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Newsline - May 3, 2007

Against the backdrop of the ongoing row between Russia and Estonia over the removal of a Soviet war memorial from downtown Tallinn, Russian Railways (RZhD), Russia's state railway monopoly, halted deliveries of oil products to Estonia on May 2, saying it plans to carry out maintenance of the rail link to Estonia. According to Reuters, Russia sends a quarter of its oil-product exports -- including fuel oil, diesel, and gasoline -- by rail to Estonia, from where it is re-exported to Northern Europe. The news agency quoted coal exporters as saying RZhD has also halted exports of steam coal via Estonia for this month, totaling up to 900,000 tons, citing a shortage of railway wagons. The exporters said RZhD told them they must use their own rail wagons, not RZhD's, but that it has not been possible to find alternative wagons on such short notice. JB

The cutoff of energy supplies to Estonia followed an escalation of tensions between Russian protesters and Estonian diplomats in Moscow on May 2. Some 40 activists from the pro-Kremlin youth groups Nashi and Young Russia stormed a news conference held by Estonian Ambassador to Russia Marina Kaljurand at the Moscow office of the newspaper "Argumenty i fakty," demanding that Estonia apologize for the relocation of the Soviet war memorial. "The Moscow Times" reported on May 3 that Kaljurand's bodyguards used pepper spray to defend her from the protesters, who barged past security guards at "Argumenty i fakty" chanting "Fascism won't pass." AFP reported on May 2 that members of another Russian youth group, Mestnye, attempted to block Kaljurand's car following the press conference and snapped the Estonian flag off its hood. Estonia's Foreign Ministry called the disruption of the press conference "absolutely unjustifiable." Nashi has been leading demonstrations outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow since April 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007). Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip called on the European Union to help protect his country against what he called "Russia's coordinated attacks," RFE/RL reported on May 2. JB

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves criticized Russia in comments quoted on May 2. "I turn to Russia, Estonia's neighbor, with a clear message - try to remain civilized!" AP quoted Ilves as saying in a statement. He also said it is "not customary in Europe" to "use computers belonging to public institutions for cyber-attacks against another country's public institutions," or to "demand the resignation of the democratically elected government of another sovereign country" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007). Ilves added that Estonia will not be divided by the "toothless hate-mongers" who rioted following the removal of the Bronze Soldier statue from downtown Tallinn to a cemetery outside the city center. According to AP, he urged Estonia's Russian speakers to "learn Estonian, be successful, be happy!" JB

The European Commission issued a statement in Brussels on May 2 calling on Russia to guarantee the safety of Estonian diplomats on its territory. "The [European] Commission urges the Russian authorities to fulfill their obligations under the Vienna Convention and to allow EU embassies to function properly and EU representatives to be protected adequately," RFE/RL quoted commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger as saying. "And the commission appeals to the Russian government to deal with current issues with Estonia by means of dialogue." In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the United States is concerned "by reports of violence and harassment, including harassment of Estonian diplomatic personnel and premises in Moscow," and that Washington urges "authorities in Moscow to do everything possible to reduce tensions and carry out their responsibilities under the Vienna Convention concerning diplomatic premises and diplomats and avoid harsh words and escalation." Casey said that while "decisions related to the movement of that monument or anything else along these lines...belong to the Estonian government and people," Washington has urged both the Estonian and Russian governments "to maintain dialogue and respect for the strong feelings on both sides." JB

The Russian presidential press service announced on May 2 that the son and brother of Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev have been awarded state decorations, the daily "Kommersant" reported on May 3. According to the newspaper, the FSB director's 62-year-old brother, Viktor Patrushev, who has worked for seven years for mobile-phone operator MegaFon and is currently deputy administrative director of its northwestern branch office, was awarded the Order of Friendship. Patrushev's 26-year-old son, Andrei Patrushev, was awarded the Order of Honor. Several newspapers noted that although the decree awarding Patrushev's son the Order of Honor cites his professional successes and "many years of conscientious work," Andrei Patrushev has been working as an adviser to the chairman of the Rosneft state oil company, Igor Sechin, only for seven months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2006). According to "Kommersant," Andrei Patrushev "informally" supervises Rosneft's information department and advises Sechin in that area. After Andrei Patrushev was named to the Rosneft post last September, "Kommersant" reported that he previously worked as deputy head of the ninth department of the FSB's P-Directorate (Counterintelligence Directorate for Industry,) which is also called the "oil" department because it monitors the oil market. Sechin, in addition to heading Rosneft, is a deputy presidential-administration chief and widely seen as the informal leader of the "siloviki" faction of former security-service officials. He is also believed to have played a key role in the state's assault on the Yukos oil company. As "The Moscow Times" reported on May 3, Rosneft could become Russia's biggest oil producer if it wins two key auctions for Yukos's remaining oil units over the next week. JB

