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Newsline - April 20, 2007

The United States received strong support from senior NATO officials in Brussels on April 19 for Washington's position that its proposed missile-defense system does not pose a threat to Russia's security, as Moscow has charged, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, March 7 and 15, and April 12 and 19, 2007). NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that "the allies are convinced...that there are no implications of the United States system for the strategic balance. Ten interceptor [missiles stationed in Poland] will not...affect the strategic balance, and...cannot pose a threat to Russia." He added, however, that Russian diplomats "made clear [their] concerns on these matters. So, this is clearly...something the allies and Russians do not [see] eye to eye [on]." U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Henry Obering, who heads the Missile Defense Agency, said that the United States wants "to have the sites [in Poland and a radar installation in the Czech Republic] completed by 2013, and we think we have laid the foundation to make this very compatible with the NATO developed capability." Russian Ambassador to NATO General Konstantin Totsky, said, however, that Moscow "cannot easily accept that now, in Europe, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, there is a deployment of a [new] strategic element. And we are against the fact that such decisions are made unilaterally." He nonetheless welcomed the meeting as the start of a "dialogue," adding that Moscow knows it cannot stop the project. U.S. officials have been at pains to encourage a factual and nonpolitical discussion about missile defense. Some Western media suggested that Russia is using the issue to try to promote splits within NATO and the EU. Deutsche Welle noted on April 19 that the Brussels meeting went far to defuse tensions both within the alliance and between NATO and Russia. But on April 19 in Yekaterinburg, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said that Russia has "no reason" to cooperate with the United States in strategic missile defense, Interfax reported. Washington has offered repeatedly to cooperate with Moscow on such projects. PM

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said in Minsk on April 20 that Russia and Belarus can help offset any "threats" posed by NATO expansion by working together, Interfax reported. He argued that "we are following and assessing the results of NATO expansion policy, changes in the system of U.S. military bases in Europe, and a number of other important issues from the point of view of the security of our countries. I am certain that thanks to efforts by our states in the defense area, we will have opportunities to diminish and neutralize any modern challenges and threats." First Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov and other top Russian officials have charged in recent weeks that NATO expansion into former Warsaw Pact countries and former Soviet republics poses a threat to Russia's security and violates alleged promises made by the alliance to Russia. NATO already expanded eastward in 1999 and 2004, and Moscow appeared to have come to terms with that fact. Western media suggest that recent Russian statements about NATO expansion reflect primarily opposition to possible NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. PM

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson believes that EU-Russia relations could deteriorate even further unless clearer rules are imposed for the global energy trade, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on April 20, citing the advance text of a speech that Mandelson is slated to deliver in Bologna, Italy, later the same day. Mandelson argued that bilateral relations have reached "a level of misunderstanding or even mistrust we have not seen since the end of the Cold War," with each side believing that the other uses energy as a political weapon. He added that "neither thinks they enjoy the respect and goodwill from the other they are entitled to expect." Mandelson stressed that "unless we comprehend our different perceptions of the landscape left behind by the last century, we risk getting the EU-Russia relationship badly wrong." He also warned that the lack of unity within the EU on how to deal with Russia is "frankly alarming.... No other country reveals our differences as does Russia." PM

The Moscow City Court ruled on April 19 that the opposition National Bolshevik Party (NBP) is an extremist organization, news agencies reported. The presiding judge said that "the court...finds the...National Bolshevik Party to be extremist and bans its activities." The decision empowers the authorities to make it illegal to publicly support the party, which is not legally registered. Sergei Belyak, who is a lawyer representing the NBP, said that the decision is politically motivated and that he will appeal. Police recently cracked down on antigovernment protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg that the NBP helped to organize together with members of the Other Russia umbrella coalition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 17, 18, and 19, 2007). Also on April 19, officials of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi said it will campaign to have Other Russia labeled as "extremist." Critics have long charged that the legislation against "extremism" enacted in recent months is designed to intimidate or ban the opposition. The National Bolsheviks and their offshoots present a curious mixture of communist and fascist ideas and trappings, reminiscent in some ways of the left-wing currents in Nazism and fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, which inspired Benito Mussolini's short-lived fascist republic at the end of World War II (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). PM

Officials of the Federal Security Service (FSB), which is the successor to the KGB, questioned opposition leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov on April 20 for having allegedly made "extremist statements" on the eve of the recent protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2007). Kasparov told reporters before going to FSB headquarters that his interrogation "is an important moment in Russia's political and public life and its jurisprudence because it's an obvious attempt to make any kind of political activity the subject of criminal law.... The prosecutors are trying, through the FSB, to detect traces of criminal acts in critical remarks about the authorities." PM

