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Newsline - April 24, 2007

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin died aged 76 on April 23 in a Moscow hospital of heart failure after a long history of health problems, Russian and international media reported (see End Note). Vladimir Putin, who took over from Yeltsin as acting president on December 31, 1999, and was formally elected his successor three months later, declared April 25 a national day of mourning. Yeltsin's funeral will take place the same day. He will be buried in Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery, where many famous people from Russian history have their final resting place, including writer Anton Chekhov and former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Putin's annual address to the nation, which was scheduled for April 25, has been postponed by one day. PM

President Putin said on April 24 that "thanks to [former President Yeltsin], a whole new era began," reported. Putin added that "a new, democratic Russia was born, a free state open to the world, and a state in which power really does belong to the people." Putin noted Yeltsin's role in establishing constitutional order in the Russian Federation. He added that Yeltsin "was an honest and brave national leader [who] accepted full responsibility for all he aspired to and for all he tried to do.... He deeply felt all the troubles and problems people faced in turbulent times." Putin stressed that Yeltsin's "words, 'protect Russia,' always serve us as moral and political guidelines." PM

Former Polish President Lech Walesa said in Warsaw on April 23 that "the world has forgotten, but it was [former President Yeltsin] who dissolved the USSR...not [former Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev," news agencies reported. Walesa added that if Yeltsin had not helped break up the Soviet Union, "then all of the processes then happening in the world would have stopped and receded. We have to thank Yeltsin for everything we have: the free world, and the age of intellect, information, and globalization," news agencies reported. Gorbachev, who was a rival of Yeltsin and with whom Yeltsin did not speak in recent years, said in Moscow that Yeltsin "leaves behind him great deeds to the benefit of his country and serious mistakes.... [He was] a tragic figure." Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was one of Yeltsin's prime ministers, called his former chief "an epoch for Russia." Estonian parliamentarian Peeter Tulviste said that "it's largely thanks to Yeltsin that we got free [of the Soviet Union] without bloodshed." Former U.S. President Bill Clinton said in a statement that "fate gave [Yeltsin] a tough time in which to govern, but history will be kind to him because he was courageous and steadfast on the big issues: peace, freedom, and progress." Former British Prime Minister John Major said that Yeltsin will be remembered for his work in promoting democracy and not "the economic difficulties...[or] whether he drank too much." Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl stressed that Yeltsin's "contribution to Russo-German relations and to world peace should not be underestimated." PM

Indus Tahirov, who is a former chairman of the World Tatar Congress, and Rafail Khakimov, an adviser to Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiyev, recalled for RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service on April 23 former President Yeltsin's role in promoting federalism in the 1990s. Tahirov and Khakimov took part in the negotiations that led up to the 1994 Kazan-Moscow power-sharing agreement. Tahirov said that Yeltsin was "the man who came to Tatarstan and said, 'Take as much sovereignty as you want.' Despite all the difficulties at that time, Yeltsin accepted...and opened the way for [Tatarstan's] sovereignty." Tahirov added that Yeltsin "was, of course, a controversial person as well. For instance, ahead of Tatarstan's [independence] referendum, he opposed [the measure] vigorously.... We didn't forget that. But...after we won the referendum, he behaved generously.... Yeltsin understood the need to expand Tatarstan's powers as a historical challenge." Khakimov said that Yeltsin "was a controversial person. On the one hand, he brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, as Russia's first president, he did a lot for democracy, federalism, liberty, and freedom of speech. He sensed where the world was going and where Russia should go." Khakimov hailed Yeltsin for signing "a treaty with us. At that time everyone [in the Russian leadership] was against that treaty, but he signed it nevertheless." PM

The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on April 24 that former President Yeltsin was "the man who gave people new life and new opportunities to pursue their dreams. Moreover, and this was important to him, he removed fear from people's hearts." The paper added that "people saw their difficulties in adapting to a new way of life as the blunders of the country's leader. And since people no longer had fear, the head of state was ostracized by just about everyone." RIA Novosti argued on April 23 that the rule of former President Yeltsin paved the way for the emergence of the oligarchs, whose power remains felt to this day. The news agency noted that Yeltsin, as president, "moved to end state control of the economy and oversaw sweeping privatization deals, which brought fortunes to a handful of Kremlin-connected businessmen. Economic difficulties and political opposition slowed the reform." The daily "Kommersant" noted on April 24 that "Yeltsin said [in 1999] that he was leaving Russia to 'a new generation of politicians,' under whom the country 'will never go back to the past.' But during the seven years of his presidency, Putin has proved that a return to the past is possible." The daily added that "many members of the opposition believe that the 'appointment' of Putin as successor was the biggest mistake of the first president of Russia. But Yeltsin himself never admitted that. At least publicly." The mass-circulation daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" said that Russians can forgive Yeltsin his drinking, but the privatization process and the war in Chechnya ruined his reputation. PM