According to the Sova Information and Analysis Center, a Moscow-based group that monitors hate crimes, 25 people have been killed and 154 injured in the roughly 200 racially motivated attacks that have taken place so far this year in Russia. Interfax on May 2 quoted Sova's deputy director, Galina Kozhevnikova, as saying that the number of racially motivated attacks so far this year is a third higher than during the same period in 2006. She said that the attacks this year took place in 19 Russian regions, with the greatest number occurring in Moscow, followed by St. Petersburg and then Nizhny Novgorod. "In Moscow this year, 17 people have been killed and 52 have been wounded by skinheads," she said. "In St. Petersburg, three have been killed and 40 people have been injured. In Nizhny Novgorod, 29 people received injuries as a result of racist attacks." JB

Two U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations and the U.S. State Department have warned that press freedom is diminishing in Russia, "The Moscow Times" reported on May 3. In a report issued on May 2, the Committee to Protect Journalists put Russia on a list of 10 press-freedom backsliders that also includes Azerbaijan, Cuba, Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco, Thailand, and several African countries. Russia ranked third-worst, better than Ethiopia and Gambia but worse than the Democratic Republic of Congo. A press-freedom report released by Freedom House on May 1 placed Russia between Azerbaijan and Brunei near the bottom of a list of 195 countries. Russia fell six places from last year to the 165th spot. The U.S. State Department issued a report on April 30 calling Russia one of the worst violators of media freedom, together with Afghanistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Venezuela. "The Moscow Times" quoted Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, which is closely linked to the Kremlin, as saying that judgments of foreign organizations about press freedom in Russia "are inadequate and based on a phobia of Russia as a superpower." JB

Acting on an appeal by the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Supreme Court of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania on May 2 struck down a ruling by a Vladikavkaz district court that would have paved the way for criminal charges to be brought against police and Emergency Situations Ministry personnel in connection with the deaths of numerous hostages during the storming in September 2004 of the Beslan school where Chechen militants held up to over 1,000 people hostage, the daily "Kommersant" reported on May 3. The lower court on April 3 ruled illegal the refusal by the Prosecutor-General's Office to bring charges against the officials in question, and also against senior members of the emergency headquarters established to cope with the hostage crisis, including then North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov and republican Interior Minister Kazbek Dzantiyev. LF

Speaking at an impromptu press conference in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian confirmed on May 2 that he has accepted an offer to serve as the new chief of staff of the Armenian military, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo reported. A Nagorno-Karabakh native, Lieutenant General Ohanian is to assume the post previously held by recently appointed Armenian Defense Minister Mikael Harutiunian. As defense minister and commander of the armed forces of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, the 44-year old Ohanian is widely regarded as a professional soldier and became the Nagorno-Karabakh military chief of staff in early 1993 after losing a leg in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. He has served as the Nagorno-Karabakh defense minister since 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3, 1999). The announcement comes in the wake of a closed meeting in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenian Defense Minister Harutiunian and Karabakh leader Arkady Ghukasian on April 29, but is not expected to be officially announced until a presidential decree is issued after Armenia's May 12 parliamentary election. The 61-year-old Colonel General Harutiunian became Armenian defense minister on April 25, after being named acting defense minister on April 4 in the wake of the elevation of Serzh Sarkisian to the post of prime minister following the sudden death on March 25 of Andranik Markarian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5 and 25, 2007). Harutiunian was subsequently formally demobilized from the military and currently serves as a civilian defense minister. RG

In an announcement in Baku, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry's press service reported on May 2 that the size of the Azerbaijani peacekeeping force deployed to Afghanistan will be doubled in the next few months, from 22 to between 40 and 44 soldiers, according to the website. The implementation of the expanded deployment depends on the duration of training for Azerbaijani troops. The announcement follows a similar increase by Georgia to increase its peacekeeping force in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007). Azerbaijani peacekeepers are currently serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan and have been deployed in Kosova under Turkish command since July 1999. RG

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met on May 2 with visiting Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Baku, Turan reported. Speaking at a joint press conference following the meeting, President Aliyev offered "political support" for a Belarusian role in plans to transport Caspian Sea oil to Europe through Ukraine's Odesa-Brody pipeline. Aliyev also noted the two countries' close military relations and welcomed a further expansion of cooperation in the areas of defense production. For his part, Lukashenka hailed bilateral relations as "mutually beneficial" and saying that "the president of Azerbaijan will never betray us" because "we absolutely trust each other." During the meeting, the two presidents signed a broad framework Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation and a set of 10 agreements, including accords formalizing cooperation between state agencies and ministries. Azerbaijani officials are also interested in supporting a Belarusian plan to launch oil production projects in Azerbaijan for its domestic market, according to Interfax. RG

Georgian police arrested on May 2 a senior official of the Interior Ministry, Rustavi-2 TV reported. The official, Davit Kekua, the deputy chairman of the Interior Ministry's General Inspectorate, is a suspect in the August 2002 killing of Nika Lominadze, financial manager of the AES-Telasi electricity-distribution company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2002). Kekua was the deputy chief of police in Tbilisi at the time of the killing and is accused of forging several documents and fabricating other false evidence during the investigation that later led to the conviction of three men in August 2006 for Lominadze's murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2006). Police also arrested two unnamed experts who helped Kekua to produce the forged documentary evidence. On May 3, the Tbilisi City Court remanded Kekua in pretrial detention for two months, rejecting his request for release on 30,000 laris ($17,837) bail, Caucasus Press reported. RG