Former Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Khuseyn Djabrailov, whom republic head Ramzan Kadyrov named last month as his personal representative in Moscow, has resigned from that post for reasons that remain unclear, reported on April 19. Also on April 19, Kadyrov named Bekkhan Taymaskhanov, first deputy head of the Chechen representation in Moscow, to replace Djabrailov. Djabrailov, a prominent businessman and member of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, was named deputy prime minister responsible for industry and energy by Kadyrov's predecessor, Alu Alkhanov, in October 2006. His brother, Umar Djabrailov, represents Chechnya on the Federation Council. LF

Vartan Oskanian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service by telephone on April 19 that his talks the previous day in Belgrade with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group proceeded normally, "in a constructive environment," and that the atmosphere was "more relaxed" than during the previous meeting in Geneva in mid-March. Oskanian told RFE/RL after the Geneva meeting that the two sides failed to make any progress and still had "deep differences" over unspecified key details of the draft agreement on resolving the Karabakh conflict draft (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). Oskanian said on April 19 that during the Belgrade meeting, which lasted almost five hours, the Minsk Group co-chairmen unveiled "views as to how those differences can be addressed." He did not elaborate. He said the co-chairs will "most probably" travel to Armenia and Azerbaijan after the May 12 Armenian parliamentary elections and meet with the two countries' presidents. Responding to a query from RFE/RL, Oskanian said that it is up to President Robert Kocharian to decide whether he should remain as foreign minister in the government to be formed after the May 12 elections. He dismissed as premature the question whether he will participate in the 2008 presidential ballot in which Kocharian is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). LF

Rizvan Talybov, head of a committee to defend the rights of Ali Insanov, the former health minister currently on trial for large-scale embezzlement, has been charged with hooliganism following a dispute late on April 19, reported on April 20. Talybov also heads the Union for the Return of Western Azerbaijan, an irredentist NGO comprising Azeris whose families were expelled during the 1950s or late 1980s from the Armenian SSR (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25 and November 30, 2005, and January 18, 2007). He planned to mobilize members of that union to demonstrate on April 22 on Baku's Azadlig square in support of Insanov, who in the course of his trial has repeatedly made allegations damaging to the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party. Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes was due to hand down sentence on Insanov on April 20. LF

Addressing a NATO seminar in Tbilisi on April 19, Mikheil Saakashvili predicted that by autumn of 2007 Georgia will have successfully implemented the measures outlined in its Intensified Dialogue with NATO and will advance to receiving a Membership Action Plan, the final stage of preparation before a formal invitation is extended to join the alliance, Caucasus Press reported. At the same time, Saakashvili warned unnamed European states that they should not retreat from their expressed support for Georgia's accession to NATO for fear that Russia might retaliate by raising the price of natural gas for European customers. In the course of his address, Saakashvili affirmed that ethnic minorities are being willingly integrated into Georgian society and learning the Georgian language. Saakashvili said the international community is beginning to understand that the status quo with regard to unresolved conflicts on Georgian territory is untenable, and that new approaches to resolving those conflicts are called for. He condemned the mass flight of Georgians from Abkhazia during the 1992-93 war as "a clear example" of ethnic cleansing. Addressing the same seminar later on April 19, Russian Foreign Ministry official Andrei Kelin said there is "no need" for Georgia to join NATO, and that NATO enlargement as far as the South Caucasus would only render that already unstable region even more unstable, Interfax reported. LF

Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov opened a one-day summit meeting in Astana on April 18 of the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec), according to Interfax and AKIpress. The meeting, the 18th session of the Eurasec intergovernmental council, was attended by the prime ministers from each of the six Eurasec member states (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). Participants discussed the possible adoption of measures aimed at broadening cooperation in the energy and transportation sectors, with Belarus and Kazakhstan criticizing Russia's ongoing reluctance to expedite the creation of a coordinated energy strategy, the daily "Kommersant" reported on April 19. In light of that reluctance, Masimov proposed postponing the formation of the planned customs union uniting Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan until all three countries have joined the World Trade Organization. LF/RG

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev called on April 19 for significant reform of international organizations and urged them to "adapt to modern realities," RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Addressing the opening of the sixth annual Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Nazarbaev identified NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the United Nations as international organizations in need of reform, adding that they "cannot cope with the tasks of settling international conflicts and crises, overcoming a gap between rich and poor countries, preventing terrorism and extremism, and of strengthening the nonproliferation regime," Interfax reported. Speaking to the three-day forum, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami reiterated his country's right to peaceful uses of atomic energy, prompting former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to urge Iran to act "wisely and stop creating "suspicion." RG

