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Newsline - April 25, 2007

Thousands of mourners paid tribute on April 24 and 25 to former President Boris Yeltsin as he lay in state in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, following his death of heart failure on April 23, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). A state funeral is scheduled for the afternoon of April 25, which will be the first held in Moscow since that of CPSU Central Committee General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko in 1985. In New York on April 23, former U.S. President Bill Clinton said that Yeltsin "stood up for freedom and democracy and openness. He really believed that Russia couldn't go back to communism or back further to extreme nationalism." Clinton added that he hopes that Russia's current leaders "will go back to some of Yeltsin's openness, a little more debate, a little more dissent, a little more relaxation for people who disagree." In Moscow on April 25, Aleksandr Rutskoi, who served as Russian vice president in 1991-93 and then became one of Yeltsin's main rivals during the 1993 political crisis, said that he feels sorry for Yeltsin. Rutskoi added that "on a human level, I have always thought of him very well and I still do, because he had all the good qualities that a human being could have. As for the past political situation, that is history and you can't escape it." In Elista, the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia in southern Russia, which has a large Buddhist population, Buddhist leaders led prayers on April 25 to wish Yeltsin a "good reincarnation," reported. PM

Vagit Alekperov, who heads LUKoil, was quoted in Britain's "Financial Times" on April 25 as saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin, the government, and the Foreign Ministry all support LUKoil's plans to develop the potentially huge West Qurna oil field in a largely Shi'ite area near Al-Basrah in Iraq. This would be the first move by a big international energy company to develop a major Iraqi oil field since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the paper noted. Alekperov said that his firm will have "no problem starting operations right after the passage of the hydrocarbon law" by the Iraqi parliament, which is expected soon. Most other large energy companies are waiting for the security situation to improve before launching any new venture in Iraq. It is not clear why Alekperov is confident that LUKoil need not have such concerns. PM

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin was quoted in Britain's "Financial Times" on April 25 as saying that the authorities plan in February 2008 to split the "stabilization fund" based on oil revenues and invest some of it on international financial markets. He said that a reserve fund will be maintained at the value of about 10 percent of gross domestic product, will cover potential budget spending for about three years, be invested in "conservative portfolios of government bonds," and contain about $142 billion. Investments will come out of the balance, or about $24 billion, which could be invested in unspecified "higher-risk assets." Kudrin played down possible opposition from within Russia to investing such sums abroad. He added that "the world market provides services for custody of our resources. It's the same as any other country." PM

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who is President Putin's aide and special envoy to the EU, was quoted by the daily "Kommersant" on April 25 as saying that the EU includes both long-time EU members or "consensus" countries that want a "strategic partnership" with Moscow and "countries infected with an anti-Russian virus," which need to be "cured." He argued that there are "positive trends" in Russia's relations with Lithuania and Latvia and that "original projects" have been agreed between Russia on the one hand and Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria on the other. Yastrzhembsky stressed, however, that "several serious problems have arisen with Poland and Estonia, and their number has not been decreasing." He argued that "the novices in the EU are the countries the Western media previously called the Soviet Union's vassals. Self-conscious elites, infected with an anti-Russian virus, have come to power in those countries. Curing them will take time." Yastrzhembsky's interview is the latest Russian attempt to divide some of the older EU members from the newer ones, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, as Putin sought to do at the October 2006 EU-Russia summit in Lahti, Finland (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2006, and February 9 and 23, and April 20 and 23, 2007). PM

Former Defense Minister and army General Pavel Grachev "has been relieved of his duties of adviser to the...state arms trader Rosoboroneksport...which he performed for the past 10 years," having been appointed by President Yeltsin in 1996, Interfax and reported on April 25. The news agency quoted Colonel General Vladislav Achalov, who is chairman of the Paratroopers' Union and a veteran arms trader, as saying that Grachev's ouster came as a result of "current changes in the staff" (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," May 27, 2003). Rosoboroneksport has not confirmed the report. Grachev is a career paratrooper who was decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union for his activities in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He became head of Russia's Airborne Troops in 1991 and served as defense minister from 1992-96. recalled that Grachev boasted prior to the assault on Grozny at the start of 1995 that he could "bring order to the [Chechen] republic with two paratroop regiments." At the time of the evacuation of Russian troops from united Germany in the early 1990s, investigative journalist Dmitry Kholodov wrote several articles accusing Grachev of involvement in large-scale corruption. Those charges were never proven. Kholodov was killed in 1994 when a briefcase he picked up in a Moscow train station exploded. No one was ever convicted for the murder, and Grachev never was formally accused in conjunction with it. PM

