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Newsline - April 18, 2007

On April 17, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on state-run, English-language Russia Today television that recent public statements by self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky about ousting President Vladimir Putin are just "self-promotion" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 16, and 17, 2007). Peskov also sought to end speculation that Putin might agree to change the constitution to enable him to seek a third term when his current mandate runs out in 2008. "It is definite Mr. Putin will leave office in one year. There will be a new president," Peskov added. But Peskov did not rule out the possibility that Putin will endorse a successor, which Putin has suggested that he will not do. Peskov said that Putin "is an extremely popular politician and has the right to give advice to those who are going to a vote. He'll do so." The possibility of a third term for Putin has long been debated in the media despite his repeated statements that he will step down in 2008. Discussion regarding a third term intensified recently after Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov called for changing the constitution to enable Putin to run again and spelled out his ideas in detail (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, March 30, and April 2, 2007). Mironov wants the constitutional limit to be extended to three terms, each of which would be for perhaps seven years instead of the current four. On April 18, Mironov said that the authorities in nine regions back his proposal, Interfax reported. On April 17, reported the results of a new poll carried out by the respected All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), which indicated that 65 percent of Russian citizens back a third term for Putin and future Russian presidents. noted on April 18 that if Putin were to have three seven-year terms in addition to his two four-year terms under current legislation, his total time in office would be 29 years. That would be just short of the 31-year modern Russian record set by former Soviet leader Josef Stalin. PM

Garry Kasparov, who is a former world chess champion and now a leader of the heterogeneous opposition umbrella group Other Russia, said on his website on April 17 that the Federal Security Service (FSB), which is the successor to the KGB, has issued a summons to him to appear for questioning. He said that the FSB wants to determine whether some of his recent public statements amount to illegal "calls for extremist action" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16 and 17, 2007). Other Russia sponsored recent protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which were brutally blocked by security forces. Kasparov's own opposition group, the United Civic Front, which belongs to Other Russia, said in a statement on April 17 that he will comply with the summons, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on April 18. PM

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who now heads a think tank, said in Moscow on April 17 that opposition marches like the recent ones in Moscow and St. Petersburg, only serve to undermine stability in Russia, RIA Novosti reported. Gorbachev argued that the protests prove that "somebody wants to complicate the situation in the country and push for instability. We must learn our lesson, and tell those who encourage such fear that what they're doing is unacceptable." Reuters added that Gorbachev meant that "the protests were orchestrated and encouraged from outside Russia." Gorbachev praised President Putin, saying that "he has done a lot to turn the country toward modernization, I support Putin." Gorbachev further echoed official Russian criticism of a recent U.S. State Department report titled "Supporting Human Rights And Democracy: The U.S. Record," which criticized human rights violations in Russia. He said that "it is always possible to find reasons for criticism. The United States could also be criticized." He added that "a sovereign country does not function when others fail to allow it [on its own] to go through the transition from one system to another, assess everything and decide what should be taken from the past, and how economic and political processes must be approached" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and 13, 2007). On April 18, Federation Council speaker Mironov also suggested that the protests had foreign backing, but criticized the crackdown, Interfax reported. Mironov said that the security forces "overreacted" and thereby put some politically marginal elements "in the limelight." PM

Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov said in Moscow on April 17 that the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which Russia is building for Iran, will not be completed in 2007 as planned, RIA Novosti reported. He said that the payments problem, which has held up work, has only been "partly resolved," and that unspecified "technical" issues must also be cleared up (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 21, and 27, and April 11, 2007, and "Russia: Why Is The Kremlin Retreating From Bushehr,", March 23, 2007). "It is clear that the schedule will have to be changed. It is hard for me to say by how many months, because the negotiations are still going on." Russia is building the plant on a $1 billion 1995 contract. West Germany's Siemens company first started the project in 1975 but stopped work after Islamist forces overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. PM

Security Council Secretary Ivanov said in Moscow on April 17 that the United States and Russia do not have "strategic" differences on the main issues in international relations, only "tactical" ones, reported on 18 April. He added that it is "normal" for countries to have differences over issues such as "questions of media freedom, human rights, or the processes that are going on in neighboring countries." Ivanov said that it is not correct to speak of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia because even in Washington, including in Congress, there are many people who understand that the two countries must cooperate. He criticized, however, the recent State Department report critical of democracy and human rights in Russia. Ivanov argued that Washington has no business playing schoolmaster to other countries, including its own allies. He added that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit Russia soon for talks on the proposed U.S. missile-defense system, among other things (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and 13, and April 12 and 16, 2007). Ivanov also noted that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might visit Russia in May. PM