Some 2,000 Kyrgyz demonstrators gathered outside the Kyrgyz government building in Bishkek on April 19, the ninth day of rallies demanding the resignation of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev and the introduction of constitutional reforms, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. After a small group of demonstrators began to throw stones at the building, nearby detachments of riot police moved in to disperse the protesters using tear gas, percussion grenades, and wielding batons, AKIpress reported. As the demonstrators regrouped, they joined a separate rally of 8,000 protesters in Bishkek's central Alatoo Square. Reacting to the incident, opposition leaders from the United Front For A Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan and the For Reforms movement, including parliamentarian Temir Sariev, urged the crowd to refrain from violence. Following the clash with demonstrators, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev issued urgent orders to senior police officers to immediately cease any confrontation with the protesters, according to the website. RG

As tensions rose between opposition demonstrators and police in Bishkek, opposition deputy and spokesman for the United Front For A Worthy Future and the For Reforms movement, Melis Eshimkanov announced on April 19 a new ultimatum demanding that President Bakiev resign within six hours, the website reported. Eshimkanov added that if the president refused to resign, demonstrators would "block" the main Bishkek-Osh highway. Other demonstrators called for the mass resignation of the Kyrgyz parliament, ITAR-TASS reported. In response, Prime Minister Atambaev held a private meting with opposition parliamentarian Temir Sariev, seeking to defuse the crisis. Following the closed meeting with Sariev, Atambaev called an urgent cabinet meeting, the website reported. RG

The Kyrgyz parliament voted on April 19 to confirm two recently appointed nominees for the country's Constitutional Court, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. The confirmation of the two nominees, Svetlana Sydykova and Omurzak Mamyrov, paves the way for parliament to begin its delayed consideration of new constitutional amendments formulated by a special working group led by Prime Minister Atambaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 13 and 19, 2007). During the same session on April 19, the parliament voted to adopt a resolution criticizing the authorities in the eastern Naryn province for their "illegal" detention of opposition activist Bektemir Akunov, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. After his arrest by local police upon his return from opposition demonstrations in Bishkek, Akunov was found hanged in his cell on April 14 in what officials labeled a suicide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2007). Deputies also called for an impartial investigation into Akunov's death and urged President Bakiev to dismiss provincial Governor Dzhyrgalbek Azylov, the local head of police, and Naryn Mayor Beyshenaly Bogachiev, the Kabar news agency reported. A crowd of more than 400 people angered by Akunov's death attempted to storm the provincial administration building following his burial on April 18. RG

The trial of jailed independent Uzbek journalist Umida Niyazova opened on April 19 in Tashkent amid tight security, but was quickly adjourned to an unspecified date, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. The trial, which has been widely criticized as a politically motivated targeting of Niyazova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30 and 31, 2007), stems from her arrest upon entering the country in December; Niyazova was in neighboring Kyrgyzstan to interview family members of victims of the May 2005 violence in Uzbekistan's eastern city of Andijon that left at least 189 people dead. Niyazova was temporarily released after her initial detention, but her computer and passport were confiscated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 22, 2006). Fearing for her safety after her release, Niyazova fled to Kyrgyzstan and sought asylum through the offices of the United Nations before returning to Uzbekistan on the advice of her lawyer at the time, Abror Yusupov. Niyazova was rearrested as she returned to Uzbekistan in late January and has been in custody ever since. She faces a list of criminal charges that include "illegal border crossing, smuggling prohibited material, and fostering unrest with the help of financial support from foreign governments." If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison. RG

The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) adopted on April 18 a resolution recommending that the organization's Committee of Ministers pay increased attention to the human rights situation in Belarus, Belapan reported on 19 April. PACE said in its resolution that there exist "a number of geographical areas in Europe, including one country, Belarus, and several regions in Council of Europe member states not under their de facto control, where democratic principles are not implemented." PACE urged European governments to "take action on the worst violations -- such as enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and secret detentions -- to preserve the Council of Europe's credibility." AM

PACE has passed a resolution offering recommendations to the Ukrainian authorities on how to overcome the ongoing political crisis in the country, Interfax reported on April 19. PACE recommends that Ukraine approve and adopt without delay laws on the regulations of the Verkhovna Rada, on temporary parliamentary special and investigative commissions, on central bodies of executive power, and on the opposition. According to PACE, Ukraine should also bring the law on the Cabinet of Ministers into compliance with the Ukrainian Constitution. PACE further suggests changes to the electoral system to improve the procedure of organizing early elections in the event parliament is dissolved, and the introduction of open election lists for voters. The organization also urged the two sides to engage in open and constructive dialog. AM

Olena Lukash, a justice of the Constitutional Court who serves on behalf of the Ukrainian government, told reporters on April 19 that the court will soon enter into closed-door proceedings into the constitutionality of the presidential decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada, Interfax reported. "The closed stage will begin in one or two days, when justices will withdraw to discuss all positions and make a decision," Lukash said. Former Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn said the same day that Ukrainians will question any court decision on the presidential decree. "I think we all acknowledge that the Constitutional Court does not exist in Ukraine," Lytvyn said. "People are frankly saying [about the Constitutional Court]: 'You are all scoundrels.'" Meanwhile, 57 Ukrainian lawmakers demanded on April 19 that the Security Service step up its investigations into possible corruption by Constitutional Court Judge Syuzanna Stanik (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17 and April 18, 2007). AM