Hans-Joerg Rudloff, who heads Barclays Capital, the investment branch of the British bank Barclays, said at the Russian Economic Forum in London on April 23 that the Russian financial boom cannot be sustained and will reach a painful end "in the near future," the "Financial Times" reported on April 24. Rudloff, who is reportedly well-connected in Russia and holds a seat on the board of Rosneft, has generally been considered to be a supporter of President Putin's policies, the daily added. Rudloff argued that Russia's "boom is not sustainable...and there will be downturns. There will be more difficulties." He stressed that "there's no soft landing after such excessive rewards" as investors have reaped in "the last seven years." The conference is taking place without the usual top-level Russian government and business participants, who decided not to attend at the last minute after reported Kremlin intervention. PM

Having ruled on April 20 ruling that the March 11 mayoral elections in the town of Karachayevsk were valid, the Supreme Court of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic has ordered the republic's election commission to make public within three days the final results of that ballot, the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on April 24. The election commission annulled on March 20 the outcome of the vote in which Sapar Laypanov, who enjoyed the support of KChR President Mustafa Batdyev, apparently lost by only a few hundred votes to opposition candidate Magomet Botashev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2007). Botashev, who is allied with Supreme Court Chairman Islam Burlakov, appealed the election commission ruling. LF

The Krasnodar Krai parliament approved on April 23 by a vote of 59 in favor and one against a third term for incumbent Governor Aleksandr Tkachev, reported the following day. Tkachev, who is 46 and a member of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, was first elected in December 2000 with 82 percent of the vote, according to on April 23, and reelected for a second term in April 2004. His second term therefore expires only in April 2008, but on April 10 he asked President Putin to reconfirm him in his post, whereupon Putin submitted Tkachev's candidacy to the krai legislature on April 20. LF

Russian Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) head Sergei Kiriyenko met in Yerevan on April 23 with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The talks focused on possible Russian assistance in building a new nuclear power plant in Armenia to replace the existing one at Medzamor, which the EU wants shut down as potentially unsafe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 1, 2006). Kiriyenko also signed an agreement with Sarkisian on joint prospecting for and exploitation of uranium deposits in Armenia. Kiriyenko pointed out that Armenia could use that uranium to create nuclear fuel for Medzamor. LF

The Azerbaijani government has cancelled the planned visit to Washington of a high-level delegation that was to have held bilateral talks on security issues on April 23-24, Azerbaijani media reported, quoting the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry. That decision was made to protest the rewording of a section of the State Department annual report on human rights in Armenia. The original text noted that "Armenia continues to occupy the Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories." As a result of protests from the Armenian government and lobbying by Armenian organizations in the United States, that wording was changed to read "Armenian forces have occupied large sections of Azerbaijani territory adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian officials claim they have not 'occupied' Nagorno-Karabakh proper." According to the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, the State Department revision distorts the essence of the conflict and calls into question Washington's objectivity as a mediator in the conflict. On April 24, the online daily quoted Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry press spokesman Khazar Ibrahim as saying that the new wording is at odds with the official U.S. position on the Karabakh conflict. LF

Before leaving on April 23 on an official visit to the United Kingdom, President Mikheil Saakashvili unveiled at a session of the National Security Council a five-point peace plan for resolving the South Ossetian conflict, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. The plan envisages the creation of a temporary administration for South Ossetia that would designate its representatives to a number of central ministries, including the interior, finance, and justice ministries. The temporary administration would receive an unspecified amount of funds from the central budget to finance reconstruction. At some unspecified future date, and under conditions that Saakashvili did not spell out, the temporary administration would rule on the restoration of South Ossetia's autonomous status within Georgia, which the Georgian SSR Supreme Soviet abolished in late 1990. Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said on Moscow would not participate in any negotiations involving the "alternative" pro-Tbilisi South Ossetian administration headed by Dmitry Sanakoyev, Caucasus Press reported on April 23. Also on April 23, speaker Nino Burdjanadze said the Georgian parliament would approve the funds designated by Saakashvili for postconflict reconstruction in South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov told a news conference in Astana on November 23 that the top priority in Kazakhstan's new defense doctrine is participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Uzbekistan), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Akhmetov said that a new element in the doctrine is "coalition building within the CSTO by creating the necessary military groupings." Akhmetov said that China and Russia remain Kazakhstan's strategic partners under the new doctrine. Akhmetov stressed, however, that the doctrine accords "serious attention to the strengthening and perfecting of cooperation with the United States and NATO." DK