The U.S. Navy's missile destroyer "USS Sullivans" concluded a joint naval exercise on May 2 near the port of Batumi with the Georgian Navy, Caucasus Press reported. The U.S. destroyer is equipped with the advanced Aegis defense system and led the joint exercises, which were overseen by U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Philip Greene. Three Georgian naval warships, the "Dioskuria," "Mestia," and the "Iveria," along with two motorboats, took part in the exercise. The U.S. vessel arrived in Batumi on April 30. A separate U.S. military delegation, led by the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, General David McKiernan, also arrived in Tbilisi on May 2, according to the Civil Georgia website. The 14-person U.S. Army delegation was to meet with senior officials of the Georgian Defense Ministry and will also visit the Krtsanisi military training center, some 35 kilometers from Tbilisi, to attend U.S.-led exercises with Georgian soldiers trained under the U.S. Sustainment and Stability Operations Program. RG

Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze met on May 2 in Tbilisi with Western diplomats accredited to Georgia and briefed them on measures under way to "secure free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections" set for 2008, the Civil Georgia website reported. In comments to reporters following the meeting, Burjanadze said that the Georgian authorities are "seriously preparing" for the elections, adding that a systematic door-to-door rechecking of voter lists will be initiated in October. She declined to comment on opposition demands for a reduction in the country's 7 percent minimum-vote threshold to 4 percent, saying that it is "under discussion." The Council of Europe has long called for a lowering of that threshold to at least 5 percent of the vote. RG

Several Georgian environmental groups criticized an auction held on May 1 by the Environment Ministry for a 20-year lease for large tracts of forests, according to the Civil Georgia website. The auction, which raised some 7.7 million laris (about $4.56 million), awarded licenses to a number of international lumber companies for operations in the regions of Samtskhe-Javakheti, Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti, and Kakheti. Activists from the Green Alternative, Greens Movement of Georgia, and Caucasus Environmental NGO Network rallied outside the ministry to protest against the auction and called for the "urgent reform" of the country's forestry management. RG

A court in Almaty on May 2 sentenced 10 people to prison terms for belonging to an "Islamist terrorist" group, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. A Chinese citizen and nine Kazakhs, all ethnic Uyghurs, were handed prison terms ranging from three to 25 years, after they were convicted of involvement in a group known as the "Jamaat (Community) of Mujahedins." That group has been under investigation by the Kazakh authorities since last year after extremist religious literature and ammunition were reportedly found in the Kazakh capital. In October 2006, the group was added to a list of organizations banned for "terrorist activities" by the of the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office (see "Kazakhstan Updates List of Banned Terrorist Groups,", October 12, 2006). RG

Kazakh Transport and Communications Minister Serik Akhmetov announced on May 2 that his ministry is planning to develop a land transport corridor through the country connecting Europe to western China, Interfax reported. In a report to a cabinet meeting in Astana, Akhmetov defined the planned road as a "breakthrough project" designed "to make the most of the country's transit potential." He noted that the government has already approved funding for a detailed feasibility study of the 2,309-kilometer Kazakh portion of the corridor. He also defended the economics of the project, noting that "once completed, the project will allow some Chinese goods to switch from sea transport to the road," thereby reducing transport time from 45 days by sea to 11 days by land. RG

The Kyrgyz Central Election Commission resolved on May 2 to annul recent by-election results from the April 29 vote in the northern town of Kemin, saying that the vote was marred by fraud, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. Commission members reported several cases of election fraud in the constituency and, on May 1, disbanded the local election commission in the same district for failing to make a timely announcement of official results (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007). Bermet Akaeva, the daughter of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, sought to run in the by-election but was barred from running by court rulings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and 30, 2007). Akaeva was discharged from a hospital in the Kemin district on May 2, according to the website. She was hospitalized late on April 29 after being summoned for questioning by the Kemin district prosecutor's office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). RG

During a May 2 meeting in Dushanbe with visiting Iranian Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad Najjar, Tajik Defense Minister Colonel General Sherali Khayrulloev signed a new "protocol on military and technical cooperation" between the two countries' defense ministries, Asia-Plus reported. There were no details available regarding the new agreement, which was signed on the third and final day of the Iranian defense minister's official visit to Tajikistan. Since the establishment of bilateral military relations in 1997, Tajikistan and Iran have concluded 10 agreements on military cooperation, and Iran has provided over $6 million in direct military assistance and training to the Tajik armed forces. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon also met with the Iranian official on April 30 and praised overall economic relations with Iran, making special mention of Iranian investment in the construction of Tajikistan's Anzob tunnel and the Sangtuda-2 hydropower plant. RG

Tajik President Rahmon issued a set of presidential decrees on May 2 reshuffling several Tajik diplomats and officials, the Avesta website reported. The presidential decree named First Deputy Foreign Minister Saymumin Yatimov as both the new Tajik ambassador to Belgium and the head of Tajikistan's representative office to the European Union. The decree also named Erkin Qosimov as Yatimov's replacement as first deputy foreign minister. Another presidential decree appointed Nuriddin Shamsov as Tajikistan's permanent representative to the OSCE and other international organizations based in the Austrian capital, Vienna. A third decree named the deputy speaker of the Tajik parliament's lower house, Abdulmajid Dostiyev, as the new Tajik ambassador to Russia. RG