The "rightist" pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party took first place in the April 15 local legislative elections in Krasnoyarsk Krai with 42 percent of the vote and won a total of 29 seats under a mixed system of seat allocation, ITAR-TASS reported on April 16, quoting Central Election Commission Chairman Konstantin Bocharov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2007). The Communist Party (KPRF) polled second with 20 percent and six seats. The pro-Kremlin "leftist" party A Just Russia came in third, with 12 percent and three seats. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) won 11 percent and three seats. The Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) received 7 percent of the votes, giving it two legislators. State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who heads Unified Russia, said that the vote proved that "populism" will not win elections, only a solid record of "diligent work." On April 18, Vladislav Yurchik, first secretary of the Communist Party in Krasnoyarsk Krai, announced that his organization will sue Federation Council speaker Mironov, who heads A Just Russia, for saying after the election that the KPRF outpolled his party by making use of "unprincipled cooperation between the Communist leadership and criminals," RIA Novosti reported. On April 17, the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted in an article titled "Through The Looking Glass In Krasnoyarsk" that the election was widely seen as a "final dress rehearsal before the Duma elections" slated for later in 2007. It quoted local SPS officials as saying that "ballot-box stuffing was obvious" in some locations. PM

The trial began on April 16 in Ingushetia's Supreme Court of 12 young men suspected of taking part in the multiple raids during the night of June 21-22, 2004, on police and security facilities in Ingushetia, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22 and 23, 2004). Only one of the 12 accused intends to plead guilty, and not to all articles under which he is charged. At least 22 young men have been sentenced in three separate trials for their imputed participation in the fighting, masterminded by Chechen radical field commander Shamil Basayev, and in which some 80 people died and over 100 were wounded. Relatives of some of those sentenced subsequently said that they confessed and pled guilty under torture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 4 and 18, 2005 and February 2, 2006). LF

Some government officials and wealthy businessmen have serious misgivings about the policies espoused by the present Armenian leadership and for that reason are secretly contributing funds to the election campaign of the radical Hanrapetutiun (Republic) opposition party, leading Hanrapetutiun member Smbat Ayvazian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on April 17. He declined to name the persons in question, but said the party might do so "in 20 days." Addressing an election campaign rally on April 12 in Yerevan, Hanrapetutiun leader and former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian declared that the party will spearhead a "democratic revolution" if, as widely anticipated, the May 12 parliamentary elections are rigged. LF

The editors of Azerbaijan's most influential opposition newspapers and heads of organizations to defend journalists' rights and press freedom staged a protest in Baku on April 17 against the steadily increasing pressure and intimidation to which they are being subjected, and reported. Participants called on the authorities to curtail that pressure, and to arrest and bring to trial the person who shot dead opposition journalist Elmar Huseynov two years ago. LF

Huseyn Avni Karslioglu, who is Turkey's ambassador to Baku, rejected on April 17 as "ridiculous" media reports that between 6,000-10,000 Kurds have fled to Azerbaijan from eastern Turkey, and reported on April 17 and 18 respectively. Karslioglu said those figures are "exaggerated," and that "the situation is under control." On April 7, the website reported that the recent influx of Kurds has split the Azerbaijani leadership into two camps, one pro-and one anti-Kurdish. In 2002-2003, Azerbaijani opposition media repeatedly claimed that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) maintained secret training camps in Azerbaijan, apparently with the tacit consent of then President Heydar Aliyev, whom some observers believe was a Kurd (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9 and 23 and February 3, 2003). LF

Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili told journalists in Tbilisi on April 17 that the nationwide work stoppage that morning called for by his party to demand the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili was a success, but he did not cite a figure for the number of people who participated, Caucasus Press and reported. Also on April 17, some 1,000 people congregated outside the office of Tbilisi's mayor to protest recent increases in the price of gas and public transportation and the abolition of social benefits, Caucasus Press reported. That protest is slated to resume on April 18. LF

Kazakhstan's presidential press service announced on April 17 that President Nursultan Nazarbaev has initiated a personnel shuffle within the Defense Ministry, Interfax reported. The appointments come in the wake of a recent first-ever inspection of each of Kazakhstan's regional army commands by Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov, Kazakh Television reported on April 14. The move stems from a broader effort to bolster Kazakhstan's military capabilities and follows an almost 75 percent increase in the 2007 defense budget, to some 143 billion tenges ($1.1 billion). Of that total, 54 billion tenges is specifically earmarked for the modernization of existing weapons systems and new procurement plans, representing a fivefold increase over 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2007). Nazarbaev appointed Kazhimurat Mayermanov as deputy defense minister, elevating him from his previous post as an army artillery-and-missile-battery commander, and named Nikolai Pospelov as the new eastern regional commander but relieving him of his deputy ministerial position. Bulat Darbekov was also named the new southern regional commander, replacing Bakhtiyar Syzdykov. RG

The Kazakh parliament on April 17 ratified an international treaty banning the use, production, or storage of biological weapons, according to ITAR-TASS. The treaty, formally known as the "Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxic Weapons Convention," was formulated in a 1972 meeting in Moscow and its first signatories include the former Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Kazakh deputies hailed the passage as "another piece of evidence of Kazakhstan's constructive policy concerning nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction" and welcomed the move as helping to "promote the international community's assistance" in the rehabilitation of the country's former weapons-testing areas. President Nazarbaev is expected to sign the convention. RG