Omurbek Suvanaliev, a leader of the opposition United Front For A Worthy Future, was detained by the National Security Committee (KNB) on April 23 after he appeared voluntarily for questioning, his lawyer Tatyana Chilnikina told the news agency Chilnikina said that Suvanaliev is suspected of inciting unrest in connection with protests on April 19 and will remain in custody for three days (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, another leader in the United Front, was also detained on suspicion of inciting unrest on April 23, reported. Former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, who heads the United Front and himself submitted to questioning on April 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007), condemned the detentions as an attempt by President Kurmanbek Bakiev to "intimidate political opponents," Interfax reported. Commenting on Suvanaliev's detention, Kulov said, "It was not an arrest. It was a detention and it means he is being intimidated to see whether there will be any protest." Kulov said that the United Front plans "peaceful protests" to demand Suvanaliev and Abdrakhmanov's release. Tursunbek Akun, head of the presidential Human Rights Commission, told that Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev assured him at a meeting on November 23 he would halt the political persecution of opposition leaders. Akun said that Atambaev told him that he learned of Suvanaliev's detention only after it took place. DK

Kyrgyz investigators have seized video footage of protests in Bishkek on April 11-19 to aid them in their inquiries, Interfax reported on April 23, citing a press release from the Prosecutor-General's Office. "The seizure was made at the state-owned Kyrgyzstan station and at the independent Pyramid, Fifth Channel, NBT, and NTS stations," the statement noted. "All channels broadcast footage of the meetings of the United Front For Dignified Future of Kyrgyzstan and movement For Reforms, in the period from April 11 to April 19." Prime Minister Atambaev has blamed the opposition for the unrest, while United Front leader Kulov has charged that the authorities instigated the violence that led police to break up the protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). DK

Tajikistan's Supreme Court has sentenced two Uzbek citizens to life imprisonment after their conviction on murder and terror charges, Avesta reported on April 23. Nine other people, including one Uzbek citizen, received prison terms ranging from seven to 28 years. Judge Nur Nurov told a press conference on April 23 that the 11 were members of a criminal group that was responsible for explosions in Dushanbe two years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1 and June 14, 2005). Nurov said that the 11 included former members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). "We have information that some of the convicts were at times members of the IMU but later turned into ordinary gangsters with no ideology," he said. DK

Andrea Berg, the sole representative of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Uzbekistan, told AP on April 23 that her employment accreditation has been renewed for three months. Last week, Berg reported that she had been denied accreditation, which would have forced her to leave Uzbekistan. HRW says Uzbek authorities have been tightening restrictions on nongovernmental groups, and have jailed at least 15 human rights activists on politically motivated charges in the past two years. DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on April 24 delivered his annual address to the National Assembly, which consists of the Chamber of Representatives and the Council of the Republic, Belarusian Television reported. He said that despite the conflict with Moscow earlier this year over gas- and oil-price hikes, there is no alternative to his policy of integration with Russia. At the same time, Lukashenka stressed that maintaining Belarus's independence will remain a key priority in this integration policy. Referring to Belarus's relations with the European Union and the United States, Lukashenka underscored that they should be based on equality. "We are not standing [before the EU and the U.S.] with a begging hand," Lukashenka said. JM

President Lukashenka said in his annual address to the National Assembly on April 24 that, in order to minimize the likelihood of further such energy crises, the Belarusian government has looked for possibilities to develop oil fields and/or import oil from such countries as Venezuela, Iran, and Azerbaijan, Belarusian Television reported. "The economy cannot be dependent only on one supplier of hydrocarbons. We have good relations with Venezuela, Iran, Azerbaijan. It is important for us to extract oil in these countries," Lukashenka said, adding that prospects for such extraction are auspicious. The Belarusian president also assured lawmakers that Belarus will build a nuclear power plant to ensure its economic security. JM

Verkhovna Rada head Oleksandr Moroz told journalists in Kyiv on April 23 that he is going to offer President Viktor Yushchenko a plan to settle the ongoing political crisis in the country, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Moroz proposes to cancel simultaneously the presidential decree dissolving the parliament and the resolutions of the Cabinet of Ministers and the Verkhovna Rada that were passed in response to the decree. If the Constitutional Court recognizes the presidential decree as constitutional, Moroz proposes to postpone the date of the early elections to the Verkhovna Rada until this coming summer or autumn. If the Constitutional Court rules the presidential decree void, Moroz proposes that the Verkhovna Rada introduce a number of amendments in electoral legislation, the rules of procedure in the Verkhovna Rada, the constitution, the law on the Cabinet of Ministers, as well as introduce a number of other bills. On April 24, Moroz called on deputies from the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) and Our Ukraine to return to work in the legislature. Oleksandr Turchynov from the BYuT responded that lawmakers from his party will return to parliament only following early parliamentary elections. Lawmakers from the BYuT and Our Ukraine gave up their parliamentary seats last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2007). JM