Volodymyr Shapoval, who serves as a Constitutional Court justice on behalf of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, has announced that he will submit his resignation after the court rules on the constitutionality of the presidential decree dissolving parliament, "Ukrayinska pravda" reported on April 20. Shapoval explained his move by the lack of "the unquestionable confidence of society" in the Constitutional Court. Shapoval said he will remain on Yushchenko's team and is ready to work for the president in any capacity. Shapoval described "the existence of the professional and independent Constitutional Court" as a cornerstone of democracy and the law. "It is hard for me to imagine a situation," Shapoval said, "in which the justice of the highest court suspected of corruption does not put forward a resignation in order to prevent any doubts of his/her objectivity." AM

Ismail Prenetic, described by the Serbian Interior Ministry as the "leader of a terrorist group," was killed early on April 20 in a police raid in the village of Donja Trnava near Novi Pazar in southwestern Serbia, according to an Interior Ministry statement cited by the news agency FoNet. Acting on a tip, police sealed off three isolated houses but were attacked with a hand grenade that injured one policeman. In the ensuing shoot-out, Prenetic was killed and the owner of his hideout injured. Prenetic was apparently wanted by police in connection with an ongoing clampdown on "Wahhabi" activities, a generic term for Islamic radicals known to operate in the unsettled Sandzak region, of which Novi Pazar is the capital and which has a large population of Bosnian Muslims. In mid-March, police raided what they described as a Wahhabi training camp near Novi Pazar, seizing hand-held rocket launchers, explosives, and automatic rifles and arresting four people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). The village in which the latest operation took place lies on the slopes of Rogozna Mountain, which divides Novi Pazar from Serbian-majority areas of neighboring Kosova and is considered a gun-running route. The incident is likely to raise concerns about Wahhabi activities not just in Sandzak, but also in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, where tension between traditional Muslim worshippers and Islamic radicals has been growing in recent months. TV

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on April 19 adopted a diametrically opposed position to that of the United States, warning that "stability could be shattered by any attempt to unilaterally recognize the independence of Kosovo," Reuters reported the same day. Lavrov's statement mirrors one by U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who on April 16 said Washington would back Kosova if it chose to declare itself independent after failing to secure recognition by the UN Security Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2007). The Russian news agency Interfax on April 19 quoted Lavrov as telling Serbian state television that "when independence is demanded for Kosovo using the threat of violence, that is sheer blackmail." AG

Foreign Minister Lavrov gave no indication that Moscow has decided to veto the UN-commissioned plan drawn up by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, under which Kosova would be granted supervised independence. However, he appeared to indicate that Russia is determined to ensure that, at the least, it should not go through in the form conceived by Ahtisaari. "In some cases the efforts of the international community bring results, in others they fail as, for instance, in the case of the plan of Martti Ahtisaari," the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS quoted Lavrov as saying on April 19. Lavrov cited the example of Cyprus, where a UN plan "failed because the interests of one of the sides were not considered and attempts were made to impose the decision from the outside. I hope that those who continue negotiations on the status of Kosovo will learn from these lessons." Similarly, Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, told Russian journalists on April l8 that "it is clear that Russia would not support a resolution that would force a decision on the future status of Kosovo that Serbia did not support," AFP reported the same day. The thrust of Lavrov's comments during a two-day trip to Belgrade reiterated Russia's long-standing public position: Belgrade and Prishtina should continue talks for as long as it takes for them to reach a mutually acceptable agreement, and any attempt to impose a solution would lack international legitimacy and destabilize the entire region. Notably, though, Lavrov did not talk of a precedent for other regions. Moscow has not done so for some weeks. Previously, it had warned that independence for Kosova could set a precedent for Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the self-declared republic of Transdniester in Moldova. Serbian President Boris Tadic did talk of a "dangerous precedent" after meeting with Lavrov, though he did not specify for which unrecognized would-be states. According to FoNet, Tadic added that "Serbia does not accept that it should be a unique case either, because there are many states with similar problems." AG