Despite inclement weather, a seventh day of opposition rallies in Bishkek ended on April 17 with a concert for the more than 6,000 demonstrators, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and the website reported. Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev met on April 16 with several deputies late to discuss several proposed constitutional amendments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 13 and 17, 2007), but a group of lawmakers loyal to President Kurmanbek Bakiev succeeded on April 17 in obstructing the planned debate. Parliament speaker Marat Sultanov warned that the debate would only take place "if all political forces reach a compromise," while fellow deputy Kamchybek Tashiev openly refused to debate the constitution at all, adding that at least 30 deputies loyal to the president have "made the decision that we will not conduct any constitutional reforms" and "will not look at any constitution as long as" the opposition demonstrations continue. Tashiev also accused the demonstrators of seeking "to seize power." In response, opposition parliamentarian Melis Eshimkanov announced that a group of 21 lawmakers have issued a new call to dissolve parliament. A second deputy, Osmon Artykbaev, supported the call for the dissolution of the legislature, explaining that "we think that parliament, along with Bakiev, is responsible for the current situation in the country, for the deterioration of the economic and political situation." RG

Rene van der Linden, the president of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), on April 17 urged Minsk to "show your good will and show that you want to become at last a member of the European family," Belapan reported. Van der Linden said he is "not in favor" of Belarus's isolation, adding that it is "very bad for both sides." Van der Linden said that both Europe and Belarus should give "clear signs" of their readiness for cooperation. One of these signs, he continued, would be Minsk's consent to the assessment of the question of political prisoners in Belarus by international experts. Van der Linden described as "absolutely unacceptable" the detention and the persecution of five members of Youth Front movement. "I believe that the Belarusian government will cease to imprison those who only express their opinions and take part in demonstrations. It would be a good sign of the readiness for the cooperation," Van der Linden said. AM

The Constitutional Court of Ukraine on April 17 opened hearings on a motion submitted by 53 Ukrainian lawmakers questioning the constitutionality of the presidential decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada, Interfax reported. All the Constitutional Court's 18 judges attended the session. Ukrainian legislation requires the presence of at least 12 judges to convene a court session and does not set a deadline for issuing a verdict. Ivan Dombrovskyy, the Constitutional Court chairman, warned that the court will not rule immediately. "Everybody awaits the Constitutional Court's constructive work. However, given the number of claims and questions to the court, it will not be able to swiftly rule on the case," Dombrovskyy said. The court will consider the presidential decree at plenary meetings on April 17-19 and on April 23-26, and if needed on other working days. AM

Viktor Yushchenko has asked Constitutional Court Chairman Dombrovskyy to investigate the possible involvement of Judge Syuzanna Stanik in corruption, Interfax reported on April 17. The Ukrainian Security Service obtained evidence that an unemployed close relative of Stanik acquired property worth $12 million last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2007). Stanik announced on April 17 that she will not disqualify herself. Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych described the accusations against Stanik as "the exertion of pressure on a Constitutional Court judge," adding that they demonstrate that "law enforcement agencies also need treatment for corruption." AM

At the PACE session in Strasbourg on April 17, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yanukovych warned of the possible consequences of the ongoing political crisis in Ukraine, Interfax reported. "Civil unrest and economic crises are already looming large. If they occur, it will be a disastrous defeat for everyone, both for Ukraine and for Europe," Yanukovych said. He claimed that the ongoing political crisis should be solved through political means in accordance with the constitution and the ruling of the Constitutional Court. "We are categorically unable to agree and will not agree with a situation where the president approves a decision to disband the parliament based on his personal political preferences instead of the law," Yanukovych said. President Yushchenko said the same day in Brussels that the Constitutional Court's decision alone will not solve the crisis. "There are a number of political decisions that should be found outside the court," he added. AM

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said on April 16 that Washington will "support a declaration of independence by the people of Kosovo," even if the UN Security Council does not, AP reported on April 17. Burns' comments, made in a speech to the Council for Foreign Relations, an independent forum, underscore Washington's oft-repeated belief that independence is the only option for the UN-administered province, but the explicit statement of support for Kosova if it chooses to declare independence unilaterally puts pressure on the Security Council's other members, Russia in particular, and on the United States' European allies. Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, for one, has urged the United States not to rush to recognize Kosova's independence unilaterally, according to an interview published by Reuters on April 13. Burns, the third-most-senior official in the State Department, did not comment on the possible consequences of such a move for stability in the region. Instead, he underlined that he believes the alternative -- autonomy for Kosova within Serbia -- would be worse, arguing that "there is every reason to believe that that solution put forward by Russia, put forward by the Serb government itself, would lead to more violence, rather than less." Burns, who said Serbia's offer of autonomy to Kosova "is 10 to 12 years too late," also predicted that the Security Council will back a proposal drafted by its envoy to grant Kosova supervised independence from Serbia. AG