In a statement dated April 24 and posted on the Chechen resistance website, Akhmed Zakayev, the London-based foreign minister of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, accused the international community of double standards in seeking systematically to resolve the conflicts in Kosova, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdniester, and Nagorno-Karabakh while ignoring that in Chechnya. Zakayev attributed to those same double standards the insistence by the U.S. and European governments that the Kosova conflict differs from those in the CIS, and that the Russian-Chechen conflict is different from those between Abkhazia and the central Georgian authorities or Transdniester and the Moldovan government. He said the same criteria should be applied in all cases. Zakayev further argued that the international community's reluctance to condemn human rights violations in Chechnya or to defend the right of the Chechen people to self-determination will not contribute to stability in either Chechnya or the Caucasus as a whole. LF

The Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic election commission has stated that it will not be able to comply with an April 20 ruling by the prosecutor's office to make public within three days the final results of the disputed March 11 mayoral election in Karachayevsk, the republic's second-largest city, reported on April 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). The commission claimed it does not have election returns from one of the town's 18 electoral districts, and has asked the district election commission to provide it with the relevant protocols. Opposition mayoral candidate Magomet Botashev, who on the basis of initial returns appears to have defeated Sapar Laypanov, an ally of republican President Mustafa Batdyev, by just a few hundred votes, lodged an official complaint on April 24 with the prosecutor's office over the election commission's failure to comply with the prosecutor's request. LF

Tens of thousands of Armenians participated on April 24 in the annual silent march to the Tsitsernakaberd memorial complex on the outskirts of Yerevan commemorating the estimated 1.5 million victims of the 1915-18 Armenian genocide In Ottoman Turkey, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In a message to the nation pegged to the anniversary, President Robert Kocharian referred to the increasingly successful Armenian campaign to secure international recognition of the slaughter as genocide. Echoing an op-ed he published four months ago in the European edition of "The Wall Street Journal," Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian again stressed Armenia's readiness to "move forward" and establish "normal" relations with Turkey without preconditions. Sarkisian also expressed solidarity with those Turkish intellectuals who are prepared to recognize the Armenian deaths as genocide. Hrant Markarian, a leading member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, the junior partner in the Armenian coalition government, told RFE/RL that "Turkey must recognize the Armenian genocide as soon as possible for the sake of Turkey's future." "He added that "for us, genocide recognition is, first of all, a matter of dignity and historical truth, as also...of national security." LF

President Robert Kocharian on April 25 formally appointed Colonel General Mikael Harutiunian as defense minister, reported. Harutiunian was named acting defense minister on April 4 in the wake of Serzh Sarkisian's promotion to the post of prime minister following the sudden death on March 25 of Andranik Markarian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2007). Harutiunian, who is 61, made his career in the Soviet military, returning to Armenia in 1992. He was named first deputy defense minister and chief of general staff in 1994. Kocharian on April 25 said that Harutiunian is uniquely qualified to continue the work of reforming and raising the combat readiness of the Armenian armed forces. But many observers believe that he will not retain his post in the new cabinet to be formed after the May 12 parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on April 24. More likely candidates are former Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Artur Aghabekian and Lieutenant General Seyran Ohanian, defense minister and commander of the armed forces of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. LF

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, who is also the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group that is mediating a solution to the Karabakh conflict, has telephoned Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov to discuss the contretemps triggered by the U.S. State Department's recent annual statement on human rights in Armenia, Azerbaijani media reported on April 24 and 25. The initial wording of that report describing Nagorno-Karabakh as occupied by Armenian forces was changed in response to protests from the Armenian government and lobby groups in the United States, whereupon Baku cancelled a planned visit to Washington for bilateral talks on security issues by a team of senior officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). Bryza reportedly assured Mammadyarov that U.S. policy with regard to the Karabakh conflict has not changed and that Washington still recognizes Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. In an interview with the official news agency Azertadj, Bryza rejected the argument that Washington's backtracking shows that it cannot play the role of an objective mediator. He said the original wording of the report was "inaccurate," and that "we made a mistake" that was then rectified. He expressed regret that the error caused concern in Azerbaijan, and offered apologies. LF

Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov summoned Russian Ambassador Vasily Istratov on April 24 to hand over a protest note in connection with a report on Nagorno-Karabakh broadcast on RTR's 'Vesti' program on April 22, the online daily reported. Azimov said that report contradicted the official position of the Russian government on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and "gave an incorrect interpretation" of the history of Naxicevan. LF