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov met on May 2 with Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov, who arrived in Ashgabat on a one-day working visit, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. After discussing a wide range of issues, including bilateral cooperation in the areas of education, healthcare, and agriculture, the Turkmen president focused on regional energy and transport issues, stressing Turkmenistan's desire to export its natural gas via Kazakhstan's pipeline network, according to the Altyn Asyr TV channel. Following the meeting, Masimov said the talks also addressed the possible participation of the Kazakh state energy group KazMunaiGaz in developing Turkmenistan's oil and gas sector, and the construction of a coastal railway line between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev is also expected to visit Turkmenistan later this month. RG

The Russian website has published a document called "Minsk Manifesto of Belarusian-Russian Unification," which is signed by Leanid Sinitsyn and Uladzimir Parfyanovich, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on May 2. The authors present themselves as adherents of "true" Belarusian-Russian integration and propose that Belarus joins Russia on the basis of the Russian Constitution as an "associate subject" of the Russian Federation. According to them, Belarus can remain a "sovereign state" after such a move. Sinitsyn and Parfyanovich suggest that Belarus adopts the Russian ruble as its currency and transfers its gas-pipeline network to Russian ownership. "It is an attempt to fill the niche of those who want to sell Belarus at the lowest price possible. It is quite a cynical and open [attempt]," Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the opposition United Democratic Party, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "There can be no sovereignty [for Belarus] within the Russian Federation. Russia is a country based on a principle of federalism. Giving some sovereign status for Belarus means creating problems within Russia," Lyabedzka added. Sinitsyn was manager of the presidential election campaign of Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 1994, the first head of Lukashenka's presidential administration, and a deputy prime minister. Sinitsyn quit the Belarusian government in 1996. Parfyanovich, a three-time Olympic kayaking champion, was a member of Belarus's Chamber of Representatives in 2000-2004. JM

Svyatoslav Piskun, who was appointed prosecutor-general by President Viktor Yushchenko last month, said in a television interview on May 2 that his office will look into complaints from Syuzanna Stanik and Valeriy Pshenichnyy against their recent dismissal from the panel of the Constitutional Court, Ukrainian media reported. President Yushchenko fired Stanik and Pshenichnyy, accusing them of a "breach of oath" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007). "The Prosecutor-General's Office examines cases presented by individual citizens. We do not view issues not connected to citizens' rights, they are for the Constitutional Court," Piskun said on Channel 5. Piskun also said in the same interview that his office will open criminal cases linked to the government's failure to implement the president's decree calling for early parliamentary elections only after the Constitutional Court hands down a ruling on this decree. Piskun claimed that currently there is "no basis" for a criminal case connected with this decree. "I spoke a short while ago with the chairman of the Central Election Commission and I think that the president's decree is being implemented," Piskun added. JM

The parliamentary faction of the Party of Regions has proposed holding a meeting behind closed doors of all lawmakers of the Verkhovna Rada, the Cabinet of Ministers, the president, and judges of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court to discuss ways to overcome the current political crisis in Ukraine, UNIAN reported on May 3, quoting Party of Regions lawmaker Raisa Bohatyryova, who also coordinates the ruling majority of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party in parliament. Bohatyryova called on President Yushchenko to refrain from "using forcible methods to rule the country." She also observed that early elections are a "cure for ailing democracy, provided that they result from a political compromise and adhere to the principle of the supremacy of law." JM

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic on May 2 said he is certain Russia will veto a UN resolution granting independence to Kosova, the Serbian broadcaster B92 reported the same day. Draskovic also told B92 that "the United States is counting very seriously with a Russian veto," but "is pushing for their Kosovo independence resolution to reach the UN Security Council by the end of May, mid-June at the latest, even if that means Russia will veto the bid" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). In the latest set of talks on the future of Kosova, diplomats from Russia and the United States are due to meet in London on May 3 with representatives of four European members of the Contact Group for Kosova, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. AG

Thousands of Kosovar Albanians marched on May 2 to show their support for Ramush Haradinaj, a former prime minister currently facing trial for war crimes in The Hague. Local and international media estimated the number of protesters marching through Prishtina at around 3,000. This was just the latest of a number of rallies already staged in support of Haradinaj. AP reported that the march, which was organized by Haradinaj's party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK), a member of the governing coalition, included a number of government ministers. Haradinaj, the most prominent Kosovar Albanian to be indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), has been on trial since March facing charges that, according to the indictment, "he established a system whereby individuals were targeted for abduction, mistreatment, and murder, and whereby a systematic attack on vulnerable sections of the civilian population was carried out" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2007). In Kosova, Haradinaj is revered for his role as a leading military commander in the 1998-99 conflict, while a former head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), Soren Jessen-Petersen, has credited Haradinaj with moving the process of reconciliation between ethnic Albanians and Serbs "forward in a way that nobody else has done." There have been accusations by international prosecutors that Haradinaj's perceived importance as a peacemaker prompted Western diplomats and some UN officials to try and prevent a case being brought against him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2007). Haradinaj's status within Kosova, controversies over the relationship of several UNMIK chiefs with Haradinaj, and the deaths of two witnesses are seen as explanations for the reluctance of witnesses to come forward to testify against Haradinaj (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26 and March 2, 2007).