In a statement released on April 17, Serbian President Boris Tadic said that any unilateral declaration of independence would be a violation of international law, local media reported the same day. Meanwhile, the Russian news agency Interfax on April 17 quoted an unnamed high-ranking official as describing Burns' comments as "wishful thinking," adding that Washington "knows well our position" that a solution requires the consent of both parties and should not be based on "double standards." While Russia has consistently backed Serbia, it has refused to disclose whether it will veto the proposal of supervised independence put forward by the UN's envoy, Martti Ahtisaari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 13, 19, and 22, 2007). It is unclear as yet whether Russian advocacy has swung the majority of Security Council members against the proposal, but Moscow scored a success in early April by persuading the council to send a fact-finding mission to the region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2007). Any delays raise the prospect of an international crisis at a particularly sensitive time for Europe's largest countries, with new leaders about to take power in France and Britain and with Germany set to host a summit of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized countries in June. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due in Belgrade on April 18-19. Radio-Television Serbia reported on April 17 that Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Hui Liangyu is also due on April 18 in Belgrade in the latest leg of a tour of Europe. Belgrade originally said he would arrive on April 17. Like Russia, China holds the power of veto in the Security Council and favors a compromise deal over the status of Kosova. AG

Leon Kojen, a leading member of the Serbian team negotiating on the future of Kosova, resigned on April 17, the news agency FoNet reported the same day. Kojen also resigned as an adviser to Serbian President Tadic. Kojen said he reached his decision after a Reuters interview with Austrian Chancellor Gusenbauer indicated that Tadic's foreign-policy team has been conducting talks without informing him. In the April 13 interview, Gusenbauer said that Austria is "working with Boris Tadic and his people to find a way to implement the essence of the Ahtisaari plan." Kojen was one of the most senior and public faces in Serbia's talks on the future of Kosova. Like the other negotiators, Kojen consistently argued that Kosova should remain part of Serbia. Tadic too has insisted that Kosova remain within Serbia. However, Tadic is usually portrayed as being less strident on the topic than Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who has struck a consistently hard-line attitude, warning, for example, of "serious consequences" for any state that recognizes Kosova as independent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2007).

In his resignation statement, Leon Kojen said that Serbia's failure to form a government has undermined the position of Belgrade in talks with the UN and Prishtina on the future status of Kosova. "Because of this, the negotiating team could not fulfill its obligation toward the Serbian parliament and submit a report on its work after February 14, just as the Serbian parliament itself could not pass vital decisions about the mandate and authorities of the negotiating team," the news agency FoNet quoted him as saying. Kojen urged Serbia's political parties to form a government soon, arguing that it would be "a tragic folly" if party-political disagreements were to undermine Serbia's position at a critical juncture in talks on Kosova. Serbs went to the polls on January 21. Under the constitution, the country's parties have until May 14 to form a government. On a related note, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn on April 17 reiterated calls for a government to be formed quickly, saying that "every day that is lost slows down positive progress toward concluding a Stabilization and Association Agreement," the Belgrade broadcaster B92 reported. Officially, the resumption of preaccession talks with Serbia remains contingent on the capture of war crimes indictee Ratko Mladic, but there have been indications the EU could drop this precondition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and 13, 2007). AG

In a statement issued to the local media, President Tadic on April 17 strongly denied diverging from Serbia's official stance on the status of Kosova in talks with any other country. The report of talks with Austrian Chancellor Gusenbauer has been taken as implying that Tadic discussed independence, though Reuters' April 13 report said that an aide denied that Tadic discussed independence, saying that that would violate policy. In the interview, Gusenbauer, who presented Austria as an honest broker in the dispute, suggested that the South Tyrol could serve as a model for future relations between Kosova and Serbia. South Tyrol -- or Alto Adige, as it is known in Italy -- is a part of Italy populated predominantly by German speakers, but it enjoys special rights, substantial autonomy, and guarantees from Austria. Gusenbauer did not elaborate on the substance of the talks other than to say that a face-saving deal should be struck because "it can't be the goal to humiliate Serbia, but there needs to be a deal where both [Serbia and Kosova] emerge from the situation holding their heads high." In negotiations over Kosova's status, Belgrade's negotiators cited Alto Adige as an example of how Kosova could remain part of Serbia yet enjoy special rights and autonomy. AG

In a politically sensitive move, the Serbian Pharmaceutical Agency, a state agency responsible for oversight of the medicinal drugs business in Serbia, has applied to sell drugs in Kosova, Radio-Television Kosova reported on April 14. The report says that the agency referred, in its application, to Kosova as a "state" even though Kosova is still legally a province of Serbia. The report leaped on the indication that, even before Kosova is recognized or declares itself independent, a Serbian institution is positioning itself to facilitate business in Kosova, pointing out in particular that the application was signed by a member of the party of Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica, who has been an especially vociferous champion of continued Serbian sovereignty. A spokesperson for the Kosovar government told the channel that the news was "a very pleasant surprise and it is a signal that Serbia has -- if not publicly, at least officially -- has started to respect procedures to forge relations." In recent months, most of Kosova's neighbors have sent diplomatic and business delegations to Prishtina in preparation for the emergence of Kosova as a state and for privatization. The potential risks of doing business in Kosova have been highlighted by one of the most prominent deals struck with foreigners, the sale of a mobile-phone license to a Slovenian operator. That controversial deal is thought to be a possible explanation for two recent assassination attempts on the region's telecommunications regulator (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1 and April 16, 2007). The Kosovar Albanian newspaper "Express" on April 15 reported the arrest of a "long" list of suspects, including one man who is, simultaneously, an assistant professor, an Interior Ministry employee, and a leading figure in one of the region's political parties. AG