Georgia's Ministry for Conflict Resolution released a formal invitation on April 24 to the leadership of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia to resume direct talks on resolving the conflict and on the return to Abkhazia of Georgian displaced persons, Caucasus Press reported. But Abkhaz de facto Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba told Apsnypress the same day that Abkhazia will not return to the negotiating table until Georgia "removes all the obstacles it has placed in the way of resolving the conflict." Shamba and Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh have consistently said a resumption of talks is contingent on the withdrawal from the Kodori Gorge of the Interior Ministry troops Tbilisi deployed there in July 2006. Meeting in Moscow on April 21, Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, issued a joint statement warning that ongoing efforts by the Georgian leadership to legitimize what they termed "puppet governments" in the respective conflict zones could lead to the withdrawal of the de facto governments from talks on seeking a solution to the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts, Interfax reported. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin similarly said in Moscow on April 24 that by seeking to create a semblance of constructive dialogue with the puppet leaders it seeks to impose on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian leadership risks undermining the basis for talks with those who really do represent those two peoples, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov told a news conference in Bishkek on April 24 that Kyrgyzstan's opposition is confusing the fight against criminality with "political persecution," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Speaking after the recent detention of two opposition leaders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007), Madumarov said, "It is not right to call it 'political persecution.' We need to learn to live in the framework of the law. Society now is like that. If you start fighting criminality, they call it a persecution. Those people who were named [as victims of persecution] are prominent Kyrgyz personalities. They are well aware of the constitution and the law. They are capable of using their minds, I suppose, to prove their innocence in accordance with the laws and the constitution." Kyrgyzstan's National Security Committee (KNB) issued a statement on April 24 denying that it is harassing opposition politicians, the official news agency Kabar reported. The statement stressed that the KNB is investigating unrest that took place during opposition protests in Bishkek on April 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007) and denied any political motives in its actions. Allegations of harassment emerged after the KNB detained two opposition leaders on April 23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). DK

Supporters of Bermet Akaeva, daughter of ex-president Askar Akaev, blocked the Bishkek-Torugart highway on April 24 amid conflicting reports about a court ruling on her candidacy in an April 29 parliamentary by-election, reported. The news agency quoted Yelena Imankulova, chairwoman of the Kemin District Election Commission, as saying that a local court ruled that Akaeva can run in the by-election. Interfax reported that Akaeva's supporters subsequently ended their protest and allowed cars to pass on the highway. But Tolekan Isamailova, head of the rights group Citizens Against Corruption, told news agency that the Kemin district court issued a second ruling stripping Akaeva of her right to run for failing to meet residency requirements of living in Kyrgyzstan long enough before the election. Meanwhile, a lawyer representing Akaeva told ITAR-TASS that "there is no second court ruling." DK

Tajikistan's Justice Ministry on April 24 withdrew a lawsuit against the opposition Social-Democratic Party in the country's Supreme Court for allegedly violating Tajik legislation on political parties, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The suit, intended to halt the party's activities for six months, was withdrawn because the party has corrected its violations, Justice Ministry official Qurbonali Boboyev told Regnum. Party head Rahmatullo Zoirov called the charges in the lawsuit groundless and politically motivated, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. DK

A court in Uzbekistan's Andijon Province has sentenced rights activist Gulbahor Turaeva to a six-year prison term for undermining Uzbekistan's constitutional government and threatening public order, reported on April 24. Turaeva was arrested on January 14 on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border with books from the banned opposition party Erk. Her detention drew protests from the international community, including an appeal from intellectuals for her release (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007), as well as the release of jailed activists Umida Niyazova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30 and 31, 2007) and Mutabar Tojiboeva (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2006). DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said in his annual address to the National Assembly on April 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007) that Belarus will pursue a "dynamic, multifaceted foreign policy" while not changing its strategic course for integration with Russia, Belarusian Television reported. "Belarus is involved actively in international trade and bilateral relations with many countries, and that has a direct impact on the condition of our domestic markets and the social and economic spheres," he added. Lukashenka said China still remains Belarus's "leading ally" in the international arena. "Bilateral trade turnover [with China] reached almost $1 billion in 2006, but this is far from being the limit.... [And] there's one more reason why our partnership with China is promising for Belarus. In the context of establishing a set of transport corridors between East Asia and Europe, our country is certainly interested in becoming a reliable link of the economic system of Eurasian significance," Lukashenka said. He also stressed the importance of Belarus's relations with Nonaligned Movement countries. "We have, at the highest level, ploughed up half of the states of the Nonaligned Movement.... India, Venezuela, Iran, and Oman are ready to cooperate with us and already cooperate in the form of strategic partnership," Lukashenka noted. JM

The Belarusian government has given its consent to opening an office of the European Commission in Minsk, Belapan reported on April 24, quoting Christiane Hohmann, a spokeswoman for European External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Hohman added that the two sides plan to discuss conditions for opening the office. JM

The Constitutional Court of Ukraine on April 25 entered the "final stage" of hearings into whether President Viktor Yushchenko's decree of April 2 on the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada is constitutional, UNIAN reported. The Constitutional Court's session devoted to the decree, which officially began on April 17, is taking place in a building cordoned off by police and picketed by representatives of the ruling coalition, who oppose the dissolution of parliament, as well as of the opposition, which supports Yushchenko's decree. There have so far been no serious incidents connected with the pickets. JM