A new Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) came into force on May 1, replacing 32 bilateral and free-trade agreements signed by the countries of Southeastern Europe. The agreement was signed on December 19 in Bucharest and in the intervening months has been ratified by parliaments in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosova. The agreement liberalizes trade, sets trade rules, grants preferential rights, and establishes mechanisms to resolve disputes. Set up in July 1994, CEFTA is seen as a means of preparing for EU membership; the original signatories of the agreement -- the Central European states of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia -- have moved on to join the European Union, whose common-market rules render CEFTA arrangements redundant. AG

The Liberal Party of Montenegro (LPCG) on May 1 warned that Montenegro should not join NATO because membership would hurt its tourism industry, the Serbian broadcaster B92 reported the same day. The party's leader, Miodrag Zivkovic, said NATO and tourism do "not go together" and it would therefore be best for Montenegro to remain neutral. Zivkovic pointed to terrorist attacks committed in Turkey in recent years as a warning. Montenegro and the United States on May 1 signed an agreement in Washington that paves the way for U.S. troops to operate in Montenegro and on April 25 deepened its cooperation with NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and May 2, 2007). The LPCG, Montenegro's only liberal party, and its coalition partner, an ethnic Bosnian Muslim party, hold three seats in Montenegro's 81-member parliament. Tourism is one of Montenegro's most important industries, accounting for about 15 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Montenegro's tourism minister, Predrag Nenezic, said on May 1 that Montenegro this year expects over 400,000 tourists from Serbia alone, the news agency Mina reported the same day. AG

Montenegrin law enforcement agencies in 2006 seized over a ton of illegal drugs, according to a May 2 report by the Macedonian news agency Makfax, citing an annual report by Montenegro's Interior Ministry. The ministry said it brought drugs-related charges against 439 people in 2006. A breakdown of the drugs seized was not provided. In the latest large seizure to be reported, in early April, Montenegrin police seized 142 kilograms of marijuana on the shores of Lake Shkoder, which lies on Montenegro's border with Albania. Montenegro is seen as a transit country for opium from Afghanistan and, increasingly, as a route for Latin American cocaine intended for Western Europe. AG

In an annual review of counterterrorism efforts around the world, the U.S. State Department on May 2 concluded that in 2006 Bosnia-Herzegovina showed "notable signs of increased local operational capability to combat terrorism and terrorism finance," but "remained a weak state...with multiple semi-autonomous centers of power, vulnerable to exploitation as a terrorist safe haven or as a potential staging ground for terrorist operations in Europe." The report's findings echo the views of the head of EU forces in Bosnia, who in March described Bosnia as possibly offering "very fertile soil" for terrorists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). The report noted efforts "to strengthen existing counterterrorism mechanisms and develop new ones," documented the deportation of one convicted terrorist and the first state-level terrorism trial, and named one organization, Active Islamic Youth (AIO), that "spread extremist and anti-American rhetoric" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2007). As an example of Bosnia's counterterrorism effort, the report cited a review of the legality of the citizenship conferred on foreigners who fought in the civil war. In April, after the time frame of the State Department report, the Bosnian authorities announced the imminent expulsion of 367 naturalized Bosnians following the review, many of whom fought in the civil war (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2007). AG

Macedonian A1 TV on May 1 reported that the country's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Miroslav Stojanovski, "is said to have confirmed" that Macedonian troops will remain in Iraq for as long as the United States maintains a military presence in the country. The report does not give its source. Stojanovski is currently on a visit to the United States. Defense Minister Lazar Elenovski on May 1 arrived in Iraq to visit Macedonia's 40-strong contingent, most of whom serve in a special-services unit, the news agency MIA reported the same day. Earlier on a three-day tour, Elenovski visited Afghanistan, where Macedonian troops are also serving. AG

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has again postponed the transfer of four war crimes cases to Macedonia's judiciary, Macedonia's Kanal 5 TV reported on May 1. The ICTY, which on April 16 began its first case related to the 2001 conflict between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian security forces, originally planned to transfer the four cases to a domestic tribunal in 2005 but concluded that the country's legal system was not yet ready (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2007). Kanal 5 TV said its sources in The Hague gave similar explanations for the latest delay, namely the need to train prosecutors and judges further. The report has yet to be confirmed by the ICTY. The ICTY's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, and the Macedonian government agreed in January that the cases should be transferred to Skopje in July. In recent weeks, there have been accusations in Macedonia that the government and the country's ethnic Albanian parties have struck a deal to take only two of the cases to court. The government has denied the claims, saying in a statement reported by the daily "Dnevnik" on April 14, that "on the contrary, the Republic of Macedonia is increasingly working to improve its capacities and to meet all requirements for a Macedonian court to process these cases." AG

In a historic March 1946 speech, Winston Churchill painted the stark image of an "iron curtain" descending across the European continent.