Bosnia's most senior Muslim and Croatian politicians have urged Croatia to press ahead with its genocide lawsuit against Serbia and to demand the Serbian authorities release secret documents, according to local media reports on April 16. The calls were prompted by separate allegations that two UN courts, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), permitted Belgrade to withhold documents relating to the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Unnamed lawyers have argued that the documents might have been enough for the ICJ to rule, in February, that Serbia was guilty of genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and 17, 2007). The news agency SRNA quoted Bosnia's leading Muslim politician, Haris Silajdzic, who is a member of the country's three-member Presidency, as saying that the evidence in a letter written by Geoffrey Nice, the chief prosecutor in the trial of the late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic at the ICTY, suggests "the UN Security Council has the obligation to examine this case and take the measures necessary, including an order to make the relevant documents accessible." The ethnic Croatians' representative in the Presidency, Zeljko Komsic, said that Croatia should, if necessary, turn to the Security Council in order to secure the release of Serbian documents for the whole period of the Yugoslav wars. Komsic said this is the only way that Croatia could win its genocide lawsuit against Serbia, while Bosnia could obtain fresh evidence enabling it to request a retrial. Silajdzic said that, legally, Bosnia has 10 years in which to request a retrial. Silajdzic indicated that a factor in his call is the belief that the Bosnian Serbs' representative in the Presidency would veto fresh moves to press Serbia on any issue relating to genocide. AG

Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader on April 16 called for the United Nations to investigate the claims that UN lawyers allowed Serbia to hold back documents from war crimes trials, Croatian media reported the same day. According to a report by the Hina news agency, Sanader said that "if it is established that somebody [did this] in an institution that was established by the United Nations...then the matter should be discussed by the body which established that tribunal," meaning the UN Security Council. President Stjepan Mesic restricted himself to saying that "the relevant institutions should establish who was involved in that." According to Hina and the news service, the leader of the Democratic Center, Vesna Skare Ozbolt, said that, if allegations made against the ICTY's chief prosecutor were proved true, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina should ask the UN Security Council to force Serbia to release the documents. The right-wing Party of Rights (HSP) said that the UN should quash the convictions and indictments for war crimes against three Croatian generals and six Bosnian Croats, and said the party will push for a parliamentary debate about Croatia's cooperation with The Hague (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2007). AG

Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have agreed to accept gas as repayment in kind for part of Russia's debt to the two countries, Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak said on April 16, according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. While Russia, as the successor of the Soviet Union, was chiefly a creditor in relations with other communist states and the Soviet Union's other successor states, it owed substantial sums to Yugoslavia when the country fragmented in the early 1990s, when the Yugoslav wars broke out. At that time, Russia suspended repayment of its debt with Yugoslavia's successor states on the grounds that it first needed them to agree among themselves how debt should be divided. Subsequently, in September 2003, Russia signed a multilateral memorandum. According to RIA Novosti, that agreement reset the total debt from $1.3 billion in Soviet-era nominal terms to $800 million in current values. Of that sum, $170 million is due to Bosnia and $228 million is owed to Serbia. In March, Russia promised to pay off its Soviet-era debt to Macedonia by building gas pipelines within Macedonia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). Storchak was speaking at a meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Washington. It is not clear from the report when this understanding was reached between Moscow, Belgrade, and Sarajevo. AG

Eric McGlinchey, a professor of politics and government at George Mason University in Virginia, spoke with RFE/RL on April 16 about the impact of events in Kyrgyzstan on democratic reforms in that country and on the region as a whole.

RFE/RL: There have been street protests in Bishkek for the past week with calls from the opposition for constitutional reforms, the resignation of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, and early elections. Do you see any chance for a compromise between the government and the opposition?

Eric McGlinchey: I do think there's a chance for compromise. We saw similar movements in the fall of 2006. And ultimately, a compromise was reached. The parliament pretty much bowed to the president after [Prime Minister Feliks] Kulov resigned. In Kyrgyzstan, since [President Askar] Akaev, there has been a greater willingness for compromise. Bakiev does not want to repeat the fate of Akaev. So I think ultimately, he would be more inclined to compromise. If the recent events of the past year or year and a half are instructive, you could get some negotiated settlement of the current crisis.

RFE/RL: What are some of the negative ramifications of Kyrgyzstan's current political crisis?

McGlinchey: If you look at the public perception of what's going on, the biggest and I think the most disheartening thing is a new sense of democratic disillusionment. When people in Kyrgyzstan think of democracy today -- and it is perfectly natural given what has happened -- there is a sense of unpredictability, there is instability, not just in the political life, but also in economic life. When new elites come into power and people lose their jobs, people are becoming really disillusioned with the system.