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on April 19 joined Serbia's President Tadic in calling for a UN Security Council mission to Kosova to visit ethnic Serbian enclaves, Reuters reported. Lavrov said they "absolutely must" visit Serbian communities to get a sense of the situation on the ground "with their own eyes." The Serbian news agency FoNet reported on April 19 that, in a letter addressed to the Serbian government urging pressure on the UN, Tadic said his visits have convinced him that "tens of thousands of people, chiefly Serbs, are living on the brink of survival completely stripped of their rights, exposed to constant persecution, injury, and murder." During a meeting on the sidelines of a Black Sea Economic Cooperation conference held in Belgrade on April 19, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica conveyed a similar message to Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyianni, telling her, according to FoNet, that ethnic Serbs are being terrorized on a daily basis in Kosova. The Security Council agreed to send a mission under pressure from Russia and Serbia, but Kosovar Serbs have in recent days expressed the fear and belief that the mission will not visit their communities. Nationwide broadcasters in Kosova on April 16 quoted the head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), Joachim Ruecker, as saying the Security Council has not yet formally asked UNMIK to prepare an agenda. After visiting Kosova, the delegation will hold talks in Brussels with NATO, which is responsible for security in the region, and with the EU, which, under the Ahtisaari plan, would assume responsibility for international supervision of Kosova's fledgling state. A Kosovar Serb leader on April 17 called for Serbian refugees to march to the border of Kosova to highlight their concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2007). AG

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic told Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik on April 18 that "the messages that Serbia should choose between Europe and Kosovo are unacceptable for Serbia, because Kosovo is woven into Serbia, and Serbia is woven into Europe," FoNet reported the same day. Draskovic said Serbia's commitment to European integration is strategic, while its ties to Kosova are historical, cultural, religious, and legal. Draskovic's comments were subsequently echoed by President Tadic on April 19, according to Radio Belgrade. Plassnik repeated the EU's official line, saying that "the time for negotiations is up; now we need to resolve the situation." However, a number of EU member states -- including Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain -- have voiced reservations about the Ahtisaari plan, while Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer on April 13 called for a deal "where both [Serbia and Kosova] emerge from the situation holding their heads high." Gusenbauer said that Vienna has been discussing Kosova with members of Tadic's personal team, indicating that he believes the international community should pursue a resolution based on the model of Italy's devolution of power to German-speakers in Alto Adige (South Tyrol). Representatives of four EU states -- Britain, France Germany, and Italy -- joined other members of the international Contact Group for Kosova (Russia and the United States) for talks in Moscow on April 20. They will do so again next week in Berlin. AG

A report by the UN Development Program (UNDP), conducted in 2006 and released on March 18, paints a sorry picture of the job prospects for young people, with an unusually large proportion leaving education early to enter a labor market where the unemployment rate has risen every year this decade. Once on the market, their chances of finding work are particularly low, with youth unemployment around 10 percent higher than the average. The report said that official figures put the unemployment rate at the end of 2005 at 39.7 percent, with other sources estimating the figure is 44 percent or higher. This is the highest rate in the Balkans. Young men are slightly more likely to be unemployed than women, though this is attributed chiefly to fewer young women registering. In Kosova as a whole, around 60 percent of women are without work, compared with 38 percent of men. The report found that 57 percent of those living in extreme poverty are under 25. Over half of the population is under 25. It also said 65 percent of Kosovar Albanians believe they could never be friends with ethnic Serbs, and 54 percent would not live next to Serbs. Among Serbs, 25 percent said they could not be friends with Albanians. AG

About 50 percent of young Kosovar Albanians and Serbs would like to emigrate, the same UNDP report found. Security concerns are the primary reason cited by Serbs, while the most common reason given by ethnic Albanians was the desire to earn a living. Another UNDP report, an "Early Warning" report published on April 12, found that -- aggregating results from across all age groups -- 40 percent of Kosovar Albanians would emigrate if they had the chance, and 21 percent of Serbs would leave. The reasons were similar in both reports: security for Serbs, employment for Albanians. The "Early Warning" report said 36 percent of the population see unemployment as the region's key issue, compared with the 26 percent who selected independence as paramount. The Serbian daily "Vecernje novosti" reported on its website on April 16, without providing sources, that most of Kosova's workforce earns between 10 and 15 euros a day ($13.6-$20.4) by working in agriculture and construction. The UNDP youth report says that, in the population as a whole, the ratio of registered unemployed to job vacancies is 530 to one. Serbs find it relatively easier to find work: 3.7 percent of those registered unemployed are Serbs, while they account for an estimated 7 percent of the population. Travel abroad is limited by the lack of passports, with Kosovars having only UNMIK travel documents. The state of the economy is a major reason why supporters of the UN plan for Kosova's future put forward by Martti Ahtisaari believe Kosova should be granted independence. Kosova was always the poorest region in Yugoslavia, with, in 1988, just 44 percent of the gross domestic product per capita of Slovenia, Yugoslavia's wealthiest republic, and 67 percent of the average across Yugoslavia. The 1998-99 conflict and the collapse of economic ties with Serbia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia have exacerbated its economic challenge. Growth in the 2000s has been heavily dependent on aid and remittances. International Monetary Fund figures cited in the UNDP youth report indicate that in 2006 the volume of remittances was equivalent to 68 percent of the aid given the region. The figures also show some modestly positive macroeconomic results in 2006: the economy expanded by 3 percent, inflation was pinned down to 0.7 percent, and exports rose 30 percent. AG