Russia on April 24 gave its clearest indication yet that it may veto a UN proposal that would grant Kosova independence, local and Russian media reported. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov told Russian news agencies that the blueprint drawn up by Finland's former President Martti Ahtisaari "will not get through the UN Security Council." Asked explicitly whether Russia would veto the plan, he said, "the threat of a veto should push the two sides into finding mutually acceptable compromises," ITAR-TASS reported. Titov also said that "if violence in Kosovo escalates, we will immediately demand a debate whether it makes sense to continue the political process." Reuters reported that, when asked to confirm the intent behind Titov's statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry referred the news agency to comments by Titov's chief on April 19, in which Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said "there is nothing to veto" before a resolution is put to the Security Council. On April 23, Lavrov denied recent claims by his Italian counterpart Massimo D'Alema that Moscow is preparing its own draft resolution, news agencies reported the same day. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Titov did not actually threaten a Russian veto, AFP reported on April 24. Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku responded to Titov's comments by saying that "we are not alone in this process. Saying 'no' to [the] plan is not just a 'no' to us. It is a 'no' to the international community, the United States and United Kingdom," Reuters reported. Three Western veto-wielding members of the Security Council -- the United States, Britain, and France -- have voiced support for Kosova's independence, and three other European members of the council -- Belgium, Italy, and Slovakia -- are expected to vote in favor. To pass, the plan requires Russia and China not to veto the plan, and a total of nine votes from the 15-member council. Others on the council are Congo, Ghana, Indonesia, Panama, Peru, Qatar, and South Africa. AG

On April 24, a 15-strong delegation of UN ambassadors set off on a fact-finding mission to Kosova that is, according to a UN press statement, "designed to give council members a firsthand understanding of the political, social, and economic situation inside Kosovo." The mission headed, on April 24, for Brussels for talks with NATO, which is responsible for security in Kosova, and the EU, which would be responsible for the international community's supervision of Kosova's independence. It will head for Belgrade on April 26, and then spend two days in Kosova visiting Prishtina, the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, and a Serbian and an Albanian village, before winding up its trip in Vienna on April 28-29, where the ambassadors will discuss their findings with the author of the UN plan, Martti Ahtisaari. Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, rejected as "overly optimistic" a briefing on April 24 in which the UN's undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guehenno, said that "the progress made by Kosovo under the administration of the United Nations has, by any objective assessment, been considerable," AP reported. Guehenno also warned that "so long as Kosovo's future remains undefined, there remains a risk that this progress can begin to unravel." Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on April 23 told Serbian media that the UN visit marks a "completely new phase" in the settlement of Kosova's future, while Kosovar Prime Minister Ceku said it should dispel the UN's doubts about the situation in Kosova. AG

Following a decision in late March by Bosnia-Herzegovina's Constitutional Court obliging the Bosnian Serb-dominated autonomous region to abandon its wartime emblem, the Republika Srpska's parliament on April 23 chose a new coat of arms intended to comply with the court's stipulation that all flags and emblems in the country must be inclusive in nature. The Republika Srpska's old double-headed white eagle will be replaced, according to the news agency Fena, by a crown, a fleur de lys, and an oak-leaf wreath around a central field with the three colors of the region's flag and the interwoven initials RS in Latin and Cyrillic script. The ruling also obliges the government of the country's other autonomous region, the Muslim-Croat Federation, to reassess its symbols. AG

The prime minister of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, on April 23 called for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule whether the deaths of scores of thousands of Serbs at the Jasenovac concentration camp in World War II constituted genocide, the daily "Nezavisne novine" reported on April 23. Between 1941 and 1945, around 70,000-80,000 people are estimated to have died at the camp, the largest run by Ustasha soldiers loyal to Croatia's fascist wartime leaders. Most of the victims (57-65 percent) were Serbs. Dodik's call touches on the neuralgic issue of the differing roles played by Serbs and Croats during the war, which fed the ethnic hatred seen in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. However, Dodik's call has a more recent and specific political resonance, as Bosnian Muslims and Croats have argued for the dissolution of the Republika Srpska on the grounds that the ICJ ruled in February that the 1995 massacre of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica was "an act of genocide" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, 2007). While Dodik has called for the Bosnian Serbs' wartime military commander, Ratko Mladic, and their political leader, Radovan Karadzic, to give themselves up for trial, his line and that of his government is that atrocities were committed by all sides during the country's civil war in 1992-95 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). That view was reflected in his declaration that a legal ruling on the exterminations at Jasenovac would be an opportunity for Bosnia-Herzegovina "to show that it takes care of all of its peoples and its victims," and in his statement that the April 23 commemoration of the victims of Jasenovac should be a warning to those who "manipulate with victims, impose collective guilt for crimes committed, and say there can be no reconciliation." On April 23, the Republika Srpska's parliament upheld a veto on state-level efforts to pressure Serbia into capturing Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). Long-held suspicions that elements in the Serbian security forces are sheltering Mladic eventually led to the EU suspending preliminary talks on membership with Serbia in May 2006. AG