The Bosnian Serb parliament on April 23 upheld a veto on a call by Muslim and Croatian leaders to exert pressure on Serbia to hand over war crimes suspects, local and international media reported the same day. The Serbian member of Bosnia's tripartite Presidency, Nebojsa Radmanovic, on April 11 rejected the proposal by his counterparts, the Muslim Haris Silajdzic and the Croat Zeljko Komsic, to use a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in February to apply pressure on Serbia to deliver Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander allegedly responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica, to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Under the Bosnian Constitution, the two autonomous regions can veto state-level decisions that they believe harm their vital interests. The vote was passed by 69 votes to six. AP quoted Radmanovic as telling the Republika Srpska assembly that a request to Serbia would be "unnecessary, ultimate, and inappropriate, and it does not contribute to war crimes suspects being brought to justice." The ICJ cleared Serbia of genocide in Bosnia, but ruled that it had violated its obligations under the Genocide Convention to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica and to punish those responsible. The ruling has triggered debates both about the future political status of Srebrenica and the continued existence of the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-dominated autonomous entity formalized under the 1995 Dayton agreement that ended the war (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, March 21 and 27, and April 19, 2007). AG

Speaking to the broadcaster B92 on April 23, Serbia's only ethnic Albanian member of parliament, Riza Halimi, said he is not afraid that independence for Kosova could trigger a wave of violence in areas of southern Serbia predominantly populated by ethnic Albanians. Halimi, who represents an Albanian region in the Presevo Valley, said he believes "rioting and conflicts were left in the past," and that there are "no valid reasons whatsoever for fresh conflicts." While fighting between ethnic Albanians and Serbian troops ended in Kosova in 1999 with the intervention of NATO-led troops, there were hundreds of attacks on Serbian forces in Presevo between 1999 and the disbanding of a local guerrilla group in 2001. Halimi, who organized a referendum in 1992 in which the region voted for greater political and cultural autonomy, earlier this year spoke against "wasting energy in waging war and redrawing borders." However, while Halimi was for a long time the dominant political voice in Presevo, his power was eclipsed in November 2005 by the victory in local elections of politicians linked to the former guerrilla movement. One of the region's leaders in March called for the region to be allowed to join Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). AG

A hard-line leader of Kosova's Serbian population, Milan Ivanovic, moved to downplay fears of violence by ethnic Serbs in an interview with the Albanian-language newspaper "Express" on April 21. Ivanovic, who has in the past referred to the UN's plans for the region as "a sort of political terrorism," threatened civil disobedience, and warned of the emergence of a Greater Albania, stressed that "I have never said that [Kosovar] Serbs should have an army" and said that "because of the circumstances," Kosova should be "demilitarized" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5 and 7, and March 6, 2007). Ivanovic said, "there would be no particular reaction in the north" if Kosova were granted or unilaterally declared independence, and he argued that Serbs in northern Kosova -- where most live -- could not separate their fate from that of Serbs in ethnically Albanian central Kosova and that Kosovar Serbs can "decide on the big issues only together with Serbia." In a similar vein, he refused to discuss a partition of Kosova on the grounds that northern Kosova is "only 8 percent of the territory." Stating an opinion echoed once again on April 23 by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, Ivanovic said he does not expect Kosova to be granted independence, adding that "a solution cannot be expected before autumn." AG

Ivanovic also sought to quell fears of violence exacerbated by an AP report on April 20 that quoted unnamed officials in Belgrade as saying Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed that Serbia move some 200 police officers and "military staff" into Serbian-populated areas of northern Kosova if Kosova declares independence unilaterally. If accurate, the report raises the possibility that Serbia might seek to retain control of at least some of Kosova, despite the probability that would trigger a confrontation with international forces stationed in the region. In his April 23 interview with the newspaper "Expres," Ivanovic said that "I know nothing about this and I don't think that this information has anything to do with reality. I don't know what the function of those 200 policemen would be." Lavrov supposedly made the suggestion during consultations on April 19 with Serbian leaders, after which he warned that a unilateral declaration of independence would "endanger the stability" of the Balkans, and dismissed as "blackmail" U.S. suggestions that delaying independence for Kosova "would lead to more violence, rather than less" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). Lavrov has not in the past explicitly suggested instability might lead to an outbreak of violence, but was quoted by the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS as saying on April 23 that "it is not in the interests of the Europeans to lay a mine with a slow-burning fuse in the Balkans." No government has commented on Lavrov's alleged suggestion to move Serbian security forces into northern Kosova and, according to the April 21 edition of the Kosovar Albanian daily "Koha ditore," officials at the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) and NATO-led military command refused to comment, with the UNMIK spokesperson describing the report as "media speculation." However, the paper says its sources indicate the Serbian Interior Ministry deployed 200 police officers "one month ago." AG