Two international human rights groups have issued reports this week warning that Afghan civilians are increasingly bearing the brunt of conflict in their country. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International say Taliban militants are intentionally attacking civilians.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is warning about a tactic increasingly used by Taliban to abduct and terrorize Afghan civilians -- impersonating Afghan police. The U.S. military says it has received numerous reports in the past two weeks of Taliban fighters impersonating Afghan police. A U.S. military said in a statement on April 19 that the Taliban use the tactic to set up illegal checkpoints and kidnap local Afghans.

The statement said three Taliban fighters in fake Afghan National Police uniforms opened fire on a coalition patrol on April 18. The incident occurred near the strategic Shindand air field in the western province of Herat. All three militants were killed in the ensuing firefight.

In the past two days, U.S.-led coalition forces in Herat Province have confiscated more than 100 fake Afghan police uniforms and recovered more than a dozen false personnel identification documents.

Amnesty International spokeswoman Saria Rees-Roberts says that the tactic is part of a wider strategy that her group reported about on April 19 -- the systematic targeting of Afghan civilians by the Taliban. "These reports [of police impersonations] are very concerning, and they link up with what we have observed," Rees-Robers says. "The Taliban is using practices like abductions and killings in order to exert fear and exert control over the local population. It abducts people that it considers spies or collaborators. It tries them in a shadow court system and often carries out death sentences on them. And it carries out quite gruesome and brutal means of executions -- beheadings and slitting people's throats. This does seem to be designed in order to make other Afghan civilians in the locality fear for themselves and not want to go against the Taliban."

On April 16, HRW issued a report with findings similar to those of Amnesty International. The report said civilian deaths from insurgent attacks in Afghanistan have increased dramatically in the past 15 months, and it concludes that many of those civilian deaths are the result of the failure of militants to respect the international laws of war. The 116-page HRW report documents how Taliban and Hizb-e Islami fighters have sharply escalated suicide bombings and other attacks against civilians since early 2006.

John Sifton, an HRW researcher on Afghanistan, says that there are several reasons for the escalation of civilian casualties by enemies of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his allies. "The Karzai government has not made any real effort to establish security and good governance in the south," Sifton says. "And that, in turn, has left a kind of vacuum that the Taliban could exploit. The other reason is that [militants] are simply more active than they used to be. They are not only increasing their activities. They are increasingly using methods of warfare that violate the [international] laws of war. And that's why you are seeing so many civilians dead."

HRW has called on the Taliban and associated groups to stop all intentional attacks on civilians and civilian targets. It also is calling on insurgents to refrain from using brutal attacks aimed at instilling terror among Afghan civilians. "We think that the Taliban and other insurgent groups are sensitive to these criticisms," Sifton says. "They are trying to gain legitimacy with local populations. Our arguments to them are that their actions are undermining whatever claims to legitimacy they might have."

Both reports criticize the U.S. military, NATO-led combat troops in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and Afghan government troops for conducting operations carelessly or too closely to heavily populated areas. But both groups agree that those operations have not intentionally targeted civilians, as they claim the Taliban is now doing.

(Ron Synovitz is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague. RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Irina Lagunina contributed to this story.)

U.S. Special Forces and Afghan troops killed three suspected militants disguised as police in western Afghanistan on April 18, AP reported the following day. Dressed in fake police uniforms and manning a makeshift checkpoint, the militants opened fire on troops as they approached the illegal checkpoint in Herat Province's Shindand district, the BBC reported. The patrol fired back, killing three insurgents and wounding three others, a coalition statement said on April 19. In the past two days, coalition forces have confiscated more than 100 bogus Afghan National Police (ANP) uniforms and over a dozen false personnel-identification documents in Herat Province. "Taliban fighters are attempting to discredit the Afghan National Police force," U.S. Army Major Christopher Belcher said. JC

U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces waged a seven-hour battle with Taliban fighters before calling in an air strike on April 18, leaving 24 suspected militants dead and two coalition soldiers wounded, AP reported on April 19. The militants ambushed a coalition patrol in the Sangin district of Helmand Province, initiating the firefight, according to a coalition statement on April 19. Intelligence reportedly suggested 40 Taliban fighters were involved or nearby. NATO and Afghan troops launched their largest-ever offensive in March in southern Afghanistan to dislodge Taliban militants from their stronghold in the opium-producing Helmand Province. JC