Police in the Republika Srpska have acknowledged that a number of people suspected of war crimes committed at Srebrenica are currently on the state's payroll, the newspaper "Nezavisne novine" reported on April 23. Gojko Vasic, the head of the autonomous region's police force, said a commission set up by the Republika Srpska has identified soldiers, policemen, and intelligence officers suspected of involvement in the Srebrenica massacre. The list of suspects is now with federal prosecutors. Evidence of their involvement would need to be gleaned by separate investigations. The same report says Bosnia's federal Security Ministry plans to carry out a similar check on the background of staff at the Intelligence and Security Agency (OSA), the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA), and the border police. Deputy Security Minister Mijo Kresic said he will personally oversee efforts to identify anyone "who might have participated in those crimes." Boris Grubesic, a spokesman for the federal Prosecutor's Office, said a team of prosecutors "is conducting several investigations on Srebrenica, and we are not focusing solely on the people working in the intelligence and security agencies." AG

Foreign Minister Besnik Mustafaj resigned on April 24, telling journalists that "I'm feeling tired," news agencies reported. Mustafaj, a Democrat, held the post since September 2005, when the Democrats came to power. The loss of an experienced foreign minister and former ambassador to France risks unsettling Albania's diplomacy at a time when tensions over the future of neighboring Kosova, which is predominantly populated by ethnic Albanians, are coming to a head. However, the Albanian political elite is united in its support for independence for Kosova and a security role for international troops. During what is assumed was his last international visit, Mustafaj met with his Macedonian counterpart Antonio Milososki on April 23 in talks that addressed Kosova and regional security. Almost one-third of Macedonia's population is ethnically Albanian. The two ministers underlined their support for the UN blueprint for Kosova and their commitment to joining NATO. Mustafaj on April 23 told NATO officials that the Western alliance's continued presence in Kosova is "indispensable" for security in the region, the news agency ATA reported the same day. AG

In a move seemingly designed to cool relations between ethnic Macedonians and local officials in southern Bulgaria, the deputy foreign ministers of Bulgaria and Macedonia on April 24 paid their respects at the tomb of Yane Sandanski, a controversial figure in the two countries' independence struggle, Bulgarian and Macedonian media reported the same day. The governor of the district of Blagoevgrad barred an earlier ceremony by locals at Sandanski's grave on the grounds that the organizer, the ethnic Macedonian party OMO Ilinden-Pirin, is not officially recognized as a party. The decision, which overturned an earlier ruling by the nearby town of Sandanski, was ignored by several dozen of the party's supporters, who gathered on April 22 at the graveyard in the Rozhen Monastery on the anniversary of Sandinski's death. It was also condemned by the Macedonian Foreign Ministry on April 19 as an "unnecessary provocation," Makfax reported the same day, while, according to the Bulgarian news agency Focus, Macedonian Deputy Foreign Minister Zoran Petrov said on April 24 that "history should not divide the two countries, which need to tread the path ahead together." Macedonia considers Sandanski, who was born in modern-day Bulgaria, to be an ethnic Macedonian and mentions him in its national anthem. Sandanski was a leading figure in Macedonian revolutionary circles, lived and fought chiefly in modern-day Bulgaria's southern Pirin region, and advocated a Balkan federation. The leader of OMO Ilinden-Pirin, Ivan Singartiski, on April 20 told the Macedonian daily "Dnevnik" that Bulgaria's Macedonian minority is living in fear, and he complained of police harassment of party members. The European Court of Human Rights in November 2005 ruled that the Bulgarian Constitutional Court's ban on the party violated provisions guaranteeing freedom of association. It acknowledged that some of the party's members have said the Pirin region should be part of Macedonia, not Bulgaria, but ruled that none of its leaders or members advocated violent or undemocratic methods to promote their case. Singartiski said the party intends to take its case for registration to European institutions once again. AG

The mixed assessments of Boris Yeltsin's legacy emerging since his death on April 23 reflect as much uncertainty about his times as about the man himself. Figuring out Yeltsin's contribution quickly becomes a fascinating but inconclusive exercise in counterfactual history -- looking not only at the choices he made but at the other realistic possibilities that were available as well.

Although Yeltsin headed an independent Russia from 1991 through 1999, in a real sense only his first term matters. By the time he faced reelection in 1996, his soaring popularity had been reduced to single digits and all the personal and political capital he had in the heady days of 1991 had been spent, for good or ill.

In 1996, he had only two options: either he could participate in a rigged, undemocratic, dishonest, and corrupt election -- selling his political soul to the devil -- or he could stand aside and allow Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov to win, sending Russia on a completely different historical course. Even that choice might not have been available to Yeltsin, since the political machine that stole the election for him could easily have been marshaled in the service of some other candidate.