On the far side of that Iron Curtain, a closed and repressive system of governance was rapidly taking hold, in which dissent was ruthlessly suppressed, economic life rigidly managed by communist authorities, and media used exclusively as an instrument of the state. It took decades for the Soviet experiment to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, in an economic and political meltdown that ended the Cold War and brought the promise of greater freedom and openness to tens of millions of formerly captive people. Hopes ran high that these openings would permit all of the fundamental freedoms to emerge and flourish, including freedom of the press.

In fact, in the period immediately preceding the Soviet collapse and in its immediate aftermath, the flowering of open expression and a nascent independent press suggested a durable and institutionalized Fourth Estate might materialize.

The Soviet era's waning days saw the exertion from below of significant pressure for greater freedom of expression and a diverse and independent reporting of news. In most of the former satellite countries of Central Europe, a free press rose from the ashes of what for 40 years had been known as the Eastern bloc. For the former Soviet republics, however, with the exception of the Baltic states, the promise of the opening in the late 1980s and early 1990s was short-lived.

Across most of the former Soviet Union today, an "information curtain" has descended that in some aspects differs from that of the Soviet era, but in important ways is imposing a no less repressive news-media environment.

Gone is the smothering, all-encompassing ideological control across wide swaths of Europe and Eurasia. A more geographically circumscribed area -- Russia and most of the countries on its periphery -- now lies behind a new curtain that effectively shuts off the majority of people in these lands from news and information of political consequence. Today, methods for dominating news media are different, based on state-enabled oligarchic control, broadcast monopolies of presidential "families," and mass-media manipulation intended to create a veneer of democratic practice without its substance.

Unlike the Soviet era, some intrepid journalists now do manage to report independently. However, absent the rule of law and meaningful legal protections, the former Soviet Union is today one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists. Reporters willing to investigate issues such as political and corporate corruption are confronted by powerful vested interests that strive to muzzle news professionals. Intimidation, physical violence, and even murder of reporters and editors have become commonplace.

Journalists in virtually every former Soviet republic have been victims of contract killings or otherwise met death under suspicious circumstances. Russia, for example, has been a deadly place for journalists in both the Yeltsin and Putin eras. Since President Vladimir Putin assumed office seven years ago, at least two dozen journalists have been killed, including Paul Klebnikov, editor of "Forbes-Russia," who was shot nine times with a semiautomatic weapon on the street outside his Moscow office in July 2004; Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who wrote for "Novaya gazeta," who was executed in the elevator of her apartment building in October 2006; and Ivan Safronov, a defense correspondent for the "Kommersant" newspaper, who in very unclear circumstances plunged to his death from his apartment building in Moscow in March. Rarely are serious investigations pursued or perpetrators brought to justice. Impunity is the standard.

To ensure regime security and shield from public view all-pervasive official corruption, the post-Soviet authorities seek to limit scrutiny of their decisions and activities by silencing the independent press.

This modern variant of media control is a more sophisticated, distant cousin of the raw and overweening institutional censorship of the Soviet era. The stodgy, Soviet era broadcasting diet has in large measure been cast aside. Today, modern media fare, rich in entertainment and news programming of high technical quality and production values, is a staple, especially in Russia. While the contemporary media menu in Russia offers a wide assortment of entertainment options, it for the most part excludes alternative views and analysis on news and public affairs, particularly where it counts most, on national television broadcasts, from which most citizens continue to get their information.

All of Russia's major national television channels -- RTR, Channel One, and NTV -- are now effectively state-controlled. Commenting on the troubled condition of Russia's news media, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev observed: "The one thing I can say is that it's pointless today to watch television [in Russia]."

Putin's tenure has seen a systematic muzzling of independent reporting. Current methods of news media control rely on the imposition of state ownership on media companies whose editors are replaced by Kremlin supporters. Gazprom-Media, an arm of the state-controlled gas behemoth, has taken control of a number of previously independent news outlets and either closed their doors or summarily abolished independent reporting. Today, journalists at the Russian News Service, Russia's largest nonstate radio network (owned by businesses close to the Kremlin), work under a "50 percent rule" imposed by station management to ensure that at least half of the network's total reporting on Russia is "positive."

The repressive media landscape in the former Soviet Union is illuminated by findings from "Freedom Of The Press 2007," Freedom House's annual survey of global media independence. The Russian authorities are not alone in forging a media environment that filters out critical voices. The survey's most recent findings show that 10 of the 12 CIS states are ranked "Not Free," indicating these countries do not provide basic guarantees and protections in the legal, political, and economic spheres to enable open and independent journalism.

Of the 10 Not Free countries, none is moving in the direction of more freedom and most have a decidedly downward trajectory. Of the 193 countries examined in the survey, three of the 10 worst press-freedom abusers --Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan -- are in the former Soviet Union.