Citing one of Montenegro's leading Muslim radicals, the Montenegrin newspaper "Dan" claimed on April 23 that dozens of radical Islamists have fled from Serbia to Montenegro in the past few days. The paper also quoted an analyst who put the figure even higher, at 150. The alleged infiltration was said to be triggered by a Serbian police operation against radicals near the southern town of Novi Pazar in which the "leader of a terrorist group" was killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). "Dan" referred to the radicals as "Wahhabis," a generic term applied in the Balkans to politicized Muslim extremists and that may imply links to Al-Qaeda, which emerged from the austere Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. "Dan" said that its source said the members of the group that fled Serbia are not "real Wahhabis," but "a group of criminals who are trying to escape the law in Western Europe." Montenegrin police said they have no information from the Serbian Interior Ministry of suspected terrorists escaping into Montenegro, "Dan" reported. Citing Serbian media, "Dan" reported that the Wahhabis have moved into the Plav and Rozaje areas of northern Montenegro. Serbia's security agencies have released few details of the raid, and media coverage has revealed little. The raid followed the discovery in mid-March of a what police described as a Wahhabi training camp near Novi Pazar (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). The Novi Pazar district is close to Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but borders only with Serbian-majority areas of neighboring Kosova. It also lies on a route reportedly favored by gun smugglers. AG

The local security council in Novi Pazar said on April 21 that it believes the raid will not endanger stability in the Muslim-majority region of Sandzak, Serbian television reported the same day. This echoed a statement reported the previous day by a local political movement. The Coalition List for Sandzak said it has warned police for some time of a threat, the news agency FoNet reported on April 20. Local leaders and security experts interviewed in the Serbian media expressed no surprise at the showdown. In an unconnected development in Sandzak, local media reported on April 20 that the leader of the Islamic Community of Serbia, Muamer Zukorlic, sent a letter to Serbian President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Kostunica saying he has indications that Serbia's security services "illegally" sought to prevent Serbia's various Muslim communities gathering in Novi Pazar in March for a conference, adding that "such manifestations are causing anxiety among Muslims" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2007). Zukorlic is also the mufti of Sandzak. The ethnically mixed region has a particularly large population of Bosnian Muslims. AG

Police in the Republika Srpska on April 20 arrested the autonomous region's former trade minister, Boris Gaspar, the news agency SRNA reported the same day. Gaspar and two others -- a former adviser in the Trade Ministry, and a local businessman -- were charged with abuse of office. Additional details have not emerged. AG

Visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs Rosemary DiCarlo on April 23 urged Macedonia's governing and opposition parties to forge a consensus strong enough to carry through reforms needed to achieve the country's stated goals of joining the EU and NATO. According to reports by the MIA news agency, DiCarlo highlighted corruption, human trafficking, and religious rights as other key areas of concern (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). DiCarlo, who met with President Branko Crvenkovski and Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, reiterated Washington's strong support for Macedonia's application to join both organizations. U.S. President George W. Bush on April 10 signed legislation affirming support for NATO's enlargement to include Macedonia, as well as Albania, Croatia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Macedonia hopes to receive an invitation from NATO in 2008, and to embark on preaccession talks with the EU next year. However, EU officials have voiced concerns at a perceived slackening in the pace of Macedonia's reform process and at the fractured nature of party politics, with tensions with ethnic Albanian parties being a particular concern (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1 and 9, 2007). Macedonia has troops on international missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and also Afghanistan and Iraq. AG

Moldova's parliament on April 20 passed the first reading of a bill that would radically change Moldova's tax regime and, proponents hope, transform its economic fortunes. The economic reforms, the brainchild of President Vladimir Voronin, envisage freeing companies of a 15 percent tax on income if they reinvest profits, a tax amnesty, and the legalization of previously undeclared assets at a cost of 5 percent of their value (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2007). Dissenting members of parliament argued that the reforms legalize theft, are intended to boost the coffers of Voronin's Communist Party, and would fail to boost the economy, the news agency IPN reported. The plans have received a mixed response from observers, with some pointing out Moldova's income-tax rate is already low. In a reference that sought to capture the radical change represented by the reforms, the newspaper "Moldavskiye vedomosti" on April 20 dubbed the reforms Voronin's "New Economic Plan," an allusion to Lenin's adoption of an economic policy in 1921 that reinstituted limited private ownership in the wake of Russia's devastating civil war. However, the author viewed the move -- "to transform the country into an offshore center" -- as being driven by a wish on the part of the "ruling clan to rob people and control financial flows." Addressing parliament, Voronin said on April 20 that Moldova has achieved some economic stability, avoided some economic risks, and won international backing and so "it is time to leave behind the past," which he described as a "dark" age for the majority of the population, IPN reported. AG

An opinion poll published on April 19 found that 48 percent of Moldovans believe their economic situation became poorer or much poorer over the preceding 12 months, while 26 percent believe it improved, IPN reported on April 19. A comparison with figures for February 2006 suggests a sharp deterioration in subjective assessments: then, 31 percent said their situation had worsened, while 24 percent said it had improved. Moldovans were more optimistic than those figures might suggest, with 28 percent expecting their economic prospects to improve over the next year, compared with 19 percent who expect their situation to worsen. These figures are from a low base: the poll, the Sociopolitical Barometer conducted by IMAS-INC, said 53 percent are dissatisfied with their living standards and 56 percent with the overall state of the Moldovan economy. Only 13 percent said the Moldovan economy is performing satisfactorily. The poll was conducted in mid-March, before Voronin announced his reform package (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2007). AG