Yeltsin will always be remembered as the heroic figure standing on a tank in front of a huge, adoring crowd during the August 1991 coup attempt. The image seems ironically appropriate as a symbol of his first term -- Yeltsin standing virtually alone on top of a powerful machine that he couldn't really control while the whole world gazed at him expectantly. "I ask forgiveness for not fulfilling some hopes of those people who believed that we would be able to jump from the gray, stagnating, totalitarian past into a bright, rich, and civilized future in one go," Yeltsin said in his December 31, 1999, resignation speech.

An important consequence of the bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union, for which Yeltsin and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev are rightly praised, was that Soviet-era institutions and entrenched interests remained. Most important among these was the Communist-dominated parliament, whose democratic mandate was virtually as solid as Yeltsin's own.

This division produced a 20-month standoff that was violently resolved in October 1993 when Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire on the White House. For most of the rest of Yeltsin's first term, the half-white, half-charred shell of that building loomed over Moscow like a reproach. Later, the hastily repaired building was taken over by the executive branch, another ominously symbolic development.

But the months before the shelling of the White House were an enormous opportunity lost. Lawmakers feuded among themselves and refused to adopt any significant legislation, forcing Yeltsin to rule by undemocratic decrees -- many of which infuriated parliament further and fueled endless debates about impeachment and the like.

Parliament refused even to confirm Yeltsin's first choice as prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, who served as acting premier from June to December 1992. (Earlier, Yeltsin served as prime minister himself to wage the confrontation with the legislature, and he later replaced Gaidar with the colorless technocrat Viktor Chernomyrdin in an attempt to compromise with lawmakers.)

During this period, the economy collapsed, savings evaporated, and the population suffered enormously. Some Yeltsin critics have even accused him of committing "genocide" against the nation. However, it would be an injustice to heap the blame for this entirely on Yeltsin, who was locked in a political struggle with foes who realized well that the mounting public discontent worked to their political advantage.

Leftist and nationalist lawmakers who opposed Yeltsin's overall course had no political incentive to work with the executive to resolve these problems. Those who criticize Yeltsin for an overdependence on the questionable advice of Western economists during this period must bear in mind that no one else was offering him any meaningful cooperation at all.

As he waged this struggle at the national level, Yeltsin may have placed his hopes for systemic change on the local level. He gave unprecedented degrees of autonomy to local leaders. However, none of them -- even those with substantial democratic credentials such as St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak -- made significant inroads in building local democratic institutions.

Local leaders maintained their control over local media, suppressed political activism, and kept their grip over electoral mechanisms. It is, therefore, not surprising that many of them are in power to this day.

The biggest mistake of that first term that certainly must be laid on Yeltsin's shoulders was the disastrous and avoidable war in Chechnya, a conflict that continues to shape post-Soviet Russia politically and socially. Yeltsin had many sage advisers -- including lawmakers Galina Starovoitova, Sergei Kovalyov, and Ella Pamfilova -- who warned him against this calamity.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of Yeltsin's democratic intentions was his failure to build a strong, pro-presidential political party. Observers in the 1990s laughed at the seemingly pathetic efforts of parties like Russia's Choice and Our Home Is Russia, which were barely able to win representation in the legislature despite strong government backing.

But with hindsight, those fledgling efforts look like truly democratic initiatives, compared to the juggernaut of Unified Russia that was built so quickly and so powerfully in the immediate post-Yeltsin period. In today's Russia, it is hard to imagine a pro-presidential party garnering just 10 percent of the vote the way Our Home Is Russia did in 1995.

By 1996, Yeltsin's political capital was spent and the country was gripped by a seemingly boundless pessimism. Moreover, Yeltsin's health was wrecked, and he was surrounded by opportunists who exploited him.

He had not been able to create any foundation of democratic institutions -- strong independent media, autonomous political parties, governmental and nongovernmental oversight bodies, etc. -- that could have continued the course for which he had such a powerful mandate in 1991. The entrenched Soviet-era interests -- in different guises -- merely waited him out and returned in force when he left the stage.

It seems little surprise that President Vladimir Putin's leadership is in unseemly haste to bury Yeltsin and have him consigned to history as a noble experiment that failed, rather than risk him being seen as a noble experiment they managed to kill.