RFE/RL: Is the trend toward street protests in Bishkek something that you consider a positive or a negative development for democracy in Kyrgyzstan?

McGlinchey: There is a perception that there is no accountability with the people in power because the changing isn't done at the ballot box. It's done on the street. So you're talking about 10,000 or even 5,000 people who decide the future of Kyrgyzstan rather than the people broadly. So there is definitely a sense of disillusionment. That is the first negative outcome which already exists.

RFE/RL: Are there other negative aspects of these protests in the context of advancing democracy?

McGlinchey: This demonstration which is going on right now is more or less people who support Kulov. So it is not necessarily an idea of democracy or an idea of liberal reform. You see people who want to support their chosen leader. This could devolve into greater regionalism similar to what we saw [in Central Asia] in the early 1990s. It could even devolve into ethnic- based politics -- Uzbek, Kyrgyz, [and so on]. You're seeing people support regional identities, regional leaders, regional elites rather than some kind of democratic ideal. The early 1990s instructs us that this is not a good outcome for Kyrgyzstan. If you can't have a Kyrgyz perception which is broadly inclusive, it is going to be incredibly difficult to build some kind of liberal-democratic system.

RFE/RL: What is the impact of events in Kyrgyzstan upon political developments in other Central Asian countries?

McGlinchey: There's a sense, I think, in Central Asia that if you let these processes get out of hand, you get a downward spiral of instability. We saw how the [March 2005] Tulip Revolution probably encouraged [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov to crack down very heavily on the Andijon protests [in May 2005]. You get these similar demonstration effects in the other Central Asian countries. If you look at the subsequent presidential election in Tajikistan, after the Kyrgyz events, that was a very carefully orchestrated and carefully controlled election. And I think you're going to see more and more of this as Central Asian elites try not to repeat the experience of Kyrgyzstan. This is the negative demonstration effect on autocratic governments throughout the region.

RFE//RL: What about the impact of these protests on the wider region?

McGlinchey: It's also encouraging governments like China to play a more robust kind of interventionist role in these countries to ensure stability. China has an interest in maintaining stability along its borders. The $500 million loan that China gave to Uzbekistan following the Andijon events demonstrates that powers other than the United States are willing to step in to help shore up these autocratic regimes.

RFE/RL: Some observers say the West is not supporting the democratic process in Kyrgyzstan as much as it should. What do you think?

McGlinchey: When [U.S.] Ambassador Steven Young was in Kyrgyzstan right before the March 2005 events, he was fairly outspoken -- and constructively outspoken. But since then, a lot of people -- including Western analysts -- have faulted Ambassador Young for being too interventionist in Kyrgyz politics. So it's either, 'You're damned if you do,' or, 'You're damned if you don't.' If you speak about the processes of reform, you can be perceived both internationally and domestically as interventionist. If you don't speak about it then a lot of people will fault you for not pursuing an aggressive or robust strategy. What the United States is trying to do is to walk that fine line in the middle and support nongovernmental organizations without being perceived by either the local population or the ruling elite as being interventionist. It's not ideal. But I think it's probably the only viable strategy at this point.

General Peter Pace, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced to reporters in Washington on April 17 that coalition forces in Afghanistan have intercepted Iranian-made weapons destined for Taliban fighters, AFP reported. Pace said the weapons, specifically mortars and C-4-type explosives, were intercepted in the Kandahar region in the past month. Senior U.S. officials have repeatedly accused the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' elite Quds Force of arming and training Shi'ite militias in Iraq for attacks on U.S. forces. "It is not as clear in Afghanistan which Iranian entity is responsible, but we have intercepted weapons in Afghanistan headed for the Taliban that were made in Iran," Pace said in the first expression of U.S. public concern that Iranians might be arming the Afghan insurgency. JC

A roadside remote-controlled bomb struck a UN vehicle traveling in southern Afghanistan on April 17, killing four Nepalese security guards and an Afghan driver, AFP reported. The bomb struck the vehicle while it was traveling in a UN convoy through the city of Kandahar, Kandahar provincial police chief Esmatullah Alizai and witnesses said, almost completely destroying the armored UN vehicle. Purported Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP by telephone that the Taliban was responsible for the planned attack. He said the bomb was remotely detonated. The incident is one of the deadliest attacks on the international organization in Afghanistan since 2001 and the first fatal attack on UN employees in 11 months, according to AP. Through a spokeswoman, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed "deep distress" over the deaths and over mounting noncombatant casualties in Afghanistan, according to AFP. JC

Militants attacked the housing compound of the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees (DACAAR) in eastern Afghanistan on April 16, wounding one Afghan employee, AP reported the next day. The attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades and light weapons in the evening attack in the Alishing district of Laghman Province, according to provincial police chief Abdul Karim. Police and villagers reportedly fought the attackers during the approximately hourlong attack. An Afghan driver for the aid group was wounded, and three wounded assailants were detained and questioned by police. In September 2003, suspected Taliban rebels ambushed and executed four Afghans working for DACAAR in Ghazni Province. JC