Dissatisfaction with the state of the Moldovan economy translated into disagreement with the Communist-led government's policies but not into disappointment with the Communist Party, the same IMAS-INC poll found. While 53 percent thought the direction of economic policy is wrong, a figure reportedly comparable with previous polls, 31 percent believed the current government is better than the previous administration, while 18 percent viewed it as worse. Confidence in the government as an institution continues to rise, to 49 percent. The same poll found that President Voronin remains the country's most trusted politician and his Communist Party the most popular party. This is welcome news for the Communists, as local elections will be held on June 3. The poll found that the Communists are preferred by 60 percent of the population. However, there was some bad news for Voronin, as the poll showed that the proportion of Moldovans who trust him a great or very great deal fell over the year from 55 to 49 percent and as it again illustrated that he remains a deeply divisive character, with 46 percent saying they do not trust him. The poll was conducted before revelatory reports that Voronin is on the brink of signing a deal with Russia that resolve the status of the breakaway region of Transdniester, the outlines of which are likely to be unpopular with Western-leaning Moldovans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). AG

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's death at 76 -- an unexpectedly advanced age, given both the average life expectancy in Russia and what could best be termed Yeltsin's unhealthy lifestyle -- follows the deaths of many of his contemporaries under much less comfortable circumstances: liberal legislators Sergei Yushenkov and Galina Starovoitova, and journalists Anna Politkovskaya, Yury Shchekochikhin, and Vladislav Listev. All of these people were murdered, or died under unexplained circumstances, in a climate that the lawlessness of the Yeltsin era helped to create.

While Yeltsin was able to enjoy his retirement, traveling to international tennis tournaments and vacationing in Sardinia, he effectively disappeared from Russian political life. Unlike former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, he did not use his status as a former head of state to lobby for causes or try to shape his historical legacy.

That legacy has become considerably tarnished in recent years. Popular accounts of the Yeltsin years, spanning from 1991 to 1999, have made liberal use of the word "kleptocracy." Critics have focused on the loans-for-shares scheme in which valuable state assets were sold for a pittance, and the staggering decline in real income that followed the launch of his government's economic reforms.

Much attention of late has dwelled on the jump in the mortality rate that occurred in the 1990s. Between 2.5 and 3 million more Russian adults died between 1992 and 2001 than would have been expected based on the mortality rate in 1991, according to a 2003 study.

Of course, transitions from one political and economic system to another are never easy. But Russian citizens throughout the 1990s could look at life in neighboring countries, such as Estonia and Hungary, and legitimately wonder why things were so much worse in Russia, a country with an abundance of natural resources.

Many blame the chaos of the Yeltsin years for the Russian public's quiet acceptance -- if not embrace -- of current Russian President Vladimir Putin's ever-tightening control over Russian society. Putin gave the Russian public what it wanted from politics after the upheavals of the Yeltsin years: predictability. Yes, politics become a lot more boring, but also far more stable.

While Boris Yeltsin must share the blame for the excesses of his era and the Russian public's resulting distaste for "democracy," he also deserves credit for what he did not do. Russia escaped the wrenching violence that often accompanies major political and economic change. After all, Russia did not have to endure another civil war like that which followed the Bolshevik Revolution.

Of course, the lack of bloodshed can partly be attributed to the fact that the Soviet ruling classes did not experience a wholesale disenfranchisement. Yeltsin kept the peace through co-optation rather than suppression, often rewarding loyalty rather than competence.

Members of the Soviet nomenklatura still administer -- if not possess -- much of the country's riches. Consider just one example: Vagit Alekperov, the head of LUKoil, named by Forbes as one of the world's richest people last year, was an "oil general" in the 1980s long before Yeltsin tapped him to be deputy oil minister in 1991.

While Yeltsin was clearly not the wholesale economic and political reformer that the West initially made him out to be, he deserves credit for his acknowledgment of other peoples' right to self-determination. To appreciate Yeltsin's restraint, one only has to ponder for a moment or so how his successor would have reacted to the 1991 treaty dissolving the Soviet Union or to the "parade of sovereignties," when one Russian region after another declared its independence from Moscow's formal authority. Granted, Yeltsin did not enjoy the same level of support from the military and intelligence service that Putin does. He nevertheless could have made an appeal to Russian nationalism, but he resisted playing that card through most of his career.

Boris Yeltsin made many mistakes. He was a deeply flawed individual who lacked humility and consistency. He was also a person who was obviously physically unwell. Years of heavy drinking not only destroyed his good looks but also appeared to slow his speech, if not his wits, blunting his once keen political judgment. But history, nevertheless, is likely to look kindly on the changes he was able to oversee without major bloodshed.