The Taliban have confirmed reports that some of their forces are besieged in the Chora district of Oruzgan Province but have denied that commander Mullah Dadullah is among them, Afghan Pajhwak News reported on April 24. Qari Yusof Ahmadi told the news agency on April 24 said that only low-level fighters are besieged in Chora, adding that Dadullah is not in the area. Afghan officials had earlier noted that Afghan and NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) have surrounded hundreds of Taliban fighters, including Dadullah, in Chora. Oruzgan police chief General Mohammad Qasem said on April 24 that the final push to arrest the Taliban is being delayed because some of the militants have taken refuge in private houses. The plan, according to Mohammad Qasem, is to convince the Taliban to surrender, thus avoiding civilian casualties. Dadullah, a notorious commander during the Taliban regime, has resurfaced at the head of a brutal neo-Taliban faction operating in southern Afghanistan. AT

Sangaryar, purporting to speak for Mullah Dadullah, claimed on April 23 that one Afghan doctor from among the five hostages captured earlier in April has been killed, Sheberghan-based Aina TV reported. Sangaryar warned that unless the Afghan government releases some Taliban prisoners held in Kandahar, the other four hostages, including two French doctors, will be killed. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zmaray Bashari dismissed Sangaryar's charges, adding that there is no proof that a hostage has been killed. Forces under Dadullah's command abducted the five employees of the nongovernmental organization Terre d'Enfance on April 4 in Nimroz Province in southwestern Afghanistan, demanding that France withdraw its approximately 1,000 forces from Afghanistan and that the Afghan government comply with their demand to exchange prisoners (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5 and 24, 2007). AT

Sar-e Pol Province Governor Sayyed Iqbal Munib survived an attempt on his life on April 24, the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Sar-e Pol police chief Abdul Khaleq Samimi told AIP that a "mine planted near a brook" was remotely detonated by unidentified people as Munib's car was passing by. The blast damaged the vehicle but did not cause any casualties. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. AT

David Murdock, the owner and chairman of U.S.-based Dole Foods, met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on April 23 and announced his intention to explore a major role for his company in Afghanistan, an April 24 press statement from the U.S. Agency for International Development reported. Murdock visited Afghanistan at the request of U.S. President George W. Bush. Dole is the world's largest producer and marketer of fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh-cut flowers. AT

Manuchehr Mottaki visited Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba from April 19-24 to discuss bilateral ties and the implementation of previous economic agreements with Tehran's Latin American allies, agencies reported on April 24. He was in Cuba on April 22-23, where he met with provisional leader Raul Castro on April 23, EFE reported on April 24, citing the Cuban daily "Granma." The two discussed political and economic ties and stressed the need to strengthen the Nonaligned Movement. Iranian parliamentarian Hamid Reza Haji-Babai and Iranian Ambassador Ahmad Edrisan attended the meeting, as did Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, "Granma" reported. Iran and Cuba traded goods worth $5.6 million in 2006, EFE reported, adding that Cuban exports to Iran consisted mainly of railway and farm machinery as well as medicines. Iran and Cuba have signed 31 trade agreements and are negotiating preferential trading conditions for each other, EFE reported. Iranian Deputy Trade Minister Mehdi Ghazanfari visited Cuba in mid-April to promote trade and discuss Iran as a market for Cuban exports, EFE reported on April 24. VS

Mottaki discussed bilateral ties with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in Managua on April 21, Reuters reported. The agency separately quoted Nicaraguan Energy and Mines Minister Eduardo Rappaccioli as saying that Nicaragua is interested in buying oil from Iran at below-market prices, a possibility that a joint committee formed during Mottaki's visit will discuss in May or June. Rappaccioli said Iran is, in turn, interested in cooperating in the hydroelectric sector with Nicaragua, Reuters reported. On April 20, Mottaki met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, discussing large-scale joint projects involving investments of more than $17 billion in the oil, transport, and farming sectors, EFE reported. Venezuelan Basic Industries and Mines Minister Jose Khan said in Caracas on April 22 that Iran and Venezuela will also examine the formation of a joint company to make equipment for the electricity and hydroelectric sectors and for Venezuela's state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, reported. He said the aim was to ultimately export such equipment at favorable rates to "brotherly" states such as Ecuador, Argentina, and Bolivia. He said Iran and Venezuela have signed 162 cooperation agreements to date, which he added are of particular importance for their technology transfers to Venezuela, reported. VS

The U.S. government said it will discuss its concerns with Austria over a set of gas deals signed on April 21 between the Austrian oil company OMV and Iran, Reuters reported on April 23, citing U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. He questioned the timing of the agreement, but said recent UN Security Council resolutions against Iran's nuclear program do not ban investment in Iran's energy sector. Preliminary agreements signed between Iran and OMV are on building a liquefied-natural-gas (LNG) plant in Iran, developing phase 12 of the South Pars offshore gas field in the Persian Gulf, and purchasing Iranian gas for export to Europe. The value of the deals have been put at between $18 billion and $30 billion. OMV CEO Wolfgang Ruttenstorfer said in Vienna on April 24 that the company will abide by Austrian and international laws, as well as EU and UN Security Council resolutions in pursuing the deal, AP reported. The United States has separately imposed sanctions on 14 firms and entities that have allegedly traded in ballistic-missile and weapons-of-mass-destruction-related material with Iran and Syria, AFP reported on April 23. The entities are banned from doing business with or receiving aid from U.S. government agencies for two years, pursuant to the Iran and Syria Nonproliferation Act, AFP reported. VS

