 21, Radio Farda reported. VS

Iranian authorities have begun discreetly filling the Sivand Dam in Iran's southern Fars Province, in spite of opposition from environmentalists and supporters of Iranian heritage who claim it will damage surrounding archaeological sites through flooding and by increasing humidity, Radio Farda reported on April 8, citing Iranian agencies. Lawyer Mohammad Ali Dadkhah told Radio Farda that day he will file a lawsuit with the state prosecutor in Marvdasht in Fars Province, in a bid to stop the flooding. He said the Energy Ministry, which is in charge of the dam, could not begin flooding without permission from the Cultural Heritage Organization, the state heritage agency, and implied the Cultural Heritage Organization promised recently not to give permission while debates continue. Dadkhah said either the ministry has broken the law or the Cultural Heritage Organization has "broken its promise." He denounced the move to fill the dam as "an act against Iran's cultural heritage," Radio Farda reported. VS

Radio Farda reported on April 11 that dozens of teachers were briefly detained on April 7 in Hamedan, western Iran, though officials have given differing numbers for those later released. Police arrested 45 teachers in the offices of Hamedan's Teachers Guild Association (Kanun-i senfi-yi moalleman), for union-related activities officials have stated are illegal, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media. The broadcaster quoted judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi as telling a Tehran press conference on April 10 that the arrests were because the Hamedan union's activities were declared illegal, and the group sought to distribute unspecified statements. He said that 30 teachers were eventually released. ISNA quoted the deputy governor of Hamedan Province for security affairs, Akbar Abedi, as saying separately on April 10 that the teachers were arrested when they tried to stop police entering the association's offices, Radio Farda reported. The police, he said, had court orders to enter the premises because the association was reportedly engaged in "suspect activities," including apparently the failure to follow proper electoral procedures for the association's board of directors. Abedi said 20 teachers were later released. Radio Farda also reported that security agents searched the houses of Teachers Guild Association members in Tehran on April 9, many of whom were reportedly summoned to court. Iranian teachers have in recent months been protesting against low wages. VS

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on April 10 rejected any timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal, instead calling for any withdrawal to be based on realities on the ground, international media reported the same day. "We see no need for a withdrawal timetable because we are working as fast as we can," al-Maliki said at a news conference in Tokyo. "What governs the departure at the end of the day is how confident we are in the handover process," he added. However, he insisted that U.S. troops will eventually leave when the Baghdad government asks them. "The international [UN Security Council] resolution authorized the Iraqi government to ask for the departure of the multinational forces when it feels that it can provide enough security for the country. We are progressing on the security issue continuously," he said. Al-Maliki is wrapping up his first official visit to Japan, which earlier announced that it will provide Iraq $862 million in low-interest loans for construction projects. SS

Turkish officials announced on April 10 that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani issued an apology to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the recent incendiary comments made by Kurdistan region President Mas'ud Barzani, international media reported the same day. Mehmet Akif Beki, a spokesman for Erdogan, said that Talabani telephoned the Turkish leader on April 9 to express "regret over the latest statements by Mas'ud Barzani." Beki added that "Talabani underlined that they place great importance on ties with Turkey." On April 7, Barzani said Iraqi Kurds could intervene in Kurdish-majority cities in Turkey if Ankara continued to oppose Kurdish ambitions to annex oil-rich Kirkuk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2007). In response, Erdogan warned Iraqi Kurds that they would "pay a heavy price" if they interfered in Turkey's affairs. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack described Barzani's remarks as "really unhelpful," and said that they "do not further develop the goal of greater Turkish-Iraqi cooperation." SS

Kurdistan region President Barzani said on April 10 that, in line with the Iraqi Constitution, the fate of Kirkuk is purely an Iraqi matter that no foreign country can interfere with, Kurdistan Satellite Television reported the same day. "Any intervention in or hindrance of the implementation of Article 140 is tantamount to a crime against the Iraqi people. Eighty percent of the Iraqi people voted for the constitution," he said. "How can a foreign state or even a domestic side intervene and demand something that contradicts the constitution?" Barzani said his comments about Turkey were actually made on February 26, and he stressed that he never indicated that Iraq's Kurds would intervene in Turkey's affairs. "Even during the interview, I did not mention that we would intervene. I said that if they [Turkey] were to interfere, we would do the same." SS

A statement by Sheikh Harith al-Dari, leader of the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association, posted on the group's website on April 10 to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, called on Iraqis to stand united in the face of the U.S.-led occupation. "I urge you [Iraqis] to be patient, remain steadfast, and stand firm, as the days of the occupation are numbered," al-Dari said. "I urge you to remain steadfast, stand firm, and to not give the occupation any chances." Al-Dari described the anniversary as the day the United States began its occupation of Iraq. "They came to us carrying the banner of liberation, democracy, prosperity, and happiness, in addition to other empty terms. However, they only brought on destruction, killings, and bloodshed," he said. SS

A suicide bomber blew herself up near a police station in the central town of Al-Miqdadiyah on April 10, killing 15 people and wounding 32, international media reported the same day. First Lieutenant Muhammad Ahmad of the Iraqi police said the woman, dressed in an abaya, a neck-to-ankle black robe, and wearing an explosive belt, approached a group of about 200 men waiting to apply to join the Iraqi police, and detonated her explosives. Al-Miqdadiyah is located in the restive Diyala Governorate, now considered the second-most-dangerous area after Baghdad. Meanwhile, a car bomb killed five and wounded 10 near Baghdad University, in the southwestern Al-Jadiriyah district of the capital. SS

Ali Allawi, a top aide to Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki, said on April 9 that a federal system of governance is the only way for Iraq to escape the current cycle of violence, international media reported on April 10. He described the Iraqi government as being "paralyzed by power-sharing formulas," where the "machinery of the government itself is too corrupt to manage the country." Allawi proposed a federal system with regional governing authorities being granted "wide powers," while federal institutions would act as "adjudicators between the regions." "Security must be decentralized until such time as confidence between the communities is reestablished," he said. Only then can U.S. troops withdraw and be replaced by an international force to help stabilize the new federal system. SS