A remote-controlled explosive device destroyed a vehicle in Laghman Province, east of Kabul, on April 23, killing six intelligence officers, AFP reported. Laghman police chief General Asil Totakhail blamed "enemies of Afghanistan" -- a term used by Afghan officials to describe the neo-Taliban -- for carrying out the attack. Meanwhile, a roadside bomb killed two Afghan policemen in Zabul Province the same day, AFP reported. Five policemen were injured in the attack. An unidentified spokesman for the Taliban claimed responsibility. AT

Qari Yusof Ahmadi, speaking for the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the murder of Abdul Shakur, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on April 23. Abdul Shakur was abducted in Ghazni Province, southwest of Kabul, on April 22. Brigadier-General Alishah Ahmadzai, Ghazni's police chief said that Abdul Shakur's body was discovered on April 23 close to the provincial capital. Ahmadzai said he suspects that a local Taliban commander named Mullah Rahtamullah was involved in the killing of the intelligence officer. AT

The French government remains concerned over the fate of two French hostages held by the Taliban, the Paris daily "Le Figaro" reported on April 23. Two French employees of the nongovernmental group Terre d'Enfance and three Afghan colleagues were kidnapped by the Taliban on April 4 in Nimroz Province in southwestern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2007). The Taliban have since demanded that France withdraw its roughly 1,000 troops from Afghanistan. Additionally, the Taliban have demanded that the Afghan government comply with their demand for a prisoner exchange. Kabul has vowed that no deals will be made with hostage takers following fallout from March, when the Karzai administration relented to Italian pressure and released five high-value Taliban prisoners in exchange for an Italian journalist but failed to win the release of two Afghan hostages abducted along with the Italian. The Taliban beheaded one of the Afghan hostages before the Italian's release and later killed the second as well (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2007). AT

A new private television station has been established in the northern Balkh Province, the Kabul daily "Cheragh" reported on April 22. The station, called Arzu (Hope), was founded by local businessman Kamal Nabizada. The station broadcasts to all of Balkh Province and some surrounding areas, but the coverage area is expected to grow within six months. Arzu currently broadcasts three hours nightly. Arzu Radio station is also running test transmissions over an FM frequency. AT

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani confirmed in Tehran on April 23 that he will meet with EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana in Turkey on April 25 to discuss Iran's nuclear policies, ISNA reported. Solana has been Iran's interlocutor on behalf of the 5+1 powers, the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. Iranian officials have recently said Iran will not agree to Western demands to halt sensitive fuel-making activities, including uranium enrichment, before talks. Western powers fear Iran might use that enriched uranium to make nuclear bombs. Larijani said Iranians want an agreement "but they are not gullible." He said talks could be a solution if they are "serious" and not just "some kind of diplomatic dance." He said the 5+1 powers should not "talk about preconditions." New conditions, he said, mean "new requirements," referring presumably to recent reports on Iranian progress toward large-scale atomic fuel production. Larijani said talks could focus on Western concerns over "deviation" in Iran's activities. "We would like others not to have concerns over our peaceful nuclear activities," he said. VS

Secretary Larijani dismissed on April 23 reports that Russia has effectively told Iran it will not complete the Bushehr power plant, which it is helping build on Iran's southern coast, until Iran resolves the dispute over its program with UN powers. "I have not heard this from the Russians, and right now our relations with the Russian government are in place," Larijani said. "The only considerations with [Bushehr] are economic, and there are no political issues." He said it is not to Russia's advantage to let "political considerations" play a role in the construction project. Construction has been delayed considerably, most recently due to disagreements over payments by Iran. Iran insists it has paid all monies due to builders on time. Iran and the Russian contractor Atomstroiexport reportedly signed an agreement on April 22 to resolve money differences and finance the project's completion, news agencies reported. Atomstroieksport spokeswoman Irina Yesipova said in Moscow on April 22 that the new "financing plan" might resolve certain "questions" currently delaying construction, AP reported. She said there will be more talks "next month" on outstanding differences. Larijani said in Tehran that Russia has asked for "a different form" of financing for Bushehr, but added that he hopes "these issues" are resolved swiftly, ISNA reported. VS

Iranian police began on April 21 a drive to promote modest conduct in public and banish skimpy or suggestive clothing for women, in line with the country's religious laws, Radio Farda reported. The drive is part of a recently publicized nationwide plan to promote morality and enhance social and "moral security." The daily "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 24 that from April 21 to 23, police stood on streets and at intersections, taking note of people dressed in an allegedly indecent manner and telling women to mind their appearance and tighten their head scarves to cover their hair, as required by law. Police could resort to arrests and fines for those they see ignoring their admonishments, dailies have reported. On April 23, judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Sharudi told a gathering of provincial governors in Tehran that police must be "very careful" in implementing the morality drive, which he described nevertheless as "comprehensive," ISNA and ILNA reported. He said "taking women and teenagers into police stations" would not curb immorality in society and the "sharp" response is not a solution to social misconduct. VS