The Internet has emerged as the principal alternative and challenger to media hegemony in the former Soviet Union. Despite the authorities' dogged efforts to control it, the Internet and other news media set today's Soviet successor states apart from their Cold War ancestor. Blogs are stimulating debate and discussion, and domestic and foreign news websites offer an alternative to state-controlled or -influenced news outlets. However, while the Internet holds further promise and connectivity is growing at an impressive rate, it remains a medium through which only a small fraction of news is obtained. It is also fast becoming a target of greater interest for new regulatory intervention by the authorities.

Through a revitalized crackdown on press freedom, post-Soviet leaderships have managed to draw the media back under control. Only a decade and a half after the end of the Cold War, freedom of the press for tens of millions of people across the former Soviet Union has come nearly full circle. In post-Soviet states that suffer from ill-conceived policies, entrenched corruption, and unaccountable governance, denial of the indispensable role played by the free press in allowing critical scrutiny is bound to delay, possibly indefinitely, progress toward true and vibrant democracy.(Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House. Freedom House's annual survey of global media independence, "Freedom Of The Press 2007," was released on May 1.)

President Hamid Karzai says his country "can no longer accept" civilian casualties as part of military operations carried out by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S.-led coalition forces, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. "The Afghan nation has the right to complain," Karzai told a news conference in Kabul on May 2, adding that he has held a "very serious meeting with our foreign guests" to discuss the issue of civilian casualties. Prior to his news conference, Karzai met with military personal from NATO and diplomats from the United States and several European countries. In recent days, a number of Afghan civilians have been killed in operations in eastern and western parts of the country, sparking prolonged public condemnations directed against both Karzai and the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30 and May 2, 2007). AT

Karzai told the May 2 news conference that his recent meeting with President Pervez Musharraf promised to have "good consequences" that could lead to peace and security not only in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan and the region as a whole, Kabul-based Tolo Television reported. Karzai and Musharraf met in Ankara on April 30 in an initiative by Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer to bring the two together after months of feuding between Kabul and Islamabad. Karzai added that unlike previous meetings between the two sides, "this series will continue," possibly with another meeting in Turkey in "a few months." Karzai said that the two sides agreed to continue working to dismantle terrorist bases and cut off their access to funds and training. Afghanistan has accused Pakistan of harboring Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants. AT

Karzai's news conference also hinted at changes to his cabinet, Kabul-based Ariana Television reported. Karzai said that the cabinet could be reformed "if necessary," adding that the government "should be reformed in general." Karzai said that "strenuous efforts" are being made to bring about necessary changes. According to Ariana Television, there is a possibility that Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, and Interior Minister Zarar Ahmad Moqbel may be replaced. Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah may rejoin a future Afghan cabinet, the report added. AT

A clash in Zormat district of Paktiya Province on May 2 left four members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and six Taliban fighters dead, Tolo Television reported. A purported Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mojahed, told Tolo that four foreign soldiers were killed in the clash in addition to a "large number" of ANA troops. AT

Abdulreza Rahmani-Fazli, the deputy secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said that Iran might consider an altered version of what he termed the "Swiss proposals" for Iran's nuclear program. The Swiss proposals are similar to those made by Muhammad el-Baradei, the head of the UN nuclear agency, urging a "time out" for both Iran's production of nuclear fuel and UN sanctions against Iran. But in his May 2 statement, Rahmani-Fazli said the proposed suspension of nuclear work would have to go further toward meeting Iranian demands to warranrt consideration. If Iran were prepared to suspend enrichment, he said, it would have done so before its dossier was taken to the Security Council "so we would not have to pay such a high price." Rahmani-Fazli said Iran still favors the creation of an international fuel-making consortium working in Iran as the best means to allay Western concerns over the aims of its nuclear program. The UN Security Council has already imposed two sets of sanctions on Iran in a bid to curb uranium enrichment and related activities, which Western powers fear could have military applications. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani is to meet with EU negotiator Javier Solana for another round of talks next week at an undisclosed location, news agencies quoted U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns as saying in London on May 2. VS

Rahmani-Fazli said the international conference on Iraq starting on May 3 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, is not intended to discuss Iran, and if anything "were said or ratified against Iran, Iran would state its view and defend its rights," ISNA reported. He said U.S. officials who urged Iran to attend the conference were merely trying to "deceive" international opinion by promoting diplomatic solutions to the conflict in Iraq. He did not elaborate. A member of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Gholamreza Karami, told ILNA in Tehran on May 2 that the conduct of U.S. officials with Iran is not currently conducive to any talks between the two states. Karami said Iran should set preconditions for any talks with the United States, including that Washington modify its "sharp" manner toward "our country and people," and stop the "oppressive current" against Iran's nuclear program. Iran and the United States have not had diplomatic ties since 1979, but the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh has prompted speculation that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki for one of highest-level direct meetings between the countries in almost 30 years. VS

Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi said on May 2 that some 50,000 illegal Afghan migrants have left Iran since mid-April, when the government began an expulsion drive, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Speaking at the eastern border crossing of Dogharun, Purmohammadi said about 15,000 of the migrants have returned voluntarily and some 36,000 were rounded up. "Most of the expelled are seasonal workers who come to work in Iran, and then return to Afghanistan," he said. The police issued a public warning on April 16, giving illegal migrants four days to leave Iran, and threatening them with arrest and expulsion within 48 hours if they did not leave by the end of April, Radio Farda reported. Purmohammadi said Iran is also considering plans to pay Afghan families with residency permits $500 to leave Iran, while offering a temporary work permit allowing one family member to stay. Afghan officials urged Iran on April 29 to stop the expulsion of Afghans, saying Afghanistan could not afford to resettle them, RFE/RL reported, citing UN officials as putting the number of Afghans expelled from Iran since April 21 at more than 25,000. VS

A spokesman for Iran's judiciary says four or five people were arrested on May 2 in connection with the publication of purportedly sacrilegious student journals that provoked scuffles between students and religious demonstrators at Tehran's Amir Kabir University on April 30, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 1, 2007). The spokesman, Alireza Jamshidi, said the detainees -- suspected of being behind the offensive publications -- were not students. An unnamed former Amir Kabir student told Radio Farda on May 2 that Jamshidi's remarks "confirm the statements of students who repeated that the publications were forged and were not published by students." The articles attributed to four publications at Amir Kabir University provoked the ire of right-wing and religiously conservative students affiliated with the Basij militia, a paramilitary force with thousands of part-time members from different walks of life. The unnamed student told Radio Farda he believed the forgeries were the work of unspecified elements intent on provoking tensions at universities and a subsequent security crackdown. VS

Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the head of Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, has reportedly been killed by U.S. and Iraqi forces, Iraqi Interior Ministry officials told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on May 3. Deputy Interior Minister Husayn Kamal told Reuters that the ministry has al-Baghdadi's body. Meanwhile, U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver told reporters in Baghdad that the military will hold a press briefing to announce a major success against Al-Qaeda later in the day. Reuters later quoted unidentified U.S. military officials as saying that U.S. and Iraqi forces have killed the Islamic State's so-called information minister. Reuters did not identify him by name but according to the Islamic State's April announcement of its "cabinet," the information minister is Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Mashhadani. The Iraqi Interior Ministry claimed that the Islamic State's "war minister," Abu Ayyub al-Masri, aka Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir, was killed north of Baghdad on May 1, though that claim has not been verified. KR

The International Compact with Iraq conference opened in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on May 3. Foreign ministers from Iraq's neighboring states and representatives from more than 50 states and international organizations, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, are attending the meeting. The international compact calls for debt relief and foreign aid for Iraq, in return for which Iraq will pledge to undertake political and economic reforms over the next five years. In a private meeting on May 2, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that progress in Iraq has to take place as quickly as possible, according to a senior U.S. official quoted by "The Washington Post" on May 3. The conference will be followed by a meeting of Iraq's neighbors in Sharm el-Sheikh on May 4, according to a statement by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. The neighbors' meeting will also be attended by UN representatives, including the five permanent members of the Security Council, as well as the G-8, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Arab League, Egypt, and Bahrain. KR

A number of states are expected to hold meetings on the sidelines of the conference, threatening to steal the spotlight from Iraq. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has already met with Rice to discuss Darfur, Kosova, Lebanon, and the Middle East Quartet, according to the UN's website. Rice may also meet with Syrian and Iranian officials on the sidelines of the May 3-4 meetings. The London-based "Al-Hayat" newspaper reported on May 2 that Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa has begun organizing a meeting among Quartet members at the conference. Japanese media reported on May 3 that Rice may also meet with foreign ministers from China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia to discuss the continuation of nuclear nonproliferation talks with North Korea. KR

Iraq's delegates at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference have begun to hear aid pledges from foreign donors, according to international media reports. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi announced his country will give 50 million yuan (about $6.5 million) in grants to Iraq for 2007 and forgive all of Iraq's debts to China, Xinhua news agency reported. The money will go toward bolstering public health and education in Iraq, Yang said. Iran pledged $1 billion in credit for reconstruction projects in Iraq on May 2, Iranian media reported. Meanwhile, Iraq can expect little support from neighbors Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia's King Abdallah has refused at least twice in recent weeks to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki on Iraq. Kuwait's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad Sabah al-Salam al-Sabah told reporters before his departure for Egypt that Kuwait's assistance and aid offered to safeguard Iraq from collapse is more important than the issue of debt forgiveness, KUNA reported on May 2. Meanwhile, Iraqi Finance Minister Bayan Jabr told Reuters on May 3 that Russia has said it will write off Iraq's debt in exchange for access to its oil. Jabr called the proposal "unacceptable." KR

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will reopen offices in Baghdad in an effort to address the growing refugee problem, the UN announced on May 1. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told reporters in New York that the UNHCR's international staff, now based in Amman, Jordan, will be moved to Baghdad. The UN withdrew its international staff from Iraq following the August 2003 bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad. Since then, the world body has relied largely on local Iraqi staff to carry out its work in Iraq. The UNHCR announced on May 1 that it has concluded a deal with the Syrian government to provide it with $2.06 million to renovate hospitals, train medical staff, and provide new medical equipment to help provide care for Iraqi refugees, according to a press release on the UN website. KR