A revived spring offensive promised by Taliban leaders in Afghanistan has not proven as intensive as anticipated by coalition forces, senior NATO commander General Dan McNeill said on April 17, according to the "International Herald Tribune." McNeill suggested that insurgents have been unable to fully carry out their "much-ballyhooed 'spring offensive'" due to military operations conducted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the 36,000-member NATO-led force under his command. However, McNeill warned that violence could reach last year's levels and said he expects insurgents to shift their tactics toward suicide bombings and explosive devices, a prediction consistent with recent events. Three suicide attacks in the past four days have killed 23 people in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16 and 17, 2007). JC

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a gathering of military commanders in Tehran on April 17 that Iran's 1979 revolution changed its armed forces into a "religious and revolutionary" force that produced "martyrs" in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and was able to defend Iran following Iraq's 1980 invasion despite "the great powers' full support" for Iraq, IRNA reported. He said the "great powers" have had to accept Iran's "religious democracy" and its "anti-imperialist" political model. The armed forces, Khamenei said, are now better prepared and equipped than in the 1980s when they fought Iraq, but he stressed more work must be done to develop the domestic manufacture of weaponry and equipment. The army's senior commander, Ataollah Salehi, read out a report on the state of readiness of Iran's armed forces, IRNA reported. IRNA cited Iranian air-force commander Ahmad Miqani as saying in Tehran the same day that Iran's air force enjoys expertise in line with "international standards," and can "mass produce" modern equipment for its own use. He said the air force would display its hardware in an April 18 parade to mark Army Day in Iran, IRNA reported. VS

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aqazadeh, told ISNA on April 17 that the priority in Iran's nuclear program now is to build more nuclear power stations, while "there is a continuous process" of installing centrifuges in the Natanz plant. Iran has said it plans to install some 50,000 centrifuges at Natanz; these repeatedly spin to enrich uranium hexafluoride gas and make nuclear fuel, although critics warn that enrichment know-how might also be used in producing nuclear warheads. The UN Security Council has twice demanded that Iran halt enrichment and related activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2006, and March 26, 2007). Aqazadeh said the entire structure of the Natanz plant is designed for "a large industrial" fuel-making process. He said Iran has not revealed how many centrifuges are working in Natanz, because its case is now "politicized" and the media pay too much attention to Iran's activities. "It is not standard practice around the world to speak about the number of centrifuges and details of activities," he said. Aqazadeh said Iran will "manage" even if current UN sanctions against its program are increased, but said Iran prefers to work with other countries. Sanctions, he added, might slow down but could not halt Iran's plans to build its next two power plants. VS

The head of admissions and security affairs at Mazandaran University in northern Iran, Habibollah Halimi, told ILNA on April 17 that nine of 15 students detained by purported security agents on April 15-16 have been released and the university is seeking the release of six others in the next day or two. The students were arrested following an earlier campus protest by 25 students (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2007). Halimi said some of those released were freed after unspecified written commitments from their parents, and some may have left unspecified deposits, ILNA reported. VS

Women's rights activist Marzieh Mortazi-Langarudi was summoned to a Tehran Revolutionary Court office on April 17 and must go within three days to answer a state interrogator's questions, ILNA reported. She was apparently one of several activists arrested at a March 4 Tehran women's demonstration, then released on bail, and is charged with acting against national security, ILNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007). VS

Iranian government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham said in Tehran on April 17 that Iran is looking for "clues and information" on the whereabouts of Robert Levinson, a U.S. citizen and retired FBI operative who may have disappeared on Iran's Persian Gulf island of Kish in early March, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3 and 4, 2007). Elham rejected unconfirmed reports that the Iranian authorities arrested Levinson. The U.S. State Department has reportedly sent three notes to Iran through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, asking for information on Levinson, AP reported on April 16. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that day that Washington has responded to Iran's requests for information on Levinson, given Iran time to investigate, and most recently "asked them to give us an answer." Levinson was reportedly planning to make a documentary film in Kish, a beach and business destination for Iranians. Levinson's wife told AP in Coral Springs, Florida, on April 16 that there is no reason why Iran would arrest him. VS

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres told participants at the UN conference on Iraqi refugees and displaced persons in Geneva on April 17 that while Iraq is probably the world's best-known conflict, it may also be its least well-known humanitarian crisis, according to a UNHCR statement the same day. Guterres said some 300,000 Iraqis returned home after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, but that flow has been reversed with some 1.9 million Iraqis now displaced internally and another 2 million outside Iraq. "If this massive displacement has gone largely unnoticed, it is in part because most of those fleeing are not going to highly visible camps, but are being absorbed by host communities in Iraq and neighboring states," Guterres said. "In 2006, Iraqis became the largest group of asylum seekers in industrialized countries, a position they last occupied in 2002." He said non-Iraqi victims of displacement, including some 15,000 Palestinians, are "unable to escape" Iraq; 600 Palestinians have been targeted so far by insurgents. Guterres said permanent local integration of Iraqis in countries of asylum is not a solution, and resettlement is only an answer for the most vulnerable. The best solution for the majority of displaced Iraqis is to voluntarily return home when conditions allow, he noted. KR