Iran's Foreign Minister on April 19 vehemently rejected claims by a senior U.S. military official that Iranian-made weapons have been intercepted in Afghanistan en route to Taliban militants, AFP reported the same day. Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini called the claims "baseless and repetitive," according to the semi-official Mehr news agency."Such claims cannot be used as a cover-up for the U.S. increasing failures in Afghanistan," he added. On April 17, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Peter Pace said coalition forces intercepted Iranian-made mortars and explosives in Afghanistan destined for the Taliban, suggesting possible Iranian-involvement in arming the Taliban insurgency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2007). JC

The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, U.S. General Dan McNeill, said on April 19 that he cannot confirm that Iranian-made weapons have been intercepted in Afghanistan by coalition troops, AFP reported the same day. In a meeting with reporters in Kabul, McNeill did not deny the claim made by General Pace, and he noted that the U.S. secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs have access to far more information than his office. McNeill, the head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), also said he has no hard intelligence on the existence of training camps for Afghan insurgents on Iranian territory. A number of U.S. officials have accused the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) elite Quds Force of training and arming Shi'ite militants in Iraq. JC

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told an audience in the town of Fasa in the southern Fars Province on April 19 that developing nuclear power is a collective right for Iranians, and he said Western concerns over weapons proliferation and human rights abuses are all lies, IRNA reported. "Forceful powers" oppose Irans' "progress," he said, and "this psychological war and false expressions of concern for human rights and the proliferation of nuclear weapons are all lies." Separately, former President Mohammad Khatami said in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on April 19 that "Iran has no nuclear weapons and is not trying to access them," IRNA reported. But Khatami told a conference that Iran has a right to possess "atomic technology" like any other country. He asked why "America, Russia, and Japan and other countries have a right to have nuclear energy, but not us." He said Iran must think of the future of its economy, bearing in mind that its oil and gas reserves will eventually run out, IRNA reported. VS

Mehr news agency reported on April 19 that Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani will meet on April 25 with EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana to resume talks on Iran's nuclear activities. The two agreed by phone on April 19 to resume talks, although Larijani reportedly stressed that Iran will not forego the exercise of its "evident rights." The UN Security Council has asked Iran twice since December to stop sensitive nuclear fuel-making activities, a request that Iran has so far ignored. An April 19 letter written by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen confirms Iran's recent claims to have expanded its uranium-enrichment activities in the Natanz plant through the installation of over 1,300 centrifuges, which spin to enrich uranium gas and convert it into nuclear fuel, news agencies reported. IAEA inspectors visited Natanz on April 15 and 16, AFP reported on April 19. VS

Iran's deputy energy minister for water, Rasul Zargar, attended the formal diversion of water into the Sivand Dam in the southern Fars Province on April 19, and rejected claims by critics of the dam project that it will damage nearby archeological sites by increasing local humidity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16 and 17, 2007), IRNA reported. Zargar said the dam would have to contain 35 billion cubic meters of water for its humidity to affect the tomb of Cyrus the Great, an edifice from the 6th century B.C. that is considered a national treasure. Zargar said the bottom of the dam is 8.5 kilometers from the Cyrus mausoleum. Presumably he was suggesting that no water or humidity could reach the tomb. The Fars Province has a dry climate that makes water shortages an ongoing concern but that has also helped prevent the degradation of archeological sites over hundreds of years. The parliamentary representative for the local Marvdasht, Arsanjan, and Pasargad constituency, Ali Akbar Qobadi, said at the opening that "water-shortage problems are so acute in some areas that more than 50 villages have problems with drinking water." He said agriculture is a key activity in the area, and the dam will benefit local farmers. VS

Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi told reporters in Tehran on April 18 that the ministry is drafting amendments to the country's electoral laws that will be presented to the cabinet and then parliament for ratification, ISNA reported. Two of the issues the ministry's proposed amendments will try and regulate, he said, are the timing of resignation of officials who wish to run for elected offices and the present use of election posters, which some in Iran have said is excessive and disorderly. At present, officials must resign six months before the formal registration date for candidates, but Purmohammadi said the ministry has proposed to shorten this period. The current resignation deadline creates a lengthy "electoral" atmosphere that the minister says is bad for the country. He said amendments will also seek to regulate the proliferation of election posters, which often become rubbish on the street within days. "Elections need publicity and presentation," not just posters, he said, although he added that posters will not be banned. VS