A branch of the Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced two women's rights activists to prison on April 24 for their participation in a protest against discrimination in Iran last year, Radio Farda reported, adding that a total of five women have been convicted on related charges in recent weeks. The court gave Nushin Ahmadi-Khorasani and Parvin Ardalan three-year prison sentences, of which 2 1/2 years were suspended, Radio Farda reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2006 and April 17 and 19, 2007). Their lawyer, Nasrin Sotudeh, said on April 24 that the two were convicted on public disorder charges but acquitted of the charge of acting against national security, Radio Farda reported. She said she will appeal the convictions. VS

During a meeting in Kuwait on April 24, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told David Satterfield, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Iraq, that the United States should start talking to Syria and Iran, international media reported. According to an al-Maliki aide, who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity, Satterfield asked the Iraqi leader what more could be done to prevent foreign fighters and illegal weapons from entering Iraq through Iran and Syria. The aide quoted al-Maliki as telling Satterfield, "You should open a dialogue with Iran and Syria in the interests of Iraq's security." The Iraqi and U.S. governments have long accused Damascus of allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq from Syria to carry out attacks. In addition, U.S. officials have accused Tehran of funneling weapons into Iraq that have been used against U.S. military personnel. Both Iran and Syria have denied these accusations. One of the key recommendations in a report conducted by the U.S. bipartisan Iraq Study Group called for direct U.S. engagement with Iran and Syria in an effort to help stabilize Iraq. SS

In one of the deadliest attacks on U.S. forces since the beginning of the Iraq war, nine U.S. soldiers were killed and 20 others were wounded by a suicide car bomb in the Diyala Governorate on April 23, international media reported the same day. The U.S. military issued a statement on April 24 that the attack occurred on a Task Force Lightning patrol base in the town of Ba'qubah. The Diyala Governorate has been increasingly volatile, with U.S. and Iraqi forces fighting Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias. "We have seen a lot of recent attacks up in Diyala," Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver said. It was the single deadliest attack on U.S. ground forces since December 1, 2005, when 10 U.S. Marines were killed and 11 wounded by a roadside bomb on the outskirts of Al-Fallujah. The nine killed raises the total to 85 U.S. soldiers killed in April, making it the bloodiest months for U.S. forces since last December, when 112 soldiers were killed. SS

The Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq, issued a statement on an extremist website claiming responsibility for the April 24 suicide attack on a patrol base in Ba'qubah that killed nine U.S. soldiers, international media reported the same day. "Two knights from the Islamic State in Iraq...driving two booby-trapped trucks hit the heart of the crusader American headquarters in the region of Diyala," the statement said. The group also claimed that up to 30 U.S. soldiers were killed in the attack. SS

The British military transferred the Al-Shu'aybah logistical base, west of Al-Basrah, to Iraqi forces on April 24, international media reported the same day. During a brief handover ceremony, the British and Danish flags were lowered and the Iraqi flag was raised. "It was a significant event marking the increasing capability of the Iraqi security forces," British military spokesman Major David Gell said. "Closing these British bases enables us to focus on more productive operations designed to disrupt rogue militia activity, with less of our manpower tied down on base security and administrative tasks," he added. Most of Britain's troops now operate out of Al-Basrah's main airport. On April 18, Britain handed over responsibility for Maysan Governorate to Iraqi forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2007). British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced in February that the 7,100 troops currently serving in Iraq would be cut to 5,500 within the next few months. SS

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi reportedly met with radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr recently in the holy city of Al-Najaf, the Saudi daily "Al-Watan" reported on April 22. An informed source said one of the aims of the meeting was to convince al-Sadr's political movement to join Allawi's newly announced political bloc, the Iraq National Front. "The meeting dealt with the ongoing political process in Iraq after the withdrawal of the al-Sadr trend from Nuri al-Maliki's government, as well as other issues pertaining to improving the security situation and the future of the situation in Iraq. They also discussed the possibility of coordinating positions between the al-Sadr trend and the [new] Iraqi bloc," the source said. In March, Allawi announced that he was moving to form a new broad-based political bloc, in an effort to form a new national-unity government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). SS

A suicide truck bomb near Al-Ramadi on April 24 killed 25 Iraqis and wounded more than 44, international media reported the same day. Local police officials said the attack took place at a market in the Al-Albufarraj district east of Al-Ramadi, just as a police patrol passed by. This was the second major attack in Al-Ramadi in as many days. On April 23, a suicide car bomber struck near a restaurant popular with local police, killing 20 and wounding more than 35 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). Al-Ramadi is located in the volatile Al-Anbar Governorate, where the Council of Al-Anbar Tribes, an alliance of regional tribes, has been waging an armed campaign against Al-Qaeda elements for almost a year. SS