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari announced on April 17 that Iraq will pledge $25 million on a program that will include the establishment of offices in host countries to aide Iraqi refugees, the UNHCR announced the same day. The offices will help provide education and medical services and links to the homeland. "We will not abandon these people," Zebari said. KR

The World Health Organization (WHO) said in an April 17 statement on its website that violence and insecurity in Iraq combined with a shortage of health-care workers has compromised health care in Iraq, leading to unnecessary deaths. It cited Iraqi government estimates that 70 percent of critically injured patients with violence-related wounds die in emergency and intensive-care units due to a shortage of competent staff and a lack of drugs and equipment. The WHO estimated that 80 percent of Iraqis lack effective sanitation, 70 percent lack access to regular clean water, and only 60 percent have access to the public food-distribution system. "Diarrhea and acute respiratory infections, worsened by malnutrition, account for about two-thirds of deaths among children under five. The chronic child-malnutrition rate is estimated at 21 percent," the statement noted, referring to 2006 UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) statistics. The WHO also expressed concern that Iraqi displacement will put an undue burden on health-care systems in neighboring states as well. KR

Saudi Arabia announced on April 17 that it will write off 80 percent of Iraq's $15 billion debt to the kingdom, international media reported. Iraq's total current debt, accumulated under former leader Saddam Hussein, amounts to $140 billion. Most of the debt dates to the 1980-88 war with Iran, when the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other countries funded Iraq as a buffer against Iran, "The Washington Post" reported on April 18. In addition, Iraq owes $199 billion in compensation for destruction carried out during the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Some 52 countries, including the Paris Club of creditor states, have already cancelled most of Iraq's debt, according to Iraqi Finance Minister Bayan Jabr. Russia, which had previously pledged to cancel up to 80 percent of the debt Iraq owes it, has reportedly backtracked on its pledge, saying any debt forgiveness will be tied to economic relations, Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Samir al-Sumaydi'i told "The Washington Post." "Those are code words for whether we let them continue with their oil contracts," he added. KR

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the head of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, listed the achievements of jihad in Iraq in an April 17 audio statement posted on the Internet. Al-Baghdadi claimed the mujahedin, which now number in the thousands, have destroyed polytheism in Iraq and made Shari'a law prevail over "the man-made constitutions of the infidel West," and filled the mosques with youth, dedicated to jihad. He claimed the youth have been trained "in record time" on the merits of jihad, adding, "Hundreds of people seek death to live in the presence of God." Unity among the mujahedin has been bolstered, he said. "Here we are announcing the graduation of the largest batch of mujahedin in the history of Iraq." Al-Baghdadi claimed the Islamic State has developed the Al-Quds 1 (Jerusalem) rocket, which, he said, "can compete with what was made by the world states for the same military targets." Politically, the mujahedin have achieved the respect of the world, he claimed. "If the mujahedin today speak, they will be heard; if they threaten, they scare others -- they will be obeyed. The world only respects the strong." Al-Baghdadi also cited a long list of what he claimed were jihad's successes against the United States. The U.S. military was defeated on the ground in Iraq, he contended, and the U.S. budget exhausted. Several leaders have fallen from grace due to the jihad, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA head George Tenet, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, and the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board at the U.S. Pentagon, Richard Perle. Al-Baghdadi also claimed to have defeated the U.S. military's morale. "The American people have lost confidence in their historical ruling institutions in the White House and the intelligence service." He also claimed "the failure of the U.S.-Jewish scheme in the region," which he contended sought to seize control over the region's resources, including oil. KR

Al-Baghdadi also addressed the public battle among jihadist groups in Iraq that erupted in recent weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2007). Saying the mujahedin should not hold grudges against each other, he reminded the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army and Al-Mujahedin Army in Iraq that the friendship between their groups and his runs deep. Addressing the Islamic Army in Iraq, he said, "Know that I am prepared to shed my blood to spare yours," adding, "You will hear from us only what is good, and you will see from us only what is good," -- a reference to recent attacks on the Islamic Army on websites for its criticism of the Islamic State's tactics. Addressing the 1920 Revolution Brigades, al-Baghdadi blamed the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party for sowing discord and incitement between the brigades and the Islamic State and said he hopes dialogue will smooth things over. KR

Saying his group does not deliberately shed Muslim blood (a reference to the Islamic State's killing of other jihadists), affiliated Islamic State of Iraq leader al-Baghdadi said in the April 17 audio statement, "I do not exonerate the soldiers of the [Islamic] State of things of which I do not know, but I expect them to be among the most God-fearing in this matter." He reminded the mujahedin loyal to the Islamic State that "Those who disagree with you may be among your best friends," adding, "Do not write with your hands anything other than that which pleases you to see on Judgment Day." KR