Tehran-based lawyer Mohammad Hossein Aghasi told Radio Farda on April 18 that he has tried, so far in vain, to resolve through discussions with judiciary officials the case of Parnaz Azima, an RFE/RL reporter whose passport has been confiscated by Iranian authorities and who is unable to leave Iran after a recent family visit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2007). "These people have no charge against Ms. Azima," Aghasi said. "They have just taken her passport to" prevent her leaving, he added. He said Azima went to the security-affairs department of the Tehran Revolutionary Court on April 15 to discuss her case with an official. Aghasi told Radio Farda that she faced a similar problem in 2006 when her passport was confiscated for weeks and she was accused of acting against national security. He helped resolve the case at the time. "We might be able to resolve the issue with talks" this time, he said. Shirin Ebadi, another lawyer acting on Azima's behalf, also told Radio Farda on April 18 that the state has no legal right to confiscate passports and this incident is "entirely illegal." VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki issued a statement on April 19 harshly condemning the April 18 bombings in Baghdad, which killed nearly 200 Iraqis, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. In a scathing diatribe, he described the attacks as an "ugly crime" carried out by the "bloodsucking soldiers of Satan." "Our dear Iraqi people are coming under a brutal attack that does not distinguish between an old man, child, or woman," he said in the statement. "This attack targets civilian crowds in a way that brings back to memory the mass massacres and genocide committed by the dictatorial regime of Saddam [Hussein] against civilians and defenseless people." Al-Maliki called on "all honest voices in the world" to stand in unison with Iraqis in condemning terrorist acts against innocent civilians throughout the world. He warned that not condemning these types of attacks with both words and actions would be considered a crime against humanity. SS

In a statement issued by his office on April 19, Prime Minister al-Maliki ordered the arrest and interrogation of the military commander responsible for security in the Al-Sadriyah district of Baghdad, where an attack on a marketplace on April 18 killed at least 140 Iraqis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2007). "As the calamity happened again in the area of Al-Sadriyah, which has revealed weakness in the security measures taken to protect civilians in this area, we have decided to arrest the commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Brigade, and refer him to an investigation committee," the statement said. The Al-Sadriyah marketplace was recently rebuilt after a February 3 bombing destroyed it and killed more than 130 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). Meanwhile, Basim al-Athari, a representative from the Al-Najaf offices of Muqtada al-Sadr's political movement, said Iraqi government forces are responsible for the April 18 bombings, AFP reported on April 19. "We hold the security authorities responsible for what happened as they are first and foremost in charge of peoples' lives," al-Athari said. SS

U.S. Major General Michael Barbero, the Joint Staff's deputy director for regional operations, said on April 19, that he expects more high-profile bomb attacks similar to the April 18 Baghdad bombings to be carried out by Sunni extremists, international media reported. "We should have realistic expectations. These high-profile attacks are going to continue," Barbero said. He admitted that after an initial drop in attacks by Sunni extremists, which corresponded with the Baghdad security plan, the extremists are back on the offensive. "It's, you know, action on our part, and now we're seeing the reaction on their part," Barbero said. "And it'll be like that until we can defeat these forces." He said that U.S. forces are trying to cut off supply lines to Sunni extremists and noted that violence in the western Al-Anbar Governorate has greatly declined because Sunni tribal leaders there are united in fighting elements of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. SS

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made an unannounced visit to Baghdad on April 19, international media reported the same day. At a news conference, he warned that the U.S. military buildup in Iraq is not an open-ended commitment, and Washington's patience with the Iraqi government is running out. "The clock is ticking," Gates said. "I know it's difficult, and clearly the attack on the Council of Representatives has made people nervous," he added, referring to the April 12 suicide attack on the Iraqi parliament building inside the highly fortified Green Zone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2007). He also urged the Iraqi government to press ahead and push through legislation on political reconciliation and the sharing of oil revenues among Shi'a, Sunnis, and the Kurds. "It's not that these laws are going to change the situation immediately, but I think...the ability to get them done communicates a willingness to work together," he said. SS

In a video posted on an insurgent website, the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq announced the formation of an "Islamic cabinet," international media reported on April 19. A man in the video believed to be the group's spokesman announced the formation of the 10-member cabinet, which includes Abd al-Rahman al-Falahi, as first minister to the state's amir, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi; and Abu-Hamzah al-Muhajir, who was named war minister. "Today, with the grace of Allah the Exalted, and after Allah defeated the crusaders and humiliated the apostates at the hands of the mujahedin; this chapter in time requires that your brothers in the Shura Council of the Islamic State of Iraq announce the ministerial makeup of the first Islamic state that does not believe in the idols. But believes in Allah, and that undertakes jihad in his name to enforce his law decades after the fall and loss of the Islamic caliphate," the spokesman said. SS

Kurdistan regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani announced on April 19 that he will visit Iran in the coming days to discuss the issue of terrorists crossing the Iranian border into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, "Ibril Peyamner" reported. "We have had a thorough follow-up on the recent failed terrorist attack against a border point in Pinjwin," east of Al-Sulaymaniyah, Barzani said. "We take those events very seriously because they pose a threat to the security and stability of our region." Kurdish officials have indicated that the Iraqi Kurdistan-Iranian border region has been used as an entry point by the terrorist group Ansar Al-Islam to infiltrate Iraq and carry out attacks. SS