Hundreds of residents of Al-Adhamiyah took to the streets on April 23 and called for the removal of the security barrier that the U.S. military is building around their neighborhood, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Demonstrators gathered in front of Abu-Hanifah Al-Nu'man Mosque and marched toward the Royal Cemetery, carrying banners in Arabic and English demanding the removal of barbed wire and concrete blocks, which they said have turned their neighborhood into a huge prison. Dawud al-A'zami, chairman of the Al-Adhamiyah local council, said that a survey found that that 90 percent of Al-Adhamiyah residents are totally opposed to the wall, Al-Quds Press reported. "Through this protest, we are demonstrating our condemnation of the U.S. forces' construction of a separation wall that isolates one area in Baghdad from the remainder of the city," al-A'zami said. The Muslim Scholars Association, in an April 23 statement posted on its website, described the barrier as "a sectarian separation wall." "This ugly crime [construction of the wall] shows the failure of the security plans of the occupation troops and the current government. Secondly, it demonstrates that these two sides have reached a hysterical stage," the statement said. SS

During his first official news conference in Baghdad on April 23, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker defended the reasons behind the controversial security barrier being built around the Sunni Arab neighborhood of Al-Adhamiyah, international media reported the same day. Crocker stressed that the barrier would only be temporary and would help to protect the neighborhood from attacks. "It is in no one's intention or thinking that this is going to be a permanent state of affairs," he added. On April 22, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called for the construction of the barrier to be halted, after Sunni leaders complained that it would isolate the neighborhood's residents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). Crocker also urged the Iraqi government to take advantage of the current Baghdad security plan to resolve the sectarian conflict. "I think the Baghdad security plan can buy time for what it ultimately has to be, a set of political understandings among Iraqis," Crocker said. "So I think these months ahead are going to be critical." SS

The Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on its website on April 23 blaming Shi'ite death squads for the killing of 23 members of the Yazidi religious minority in Mosul on April 22. "While condemning this horrendous crime, the Muslim Scholars Association draws attention of all our sons in Iraq, and in the city of Mosul in particular, to the fact that these crimes were committed by the death squads that operate under the supervision of the occupiers and their agents, the militia leaders. The aim is to fuel religious and ethnic strife based on a plan specifically drawn up for this purpose," the statement said. Local police officials said unknown gunmen stopped a bus carrying workers back from a textile factory near Mosul, separated the Yazidis from the others, and killed them execution-style on the side of the road. Yazidis are ethnic Kurds who practice a syncretistic pre-Islamic religion that worships an archangel figure named Malak Taus, often represented as a peacock. Some Muslims and Christians consider Malak Taus to be the devil. There are an estimated 500,000 Yazidis remaining in Iraq. SS

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey said during an April 23 news conference that Palestinian refugees are the most vulnerable population in Iraq, KUNA reported the same day. The press briefing focused on the outcome of the UN-sponsored conference on the humanitarian crisis in Iraq held in Geneva on April 17-18. Sauerbrey said that the United States is seeking to resettle the refugees in the Kurdish north or the Palestinian Territories, but no agreement has been reached so far with those two governments. The UN has estimated that the 15,000 Palestinian refugees still in Iraq have increasingly become targets of kidnappings and killings. Opponents of the former Iraqi regime resent the refugees because they believe the Palestinians were given preferential treatment. With regards to the Geneva conference, Sauerbrey described the Geneva conference as a "a very good starting point for international cooperation" and as "solid step forward to foster regional stability." The two-day international conference organized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees ended with an agreement that more needs to be done to assist Iraq's growing refugee problem (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2007). SS

The leader of the Iraqi Constitutional Monarchist Movement, Ali Bin al-Husayn, has warned of a calamity if national reconciliation cannot be achieved before foreign forces withdraw from Iraq, "Al-Hayat" reported on April 23. Al-Husayn, secretary-general of the movement, said that mutual distrust among Iraqi factions is preventing reconciliation from moving forward, and he called on the UN to intervene and act as a guarantor of any agreement. "This military presence continues to hinge on its [UN] resolutions," he said. "So what is the objection to letting the UN Security Council play the role of overseer and guarantor for any solution to help the Iraqi people find a mechanism that will ensure a real and effective reconciliation to emerge from the current impasse?" Al-Husayn warned that if reconciliation is not achieved prior to the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces, Iraq will become an arena of conflict for regional states that have competing interests. SS

A suicide bomber struck near a restaurant in Al-Ramadi on April 23, killing 20 Iraqis and wounding more than 35, international media reported the same day. Interior Ministry officials said the restaurant was near a police station and was popular among local policemen. Meanwhile, in the town of Tal Uskuf, near Mosul, a suicide car bomb the same day outside the local offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party killed 10 people and wounded more than 20. Local officials said the bombing shocked residents, because it was the first such attack since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. SS